Codi and Me

I love books, but sometimes I feel weird about shopping for books, just because the act of picking out which pages I’ll be reading through seems so deliberate. So often, books come into my life through strange doors, like angel messengers, delivering specific tidings at the right moment. There’s a mystery to it, and putting too much decisiveness into the process might mar the dynamic. But I suppose angels will talk to you when they want to, trips to Barnes and Noble not withstanding.

Barbara Kingsolver has always shown up at just the right moments in my life. My mother stole the first book I read of hers at a Bed and Breakfast. (Please don’t think less of her. This genetic anomaly has been passed down: We’re decent guests, but me and my mother both tend to steal books from hospitality establishments. Half of all tourists only read cookbooks and magazines, anyway. The other half probly have stolen books of their own.)

It was ‘Pigs in Heaven’, second of the Taylor and Turtle story. My mom gave it to me, insisting it was good, and I gave her one of those skeptical looks. ‘Pigs in Heaven’? Sounds like something you’d order at an IHOP.

The book was wonderful. I didn’t even know I’d missed the beginning of the story. I tried to remember to look for Kingsolver books whenever I shopped.

I had a few of them on hold when I moved into a 2nd floor apartment with Si. Mothers, take note: If you are offered a ground-floor apartment or a 2nd floor, and it’s a choice between a tall flight of narrow stairs or a walk-in with a slightly less enchanting set-up, please remember that it is difficult to navigate a stair-case with diaper bag, toddler, groceries, and a purse in tow without risking broken bones.

I read The Bean Trees, the prequel to Pigs in Heaven rapidly, but put Animal Dreams on hold for awhile. The title made me a little wary, paired with the cover art. (I had the Harper Perennial edition, with a woman hiding behind a cactus on the front) I was afraid the book might be one of those that hits you where it hurts.

Finally started reading it on the day I was fired from a desk clerk job, after having the audacity to request a raise. I read the first 36 pages perched on the closed lid of the toilet, under a south-west facing window. I had grabbed the book that day because it was unfamiliar, and therefore potentially magic.

I was not doing so good. I had come home straight from my little conference with the boss, neglecting to pick up Sierra or even turn on any lights as I headed up to my bedroom. I flopped on the bed, but got up again. I had to get my kid, and tell my mom what had happened, and figure out dinner and bathtime and try to play. But I really didn’t have the resources. There was other stuff. It wasn’t about the job; just another failure in a long string of failures. I was sinking. I’d only felt half human since the baby, and that seemed like too much to feel. Being emotionally responsive was exhaustive. I wanted to curl up in a corner and hide.

Enter Codi, Cosima, lopey protagonist; Lost woman, big on bravada, small on confidence; smart but so hurt in a way she could barely even distinguish herself. I read 36 pages, and then looked up blankly at the tiled wall of the shower. The days light was now so dim I could barely make out the words, but a small, crucial light had come on in my head. I got up, got my car-keys, and went to collect my daughter.

It’s the author herself who explained what Codi was to me, she did it in another book called ‘High-tide in Tucson’. Barbara Kingsolver writes, “I, personally, am Jo March, and if her author Louisa May Alcott had a whole new life to live for the sole pursuit of talking me out of it, she could not.”

It was ironic as hell to read these words, years later, coming from the self-same author who wrote me out on a page. I am Codi. Whatever superficial differences exist in our appearances and our surroundings are made utterly irrelevant by the fact that she is myself in print. Our relationships held the same impasse. Codi lived in my skin.

This book between my hands was something else altogether. I was right about the cover, and whatever messages the title held: This is a book that can collide, full throttle, into your heart’s walls. But it didn’t hurt me or impact me the same way that it did a boyfriend I recommended it to, later on. He said the words kept slamming into him, and he had to put it down. I didn’t get that. I tried to read it through his eyes.

Well, it isn’t an easy story. Nope. Kingsolver writes of one character, Viola, ‘she doesn’t pull her punches’. The book is the same way. It turns out this was her earliest published novel, Animal Dreams. There have been more, accomplished works like ‘Prodigal Summer’ and books of essays, and the Taylor and Turtle story. Kingsolver has become skilled at drawing you into the emotional aspect gently, revealing the masterpiece of emotion and connectedness eventually, like a veil lifting. But Animal Dreams seems more like that stanza from Longfellow’s ‘Day is Done‘: “Read from some humbler poet/ Whose song gushed from the heart/ As showers from clouds of summer/ Or tears from the eyelids start.”

Codi’s right from the heart, and right from the beginning of this book the emotions are raw as uncooked barbecue to the unexpecting palate. The words were heavy on him, while they flowed into me through my veins like my own blood. Because I was Codi. Her language was my own.

So for me, even the shattering parts of Animal Dreams didn’t bludgeon, they healed. And I’ve tried to pass that particular experience on. I’ve given Animal Dreams away, to two different women in my life. I suspect neither has read it, but I hope they still will. Someday, maybe, they’ll come across the book at an odd moment and find it catches and holds them just so, like specific tidings sent at the right moment, like angel music chiming in when they most need to hear.

That’s my hope, anyways. With love & literature, the best you can do is offer.

“Why do you suppose the poets talk about hearts?” he asked me suddenly. “When they discuss emotional damage? The tissue of the hearts is tough as a shoe. Did you ever sew up a heart?”

I shook my head. “No, but I’ve watched. I know what you mean.” The walls of a heart are thick and strong, and the surgeons use heavy needles. It takes a good bit of strength, but it pulls together neatly. As much as anything, it’s like binding a book.

“The seat of human emotion should be the liver,” Doc Homer said, “That would be an appropriate metaphor: We don’t hold love in our hearts, we hold it in our livers.”

 

I understood exactly. Once in ER I saw a woman who’d been stabbed everywhere, most severely in the liver. It’s an organ with the consistency of layer upon layer of wet Kleenex. Every attempt at repair just opens new holes that tear and bleed. You try to close the wound with fresh wounds, and you try and you try and you don’t give up until there’s nothing left.

-Cosima, Animal Dreams
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15 thoughts on “Codi and Me

  1. Beautiful post, this. Barbara Kingsolver is one of my very favorite author. It’s been a while since I’ve read Animal Dreams; I’ll have to try and get my hands on it again.

    P.S. I love your new header.

  2. My sister gave me Animal Dreams way back when, and I was kind of put off by something on the back or whatever, had never heard of Kingsolver, etc. So I ignored it. She forgot she gave it to me, I guess, because the next year she gave it to me again. :) I figured, wow, this must be some book, so I picked it up and read it. I am not Codi, but regardless, the book hit me straight between the eyes, and I loved it. I then read The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven, which I also loved. Loved so much I had to write a fan letter to Kingsolver, something I had never done before, and have not done since. She wrote me back, which impressed me.

    I’ve not had the same reaction to her more recent work. I may be the only person on earth who didn’t like Poisonwood Bible, and while I liked Prodigal Summer, it didn’t affect me the same way that those first 3 did.

    Very nice post. :) Glad I found you through NaBloPoMo.

  3. Books do seem to come along at the right time. I read Catcher in the Rye in high school, a truly messed up time in my life (it’s messed up for everybody, but more so for me). I realized I wasn’t the only one with a myriad of problems.

  4. It’s wonderful, knowing there are still books out there waiting to have this kind of impact on you.

    I’ve lent too many out, with a certain evangelism, then lost touch and wondered whatever happened, a bit glum that too many of my faves are no longer in my library, resigned to buying a replacement, and regretting that the new edition is not that old original.

    Even the title of Bukowksi’s Erections, Ejaculations, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness has been sanitized from the 70s original — the porny references preserved to the interior.

    Ah, well. I hope that Polish foreign student I lent it to in Berkeley a quarter century ago actually did read it. And it may have been a book most impactful for the college aged, anyway. Still, I do keep an eye peeled when meandering through used bookstores.

    Perhaps during my trip to Powells in Portland this December? Perhaps.

  5. I read this early in the morning when I should be sleeping (5 am) but can’t because I had too much coffee. Too much coffee to keep me awake writing my Nano novel but I ended up writing an emotional chunk of 2500 words and needed a break by 2 am. So I slept for an hour then I could no longer sleep. This is the time I could use a good book. Maybe Kingsolver. Funny thing. Years ago, about 15 or so, I mentioned Kingsolver to my sister in law, well actually I mentioned an article on her. She thought I liked Kingsolver so the next Christmas she gifted me with three Kingsolver books. I picked one up and read about twenty pages but could not get into it. I put it down and never picked it or any other Kingsolver book up again.

    It’s time to go back and find her. I’ll put her in the side compartment of my bed tray and when I can’t sleep, I’ll pull her out and let her entertain me, or punch me in the gut, or whatever she wants to do to me. It’s time.

  6. I love Kingsolver. The settings of her books, at least Animal Dreams, resonate, too. I can see Codi in you, what I know of you.

    This post was a loving tribute. I agree with ombudsben. There’s something hopeful knowing that a book can have this kind of meaning to someone.

  7. I did read Poisonwood Bible and though I liked it, neither it, nor the author’s voice, resonated in me the way it obviously does in you. Kind of neat that I can enjoy your writing so much about an author that doesn’t work for me.

  8. aos- yeah, kinda neat. I didn’t like the poisonwood bible much, either, interestingly, though there were some vivid parts; I’m in accord with J on that one. Poisonwood was a rather un-Kingsolver Kingsolver book, it reminded me strongly of The Mosquito Coast.

    ybonesy- :) :) :) Which of her books are your favorite, just out of curiosity? I love High Tide in Tucson, one of her collections of essays a great deal, too. It’s a contender, but Animal Dreams has got to be it.

    Corina- I’m touched that my blog was one of the one’s you decided to visit during your early-morning reading time. Regarding ’emotional chunk of words’, it’s interesting you said that. I had to wrestle this piece to get it to say what I wanted, that’s been happening a lot lately. One of the reasons you guys who are writing a whole novel in a month inspire me. Seems like writing takes on a stubborn streak and so often what comes out may not even be what I’m trying to write on. Guess what wants to be written has to come out on the page before the author can navigate again.

    Hope you like Kingsolver this time around.

    ombudsben- wow, that’s a provocative title. But… curious… why give out the originals? When I gave away Animal dreams, I purchased new copies for the others and kept the original one that I was attached to. Was it cus you wanted the Polish student to read the undiluted version?

    Stevo- Yes, very true. Somehow those fictional protagonists we relate to can put even awful experiences in perspective. Maybe *you* should write a book?

    J- That’s really neat that she wrote back. I imagine she gets a lot of fanmail, just based on how many people know about her from this comment thread. I know what you mean about Poisonwood, it was very much not what I was expecting. Prodigal grew on me in time. I hated that there were three stories in the first read through, so I skipped through and only read ‘Predators’. The second time I picked it up I read Predators and Old Chestnuts, and then finally I read Lusa’s story, and when the three were woven together I saw a lot to it that I didn’t in the first reading. The stories very much intertwine, that’s pretty cool, though it annoyed me on the first read through.

    (I’m glad you found me too, I love your site. :))

    Robin & Teaspoon- Ok, same question to you, which is your favorite Kingsolver book? I’m curious. And to ybonesy/Robin/Teaspoon, have you read all of her books? I haven’t read the non-fiction about the miners, or the newer one ‘Animal, Vegetable, Miracle’, but all the others are in my library.

    Teaspoon- Thanks! The Santa picture cracked me up. Had to have it.

  9. I don’t have a favorite. The two that stand out the most, perhaps because of the way she formatted them, which was something I’d not seen before, were Animal Dreams and Poisonwood Bible, esp the latter.

    I read Poisonwood Bible in the week after giving birth to my youngest daughter. We brought a loveseat into the large kitchen, right in a spot of sun, and I stayed there, Em on my chest while I read. I read through the three days of contractions that kept going after the birth, and I cried when she had to make a choice between one daughter and another. I don’t remember all the details, just the sense of where I was, and how I couldn’t break away from the book.

    I haven’t read any of her newer books, and I’m not sure why. Probably because I’ve been trying to go back and read some of the classics that I seemed to have missed out on in my much younger years.

  10. I loved Prodigal Summer (although I was also at first irked by what felt like separate stories until I re-read!). Maybe it’s because I lived with my small children way out in the country in a 700 sq foot board and batten cabin when I read it – but I savored the way she had just the right words for the natural world all around her characters. I liked that the flowers and the snake and the birds and the goats and the trees were all integral parts of the experience of her characters. I read Poisonwood Bible next. I enjoyed it mostly because I’m eerily fascinated with churchy people/popular religion and word/brain things all of which Kingsolver used in great combination. Reading those two first made me want to read everything she’d ever thought about writing. The stories of Taylor and Turtle and Codi didn’t impact me as deeply, but I thought they were fantastic books and have probably read each of them three or four times. I know I’ve given them away at least once over. I agree that books tend to hit at just the right times. In some ways, there are sci-fi writers that had more to do with the formation of how I look at the world than my parents did – because I was open to the books at 14 when I was completely closed off to the ‘rents. I think it’s why I keep thousands of books in my house! If it can’t be me, then I desperately want my kids to find just the “right” book to speak to what they need most in life at any given minute.
    Peace.

  11. I haven’t read all of her books, but I have read all of her novels and one or two of her books of essays. It’s been a long time since I’ve read Animal Dreams or Pigs in Heaven, so I’m not sure about those. I know I liked them at the time, but I’d have to reread them to give you much of an opinion on them. Unlike most of the people here, it seems like, I REALLY liked the Poisonwood Bible and have read it several times. I like that it’s told from the perspectives of each of the women in the story (I guess I liked that aspect of Prodigal Summer too; I just assumed that the stories would come together in the end, and could often guess how they were related) even though some of them irritated me to no end. Adah is, for whatever reason, the character I related to the best, and I saw some of my own mother in that mother. I didn’t like Prodigal Summer much the first time I read it, but I reread it after moving to the Southeast and was able to appreciate it much better.
    I will have to reread the two that you like so much, and I’m eager to get my hands on a copy of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle as well.

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