memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

I’m perpetually about ten years behind in my reading. I mean, pretty much every book in the world is on my TBR, so I’m never actually caught up, but if something is popular at a certain point in time, that basically ensures that I will ignore it for the next decade in favor of reading things people read ten years before now. Reader problems, amiright??? I never got around to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper, 2007) when it first came out, but I grabbed a copy at a used book sale last year, since I figured the price was right (man, I miss those book sales, but it’s giving me a chance to catch up on reading from my own shelves!), and this was what came on next on my by-the-TV shelf.

Author Barbara Kingsolver and her family moved from their home in Tucson to the farm property her husband owned in Virginia in search of a more authentic life in which they could grow their own food and eat more locally, taxing the earth’s resources less. They began a year-long experiment in growing their own food in sizeable gardens, raising chickens and turkeys (and doing the slaughtering themselves), and eschewing almost all food products that didn’t come within a hundred (or so) miles of their home. Starting in the spring, they realized they’d have to give up a few staples- no more bananas, fresh fruit was hard to come by at that time of year and they had to substitute with locally grown rhubarb, etc.- but they soon realized that almost everything they needed or wanted could be grown on their land, obtained from a local source, or foregone entirely. It wasn’t easy- it involved hard word, sacrifice, occasionally paying a little more or doing a lot of research to find a local source- but it changed the way her family saw their own abilities, their community, and the world.

Ms. Kingsolver is a master storyteller; The Poisonwood Bible is one of my favorite books, and I have a copy of The Bean Trees waiting for me on my downstairs shelves. The stories she tells in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle are lovely; they make me want to plow up my entire lawn and plant a massive garden (how is it that I always manage to read these books at the end of the season???), and it definitely got me thinking more about buying local products and paying attention to where my groceries come from. It doesn’t always make sense to purchase products that come from thousands of miles away when there might be a similarly-priced alternative that comes from our own area, that doesn’t have as much packaging and hasn’t used up so much fossil fuels to land on our doorstep (sometimes only to liquefy in the crisper bin, yikes!). Ms. Kingsolver makes a good point that we must do better eating locally; our climate and the future of our planet depends on it.

What I didn’t particularly care for were the sections on meat and her proclamation that vegetarians would totally chow down on meat if they could see the happy lives of the animals on the farms where she purchases her meat products. That felt dismissive and reductive; I stopped eating meat and cut way back on the animal products I consume in general after a bad cholesterol test a few years ago. I don’t sit around eating tofu burgers, as Ms. Kingsolver claims (and what little tofu I do consume comes from about twenty miles away anyway); my diet consists of legumes, vegetables, fruits, and grains (not much of the fancy stuff like quinoa, either, it’s usually outside our budget), and that wouldn’t change even if Happy Lamb Farm took their lambs to Disneyland every other week and bought them all Mickey Mouse shirts and balloons. I’m doing the best I can for what my body is telling me it needs, and I didn’t appreciate having my health concerns dismissed in this manner. It seemed a bit self-righteous and didn’t mesh well with the rest of the tone of the book.

The other bone I had to pick was about farmers’ markets. We have a lovely one here near us that sells a lot of really awesome local produce and locally made products; we haven’t been since last year, because it just gets SO crowded, but I really enjoy going. That said, Ms. Kingsolver seems to be attending different farmer’s markets than I do in terms of cost (as do the majority of people I’ve seen singing their praises). I do understand that local food is often going to cost more, but I can’t afford to pay six dollars for a pound of strawberries or tomatoes. So many of us are doing the best we can with our food budgets; a lot of Americans live life on the edge, paycheck to paycheck, and asking us to pay more for the food we eat isn’t always a tenable suggestion when you can either buy a pound of local strawberries, or apples and broccoli and a head of cabbage from the grocery store to feed your family for the week for that same price. It’s a terrible choice; we need those local farmers and their produce, but we also need full tummies and a varied diet. It’s frustrating to read that her experiment saved her money in some areas and her meals cost so little, when I’ve seen some of the prices of produce at our famer’s market and thought, “I could buy that and no other vegetable for the week.” Doing our best here, but there’s only so much we can do.

But the rest of this book absolutely put me in a warmer state of mind, in lush gardens with sun-warmed soil, in steamy kitchens with pots of tomato sauce bubbling on the stovetop with sterilized glass jars glinting on the counter nearby. The weather is turning here; we’ve got rain in the forecast for most of this week and chilly temps in the 40’s and 50’s, so it was lovely to curl up on my reading chair and follow Barbara Kingsolver into her barn and kitchen as the rain streaked my living room window.

Visit Barbara Kingsolver’s website here.

fiction · YA

Two books by Nicola Yoon!

The parent education series that brings authors, clinicians, speakers, and other experts to our area is one of my favorite things about where I live- at one of the last events I attended, the director let us know that they’d just confirmed booking Tara Westover, author of Educated, for next year! Super excited about that. But next week, young adult author Nicola Yoon will be here, and since I’m never one to miss out on an author event, I prepared by reading both of her books.

First up was Everything, Everything (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2015), because I own a lovely hardcover copy which I snagged at a used book sale last summer (right after I learned she’d be coming here). Madeline is stuck in the house- literally and quite permanently, a victim of SCID, commonly referred to as Bubble Boy disease. Her mother, a doctor, cares for her with the help of a visiting nurse; the house is equipped with an airlock, a mega-air filter, windows never open, and almost no one ever visits. Madeline does her schoolwork mostly online and spends her days reading, until a new family moves in next door. Olly, the cute teenage son who catches Madeline’s eye, begins to awaken in Madeline the desire for a bigger life, a life outside her bubble, but the risks she takes will end up revealing some long-buried secrets and truths about the health of her family.

After I finished that, it was off to the library to grab their copy of The Sun Is Also a Star (Delacorte Press, 2016). In a novel that’s reminiscent in certain ways of Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, two teenagers with different backgrounds and ways of looking at the world meet and fall in love in the twenty-four hours before one of them is due to be deported. It’s a race through New York City, a journey to the heart and soul of identity, family, culture, home, and what it means to fall in love and make yourself vulnerable to another person.

Between the two books, I preferred Everything, Everything, even though I called the twist pretty early on. Madeline is a sympathetic character, and I loved the premise of a character who isn’t allowed to live in the normal world. Carla, her nurse, was my absolute favorite; without her, the story would never have gotten legs, and her willingness to take a chance, to defy Madeline’s mother (and her exasperation with her teenage daughter!) made her complex and realistic. Olly’s situation lends even more credibility to the story, and the culmination of it all is nearly perfection.

The Sun Is Also a Star was enjoyable, but I didn’t love it quite as much. While I respected Natasha’s commitment to science and logic (and understood her reasons for doing so), at times, her denial of the importance of emotion annoyed me, and her constant chirping of science facts was tiresome. Daniel is pretty great all around, but just like Nick and Nora, I didn’t find the premise of the book to be entirely realistic. I’m well aware of and remember acutely from my own teenage years the huge emotions that adolescents are capable of, but having these two fall that hard for each other so quickly, when Natasha is trying to square up her family’s situation…I couldn’t *quite* buy that she’d have the mental space for that at that particular time.

So now I’m ready and prepared to listen to Ms. Yoon speak next week! (That is, if coronavirus or the stomach virus with which my daughter is currently plagued doesn’t take us all down…) I’m glad I got these two read beforehand, because once again, I’m so far behind in my reading. I do have these two books and my library book discussion group book done for the month, though, so there’s that, which is nice. 😉

Are you often able to attend author events? I used to go to them fairly frequently when I lived in the Nashville area, especially when the Davis-Kidd bookstore still existed and hosted them (*pours one out for Davis-Kidd, which was an excellent store*). There’s a local-ish store here that plays host to a ton of amazing contemporary authors as they pass through on book tours, but I haven’t managed to make it over there yet; most of the author appearances are at times when traffic would make it difficult for me to get over there. But one day… Most of the events I attend now are through this parent education group (anyone of any age is welcome to attend; it’s not just for parents), so I very much appreciate its existence!

Visit Nicola Yoon’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal- Mary Roach

I adore Mary Roach. Reading Stiff set off a fascination about what happens- or can happen, if we so choose- to our remains after we die, and has introduced me to so many other excellent books (such as Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty, and Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales by William Bass and Jon Jefferson). Her Bonk was hilarious and made me admire her courage to insert herself into the research process, if you will. I always meant to get to her Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (W.W. Norton Company, 2013); I may have checked it out of the library once but time got away from me and I had to return it unread. When I saw it as a suggestion for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt of a book by an author with flora or fauna in their name, I knew Gulp‘s time had come.

Mary Roach is a science writer with a sense of humor, and she’s out to make sense of the world and present her findings in a way that will keep her readers laughing out loud long after they turn the final page. In Gulp, she goes on a quest to look deeper in the system of tubes that makes up the human alimentary canal: its function, its processes, its ability to produce gas so pungent, it could floor an elephant. If you have even the least bit of curiosity about fecal matter (why do we poop so much? How long can we really hold it? Why do some animals eat their own poop?), digestion (what’s the deal with how long it takes? How powerful is stomach acid?), saliva (why do we swallow our own without a second thought but can’t get anyone to swallow their own spit after first having spit it into a cup?), and gas (what’s the volume of a human fart? What exactly makes some farts smell worse than others?), or you have kids who think poop and farts are hilarious and would love to regale them with factual information about these things, you’re going to want this book.

Gulp is filled with so much random trivia about human bodies and nature, most of which is completely inappropriate to talk about in polite company, but which makes me love Mary Roach all the more and think that she must be a fantastic person to hang out with (if you’re a friend of hers, know that I’m deeply jealous). Despite having owned cats for the past fourteen years, I didn’t realize they’re primarily monoguesic, which means they stick to a single type of food. If you have an outdoor cat (which is generally recommended against, for reasons of health and safety; mine are strictly indoors) and they consume outdoor critters, for example, they’ll tend to eat either mice or birds, but not both. One of my housecats will eat canned cat food (though she’s picky about what kind), and will gladly accept offerings of fish or chicken, but she wants nothing to do with anything else. The other cat will eat cat food (his own, the other cat’s), any type of carb, vegetables (like carrots from my salad, or the green bean he stole off my plate and then shot me a filthy look as he consumed it under the piano bench as I yelled, “Hey!”), which makes me wonder whether he’d be a mouser or a birder or more of a junkyard cat who gets his calories ransacking the neighborhood garbage cans.

There are a lot of laughs in here, because Mary Roach really goes whole hog when it comes to research projects, and I deeply admire her for that. Example: after noticing that the facility that prepares human fecal matter for fecal transplants uses Oster brand blenders to blend their fecal samples in order to prepare the material for transplant, she actually emailed Oster for a comment, which they declined to give. (I mean, they could have mentioned that they were proud that their products are being used in exciting new medical technology bound to change lives around the world, but I guess it’s understandable that they don’t necessarily want their product associated with, well, poop.) This was only one of the many places I actually laughed out loud. If you’ve read any other of her books, you know Ms. Roach makes heavy use of asterisked footnotes, which are usually packed full of humorous tidbits, and Gulp is no different in this.

Eventually, I’d like to get to the rest of Ms. Roach’s oeuvre, but I’m entirely swamped with reading material right now and so this will have to be good, for now. Gulp is a joy to read. Heads up if you’re squeamish, though: she doesn’t shy away from much at all, but that’s the mark of an excellent scientist and investigator, I think.

Have you read any of Mary Roach’s books? Do you have a favorite? Stiff was my first and remains my favorite; I don’t know if I’ll get around to Packing for Mars, since anything about space tends to freak me out. Although, with the humorous way Ms. Roach presents things, I might be able to handle it…

Visit Mary Roach’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland- Jonathan M. Metzl

Anything about politics these days, I have to wait until I’m mentally strong enough to handle it. Self-care and all that; there’s only so much negativity I can take at one time. I had placed Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland by Jonathan M. Metzl (Basic Books, 2019) on my TBR on the recommendation of a friend, and on a recent trip to the library, I took out my updated list and grabbed this book.

The title sums the book up nicely. Across many red states, white Americans are voting for policies that directly harm them, from gun laws that up their own death rates, to healthcare policies (or the rescinding of policies) that lead to increased suffering and deaths, to education cutbacks and policies that mean their own children’s schools are worse off- sometimes much worse off. And they’re doing this out of a misplaced sense of cultural pride, that lifting those whom they have ‘othered’ up means they’ll have no one to look down on, and so in order to maintain this false sense of superiority, they continually put their own lives on the line by voting for policies that bring harm upon themselves. To them, this tradeoff is worth it.

Dying of Whiteness is necessarily heavy on the statistics in order to prove its hypothesis, but Mr. Metzl has managed to wrangle what could have been a dry recounting into a sobering narrative of his research findings as he traveled through multiple states that went red in the 2016 election. The first section on how looser gun laws in Missouri led to a 25% increase in firearm homicides and a 47% higher homicide rate than the national average between 2008-2014 shocked me, as did the massive increase (the percentage which I somehow neglected to write down) in suicide-by-gun among white males. Prevention is key, but thanks to the Dickey Amendment, researchers haven’t been able to research what would be effective prevention for suicide carried out by a gun (as government contributes the most funding to research, since government funds cannot be used for funding research into gun deaths, the only thing to takeaway here is that the ability to own a gun is more important than saving lives, according to our government). Imagine if the flu, or the polio epidemic were treated like this, and where we would be as a nation if no research were allowed to be conducted on death or suffering caused by those. Yet here we are… It’s not exactly an uplifting book, but it’s not meant to be.

The healthcare section is similarly packed with statistics and numbers, with men on Medicaid, tethered to oxygen tanks and barely able to wheeze out answers complaining about immigrants and people of color and saying they’d rather die than have certain groups of people also able to access healthcare. It’s really that bad.

Same goes for the educational system, but at least Mr. Metzl is able to find plenty of citizens who seem to understand how the affects of austerity measures in Kansas harmed their own children (though they still voted en masse for people who promised to enact these same policies nationwide…), but only after their children’s schools went massively down the tubes.

‘You can’t hold a man down without staying down with him,’ Booker T. Washington famously said, and Mr. Metzl does a fine job of exposing the Americans who are content to stay down with those they’re deadset on oppressing. It’s a gloomy look at the reality of America today. My sole complaint lies with what Mr. Metzl seemingly overlooks: while these people have no trouble living in reduced circumstances in order to maintain their place in this invisible hierarchy, even going so far as to give up their own lives for this misguided ideal (something at which he seems more than a little awed at, in a horrified way), what he doesn’t mention is that it’s not just themselves these people are sacrificing. It’s their children. It’s their neighbors. It’s people who desperately want change, who DON’T want to sacrifice themselves, who don’t want to watch their children or their parent die due to lack of decent medical care, or who need to know how to prevent gun suicides, or who want their kids to have technology classes and AP classes and college preparation in school. People who are literally dying for their allegiance to their own whiteness are also sentencing the rest of us to die alongside them, and I would have liked to have seen more written to that particularly terrifying reality.

Dying of Whiteness is daunting and more than a little disheartening, but it’s well-written, statistically sound, and an important read, if you can handle it. It’s also a call to action for white people. Free your mind. Get over whatever racial biases and prejudices you have. Do the work to ditch your racism, because your life, and the life of those you love, literally depends on it.

Visit Jonathan Metzl’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.