Monthly Archives: November 2013

My Dad The Hero by Stella Gurney and Katharine McEwen

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Another Walker Books story, this time exploring the difficult theme of how to fit in at school when your family is different. Tariq’s dad speaks English with a Bengali accent, and some of his classmates tease Tariq. Then the teacher arranges for all the parents to come and tell the class about different jobs (what a great idea!) and Tariq’s dad is the first up. Tariq doesn’t give his dad the letter, in hope of avoiding more teasing, but he feels ashamed that he’s embarrassed by his own beloved dad. Luckily his dad finds the letter in the dustbin, magically understands the whole problem, and prepares an amazing puppet show all about being a taxi driver, complete with sweets made by Tariq’s mum. The class loves it and nobody teases Tariq any more. If it it all sounds too easy to those of us who recall school as a much more dog-eat-dog kind of place, well, all I can say is, maybe nowadays it is all much more inclusive and tolerant. Let’s hope so.

The Good Life by Hugh Mackay

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To sum up, Mackay argues that ‘the good life’ is defined by service to others. This book appeals to our apparently innate moral sense: our natural wish to help and our awareness of ourselves as cooperative social animals. Though, a person living ‘the good life’ would not be expecting anything in return for his or her help, not even a thankyou. An act performed in the expectation of anything in return (even a pleasant sense of worthiness) loses its ‘goodness’ instantly, this author argues.

He points out that Western society glorifies both individual realization and the pursuit of happiness, in case we had not noticed. But, according to him, these are the Wrong Goals. Nor does he promise that if we should lead the good life, we will achieve happiness. I must admit, I had, prior to reading his book, assumed that happiness was indeed my goal, for myself and my friends and family, and particularly for my daughter. Instead, Mackay describes ‘wholeness’ as a better goal than happiness. A ‘whole’ person experiences the complete range of emotions at appropriate moments (fear when something frightening happens, irritation when something annoying happens) to an appropriate degree (not brooding on a small rejection), learning all the while. Indeed, this idea is central to the Traditional Chinese Medicine concept of being ‘in balance’, and I admit I had not previously considered that this may be incompatible with a constant striving for personal happiness and fulfilment.

His book is dotted with anecdotes, quotes and case histories (each, I think, invented to illustrate a point, rather than about people he knows), which do indeed provide human interest to his rather judgemental, stern tone. (For example, he scorns those middle-aged people who continue to wear blue jeans as clinging inappropriately to their lost youth!) The book is quite readable, even when the author criticizes the self-obsessed behaviour he observes in many people. And I think we can all agree (with him) that most of us could benefit ourselves and others by being quite a lot more community-spirited and much kinder to everyone we come in contact with.

Yet, even after reading the whole book and following the development of his argument, I do not feel it is obvious that his premise is correct (service to others should be our life’s goal and there’s no call to aim for happiness per se). Nor is his advocated lifestyle possible in all societies. In a very unequal society, it is not easy to exchange favours. Mackay also seems to take no account of the role of reciprocity and hierarchy as stabilizing factors in animal societies.

It should be a thought-provoking book, but (I think) on the whole, I’m left with good intentions to be a bit more compassionate, a source of balm for whenever I don’t feel I’ve been personally ambitious enough, and not much more.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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Wonderful! Even better than her Jackson Brodie private investigator ‘frilogy’ (four books, see), which I had not thought possible. It’s always nice when a favourite author ups her game without losing my interest.

Tracking important moments in the rewound-and-lived-again lives of Ursula (usually moments when a circumstance or choice results in her untimely demise, approximately every five years or so), the story is of all the lives she could have lived. It’s as different as it could be from a ‘choose your own adventure’ storybook, given that those imply a degree of control and conscious choice over what might happen next, whereas Ursula’s fates seem merely to be adjacent frills in the everfolded Multiverse, each equally likely. Some reviewers feel that the book shows how she learns from previous truncated lives to make a final difference (spoiler: possibly assassinating Hitler!) in her last life. But although some of the Ursulas do seem to retain a dim awareness of previous lives, I do not think the book is an exercise in ‘getting it right’ by reliving moments of choice. I think it underscores the precious uniqueness of each life, the potential of each path not yet walked down, and the horrible randomness of the deaths depicted.

Some of the Ursulas are happier than others, some learn more skills or live in different places. Some marry, some have a child, one is murdered by her husband. But somehow, thanks entirely to the masterful storytelling (I imagine the author required an enormous mindmap detailing the different paths of Ursula’s many lives, enabling her to drop in references to the distinguishing characteristics of each life) and some unchanging elements in all the Ursula’s lives (such as her calm, kind father and sister), it all hangs together and Ursula’s personality remains recognisable throughout.

Extra interesting for me was that Ursula was born in almost the same year (1910) that my grandmother was, so some of her lives span both world wars. Those of Ursula’s lives ended by the Blitz are particularly fascinating and moving. How lucky we are to live in times of peace. There is a surreal episode set in Germany, where Ursula is befriended by Eva Braun (a bit contrived, that). Ursula’s German lives seem designed to build a more compassionate understanding in the reader of the Germany in which Hitler rose to power. And her early lives depict a serene, privileged pre-war countryside lifestyle presumably now gone forever.

I intend to reread as soon as I can bear to.