Tag: politics

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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This Is Not a Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook

“There is no planet B. This is where we will live, or go extinct as a species.”

I’m periodically prone to melancholy musings on the impending end of the world (like here). Reading this punchy collection of 35 essays was a way of taking those feelings seriously and putting them to constructive use. You’ve likely heard of Extinction Rebellion: a peaceful environmental activism movement that began in the UK and has now spread worldwide, it demands that governments face the facts about the climate crisis and do something about it, now. Fittingly, the book is divided into two sections: “Tell the Truth” plainly sets out the basics of climate breakdown and the effects we expect to see, including the disproportionate toll it will have on the poor and marginalized, and on island nations like the Maldives; “Act Now” is a practical call to arms with pieces by politicians, economists and protest organizers.

Not surprisingly, experts are calling for radical societal change: we must move away from the car culture; we cannot continue to equate success with economic growth; we must reorganize how cities function. “We are not looking at adjustments any more. It’s a complete overhaul,” Leeds University’s Professor of Urban Futures, Paul Chatterton, writes. But what did surprise me about reading This Is Not a Drill is that it’s not depressing. It’s actually rather exciting to see how many great minds and ordinary folk are aware of the climate crisis and working to mitigate it. We might not have political will at the highest levels, but grassroots movements involving just 3% of the citizenry have been shown to effect social change. I want to be part of that 3%. After I finished reading I signed up to ER’s mailing list, and though it’s not at all in my comfort zone, I’m going to consider taking part in their next public disruption.

I came away from this book with a feeling of camaraderie: we’re all in this together, and so we can only tackle it together. Post-apocalyptic fiction envisions violent, everyone-for-themselves scenarios, but it doesn’t have to be that way. ER demonstrations are said to be characterized by energy, music, laughter and good food. One word keeps appearing throughout the essays: “love.” There is righteous anger here, yes, but that’s outweighed by love – love of our planet, our only home, and the creatures it nurtures; love of the human race, the family that encompasses us all. While the authors are not unanimously optimistic, there is a sense that there is dignity in working towards positive change, whether or not we ultimately succeed. Plus, “It might just work,” former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams concludes in his afterword.

If you feel hopeless when you think about the state of the environment, I encourage you to pick this up, even if you only skim through and read a handful of the essays. The handbook achieves a fine balance between academics and laypeople; forthright assertions and creative ideas; grief and enthusiasm. It’s also strikingly designed, with the pink cover matching the ER boat and heavy use of the sorts of recurring icons and slogans you might recognize from their banners: skulls and hourglasses share space with bees, birds, butterflies and a Tree of Life. My only real quibble is that I would have liked a short bio of each contributor, either at the close of each essay or in an appendix, because while a few of these authors are household names, many are not, and it would be useful to know their bona fides.

Don’t miss these pieces: “Climate Sorrow” by psychotherapist Susie Orbach, “A Political View” by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, “A New Economics” by Oxbridge economist Kate Raworth, and “The Civil Resistance Model” by Roger Hallam of Extinction Rebellion.

 

Some favorite lines:

“Being human is not about individual survival or escape. It’s a team sport. Whatever future humans have, it will be together.” (from “Survival of the Fittest,” by American media theorist Douglas Rushkoff)

“It’s interesting and important to note that the people who are most effective are often the least attached to the effectiveness of their actions. Being detached from the outcome, and in love with the principles and the process, can help mitigate against burn-out.” (from “The Civil Resistance Model” by Roger Hallam)

“We may or may not escape a breakdown. But we can escape the toxicity of the mindset that has brought us here. And in so doing we can recover a humanity that is capable of real resilience.” (from the Afterword by Rowan Williams)

“if you are alive at this moment in history, it is because you are here to do a job. So what is your place in these times?” (from “What Is Your Place in These Times?” by Gail Bradbrook, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion)

My rating:

 

 

This Is Not a Drill was published on June 13th. My thanks to Penguin Random House for the free copy for review.

New Networks for Nature 2018

This past weekend was my fourth time attending part of Nature Matters, the annual New Networks for Nature conference. I’ve written about it here a couple of times, once when there was a particular focus on nature poetry and another time when it was held in Cambridge. This year it was back in Stamford for a last time for the 10th anniversary. Next year: York.

What’s so special about the conference is its interdisciplinary nature: visual artists, poets, musicians, writers, politicians, academics and conservationists alike attend and present. So although the event might seem geared more towards my biologist husband, there’s always plenty to interest me, too. The roster is a who’s who of British nature writing: Mark Avery, Tim Birkhead, Mark Cocker, Mary Colwell, Miriam Darlington, Richard Kerridge, Peter Marren, Michael McCarthy, Stephen Moss, Adam Nicolson, Katharine Norbury, Ruth Padel, Laurence Rose and Mike Toms were all there this year. I also appreciate the atmosphere of friendly disagreement about what nature is and how best to go about conserving it.

I attended on Friday, a jam-packed day of sessions that began with Bob Gibbons presenting on the flowers and wildlife of Transylvania, a landscape and culture that are still almost medieval in character. Then Jeremy Mynott interviewed Mark Cocker about his latest book, Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife before It Is Too Late? I’ve read other Cocker books, but not this one yet. Its main point seems to be that the country’s environmental organizations need to work together. Individuals and NGOs are doing passionate and wonderful things towards nature conservation, Cocker said, but overall “we ain’t getting there.” Bad news doesn’t sell, though, he noted: his book has sold just 6,000 copies compared to 30,000 for Wilding, Isabella Tree’s story of the rewilding success at Knepp.

Mark Cocker

Cocker refused to define nature in a one-sentence soundbite, but argued that we have to consider ourselves a part of it rather than thinking about it as a victim ‘out there’ (the closest he came to a definition was “the totality of the system we are a part of”). “Our responsibility, terrifyingly, is unending,” he said – every time you open a new plastic toothbrush, you can’t forget that the old one you throw away will effectively be around forever. Our Place isn’t just composed of polemic, though: it’s structured around six beloved landscapes and finds moments of transcendence in being out in nature. You find hope by walking out the door, feeling the wind on your face and hearing the starling singing, Cocker remarked. He closed by reading a description from the book of the north Norfolk coast.

Either side of lunch were panels on how social media (mostly Twitter, plus smartphone apps) can serve nature and the role that poetry might play in environmental activism, with a brief interlude from visual artist Derek Robertson, who responded to the refugee crisis by traveling to Calais and Jordan and painting human figures alongside migratory birds. In the poetry session I especially enjoyed hearing from Ben Smith, a University of Plymouth lecturer and poet with a debut novel coming out in April 2019 (Doggerland, from Fourth Estate). He recently collaborated with Dr. Lee de Mora on a set of poems inspired by the Earth System Model, which provides the data for the International Panel on Climate Change. Climate modeling might seem an odd subject for poetry, but it provides excellent metaphors for failure and hope in “Spinning Up,” “Data Sets” and “Alternate Histories.”

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Ben Smith’s poem links unlikely subjects: surfing and climate modeling. Photo by Chris Foster.

Birmingham lecturer Isabel Galleymore, whose debut collection Significant Other is coming out from Carcanet Press in March, talked about how she uses the tropes of love poetry (praise, intimacy, pursuit and loss) when writing about environmental crisis. This shift in her focus began at university when she studied Wordsworth through an ecocritical lens, she said. Jos Smith and Luke Thompson were the other two poets on a panel chaired by Matt Howard. Howard quoted Keats – “We hate poetry that has a design on us” – and asked the poets for reactions. Smith agreed that polemic and poetry don’t mix well, yet said it’s good to have a reason for writing. He thinks it’s best when you can hold two or more ideas in play at a time.

After tea and a marvelous cake spread, it was time for a marathon of three sessions in a row, starting with three short presentations on seabirds: one by a researcher, one by a nature reserve manager, and one by a young artist who produced Chinese-style scroll paintings of the guillemot breeding colonies on Skomer and exhibited them in Sheffield Cathedral.

Next up was a highlight of the weekend: Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and Labour peer Baroness Barbara Young conversed with Michael McCarthy on the topic “Can Conventional Politics Save the Environment?” Both decried short-term thinking, the influence of corporations and the media, and government departments not working together. No one was ever elected on the promise of “less,” McCarthy suggested, but in reply Lucas talked about redefining terms: less of what? more of what? If we think in terms of quality of life, things like green energy and the sharing economy will become more appealing. She also believes that more people care about green issues than we think, but, e.g., a London mum might speak out about air quality without ever using the word “environment.” Baroness Young concluded that “adversarial politics, flip-flopping between parties, isn’t working” and we must get beyond it, at the local level if nothing else. That rang true for me for American politics, too.

Young, McCarthy and Lucas. Photo by Chris Foster.

Before the day ended with a drinks reception, we were treated to a completely different presentation by Lloyd Buck, who raises and trains birds, mostly for television footage. So, for instance, the greylag geese flying in formation alongside the boat in David Attenborough’s 2012 Sixty Years in the Wild TV special had imprinted on Lloyd’s wife, Rose. Buck spoke about bonding with birds of very different personalities, and introduced the audience to five starlings (who appeared in Poldark), a peregrine, a gyrfalcon, a golden eagle, and Bran the raven, who showed his intelligence by solving several puzzles to find hidden chunks of meat.

I purchased two books of poetry from the bookstall – I had no idea Darlington had written poetry before her nature books – and the conference brochure itself is a wonderful 75-page collection of recent artwork and short nature writing pieces, including most of the presenters but also Patrick Barkham, Tim Dee, Paul Evans, Philip Hoare, Richard Mabey, Helen Macdonald and Chris Packham – a keynote speaker announced for next year. I’ve been skipping through the booklet and have most enjoyed the pieces by Melissa Harrison and Helen Scales so far. Altogether, an inspiring and worthwhile weekend.

Would any of the conference’s themes or events have interested you?

Heartland by Sarah Smarsh

If you were a fan of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, then debut author Sarah Smarsh’s memoir, Heartland, deserves to be on your radar too. Smarsh comes from five generations of Kansas wheat farmers and worked hard to step outside of the vicious cycle that held back the women on her mother’s side of the family: poverty, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, broken marriages, a lack of job security, and moving all the time. Like Mamaw in Vance’s book, Grandma Betty is the star of the show here: a source of pure love, she played a major role in raising Smarsh. The rundown of Betty’s life is sobering: her father was abusive and her mother had schizophrenia; she got pregnant at 16; and she racked up six divorces and countless addresses. This passage about her paycheck and diet jumped out at me:

Each month, after she paid the rent and utilities, and the landlady for watching Jeannie, Betty had $27 left. She budgeted some of it for cigarettes and gas. The rest went to groceries from the little store around the corner. The store sold frozen pot pies, five for a dollar. She’d buy twenty-five of them, beef and chicken flavor, and that would be her dinner all month. Every day, a candy bar for lunch at work and a frozen pot pie for dinner at home.

It’s a sad state of affairs when fatty processed foods are cheaper than healthy ones, and this is still the case today: the underprivileged are more likely to subsist on McDonald’s than on vegetables. Heartland is full of these kinds of contradictions. For instance, in the Reagan years the country shifted rightwards and working-class Catholics like Smarsh’s mother started voting Republican – in contravention of the traditional understanding that the Democrats were for the poor and the Republicans were for the rich. Smarsh followed her mother’s lead by casting her first-ever vote for George W. Bush in 2000, but her views changed in college when she learned how conservative fiscal policies keep people poor.

This isn’t a straightforward, chronological family story; it jumps through time and between characters. You might think of reading it as like joining Smarsh for an amble around the farm or a flip through a photograph album. Its vignettes are vivid, if sometimes hard to join into a cohesive story line in the mind. Some of the scenes that stood out to me were being pulled by truck through the snow on a canoe, helping Grandma Betty move into a house in Wichita but high-tailing it out of there when they realized it was infested by cockroaches, and the irony of winning a speech contest about drug addiction when her stepmother was hooked on opioids.

Heartland serves as a personal tour through some of the persistent trials of working-class life in the American Midwest: urbanization and the death of the family farm, an inability to afford health insurance and the threat of toxins encountered in the workplace, and the elusive dream of home ownership. Like Vance, Smarsh has escaped most of the worst possibilities through determination and education, so is able to bring an outsider’s clarity to the issues. At times she has a tendency to harp on the same points, though, adding in generalizations about the effects of poverty rather than just letting her family’s stories speak for themselves.

The oddest thing about Smarsh’s memoir – and I am certainly not the first reviewer to mention this since the book’s U.S. release in September – is who it’s directed to: her never-to-be-born daughter, “August”. Teen pregnancy was the family curse Smarsh was most desperate to avoid, and even now that she’s in her late thirties, a journalist and academic returned to Kansas after years on the East Coast, she remains childless. August is who Smarsh had in mind while working two or more jobs all through high school, earning higher degrees and buying her dream home. All along she was saving August from the hardships of a poor upbringing. While the unborn child is a potent symbol, it can be disorienting after pages of “I” to come across a “you” and have to readjust to who is being addressed.

Heartland is a striking book, not without its challenges to the reader, but one that I ultimately found rewarding to read in short bursts of 10 to 20 pages at a time. It’s worthwhile for anyone interested in what it’s really like to be poor in America.

My rating:

 

A favorite passage:

“My life has been a bridge between two places: the working poor and ‘higher’ economic classes. The city and the country. College-educated coworkers and disenfranchised loved ones. A somewhat conservative upbringing and a liberal adulthood. Home in the middle of the country and work on the East Coast. The physical world where I talk to people and the formless dimension where I talk to you.”

 


Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth was published by Scribe UK on November 8th. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.

Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

“Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.”

This is one of those books I’d heard high praise about from America but never thought I’d be able to get hold of in the UK. I looked into borrowing it from the public library on my last trip to the States, but even nearly a year after its publication the reservation list was still a mile long. So I was delighted to hear that Hillbilly Elegy was being released in paperback in the UK last month. For British readers, it will provide a welcome window onto a working-class world that is easily caricatured but harder to understand in a nuanced way.

J.D. Vance knows hillbilly America from the inside but also has the necessary distance to be able to draw helpful conclusions about it: born in the “Rust Belt” of Ohio to parents who didn’t complete high school, he served in the Marine Corps in Iraq, attended Ohio State University and Yale Law School, and became a successful investor with a venture capital firm. He was one of the lucky ones who didn’t give into lower-middle-class despair and widespread vices like alcoholism and hard drugs, even though his mother was an addict and installed a “revolving door of father figures” in his life after his father abandoned them.

Vance attributes his success to the stability provided by his grandparents, his beloved Mamaw and Papaw. They were part of a large wave of migration from Kentucky to Ohio, where they moved so Papaw could work in the Armco Steel mill. Prejudice assaulted the couple from both sides: Kentucky folk thought they’d grown too big for their britches, while in Ohio they were maligned as dirty hillbillies. Mamaw, in particular, is a wonderful character so eccentric you couldn’t make her up, with her fierce love backed up by a pistol.

The book is powerful because it gives concrete, personal examples of social movements: it’s no dry history of how the Scots-Irish residents of Appalachia switched allegiance from the Democratic Party to the Republican after Richard Nixon, though Vance does fill in these broad brushstrokes, but a family memoir that situates Mamaw and Papaw’s experience, and later his own, in the context of the history of the region and the whole country.

I most appreciated the author’s determined use of the first-person plural, especially later in the book: he includes himself in the hillbilly “we” such that he’s not some newly gentrified snob denouncing welfare queens: he knows these people and this lifestyle and recognizes its contradictions; he also knows that but for the grace of God he could have slipped into the same bad habits.

Jackson [Kentucky] is undoubtedly full of the nicest people in the world; it is also full of drug addicts and at least one man who can find the time to make eight children but can’t find the time to support them. It is unquestionably beautiful, but its beauty is obscured by the environmental waste and loose trash that scatters the countryside. Its people are hardworking, except of course for the many food stamp recipients who show little interest in honest work.

At Yale Law School Vance felt out of place for the first time in his life. One of the most important things he learned from professors like Amy Chua was the value of social capital: in his new world of lawyers, senators and judges it really was all about who you know. At law firm interviews, he had no idea what cutlery to use in restaurants and had to text his girlfriend for help. For as much as he’s adapted to non-hillbilly life in the intervening years, he still notices in himself the hallmarks of a stressful, impoverished upbringing: a fight or flight approach to conflict and an honor culture that makes him prone to nurturing feuds.

Although I enjoyed it simply as a memoir, I can see this book especially appealing to people who are interested in the politics and psychology of the lower middle class (perhaps an American equivalent to Owen Jones’s Chavs, a book I never got through). British readers will, I think, be surprised to learn that Vance is on the conservative end of the spectrum and has political aspirations. Essentially, he doesn’t think the government can fix things for struggling country folk, though certain social policies might help. He seems to think it’s more a question of personal responsibility – and also that churches have a major role to play.

There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.

Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.

(These strike me as alien ideas in the UK, apart from short-lived strategies like David Cameron’s “Big Society” – except, perhaps, if one goes all the way back to Thatcherism.)

Much has been made in the British press about this book’s ability to explain the rise of Donald Trump. This is an overstatement, and perhaps even misleading, when you consider the author’s conservatism; he never mentions Trump, and never engages in any specific political discussions. But what it is helpful for is exposing a mindset of rugged, defiant individualism that often shades into hopelessness. I have my own share of redneck relatives, and though I feel far removed from the world Vance depicts, I can see its traces in my family tree. I’m glad he had the guts to draw on his experience and write this hard-hitting book.

My rating:


Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis was first published in the UK by William Collins in September 2016. My thanks to Katherine Patrick for sending a free paperback for review.

 Note: Ron Howard is to direct and produce a movie version of the book.