11/02/2012 09:28 am ET Updated Jan 02, 2013

An Appreciation of Barbara Kingsolver

With Barbara Kingsolver's new Flight Behavior novel coming out on Nov. 6, I thought this would be a good time for an appreciation of that great author's career.

But don't worry. If this post is too specific for non-fans of Kingsolver, I have a very general question for you at the end!

Why do I like Kingsolver's work? She's progressive, feminist, and her fiction puts things in a sociopolitical context. But I think many open-minded people of any ideology would find her work engaging, because her writing style is so fluid and because her characters and plots take precedence over polemics. Plus, while Kingsolver is not a super-humorous writer, she can be funny at times.

Her most famous novel, of course, is 1998's The Poisonwood Bible, a 1999 Pulitzer Prize finalist for fiction. That book is about colonialism, evangelicalism, and other topics, but it's mostly about the Price family -- arrogant missionary father Nathan, long-suffering but ultimately independent mother Orleanna, and their four fascinating daughters.

Just two years later came another Kingsolver masterpiece, albeit one not quite as ambitious. That was 2000's Prodigal Summer, which weaves three separate characters/plot lines into a very satisfying, interconnected whole. While ecological concerns infuse the novel, it's the three protagonists (park ranger Deanna, farm widow Lusa, and tree expert Garnett) who stick in a reader's mind.

In 2009, Kingsolver's The Lacuna was published. Again, the author used her fiction to address sociopolitical matters (such getting smeared during the McCarthy era and being gay), but main characters Harrison William Shepherd (who eventually becomes a novelist) and Violet Brown (his delightful and efficient secretary) are memorable creations. Plus real-life historical figures Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky, and (briefly) Richard Nixon appear in the book's pages.

Kingsolver's earlier novels -- The Bean Trees (1988), Animal Dreams (1990), and Pigs in Heaven (1993) -- are less complex but still stellar, as is her Homeland and Other Stories collection of short fiction.

The author's canon also includes nonfiction releases such as 2007's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which is about the benefits of eating locally grown, unprocessed foods. That excellent book occasionally goes on interesting tangents, such as when Kingsolver mentions her inclusion in Bernard Goldberg's 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America. Barbara K. was among the many admirable left-of-center people who made Goldberg's biased list.

Kingsolver was a good sport about that "honor," saying in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: "My thrilling new status had no impact on my household position. I still had to wait till the comics were read to get the Sudoku puzzle, and the dog ignored me as usual." (By the way, I once dated someone on that top-100 list, and Goldberg was way off in his evaluation of her.)

Are you a Kingsolver fan? If so, why -- and what are your favorite books of hers? If you're not a fan, who are the living novelists you prefer?

Kingsolver is among my favorite contemporary authors, perhaps in the top two along with Margaret Atwood.


Dave Astor's memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional is out -- and the many famous people mentioned in its pages include novelists such as ... Barbara Kingsolver! If you'd like to buy a personally inscribed copy (for less than the Amazon price), contact Dave at The Amazon listing, which can be accessed by clicking on the front cover below, contains more details about the book and a look at some of its pages.