Tag Archives: books

Partially-Read Book Review: Sharon Astyk’s “Making Home”

Making HomeAre you ready for life in the future? Are you really ready for the-future-that-is-now? Find out by reading at least the early chapters of Making Home: Adapting Our Homes and Our Lives to settle in Placewhich is by far the most fun book about the apocalypse I’ve read yet! Seriously. Let me start with that assurance, so you don’t get thrown off by this wild quote from its author, Sharon Astyk, which is what I really wanted to use for my lede:

“I admit I find it enormously difficult to imagine a scenario in which the US does not collapse on some level—in nearly every available measure, it is in danger of doing so.”

It’s my belief that we’re not scrambling about like rats on a sinking ship on climate change because the enormity of the climate-change bogeyman — catastrophe, apocalypse, doom, collapse — is both too big and too hard to believe. Won’t happen, we think. We watch movies about phenomenal disasters and experience catharsis and comfort to witness an extreme outcome that seems to outstrip any possible horror we might face in real life. (I don’t think that’s my idea, but I have no idea who to credit for it.)

But what if “collapse” meant something different? Something less Bruce Willis and more Cormac McCarthy? The Soviet Union collapsed. Cuba collapsed. New Orleans collapsed. Collapse, in Astyk’s book, means (I’m quoting, in abridged form):

  1. People get really mad at their government.
  2. Crime goes up while police protection is less available or privatized
  3. Everyone gets poorer fast.
  4. Cost and attainability of food becomes an issue.
  5. Services and utilities are widely disrupted.
  6. People are pushed together.

Right. That could definitely all happen has been happening. Collapse is more of a continuum of degradation than a fireworks show.

So Making Home is really a book about how to set yourself up so that a rougher, less secure society with expensive or hard-to-get food and expensive or frequently-interrupted utilities and services, doesn’t throw you into a personal crisis at every bump.

Which is what happens to us, right? We’re not set up to lose access to food and electricity and gas and water, so when natural disasters — earthquakes, hurricanes, blizzards — come our way, we go into panic mode, stockpiling at the grocery store and filling our bathtubs with water. Our (for the general population living in better-than-poverty conditions) lifestyle and society is built so well, has been so reliable, that we’re ill-equipped for its disfunction.

A really easy example from my own experience? In the United States, I never worry about how much cash I have. I can use my plastic cards at stores or use the plastic to get the cash. Power doesn’t go out citywide, banks don’t run out of cash. When I visited Argentina, I had a few close calls where I dashed from bank to banks, because the ATMs were out of cash.

The most fun part of Making Home is the Triage section. The book assesses the relative merits of staying where you are and getting prepared to deal with more instability versus picking a new place to hunker down. I found myself surprised to see that no one region of the country or type of environment is advocated over another. It’s about your own personal calculation.

But it’s awfully fun to read her take on the pros and cons of choosing the city, the suburbs, or the country. She pulls no punches. “Do you drink a log of milk?” she asks of the potential country dweller. “Well, I hope you plan to milk each morning,” because you are not getting milk from Ye Old General Store.

If you’re a city dweller who “presently enjoys all the benefits of urban life with extended trips into the countryside to reconnect with nature, ask yourself how you will like doing without these — in August, during a heat wave.”

“It is useful, I think, to decide which sort of person you are, and thus, where you will be happy—out in the country where you can get drunk and shoot deer through the unopened windows of your trailer or in the city where you can get drunk and lecture a passerby on the evils of jaywalking or public urination.”

See, doesn’t the collapse sound fun? It’s like rated-R summer camp, forever. 

The book then begins to outline all the ways Astyk thinks we will manage our food, income, and comfort (you’ll be wearing a lot of sweaters in winter and sharing that wide mattress with more bodies). She’s no mere philosopher—she manages a homestead complete with husband, children, crops, and animals in New York (she picked “the country”).

It’s plenty interesting, but that’s about when I got a notice from the library that the book was on hold and I couldn’t renew it anymore. So that’s where I leave it, and you!

I’ll end, though, with its ending, for another bit of fun. I love a good index — it’s like a old-fashioned word cloud, giving you an at-a-glance flavor of its contents. It can be suggestive, evocative, a list-poem. Here is a taste of this book’s index entries, which really tickle me:

  • Iceland
  • immigrants
  • indebtedness
  • informal economy
  • infrastructure
  • ironing
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • job loss
  • Kale
  • knives
  • medical issues
  • New Orleans
  • parsnips
  • pass-down economy
  • peak oil
  • pepper spray
  • pet food
  • Poem of Difficult Hope
  • refrigerators
  • refugees, preparing for
  • relationships
  • rhubarb

Well, on to the next read, I suppose! I think it’s going to be Please Kill Me, an oral history of punk music. I’m expecting it’ll be more of an upper.

Oil And Honey. (And The Apocalypse?)

A (Completely-Read) Book Review

If you want to be inspired, thrilled, moved, and horrified—and you’re into choose-your-own-adventure and Never-Ending-Story type plots that evolve as you go—you’ve got to read Oil And Honey

It’s somehow a page-turner about legislative politics.

It’s somehow a page-turner about tending beehives on a farm in Vermont.

Basically, it’s a page-turner about whether or not there will continue to life on Earth as we know it. Author Bill McKibben is a new name to me, but the career he traces in this memoir-ish book makes it clear that I’m late to the game. He was writing books that warned us about global warming (like The End of Nature) back when I was still learning to write my name. Increasing desperation led him to put down the pen and pick up the sword of civil disobedience. It’s a bildungsroman about activism.

For years, he has had the privilege and the burden of being close to the numbers and the data about climate change. It can be easy to settle into a static sense of the problem: the planet’s getting warmer, I should really be “greener,” ah well. But he unleashes some real new data whoppers on the reader, and his anxiety that time is running out and the point of no return is maybe a quick sprint away, or perhaps entirely beyond our reach, is contagious. I know I mentioned “the apocalypse” in my headline, because that’s how I think about it. But the devastation of climate change is never going to be one big mushroom cloud. It’s going to be the disappearance, slowly or quickly, of the privileges, opportunities, resources, comforts, and beauty in our world—from urban creature comforts to productive and healthy farms to easy international travel to beloved natural landscapes.

Just a couple key, terrifying instances of McKibben math:

  • Two years ago, 15,785 record-high temperatures were recorded in the U.S. A regression analysis concluded it was “a once-in-4,779-years event.”
  • Scientists estimate we can put about 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere without totally, epically, absolutely screwing ourselves forever. We could do that in about 15 years. But what’s more, fossil fuel companies (and countries) have 2,795  gigatons at their disposal (at a value to them of about $28 trillion).

And yet, McKibben’s series of successes in mobilizing regular old people from around America and the world, through 350.org, the organization he and some of his students formed, are galvanizing. You wouldn’t think they could win—especially not right away—but they chalk up one victory after another. They move the needle, tick by tiny tick. They use the tried and true tactics of getting arrested in nonviolent demonstrations, and they put the power of the internet and email to effective use.

I’m not sure if I’m conveying how spell-binding I found all this. Like I said, it felt like being a part of The Never Ending Story, where the plot is created in real-time. Everything in the book is still happening right now. Nothing has made me feel more upset or more hopeful. Well, nothing except maybe participating in last month’s People’s Climate March, which 350.org organized in concert with many other organizations and movements.

You should read this book. It’s informative, fun, interesting, and unbelievably important. It will fill you in on lots of stuff that we didn’t catch on the daily news, and it will tell you what and where the most important fights for our future are happening now. Also, there are great, romantic vignettes about his friend Kirk, the wise Vermont beekeeper, and many apt analogies about bees and democracy and capitalism.

McKibben doesn’t demand that you take up a protest sign so much as he invites you to see the world in all its precarious beauty and creeping tragedy. And whether you know it or not, you and I are, at this very moment, a part of writing its last chapter.

Celebrating Great Books For Real Girls

THE STARS OF THESE YOUNG ADULT BOOKS SWEAR, STRUGGLE, AND GENERALLY ACT LIKE REAL TEENS

“NEW MIDDLE-GRADE AND YA PUBLISHER IN THIS TOGETHER MEDIA AIMS TO OFFER STORIES WITH MORE DIVERSE AND REALISTIC REPRESENTATIONS OF KIDS, ESPECIALLY GIRLS.” — Fast Company

In the frosty, early months of 2014, when there was still snow on the ground, a former (and fabulous) boss put me in touch with some very exciting entrepreneurs. Saira Rao and Carey Albertine came together a few years ago to take everything they’d learned in their careers in writing, television, and law, and form a social-purpose media venture called In This Together Media. Their goal? To put more, better, and relatable female (and racially diverse) characters into the world of children’s media—which has long been dominated by white, boy characters.

A social-purpose business, scrappy entrepreneurship, and books — I was hooked. Saira and Carey brought me up to speed on just how dismal the gender and race balance still is in children’s books, and I brainstormed ideas with them about more fun things they could be doing to highlight their books and mission. Then we made this really fun video together!

And it seems like they’re gaining traction. This summer, they were featured in Fast Company’s Most Creative People. This is some very deserved recognition! Seeing characters that reflect who we are gives us a sense of belonging and lets us see new possibilities for ourselves in the wider world. In honor of their work, I thought I’d reflect on a just a few books whose girls meant a lot to me when I was growing up:

  • Betsy, of Understood BetsySure she’s from 1916. But she gave me dreams of someday trying freshly tapped maple syrup poured onto snow to firm up and eat.
  • Vicky, of A Ring Of Endless LightThis gal could telepathically communicate with dolphins, and I was sure that one day, I would too.
  • Elizabeth, of Sweet Valley High (and Sweet Valley Kids, Sweet Valley Junior High, Sweet Valley University, Sweet Valley Thrillers, etc.). Two identical twins starred in this series—Elizabeth and Jessica—and while the whole world mixed them up, any girl reading could keep them straight and tell you which twin was her avatar. And I was an Elizabeth, bookish and rule-following, all the way.

Okay, I told you mine. Now you tell me yours?

Sweet Valley High
A Ring Of Endless Light
Understood Betsy

Partially-read book review: The Circle Of Simplicity

Look, oh friends, where I’ve been all morning. Post-shower, post-breakfast, I didn’t have it in me to sit down at the old laptop just yet. I was sleepy, sure, but I was also nervous because I have to return a library book a.s.a.p. — some other patron has requested it, and so I can’t do my usual renew-it-six-times-until-I-get-around-to-it routine — and I’ve been wolfing it down like it’s a cake that’s about to spoil. So I took my green tea to the community garden to camp out for half an hour, to get a few more pages in. You know, until the mosquitoes drove me to insanity. But this is a perfect day, warm but not humid, sunny but not hot, and the mosquitoes must all be napping, and I read and chatted with other gardeners coming in to water their plants and walk their babies for an hour and a half. 20130731-113334.jpg

“What are you reading?” asked JoJo, a fellow gardener, a public school teacher and expecting father asked when he came in to water his plot. I showed him my book: The Circle of Simplicity: Return to the good life, by Cecile Andrews, which caught my eye on a recent borrowing spree at the library. (Its first blurb is from the one and only Juliet Schor.) “Does she say you should join a community garden?” he said with a smile. “I think she’s going to,” I replied.

Andrews’ premise is, in a nutshell, that we’re not well, we hard-working Americans. We’re tired and cranky and lonely and sick and divorced and a little desperate. And it’s because we’ve been sold on the idea that we should follow a certain formula: success in work + success in building a little castle = happiness and success in life. But the big TVs and cars only separate us from other people, and working to buy those things separates us from our true gifts, passion, and drains our energy for life. Not to mention the toll this all takes on the poor planet, which we’re squeezing dry with all our successful widget-producing and comfortable, affluent living.

Re-thinking your priorities, finding your own truths about what you want in life, and connecting with other people— at the grocery store, on your block, at the playground or church or temple — are some of the big-picture remedies she suggests. The more involved you are in authentic relationships, and the more time you spend doing things that give you pleasure, fulfillment, and purpose, the less time you spend numbed out in front of mediocre television (this book was written in 1997, before TV got a lot better) or shopping, worried that your clothes aren’t good enough yet.

A lot of her anecdotes and analyses might feel familiar to a reader who is already exploring these ideas, but she’s very astute at identifying subtle factors: for example, the way wide streets and the fact that we don’t build front porches anymore make it harder for us to have casual contact with our neighbors. Even in New York, where we live in close proximity, many neighborhoods have seen their hangout cafes, or their community-based grocery stores, replaced by big chains. This book will make an outstanding introduction for anyone interested in just exploring their own doubts and questions about their lifestyle for the first time. In fact, I think it makes an excellent read to start with before jumping into Juliet Schor’s Plenitude (check out Treehugger’s recap here), which is less philosophical but gets down to the brass tacks of sustainability and personal economics.

“Simplicity Circles,” a cross between a book-club and a consciousness-raising group, are part of Andrews’ vision toward helping people change their lives. You can’t change without support and community, she says, and you can’t have community without laughter. That’s partly what I hope to do with this blog — laugh at the foibles that come along when trying to make deliberate change, and to share them with others. I’m thinking about putting a little note inside the book when I return it to the library, so maybe the person who’s waiting for it so eagerly will invite me to join theirs.

UPDATE: I picked up the book again over a late lunch, and came across this spot-on description of gardening:

“My whole life experience has taught me that the intellectual life is superior to the physical life, particularly the life of nature. So it wasn’t until just a few years ago that I started gardening. I had always thought that the reason you gardened was to have flowers around, so it would look beautiful. I didn’t realize that gardening was an end in itself.

 

In fact, I was astonished to see how much I loved weeding—it was almost a mystical experience. I would start weeding and become totally absorbed. Down on my knees among the tall flowers and plants, I felt different, I felt expanded. I wouldn’t want to stop, even though I knew that, after all that bending, I probably wouldn’t be able to walk the next day.”