Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Hanging Garden by Patrick White

A few years ago, an article in The (London) Times Literary Supplement mentioned White as one of the great, almost-forgotten writers of the 20th century.  His sweeping stories of the wild lands of the Outback sounded like the kind of character-rich stories I love so much. 

My first read was The Aunt's Story, a novel told in three parts. The first and third are from the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator, and the second is through the eyes of the title Aunt, Theodora Goodman.  Now fully intrigued, I moved onto Voss, the story of Laura Trevelyan and the society she inhabits in 1845 Sydney, Australia and Ulrich Voss, who leads an expedition to cross the Australian outback with a few horses, some cattle, sheep, and goats.  He gathers a disparate variety of individuals on this quasi-scientific expedition.  I then read Flaws in the Glass: A Self Portrait, which detailed White’s interesting life including a stint as an intelligence officer during World War II.

Recently, an article in The New York Times mentioned a fragment of a novel previously unpublished.  In an extensive afterword, David Marr documents the provenance of the manuscript with letters from White.  Apparently, The Hanging Garden is part one of a three part novel White was working on at the time of his death in September of 1990.

Eirene Sklavos is the daughter of an Australian woman and a Greek Patriot killed in the early days of World War II.  Her mother wants to return to Greece to work as a nurse.  She delivers Eirene to the home of an Englishwoman in London, who will send her onto Australia for the duration of the war.  Gil Horsfall has lost his parents in the London blitz, and he, too is headed to Australia.  The young children end up in the same home together.

Besides the characters drawn in great detail, I admire White’s lyrical prose.  He describes young Gill pondering his future as he prepares to pitch his last stone into the water.  White writes, “As afternoon faded, long brassy fingers of light extended from the direction of the city.  They reached out at him, but fell short, distorted by ripples in mauve-green water inserting themselves in cracks of the gull-scrabbled sea wall.  A gull on the long slow curve of its flight let fall a squeeze of white almost like toothpaste on the pale hair.  By now so dazed by sun, air, dreaming, he barely bothered” (6).

Most of White’s novels are long, detailed and full of characters as tough as the Australian Outback.  Part one of the novel is a mere 215 pages, so I presume the final product would reach 600 pages -- a much more typical length for White. 

I wonder if this part was really finished, since it includes some peculiar shifts in point of view.  I felt as if White was leaving himself notes for parts of the story which needed some final touches.  Nevertheless, The Handing Garden is a wonderful introduction to Patrick White.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 6/8/13

The Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller

Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2009.  The Land of Green Plums, the second of her books I have read, is set in Romania during the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu.    It tells the story of four friends trying to survive under a brutal dictatorship.  Edgar, Kurt, and Georg are all friends of the unnamed female narrator.  Lola is one of her “cube mates.” 

Müller describes the living conditions, “A little cube of a room, one window, six girls, six beds, under each a suitcase.  Next to the door, a closet built into the wall; in the ceiling over the door, a loudspeaker.  The workers’ choruses sang from the ceiling to the wall, from the wall to the beds, until night fell.  Then they grew quiet, like the street below the window and the scruffy park, which no one walked through anymore.  There were forty identical cubes in each dormitory” (4-5).  Müller’s style perfectly conveys the oppressive conditions forced upon these students by the regime.  

The characters all leave strands of hair on their suitcases and in their books, so they know when – not if – the secret police have searched the room.  The four friends develop elaborate plans to hide their journals, which include rants against the regime and – the most threatening writings of all – poetry. 

I often hear the words tyrant, dictator, oppressor, secret police tossed around like bread crumbs in a yard full of birds, but I find it hard to understand how people live and die under such brutal governments.  Reading Müller’s work has opened a window for me on the realities many millions struggle under every day.  This novel made me more aware of the freedoms we enjoy.  I won’t take them for granted.  Yet, even in a free society, we see encroachments from all sorts of individuals and government agencies.  Facebook and Twitter have opened the books of our lives for anyone with a computer to dig through.  And we do this freely and willingly, and even with a nonchalance that sometimes disturbs me.

While discussing communication among the four friends, Müller writes,

“‘When you write, don’t forget to put the date, and always put a hair with the letter,’ said Edgar.  ‘If there isn’t one, we’ll know the letter’s been opened.’” // Single hairs, I thought to myself, crisscrossing the country on trains.  A dark hair of Edgar’s, a light one of mine.  A red one of Kurt or of Georg.  They were both called Goldilocks by the students.  “‘The word nail-clipper in a sentence will mean interrogation,’ said Kurt, ‘shoes will mean a search, a sentence about having a cold will mean you’re being followed.  After the greeting always an exclamation point, but a comma if your life’s in danger’ (81).

 This tense style really gave me the willies.  Herta Müller’s The Land of Green Plums will stir up the imagination and make the reader knit the brow attempting to understand what can make a regime descend into this pit of hell dragging its citizens down with it.  5 stars

--Chiron, 6/26/13

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals by Temple Grandin

One of the most amazing stories I have heard over the last number of years is that of Temple Grandin.  As a child, she did not speak until she was four.  Doctor’s correctly diagnosed her as being autistic, but they incorrectly attributed the condition to lack of maternal care as an infant.  Temple proved to be a brilliant student who saw things as pictures in her head.

Our book club read Grandin’s Animals Make Us Human, so I watched again the film starring Clare Danes as Temple.  Temple’s mother is exhausted from dealing with the child, and her sister, who lives in Phoenix, agrees to take Grandin for the summer.  This experience on a cattle ranch helped shape the rest of her life.

Temple had the ability to see the cattle in motion, and she then deduced that controlling the flow of cattle -- in a more natural way – would calm them and reduce the number of animals killed or injured.  Of course, she met a great deal of resistance from cattlemen.  In the end, her persistence won out, and she has designed cattle chutes all of the U.S.

In Animals Make Us Human, she describes how individual groups of animals act – and react – to interaction with humans.  As the proud parent of a new puppy, I gained new insights on dealing with a rambunctious 8-week old Labrador Retriever.  Her section on cats was also interesting, and has helped me understand the two felines who allow us to live in their home.

While I know little about horses, that section also was extremely interesting.  I always wondered why zebras were never domesticated, and Temple handles that explanation as well.

Additional chapters on cows, pigs, chickens and wildlife fascinated me to no end.  I have always liked zoos, and her chapter on those venerable institutions was amazing.  Her studies showed that zoo animals had nothing to do all day but pace and walk in circles.  She recounts the tragic story of an elephant at the Phoenix Zoo.  The animal was chained in one spot and could do nothing but sway back and forth.  In another instance, antelopes could not be calmly moved, because a yellow sign had been carelessly left on the ground.  The color yellow frightened the antelopes.
For anyone interested in animals, this book offers a world of enlightenment.  Temple’s style tends toward simple explanations, and sometimes her enthusiasm leaps right off the page.  For example, she writes:

“I strongly suggest that if you’re going to be away a lot, or can’t pay an hour’s worth of attention to your dog every day, you should consider getting two dogs.  A lot of people think having two dogs is more fun than having just one anyway, and watching dogs play is a blast” (43).  I can attest to the full truth of this statement.  I have never seen anything in pets more fascinating than the interaction of two dogs.
I highly recommend this book for all pet owners -- or anyone who cares about animals at all.  5 stars

--Chiron, 5/30/13