"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Review: Animal Dreams

I picked Animal Dreams up for 10 cents at my local library because I'd enjoyed another of Barbara Kingsolver's books, The Poisonwood Bible. Now that I think about it, I read that over five years ago, and I honestly don't remember much about it, except that I liked it but found the ending a little too drawn out. Animal Dreams, on the other hand, is paced really beautifully and wraps up in a series of shorter chapters that delicately tie up loose ends and even leave one scene to happen "off-stage" although Kingsolver spends a lot of the book building up to it. It's a very quick, but very satisfying read. The writing is so smooth, the first-person voice so accessible that if, like me, you get completely sucked into identifying with the protagonist, the book just flies by.

That protagonist is Codi Noline, who goes back to spend a year in her tiny desert home town after essentially running away from a difficult and estranged childhood there. The arc of the book is her attempts to reconcile with her family and other people in the town as well as with herself. What I loved about this book is that it shows the inaccurate and unhelpful habits in people's self-image that can keep them from living to their full potential. The quote singled out for the back of the book is about how our lives shape our dreams, just like how a dog who chases rabbits during the day dreams about chasing rabbits at night, but the book also shows the reverse: how if we don't dare to dream or hope for a certain kind of life, we don't end up living that life.

Codi's narration is interspersed with shorter sections told from the point of view of her father. In addition to these multiple voices, Kingsolver weaves together multiple strands of story. Codi's sister travels to Nicaragua to help solve an agricultural crisis while at the same time Codi is faced with an agricultural crisis in her own town. One of the central plot-lines is about Codi's relationship to the older women in the town, who turn out to be surrogate mothers she never realized she had. Another is her rekindling of a romance with Loyd, an Apache guy she dated in highschool.

It's possible Loyd fits into a stereotype of a 'wise Indian,' but I really liked his outlook on life as he describes it to Codi and enacts it throughout the book. A big theme of the book is people's relationship to nature and place, and he has a lot to say about that. I also really liked how Kingsolver handled Loyd and Codi's relationship. It's refreshing after reading and watching so many books and movies where the courtship is everything and the happily ever begins the moment the destined couple kiss. In this book, Loyd and Codi already went through all that in high school, so instead, Kingsolver allows them to pick up where they left off and describes both the challenges to their happiness and the simple, comfortable moments as they sit side-by-side on a porch or take a long drive together.

Finally, I really enjoyed the imagery of the Southwest - the tiny town Codi has such difficulty negotiating, and a Pueblo she visits midway through the book. I love the desert, and it was nice to read about it as described with such ease and vivid particularity. I will definitely be reading more of Kingsolver's books - I already picked up The Bean Trees, which I've heard is great - but I think I'll be thinking about this book for a long time to come.