Recently, in about a seven day period, I read five books. It was a feverish reading spree, starting with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, followed by Flight Behavior, her latest book. I also read Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are Completely Beside Ourselves, Maureen McHugh’s Mission Child, and Michael Frayn’s Spies. This is one of the great luxuries of my summer, although even in summer it is not easily done. But reading good books is one of the things that keeps me alive.
These books are good in different ways. I am not going to compare them, but merely give my impressions. The Poisonwood Bible is an ambitious work, detailing the life of a missionary who goes to the Congo with his wife and four daughters, during the time when the shackles of colonialism are about to be thrown off. The story is narrated in the voices of the five women, in a manner that seems impossible to pull off, but the book is very effective and very powerful. I dislike missionaries of any hue on principle, with exceptions for certain individuals, but Kingsolver takes a very complex and interesting position. And the language! It changes for every voice, very effectively.
Flight Behavior is set in our own troubled times. Against a canvas of a world changing due to global warming, Kingsolver sets a young, bored housewife in Appalachia with her two kids, and a scientist and his team, as alien in the boonies as anywhere, and millions of monarch butterflies, who have strayed off course to land in this conservative, rigidly religious small community. Kingsolver does a wonderful job of detailing a very localized situation in a way that nevertheless conveys the global problem of climate change. She’s so much better at it than Ian MacEwan in his book Solar.
What to say about Karen Joy Fowler’s book except that it is extraordinary? I generally love her work but this work exceeds her own standards. There are very few serious books out there that give a voice to the great voiceless beings of our planet, and do so again in a small, localized setting of one particular American family. Told in the voice of a young woman struggling to come to terms with an event that devastated her family, the almost offhand style somehow manages to convey the universal theme of what it means to be human. A magnificent work that calls from its readers an answering intelligence and lots of tissues.
I read a number of Maureen McHugh’s short stories before I read this novel, which is relatively old. Her short stories are direct, to the point, and unflinching. I am still shuddering from “The Naturalist,” for instance, which is about a zombie preserve. Mission Child is a novel that to me seemed somewhat incomplete because it engaged only half-heartedly with some larger questions that it raised. But what started off as the story of a young woman’s journey through a troubled land on a distant world became a surprisingly complicated, nuanced work. I do wish it had engaged more strongly with the notion of appropriate versus imposed technology in a world where a second wave of high tech colonizers have come to an already existing, pre-technological polyglot, tribal culture of original settlers.
I have to see Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen, since it is about quantum physics and history, but since that was not possible at the moment, I read instead his book Spies. It was well written but perhaps a little over-dramatic. One stand-out was the way the adult narrator realizes the significance of key events in his boyhood during the second world war – and how memory is so much more a collage of impressions than a chronological record. Interesting.
Incidentally I have to add Janet Frame to the list of mainstream writers whose works rely heavily on an appreciation and awareness of the non-human world. This is my complaint about so called realistic fiction – that it pretends there are only humans in the world, and rocks, trees, pigs, and wild geese don’t exist. Janet Frame’s stories are set in New Zealand, and in their sensitivity to place and to the living world, they are almost spec-fictional in feel. Some of her short stories (I haven’t read her novels) are in the fabulist mode, and her use of language is poetic and evocative. I read the collection Prizes and Other Stories although this was over two weeks ago.
I have to also mention Cloud Atlas, which I read (thank you, Kurt) just before the Kingsolvers. I had read part of it before and then been distracted by life, but after I saw the movie I was moved to pick it up again. As is often the case, it was a lot better than the movie, although I did like the movie. There are two overlapping ways this novel is subversive. One, it manages to foreground a whole galaxy of characters, not only in space but also in time, thus going against the entire raison d’etre of the modern novel, which tends to follow linear paths describing the life of an individual, the most extreme form of which I call the ‘lone ranger’ model. Two, by doing what it does, it manages to make the case that everything is connected without being glib about it, and suggests that the idea of individualism, while useful in many contexts, becomes less useful and perhaps downright misleading in the big picture.
And I read Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, again several weeks ago, and found it surpassing strange and wonderful. How a journey, and reading, and books, transform a young, naïve traveler is a tale beautifully told, in a language rich with detail. It would have been no more than a pretty travelogue except for the consequences of a chance meeting near the beginning of the book, which we (and the protagonist) have half-forgotten until we realize its consequences in the latter half. So like real life, where some small encounter we push to the back of the mind might return to disproportionately affect our lives.
Now that I’ve read all of that, it’s time to go to the library again.