Book Review: Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity by Emily Matchar

My head is still reeling a little from this book. I expected it, like all books about the current revival of homesteading (or self-sufficiency or hobby farming or whatever you want to call this movement), to be relentlessly cheerful. Not so. Matchar is a true journalist. Homeward Bound reads like an extended newspaper or magazine article, from the single-sentence summaries of appearance that accompany the introduction of each new interviewee (“Jenna, a forthright sparkplug of a woman in a plaid shirt and square-framed glasses, is fairly new at this too.”), to the psychological and social analysis of action, word, motive, and repercussion.
The title — and cover image — gave me this impression: This book is going to be about women taking back the kitchen and crafts (and all the things once called “women’s work”) and are refusing to be told that they are anti-feminist or backward-thinking for doing so. They are reclaiming the word “domestic” from its status as a slur.
Yes . . . but that was just the tip of the iceberg. Matchar explains that that is what we think we’re doing (there’s the motive) but what we’re really accomplishing, if we truly believe ourselves to be feminists, might be shooting ourselves in the feet (there’s those repercussions).
Before I can go any further here I have to derail the thought train and add this crucial fact: despite what you, like me, may have been told by society at large, feminism is not misandry (the opposite of misogyny) but an equality movement.
OK, back on track. So, one of the author’s most oft-reiterated points is this: we can all agree that the workplace, by and large, sucks for both men and women. But it can be particularly frustrating for women, who are still paid, on average, just 70% of their equally-educated male peers, who often have little or no maternity or child care leave, and who are passed up frequently for managerial positions — especially if the person doing the hiring knows they have children. Women in general are seen as unstable and unreliable in the workforce, and doubly so if they have children they might think are more important than the minutae of their jobs.
Some women who are quitting their jobs to bake bread and grow veggies and homeschool their kids are saying, as I did, when I dropped out of the workforce, “Work sucks and it ain’t getting any better. Screw the middleman. I’m my boss now and my job is to feed my family.” As noble as this seems (and, yeah, I was getting a bit of a head), Matchar thinks that we have jumped off a ship that isn’t sinking, as we thought, but is, in fact, still struggling to get out of the harbor. Feminism hasn’t failed — it just isn’t done yet. Just as we don’t have total racial equality even though we have laudable civil rights laws, we don’t have equality between the sexes, either — not in employment or anywhere else. To use another metaphor, our mothers didn’t fail to win, they just started the fight. They tagged us in and we’ve walked away.
So the repercussion we didn’t anticipate when we dropped out is that with fewer women in the workplace agitating for equality in pay and better benefits fewer advances will be made. In fact, there’s the distinct danger that policies will backslide. I think this all might lose something being out of context, but I found it kind of terrifying.
A very thought-provoking read.


Book Review: The Zero-Waste Lifestyle by Amy Korst

Despite having been immersed in waste-reduction for some time now I was pleasantly surprised that to learn so much from this book.  There were some great practical solutions:  ideas for composting in apartments, information about take-back programs for hard to recycle items like #5 plastic, and plenty of disposable alternative ideas (similar to what I picked up from No Impact Man and Plastic Free).  I am now much too excited about collecting waste items like toothpaste tubes and feta tubs for TerraCycle.

But what I liked best about the book was its tone: upbeat and excited.  Korst constantly reinforces the key ideas that you can do this, every little bit really does help, and it’s OK to make compromises.  That was really reassuring.  I am already ahead of the curve when it comes to the three Rs, but I feel tremendous pressure to do more — and at the same time tremendous social anxiety about doing things like bringing reusable containers to restaurants (although, oddly, I have no qualms about pressing my reusable bags on checkers and my “sippy cup” on baristas).

Another point I appreciated: constant reiteration of the all-too-little-known fact that almost nothing decomposes in a landfill.  Your compostables will not compost.  Your degradable bag will not degrade.  Decades-old newspapers can still be read when unearthed.*

My only disappointment was that Korst and her team (a handful of other garbage-free bloggers from around the country) didn’t have the silver bullet to the meat problem.  They can’t go in the compost bin, we haven’t got room to bury them, we don’t want to risk feeding them to the pigs (and we don’t have pigs year-round and they can’t eat bones anyway) . . . so they go in the garbage.  Korst and her husband do have a solution that works for them, but it doesn’t work for us: they are vegetarians.  Really, though, this wasn’t much of a let-down because there is no silver bullet.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone looking to reduce (or eliminate) their waste.  It’s not the only one out there (the field is growing and I have a lot of reading to do!) but it is accurate, informative, and supportive.  Anyone can make a change for the better with this book in hand.

— Amanda

* Korst referred a few times to one of my favorite researchers of all time: “Captain Planet” William Rathje, who, in the seventies, with his Anthropology class, dug up a landfill in the manner of an archaeological excavation of a midden.  They (and everyone who read their papers and the ensuing book) were pretty surprised at what they found.

Book Review: The Urban Farm Handbook by Annette Cottrell and Joshua McNichols

This is one of those great books that got us excited all over again to be doing what we’re already doing. Everything in this book is accessible: it all sounds alluring and simple and it’s all described with great enthusiasm.
It’s arranged seasonally and each chapter has recipes; some for whole meals, some for artisan breads and cheeses. They are all easy and doable and drool-worthy. Each chapter within the seasons has “opportunities for change”: a run down of the varying shades of self-sufficiency and/or sustainability that are available to you for said chapter. Dairy for instance. For a start you could buy organic milk. If you want to do more you can look for organic and/or unhomogenized and/or unpasteurized milk from a local farmer. If that’s not good enough for you you could raise your own dairy goats. As the authors say, “You might think of these as ‘different levels of crazy.’ Choose the level that suits your personality.”
Infectious enthusiasm is one key element in a how-to book. The other element I look for in books about the lifestyle I already lead is “Aha” moments. Sentences or ideas that make me grab my pencil and take furious notes or say – out loud – “Damn, why didn’t I think of that years ago?!” In this book one of the “Aha” moments was the “produce eating plan”, a marvelously analytical chart in which you determine your family’s food needs for an entire year – and what seasons you eat it in! I really wish I had made a chart like this before I started planting. Instead I have spent years determining how much of what to grow (and how much land to till for it) based on trial and error. Seed catalogs sometimes include charts that tell you average yields for their seeds, but that still doesn’t help if you don’t have a realistic idea of how much you will consume.
A uniquely Pacific Northwestern topic covered in this book is sun. We’ve all got shade problems on this side of the Cascades, haven’t we? Many books advocate (and for good reason) using short-season crops in the PNW to deal with our cool and wet weather, but I hadn’t yet run across a book that detailed the sun requirements for edibles – in fact, I didn’t even know that there were different sun requirements! I assumed (and you know my favorite saying . . .) that they all needed full sun. I’m pleased to be proven wrong this time.
“Aha” moment #3: a brilliantly simple way to get started on crop rotation. “A good rule to plant by is ‘leaf to fruit to root to legume’.” After they explain their rationale I am left holding my head and chanting, “I’m an idiot. I’m an idiot.” The best advice is the kind that seems self-evident after you’ve heard it – but that you couldn’t figure out on your own.
Living food is covered in this book, too. And I must say that this book had the most accurate description I’ve read so far of slaughter: unflinching without being dramatic. So many books skirt around what really happens, saying that birds “may flap some” after beheading, or that shot pigs “kick”. (Dial that up a few notches, kids. Way up.) But Cottrell and McNichols do keep their coverage of the death issue respectful. Also, they have lots of great information on the various available methods of getting good meat or getting animals transformed into meat – something I don’t think a whole lot of folks are intuitively aware of.
Finally, I would like to note that, yes, Joshua McNichols is the same Joshua McNichols you know and love from our local NPR affiliate KUOW.
– Amanda

Book Review: Home-Ec 101: Skills for Everyday Living

While Martha Stewart and her Homekeeping book (big enough to chock the wheels of a 747) will always be my go-to guide for all things related to keeping house, this is another great resource. Mrs. Solos runs a blog by the same name as her book and I check in from time to time when I have a “Dear Heloise”-type question like “How do I wash painted walls?” or “Can I freeze butter?”

She gives good, practical advice  and she’s funny, too.

Everyone has laundry, even nudists. They still have towels, sheets, and hopefully aprons. Can you say grease splatter? [112]

This is a great primer for the first time renter or homeowner who doesn’t want to live like he or she did in the dorm or with the tribe of roommates but has no idea how mom kept everything so neat and tidy.


Book Review: Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too by Beth Terry

How’s this for irony: because the book has an exposed spine the first thing my library did when they got their copies in at the service center was to swath them in plastic dust jackets.

Matt and I hate plastic. Matt objects to it on principle – wishes it was never invented – and I resent just about every characteristic of the stuff: it absorbs odors and stains easily, left in the sun it gets brittle and useless, you can only recycle some of it and what little gets recycled is actually downcycled (which means that it is made into some other product that it originally was, leaving a hole in the supply chain that needs to be replaced with virgin materials). Mostly, though, I think locally, not globally. Very locally. Like, just in the room I happen to be occupying. So what bugs me most about plastic is that we can’t recycle it at our place and have to take it to the dump which means it will languish in the landfill until that time I have predicted in which landfills will be reopened and mined for plastic because we’re out of oil to waste on making new water bottles.
I’ve got to say, though, that we’re not totally fascist about this. Plastic has handy dandy uses: I make my own shampoo and conditioner and I can’t see worth a damn without my specs so you can be damn sure I’m not going to bring that stuff into the shower in breakable glass containers; plastic makes some live-saving medical products possible; it’s wonderfully lightweight.
So, on to the book review.
I ‘m going to be up front about the fact that I did not read every word. I confess to skimming the chapters which were too political for me (those on the ecological effects of the plastic making, using, and disposal stream and on how to form an action group to fight the use of plastics in your area) or in which I’m pretty well-versed already (such as gardening as an alternative to buying plastic-bagged produce). And this is a hefty tome. Ms. Terry has a lot to say and a lot of experience to speak from. She started the blog Fake Plastic Fish in 2007 (and changed the name to My Plastic Free Life at some point) and this book is hot off the press in 2012.
I learned a lot from this book: the “chasing arrows” on the bottom of consumer plastics do NOT mean that the product is recyclable; the reason that your municipality may (seemingly arbitrarily) specify that only plastics of a certain shape (say, narrow-mouthed bottles) are acceptable in their bins is that the majority of plastic is sorted at the recycling facility by human beings who do not have psychic abilities or the time to look over every piece of plastic to find the resin number (the digit inside the aforementioned chasing arrows); most chewing gum contains a form of plastic; not all naturally-derived plastics (such as corn plastic) are actually biodegradable; and more.
I took a lot of notes and I have a lot to think about. The more plastic we avoid bringing into the house the less I have to pay to dispose of and the less it weighs on my granola-crunching little conscience.
– Amanda

Book Review: Living on a Few Acres: the 1978 Yearbook of the USDA

This baby is out of print but you can still find it online. We scored our copy at Powell’s (!) when we took the train down to Portland last year.

This is a good book for someone who is just starting out in the country, with an inclination towards homesteading or self-sufficiency, or for someone who is making the move from the city to the suburbs or a rural area to expand on an existing hobby farm or vegetable garden level of self sufficiency. This book is a collection of articles and essays by experts (usually USDA county extension agents) on the nuts and bolts of moving to the country, finding and fixing up a place, and deciding on what use best suits you and your land. Obviously the dollar amounts they reference are way off given the amount of inflation that’s taken place in the past 34 years, but most of the points they raise are still valid: Can you afford the mortgage? Can you keep your day job if you move out here? Is your land really suited to crops or would it be better put to animals? Can you handle doing your own butchering? Do you have the discipline to run your own small business from your home? Would you really be comfortable with your property being opened to strangers if you operated a B&B? Is there a market for honey (or whatever) in your area? Have you considered a Christmas tree farm for a second income?

Plenty of good food for thought in this book. You may hone your existing plan, you may drop a plan that was unwise, or you may come across a great idea you never considered.

– Amanda

Not-Book Review: 40 Years of Mother Earth News on CD-ROM

Mother Earth News, one of the most famous authorities on what is now called “green living”, isn’t what it used to be. Once upon a time I read every issue cover to cover, gasping “I have to try that!” The entirety of The Have More Plan was reprinted in the first year of the magazine. It covered (and for the most part, still covers) homestead in general, home food production, land buying, intentional communities, livestock large and small, housekeeping hints, alternative energies, alternative housebuilding techniques, alternative transportation, crafts, cooking, and a host of other self sufficiency topics.
These CD-ROMs function awkwardly: you plug one in and your default internet browser opens. You are offered several search options (article opens in new window, article opens in split screen, or you can browse the tables of contents). No matter which CD you have inserted, all four decades are searched – but you can only view the articles from the decade you have in the drive. When using split screen the article doesn’t word wrap, so several words at the end of each sentence appear to be missing. You can scroll horizontally as well as vertically, but you can’t adjust the text to fit. (This is why I prefer to use the ‘Full Window’ option.) Also, any pictures that may have accompanied the article are found at the end of the article as thumbnails which, when clicked, open in a new window. Some articles have the kind of typos that show that many issues were scanned using an OCR (Optical Character Recognition) program and not double-checked by a person.
Bugs aside, I am glad I have these babies. They are a treasure trove of information, research, anecdotes, advice, testimonials, ideas, and lore. Some of it is kooky, some of it is outdated, but a lot of it still applies, informs, and inspires.
Incidentally, those of you who are fans of The Good Life will be amused to know that the article about “Gobar gas” is on the first CD. Word for word what Barbara read off of Tom’s notes in the first episode. I can’t read that article without hearing Felicity Kendall’s voice in my head.
– Amanda