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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