Posts Tagged ‘American women writers’

I read Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘Prodigal Summer’ last year and liked it very much. I had wanted to read other books by her since that time. When I discovered that she has come out with a new book, I couldn’t resist getting it. I finished reading ‘Flight Behavior’ yesterday and here is what I think.

Flight Behavior By Barbara Kingsolver

‘Flight Behavior’ is about a farm wife, Dellarobia, and her life. Dellarobia lives near the mountains alongwith her husband and works in the farm of her in-laws. When she was in high school, she had wanted to go to college, but she got pregnant and so got married to Cub. Unfortunately, her child is stillborn, but she stays married to Cub and later has a son, Preston, and a daughter, Cordie. She is not very happy with her life though she loves her children. She likes her husband, but she feels that she and her husband are different in many ways and her parents-in-law aren’t really nice to her. One day, to escape from her dreary life, she drives up the mountain to meet a young man and have an affair with him, unmindful of the consequences (It is the first scene in the story. The first sentence in the book is a beautiful, trademark Barbara Kingsolver first sentence – “A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture.”). When she reaches the top, she sees a glorious sight. The valley seems to be filled with a lake of fire. Dellarobia is astounded and she thinks this is a sign. She comes back home without meeting the young man. Meanwhile her father-in-law signs a contract with a logging company to cut down the trees in the mountain. When his family protests, he refuses to listen to them. Dellarobia tells her husband to first checkout the mountain before deciding to cut the trees. The whole family goes up the mountain. And they see what Dellarobia had seen earlier. The only difference is that the scene is not a lake of fire. It is an ocean of monarch butterflies – millions and millions of them – which give that illusion. Soon everyone in the town is talking about how Dellarobia had this vision. TV channels arrive for her interview. A scientist comes with his assistants and starts research. Dellarobia becomes friends with him and after a while gets to work in his team. She discovers that the presence of so many monarch butterflies is not a good sign. It is probably because of global warming which might lead to the extinction of this butterfly species. What happens next – to the butterfly species and to Dellarobia – forms the rest of the story.


‘Flight Behavior’ is an interesting story which deals with two themes – the travails of a farm wife and the issue of climate change. Barbara Kingsolver blends the particular and the general quite well and weaves these two diverse strands into a beautiful whole – while one strand of the story depicts how the monarch butterfly faces challenges posed by the environment and tries to adapt to change, the second strand shows how Dellarobia faces the challenges posed by her restraining circumstances and how she adapts herself to face them and overcome them. Though climate change plays an important part in the book, I think what stands out in the story is the travails of the farm wife – how Dellarobia is talented but she is restrained by her circumstances which stunt her from growing as a person and prevent her talents from flowering. There are no ‘bad guys’ in the story who are preventing her from realizing her potential – it is just the way things are. The trademark Barbara Kingsolver sentences keep appearing throughout the book. The farming parts of the story are described in detail. One of my favourite scenes in the book is the one where a ewe gives birth to a baby sheep which seems to be stillborn and Dellarobia revives it and get it to breathe. Small town scenes are painted beautifully throughout the book – like getting children ready for the school bus in the morning, shopping at a second hand goods store, going to church on Sundays, how neighbours influence each other and intrude into each other’s lives, how the local pastor plays an influential role in the lives of people.


When I read ‘Flight Behavior’ I couldn’t resist comparing it with ‘Prodigal Summer’. Both of them have some common themes – preservation of wild life, life of a farm wife, in-law trouble, small town issues. ‘Flight Behavior’ had a traditional, straightforward story with a beginning, a middle and an end with one main heroine unlike ‘Prodigal Summer’. However, I felt that Kingsolver’s prose in ‘Prodigal Summer’ was more beautiful. There were many beautiful lines and passages in ‘Flight Behavior’ but the focus was more on the story rather than on the beautiful sentences. However, for some reason, inspite of the focus on the story, the pages moved very slowly and it took me quite a while to finish the book. Also, in ‘Prodigal Summer’ the coyote and the luna moth were more like characters in the story, while in ‘Flight Behavior’ I didn’t feel the same way about the monarch butterfly. Maybe because there were millions of them out there in the valley, I didn’t really fall in love with them, though I liked their story.


I found ‘Flight Behavior’ quite interesting. It was a slow-read for me, but I liked the stories and the characters and the family scenes and the themes that the book addressed. It has been shortlisted for the Orange prize this year and it will be interesting to track its progress there.


I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.


The way he closed his fingers in a bracelet around her ankles and wrists marveling at her smallness, gave her the dimensions of an expensive jewel rather than an inconsequential adult.


People automatically estimate a mom’s IQ at around her children’s ages, maybe dividing by the number of kids, rounding up to the nearest pajama size.


Having children was not like people said. Forget training them in your footsteps; the minute they put down the teething ring and found the Internet, you were useless as a source of anything but shoes and a winter coat.


Dovey : “Will you explain to me why people encourage delusional behavior in children, and medicate it in adults? That’s so random. It’s like this whole shady setup.”

Dellarobia : “True. At what age do you cross over the line and say, ‘Now I’ll face reality?’”

Dovey : “When you get there, send me a postcard.”


Dellarobia : “I don’t know how a person could even get through the day, knowing what you know.”

Ovid : “So. What gets Dellarobia through her day?”

Dellarobia : “Meeting the bus on time. Getting the kids to eat supper, getting teeth brushed. No cavities the next time. Little hopes, you know? There’s just not room at our house for the end of the world. Sorry to be a doubting Thomas.”

Ovid : “Well, you’re hardly the first. People always want the full predicament revealed and proven in sixty seconds or less.”


“Now, see, that’s why everybody wants Internet friends. You can find people just exactly like you. Screw your neighbors and your family, too messy. The trouble is, once you filter out everybody that doesn’t agree with you, all that’s left is maybe this one retired surfer guy living in Idaho.”


It was hard to feel the remotest sympathy for any of the different fools she had been. As opposed to the fool she was probably being now. People hang on for dear life to that one, she thought : the fool they are right now.


Have you read Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘Flight Behavior’? What do you think about it?

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This is the third week of the readalong of ‘Prodigal Summer’ that I am doing with Delia from Postcards from Asia. This week we are covering chapters nineteen through thirty-one from the book.



The third part of the book expands the stories of the four main characters – Deanna the forest ranger, Lusa the farmer and the neighbours Garnett Walker and Nannie Rawley. There are some subtle attempts by Barbara Kingsolver to link the three plot arcs in different ways – none of them direct but always subtle and understated. There are connections revealed between Garnett and Lusa and Nannie and Deanna. But on the whole, the three plot arcs proceed mostly independently of each other. The plot isn’t fast-paced with a lot of action-filled scenes but is slow and delicate, like the way a flower blooms, without revealing itself easily to the naked eye. At the end of the book, though, one realizes that the story has taken the reader from one place to another and all the main characters have been transformed. There are beautiful conversations in the third part of the book – between Lusa and her niece Crys and her nephew Rickie and between Nannie Rawley and Garnett Walker. I loved these conversations.


There are discussions and descriptions of wild life – on butterflies, coyotes, bugs and others. For example a conversation between Lusa and Crys goes like this :


      “Luna moths especially like hickories. Those and walnuts. They lay their eggs on the leaves because that’s what their caterpillars eat.”

      “How come?”

      “That’s just how their stomachs are made. They specialize. You can eat the seeds of wheat, for instance, but not the grass part.”

      “I can eat all kinds of stuff.”

      “Other animals should be so lucky. Most of them have pretty specialized diets. Meaning they can eat only one exact kind of thing.”

      “Well, that’s dumb.”

      “It’s not dumb or smart, it’s just how they’re built, like you have two legs and walk on your feet. A dog probably thinks that’s dumb. But yeah, specialization makes life more risky. If their food dies, they die. They can’t just say, ‘Oh, never mind, my tree went extinct, so now I’ll just order pizza.”


There are discussions on organic farming – on how it is better than using pesticides and insecticides. There are discussions on how predators are an important part of the food chain and how killing them is going to have a detrimental effect on the ecological balance including to the lives of humans. For example, there is a conversation between Deanna and Eddie which goes like this :


“The life of a top carnivore is the most expensive item in the pyramid, that’s the thing. In the case of a coyote, or a big cat, the mother spends a whole year raising her young. Not just a few weeks. She has to teach them to stalk and hunt and everything there is to doing that job. She’s lucky if even one of her kids makes it through. If something gets him, there goes that mama’s whole year of work down the drain. If you shoot him, Eddie, that’s what you’ve taken down. A big chunk of his mother’s whole life chance at replacing herself. And you’ve let loose an extra thousand rodents on the world that he would have eaten. It’s not just one life.”


To me a significant part of the book was a paean sung in the glory of wildlife and forests and organic farming. Readers who are looking for a fast-moving story might be frustrated with these conversations and passages but those who love long conversations on ecology will love this. I loved it.


I have noticed that sometimes writers who write novels with a lot of descriptions, beautiful passages, and deep philosophical monologues want to add some spice at the end of the book and so bring in a tragic event at the end of the book. Sometimes they kill off the main character or someone’s heart gets broken or someone gets struck in an accident. I don’t know why writers do that, because this one scene changes the character of the whole book. Because the book changes from one which asks profound questions on life to one which is trying to grab the reader’s attention by making her / him sad. But I have seen at times that writers can’t resist doing it. Probably they feel guilty for not worrying about the plot for nine-tenths of the book and so suddenly want to introduce an unexpected scene to grab the attention of the reader. I have mixed feelings about this device. Some writers are able to pull it off with this sudden ending, but most of the time it feels like an unnecessary intrusion into the book. I would prefer a book to stay faithful to its original vision rather than try to become a Hollywood movie in the end. So, when I was reading ‘Prodigal Summer’ and I reached the last few chapters, I noticed that the author had revealed all her cards and the story was moving in a particular direction to a predictable conclusion. I asked myself – “Is Barbara Kingsolver going to succumb to the popular temptation? Is she going to kill off someone? Is Deanna going to be betrayed by Eddie? Or is she going to be killed by a mountain lion? Is Lusa going to die in an accident? Is something going to happen to Garnett Walker or Nannie Rawley?” As I read on till the end, I discovered that none of these things happened. There were one or two small surprises, but to my pleasant surprise, I discovered that Barbara Kingsolver didn’t try to tack-in a surprise ending to the story. I think that takes a lot of courage. I love Kingsolver for that.


‘Prodigal Summer’ is a beautiful meditation and evocation of summer. It is also about the forest, trees, wildlife, coyotes, moths, butterflies, birds, life in the farm and in the forest,  the pleasures of summer and love in its many forms. It made me remember Ray Bradbury’s ‘Dandelion Wine’. Though I liked Bradbury’s book more, I have to say that I liked Kingsolver’s book very much. I will keep coming back to my favourite passages in the book again and again. I can’t wait to read my next Kingsolver book.


I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from ‘Prodigal Summer’.


One of the skills of grief that Lusa had learned was to hold on tight to the last moments between sleep and waking. Sometimes, then, in the early morning, taking care not to open her eyes or rouse her mind through its warm drowse to the surface where pain broke clear and cold, she found she could choose her dreams. She could call a memory and patiently follow it backward into flesh, sound, and sense.


He hated a weed on principle but could not help admiring this thing for its energy.


      “Our mammaw and pappaw got to keep their dignity, just working right up to the end and then dying of a bad cold one day, with most their parts still working. But then along comes somebody inventing six thousand ways to cure everything, and here we are, old, wondering what to do with ourselves. A human just wasn’t designed for old age. That’s my theory.”

      “That’s one of your theories.”

      “Well, think about it. Women’s baby-business all dries up, men lose their hair – we’re just a useless drain on our kind. Speaking strictly from a biological point of view. Would you keep a chestnut in your program if it wasn’t setting seeds anymore?”

      “I don’t think of myself as obsolete.”

      “Of course not, you’re a man! Men walk around with their bald heads bare to the world and their pony put out to pasture, but they refuse to admit they’re dead wood. So why should I? What law says I have to cover myself up for shame of having a body this old? It’s a dirty trick of modern times, but here we are. Me with my cranky knees and my old shriveled ninnies, and you with whatever you’ve got under there, if it hasn’t dropped off yet – we’re still human. Why not just give in and live till you die?”


You can find Delia’s thoughts on the third part of ‘Prodigal Summer’ here.


Have you read ‘Prodigal Summer’ by Barbara Kingsolver? What do you think about it?

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This is the second week of the readalong of ‘Prodigal Summer’ that I am doing with Delia from Postcards from Asia. This week we are covering chapters nine through eighteen from the book.

This part of the book expands all the three story strands in detail. We get to know more about how Garnett Walker is trying to revive the American chestnut tree by cross pollinating it with the Chinese chestnut so that the new breed which comes out has the properties of the American chestnut, but is resistant to blight as the Chinese chestnut is. The small skirmishes between Garnett Walker and Nannie Rawley come out in the open. Both of them start writing letters to each other describing their thoughts on how a farm should be run and what they think about insecticides and pesticides. Garnett believes in the modern way of doing things – use a lot of insecticides and pesticides and kill unwanted pests so that the crop can survive. Nannie is old-fashioned in her thoughts – she feels that pesticides are counter-productive and they are also not good for the people who eat the farm produce. She believes in organic farming. Garnett and Nannie have long conversations on this topic – through letters and in person. In the first part of the book, I tended to side with Garnett and found Nannie a bit irritating, though she made only a fleeting appearance in that part of the book. However, in the second part of the book, I tended to side with Nannie and started liking her more, after her conversations with Garnett.


The second part of the book also explored the story of Deanna and the stranger she is attracted to, Eddie, in more detail. Eddie starts coming more often to Deanna’s cabin in the forest and staying with her. Deanna discovers that there is a coyote family which has moved to this part of the mountains. She knows that farmers hate coyotes and kill them when they see them. According to her, coyotes don’t trouble farmers and mind their business, but people are conditioned to dislike them and kill them. Then to her shock she discovers that Eddie dislikes coyotes and is probably a coyote hunter. She is in a difficult spot, trying to balance her love for Eddie and her love for coyotes. This part of the story also reveals that Nannie Rawley and Deanna are related in a way – that Deanna’s father and Nannie Rawley were seeing each other for a while and even had a daughter, who died young.


The story of Lusa gets interesting in this part of the book. She is struggling to cope with the loss of her husband. She discovers new things about him from her in-laws, which surprise her. For example, he was a romantic as a farmer – he didn’t want to grow tobacco but wanted to grow other produce which was useful, but had to give up after years of trying, when it turned out that his plans were not financially viable. Interestingly and unexpectedly, she also becomes friends with Jewel, one of her sisters-in-law and discovers that her in-laws are not bad at all. She also becomes friends with Rickie, the son of one of her sisters-in-law. One of my favourite parts of this story was when Lusa and Rickie have a long conversation, when he comes to visit her – they talk about life in the farm, about her husband Cole, and other things. During the course of this conversation, Lusa tells Rickie that she is planning to rear goats in her farm to generate money to run the farm and he helps her with information on how to rear goats and also asks her to talk to Garnett Walker who is regarded as the expert in goats in that area. In a later chapter, Lusa invites all her in-laws for an evening at her home and the whole family is there. During the course of the evening Lusa discovers that her in-laws are friendly in their own way and they are not that as bad as she thought. Lusa also gets to know Jewel’s daughter Crys, who seems to look like a trouble-maker from the outside, but who Lusa discovers is a gentle and tortured soul inside.


This part of the book expands the stories of the three main characters – Deanna, Lusa and Garnett. It also introduces some new interesting characters like Rickie and Crys and explores some of the previously introduced characters in depth like Nannie Rawley and Jewel.


There is a little bit on coyotes in this part of the book, but there is not much on the Luna Moth. There is more conversation and the plot picks up pace, but there is less on nature, when compared to the first part. However those beautiful passages on nature – Barbara Kingsolver keeps them coming.


When I read the first part of the book, my favourite character was Deanna, though I warmed up to Lusa towards the end. During the second part of the book, I still liked Deanna, but I also felt that Lusa’s character was getting fleshed out more. Kingsolver spent more time describing Lusa’s life in the farm and the story picked up pace here. There were some wonderful conversations in this story strand – between Lusa and Rickie, Lusa and Crys – and they were a pleasure to read. At the end of this part I liked Lusa as much as Deanna, maybe a little bit more. I also started warming up towards Nannie Rawley as she started making more appearances in the story.


Another interesting thing in this part of the book was the connections which Kingsolver reveals between the three story strands. Deanna seems to be related to Nannie Rawley, while the cabin that Deanna stays in, in the forest, was built by Garnett Walker’s family. Lusa calls Garnett Walker for information regarding rearing goats. Deanna and Lusa don’t seem to have any connection till now, but I will look forward to finding out whether they talk or meet in the third part of the story.


I read the second part of the book faster than the first part, because the plot picked up pace and there was a lot of dialogue. What will happen in the third part? Will Garnett be able to revive the American chestnut? Will Deanna be able to save the coyotes? Will Lusa’s plan of rearing goats work? Also will Lusa be able to continue her friendship with Jewel, Rickie and Crys? I can’t wait to find out.


I will leave you with some of my favourite passages.


The loudest sound on the earth, she thought, is a man with nothing to do.

How pointless life could be, what a foolish business of inventing things to love, just so you could dread losing them.

She breathed deeply and tried not to hate this snake. Doing his job, was all. Living out his life like the thousand other copperheads on this mountain that would never be seen by human eyes, they wanted only their one or two rodents a month, the living wage, a contribution to balance. Not one of them wanted to be stepped on or, heaven forbid, o have to sink its fangs into a monstrous, inedible animal a hundred times its size – a waste of expensive toxin at best. She knew all this. You can stare at a thing and know that you personally have no place in its heart whatsoever, but keeping it out of yours is another matter.

She pulled the blankets over her head, leaving a small window through which he could watch his careful, steady hands place kindling inside the stove. She thought about the things people did with their highly praised hands : made fires that burned out; sawed down trees to build houses that would rot and fall down in time. How could those things compare with the grace of a moth on a leaf, laying perfect rows of tiny, glassy eggs? Or a phoebe weaving a nest of moss in which to hatch her brood? Still, as she watched him light a match and bring warmth into the cabin while the rain pounded down overhead, she let herself feel thankful for those hands, at least for right now. When he climbed into bed beside her, they held her until she fell asleep.


You can find Delia’s thoughts on the second part of ‘Prodigal Summer’ here.


Have you read ‘Prodigal Summer’? What do you think about it?

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