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VINE VOICEon May 5, 2007
Three hundred and sixty-eight pages, no pretty pictures, and it's about food? Yes it is, and it's fascinating. Written by best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver, her scientist hubby and teenage daughter, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" chronicles the true story of the family's adventures as they move to a farm in rural Virginia and vow to eat locally for one year. They grow their own vegetables, raise their own poultry and buy the rest of their food directly from farmers markets and other local sources. There are touching human stories here (the family's 9-year-old learns a secret to raising chickens for food: don't name them!) but the book's purpose is serious food for thought: it argues the economic, social and health benefits of putting local foods at the center of a family diet. As Kingsolver details the family's experience month-by-month, husband Steven adds sidebars on the problems of industrial agriculture and daughter Camille tosses in some first-person essays ("Growing Up in the Kitchen") and recipes ("Holiday Corn Pudding a Nine-Year-Old Can Make").

And it is all so well written! Kingsolver can veer way off topic -- wandering off into subjects like rural politics, even turkey sex -- and still, somehow, stay right on point. Her husband can say more in two pages than some professors I know can say in 200, and the daughter's writings... well I often couldn't tell who was writing what without checking for the byline.

The book looks and feels great, too. The dust jacket has been pressed into the nubby texture of burlap. The pages have ragged edges, which makes them soft on your fingers.

Reading this book, drinking my Phosphoric Acid Diet Coke and snacking on some Partially Hydrogenated Palm Kernel Oil Walt Disney World Hungry Heroes Yogurt Pretzels, I suddenly felt like I was a kid again, sitting in my bedroom in 1969 listening to that Joni Mitchell "Woodstock" lyric: "Time to get back to the land, and set my soul free." Now that song is stuck back in my head! Maybe it should have never left.
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on June 14, 2007
I work in large-scale, corporate agriculture. Over the years I have worked for chemical companies, seed companies, grower-shippers and allied industries. I have recommended Kingsolver's novel "The Poisonwood Bible" to many of my colleagues. I have also endorsed Pollan's "Ominovore's Dilemma", having bought several copies and distributed them around. I very much enjoyed Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life". It contained all the wit and humor I would expect from one of this nation's finest novelists. I think this book as well as Pollan's are a bit weak in the plant science area and I think both lack some of the insights into the machinations that really drive some of the food production industries. Then, again their intended audience is not the readers of TAG: Theoretical and the Applied Genetics, it is the populace at large. I very much agree with the sentiment of eating local, of shopping local, and of the slow food movement. It puts money back into the local community, it fosters a sense of community and it improves the quality of our diets. What is local though? Many of the fruits and vegetables eaten during Kingsolver's year of eating locally do not have Virginia as their center of origin. Some purists might cry foul. But, I think the focus needs to be on breaking the transport chain. People need to rediscover what a fresh peach or tomato is supposed to taste like, and their proper season. The bulk of the 'civilized' world buy their food at a chain grocery store dominated by one of the multinational grocery conglomerates. You think you have a choice when you walk into the store? You do not. That choice was made by a buyer probably at some regional DC (distribution center) who purchased the fruit from a packing shed sight unseen, and certainly did not taste it. And, their main concern was not taste, it was making sure the fruit had a minimum level of sugar, since it is picked under ripe, and that it was firm enough to withstand many hundreds of miles in a truck. It is too bad, because I know the farmers want to produce a high quality product. And, I know the shippers want to ship fruits and vegetables that taste good. But they must bow to the buyers and market forces. In the California cherry industry, about half the fruit is exported each year, but it accounts for well over half the revenue because it is a 'high value' market. By my recent calculations, it takes 7.75 calories of fuel for every calorie of cherries flown from SFO to Tokyo. That is just the flight, it does not include any other production or transportation energy costs. Does that sound like sustainable agriculture? Do you really need those Chilean cherries or that asparagus from Peru in December?
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on June 21, 2007
I love Barbara Kingsolver's books and was thrilled to hear she had another on the market. Her family leaves Arizona and moved back to Virginia to spend a year living off what they can grow or buy at the local farmer's market? Good deal!

And I certainly did enjoy parts of the book, prticularly the actual discussing the dilemmas of eating locally and how the family got around them. Kingsolver is a wonderful writer, and her talk about vegetables, mushrooms and chickens is far more entertaining than it should by rights be. The recipes that are included sound nice and I plan to try some of them. But the rest of the book I found preachy to the point where it became annoying. I get the point: shop locally, shop at the local farmer's market. I get it, I get it. I'll even do it. I don't need all those extra pages pounding it in.

And I wasn't so impressed with her defense of the tobacco industry, saying it provided a living for a lot of families. Fair enough, but it's sideways logic -- trucking in the strawberries she objects to provides a living wage for truckers and their families too.
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It is possible to live off the land. The Kingsolver family are proof of that. They grew their own food for a year on a farm in Virginia's Applachian mountains. It only cost 50 cents a meal to feed the Kingsolver family of four for a year, and I found that to be amazing. It is much healthier to eat organic foods which are foods produced without chemicals. This is one of the main ideas of this insightful book. I love Camille's Kingsolver's contributions in this book. She is the college age daughter of the primary author. Camille's reflections about food are thoughtful, and her recipes sound delicious. I loved her essay about how she learned to love asparagus. I learned that asparagus is an excellent source of vitamin C, which I did not know before. There is a recipe in here for an asparagus mushroom bread pudding. I never thought of putting these ingredients together. Another interesting recipe in the book is one for zucchini chocolate chip cookies. The recipe sounds so unusual, I am tempted to try it. The recipe for pumpkin soup and sweet potato quesadillas sound yummy too. Everyone in the Kingsolver family contributed in this local food project. Barbara raised and bred turkeys, while her nine year old daughter raised her own chickens and provided the family with eggs for a year. They even made their own cheese.

I also enjoyed the contributions of Steven L. Hopp in this book. He is a professor who teaches environmental science at Emory and Henry College. His short contributions in the every chapter are very insightful. He really compliments the main text written by Kingsolver. I enjoyed reading his thoughts about the popularity of agricultural education in public schools. This is a fascinating and informative book about food.
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on May 9, 2007
Look what happened when the nation turned its attention to the tobacco industry. If only that would happen with the fast food/processed food industry. One can only dream.....

Thank you so much, Barbara Kingsolver, for grabbing that attention and making it the focus of your new book. I loved it. It was so well written.

I hope this subject really catches the attention of more and more people. For our familys conversion to organic and local, mindful eating it started with the movie, "Supersize Me," and went on to "Fast Food Nation, etc."

Ms. Kingsolver points out in her book it is a slow process to weed yourself off that junk food.

Ms. Kingsolver opens up the doors to her farm and family life to share how we can save our lives (literally) and the world by eating local, fresh and home grown. Put down that twinkie and pop! Pick up a hoe and educate yourself on the dangers of fast food and processed food!

Blue jello? Come on! What part of that is natural, real food? But I dare you to eat a Christmas colored bean, like the one on the book cover.

Ms. Kingsolver also shares about how rare it is to see/find true animal breeding in the modern world. She states in the book it was impossible to find modern resources and had to look to the past to find the answers.

Nature has been bred out of the animals we eat. And she writes about it so eloquently!

Sorry this review is all over the place! I was so excited to see Ms. Kingsolvers new book out; and it is on a subject that is near and dear to my heart. The narrative is incredibly well written. It is very inspiring.
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on June 19, 2007
This is certainly a book that makes one take a careful look at one's eating practices. Kingsolver presents a compelling case for trying as much as possible to buy food that is locally and/or organically grown. The tone of the book can be a bit preachy. This could be rather irritating at a certain point. I often found myself talking back to her: sure, it's easy IF you live on a farm in a farming area that doesn't have long bitter winters, and you're a wealthy best-selling author with plenty of time to spend planting, weeding, harvesting and preserving. (I also lost her when she went on about the lovely lifestyle afforded by tobacco farming, mourned its becoming less profitable, and defended the practice because the farmers aren't making cigarettes; it's big corporations.) Still, we can all adapt some of her recommendations into our lives. The book tells us why we should and gives suggestions on how to do it. The stories of her family's adventures in food production are engaging. I'm nearly finished with the book, and I think it'll feel like a fascinating neighbor moved away when I'm done.
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on September 26, 2010
After reading Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma (which I thoroughly enjoyed), I moved on to "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle", only to find it a ridiculous fantasy-farming manifesto. Nauseatingly holy.

Apart from the content (which I'll get to in a moment), the tone of the book was smug, self-satisfied and arrogant. This is NOT the way to encourage people to eat local, fresh, healthy food. And don't get me started on the daughter's writings - she seemed even more impossibly arrogant, convinced in her supremacy because of her diet and lifestyle. She also, interestingly, seemed to have a vendetta against vegetarians. Suppressed guilt, maybe?

As a small organic farmer myself, I found myself staring in disbelief at the content of the book, and how abstract from reality it was. How much money did this family have? Clearly hundreds of thousands of spare dollars to spend on their "experiment".

Example: In my part of the world, a tractor costs $55,000, yet they seemed to have no problem affording one. There seemed to be little connection or understanding of the real cost of living for real people - including farmers. (Yes, we all traipse off to Italy for holidays regularly!)

How this was intended to have anything at all to do with farming and organic traditions is beyond me. (And I won't even get started on the hypocrisy of waxing lyrical about the zero carbon miles of homegrown food and cruising around in a fancy hybrid car, yet flying halfway across the world for amusement.)

Likewise, few problems with vermin such as rabbits, rats, mice - the list goes on - ever showed their tails between the pages of the book. Maybe the sanctimonious tone kept them at bay? Weeds are mentioned, but do they ever cause crop failure? No.

No problems with storms (my entire hazelnut crop is gone this season from two bad storms in a row), water restrictions, GM taint, or a host of other nasties real farmers deal with either. The book exists in a cartoon fantasy vacuum where all goes well and food is never eaten by grasshoppers right out of the ground.

The real "miracle" of "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" to me is that none of these real farming everyday issues seemed to pose a problem to the obviously insanely wealthy "landed gentry" Kingsolver crew.

Am I cynical and critical about the book? Absolutely. Because the truth is, Kingsolver portrays her book as fact, yet clearly she has left most of the unsavory and difficult truths out of the story. It's an edited, prettied-up, ideologized fiction. If it were sold as such, fine. But the fact it is sold as organic, homegrown truth rankles with this small organic farmer battling rabbits and rampant free-range chickens.

In short, if an author is going to tell the a "back to the land" story, at least do it honestly, out of respect to her audience, and to those of us who actually work the land every day. And if we're going to encourage people to eat local, maybe a little humble pie might be a friendlier offering than this self-satisfied gump.
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on December 16, 2007
Kingsolver is a brilliant writer, and I count her among my favorite authors. I just finished "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," and while Kingsolver's unique voice shines through, I found her latest book to be lackluster. She limits the scope of her work to praising her garden and her family. Reading this book I was reminded of Marie Antoinette's dairy at Versailles, in which she dressed up as a milkmaid to imitate Rousseau's "back to nature" philosophy. Kingsolver and her family "play farmer" for a year, but how would this be possible for anyone who works full time outside of the home?

Hopp's sidebars superficially discuss the agricultural industry, but frankly, he does not go into sufficient detail and they are not well integrated into the rest of the text. Kingsolver's daughter's contributions to the book echo her mother's words. However, I tested out a few of the recipes and was happily surprised. The authors do not provide meaningful advice for readers who do not want to live in Appalachia on how to promote sustainable eating, other than the constant mantra "shop at farmers' markets."

If you want to read a good book on this topic, skip "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," and pick up a copy of Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma."
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on November 7, 2008
I'm only halfway through Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, so it's possible I will have a skewed opinion.

Anyway, Kingsolver opened my eyes to the plight of America's food problem. I'd heard of things like HFCS (high fructose corn syrup), but I'd never given it much thought. I sure will now. I appreciated her discourses about the garden, the cheesemaking, etc. The information about transportation costs, etc. given in the sidebars by Steven Hopp was excellent. I will, without a doubt, make many considerations in regards to our family's eating habits.

Kingsolver's critics here accuse her of being preachy, uppity, and condescending. Usually, that's the allegation people make when they know someone is right. Welcome to America, 21st century...someone points out our faults, we get defensive and point right back. Fortunately for Kingsolver, she's got the facts and proof to back up her righteousness.

That said, let's not gloss over the fact that Kingsolver is a best-selling writer and her husband (Hopp) is a professor at a nearby university. They have the luxury of money and time. The bottom levels on their hierarchy of needs have been met...exceedingly. It stands to reason that they can now consider their spiritual, moral, mental needs and venture into this realm of life change.

Most of us, however, don't have that kind of access. Most of us work full-time jobs outside of the home and try to tackle parenting, housecleaning, social, and fiscal duties in those small hours between five and ten o' clock in the evening. I already feel guilty because my kids are in too many activities or too few, piles of laundry are a constant, and my husband and I don't always get the Date Night we need. Now I'm supposed to feel guilty because I'm not eating free-range chickens?

It's not high on my list of priorities right now. It might be someday when my kids are out of the house or I can sustainably work at home, working only five or six hours a day. In addition to this, I also think I'm doomed to failure because I don't have the resources Kingsolver has. She's got farmer friends all over the country, she's throwing a birthday party for dozens of people, and a caterer friend is helping with an all-local, all-natural menu, and she's been doing some of this organic stuff for years. Not me.

Honestly, the message is good. It's a catalyst for change. However, Kingsolver loses some of her message on people who simply are not in the position she is in.
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on May 13, 2007
Wonderful, insightful book about the importance of eating locally, and even more importantly, eating thoughtfully. Barbara Kingsolver details the year in which she and her family strive to live off of foods grown locally, but the book is much more than an interesting personal memoir; she, her husband and their daughter explain in great detail WHY they feel the need to do this.

There is no vague talk or philosophy here, rather very thorough forays into biology, politics, history, education, and every other genre of study that explains how we, as Americans, eat-- which is generally pretty badly. The scientific background of both Ms. Kingsolver and her husband (who has essays scattered throughout the book) really shines through. The decision to eat locally (in this case, from their own garden or farms within the same county) is presented not as a throw-back to a better, earlier time but as the way forward, the beginning of a new and improved chapter. Instead of presenting this painstakingly-researched information in one overwhelming block, Ms. Kingsolver carefully intersperses it with the personal story in easily-digested bites. This keeps both the science and the garden-family-diary part in balance and makes the book very readable.

The personal side of the story is excellent. Growing vegatables; raising poultry; making cheese at home(!!!); baking bread every day (the husband's responsibility in this case); canning, freezing, braiding, and otherwise storing the garden's bounty; each of these and more are a part of the grand experiment. "Deprivation" never sounded so fun or so fufilling. If you've ever dreamed of canning your own tomatoes or keeping chickens, this book will make your yearnings worse.

Ms. Kingsolver and co. are refreshingly non-vegetarian, blithely describing Turkey-Harvest Day (what it sounds like, yes) and explaining both why "vegetarian" crops like corn kill more animals via thresher and pesticide than meaty "crops" like chicken, and why the idea that the world would be better off with more vegetarians is deeply flawed. Vegetarians may be perturbed by their findings, but I think it would still be worth reading with an open mind.

The glimpses into her family life, too, are fascinating-- kids who are more interested in chickens and tomatoes than Playstation and cable? Huh. The book includes several essays by Kingsolver's elder daughter, Camille, who provides an interesting perspective: as both an interested member in this "new" lifestyle and a college freshman, she is a bridge between these cultures.

Like any garden/farm narrative, I suppose, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is very regional and it really captures the flavor of its paticular locale--Virginia. I am a recent transplant to Virginia myself (this is my first spring/summer here) and the book answered some of my questions about this new place, like "Why does my front yard smell like onions? Are those chives growing wild all around the neighborhood?" Apparently they are "ramps". Who knew? Not this Texan. That sudden retreat to freezing last month is a "dogwood winter". I realize that to most readers of this review it's not important, but I felt a sudden thrill of recognition to realize that this farm and author are probably within a hundred miles from here-- to realize that she is describing my newly adopted environment.

My only bone to pick is a very small one. Near the end of the book, Ms Kingsolver expresses surprise that her pet topic of eating locally has suddenly mushroomed from a secret underground movement, to the mainstream. As far as I can tell, this isn't true. Yes, the Times (or whatever it was) has a cover story on eating locally. But I was learning about it back in college (2001-ish) at the University of Vermont. My environmental classes covered the costs of shipping tomatoes and included a trip to the local CSA. That CSA, as well as the one I've joined here in VA, have been around for a while-- at least 5-10 years I think. Ms Kingsolver mentions several upscale restaurants (and one diner) that serve only local foods, and cookbooks. So clearly, this trend/idea/philosophy has been gaining steam for at least a decade, and didn't just pop out of the ground as the book was going to the publisher. But, as I said, small quibble. The book is fantastic, I'd reccommend it to anyone interested in changing the way they eat, gardening, farming, chickens...
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