On Flight Behavior

Image retrieved from http://www.goodreads.com

As is often the case with Barbara Kingsolver’s novels, it took more time than I preferred to get hooked into Flight Behavior. But once engrossed, my persistence was proven worthwhile. Unlike her other novels, however, this one’s first chapter turned me off because it read like a steamy romance, something I was not expecting from a Kingsolver book. Luckily, the married protagonist’s early infatuation with a local boy is only a vehicle to push the story, rather than the substance of it.

In modern day Feathertown, Tennessee, Dellarobia Turnbow takes to the wooded hills behind her farm for a rendezvous with a local younger man, consumed with thoughts of leaving her husband and the gossip such a betrayal would generate in her small town. Though Dellarobia is mother to two beloved children, her potential for happiness is curbed by a lackluster marriage, the loss of her parents, and an endless string of almost-affairs. Despite the fervency of her selfish thoughts on this particular day, the outside world begins to force its way into Dellarobia’s consciousness as she notices strange clusters of dark matter hanging from tree limbs. Looking to the opposite hillside, the far off trees appear bathed in brilliant orange flame, causing her to abandon her plans for a lover’s tryst. This marks both the end of the first chapter and, fortunately, Kingsolver’s attempts at harlequin romance.

The inexplicable sight she witnessed soon becomes of crucial importance when Dellarobia’s father-in-law, Bear Turnbow, makes plans to log the hillside in a desperate attempt to pay off his ballooning debts. Dellarobia urges her husband Cub to take a look at the land before allowing his father to sell it off, alarmed by the mysterious sights she recently witnessed there but reluctant to voice the details for fear of giving her near betrayal away. When the whole family takes to the woods, encouraged by Cub’s conviction that Dellarobia’s advice was an act of God, they find the trees covered butterflies, millions of winged creatures colored in bold Halloween orange and black.

As news of the phenomenon of monarch butterflies settling in rural Feathertown spreads, scientists, activists, and members of the media alike head South in droves. Kingsolver verges on the romantic again when biologist Ovid Byron sets up shop in the Turnbow’s backyard – his deep knowledge of these butterflies and his generousity incite some significant swooning in Dellarobia. Byron teaches not only Dellarobia but also her budding-scientist son, Preston, about the butterflies and what their recently altered migratory patterns mean.

Under the veil of small town and family politics, Kingsolver fleshes out vast issues of global warming, social class, religion, and politics. The arrival of monarchs in Feathertown harks of a swiftly changing climate, however many of Feathertown’s locals routinely close their ears at the words “global warming.” Others, Dellarobia included, see such beauty in the monarchs, rendering it impossible for them to comprehend how such a spectacle of nature is actually a sign of sickness. While the significance of the changing migratory patterns of the monarchs is lost on many Feathertown residents, the changes it sets in motion for Dellarobia, from earning her own income to meeting like-minded people to discovering a passion for learning, become the source of conflict closer to home. Her interest in the butterflies becomes official with Dr. Byron hires Dellarobia as a research assistance, heightening tensions with Cub’s family who have long worried that Cub’s wife considered herself too good for their simple son and further dividing the loveless couple.

Though she never strays from Dellarobia’s side, Kingsolver’s relationship to her characters is remarkably tenuous. The stubborn ways of Dellarobia’s in-laws, their resistance to accept scientific fact, their inclination to profit off the havoc of nature by charging admission to monarch-seeking visitors all feel quite antagonistic under Kingsolver’s pen. But as we become party to the nuances of Feathertown and Turnbow politics, Kingsolver’s attitude toward the locals turns more sympathetic. This is made quite plain when an environmental activist corners Dellarobia with his schpeal about changes she can make in her daily life to reduce her negative environmental impact. Stricken by poverty, the lifestyle suggested by this green-minded man is one which Dellarobia and the vast majority of Turnbowians are already forced to adopt – reducing flying, buying secondhand clothing, eating less meat, repairing instead of replacing broken machines and household goods. The coldness of Dellarobia’s mother Hester reads as pure evil at first, but reveals itself as a product of protective instincts more than malice. And despite the frigidity of Dellarobia and Cub’s marriage, Kingsolver’s loyalty to Dellarobia does not prevent her from highlighting Cub’s virtues and kindnesses. Though she at times paints Dellarobia’s family and neighbors as too simple, stubborn or thoughtless, Kingsolver also recognizes the integrity of their way of life as well as the motivations behind their ways of thinking and being. It’s almost as though Kingsolver created characters in such a way that readers, and maybe even the author herself, would be challenged to develop simplistic, black and white attitudes toward them.

Though not exactly subtle, Kingsolver raises important and ultimately unavoidable questions through this elegant work of fiction. When Dr. Byron explains to Dellarobia the way in which these monarchs are a warning flag for the future of humanity, it is hard for readers to separate the worry Dellarobia feels for her children from that readers would hold for the young people in their own lives, facing a bleak future at the hand of environmental ruin. Kingsolver’s representation of Feathertown’s residents mirrors some of the widely-held attitudes toward Southerners and conservatives, but also challenges many of the associated stereotypes such that readers cannot help but consider their own private prejudices. In fact, Kingsolver challenges many of our preconceived notions about others in Flight Behavior. She encourages non-judgment and seeing things for more than what they at first appear to be by exploring the break down of us versus them mentalities. And her suggestion that such tiny things as the butterflies, their patterns and behaviors, could mean so much for the larger world is a deeply appreciated ode to mindfulness. By posing such heavy issues for consideration under the guise of (sort of) science fiction, Kingsolver makes it impossible for her readers to avoid thinking about these urgent problems.

There are certainly a few flaws I could site in Flight Behavior, including certain story lines left unexplored and others introduced for seemingly little reason. I imagine that over time, however, these things which felt like hiccups in Kingsolver’s brilliance will reveal themselves as totally minute or laced with meanings beyond my original comprehension. Either way, Flight Behavior was a beautifully written examination of the workings of nature, people and their differences, and how to understand both. And it’s another one to add to Kingsolver’s quite noteworthy collection.

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On My Love Affair with Nonfiction

I’ve always been a reader. While growing up, I was the kind of girl who would rather be at home with a good book than nearly anyplace else. I would gladly have forgone high school dances, movie theater trips to see cheesy chic flicks, and middle school slumber parties for a good book. Isolating myself with a novel was always the thing that made the most sense to me.

My love affair with non-fiction most accurately began as a direct result of an ex-boyfriend’s commentary on my extensive collection of novels. “You have a lot of fiction,” he noted in a tone that let me know my bookshelves were severely lacking in his opinion without any nonfiction in the mix.

I don’t want to waste too much time on this guy since he did play a large role in encouraging some profound changes in my life. In addition to not-so-subtly encouraging me to pick up some non-fiction, this particular ex also made a passive, if not joking, dig at my domestic skills, or lack thereof. This was in high school, mind you, so at the time, I had given little thought to food nor demonstrated any particular inclination to become the next Julia Child. But I took his comment as a challenge and forced my way into the kitchen, discovering a whole new world of passion within.

But I digress. Nonfiction had been starkly absent from my avid reading life and, when this fact was brought to my attention, I quickly righted the situation. My first foray into non-fiction was Counterculture Through the Ages by Ken Goffman. Goffman’s book provided an extensive overview of countercultural movements, from Socrates up to the punk music scene. I was initially drawn to the book because of the subject matter; countercultures and social movements felt impossibly cool and I held little doubt that this first piece of nonfiction would start to steer me in the right bibliophile direction. I adored Goffman’s book and so proceeded to seek more options that were not fiction at all.

A smattering of memoirs and biographies soon followed but my undergraduate workload kept me from reading much of anything for a few years. There was the occasional Chuck Klosterman collection of essays and Prozac Nation after struggling with depression. But when I did find the time to delve into a new book, I was more likely to treat myself to absorption in a well-deserved, if not rather mindless novel than an arduous piece of carefully crafted non-fiction. When life finally offered me another opportunity to read as I chose, Jonathan Franzen’s How to Be Alone and Barbara Kingsolver’s multiple collections of essays. It was these writings that taught me about how meaningful and personal nonfiction could be. At the time (and probably still to this day) there was no piece of writing that I related to quite as much as the title essay of Franzen’s book, a thoughtful piece on reading and solitude. Kingsolver’s essay collections (one of which I reviewed here) were what first made me seriously consider writing. Though essay collections may not be the most profitable ventures, her books made me realize that personal essays and well constructed arguments on topics of all kinds can be elegantly tied together in a single volume. Reading Kingsolver’s nonfiction produced in me a powerful desire to follow suit; I wanted to write like she did on topics as varied as hers in such wise ways.

From there, I followed my interests and found plenty of nonfiction to read on food, agriculture, and health (think Michael Pollan). As I continued to explore the realm of nonfiction, it became increasingly apparent that such books are not inherently boring, nor do they necessarily lack plot, sentimentality, theme, or story. I always imagined that a book based on reality or containing research would be unimaginative and dull. But Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals proved to me that books about real life topics, in this case human’s carnivorous habits and how animals get to our plates, can be highly entertaining and follow a remarkably narrative path. Warren St. John’s Outcasts United is easily one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in the past few years and the story of a refugee soccer team was made more powerful and engrossing because it was true. Bill McKibbin’s The Age of Missing Information is dense but raised more than a few topics for consideration, things I had to think about deeply in order to determine my own stance on them. And there are few books out there, fiction or not, with more heart than Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains.

The range of work which falls under the nonfiction categorization is impossibly vast and largely delightful for readers who indulge in what is of interest to them. Nonfiction does not necessitate writing which lacks personality, interest, or excitement, but it is something which becomes most meaningful when carefully selected by a reader. Despite the sense of inferiority and shame I initially felt when my ex commented on how little nonfiction I owned way back when, I am now rather grateful that he vocalized this judgment, because it introduced me to a whole world of valuable reading materials which I may never have considered otherwise.

On Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Image from kingsolver.com

One year without supermarkets. One year of planting, watering, weeding, harvesting. One year without sugary cereals, Chinese food, delivery pizza. No processed foods. Everything local, hand-picked. It sounds like quite a daunting challenge: to give up mass-produced edibles and adopt a new food culture eating only what is in season and harvested by your own two hands, or by those of your neighbor. This is exactly what challenge Barbara Kingsolver and her family of four put themselves up to for an entire year, with all the struggles, joys, and recipes recounted in the entertaining and engaging Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Reading Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle really encourages you to look at the food you eat, where it comes from, how it is made, and how you can change these factors to enjoy a diet more healthy for you but especially for the environment. The benefits, both personal and environmental, of growing your own food and eating locally are endless – savoring foods when they’re at their peak, reveling in the flavor of produce grown at your own hands, reducing the incidence of cruelty to animals in food production, lowering the number of miles each item of food must travel to reach your plate, supporting local business- and farm-owners, enjoying a more healthy, whole-food lifestyle. And the detriments of the alternative are shocking – to get to your dinner table, the items in a typical American meal have traveled an average of 1,500 miles, through transportation, packaging, warehousing, refrigeration, and other forms of processing. Isn’t is so much more satisfying, healthy, environmentally-concious, inexpensive, and delicious to eat a tomato plucked from your own backyard than one from a pile in the grocery store?

So you don’t have room for a vegetable garden at your place? How about trying the local farmer’s market? Not only a farmer’s markets becoming more easy to find every year, they carry the best of the best in-season produce so you don’t have to worry if you’re fruits and vegetables are going to be good. Another great option is to join a CSA, community supported agriculture, where local farmers will deliver food direct to you on a weekly basis. You’ll never know exactly what you’re going to get, but it is guaranteed to be fresh and in-season. To learn more, visit Local Harvest.

And to learn more about Kingsolver’s book, to get recipes, and more, visit the Animal, Vegetable, Miracle website.

On Small Wonder

I believe that there are a few authors who really speak to each of us in an extremely personal and almost eery way. Maybe they’re not always on the mark, maybe every piece of work they churn out isn’t our favorite, but in some small way, their writing has made a profound and unparalleled impact on us that will forever burn their names in our hearts and minds.

This is how I feel about Barbara Kingsolver. I haven’t been able to fully immerse myself in all of her novels, but Animal, Vegetable, Miracle really moved me in a way that few pieces of nonfiction have ever been able to and so did her collection of short essays entitled Small Wonder.

Inspired by the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Kingsolver meditates on a wide range of issues, most of them pertaining to what it means to be an American and what it means to be a parent. Bolstered by Third World parables, stories of foreign travel, anecdotes from her own family life, and a revolutionary sensibility inspired by the likes of Susan B. Anthony, Emma Goldman, and Martin Luther King Jr., Kingsolver has woven a stunning fabric of truth and authenticity that makes the personal political.

The thing I find most inspiring about Kingsolver is her optimism, her belief in the goodness of human nature and the potential for change. Nearly all of her ideas ultimately come back to love, peace, and respect. Though she may write on international conflicts, humanitarian crises, the domestic homeless population, or the war on terror, her views are remarkably accessible to all because they are grounded upon the small wonders of everyday life. The love a mother feels for her chid, the comfort of having a family to come home to, the right to live a healthy life – these are the things upon which she frames her larger critiques and interpretations of modern American society.

Armed these so-called revolutionary standpoints, Kingsolver’s point is not to inspire guilt about the wasteful and selfish ways of America, but rather to inspire a sense of responsibility to make a change. Despite the many national decisions made with which she entirely disagrees, Kingsolver does not allow these discrepancies between her country’s ideals and her own to diminish her sense of national pride. Instead, she draws upon the same ideas that inspired the founders of our nation as she holds out hope that change is possible. The United States holds the resources and the power to be a role model, to make changes that will improve the whole world, not just our small corner of it. Kingsolver implores us to take that potential and do something productive with it, to create a movement to spend our money more wisely and generously while restoring our sense of contentment grounded in something other than our latest purchase at the mall.

Kingsolver dreams of an America that cares just as much about its homeless citizens as those that are safely housed with their families every night. She envisions a country where the local independents can thrive, where unnecessary desires and obsession with consumption takes a backseat to the simple joy of working to put food on the table and fulfillment from relationships and family. As a storyteller, Kingsolver’s imagination is obviously in great form but this ideal US is not some unattainable dreamland in her head. Reading the pieces contained within Small Wonder will make you realize how possible and necessary these changes can be, from the impact of harvesting vegetables in your own garden, to caring about your fellow citizen enough to sacrifice a few dollars of luxury spending.

Small Wonder will make you reconsider what you thought you knew, and it will raise questions you may have never thought to ask before. But Kingsolver will also undoubtedly instill in you a sense of hope and the revolutionary spirit to alter your life for the betterment of yourself, future generations, and those in need all around. And she’ll perform this great feat of inspiration by pulling on the most fundamental and universal of human heartstrings: love and family.

On The Lacuna

Mrs. Kingsolver has done it again! I don’t even know how to begin to describe this novel for it is so elaborately written and tells a vast story. I will admit, as often happens when reading Barbara Kingsolver’s novels, I found it a bit laborious to get through the first 50 or so pages of The Lacuna. But once I read my way further into the stuff of the book, I was completely hooked.

The story begins in 1930s Mexico. A young Harrison Shepherd and his mother take up residence with an oil magnate living in Mexico whom the latter hopes to marry. Given the variety of circumstances that Harrison’s mother finds repulsive and fearsome, she off-handedly tells her son to write down everything that happens to them in Mexico for posterity’s sake. From then on out, Kingsolver provides us with Harrison’s journals and correspondence to track his story.

Under the tutelage of Leandro, the resident cook in Shepherd’s potential father-in-law’s home, Harrison learns the basics of authentic Mexican cuisine. These skills he applies to plaster preparation when he encounters a formidable Diego Rivera, attempting to complete a two-story mural with sub-par assistance. Shepherd corrects the hired helps’ hopeless ways, making quite an impression upon the famous painter. From there, Kingsolver draws a historic and remarkable life story for Shepherd. The boy works in the home of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, foments a unique relationship with the celebrated female painter, and inadvertently becomes immersed in international political conflicts when exiled Marxist and Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky takes up residence amongst Diego and Frida.

Though he considers himself rather apolitical, Harrison can’t help but find himself in the midst of great political upheaval, especially once he settles in Asheville, North Carolina as an accomplished novelist, only to fall under suspicion of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. His true passions lie in Mexican history, as is evidenced by the content of his compelling and widely-read novels. But Harrison’s life story is such that his stenographer, Mrs. Brown, finds it impossible for the novelist to avoid writing a memoir – especially given his extensive collection of personal journals which would make such a task immensely less daunting.

The Lacuna is by no means an easy read and I imagine that, were I to revisit this book in a month or two, I would find thousands of new things to take away from it. Part of the reason I find this novel so compelling is the mere density and complexity of it – the way in which history is so seamlessly woven throughout, how Harrison’s past experiences in place and time craftily dovetail with the present moment, the grand beauty of the language that only further heighten Kingsolver’s storytelling.

And a great part of it’s charm is the mystery inherit in the story. As Shepherd repeatedly says “The most important part of a story is the piece of it you don’t know.” Kingsolver proves this to be true by offering only the subtlest of hints at certain important pieces of the grand puzzle of Shepherd’s life. She omits a select few of Harrison’s journals and purposefully conceals periods in his life that prove consequential in his future – all in a captivating effort to demonstrate Harrison’s point that the omissions are often the most crucial points of a story.

Complete with historical, social, and political commentary, The Lacuna is undoubtedly one of the most well-crafted and gripping books I’ve picked up in a while. If nothing else, readers can appreciate this novel for the sheer talent required to create something at turns so challenging, entertaining, engaging, and astonishing. This is definitely another one to add to Kingsolver’s ever-growing list of accomplishments!

And here are a few tidbits from the novel to give you a little taste of what you can expect from this one.

“Does a man become a revolutionary out of the belief he’s entitled to joy rather than submission?”

“This household is like a pocketful of coins that jingled together for a time, but now have been slapped on a counter to pay a price. The pocket empties out, the coins venture back into infinite circulations of currency, separate, invisible, and untraceable. That particular handful of coins had no special meaning together, it seems, except to pay a particular price. It might remain real, if someone had written everything in a notebook.”

“You are a writer, employed by the American imagination.”

“You’ve never seen anything as dramatic as these American trees, dying their thousand deaths. The giant beech next door intends to shiver off every hair of its pelt. The world strips and goes naked, the full year of arboreal effort piling on the sidewalks in flat, damp strata. The earth smells of smoke and rainstorms, calling everything to come back, like down, submit to a quiet, moldy return to the cradle of origins. This is how we celebrate the Day of the Dead in America: by turning up our collars against the scent of earthworms calling us home.”