Sunday, February 07, 2010

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

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial, 2008
Price: $15.99
ISBN-10: 0060852569
ISBN-13: 978-0060852566

It might just be a matter of thinking about red cars and so suddenly seeing red cars everywhere one looks, but it seems to me that once I started researching organic foods for an article I am writing, I began to see books on sustainable farming, organic food markets, news stories about an organic food movement, and farmer’s markets everywhere I looked. Something is going on, and I’m pretty sure by this point in my research that it is a very good thing. Suddenly, I am seeing garden fresh red tomatoes everywhere.

Barbara Kingsolver’s book about living a year on locally grown and produced food had been on my shelf for some time already. She is an author of whom I take immediate notice, whenever she publishes a new title, whether fiction or nonfiction. My interest in eating a sustainable and healthy diet had been simmering for some time, but it took an assignment to get me digging into this particular garden of delights.

Kingsolver’s nonfiction is fully as rich and readable as her fiction. I was entertained, amused, engaged, even as I was educated, astounded, amazed. Daughter Camille Kingsolver, studying biology at Duke University, adds tasty tidbits of sidebars and recipes, many of which I checked off to try. Even husband Steven Hopp adds an occasional sidebar with his perspective. But Barbara Kingsolver is the word master you expect her to be. She makes me wince with pain for our planet as she recites facts and statistics and studies impossible to ignore: if we don’t reevaluate how we eat, what we eat, and how that food comes to our table, there is going to be a very sad ending to this tale. She also delights me with her personal stories of her family's food adventure.

The Kingsolver family is moving from Tucson, Arizona to live on a farm in southern Appalachia. When Barbara met Steven, he was living on this farm, but he was willing to move to Arizona, her home, when they decided to join forces. Now, it was his turn. Their turn. The family returned to live on the farm, and part of that return was a decision to live a sustainable lifestyle, eating only foods that were locally grown with but a few exceptions (coffee! chocolate!).

As the family begins their new farm life, the author realizes how disconnected Americans are from our food. We give no thought to its source, no thought to how it is produced or what route it travels to reach us. We praise sunny days and lament the rainy ones, giving no thought to the needs of the farmer who feeds us. Our children think of food as something that comes from a supermarket, conveniently packaged and shrink-wrapped. The very same consumer who craves a steak, make that rare, cringes at mere mention of a slaughterhouse. In the family’s yearlong venture, assuredly a challenge, the author is determined to connect to their food in a most intimate way. This means—knowing the farmer who produces what they eat, or producing it themselves.

“When we give it a thought, we mostly consider the food industry to be a thing rather than a person. We obligingly give 85 cents of our every food dollar to that thing, too—the processors, marketers, and transporters. And we complain about the high price of organic meats and vegetables that might send back more than three nickels per buck to the farmers: those actual humans putting seeds in the ground, harvesting, attending livestock births, standing in the fields at dawn casting their shadows upon our sustenance… In the grocery store checkout corral, we’re more likely to learn which TV stars are secretly fornicating than to inquire as to the whereabouts of the people who grew the cucumbers and melons in our cart.” (Page 13)

Today, however, that farmer casting his shadow across his or her harvest is becoming an ever rarer breed. Increasingly, the food we eat today comes from CAFOs, concentrated animal feeding operations, more factory than farm. Animals here are not treated like living things, but rather as machinery on an assembly line, producing edible product.

Is this a natural result of our ever burgeoning population? Are CAFOs necessary to feed our billions of mouths and bellies? As it turns out, no.

“Owing to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, genetic modification, and a conversion of farming from a naturally based to a highly mechanized production system, U.S. farmers now produce 3,900 calories per U.S. citizen, per day. That is twice what we need, and 700 calories a day more than they grew in 1980.” (Page 14)

Unfortunately, all those extra calories are not making their way into the mouths of the hungry. The problem of hunger in the United States and across the globe continues to increase, even while the waistlines of most Americans continue to increase. Apparently, those 700 extra calories are ending up in those who least need them. “Obesity is generally viewed as a failure of personal resolve,” Kingsolver writes, “with no acknowledgement of the genuine conspiracy in this historical scheme.” What Kingsolver reveals in these pages is what truly could be called a conspiracy: government subsidized CAFOs that leave individual farmers scrambling to compete (ever wonder why organic foods are more expensive? Look to those government subsidies, none of which go to your local farmer) and additions to processed foods such as corn syrup and artificial flavorings and non-animal fats that increase cravings rather than satisfy them. Americans are having a dysfunctional relationship to our food. Unlike most European cultures, who honor the culinary kitchen and family table, we treat food like a poison and a drug. Which, arguably, it is. We are constantly dieting, trying to control it, rather than appreciating it and its preparation. We are give it all up and indulge in gluttony and supersizing our meals, or we starve ourselves with eating disorders. It is an interesting argument and insight.

Food, Kingsolver writes, is a necessity to life. It is a comfort, it is nourishment, it is a sensual pleasure. (One wonders at the growing problem of obesity in connection with the dissolving tradition of sitting down as a family at the dinner table.)

“Our most celebrated models of beauty are starved people,” the author points out. “A food culture of anti-eating is worse than useless.” It is our lack of a healthy food culture that Kingsolver laments, arguing that we have replaced it with two extremes, starvation or gluttony.

“Humans don’t do everything we crave to do—that is arguably what makes us human. We’re genetically predisposed toward certain behaviors that we’ve collectively decided are unhelpful; adultery and racism are examples. With reasonable success, we mitigate those impulses through civil codes, religious rituals, maternal warnings—the whole bag of tricks we call culture… these are mores of survival, good health, and control of excess. Living without such a culture would seem dangerous. And here we are, sure enough in trouble.” (Page 16)

We are the first generation of humankind to have children who are predicted to have shorter life spans than their parents. If that’s not a sign of trouble, I don’t know what is.

Industrial farming, the author writes, is the cause of much of our pollution problems and resulting climate change. While many of us mistakenly attribute pollution to automobiles, most pollution in this country can actually be traced to CAFOs. Nothing about a food factory is sustainable. Add to this sheer cruelty to animals and…

But let’s return to the farm. A local farm producing organic foods that end up on your dinner plate is no punishment. I can vouch for this. Since eating organic foods myself, everything I have so far tasted, from meat to vegetable, is incomparably more delicious than what is food factory produced. If you have ever eaten a greenhouse tomato and then sliced into a tomato sun-ripened in your garden, you get the idea. Eating organic foods is not giving something up; it is a rediscovery of food as it was meant to taste—expectionally good.

The year unfolds, and we are treated to the adventure—and it is that—of the family gardening and living from their garden, or eating what they buy from local markets, locally produced. There is seeding and weeding involved, sure, and lots of canning and preserving, but Kingsolver’s point is that doing all of this, getting involved in our own food production and preparation on so intimate a level, is in so many ways and on so many levels what we are missing. It gets a family involved and working together. It brings back to life a family dinner table. It cultivates more than the carrot and potato in the soil; it cultivates relationships. Knowing who grows your food is a true pleasure, and to this, too, I can attest with my own experience. Since “going organic” myself, I have gotten to know quite a few members of my community, and not just area farmers, from whom I now buy my fresh eggs, poultry, steaks, milk, cheese, fruits and vegetables. The anonymous CAFO has receded from my life and in its place—are new friends.

Kingsolver also writes a fascinating argument against mass vegetarianism. Because I, too, have considered that lifestyle and soon abandoned it, I was particularly interested in what the author had to say. Humans, she writes, are naturally adapted to an omnivorous diet, with our canine teeth for tearing meat and the enzymes in our digestive systems for breaking down animal proteins and fats. She describes a vegetarian world with livestock gone wild, and then describes the process of killing a farm animal for food. This is not a story of cruelty. This is, instead, a story of respect for all living creatures and the cycle of life and death, of sustainability. It is far more important, she states, to be concerned about the kind of life we provide to our livestock.

There is so much more to this book. Discussions about pesticides and genetically modified foods. More recipes. And all woven together with Kingsolver’s literary skills. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is going on my top shelf of favorite books, those that have contributed to transforming my own life in a positive way. It’s a delicious and highly informative and thoughtful read, a wonderful introduction for those wishing to learn more about the organic food movement and to simply be inspired.

~from The Smoking Poet, Winter 2009-2010 Issue

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Who Says I Can't by Jothy Rosenberg

Who Says I Can’t: A Two-Time Cancer-Surviving Amputee and Entrepreneur Who Fought Back, Survived and Thrived by Jothy Rosenberg

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 239 pages

Publisher: Bascom Hill Books (February 1, 2010)

Price: $14.95

ISBN-10: 193545613X

ISBN-13: 978-1935456131

If you tell Jothy Rosenberg there is something you think he can’t do, chances are better than good that is just the thing he will do. Chances are even greater he will leave you in the dust while doing it, too. He’s like that. He’s probably always been like that, but what has really strengthened Jothy’s perseverance to take on life at full throttle, meet and beat every challenge he encounters, has been his experience of being a two-time cancer survivor.

Who Says I Can’t is Jothy’s memoir, published in 2010 by Bascom Hill Books. It is the story of “a two-time cancer surviving amputee and entrepreneur who fought back, survived and thrived.” Jothy is an above-the-knee amputee with two-fifths of his lung removed, both due to cancer while still in his teens. He considers “considering” a dirty word (as in, “You’re good, considering you are missing a leg!”). Jothy does what he does perhaps in some aspects because of his physical challenges, but he achieves excellence that can be measured against any able-bodied person. A math major at Kalamazoo College, he went on to earn a PhD in computer science at Duke University, authored two technical books, founded six high tech companies. He has also participated in the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge bike-a-thon (supporting Dana-Farber Cancer Institute) seven times; has completed the swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco as part of a fundraiser to support Boston Healthcare for the Homeless 16 times; and has participated in countless other fundraising sports activities. He now lives in Newton, Massachusetts, with his wife Carole, and is the father of three children, grandfather of one. Writing a book to inspire others with his story is just one more item added to his long list of achievements.

“The book is about hearing the words, ‘You have zero chance of survival,’ at the age of 19,” Jothy says. “After already having lost one leg and one lung to cancer, as well as an extensive course of chemotherapy, it is about what all of that does to you. More importantly, the book is about how one goes about fighting back, recovering and thriving in the face of all that adversity.”

Jothy lost his right leg to osteogenic sarcoma at age 16; his cancerous left lung was removed while he was a student at Kalamazoo College. Born in California, Jothy grew up in the Detroit area, the son of two physicians. His brother, Michael, was a Kalamazoo College graduate (1975), so he knew the college well.

“I wanted a school that was smaller than my high school and far enough away that I would not feel pressured to come home too often, yet I still wanted to be within a reasonable driving distance. I applied for early decision to Kalamazoo; I was not the slightest bit interested in any other school.” (Page 39, Who Says I Can’t.)

At the time of Jothy’s dark diagnosis, chemotherapy was a new and experimental treatment. For the 10 months that Jothy underwent the tortuous process of chemotherapy ( he still feels nauseous when he remembers it), his professors at Kalamazoo College worked with him to keep him up to date with his college assignments. Professor Thomas Jefferson Smith was especially influential in young Jothy’s life, and after jumping from one major to another, he settled on math in great part due to Professor Smith’s caring attention.

“You have to keep in mind that this was before we had the convenience of computers and e-mail,” Jothy says. “My professors brought my course work to my hospital bedside, often written out by hand.”

Jothy writes about his years at Kalamazoo College in his memoir—and all that came after. He says he was inspired to do so, in fact, because of an earlier article that appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of LuxEsto. It got him thinking that he had a story to tell and that there might be others who might benefit from reading it.
“As a 16-year-old lying in a hospital bed with one leg gone, with a mind on fire with anguish about how I might live a normal life, and then as a 19-year-old with one lung trying to recover from chemotherapy and deal with a death sentence, I felt on my own. I was looking for inspiration, guidance, motivation—anything. I wrote this book because I want to help anyone facing a disability or serious life trauma deal with it better and faster than I did. Considering it took me 30 years to figure it out well enough to be able to write it down, I hope my experiences can shorten the learning curve for someone in a similar situation.“(Page 229)

Writing meant reliving. Jothy grasped how much it would have meant to him to hear the story of someone who had dealt with a similar blow and done well. A large part of what he had struggled with in those years, after all, was the feeling of being alone. Who to ask questions about learning to walk again? How to date when you might trip and fall on your face in front of a pretty girl? Without a role model or experienced advice, he did his best, and often, his best meant overachieving. If a two-legged person could do something, Jothy was going to outdo it. Even when it came to dating.

“I went on 40 dates in ten weeks when I was at Kalamazoo College,” he laughs. “Each one with a different girl.”

Not exactly the best way to develop a satisfying relationship. That’s the kind of advice Jothy could have used. Summing up his advice from the book, he says: “You are tougher and more resilient than you could ever have imagined. Fight back just one little victory after another. Set a modest goal for something you can do to regain your balance and sense of normalcy. Achieve that and set the next goal. Before you know it, you are strong and inspiring others.”

Jothy’s “small” victories outsize those that most of us will ever achieve. Completing the circle of receiving healing and now giving back to others, he regularly participates in AIDS fundraising bike rides from Boston to New York—a ride of a mere 375 miles. His bike is specially fitted to him, so that he can ride with one leg. Jothy has become something of a celebrity participant, and his memoir recounts his grueling training, frustrations, and eventual victories.

“I have two main causes at this point,” he says. “I direct a lot of my fundraising efforts for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. They were on the forefront of chemotherapy work in the mid-70s, and I am convinced it played a major role in my survival. I give them proceeds from the sale of this book and from the 192-mile Pan-Mass Challenge bike ride in which I participate every summer.”

Yet when Jothy is asked about his proudest achievement, it is not the physical challenges he has met, not the bike riding, long-distance swimming, or being an expert skier. It is not even the many business startups with which he has been involved over the years. “Without question, it is the fact that my kids like me and are proud of me. Like any father, I am insanely proud of them, too. We are truly good friends, and that is not something I take for granted.”

If the memoir is meant to give comfort and advice to those undergoing adversity or physical challenges, Jothy also hopes it gives those of us with limbs intact a better perspective on how to treat those who are different from ourselves. What he wants people to understand: “Don’t stare, and teach your kids not to stare,” he says. “But don’t ignore such people either. Feel free to ask a question. Just remember, we get lots of attention for being different, and that can be tiresome. “

Jothy wouldn’t call his early brush with death a blessing, challenging him to become a better man—although he believes it has in fact done that. “But I never sit around wishing it hadn’t happened. I can’t wish it away. It happened. So I make the very best of what I do have.”

“Everything becomes difficult with a bad leg. I can’t carry things. I can’t walk any distance for lunch with colleagues or to catch a cab. I walk very slowly and laboriously through airports. I worry about just walking down the hall to my boss’s office. It eats away at job effectiveness. It can affect how well I do my job, how likely a job promotion is, and therefore how much money I make. It affects my self-confidence in social relationships … Dealing with the superficiality of the disability is important for self-confidence. Dealing with the anatomic, physical, structural, mechanical aspects of the disability is just as important for success. With these daily challenges to self-confidence and self-esteem, the disabled person needs a constant outlet where they can excel, where they can overcompensate, where they can leave the temporarily able-bodied people in the dust.” (Page 228)

Along with insights into dealing with physical challenges, the book also provides an inside look at business startups. Jothy has been involved in starting, running or funding half a dozen startups. His memoir tells about the excitement of a new idea, the frustrations and danger zones of obtaining venture capital, the hard work of building a dream on a good idea, and then, at times, the heartbreak of having it swept out from under you.

Approaching his book promotion as he does everything else in life, Jothy is promoting it with everything in him. He has a Web site,, a fan page on the social networking site, Facebook, and he “tweets” regularly on Twitter as @jothmeister. He is currently on tour, giving talks and readings, signing books, and even trying to get a spot on Oprah’s talk show. Someone should tell him he can’t do it. And then stand back and watch what happens.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet, Spring 2010 Issue, including an interview with author, Jothy Rosenberg