The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Fiction – print. Harper, 1998. Originally published 1988. 272 pgs. Library copy.

Twenty-three year old Marietta buys a used car and sets her sights west leaving behind her small town in Kentucky and the single mother who raised her. Rechristening herself as Taylor Greer, Marietta has no plan as to where she’s headed or what she plans to do for money. All she knows is that a young woman in the 1980s named Taylor wouldn’t allow herself to be tied down to a man who doesn’t love her and children she doesn’t want in a small town right out of the 1950s.

Yet Taylor doesn’t entirely manage to escape this fate as she reaches the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma late one night and ends up leaving tribal lands with a bruised, non-communicative child in her care. Turtle – so named because she grabbed anything put in front of her with a death grip – and Taylor wind up in Arizona where they are first taken in by the owner of the “Jesus Is Lord” auto body shop, Maddie, after Taylor’s car dies and she is unable to pay for repairs. Early chapters introduce the reader to Lou Ann and her newborn son, Dwayne Ray, before (obviously) converging together as Taylor and Turtle end up moving in with Lou Ann and forging a unique family structure that explores both motherhood and female friendship.

To truly enjoy this book, you have to suspend disbelief (or common sense, as one woman in my book club put it) and accept that a twenty-three year old, unmarried woman who prided herself all through high school on not getting pregnant would accept a Native American child from a complete stranger in the middle of Oklahoma and continue onward with her journey to Tuscan, Arizona. My book club was pretty evenly split on this book – four loved it, four hated it, and four thought it as just okay – and it seemed to boil down to whether or not you could accept this premise.

I, myself, went back and forth on whether or not I could believe this. Taylor and I are a year apart in age, and I know that my first reaction when someone handed me a baby would be to head straight to the nearest police station. Would I end up advocating for the child? Oh, definitely. But I would not keep driving across state lines and risk criminal prosecution for kidnapping and/or child abuse simply because someone handed me a child and told me I had to take it with me.

Of course, Taylor’s acceptance of this child into her life reflects her ability to react without consideration for the future. I am a planner; Taylor is an actor. Someone hands her a child? Taylor keeps it without second thought. A boss says she must pay to dry clean her uniform? Taylor quits without thinking about how she’ll pay for rent or food for her and her new daughter, Turtle. A friend needs help smuggling people across the border? Taylor agrees to drive them to Oklahoma without considering what getting caught would mean for her and Turtle.

When I was able to accept this about Taylor’s personality and suspend disbelief, I ended up being charmed by the mysterious behavior of Turtle and the story of how she slowly breaks out of her shell (pun intended). I also particularly enjoyed watching Taylor and Lou Ann – a fellow Kentuckian who is abandoned in Arizona by her husband during her eighth month of pregnancy – forged together a hodgepodge family consisting of themselves, their children, and their neighbors so that both of these women and Turtle, especially, can thrive. Over the years of living far away from my family, I’ve really come to value having a network of friends who love and support each other as a family would, and I was particularly touched by Kingsolver’s depiction of how Taylor and Turtle’s network evolved over time.

Having read two of Kingsolver’s later books, it was obvious that this was a first novel. Some of the harsher critics in my book club said the writing as flat and “blander than vanilla”, but I was able to imagine both the Kentucky and the Arizona settings despite having never traveled to either state. The “Jesus Is Lord” auto repair shop was especially vivid in my mind. I do think the writing lacked an emotional impact, and I could set the book aside without hesitation when my train arrived or bedtime loomed.

However, I think the lack of emotional range was a reflection of Taylor’s personality rather than a deficit in Kingsolver’s writing.  And while I remember having a much more visceral reaction to events of her more well-known novel, The Poisonwood Bible,  this book is the only one I want to read a sequel to. So, clearly, something about this story resonated with me despite my struggle to suspend disbelief with the basic premise.

The Classics Club: One Year Later

A year ago today, I decided to join The Classics Club and created a list of seventy-five classics I would like to read within a three year period. I said in my introductory post that I hoped to read twenty-five classics each year and, a year later, I’ve read sixteen books off of my original list plus an additional eight books that could also be considered classics.

All of my book reviews for those titles I’ve read for the club are available here in their own category. The additional eight books considered classics I’ve read and discussed are available in my “classics” tagSome of the highlights of the past year include:

In the next year of being in the Classics Club, I plan to tackle books by the Brontë sisters as I’ve been avoiding Anne, Charlotte, and Emily for years now as a bad experience with Wuthering Heights. It would be lovely if I could fall in love with them as much as I have with Edith Wharton!

Recent Acquisitions

DSC_0003Much smaller pile this time around. The selections available at the library’s used book sale were pretty repetitive — lots of book clubs dumping their selections, I guess — and I haven’t exactly been reading enough to justify bringing home yet more books.

Three of the books I picked up — The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon — are books I remember making their rounds through the blogosphere over the last couple of years. And I’ve read two novels by Sophie Hannah before hence bringing home The Cradle in the Grave.

The only book I didn’t pick up at the used book sale was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which I purchased at a local bookstore while I was hanging out with a friend in Somerville last weekend. This novel is my book club’s selection for August, and there was no way I would make it to the top of the 450+ waiting list at the library in time. I haven’t made much of a dent in the book, but it’s set during World War II so I am looking forward to reading it.

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells

Fiction — print. Bantam, 1994. Originally published 1896. 157 pgs. Library copy.

Shipwrecked somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, Edward Prendick is rescued by a passing ship and revived by a man named Montgomery. The ship has been chartered by Montgomery to carry a collection of animals to an small island in the Pacific owned by a Dr. Moreau, although Montgomery refuses to tell Prendick what exactly Moreau plans to do with the animals or explain who exactly Moreau is.

“So long as visible or audible pain turns you sick, so long as your own pains drive you, so long as pain underlies your propositions about sin, so long, I tell you, you are an animal, thinking a little less obscurely what an animal feels.” (pg. 83)

As the ship reaches the island, the captain demands Montgomery, his bestial manservant M’ling, and Prendick leave the ship and remain on Moreau’s island despite Montgomery’s assertion that he cannot off refuge to Prendick. Stranded by the captain, Montgomery eventually takes pity on Prendick and allows him to make a home in an outer room of Moreau’s compound with the promise that Prendick will not bother the doctor or interfere with his work.

However, the anguished cries of the puma Montgomery transported for Moreau’s use drives Prendick from the enclosure and into the jungle. There, he finds a group of humanoids — half-human, half-beast known as the “Beast Folk” — who are victims of Moreau’s mad experiments and now live their lives by a series of laws that praise Moreau and criticize their beastly behavior. Worried that Moreau and Montgomery plan to experiment on him, Prendick attempts to live among the Beast Folk until Moreau’s laws begin to lose their grip on this ragtag society and the Beast Folk begin to revert back to their baser instincts.

“Before they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence began in an agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau — and for what?” (pg. 109)

Back in May, I finally listened to my friends and started watching the television series “Orphan Black” blowing through nearly three seasons worth of episodes to catch up before the season finale near the end of June. Those of you who are familiar with the show know that Ethan Duncan, the creator of the LEDA clone experiment, hide the answer to the clones’ genetic code in a copy of Wells’ 1896 novel about the horrors of scientific experimentation. And, well, if I’m going to call myself a member of the #CloneClub (name for fans for the show), then I’m obviously going to do it right and read The Island of Dr. Moreau.

The back cover of my copy says “this early work of H.G. Wells was greeted in 1896 by howls of protest from reviewers, who found it horrifying and blasphemous. They wanted to know more about the wondrous possibilities of science in his first book, The Time Machine, not its potential for misuse and terror”. I haven’t read Wells’ first book so I cannot comment on that comparison, but horrifying and blasphemous? Yes, I would concur with that assessment.

Horrifying because how terrifying would it be to stumble across a St. Bernard fashioned into a man or a hyena and a pig stitched together? I ended up visualizing every aspect, stitching together and recreating these horrifying beasts in my mind long after I should have been asleep. In a tent. In the middle of the woods.

The small solace I had reading this novel is, unlike in 1896, we know you cannot take the parts of one and stitch them into another with serious anti-rejection drug regimes so the bizarre beasts Wells concocts would die long before they learned to walk on two legs.

The novel stands not only as a critique of scientific exploration but also of colonialism, itself. The setting, the top-down oppression of a people seen as grotesque and beneath their British owners by a series of rules they did not vote upon, and the sympathy expressed on the part of Moreau’s creations all encourage readers of the time period to examine how they view and treat others in faraway lands. Darwinism and the theory of evolution were used at the time to justify colonialism so why can’t it be used to justify vivisection and creating hybrid beings?

As for the whole reason why I read this book in the first place, no, I didn’t find much in the way of spoilers for the upcoming season of “Orphan Black”. The novel and the show have a singular theme in common — how science can be misused and release (so-called) blasphemous creations on the world — but the similarities appear to end there. Of course, knowing how well the show keeps viewers on their toes, it’s hard to say for certain that Dog-Man and Hyena-Swine aren’t being held in the bowels of the Dyad Institute.

Recent Acquisitions

DSC_0020The first Saturday in an even-numbered month means there’s a used book sale at the public library to check out so the first Sunday in an even-numbered month means it is time to share my recent acquisitions with you all. The organization that runs the used book sale was offering a number of deals and promotions this time, but I zeroed in on the buy one, get one free promotion for fiction.

Once again, I picked up two books I have read before at the sale — The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson and A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin. I’ve been itching to read Larsson’s series again, especially after a fourth book in the series to be written by another author is slatted to be published in August. As much as I understand the position of Larsson’s partner of thirty-two years, I think saying I won’t read The Girl in the Spider’s Web — period — would be a lie at this point. I’ll likely wait for the reviews to start trickling in before I deciding yay or nay.

I picked up Martin’s novel, the third in his series, for two reasons: (a) I’m trying to encourage my family to read the books since I’ve been so disappointed (and disgusted, to be honest) with season five of the television season and (b) this book happens to be my favorite of the five he’s published so far. Oh, and did I mention I got it for free?

I purchased three novels by authors whose other works I’ve read and enjoyed in the past — Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, Amy Tan’s The Opposite of Fate, and Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls — and then two by authors I’ve heard a great amount of acclaim for, Little Bee by Chris Cleave and Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby.

Rounding out my purchases are Madwoman on the Bridge by Su Tong, the first two books in Julianna Baggott’s Pure series, and Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. It wasn’t until I started walking home that I realized I recognized the titles of Wouk’s books because there are television miniseries from the 1980s based on the novels, which are both in my Netflix queue. So now I don’t know if I should start with those giant chunksters in the bottom right of the picture above or get my feet wet with the television series? Or, maybe I’ll start with one of the familiar authors on my list. So many choices!