Two-book review: A couple of farming memoirs to skip


I started reading Acres and Pains by S. J. Perelman this morning after breakfast.

Yay! I thought, another funny city-person-buys-a-farm-and-hilarity-ensues memoir! And so short, too. I can finish before dinner!

Fifty-some pages later though I had given up on it. The writing style (non-stop high-octane early 20th-century hyperbole) is grating after the first few chapters. The joke about giving his wife a shiner was hard to get past. But when he put the same battered spouse in blackface? I was done.

I was reminded of another poor excuse for a funny farm memoir that disappointed me: The Egg and I.


This one was fatally riddled with unchecked hatred for Native peoples.

Skip these both. There are dozens of actually funny, inoffensive books out there in this particular line of memoir. A tiny selection that I have read and enjoyed:

The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball

Growing a Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off the Land by Kurt Timmermeister

Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter

Hit by a Farm: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barn by Catherine Friend

Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life by Jenna Woginrich

— Amanda



Book review: Little, Big by John Crowley

little big

I read this when I was still participating in the 2015 Popsugar Reading Challenge.

I found this book exceptionally hard to follow. Circuitous, convoluted sentences, laden with purple words wend in and out of metaphors that get dragged on for page-long paragraphs. I was perpetually confused as to whether or not what I had read was metaphor or simile or real action or someone’s dream. I felt less like I was reading and more like I was analyzing a highly layered but poorly stratified core sample from an unknown source, and without a microscope.

In high contrast to the incomprehensible nature of most of the “action” and relationships were the embarrassing and obvious tropes in the latter half: the oversexed Latina, POC described as food-colored, the manic pixie girl who teaches the young man to live by leaving him.

Had this book not perfectly fit the requirements of the reading challenge I was doing I would never have read past the first part.

— Amanda

(Very short) Book Review: All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

Image from Goodreads

Nothing in the back cover blurbs or the synopsis inside the front gave me any indication that this book was going to be gritty and harsh. It’s beautifully told, though without a single unnecessary word, and yet very dark. There was a momentum that was more than just suspenseful which compelled me to drag the book around the house with me to read while I cooked and waited for websites to load because I simply couldn’t stay away from the story even though I feared it would turn on me at any moment.

I don’t think I could handle re-reading this book but I’d do some despicable things to be able to write like this!

— Amanda

[NOTE: This review originally appeared on Click through image to view the book’s page on Goodreads.]

Book review: Down a Dark Hall by Lois Duncan

The new cover (L) and the cover I remember from 1993 (R).

The new cover (L) and the cover I remember from 1993 (R).

Here and there, when I have the courage, I have been rereading books I loved when I was a kid.  I reread The Secret Garden (which I might actually love even more now than when I was 8), The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (still great), and Haunted (which was worth the effort to track down). I still have a small to-be-read list. But I also reread Down a Dark Hall, which I checked out from the middle school library about a dozen times in my early teens.

I wasn’t sure whether or not to expect this book to be spooky, since I didn’t remember being at all frightened by it when I first read it in the 6th grade. (Honestly, all I remembered was the headmistress’s “dreamy” son, Jules.) On second reading, more than 20 years later, it is not spooky at all. (Nor is it terribly engaging. All the characters are pretty two-dimensional.)

But I was terribly distracted by the “modernizations.” When my copy came from the library the back warned of “modernized text” and I wondered what that could possibly mean. This book was originally published in 1974. Though that was a little before my time, we spoke modern English then, I’ve heard.

The “modernizations” are revised descriptions of clothing (the bellbottoms I distinctly remember Jules wearing when I was in the 6th grade are now “fitted jeans”) and repetitive mentions of widescreen TVs, cell phones, and internet. Perhaps it would not seem so to a first time reader, but to me these additions seemed to be shoehorned in just as ineffectively as the CGI extras that were inserted into the original Star Wars movies.

My teenaged nieces can navigate Dickens, Hemingway, and Salinger without difficulty, but the publisher thinks they’ll balk at the lack of technology in the 1970s?

— Amanda

Book review: Guidebook to Puget Sound by Byron Fish

Guidebook to Puget SoundNot unlike the last book I read and reviewed, this book was both a ridiculous bargain and a charming read. En route to Village Books in Bellingham (my annual pilgrimage) we stopped at my favorite junk store, Bonnar’s Trading Post, on Chuckanut Drive in Bow. Bonnar sold me a very interesting chapbook/zine sort of thing produced by an organization called the Ecotope Group bursting with technical information, charts, graphs, and building specifications for Pacific Northwestern greenhouses (for 75 cents!) and the book I am reviewing (for 25 cents).

Guidebook to Puget Sound (subtitle: The Water World That the Indians Called Whulge) is a travel guide for daytrippers looking for marine view drives. It breaks up the undulating, crenelated shoreline (which runs anywhere from 1,700-2,200 miles, according to chapter 1) of the inland sea into 8 parts.

Given that this book was written in 1973 not all the information is correct. The SR-16 bridge, for instance, is once again a toll bridge.  At the time the book was written, the bridge that replaced the infamous Galloping Gertie had paid itself off a few years prior.  At this time, though, tolls have been reinstated because a twin bridge has been added to the Tacoma Narrows. Not that I expect anyone to tote this little book around in the digital age with expectations of it being 100% accurate. Even modern-day ebook versions of Lonely Planet guides come with with disclaimers about accuracy.

What is going to keep this book on my shelf (and in my hot little hand when the Volvo and I head toward the big salt water) is A) the tone and B) the local color.

The tone is pleasantly sarcastic. The author, a local boy himself, clearly loves the region, but at the same time remains somewhat less than sentimental about history. Note the scornful use of quotation marks in the opening passage of the foreword:

In the mythology of Europeans there was a belief (later inherited by Americans) that the first tourist of their race who visited any land or waters hitherto unknown to them had “discovered” it, and he was thereby privileged to “name” it in his own language.

Or this reflection on one of my least-favorite former Seattle landmarks:

The downtown waterfront is marred by a two-level viaduct, which, with hindsight, many residents wish had not happened.

Areas that were sleepy and quiet in 1973 may now be bustling and once free parks may now charge fees, but the underlying topography of the Puget Sound shores hasn’t changed. Mr. Fish’s advice on which roads have a pleasant view of the Sound and which hills are nice for a picnic, his still spot-on. With this book I also have the intentional history lessons (the names and dates of settlers and founders and native peoples) and the unintentional history lessons (what the price of camping sites and hot dogs and ferry fares was in 1973, for instance).

And I did learn things I did not know – such as that Chief Sealth is buried in the churchyard of an Episcopal church in Port Gamble, and that “King Clams” are really chopped-up geoducks, and that this area once was home to not one (as I thought) but two anarchist communes.

— Amanda

Book Review: Island in the Sound by Hazel Heckman

Island in the SoundI scored my copy of this book for a dollar at my local library’s Friends of the Library book sale for $1.00. A steal!

This is one of those atmospheric portraits of a place and its idiosyncrasies that wannabe travel buffs like me love to sigh over. It is, in fact, a love letter to a place that, given that this edition was published in 1976, probably doesn’t exist any more. But it the portrait is painted so lovingly and with such detail that, even though I live just 70 miles away from Anderson Island (as the crow flies) I became homesick for my own region.

The people, flora, fauna, history, boats, pets, and buildings of Anderson Island, from its settling to the author’s present day are poetically detailed. We get a strong image of the fog-shrouded little evergreen island with its rocky shores and oddball characters rowing about in the choppy sound or hacking their way through the dense underbrush of bramble, huckleberry, and swamp. It’s cold and it’s damp and it’s a little backward – and the locals aren’t thrilled about visitors – but it sure sounds scenic. And as someone who recently spent a day neck-deep in the huckleberry bushes of the Key Peninsula, just across Drayton Passage, only about a mile away from Anderson Island (as the rowboat plies), I can attest to the accuracy of her physical descriptions of the land.

Not a fast-paced book, but colorful and quietly engaging. A good book to tote on a vacation or to read over coffee or tea on a slow day. A book that has earned itself a permanent home on my bookshelf.

— Amanda

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.

— Amanda