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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Prodigal Summer

Some of my best friends are books.

My love affair with reading started early on in life. It waxed and waned with the peaks and pits on the twisted road to adolescence. I literally came of age with a book rather than a dirty magazine in hand. I trudged along, burdened with unsightly zits, excess testosterone and awkward moments until one day, I came upon a steep, almost vertical cliff. Realizing I had to leave my backpack behind, I stuffed a sweet memory of a summer kiss in my shirt pocket and the magical whisper of a phrase I’ve read in One Thousand and One Nights in my trousers’ before I spat on the palms of my hands, rubbed them together then hauled my ass and climbed. Halfway to the top, I had a brief glimpse of my insecurities sprawled all over the past. I laughed and howled in English like a coyote in heat and never looked back.

I am a man with a cheerful disposition and hundreds of human and book friends. I love them all to varying degrees, but less than a handful of each can be truly called intimate friends. Two or three special people, four or five extraordinary books have brought meaning to my life and filled it with more joy than I could’ve ever imagined possible. Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver is such a friend.

While young girls in brightly colored Flamenco dresses danced to the blaring music, Dr. Carl Wooton, his wonderful wife Dolores, and I sat around a table in an outdoor cafĂ© and conversed about everything under the sun. It was kind of surreal in a way, that hot summer afternoon almost a year ago today. There I was in Santa Barbara, squinting my eyes against the bright glare and discussing personal writing, American literature and world politics with my English professor, while I munched on a crisp tuna sandwich and sipped a fruity California wine. I hadn't seen him in 30 years and he certainly didn’t remember me at all, but it was only understandable given the large number of students a college professor must have taught during his long career. We talked about the pain a writer’s block inflicts on the psyche of a veteran author and the pleasure a well written passage brings to the soul of an aspiring one. We paid homage to the South, to the bayous of Louisiana and to the Cajun heritage we had shared. We shook hands and hugged, and as we bid each other farewell, we promised to keep in touch and to exchange titles of favorite novels. Prodigal Summer was on top of his short list.

Barbara Kingsolver’s fifth novel is nature’s celebration of flora and fona, life’s consecration of love and sex, summer’s ushering of beginnings and ends. She wiggles her way swiftly down the crotch of her story, not wasting precious time on preliminaries or foreplay.  ''Here and now,'' she writes, ''spring heaved in its randy moment. Everywhere you looked, something was fighting for time, for light, the kiss of pollen, a connection of sperm and egg and another chance.'' What makes Prodigal Summer one of the best erotic novels I ever came across is the simple fact that it was not meant to be one at all. Eroticism, in the words of the author, is a manifestation of harmonious evolution and the battling forces of nature. Only by mating, by exchanging bodily fluids, by blowing gametes and ovules could the diverse species survive. Love is as intense for the moth male and female as it is for Eddie Bondo, the 28 year old vagrant hunter from Wyoming, and Deanna, the tall and lonely middle aged park ranger. When their paths crossed on an Appalachian trail in the heat of a prodigal summer day, primal sex was a matter of survival.

Down where the woods gave way to the farmland of Zebulon County in an unnamed southern state, two seemingly separate stories unfold, undulating between grief and lust, despair and hope, ends and beginnings. Fate was rather harsh on entomologist Lusa Maluf Landowski Widener, a half-Palestinian, half-Jewish farmer's wife, turned widow. Her survival in an alien home rested on every single decision she made, on her inner strength and the choices she had to irrevocably accept. On the other side of the valley, Garnett Walker, an elderly retired school teacher struggled to come to terms with his neighbor, the godless Nannie Rawley, and his lifelong dream of resurrecting the extinct American chestnut tree. How Kingsolver knitted each plot asunder then weaved them into one magnificent tapestry is beyond magic. Her attention to details is breathtaking, the way she handles sights, smells, sounds, tastes and touches then turns them into mental images of vivid sensory stimuli is incredibly difficult to describe. Instead of revealing the secrets of this fascinating work of literature I invite you to read it and make the best of a cruel summer.

Barbara Kingsolver is an American novelist born in Kentucky and raised (briefly) in the former republic of Congo. She holds two degrees in biology, which is evident in her broad and extensive knowledge of the natural world. Prodigal Summer has received mixed reviews, although they were mostly positive and full of praise. Some critics have accused this novel of being selfishly feminist. I failed to see their point. When and if I could write like she, I don’t think I need to justify flaunting my manhood to my readers or to snobby critics. She is a content woman and writing from her own vantage point is not something to be taken against her. That the three main male characters in this story play second fiddle to the three central females doesn’t bother me at all, nor strike me as unfair. Ms. Kingsolver is endowed with a rare talent. Very few modern writers or even classic masters can match her writing. I flatter myself when I say I wish I could write like she does for I consider our styles similar, although our aptitudes may not be so.

When I finish reading a novel of this import I often find myself listless. What next? And where should I go to in this frugal summer? I’m brought back to a world of abject cruelty and insensate loss. I’m not running away from reality by hiding in fictitious worlds, but when the lives of millions depend on the outcome of a plot written by the vile leaders of the "free" world or left to the whims of a psychotic tyrant I spit on this reality and seek the haven of another book. I heard great things about The Poisonwood Bible, an earlier work of Barbara Kingsolver set against the backdrop of the village of Kilanga in the Belgian Congo. That’s where I am heading to next, to wait for the ebbing of a long and painful summer and the advent of an inevitable fall.

Other books by Barbara Kingsolver:
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle By Kingsolver, Barbara/ Kingsolver, Camille/ Hopp, Steven L./ Houser, Richard A. (ILT)
Pigs in Heaven By Kingsolver, Barbara
Holding the Line By Kingsolver, Barbara
Homeland and Other Stories By Kingsolver, Barbara
The Bean Trees By Kingsolver, Barbara

Friday, July 20, 2012

Nostalgia: A Drive Around the Block