Sunday, February 15, 2009

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver et al

Barbara Kingsolver is not a bad sort. I have enjoyed her novels in large part because of the connections the characters have with the land. And in this nonfiction work she offers useful information and a point of view that, for the most part, I share. Yet I had trouble getting through the book. It lived with me literally for months because I would pick it up, read a page or two, put it down again and reach for another book. I have no idea how many dozens (literally) of books I read at the same time.

The book is all about the Kingsolver-Hopp family going local. The four of them upped and left their western home for their farm in the country, specifically in Virginia, to spend a year being “locavores” - eating local food, most of it grown by themselves. It was an industrious effort. Nobody can accuse this family of being lazy. Yet by their own account it was not only rewarding financially, gastronomically and nutritionally, but it was fun.

Kingsolver offers us tidbits about dozens of kinds of vegetables and fruits, fiction and fact, and serves it up with more than a soupcon of self-deprecating humor. She also brings us into the land of harvesting animals, which is primarily where we part company. I learned a great deal about pumpkins, tomatoes, basil, canning, freezing, drying, and more, and I am determined to make a few changes based on what I learned. I also read bits about world hunger, the hidden costs of transporting foods, the meaning of fair trade, the expansion of farmers’ markets in this country, mostly written by Hopp. Virtually all of these global bits I already knew, but I had not considered one aspect of choosing what to import: how much water is used to produce it. Similarly the intertwined notes by Camille Kingsolver, which mainly offered the perspective of a young aware woman.

Some readers have called this family “rich white folks playing at farming” and it’s hard to deny that this is the case. They were not farming for a living, and they had other occupations. Kingsolver herself had to retreat to the computer to make notes about everything that was going on in her farming world in preparation for this book. It is quite fashionable to write about trying this or trying that for 30 days or 60 or for a year. I have been trying to think of what hook I could get hold of so I can do the same thing, frankly. To her credit, I do not think she was aware of the trendiness of this occupation. When the year was over she discovered that while the family was blissfully pulling weeds and tending turkey hens, many others were embarking on “locavore months”, for example.

I think, though, that Kingsolver offers a reasonable response to this type complaint. She kept detailed records of costs and was therefore able to prove that living off the land is indeed less expensive - assuming you have access to the land - than living from the grocery store. As for how much land, you might be surprised at how little is really required. She was easily able to make the case that eating organically is better for your health as well as the planet. More importantly, she makes a good point that you do not have to have your own farm to eat locally - at least in most of the populated parts of this country. There are farmers’ markets most of us can get to, the various public assistance programs, like WIC (women, infants, children) can be used at farmers’ markets, and we can make better use of what is nearby. Some people can grow some of their own vegetables in pots in a patio, if that’s all there is available. It isn’t impossible for most of us to live more locally than we do and enjoy it more.

Enjoying it more is only part of the point, of course. Kingsolver is not a fan of factory farming of animals or conventional farming of vegetables and fruit. She asks that we look at where our food is grown, if the people who grow it are compensated adequately and if harmful chemicals are used in its production. In the case of animals she tells us that when her family had the choice of CAFO (confined animal ) meat or no meat they chose to go vegetarian, as much because of the treatment of the animals as for the unhealthy nature of the meat itself. Again and again she drills into the reader the reasons we should think hard about our food sources.

I couldn’t agree more that current agricultural practices in this country leave in their wake clouds of noxious pesticides, damaged soil, polluted water and air, and ultimately inferior products in taste and nutritional value. The Omnivore’s Dilemma made me aware too that the practice of growing corn and soybeans results in fields lying fallow for months, adding to the waste and contributing to the loss of topsoil. The practice of trekking food across the country or even across the world adds to the environmental cost of the food and leaves us to wonder who raised and harvested that food and what costs do they pay to bring us cheap food, in addition to the questions about the food itself.

In other words, for the most part Kingsolver is preaching to a member of the choir here. I seek out organic produce at local farmers’ markets, I cook most of my meals myself, I buy fair-trade products from other countries (when local alternatives are not available). I am aware of the costs of eating Big Ag. I am not sure how this book affects those who have not been giving these concerns much thought - I do hope the effect is mainly positive. There is an overarching preachiness beneath the veneer of humor that may well turn people off, but based on the largely positive reviews I suspect most are not turned off by that tone.

My main concern with the book is the way Kingsolver discusses the animals. And my complaint is that she does not give this matter the kind of dedicated study that she gives to the vegetable sections. She short-changes the subject in favor of promoting her own prejudices.

Kingsolver argues on behalf of what has come to be known as “happy meat”. Animals raised in a pleasant environment and killed in a way that inflicts as little pain as possible, mentally and psychically (yes, I said psychically). I can’t argue that the home-grown concept is not better than factory farming, for the animals as well as the people. What I can, and do argue, is that all of the reasons Kingsolver trots out to make her case in favor of eating meat at all are weak and fall to the ground under the slightest scrutiny. As this review is long enough already I will refrain from repeating my point-by-point argument on this subject, but you can read it on this blog.

I give credit to Kingsolver for her resolve to let her turkeys mate and reproduce naturally. She resisted the incubators and the artificial insemination, learning in the process that nobody, virtually nobody, in farming today actually lets the turkeys mate naturally. She wasn’t at all sure the breed she had would succeed at it. What interested me was that she made the claim that her turkeys, being older than a few months, were among the oldest in this country. She also hunted for information on mating in agricultural books of the 1950s. I wondered about the wild turkeys. I can see scores of these wonderful birds a short distance from where I live and I am betting that 1) they know how to mate and 2) they live long, happy lives in the wild. Kingsolver’s deliberate ignorance of the wild versions of the animals she breeds raised questions to me. Admittedly, a turkey bred for factory farms and 4H clubs, bred for artificial insemination, may not be terrific at mating, but even the poorest mom is likely to have derived its technique from the same source as its wild cousins.

I recommend this book to those who can stomach the offhand cruelty inherent in this family’s use of animals - which is most of this country (but not all countries). I have come away with a few new ideas I intend to implement: I will take up drying fruits and veggies, I will consider the implications of water use in food I buy that is not local, I will do more breadmaking myself, I will even consider canning. I am not gifted in the growing department so I will not commit to growing my food for a year or even a month.

I will reiterate my animal complaint: many people share Kingsolver’s attitude toward animals. I am not accusing them of anything - I was one of them for over half of my life. What disturbs me in Kingsolver is that she did the research and should know better. Or rather, that she thinks she did the research but she didn’t, really. She misrepresents vegans, cows, chickens, and meat production in general, primarily because of her own built-in prejudice.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

No One Heard Her Scream, by Jordan Dane

I should know better. Or maybe not. I found this book on the Publisher's Weekly notable books list for 2008. It was listed under "mass market". Mass market paperbacks do not have to be bad, I can certainly attest. In this case, though, I should have looked more closely before ordering the book from a fellow paperbackswap member.

I did not realize it was in the category of "romantic suspense", a slight improvement over straight "romantic". It's a category I don't particularly like but that I occasionally read, mainly because somebody gave me the book.

The two main characters are Rebecca ("Becca", of course) and Diego, both thirty-something or below, both coping with issues of trust, both strong and highly attractive blah blah other words, the usual characters in romantic suspense novels.

Becca is a detective in the San Antonio police department, while Diego's position is a bit more shady, man on the inside of a powerful empire led by a wealthy fifty-something man with unsavory predilections.

Becca is still trying to cope with the disappearance and apparent murder of her younger, teenage sister when she takes on an arson case that results in the discovery of a body, dead seven years. The body is of another young woman who disappeared, and the two cases appear to be connected.

From here we get romance, danger, really bad people with no redeeming qualities (not for Jordan Dane a complex antagonist), and fairly sketchy policework. Dane knows some things about police and fire procedure but not enough. Ask me about the blood spatter in the hotel room where Becca's sister was, don't ask because I'm likely to forget this book within a few days.

I recommend this book to people waiting in line, people stuck on airplanes, people trying to get through the time. Or LifeTime movie producers.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Atheist's Way - advance notice

A plug:

There is a new book on atheism that looks excellent (I have read some of it). The book is called The Atheist’s Way: Living Well Without Gods and it’s written by Eric Maisel, known for his many books in the creativity field. I have read a couple of his other books and find his approach refreshing and straightforward.

David Mills, author of Atheist Universe, endorsed The Atheist’s Way this way: “I find Maisel's writings more witty than Hitchens, more polished and articulate than Harris, and more informative and entertaining than Dawkins. A 5-star read from cover to cover!” John Allen Paulos, author of Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up, wrote: “How do you bravely face the world as it is and create meaning for yourself without the crutch of a divine benefactor? The Atheist’s Way is a wonderful resource for your quest.” The Atheist’s Way has gotten many more endorsements like these and I'll be reading it myself soon.

Here is the link to the book on Amazon.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Fine Just The Way It Is, by Annie Proulx

I listened to these stories in my car, on my CD player. I think the impression a book has can vary significantly depending on how it is "read", and in this case the audio version may not have been my best choice.

Fine Just the Way It Is is a set of short stories, specifically Wyoming Stories, as its subtitle says. The stories take place in the frontier days, in the present time, and in between. They vary in specific location, in the length of the tale and in the characters. But they are all about Wyoming, as if no matter who the human character is he or she cannot shake the indelible control of Wyoming on its soul. Oh, and I don't use that term "soul" lightly. Three of the stories feature the devil him- or herself.

It's possible that the actors on Selected Shorts have spoiled me for the usual professional readers of audio books. I love to listen to Selected Shorts on public radio, to how these veteran actors read fascinating stories, bringing every one to life. During one visit to New York City I could hardly contain my excitement the night I made my way to Symphony Space to watch the actors live, and I know I would go there regularly if I lived in Manhattan.

The readers of audio books are good readers, highly qualified, yet often for me there is no good fit between them and the material - or perhaps I am simply prejudiced. I found it difficult in the present case to get comfortable with the accent and style of speaking of Will Patton. Patton was chosen, I am sure, because these stories take place in Wyoming, and he has a decidedly western accent. Beyond the accent, he places emphasis where it might be natural for a westerner. He immerses himself into these lives and it shows and yet my prejudice, from wherever it comes, against that type voice, made it difficult at all times to enjoy the stories.

Nevertheless some of these stories stood out for me. They nearly stopped me in my tracks. There is a story here of a sagebrush that takes the place, for one woman, of a child, after she has lost so many of her own human children. The sage is of such a shape that it reaches its "arms" to the sky and it is so well treated that it reaches an astonishing size. It becomes a legend in its territory. It even becomes the subject of mysterious disappearances.

Another story, near the end, is of a man and woman who get into a fight, escalating until neither can back down. The man leaves, the woman heads out the next day for a long hike, one she had intended to do with the man. She hikes past a sign that says "trail closed" and continues on, knowing she is likely to be on her own the entire way, yet keeping in mind that her former lover might see the signs and come after her. When she makes a mistake and gets caught in some rocks we get to know how each day, each hour, each minute feels for her. And how her mind goes back to that fight.

There are several long stories here, each of which I wanted to be a book in itself. The first one left me long before I was ready to go. In fact, when I realized I was listening to a batch of short stories and not one long one I initially felt cheated, because I wanted so much for that first one to continue. Would I have the same impression if I simply came to the last paragraph of a printed page? I am not sure. Perhaps in some ways audio does have an advantage (in addition to being able to occupy my mind while I travel).

These are earthy, real, unwincing stories of the west, spanning several generations. People live and die and have hard lives and we are treated to details you almost had to be there to know. Better than any history book, this set brings the west, the real west, truly alive. The details are inscribed in the faces we imagine, in the actions the characters take, in the sense of relentless fate that seems to weigh everything down. Overall, the stories feel uncomfortably real while at the same time are frequently relieved by what may be called a kind of Wyoming humor.