Friday, June 13, 2008

The Life of the Individual

Partially inspired by Green Bean Dreams' Bookworm Challenge, I've had a great time reading books about families who made the move from one way of life--one that only taxed their brains--to a more sustainable one that put their beliefs into practice.

There are a lot of open paths. Path to Freedom, the granddaddy of homesteading blogs, shows how to do it in an urban setting. Crunchy and Melinda do it in Seattle. Colin and his family are at it in a high-rise in Manhattan. Madeline shows us how when you live in the boonies outside a big city. Sharon and Greenpa teach us what to do in the country. You can do it in the suburbs. You can even do it in the desert. And there are so many more ways!

But for those who want to curl up with a good book rather than a laptop, I have a few to recommend:

Logan Ward's See You in a Hundred Years: Four Seasons in Forgotten America was a surprisingly wonderful read. I had not heard of the book before I randomly stumbled across it, and it is published by a relatively little-known press. Logan and his wife and young child move from New York City to a farm in a rural area of Virgina. They decide to spend one year living with only the tools available to a person one hundred years ago. While they are a very modern family with very modern issues sometimes, they go through daily life growing their own food, putting it up for the winter, learning to travel by horse and bicycle, living without electricity, mass-market toothpaste, and running water. What they make themselves comes to the fore--including the community they find themselves creating in their rural town. One of the most interesting sections of the book is how they deal with the tragedy of 9/11, which occurs during their 1900 year. Highly recommended as thoughtful but light reading. Perfect for an afternoon in the shade.

A less appealing but equally interesting book is A Reasonable Life: Toward a Simpler, Secure, More Humane Existence by Ferenc Mate. The author, in a very edgy funny-if-you-are-not-too-sensitive attack on modernity and all of us who make any compromises with it, engages some fascinating issues but offers answers that sound awfully off-putting. For example, I am probably as anti-television as he is (sorry, Carrie!), but being bombarded with writing like "Open an upstairs window...and throw the heinous sonovabitch as far as your arms let you!" makes me want to rebel and go buy one. Mate has a lot of interesting insights--and if you handle this style better than I do, let me know what you think. I know I am not really being fair to him, given that I've heard others say that this book has transformed their lives.

I was similarly unimpressed with Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City. Although the authors' tone is respectful throughout, they wind up sounding a bit self-important and preachy. I don't exactly blame them: their task writing this book is a really difficult one. When authors set out to show you how to do better, it is often difficult to take. On the other hand, when authors detail their own path--especially if it is a pretty bumpy path--toward trying to make a more authentic life, it can be utterly charming. This book, much to my disappointment, comes across as an example of the first kind of book. But it is filled with a lot of very interesting ideas to transform your life without moving to a farm or something. The choices open to them in southern California are radically different from what I have in the DC area, but many ideas are applicable nonetheless. Glad I read it, but don't plan your vacation reading around this one.

We also reread parts--the "spring planting" chapters--of Barbara Kingsolver's fabulous Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life last month, too--always a joy and an inspiration. Kingsolver is an elegant writer with a wickedly funny edge sometimes, and even when she is talking about how amazing her life is, she sounds real and down-to-earth. Her partner writes short political essays scattered throughout, and her daughter writes up recipes and reminiscences. This book is absolutely a must-read, and a must-read-again.

Another lovely book I briefly revisited this season is Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally. The authors (from British Columbia) are much stricter in their eat-local rules than Kingsolver is. Where she uses eating local as an entree (sorry) into the connection between culture and agriculture, they explore more precisely what the consequences as well as the joys of a local economy are. Well written and very funny.

Up soon on my nightstand: Michael Pollan's pre-Omnivore book, Second Nature: A Gardener's Education. Has anyone read it? Any reviews? Or does anyone have any other book recommendations for me?


Chile said...

I also enjoyed the "See you in 100 years" book, especially since we had just rewatched the PBS "Frontier House" series. Both left me craving a simpler, more manually powered life, but one that did not require giving up everything modern. I like my modern bike! :)

Carrie K said...

I'll have to check out See You In A Hundred Years and Plenty, particularly.

I don't mind the TV hate! Until I spent six months in the mountains sans electricity, running water and cable, I wasn't all that enamoured of it either.

Sue in the Western Great Basin said...

I'm just finishing up "Second Nature", and I'm less than impressed with some of it. I hate to even say that and put that idea in anyone's head before they read it, but...

There is a lot I like about it, but like everyone else reading anything by Pollan these days, it all gets compared to "Omnivore's Dilemma" and nothing holds up to that.

It's similar to "Botany of Desire" in that it mixes his own direct telling of his own experiences with some background research such as the history of the rose. But unlike "Botany of Desire" I found the research parts to drag on, and just keep waiting to get back to his garden stories...

He also loses a bit of my respect at the part near the end where he only half-analyzes the anthropomorphism that has created the "wilderness ethic" we use to decide how much to worship trees and whether we see nature as something to preserve or something to conquer or something inbetween. He makes some good points, but analyzes in a way that only shows the points he's trying to make. No fair! I found myself getting more and more annoyed as I read!

I'll do a more complete review on my blog (and on GreenBean's Bookworm Challenge comments) after I finish it.

Don't give up reading it based on my comments though, I'm interested to hear if you and others have the same impression of it or different!

The Purloined Letter said...

Carrie: Wow! I didn't know about your six months and I would love to hear more. Is the story in your blog somewhere? Off to hunt a bit.

Sue: What a wonderful review. Thank you for taking the time to write this up. I'll be thinking about you and these issues as I read.

Carrie K said...

I've got to read Pollan's books. I have them and I haven't read a one yet.

And don't hunt too hard, my six months isn't really referenced much in the blog, it was back in the mid 90's.

Donna said...

Thanks for the great reviews. I'll have to check out the "100 years" book since it sounds really interesting!

Burbanmom said...

I really enjoyed Deep Economy by Bill McKibben, as well as Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma and Eater's Manifesto.

I didn't like Affluenza - way too cheesy with the flu metaphors.

Thanks for the recommended reading list!

kale for sale said...

You've likely finished Pollan's book by this point but I'll tell you what I thought anyway. I read the first quarter or so and thoroughly enjoyed the stories of his Grandfather's garden and the planting of his garden at the time of the writing. Once the stories fell away however so did I.

I enjoyed your list of books and the reviews. I needed a book to read in the shade. That's perfect. Thank you.


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