Saturday, 9 August 2008

Green fatigue

So the power crisis is officially over for another year - that's a relief. The power conservers, or eco-Nazis, happily tell you what you should and shouldn't do to be 'green' and love to point the moral finger if you step out of line. It is so easy to feel smug and to criticise others.

Just as the born again anti-smoking brigade make me want to go out and light up a fag although I have never smoked in my life, these people make me want to mix my compost with my plastics, although I have been recycling since we gave bundles of paper to the Scouts and rinsed our milk bottles and put them on our doorsteps as children.

Nothing in this eco-crusade is straight-forward. We grew our own vegetables when we had a garden. We had to irrigate them with water. We now live in an apartment in town - we sold the car to reduce pollution and so had to move closer to the city. There is no garden for vegetables, but there is no car to wash and consume the precious water.

The businesses in town leave their lights on so that the reflections look pretty in the water - and they do. I like to look at them. The streetlights illuminate my late night run or cycle ride, which I do outdoors, on the streets, not in a gym with bright lights, pumping music, and blazing equipment.

I take baths rather than showers. I lie in the bath and relax for hours. If I stood under the shower for that long I would waste a lot more hot water. I already pay exorbitant prices for hot water, which the power company turns off at certain times when they think I don't need it. Will they start dictating when I have to turn my lights out and go to bed? Baths are a simple pleasure, and one for which I am censured.

But I am saving power every day by choosing not to have children. I don't put on extra loads of washing and drying. I don't buy cheap plastic toys and clothing from sweatshops in China that will end in landfills in two weeks when the little darlings have outgrown them. I don't leave the heating on in the house all day because they need to be kept a certain temperature. I don't drive a 4WD to the shops because I have such precious cargo on board that I have a right to guzzle resources and kill anything I come into contact with.

My non-existent children will not grow up to drive cars, burn fuel, fly around the world, and heat and light houses or offices. They will not buy and dispose of umpteen electical gadgets and telecommunication devices. They will not consume food which uses precious resources to produce. So let me have my bath without opprobrium.

My friend calls this backlash against the holier than thou environmental set, 'green fatigue'. It's an apt expression. The escalators in the publc library were turned off to conserve power. This action saves very little power, but it does force the elderly (for that is the largest proportion of library users) to walk up the stairs or plead for assistance to use the lift. The people who did this are the same people who oppose wind farms because they don't look pretty and they make noise.

Meanwhile mothers drive their children to cafes where they spill fluffies down the front of their new clothes. The pitter patter of tiny feet produces great big carbon footprints. And they welcome their friend's babies to the world with cards made from recycled paper and a superior smile because they are being good to the planet.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Books read in July

The following are short reviews of the books that I read in July. The marks I have given them in the brackets are out of five.

The President’s Last Love – Andrey Kurkov (3.4)
Apparently this novel ‘conjures up both Gogol and Dostoevsky’ according to the book blurb from the Scotsman, and I suppose it does. There is something intriguing about Russian novels – I love reading them even if I don’t always know what’s going on, and this modern example is no exception. It also reminds me of a Chekov play in which people self-destruct and you are waiting for the calamitous but cathartic ending. Andrey Kurkov is Ukrainian but was born in Leningrad and has written a modern Russian novel, with all the quirks of classic Russian literature.

A Dramatis Personae at the beginning lists the characters in the story – beginning with the ‘women in the life of Sergey Pavlovich Bunin’ and there are a lot of these. He is married four times and has a few mistresses along the way. The plethora of female intrigues become increasingly confusing as the novel is arranged to run three strands of time consecutively so that one chapter will be in 1983, the next in 2003 and the next in 2015, then returning to 1985, and continuing on until they all overlap. It is highly complex and difficult to keep track of, but the fact that the reader loses the thread and forgets in which era we are is, I suspect, entirely intentional.

The narrative style suits the underhand machinations of Russian politics in which people are taken away in the night, favours are distributed for no apparent reason, envelopes of money appear and furniture vanishes. Bunin is President of the Ukraine in the 2015 version, with a heart transplant that might or might not be bugged and monitored. His aides are suddenly replaced overnight and mysterious folders full of papers demand his signature. He washes everything down with whisky and tries not to reflect on his troubled relationships.

Characterisation is superficial as Bunin wanders through existence in a dream-like state. He admires beauty and is frequently drawn to art galleries, forever seeking another level beyond the superficial and alarmed to consider there might not be one. The style of the novel is mainly perfunctory, with staccato chapters that make it hard for the reader to engage. Occasionally, however, the language breaks into beautiful description and some of the imagery is stunningly and archetypically Russian.

The Alphabet Sisters – Monica McInerney (1.3)
If I weren’t committed to finish every book I start, I would have stopped reading this after the second page – I knew what was going to happen and it did. It is chick lit of the lowest order and entirely predictable.

Anna, Bett (short for Elizabeth), and Carrie are three sisters who used to dress up in matching outfits and sing harmonies, under the watchful eye of Lola, their interfering old grandmother. Naturally, they were called the Alphabet Sisters and all was ticking along nicely until Carrie nicked Bett’s fiancé, Matthew, and they all had a great family ruction and haven’t spoken for years. Lola attempts to reunite them and insists they all return to the family-run motel somewhere in the Australian countryside for her eightieth birthday.

She writes a musical about her life and the history of the small town where she grew up, and she insists that her grand-daughters direct, act and play it. They are initially resistant because it is “like she took all her favourite pieces from all her favourite musicals, [and] flung them into a blender with a few lines of dialogue.” The same could be said of this novel as a whole.

McInerney tries to inject colour into her novel after writing a monochromatic outline, but the ‘details’ she adds are both tried and tired. When the inevitable tragedy comes, it is not to whom we expected, but this minor twist is not enough to save the novel from sinking into the mire of mediocrity.

Dark Green – Bright Red – Gore Vidal (3.9)
When published in 1950, this book was considered scandalous; it dared to suggest that American foreign policy was to interfere with South American countries and stage revolutions against Communists to further their own business interests. Of course, this couldn’t possibly happen, could it? The novel is set in a mythical country where there is a mix of cultures – mainly Spanish and Indian – and the exiled former leader (General Alvarez) has returned to attempt to usurp the democratically elected president.

Peter is a naïve American, court-martialled from the US army, who joins a revolutionary movement out of principle. He finds things challenging but exciting, from the General’s daughter, Elena, with whom he has an affair, to the native food. His co-conspirators include the General’s son Jose, a priest, and a cynical writer.

There are elements of deceit, double-crossing and a skewed perspective of ethical behaviour. A theatrical metaphor underpins the novel and it frequently breaks into script-writing dialogue or dramatic set directions. It is a skilful and slim novel, packed with a political punch that would work very well as a play – it is a timeless classic with a touch of the Graham Greenes about it.

Lilian’s Story – Kate Grenville ((4.4)
How have I managed not to have come across this novel, or indeed, this author before? This fantastic book follows the story of poor fat Lilian, bright not beautiful, who tries hard to be one of the boys and seeks solace in food. Her mother, father, brother, John, and Aunt Kitty, are all mad in various ways, and Lilian ends up on the streets of Sydney after a spell at university, in an institution and in prison.

Told in episodic form, each chunk is a new heartbreak until you are aching for the girl. All the characters are expertly drawn with their quirks and idiosyncrasies.
She pretends things which she comes to believe. Is this madness or an active imagination? And where do the boundaries blur? Locked in her mind she discovers a kind of freedom where she is not expected to conform to anyone’s idea of physical beauty. Hijacking taxis and making a public nuisance of herself, Lilian always wanted to be someone and now, at last, it seems as though she is. “My story was beginning to have a part in the stories of others, and I was becoming a small part of history.” She confirms that, “Some women have babies and others have stories.”

Interestingly many reviews I have read of this novel said they found it hard to get into, but enjoyed it more as it went on. I found it the other way around, but still think it’s wonderful! It is marvellous and poignant and Lilian Singer is a fabulous creation, larger than life in many ways.

The Wall – Jean-Paul Sartre (2)
Known for his philosophy as much as his literature, Jean-Paul Sartre is every teenage boy's hero. Minutely scrutinising behaviour, worrying about the arbitrariness of existence, the false consciousness of the bourgeoisie, the loathing of the body in which the protagonists find themselves, and the pervasive sense of alienation and absurdity, he is the poster-boy for adolescent angst. In this series of four short stories, Sartre attempts to convert the reader to his existentialist view of the world.

He writes very well as a man, boy and a woman, getting inside the mind, but he does so with tediously attentive attention to detail, self-obsession and stream-of-consciousness style. All of his characters try and work out their place in the world and the meaning of their existence, playing with philosophical conceits until they are convinced they are too unique and complex to be analyzed.

Don’t we all think things like this when we’re kids? But then we grow up and have other things to worry about, like going to work and paying the mortgage, and we stop sitting around gazing at our navel and contemplating the meaning of our existence in the world. This type of thing appeals to teenage boys who wallow in the darkness of their rooms and the angst of their souls, but we are really not that important in the grand scheme of things whatever these adolescent amateur philosophers may think. And yet Sartre is regarded as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Perhaps it’s just me who doesn’t understand him or his music.