Novelist's Wry Wit Inhabits Latest Essays

HIGH TIDE IN TUCSON:

ESSAYS FROM

NOW OR NEVER

By Barbara Kingsolver

HarperCollins

273 pp., $22

IF you've never read a book of essays, "High Tide in Tucson" by Barbara Kingsolver is a good place to start.

Wry, witty, and often sobering, this engaging collection by the author of such well-crafted novels as "The Bean Trees" and "Pigs in Heaven" begs to be read and reread, as does any good book of essays worth its price.

For likely you will find not one but several favorites in this eclectic mix of writings about many of the things Kingsolver knows well: child-rearing, animal behavior, music, biology, native American culture, and almost anything else she chooses to learn about.

The beauty of these works is that whether or not you agree with what Kingsolver says, it's hard not to like the way she says it. Her friendly style and astute observations make her already easy-to-take prose even more so.

In her eyes, for example, her home in Tucson in the heat of June is where "Every plant looks pitiful, and, when you walk past it, moans a little, envious because you can walk yourself to a drink of water and it can't."

Most of the pieces in this collection were published previously. Almost all have been rewritten - some beyond recognition, according to the author - and a few are brand new. Many began in magazines like Parenting and Smithsonian - even the Lands' End catalogue. And all show a different side of this Kentucky-born writer.

As a child Kingsolver read books, as an adult she writes them and watches as her life - and that of her young daughter - is affected by her profession. Book tours weary her. Reader mail cheers her. Child-rearing fascinates her. She observes of the latter that parents need to be watchful of stereotypes like the "terrible twos": "Children are adept at becoming what we expect them to be. 'Terrible' does not seem, by any stretch, to be a wise expectation," she writes in "Civil Disobedience at Breakfast."

But Kingsolver has more in her arsenal than domestic anecdotes. She also sets forth pointed views on political and social issues. She does not mask her disdain for war, its rhetoric - which during the Gulf war persuaded her to relocate to Spain's Canary Islands - and its tools.

One of the book's most thoughtful and wry pieces is "In the Belly of the Beast," about a tour of both a defunct nuclear-missile silo and a museum in Hiroshima. Of the silo (and its guide) she writes: "No modern computers here, no special effects. The Titan system was built, Dave said, with 'we-need-it-now technology.' I tried to get my mind around the notion of slapping together some little old thing that could blow up a city."

Kingsolver is both a strong critic and a humble scribe in these pages. She enjoys her craft, citing as one of its many advantages that you can wear bunny slippers to work if you want to. Her tone is more serious when discussing the influence that ideological writing can have.

"Art has the power not only to soothe a savage breast, but to change a savage mind," she contends.

Novels are especially influential, she says: "The power of fiction is to create empathy. It lifts you away from your chair and stuffs you gently down inside someone else's point of view. It differs drastically from a newspaper, which imparts information while allowing you to remain rooted in your own perspective."

These essays will make you think - and laugh - hard. Their author considers attitude to be the secret of writing.

"Hope, unyielding faith in the enterprise," she explains. In her refreshing, energetic prose, this philosophy is strongly felt.

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