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I am a long-time fan of all of Barbara Kingsolver's novels (The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven, Animal Dreams, The Poisonwood Bible, Prodigal Summers), so I was interested to hear more about the person and the views behind the stories. Small Wonders did not disappoint. Kingsolver makes it clear that for her, the personal is political, meaning that the choices that we make as individuals have political impact. So, the essays are wide-ranging, from her family life and her garden, to her concerns about the natural environment and thoughts about the U.S.'s reaction to Sept. 11. The essays are well-written, interesting, and thought provoking. I found myself agreeing with most of the points that she makes, and many of her ideas linger afterward; for example, she asks us to consider the environmental costs of shipping food all over the world, instead of eating what is grown locally. Or what it means to have TV streaming into your home every day. Or what the consquences of genetically engineering food might be, not just for our health, but for the environment. I recommend the book highly to fans of her novels as well as to people interested in a thoughtful read.
Some may disagree with her post-Sept. 11 analysis -- her concern about our country's agressive response. To those I would say, all the more reason to read the book, and hear her side of it, even if you ultimately disagree, exactly because voices such has hers have received little airplay. Here, her own words say it better than I could:
"Questioning our government's actions does not violate the principles of liberty, equality, and freedom of speech; it exercises them, and by exercise we grow stronger. I have read enough of Thomas Jefferson to feel sure he would back me up on this. Our founding fathers, those vocal critics of imperalism, were among the first leaders to understand that to a democratic people, freedom of speech and belief are not just nice luxuries, they're as necessary as breathing. The authors of our Constituion knew, from experience with King George and company, tha governments don't remain benevolent to the interests of all, including their less powerful members, without constant vigilance and reasoned criticism. And so the founding fathers guarenteed the right of reasoned criticism in our citizenship contract--for always. No emergency shutdowns allowed. However desperate things may get, there are to be no historical moments when beliefs can be abridged, vegetarians required to praise meat, Christians forced to pray as Muslims, or vice versa. Angry critics have said to me in stressful periods, "Don't you understand it's wartime?" As if this were just such a moment of emergency shutdown. Yes, we all know it's wartime. It's easy to speak up for peace in peacetime--anybody can do that. Now is when it gets hard. But our flag is not just a logo for wars; it's the flag of American pacificists, too. It's the flag of all of us who love our country enough to do the hard work of living up to its highest ideals."
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After Barbara Kingsolver accumulated a number of editorial pieces in response to the September 11 attacks, friends pointed out that she had a book in the making. As she writes in her forward, "These and other essays that began as short op-ed or magazine pieces inhaled and expanded to new girths when I offered them the chance to appear in a book."
Small Wonder is novelist Kingsolver's second collection of essays following High Tide in Tucson published in 1995. This volume consists of twenty-three thoughtful (and thought-provoking) works on a variety of subjects including the value of short stories and poetry, why television is not watched in her household, homelessness, culture shock in Japan, and the dangers of genetic engineering.
Conservatives and right-wingers,according to Kingsolver, seem to consider her political views naïve and wrong-headed. In "Small Wonder" she answers, "I find it insufferable to bear silent witness to the flesh-and-bone devastations of war, and bitterly painful to be cast sometimes as a traitor to the homeland I love, simply because I raise questions."
Still, others (myself included) view her as valiant for speaking out about what she believes. I may not always agree with Kingsolver's views, but I always enjoy reading them and respect her for raising hard questions Americans simply do not want to face. "...Everybody in the world, Turkestanis included, already knows global warming is the most important news on every possible agenda-except here in the United States, where that info has been successfully suppressed," she asserts in "The One-Eyed Monster, and Why I Don't Let Him In."
She seems to perceive her role as a canary in the coal mine of the world we will pass down to our grandchildren. "This is the lot I was cast, to sit here on this sharp, jagged point between two centuries when so much of everything hangs in the balance." Issuing a wake-up call to those readers who may otherwise be unaware of the serious issues facing the globe, she presents them in as pleasant and entertaining a manner as possible.
The first half of this collection may feel more didactic than Kingsolver's earlier works. Much of her time and energy in these first works is taken up with issues of conservation, environmentalism, biodiversity and "irresponsible agriculture." With the repetition of environmental themes the reader may feel as if they are being hammered over the head as the author drives home her point.
The title piece and "Saying Grace," especially, don't flow well, feeling forced. Don't let that daunt you. "Knowing our Place," about her sense of where she lives and works, and "The Patience of a Saint," co-authored with husband Steven Hopp, exploring the endangered San Pedro River, are two less heavy-handed works in this section.
The last half of this volume is simply a joy. "Marking a Passage" is an elegy to the closing of the Book Mark, Tucson's landmark independent bookstore. The companion pieces of "Letter to a Daughter at Thirteen" and the stunning "Letter to My Mother" are achingly heartfelt Kingsolver classics. She creates fluid and lyrical prose that draws the reader into her world, assembling words more gracefully than most accomplished writers.
Take this passage from "Setting Free the Crabs" for example: "The deliberate, monotonous call and response of the waves-assail, retreat-could have held me here forever in a sunlight that felt languid as warm honey on my skin." I am always amazed, amused, enlightened and enthralled by her words and am engrossed by her perspective on the human condition. This collection is no exception.
My initial reading of Barbara Kingsolver was shortly after the publication of her debut novel The Bean Trees. That book was forced into my I-don't-read-fiction hands by a number of my Haunted Bookshop coworkers. Until then I did not know writing could be so eloquent. My devotion for Kingsolver and her work has not waned. I have become a champion of her words, recommending them to anyone who will listen.
Kingsolver also is a grand ambassador of Tucson and Southern Arizona, shining an inspiring light on the desert Southwest. Tucsonans are mighty proud to call her one of their own: she is a genuinely warm, caring and generous individual. I have seen her patiently sign books and chat with her fans for hours on end, treating the very last person at the table with the same cheerfulness and gratitude as the first to stand in line.
In Small Wonder it is evident she cares more about the world than herself. Kingsolver is a person (and writer) I strive to be more like. She thinks globally and acts locally. Some of her readers, upon meeting her in person, have simply said, "Thank you. Keep writing." I add my voice to that chorus.