Tag: Bible

Doorstopper of the Month: A Reread of The Poisonwood Bible (1998)

“The fallen Congo came to haunt even our little family, we messengers of goodwill adrift on a sea of mistaken intentions.”

You may have gathered by now that I struggle with rereading. Often I find that on a second reading a book doesn’t live up to my memory of it – last year I reread just four books, and I rated each one a star lower than I had the first time. But that wasn’t the case with my September book club book, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which I’ve just flown through in 11 days. I first read it in the spring of 2002 or 2003, so maybe it’s that I’d allowed enough time to pass for it to be almost completely fresh – or that I was in a better frame of mind to appreciate its picture of harmful ideologies in a postcolonial setting. In any case, this time it struck me as a masterpiece, and has instantly leapt onto my favorites list.

Here’s what I’d remembered about The Poisonwood Bible after the passage of 16–17 years:

  • It’s about a missionary family in Africa, and narrated by the daughters.
  • One of the sisters marries an African.
  • The line “Nathan was made frantic by sex” (except I had it fixed incorrectly in my mind; it’s actually “Nathan was made feverish by sex”).

 


Everything else I’d forgotten. Here’s what stood out on my second reading:

  • Surely one of the best opening lines ever? (Though technically there’s a prologue that comes before it.) “We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle.”
  • The book is actually narrated in turns by the wife and four daughters of Southern Baptist missionary Nathan Price, who arrives in the Congo with his family in 1959. These five voices are a triumph of first-person narration, so distinct and arising organically from the characters’ personalities and experiences. The mother, Orleanna, writes from the future in despondent isolation – a hint right from the beginning that this venture is not going to end well. Fifteen-year-old Rachel is a selfish, ditzy blonde who speaks in malapropisms and period slang and misses everything about American culture. Leah, one of the 13-year-olds, is whip-smart and earnest; she idolizes their father and echoes his religious language. Her twin, Adah, who was born with partial paralysis, rarely speaks but has an intricate inner life she expresses through palindromes, cynical poetry and plays on words. And Ruth May, just five years old, sees more than she understands and sets it all across plainly but wittily.
  • Nathan’s arrogant response to the ‘native customs’ is excruciating. His first prayer, spoken to bless the meal the people of Kilanga give in welcome, quickly becomes a diatribe against nakedness, and he later rails against polygamy and witch doctors and tries to enforce child baptism. When he refuses to take their housekeeper Mama Tataba’s advice on planting, all of the seeds he brought from home wash away in the first rainstorm. On a second attempt he meekly makes the raised beds she recommended, and keeps away from the poisonwood that made him break out in a nasty rash. This garden he plants is a metaphor for control versus adaptation.
  • Brother Fowles, Nathan’s predecessor at the mission, is proof that Christianity doesn’t have to be a haughty rampage. He respects Africans enough to have married one, and his religion is a playful, elastic one built around love and working alongside creation.
  • The King James Bible (plus Apocrypha, for which Nathan harbors a strange fondness) provides much of the book’s language and imagery, as well as the section headings. Many of these references come to have (sometimes mocking) relevance. Kingsolver also makes reference to classics of Africa-set fiction, like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
  • Africa is a place of many threats – malaria and dysentery, snakes in the chicken house, swarms of ants that eat everything in their path, corruption, political coups and assassinations – not least the risk of inadvertently causing grave cultural offense.
  • The backdrop of the Congo’s history, especially the declaration of independence in 1960 and the U.S.-led “replacement” (by assassination) of its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, with the dictator Mobutu, is thorough but subtle, such that minimal to no Googling is required to understand the context. (Only in one place, when Leah and Rachel are arguing as adults, does Kingsolver resort to lecturing on politics through dialogue, as she does so noticeably in Unsheltered.)
  • Names are significant, as are their changes. With the end of colonialism Congo becomes Zaire and all its cities and landmarks are renamed, but the change seems purely symbolic. The characters take on different names in the course of the book, too, through nicknames, marriage or education. Many African words are so similar to each other that a minor mispronunciation by a Westerner changes the meaning entirely, making for jokes or irony. And the family’s surname is surely no coincidence: we are invited to question the price they have paid by coming to Africa.
  • We follow the sisters decades into the future. “Africa has a thousand ways to get under your skin,” Leah writes; “we’ve all ended up giving up body and soul to Africa, one way or another.” Three of the four end up staying there permanently, but disperse into different destinies that seem to fit their characters. Even those Prices who return to the USA will never outrun the shadow the Congo has left on their lives.

 

What an amazing novel about the ways that right and wrong, truth and pain get muddied together. Some characters are able to acknowledge their mistakes and move on, while others never can. As Adah concludes, “We are the balance of our damage and our transgressions.”

I worried it would be a challenge to reread this in time to hand it over for my husband to take on his week-long field course in Devon, but it turned out to be a cinch. That’s the mark of success of a doorstopper for me: it’s so engrossing you hardly notice how long the book is. I think this will make for our best book club discussion yet. I can already think of a few questions to ask – Is it fair that Nathan never gets to tell his side of the story? Which of the five voices is your favorite? Who changes and who stays the same over the course of the book? – and I’m sure I’ll find many more resources online since this was an Oprah’s Book Club pick too.

 

 


English singer-songwriter Anne-Marie Sanderson’s excellent Book Songs, Volume 1 EP includes the song “Poisonwood.” The excerpted lyrics are below, with direct quotes from the text in bold.

 

Our Father speaks for all of us

Our Father knows what’s best for us as well

 

He planted a garden where poisonwood grew

He cut down the orchids cos none of us knew

that the seeds that filled his pockets

would grow and grow without stopping

his beans, his Kentucky Wonders

played their part in tearing us asunder.

 

Our mother suffered through all of this

Our mother carried the guilt

Carry us, marry us, ferry us, bury us

Carry us, bury us with the poisonwood.

 

Page count: 615

My rating:

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Classic and Doorstopper of the Month: East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1952)

Look no further for the Great American Novel. Spanning from the Civil War to World War I and crossing the country from New England to California, East of Eden is just as wide-ranging in its subject matter, with an overarching theme of good and evil as it plays out in families and in individual souls. This weighty material – openly addressed in theological and philosophical terms in the course of the novel – is couched in something of a family saga that follows several generations of the Trasks and the Hamiltons. (Some spoilers follow.)

Cyrus Trask, Civil War amputee and fraudulent hero, has two sons. He sends his beloved boy, Adam, into the army during the Indian Wars. Adam’s half-brother Charles stays home to tend the family’s Connecticut farm. There’s a bitter sibling rivalry between them; more than once it looks like Charles might beat Adam to death. When Cyrus, now high up in military administration in Washington, dies and leaves his sons $100,000, Charles is suspicious. He’s sure their father stole the money, but Adam won’t accept that. Adam takes his inheritance and buys a ranch outside Salinas, California, taking with him his new wife Cathy, who turned up battered on the brothers’ doorstep and won’t reveal anything about her shadowy background.

Cathy is that rare thing: a female villain, and one with virtually no redeeming features. No sooner has she given birth to Adam’s twin sons than she runs off, shooting him in the shoulder to get away. Unbeknownst to Adam, who still idealizes a wife he knows nothing about, she gets work in a Salinas brothel and before long takes over as the madam. As her sons Aron and Cal grow up, they hear rumors that make them doubt their mother is buried back East, as their father claims. Aron is drawn to the Church and falls for a girl named Abra, whom he puts on a pedestal just as he does his ‘dead’ mother. Cal, a wanderer and schemer, is determined not to follow his mother into vice even though that seems like his fate.

The John Steinbeck House (his childhood home) in Salinas, CA. By Ken Lund [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons.
Meanwhile, the Hamiltons are a large Irish-American clan headed up by patriarch Samuel, who’s an indomitably cheerful inventor and land advisor even though he’s hardly made a penny from his own ranch. He’s a devoted friend to Adam in the 11 years Adam is lost in his grief over Cathy. At about the halfway point of the novel, we finally learn that the narrator is a version of the author: this John Steinbeck is one of Samuel’s grandchildren, so at the same time that he’s mythologizing the Trasks’ story he’s also expounding family stories. I’ll have to do more research to see to what extent the family’s Salinas history is autobiographical.

This was a buddy read with my mother. We were surprised by how much philosophy and theology Steinbeck includes. The parallels with the Cain and Abel story (brought to mind by both sets of C & A Trask brothers) are not buried in the text for an observant reader to find, but discussed explicitly. My favorite character and the novel’s most straightforward hero is Lee, Adam’s loyal Chinese cook, who practically raises Cal and Aron. When we first meet him he’s speaking pidgin, as is expected of him, but around friends he drops the act and can be his nurturing and deeply intellectual self. With some fellow Chinese scholars he’s picked apart Genesis 4 and zeroed in on one Hebrew word, timshel or “thou mayest.” To Lee this speaks of choice and possibility; life is not all pre-ordained. For the two central families it is a message of hope: one does not have to replicate family mistakes.

Steinbeck with his third wife, Elaine Scott, in 1950. The character of Cathy may be based on his second wife, Gwyn Conger, who cheated on him on multiple occasions and asked for a divorce. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.
There are plenty more scriptural echoes if you look out for them. Two brothers taking their inheritance and doing different things with it reminded me of the Prodigal Son parable. Siblings squabble over a father’s blessing as in the Jacob and Esau story, and the Hamiltons are like the many children of Israel – the youngest is even called Joseph. It’s rewarding to watch how money and technology come and go, and to trace the novel’s repeating patterns of behavior – some subtle and some overt. (There are three $100,000 bequests, for instance.)

At 600 small-type pages, this is a big book with many minor threads and secondary characters I haven’t even touched on. Steinbeck grapples with primal stories about human nature and examines how we try to earn love and break free from others’ expectations. His depiction of America’s contradictions still feels true, and he writes simply stunning sentences. “It is one of the best books I’ve ever read,” my mother told me. It’s a classic you really shouldn’t pass up.

Page count: 602

My rating:

 

A few favorite passages:

“It is the dull eventless times that have no duration whatever. A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy—that’s the time that seems long in the memory.”

“Adam Trask grew up in grayness, and the curtains of his life were like dusty cobwebs, and his days a slow file of half-sorrows and sick dissatisfactions, and then, through Cathy, the glory came to him.”

“We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”

 

During the month I spent reading this I could hardly get these two songs out of my head. Both seem to be at least loosely inspired by East of Eden. I’ve pulled out some key lines and linked to audio or video footage.

 

“Salinas” by Laura Marling

When the clouds roll in, we start playing for our sins

With a gun in my hand and my son at my shoulder

Believe I will run before that boy gets older […]

Ask the angels, “Am I heaven-bound?”

 

“By the Skin of My Teeth” by Duke Special

My luck ran out just east of Eden

Oh, I proved you right

I’m a danger […]

I’m tired, don’t let me be a failure

Recommended May Releases

May and June are HUGE months for new releases. I’ve been doing enough early reading via NetGalley and Edelweiss that I’ve found plenty to recommend to you for next month. From a novel voiced by one of Hemingway’s wives to a physicist’s encouragement to waste more time, I hope there will be something here for everyone.

 

The Pisces by Melissa Broder

[Coming from Hogarth Press (USA) on the 1st and Bloomsbury (UK) on the 3rd]

At first I thought this was one of those funny, quirky but somewhat insubstantial novels about a thirtysomething stuck with a life she isn’t sure she wants – something along the lines of Goodbye, Vitamin, The Portable Veblen, or All Grown Up. Then I thought it was just a crass sex comedy. But the further I read the deeper it all seemed to become: tropes from Greek myth and the fluidity of gender roles made me think of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, another debut novel that surprised me for its profundity. Lucy, a thirty-eight-year-old PhD student, agrees to spend a summer dog-sitting for her yoga entrepreneur sister in Venice Beach, California while she undertakes therapy for the twin problems of low self-esteem and love addiction. If you know one thing about this book, it’s that there’s sex with a merman. Ultimately, though, I’d say it’s about “the prison of the body” and choosing which of the different siren voices calling us to listen to. I found it outrageous but rewarding.

My rating:

 

How to Be a Perfect Christian by Adam Ford and Kyle Mann

[Coming from Multnomah (USA) on the 1st]

The Babylon Bee is a Christian version of The Onion, so you know what you’re getting here: a very clever, pitch-perfect satire of evangelical Christianity today. If, like me, you grew up in a nondenominational church and bought into the subculture hook, line and sinker (Awana club, youth group, courtship, dc Talk albums, the whole shebang), you will find that so much of this rings true. The book is set up as a course for achieving superficial perfection through absolute “conformity to the status quo of the modern church.” Sample advice: find an enormous church that meets your needs, has a great coffee bar and puts on a laser-lit worship performance to rival “an amusement park for cats or a Def Leppard concert”; master the language of Christianese (“Keeping it in prayer” pretty much covers your bases); and bring as little as you can to the church potluck (a 25-pack of napkins) but consume as much as is anatomically possible. So, a lot of fun, just a little overlong because you get the joke early on.

My rating:

 

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel

[Coming from Riverhead (USA) on the 15th]

In May 1994, the members of the Van Ness String Quartet are completing their final graduate recital at a San Francisco conservatory and preparing for the Esterhazy quartet competition in the Canadian Rockies. These four talented musicians – Jana, first violin; Brit, second violin; Henry, viola; and Daniel, cello – have no idea what the next 15 years will hold for them: a cross-country move, romances begun and lost, and career successes and failures. Drawing on her own history as a violinist and cellist, Aja Gabel infuses her debut novel with the simultaneous uncertainty and euphoria of both the artistic life and early adulthood in general. An alternating close third-person perspective gives glimpses into the main characters’ inner lives, and there are evocative descriptions of classical music. I think The Ensemble will mean even more to those readers who are involved in music, but anyone can relate to the slow fade from youth into middle age and the struggle to integrate art with the rest of life.

My rating:

 

Tropic of Squalor by Mary Karr

[Coming from Harper (USA) on the 8th]

Mary Karr is mostly known as a memoirist, but this is actually her fifth poetry collection. Death is a major theme, with David Foster Wallace’s suicide and 9/11 getting multiple mentions. Karr also writes self-deprecatingly about her Texas childhood. Best of all is the multi-part “The Less Holy Bible”: a sort of Devil’s Dictionary based loosely around the books of the Bible, it bounces between Texas and New York City and twists biblical concepts into commonsense advice. Not one for those who are quick to cry heresy, perhaps, but I enjoyed it very much, especially “VI. Wisdom: The Voice of God”: “Ninety percent of what’s wrong with you could be cured with a hot bath, / says God through the manhole covers, but you want magic, to win / the lottery you never bought a ticket for. … Don’t look for initials in the geese honking / overhead or to see through the glass even darkly. It says the most obvious shit, / i.e. Put down that gun, you need a sandwich.”

My rating:

 

In Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman

[Coming from Simon & Schuster / TED (USA and UK) on the 15th]

Lightman, a physicist and MIT professor, argues that only in unstructured time can we rediscover our true identity and recover our carefree childhood creativity. This work-as-play model goes against the modern idea that time is money and every minute must be devoted to a project. “For any unexpected opening of time that appears during the day, I rush to patch it, as if a tear in my trousers. … I feel compelled to find a project, to fill up the hole.” Yet there is another way of approaching time, as he discovered when doing research in a village in Cambodia. He realized that the women he talked to didn’t own watches and thus had no real sense of how long any task took them. This sharp, concise treatise ruminates on the cultural forces that have enslaved us in the West to productivity. (In short, he blames the Internet, but specifically smartphones.) Lightman insists on the spiritual benefits of free time and solitude. “With a little determination, each of us can find a half hour a day to waste time,” he asserts.

My rating:

 

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain

[Coming from Ballantine Books (USA) and Fleet (UK) on the 1st]

This is the weakest of the three McLain novels I’ve read, but when we’re talking about a writer of this caliber that isn’t much of a criticism. It’s strange to me that, having written a novel from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, McLain would choose to tell the story of another Hemingway wife – this time Martha Gellhorn, a war reporter and author in her own right. If I set aside this misgiving, though, and just assess the quality of the writing, there are definitely things to praise, such as the vivid scenes set during the Spanish Civil War, the dialogues between Martha and Hem, the way he perhaps fills in for her dead father, her fondness for his sons, and her jealousy over his growing success while her books sink like stones. I especially liked their first meeting in a bar in Key West, and the languid pace of their life in Cuba. I read such books because I’m intrigued about the appeal of a great man, but here I got a little bogged down with the many settings and events.

My rating:

 

 

What May books do you have on the docket? Have you already read any that you can recommend?