Books read in 2014 – 36. A Perfectly Good Man – Patrick Gale

Genre: family, religion

Narrative Style: Third person, non-chronological

Rating: 4/5065917-fc222

Format: Paperback

Published:2012

Synopsis: Lenny decides to take his own life after being paralyzed in a rugby accident. He asks the parish priest, Barnaby Johnson to be present. His decision and Barney’s involvement will turn the parish upside down and bring old secrets to light. 

This had me hooked from the first with Lenny’s meticulous plans for suicide and his request for the parish priest to be present. Barnaby has no idea what is going to happen until it is far too late and Lenny has already committed the act. He is left with nothing but prayer.

The story then unfolds from various characters points of view at various points in their life so we learn of Barnaby’s marriage, his difficult relationship with his adopted son and his affair with a local artist from his point of view and theirs. We learn about Lenny’s mother and a local parishioner named Modest who turns out to play a crucial role in events a number of times in the narrative without always realising.

The pace is unhurried and it is easy to work out some of the secrets but that really isn’t the point of this story. The narrative is as much about Barnaby’s difficult relationship with his faith and with God as it is about the actual events. It is about family and the ways we come to find love in the most unexpected ways. There are no big twists and turns because this is a novel about ordinary people dealing with what life throws at them.

The characters were convincing and I felt able to empathise with most of them even those I didn’t actually like. Even Modest, the most horrible character, was pathetic rather than anything else. It was interesting to see both sides of the father son relationship between Barnaby and his son, Phuc and realise exactly how hard it is sometimes to do the right thing.

The book ends well, in that it ties up loose ends and it is generally a happy ending but there is nothing forced or unlikely about it and no doubt if you continued to follow these characters life would continue to throw challenges at them but this was where this particular story ended.

 

 

Books Read in 2014 – 28. Running Wild – J. G. Ballard (Contains spoilers)

Genre: Crime

Narrative Style: First Person reports on Pangbourne Massacredownload (7)

Rating 3/5

Format: Hardback

Published 1988
Synopsis: All the adults at expensive gated community Pangbourne are dead and all the children have disappeared. Richard Grenville is the psychologist called into investigate. The novella begins two months after the massacre. 

After two months, when no terrorist groups have laid claim to the Pangbourne Massacre, the home office calls in Dr. Richard Grenville and asks him to investigate. He takes the reader through the crimes and the theories surrounding them in a clinical and professional way so that it is possible to be both detached and disturbed by them.

When one of the children reappears, in a catatonic state, Grenville realises who the culprits are. She is clearly disturbed by what has happened and reporters assume this is due to the treatment of her kidnappers. However, Grenville realises that it is because she is one of the murderers herself. He then revisits the scene of the crime and works out the exact events.

To be honest, it was fairly apparent straightaway that the children were to blame. There lives were filled with love and approval but were also stifling. They had no freedom – except as Grenville points out – the freedom to escape into madness. For me, the obviousness of this, meant that the novel lacked suspense.

That said, the issues raised by the novel are certainly interesting. One of the reasons that the public never believe in the theory that the children are to blame is that on the surface, their lives are perfect. They want for nothing. Who wouldn’t want the constant affection of one’s parents, never arguing and having nothing to rebel against. But teenagers need to rebel, regardless of whether there is anything real to rebel against.

The crimes at Pangbourne are fascinating, not just to the public and press in the novella but to the reader as well. They hit at what we all want to avoid thinking about. Children are brutal, to each other and to their parents. They have a savagery that we like to believe we can civilize. This is those in authority persist in viewing the massacre as an act of terroris, even though that is patently absurd.

This is well written and the ideas are good but I did feel that it became a bit pointless as it went on because of the obviousness of the culprits. The ending – when the teenagers attack a former prime minister – felt a bit forced. Although it could be taken as an interesting metaphor for the way that youth and the next generation remove what has gone before.

Books Read in 2014 – 27. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

Genre: Family, Australian Fiction

Narrative Style – A series of third person perspectives from different characters’ points of view. 

Rating 4/52014tbrbutton

Format: Paperback

Published: 2008

Synopsis: At a barbecue in suburban Australia, a young child is out of control. While others look on in horror, a man who is not his parent slaps the child. The repercussions of this act ripple through the lives of all present that day. 

Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: Only about three years. I meant to read it before it was on TV but then I only managed to watch the first episode (not because it wasn’t good but because I was too busy and/or hopeless) and the urgency fell away. I was quite glad not to have watched it as I really enjoyed not knowing what would happen. 

Before reading this, I was interested to see how the issue of child discipline would be handled. This is a emotive issue. If you are seen to disagree with modern parenting methods then you are perceived as some sort of barbarian. But sometimes it does seem that children are being done no favours by parenting methods that give them a choice article-1304653-0AC0591E000005DC-621_233x353about everything but neglect to teach them that sometimes they won’t get their own way. Tsiolkas handles these issues successfully due to the method of giving each person a chapter and opinion. He shows the multi-faceted nature of the issue at hand.

There is not doubt that Hugo is a little monster, still being breastfed at almost four, refusing to play nice and told by his mother that he is the most important person in the universe. Actually, Rosie, his mother was one of the less convincing characters, she was too cliched an earth mother for me and I found her chapter one of the least fun to read. However, this may be due to the distance between myself and this sort of women. She was the sort of person I would never be friends with.

Harry, the person who slapped Hugo was suitably horrible – racist, sexist, violent. After all, even if you might think that child could do with  a slap, there aren’t many of us who would put that into action. Even so, I was pleased that the court decision went his way. You shouldn’t slap someone else’s child but surely you don’t need to take it to the police either.

I enjoyed reading the different viewpoints and trying to understand how different characters came to their decisions about the incident. The story unfolded cleverly and there was always reason to keep reading. The ending pulled together most of the narrative threads and was largely satisfying. The only thing I might have liked was more from the early characters as hints are dropped about them but you don’t actually get to see how they have changed.

When I rated this on Goodreads, I was surprised by the number of negative reviews. There is s something a little soap opera like about this but I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. The issues raised – like those in a soap opera – are pertinent to everyday life. I enjoyed this and will certainly be reading more of TSiolkas’ books.

 

642 things to write about – A woman thinks she might be living next to her grandson

From 642 things to write about – A woman thinks she is living next door to her grandson.

He was playing outside again. His features were so familiar, she almost expected that he had jumped out of a family photo. The bright blue eyes and fair, curly hair. Family traits that had been passed onto all three of her children. The one he was most like was her youngest. The daughter she hadn’t seen for so long it was an effort of mathematics to remember the number of years. She watched him through her net curtain. He was so full of energy; darting here and there, never completely still. She’d been like that too, such a live wire. 

It was impossible. That was what she had to keep running through her mind. She knew the couple next door and there was no possible link. They’d moved in with the boy when he’d been six months old. It hadn’t been so obvious then. Just another baby. But now, it was heartbreaking. He turned and was momentarily facing her. He grinned, holding up something in his hand so his mother could see it. He was so much the image of her daughter that she almost ran out and snatched him up. Then he turned away and she made herself repeat again the impossibility of it all.

Perhaps it was just a product of her own longing. She saw her other children and the ones they had produced but the one she really wanted to see would never be coming back. And she knew whose fault that was. She watched as the boy trotted into his house, trying to keep a hold on herself. Why was she so intent on this form of torture? Everyday she came to the window to remind herself how impossible it all was. She couldn’t rest until she had seen the boy and reminded herself that he was nothing to do with her. Her mind would not let go until she was utterly destroyed.

A gender free environment

Now that I am getting that bit older, quite a few of my friends now have children. Whenever I have to buy presents for the girls, I have my customary moan about how rubbish toys are for girls, compared to those for boys. (Remember if you will that I was always a tomboy. I never played with dolls. I always wanted a gun and a cowboy hat so maybe I’m an extreme judge.) It is not just my personal dislike of pink and cute dolls though, it is the implications of these toys. Boys get to discover science, other worlds, girls get to wait for their prince to come. They get to cook and iron. It all seems a little unfair.

I have now finished reading Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine and the final chapters looked at the effect the environment that children grow up in has on them. It also suggested how quickly children learn what is perceived as right and wrong for each gender. And how subtle their senses are. All very disturbing.

Most of my friends thought that they would try to bring their children up in a gender free environment. And they all made some concessions to this. No pink, perhaps. Neutral toys. Similarly, when I bought presents, I made sure to buy science or practical toys for the girls, for example. It wasn’t surprising that many of our efforts resolved around toys and clothes. After all, they are the most obvious signifiers of gender around. Pretty simple stuff, I suppose. And then when their little girls decided they wanted pink anyway (interestingly this does seem to apply more to girls than boys) parents started to question the social basis of gender and look towards genetics and biology.

And I was tempted to agree. Now, after reading Delusions of Gender, I realise exactly how small our efforts were. Fine writes of one family who changed all of the pictures in their childrens picture books so that they were of the opposite gender. That certainly made our efforts seem quite small by comparison.

One parent told a story of buying her daughter tools but seeing her look after them, wrap them in blankets, as if they were dolls. This was taken as biological instinct but Fine asked the question of who was the primary caretaker, who put the child to bed? Could it be that her daughter had simply learned the clues as to what she should do with her toys from what her mother did? Interestingly, Fine’s own sons played like this with their trucks and their father was the primary caregiver.

Children see gender everywhere. Fine talks of the number of pre-school books that still have gendered images, women in aprons and as primary caretakers, for example. And then there is the influence of other children. Children want to fit in with their peers. Children are more likely to make gendered toy choices in the presence of their peers then at home. Finally, there are other families. Even if your family has a stay at home father, your child will very quickly understand that this is unusual.

So we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that biology is the only thing so all encompassing as to be able to override our attempts at non gendered environments. After finishing this book two things were clear to me. One, our attempts at gender neutrality were too small to even matter, two, social factors were easily as large and all-consuming as biological ones. If, in the future, I have a family of my own, I now realise that I would have to go a lot further than a no-pink household in order to create a gender neutral environment.