Friday, April 13, 2007

High Tide in Tucson: Essays From Now or Never by Barbara Kingsolver

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial, 1996
  • Price: $13.00
  • ISBN-10: 0060927569
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060927561

Kingsolver holds reign neck and neck with Annie Dillard as two of my favorite naturalist writers and essayists. Kingsolver holds her own as a novelist. In this collection of essays, rewritten and expanded versions, in many cases, from what has been previously published in various magazines, Kingsolver's skill and talent as an essayist shimmers with brilliance and sheer entertainment. Even when she is teaching us a lesson and hammering it home.

Topics have wide range, covering nature, art, values and ethics, human nature and its foibles, politics, and travels. Whether she is pondering the biological clocks of hermit crabs or espousing her views on violence and objectification of women on the silver screen, or taking the reader along on the harsh realities of a not so glamorous book tour, her language is lush and poetic, flowing and vibrant, clever and memorable. I have been quoting her words to anyone who will listen ever since reading the book, and thinking back to it as a kind of measuring stick for my personal observations of daily life.

So what moved you to begin such a boycott of violence in movies? a friend asked me over lunch today. We had been talking about popular contemporary movies, and why I had made sometimes surprising - to others - choices. And it hit me. While my inclination had been moving in that direction for some time now, it was Kingsolver's essay, "Careful What You Let In the Door," that had pushed me into a conscious awareness of how my viewing choices affected every other part of my life, daily choices I make. The results of such choices have been almost immediately apparent to me. The desensitization I had experienced towards atrocities in the news, to the daily disrespect I witness in various human interactions and my regretful tolerance of it, hardly registering as a bump in my path, was lifting. Newly aware, I have been surfacing as if from a deep and dumb sleep.

Kingsolver writes in her essays about her literary art that writers may not write with politics in mind, yet "good art is political." As is hers. Words can and should move us, good art should change us, and a good writer is a person who wields a pen more powerful than any sword.

In this particular essay, Kingsolver explores the function of violence in art (or media in general), visual or literary. Too often, she notes, my lunch partner nodding in agreement, such violence is perpetrated against women. "It turns out," writes Kingsolver about an inadvertant movie choice, "I'd rented the convincing illusion of helpless, attractive women being jeopardized, tortured, or dead, for no good reason I could think of after it was over." Pondering this, she concludes that violence in movies or video games (or various other formats) too often appears merely for its sensationalist effect, while in literature a writer has the ability to expand upon a violent scene to fully show its consequences. Because violence always has consequences. It is the absence of those consequences in our daily media diet, separate from the realm of reality, that has led to a society that hardly blinks at its constant appearance upon the screens of our minds. All of which, she argues, with time turns us into hardened and numb creatures, willing to not only view violence, but to tolerate it, potentially even to participate in it.

So an essay moves us to change our viewing habits. Art creates positive change. But Kingsolver can just as easily write an essay that makes us laugh, as in her story of joining a literary rock band, allowing herself to look the fool for our sympathetic pleasure. Or her struggles as a parent. Although in "Somebody's Baby," her message again takes on a ponderous seriousness in considering how little we care for the youngest generations, even while we claim to be baby lovers. Her call to us in this essay is to consider that it is not just the parent's job to care for the child, but it is the obligation and heart-calling to the community at large, to the entire nation, to care for and nurture our young. We are, she writes, raising Presidents-in-training, yet our attitude is "every family for itself."

What I love about Kingsolver's essays is that they are beautifully written, literary works of art. Yet each and every one carries a deeper meaning, a message, a call to arms, even those written with the relish of humor. It is art with consequence.


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