January has been rather slow-going so far — but, last week I read Barbara Kingsolver’s latest, Unsheltered and also the second in a series, Lady Copy Makes Trouble by Amy Stewart. I stumbled upon this series at Powell’s, and bought the first book there (Girl Waits With Gun).  I think I actually liked the second book even better, nothing too intense here, a well-written but fun book with likable characters, I read it in a day.

The series is based on the real life of Constance Kopp, who really was the first female deputy sheriff in New Jersey. This second novel is all about Kopp searching for a man after accidentally allowing him to escape. These novels aren’t going to win the Pulitzer, but they are good fun. I’m going to grab books 3 and 4 as soon as I can, everyone needs something to get them through January, February, and March.

Kingsolver’s Unsheltered was a bit more depressing — it’s the story of two families, in the present we find Willa, her husband, two adult children, grandson, and ailing father-in-law all stuck living in a house that’s falling apart in Vineland, NJ, and in the past (1880’s) we find Thatcher, his young wife, and her mother and sister similarly living in a house falling apart in Vineland, NJ. The novel switches back and forth each chapter, and the two stories parallel each other, while Willa also is learning about Thatcher and his neighbor Mary Treat (who really was a 19th century biologist!). Yes, there are a lot of plays on what it means to be “unsheltered” literally and in terms of having an open mind in this novel — the most obvious being that both main characters are literally watching their shelters falling down around them.

Willa and her family are casualties of the financial crisis — she’s a freelance journalist (ie, her publication folded) and her husband is a college professor who had tenure, but his college closed due to bankruptcy, robbing them of all the security they had. Much of Willa’s story involves just her taking care of her family, but she starts to learn about Treat and Thatcher because she’s trying to get a historic grant to save her house.

Thatcher is a newly married science teacher who is quite taken with Darwin and wants to teach his students about science via real life exposure. No one in Vineland really likes this idea, because many of them cannot bear the idea that Darwin is right. It’s pretty depressing how little this debate has actually progressed in about 140 years:

You and I are not like other people … We perceive infinite nature as a fascination, not as a threat to our sovereignty. But if that sense of unity in all life is not already lodged in a person’s psyche, I’m not certain it can ever be taught.

People may be persuaded of small things … But most people refuse to be moved on the larger ones. An earth millions of years old appalls them, when they always have seen it otherwise. A humanity derived from the plain stuff of earth frightens them even more. Rather than look at evidence they would shut themselves up in a pumpkin shell like Peter Piper’s wife.

I read this book slowly because I found so much of it to be so sad (if compelling), I could see someone else reading it as hopeful (to be unsheltered is “to stand in the clear light of day”) but for me, it was very sad and identified with so much of it — Willa’s mother dies before the book opens (“When someone mattered like that, you didn’t lose her at death. You lost her as you kept living”), another death occurs in the opening chapter, and another character dies after needing significant heavy caretaking (which also strikes a painful chord for me), and global climate change is also a rather heavy character in the book (there’s a sort of analogy being made between people refusing to credit Darwin and people refusing to credit climate change).

So, well I would say, I enjoyed reading this book and I’m glad I read it (I do love Barbara Kingsolver, her book The Poisonwood Bible meant so much to me when I read it the first time, I was young and it was so interesting to read this book that challenged some of what I’d been taught, it made me think differently), I probably won’t be giving it to anyone for Christmas this year.

Currently reading: No One Tells You This and still Cutting for Stone (+200 pages in…400 pages to go).