Granny's Good Reads 

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

February 2017

Gleebooks Bookshop - Wednesday, February 01, 2017

I’d been wondering why Hogarth Shakespeare would want to commission the retelling of Shakespearean plays by famous authors, but changed my mind when I read Hag-Seed—Margaret Atwood’s version of The Tempest ($30). It’s brilliant and could easily stand apart from the project. Felix Phillips, artistic director of a Toronto theatre festival, is fired and replaced by Tony, his scheming rival, just as he’s about to produce The Tempest—with Ariel cast as a transvestite on stilts and Caliban as a paraplegic on a skateboard. So Felix goes off to live in a shack on the outskirts of town, where he plans vengeance, while communing with the shade of his daughter Miranda, who sadly died at the age of three. Felix assumes the name ‘Mr Duke’ and takes a job at the Fletcher Correctional Centre, where he teaches the prisoners Shakespearean acting, adding 15 points to their IQs in the process. The plot thickens when ‘Mr Duke’ schedules The Tempest for his class, taking the part of Prospero himself and importing the actress who was to have taken the part of Miranda in his earlier version of the play. The story sparkles with fun and mischief and a deft piece of ‘rough magic’ sees it all come to a happy resolution. I liked the prisoners’ ‘take’ on their characters, less so their ‘rap’ versions of Shakespeare’s songs. For those who don’t know Shakespeare’s original, Atwood supplies a useful digest of the plot as an appendix. I found this an exhilarating read.

Another engrossing read is The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman ($35), who explores the newly discovered brilliance of birds in a book which is part science and part travelogue. She cites the New Caledonian crows who make tools for getting at food and our own bower birds who make elaborate bowers to attract a mate. Some rascally bower birds will destroy a rival’s nest and steal his most attractive items, usually the blue ones, as red is not favoured by the fussy females. Birds make complex navigational decisions, their songs have regional accents, they have astonishing memories of where they’ve hidden seeds long ago, they share food and experience, and may even grieve, all with brains the size of a walnut. There’s a whole chapter on the homing pigeon and another on the house sparrow. Engaging and well written, this informative work is perfect as a bedside book. 

If birds are intelligent, so are trees, according to forester and author Peter Wohlleben in his informative book The Hidden Life of Trees ($30). Trees, he claims, can communicate with one another via their pheromones, warn of insect attack, send electrical impulses, and nurture their offspring through their root systems. As forester, Wohlleben has made sure that the forest he manages in the Eifel mountains has no machines, and if a tree has to be cut down it’s done by men and horses. This book is packed full of surprising information, and if you’d like to hear Peter Wohlleben, chase up the interview he gave to Phillip Adams on RN’s Late Night Live. 

The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy ($45) is another book which regards nature as both solace and marvel. When McCarthy was seven his mother was hospitalised and aunt Mary took him and his brother to live with her. Young Michael was consoled by seeing a bright storm of butterflies feeding on a buddleia bush. From then on he rejoiced in the joys of nature and became an environmental advocate. At that time, before the hedgerows were destroyed for broad-scale farming, birds and butterflies were plentiful. Now half England’s biodiversity is lost. McCarthy sees homo sapiens as Earth’s ‘problem child’: we are, he says, too numerous and consume too much, leaving little room for wildlife. One chapter describes the massive worldwide destruction of estuaries, which are the essential stopover places for millions of migrating wading birds. Another ponders the disappearance of the London sparrow. This is a profoundly troubling book yet it was the highlight of my summer reading. 

I also read The Short and Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbott ($30) and The Curious Story of Malcolm Turnbull, the Incredible Shrinking Man in the Top Hat ($30), both by Andrew P. Street. These are written in a manic larrikin style with amusing footnotes and are great fun. Benjamin Law describes them as catapults laden with truth bombs. Masochists may also like Mark di Stefano’s bizarre account of our eight-week 2016 election campaign in What a Time to be Alive ($28).

Finally, don’t miss Bob Ellis in His Own Words ($30), edited by his widow Anne Brooksbank. This is chock-full of good things, among which Bob’s 1999 address to the May Day rally in Newcastle is truly outstanding. Bernie Sanders would applaud every word of it. Sonia  

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