January 31, 2010

Animal Vegetable, Miracle - Barbara Kingsolver

I love a good non-fiction book that reads as well as a novel, and is impossible to put down! I am hit-and-miss when it comes to Barbara Kingsolver's fiction (I loved The Bean Trees but didn't care for The Poisonwood Bible), but this book is definitely a hit in my opinion. It is the sort of book that I would pick up in the evening, and put it down, what felt like a few minutes later and realise that I had read waaaaay past my bedtime!

As far as content goes, the subtitle is "A Year of Food Life", and documents the family's attempt to eat locally for a full year following the growing season from March to March. I have to admit that she was preaching to the choir - I have my own garden, frequent the local farmer's market, and try to eat according to the season. I only eat local meat and eggs, do my best when it comes to fruit and vegetables, buy organic milk that is a provincial (rather than national) brand, and avoid processed foods. However this book put my small efforts to shame.

Some of the funniest writing came in the family's dealing with the farm animals that they were raising. Now I have kept chickens in the past (the picture in my profile is taken with Chanel - a particularly bad-tempered chicken that it was a pleasure to eat!), and can relate to some of what the family went through, however a city by-law prevents me from having any livestock within city limits at this time. A sample quote:

"The previous morning we'd sequestered half a dozen roosters and as many tom turkeys in a room of the barn we call "death row." We hold poultry there, clean and comfortable with water but no food, for a twenty-four-hour fast prior to harvest. It makes the processing cleaner and seems to calm the animals also. I could tell you it gives them time to get their emotional affiars in order, if that helps. But they have limited emotional affairs, and no idea what's coming. We had a lot more of both."

The writing was honest - she admitted to buying foods that they couldn't access locally (coffee, flour for homemade bread, pasta) - and very informative. As well as the documentation of the family experience of the year, there are also recipes for food mentioned in the text, sidebars that explore some aspects of american food production, and most chapters end with her 18-year-0ld daughter's perspective on the experience.

I do appreciate the irony of reading this book in January in Thunder Bay when the only produce available at the local farmer's market are potatoes (and the usual meat, fish, eggs, and cheese). However this issue was addressed in one of the later chapters - in order to eat locally year round, you need to plan in the summer when you can freeze or can or preserve the locally available produce to see you through the winter.

And I was rather jealous of her gardening season in Virginia which is approximately twice as long as the gardening season in Thunder Bay! What - planting in early April?! The ground is still covered with snow with more snow likely for the rest of the month. Seeds can go in the ground here by the last weekend in May, but nothing with leaves for a few weeks later since we get frost most years until mid-June. But this book also made me appreciate what we do have available locally - unlike the Kingsolver-Hopp family, I can buy local wheat flour (locally grown and ground), as well as local fish (one of the advantages of living on the shores of the largest freshwater lake in the world - fresh and frozen lake trout, whitefish, pickerel...).

Two things that I plan to try based on this book. 1) Cheesemaking. This is something that I have wanted to try for a while, but assumed that it would be complicated. This book assured me that it is not, and pointed me to resources to help. We have lovely local Gouda cheese, but having been raised on local Cheddar, I would love to be able to make my own! And 2) Canning or freezing more from my garden / the market to see me though the winter. I have always frozen my garden produce (my green peas saw me through to December, and I still have raspberries in the freezer), but want to make it on a larger scale. Theresa, the Tomato Queen, sells the best tomatoes I have tasted outside of Africa, and next summer I plan to buy them in bulk to see me at least part-way through the winter.

Anyways, I guess that is all off-topic, but in summary, a great book. Well written, thought-provoking, and inspirational.

January 24, 2010

Baking Cakes in Kigali - Gaile Parkin

I picked this book up on Friday night, and couldn't put it down until I finished (some time on Saturday evening). And it is so vividly written that after putting it down on Saturday evening, I went to bed and dreamed that I was back in Africa!

I have read several books (non-fiction and fiction) about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, but this book is probably my favourite of the bunch.

Set in 2000, 6 years after 1 million people died in 100 days, it is the story of a city and a country trying to rebuild itself following the horrors that left no family untouched. It centres around Angel, a Tanzanian who is in Kigali (the capital of Rwanda) with her husband who has been hired to work at the new university. Angel runs a cake-making business out of their apartment, and the book is based around her interactions with her customers and the others living in the same compound.

The genocide is always in the background as it affects all of the characters, whether they be survivors, or returning refugees, or in Kigali to help to rebuild the country. But other issues affecting contemporary Africa are addressed - the AIDS epidemic and the shame that people feel because of it; poverty and hunger; female circumcision; and grandparents raising grandchildren. And then there are the everyday happenings included - cooking meals and hospitality; love, courtship, and marriage; shopping and haggling over the price.

My favourite parts of the book were the character sketches and the dialogue. The characters are so vivid that they seem like real people (and apparently many are based on real people that the author knows). And the dialogue made me think that I was back in Tanzania with the rhythms and word choice. At times, I caught my brain translating the dialogue into Swahili as it was written almost exactly the way a Swahili-speaker would say it!

The author was born in Zambia, but spent 2 years in Rwanda as a VSO volunteer (Voluntary Service Overseas - the same organization that sent me to Tanzania). Even before I read the author bio at the end of the book, I knew that she must have spent some time in that part of the world, with all of the details included - mannerisms of the characters; the language use; the cooking description; the clothing. I am sure that many of the characters living in the compound with Angel are similar to the people that the author met in Kigali - from the Rwandans, to the diplomats, to the volunteers, to the foreign contractors. And the range of motivations for being there, ranging from an altruistic desire to help the people of Rwanda to a desire for the plum salary that many expats earn, are very familiar to me.

There were a few details that didn't ring true, and they did jump out at me, probably because I have lived in that part of the world. I don't think that most readers would even notice them. Things like the occasional word choice (Angel refers to a "flashlight" when really she would have called it a "torch"; ditto for a reference to "soccer" when most people would call it "football"); and a reference to the quality of coffee from Bukoba (which in reality is instant coffee made from the coffee beans that are too poor to export). But like I said, I'm probably being overly picky here!

If anyone is looking for a trip to central Africa without paying for the airticket, this is definitely a book to check out. Angel is from Bukoba, in northwestern Tanzania, only 50km from where I lived from 2003-2006. Only 6 months now until I get to go back and see my friends there! And I foresee an African cooking binge in my near future...

January 23, 2010

Galore - Michael Crummey

This book first crossed by radar when I read an interview with the author over on The Book Mine Set. Then a little while later, I heard him interviewed on the radio by Shelagh Rogers. The story grabbed me enough that I figured that I would give it a try.

I have to confess that it took me a while to get into this book, but once I did, I loved it. The slowness is probably my own fault - starting it in the middle of the Christmas holidays rush, while reading another book at the same time. It took me about 3 weeks to read the first 1/3 of the book, and then 3 days to read the last 2/3!

The book is basically a family saga - 6 generations of 2 families whose members are either feuding or marrying each other in rural Newfoundland in the 1800s. Thank goodness for the family tree at the front of the book!

It took me a while to get into the rhythm of the storytelling. It almost seems like a transcription of one long session with a storyteller of the oral tradition. The plot doesn't follow a straightforward A to B path; rather it jumps around as one story reminds the teller of another, but then goes back to give more details from the original story, and then on to another story. Back and forth in time, but all of the pieces fit together in the end. That is probably why I liked Part 2 of the book better than Part 1 - it was easier to follow when reading the book in one sitting rather then a few pages at a time.

The characters (in every sense of the word!) were quite vividly drawn, and if they stick with me as much as I think they will, I will probably go back and re-read this book sooner rather than later.

And as this is book #13 for me in The Canadian Book Challenge, I am now officially done, 5 months early! Not that I'm planning to stop reading Canadian books, or anything...

January 1, 2010

2009 Best Reads

The time has come, the walrus said...
To compile "best of" lists.

So here is my list of my Top 10 Reads of 2009. Same rules as last year - only first time reads allowed (no re-reads); and the publishing year doesn't matter, so long as I read it in 2009.

1. The Year of the Flood - Margaret Atwood
2. Three Day Road - Joseph Boyden
3. The Disappeared - Kim Echlin
4. The Bishop's Man - Linden MacIntyre
5. Too Much Happiness - Alice Munro
6. The Blythes are Quoted - L. M. Montgomery
7. The Composer is Dead - Lemony Snicket
8. Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi
9. The Orange Trees of Baghdad - Leilah Nadir

Compiling this list, and comparing it with last year's list, it struck me that overall, the books that I read in 2009 were overall not as good as the books that I read in 2008. Here's hoping for a better year in 2010!