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.