October 3, 2007

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

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Barbara Kingsolver, in The Poisonwood Bible and The Bean Trees, has written two of my favorite contemporary novels. Both stories are beautiful reads with straightforward and simple narrative and breathtaking imagery, set in Kingsolver’s native southwest (though The Poisonwood Bible actually mostly takes place in Africa). Now she is branching out, though her prose is as eloquent as ever — Kingsolver has gone east, to the green summers and white winters of a small farm in Virginia.
Kingsolver’s newest undertaking is a novel (in collaboration with her husband and oldest daughter), entitled Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about her family’s collective undertaking – to live entirely organically and locally, off 100% sustainable foods. That means, for those of us who have absolutely no knowledge of the farms our families once lived on, no junk foods or fast foods, fresh fruit only when it’s in season, no chocolate, no imported alcohol. And they did it.
The novel itself is fascinating to read, although it is (understandably) rather slow going. Not in the sense that it is not interesting, only in that there is no plot to speed the reading along. Personally, I found that I didn’t need suspense or speed. Kingsolver’s tales of her family’s farming experiences were endearing and inspiring, her extensive research into all aspects of agriculture, the good, the bad, and the ugly, (and let me tell you, in the United States of today there’s a lot of ugly) were sufficient to arouse both my interest and, in heaps and buckets, my righteous anger, especially for the behemoth and exploitative agricultural company, Monsanto.
There are instances in the book, I believe, where Kingsolver leaves out the other side of the argument, advocating in every case, for the small family farm. However, in a certain sense, there is no other side of the argument — if the world does not begin to live sustainably, there will all too soon not be a world. But worry not, this book is not a doomsday prediction — it is a hope for the future.
If the Kingsolver-Hopp family can live for a year without anything produced further than 10 miles away, it is clear that we can all make some adjustments. Besides, eating right means eating right in every sense of the word. Locally grown, seasonal vegetables are better quality and better for you. “Waiting for the quality experience,” says Kingsolver, “seems to be the constitutional article that has slipped from American food custom … And if the object of our delayed gratification (here, asparagus) is a suspected aphrodisiac? That’s the sublime paradox of a food culture: restraint equals indulgence.”
Overall, this is a great book. It is well-written, enlightening, humorous (there is for example, an extensive discussion of turkey sex life) and inspiring. It has the detailed and beautiful writing style of Barbara Kingsolver that I love, the clear logic of husband Steven Hopp, the perspective of 19 year old Camille (who makes the story even more real to me — she ate this way willingly and enthusiastically at my age, I should be able to as well), and the charm of younger daughter Lily. Read it. It’s worth the time it takes.