Tag Archives: Barbara Kingsolver

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Does Unsheltered live up to the high standards of her previous books? We have come to expect a great deal from Barbara Kingsolver following the success of the novels she has published since The Poisonwood Bible. In particular, Flight Behaviour was considered a great success by my reading group. We all found something to admire in the story of Dellarobia and her family’s struggle against rural poverty. And in the warning of the changed behaviour of the monarch butterflies.

We discussed Unsheltered recently and some of the group were disappointed; it was too dry, too close to home, they found splitting the stories across two time zones was irritating, and some of the characters were like cardboard cut outs … And because there was also plenty to like and admire, we had a good discussion.

Unsheltered

The title seems awkward, Unsheltered, but this is new condition that requires a new term. At least it is new to the ordinary middle classes in the US, Barbara Kingsolver suggests. Both sets of characters, present day and in the 19th century, were finding themselves without protection in Vineland, Pennsylvania. Both lived in unsafe houses that were falling down. They were literally threatened with losing their shelter. But they were also unsheltered, unprotected from irrational beliefs, irrational policies, and new conditions. For me, the dual timeframe provided hope. However strange and dangerous our world today we should take some courage and hope by remembering that in times gone by people have coped with this kind of threat, not always well, but they coped.

The two stories, two timeframes intertwine. In the present day Willa and her family have been forced to move into a house that is falling down in Vineland. They find themselves challenged on multiple levels. Willa’s husband Iano had finally achieved tenure, permanent employment much sought after in American academia. But his college closed. He has to take a demanding but less intellectual post in Philadelphia. 

Willa lost her job in journalism and is finding freelance work beyond her because of other family needs. These include a house that is falling apart. Her son Zeke, in Harvard, is a new father but his wife commits suicide and Willa must help with the care of the baby and the recovery of her son. Tig, her daughter has returned from time spent in Cuba but she is a mystery to her parents and seems not to have found her way in suburban life. Willa’s father-in-law is staying with them, sick with diabetes, a stroke and revolting opinions. The family dog is also approaching her last days. There appears to be no solution to the multiple complications being experienced by this family. Traditional resources for middle class families have been eroded: access to affordable education, steady employment, secure accommodation, health insurance, career paths for the young. All gone.

The second story focuses on Thatcher Greenwood who is a teacher in the 1870s in Vineland. He is newly married to a beauty, Rose, who is not interested in his scientific pursuits. He meets (the real life) Mary Treat, next door, who is in contact with Darwin and other evolutionists. Vineland has been set up as a model town but is in the clutches of its founder Landis. Although Landis claims that he had created a utopia, its rotten core is revealed when Landis is acquitted of the murder of a prominent critic of his controlling practices. His acolyte the headteacher rejects evidential science and makes life difficult for Thatcher in the school where he teaches. The parallels with today are obvious and real. 

Underpinning both stories is the wonder and fragility of the natural world. Thatcher Greenwood and Mary Treat are uncovering the marvel of the flora around them through an understanding of the new theories of evolution and they are also contributing to the development of the new ideas and theories. 

In the present-day story the characters are facing the climate crisis. It is Tig who speaks for the future. She and her mother are sitting in the cemetery where they have deposited some of the ashes of Willa’s dreadful father-in-law.

‘It’s so scary. It’s going to be fire and rain, Mom. Storms we can’t deal with, so many people homeless. Not just homeless but placeless. Cities can go underwater and then what? You can’t shelter in place anymore when there isn’t a place.’ […]

‘I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, Mom,’ she said quietly. ‘You and Dad did your best. But all the rules have changed and it’s hard to watch people keep carrying on just the same, like it’s business as usual.’

All the rules. Really?’ (462-3)

Challenged to describe how people like them might adapt to living in the future, Tig provides some very down to earth examples and I suggest you read them. It’s the core dialogue of the book. Barbara Kingsolver is again warning us about the future towards which our actions and attitudes are impelling us. Our future will be without shelter, unsheltered, unless we change how we live, change the rules, all the rules.

Barbara Kingsolver’s books

I have long admired the writings of Barbara Kingsolver and was pleased to be introduced to her more than ten years ago by my sister. I especially enjoy the variety of locations and timeframes of her writing, which always illuminate pressing present-day problems and issues by reference to history as well as to what we see around us. All this is carried by a strong narrative about very authentic humans who we can recognise and perhaps identify with. It feels like she shares some of this territory with Anne Tyler.

And to do all this she must be an excellent researcher; Belgian Congo for The Poisonwood Bible (1998); Freida Kahlo, Trotsky and post-war America for The Lacuna (2009); the monarch butterfly for Flight Behaviour (2012). In Unsheltered she takes pleasure in revealing ‘a nineteenth century biologist whose work deserves to be better known’. (523) This is Mary Treat who really did correspond with Charles Darwin.

She also lives her beliefs. The book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: a year of food life (2007) was written with her family. They moved from Arizona to a farm to live as sustainably as they could in Virginia, learning by working with the community, as well as by drawing on the family’s experiences.

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver, published in 2018 by Faber. 524pp

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On the tricky topic of titles

Titles – they are very difficult to get right – for a short story, a blog post, our book, the chapters in our book, my draft novel, the writing group’s anthology. The title has to do so much work that it requires hours of discussion, days of rumination and much experimentation.

101 RWA coverEileen and I rejected many, many titles for our book on retirement: The Golden Hours, How to Retire with Dignity, Retiring Now, Not your usual Retirement Guide. Our working title up to the point where we were about to hand over the manuscript was The New Retiring Book. It was our editor and publisher that found the right title: Retiring with Attitude. It says exactly what’s in the tin.

So what is the work of the title?

  1. Announcing the genre and subject

212 Fl B coverThe title is assisted by the cover design in indicating the book’s genre to the purchaser/reader as well as what the book is about and whether it’s the kind of book they want to buy/read. It helps if it is memorable for recommendations, word of mouth and requests in bookstores. You know, that book about the butterflies: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. There is a whole book about this: Weird Things Customers say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell. Check out Jen Campbell’s website here for more stories (such as ‘Have you got a signed copy of Shakespeare’s plays?’)

2. Invitation

The title can also entice or invite the reader. It might imply a question: The Aftermath (by Rhidian Brook) of what? The Secret of the Gorge (Malcolm Saville). So what is the secret? asks the title.

Or it might be intriguing like these examples: If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor, The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker.

3. Directing the reader’s attention

Pride and Prejudice might have been called The Bennet Sisters or How to get your Husband. But that would have been to misdirect attention. Jane Austen knew a thing or two about what impedes good relationships. She originally had First Impressions in mind but when she revised the book the title went further.

Catch-22 (by Joseph Heller) is such a good title it has become a figure of speech. It directs the reader to the madness and illogicality of war that binds everyone.

4. Snagging the blog reader’s attention

There is particular art to getting the right title for a blog post. Like in a bookshop it needs to capture attention, but in a very brief time. Apparently 8 out of 10 users will read the title, only 2 out of 10 will read the content. Guidance for bloggers abounds and I will add to the advice in a post next month, but here’s a teaser: it’s about questions and numbers and dire warnings!

It’s hard getting the right title

Every book I have ever been involved in publishing (all non-fiction) has involved much agony and hours of discussion about the title, jokey titles, working titles, disparaging titles and anti-titles until the point where the right one arrives. Or perhaps that’s just one right one among several.

I recall a very creative lunch when Eileen and I brain stormed the most silly and excellent ideas for the chapter titles in Retiring with Attitude. We quickly found Retirement ain’t what it used to be and went on to This is your rainy day. It felt very creative in a way that endless chapter revisions did not.

Until a month ago the book I am currently involved in writing (there are three authors) was called Ageing Now. We persuaded the publisher that this was a working title when we negotiated the contract, and we have become increasingly aware of its limitations as we have engaged with the writing: it doesn’t say much about the book; it’s too vague about content, readership, and purpose. We have a better one now. WATCH THIS SPACE!

And not having a title says something too, gives the reader more work to do. One of the writers in my writing group recently read a poem with no title and we had a lively discussion about that: what it did to the listener to have no title, did it need one, what the title might be, why she had not given it one. Thanks to the group for the discussion.

And some that got away

212 1984 coverTrimalchio in West Egg by F. Scott Fitzgerald became The Great Gatsby.

Strangers from within by William Golding became Lord of the Flies.

The Mute by Carson McCullers became The Heart is a lonely Hunter.

The Last Man in Europe by George Orwell became 1984.

At This Point in Time by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward became All the president’s Men.

These come from a blog by Anne R. Allen in a post called 10 Tips for Choosing the Right Title in the E-Age.

Can you spot the Alternate Titles in the quiz on The Reading Room blog?

 

How do you go about finding or creating the titles for your writings?

 

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Rereading books

Do you reread books? My lovely friend Eileen suggested this topic was a good one for Bookword blog. I thought she was right and with a little arm-twisting she agreed to contribute this post. We benefit from her research skills and her colourful use of pseudonyms. And she has referred to lots of great books – read or reread them!

Eileen writes about rereading books

Ladder of Years, by my favourite author Anne Tyler, was serialized on Radio 4 a few weeks ago and I thought ‘I must reread that’. I have read all her books, some more than once, and The Accidental Tourist many times. Do you have a favourite author or book that you come back to again and again? I wondered if other people are similarly addicted so I asked Caroline if she would write a blog about it. She replied ‘Why don’t you!’ (Note to self: Be careful what you ask for.)

177 Therese R coverThe book I read compulsively is Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola. I first read it when I was 20, found myself reading it again at 30, and then kept going. You probably know the story – two lovers plagued by guilt – gripping stuff!

My next most often reread book is To kill a Mockingbird – such fantastic story telling and powerful themes. I’m not keen on stories from a child’s perspective but this one’s amazing. Have you seen the film adaptation staring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch? Fabulous.

177 Atticus FinchI also admit to rereading: Madame Bovary, Cold Comfort Farm, Gone with the Wind, Jane Eyre, Jude the Obscure and Far from the Madding Crowd – well anything by Hardy. And I’m planning to read H is for Hawk again soon. It’s such an exquisitely written book. Do read it if you haven’t.

In order to understand my predilection for rereading I asked 12 of my friends to consider the novels they have reread, why they do it and what they gain. I loved their enthusiastic responses and reminders of some excellent stuff.

You might want to consider your own responses before reading on? If so, Dear Reader, look away now!

The Survey results

It turns out that none of my friends reread books as often as me. Indigo was a bit indignant: ‘I have never reread a book. I don’t have the time and there are so many other books I want to read’. Would that be your reaction? About six of my 12 buddies agreed to some extent including Marigold: ‘I always feel I don’t read enough and feel like I’m wasting time if each read isn’t new’. But she often rereads poetry and short stories such as those by Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Muriel Spark and Ali Smith. And she added: ‘I have reread The Summer Book a good few times – I find it subtle, delightful and fresh each time’.116ToveJanssonSignature

Violet told me she has only ever reread one book. If you were going to pick just one which one would it be? For Violet it was Pride and Prejudice, which she would happily read again:

I read it once at school as a set text with no appreciation, watched the various films and then reread it a couple of years ago. That brought both enjoyment and a deeper appreciation of Jane Austen’s craft. The opening sentence is a total triumph and she manages to maintain her skill throughout the book.

She surprised me by saying that when she has greatly enjoyed a book she rarely reads a second one by the same author: ‘… that may seem odd. Perhaps I feel it sets the bar too high’.

The prospect of disappointment was also on Carmine’s mind: ‘If I really enjoyed something, I don’t want to read it again in case I don’t enjoy it as much’. Magenta agrees especially after her experience of rereading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet:

I picked up the first book, Justine, and it seemed so dated.  I am definitely not the 18 year old that read it in the 1960s. It just didn’t speak to me as it had done. I did not finish the first volume never mind the four. I would rather leave the good memories.

People of a certain age, like me and my mates, like to reread to gain new perspectives on books read in their youth. Carmine spoke about this in her reply saying there was bound to be things she’d missed in the first reading. The example she gave was I Know why the Caged Bird Sings. Yes, I agree. That is worth another look.

Ebony loved reading the following eclectic mix in her teens: Hundred Years of Solitude, Death in Venice and On the Road. These had made a real impression and she wondered if they still would.

Rereading them reminded me of ways of thinking and of expressing ideas that struck a chord. These books shaped my thinking and I was curious to see if I still thought they were relevant and inspiring. They were, which was reassuring.

Blanche reread Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady for a similar reason. When she first read it in 1978 she found there was much that related to her feelings: ‘Rereading was a different experience as I was not identifying with the character and so appreciated it in a new way’. Sapphire mentioned the need to reread a book straight away in order to grasp its meaning: ‘As soon as I finished The Sound and the Fury I reread it. I understood it the second time!’

Exploring far off countries and cultures was important. Jade had reread three particular books that gave her insights into places she liked or wanted to visit – A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute, Cache Lake Country by John Rowlands and Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee.

Ruby spoke about her passion for Barbara Kingsolver’s books, rereading to psych herself up for travelling. I savoured her reply:177 poisonwood B

I bought and read The Poisonwood Bible voraciously when it was first published in Blog.doc paperback in 1999, because I’m a big fan and am always impatient for her next book. I reread it before my trip to Mali in 2007, to get me in the mood for Africa. (OK, so Mali is in West Africa and The Congo is in Central Africa, but there are commonalities: we’d be travelling by pinasse on the Niger River, the women wear similar combinations of brightly coloured cottons as body and head wraps, carry their babies on their backs, sell similar goods in the markets, etc. Both countries struggle with poverty and instability.) More recently, I read it for the third time just prior to seeing Barbara Kingsolver discussing the book with John Mullan, and I now have my copy signed! It’s not an enjoyable reread but I valued and savoured it more.

And for those who write themselves there is another purpose for rereading. I was intrigued by Marigold’s comments about The Accidental Tourist. She saw somewhere that it’s the perfect structure for a novel: ‘I started reading it with an eye on the structure and just ended up enjoying the minutiae’. Caroline’s research for her blog inspires her to reread. Her recent posts include: What Katy Did, Brighton Rock, A Passage to India and Love, Again. Another writer, Sapphire, says she studies high quality novels in great detail, reexamining each paragraph and sentence to appreciate good construction.

177 I capturedLoving the style, or the lifestyle depicted in particular books came up. Scarlet said she had reread Perfume by Patrick Susskind and Memoirs of a Geisha. She likes both because they’re visceral and experiential and she becomes completely immersed. And Jade said she had reread I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith as she loved the lifestyle portrayed.

If you belong to a book club you might reread novels to prepare for the discussion as Caroline, Blanche and Magenta do. Caroline has recently reread The Awakening by Kate Chopin because someone mentioned it in a book group and so she wanted to look closely at that again. She returns to a book in order to read more carefully rather than relying on memory. She reads so much and so quickly that she doesn’t keep the story in her head for long. Blanche enjoys being a member of a book club to get her rereading. She still sees novels as a holiday luxury, despite retirement, filling her life with ‘doing’ things. Recognise that pattern? I do.

And, of course, new technology has an influence. Magenta says she now mainly reads on a Kindle and has a tendency to read quickly, almost skimming the book:

I don’t take it in fully on the first reading, so I often read a second time and then get a lot more out of it. I do that particularly with books that we are going to discuss in our book group. So that is a very pragmatic use of rereading that is done immediately rather than after a long gap.

Comfort reading – ah yes! Carmine said: ‘Another reason is to be taken to a place I know is OK and comfortable, when I don’t want to be challenged, like reading Alexander McCall’s books when I want something interesting but light’. And ‘for therapy’ Caroline reads Pride and Prejudice and Catch-22.

Last was rereading by mistake – starting a novel and then remembering it had been read before.

So, do you ever reread books?

  • to be intellectually stimulated – to gain new perspectives or insights or shape your thinking
  • for emotional reasons – to immerse yourself in the warmth of the familiar, the joy of meeting old friends or the feeling a character, style or place can inspire
  • to develop your own creative skills – to study the beauty of the language, structure and plot for ideas for your own writing …
  • … or do you think rereading is a complete waste of time. Do let us know.

 

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