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April 2014

What if you don't have the energy to be radical or a homemaker?

I was rather annoyed by the book Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture.

Author Shannon Hayes, herself a radical homemaker and author of organic meat cookbooks, took upon herself the task of meeting and interviewing numerous individuals and families who were "pursuing homemaking as a vocation for saving family, community, and the planet." (p. 1.) She then wrote this book, in two parts: the first half, in which she gives a brief history of homemaking and a short critique of our American economic system and culture, and the second, in which she shares insights and lessons learned from her interviews with multiple individuals seeking to live their lives "off the grid" (to differing degrees).

Frankly, I agreed with a lot of her points in the critique of our system. You can't stay home with your kids these days without noticing that you do have choices, and these are it: go to work, and take your kids to daycare; stay at home and spend most of your day scheduling and attending your children's activities and playdates so they're "socialized" before they even get to school; or do neither and feel slightly off for about six years while you and your kids wander around your suburban neighborhood, which is a ghost town, because most people have opted for the first two choices. So yes. I think a lifestyle where money and over-scheduled children are the only goals is not real fulfilling. But still. Does that mean I'm ready to move back to the farm, grow my own food and build my own house?


And I can't say that Hayes really convinces me otherwise. I'll admit, whenever I read a book on this subject, I always flip to the index and look for "health care" or "health insurance," because how an author treats that subject usually lets me know how seriously I have to take them. And this is what I found in this book:

"For many of the homemakers, locally produced, organic and nutrient-dense foods were more reliable guarantees for health than medical insurance. 'The way that we eat...keeps us healthier, so we're not spending a lot of money on doctors bills...or medicines,' says Eve Honeywell who, aong with her husband, became so passionate about good food that she began farming..." (p. 148.)

And if that's not enough of a humdinger, here's the next page:

"A sound home-based health insurance policy requires living a joyous, fulfilling and consequential life. Indeed, in their research on well-being, Ed Diener and Shigehiro Oishi have found that positive states of well-being correlated with better physical health." (p. 149.)

This is the radical homemaking answer to health care and the need for health insurance? Healthy food and a positive attitude? Well, let me just say, as someone who ate totally healthy food the first 18 years of her life, and whose extended family all eats healthy food, um....fuck that. I'm pretty sure my nutrition and attitude didn't have a whole lot to do with my huge old ovarian cyst that required major (expensive) surgery, and I know it doesn't have a lot to do with some other health issues in my family, even though we are basically healthy people.

Although, as you can tell, I probably don't have the required positive attitude that makes it possible to live without health insurance.

Anyway. Once I saw that was the homemakers' answer to health insurance, I rather gave up on taking this book seriously. But I did read the whole thing, and I think the author did put in quite a bit of work doing a lot of personal interviews. So my question remains: has anyone read a good book about trying to live a slightly different lifestyle, but one which still recognizes the absolute necessity of having health insurance in America today?

Howyeh, Jimmy?

The Guts
by Roddy Doyle

Oh, Roddy Doyle. Even when you're phoning it in you do nice work.

As mentioned a while ago, I recently blew through Roddy Doyle's new novel The Guts. In it, he revisits characters he first introduced in his novel The Commitments. I've never actually read that book, but I've seen the movie roughly a million times.

A brief interlude here, to describe my relationship with movies: When I love a movie, I LOVE a movie. It is really not hyperbole to say that I have seen The Commitments about a million times. I was obsessed with it in high school and college. I owned both the soundtracks. I pretty much know it by heart, which scares Mr. CR, but not as much as the fact that I also still know Top Gun by heart. (Don't ask. I was YOUNG when I first watched that movie.)

Of course Doyle's books get made into movies, because they are largely written in dialogue and they feature fantastic characters and relationships. Take this conversation between Jimmy and his dad, to open the book, when his dad asks about Facebook:

"His da had a laptop at home. He knew how to google. He'd booked flights online. He'd backed a few horses, although he preferred the walk to the bookie's. He'd bought a second-hand book online, about Dublin During the War of Independence. He'd nearly bought an apartment in Turkey but that had been a bit of an accident...But the point was, his da knew his way around the internet. So Jimmy didn't know why he was pretending to be completely thick.

--Why d'yeh want to know? he asked.

--Ah, for fuck sake, said his da.--Every time I ask a fuckin' question.

--What's wrong with yeh?

--I ask a fuckin' question and some cunt says why d'yeh want to know.

--You're askin' the wrong cunts, said Jimmy." p. 3.

Now that I think of it, you might also want to stay away if you don't like profanity.

Jimmy has grown up: he has a wife, four kids, an online music business (that he founded and sold, but at which he still works), and, as is revealed pretty early on, cancer. So throughout the book he tries to balance all of the above, while going through cancer treatment. But the cancer isn't really the story--Jimmy (and the rest of the characters) are. At one point I was invested enough in him that when he did something that annoyed me in the middle of the book, I felt personally affronted, like Jimmy is someone I actually know.

Other reviewers have not been overly positive* about this book. But I enjoyed it. It was fun to revisit the world of The Commitments. And it was fun to care enough about any character that I wished I could give him a slap upside the head when he was being an idiot.

*By the way, look at this review just to see the UK cover of the book, which is a million times better than the American one.

Short chapters are my kryptonite.

Well, I may be using the word wrong. I've never actually seen any of the Superman movies or read the comics (although I do own the soundtrack from the TV show Smallville). What I mean is, I'll get sucked into almost any book if it offers short chapters, even if I'm not enjoying the book or the subject matter that much. Because I seem to be powerless against them, short chapters are my kryptonite.

Glitter and Glue
by Kelly Corrigan

The Short Chapter Lure most recently got me to page 136 of Kelly Corrigan's latest memoir, Glitter and Glue. Corrigan is the author of the memoir The Middle Place, which was a rather surprise big bestseller. I never got around to reading that one, so when I saw this new memoir by Corrigan, I thought I'd give her a try. In The Middle Place, she laid bare her own struggle against cancer and her relationship with her father; in this book, she writes about her time working as a nanny in an Australian family with two children (in a household where the children's mother had recently died from cancer) and how her experiences there made her re-evaluate her (often contentious) relationship with her own mother.

In retrospect, I should have known this wasn't going to be a book for me when I read this: "That schedule left all unpleasant tasks to my mom, who liked to point out, Your father's the glitter but I'm the glue." (p. 47.) Now, I understand all the unpleasant tasks being left to Mom. But saying things like "your father's the glitter but I'm the glue"? Yeah, no. In the 100+ pages I read, I did get the picture that Mom Corrigan was a formidable and surprisingly funny woman and mother, but I just can't imagine any of the mothers I know saying anything like that.* But: as previously noted? Short chapters. So even when the book wasn't setting me on fire I just kept on going, really feeling like I was getting somewhere, because every 3-5 pages I got a new chapter.

It's not a bad memoir. Corrigan's a serviceable writer and keeps the story going nicely, and her story is not without insights, like: "But now I see there's no such thing as a woman, one woman. There are dozens inside every one of them. I probably should've figured this out sooner, but what child can see the women inside her mom, what with all that Motherness blocking out everything else?" (p. 88.)

But somewhere in the middle I thought, am I only reading this because I feel like I'm flying through its short chapters? Am I really enjoying it? And the answers to those questions were "yes" and "no," so I'm going to read the last ten pages or so for closure and then take it back to the library.

Have a happy weekend, all.

*In my family we're more apt to say less poetic and more pragmatic things, like "Thank God spring is here so I can get that man into the garden and out of the house."

Drawing attention to the comments.

Many apologies, first off, for the blog not being available for the last few days. TypePad (the service I use to host Citizen Reader) was the victim of a DDoS attack. Or, as I told a friend, I'm sure that whatever happened, my personal information has been compromised yet again. Between that and using my Target card, I've pretty much given up on the idea that I WON'T have my identity stolen within the next year.

During that time, my good friend RickLibrarian commented on my last post about the LibraryReads list, and it was a really good comment. So I just wanted to draw your attention to his thoughts on that list.

Also: my friend Venta let me know that Matt Taibbi was also on The Bill Maher Show. Check out the clip. Thanks to Rick and Venta!!

Another reading list that annoys me.

I have a complicated relationship with book lists.

On the one hand, who doesn't enjoy a good list of books? (Or should I say a list of good books?) As we continue to lose bricks-and-mortar bookstores*, book lists, which sometimes can make the task of finding and choosing interesting reading easier, will become more important as a way to narrow our reading choices.

So why am I usually more annoyed with book lists than not?

Well, for one thing, I hate book lists that are hazy in purpose. Two cases of such lazy listing are lists of "sure bet" books (books which everyone is sure to like, supposedly) and "nonfiction that reads like fiction." The former annoys me because I firmly believe that every book out there has its hater (which is usually me; the sort of innocuous, blandly positive, pollyanna-ish titles that inevitably show up on such lists are books that I usually hate) and the latter bugs me because it seems to assume that readers will only enjoy nonfiction if it provides the same reading experience as does fiction.

I know. I spend WAY too much time thinking about books and book lists. I am nerdy. We know this. Moving along.

So the latest book list to really chap my hide is the "LibraryReads" list. This new list has been widely touted in library circles--no surprise, as it is compiled by librarians. It's meant to give librarians a chance to become book "tastemakers," and to drive word-of-mouth recommendations for new books. (You can read more about the list, and how it's created, at the LibraryReads website.) So what is my problem?

Well, each month for the last three months, the list has included only one nonfiction title.** And that is not really surprising; the list (according to the site's FAQ) is compiled in a straightforward manner, with librarians nominating their favorite new books and the ten books getting the most nominations being included. And, I may be wrong about this, but I think librarians are known for preferring to read fiction over nonfiction, so it's actually a bit surprising that ANY nonfiction is represented.

And in the end, that's what I find really disappointing about these lists. You know that image that people have of librarians, that they are all middle-aged ladies with a shushing complex and knitting habits who love nothing more than a soothing cup of tea and a nice gentle read? Well, for the most part, these lists look a lot like they were chosen by readers who fit that stereotype. I'm sure they're very nice readers, and even better librarians, but they just haven't come up with anything very noteworthy in the way of book lists.

*The rise of ebooks will make book lists more important too. Browsing actual physical collections of books can be the easiest way to find something to read, but that doesn't really work when searching for ebooks.

 **And, frankly? The fiction recommendations on the list haven't been setting me on fire either.

It's probably a good thing time is finite.

Because if I had infinite time, I would definitely have to read Jeremy Scahill's huge brick of a book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. However, because it clocks in at 642 pages (of which 521 are text; the rest is notes and index) and because I am chronically short on time, I will have to return it to the library after only making it to page 21. What I read, however, I liked:

"This is a story about how the United States came to embrace assassination as a central part of its national security policy. It is also a story about the consequences of that decision for people in scores of countries across the globe and for the future of American democracy...

This book tells the story of the expansion of covert US wars, the abuse of executive privilege and state secrets, the embrace of unaccountable elite military units that answer only to the White House." (p. xxiii.)

Now THAT, my friends, along with about one more page of text, is how you write an introduction (although here it is called "a note to the reader"). Short, meaty, to the point, with well-constructed sentences. And you don't have to read much farther to learn shocking things about what our government considers acceptable in terms of assassinations--of U.S. citizens, mind you.

As regards the subject matter itself, is this book bound to be depressing as hell? Well, sure. What isn't, these days? But it is also bound to be a cracking good read, and a fast one, for all its five hundred pages. As soon as we win the lottery and I can hire cleaning people and nannies, this is the first book I'm checking out (checking out? hell, BUYING, as long as I've won the lottery).

A disappointing YA read.

The Giver
by Lois Lowry

When I worked in the public library, I always felt I should do a better job of reading and suggesting kids' and YA fiction titles. Every time I shelved Lois Lowry's novel The Giver, for instance, I thought, I should read this. The book was a Newbery award winner (in addition to winning many other awards)*, it got checked out a lot, and it was even a bit controversial.

But yet? I just never got around to reading it.

So when I came across the trailer for the forthcoming movie, I thought, this is it. It is time to start reading some kids' and YA "classics" so I know what CRjr and CR3 will be reading soon. So I checked it out.

And I was super disappointed.

Yeah, the story was compelling enough. Eleven-year-old Jonas lives in a futuristic society in which the community has found ways to keep from feeling much of anything, valuing "Sameness" and tranquility over the messier human emotions of anger, passion, and love (to name just a few). But of course, that tranquil surface belies not-so-tranquil things happening underneath, as Jonas starts to learn after he is chosen to be the community's next "Receiver," or repository of the community's memories from before the "Sameness."

But I was really, really disappointed by the ending. And there were several small plot points along the way that just seemed like lazy writing to me.** And yes, I was not surprised by most of the unpleasant secrets of the society, because I'm an old cynical lady (not an impressionable young YA) and because I've read a lot of dystopian fiction and none of it differs all that much. But still. I was underwhelmed.

*Don't read the summary of this book at its Wikipedia page if you don't want to read any spoilers.

**I'll try not to give away too much, but at one point the main character hides himself from heat-seeking radar (or whatever) by recalling his memory of "cold." Um, I don't think that's how that works. And that just seemed lazy to me in a work that is considered "science" fiction.

William Langewiesche alert.

I was listening to Marketplace* on NPR last night while I fed CR3 some baby cereal (about which he wasn't all that thrilled, truthfully) when suddenly, in the middle of an interview, I thought, this guy has a fantastic voice. And then I listened a bit more closely, and I thought, this is a really interesting story. And then, out of nowhere, a little bell went off in my head:

William Langewiesche.

And that's exactly who it was. Evidently all is not lost here; I still have my William Langewiesche radar. The story was about a huge employer, G4S, that provides mercenary soldiers to the UN and many other organizations across the world. You can read his entire article on the subject here.**

*I love Marketplace so, so much. I always learn something interesting. I don't get to listen to it every night--it's only fair if the boys get to pick what they want sometimes, and both CRjr's and Mr. CR's mealtime tastes run to music instead of NPR.

**I'm linking to this even though I haven't yet read it, although I hope to rectify that this weekend.

Skinny Review Week: How They Croaked

Title: How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous

What's it all about, briefly? This is a fun, short book (with lots of illustrations) about how a lot of history's most famous people died. The stories here describe the "awful ends of the awfully famous," including Julius Caesar, Elizabeth I, George Washington, Charles Darwin, and many others. This is a book meant for young readers, so the text is simple. I actually got it from my sister, who said her kids loved reading it. She also asked me for suggestions for other such "tweeny" nonfiction reads, which I never got back to her on. (Sorry about that, sis.) For one thing, normally I would have just gone to the shelf of my local library and browsed for her, but that's harder with the two kids; and for another, I have always believed that nonfiction for kids is best found along subject lines more so than author- or writing style-lines. By that I mean there aren't as many big "name" authors of YA or tween nonfiction that I am aware of, and that kids are usually pretty handy at finding nonfiction they want to read based on subjects they are interested in.*

Representative Quote: "On the morning of December 14, 1799, [George] Washington woke up boiling hot and gasping for air. Martha and Tobias Lear, his secretary, immediately sent for the doctor--which was harder than it sounds since they were seventy-five years shy of having a phone and a hundred years short of having a car parked out front. Sending for the doctor meant someone had to hop on a horse and gallop over dirt roads to Alexandria, eight miles away, where Dr. Craik lived." (p. 85.)

The Skinny: A fun read, for kids and adults alike. Always ask what your kids and nieces and nephews are reading--you might find something good for yourself. (Or something helpful for when your library patrons ask for juvenile nonfiction.)

*CRjr is a perfect example of this. Right now he is fascinated with flags, and has a Flags of the World book at home that has kept him occupied for, I'm not kidding, hours. He can't read but we've gone through and said a lot of the country names with him, so now he runs around the house saying "Mali! Guinea! Guinea-Bissau! Liberia!" It's beyond awesome.

Skinny Review Week: All Joy and No Fun

Title: All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood

What's it all about, briefly? Senior explores, basically, how having children may be a recipe for fulfillment (sometimes), but it is certainly no shortcut to happiness. She emphatically puts the focus on how parenting affects the parents, which was kind of a welcome change in a book about parenting, to tell you the truth. Early chapters focus on baby- and toddler-raising and issues like sleep deprivation, while later chapters explore the pressures parents are under when their children are in school and are teenagers. Throughout she considers the effect of children on parents' self-perception, work, and relationships (to mention just a few).

Representative quote: "Men and women may, on average, work roughly the same number of hours each day, once all kinds of labor are taken into account. But women, on average, still devote nearly twice as much time to 'family care'--housework, child care, shopping, chauffeuring--as men. So during the weekends, say, when both mothers and fathers are home together, it doesn't look to the mothers like their husbands are evenly sharing the load. It looks like their husbands are doing a lot less. (Indeed, in another analysis of those 1,540 hours of video data, researchers found that a father in a room by himself was the 'person-space configuration observed most frequently.'" (p. 56.)

The Skinny: Worth a read, for the different focus alone. Senior has a pretty nice, streamlined writing style that made this a quick read, and she draws on many interesting sources (scientific studies, personal interviews, books and articles).

Don't have time to read the whole book? You can try Senior's New York Magazine article on the same subject.