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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

I started packing yesterday. I’m hoping to get a few boxes packed every day for mailing to Alaska, since we aren’t planning to send too much home, I think two weeks ought to get that job done. Then we are going to have a giant garage sale to purge everything else, then it will just be a matter of cleaning the house top to bottom. Which will be a daunting task.

Over our few years here I have accumulated a lot of books. I never used to buy books, I would just get them from the library. But while here, I made the conscious decision to start buying books regularly, sometimes even new, to show my support to what might become a dying industry. And to prepare for My Man and my future fantasy home library. His side– political revolution, deep ecology and legal strategy. My side– homesteading books, DIY, a complete collection of Wendell Berry, wilderness writing and cookery.

With that in mind I bought Feeding the Whole Family last year, instead of inter-library loaning it. It’s a great book emphasizing dinner as a meal for everyone, babies, children and adults. I would especially recommend it for anyone starting out with their first baby and wondering what the alternatives are to bottled baby food, and how to approach healthy food with growing children.

I grew up with hippie parents who just mashed up whatever they were eating for me. And yet when I had my own baby, I nevertheless had a panic attack about food rules. That first time around, it seemed so crucial what I feed our babe, and I felt intimidated. Brown rice and carrot purree were both straightforward and I felt fine about them, but she wouldn’t touch them. I struggled to get her to eat anything at all for the first several months. It wasn’t until she got old enough (about 1) that I started to feel confident picking through our dinner for the soft, smooshy parts. And then her desire to eat exploded! She loved food with flavor.

Feeding the Whole Family has a good section on what’s okay to feed babies (more than you think), another section on foods toddlers and children tend to like, and another on creating meals that serve the whole family. Most of the meals are pretty quick, basic, one-pot affairs using whole grains, beans and vegetables. It’s directed towards a beginner level cook, with thorough instructions. Although there are many different kinds of recipes, overall I would call the food style ‘hippie-asian’ with lots of tamari and sunflower seeds.

If you are still reading, and thinking this sounds like the book you need, I have a secret for you. Although this is a great book, I don’t need it. I have this kind of food pretty much internalized, and though I was grateful to read through the baby/toddler section, once was probably enough. So I’m going to give it away! I almost chucked it into the ‘sell’ box, but figured one of you lovely readers could get good use out of it. For the new mama who’s a bit daunted in the kitchen, this is the perfect book.

Leave a comment below telling me why you need this book. I’ll choose out the most deserving/desperate, and then pick randomly amongst you. Bear in mind, this is a used book. But if you are a real reader of this blog, not a giveaway troller, you won’t care– it’s in perfectly good condition.

Yes, I am going to leave this open to my overseas mamas (and papas?) because y’all rock and I want you to join in the fun too.

Begin! (Open until Tuesday, May 1st)

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I love Novella Carpenter. Her first book Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer is one of my top favorite non-fiction books. She is sharp, funny and bracingly honest. When I saw she had a new ‘how-to’ book out, I could barely contain myself.

Novella wrote The Essential Urban Farmer with Willow Rosenthal. It is a fat, sturdy volume covering everything from soil building to killing rabbits. There are no color photographs, this book is not coffee table material. Instead there are lots of no-nonsense line drawing, diagrams and building plans; lists and tables.

This book would be perfect for someone embarking on a pretty decent sized urban farmstead venture, with very little experience. It goes into good detail about everything a beginner needs to know. They focus on low-tech, low investment micro-farming, tapping into city waste streams as much as possible. They have a practical, punky, whatever it takes to get shit done attitude that you know I adore, but there’s not much personal voice coming through. This book is a bare bones workhorse, it has to be to fit so much detailed information about so many subjects.

If you are just setting out to turn your city lot into an edible paradise on a shoestring budget with little or no experience, and you just want to buy one book, I would highly recommend this one.

However.

I have a problem. At least I know it’s me. I keep reading gardening, farming and homesteading books, even though I already know most of what’s in them. That sounds incredibly arrogant, but it’s true. The problem is how-tos are always written for beginners, yet always bill themselves as being useful to all knowledge levels. And I always fall for it.

I keep hoping I’ll meet a homesteading how-to for people like me, who’ve already been doing this stuff for years and read possibly hundreds of books on the subject. I keep hoping I’ll find something new. Instead, they are 90% beginner information, recycled from countless other sources. In the hopes of selling books (which of course the author needs to do in order to earn any kind of wage for the copious time and energy it takes to write a book, I’m sure!) they try to be the all and everything. The “essential,” the “complete,” “all you need to know.” When really, each author offers only a chapter’s worth of actually novel ideas. The rest has been published before.

Which is not to knock the authors, that’s just how knowledge works in a human social structure. We learn a lot from others, we invent a little piece of our own, we pass it on. I actually think it’s awesome, when you view it in a communal way. Each of us playing our bit part in this big show. A few stars, lots of supporting cast. The whole so much more than it’s parts.

But, as a nearly addictive how-to reader, it gets tedious. I know Novella and Willow have way more experience than me, and I know they could teach me tons. But they had to make space for so much beginner information that there wasn’t room left for the intermediate level information.

I guess it’s only fair for you to ask– why am I still reading about this stuff anyway, if I’m already so damned smart?

How-to books are written for beginners because really only beginners need books. After the initial information flush, you just need to put in your time. Get outside and do the stuff, again and again, becoming your own extremely local expert. The embarrassing truth is that I like to read about doing stuff, sometimes more than I like to actually do the stuff. Don’t get me wrong– I love gardening, and at the end of the day I will always be happier if I’ve been outside working in the dirt. But at the beginning of the day, sitting at the kitchen table with a new gardening book and my notebook of plans is about as close to heaven as I can fathom. The experience of gathering information, of sketching out a plan, of running the ideas through my mind’s fingers like rich silk is so pleasurable I just never get enough.

Really, I need to lay off the how-tos. Homesteading narrative is what I need. Unlike how-tos, which are inevitably more or less the same information presented over an over with slight variations in theme and style, good narratives are truly unique. Which is why I loved Farm City so much, only Novella can possibly write Novella’s story.

And now, I just found out that she had a baby! Welcome to the complex business of loving mothers who still want to kick serious ass. I can’t wait to read her next book.

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Before I move on from January’s Quiet Riot focus of electricity, water and garbage, I want to review a great energy book– The Carbon Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Help Reduce the Fossil Fuel Habit by Stephen and Rebekah Hren. I had looked past this book several times, something seemed too fad-ish about the cover and I expected the projects to be along the lines of ‘replacing your incandescents with CFLs’ and ‘setting up a recycling system.’

But when I finally bit the proverbial bullet and got it out from the library, I realized I had been duped by a good cover designer to think it was fashionable. When in fact it’s a meaty book with loads of substantive projects! The authors are approachable and honest, clear and thorough. I liked it so much, I ordered my own copy.

The book includes a full range of projects– from insulating your fridge to installing solar heating tubes. Each project has a list of stats including the approximate cost, time and potential energy savings. Some are appropriate for renters, though I think the book is much more useful for homeowners who can really re-cap their investment over time. The small to medium sized projects are the stars of the book, in my view– the low to no cost things that most folks could do if they set aside a weekend for set up. The more complex projects would require considerably more information, but this book provides an overview of what’s involved as well as just plain inspiration for things like masonry stoves (yummy).

I look forward to outfitting our own home back in Alaska when we return. I never wanted to live in town, in a real sheetrock and plumbing house (I was going to build a log cabin in the woods), but over time as I’ve come around. I’ve realized the usefulness of it, given the way things actually are. I’ve re-written my goal to owning this modern system, knowing how my plumbing works and how to fix it, and eventually how to divert it into gray water garden irrigation! This book is not just empty inspiration for beginners though, as these books can sometimes be, it’s got real meat.

If you are thinking about putting a little time into the energy efficiency of your home, this would be a great place to start.

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A few months ago, I started adding all my favorite books to Goodreads, an online book cataloging site. When I review books here I like to be able to link to something, anything besides Amaz*n, and I liked the idea of building an online collection of quality books to point readers toward. There’s a lot of books in the world, and honestly not all of them are worth the read, let alone the purchase price. Especially in the homesteading category I have found a number of books written as how-tos by people who’ve just started doing the stuff– a pet peeve of mine. I love to read an honestly written personal story about coming into The Life, but please don’t write a how-to until you’ve got at least 10 years under your belt.

At any rate, I myself love book recommendations and I thought you might as well. I tried out Librarything first, and I do like their less commercialized feel and higher quality book focus, but I’m sorry to say I found it a chore to navigate. Goodreads is certainly more geared to selling books, and particularly best seller types, but the site is smooth and a pleasure to use.

This link will take you to the Apron Stringz sustainable living bookshelf. This is my default category for everything that’s not a novel or a cookbook. You will see a list of more specific categories on the left hand side if you want to do some pointed browsing. The books are listed by order of my ranking, most of the 5-star books are ones that I own and feel are worth owning. Some of the 4-stars are worth owning too if you, like My Man and I, aspire to a whole room of your home devoted to books. The rest are worth the wait of an inter-library loan. With a few exceptions, I didn’t list books that I didn’t like.

In my dream world, I would have time to review all of those great books for you. Instead, I need to go wash the dishes. But I do want to just slip in a quick plug for my latest favorite, The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball. I had seen this one around for awhile but been afraid that, despite the title, it would be one of those romantic depictions of overly precious country life. It is not. She is a fantastic, raw author with an almost unbelievable story. Uproarious, honest, riveting, wise and yes, dirty. I loved it.

Goodreads also has a ‘to read’ list, if you are ever wondering how in the world you might return some sugar to me, I love books…. Ahem.

Lastly, which best-ever books are missing from my list?

**Note that I do buy stuff from Amaz*n, much more often than I’d like to admit. My point in attempting not to link to them is not that you shouldn’t shop there, but that I can’t stand the idea of advertising for them.

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Man. Life moves fast. Did I ever fill you in on the Indiana doctor? Whoops.

Thank goodness My Man went up there. Here they were acting like radiation was the only thing that made sense given the prognosis. But the specialist in Indiana recommended just monitoring, no proactive treatment. If he doesn’t do any treatments, the chance of recurrence is 20%, but treatments at that point will be equally effective (over 99%) and the proactive treatments have their own dangers. Radiation has a 2% chance of causing cancer, and if that happened My Man would be dealing with some new kind of cancer, instead of this best possible kind. They don’t have long term data on the chemo yet, they know it can cause some heart problems, but other than that it’s an unknown. The doctor recommended chemo over radiation if My Man wanted to treat proactively, but like I said his top recommendation was just monitoring.

I distrust medicine in general, and had secretly favored the idea of just monitoring. But of course this is cancer we’re talking about and I was ready and willing to trust the doctors on this one. So I was very happy to have the specialist back up my instinct. My Man on the other hand is not happy. He wanted to do something, and after talking with him, I see his point. 20% chance of recurrence is low, but also high. 1 in 5 chance we will have to go through this all over again at some point in the next few years. Which sucks ass, for certain. But then again, 4 in 5 chance we won’t, and he will have never needed to assault his body with radiation or chemo.

Anyway, things have gotten back to normal around here. So normal in fact, cancer already seems like a book I read last month. So normal that all the good, healthy changes we made right away have fallen back into the dust. I told you I read a lot this last month right? Want to know what I was reading? The 653 page tome, Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford. That’s how I roll.

This was actually my second cover to cover reading of Pitchford’s classic. The first time around I was 23 and re-reading it made me realize how much this book set my standards for nutrition. He is absurdly extreme, and somehow, I’ve always liked that about him. At least you know where he stands. Which is for whole vegetal foods, and against animal products except in healing situation. Against fats and oils in any quantity, almost against extracted oils all together. His recommended daily intake for extracted oils is 1 teaspoon! This is the book containing my widely quoted recipe for “Sprout Salad” wherein you arrange three kinds of sprouts in concentric circles on a plate.

That’s it. That’s the recipe. Three kinds of sprouts on a plate.

Clearly the man is half crazy, and I guess I just love crazy people.

As you have probably surmised, we are a most pointedly carnivorous family. I have no compunction about eating animals, since that is just what they themselves do, seemingly without compunction. But I do really like a lot of what Pitchford has to say, and I generally agree with his opinions about healthfulness. He describes foods through both modern nutrition and traditional chinese healing terms. I am usually a very brass tacks kind of girl, and I’m honestly not sure why the “woo-ey” parts of this book didn’t turn me off. I guess when it comes down to it, under my brassy exterior, I do believe some woo-ey shit. Not that particular wooey shit, but I guess I feel like any traditional knowledge, having stood the test of time, has good stuff to offer.

What I like about the book is that the specific constitution of each individual body is given much credit. No food is a panacea and Pitchford gives great hedance to instinct. I like that as a general guiding idea. People seem to do well on all kinds of disparate diets, and I really believe in following our own instincts over the latest nutritional research. In fact, in the realm of nutrition, parenting or anything else, I say figure out what you believe, then find a book that supports it! That’s what most people do anyway, whether or not they cop to it.

Many of my own nutritional instincts were supported and shaped by my first reading of this book, including my excessive concern about high quality oils, my compulsion to include a green food in every meal, my preference for whole milk (although he doesn’t really endorse the use of animal products, he does discuss them), and my un-popular idea that fruit, nuts, soy products and all the supposedly healthy snack foods should not be eaten in quantity, and certainly not in combination (Pitchford recommends a mere six almonds per day and says fruit should be eaten alone, two hours before the next meal).

At any rate, I spent a month re-reading this weighty bible, making lists and plans. I wrote out my “ideal” diet, as well as the ideal for each of our family members, and then how I might combine these for a family plan. I felt inspired, I felt motivated.

Then I felt tired and munchy.

Oh well, I’ll get back on the healthy habits next week. My favorite way to read Paul Pitchford has always been with a cup of coffee and a cookie.

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Balm

I finally got a new Mary Oliver book from the library. She is a very long time love of mine, I am pretty sure she has gone directly into my soul and plucked out the poems I would write myself, if I had the words.

Her poems are prayers, balm. I have been doling out a few of them to myself every morning, to live my day by. Here is one of my first favorites, one of her more famous poems, for every reason.

 

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver

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I’m not sure how this happens, given the fullness of my life, but somehow I manage to knock back a surprising number of books. Maybe it’s just the decision to do so. Or, oh right. Maybe it’s directly proportionate to those enormous filth bunnies under the couch. Bigger the bunnies, bigger the books.

Lately I’ve been on yet another Wendell Berry bender. I’m mostly done with Home Economics, with the long sought What Are People For just barely cracked. Both are essays, as most of his books seem to be. I’m realizing that my beloved The Unsettling of America is a rare gem as a singular, spanning, cohesive argument. He says in the intro to Home Ec that his essays are experiments, a way to test out an individual thought or argument. That makes sense, as a budding writer I get that. Still, the enormity of The Unsettling is so satisfying, it’s hard not to want that same perfect reading experience over and over again.

Home Ec covers a range of loosely related subjects. A few weren’t that interesting to me, but on the whole it’s classically great Wendell. The Two Economies has been my favorite so far, in which he describes what we consider the economy as just a small economy within what he calls the Great Economy. He explores some religious issues in this one, quotes quite a bit from the bible which only Wendell Berry can get away with in my book. He talks about the critical importance of recognizing and revering the enormous mystery of the world/universe. Recognizing that we can only ever know just a little part of things. He talks about religion as a way of bowing to that greater mystery, which I found interesting since I have always thought of religion as the complete opposite, arrogantly assuming it understood the mystery. But I do see where he’s coming from, and it helps me to have a little more respect for religion.

I think I might have to take a break before moving on to What Are People For though. I’m feeling a bit overdosed on my man. He’s the boss, for sure, but he’s so effing cerebral, geez. That’s partly what I love about him. I love the way he can just lay it out, so completely covering every detail in perfect order, with all the ends tucked neatly in. God to be able to think like that.

On the other hand, I do think a little like that, and I wouldn’t say it’s always enjoyable. Maybe it’s just my recent decision to try to connect more with my heart energy and let go some of that thinkingthinkingthinkingclickclickclick. I need more reverent poetry at this point in my life, less complex dissections of the modern world. (Fortunately my man Wendell writes poetry as well! How can he do that?????)

What I really need is some Mary Oliver. She is like cool water running over sore feet. And Gary Snyder. I just borrowed Axe Handles from a friend. Looks great so far, more my style than his more famous Turtle Island. There’s even, get this, a poem about Wendell Berry! Of course they would have hung out, but I didn’t know that. Awesome. Imagine kickin’ it with Wendell and Gary.

I recently finished Gary Paulsen’s Clabbered Dirt/Sweet Grass, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s an almost lyrical account of farming in America circa 1920’s. It’s the era Wendell always waxes on about, described in intimate heart-wrenching poetic style. This one sparked an interesting thought process which is really the subject of another post, but here’s the gist: Where the fuck are all the babies and toddlers in literature? Every single human being starts there, and yet can you think of any books that have babies or especially toddlers in them? I mean occasionally there’s a book about a woman having a baby, but even that is extremely rare. And other than those few, the only kids in books seem to be at least 5.

In Clabbered Dirt, the only babies or toddlers mentioned are in the stories of farm accidents. Aunt Dora who’s baby fell into the pig pen. Nothin’ left to bury but an arm.

Shit man.

I don’t really like to give negative reviews, but then, aren’t they just as useful? The Quarter Acre Farm by Spring Warren was disappointing. I actually bought it new (online– sight unseen for some reason) and can’t even get through it. No offense, there’s nothing particularly wrong with it. But, there’s nothing to offer either. It’s magazine writing. Tediously substance-less. God, I shiver just writing such a scathing sentence. I know some people really enjoy that kind of reading as a way to just relax with a book. I wish Ms. Warren the best and if anyone had a happier experience with this book, please leave it in a comment. Maybe it’s just me?

I also bought new Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World by the pop-superstars of our weird subculture– Kelly Coyne and Eric Knutzen. That I don’t regret. Partly just because I love those guys and will support whatever they do. Making It is a pure project book, covering everything from butchering chickens to homemade hand lotion. All the instructions are pretty basic, and a lot of the material has been covered dozens (if not hundreds) of times before in homesteading how-tos throughout the ages. But never before with such spunky style! And they do throw in some fun odd-balls like homemade altoids and the triumphant oyster shell oil lamp. I wish I had read their astute section on laundry soap back before I had to find all that out the hard way. The part about using straight olive oil as a body wash was fascinating. They maintain that you don’t need soap, that oil strips dirt. I tried it, I’m not entirely convinced. I felt perfectly clean enough, but then the instructions are to scrub deeply and you can get reasonably clean with just hot water if you scrub enough. Again though, I love the way they try to get back, waaay back to the beginning of a thing. Why make olive oil soap if you can just use olive oil? I myself only shower once a week, so I feel soap is in order.

Lastly I want to tell you about The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. I found a stack of quality books by a trash can a few months back, this being one. Several people I admire have told me this is one of their favorite books ever, and I’ve meant to read it for ages. It seemed that it would be too much, too heavy a read for an always exhausted mama, but it has turned out to be just right. After two months I’m only halfway through (I read it in one or two page increments at the end of my unbelievably long days, while I wait for My Man to finish up putting the 4yo to sleep). It’s substantial enough that it gives my brain the most lovely un-parental feeling of actual use, but not so deep that I can’t get a foothold. It’s the perfect balance for me. And I might even finish it someday.

If that wasn’t enough of a book binge for you, here’s a few past book reviews:

Ode to realBooks

Up Tunket Road

Anything But the Kitchen Sink

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