Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening, pt.4: Ursula K. Le Guin

by Ursula K. Le Guin  

The Deepening Stream, by Dorothy Canfield (1931). Canfield was a best seller in her day, but has been forgotten. This book deserves not to be forgotten. It seems quite conventional -- a girl growing up in the Midwest and moving East and getting married -- I kept thinking I knew how it would develop and what was going to happen. I was dead wrong every time. It just keeps turning corners you didn't even know were there. A very good read. And a terrific, first-hand take on WWI as lived through in Paris, by women.

 English Creek, by Ivan Doig. I don't know why I hadn't read any Doig! This is the one to read, I think. Doig knows his Montana ground, and his sheep ranchers, and what hard work is. The story is completely unpretentious and satisfying. And the young narrator's voice is just pitch-perfect Western. I don't think he ever quite found that voice again.

 Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver's new novel. This is a tremendous book. It's told in the voice (pitch-perfect again) of a very intelligent woman named Dellarobia, who didn't make it to college, and lives in a sad little Southern town with two babies and a husband named Cub and bad credit and no way out. Totally real, awfully funny. Dellarobia stumbles into a beautiful, strange event, a gathering of thousands of monarch butterflies.... in the wrong place... I haven't seen one review of this book that I thought adequate. The critics scold Kingsolver for thinking monarchs winter in the Carolinas, they patronise her as a do-gooder -- they don't know how to read the book! They don't know who she's talking about. (They don't want to. Dellarobia's people aren't the grotesques that non-Southerners want Southerners to be.) They don't know what she's talking about. (They don't want to. Climate destabilisation is very, very scary.) They don't know a great act of the imagination when they see it. Read it, laugh, weep....

And a merry Solstice to all --

Ursula K. Le Guin has written many books and won many awards and at 81 makes awesomeness look wonderfully easy. Aqueduct Press published her collection of essays, Cheek by Jowl, in 2009 and 80! Memories and Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin, a collection honoring her 80th birthday, edited by Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Notkin. Her most recent publication is the\  two-volume story collection The Unreal and the Real, just released by Small Beer Press. She blogs at Book View Cafe.


Anonymous said...

I didn't think Barbara Kingsolver would ever write another book as compelling as The Poisonwood Bible, but, doggone it, she did. Never underestimate a novelist with a degree in evolutionary biology.

It can't be easy to write an interesting novel about a complex scientific problem, so Bravo Barbara! for making climate change a fiction bestseller.

Kingsolver rarely lets any aspect of her plotting or dialogue get by without it doing double or triple duty. Every word works hard for her, so a reader can't skim through one of her books. Good news for those of us who read fast.

Kingsolver gives the reader a lot each time the lepidopterist explains to Dellarobia or one of the locals how climate change is altering migration patterns of species such as the monarchs: the reader gets an ecology lesson, but also learns important things about the histories and personalities of the characters involved, and without noticing it, we start thinking about economics, climate patterns, extinction, evolution as well.

My favorite example of double-duty is a hilarious - and sad - scene showing the difficulties in communication between scientists and lay people. I think this is one of the most important points that Kingsolver makes. I hope that anyone doing science or trying to educate people about global warming catches this, because perhaps the gap is too deeply buried in the book.

By academic standards, the lepidopterist works with a modest budget, but in the first conversation between Ovid and Cubby - those names! - when poor Cubby tries to sympathize kindly and innocently with the scientist over the long drive from his southwestern university to Appalachia, Ovid responds casually that he flew. Cubby, amazed that hopping on a plane is such a commonplace event in Ovid's world, feels he must honestly admit - (I have to do this from memory because I loaned the book to my sister) - something like "I never been in a airplane, nor my wife neither." How can people who live in such different worlds find common ground?

Kingsolver, in the episode in which Dellarobia and Cubby go shopping, makes it simple to understand why most folks, struggling to feed their families,("put food on their families" as W used to say) and buy their kids a t-shirt or a used book now and then, don't have the time or energy to keep up with the latest developments in global warming, whatever that is. And if they did, only a fortunate few of us have the education to sort of understand a complex problem.

Sadly, our country has not made it a priority to teach our children scientific literacy. So it has to be scientists like Ovid who must bridge the gulf between people who know what migration corridors are and people who don't know what it means to put a tray table in an upright position.

Conducting scientific research of any kind is hard work, but those of us who do it need to involve the public as much as possible when we can, both through public education programs and volunteer opportunities on site. If something of scientific interest is happening in a community, let the community be part of it.

Kingsolver offers us hope - she always offers hope in her books - by showing us that both Dellarobia and her little boy have a shot at getting across the gap. I don't think this is common in the real world, but I hope she inspires some people to do whatever they have to do to realize their potential and to demand that their children get decent schooling.

I've always been amazed by Kingsolver's ability to write so well about what it's like to be the mother of small children. I find this rare, and suspect that an amnesia induced by sleep deprivation makes most women forget how much never-ending work it is. Kingsolver admits that she suffers from insomnia; perhaps that has helped keep her mother-memory alive.

Anonymous said...

I was annoyed at the reviews of _Flight Behavior_ as well. There was one on NPR (NPR!!!) that seemed to think it took place in the future, that if climate change had reached such a horrifying point in the present surely someone would have told us. And they objected to the butterflies as an easy metaphor, even though Kingsolver says in an afterword that the disruption in the butterflies' flight pattern was based on fact.

Anyway, what a terrific book! Thanks for the review!