By Susan Taylor
Happy New Year! With the post-holiday glow rapidly fading, it is back to life as usual. Reading is an excellent (and inexpensive) way to improve your mood. This month I have one non-fiction and one novel sure to perk you up.
My favorite recent book by far is Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life by Jenna Woginrich. Given today’s economy, becoming more self-sufficient and less dependent on imported manufactured goods makes a lot of sense. That said, I am the least likely person I know to move to a farm and become a survivalist; city life suits me just fine! And yet, Jenna Woginrich makes her homesteading life sound almost doable, even for a committed urbanite such as myself. While living in a city and working in an office, Jenna dreamed of leaving consumer culture behind and making a more sustainable life for herself. Before moving out to a farmhouse, her only homesteading skills were basic knitting and soap-making, but when she met her mentor, Diana, at her new office job in Idaho, her do-it-yourself horizons widened considerably.
The book is divided into homesteading topics: raising chickens, practical beekeeping, gardening, cooking, buying secondhand goods, livestock, and for fun, making music. Each chapter includes the story of how Jenna decided to start on that particular adventure, with lots of details on her successes and failures (it turns out baby chicks are not only fragile; they are a tasty snack for your average domesticated dog) and her philosophy of living a more self-sufficient life woven in. Brief how-to blurbs conclude each section, with helpful hints on how to get started for the beginner, whether you are a city slicker or a rural denizen. Made from Scratch concludes with a useful compendium of further resources for readers interested in delving deeper into specific skills. Whether or not you want to live off the grid, this book is an entertaining and inspirational introduction to how anyone, no matter where he or she lives, can become more self-reliant and less a tool of corporate consumerism. Jenna Woginrich will be visiting Market Block Books in Troy on January 24 from 11am-12pm and the Book House from 1:30pm-3pm.
Colleen McCullough, bestselling author of The Thorn Birds, is back this month with a new novel, another in the ever-growing throng of Jane Austen continuations. The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet starts roughly 20 years after the end of Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth and Darcy are unhappily married (a travesty! and one of the quibbles I have with this book) and Mrs. Bennet has just died after 18 years of living quietly in the country with her unmarried daughter, Mary, as her companion. Darcy, her wealthiest brother-in-law, takes charge of Mary’s future. He decrees that Mary will have a small income from soundly invested principles and that she will live with either his or Bingley’s family for the rest of her life. Fortunately for us and the novel, Mary has other ideas. Mary Bennet, younger sister of two beauties and older sister to two flibbertigibbets, has spent the past 18 years caring for her mother, educating herself and yearning for a larger purpose. After her mother’s death, she decides to write a book about the social ills of England. Her inspiration is Argus, a muckraking pseudonymous newspaper reporter whose letters to the Westminster Chronicle thrill her soul. Exposing injustice against the weak and lobbying for reform are her new concerns. Her first step is to convert her investments into a lump sum so she can travel England searching for subjects to write about. Of course, in the interests of plotline, this endeavor cannot go smoothly. Maiden ladies, aged 38, traveling alone through England in the early 19th century were an uncommon sight, and bound to be the target of robbers or worse, as Mary is. When she disappears, her family, together with Argus (whom she met in his real-life identity as the publisher of the Westminster Chronicle) set out to track her down. Many plot twists ensue, some more believable than others. Evil suffers, families reconcile, and naturally, there is a romance with a happy ending. McCullough’s writing style evokes Austen fairly well, and by taking a minor character from Pride and Prejudice, she leaves herself room to change her protagonist’s appearance and character without provoking an outcry from readers. While Mary’s story is entertaining, I wasn’t thrilled by the paths assigned to Jane and Elizabeth; McCullough took too many liberties with their characters and those of their husbands to suit my taste. That is a minor quibble though. Those who enjoy Austen’s novels will relish this tale of a woman’s emancipation in a time when such a thing was almost unheard of. A great winter read!
Susan Taylor has been in the book business, in one aspect or another, since 1982. She currently works at the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza. Stop by the store if you are looking for a good book–she’s read a lot more than she can talk about here!