Archive for December, 2017

THE GOOD PEOPLE by HANNAH KENT

Hannah Kent’s second novel, ‘the good people‘ is based on court records of a trial that took place at Tralee in the deep south of Ireland in 1826. Two women, Nance Roche and Nora Leahy, were accused of murdering the 4 year old ‘cretinous’ grandchild of Nora by drowning. They were both accused and ultimately acquitted on the testimony of Nora’s maid, Mary Clifford. The defence argued, and the jury agreed, that the accused believed the baby was a changeling, a fairy, and so their intention was not to kill Nora’s grandchild but to have him returned from the fairies in exchange for the changeling. Therefore they were found not guilty of murder.

There was quite a difference opinion about the book in the group. Some thought it was great, even better than the previous one by the same author – burial rites – which we all loved. In addition to those for and against, some were a bit lukewarm.

Something both the for and against agreed on was that it is was very very Irish. To one bookgrouper this appeared to be overly cliched, whereas to those like me that loved it we felt this was very evocative. We felt it really transported you back to that time, and inside the heads, of those people. People that are very strange to us now. People who believe remarkable things.

For me this was the first time i felt i could really understand what it’s like to live life in a complex and confusing world without science to explain how it works.

To me that was the most interesting thing about the book and a sign of great writing. I confess to bias however as this setting is the environment from which my ancestors came. I now feel i have a good grasp of the world from which they came. A world with no science. They had folk tales about plants, some which were partly true, stories about fairies and curses, they had gossip, and they had the church. Only a few generations ago that was all my family had to explain their sorrows and mysteries, and this is how the vast majority of the world still lives – including may in the global north. Looking for explanations of unusual events in all kinds of strange ways because they don’t have science, or choose not use it.

I thought the writing was glorious. It was very florid even though comprised of short sentences. It had inventive verbs and was not scared to use adjectives. It did not fall into the trendy trap of sparseness. Neither was it verbose or overly complicated. Like burial rights it was full of the sights, sounds and smells of both the people and the places. In short it had the literary fireworks that I love. Vivid descriptions formed from unusual words in unusual patterns.

Although the writing was great it was very hard going to read. The life of the characters was so hard. People really did live like that and there are many around the world still struggling in similar ways,. The book really rubs your face in that depressing fact. I found myself shaking my head a lot as i read. Although i knew it was true i found it hard to imagine that people could actually survive in those conditions, on that diet – potatoes – and with no access to any kind of medicine beyond the ‘old ways’ and the church.

If i wanted to criticise it i think my complaint would be political. To spend a whole book detailing the endless grind and struggle of a desperately poor people without even mentioning the reasons for their poverty is unsatisfying to me.

I’m sure the author did not want to get distracted with Irish history and politics but i think there should have been something. A speech from one of the residents for example detailing their hatred for the English. The reason for their hunger and poverty was the way the landlords taxed the poor. Irish history shows the poverty so graphically portrayed in the book was a politically constructed, but all we get in the book is a few mentions of rent. No explanation of what that entailed – everything they produced except potatoes; who it was for – Protestant landlords; or how it was collected – by force.

The absence of this issue is misleading but also a lost opportunity. Her first book deals with an identical community in Iceland. They are equally poor and live much the same way, but iceland was not colonised by the English so the circumstances described in burial rites are very different. As i put it in my review

Its pre-industrial and pre-modern, its pre everything

except the enlightenment,

because its poverty

and religiosity

are washed with democracy,

and the rights and freedoms of John Stewart Mill.

The poverty is still brutal,

but the politics are not feudal:

there are no lords that kill,

it’s the courts and the people’s will;

there are landed farmers with servants,

but all alike can read and write

and everyone sleeps in the one room, though I don’t know how;

there are no landlords and no tenants;

and everyone gets tried in a court, they have that right.

In a sense it’s a stop on the way, to how we live now.

The opposite situation prevails in the colonial Ireland of ‘the good people’ but Kent chooses not to point that out to us. Although disappointing i can understand why an author might not want to go there – she made a safe choice on that issue. However the book would have been much richer with that context added at some point, in some way. Without it, i think its well short of complete.

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December 24, 2017 at 7:26 am Leave a comment

THE GIRL WITH DOGS by ANNA FUNDER

Bookgroupers liked Anna funder’s new one. they said the writing was clear and easy. It was very true to life, an accurate depiction of familiar urban middle class 21st century family life. At the start i felt a little too much so. The opening scene felt quite cliched, like one of the millions New York family sit coms dramas and movies we have all seen. But it soon became more real and interesting.

Partly this was because it turned out to be set in Sydney which made it way more interesting to me as a Sydney resident, but there was a deeper reason. Although it is a middle class family drama, and inevitably the central issue is infidelity, the treatment is novel. It is written from the point of view of the wife so we know what she did and didn’t do, and thought. We dont know what the husband did or did not do, or what he thought, other than how the wife describes his actions.

This approach clearly allows each reader to make their own assumptions about what actually happened, and who is in the wrong or right. Most importantly it allows the reader to choose different endings. Its a short story and ends quite abruptly without detailing the resolution with any certainty, so you can make up your own happily ever after or not ending.

Most of us enjoyed it because although it was going over a well ploughed literary field – relationships and infidelity – it was much more nuanced than most. It was about exploring in your mind other alternatives from the family and the relationship that you choose, but not necessarily acting on those thoughts.

Most enjoyably for me it did not insist that the main characters, or the couple, have ‘issues’ and that they talk about them endlessly. It was very refreshing to read a relationship story in which both characters had enough information to lead to conclusions of infidelity on the part of their partner, although no certainty, but the reader was not forced to wade through lengthy torturous discussions about their ‘issues’.

Instead, the story implies, to me anyway, that they both decided to leave it alone and just get on with life. They both seem to conclude that she/he thought about it but chose me. I thought about but chose him/her. So its all good – as we sydneysiders say.

This outcome was made more satisfying by a passage in the middle of the story which briefly outlined a number of the relationship travails of the other middle aged middle class friends of the couple. To me this seems to provide the context for her choice. She thought about change and uncertainty but chose stability, partly because she had many friends that had gone the other way and it did not necessarily look appealing.

Finally it is supposed to be an homage to, or reflection on, the chekov short story with the a similar, name – the lady with a dog. It is published with that story but none of us read both to compare

December 24, 2017 at 7:18 am Leave a comment

SATURDAY by IAN McEWAN

Firstly lets state the obvious – McEwen is a genius. His books are so easy to read and yet so complex, both the issues they address, and the complexity of the characters they create. Reading this book is like going to the best university you can imagine. Science, philosophy, politics, ethics, literature, psychology – its all here, seamlessly blended and beautifully presented.

He is a master of his art and i think he knows it. In this book he deliberately takes on two of the biggest names in the literary business – James Joyce and Virginia Wolff. Like their acknowledged classics, Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway respectively, Saturday takes place in one 24 hour span, and is largely comprised of internal mental dialogue. To me the blatant choice to use that form is a declaration – I’m as good as them, put me in that category. And as they say in basketball – it ain’t bragging if you can back it up. He does so in spades.

However, there are a couple of key differences from those books. Some things do happen in this one. Meaning there is a plot of sorts. And it is entirely from the perspective of one character, Henry Perowne.

He is a brain surgeon living London with his lawyer wife, and oddly – his jazz/blues guitarist son. They are expecting his left leaning poet daughter to arrive for dinner that evening. They are a little nervous because Henry’s elderly father in law, is coming. He is also a poet, well known, but drunk and egotistical. Last time he and his granddaughter met they had a major falling out. Perowne is hoping for a reconciliation over dinner.

The plot though is not driven by this family drama. Rather the purpose of these very carefully designed family members seems to be to provide Perowne, and McEwen, with excuses throughout the book for lengthy and erudite debates with himself about the merits of various writers, jazz and blues musicians, politics – especially the Iraq war of 2003, and many other issues. In every case McEwen not only shows off his scholarly grasp of these issues but his gift as a writer to show how Perowne’s positions on all these things are influenced by his personal experiences, and current events in his life and that of his family.

The book manages to blend the personal current events of its main character, with both global current affairs and the history of ideas, in a way i found uniquely insightful. For example at one point Henry is in a traffic jam

“He lowers his window to taste the scene in full, the bovine patience of a jam, the abrasive tang of icy fumes, the thunderous idling machinery in six lanes east and west, the yellow street lights bleaching colour from the body work, the jaunty thud from entertainment systems, and red tail lights stretching way ahead into the city, white headlights pouring out of it.”

This is a remarkable description but what makes it genius is what follows

He tries to see it or feel it in historical terms. This moment in the last decades of the petroleum age when a 19th-century device is brought to final perfection in the early years of the 21st. When the unprecedented wealth of masses at serious play in the unforgiving modern city makes for a sight no previous age can have imagined. Ordinary people. Rivers of light. He wants to make himself see it as Newton might – or his contemporaries Boyle, Hooke Wren Willis. Those clever, curious men of the English enlightenment who for a few years held in their minds nearly all the Worlds science. Surely they would be awed. Mentally he shows it off to them. This is what we’ve done, this is commonplace in or time. All this teeming illumination would be wondrous if only he could see it through their eyes. But he can’t quite trick himself into it. He can’t feel his way past the iron weight of the actual to see beyond the boredom of a traffic tail back, or the delay to which he himself is contributing, or the drab commercial hopes of a parade of shops he’s been stuck beside for 15 minutes. He doesn’t have the lyric gift to see beyond it – he’s a realist, and can never escape. But then, perhaps two poets in the family enough.

To take the most ordinary moment – a traffic jam – and turn it into not only a brief history of ideas but also a piece of self help advice about how to remain positive is impressive enough. But to seamlessly conclude the thought by moving to a very personal reflective moment from the character, that ostensibly tells the reader something about the character, but really tells the reader about themself. That is the height of writing.

And there is much more. A great insight about what it was like as a boy to be raised without a father, which i know to be true. A very prescient description of our attitudes to media coverage of war and terrorism. A hot shower in which Perowne muses that this will be seen in future as the height of western achievement. A walk to his car that covers the history of ideas. It’s all beautifully done and nearly always seems to appear naturally from Perowne as a character, rather than McEwen as the show off author giving us lectures about this and that.

Stop now if you dont want spoilers

But the plot is not driven by Perownes musings or his family concerns. It is his encounter with a petty thug called Baxter following a minor traffic incident that keeps things moving. During the incident Baxter threatens and then punches Perowne. But it turns out Baxter has a rare genetic brain disease that Perowne can diagnose from looking at him. The disease will kill him over a period of some years. Perowne uses this knowledge on Baxter to save himself from getting further beaten up, and get out of the situation, but in the process humiliates Baxter in front of his underlings. Later there is a series of events involving Perowne and his family in which Baxter gets a brain injury and is taken to hospital. The hospital then calls in Perowne to operate on Baxter, not knowing of any background between the two.

Bookgroup had a lengthy discussion about whether it was appropriate for Perowne to operate after the night that he had had, including the trauma of a home invasion and quite a few drinks. Obviously the consensus view was that it was not appropriate. There was another view that this operation was an allegory for Western intervention in a Iraq in the sense that Perowne was intervening in this unknown land, the brain of Baxter, in his attempt to do good in this foreign land.

In hindsight I think this discussion maybe missed the obvious motivation for the operation which was revenge. Effectively by operating skilfully Perowne knowingly condemned Baxter to a dreadful death from his pre-existing condition. This is perhaps the most devastating revenge one could take.

After the bookgroup discussion i felt overlooking this was comparable in many ways to the way we search for complicated, and less objectionable more rational, socio economic causes to explain various political phenomena. Often, simple basic offensive human drives like racism explain these phenomena much more coherently, but less comfortably.

However, at the end of the book Perowne denies he acted out of revenge. He even sets out a plan in his mind to get his family not to press charges so Baxter will end his foreshortened life in hospital not jail. He seems to be thinking he is acting humanely by planning in this way. But in the same stream of internal dialogue he also acknowledges that ‘by saving his life in the operating theatre, Henry has committed Baxter to his torture. Revenge enough’.

Whether you believe Perowne on this and whatever view you take on his other actions and motivations, it is a great tribute to McEwen that he has constructed a scenario that is so rich and complex that it can be read in so many ways.

It is a wonderful book and highly recommended.

For this book group many of us read other McEwen books – everyone raved about them all as we did when we read black dogs and the children act.

December 24, 2017 at 7:08 am Leave a comment

SAM’S BEST SHOT by JAMES BEST

This is an autobiographical story of a doctor who took his teenage autistic son, Sam, backpacking through Southern Africa. It is what he describes as an n=1 experiment. That is, an experiment with only one test subject. In this case the subject was Sam and the aim was to test whether ‘forcing him to endure’, or if you prefer ‘exposing him to’, lots of variety and chaos in the would, via brain plasticity, help his brain develop more connections and give Sam his ‘best shot’ at being ‘more normal’ as his dad puts it at one point in their book.

The author came along to the bookgroup so we were able to ask him about the book directly. Unfortunately I could not attend so i asked bookgroupers to send me their thoughts. Although i could not attend i did read the book and i think the bookgroupers have covered most of my thoughts below. I definitely liked the travelogue aspect.

Bookgrouper 1

As another bookgrouper reminded everyone, we normally talk about the book for about 45 minutes before the conversation descends (or in some cases elevates) to the subjects of politics, religion and sex. But having the author present changes that dynamic entirely. We were all very pleased to engage and be engaged by James for three hours straight. Sam was not able to attend but with James’ assistance made a video about his African experience specifically for the bookgroup. This was of special interest to us as it gave the bookgroup something more of a first-hand exposure to the unique way that Sam observes and negotiates the world. Also it provided insights into the dynamic that exists between Sam and James and places the events of the book in a more intimate context.

Fundamentally the book tells the story of James and Sam’s expedition to Africa for the purpose of exposing Sam to high levels of new and unpredictable experiences, without many (but not all) of their daily supports. Their travels took them through many countries over six months and presented them with constant daily challenges to not only simply negotiate their movement through, and experience of, Africa but also to complete a number of neuroplasticity exercises that would increase the flow of traffic across Sam’s corpus callosum (the part of the brain that facilitates communication between the hemispheres). Learning to play chess, boxing, writing, engaging in prolonged conversation with the general public were all exercises that extended Sam through this time. And all the while their experience was being recorded on video to document the project and also to produce a movie that might be broadcast on TV. In fact a month or so ago this video was shown on Australian Story.

It’s interesting that everyone in the group was so engaged with the broad subject of how we interact and work with people who have disabilities. It seems that everyone in the group either had a family member or friend who had a disability of some sort and were eager to discuss the subject of how our perceptions leads us to reach conclusions about what life must be like living with a disability (particularly an intellectual disability in this case) and how we can best interact positively and productively.

Of course travelling through Africa can be quite a challenging experience, and the regime that James set himself and Sam in order to test if Sam’s neuroplasticity could be expanded seemed on the surface like it would make the whole trip so much more difficult. And in many aspects that’s exactly what it did. However they could not have anticipated how generous people they met on route turned out to be, from fellow travellers, to local identities, to just people that they met in the street. Everyone seems to resonate with the effort that Sam and James were putting in to the project and were keen to participate and further the experiment in whatever way they could.

Autism still remains a big mystery for me even though I have met Sam on a few occasions and have also met other autistic children and adults in my daily experience. Someone like Sam seems to have so many capabilities alongside a kind of emotional myopia and the mix leads to a confusion on my part whether to step towards him or away from him. Fundamentally though he as a very friendly boy (nearly a man) even if at times outspoken and lacking in normal social graces. I appreciated the chance to get alongside both Sam and James’ experience and watch how this great experiment unfolded.

Bookgrouper 2

I’m still reading the book in drubs and drabs – ie it hasn’t captivated me but it has amazed me as to what they planned and endured together. Certainly demonstrates a father’s commitment to see if a strategy which has a reasonably strong scientific rationale but not strong evidence might make a difference to his son’s development and independence.

It is hard to imagine the real daily challenges of the minute by minute, hour by hour behavioural and situational challenges they both experienced and then have the energy to keep a diary, take videos, do the regime of physical and mental exercises and sustain this commitment for six months. Quite an achievement. I also have a better understanding of autism on a day to day basis with ongoing examples dotted throughout the book. I am certainly enjoying some of the vivid descriptions of the African countryside, animals and people.

More than just a book for parents of children with children autism.

Bookgrouper 3

One of the questions I asked was about why he chose Africa and could the trip be duplicated locally particularly for people without the resources to travel. James indicated that for him it was useful to have travelled outside Australia because if he had stayed within Australia he might have been tempted to return home when things were tough. Being in Africa encouraged him to deal with the difficult times. That said he was of the view that the tools and interventions he used could be duplicated in other environments.

It was a very enlightening and interesting bookgroup.

Bookgrouper 4

Just a few thoughts as I said yesterday…mostly

-I am a bit inhibited when the author was there

-he explained the there was no intention of a book or film until suggested by patients or friends who had a connection with a film mob and publishing mob

-went to Africa instead of Australia as he would have tossed it in, too easy to give in locally

-offered other sons the trip as well but they didn’t want to go, not because they wanted to have a break from Sam, just had other stuff on.

-he said it was really tough a lot of the time

– Sam did a video for us as he negotiated his way out of coming ” as he does”, very generous of James to come

– met some amazing people especially people like Morton who could look at their situation objectively and have an empathy with Sam

bookgrouper 5

You can¹t really tell the Author what you thought of the writing but it was good to discuss the issues of Autism and travel.

I asked questions relating to the issue of labelling people and what that does to them and everyone else and their relationships.

Also what the concept of NORMAL is. How its a socially constructed human and cultural invention.

Its was interesting to hear The writers research on what Autism might occur and how it develops to affect parts of the brain.

Of course the discussions about Africa and its beauty was also great.

Bookgrouper 6

Sam’s dad is a man of energy and purpose. He was generous in taking about his concern that the book not be read as ‘proof’ or a ‘cure’. We talked about the role of single case studies as building blocks in the long road of research and documentation.

He described how his practice had already focussed on children when Sam came along.

The book was aimed widely at everyone with an interest in and concern for autism. While James had written non-fiction before it was a fresh insight into the writing process; sitting up late any night he could to record the day, happenstance connections leading to the filming and the publication. James knew that his editor was supportive and skilled but I don’t think he knew that Jane Palfreyman is considered by many people I know to be the best in the country.

James must think that Don is (a) his favourite patient and or (b) an excellent cook because he went all out bringing his photos from the trip to share with us and recording a video with Sam specifically for the book group.

Oh and if the soup were to ever be reported to the Nobel academy I reckon its a shoe in!

bookgrouper 7

Sams Best shot was an interesting read for me. To be honest it’s one of those books that but for (a) bookgroup I would not pick up.

That’s because of its assumed intent. Who is this book primarily targeted to? Medical circles? Well the author is a doctor. The “autism community”? Well the author is well and truly inside. The “general population”? How could I consider myself one of these?

Well into the book the author uses and repeats a phrase “this is autism”. If he had produced a thirty page brochure with the same title I reckon fewer people would have read it. A travelogue with some family dynamic and personal struggle is more likely to take a general reader (like me) beyond page 3. So if it’s trying to reach me it worked.

Still it did leave me with questions;

What’s the intent of the book?

Who is the primary target audience

Why choose the format and genre used?

Should he have included more method – academic analysis? If yes why not and if no why?

At the end I did not feel compelled to read or look for more. What does that say about me, us, and maybe the book?

December 24, 2017 at 6:51 am Leave a comment


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