I seem to be lucking out on excellent reading material at the moment. One after the other I’m dazzled and left gaping in astonishment at the scope of the story and the sophistication of prose. I have heard so much about The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and snapped it up at a charity shop many, many months ago. But I always seem to take time reading books from my TBR pile. Only when I was given the chance to see Kingsolver at the Southbank Centre did I think of picking up her book to read before the event. Of course, I’m a pretty slow reader so didn’t finish the book, but the first paragraph captivated me and I stayed captivated in the month it took me to finish the book (of course I was reading other books at the same time, I’m not that slow^^). But I didn’t want to hurry the book because I wanted to savour Kingsolver’s prose, which was tight, beautiful and without a single unnecessary word. I just loved everything about The Poisonwood Bible. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t really in the mood to read a novel about Africa and I didn’t really know much about the history of Congo/Zaire. And I’m not such a fan of missionary fiction either. But a trusted friend of mine recommended her book and I had also heard so much about it.

Kingsolver somehow manages to turn a story of a zealous Baptist missionary in the 1960s who heads off to Congo to convert the Congolese to Christianity and save their souls as well as his own, towing a world-weary wife and four young daughters into an epic, yet intimate, tale in which you end up caring deeply about the characters. Nathan Price has wounds of his own from WWII and is afraid of nothing. His wife, Orleanna, is no longer in love with her husband but cannot escape to another life. His four daughters love and fear him at the same time. Nathan is a self-righteous misogynist who believes in his vocation to the detriment of all around him. Yet even though he preaches the love of Jesus, that love is seriously missing from his family life. Kingsolver deftly draws the turmoil, the silent accusations, the bickering in the family at the same time setting the story in the turbulent history of a changing Belgian Congo. The Price family go to Africa to change it but are forever changed by it.

The story is told in short chapters, giving each female family member a distinct voice that is very cleverly done. No one person is perfect. No one person is innocent, except maybe for the youngest child, Ruth May. We see each person as they grow and realise the predicament they are in within their own family and the world and how it affects the choices they make in their lives, even Rachel, the eldest daughter, hating Congo for disrupting her teens and her dream of becoming prom queen. Kingsolver describes her beautifully and you aren’t surprised by the woman she becomes.

We follow the course of Congo’s history and the birth of Zaire, American’s manipulations and betrayal and the predicament Africa is in because of its rich resources. The Poisonwood Bible isn’t just about the Price family and Congo, but about the nature of politics and political change. Reading this book, I felt angry and infinitely sad at the way Congo was played by the Western world, its people inconsequential. Yet wherever there is oppression, there is always revolution, and one is left hoping that things will balance out, even if not straight away.

I was inspired by the character of Anatole Ngemba, the intelligent, wise and passionate Congolese teacher ready to give everything for a fairer, democratic Congo for the Congolese people, ready to stand up for his beliefs and to protect his family, in complete contrast to Nathan Price. What a man.

The Poisonwood Bible is a brilliant, heartfelt and passionate love letter to Africa and the problems it faces. Kingsolver manages to combine a family saga, a political treatise and a love story into a wonderful book and I finished the book impressed that she was able to keep my interest engaged in what is a complex, multi-thread narrative. I can’t recommend this enough and have already given my copy to my father, who spent most of his career as an expert on Africa. I hope he likes it as much as I did.

I’ve got The Lacuna, which won the Orange Prize 2010, waiting on my TBR pile, and although I’ve got a lot of other titles to read before I get to it, I’ll be looking forward to reacquainting myself with Kingsolver’s beautiful prose.

Another one down for the TBR 2010 Challenge.

I wasn’t planning on going to any of the London Lit Fest events at the Southbank this year simply because I had too much going on, what with friends visiting and me going off to Munich for a holiday. I had such a lovely time there last year that I was a bit sad about it, but then one of my lovely friends wasn’t able to make it and had a spare ticket to see Barbara Kingsolver! So of course I said yes (who wouldn’t?)

I hadn’t read any of her books so I wasn’t really desperate to see her, but I thought I’d better start The Poisonwood Bible before the event just to get a flavour of her writing. I read the first page and got goosebumps. You know when you read a few sentences and just know that the writing is something special. I had to read each sentence very slowly. I wanted to take my time and savour each word. It’s amazing, and I’m only on the third chapter. Said lovely friend is a big fan of her work and had recommended The Poisonwood Bible a few years ago. Her partner, who was at the event, informed me my friend’s favourite book by Kingsolver is Prodigal Summer. I’m definitely getting that. That is, after I finish this book and The Lacuna, both of which I got signed…heheh!

Kingsolver is a brilliant raconteur: self-deprecating, funny and very personable. She spoke a lot about her writing life and the mechanics of writing. One advice she gave was to write for yourself, not for the market. Make a contract with yourself that you do not have to share it with anyone else. This will lessen the fear somewhat and allow you the freedom to write. And it helped that her interviewer was Suzi Feay (who reviews books for The Financial Times) of whom I’m a great fan. So if you ever have a chance to go and see Kingsolver talk, I urge you to do so. It will be a most enjoyable hour and a half that you won’t regret.

And talking about reading slowly, here’s an interesting article in the Guardian.

And did you know there was a Poetry Library on the 5th floor of the Southbank Centre? Oh yes, and it’s free to join and has an amazing collection of books which you can borrow. I can’t believe that I’ve been visiting the Southbank Centre all these years and didn’t even realise.

Book Bounty: August

18 August, 2009


I recently swore to myself I wouldn’t buy any more books until I had read at least three from my TBR bookcase (and yes, it’s not a bookshelf but a whole bookcase) but I couldn’t resist popping into my favourite charity bookshop and found four (!) books that I just had to have. I am weak, weak, weak.

I find I often go into bookshops to cheer myself up and to find a bit of peace and quality time. If I have a stressful day at work I pop into the Waterstone’s in Piccadilly before I head off home. If I’m on my way home from my sister’s I pop into the Highgate Oxfam bookshop. Sometimes I find nothing, but the very act of browsing somehow releases the tension in my mind and shoulders. And this weekend I was lucky/unlucky depending on whether you consult my mind or my wallet.

So what did I get?

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – I have heard many wonderful things about this book from friends, book blogs and reviews and have been wanting to read this for a while.

Remainder by Tom McCarthy – I first heard about this book while perusing Scott Pack’s very entertaining blog Me and My Big Mouth. You can also read articles about McCarthy here and here. Incidentally, the copy I bought was signed by the author himself, woo hoo!

Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino – I read her novel Out several years ago and was seriously impressed! She makes the mundane very sinister. I no longer look at housewives in the same way.

Age of Misrule by Mark Chadbourn – has been mentioned with awe several times in the sff blogs I read. I unsuccessfully entered a competition to win a copy several weeks back, and so when I saw this one, I knew it was fate.

Not a bad haul for under ten quid.