Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

By Susana Fletcher

I love it when ideas get turned upside down. Organic bananas and hormone-free milk in the grocery store is a good thing, right? As it turns out, not as good of a deal as I thought. "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle", by Barbara Kingsolver is responsible for overturning my food table.

Kingsolver and her family take a one year promise: only eat what they can grow themselves or buy from local farmers. It is the original “independently wealthy” concept of our forefathers, and Kingsolver means to reclaim it. The family plants a magnificent garden in their 40-acre Virginia plot and takes us through their year of gardening, cooking, and preserving.

The cynic in me, from page one, was waiting and waiting for the undoing. A year with no outside food? What about the Cheetos? What about the soda? What about the CHOCOLATE?! I needed to read about the breakdown that they had, gnawing on a Snickers through the wrapper in the fetal position at the Stop-n-Go. Because that’s where I’d end up. What actually ensues are mouth-watering stories of pumpkin soup baked in the pumpkin itself, of homemade bread and cheese and of the heartwarming moments in the kitchen with the whole family. After one tantilizing tale of bread pudding with asparagus and wild morel mushrooms, Kingsolver writes, "Had I been worried that cutting the industrial umbilicus would leave us to starve? Give me this deprivation, any old day of the week."

Her husband, Steven L. Hopp, contributes to the book with his witty and informative sidebars, addressing anything from the Farm Bill to how to please your wife with a machine (bread machine). Camille, Kingsolver’s 18-year old daughter, offers her youthful and culinary spin on the experience, gifting the recipes that highlighted the year and emanating the family-instilled values and life education.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, though containing many a soapbox (you’ll never look at a banana the same way), is never preachy. Kingsolver sifts in moments that will change your life, one step at a time. For example, you may just have a bit more appreciation for the home-canned tomatoes from your coworker's garden this holiday.

One of the many issues Kingsolver addresses is the problem of a diet-crazed nation who has come to see food as the enemy. Protein shakes replace meals, and yet nobody can identify the ingredients. Kingsolver is passionate about knowing what foods are in season, appreciating them for the joy they are, the flavor they give, and the satisfaction of having grown them yourself. The family looks food in the eye (literally with turkeys, chickens and potatoes, figuratively with the other foods). "You can leave the killing to others and pretend it never happened,” she writes, “or you can look it in the eye and know it.”

America has outsmarted itself in the food department by trying to adapt and grow into a fast-paced, streamlined-processed nation. Kingsolver proves that when things are stripped away – convenience, technology, “forward” thinking – and we revert back to some of our most primal tasks – herding, growing, communicating – the connections which we are so desperate to achieve in our wheel-spinning mayhem are found only when we simplify. That perhaps “backward” thinking is the answer. That maybe smaller is better. Local rather than global. That simplicity, rather than decadence, should be the new American dream. Farmers market, anyone?

By Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver.
370 pp. HarperCollins Publishers. $26.95.

Animal Vegetable Miracle 1ST Edition

A Thousand Splendid Suns

by Susana Fletcher

Let's re-title this book: A Thousand Wrenching Heartbreaks. If it had taken longer than the three days I spent reading this book, I might have needed a Cymbalta prescription. I felt beaten up after each reading. With each new blow, each gut wrench, I groaned and wept and waited for more. Like an emotional masochist I soaked up the raw, chilling pain and paper thin emotion. But I was not defeated; I just knew the payoff was going to be rich.

Khaled Hosseini's second novel, "A Thousand Splendid Suns", is so beautiful a misery it is worth the bearing. The story's main character, not Mariam or Laila, but the wounded and beaten Afghanistan, is a woman who has borne too many undelicate suitors. With the coming and passing of each new abuser from the Soviet occupation to the most recent Taliban, the country bears the scars and yet endures. So apropos a backdrop is this weakened capital of Kabul and the surrounding areas for the stories of Mariam and Laila, and so beautifully painted by Hosseini, that my heart broke equally for Afghanistan's woes.

"Like a compass needle that points north," Miriam's mother tells her as a child, "a man's accusing finger always finds a woman." The women of "Splendid Suns" are too strong and too delicate to have been written by the hand of a man. Hosseini's wife must have written this book. But, alas, Khaled Hosseini has worked wonders. He mentions twice "the sacrifices a mother had to make", one being virtue and the other decency. The irony is, not only did the women fail to sacrifice either, but Hosseini didn't feel the need to spell out the zillion maternal sacrifices that actually did come to pass, such as unanaesthetized caesarean surgery. His perfect descriptions of one selfless event after another do not need a delineating mark on the sacrifice list to be remembered. Truly graphic and gripping is the description of Laila, grasping the poles on either side of the caesarean operating table, her mouth gaped open for the moments before she could process the entirety of her pain.

"A Thousand Splendid Suns" captivated my reading life, and I was happy to surrender. I shouted. I wept aloud. I groaned. I laughed. I sucked in my breath. And at the end, I sighed with the same painful joy that beswept Laila at the end of the book. The disbelief at all that had taken place. The wounds that would take time to heal. The relief that life was now and forever different. And those were just my emotions.

By Khaled Hosseini.
372 pp. Riverhead Books. $25.95.

A Thousand Splendid Suns