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July 06, 1986|ALEX RAKSIN

The Children's Bach, Helen Garner (Penguin: $4.95). Before the sky falls, Dexter and Athena are walking under the stars, laughing and occasionally gazing at each other with eyes aglow. The social upheaval in this 1984 Australian novel is uncommon, though, for even when Vicki, a lonely teen-ager, arrives at Athena and Dexter's house, setting off sparks, a sense of harmony is maintained. After Dexter sleeps with Vicki, for instance, he is angry at himself, yet oddly quiescent: "This was modern life, then, this seamless logic, this common sense, this silent tit-for-tat. This is what people did. He did not like it. He hated it. But he was in its moral universe now, and he could never go back." Harmony isn't preserved through condoning or condemning; Garner, instead, empathizes with all of her characters, aware that differences in perception are inevitable, even comical, as when Vicki first meets Dexter. Vicki was sitting in the back seat of a car, looking forward at Dexter and her older sister "as they would never see themselves: two silly heads of hair, two sets of shoulders, two unsuspecting napes. She hated them. She closed her eyes with hatred. Dexter saw her in the mirror and thought she had fallen asleep. Unresisted now, his tenderness for the whole world rushed to envelope her."

The Gene Business: Who Should Control Biotechnology?, Edward Yoxen (Oxford: $7.95). It seems appropriate that the ethical debate over our power to destroy through nuclear weapons should overshadow the debate over our power to create through biotechnology. Yet creation through biotechnology, Edward Yoxen points out, also can cause destruction: The genetic breeding of fast-growing trees might decrease the number of plant species, standardization in agriculture might mean the loss of basic food crops in the Third World, funds for medical research might be channeled into lucrative curative products at the expense of preventive medicine. Yoxen's focus on how biotechnology affects the natural order (genetic breeding, standardization in agriculture) as well as the social order (medical research funding) reflects his concern about our tendency to apply mechanistic definitions to even the most labyrinthine of phenomena. Just as we must look at the larger socioeconomic picture when funding medical development, Yoxen believes, so too we must consider the interrelated nature of the ecosystem as technology allows us to assume the role of creator.

Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, Annie Dillard (Harper & Row: $6.95). What makes Annie Dillard exceptionally successful at poetry--her ability to see significance in the ordinary, to show, in fact, that there is nothing ordinary--is also what makes many shy away from poetry. With the increasingly complicated dimensions and hurried pace of modern life, our tendency is to embrace anything but complexity. One of the poems in this 1974 collection warns us of the danger in our retreat by defining freedom in terms one is unlikely to have heard during Liberty Weekend: "Freedom loves to live / and live fleshed full, / intricate, / and in detail." However strange and involved, though, Dillard's poetry is so graceful that we're carried into twisted terrain before we can contemplate retreat. The ambiguities are moral, as when Dillard reflects on her girlhood ("Lord, lover, listen: / I remember kissing on the stair / dancing in the kitchen") and intellectual, as when she questions the power of her poetic voice ("Cut off my head / and I will draw you heaven").

Winter Thunder, Mari Sandoz (University of Nebraska: $4.95). Caught in a blizzard, a school bus overturns, stranding a young teacher, her seven pupils and a driver--only a boy--in the open country. Tales of endurance rarely achieve proximity to their characters--individual traits are eclipsed by instinct in the struggle for survival--and this short novel, written in 1954 and based on a similar ordeal experienced by the author's niece, is no exception. The teacher, the book's heroine, never strays from her role as schoolmarm, while the students never rise above schoolyard rivalries. Yet Mari Sandoz's unassuming story, selected by the Reader's Digest as "one of the ten best American short novels," succeeds in its effort to show how strength of mind can triumph over a formidable opponent.

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