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May 5, 2007 12:21 PM

"ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE - A Year in the Life of Food" Barbara Kingsolver's new book

Has anyone read this yet? I'm only 50 pages into it, enjoying the book immensly and having a hard time putting it down. The prose is wry, witty and full of information without being preachy. The author and her family made a life-changing decision to leave their comfortable surburban Tucson life and move to rural Applachia where grow the majority of the food they will eat for the next twelve months. What they don't raise or grow will come from their neighbors as much as possible. Kingsolver admits they will have a hard time giving up coffee and olive oil so they'll find "green" sources for these products. This is more than just talking about eating what's in season -- they are living what has become stylish salon-speak for being environmentally aware. No more meals that include New Zealand lamb, Italian porcinis, Chilean grapes and French wine (what the author calls "The United Nations of Edible Plants"). Watermelons will not appear in March nor are tomatoes available in November unless dried or preserved in some way.

Stay tuned. Full report will follow.

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  1. I'm excited about reading this book. I have placed a hold with our library but I'm not first on the list so it may be a while. The review I read mentioned an essay she wrote called Lily's Chickens or something like that so I did borrow the book that has that story in it but haven't read it yet. It sounds interesting, I'm looking forward to your report.

    10 Replies
    1. re: xena

      There are four members of this family and three of them contribute to the book, each in their own fashion. Lily, at nine years old, is (in the words of her mother) "too young to sign a book contract" so she does not actually contribute writings but she is very much included. Her sister Camille, 19, writes an essay for each chapter. I believe you're referring to "Eating My Sister's Chickens" but cannot report since I'm not quite that far along yet.

      1. re: Sherri

        Oh, how I wanted to love this book! The premise was so interesting and I had very high hopes for a blockbuster work.

        Maybe my expectations were too lofty but I didn't feel that Kingsolver delivered on the FOOD part of her year of self-sufficiency. It was heavily weighted on the politics side of food and light on the actual food side. I wanted to read delectable descriptions of emerging fruit & vegetables, month by month, and how they were transformed for the table. Yes, her birthday celebration and a "real" Thanksgiving were noteworthy. Generally, the prose was more straightforward than mouth-watering. There are recipes and yes, there are descriptions but it is the over-all feeling of letdown that I can't shake.

        In some parts, Kingsolver's wit shines through and it is a very enjoyable read. I wanted an A+ and got a solid B instead. My problem, not hers.

        1. re: Sherri

          Please note that Kingsolver is foremost an author of fiction and/or science, not a chef or food writer. Her writing is superb, but rarely includes any food references or topics. If you have a chance, read some of her fiction (Bean Trees, Prodigal Summer, etc.) and be amazed. She can be simultaneously poetic and scientific, something few writers can accomplish.

          1. re: Claudette

            I've read several of Kingsolver's books and my enjoyment of them is part of the reason for my letdown. "High Tide in Tucson", "Bean Tree" et al were such wonderful reads that I was hoping for another. As I mentioned, there was wit in her writing but it lacked the spark, hence my letdown. I hope that you have a better experience.

            1. re: Sherri

              Interesting. Do you think it's because it's non-fiction (vs. her fiction)?

              1. re: Claudette

                Claudette, following is my answer to a friend who asked about AVM,
                "I have just finished it and must report disillusionment and frustration with this uninspired, disjointed work. It does not live up to my hopes and expectations and maybe that's my problem and not hers. AVM is filled with a lot of discussion without apparent (palpable?) desire. Nothing grabbed me by the throat and said "WOW, this lady is in love with her topic". Yes, there are occasional times when I laughed out loud, but they were fewer than I hoped. Mouth-watering descriptions of the food they grew and subsequently ate, with the exception of her 50th birthday and their Thanksgiving meal, were absent. I wanted passion and got a load of politics instead.

                FOOD POLITICS by Marion Nestle and THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA by Michael Pollan do a better job of politicking than Ms Kingsolver. This manuscript has all the earmarks of being rushed into publication (factual errors being the most noteworthy) and is disappointing."

                Hope this helps, Claudette. Don't base your judgement on my review alone, read AVM and decide for yourself. Maybe you'll find it a jewel. As noted by bookwormchef, recipes are available on line. They're written by the author's 19 year old daughter.

                1. re: Sherri

                  Thanks for the informative reviews. I've been told that she can get a bit "preachy" in her writing, although I haven't seen it in the 6 books I've read of hers. It took 2 yrs for "Prodigal Summer" to reach the top of my bookstack, wihich is now 30 books high. Since the topic is so hot right now, perhaps I'll read the other two recommended books first. Thanks again!

                  1. re: Claudette

                    Preachy? Where does that idea come from? She educates readers, that's for sure. Poisonwood Bible is fiction, not preachy, but then I don't find Animal Vegetable Miracle offensive. I want her to tell me more. I want to slosh around in that garden with her! This is the best book I've read in years. I want to compare it with Under the Tuscan Sun, but that book pales beside this wonder.

                  2. re: Sherri

                    I am almost finished with the book and am really enjoying it. It's very enlightening, exposing me to things I'd never thought about before. However, I do agree with your point about factual errors - I came across several. For example, in one of Camille's writings, she discusses how eggs from free range chickens have lower cholesterol than eggs from confined, hen-house chickens. She then goes on to describe that the cholesterol in free range chicken eggs is also mostly LDL cholesterol, and she finishes her point by writing that LDL cholesterol is the good kind of cholesterol. My point being, that she's wrong - HDL cholesterol is the good kind, while LDL is the bad kind. I know I'm being picky, but I was a biology/vertebrate physiology major, so this jumped out at me.

                    As much as I'm enjoying the book, I hate seeing mistakes like this because it lessens the book's credibility. I believe in a lot of the concepts that are described in the AVM, so I'd hate for another more skeptical reader to devalue the content he or she reads just because of a few factual errors.

                    This books demonstrates why books shouldn't be rushed into publishing. Because quality work can be overshadowed by a few easily correctible mistakes. In the long run, Kingsolver may have lost an important handful of potential local food supporters.

                    So please give the book a chance, and realize that it's harder to write a book than you may think. Embrace the concept, if you wish, of eating local foods, because that's what the book is all about. It's also a fairly good read, but I refuse to be as critical of this memoir, written to promote a concept, than I will be of Kingsolver's fictions, written to tell good stories.

                    1. re: DreaLea

                      Just finishing up the book. Agree with previous critiques that she has a preachy tone, also really liberal. But she brings up interesting ideas. I also wish there was more foodiness to it (descriptions of meals, and food preparation.) I don't regret borrowing it from the library. Her daughter Camille is a great writer too. Also noticed that LDL mistake.

      2. You can get the recipes from the book by visiting
        some interesting recipes are posted

        1. I just finished it and did really enjoy it, despite some disjointedness as other readers have reported. I've read a lot of Kingsolver's fiction, and I don't find that this was a letdown in terms of writing skill. Definitely somewhat preachy, much like Prodigal Summer was actually, but I loved the premise and enjoyed seeing how it worked out.

          I especially enjoyed daughter Camille's essays, actually, though I noticed a few errors in her recipes.

          I'd love to know which grocery store Kingsolver was talking about in Montreal. She mentions a Lebanese grocery with a wall of fresh cheese along the back of the store. Sounds almost like Akhavan, except that's Iranian. Is Adonis Lebanese? Or Mourelatos? Any ideas, anybody?

          1 Reply
          1. re: elvi

            Adonis in Montreal serves the Muslim community. Don't know if it's Lebanese or not, Muslim or Christian. Lebanese folk mostly get along when they're not being attacked by neighboring countries. Remember so many Lebanese and Palestinians have been displaced, who knows where these folks are from. Many Palestinians consider themselved Lebanese, because they found homes there when they were kicked out of their land in 1948. Murelatos sounds like a Greek name to me. I haven't been to Montreal in 30 yrs. I have Amenian friends who live there. If this is really important I can do some research.

          2. I HAVE read the book, and I'm re-reading parts of it. Thoroughly love every chapter. Kingsolver is a wonderful descriptive writer [Prodigal Summer and Poisonwood Bible] but I never expected her to be so lyrical and colorful and make my mouth water at every page. I've read some of the other negative comments farther down this list and I couldn't disagree more. She is warm, human, and the advice -- whether related to practical aspect of gardening, the history of potatoes, or socio-geo-political issues -- she is right on target, and just "blossoms." I want to run out and join a movement, plant a garden of my own, but alas, I live in a condo. I spent childhood summers on farms of various uncles and grandmother, and everything she says rings true. Her description of visiting Amish farmers in Ohio reminded me of my Michigan farm-summer days. I've had backyard gardens, and two children who are avid gardeners. My mom had not a green thumb but ten green fingers; her mother , whose name I carry, could sprout a dry stick! Yes, Kingsolver has touched several of my nerves, and I respect her writing skills and her advocacy all the more.

            1. I recently finished the book, which I enjoyed very much even though there wasn't really anything conceptually new in it. I also wanted more on the day-to-day food and gardening and cooking. This was more why but not so much how - but I already get why. The idea is similar to Joan Gussow's This Organic Life, also worth reading, but Kingsolver's book is much better written.

              More reading if you like this book:
              by Wendell Berry: The Gift of Good Land and The Unsettling of America
              by Gene Logdson: The Contrary Farmer's Invitation to Gardening