San Francisco Chronicle
“A delightful, challenging, and wonderfully informative book.”
“Observant, imaginative, and both lucid and impassioned.”
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
“Kingsolver possesses a rare depth of understanding of nature’s complex mechanisms.”
“Essays … [of] great skill and wisdom.”
Barbara Kingsolver's essays move at an unrushed pace, but they grab you. Take, for example, the tender choreography of opening lines of "Letter To My Mother": "I imagine you putting on your glasses to read this letter. Oh, Lord, what now? You tilt your head back and hold the page away from you, with your left hand flat on your chest protecting your heart." Or the one paragraph teaser for "Stealing Apples": "I have never yet been able to say out loud that I am a poet." Like the pieces in her High Tide in Tucson, these essays stretch out in front of us with a leisure of a quiet, overdue conversation.
Principally known as the author of such bestselling novels as The Bean Trees and The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver grew up shy and studious, got a degree in biology and currently divides her time between writing, raising two daughters andwith her husband, an ornithologistworking for conservation and humanitarian causes. She grows her own vegetables and for part of the year lives simply in a rural cabin with feeble electrical wiring, hummingbirds outside her kitchen window and a driveway half a mile long. We learn all this in Kingsolver's latest collection of essays, which reveals its author to possess many redeeming facets. Observant, imaginative, both lucid and impassioned, Kingsolver writes effectively about her family and the natural world.
The personal essays make us feel we understand Kingsolver so well that it is a shame the essay "Small Wonder" comes first. This confused and rambling work is a meditation on two things that the author attempts to link: the bombing campaign after September 11, in Afghanistan, and the discovery of a lost child in Iran who, according to news service stories, had been kept alive by a female bear. Marked by sentimentality, the essay never really confronts how America should deal with enemies who would gladly destroy it. Kingsolver's suggested metaphorical alternative, lulling the enemy to sleep with an "elixir of contentment," is so vague and wishful that it's impossible to take seriously.
A few of the entries in this collection make too-easy historical or political assumptions that amount to errors of fact. In "Small Wonder," for example, Kingsolver wrongly argues that the modern age is unique inhaving to envision problems of global dimensions. Even during the Black Death, Kingsolver asserts, "They couldn't imagine a wreckage so appalling as the end of humankind on a planet made squalid by man's own hand." There is plenty of historical evidence, however, that that is precisely what people did imagine, although the squalor was moral rather than ecological.
Perhaps more alarming than the mistakes and lapses in logic are the arrogant ways Kingsolver occasionally asserts her intellectual rigor. "I've tossed aside stories because of botched Spanish or French phrases.... stopped reading books in which birds sang on the wrong continents or full moons appeared two weeks apart," she admits in "What Good Is a Story?", which provides criteria for what she thinks constitutes good writing. One can't help but wonder if the author ever stopped to consider how this sort of finger-pointing might impact her own credibility.
In spite of the book's annoying flaws, there is still plenty here to admire and enjoy. The essays that focus on Kingsolver's family and the natural world, effortlessly linking daily matters to global issues, are altogether marvelous. In "Lily's Chickens," she describes the small flock of hens, bought to please her five-year-old daughter, Lily, and kept in line by Mr. Doodle, a rooster whose absurd machismo becomes endearing. Lily tends the hens, feeds them and proudly carries the first egg into the kitchen, shouting, "Attention everybody, I have an announcement: FREE BREAKFAST." Meanwhile, Kingsolver describes the benefits of raising food locally, pointing out that the average supermarket food item travels 1,300 milesan avoidable waste of natural resources.
In every case, she is on the side of nature and the preservation of its diversity, whether explaining, in "A Fist in the Eye of God," exactly why genetic engineering poses a terrible long-term risk, or exploring, in "The One-Eyed Monster, and Why I Don't Let Him In," the disastrous limitations of television. "The world, a much wider place than seventeen inches, includes songbird migration, emphysema, pollinating insects, the Krebs cycle ... and a trillion other things outside the notice of CNN," Kingsolver reminds us. In some essays, the tone is more scientific than personal; in others, such as the wonderful "Letter to My Mother," the tone is intimate without being oppressively close.
While far from perfect, this book expresses the misgivings and despair experienced by many of us, and counters our shared sense of loss with the treasures of a quiet life. It is fascinating that in her essay on what makes a story valuable, Kingsolver never mentions the companionship of a narrative voicefallible but intimatewhen such a voice is her greatest strength.
This book of essays by Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible, etc.) is like a visit from a cherished old friend. Conversation ranges from what Kingsolver ate on a trip to Japan to wonder over a news story about a she-bear who suckled a lost child to how it feels to be an American idealist living in a post-September 11 world. She tackles some sticky issues, among them the question of who is entitled to wave the American flag and why, and some possible reasons why our nation has been targeted for terror by angry fundamentalists and what we can do to ease our anxiety over the new reality while respecting the rest of planet Earth's inhabitants. Kingsolver has strong opinions, but has a gift for explaining what she thinks and how she arrived at her conclusions in a way that gives readers plenty of room to disagree comfortably. But Kingsolver's essays also reward her readers in other ways. As she puts it herself in "What Good Is a Story": "We are nothing if we can't respect our readers." Respect for the intelligence of her audience is apparent everywhere in this outstanding collection. Illus. (Apr. 20) Forecast: Kingsolver's name means bestseller potential, possibly aided by the possibility of revisiting the controversy she has aroused with her response to September 11. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
This collection of 23 essays covers topics both global and personal, ranging from September 11 to Kingsolver's vegetable garden. A few have been previously published in natural history magazines and newspapers, but most debut here. A biology and ecology major and former scientific writer and journalist, Kingsolver is a one-woman soiree, presenting well-wrought scientific views about Darwinian theory and genetic engineering alongside personal narratives that deliver universal homilies-watching television, a date rape, and her daughter and her mother. There could be no better reader for these vignettes than the author herself; her Kentucky lilt adds intimacy to the discourse, as if she were a friend chatting over a cup of tea. This gentle, intelligent gadfly will provide intellectual stimulation, whether or not the listener agrees with her positions. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.-Judith Robinson, Univ. at Buffalo, NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Wearing her essayist hat, novelist Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible, 1998, etc.) responds to the September 11th terror attacks with a collection addressing the wonders of life. In an effort to "burn and rave against the dying of all hope," Kingsolver offers a contemplation of how we are blessed in our lives and urges us to consider the planet we live on and those with whom we share it. Her first two essays disjointedly consider how the September 11th attacks may have come about and voice her distress over our wastefulness as a nation: "Americans and Europeans spend $17 billion a year on pet food." She then moves on to document her love affair with nature in an account of her two residences, one in Arizona and the other in Appalachia, where she works while looking at beautiful views. While she stresses repeatedly how blessed she is to have these twin retreats, it's somewhat jarring in conjunction with a preceding essay in which she writes, "For most of my life I've felt embarrassed by a facet of our national character that I would have to call prideful wastefulness." Kingsolver continues to rend our nation's collective garment as she moves on to discuss the scarlet macaw and habitat loss in general; freeing a hermit crab in the context of letting go of a "hunger to possess"; her daughter's chickens and "the energy crime of food transportation"; and why she doesn't have a television. All of Kingsolver's issues are worthy, certainly, but the work is made less palatable by what seems to be a naivete that surfaces when the author (mother of three) makes such statements as, "I can barely grasp the motives of a person who hits a child." Her best pieces-a discussion of adolescence addressed toher daughter; an essay on the difficulties of writing about sex-have a narrow focus. Good intentions and craft marred by sanctimony.
Read an Excerpt
Letter to My Mother
Imagine you putting on your glasses to read this letter. Oh, Lord, what now? You tilt your head back and hold the page away from you, your left hand flat on your chest, protecting your heart. "Dear Mom" at the top of a long, typed letter from me has so often meant trouble. Happy, uncomplicated things -- these I could always toss you easily over the phone: I love you, where in the world is my birth certificate, what's in your zucchini casserole, happy birthday, this is our new phone number, we're having a baby in March, my plane comes in at seven, see you then, I love you.
The hard things went into letters. I started sending them from college, the kind of self-absorbed epistles that usually began as diary entries and should have stayed there. During those years I wore black boots from an army surplus store and a five-dollar haircut from a barbershop and went to some trouble to fill you in on the great freedom women could experience if only they would throw off the bondage of housewifely servitude. I made sideways remarks about how I couldn't imagine being anybody's wife. In my heart I believed that these letters -- in which I tried to tell you how I'd become someone entirely different from the child you'd known -- would somehow make us friends. But instead they only bought me a few quick gulps of air while I paced out the distance between us.
I lived past college, and so did my hair, and slowly I learned the womanly art of turning down the volume. But I still missed you, and from my torment those awful letters bloomed now and then. I kept trying; I'm trying still. But thistime I want to say before anything else: Don't worry. Let your breath out. I won't hurt you anymore. We measure the distance in miles now, and I don't have to show you I'm far from where I started. Increasingly, that distance seems irrelevant. I want to tell you what I remember.
I'm three years old. You've left me for the first time with your mother while you and Daddy took a trip. Grandmama fed me cherries and showed me the secret of her hair: Five metal hairpins come out, and the everyday white coil drops in a silvery waterfall to the back of her knees. Her house smells like polished wooden stairs and soap and Granddad's onions and ice cream, and I would love to stay there always but I miss you bitterly without end. On the day of your return I'm standing in the driveway waiting when the station wagon pulls up. You jump out your side, my mother in happy red lipstick and red earrings, pushing back your dark hair from the shoulder of your white sleeveless blouse, turning so your red skirt swirls like a rose with the perfect promise of you emerging from the center. So beautiful. You raise one hand in a tranquil wave and move so slowly up the driveway that your body seems to be underwater. I understand with a shock that you are extremely happy. I have been miserable and alone waiting in the driveway, and you were at the beach with Daddy and happy. Happy without me.
I am sitting on your lap, and you are crying. Thank you, honey, thank you, you keep saying, rocking back and forth as you hold me in the kitchen chair. I've brought you flowers: the sweet peas you must have spent all spring trying to grow, training them up the trellis in the yard. You had nothing to work with but abundant gray rains and the patience of a young wife at home with pots and pans and small children, trying to create just one beautiful thing, something to take you outside our tiny white clapboard house on East Main. I never noticed until all at once they burst through the trellis in a pink red purple dazzle. A finger-painting of colors humming against the blue air: I could think of nothing but to bring it to you. I climbed up the wooden trellis and picked the flowers. Every one. They are gone already, wilting in my hand as you hold me close in the potato-smelling kitchen, and your tears are damp in my hair but you never say a single thing but Thank you.
Your mother is dead. She was alive, so thin that Granddad bought her a tiny dark-blue dress and called her his fashion model and then they all went to the hospital and came home without her. Where is the dark-blue dress now? I find myself wondering, until it comes to me that they probably buried her in it. It's under the ground with her. There are so many things I don't want to think about that I can't bear going to bed at night.
It's too hot to sleep. My long hair wraps around me, grasping like tentacles. My brother and sister and I have made up our beds on cots on the porch, where it's supposed to be cooler. They are breathing in careless sleep on either side of me, and I am under the dark cemetery ground with Grandmama. I am in the stars, desolate, searching out the end of the universe and time. I am trying to imagine how long forever is, because that is how long I will be dead for someday. I won't be able to stand so much time being nothing, thinking of nothing. I've spent many nights like this, fearing sleep. Hating being awake.
I get up, barefoot and almost nothing in my nightgown, and creep to your room. The door is open, and I see that you're awake, too, sitting up on the edge of your... Small Wonder. Copyright © by Barbara Kingsolver. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.