Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling (Book 7)


Book Review by Zinta Aistars


Hardcover, 784 pages
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2009
Price: $34.99
ISBN: 0545139708, 978-0545010221



I’d read all six of the Harry Potter series long ago, and yet I held off longer still to finally open the covers of the massive final volume in this remarkable series. For young adults, it’s said, yet I wonder that just as many adults haven’t delved into this magical tale of wizardry and a hero’s quest. Who of us doesn’t enjoy such grand storytelling of adventure and challenge met? I’d put it off, no doubt, because I didn’t really want to be done with it, but curiosity finally reeled me in.

J.K. Rowling is a literary phenomenon, bringing readers of all ages back to the bookshelf. In a time when we hear that children no longer read for pleasure, and even adults today will rarely pick up a book without some career obligation driving them to it, Rowling has created a stampede of those newly hungry (or with renewed appetite) to read. To be drawn in by a good story, well told, is as ancient as gathering around the campfire among humankind. Since time, we have sat around our fires to listen to tales. If they are told today in different venues, in sensational movies or electronic games, the elements are still there—the journey of the hero, the quest, the driving conflict and the battle hard-won to its conclusion. Potter has it.

So it happened to me again. Slipping the book in between my many book review stacks, literary novels and books of poetry and nonfiction to enlighten, I was lost the moment I opened to the first page. Lost, I tell you. Just as when I was a girl in braids, lost in the magic of a book, racing alongside the hero in my imagination, transported. Suddenly, I was back in those summers of my childhood, when Mama would chide me for sitting inside all day reading, driving me outside to at least have some sunshine spill over me as I read. I’ve always adored books, always, and childhood games did not entice me nearly as much as a summer of losing myself in stack of books, uninterrupted by school and other trivialities.

Potter, no, Rowling had me reading in that same manner now. Every chance. First thing in the morning, holding the book open with my coffee cup in my other hand, wishing I didn’t have to leave the book to go to the office. Reading through my lunch. Reading while I prepared dinner, book propped open with a zucchini or a row of beefy tomatoes. Carrying it through the house with me as I did my chores. Bumping into walls. Sitting down in the middle of the room to finish the page.

For all its nearly 800 pages, I’d read it in little over three days. How does he, she, do that? Is it a literary spell? It is. (And for all those who have pummeled and pelted this series for some odd and misbegotten religious criticisms about wizardry and witches and dark magic, oh pshaw, all folklore in any culture is filled with such! Including that holiest of books.) Rowling has started with clear talent, then over the series, kept a steady climb in her level of expertise. Each book is better than the one before, and this final tome is storytelling epitome.

Is her writing on a high literary level? It’s for kids, and for the kid in all of us. Yet maybe there is something Hemingway, if you really want to go that route, with unadorned but straight to target writing, clear dialogue, and for all its fantasy, a most believable realism in character and circumstance. Her descriptions are alive and tantalizing, unfolding new worlds in our mind’s eye. All the elements of a classic are here. Life in all its beauty and brutality, yes, and love and the loss of it, birth and death, the great struggle against the enemy and with oneself.

Harry Potter, that little orphan boy we met seven books ago, with a slash of lightning scarring his forehead, the mark of the chosen one for this odyssey of saving the good from the greatest evil, has now grown to near adulthood. Boy now young man, he must deal with the grief of his past, but also make hard choices for the future, and consider the greatest sacrifice of all. Magical creatures abound to both help and hinder as he hunts down the Horcruxes, each containing a part of the soul of the most evil one. He must destroy or be destroyed, but more, potentially lose the world he knows, to be taken over by him who we will not name.

“What is right and what is easy,” these are the choices and lessons the old wizard Dumbledore has taught him. He must choose. These are, after all, the choices and lessons of all time, unchanging, and perhaps we’ve never been more in need of relearning them. To do what is right, even when no one is looking, and to be a person of honor, even when there is no reward in it. Either this, or be seduced by the Death Eaters, who so easily can lull one into a sleepy death state, giving up the fight and floating away into nothingness, our very spirit sucked out from our hearts.

Rowling never lets loose, not once. From first page to last, her story twists and twirls, surprising us when we think we’ve got it all, and keeping us always on the thinnest edge. My tallest witch’s hat is off to her for her grand tale, constructed by the magic of hard work and dedication. Well done. Now more …











Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Skeletons in the Swimmin’ Hole (Tales from Haunted Disney World) by Kristi Petersen Schoonover


Book Review by Zinta Aistars



• Paperback: 156 pages
• Publisher: Admit One Literary Theme Park Press, 2010
• Price: $9.95
• ISBN-10: 0615402801
• ISBN-13: 978-0615402802



Maybe I should be a tad embarrassed about this, and it’s true I almost never read the horror and thriller genre … but for most of this book, I thought I was reading a story collection for young adults. Except for the occasional four-letter word, I had in my mind that this was meant for a younger audience. Not until I read the final story of these six, the title story, did it hit me: this is adult fare. Oh!

Going back to why I had this idea in my head, I realized it was in part because of the book’s appearance and format. It is quite slim, and the cover illustration rather child-suited, with a moonlit castle and a couple of skeletons having a midnight swim in a glowing pond. The print, too, is on the large size. Most of the stories involved children or teens. Add to all that Schoonover’s writing style—very accessible, in plain language without literary adornment, and … well, there you have it. Young adult.

Okay, but once I got that out of the way, almost feeling I had to reread it with an adult audience in mind, I had to reconsider the stories and the style. As the cover indicates, these ghost and horror stories all have in common the Disney Park theme (another reason I assumed a younger audience). Since I’ve only been to Disneyland in California once (when my children were small), never to Disney World, and have no interest in these or other amusement parks, I was a little out of that zone where I can relate to the characters. I guess I’ve never understood the thrill. Clearly, I’m in the minority in American society, however, so if I struggled more to relate, then surely most readers will identify better than I did.

Misconceptions, assumptions and lack of identification aside, these are quick and fun reads, each with a twist. Schoonover is no Stephen King—what I’ve read of his work is much more dense, detailed, with a more literary finesse—but this author does have a talent for the quick thrill. Her stories are imaginative, and each one, in its own way, left me squirming a bit in discomfort as ghost stories should.

Each story ties to the Disney theme park in some manner, either returning to settle a score, making atonement for some past transgression, or sinking into crazed obsession. “All This Furniture and Nowhere to Sit” was one of my favorites, with a wife that is fast spending all her husband’s funds, buying up larger and ever more elaborate pieces of Disney memorabilia. Schoonover’s sense of humor comes through as movers bring larger and larger pieces to the house, including boats, monorail cabs, booths that transform the house into a spooky mini-Disneyworld without visitors (except the occasional ghost). While it tugged at my disbelief a tad too much at times—what husband wouldn’t put a stop to this?—it was fun to watch this obsession reach its twisted conclusion.

“Romancing the Goat” was maddening not-quite-sibling rivalry, with two girls competing for parental attention. One is a “rescue” from a foster home, the other is the biological daughter. It's hard not to wince at the lack of sensitivity in the parents when they dote on the new family addition and seem to forget all about their first child, duplicating gifts, favoring one over the other. The foster child’s eccentricities, such as talking to invisible goats in her room, must be tolerated, because her parents are dead and so she should be pitied. In truth, “Angelina was meaner than a tipped cow” and knows just how to play the parents to get her way. Almost. Until her new sibling gives into the sweetness of revenge. The story ends with a hint of more horror to come.

The title story, bringing up the end of the collection, deserves its title status. The complexity of this couple is believable and intriguing. He hears the last thoughts of dying animals—and she photographs dead animals. He falls into trances, hearing and feeling the final torments of dying pets, birds, raccoons, deer, but she is forced to hide her art to try to keep him from transferred suffering. Resenting the loss of her photography, she falls into an affair with someone who seems to admire and understand her work, but it is only then that true evil surfaces. There are always consequences. While I wasn’t entirely sure I understood the ending, I enjoyed the malevolency of this story, the buildup, the twists, the shivers.

I’ve published one of Schoonover’s dark stories in the literary magazine I manage, The Smoking Poet, and I would again. If horror isn’t exactly my favorite genre, certainly not my area of expertise, I respect the skill it requires to craft stories that have a haunting quality—whether of light or of shadow. Schoonover can play well with shadows.

Kristi Petersen Schoonover's short fiction has appeared in Carpe Articulum, The Adirondack Review, Barbaric Yawp, The Illuminata, Morpheus Tales, New Witch Magazine, Toasted Cheese, The Smoking Poet, The Battered Suitcase, and a host of others, including several anthologies. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, is the recipient of two Norman Mailer Writers Colony Winter Residencies, and is an editor for Read Short Fiction.

Friday, August 05, 2011

In the Palms of Angels by Terri Kirby Erickson

Book Review by Zinta Aistars



• Paperback: 132 pages
• Publisher: Press 53 (April 1, 2011)
• Language: English
• ISBN-10: 1935708279
• ISBN-13: 978-1935708278



In one of her poems, “Miller Street,” Terri Kirby Erickson writes: “You can’t be something you don’t understand.”

The poet follows her own rule well. As I read through her newest collection, In the Palms of Angels, I was struck by how Erickson’s words become poetry when she peels away the extraneous and targets the bone beneath. Life, death, birth, illness, love and isolation, family, friends and neighbors. Erickson’s language and style is right for these simple truths, yet so complex in their wrappings.

At first blush, these lines are spare. Now and then, a clich√© creeps in. “My Daughter’s Hair” misses, with visions of sunlight and kites and gardens, a daughter gathering flowers and angels running their fingers through her hair. That’s Hallmark fare.

But then Erickson hits her stride, and the simple becomes a shimmer of truth. You know it when you read it—it sends a faint shiver along that bone beneath. She is one who observes, as a poet must, finding that needed place between distance and immersion to frame her poem.

“Depression” makes the reader ache, and if you’ve ever felt its grip, “even light is too heavy for her to carry now” rings true. The woman in the poem “sees nothing / but the dull, brown jar where she spends her days alone,” and with that word-image of jar, brown, days alone, the full message is delivered, and leaves one aching with empathy.

“Cling Peaches” is a tender love note to a husband in a hospital bed, nearly lost, now being fed peaches with a spoon. “With cancer ravaging your fine/ Mind like a plague of hungry locusts” and “Your / Gaze is as tender as a bruise,” Erickson proves that everyday words can turn everyday life into the remarkable.

Family comes up often in this collection, and for the most part, Erickson reveals herself best through the portraits she paints of these people she loves most. “To My Brother Who Died a Virgin” captures the loss of a brother who never experienced intimate love.

All you ever knew of naked women was that wet,
wadded up magazine you and your buddies
found in a drainpipe. Their heads were thrown

back from their bare breasts like somebody socked
them in the jaw just before he took the pictures.

With that, we know it all. We know that unlived life, that untouched heart, that barren place where intimacy does not enter. Here is the grief for a loved one who never spills tears of joy at the most tender human connection. “What you / got instead were the sounds of boys snickering—/sodden photographs of strangers who did not love you.”

“Things We Should Learn in First Grade” gets right back to Dick and Jane and Sally, the primer from which so many of us were taught to read in public schools, only in Erickson’s version, “See Jane run because Dick is messing around with Sally.” Life will never be so plastic and perfect again as it is in kindergarten, and really, was it even then?

“Woman on the Phone” is another image that lingers on the mind long after it is read. That’s the entire meat of it, a young mother talking on the phone, and nearby her small son watching her with the adoration of a toddler. When he matures and falls in love with a woman, that adoration will rightfully turn elsewhere, but in this moment … his little face watches his mama like a sunflower turned toward its only source of light.

“Mrs. Listner’s Chickens” proves the poet can handle humor, juxtaposing an image of clucking chickens scurrying about with the woman who feeds them, “wattles wobbling under her chin.” It’s delicious.

“Wedding Days,” and mind the plural, is perhaps one of the most moving poems in this collection. Don’t ever doubt that love can’t last, as this poem cannot but convince otherwise. From young man to older, the poet observes the aging of her husband, and now, with “crease and crevice,” likes him better this way. Intimacy of this kind only grows better with time.

A similar theme comes up in “The Gardener,” in a newer love that is just beginning to sprout from a distance. A young woman watches the gardener from afar, and loves him, “not because / he is young or handsome, which he/ is not. It is his gentleness with plants,/ the way he tends to them like newborns,/ how he talks to them, no matter/ who is listening.”

These are the basics, the simple pleasures, the truest loves, the lasting passions, the common suffering of all. Even in “Roy Rogers Rides Again,” Erickson captures beautifully the childhood thrill of riding the penny pony in the store, as if into the wind, free, when all things seemed possible. And so with many of these poems, she finds the common experience, the one we all know, and reminds us—this is how it was, how it is, how it will always be, at very least in cherished memory.

If not a poet that stuns with word play, or complex structure, or new literary invention, or philosophical revelation, Erickson is the poet that remains accessible and open to any and all readers—and that has great importance. Hers is a quiet, even modest approach to the poetic that can momentarily fool the reader into thinking this can be missed. Don’t. This poetry shouldn’t be missed. Yes, I still prefer poetry that involves more discovery, more complex layers to relish on the hundredth reading. But Erickson will have a growing circle of fans when other poets gather dust for all their density. She will line up among those such as Maya Angelou, who are loved by the masses, who may never read poetry but for poetry like this—that resonates with a universal understanding of life and death and all that comes between, stripped bare.





.

The Single Girl’s Guide to Meeting European Men by Katherine Chlo√© Cahoon

Book Review by Zinta Aistars



• Paperback: 272 pages
• Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2010
• Price: $14.95
• ISBN-10: 1608320588
• ISBN-13: 978-1608320585



When I received the advance reader’s copy of this book, The Single Girl’s Guide to Meeting European Men, in the fall of 2010 with a request for a review, I was curious at best. I was packing to go to Europe at the time, had no interest whatsoever in pairing up with anyone—I prefer to travel alone for a list of reasons—but thought this might at least be an amusing review to write. I could bring the perspective of a single woman to it, one that enjoys travel abroad and is not averse to sharing an occasional moment in pleasant company.

Normally, out of principle, when reviewing a book, I read every page. It is long into the next summer since I received this book, but I have not been able to get past a dutiful less-than-half read. I just can’t. So there, fair disclosure, although skimming the remainder tells me that it will just be more of the same.

I’m a dyed in the wool feminist, thank you, and am all for empowering women—but this guide to picking up European men is not for any feminist I know. That claim is about as lame as calling Playboy Bunnies empowered women, when everything these women do is meticulously regulated and controlled by the club owner, usually male, down to needing permission to drape a coat over her bare shoulders when standing at the door as a greeter in the winter cold.

No, what this book does is give women a bad name (I can think of several, none of which I will post here in print) and treat men like imbeciles. Both are heavily stereotyped, and from what travels I’ve enjoyed in Europe, all inaccurate—both in descriptions of best places to hang and in descriptions of the local men.

“My girlfriend’s European man fantasy was to create her own erotic memoirs. Her goal was to have a one-night stand in every European country she visited and get laid in unique cultural landmarks. Her fantasy became a reality. Who says she didn’t study her history classes while she was abroad?” (Page 2.)

This kind of insipid commentary gets sandwiched with “flirty tips” on where to find and nab men, what to wear (show as much skin as possible), what to say, how to reel ‘em in. Of course, for the most part, the recommendation is to hit and run, although catching husbands is part of the advice, if so desired.

Here’s my thought: if feminism is about being treated as whole human beings, with respect, why should women treat men like lesser human beings? There’s a Golden Rule in there somewhere—treat others as you would wish to be treated, and if you didn’t enjoy being treated like a piece of meat, taste and discard, why treat the opposite gender that way? It’s not about sinking to the lowest common denominator.

If the reader might for a moment have the good sense to wonder about the riskiness of such behavior, the author addresses those risks this way:

“Until you are sure you can trust a guy, I’d play it safe … looking back, they asked me to warn single girls that losing control can lead to scary situations. Even my girlfriend who put the hookup stars on her European map feels that she took too many risks. She was nineteen at the time. Now that she is older, she says that if she had it to do again she would be more careful … STDs aren’t the European souvenirs single girls seek. It may seem obvious, but sleeping with random men can be dangerous … I don’t want to linger on unpleasant topics, so whatever you choose to do with the men in Europe, just be careful.” (Page 33)

And on to the next “flirty tip”: “As with your hometown hotties, only stay with guys who make you feel good.”

Okay. That’s safe and smart. (I’m still wondering how you can “trust a guy” you met only an hour ago.) And if you have a homeboy, no need to worry overmuch and don’t keep in touch too much. It might ruin your fantasy.

What else can I say? I have been blessed with memorable European romances, but I did not travel with a mission to hunt down a male of the species, or a romance. Such things happen, if they happen, while you are traveling with an authentic wish to experience a new place, meeting across cultures to find common interests, enjoying an experience that enriches both parties.

This is an unserious book at best, an ugly and cheap portrayal of both genders at worst. If you are traveling to Europe, don’t miss the scenery—the history, the architecture, the culture, the cuisine, the locals of all ages and types. This book can only put blinders on to what should be a fantastic journey.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The Feast Nearby by Robin Mather

Book Review by Zinta Aistars



• Hardcover: 272 pages
• Publisher: Ten Speed Press (May 24, 2011)
• Price: $24.00
• ISBN-10: 158008558X
• ISBN-13: 978-1580085588



The subtitle of Robin Mather’s The Feast Nearby is a mouthful (pun intended), but it sums the book up nicely: “How I lost my job, buried a marriage, and found my way to keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering, and eating locally (all on forty dollars a week).”

Robin Mather is a seasoned food writer and editor, having written 30 years for papers such as Chicago Tribune and The Detroit News and now at Mother Earth News. The Feast Nearby is her second book; the first, published in 1995, Garden of Unearthly Delight: Bioengineering and the Future of Food, perhaps before its time, discussing the two sides of eating locally or eating genetically modified foods.

The book caught my attention for several reasons. I have been eating predominantly locally grown, organic foods for some years now, and find myself as enthused about this food adventure today as I was when I first started. More so. I still can’t believe what I’ve been missing most of my life in terms of culinary joy. But I was also intrigued because the cottage to which Mathers moved was in the neighborhood where I’d lived once—near Delton, in Michigan’s Barry County.

I was also curious about Mather's claim to eat local and organic foods on $40 a week. Not that I am not already a believer. I don’t spend much either, and I don’t even can and preserve, but I do hear that complaint more often than I can count—that eating organic is too expensive. I’m still baffled by that. I spend less on groceries today than I did when I bought my food at the supermarket, packaged and wrapped.

Cooking from scratch is almost always less expensive. Add to that the joys of cooking with friends and family in the kitchen and at the table and, well, you get the idea of real value for your food dollar.

One might say that people tend to compare apples to oranges when they talk about cost. As Mather so well illustrates in her book, eating this way doesn’t have to cost more. It tends to cost less. What does change, however, is one’s eating habits. For me, this happened quite naturally once I started buying more of my food at farmers markets or even directly from the farmer, right on the farm. It became a new lifestyle, one that I enjoy immensely. It involves community, friendships, the building of enjoyable relationships that revolve around food … and who doesn’t know that when you throw a good party, more times than not, everyone ends up in the kitchen?

Mather's lifestyle change and food adventure evolve from what must have surely been a week from hell. As so many journalists, she was laid off from her newspaper job. That’s bad enough, but this happened within days of hearing from her 12-year husband that he wanted a divorce. Ouch and ouch.

Whether Mather really is such a trooper or she just keeps it to a low simmer, but her book does not show much anguish or turmoil at such a double whammy. This isn’t a book about shedding tears or general introspection. She simply packs up her dog, Boon, and her bird, Pippin (later to be joined by cat, Guff), and moves to the summer cottage in southwest Michigan the married couple had owned but the now single woman makes a permanent residence.

Time to set up a budget. Mather does what she does best: she shops for good food on a smart dollar, getting to know the locals in the process. As those who eat organic food and shop locally know, you soon learn to change how you eat, planning your menus around what is available when, rather than buying the items to meet the menu. One eats in season, and science is beginning to show that this may prove to be best for our health—and our wallet.

Mather is a good cook, and the 150 or so recipes she intersperses between her seasonal essays are good recipes. That is, I haven’t tried them yet, but I plan to, and they were simple enough that I could read them with enjoyment, almost as if part of the preceding essay, a continuation of her story. They mostly use local foods, yet include a pinch of this or a dollop of that, bringing them a touch of the gourmet.

For those who live in the area described, as I do, I especially enjoyed reading about local markets. In fact, as I write this, my plan for the approaching weekend is to find the local butcher shop she describes, Geuke’s Market in Middleville, Michigan, and stock up my own freezer. Reading about it once again made me realize why so many are so enthused about local markets. When she described the food available there, she also described the owner, Don Geuke, and the first seed of a food relationship is sown. That’s something you never experience in the supermarket.

For those seeking a gritty story about a woman handling life upheaval, this isn’t it. Mather's style is gentle storytelling, and she doesn’t go deep. Her way is more to skim the fat off the surface and make a fine presentation, leave the rest up to you. The reader doesn’t develop an intimate relationship with this author, but that may not have been her intent. Save the intimate relationship for reader and dish. This is a blend of cozy essay and cookbook, a nurturing nudge toward considering a more sensible and more sustainable lifestyle—and leave the excuses about financial constraints behind.

If we are a society that has forgotten how to cook, or how to keep a kitchen and a well-stocked pantry, Mather will be just the spice you need. Pull your chair to the table, read and eat the many flavors you’ve been missing.



 
.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


• Paperback: 304 pages
• Publisher: Scribner, 2011
• Price: $15.00
• ISBN-10: 1416551611
• ISBN-13: 978-1416551614



Various factors are contributing to the renewed interest in family farms. To name only a few—there is the fast-growing interest in organic foods and the sustainable lifestyle that goes hand in hand with eating organic; the desire to leave the rat race behind for a simpler, if not necessarily easier life; a renewed movement to reconnect with one’s local community; and a rocky economy that is forcing some in the ranks of the unemployed to consider other ways to support themselves and their families.

For Manhattan journalist Kristin Kimball, the reason to immerse herself in the farming life was rooted in romance. Assigned to write a story about sustainable farming, she fell in the love with the young Pennsylvania farmer she interviewed. One muddy scenario leads to another, as Kimball takes up the hoe among rows of carrots as she awaits the interview, then joins Mark, the farmer, in slaughtering pigs—even though she, up until a taste of organic farm-raised bacon, had been a vegetarian. So begins their love story with each other and a farm.

From a tiny city apartment surrounded by shops, cafes and delis, traffic and rush and noise, Kimball doesn’t take long to move out to the country to begin working the farm alongside Mark. Her family is at very least mildly horrified. At best, when she announces wedding plans, they expect eventual divorce once the whim passes.

It’s not as if Kimball doesn’t have doubts of her own. She has plenty. The memoir is nothing if not honest. “Marriage asks you to let go of a big chunk of who you were before, and that loss must be grieved. A choice for something and someone is a choice against absolutely everything else, and that’s one big fat good-bye.” (Page 248) I’m not sure I agree with that statement entirely—one hopes a good marriage moves more toward self-expansion than self-denial—but clearly Kimball has had to leave behind life as she knows it.

The two young farmers are opposites in many ways, and some of their initial work on the farm seems more combative than the blending of teamwork. The two can be highly competitive, and sometimes must solve their differences by splitting the farm duties rather than working together. Overall, however, they show astounding determination, touched with a glimmer of dreamy ignorance (at least for Kimball if not for the more experienced Mark) about what they are getting into when staking claim on a run-down farm of 500 acres. Arguably, not quite knowing what you are getting into is often a requirement to accomplish something extraordinary.

The couple empties their savings as they work to repair Essex Farm and cultivate the fields with all manner of vegetables and fruits, as well as livestock. It is not a farm of specialty, but a farm that feeds most any appetite. Their goal is to develop a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm that supports its shareholders with every food need—providing plants as food but also meats and dairy.

Kimball’s deeper love, or perhaps more accurately, more encompassing love, is for the whole of her farm life which includes her partner. If there are moments that one thinks she may just yet throw up her arms, elbow deep in compost and manure, what holds her to her hoe is the entire lifestyle with every component within it. She grows to love farming. She loves waking up early in the morning for yet another long, hard day of work with her farmer beside her, even with the struggle and maybe even because of it. There is poetry in such hard work.

For anyone considering such a lifestyle and thinking it might be an easier one, Kimball issues a wakeup call. Farming is anything but easy. She quickly senses that it ages her in some ways, weathers her with the elements that she simultaneously grows to love. Nature is harsh, and farming is a means of trying to control nature, so that what ensues can be a kind of war. A war against weeds. A war against weather. A war against rats. A war against time.

“There is no such thing as escape after all, only an exchange of one set of difficulties for another,” (Page 257) she writes. This may well be the greatest lesson of all that she gleans from her fields.

That, and letting go of all that is superficial, unnecessary for survival, and in some manner connected to vanity. Kimball’s description of their barn wedding, with guests on hay stacks and a barn decorated with sunflowers and a groom gone out back to milk the cow during the wedding reception … are priceless. And lovely.

Yes, lovely, all this dirt and mud and earth caked beneath fingernails and in the fine lines of a woman’s skin. From all those smells and all that sweat and all that grueling labor rises the dream, proving that living a sustainable life that pays high dividends in more than just cash is still possible. It only requires utmost dedication and whole-hearted love, demanding all and giving all back.

When it comes down to it, for all the elegance and cleanliness that Kimball has left behind in the city, she has found real value. “I had always been attracted to the empty, sparkly grab bag of instant gratification, and I was beginning to learn something about the peace you can find inside an infinite challenge.” (Page 158)

By end of her story (with a daughter joining their family and Essex Farm become a thriving CSA with more than 100 members), Kimball also acknowledges that she has learned to give up her combative competition with her farmer-husband. At long last, their rhythms have synchronized. They now work as a team. What she describes may well be what every woman, city or country, seeks:

“I wish every woman could have as a lover at some point in her life a man who never smoked or drank too much or became jaded from kissing too many girls or looking at porn, someone with the gracious muscles that come from honest work and not from the gym, someone unashamed of the animal side of human nature.” (Page 24)

I plowed through The Dirty Life in less than two days, hardly putting the book down and then only with reluctance. It was fascinating, it was enlightening, it was moving, it was raw, it was honest, it was adventure, it was digging into the dirt of a life many of us long to find—if not quite on a 500-acre farm, then at least in our suburban raised-bed gardens. We who grow our own vegetables and keep in touch with the nature that centers us in our own small way, we are glad for the farmer who feeds us without doing harm to the earth that sustains us.



.