Monday, July 14, 2008

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle...Meh.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is one of those books that can only be thoroughly loved and enjoyed by people who already enthusiastically embrace its message.

For the rest of us, it is an interesting, insightful read at best; a condescending load of insulting inside jokes at worst.

Your chances of forming an opinion more like the former increase tremendously if you read beyond the first few chapters. Otherwise, it is quite possible you will end up battling the following emotions:

1. I am going straight to hell because I eat bananas.
2. I and/or my children are idiots if they aren't well versed in advanced farming techniques.
3. I hate my planet and am doing my best to destroy it if I, even occasionally, buy non-organic/shop at a regular grocery store/ingest high-fructose corn syrup.
4. If I find it impossible to leave my entire life behind and set up on a farm in a fertile area of America and live on everything I grow myself, I am simply not trying hard enough.
5. The only exception to all of the above is if I can't give up coffee. That's the one vice I'm allowed to have, because nobody's that crazy.

Obviously, I'm exaggerating, but not by much. And not on #5, at all.

Barbara Kingsolver wrote The Poisonwood Bible as well, although that is entirely irrelevant to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It's almost as if two people with the same name but no shared interests or skill sets wrote the two books, completely by coincidence. So if you loved The Poisonwood Bible, as I did, just know that it doesn't matter.

Her co-authors are none other than her husband and daughter. Cute idea, but in actual fact, a lot of the book's condescending tone came from their contributions. After a while, I skipped over the husband's diatribes completely because I just couldn't handle the guilt trips anymore. The daughter's chapter-end essays were similarly off-putting, though in her defense, that might have been just because she's young. Everything she said just sounded like a smarmy, know-it-all 18-year-old talking about how she was better than me (and maybe she is, but that doesn't make it right).

However, and this is a big "however," the book definitely has redeeming qualities once you get over yourself and that huge self-esteem you used to have. Because really, where does our food come from? What is the deal with "organic" products - what does that even mean? What is happening to the farming industry in America? Can a family of 4 survive largely on locally produced food and still live to tell about it or, gasp, even eat well?

I'm sure you can guess the answer to that last question, as it's the point of the book. Along the way, I learned a lot about the American food industry and old-fashioned home gardening and preserving. What I didn't find out about was the fate of that blue warty squash Ms. Kingsolver brought home from Italy. She made a big deal of the fact that they had to practically organize their entire Tuscan vacation around preserving the squash's seeds and then...they never planted them? I don't know; perhaps she's setting the stage for a sequel.

As far as having an impact on my life, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle did make me want to patronize local food vendors more. Here in Middlebury, we're lucky to be eating at a campus cafeteria that actively seeks out Vermont-based food suppliers - something like 80% (? - I can't remember the exact percentage) of its food is considered local. And there is a farmer's market downtown twice a week which - if you can believe it - accepts certain kinds of food stamps. What kind of place is this??

And I do know the taste advantages of local, in-season produce. In Damascus, we bought our produce from a fruit stand that looked like this:

But when winter came, there was far less available, and I well remember the feeling of pining after delicious Golan apples in January. So maybe I'm not as big of a wuss as Ms. Kingsolver thinks I am.

Areas in which AVM left me hanging were:

1. Let's face it, cost. Ms. Kingsolver did address that topic but it basically came down to, if you care enough, you will pay more, sometimes lots more. I'm sorry, but in many ways, that just doesn't cut it. Not for me, at least not for every product. I also found her attitude on this subject slightly disingenuous because first of all, her family apparently enjoys two incomes (and the farm was a family inheritance, as well), and second of all, she only has two kids, only one of which was actually around during the whole experiment.
2. So, bananas aren't OK, but jetting off to Tuscany and renting a car to motor around the countryside for a few weeks is, as far as carbon footprints go? Just checking.
3. What about those of us who live in, say, Tucson, a city which you yourself fled in the first chapter of the book precisely because it is a barren wasteland that is not meant to sustain life? Seriously, what are we supposed to do? Just continue filtering our stolen desert sludge water and hope we don't die from the effects of the chemicals found in it that so horrified you?
4. Is basic farming knowledge really more important than calculus, or physics, or comparative literature, or whatever? Isn't that more one of those "to each his own, and that's how the world continues to function" things?
5. No bananas???? Is it possible that you are actually serious??
6. If you're allowed coffee, a drink which I've never had in my whole life, can't I have bananas?

So, there you have it. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Read it if you want to find out a lot of cool information about the food industry in America. But make sure you pump up your principles beforehand because they will definitely take a beating.


Liz Johnson said...

AMEN. And I didn't even get past the first few chapters. While I think society in general could use a lesson on how to be responsible, consume less, eat healthier, and be more self-sufficient, I really don't think a massive guilt trip is required.

I'm glad to see that somebody else shared my opinion on it... every other review I've read has been glowing.

Sarah Rose Evans said...

Hmm. I really liked the Poisonwood Bible. I guess I'll stick to her fiction. In the meantime, I'll continue to eat bananas and save buying my own farm for when I win the lottery.

karina said...

I agree. I did finish the book, but I skimmed quickly over large portions of the book and completely skipped the husband/daughter contributions as well.

I was disappointed overall - especially since it was such a great idea. She kept mentioning the "experiment" - and it turned out that there was no experiment. No hypothesis. No use of the scientific method. She asked a question, but it seemed like she knew the answer before she experienced it. She had an agenda. That is all.

I'm always enthralled by her prose, and this book was no different - I found sections where I couldn't put it down, her descriptions were touchable. But then the agenda came back. I hated that part. I think that if she had just recorded her experiences it would have been right up there with The Poisonwood Bible and Bean Trees.

I could go on an on about this one, but I won't...

Crys said...

You know I'm glad I skipped this one. Sometimes I find these positions insufferable. So this summer I joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and here are some of my problems with it. One it is just to expensive. Yes I realize I'm paying you for your time but when I'm giving you sixteen bucks a week I want more then lettuce and rhubarb. Two one of the reasons we did this one in particular was that it had fruit but I will be honest the fruit for the most part is horrible. We've gotten really sour cherries, really sour gooseberries, and sour apples. What am I suppose to do with those? Apparently Farmer Bob says I should make a crisp but I've given up sugar all days but one and I personally don't see the point of eating fruit if you have to dump a cup of sugar on it first. Can I just say I am for GENETIC ENGINEERING. Please someone engineer me up a good tasting apple or cherry and you had better bet there is no way I'm giving up bananas...I want to eat them until there aren't any left. Which could happen if they really are knocked out by that crazy fungus. Third you just can't grow some of the delicious things here that you can other places. Avocadoes...nope. Olives...nope. Mangoes...forget it. Oranges...never. I'm just not ready to live a life without these. Finally why do the people that belong to these groups have to be so snobby about it. I think it is really great if you can afford organic milk and free range meat. It is lovely if you have the room for your own chickens and can afford to peruse the local health food store for your purchases but if people can't afford that then give them a break. I believe the message I just prefer it without the guilt. I remember when I read Fast Food Nation. He mainly just stuck to an informative edge. After that book I told Jason, "I will never eat meat again." Ok so then reality came in but I prefer that kind of way. Give me the info and then let me make my own decision. BTW I happen to have my own organic little garden which I love that doesn't cost me sixteen bucks a week although it certainly cost me time. I will tell you though that next summer if I'm pregnant there is no way I'm going to be out there hoeing the tomatoes :) And I also enjoyed Poisonwood bible.

Bridget said...

Fast Food Nation is a perfect example of this type of book - but it works so much better than AVM. I think you're right, Crystal - it's because for the most part, the author left out all the judgment and preaching.

This book also reminded me of the movie Super Size Me, mostly for the first sentence of my review. I think most people who loved Super Size Me probably already agree with most of what the guy had to say. Maybe fast-food junkies found it really condescending and insulting, who knows?

EmmySue said...

I can tell you that not even a family of two can farm the land and survive anymore. My mom grew up on a family farm in Illinois and her brother has tilled the soil since. He now takes care of my grandma and they are in more debt than imaginable. Once when we visited I saw a bill for seed alone... $300,000... yes that is a 3 and five zero's. And they depend soley on the rain. Takes a blessed few to survive that... Sad to see the family farms become part of history.


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