Tuesday, August 02, 2005

High Tide in Tuscon: Essays from Now or Never ~ Barbara Kingsolver

I think I have mentioned the rather torrid affair I'm having with the second-hand sale table at my local public library. It's amazing how often you can find a classic or out-of-print gem amidst the sea of battered children's picture books and romance novels. And the most it will ever cost you is fifty cents.
The fact that I managed to get a shiny harback edition of High Tide in Tuscon for two quarters amazes me almost as much as the fact that I've gone this long without my own copy. It's one of Those Books, as I call them. Books that stand out in your memory, the ones that influence you or speak to you in ways that others don't. High Tide in Tuscon is very high up, alongside A Wrinkle in Time, Hood, Tipping the Velvet, etc, in my list of Those Books.
High Tide was my introduction to Barbara Kingsolver. The first time I read it was the summer I was 13. I have family in Austin, Texas, and I spent a lot of my childhood summers there for reunions. I love the West Texas hill country. It was so different from my midwestern forests and rolling farmland and rivers. It had this searing dry heat and spare beauty, all cactus and scrub, no trees, not like the ones back home. And strange animals like fire ants and armadillos and rattlesnakes. The food was different, the people were different (even now I still privately think of my Austin relatives as The Cool Cousins), the music was different. You had to drive forever to get there, 16 hours in a hot, crowded van; it was always more of an oddessy than a family vacation.
So I was thirteen, and I had just spent the school-year mooning over my friend Annie, my first big crush. I was in the middle of my vast group of cousins in terms of age; too old to play with the little ones, too young to hang out with the older ones. But I was a solitary kid anyway and liked to wander off by myself. I went inside to escape the heat, and in the living room I picked High Tide in Tuscon off the end table and curled up to read. Now every time I see the dust jacket it makes me think of leather arm-chairs and lemonade and cicadas screeching in the heat.
I think this must have been my first real "grown up" book. Aside from Jane Eyre, which I also read that year. But Jane Eyre was a novel; High Tide is a collection of Kingsolver's essays. I don't know if Kingsolver calls herself a feminist or not; but I certainly consider her one. All of her work, fiction and non-fiction, embodies the feminist adage that the personal is politcal. These essays exposed me to ideas and conflicts over environmentalism, global capitalism and third-world poverty, the nuclear arms race, censorship, "family values", peace protests, and West African voodoo, among many other things, and she does it all by connecting it with her family, her childhood, her friends, her daughter, just ordinary things. The title essay is a meditation on place, human relationships, the natural world (she was trained as a biologist originally), the concept of home, family, starting over, all centered around her manic-depressive hermit crab named Buster. Did I mention that she's funny? Because she is. Which is what piqued my interest in the first place, and what kept me reading when I was just 13. And I kept reading High Tide because I found that she was very much like me; gawky, unpopular, awkward, socially inept as a teenager. Bookish, too, obviously; one essay is titled "How Mr. Dewey Decimal Saved My Life," a claim that applies equally well to my own experience.
If there is danger in a book like Martha Quest, and the works of all other authors who've been banned at one time or another, the danger is generally that they will broaden our experience and blend us more deeply with our fellow humans.
Which is pretty much what High Tide did for me. I'm browsing through this collection (no mean feat, it's very tempting just to sit down and read it straight through) and I'm just astounded by how much this book influenced me, and I never realized it before. There are ideas and facts and anecdotes in here that came to revolutionize the way I thought and believed and saw the world; Kingsolver herself didn't do all that, but High Tide gave me hints and glimpses of possibilities of things I'd never encountered before. Basically, I picked up some ideas in here and eventually just ran with them til I found a place to be.
I was kind of shocked, when Oprah chose her novel The Poisonwood Bible, that she was so quiet and soft-spoken. The voice I heard in her essays was opinionated and passionate and strong and witty. But I found that of course she was still all those things; and I think that's the only episode of Oprah that I've managed to watch in its entirety.
Well. That's me waxing rhapsodic on one of my favorite books. You can wake up now and un-glaze your eyes, cause really, you shouldn't listen to me blather on about it, just go read the book. Am currently suffering a case of post-Harry Potter reading funk. Should I start on the Jane Austen Book Club, or the Amelia Peabody Mystery series? It's a conundrum. Still working on the Juvenelia, however; when I said I was going to savor it slowly I wasn't messing around.


At 2:56 PM, Blogger JaneFan said...

Kingsolver is awesome, I love her essays. In fact, I recently realized I've lost my copy of Small Wonder. I wonder how that happened. I'll have to go back and reread High Tide, since it's been a while. Anyway, The Bean Trees was a real awakening for me. I read it midway through college and was shocked to feel such a connection with "modern" literature (as opposed to my usual Brit Lit fare, mainly of Austens). Kingsolver and Atwood are among the only contemporary authors I can really get excited about.

At 8:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"You can wake up now and un-glaze your eyes, cause really, you shouldn't listen to me blather on about it, just go read the book."

-This totally reminded me of the PBS show Reading Rainbow. You know, the part when Levar Burton would say...but you don't have to take my word for it. What a flashback!

At 1:02 PM, Blogger Andygrrl said...

So, you're saying I'm as exciting and educational as Reading Rainbow?

I'm going to take that as a complement. Because I LOVED Reading Rainbow. I stil remember the episode where Pete Seeger told/sang the story of Abiyoyo.

Does this mean I'm entitled to do that funny little wave Levar did whenever he said "I'll see you next time"?

Butterfly in the skyyyyy, I can go twice as hiiiiiighhh....

(omigod. I still know all the words to the theme song.)

At 12:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course you are! And it's ok...I still remember the words to most of our childhood TV show themes!

At 6:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Check your spelling...TUCSON


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