I’ve had Barbara Kingsolver’s book ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE: OUR YEAR OF SEASONAL EATING by my bed since last November. Several times I’ve picked it up and read a few pages, but got no further. I almost took it back to the London Library (yes, it’s fine to have it out that long, unless someone asks for it to be returned). Then last week, I started to read it in earnest and I’ve almost finished it now. I’m glad I waited. It’s the story of how one family decided to spend a year living largely on food they could grow or rear on their small holding in southern Appalachia and on food that had been produced locally. This wasn’t just any family. Barbara Kingsolver is a successful author, best-known probably for THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, a very fine novel, and I think she’d be the first to admit that this made the enterprise financially viable. Still, there is much to admire here. I won’t be canning my own tomatoes or slaughtering my own turkeys anytime soon, but it is good to reminded why I buy organic and fair-trade food and rarely set foot inside any supermarket except the Co-op. The book made me want to hunt out my nearest farmer’s market.
The journal is interspersed with accounts of the ways in which huge corporations in the US have a stranglehold on food production and are allowed to get away with truly unethical behaviour, leaving a trail of human and animal misery in their wake. Kingsolver’s concern for the environment and her plain-speaking led to her being listed as number 74 in a book listing one hundred people who are destroying America. Hard to credit.
As you imagine with a book addict like me, I am keen on guide-books. I’m a bit of an armchair traveller, though I enjoy the real thing, too. A while ago I bought a remaindered copy of the very attractive Dorling Kindersley guide to VENICE AND THE VENETO. No, I wasn’t about to go there, wasn’t even planning a trip there, but I would certainly want to go back there one day – and I could always set part of a story there. One of the great things about being a writer is that it gives you even more reasons to buy books.
Guide-books are not an unmitigated blessing as my husband would tell you after I’ve dragged him half-way round some foreign city that to find a recommended restaurant that turns out to be closed on Thursdays. Sometimes it’s better to relax and just take what comes. It is a holiday after all.
But at their best, guide-books can be cherished companions. Indeed there used to be a series of guide books called the Companion Guides. A week or two ago, near the end of our holiday in I was very glad of NORTHERN FRANCE: WHAT TO DO AND SEE WITHIN 90 MINUTES OF CALAIS. We have been several times to the Pas de Calais and Picardy region and I was at a loss for new something to do that would suit all the family. I thought we had done everything. Yet I somehow thought that Angela Bird’s excellent guide might come up trumps as it has so often done. And it did. Within easy reach was a working water-mill with guided tours and a creperie. An hour or two later we were having lunch on a balcony watching the river flow by. So thank you, Angela Bird, good companion and assiduous researcher. You’ve done a fine job.
Looking back, it may have been a mistake to choose this novel of the supernatural by Sarah Waters as my holiday reading. I never sleep well the first night or two in a hotel and this did turn out to be the kind of novel that you really don’t want to be thinking about as you lie there awake in the dark. No, you really don’t want to think about it, but somehow you find that you can’t think of anything else.
When I began to read THE LITTLE STRANGER, I found it a bit slow and didn’t warm to the characters either. I began to skip a bit, feeling too tired by the effort of packing and travelling to give it the full concentration that it needed. Then bit by bit it began to grip until I was absolutely agog. I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t read it, but the force of the ending makes you want to read the novel all over again to see how she does it. I don’t admire it quite as much as I do FINGERSMITH, but it is pretty damn good. And though it is broad daylight as I write this, there are parts of this novel that I don’t care to think about when I am alone in the house. At least I think I’m alone in the house. Surely those weren’t footsteps on the stairs . . . it must be the cat . . . but surely I put the cat out . . .