Wednesday, October 28, 2009

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

I love Barbara Kingsolver. I first fell in love with Pigs in Heaven; backtracked to read The Bean Trees, Animal Dreams, and Homeland and Other Stories; bought The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer in hardback as soon as they were out; and read her books of essays. She writes beautifully...and she has a point of view that is uniquely hers.

So why did I resist buying Animal, Vegetable, Miracle until it was out in paperback; let it sit on my nightstand for months after I bought it; and dawdle over reading it once I started? Perhaps it's the guilt--knowing that she was writing about her family's experience changing their eating habits by adopting a locavore approach and knowing that, while I see the argument, I'm too lazy to grow and preserve my own food.

I loved the parts of the book when Kingsolver is relating her family's story--their move from Arizona to Virginia, their nervousness in beginning the year (that would extend indefinitely) of eating locally, dealing with the challenge of the too-successful zucchini crop, teaching turkeys how to mate, and more. Her words and her family charm you as they demonstrate the many benefits of eating locally grown, seasonal foods. Kingsolver's husband Steven Hopp contributes sidebars on a wide variety of topics--from the arguments against concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to how to develop recipes for use with your bread machine. Her daughter Camille Kingsolver describes seasonal cooking and provides recipes and typical family menus for each season (the recipes are also available at

I was less taken with the sections of the book in which Kingsolver is writing in a journalistic style with a strong pinch of editorializing about topics like the economics of small farms, organic certification, and the history of farming. All of the topics are woven into the story of their family's locavore experiment, but honestly it became a bit much, as does her fervor for the locavore approach Can a working class or poor family living in an urban area in the Rust Belt really follow this approach to eating? I have serious doubts.

Even though this is my least favorite Kingsolver book, it would provide plenty of fodder (pun intended) for a book group. And I, perhaps, will try to buy more food at farmers' markets next year.

Favorite passages (she does write beautifully about food and family):
The Saturday of Labor Day weekend dawned with a sweet, translucent bite, like a Golden Delicious apple. I always seem to harbor a childlike hope through the berry-stained months of June and July that summer will be for keeps. But then a day comes in early fall to remind me why it should end, after all.

I do know that flavors work their own ways under the skin, into the heart of longing. Where my kids are concerned I find myself hoping for the simplest things: that if someday they crave orchards where their kids can climb into the branhes and steal apples, the world will have trees enough with arms to receive them.

To this tasty native assembly [of foods] add a cohort of female relatives sharing work and gossip in the kitchen, kids flopped on the living room floor watching behemoth cartoon characters float down a New York thoroughfare on TV, and men out in the yard pretending they still have the upper-body strengh for lateral passes, and that is a perfect American day.

When I'm cooking, I find myself inhabiting the emotional companionship of the person who taught me how to make a particular dish, or with whom I used to cook it. Slamming a door on food-rich holidays, declaring food an enemy, sends all the grandparents and great aunts to a lonely place . . . Here I stand in the consecrated presence of all they wished for me, and cooked for me. Right here, canning tomatoes with Camille, making egg bread with Lily. I find myself begging every memory: Come back for a potholder hug.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Evidence, by Jonathan Kellerman

It's been a slow reading 10 days--despite the fact that I've been reading mysteries, which usually go quickly.

At any rate, Evidence is Jonathan Kellerman's 24th book in the Alex Delaware series. Since Alex is a child psychologist, the early books in the series involved cases in which the victims or the perpetrators were psychologically damaged children; Milo Sturgis, case-closer extraordinaire, called in Alex on these cases because of his special insight into child psychology.

Somewhere along the line--perhaps in this book, perhaps in an earlier one (without my noticing)--Milo stopped needing any pretext for calling Alex and just involves him when he feels like it. The interrelated cases that are at the heart of Evidence--a double murder in an abandoned mansion owned by a Southeast Asian sultan, the burning of that same mansion a few days later, the shooting of a former crime scene investigator, the disappearance of a Swiss woman who was dating the sultan's brother--do not involve children or particularly complex psychopathologies. Alex is just along to provide the narration--and the mystery is much less engaging for it.

Kellerman here offers multiple-page passages recounting Milo's interrogation of various suspects. While Milo was always a good detective, I don't remember this focus on his interrogation techniques in earlier books (the scenes feel Closer-inspired). And we get none of the tension around Alex's personal life that marked earlier works.

All in all, a disappointment.

Favorite passage:
Post-industrial humanity is a criminal biomechanical disruption of the natural order.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Rough Country, by John Sandford

John Sandford's specialty seems to be quirky, tough, politically-incorrect-but-with-the-heart-of-a-new-man cops who have another talent (designing games, travel writing) that gives them additional depth. Now that Lucas Davenport (hero of Sandford's Prey series) has settled into being a married dad who seems to have lost a bit of his edge, Sandford has started a second series featuring Virgil Flowers. Flowers wears obscure rock band t-shirts, has blonde surfer hair, and thinks through the crimes he's investigating while fishing.

Rough Country is set in northern Minnesota, where a guest at lodge catering to women (many of whom are lesbians but also like to play around with the waiters and dock boys) is shot as she watched an eagle's nest from her boat. Although there are numerous red herrings, it seems fairly obvious that the murder--and an earlier killing in Iowa--are linked to Wendy Aschbach's band. Sandford at first makes us think the killer is a woman, then lets us know it's not, and finally clues us in to who the killer is a few pages before Virgil breaks the case. It's an interesting technique, which keeps the reader from getting frustrated with the lack of progress in Virgil's investigation.

Is Rough Country a great mystery? No, but if you like the kind of character Sandford creates, it's a fun read.

Favorite passage:
. . . the sound was so distant, so intermittent, so thready, that it was like aural smoke--a noise on the edge of nothingness.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Weight of Silence, by Heather Gudenkauf

I bought this book at LAX in mid-September and didn't finish it until last night when I was on a plane back from Chicago with nothing else to read. So that probably gives you a good clue as to how fond I am of The Weight of Silence.

This book feels like a creative writing exercise--start with a scene that establishes dread, flashback to the events that led to the scene, use multiple narrators, and show the effects of a social problem. And why not put some kids in peril? Hillary Jordan used virtually the same formula in Mudbound (see the very first post on this blog) but did it with greater skill and in a way that actually illuminated a time, a place, and a social issue. We don't learn anything new about alcoholism (or domestic abuse or predators) from Heather Gudenkauf--it's all been written about (better) before. We don't even learn much about the one rather unique problem in her story--selective mutism.

So, if you're in Hudson's Booksellers in your favorite airport, don't let the resonant title or nice cover design make you reach for your wallet.

Favorite passage: I still like the title.

My Life in France, by Julia Child

After seeing Julie and Julia and loving Julia and Paul Child (as portrayed by Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci), I had to read My Life in France. Julia Child wrote the book with Paul's grandnephew Alex Prud'homme shortly before her death, drawing on her memories, as well as letters and other documents. The focus is on the years the Childs spent in France after World War II, but also extends beyond that era.

The book is a fun read for a food lover; learning about the effort it required to bring Mastering the Art of French Cooking to life is truly fascinating. While the differences in eating and cooking traditions in France and the United States were an obvious challenge, I never considered the complications of differences in ingredients available (flours are evidently infinitely variable). Julia's testing of techniques and recipes makes her sound like a pioneer in molecular gastronomy, the scientific approach to cooking so popular now. Since Paul worked for the USIA, the Childs were also affected by political events (e.g., McCarthyism), which adds another layer of interest.

It's surprising to note that the Julia Meryl Streep portrayed in Julia and Julia was in her late 30s. While Meryl certainly doesn't look her age (60), it's a Hollywood oddity to see an actress play someone 20 years younger--perhaps Meryl was chosen because the Julia that Americans knew on PBS's The French Chef was older (and, of course, because she's Meryl Streep).

In reading and seeing Julie and Julia, I wondered why Julia disapproved of Julie Powell's project. After reading My Life in France, I can see that, after spending years writing the book, Julia might have found someone trying to cook her way through the recipes in a year insulting and/or trivial. In addition, there's a streak of coldness that comes through in the book--she says of herself, "I have never been very sentimental," and her response to her father's death shows that (granted, he was a difficult man, but this response to me is more about her than about him): "I know there were times I could have been better, nicer, more generous toward him, and so forth and so on. But, frankly, my father's death come as a relief more than a shock. I suddenly felt we could go to California whenever we wanted to, without restraints or family bien, l'affaire conclue."

Favorite passage:
. . . I made sure not to apologize for it [bad food]. This was a rule of mine.

I don't believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make. When one's hostess starts in with self-deprecations such as "Oh, I don't know how to cook...," or "Poor little me....," or "This may taste awful...," it is so dreadful to have to reassure her that everything is delicious and fine, whether it is or not. Besides, such admissions only draw attention to one's shortcomings (or self-perceived shortcomings), and make the other person think, "Yes, you're right, this really is an awful meal!" Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed--eh bien, tant pis!

("This may taste awful" is so me--I'm going to stop it immediately!)