**spoiler alert** I have always been a fan of Barbara Kingsolver's work; her novels have a comfortable quality to them that makes me return a few time...more**spoiler alert** I have always been a fan of Barbara Kingsolver's work; her novels have a comfortable quality to them that makes me return a few times (except for Prodigal Summer, which I really didn't care much for). But once I discovered her nonfiction, my world changed. She was the first creative nonfiction writer who caught my eye and made me laugh, cry, and feel enraged. Had I not read her work, I doubt I ever would have been interested in writing creative nonfiction to begin with. I tell you all of this so that you can recognize any possible bias in the following statement: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a splendid book.
The basic premise of the book is as follows: after much consideration of fossil fuel dilemmas, the struggling plight of local farmers, global warming, and an intense dedication to organic food processes, Kingsolver's family of four decided to go one year eating only things that came from within their county. They allotted each person one specialty item (her husband's was coffee; hers were spices like cinnamon, etc.) and bought bulk flour, but otherwise stuck more or less to the plan. They began in April and finished in April, and grew a massive amount of their own food (including poultry/eggs), supplementing it with farmers' market runs.
AVM is strong for a number of reasons. Like her previous nonfiction works (High Tide in Tucson and Small Wonder), she strikes a solid balance between personal exploration and education. So in places she reflects on the entire experience--perhaps a couple pages on the appearance of asparagus and her personal and familial relationship with it, as well as a description of the patch they currently have--and then a few pages later, we learn about a particular facet of, say, the development of GM (genetically modified) seeds and the power they gave to agribusiness through copyright and patent laws. This fluidity is paced fairly well--there are only occasional places where she feels too preachy or gets too personally tangential, and they're tucked in with enough interesting details to make them almost unnoticeable.
Be clear: this is not a how-to book (as she notes in the first couple chapters) and it is not necessarily designed to convince you that you need to do the same (she's not the local food police). Instead, she honestly highlights their struggles and joys, illuminates their reasoning for the whole project, throws in some fun anecdotes, and just generally expresses her passion for the whole subject.
In spite of its 300+ pages, the book is quite accessible and unintimidating. Most chapters are 20 pages or less. The book is broken up even more (in a pleasant way) by informative sidebars from her husband Steven--which generally discuss resources, activist opportunities, laws, etc.--and the end-of-chapter pages by her eldest daughter Camille (now 19)--which include menu suggestions and a few recipes. Camille's sections are the only ones that get remotely "how-to," and that's only because of the recipes. The recipes are straightforward and, thus far, quite tasty (I've already made the Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp, which is hands-down one of the best summer desserts I've ever tasted or baked).
I grew up in a family who grew nearly every piece of produce it consumed, but this book was still really educational and inspiring. Kingsolver brings an exquisite eye to detail to all her descriptions of plants, seeds, etc.--so much so that I actually ate asparagus for the first time in eons (I've always hated it) on Saturday. (Camille's suggestions on cooking it proved true--it was quite tasty.) Those of you who are already green thumbs will enjoy the insightful, humorous prose here; those of you whose thumbs might best be described as black can live vicariously through Kingsolver.
And folks anywhere on that continuum might be inspired, and although this won't tell you how to do everything, it can point you in the right direction. The text itself mentions a lot of resources (cookbooks, seed sources, etc.), but there's a handy resource list at the end, including books, websites, organizations, and so forth. The plethora of cookbooks on turning local/farmers' market finds into delicious meals makes this book worth its weight in gold. You might also be prompted to try something really new for you--I had always been intimidated at the thought of making my own cheese, but the chapter on it and the resources provided has inspired me to attempt mozzarella, at least.
Right now, the book is only available in hard cover; list price is $26.95 (Borders has it 20% off, which is where we got it). If that's too much for you, go check out The AVM Website to get recipes, more info on the book, a resource list, and some updates since the book's writing.(less)
**spoiler alert** With a full title (in the States) of Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant, Daniel Tammet's memoir...more**spoiler alert** With a full title (in the States) of Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant, Daniel Tammet's memoir might seem intimidating. Yet the text itself is anything but--the chapters are relatively short, his sentences are easy to follow, and (aside from the first chapter, "Blue Nines and Red Words") it is told in straightforward chronology.
Tammet is 28 years old; he's been diagnosed as both a savant and autistic, which means that he can remember nearly everything he's read, including massive amounts of numbers, but that he spent most of his life feeling like an outsider unsure of how to interact with other people. I first learned of the memoir both through a book review somewhere else and a special on TV about him--in which, among other things, he learned to speak Icelandic fluently in one week. He sees words and numbers as colors and textures, with different characters having different sizes and shapes.
I would love to say that it is a brilliant memoir, but to be honest, there were few points where it lived up to the dust jacket's "triumphant and uplifting" description. True, he has been incredibly successful in spite of his autism-related limitations (he runs a successful online language learning business, and is considered one of the most socially functional autistic cases ever studied--as a result, he's a scientist's wet dream to studying the brain, savantism, and autism).
While the text is quite informative into how his mind works and what his life has been like, there were large chunks where I felt disconnected from the text. This sense of distance was a result of two elements. First, in the entire book--though most noticeably in the first few chapters--it seems like Tammet and his editors just can't seem to decide what exactly they want this memoir to do. Tammet swings from describing how he sees the world (fairly passionately and intricately) to listing off events of his childhood, to offering somewhat stilted advice to those with autism and their friends and family. Since the advice frequently takes the form of a paragraph awkwardly tacked on at the end of a chapter, I felt like it wasn't really organically grown from the text.
Secondly, in many cases, Tammet is simply listing and recounting events. The most engaging passages are where he discusses how he sees certain letters and words, how he learned Icelandic, how he memorized over 22,500 numbers of pi for a public recital, the ins and outs of his relationship, and when he meets Kim Peek (on whom Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man is based). In short, when he's writing about things that matter to him, it's an incredibly engaging memoir. But so much of his recounting has the air of something he's telling us because he expects it's what we're interested in--and that he'd kind of bored by it. As a result, the rest of the memoir is consumed by an almost list-like, fairly dispassionate chronology of his experiences in grade school, secondary school, teaching abroad, etc.
In some ways, this second "problem" seems a result of the first: the focus of the text seems torn. The shorter early chapters seem to exacerbate the problem by skipping rather quickly through things--many of them things Tammet does not remember but his parents do, which could account for his lack of energy when discussing them.
His is a fascinating mind and experience, and the book is definitely worth reading if you're interested in how the brain works, how autism or savantism work, and particularly how Tammet sees numbers, letters, etc. (he includes illustrations of what some letters and numbers look like to him, which are cool). It does provide a lot of insight into how someone with Asperger's syndrome (considered a milder, more social form of autism) functions and thinks. (The UK title, Born on a Blue Day: A Memoir of Asperger's and an Extraordinary Mind, actually seems more representative of the text itself.) Otherwise, this is one story where the condensed version of the TV special might actually be preferable, as the stilted style in portions of this text rob it of its due.(less)