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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Invisible Children

My senior year in college, I watched a documentary about the Invisible Children of Uganda, children who were forced to spend every night walking away from their villages to a safe place where they wouldn’t be abducted by a rebel army who wanted to turn them into child soldiers. The documentary was quite inspiring because it featured three guys about my age who happened upon these children while they were on a filming adventure in Africa. It shocked them so much they came back to the US with plans to do something about it.

That was in 2003; I watched their documentary in 2005 or 2006; today, Invisible Children has grown into a non-profit organization that has been working hard to get the US and world governments to do something about the terrorist Joseph Kony’s reign via his “Lord’s Resistance Army.”  The LRA has been terrorizing Central Africa for 20 years, but these three young Americans almost singlehandedly brought the world’s attention on him, and the LRA’s power has been weakened significantly. You can track information about what is going on with this at another Invisible Children website.

Sometimes I wish I could go somewhere that far away and do something that big. Africa has been on my mind lately for a few reasons. . . our church is going to use one week’s worth of offering to build a water well in an African country, and I know a missionary couple working in Uganda who I’d love to visit. And, I’ve always dreamed about writing a book about Dr. Eva Gilger, a missionary woman from my hometown who spent 50 (FIFTY) years in Kenya, caring for orphans and starting a girls’ school.

Maybe I need to start planning a trip!

9/11

Since I don’t have TV (have I blogged about that? There’s an idea for a post. . . ), I listened to the memorial services held on Sunday on the radio. NPR had great coverage of the one in New York City as well as Pennsylvania. As I listened, I cried quick, heavy tears. I can’t fully explain where the tears came from, but I know a part of it was more than just my sappy, sentimental self. I can cry at nearly anything involving family members losing loved ones, and the people reading the names of their lost loved ones easily set the waterworks in motion. But, there was something else. I think it goes back to that day.

I was walking down the hall to my locker at my high school, a few weeks into my Senior year, on September 11th, 2001, when I noticed my English teacher, Mr. Phillips rush across the hallway to my Government teacher, Mr. Turner’s room, saying something like, “Gary, you have to see this.” I would later learn the first tower had already been hit, since it was an hour past 8:46 a.m. in NYC. I immediately sensed that something was wrong. Perhaps it was the tenor of Mr. Phillips’s voice. The next thing I remember was choir class, and I think we watched some tv. It gets a bit blurry ten years later. I’ll stick to the most vivid memories.

In Drama class, we watched the plane hit the second tower, live. I felt disbelief and then dread. The disbelief came from the action-movie impression that crash portrayed. I truly felt like it was some sort of Die Hard movie or something. Then, I realized I had just witnessed the death of many, many people, and I realized the crashes weren’t just crashes. They had been planned. I instantly felt a rush of anger sweep over me. The injustice! Who would do this? How could this be allowed to happen? What was next? Would this be World War III?

I’m sure throughout the day we were somber, questioning, and completely unable to focus on school work. I wonder how I would deal with a situation like this in my classroom today. By the end of the day, I loaded my stuff onto the bus to head to Jewell, KS for a volleyball triangular. I didn’t feel like playing volleyball. I had thought they might cancel it. Yet, I knew cancelling it would not make as much sense as going ahead. After all, we were so very removed from the East, and it wasn’t like we were in imminent danger.

On the way out of town, I witnessed my first and last traffic jam in Miltonvale. Everybody was parked in lines around T&T Service, one of the two gas stations in town. Somehow, they’d gotten word that gas prices would go up! I remember us girls staring out the windows in awe of so many cars downtown, and, I’m sure, with a new anxiety, seeing our parents and friends’ parents acting so strangely.

At the volleyball triangular that night, I reflected on how minor a role sports should play in one’s life. Winning and losing is so trivial compared to life and death, war and peace, the past and the future. I didn’t care if we won, and I don’t even remember now who won. I do remember the time in the lobby between games. A TV was on and there was live coverage on the news of the bombing of Afghanistan. The screen showed a grainy picture of an orange glow off in the distance, shining against a dark, deserted landscape. This was the moment at which I nearly panicked. All I wanted to do at that point was go home and be with my family. Apparently, we were at war with someone and from this moment on, my life wouldn’t be the same. At least, those were the thoughts of an almost-18-year-old farm girl from the middle of Kansas.

Looking back, the ways in which my life is different are quite subtle. There is more security at airports, but that has affected me exactly five times since 2001. Many of my peers, just turning 18 and possibly motivated by the attack, signed up for the military in the months that followed. Yet, only two of those were my classmates and none of those were my close friends. I am so proud of the men and women in my age group who pursued a military career during this time. They have been fighting a difficult, technological, new war bravely, patriotically, and sacrificially. They make me proud to call myself an American.

I think the greatest thing that changed for me after Sept. 11, 2001 was that I had a new appreciation for what goes on behind the scenes in our government. People are working daily to address the threats to our nation, and they don’t get noticed for their successes, but they get lambasted for their failures.  An article this past spring in Time magazine deepened my appreciation for these security officials. Reading the article was akin to reading a spy thriller, and I finished it in awe of how much we have to be grateful for to live in a country with people who work daily to protect us.

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2068082,00.html

Washington, D.C.

I have a new favorite city. I haven’t been to all that many cities in the U.S., but D.C. is at the top of the list. Although I was leading 14 students around the city (sometimes getting lost), I still enjoyed the history that surrounded us at all times. All the monuments, Mount Vernon, Arlington Cemetery, Arlington House, the Capitol, the White House. Walking in the same places our forefathers walked. Seeing the places these great men sat and thought about the ideas and principles our republic would be built on. At times, it was overwhelming. And very inspiring.

So often, I take for granted the amazing freedoms I have in America. I think many people don’t understand the sacrifices that have been made to maintain our freedom. They don’t understand the enormous pressure and risk our forefathers were taking when they gave birth to our nation. This ignorance causes apathy and negative attitudes toward government. Which in turn lessens involvement in the government, causing the minority to rule when the majority should rule. It’s such a delicate balance, really.

I probably won’t go back to D.C. with students, but I will definitely go back again! Every American should be required to take this trip!

Happy Halloween and Election ’08

One perk of being the Concessions Manager at the school: free leftover popcorn. Perfect for making popcorn  balls for Halloween! All I had to buy was the marshmallows for 1.89. It sure beats three $4 bags of candy! But, the kids don’t seem to agree (barring the pair that just rejoiced when I handed them the popcorn ball) because I’ve heard several moans and groans. [How Rude! Note to self: coach your kids on the proper responses, etc. for trick or treating!]

The election is heating up. That’s probably an understatement since it’s really been going on for two years! But, I’ve really been getting into it over the past few months. When the Obama craze was in full swing this summer, I decided to read “Audacity of Hope” via my car CD player while I traveled to and from Hays. He was very fair and balanced in everything he said. And, he covered nearly all the issues. But, he didn’t really stand up for one side or the other. He just ruminated on both and gave credence to each. I don’t trust the man. His convictions are quite unknown. His associations are questionable at best (Alinsky, Wright, and Ayers). His experience in executive leadership positions is weak. Go McCain!

As a 6th grader (and the nerdy editor of our school-wide newspaper “The Breeze”-in ’96, I got into elections for the first time. Of course, I wanted Dole to win. He’s a Kansan! And, I nearly cried as I watched Clinton give his acceptance speech. Then, I was mostly fascinated with the process and the concept of one person leading our country. Now, three elections later, I’m feeling a lot of urgency, not only for my own beliefs, but for our country. McCain MUST win. Secular progressives cannot be in charge of our nation. I try not to let the forwarded e-mails influence me much, and I always check facts, authors, affiliations, and biases I find in any article I read. McCain MUST win. I wish a lot of people were reading my blog, so I could convince them to vote for McCain. :)