6/12/2010

Summer Reads Pt I

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Ok, I have a confession to make : I was given this book when it first came out, by my brother and sister-in-law, who normally have excellent taste in literature and know that I generally love anything Barbara Kingsolver writes. But for some reason, I just could not get "into" it at that time. Kept starting it and stopping. Put it on the shelf where it languished for years. People kept telling me "you've got to read this book, it's about missionaries in the Congo" - as if that would help. It actually deterred me further. Then I went to a writing conference this summer where excerpts from this novel were used for a wide variety of teaching /writing activities, and reading little snippets intrigued me and pulled me into the text. Once I read it, I realized why saying "it's about missionaries in the Congo" is a complete misnomer. That statement, to me, implies somehow that these missionaries are going to be good guys and their motives noble and that's a lot of cultural bias I just can't stomach most days. (I live in the buckle of the Bible belt and am completely surrounded by mindless people spouting sententious religious pap all the time. It's a subtle form of brain washing that irritates the heck out of me.) But I should have trusted Ms Kingsolver, for she always looks at the world from an out-of-the-norm almost anthropological perspective. This isn't just a story about missionaries in the Congo; it's about how the archetypal continent of Africa is an earth mother goddess who is a force both powerful and destructive, changing all who encounter her. The Poisonwood Bible tells the stories of various family members of a zealous narrow-minded crazed missionary, who all get dragged along with him on his self-destructive quest for absolution through the jungle of the Congo, and how that experience with Africa, earth mother personified, shapes each family member in a uniquely different yet powerful way. The wife and 4 daughters of the crazed missionary are really just symbolic stand-ins for the various types of western colonial experiences in Africa : one is completely destroyed, one sells herself out, one joins the local cause, one escapes and remakes herself somewhere else, one flees because this is not her cause. A powerful tale, The Posionwood Bible was every bit as lush and gripping as my previous favorite novel by Ms Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer. I should have read it sooner ; but maybe the time just wasn't right for me to appreciate it as much as I do now.

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller. You are going to think I am on some sort of "Africa" story binge but truly I am not. I keep a running list of titles I want to read, drawn from New York Times book reviews, NPR reviews, other news sources, book catalogs, recommendations from friends, co-workers, etc. Like my Netflix queue, I just buy a few each month from the list, with no real appreciation of what order they will pop up, and sometimes look at something that arrives and say to myself, "What?" I probably put this book on my list because I was intrigued by the title and generally will read anything set in an interesting foreign locale. I do have several childhood friends who grew up in Africa, (Liberia and Tanzania) and have always enjoyed hearing their stories. I forget about why I specifically added this book to my list; however, when I started reading it, I quite enjoyed it. Ms Fuller recounts a variety of well drawn moments from her childhood spent growing up in Rhodesia that are alternately funny, sad, suspenseful, and dangerous. Her parents struggle to earn a living as British-born ranchers during the period when Rhodesia was throwing off colonial domination and asserting itself as an independent nation. Full of larger-than-life characters that are Hemingway-esque, this was a fascinating story that is well-written and provides a powerful snapshot into a brief historical moment.

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