Tuesday, March 30, 2010

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

Animal Vegetable Miracle 1ST Edition
Animal Vegetable Miracle has been on my to be read list for quite some time. I didn't get to it during the 2009 TBR Challenge, so when my "old" bookclub decided to read it in March, I decided it was time to dig in.

Barbara Kingsolver and her family moved from Tuscon, AZ to rural Virginia in order to live closer to the sources of their food. Once they were settled on their small farm, they committed to eating locally grown food in season for one year. Much of this came from their own garden and barnyard, but they also frequented farmer's markets and had many connections with farmers for free-range meat and other products. They were not absolute purists, for they still bought coffee, flour, spices, and such things that simply don't grow in Virginia, but the vast majority of their food came from within a 100 mile radius of their home.

I found this book to be both inspiring and aggravating. I am somewhat more committed to growing my own garden, although I do not share the author's love of the soil. I would still rather be inside baking or reading than outside digging in the dirt. (I attribute this proclivity to the indoors to severe allergies which kept me inside most of my childhood - inside reading books, of course!) But since the home we moved into 7 months ago has an existing garden, I really have no excuse not to at least plant some essential vegetables that I know my family will use and enjoy.

If nothing else, the cost savings will motivate me to grow my own vegetables. Since I refuse to pay $1.25 per pound for butternut squash, I did without it most of last fall and winter (only splurging for Thanksgiving). I am really looking forward to spending a few dollars on seeds and, Lord willing, having a good supply of winter squash to store and enjoy next fall. Ditto for tomatoes which will be lined up in canning jars on my shelves by fall, I hope.

Barbara Kingsolver kept careful records of their expenditures throughout their year of locavore eating, and calculated that they spent an average of $6 per day for their family of four - that means a grocery budget of less than $200 per month! I find this to be astounding, since my grocery expenses are between 25-50% more than that, but we are not eating free-range meat or organic/locally grown grains and produce since those types of items generally cost much more. Sometimes, I feel the cost is worth it in health benefits, as in a cow share in order to have raw milk, but often I just can't bring myself to pay for these specialized foods.

Animal Vegetable Miracle reads more like a memoir than a gardening book, and Kingsolver often captures the humor and the wonder of farm life. It differs from a memoir, however, in that one does not just get a glimpse of another's life: there is a sublte - or sometimes not so subtle - agenda behind the story. She argues her case gently, in most cases, using experiential proofs more than documenting hard evidence. This didn't bother me since I approached it as a memoir, and I gleaned only those practical tidbits that I deemed useful. I did find it interesting that her numbers were sometimes presented in a way to dramatize the facts, as in this little tidbit: "...participating family farms collectively sold $236,000 worth of organic produce to retailers and supermarkets, which those markets, in turn, sold to consumers for nearly $0.3 million." (202) Now, if we were to compare apples to apples, that $0.3 million is really $333,333, which does not sound like quite such an astounding ripoff profit, though I must confess to ignorance of what the typical markup on produce is. So obviously, there is an agenda. For those who want more facts and the sources behind them, her husband Steven Hopp has written short pieces in many chapters which provide more of the socio-political and scientific background, and there are also references and resources listed in the back.

From the perspective of a Christian worldview, it is apparent that Kingsolver's desire to eat local produce and free-range meat coupled with her concern for the environment has become a new religion. On the subject of planting asparagus, she writes:

"I sweated to dig it into countless yards I was destined to leave behind, for no better reason than that I believe in vegetables in general, and this one in particular. Gardeners are widely known and mocked for this sort of fanaticism. But other people fast or walk long pilgrimages to honor the spirit of what they believer makes our world whole and lovely. If we gardeners can, in the same spirit, put our heels to the shovel, kneel before a trench holding tender roots, and then wait three years for an edible incarnation of the spring eqinox, who's to make the call between ridiculous and reverent?" (29, emphasis added; do you see the religious overtones?)

Similarly, she describes her approach to eating meat in these terms: "I take my gospel from Wendell Berry, who writes in What Are People For, 'I dislike the thought that some animal has been made miserable in order to feed me.'"  (221), emphasis added; however persuasive one might find Berry's argument, I wouldn't put it in terms of the gospel. Yes, I understand that she is using the term more generally than THE Gospel of Jesus Christ, but such terminology sets a tone of religiosity for her eating choices.)

Thanksgiving is stripped of any reference to the Pilgrim's faith and instead described as a day to "[w]ake up now, look alive, for here is a day off work just to praise Creation: the turkey, the squash, and the corn, these things that ate and drank sunshine, grass, muc, and rain, and then in the shortening days laid down their lives for our welfare and onward resolve. There's the miracle for you, the absolute sacrifice that still holds back seeds: a germ of promise to do the whole thing again, another time." (284, emphasis added; note again the Christian terms applied to creation.)

Although a self-proclaimed feminist, she has the courage to criticize the fallout of the feminist movement: "We gave up the aroma of warm bread rising, the measured pace of nurturing routines, the creative task of molding our families' tastes and zest for life; we received in exchange the minivan and the Lunchable. (Or worse, convenience-mart hot dogs and latchkey kids.) I consider it the great hoodwink of my generation." (127) Unfortunately, she still seems to advocate the "have-it-all" mentality that a woman can go to work, swing by the farmer's market at lunch or on her way home, and get the husband and kids to help make a fresh, home cooked meal when she gets home. Hmmmm...there's still something wrong with this picture.

In spite of these differences in philosophy, I do agree with Kingsolver's premise: "eating home-cooked meals from whole, in-season ingredients obtained from the most local source available is eating well, in every sense. Good for the habitat, good for the body." (31) Yes, that is a good-thing. But is it something I will shape my life around? No. I will, however, probably try some of the recipes that Barbara's daughter Camille included in the book and on the book's website.

I don't aspire to imitate the Hopp/Kingsolver family's food experiment, but I do want to incorporate more fresh/local food in our diet. My motivation, however, would be primarily for health reasons, not to reduce my environmental footprint, halt global warming, or limit my use of fossil fuels. There is an element of stewardship to consider, of course (except in the case of global warming, which is a crumbling myth), but my faith and family are the first priorities of my stewardship, not the earth. This is not to exclude good stewardship of the earth from my faith, but it does mean that my time, money, and other resources will be governed by more, much more, than simply the earth and my stomach.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis

The Screwtape Letters: Letters from a Senior to a Junior DevilI feel like I'm falling behind in both blogging and reading, so I'm returning to my "favorite quotations" method of book blogging. I read The Screwtape Letters in an older paperback (published by A Mentor Book in 1988), but it looks like most paperback editions are out of print, or at least not readily available on Amazon. The image is not the same book that I read, but it was the best available. 

For those who are not familiar with the premise of the book, it is a series of letters from a senior demon named Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, giving him advice on the management of his patient (human) so as to lure him away from the Enemy (God). For such a small book, it is extremely thought-provoking and insightful, not only of the human condition but also of the character and nature of God.

ON HUMAN RELATIONS: "Your patient must demand that all his own utterances are to be taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same time judging all his mother's utterances with the fullest and most oversensitive interpretation of the tone and the context and the suspected intention. She must be encouraged to do the same to him. Hence from every quarel they can both go away convinced, or very nearly convinced, that they are quite innocent." (11)

ON PRAYER: after giving examples of how humans tend to pray to a mental image of God, either figurative or literal, Screwtape writes, "But whatever the nature of the composite object, you must keep him praying to it - to the thing that he has made, not to the Person who has made him...For if he ever comes to make the distinction, if ever he consciously directs his prayers 'Not to what I think thou art but to what thou knowest thyself to be,' our situation is, for the moment, desperate." (16)

ON PLEASURE: "Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy's ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures; all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures wheich our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. Hence we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pelasurable." (34)

"The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring twopence what other people say about it, is by that very fact forearmed against some of our subtlest modes of attack." (56)

"[The Enemy] has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least - sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working. Everything has to be twisted before it's any use to us." (87)

ON LOSING SELF: "When [the Enemy] talks of their losing their selves, He only means abandoning the clamour of self-will; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality, and boasts (I am afraid, sincerely) that when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever. Hence, while He is delighted to see them sacrificing even their innocent wills to His, He hates to see them drifting awy from their own nature for any other reason. And we should always encourage them to do so. The deepest likings and impulses of any man are the raw material, the starting point, with which the Enemy has furnished him. (51)

ON PRIDE: "The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour's talents - or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognise all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things." (55)

ON TIME & ETERNITY: "The humans live in time but our Enemy destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them." (57)

ON THE IDEAL WOMAN: "...we are more and more directing the desires of men to something which does not exist - making the role of the eye in sexuality more and more important and at the same time making its demands more and more impossible. What follows you can easily forecast!" (79)

ON UNSELFISHNESS: "...you can from the very outset teach a man to surrender benefits not that others may be happy in having them but that he may be unselfish in forgoing them. That is a great point gained. Another great help, where the parties concerned are male and female, is the divergence of view about Unselfishness which we have built up between the sexes. A woman means by Unselfishness chiefly taking trouble for others; a man means not giving trouble to others...Thus while the woman thinks of doing good offices and the man of respecting other people's rights, each sex, without any obvious unreason, can and does regard the other as radically selfish." (105-106)

ON HUMAN FREEDOM & DIVINE SOVEREIGNTY: "...the Enemy does not foresee the humans making their free contributions in the future, but sees them doing so in His unbounded Now. And obviously to watch a man doing something is not to make him do it." (112-113)

ON GUILT: "There is, of course, always the chance, not of chloroforming the shame, but of aggravating it and producing Despair. This would be a great triumph. It would show that he had believed in, and accepted, the Enemy's forgiveness of his other sins only because he himself did not fully feel their sinfulness - that in respect of the one vice which he really understands in its full depth of dishonour he cannot see, nor credit, the Mercy. But I fear you have already let him get too far in the Enemy's school, and he knows that Despair is a greater sin than any of the sins which provoke it." (122-123)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ireland Reading Challenge

I generally don't like to commit to challenges because I usually have a big enough pile of books between what I read for book clubs and what I choose from my mental or written TBR list. I like to choose my next book without the constraints of a challenge or multiple challenges dictating my choice. With that said, however, I'm going to join the Ireland Reading Challenge hosted by CarrieK at Books and Movies because it fits with the priorities on my mental TBR list quite well!

I am hoping to read 4 books by November 30, 2010 for the Luck o' the Irish level. I might change my mind, but these are the titles I hope to read (the Amazon links will be updated with links to my reviews as I finish these books):

An Irish Country Doctor
The Yellow House: A Novel
The Banks of the Boyne: A Quest for Christian Ireland
Great Irish Short Stories

edited to add other intriguing titles:
1916: A Novel of the Irish Rebellion based on this review at Truth in Fiction

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Against the Odds: Tales of Achievement by L. M. Montgomery

What is the best antidote after a hopeless novel like Sister Carrie? Why, L. M. Montgomery, of course!

I didn't participate in the L. M. Montgomery Challenge at Reading to Know this year because the library did not co-operate with supplying the books I hoped to read. I had planned to read the Emily of New Moon series, but they only had the 2nd and 3rd books, not the first one, which was no good. So I put a hold on this collection of short stories: Against The Odds: Tales of Achievement. Unfortunately, it wasn't available until February - too late for the challenge. At least the timing was just right to restore my hopes for North American authors after my disappointment with Dreiser.

Whatever Dreiser's characters lacked in strength of character, determination, honor, or good old-fashioned work ethic, L. M. Montgomery finds in abundance in these short stories that span Canada from Prince Edward Island to Saskatchewan. For some reason, I don't often read short stories, but I was not disappointed with these. They are as charming, funny, and insightful as any of Montgomery's other fiction, and I am amazed at how she can capture characters so memorably in just a few pages. Her picturesque descriptions, though not as extensive as in the Anne books, transports one to the location and setting, making it easy to imagine you are sitting on the front porch or traversing the wilderness.

Here are some of my favorite bits from a few of these stories.

from "The Fillmore Elderberries":
"Ellis did hold out. The elderberries tried to hold out too, but they were no match for the lad's perseverance. It was a hard piece of work, however, and Ellis never forgot it. Week after week he toiled in the hot summer sun, digging, cutting, and dragging out roots. The job seemed endless, and his progress each day was discouragingly slow." (34)

from "Dorinda's Desperate Deed":
"But now Dorinda had come back to the little white house on the hill at Willowdale, set back from the road in a smother of apple trees and vines...Dorinda and her mother talked matters out fully one afternoon over their sewing, in the sunny south room where the winds got lost among the vines halfway through the open window." (39-40)

from "The Genesis of the Doughnut Club":
"...talk as you like, you can't preach much good into a boy if he's got an aching void in his stomach. Fill that up with tasty victuals, and then you can do something with his spiritual nature. If a boy is well stuffed with good things and then won't listen to advice, you might as well stop wasting your breath on him, because there is something radically wrong with him. Probably his grandfather had dyspepsia. And a dyspeptic ancestor is worse for a boy than predestination, in my opinion." (51)

"You see Providence did answer my prayers in spite of my lack of faith; but of course He used means, and that Thanksgiving dinner of mine was the earthly instrument of it all." (56)

The theology might be lacking a bit in the dyspepsia comments, but it still made me laugh! And lest one think that a "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" attitude is biblical, the latter quote gives a good perspective on providence and human responsibility.

from "At the Bay Shore Farm":
"They talked longer - an earnest, helpful talk that went far to inspire Frances's hazy ambition with a definite purpose. She understood that she must not write merely to win fame for herself or even for the higher motive of pure pleasure in her work. She must aim, however humbly, to help her readers to higher planes of thought and endeavor. Then and only then would it be worthwhile." (78-79)

Perhaps that last quote aptly summarizes what I found lacking in Sister Carrie. Dreiser's novel can certainly serve as a warning against a complacent lifestyle and lack of morals, but it does not offer any positive alternative.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

I read Sister Carrie as part of an Indiana author theme that my book club has been pursuing for a few months. It also would have fit well with the theme of fallen women that my previous book club discussed, but did not pursue, a year or two ago.

Of the other classic "fallen woman" tales that I have read, however, this would probably be my least favorite. I didn't particularly like the characters in Vanity Fair, but the historical details were interesting. In spite of Hardy's fatalism, I did like Tess of the D'Urbervilles for its beautiful narratives and vivid characters. But I am truly hard pressed to find anything that I like about Sister Carrie. The writing style is dull and tedious; the characters are mostly apathetic (and incredibly stupid, though that's not very nice to say); and the historical setting is extremely narrow in scope and description. If my book club's meeting had not been postponed for a week, I probably would not have even finished the book, which is something I rarely let myself do.

Carrie comes to Chicago at the age of eighteen to seek employment and find better prospects than her small Wisconsin hometown could afford. She finds work in a shoe factory, but spends most of her time bemoaning the hard labor and envying the rich who seem to lead such an easy and glamorous life. When she loses her job due to illness and is almost destitute, she is "saved" by Drouet, a travelling salesman who establishes her as his "wife." Among Drouet's acquaintances, Carrie is introduced to Hurstwood, a successful manager at least twice her age who is dissatisfied with his home life and quickly enamoured with Carrie. Hurstwood is charming, but deceptive. He hides that he is married; he steals $10,000 from his employer; he lies to Carrie so that she will run away with him; he even deceives her in supposedly marrying her, since that was not done legally either. Carrie and Hurstwood attempt to start a new life in New York, but Hurstwood struggles to succeed and Carrie is still jealous of her wealthy neighbors. When Hurstwood's business venture fails after a few years, he sinks into depression over his inability to find work. Finally driven to frustration, Carrie begins to work as a chorus girl and quickly achieves success and fame as an actress, leaving Hurstwood behind to fend for himself. As Carrie lives the life of luxury of which she had always dreamed, Hurstwood sinks lower and lower, begging and subsisting from day to day on the generosity of various charities. Yet Carrie is still unsatisfied and, above all, lonely. "This too is vanity and striving after wind."

I cannot help but compare Carrie to Tess. While it is true that both Hardy and Dreiser had a fatalistic world view, their portrayal of these women is vastly different. Tess is portrayed as a victim, one who was dealt the worst lot in spite of all her efforts to be good. Carrie, on the other hand, appears as one who is merely carried along by her circumstances, seldom protesting even if she doesn't like something. Goodness is inconsequential because her chief motivation is comfort. As long as she is provided for decently, she will go along with whatever farce is necessary to keep up appearances. Granted, Tess eventually succumbed to that at the end, but it was her last resort, not a continual habit. Needless to say, I can respect and feel sympathy toward a character like Tess much more than Carrie.

The narrator occasionally comments on this apathy, but generally it seems to be more social commentary than moral judgment. When Carrie accepted Drouet's help and became his mistress, we're told "She followed whither her craving led. She was yet more drawn than she drew" (74). Hurstwood wrestles about whether to steal the money from his employer for several pages, but for all that indecision the narrator notes, "The true ethics of the situation never once occurred to him. It is most certain that they never would have, under any circumstances" (270).

It is interesting to note the insights into roles of men and women. When Carrie gives up on Hurstwood's fruitless job search and starts to look for work, "Hurstwood saw her depart with some faint stirrings of shame, which were the expression of a manhood rapidly becoming atrophied" (381). Of Carrie, it is said, "It is curious to note how quickly a profession absorbs one. Carrie became wise in theatrical lore...Gradually the desire for notice took hold of her. She longed to be renowned like others and read with avidity all the complimentary or critical comments made concerning others high in her profession. The showy world in which her interests lay completely absorbed her" (442). By this time she had left Hurstwood and seldom gave him another thought. How sad for both the man and the woman when the roles of provider and nurturer are reversed.

In a word, I found Sister Carrie to be a truly pathetic story - not tragic, but pitiful in the foolishness and futility of it all. The characters are "driven and tossed by the wind" of their desires for love, fortune, or success, and as a result they make ridiculously foolish choices. I found it incredibly frustrating to observe their stupidity and naivete, especially coupled with the fact that they didn't learn from their experiences. Though I don't expect I'll need another dose of fatalism anytime soon, I'll take Hardy over Dreiser any day!