Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

If you’ve never read Kingsolver’s writing, you are missing out on brilliance. The only other book I’ve read by her is Animal Dreams, but The Poisonwood Bible is waiting on my shelf. Those two are fictional (and full of symbols and epic family story lines), but Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a non-fiction work about Kingsolver’s journey, along with her biology professor spouse and two daughters, to live off the land for a year–to be a locavore. They vowed to only purchase foods grown within a 120-mile radius and from people they knew; in turn, they ended up growing most of their own food.

The thought of no Coca-Cola for a year is not appealing to me, and if my little sister had to go without a bag a Lay’s for a year, she might die. However, the way Kingsolver describes this journey, with its emphasis on getting satisfaction out of manual labor on your own soil, reaping surprise after surprise from your garden, and taking care to plant and grow completely natural plants and animals really spoke to this farm girl’s heart. It also deepened my commitment to learning how to cook with less processed foods, more diverse vegetables and in a way that is friendly to the earth. (One example: the carbon footprint of bananas is ridiculous. Why let the great fruits that are local and in season go to waste while you eat bananas from another continent?) Finding local, farm-fresh meat and dairy is something I hope to accomplish this year. My good friend from too far away, Andi has a farm that sells grass-finished beef, poultry, and pork, among other things, and I truly miss being close enough to support their farm regularly. But, why can’t I find something around here?

As for the style of the writing, I found myself stopping often to sit and digest the metaphorically dripping sentence I’d just read. Sometimes, my reflection ended with a chuckle or a smile. A few parts I had to read aloud to my family, underline for myself, or dogear to copy later for composition class as an example of good essay writing. Kingsolver can make the most simple vegetable sound like an epic hero. Her blend of literary allusion with pop culture references made my mind reel at her talent with the pen. She spoke of food, cooking, home, and family with passion. (That is certainly something that is missing from all the adolescent literature I read!). Here’s just one excerpt for you:

“Some of my neighbors grumble about the trouble of growing potatoes when a giant bag at the store costs less than a Sunday newspaper. And still, every spring, we are all out there fighting with the cold, mucky late-winter soil, trying to get our potatoes on schedule. We’re not doing it for the dimes we’ll save. We know the fifty-pound bag from the store tastes about like a Sunday newspaper, compared with what we can grow. A batch of tender new Carolas or Red Golds freshly dug in early summer is its own vegetable: waxy, nutty, and sweet. Peruvian Blues, Russian Banana fingerlings, Yukon Golds: the waxy ones hold together when boiled and cut up for potato salad; others get fluffy and butter-colored when baked; still others are ideal for over-roasting. A potatophile needs them all.”

Articles from her husband, dealing with each of the abounding political issues Kingsolver’s chapters brought to light encourage the reader to stop for a moment to evaluate how an individual’s food choices can affect the global economy. This format makes the book best read a chapter at a time. So many issues to think about, research further, and discuss with your friends and family! Along with the short essays, Kingsolver’s daughter Camille writes at the end of each chapter from the perspective of a teenager preparing to head to college. She provides recipes and meal planning, based on what is in season in that chapter.

Some would call Kingsolver idealistic. The thought that everyone could live off the land and eat locally is just ludicrous in our fast-paced, global, corporate-driven economy, right? I was a bit skeptical, too. It certainly is a stretch of the mind for people from my area of the state. But, I came away from the book feeling even more strongly that small farms are better than huge farms; local is better than distant; do-it-yourself is better than processed by someone else; and family is something that needs to be nurtured in the best way possible. I think my grandparents and my great-grandparents had the system working quite well. Isn’t that the way America should be? There is a local food movement that is growing, and I hope it will continue to grow. Farmers today would be wise to start planning to cater to those who have the foresight, hindsight, wisdom, and knowledge to see that our food system needs to be changed.

You should read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle for any one of these reasons:
1. You grew up on or currently live on a farm.
2. You like to garden.
3. You care about where your food comes from.
4. You appreciate good writing.
5. You care about the sustainability of the earth as we use it today.
6. You think you might like to garden.
7. You appreciate the simple life (but are willing to work hard!).

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Traveling Choices

When you travel, how do you decide which sights to see? Which dreams to “cross off the list”? I’m going to visit my bro, sis, and nephew in Philly, and I could visit several places I’ve wanted to see. But, the budget and the time can’t allow for all three. So, do I go to Gettysburg National Park? Or drive up to Maine, hitting three new states along the way (One of my dreams is to visit all 50 states)? Or, do I go up to Niagara Falls, which is the same distance away as Portland, ME?

Decisions, Decisions!

Book Review: Rebecca by Daphne duMaurier

Numerous friends and a few students have recommended this book to me over the years. I finally found a few days to sit down and be lured in by duMaurier’s mysterious tone, macabre mood, and suspenseful plot. The first three-fourths of the book made me frustrated with the narrator, whose name is never divulged, as she fails to assert herself in her new role as the wife of Maximillian de Winter–an older, rich, landed, recently widowed man (who holds much mystery himself)–and her new role as mistress of Manderley. She lets Mrs. Danvers, the mysterious, severe head housekeeper, run everything just the way the former mistress, Rebecca, ran the house.

The narrator cannot escape Rebecca, and the reader can’t help her to escape Rebecca, which is perhaps why duMaurier didn’t give the narrator a name. A name would have given her the power to overcome Rebecca’s almost ghostly hold on her, Manderley, Mrs. Danvers, and Maxim.

Despite the continuing monotony of the narrator failing at everything she does (which makes for somewhat boring reading), I found myself continuing to turn the pages because it was all a mystery and I had to figure out what was going to happen!

Finally, in the last fourth of the novel, the plot really gets to rolling, and we learn the whole story. duMaurier’s writing lends itself to quick reading and I was impressed with the psychological depth to the main character as her first-person narrations helped us understand her hesitancy and lack of confidence as a new wife. The narrator often talked herself out of action by considering what “would” happen and how people “would” view her and “would” talk about her. Some of these scenes would go on for more than a page, and I wanted to scream at the narrator to take action! Then, as she learns more of the story behind Rebecca’s death, she immediately grows up, comes into her own, and stops worrying about the future. She is able to help Maxim deal with the rest of the conflict that occurs.

The book’s descriptions of the county of Cornwall in England (where duMaurier lived) made me add another spot to my list of places to visit next time I go there. And, I enjoyed reading about how the very rich lived their lives in the 20th century as opposed to the 19th century (which so many of my Austen and Bronte books have shown). This novel is a must-read for anyone who appreciates mystery, gloom, suspense, and good writing! I know just the students to recommend it to!

 

 

 

Running the Race

The 5K I chose to run was the first of its kind at the first annual Depot Days in Concordia, so there weren’t many runners. We ran alongside the 10K people, and before the race started, I only knew two ladies who were running the 5K. One of them was definitely a runner, so I thought I could follow her if I got lost. I had glanced at the map and it looked pretty simple. The 10K people were to run past the 5K turnaround and then down a long gravel road before they turned around. My nerves about running a road race kept me from really focusing on the map and making sure I knew where I was going.

So, off we went, and I stayed at the middle of the pack for the first few miles. I had forgotten my stopwatch that morning so I wasn’t sure how fast I was going. By the time we got on a long stretch of highway the people in front of me had pulled ahead significantly. At one point as I looked ahead, I saw a couple trucks parked on the side of the road filled with young baseball players who would get all the funds from this race. They were cheering each person on and I thought they would also be handing out water. I saw “the runner” come back from behind them, so it didn’t look like she had turned around at the trucks. I then assumed I needed to run further to get to the turn around point; therefore, as I ran past the trucks of baseball player, I failed to notice the markings on the pavement–“5K Turn Around.”

I ran on to the end of the pavement and the lady in front of me continued down the 10K route. I turned around and met a few 10Kers coming my way. I asked them if they were in the 5, and they told me I was supposed to turn around “back there”–at the trucks. I yelled, “Oh no!” and we all had a little laugh. I thought to myself, “How much further have I run?” I decided to count telephone poles–10 one way; 20 total. In the country that would be 2000 yards. Yikes! Over a mile? This is going to be horrible!

As I ran back through the course I told the people at the trucks that I should have turned around here, and it looked to me like they had moved the trucks away from the turn around sign on the pavement. Or maybe I didn’t remember what it looked like the first time? Oh well.

I finished the race in 43 minutes and as I crossed the finish line I told them I went too far and they calculated it was about a 1.2 miles further. When they handed out medals I got 2nd in my age group (of 2!) and another medal for being an overachiever! Dad and I drove the course I ran, and sure enough, it totaled 4.2 miles. I had never run that far in my life!

I guess it is safe to say I go the extra mile.

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Honor Flight

Honor: (n.) high respect, as that shown for special merit; esteem.

Honor: (v.) to confer distinction on

May 21st met me at 3 am on a bus to Kansas City with several of my students, my two bosses, a few other volunteers, and about 12 veterans from our area of the state. Our mission was to get these veterans to Washington, D.C. so they could visit the memorials which portray a slice of the honor that is their due.

I could not be more proud to be an American after this trip. These men sacrificed many things in the war, whether it was leaving their new wife at home, traveling down a mountain with a broken pelvis on the back of a donkey, or seeing the majority of their squad or platoon die in combat. I am so thankful that they found it their duty to serve their country, for their sense of duty has contributed to each of the freedoms I currently enjoy. I look at my own generation and sometimes wonder if that sense of duty is still intact. What will our country be like in the future if it is not?

As we departed the plane in Baltimore, a tunnel of people, including a group of sailors in their dress whites, cheered for each veteran as he entered the terminal. More tears for this girl! Not only did I cry, but also I wanted to get out of the way and let these veterans have their spotlight. People were telling me thank you, too, but I didn’t feel that I was doing anything I wasn’t already obligated to do.

The day in DC started at the WWII Memorial, and our group took a photo in front of the Kansas column of the memorial and had a small ceremony where the veterans saluted a flag we bring along on every trip. We then visited the Korean War Memorial (half of our veterans fought in Korea), Lincoln Memorial, and Vietnam Memorial. Throughout the trip, strangers came up to shake the gnarled 80 or 90 somethings’ hands, but these men didn’t think they needed a handshake. They wondered what they had done that was so great; still, the heartfelt, earnest “Thank You, Sir” said it all. After the memorials on the National Mall, we made a brief stop at the Air Force Memorial, and I was able to help Elton (an Air Force Veteran) track down a sheet of paper acknowledging him as a charter member of that memorial’s construction. Then, we drove by the Iwo Jima memorial. The day ended at a nice county buffet restaurant, and once we got to the hotel, the veterans put themselves to bed before the students (their guardians on this trip) could even wish them a good night! Well, that is, MOST of the veterans. There were a few we found we had to keep an eye out for. Old age doesn’t always mean tiredness!

The next day, we went to Arlington National Cemetary to watch the Changing of the Guard. The veterans were ushered down into a special section to watch the ceremony. I thought it fitting that, from this location, the entire crowd could see the group of veterans in their matching t-shirts and red and blue hats. After the ceremony, as we stood waiting for the bus, one man walked through our group, barely holding back the sobs, to thank each veteran for his service. This intense, heartfelt display of gratitude from a complete stranger, of course, made me cry again.

Why is Honor Flight worth it? I don’t know that I can even name all the reasons, but here are some of the big ones:

1. This is a cathartic experience for some veterans. Perhaps they have never spoken about their experiences in war before. One of my friends said that on a previous trip, a man told him about seeing villagers in Korea die at the hands of his own unit and himself. He mentioned that he has lived with that all his life. It is likely he hasn’t spoken of it to anyone else, but in that place, in that time, with a sponsor he would likely not have contact with again, he was able to release some of that pain and sadness.

2. The experience shows the veterans just how much they are appreciated. I’ve spoken of the thank yous from strangers and applause at the airport. Our group also does a thing called “Mail Call.” At the supper on the first night, we delivered an envelope of letters to each veteran from school children. Elton received one from a high school girl he knows well, and he was thrilled to hear her gratitude. The group of veterans we took along from Wamego received letters from their families, which I also think is a cathartic thing. Isn’t it easier sometimes to express your appreciation and love in a letter? Especially to your gruff grandfather who has never spoken of the war? Or to your father, who you love dearly but have never been brave enough to talk more about the war because it makes him sad?

3. The experience can be intergenerational. I did a project on intergenerational service-learning in one of my Master’s classes, and I cannot think of a better way to put those principles I learned to use than with Honor Flight. I have always loved elderly people since I worked at an assisted living facility in high school. I love students and helping them discover new places. I love Washington, D.C. This is just right up my alley! Count on hearing more about it in the future. Our group (and several groups from Kansas) uses high school students as the veterans’ guardians. This is the best possible set-up. Kids learn honor, respect, history, compassion, and dedication, while the veterans are loved on, encouraged, assisted, and treated like kings for a day. I’ve not met many elderly people who don’t enjoy the life and spirit of high school students; I also haven’t met many elderly people as lively and energetic as some of these veterans. I actually had to help one of our students keep track of his 92 year old veteran, and we became fast friends!

4. It is urgent. Many WWII veterans will never see their National Memorial because they are dying every day. I wanted to take my former landlord from Coldwater on this trip, and I had called him a few times, left messages, but never heard back. I asked a friend about him to see if he had perhaps passed away and found that the week after I had made my last call, his obituary was in the paper. This man served in WWII, received the Purple Heart, and I heard several of his stories when I brought him in to talk to my Juniors about the war. He was very special, and I am sad I couldn’t honor him with this flight.

My grandfather is another example of the urgency of this project. He now has Parkinson’s disease to the degree that this trip would be impossible. If the veteran cannot get off and on a bus about eight times over the course of two days, he would not be able to attend. I wish I could turn back the time and take my grandpa from four years ago on this trip. He would have enjoyed it greatly.

 

I urge you to check out the Honor Flight program at http://honorflight.org/ if you are interested in helping someone attend, putting together a flight, or want to help out in any way. Honor Flights around the country are in need of funding, guardians, trip coordinators, and doctors and nurses.