Granny's Good Reads 

Sonia Lee is one of our most treasured customers and a voracious reader.

August 2018

 - Tuesday, July 24, 2018
After I finished Donna Leon’s latest novel, The Temptation of Forgiveness, which is set in the Venice of 2018 and features a woman doctor and a chemist, I picked up The Apothecary’s Shop by Roberto Tiraboschi—set in the Venice of 1118 and also featuring a woman doctor and a chemist. There, however, the similarity ends: Tiraboschi’s Venice is a city beset by lawlessness, famine, rats and filth, where the superstitious populace runs amok during Carnival, an earthquake has destroyed some buildings and swallowed a whole island, the Doge has died, and the Council—charged with electing the new ruler—is taking its time. The plot focuses on the household of wealthy merchant Tommaso Grimani, his wife Magdalena and her sister Costanza, their servant Nena and Nena’s son Alvise. The woman doctor, a rarity at the time, is Abella, whose self-taught knowledge of anatomy and physiology has been acquired from illegal vivisections. The apothecary Sabbatai is a pharmacist who compounds all his own concoctions. When Costanza disappears after visiting the local convent, Tommaso accuses Alvise of abducting and murdering her. Rough justice is meted out to suspects like Alvise, so ex-monk Edgardo, Tommaso’s scribe, who has been teaching Costanza to transcribe manuscripts, goes to work on the case and unmasks the real villain. The skilfully contrived atmosphere of menace and superstition is eerily pervasive, with perils lurking around every corner. A great page turner, even if you skip, as Granny did, some of the more gruesome details. 

I sometimes binge on authors, such as when I once read forty-two Trollope novels in a row. My present rave is Daniel Mendelsohn, whose memoir An Odyssey so impressed me (July Granny). I’m now immersed in Waiting for the Barbarians, a selection of his essays, mostly from the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker. There’s an interesting essay about Avatar, and others, equally absorbing, about Spider-Man, Noel Coward’s letters and Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone. Two of my favourites first appeared in the New Yorker: Unsinkable on why we can’t let go of the Titanic, and Battle Lines about the Iliad. Best of all is the essay Epic Endeavours in which three novels are discussed: The Infinities by John Banville, which has Greek gods as its main characters, Zack Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey in which Mason invents forty-four new chapters of that epic, and Ransom  by David Malouf, in which Priam, the king of Troy, begs his arch-enemy Achilles to give him back his son’s corpse. Mendelsohn adds ‘By far the most profound and successful of these [three] is Malouf’s ... subtle and profoundly moving novel.’ Some critics seem to think Mendelsohn’s a smarty-pants, perhaps because he’s so phenomenally well-read. For this erudition his Dad is to blame, having told young Daniel early on that Maths is the only rigorous subject and the Classics are a soft option. Through his life’s work this son has surely made his father eat his words. Next on my reading list are two other Mendelsohn memoirs, Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million  and The Elusive Embrace

When Sally Vickers was a child her father took her each Saturday to the local library, where Miss Blackwell the librarian introduced her to Narnia, Tom’s Midnight Garden and all the other treasures of children’s literature. In her latest novel, The Librarian, Vickers repays the debt. Her heroine, Sylvia Blackwell, is a young woman of the 1950s trying to revive a run-down children’s library. Blessed with a sunny, equable disposition, the fictional Miss Blackwell charms the local children into reading and makes friends with most of the adults—except for her grumpy neighbour Mr Collins and her malevolent boss Mr Booth. Two of the children she befriends are clever Sam and little Lizzy. She and Sam help Lizzy to pass the eleven-plus, thus gaining her entry to the Grammar School. Unfortunately, Sylvia falls in love with a married man, and his daughter Marigold teams up with Sam with unhappy results. What finally puts Sylvia’s happiness and her job in jeopardy is not the affair, but a fracas about a stolen book. The first part of this novel is written with the sort of artlessness that conceals art, while the second part is written in another tone altogether. Book lovers will rejoice in this delightful book, and the spirited speech at the end in defence of libraries, which are being closed all over England because of austerity budgets, will have them cheering.

In 1993 when Madeleine St John’s The Women in Black came out, Bruce Beresford bought the film rights. In 2018 he has made the film—so now is the time to reread the original—handily issued by Text Classics for $12.95. It will put a big smile on your face. Sonia