The White Hotel

The Whote Hotel
by D.M. Thomas
1981/274 pages
rating ? / 20th century fiction

Totally pandering and gratuitous in every sense but bolstered by the use of Freud. The narrative in general is a very stylish, literary type production. After the first Freud letters comes an erotic poem apparently by a nympho. Then new section, but possibly same woman, anonymous sex on a train and a fantastical hugely symbolic excursion through a “white hotel.”

I don’t even care to bother with the story (stories) of “Anna,” they are way too convoluted and problematical from a narrator who is unreliable from the start. It just reads like a “How Freudian can you get?” symbolically speaking.

Ah well … keep reading … it comes together in the end, makes a powerful statement and worth the read (if you can make it through the preliminaries).

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That Deadmen Dance

That Deadman Dance
by Kim Scott
2010 / 355 pages
rating 9 / contemp Aust.

Thanks to the blogs of Sue Terry and Lisa Hill (see below) in which they recognized and hosted Indigenous Aussie Literature week I came up with a couple books by indigenous authors which they had reviewed and also were available on Kindle. I decided for no real good reason to read That Deadman Walk first. A winner! (And of the Miles Franklin Award no less.)

Talk about intriguing! It’s historical fiction from the era of first contact on the southwestern shores near today’s Albany between the years 1826 and 1844 or so. The book is obviously about what happened to the original good relations, including personal of many different kinds, between the two distinctly different cultures, one intensely entrepreneurial, the other basically primative communal. But it’s about language and storytelling, too, I think – and oral history maybe, perhaps in song or dance.

Bobby Wabalanginy is a bright and talented young boy of the Noongar people and in the Prologue he is trying to write words on paper. Over the course of the book he grows up and his land is decimated by “big fires, guns and greed.” After the Prologue the story skips forward several years and then back to earlier times. It’s generally chronological but without being particularly linear in all places – if that makes sense.

Through the course of a few years came the English, Dutch, French, and American whalers seeking adventure and fortune in or near the fledgling settlement. In addition there were English military men to stave off French influence and guard the small colony, there were merchants and escaped sailors and prisoners at various times along with an occasional wife.

Dr. Cross, a major character, is one of the very early settlers, a pioneer who wants to bring his wife over and settle down peacefully. He applied for a land grant and got it. He becomes good friends with several natives and does all within his power to keep friendly relations. Cross’ best friend is a native named Wunyeran who is a quick learner and very loyal. But time passes, illness pervades the fledgling settlement and the two friends die. Bobby Wabalanginy, the main character of the novel, “adopted” by Cross as a baby, is another very early close friend. Bobby is essentially raised in both worlds and for the novel, he may even represent Australia, or its indigenous population in the early to mid-1800s.

A chunk of the book concerns a somewhat later exploratory party organized by Geordie Chaim, a merchant and investor, which sets out across the bay to find grazing land for sheep. With him are Bobby, now a bit older, Killam, an enterprising soldier, and two black male teens (not Aborigine). The group gets way off its sailing course but makes it to land where they get really lost and find themselves in a long life or death struggle against nature and each other for sheer survival.

After that a number of incredible whale hunts unfolds, including some with rival ships, sometimes going after whole herds of whales. Very dangerous but profitable for the capitalists and it makes for some intense reading, almost redolent of Moby Dick? Not really – the loss of whales is sad here because they too are indigenous.

Meanwhile Chaine’s children are growing up and a bond forms between Christine and Bobby while Jak Tar, an escaped seaman, gets Bobby’s “sister,” Binyan, for a wife.

Things change for the Noongar as well. With too many strangers around, too many rules and too many English words in Bobby’s song, the older folks are not happy.

Scott’s language, a theme in itself perhaps, with its variable syntax and unusual vocabulary, some of which is Aborigine, is dense and stunningly luminous with rich and theme-appropriate metaphors. There are basically two third-person points of view or consciousness, that of the natives, particularly Bobby Wabalanginy, and that of the Englishmen. These two have very different voices, language, ideas, and in the third person the distinction sometimes blurs, but it’s fairly well controlled and beautifully done.

And symbolism, yes of course – the title itself symbolizes both death and First Contact. The whales, the bones, the fire, maybe Bobby himself, as I mentioned, are laden with meaning. Lots more, I’m sure.

Finally, there seems to be a dose of magical realism here – in the most excellent sense of the term. But it is really so much a natural part of the story it may not be right to call it magical realism. – Who is Bobby and how can he do these magical-seeming things, be everywhere, inside the whale and the ocean and the land? But he’s just a little boy who grew up, isn’t he – with a gift for language and feeling and able to get on with both cultures? Still, it’s the clash created between these two realities, Bobby’s original Noongar and that of the enterprising English, which makes for the fertile ground of authenticity – like One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez where the native community was confronted/ challenged by the Industrial Revolution.



And an interesting commentary:

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Nothing to Envy

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
by Barbara Demick
2013 309 pages
rating 9.5 / nonfiction

North Korea is a bad place / it’s been a bad place for some time now and it’s apparently getting worse. One of only 4 Communist countries left on earth (China, Cuba and Vietnam are the others) the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” is destitute, desolate and pretty much defunct. Ever since Russia and China discontinued their support in the 1980′s and ’90s the country has nose-dived into a completely isolated dictatorship and major blemish of abject poverty.

Escape is virtually impossible, mentally and physically, but there are some very brave and desperate folks who do. This is the story of five survivors from Chongjin who are now living in South Korea, as told to Barbara Demick who wrote a series of award-winning articles for the LA Times which she transformed into this incredible book.

Starting with an explanation of how she came to write this, Demick moves to cover a bit of the interviews themselves and then into the substance of the tales. It’s basically a linear telling a chunk at a time from each subject’s life, of what life was like in Chongjin and how it got worse; why did the subjects decide to defect and how did they get to Seoul; finally, how do they find life in South Korea?

There is also a fair amount of recent history included and these parts are fascinating. I had to google more than a few times for a bit more information or pictures. (This is not a criticism of the book, not everything can be included, more likely it’s additional kudos because Demick got my interest.)

The tale of Mrs Song, a middle-age married and working woman, is riveting and that of Jun-Sang and Mi-ran, the young lovers, rather sweet. Kim Hyuck’s story is so sad and horrific in part because he is so young, while Dr. Kim’s story is just plain heart-breaking. Mercifully, we do know from the context that these five subjects survive to tell their tales. I have to only wonder at the hundreds, more like thousands, who didn’t.

One more thing, the end notes are terrific!


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Devil in the Grove

Devil in the Grove:
Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America
by Gilbert King
2013 / 361 pages
rating 9.5 / nonfiction- crime

In suspense driven, True Crime mode King tells the story of Thurgood Marshall’s famous legal victory in the case of 4 young black men accused of raping a young white woman in the small town of Groveland, Florida, 1949.

It’s a great story and King uses foreshadowing, dialogue, cliff-hanger section endings and other devices to turn it into a page turner. Marshall going on to become the first African-American Associate of Justice on the US Supreme Court makes it even more interesting. There are usually no spoilers in non-fiction – the tale has often been told in the media or schools – but this is one of those times when I didn’t know the details of the ending and really wanted to let them unfold in King’s capable hands. Wow!!

The narrative is of mixed genre, it’s not only a True Crime tale, although I suppose it’s basically that (it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for General Nonfiction), nor is it a biography of Marshall although there is a lot about him, and it’s not an outline of Jim Crow laws and their demise, but this brief sketch is part of that much larger story. This is a history focused on a specific legal case defended by a great lawyer working in general to overturn the race-based discriminatory laws prevalent in the South at the time.

Following an attention grabbing Prologue where we are given a bit of Marshall’s background in Civil Rights, lynchings and the law, King opens with 25 acquittals of Black defendants in a Columbia, Tennessee race riot case only one year prior to the Groveland arrests. Marshall was integral in that case so it’s a good opening. Chapter 2 concerns Marshall’s life in New York, his work with the NAACP and other related matters. In Chapter 3 the story of Norma Lee and Willie Padgett begins to unfold – stuck on the road, helped by blacks, then accusing, but the bulk of the chapter concerns more background on Marshall.

It’s in Chapter 4 that the story of the arrests in Groveland really gets going after Ernest, a would-be suspect escapes and Charles Greenlee is arrested along with two local boys. Now Sheriff Willis McCall enters the picture and it is through King’s depiction of McCall I see some complexities emerge along with “the Devil.”. The violence is horrific but never over done as the suspense builds and continues, ebbs for a brief digressions into other similar cases, brief biographical information, social attitudes, voting laws, the Ku Klux Klan. The the suspense is back building again right through the last pages.

The book is exceptionally well researched and the source notes show that. The few photos add interest. All in all the book makes me want to know more and get involved.

Groveland Four

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The Eye of the Storm

The Eye of the Storm
by Patrick Whie
1972 / 608 pages
rating 10 / 20th cent Aust.

Elizabeth Salkeld Hunter is dying. Her children have come to pay their respects to the old lady in her bed in her Sydney mansion with round-the-clock nurses and regular staff.

Dorothy, now Princess Lascabanes, Elizabeth’s daughter, flies her pathetic divorced self in from Paris while Elizabeth’s son Basil, an exceptional actor, comes from England. Their father, Alfred Hunter, has been dead for many years so the family estate will be broken up and Arnold Wyburd, the family solicitor is present to assist with that.

Elizabeth was never what you would call a “nice” woman, she didn’t much care for her children and cheated on her husband, although he adored her. It was said that she “ate” people – despised and humiliated them for her own glory. Sanseverina from Stendahl’s The Charterhouse of Parma is referred to in relation to Elizabeth.

The nurses and other staff gossip, joke and bicker while their patient recalls stories from her life, the people, the places, the events. Her attitude is biting and critical even now, partly because she was raised in poverty, partly because that’s just how she is.

Dorothy is a much bruised “princess” looking for love from her mother, too bad – so sad. Very complex relationship with Elizabeth – a good bit of her hates her mother. And she needs some money.

Basil is a has-been actor, knighted for his roles on the English stage but now, in his 50s, failing in all areas. Life to Sir Basil is a stage. He’s pretentious, egotistical and of course, he needs money. Sir Basil is haunted by King Lear without a Cordelia.

The three nurses are distinct characters, Flora Manhood is a young pretty woman with very little family, only a cousin who is quite low class. Flora is being hounded by her boyfriend to marry but she really has no desire to do that, she does not want babies, she wants to be a nurse. She’s worldly in her attitudes, enjoys putting makeup on Elizabeth. And she sees Basil as an opportunity.

Mary De Santis is another nurse, older and quite devout. The nicest of the bunch. And there’s nurse Sister Badgery who does her job quite methodically. Mrs Lippmann, the German-Jewish cook and Mrs Cush, the main housekeeper are both integral parts of the household, if not the storyline.

White, a nobel winner has got to be Australia’s Faulkner. It’s incredible what this book is in terms of plot, character development, structure and language.

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The Blazing World

The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World
by Margaret Cavendish
1666 / classic fiction
(totally unable to rate this)

Fascinating, author but this story although short, is difficult to read. Cavendish created a world of sci-fi with talking animals and specialized thinking where her protagonist lands after being kidnapped. It’s at the North Pole but you can’t really get there from here.

She learns about this world, becomes Empress and returns to her own land to rescue it. It’s part sci-fi, part adventure, part satire and part romance.

Margaret Cavendish,_Duchess_of_Newcastle-upon-Tyne

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The Blazing World

The Blazing World
Siri Hustvedt
2013/359 pages

Artists are sometimes quite eccentric but Hustvedt has invented a real corker in the large, red-haired, brilliant and probably mad Harriet Burden, rich widow of Felix Burden the successful NY art dealer. This book is a collection of fictitious letters, diary entries, interviews, reports and so on collected by one I.V. Hess, the fictional editor.

The result is a kick – for me, it’s one of those “I wish I’d thought of that” deals. Hustvedt skewers the art world via a plot dealing with a scheme Burden cooked up to pull off a very pointed hoax. Burden creates installation art including metamorphs, dolls of various size and shape which are sometimes warmed. She installs them in “rooms” which are viewed by observers. She does other art projects, too.

So because she and her art have been ignored by the public, she finds three very different men who will pose as the artists of three exhibits. These guys and Burden’s art create their own sensations, but what will happen when the truth comes out? Actually, in a way, these men become a part of her installation – until Rune, perhaps.

There are several themes coursing their way through Hustvedt’s tale. The first is about reality vs perception – do we see what is there? Or do we see what we want to see? Maybe we see what our culture tells us to see. And then there’s aesthetic valuing … This, I think, is the main point of Burden’s 3-part exhibition known as Masks.

The second theme is the public’s lack of respect for women artists today and in the past. Relatedly, there’s a bit in there about how money and egos drive the art world. Margaret Cavendish of the 17th century, the inspiration for Hustvedt’s novel, was ignored and wrote a fine book, The Blazing World, which is mentioned several times for more than one reason. (And I read that book, too, it’s quite a lot like Gulliver’s travels with a romance thrown in – something??)

And to me, a theme of 21st century feminist (3rd wave?) is included in that the book is not about male-bashing alone, although there is some of that, there’s some feminist bashing in it, too. still, the basic idea may be feminist although at times that’s turned on its head. Hustvedt satirizes everything except the reality of 9/11.

There’s a bit of philosophy in here – (Husserl reminded me of the book “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery – and another wonderful older and hugely intelligent woman.)

And I think I detected a wee bit of an allusion to some quantum physics – perhaps – but that’s too bizarre because quantum stuff doesn’t happen at the level of your breadbox. (There really is a book called Quantum Enigma, though. (The authors are playing word games, imo. lol)

Is Burden sane? I have no idea – what are the parameters of sanity? I do know that she’s big, warm and loving, but also aging and angry as hell. I would likely not want to know her in person, but in Hustvedt’s hands she’s wonderful.

On the downside, there isn’t much difference between most of the voices of the narrators, the 1st person contributors, except for Harry, her journal entries are unique as are those from a couple of others.

i suppose this is a difficult novel in some ways, the ideas are concerned with psychology, philosophy and feminism but for me it was more like a romp, very funny.


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