Granny's Good Reads 

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

October 2016

 - Saturday, October 01, 2016

Grief is the Thing With Feathers ($20) by Max Porter is an exquisitely written novella about a man whose wife has died suddenly, leaving him with two little boys to care for. It’s part story, part poetry and part play-for-voices, the voices being those of Dad, Boys and Crow. Dad has been writing a book called Ted Hughes’s Crow on a Couch: A Wild Analysis, and grief turns up in the guise of Crow, arriving in the middle of the night with ‘a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss and leather and yeast’. Crow is the bereft family’s analyst, adviser, story-teller and caretaker. He listens, bullies and consoles. When an intrusive demon tries to come in, Crow chases it from the door and makes short work of it. In Emily Dickinson’s poem Hope, hope is ‘the thing with feathers’, and Porter uses Love, another Dickinson poem, as his epigraph.  The boys are real boys: they squabble, flick toothpaste on the bathroom mirror, say they don’t need a bath, and throw wet toilet paper on the bathroom ceiling because that way they won’t forget Mum. Crow tells them ‘I won’t leave until you don’t need me any more’. Eventually tiny green shoots of Hope emerge, but it is Love which sustains them and brings lasting benediction. One day Dad says it’s time to scatter Mum’s ashes, so he phones the school and says the boys are ill. They go to a place their mother loved, fall asleep in the grass, then scatter the ashes in the water. I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU the boys call and the father hears in his sons’ voices ‘the life and song of their mother. Unfinished. Beautiful. Everything’.  (Max Porter lost his father at age six. Ted Hughes wrote his Crow poems after the death of his wife Sylvia Plath.)

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World ($25) by Peter Frankopan is a history of trade from antiquity to the present, written in an engaging style with plenty of  striking anecdotes. The ‘Roads’ are the ‘central nervous system of the world’—where East meets West trading silk bales, pottery, furs, horses, spices, slaves and religion. Invaders use them, but also faiths: Buddhism, Christianity and Islam are familiar travellers, as is the Black Death, spread by fleas on camels as well as rats. There is a brilliant chapter on the Mongols and another on the rise of Russia. This is a book worth reading for the chapters on oil alone. These tell succinctly and dispassionately a sorry tale of greed, callousness and folly. For instance, did Roosevelt and Churchill let Stalin get hold of Eastern Europe in return for the safety of their oil concessions? The very last chapter is about the new silk road with its centres of wealth in China and the ‘stans’ of the former USSR. A work of dazzling range and achievement.

My bedside book this month is Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen ($25), but since one can never have too much by or about Austen, I’m also reading Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things ($20). Byrne devotes a chapter each to some of the ‘small things’ in Jane’s life, such as the tiny vellum books containing her juvenilia, a shawl, some topaz crosses, and a family likeness in silhouettes. By setting these objects in the context of the novels and letters Byrne builds up a detailed portrait of Austen’s life, and especially of her happy childhood and love of family. We’re told that all the Austen infants were fed by their mother for three months, then farmed out for a year or two to local families; surprisingly they all survived this regimen and grew up healthy. Jane’s brother Edward was adopted by the wealthy Knight family and it was he who gave the family a house at Chawton when her father died. There is a full treatment of cousin Eliza de Feuillide who lost her husband to the guillotine and later married Henry Austen. (Charming, worldly Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park is said to be based on Eliza.) Byrne also tells us that Captain Harville in Persuasion is modelled on sailor brother Frank who was nifty at knocking up shelves and once made a fringe for curtains. A scrap of lace heads the chapter about Aunt Leigh–Perrot who was imprisoned for shoplifting a card of lace worth twenty-one shillings—a capital crime which could have seen her sentenced to hanging or transportation to Port Jackson. Fortunately she was acquitted but it was an anxious time for the family.  A very enjoyable read.  Sonia