Thursday, April 23, 2009

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver is one of the most thought-provoking and enjoyable books I have ever read. In it, Kingsolver chronicles her family's move from the Southwest back to a family farm in Virginia. Their quest: to eat only local food for a year, growing most of it on their farm. A truly herculean task in some respects, but Kingsolver is the first to admit that their situation had some benefits that many don't have: an existing farm set smack in some of America's most fertile land, a family of four of which all can contribute, flexible work schedules outside of farm life (her husband is a professor and she is a writer), and some scientific background. Nonetheless, her story is inspiring and made me want to start homesteading!

Why is this book so inspiring? Part of it is surely the amazing talent Kingsolver has as a writer. Her writing is poetry to read; a narrative of her own experience thus becomes just as gripping as a made up character's in a novel. Her scientific background also helps; this book is full of helpful information and tidbits. Her husband, Steven Hopp, writes many insightful sidenotes throughout the text, offering interesting statistics and ways to work towards their goal for the average American. Finally, daughter Camille includes her own thoughts as a college-bound student: menus she creates, her reasons for becoming more and more vegetarian, and the like.

One of my favorite parts in the book is the section in which Hopp outlines some strategies for those of us shopping in the grocery store as we strive to get more local food onto our plates. I also made mental note of the tomato varieties discussed, was thankful I don't have to harvest my own turkeys, and am more eager than ever to continue gardening. I read this book for the first time a year ago, and we had a nice, small garden last summer. This year, I skimmed it again, planned a bigger garden, and have had a great time so far feeding bunnies (and being very thankful I don't depend on my garden for all my food).

A word of caution for this book: it makes homesteading look amazing--wonderful hard work. But, it's also full of evolutionary background and a bit of a liberal agenda in terms of political impact for all of our food choices. Yes, the information is excellent. Yes, we should be practicing good stewardship with our food, our growing practices, and the way we "produce" meat. However, we also need to make sure we get the full story before we jump the conventionally grown produce ship and head for our local farmer's market in an attempt to live off the land (ours or our neighbor's).

Barbara Kingsolver: Southern Writer

I mentioned a while back that I wanted to do a small series on Southern writers. Better late than never at fulfilling that goal, I suppose. Barbara Kingsolver is a terrific place to start, partly because her recent book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is causing many people to rethink what we eat--and is often read by people who read In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan (see my review). Both books are hot topics right now. I plan to write a separate review for A, V, M because it is not a novel like the others of Kingsolver's I've read; as such, it doesn't fit the characteristics of Southern fiction I outlined in my earlier post on the subject.

Bio on Kingsolver
Before I jump into Kingsolver's works and examine them, a brief bio on the author herself might help those unfamiliar with her works and background. She is married to Steven Hopp, an environmental sciences professor, has two daughters, and lives in Virginia (she was born in the Southeast as well). She has a traveled extensively, lived in Arizona for a time, and also has pursued degrees in such scientific areas as evolutionary biology. For more information, see here.

Some Literary Analysis
I have not read all of Kingsolver's works, but I've read enough to be fairly conversant with her style and themes. She fits into the characteristics I outlined earlier for Southern fiction nicely. I'll break them down below, using examples from Kingsolver's work. If you are unfamiliar with her work, see here for some summaries and excerpts. I will focus on The Poisonwood Bible, The Bean Trees, and Prodigal Summer.

First, Southern novels and short stories tend to showcase the protagonist(s) relationships and conflicts with family, tradition and culture, and the land. Kingsolver is no exception here; her massive tome The Poisonwood Bible is full of this very subject matter. A minister, his wife, and their four daughters head to the Congo as missionaries. The women narrate the story in turns, and each individual story line is rife with analysis of the minister in his various roles as husband, father, and minister/missionary. They also reflect on their relationships with each other. The traditions and culture of the Congo form a central staging for conflict, and all five women spend much time reflecting on the differences between the Congo and their American home as well as the differences in themselves over time as a response to the cultural transition they're undergoing. Two girls elect to stay in Africa when their time as missionaries comes to a close, but for very different reasons. All of the women react to Africa significantly--the land itself as well as its cultural stage. In The Bean Trees, the entire narrative centers around Taylor's new relationships in the Southwest, particularly the three-year-old "Turtle" who becomes her companion. Prodigal Summer rotates between three different storylines: an older, crotchety couple who live next door to each other, a young newly wed couple, and a woman scientist who is trying to live as a hermit (but doesn't succeed). This novel is sexually charged partly because Kingsolver draws so much of the natural world's life cycle into the narrative. Everying from flowers to animals to people becomes part of the great life cycle going on.

Second, Southern authors showcase the rich tradition, especially present in the Appalachias, of storytelling. Kingsolver is an expert storyteller and her books are sheer pleasure to read as a result. The characters in her book don't tell stories as an event (like some of Lee Smith's characters), but the books read much like a storyteller would tell them.

Third, these Southern works are almost always intergenerational; that is, several generations are involved in the story. Poisonwood Bible, as mentioned above, revolves around the relationships between parents and children; The Bean Trees, similarly, centers on Taylor's relationship with Turtle--not a biological connection, but very similar to mother and child.

Fourth, Southern works focus on personal struggles; these are frequently somewhat depressing in nature which is why I have to take a break every now and then! These struggles include everything from family tension, racial issues, identity crises, and the like. Taylor's story in Bean Trees is full of struggle--the very reason she ends up in the Southwest is because she's leaving her old life to strike out on her own.

My Evaluation/Critique in a Nutshell
Kingsolver is a true Southern author--one of the best. Her writing is lyrical, rooted in the natural world, brimming over with humanity. Her work is a delight to read partly because of her gift with words. I highly recommend reading her works, but would also caution readers that she has a definite agenda. Her books often carry post-colonial thought (white men are bad because they took over and ruined places like Africa during colonial expansion). Her books are very evolutionary friendly; Prodigal Summer is a prime example of this. It's a wonderful book to read in some respects--particularly if you enjoy nature and nature writing. However, it's full of evolutionary subtexts. And, of course, we don't take our human relationship standards from fiction--Taylor's story in Bean Trees is a good example of why! So, if you're looking for a truly talented author to read, check out Kingsolver, but read with a critical mind, as always!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Restful Illustrations

Sorry for the unprofessional nature of this post--I'm not even taking the time to double check authors' names and such...

As I've read stories and books to my children millions of times over the last 3.5 years, I've begun to notice something about the illustrations in children's books and their "restful" qualities (or lack thereof). If I can make a gross overgeneralization here, it seems to me that older picture books are much more restful in tone, numbers of images per page, and subject matter than most newer picture books. Am I going to take the time to find examples of these illustrations online to include here? No. (If I had that kind of time, there would be more posts on here; instead of waiting for that time, I thought I'd just post the text version of my thoughts....).

Interestingly, my daughter (3.5 years old) really loves the older picture books and consistently gravitates towards them. The newer ones she enjoys, too, but doesn't seem to go back to them over and over and over. I'm sure text/storyline has something to do with it, but I also wonder if the pictures themselves are part of the charm. Consider the following titles, all of which have fairly monochromatic illustrations or, at most, colored images on only a few pages:

Make Way for Ducklings (McCloskey)
Blueberries for Sal (McCloskey)
Play with Me (? Can't remember off hand)
Curious George--old ones (Rey)
Madeleine (?)
Good Night Moon (Brown)
Millions of Cats (Gag)

There are also older picture books which have color illustrations on every page, but the colors are somehow softer and less intrusive than the bright flourescents of today. In addition, not as many colors are used per page and there are fewer images overall per page--all of this adds to less visual clutter. Consider the following titles:

Peter Rabbit (and others)
older Golden Books, such as The Color Kittens, The Saggy-Baggy Elephant, The Poky Little Puppy
Winnie-the-Pooh stories
Frog and Toad books (and other Lobel books)
Little Bear Books
Where the Wild Things Are

I could go on and on with this list. I realize that the vivid illustrations we have today in picture books were not possible in the earlier books. Some of the newer picture books have done a good job (newer Curious George books have cute illustrations; DK books have great photographs and usually put a nice number on a page). But some of the newer picture books, perhaps in an effort to "stimulate" a child's imagination, are visually cluttered and tend to get put aside more quickly than those books which quietly worm their way into a child's heart and mind.

(I'll try to post a list of non-restful titles at some point--just wanted to throw this initial idea out there and see what the peanut gallery thinks.)