Would it be too forward of me to tell you that I love you? That I wish I could slip into each of your homes this holiday season and put a little something under the tree, or on your Yule altar, or just set it on your kitchen counter next to your unwashed dishes? If I could, that something would be a good book, something to inspire you, heal you, revive you, or just bring you pleasure this winter. It would be my way of expressing gratitude for your weekly visits.
I’m deeply thankful for all the reading hours you’ve invested in this blog over the season. As I do each year, I am preparing to “go dark” and sign off the blog for the winter so that I can work on my novel and build the new farm store and cafe. But I want to leave you with something to read. There is no greater quiet pleasure during these cold, dark days, in my opinion, than to sit someplace warm and read …read for pleasure, read for new ideas, read for inspiration, read with the kids, read for comfort, read to make some changes. So since I don’t have a sleigh to ride around in while I drop stuff down your chimney, here’s my equivalent — my top book picks for 2015. Some of them came out this year. Some of them have been out for decades. Buy ’em if you want. Add them to your gift list and underline them. Or get them for someone you know, but read ’em yourself first. Or head out to your library.
My 2015 blog season will finish next week, but I wish you the pleasures of reading over the coming months until I join you again in spring.
Yours in a love for words, stories, and ideas,
It was Amanda Palmer and this book that led me to decide to ask for donations on my blog. I’d been deeply moved by Amanda Palmer’s new book, The Art of Asking. In it, Palmer, an indy rock musician, eloquently outlines the act of asking as a potent tool for innovative work. Asking is a form of giving, she argues, a way of engaging your audience in the creative process and building community. She furthers her ideas by showing how the arts are changing. With the internet, the artist is no longer distanced from the rest of the world. She can step outside the fickle realm of corporate selection and endorsement. She is no longer imprisoned by the record label, or isolated by the book publisher, removed from the public by the celebrity status that cordons off a chosen few. She is also no longer denied the joy of contributing her art to society by virtue of the fact that her work may not have commercial appeal. The artist is part of the community, reflecting the angst, joy and energy that goes into building a better world. I took Palmer’s advice, set up a donation link for my readers as an alternative to advertising on my website, and was moved by the support that came forward, by the way I become more connected to my readers, by the stories they shared with me as they gave. This year, this is the book that changed my life and deepened my commitment to my blogging habit.
Ula grabbed this book off the library shelf one day while I was ushering her out in a hurry. Neither she nor I had any idea what it was about. But the girls and I sat down to read it aloud together, and I am so glad we did. The star of this book, pre-teen Hazel Kaplansky, brings to mind Harriet the Spy in her detective interests, but the similarities stop there. The book takes place in a small town in Vermont in 1953, when McCarthyism is terrorizing the country, schools are doing air raid drills, and families are building bomb shelters. Lonely and precocious Hazel, concerned that her own parents aren’t taking adequate precautions, takes it upon herself to improvise her own bomb shelter, then tackles the detective work necessary to root out the Russian Spy that is rumored to have infiltrated the town of Maple Hill. In the process, she finds a true friend, and must explore what it means to be caring, and to combat misunderstandings.
This book was a goldmine for dinner table discussions about the Cold War, the Arms Race, the Korean War, racism, witch hunts, fear mongering, bullying, union busting, and the importance of community in our own identities. I cannot count the number of times we’ve referred back to the history that played out in this story as we’ve listened to the news and gone about our daily lives. It also sparked us to have a lot of conversations about parenting styles (Was Hazel naughty in certain instances? Or was she not getting adequate attention from her parents to discuss her fears?) . Without spoiling any of the plot developments, I can honestly say that these characters are very well developed. It took us a long time to work our way through the story, not because the book was unduly long, but because we kept putting it down to talk. The magic of this story, however, is that it covers a lot of truly frightening ideas, but never once did it frighten my children. The plot remained engaging and friendly, giving them the ability to delve into one of the dark periods of American history, to think deeply, to use the story to think more critically about the world around them, but to remain free of anxiety. That, I believe, represents a powerful accomplishment for a work of children’s literature.
There was so much for our family to love about this book. The story opens with 12-year-old dyslexic Foster and her mother fleeing Memphis while being tailgated by her mom’s abusive ex-boyfriend. They finally lose him somewhere in the night, and wind up in the tiny town of Culpeper, West Virginia, surrounded by a cast of quirky and compelling characters who confront many of the rural travails seen across the country. My daughters begged me to read as much of this story as possible every night, and I was happy to comply. Ula loved it because the main character had to confront the hardships of not being able to read. Saoirse loved it because she finds her way through a troubled age and carves a place for herself in her new community by making use of a tiny airstream kitchen, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a knack for committing recipes to memory. I loved it because it showed both my daughters different paths that strong girls and women can take to make a happy life, and it also gave us lots of opportunities to explore the issue of domestic violence through a highly accessible and enjoyable story. Oh…and the homeschooler in me was really pleased with the discussion guide at the end. It is high time publishers started recognizing that young people love to talk about literature as much as grown-ups do.
Imagine a book that showcases everything we need to teach kids about literature – foreshadowing, metaphor, symbolism, character and plot development, and flashback — in a page-turning thriller that celebrates the power of story telling. This book was just scary enough to have my 8-year-old and 12-year-old screaming “NO! Please please please read more…we’ll do ANYTHING!!!” every time I closed it for the night, but not scary enough to give them nightmares. And wow. Was it a powerful piece of writing. Do. Not. Miss. This. I’m not going to tell you anything more. You just have to get it for yourself and find out what it’s about. This story is fantastic for middle readers, but equally thrilling for grown-ups.
Imagine me: The Radical Homemaker herself….with a house packed with fabric scraps I’m bent on re-purposing, books from floor-to-ceiling, and an imagination for how I can re-use, re-purpose and recycle just about any artifact that comes in the door. Now, imagine a book that advises a person to throw away about 80-90% of the contents of their home. Did I utter invectives to this author as I turned the pages of her tiny tidy little book? Yup. Did it make Bob and me fight? Yup. Did her advice rail against our ecological sensibilities? Yup. But did it help us bring about great change in our lives? Absolutely. We learned to love our objects for the service they granted us, and then we learned to let them go. We’ve learned to recognize the difference between resisting consumption, which is good for the planet, and becoming a hoarder (which makes us think we’re being prudent, but which just makes someone else have to take our crap to the dump at a later date). I think Konmari’s methods are very controversial for those of us who are ecologically minded, but I also think there is a lot we can learn about de-cluttering our lives and our homes. We have not finished the complete program in her book, but we’ve worked through half of it (she says to allow 6 months to complete everything, but I think farmers and radical homemakers need to allow themselves a year or two when the chaos of the growing season is factored in).
From one of my favorite writers comes yet another stunning book. Ben Hewitt, this time in partnership with his wife, Penny, has put together a complete guide to homesteading in the 21st century, detailing their own journey from living in a tent to the first studs of their future walls, to detailed information about soil health and animal husbandry, and outlines of what their days are like, right down to what they’re eating for breakfast, lunch and supper. The photos in the book alone are worth the purchase price, but paired with the prose, this volume is truly both a work of art and a pragmatic guide to the good life. Ben and Penny don’t leave off with how-tos for starting a garden or rotating pastures. They speak about abundance and fear, the philosophy that guides their life choices, examine their finances, and openly share their worries, joys and frustrations. This book is more than a testimony to the validity of a different path. It is an honest guide for maintaining inner peace amidst the chaos that inevitably unfolds for all of us who choose to walk it.
As Saoirse watches me wandering the house and piling up my favorite books from the year, she keeps calling my attention to this book. When I don’t take it from her hand, she finally waves it in front of my face, proclaiming “THIS IS THE BEST BOOK!” So I guess I’d better tell you about it.
I picked this up to read with the girls as we prepared for a family trip to Quebec. I was looking for some historical fiction to help us better understand the culture and history of the region. This book, first published in 1946, is based on the true story of a young woman who, at the age of 14, thwarts a Mohawk attack on her family’s seigneury with only the aid for her two younger brothers, an elderly man, and two soldiers. With inadequate weapons and no military support, she quickly realizes that the key to defending her family’s holdings and protecting the women and children inside the fortress is her ability to outthink her attackers. I was only mildly interested in the story, but Saoirse, who is 12, hung on every word, moved by the protagonist’s bravery and intelligence. She insists on sharing the title with every girl she meets, and assures me that every young woman her age needs to read it.
Think: Radical Homemaker meets Paleo and Bon Appetit in a much cleaner kitchen. This is a gorgeous book, written to inspire the home cook who is suddenly confronted with the budgetary and culinary challenges of living sustainably with dietary restrictions. Rodgers presents beautifully photographed recipes for each season, and pairs them with welcoming prose that draws readers into a way of life where, even without a farm, they can grow much of the food that graces their table. Oh, and she explains how to do that, too. Anyone fortunate enough to get their hands on this book will be mesmerized by the pages, and inspired to bring all the ideas back to their own kitchen and garden.
Many a farmer and radical homemaker have wondered about the possibility of using the home kitchen as a tool for improving their bottom line. Bob and I walked this path ourselves, and as we sought to “do things right,” we found a plethora of poorly organized information on how to establish a legal, profitable, and successful home business. I was delighted to learn someone has finally taken the time to sort the hay from the chaff and organize everything a new entrepreneur needs to know in one place, de-mystifying the process. Kivirist and Ivanko recognize the economic power of small farmers and radical homemakers’ paths in building life-serving economies that allow men and women to honor the needs of their family, the planet and their household finances. With information on legalities, technicalities, and marketing, along with inspirational profiles about those who’ve already met with great success, Homemade for Sale fits these needs perfectly, and will be a welcome addition to any farmer or radical homemaker’s toolbox.
Ok, this book is just plain COOL. The idea it presents — growing nutrient-dense micro-greens in a windowsill year-round — is radical, simple, inexpensive, and doable. Burke brings the revolution for nutrient-dense, sustainable and affordable cuisine to a whole new level, presenting a food production method that will work in the farm kitchen, the ‘burbs, or in a high rise…whether you live in downtown LA, on a Montana ranch, or in a suburb in Portland, Maine. Oh. And, as far as farming goes, this is as close to instant gratification as you can get. You can start eating these micro-greens within a week of buying this book.