Monday, November 28, 2011

Book Review (and Completion of the 2011 Essay Challenge): High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never, by Barbara Kingsolver

High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never
by Barbara Kingsolver
Harper Collins
270 pages

Earlier this year, while in the midst of the high tide of our family's move, I spent several days sorting through piles of papers in our den.  Work-related papers, school papers, recipes torn from magazines, writing ideas, artwork created when the kids were in preschool.  You get the idea.

One of the papers that I came across was a page torn from an Oprah magazine (probably one circa 1998, as I threw away more than a decade's worth - I wish I was kidding - of such publications).  It contained this quote, from "High Tide in Tucson" by Barbara Kingsolver:
"Every one of us is called upon, probably many times, to start a new life. A frightening diagnosis, a marriage, a move, loss of a job .... And onward full tilt we go, pitched and wrecked and absurdly resolute, driven in spite of everything to make good on a new shore. To be hopeful, to embrace one possibility after another - that is surely the basic instinct.... crying out: High tide! Time to move out into the glorious debris. Time to take this life for what it is." (pg. 15-16, "High Tide in Tucson")
That resonated with me so much in those darker days of just several months ago, and I knew I had to read High Tide in Tucson sooner rather than later. It would make the perfect selection for the 2011 Essay Reading Challenge, hosted by Carrie over at Books and Movies.  (I signed up to read 10 essays for this challenge.)

And so, on this past Thankfully Reading Weekend, I hunkered down with this collection of 25 essays (some of which Kingsolver previously published elsewhere, some of which were revised for the purposes of this collection) and I found myself absolutely entranced.  

Barbara Kingsolver has a lyrical way with words and a style that is so warmly familiar, and oftentimes, dead-on funny. She's an absolute craftsman of the creative nonfiction form, and anyone who writes in that form or wants to hone their skills in that form would be wise to read her work. I think this collection would be invaluable for bloggers, actually. She speaks directly at her reader as she writes of many a varied topic here - the landscape (physical and emotional) of her childhood home of Kentucky; a beloved teacher; the deserts of Tucson that are her adopted home; a pet hermit crab; the myth of private property; a family of paper dolls; Hawaii; the javelinas (wild pigs) that descended each night on the family's desert home, and the life of a writer.

(If you are a writer, this collection is a must read, if only for "In Case You Ever Want to Go Home Again," "Jabberwocky," "The Forest in the Seeds," and the downright hilarious sampling of letters Kingsolver has received as an author, "Careful What You Let in the Door.") 

The best thing I can do - the only thing I can do - in this review is to give you a sampling of Kingsolver's prose  from High Tide in Tucson and let you judge for yourself just how good she is.  And, this too: keep in mind that these words were written for a 1995 publication date.  I think they ring true - even moreso, really - today, and that is the true mark of a writer for our time.  
"I played with a set of paper dolls called 'The Family of Dolls,' four in number, who came with the factory-assigned names of Dad, Mom, Sis, and Junior. I think you know what they looked like, at least before I loved them to death and their heads fell off.  
Now I've replaced the dolls with a life. I knit my days around my daughter's survival and happiness, and am proud to say her head is still on. But we aren't The Family of Dolls.  Maybe you aren't either. And if not, even though you are statistically no oddity, it's probably been suggested to you in a hundred ways that yours isn't exactly a real family, but an imposter family, a harbinger of cultural ruin, a slapdash substitute - something like counterfeit money. Here at the tail end of our century, most of us are up to our ears in the noisy business of trying to support and love a thing called family. But there's a current in the air with ferocious moral force that finds its way even into political campaigns, claiming there is only one right way to do it, the Way It Has Always Been.  
In the face of a thriving, particolored world, this narrow view is so pickled and absurd I'm astonished that it gets airplay."   
(This is in 1995, people.  Sixteen years ago.  The times, they definitely ain't a changin'.)  
"You can fool history sometimes, but you can't fool the memory of your intimates. And thank heavens, because in the broad valley between real life and propriety whole herds of important truths can steal away into the underbrush. I hold that valley to be my home territory as a writer."  ("In Case you Ever Want to Go Home Again," pg. 36)
"To find oneself suddenly published is thrilling - that is a given. But how appalling it also felt I find hard to describe. Imagine singing at the top of your lungs in the shower as you always do, then one day turning off the water and throwing back the curtain to see there in your bathroom a crowd of people with videotape. I wanted to throw a towel over my head."    ("In Case You Ever Want to Go Home Again," pg. 37) 
(That's kind of how I feel sometimes when someone who I know in real life admits they've been reading my blog - when I hadn't known they've actually been doing so.)

For each of these quotes, I could have included ten more.  But you get the idea.  This is a fabulous, fabulous collection of essays.  I can't imagine any better way to spend Thanksgiving weekend.

Except, perhaps, with Ms. Kingsolver herself at the table.
"Any family is a big empty pot, save for what gets thrown in. Each stew turns out different. Generosity, a resolve to turn bad back into good, and respect for variety - these things will nourish a nation of children. Name-calling and suspicion will not. My soup contains a rock or two of hard times, and maybe yours does too. I expect it's a heck of a bouillabaise." ("Stone Soup," pg. 145 of High Tide in Tucson)

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1 comment:

Peppermint Ph.D. said...

Kingsolver blew me away with Animal Vegetable Miracle...I'm adding this collection of essays to my WishList. I've never read any of her fiction though...where should I start?