This morning’s "Shelf Awareness" newsletter, which I receive by e-mail each business day, included a report from the Codex Group, including survey information showing that most “personal recommendations” gaining books new readers are for backlist titles, not new books. Codex is also concerned that recommendations themselves come from and are a form of “random discovery” and that many new books that will be overlooked, undiscovered, and thus not personally recommended.
Books recommended on this blog are definitely personal recommendations—usually mine, although there may be a guest reviewer from time to time—and “random discovery” pretty much covers the territory for how I stumble upon books I love. Not always. Sometimes a publisher offers a review copy, and if the book sounds like something I might read, I take up the offer, hoping for the best. More often, I must say, a synopsis from the publisher or author tells me it just isn’t my kind of book--and if it’s a book I wouldn’t read myself, how could I recommend it?
As for the books I find by serendipity, let’s face it: “random” in book discovery doesn’t exactly have the impersonality and lack of judgment of atoms colliding. There are clues ahead of time—the aforementioned synopsis, cover blurbs, an introduction or preface, sometimes the author’s established reputation. Books having to do with Michigan, especially northern Michigan, are apt to get my attention, whether fiction or nonfiction. The others? If the Buddha Had Kids was sent to me by the publisher after a rep inquired and I said yes, I was interested. The Tiger’s Wife has been the choice of so many book clubs I’d have had to be brain-dead not to have heard about it. A customer brought in My Grandfather’s Blessings (see right-hand column) with a stack of other books to add to her trade credit account. High Tide in Tucson came the same way, the author’s name well known to all of us who love books. I can’t remember how The Concise Dictionary of Chinese-English Language fell into my hands, but I’m glad it did. (I think I found it somewhere in the U.P.) That covers a handful of recent Books in Northport recommendations. Typing “book review” in the search bar at the top of the page will take you to others.
A couple of the fiction titles mentioned in my third paragraph above were also part of my post on “Fiction and Judgment.” But now, my latest rave--
High Tide in Tucson, by Barbara Kingsolver (HarperCollins, 1995), is a collection of essays that defies one-word description, unless with a meaningless word like wonderful” or “fabulous.” Some of the essays are hilarious, e.g., “Life Without Go-Go Boots” and “Postcards From an Imaginary Mom.” Others are quietly thoughtful, like the title piece, “High Tide in Tucson.” Still others, such as “Stone Soup,” are justifiably angry over things more people should be angry about. Kingsolver writes of her own life and about writing, and good writing about writing always interests me, but she also writes about the world of nature and the world of artifact and artifice. In the later category are essays on prehistoric Native American sites in the Southwest and a decommissioned missile silo, both with remarkable reflections and insights.
The problem is, which essays to discuss, and what passages to quote, in recommending this book? The trouble is that with this collection, as with My Grandfather’s Blessings, I find myself wanting to quote the entire book!
While not all of Kingsolver’s essays are concerned with fiction, by a long shot, you won’t be surprised that I would read the ones that are with special attention, and so, in the spirit of some kind of continuity, or at least follow-up, I’ll focus on an essay called “Careful What You Let in the Door,” one that takes on that question of violence in fiction, part of our recent discussion.
When I watch a film whose plot capitalizes on the vulnerability of women to torturers, maimers, rapists, and maniacs, I take it personally. I feel preyed upon. I don’t enjoy sitting through another woman’s misery even if I keep telling myself that her big problems there are really all just ketchup. It still hurts to watch. For me, a recreation [read ‘re-creation’] of simple violence has no recreational value. So why would I ever create an act of violence in a novel? My answer has to do with the fact that I don’t consider a novel to be a purely recreational vehicle. ...Art is entertainment but it’s also celebration, condolence, exploration, duty, and communion. The artistic consummation of a novel is created by the author and reader together, in an act of joint imagination, and that’s not to be taken lightly.
A few readers stir restlessly. Isn’t Kingsolver missing an awful lot about of film by taking all movies to be only pure recreation? Suppose we divide movies into two groups and books into two groups, with one group of movies and one of books labeled “pure entertainment,” intending nothing serious. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t help answer the violence question for me. Kingsolver says of what she calls “slice & dice” entertainment (I remember the righteous indignation of a young coworker many years ago over the bloody mayhem of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” a film whose title apparently was insufficient to warn her away), “See enough of this bang-you’re-dead kind of thing and you’ll start to go numb around the edges, I guarantee.” But it was the more serious “Silence of the Lambs” that she felt culturally obligated to see and that made her feel “preyed upon.” (No, I didn’t see it, and I won’t.)
As a serious novelist, Kingsolver takes the question of fictional violence seriously:
I find I’m prepared to commit an act of violence in the written word if, and only if, it meets two criteria: first, the act must be embedded in the story of its consequences. Second, the fictional violence must be connected with the authentic world.
She does not create fantasies of violence to titillate and excite but conceives fictional worlds to help us—and herself--understand and find our way through the world in which we live. The caveat with which she ends her essay echoes the title of the piece:
I will not argue for censorship except from the grassroots up: my argument is for making choices about what we consume. The artist is blessed and cursed with a kind of power, but so are the reader and viewer. The story no longer belongs to the author once it’s come to live in your head. By then, it’s part of your life. So be careful what you let in the door, is my advice. It should not make you feel numb, or bored, or demented, or less than human. But I think it’s all right if it makes you cry some, or feel understood, or long to eat sand for want of more, or even change your life a little. It’s a story. That’s what happens.