Granny's Good Reads 

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

April 2018

 - Tuesday, April 03, 2018
This month I’ve been reading an eclectic bunch of books: A Life of my Own by Claire Tomalin, SPQR by Mary Beard, The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievitch and The Secret Life of Whales by Micheline Jenner.

Claire Tomalin has written many superb biographies—my favourites being those of Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys, Charles Dickens and, for good measure, Charles’s young mistress Ellen Ternan. In A Life of My Own she focuses on herself, giving us a memoir which, though largely silent about one or two key relationships, is an engrossing account of a life dedicated to literature.  Claire’s French father and musician mother had an unhappy marriage, from which her father walked out in 1941 when she was only eight. From an early age she read widely and avidly, did well at school, got into Cambridge at 17 and in due course obtained first class honours. With her father’s help she completed a secretarial course, then turned to book reviewing, at which she did well enough to become literary editor of the New Statesman and the Sunday Times.  She married—perhaps over-hastily—a dashing young journalist named Nick Tomalin and over time had five children. In 1973 Nick, then a war correspondent for the Sunday Times, was killed in Israel by a Syrian missile. Having now to provide for their four surviving children, including one with spina bifida, she set to writing biographies and was delighted when her nonagenarian father said ‘You never cease to surprise me’. Her second marriage to novelist and dramatist Michael Frayn has been happy and long-lasting. Now 84, she says she is going to write another book—for which I can’t wait.  

Mary Beard’s SPQR is a short history of Rome from the mythical time of Romulus and Remus. Beard is a splendid guide to the many assassinations, usurpations and dissipations of the ensuing centuries, and once she gets going the excitement never flags. Along the way she debunks some cherished beliefs—such as Cleopatra’s asp and Hannibal’s use of vinegar to break up rocks. The great Augustus is for her an ‘old reptile’, Marcus Aurelius is full of platitudes and even Cicero isn’t as squeaky clean as we might have thought.  A scholarly but very engaging read, ideal for the bedside table.

Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievitch’s The Unwomanly Face of War is heart-rending. Censored in Russia for telling the true story of the part Soviet women played in World War 2, it has now been issued unexpurgated. In the 1970s and 80s Alexievitch interviewed as many women participants in the war as would speak to her. Some refused because they felt their lives had been ruined by what they’d endured. The families of others cast them off for having been in the company of male soldiers right up to the Red Army’s entry into Berlin. Some who left babies to enlist returned after the war to find children who didn’t recognise them. Others were rejected by husbands who felt that their wives had been coarsened by war service. This is a chronicle of how women captains, tank drivers, snipers, pilots, nurses and doctors experienced war on the front line, on the home front and in occupied territories. I couldn’t read this book except in small doses because the stories are so piercingly sad. For women in Britain, even though WW2 took a terrible toll, the experience of hostilities would have been of a quite different order. Having also read Alexievitch’s Second–Hand Time, I‘ve concluded that endurance must indeed be embedded in the Russian psyche.

After the first pages of The Secret Life of Whales, I became just as fascinated by them as Micheline Jenner, who has devoted her life to them. I first became interested in Micheline and husband Curt when I heard them talking about humpbacks and blue whales to Robyn Williams on the ABC’s Science Show. Humpbacks have brains the size of VWs, she informs us, and the males sing courting songs to attract females. And blue whales really are blue. I bought this book from my favourite bookshop just as soon as I could and it’s been another bedside charmer starting with the touching birth of a baby humpback on page 14. Though humpbacks have slowly recovered since the ban on whaling, the blue whales are not doing as well, something explained by Jenner in a chapter where she gets covered in smelly whale poo. I won’t give away any more about this book because I hope everyone will buy a copy in an act of solidarity with the whales against the Japanese fiction of ‘scientific whaling’ for the benefit of upmarket sushi bars in Tokyo. But first, whet your appetite by listening to the ABC Science Show of 25th November 2017. Sonia