Granny's Good Reads 

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

March 2018

Gleebooks Bookshop - Tuesday, March 06, 2018
For my birthday I treated myself to the gorgeously produced Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense by Jenny Uglow. I knew little about Lear beyond the fact that he wrote The Owl and the Pussycat and many nonsense rhymes, and was, as he said himself, ‘pleasant to know’. Lear was born in 1812, was the youngest of seventeen children, and was neglected by his mother and brought up by his sisters—especially Ann, whom he lived with from the age of fourteen. He was epileptic—a shameful condition to Victorians, had poor eyesight and asthma and, worst of all for those times, was gay. By chapter two we find that, on top of his other troubles, he was grappling with some serious abuse, ‘the greatest evil done to me in my life’.  What happened is unclear but he recorded the date in his diary every year.  He painted parrots, which brought him to the attention of the Earl of Derby, who made a pet of him and invited him into his drawing room to entertain the guests, while another patron paid for him to go to Italy, where he was ‘happy as a hedgehog’. He was a great hit with the children he entertained with his nonsense rhymes, and was such a genial travelling companion that there were people willing to pay his expenses while on their painting expeditions abroad. In the years before photographs there was a ready market for folios of his travels with accompanying sketches. In 1846 Queen Victoria invited him to give her painting lessons, which boosted his morale considerably. On his travels to the Holy Land he fell in unrequited love with a younger man, which only compounded his inner torment. He was for a while taken up by Holman Hunt of the pre-Raphaelites and became friends with Alfred Tennyson and his wife Emily. In 1861 he published a new edition of his 1846 Book of Nonsense, which thereafter became a classic. His best-known and best-loved poems are The Owl and the Pussycat, The Dong with the Luminous Nose and The Jumblies. This is an exquisite book with a wonderful cover and copious illustrations. It celebrates a sad genius with an irreverent eye for the absurd and an irrepressible love of words, who was ‘forever roaming with a hungry heart’.

I also treated myself to This Long Pursuit: Reflections of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes. I have been an admirer of Holmes since his earlier volumes Footsteps and Sidetracks in which he followed his subjects through every phase of their lives, even standing at the windows where they stood, gazing out as he thinks they would have. His two-volume Life of Coleridge is enthralling, as is The Age of Wonder, which deals with the relationship between science and the imagination in the 19th century. The last chapter of This Long Pursuit is a fascinating study of Anne Gilchrist and her husband Alexander, authors of a 19th century life of William Blake. Anne says of her husband: ‘he desired always to treat his subject exhaustively…to stand hand in hand with him, seeing the same horizon, listening, pondering, absorbing’. Holmes too takes the same approach, standing next to his subjects as critical supporter in a ‘simple act of complex friendship’. A glorious treatment of the art of biography, which Holmes shows to be endlessly abundant and inventive. 

Nicola Upson’s new novel Nine Lessons is a great read, and will be of particular interest to fans of Josephine Tey—with both Tey and some of her familiar characters playing important parts in the story. Some former choral scholars of King’s College, Cambridge are bumped off one by one, and the plot is thickened by the terrifying deeds of a serial rapist. As might be expected, there’s an exciting denouement with the loose ends neatly tied up.  For readers who don’t know Tey’s novels, my favourites are The Franchise Affair, Miss Pym Disposes and, for young adults, Brat Farrar. All highly recommended. 

Anyone about to have an operation would be advised not to read Anaesthesia by Kate Cole-Adams lest they find themselves worrying about waking up during the procedure or, worse still, not waking up at all. Adams is a journalist who made an exhaustive study of anaesthetics, going to conferences in Hull and other places. When faced with major surgery herself she felt she knew too much and told her surgeon so. Her anaesthetist kindly phoned her and reassured her that he would not be using a muscle relaxant and told her exactly what drugs he would be using. A somewhat meandering book, it is nevertheless full of information and I found it impossible to put the wretched thing down even when I wanted to. Sonia

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