Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Review: Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver

I recently finished reading Barbara Kingsolver's Small Wonder, a collection of essays she put together somewhat as a response to September 11. I've mentioned before that Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors. I've read almost everything by her, and she's just fantastic. She writes non-fiction in such a narrative, story-telling style that I think she could make any topic interesting.

I've been working on this book for a while. Since it contains short essays, I've been able to read one and put the book down for a while, then come back and read the next. But given my current less-mobile condition, I've been catching up on my reading time, and flew threw the last few essays.

  • The first essay is "Small Wonder," and Kingsolver tells the (true) story of a toddler that wandered off from his home in a small village in Iran and was found later, safe, in a bear's den, with the bear curled protectively around the child. Apparently, the bear had actually been nursing the baby. She calls it "an impossible act of grace." (5) She writes about hoping/insisting that the world is more complicated than a simple divide of good and evil, where we decide that everything has to be one or the other. "The changes we dread most may contain our salvation." (9) - A good line for the church, right? She writes, "It used to be, on many days, that I could close my eyes and sense myself to be perfectly happy. I have wondered lately if that feeling will ever come back . . . However much I've lost, what remains to me is that I can still speak to name the things I love." (19)
  • In "Saying Grace" Kingsolver writes, "In this moment . . . our country [is demanding] that we dedicate ourselves and our resources, again and again, to what we call the defense of our way of life: How greedy can one person be? How much do we need to feel blessed, sated, and permanently safe?"
  • In "A Fist in the Eye of God," she writes about watching a hummingbird building her nest, the intricate process of such a tiny, beautiful bird. Reflecting on this, she talks about evolution, saying that looking at creation changing over time is "a church service to end all." She continues, "I have never understood how anyone could have the slightest trouble blending religious awe with a full comprehension of the workings of life's creation." (95) Indeed. In this essay she also talks about seed banks and genetically modified organism and why they're a bad idea. I found this essay extremely helpful - I've never really understood the issue (or really tried to understand it) and she is clear, concise, and convincing in her reasoning.
  • In "Lily's Chickens," Kingsolver writes a lot about food and where we get our food and how where we get our food can be so harmful to our earth, being one area where US citizens use huge amounts of resources beyond our fair share. Being a vegetarian, this is an area where I am certainly already in agreement with Kingsolver, but she challenges me (even though she isn't a vegetarian). She stresses the importance of eating locally grown food, pointing out the costs of transporting food around the world for our convenience ("Transporting 5 calories' worth of strawberry from California to New York costs 435 calories of fossil fuel." (114) and "The average food item set before a U.S. consumer traveled 1,300 miles to get there." (123)), and makes me want to pay more attention (and plant a garden next summer.)
  • "The One-Eyed Monster, and Why I Don't Let Him In" talks about TV and how it effects what we think. She talks about how powerful images are, and how much they sway us over our other senses. "[I] wonder why things are televised at all. If our aim is to elect candidates on the basis of their stature, clothing, and facial expressiveness, then fine, we should look at them. But if our intention is to evaluate their ideas, we should probably just listen and not look. Give us one good gander and we'll end up electing cheerleaders instead of careful thinkers. In a modern election, Franklin D. Roosevelt in his wheelchair wouldn't have a prayer - not to mention the homely but honest Abe Lincoln." (139)
  • She includes a fabulous pair of essays - "Letter to a Daughter at Thirteen" and "Letter to My Mother," both of which had me in tears. (I can only imagine Kingsolver's mother reading this essay, and feeling quite the gamut of emotions - a full heart in response to such a talented daughter!)
  • "Household Words" is about homelessness and the ridiculous problem of homelessness in a country that has so, so much. "How does the rest of the world keep a straight face when we go riding into it on our latest white horse of Operation-this-or-that-kind-of-Justice, and everyone can see perfectly well how we behave at home? Home is where all justice begins." (201)
  • She writes about writing, writing poetry (and how we don't really read poetry anymore, or appreciate it) and how hard it is for writers to get started in a day when independent bookstores have no place anymore. And about how hard and strange it was for her to include a full-fledged sex scene in one of her novels.
  • "God's Wife's Measuring Spoons" is the closing essay. She writes, "Every time I read an argument justifying further oil drilling in sensitive places, I notice that it begins with the caveat, 'Unless Americans are willing to accept a drastic lifestyle change.' As if that were the one thing that could never happen." (262) We do live like that, don't we? And talk like that - like we can't possibly change.

A fabulous book. Fabulous author. Other essays included too, but I don't want to keep you from reading the book by making this a never-ending post!

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