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The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

February 3, 2018 11 comments

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (2009) French title: Un autre monde. Translated by Martine Aubert.

A quick post about my abandoning The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. I think I gave it a read shot, I waited until page 215 to let it go. It’s 664 pages long and I couldn’t see myself reading the four hundred and something pages left.

I’m disappointed because I usually enjoy Kingsolver’s books.

This one is the story/journals of Harrison William Shepherd, son of a Mexican mother and an American father. When the book opens, his mother has just left her American husband to follow her Mexican lover to his property on Isla Pixol, Mexico. We’re in 1929 and Harry is 14.

The style is a mix of chapters told by an omniscient narrator, some are made of Harry’s journals sandwiched between chapters by his translator. We understand that Harry is dead, that he became a famous writer, that his translator gathered his journals to make this book.

After a few Mexican years, Harry is sent back to his father in America. Now feeling in a parental mood, he enrolls Harry in a private military school in Washinfton DC. We get to read Harry’s journal: normal boy stuff and news from the outside with riots due to the Great Depression. W’ere in 1930/1931, during the Hoover presidency.

Then it’s back to Mexico with his flighty mother who’s always looking for a man to support her. Harry is hired as a member of Diego Rivera’s domesticity. Trostsky is hidden at the Rivera’s house…and that’s where I dropped out of the story.

I couldn’t find interest in Harry’s life or in the real-life events the book mentions. The only things that interested me were the mentions about Mexican cuisine and the dishes Harry learns to cook. That’s pretty thin and not enough to trudge to the end page.

I was determined to read it all since it’s our Book Club choice for January but really, I was looking at my TBR with longing, eager to pick something else and that’s the sure sign that it’s time to give up and move on. Life is short, there’s never enough reading time. I can’t afford to waste it.

I am now in company of Dave Robicheaux, the gritty New Orleans cop imagined by James Lee Burke. A treat.

Homeland and Other Stories by Barbara Kingsolver

July 24, 2017 4 comments

Homeland and Other Stories by Barbara Kingsolver. (1989) French title: Une île sous le vent. Translated by Michèle Levy-Bram

Homeland and Other Stories is a collection of twelve short-stories by Barbara Kingsolver. It was first published in 1989. Set in different States, they all have a literary family tie. Most of the stories have a female narrator, a little girl or a woman. They all feature characters and families from the working class and fathers and partners are often absent or useless. They explore the central place that women occupy in life and the ambivalence of motherhood.

In Quality Time, Miriam is a single mother with a five-years old daughter, Rennie. Miriam is a working single mother. In other words, she’s a master at scheduling and organizing tasks to fit everything in her already packed agenda: chores, work, driving Rennie here and there, taking care of a million of tiny details that make everyday life. Her head is constantly populated by an army of sticky notes to make sure everything is taken care of. Rennie wants for nothing but Miriam worries and feels guilty. “Do I spend enough quality time with my daughter”, she wonders. Does that sound familiar? Kingsolver subtly reminds busy mothers that kids are easier to please than we think and that they don’t expect to live with Wonder Woman. Some things aren’t as important as they seem.

Mother and daughter relationships are also at stake on Islands on the Moon. The title of this story is the name of the trailer park where Magda and Annemarie live, separately. Magda is forty-four and she got pregnant with Annemarie when she was sixteen. Annemarie always believed that her birth was like a huge rock in the middle of Magda’s way in life. Annemarie has a nine-years old son, Leon. Magda is a militant mother, an environmentalist who brought her daughter to marches and who made and repaired things instead of buying them. Annemarie resented it and craved normalcy. Magda’s eccentricity weighted upon Annemarie and the two never found a working channel of communication. This is why they live in the same trailer park but aren’t on speaking terms. Annemarie is thrown off after Magda called her to say she was pregnant and needed someone to accompany her to her amniocentesis. Annemarie is pregnant too and had not told her mother yet, she feels that Magda steals her thunder, again. Will this reunion help them find a way to each other?

In several stories, an accident or a sudden death remind the characters that they are mortal. Life is short, nothing new here. Mostly this event pushes the characters to mull over parenthood and the implicit pact that you make with your child-to-be. As a parent responsible for a child’s wellbeing, you’re not allowed to be reckless anymore. You have to do as much as you can to stay alive until your child is grownup. In Blueprints, Lena is allergic to wasp stings. At 37, she was seriously thinking of having a child with her husband. After an anaphylactic shock and coming very close to die, she decides it’s too risky for her to be a mother. She’d worry all the time about leaving an orphan behind.

In Kingsolver’s world, society should be organized around taking a good care of children. Their needs prevail. It doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t have lives or should make great sacrifices but that the care of children must be taken in consideration first. Children are a priority but not an excuse to avoid difficult decisions and they are more adaptable and resilient than we think. This is what the narrator in Stone Dreams discovers when her daughter Julie gives her permission to make a tough decision regarding her marriage.

These stories also explore the lot of the working class, of the minorities. They are all set in small towns in California, Kentucky, Arizona, New Mexico or Tennessee. One of the stories I liked the most was Why I Am a Danger to the Public. Vicky lives in Bolton, New Mexico and her life is a permanent fight. She’s a single mother with two children, her husband abandoned them soon after the second’s birth. She’s of Mexican origin and works in a mine. She has to fight to earn enough to raise her children. She has to fight for her rights as a Latino, as a woman working among men, as a worker and as a single mother. In the story, she’s leading a tough strike against Ellington, the company who owns and runs the mine and Bolton. Kingsolver shows us all the dirty tricks Ellington plays to break the strike and get rid of disobedient workers. It’s done with the support of the local police, more interested in helping the rich getting richer than about respecting laws. I’m sure that what Kingsolver describes is real. This is not the first time I read about the police working in favor of the powerful of the town. The last example was in Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller.

Kingsolver is a soothing writer. She looks at the world with benevolence but she’s not naïve. She’s not trying to convince us that all for the best in the best of all worlds. She chooses to look at the good in people and she attaches a great importance to our link to nature. As in some of her other books, one story features Cherokee Indians.  She’s interested in their view of the world and their traditions because they offer an alternative to our model. I like that she focuses her literature on social classes that don’t have a voice. She sounds like someone at peace with herself and her characters reflect this. They might be lost sometimes but their inner compass is never totally broken.

Homeland and Other Stories is a lovely book, one to read after a depressing one. Kingsolver doesn’t write about an idyllic world. She writes about ours, with its hurdles and joys but in such a way that you feel better.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

August 28, 2010 6 comments

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kinsolver, Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver

For a French, food is a serious thing. When you come back from a trip abroad, people anxiously ask you “How was the food?” and the degree of anxiety varies according to the country you were visiting. So I was interested in Barbara Kingsolver’s book on her experience of being “locavore”. This word means that you only eat food which has been produced close to your home.  

For her family, it has been a radical change in their every day life as they moved out from Tucson, Arizona to Virginia, in the farm they already used as second home. Country life instead of city life. The family is composed of Barbara Kingsolver, her daughters Camille (18) and Lily (9) and her husband Steven L. Hopp.

Their challenge was to spend a whole year eating the food they would either produce themselves or buy locally from trustworthy farmers. The book is the story of this challenge,  Barbara Kingsolver mostly wrote it but informative articles from Steven are inserted in her text and some chapters end with Camille telling her feelings about the experiment and giving recipes.  

Of Barbara Kingsolver I know nothing except that I like her books a lot. Through them, I imagined someone very tolerant, respectful of nature and other cultures. I felt someone in peace with herself. I wasn’t far off the mark but I wasn’t aware that she was a skilled gardener. So I expected to read of agricultural catastrophes and funny adventures with poultry. But this is not chick lit about naïve urban Bobos returning to country life, working in fields with high heels and meeting hostile local farmers. In fact, this family had already had a kitchen garden and chickens in Tucson, which sounds a little eccentric, by Western standards of urban life. They had a solid knowledge of farming.  

Their project starts in March, with a family meeting, whose purpose is to write their first shopping list with only local products. Each person was entitled to choose one good coming from outside the area: for example, Steven chose coffee.  Two apparently insuperable problems arose: vinaigrette and mayonnaise. Barbara Kingsolver said she would make her own dressing and would try to make mayonnaise, as she had heard it was not so difficult. That sounded quite revolutionary to her and quite revolutionary to me that it could be revolutionary at all.  

The chapters follow one another, describing the seeds, the crops, the pleasure to cook one’s own food without hiding that this kitchen garden of 1000 m² requires a LOT of work and an awful lot of time wearing mudded boots and cutting vegetables. Barbara Kingsolver loves gardening, browsing seeds catalogues and growing half-forgotten sorts of vegetables. Camille is fond of cooking. Lily loves hens and is in charge of the henhouse and the eggs production.  

This book is an ode to nature with its joyful descriptions of vegetables and to rural way of life. It alternates between the family story and serious and documented information on the food market and production in the USA and its lobbies.  I loved the passage about turkey reproduction and zukini overproduction time – the only time of the year when inhabitants lock their cars and homes, fearing to find free zukinis in it when they come back as everyone tries to get rid of their zukini overproduction. 

It is also a plea to change our habits, for our health and the future of our planet. She praises home made dishes and family dinners, a time and place to share how everyone’s day was. She also tries to promote rural life. Of course, she can afford this way of life as her job allows it. Someone working full time for a company can’t have two months of summer holiday to crop vegetables and make tomato sauce jars for the coming winter. Her purpose is educational. She doesn’t want people to massively quit cities and stettle in the country. She just wishes that people hear another song that the one coming from major food companies.  

I’m sure you wonder “What about the mayonnaise?” – and if you don’t, I’ll tell you anyway. In the last chapter, we learn she never dared try making one. I can’t imagine what is so difficult about it.

I read this book with pleasure, learnt details about the American way of life and society but nothing major as I was already interested in the topic. Will I change something in my habits after this book ? I already practise a lot of what she preaches as I don’t buy ready-cooked dishes and we have a family dinner every night. I have admiration for their experiment and respect for their way of life and but I’m far too urban to be able to live that way. I hate gardening, rooting out weeds bores me and the idea of spending an afternoon “cropping” (as she says) chickens and turkeys doesn’t sound appealing at all. My idea of gardening is sitting on a deck chair with a fascinating book and watch butterflies as I turn pages.

 For further information on their project, book references or recipes, click here.

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