Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
Barbara Kingsolver, 2007
Hang on for the ride: with characteristic poetry and pluck, Barbara Kingsolver and her family sweep readers along on their journey away from the industrial-food pipeline to a rural life in which they vow to buy only food raised in their own neighborhood, grow it themselves, or learn to live without it. Their good-humored search yields surprising discoveries about turkey sex life and overly zealous zucchini plants, en route to a food culture that's better for the neighborhood and also better on the table.
Part memoir, part journalistic investigation, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle makes a passionate case for putting the kitchen back at the center of family life, and diversified farms at the center of the American diet. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—April 8, 1955
• Where—Annapolis, Maryland, USA
• Education—B.A., DePauw University; M.S., University of
• Awards—Orange Prize
• Currently—lives on a farm in Virginia
Barbara Kingsolver was born on April 8, 1955. She grew up "in the middle of an alfalfa field," in the part of eastern Kentucky that lies between the opulent horse farms and the impoverished coal fields. While her family has deep roots in the region, she never imagined staying there herself. "The options were limited--grow up to be a farmer or a farmer's wife."
Kingsolver has always been a storyteller: "I used to beg my mother to let me tell her a bedtime story." As a child, she wrote stories and essays and, beginning at the age of eight, kept a journal religiously. Still, it never occurred to Kingsolver that she could become a professional writer. Growing up in a rural place, where work centered mainly on survival, writing didn't seem to be a practical career choice. Besides, the writers she read, she once explained, "were mostly old, dead men. It was inconceivable that I might grow up to be one of those myself..."
Kingsolver left Kentucky to attend DePauw University in Indiana, where she majored in biology. She also took one creative writing course, and became active in the last anti-Vietnam War protests. After graduating in 1977, Kingsolver lived and worked in widely scattered places. In the early eighties, she pursued graduate studies in biology and ecology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she received a Masters of Science degree. She also enrolled in a writing class taught by author Francine Prose, whose work Kingsolver admires.
Kingsolver's fiction is rich with the language and imagery of her native Kentucky. But when she first left home, she says, "I lost my accent.... [P]eople made terrible fun of me for the way I used to talk, so I gave it upslowly and became something else." During her years in school and two years spent living in Greece and France she supported herself in a variety of jobs: as an archaeologist, copy editor, X-ray technician, housecleaner, biological researcher and translator of medical documents.
After graduate school, a position as a science writer for the University of Arizona soon led her into feature writing for journals and newspapers. Her numerous articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including The Nation, the New York Times, and Smithsonian, and many of them are included in the collection, High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never. In 1986 she won an Arizona Press Club award for outstanding feature writing, and in 1995, after the publication of High Tide in Tucson, Kingsolver was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from her alma mater, DePauw University.
Kingsolver credits her careers in scientific writing and journalism with instilling in her a writer's discipline and broadening her "fictional possiblities." Describing herself as a shy person who would generally prefer to stay at home with her computer, she explains that "journalism forces me to meet and talk with people I would never run across otherwise."
From 1985 through 1987, Kingsolver was a freelance journalist by day, but she was writing fiction by night. Married to a chemist in 1985, she suffered from insomnia after becoming pregnant the following year. Instead of following her doctor's recommendation to scrub the bathroom tiles with a toothbrush, Kingsolver sat in a closet and began to write The Bean Trees, a novel about a young woman who leaves rural Kentucky (accent intact) and finds herself living in urban Tucson.
The Bean Trees, originally published in 1988 and reissued in a special ten-year anniversary edition in 1998, was enthusiastically received by critics. But, perhaps more important to Kingsolver, the novel was read with delight and, even, passion by ordinary readers. "A novel can educate to some extent," she told Publishers Weekly. "But first, a novel has to entertain—that's the contract with the reader: you give me ten hours and I'll give you a reason to turn every page. I have a commitment to accessiblity. I believe in plot. I want an English professor to understand the symbolism while at the same time I want the people I grew up with—who may not often read anything but the Sears catalogue—to read my books."
For Kingsolver, writing is a form of political activism. When she was in her twenties she discovered Doris Lessing. "I read the Children of Violence novels and began to understand how a person could write about the problems of the world in a compelling and beautiful way. And it seemed to me that was the most important thing I could ever do, if I could ever do that."
The Bean Trees was followed by the collection, Homeland and Other Stories (1989), the novels Animal Dreams (1990), and Pigs in Heaven (1993), and the bestselling High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now and Never (1995). Kingsolver has also published a collection of poetry, Another America: Otra America (Seal Press, 1992, 1998), and a nonfiction book, Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of l983 (ILR Press/Cornell University Press, 1989, 1996). The Poisonwood Bible (1998) earned accolades at home and abroad, and was an Oprah's Book Club selection.
Barbara's Prodigal Summer (2000), is a novel set in a rural farming community in southern Appalachia. Small Wonder, April 2002, presents 23 wonderfully articulate essays. Here Barbara raises her voice in praise of nature, family, literature, and the joys of everyday life while examining the genesis of war, violence, and poverty in our world.
Two additional books became best sellers. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle came in 2007, again to great acclaim. Non-fiction, the book recounts a year in the life of Kingsolver's family as they grew all their own food. The Lacuna, published two years later, is a fictional account of historical events in Mexico during the 1930, and moving into the U.S. during the McCarthy era of the 1950's.
• Barbara Kingsolver lives in Southern Applachia with her husband Steven Hopp, and her two daughters, Camille from a previous marriage, and Lily, who was born in 1996. When not writing or spending time with her family, Barbara gardens, cooks, hikes, and works as an environmental activist and human-rights advocate.
• Given that Barbara Kingsolver's work covers the psychic and geographical territories that she knows firsthand, readers often assume that her work is autobiographical. "There are little things that people who know me might recognize in my novels," she acknowledges. "But my work is not about me....
• If you want a slice of life, look out the window. An artist has to look out that window, isolate one or two suggestive things, and embroider them together with poetry and fabrication, to create a revelation. If we can't, as artists, improve on real life, we should put down our pencils and go bake bread. (Adapted from Barnes & Noble.)
What is likely to win the most converts, though, is the joy Kingsolver takes in food. She isn’t just an ardent preserver, following the summertime canning rituals of her farming forebears. She’s also an ardent cook, and there’s some lovely food writing here.
Korby Kummer - New York Times
This is a serious book about important problems. Its concerns are real and urgent. It is clear, thoughtful, often amusing, passionate and appealing. It may give you a serious case of supermarket guilt, thinking of the energy footprint left by each out-of-season tomato, but you'll also find unexpected knowledge and gain the ability to make informed choices about what—and how—you're willing to eat.
Bunny Crumpacker - Washington Post
Anyone who read and appreciated The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan [see LitLovers Reading Guide] will want to read Barbara Kingsolver’s book.
Kingsolver dresses down the American food complex…These down-on-the-farm sections are inspiring and…compelling.
In her engaging though sometimes preachy new book, Kingsolver recounts the year her family attempted to eat only what they could grow on their farm in Virginia or buy from local sources. The book's bulk, written and read by Kingsolver in a lightly twangy voice filled with wonder and enthusiasm, proceeds through the seasons via delightful stories about the history of their farmhouse, the exhausting bounty of the zucchini harvest, turkey chicks hatching and so on. In long sections, however, she gets on a soapbox about problems with industrial food production, fast food and Americans' ignorance of food's origins, and despite her obvious passion for the issues, the reading turns didactic and loses its pace, momentum and narrative. Her daughter Camille contributes recipes, meal plans and an enjoyable personal essay in a clear if rather monotonous voice. Hopp, Kingsolver's husband and an environmental studies professor, provides dry readings of the sidebars that have him playing "Dr. Scientist," as Kingsolver notes in an illuminating interview on the last disc. Though they may skip some of the more moralizing tracks, Kingsolver's fans and foodies alike will find this a charming, sometimes inspiring account of reconnecting with the food chain.
Best-selling novelist Kingsolver and her family moved from Tucson, AZ, to the fertile lands of Southern Appalachia, where agriculture is an accepted excuse for absence from school, to undertake an experiment of sorts. The family joined the locavore movement, which promotes eating only what is locally raised, grown, and produced. This account of their ongoing experiment is a family affair: daughter Lily morphs into a poultry entrepreneur; daughter Camille, a college student, sprinkles her own anecdotes and seasonal menus throughout; and essays by Kingsolver's husband, Hopp, an academic, warn of the high cost of chemical pesticides, fossil fuels, and processed foods environmentally, financially, and on our health. Patience is a virtue in this undertaking, which calls for eating only what is in season; however, Kingsolver's passion for food and near sensual delight in what she pulls from her garden make the enterprise seem enticing. The author's narration is homey, folksy, and warm; Camille and Hopp narrate as well. Part memoir, part how-to, and part agricultural education, this book is both timely and entertaining. With Kingsolver's broad readership; a large movement toward organic, healthful eating; and heavy media attention on the subject, expect demand. Recommended for public libraries.
Risa Getman - Library Journal
With some assistance from her husband, Steven, and 19-year-old daughter, Camille, Kingsolver (Prodigal Summer, 2000, etc.) elegantly chronicles a year of back-to-the-land living with her family in Appalachia. After three years of drought, the author decamped from her longtime home in Arizona and set out with Steven, Camille and younger daughter Lily to inhabit fulltime his family's farm in Virginia. Their aim, she notes, was to "live in a place that could feed us," to grow their own food and join the increasingly potent movement led by organic growers and small exurban food producers. Kingsolver wants to know where her food is coming from: Her diary records her attempts to consume only those items grown locally and in season while eschewing foods that require the use of fossil fuels for transport, fertilizing and processing. (In one of biologist Steven's terrific sidebars, "Oily Food," he notes that 17 percent of the nation's energy is consumed by agriculture.) From her vegetable patch, Kingsolver discovered nifty ways to use plentiful available produce such as asparagus, rhubarb, wild mushrooms, honey, zucchini, pumpkins and tomatoes; she also spent a lot of time canning summer foods for winter. The family learned how to make cheese, visited organic farms and a working family farm in Tuscany, even grew and killed their own meat. "I'm unimpressed by arguments that condemn animal harvest," writes Kingsolver, "while ignoring, wholesale, the animal killing that underwrites vegetal foods." Elsewhere, Steven explores business topics such as the good economics of going organic; the losing battle in the use of pesticides; the importance of a restructured Farm Bill; mad cow disease; and fairtrade. Camille, meanwhile, offers anecdotes and recipes. Readers frustrated with the unhealthy, artificial food chain will take heart and inspiration here.
1. What was your perception of America's food industry prior to reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? What did you learn from this book? How has it altered your views on the way food is acquired and consumed?
2. In what ways, if any, have you changed your eating habits since reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? Depending on where you live—in an urban, suburban, or rural environment—what other steps would you like to take to modify your lifestyle with regard to eating local?
3. "It had felt arbitrary when we sat around the table with our shopping list, making our rules. It felt almost silly to us in fact, as it may now seem to you. Why impose restrictions on ourselves? Who cares?" asks Kingsolver in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? Did you, in fact, care about Kingsolver's story and find it to be compelling? Why or why not? What was the family's aim for their year-long initiative, and did they accomplish that goal?
4. The writing of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was a family affair, with Kingsolver's husband, Steven L. Hopp, contributing factual sidebars and her daughter, Camille Kingsolver, serving up commentary and recipes. Did you find that these additional elements enhanced the book? How so? What facts or statistics in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle surprised you the most?
5. How does each member of the Kingsolver-Hopp family contribute during their year-long eating adventure? Were you surprised that the author's children not only participated in the endeavor but that they did so with such enthusiasm? Why or why not?
6. "A majority of North Americans do understand, at some level, that our food choices are politically charged," says Kingsolver, "affecting arenas from rural culture to international oil cartels and global climate change." How do politics affect America's food production and consumption? What global ramifications are there for the food choices we make?
7. Kingsolver advocates the pleasures of seasonal eating, but she acknowledges that many people would view this as deprivation "because we've grown accustomed to the botanically outrageous condition of having everything always." Do you believe that American society can—or will— overcome the need for instant gratification in order to be able to eat seasonally? How does Kingsolver present this aspect in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? Did you get the sense that she and her family ever felt deprived in their eating options?
8. Kingsolver points out that eating what we want, when we want comes "at a price." The cost, she says, "is not measured in money, but in untallied debts that will be paid by our children in the currency of extinctions, economic unravelings, and global climate change." What responsibility do we bear for keeping the environment safe for future generations? How does eating locally factor in to this?
9. Kingsolver asserts that "we have dealt to today's kids the statistical hand of a shorter life expectancy than their parents, which would be us, the ones taking care of them." How is our "thrown-away food culture" a detriment to children's health? She also says, "We're raising our children on the definition of promiscuity if we feed them a casual, indiscriminate mingling of foods from every season plucked from the supermarket." What responsibility do parents have to teach their children about the value and necessity of a local food culture?
10. In what ways do Kingsolver's descriptions of the places she visited on her travels—Italy, New England, Montreal, and Ohio—enhance her portrayal of local and seasonal eating?
11. "Marketing jingles from every angle lure patrons to turn our backs on our locally owned stores, restaurants, and farms," says Kingsolver. "And nobody considers that unpatriotic." How much of a role do the media play in determining what Americans eat? Discuss the decline of America's diversified family farms, and what it means for the country as a whole.
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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