Lena's Reviews > Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
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Nov 04, 2007

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Barbara Kingsolver has long been one of my favorite writers, but this most recent book was a bit of a mixed bag for me. The book covers the year she and her family spent eating only food they had either grown themselves or purchased from local farmers personally known to them. Kingsolver’s skill as a storyteller is undiminished, and there are some wonderful sections as she relates their adventures plotting how to foist some of their bumper zucchini harvest off on unsuspecting neighbors and how they helped their new turkey crop re-learn the lost art of natural copulation.

The book also succeeded in teaching me quite a bit I didn’t know about food and gardening. As someone who was raised on heavily processed foods, I was fascinated to learn the biological secrets of root vegetables, how a mild-mannered novelist “harvests” chickens at home, and how much better food can taste when it hasn’t been subject to the rigors of corporate food production. Her chapter on asparagus helped me understand why the tough, road-hardened variety found in most conventional stores is only a pale shadow of an organically grown stalk picked just hours earlier; her description of the succulent magic of morels made me want to take up mushroom hunting.

In these celebrations of the pleasures of fresh, locally grown, in-season produce, Kingsolver was very effective in inspiring me to think more about how to plan my menus around what is seasonally available. I’ll be adding her sweet-potato quesadilla recipe to my menu this week, and I’m looking forward to trying out her dried-tomato pesto.

On the down side, Ms. Kingsolver’s charming storytelling is laced with a rather heavy dose of preaching. I have no doubt that the food monoculture promoted by corporate America has had devastating effects on our health, taste buds, and environment, and the loss of crop diversity these practices have created has made us very vulnerable as a population. These are important issues that need to be talked about. But part of the reason I’ve admired Ms. Kingsolver’s past writing is because she has always woven her political views so seamlessly into her stories that, in reading her books, I always learned new things without feeling like I had been force-fed someone else’s opinions.

That was not the case with this book. The first quarter is particularly thick with commentary on the evils of our current food system. More than once, I found myself slogging through sections that left me feeling more guilty about the food currently in my kitchen than inspired to adopt her suggestions. This tone made the read much less effective for me than it would have been had she focused primarily on the very real value her family gained from choosing to forgo convenience in favor of such fantastically delicious food.
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Reading Progress

03/09/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-19 of 19) (19 new)

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message 1: by Mark (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:32PM) (new)

Mark Great review, Lena. A masterpiece of good short writing in itself.


message 2: by Lena (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:33PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lena Thanks, Mark!


message 3: by Lena (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:41PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lena A week after finishing the book, I’m still trying to figure out how to manage that guilt. I notice a reactionary part of me that doesn’t like feeling bad about buying those gorgeous pomegranates just because they came from California. It’s tempting to just ignore where the food comes from so I don’t have to face the guilt of buying something from far away. But then I noticed the organic frozen asparagus I bought at Coscto came from China, and I find myself thinking that it does seem like a good idea to buy primarily from my own continent.

Where I live in Colorado, however, market forces don’t seem to function the way they do in Kingsolver’s region. She says that buying in-season, local, organic food should not add that much more to the food bill, and maybe in Virginia, that’s true. But I live in a town with a steep cost of living, where our local Whole Foods charges significantly higher prices than I’ve paid in their other stores, and the farmer’s market is the most expensive I’ve ever seen. Since reading the book, I have noticed that buying in-season does make a difference on price, and I’m starting to pay attention to what seasonal produce I can buy from local growers. But here, the fact that goat cheese from the local farm twenty minutes from my house is more than three times the price of Canadian goat cheese at Costco doesn’t seem to mesh with her affordability argument.

I would love to be in a situation where I could dedicate more of my money and time to eating the kind of food she suggests. But that’s just not realistic. The book did inspire me to make a few small changes, and maybe if a lot of people do that, it will make a beneficial difference in our food production systems. But I find myself wondering how much of her audience she lost by setting the bar so high people feel guilty about eating bananas.


message 4: by Emily (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:43PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Emily I've heard from others that this book is preachy, too, and I'm still excited (and a little scared) to read it. Do what you can when you can, and try not to feel bad about the rest of it. I think the awareness you gained from it and the small changes you have made are good stuff.


message 5: by Mark (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:43PM) (new)

Mark I think sometimes in situations like these, it makes more sense to attack the broader issues politically than to try to change the world one shopping trip at a time. I know that can seem counterintuitive, but thousands of people trying to buy local produce probably won't do as much good as lobbying Congress to produce a truly rational and effective farm subsidies program. You can get some good insights into this in this piece by Michael Pollan:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/04/opi...


message 6: by Lena (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:44PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lena That's a great article, Mark. I did call my senators to ask them to support the Fresh Act. It is bizarre that our current subsidy system makes Twinkies cheaper than carrots.

I do think consumer demand is an important part of the equation, though, and I agree with Emily that small changes can make a difference. But I think you're right that individual shopping choices will have limited impact as long as our current system remains in place. It will be interesting to see what happens with that bill in the Senate.


message 7: by Emily (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:44PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Emily Yes, Mark, your link was great. I sent it to several friends and did the whole blogging thing. The nice thing about that is that I could talk to some farmers in the northern plains states and get an idea of what they thought. And they all think the Farm Bill is crap, too. Peace.


Jenni Thank you for your review of this book! I have found the beginning very preachy, and really don't care for that....I'm waiting to get into the good stuff!


Lena I'm starting to wonder if she wrote this book to mirror growing a garden - you have to do the hard work to get to the good stuff ;-)


Jenny You said exactly what I felt like after reading this book, but in a much more articulate way. Thank you. I really enjoyed the book when I wasn't feeling guilty, that is. I also learned a tremendous amount and no doubt she has inspired me to seriously look at what we eat.


message 11: by Lena (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lena Glad you found it helpful. I'm still thinking about the book seven months later, and I'm happy fresh basil season is finally here!


Xysea I am reading this right now. I don't sense the preachiness, but perhaps that is because I am quite supportive of what she did. I am considering implementing a similar plan of my own and I find her information useful, her tone light and humorous and her commitment level enviable. lol

I did quite like your review, Lena.


christina white All I can say is, it is a RELIEF to find you here. I thought there was something wrong with my morals that I wasn't totally enamored of this book. I hear so much good about Kingsolver, and this was the first book I ever read of hers, and THIS is what I get? I barely made it through! I think if she were not an already well - established writer, this book would have gone NOWHERE. It wasn't a total loss, as you acknowledge, but still, it did get RATHER TIRESOME. At least I know I am not the only person unimpressed with her Amish ways and friends. Noble effort, but...well, you said it all for me.


message 14: by Lena (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lena Thanks, Christina. I'm sorry you had to start out with this one, because many of her other books are so very good. She is clearly a woman who cares passionately about her causes, but I think this is a much less effective way to promote them than her earlier work. I hope she goes back to fiction after this.


message 15: by John (last edited Feb 14, 2009 04:34PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

John I also found her style somewhat "preachy"; I'd never read anything of hers before. I don't have any interest in reading her fiction, but subsequently read her essay collection High Tide in Tucson, which was intersting.


message 16: by Lena (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lena I enjoyed Tucson as well. It's by far my favorite of her non-fiction works.


Petra X smoke fish no cigar I keep trying to read this book, but can never get past the first few pages; her writing doesn't grab me at all.


message 18: by Lena (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lena I thought this one had a particularly tough start. Her fiction is a whole different story, though - have you read any of that?


Joseph i think it's amazing that something as essential as food and how we relate to it can be considered "political."


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