A review of a book I really loved … but had to pause reading, after taking it on holiday and only managing to read a bit of it, because the print (especially in the side articles) was so small and I’d left it a bit late to get a new eye test! The new eye test was had, the glasses were ordered and I picked them up a week or so ago – and immediately realised with joy that I could continue with this excellent book. Thank you, ASDA opticians (which is a bit ironic given the anti-Big Agribusiness slant of this read; read on to find out how I’ve changed my buying policies just a bit).

Barbara Kingsolver – “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”

(03 June 2017, charity shop)

Back in what must have been 2005 from the date of publication, Kingsolver and her family moved back to a small family plot of land in the Appalachians and decided to try to eat from their own resources for a year (having already been gardeners and chicken-keepers and being aware of ecological etc. issues: they didn”t to into it cold and in fact spend a couple of months havering on when to start).

This is Kingsolver’s journal for the year, plus extra science and information panels from her husband, Steven L. Hopp (also the breadmaker of the family), personal reflections and recipes from her older daughter, Camille Kingsolver, and tales of their younger daughter, Lily, and her egg entrepreneurship. It’s a family endeavour from the start and you get a lovely idea of their close-knit relationship and that with the older generation, friends and neighbours.

Yes, there are some scary stats and pieces of information on big agribusiness, always tied in intimately with what the family do and see in their immediate surroundings (for example with their turkeys, more below, and with the efforts of the local farmers’ cooperative, which is sometimes undermined horribly by big business). I know some people find her novels, with their environmental and social themes, a bit preachy – I personally don’t, and I found this book full of humour and positivity and certainly not holier-than-thou, with good ideas for small things we can do to make a difference.

There are some hilarious stories about their turkey breeding exploits, although underpinned by the horrible realisation that there is no information on turkey mating behaviour because the vast majority of farmed turkeys just don’t, and they’re told with her novelist’s eye, making this much more than just another smallholding adventure narrative. Her descriptions of nature and the seasons add a beautiful depth to the book.

As they move “beyond hobby level” and stack up food to see themselves through the winter, they tamp down the panicky feeling that they can’t do it and show exactly how they manage, very gratefully with the help of friends, neighbours and experts (I particularly liked the Amish family they stay with for a few days). Kingsolver makes a good case for carnivory, but I did have to skim the chapter on turkey-harvesting, but she’s in no way anti-vegan or -vegetarian, just anti-pomposity and people forcing their opinions on others. She’s very aware through the book that not everyone could or would want to do what they do, but the family share ideas for small changes an individual family, wherever it’s based, could make, coming down in the end to informed choices.

I loved the year-round format, which allowed us to see what happens to the chicken and turkey flocks and see the plants she was given for her birthday start to bloom. When they compel themselves to take stock after a year, they’re happy but not smug, with lessons learned and things they will and won’t continue to do (I must try to find out how that went). And the positives remain at the end, with their talk of farms and schools getting together to improve children’s meals (in the US), and the growth in farmers’ markets and direct farm-to-consumer sales, reports on thriving local-food-based diners and the realisation that they are in fact part of a trend! This has of course increased since the time of writing the book – presumably in the US as well as in the UK. There’s some good advice on making choices at supermarkets (e.g. looking at the origin of foods and taking note of what’s in season), and small things you can do, and this makes it, to my eye, anyway, encouraging and not hectoring.

I was quite horrified by some of the stuff I read in this book and had a bit of a think about what we could do to eat a bit more thoughtfully and locally. Having rejected trying to grow our own veg in our dark and gloomy back garden, which I can barely keep up with as it is (on the advice of gardening friends, too), we opted to look more closely at the origin of the food we buy, and also joined the local Food Assembly. This is a brilliant idea – you get a website full of products from local producers and farmers, pick what you want, pay for it in one go, then collect it at the local pub once a week! Super idea – we tried out local eggs, which were huge and marvellous, falafel from an Egyptian chap (living locally), bread from Peel and Stone, who we knew about already, using Cotswold flour, and some rapeseed oil from Hereford.

What book has changed your life, in a big or small way? Marilyn French’s “The Women’s Room” opened my eyes to feminism, and various running books have had me trying new techniques here and there, how about you?