08 February 2009

On My Rickety Shelves: Animal Vegetable Miracle

Thanks to the good people at Harper Collins Canada for providing me with this month's book.

Animal, Vegetable Miracle: A Year of Food Life
By Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver
Harper Perennial
370 pages; $17.50

Transplantation stories—kit and caboodle packed up and moved to strange and alluring surrounds—are a bit of weakness. Tim Parks, Peter Mayle and Georgeanne Brennan have all sucked me into their travels and travails as they navigate new customs, meet the local colour and slowly try and work their ways in to the weft of their new neighbourhood fabric. Amusing, eye-opening and painfully self conscious these books help to satisfy my armchair travel-cum-voyeurism. Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle walks in this genre, but also tramples on socio-political foodism that is de rigueur.

The book’s premise is simple: Kingsolver, her partner and children leave Arizona for an Appalachian farm to grow their own food, eat locally and basically become better people for it. They grew a lot of vegetables, raised chickens and had various “a-ha” moments regarding food production and food consumption.

Multi-authorship is a tricky premise to execute effectively and in my opinion, this is a prime example of too many cooks. Kingsolver is the main narrator, recounts mushroom hunting, travelling to Montréal, market shopping and other slices of life. Interjections about modern food production appear from her partner Steven L. Hopp, including treatises on locavorism, food pricing, and genetically modified foods. Her daughter Camille provides her own insights into the familial adventures along with recipes and menu ideas.

I had a hard time getting into this book. I started it several times, and at each attempt I set it back on the table with great exasperation.

Barbara Kingsolver is a very good writer. Primarily known as a fiction writer, her words engage the reader and bring her new community (and her family) to life. If this book were “only” a story about a family moving out to a farm and their adventures and learnings, it would be a fabulous read. Unfortunately, it’s not. Hopp’s essays contain a degree of earnest, evangelistic scholastic work usually voiced by those who’ve just learned about how food gets to our plates. Readers would be better served by Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dillema or Gina Mallet’s Last Chance to Eat. Camille Kingsolver’s essays are marked by purpled prose indicative of schoolgirl essays; quite honestly, I was quickly disinterested in the younger Kingsolver’s words and barely skimmed most of her passages. I think I’d have rather read Lily Kingsolver’s (Barbara Kingsolver’s youngest daughter) views of the process. Really.

The differences in styles and abilities interfere with the text’s flow, and to me create a chopped and disparate book. The anecdotal recounts of their experiences are fun to read, but I’m not sure if they balance out the food politics presented, nor are they salves to what seem like her daughter’s indulgent passages.


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MargaretJ said...

Love your blog. I found this book is be too preachy and overbearing in an American kind of way.

Jenny said...

I enjoyed this when I read it last summer, but then I haven't read any of the others you mentioned and it was a change for me (though I agree on the preachy part too). Then I lent it to a friend who forgot it on an airplane. Oh well, easy come, easy go.

NKP said...

Thanks for such an honest and thorough review.
I have this on my wishlist as I like her fiction and I enjoyed Michael Pollan's works. I just assumed that would equal me liking this book. (plus it is a great title!)
It is so great to get a trusted blogger's opinion of a book - like having a friend you can turn to for advice.
I agree with MargaretJ, I am uncomfortable with preachiness in a book - must be the Canadian in us?!

Fitness Foodie said...

I too had a difficult time getting into the book and through it, but overall really enjoyed the concepts and issues it brought up.
I did a feature on Foodbuzz about the book, if you care to check it out.