With Buster the hermit crab

USA: HIGH TIDE IN TUSCON by Barbara Kingsolver, Faber pounds 9.99

Never judge a book by its cover, but what about its dedication? My spirits sank a trifle as I noted that this volume is inscribed for "Steven and every singing miracle". They positively plummeted through the wacky old introduction with its list of all the wise, warm, supportive folk without whom the author could not function.

Where do people find these pit props? Why is it that I am attended only by those who would thwart or bankrupt me? With a final daffy wave to her daughter - "you have my permission to tell your friends I'm a lunatic" - Kingsolver plunges into her title piece, the poignant tale of a hermit crab who lives in a tank in her kitchen, but has adapted its biorhythms to the cyclic movements of an imaginary ocean, ghostly echo of its native Caribbean, high tide in the Arizona desert. Kingsolver, a former student of animal behaviour, describes this small, displaced and fascinating creature, unhappily named Buster, in a vivid, unsentimental prose which is informative and moving. But then, just as though she were afraid of seeming too serious, back she trips into her zany life-force-celebrant persona: "This is the lesson of Buster, the poetry that camps outside the halls of science: jump for joy, hallelujah."

Throughout this assortment of pieces, adapted from articles in publications as various as Natural History, the New York Times and the grimly titled Parenting, that folksy voice recurs, the crackerbarrel sage: "Let me never forget to distinguish want from need. Let me be a good animal today. Let me dance in the waves of my private tide, the habits of survival and love." This is a big pity, for Kingsolver's subject matter, reflecting her experience as a scientist, a Civil Rights campaigner, a mother, a novelist, a conservationist, is never less than compelling, and when she forgets about herself she does write well.

Two pieces indicate her power and versatility. The best is a straightforward, understated account of the Titan missiles which for two decades (until the early Eighties) surrounded selected American cities, each one "hulking like some huge, dumb killer dog waiting for orders". Those orders, of course, had they come, would have brought instant nuclear holocaust. Ironic and passionate, Kingsolver here dissects the "great American capacity for denying objective reality in favour of defence mythology" and she concludes with a brief glimpse of the museum in Hiroshima, fact and artefact displayed without comment.

In 1991 Kingsolver, appalled by the Gulf War, left the States and lived for a year in the Canary Islands. "Paradise Lost", the second exceptional piece, describes a visit to La Gomera, where 500 years earlier Columbus set sail for the New World. This is a passage of densely descriptive writing which never lapses into self-indulgence and constantly delights with sudden, swift images.

Kingsolver excels in such vivid and economical presentation: a group of volcanic plants are "huge, spherical bouquets of curved silver swords"; an elderly man offers his seat on a bus to a weary infant: "in his weightless bearing I caught sight of the decades-old child, treasured by the manifold mothers of his neighbo[u]rhood".

Another pleasure is the wealth of information about the natural world. Splendid woolly pigs called javelinas proceed on their knees like pilgrims, trundling pumpkins; there is a divine, small zebra-striped goose called the ne-ne who calls in a melancholy monotone, lives in a crater and "has lost the need for webbed feet because it shuns the sea, foraging instead in foggy meadows, grown languid and tame in the absence of predators". In deep waters drifts the post-coital female octopus, dreamily bearing her mate's dismembered limbs. It is she who has dismembered him. One may also learn about nidicolous altricials, and silbo, the ancient whistled language of La Gomera.

On the malign side, we are offered cringe-making vignettes of American life, notably in the saga of Kingsolver's jazz tour, playing in concert with half a dozen other writers. "I take the stairs by twos, land on stage in my black lace leggings and long black no-finger gloves, and blow a kiss to the audience. I can't wait to sing 'Dock of the Bay'." A few pages on, the gruesomeness is compounded. "And really, if you were a kid, would you mind so much if your Girl Scout of a mom just once ran off to be a rock star for two weeks, as long as you got to see the pictures?" Kingsolver claims proudly that she is a slut; this carefree slacker has refined her housework to 15 hours a week. Slut? She should meet me. All the same it is clear that Kingsolver is an honourable and genuine human being, even if she does say so herself rather too often. But good behaviour does not necessarily make for good writing and it is also clear that her talents are given true expression in her fine novels rather than in this unwieldy lucky dip.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

    My George!

    Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
    10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world