(Comments were part of the 2012 best book series) I definitely have a trend in my favorite fiction books of the year of reading multiple books by the same author fairly close together. I read Poisonwood Bible in November, Flight Behavior in December and I am almost finished with Prodigal Summer.
I read a good interview with Kingsolver a couple days ago. She summarizes her advice to younger authors that I think is why I love her writing. “I think that when people read fiction, they’re really reading for wisdom. I am. That’s what most of us really love. If we read a novel that rocks our world, it’s because there’s something in it that we didn’t know already. Not just information but really wisdom—sort of what to do with our information. And wisdom comes from experience, so…” (She gets around to saying quit smoking so you will live longer and become wise.)
Earlier this year I finally got around to reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible. I was admittedly reluctant. Kingsolver writes Literary Fiction. Her books are serious, often heavy works of fiction that, while really beautiful prose and rich lyrical stories, also have a point. It is like being told to eat your vegetables because they are good for you.
So while I really did look forward to reading this, it took me a little while to actually get started. Recently I have looked forward to happy, funny books that make me feel good. Maybe it is the fact that I am getting older or more resistant to easy fix world that too many embrace.
Kingsolver does not embrace the quick fix. She embraces a full look at the hard world that is around us. But as amazing as it is to me, her writing does not feel like propaganda. It feels like a beautiful piece of art. Yes there is meaning there, but the meaning is not crude, it does not hit you over the head like a club. Instead you can see the beauty of the art and somehow that beauty is made greater because it is has a serious subject.
Flight Behavior is narrated by a young woman from the eastern Tennessee Appalachian mountains. She is the definition of poor. Both her parents died when she was in high school, she got pregnant and quickly married and moved into her in-laws home. Her husband is a good, but uninspiring man. Her children 5 and 18 months (the first pregnancy ended in a late term still birth) are the joy of her life. She still lives on the edge of her in-laws property. They have almost no income, very little opportunity and an absence of hope.
One day, Dellarobia Turnbow (the protagonist) decides to throw away her marriage and meet a man to have an affair, she comes upon an amazing sight. It appears that the entire mountain valley above her house is on fire, but not consumed (she connects it to Moses’ burning bush). She comes to her senses and goes home before meeting the man and without understanding what she has seen.
It is millions of Monarch butterflies. For the first time ever, the Monarchs have come to Tennessee instead of Mexico for their winter nesting. Something is both beautiful and very wrong. Eventually Ovid, a scientist, sets up shop to study the butterflies and Dellarobia and her family are unmoored.
This is clearly a novel about global warming and environmentalism. But it is more than a novelized version of an Al Gore speech. This is a novel that is worth reading for the sake of the novel. Kingsolver has a clear position. (She wrote a whole memoir about her and her family’s attempt to be only use what they can grown or get in their neighborhood for a year.)
Don’t let the enviromentalism scare you away from the book. This is a wonderful book. It is a bit sadder than I would hope for. But it is sad with the potential for real hope. This is a book worth reading.
(I listened to the audiobook and it was Kingsolver herself that read it. I like authors to read their own books. It gives a sense of understanding that many professional narrators just don’t have. She was a good, but not great narrator. Madeleine L’Engle and Neil Gaiman are wonderful narrators. Kingsolver was just good. At the time I picked it up, the audiobook version was the cheapest version available to me.)
- The Poisonwood Bible: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver
- Note: If you have not read Kingsolver before, Prodigal Summer, which is a bit lighter than several of her other books.