Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver was in Miami last night, kicking off the 2009 Miami Book Fair. I drove down in the afternoon, avoiding traffic, and had a nice stroll around downtown and the Bayside shopping area before heading to the venue. As it happened, my copy of Kingsolver's latest book arrived in my mailbox just hours before I set out on my expedition (thank you, Amazon!) so I just found a quiet corner and read until time to go into the auditorium. I got through about the first hundred pages. In one scene, the narrator discovers an underwater tunnel leading to an opening in the land. The word "lacuna" can refer to such a cave, or it can have various other literal or metaphorical meanings. Thus, the title is evocative and somewhat mysterious, giving us a clue that this is going to be a story with layers, that we can plunge into and use all our powers to explore.

The description of the lacuna lets us know, too, that we are dealing with an author whose mastery of language is indisputable:

At the end of the tunnel the cave opens up to light, a small salt-water pool in the jungle. Almost perfectly round, as big across as this bedchamber, with sky straight up, dappled and bright through the branches. Amate trees stood in a circle around the water hole like curious men, gaping because a boy from another world had suddenly arrived in their pool. The pombo trees squatted for a close look with their knobbly wooden knees poking up out of the water. A tiger heron stood one-legged on a rock, cocking an unfriendly eye at the intruder. San Juan Pescadero the kingfisher zipped back and forth between two perches, crying, "Kill him kill him kill him!...

It was like coming up in a storybook...

Kingsolver says that she wrote this book as part of an exploration of the relationship between art and politics. The three main historical characters are Diego Rivera, Frida Khalo, and Leon Trotsky. The geographical characters are Mexico and the United States.

Here are some other observations from Kingsolver:

"I was in Washington DC recently, and while traveling between bookstores I got stuck in traffic--held up behind the president's motorcade as he was going to deliver a speech about health care reform. I thought to myself, 'here I am, in the beating heart of democracy!'

"And then I came to Miami. And I realized that the real, true, beating heart of democracy is the place where people love books!"

* * *

"I consider myself an evangelist for literature. I am promoting forms of entertainment that wouldn't electrocute you if you dropped them in the bathtub."

* * *

"Literature is invented, but it's not fake. I won't waste your time with anything that is not authentic."

* * *

There's no test after you read a book. You can't do it wrong. Read it just for the plot. Read it for the characters. Read it for the deeper meaning. Read it just for the pleasure of being in that place.

The New York Times calls The Lacuna "dazzling." It's the latest in a body of work that is amazingly diverse--poetry, short stories, novels, essays, journalism--from a woman who is highly intelligent and imaginative, erudite and emotionally connected. The fact that she is one of the few American writers who is willing to be overtly political in her work is a bonus, especially since I happen to agree wholeheartedly with her political positions.