Our nonfiction reviewer, Teresa, tends to have much more involved reviews than the rest of us, so we decided to give her her own page!
A People’s Guide to Publishing: Build a Successful, Sustainable, Meaningful, Book Business From the Ground Up by Joe Biel
Do not be put off by the presence of a typo in the book’s title (!) on the cover (!!) and other typos and grammatical errors sprinkled about (there were enough for me to notice but I’ve seen far, far worse examples from much bigger publishers). I refer, naturally, to the completely unnecessary comma inserted between the word ‘Meaningful’ and the word ‘Book’. It’s proof positive of how very difficult it is to make an error-free book; even when, as Joe Biel has, you’ve published plenty of them. Joe Biel owns Microcosm Publishing. He’s been a successful publisher for over twenty years and he knows whereof he speaks.
The typos are not why I gave this book four and a half sparklers; we’ll get to that subject later on.
A People’s Guide to Publishing is a fascinating book, simply packed with information and anecdotes about the publishing business and publishers. It is highly readable and amusing. It took me a long time to read it because I read it aloud to my long-suffering husband over breakfast, day after day after day. When I wasn’t reading it aloud, I was underlining portions of the text for the benefit of our miniscule publishing house (https://peschelpress.com/). I learned a lot. No submissions, please. We’re not there yet.
I now better understand why publishers make some of the ridiculous decisions they do and why traditional publishers have those year-long lag times and why they have some of their cash-flow issues. It’s the structure of the business, it’s the U.S. tax code, and it’s the money. It’s the fact (which so many writers don’t seem to know) that while publishers publish books, they don’t do the actual printing of books. That’s a very different kettle of cats. Publishers are all about acquiring properties from authors (aka annoying but talented cattle) that they think will sell. No publisher who plans on staying in business wants to buy a manuscript that loses money. If the manuscript looks like it will sell (an ‘if’ the size of an iceberg), then Publisher assigns it to marketers, designers, and editors to massage the manuscript into the correct size, layout, and appearance to match good-selling comparisons already in bookstores.
You will notice that marketing comes first. Again, I repeat: if Publisher doesn’t think the book will sell, Publisher will throw it back onto the rubbish bin with all the other rejected manuscripts. It doesn’t matter in the slightest if the manuscript might become a massive worldwide bestseller if only the stars align. That’s a great big if that rarely comes true. Although, as J.K. Rowling will attest, sometimes it does.
Comps (short for comparisons) are something I’d never heard of until I read People’s Guide to Publishing. A comp is what the industry uses to help determine if your manuscript will sell. Publisher looks over the marketplace first, identifying desires waiting to be filled and what’s selling right now. Next, Publisher studies the manuscript, seeing if it fills a hole in the catalog. If you’ve ever wondered why publishers seem to work in unison, this is one of the reasons.
For example. Publisher decides that if cats solving mysteries sell well, then ferrets solving mysteries might sell too. Why would Publisher go out on a speculative limb like this? Publisher has noticed that cats solving mysteries don’t sell quite as well as they used to, meaning the buying public is moving onto something new. Publisher needs to fill this upcoming need but without a huge amount of risk. Thus, Publisher prints one-tenth as many copies of the new title as usual because the population of ferret lovers who read mysteries about ferrets is assumed to be ten percent of the size of the population of cat lovers who read mysteries. Then, Publisher cuts another fifty percent off the initial print run because Publisher isn’t actually sure if ferret lovers as a group know how to read. But they could read voraciously and hope springs eternal and other people might adore ferrets even if they’ve never met one, so Publisher looks at the gaping hole in the marketplace for ferret lovers and goes for it. If the cover and title are appealing and are similar to cats solving mysteries yet still different enough to appeal to ferret lovers too and if the marketing is good and if the book is displayed face-out at the front of the store instead of spine-out in the far back corner and if the seasonal catalog gets looked at by those impossible-to-please bookshop buyers and if Oprah decides she likes ferrets solving mysteries, the stars will align and the book will sell by the thousands and a new genre will be born. That’s a lot of ands.
If Publisher guesses right, the money rolls in. If Publisher guesses wrong, the money flows out in a vast surge of red ink.
Publishers have to make these decisions for every manuscript. Does this book fit into what we already publish? Is there already demand for this type of book? Will this book sell forever or will the fad vanish overnight? Can our marketing people drum up enough interest prior to setting up the print run so we have an idea of how many copies we’ll actually sell? Are we a similar price, size, and look to what’s already out there that is selling? Will the book be different enough to stand out but not different enough to discourage bookshop owners, reviewers, library buyers, and readers?
Then there is the whole issue of actually printing the book. Specialty manufacturers print books. They have a language of their own that Publisher has to learn in order to receive books that meet Publisher’s vision at a cost Publisher is willing to pay. Printers have long waiting times because their presses run continuously. Publisher has to negotiate over size and number of books and then get a slot in Printer’s schedule. Economies of scale mean that Publisher pays a lower price per book (sometimes much lower) for 10,000 copies than for 1,000 copies but 10,000 books take up a lot of warehouse space. Space that has to be paid for. Publisher may not be able to sell all 10,000 copies.
In fact, Publisher rarely does. This leads to the amazing concept of returns. Bookshop Owner takes a chance on Publisher’s new line of ferrets solving mysteries solely because Bookshop Owner knows that she can return the unsold copies for up to a year. No questions asked. Full refund. Publisher gets back thousands of unsold ferrets solving mysteries and they stack up in the warehouse by the pallet load. Decisions have to be made. Remainder them and hope to make back at least the cost of the printing? Or pulp them, thus saving the warehouse fees.
Details like these rarely enter the mind of a writer, yet for Publisher, they are paramount. Or they should be if Publisher would like to stay in business.
So why should you, Writer, care? Because knowing how publishing works can better explain some of the odd decisions such as paltry advances or marketing choices or covers that match top-sellers down to the font spelling out the author’s name or why your 250,000-word manuscript had to be cut down to 100,000 words despite how it mangled the story. It’s also why Publisher won’t buy your Dark Ages Highlander/Zombie romance even though you love writing in that particular area. Dark Ages Highlander/Zombie romances don’t currently sell enough for Publisher to recoup their costs. It’s not personal. It’s just business.
Knowing how publishing operates isn’t just for traditionally published authors. It matters even more for indie writers. If you self-publish your books, you are a publisher. Not just a writer. You are responsible for editing, covers, layout and formatting, pricing, and marketing. Those are all publishing jobs. Cash-flow is just as important for you as it is for one of the big publishing houses. If you aren’t making money, you either subsidize your expensive writing hobby with someone else’s money or you quit writing. Reading A People’s Guide to Publishing will give you a much better understanding of the choices you’ll make along the way.
So let’s talk about why I didn’t give this wonderful book that every writer (and serious reader) should read that last half sparkler. Joe Biel, publisher, doesn’t like indie authors. He confuses indie writing with vanity presses which will print anything if they’re paid. He believes that writers need publishers (despite being annoying but talented cattle) in order to properly fulfill their destinies.
Well. Publishing is his business and he is not going to encourage writers to go it alone. He wouldn’t remain in business very long if all of his writers went indie. He could find new ones, because not every writer wants to be their own publisher. Good publishers do plenty of work for their authors, freeing up their time for creative writing. Not every author is cut out to run a business. Even more authors don’t want to run their own business.
Joe Biel also has a serious issue with print-on-demand. I fully understand his point. Print-on-demand is a much more expensive way of producing trade paperbacks than working with a dedicated printer. However, print-on-demand means you, indie author, only have to store a few books at a time for events. You don’t have to purchase 10,000 copies of each title of your book in order to get the lowest possible price per copy and even more, you don’t have to store those books somewhere. You don’t have to do fulfillment with bookstores across the country. Instead, with print-on-demand, every book ordered is a book that is sold. Your basement is not filled with thousands of copies of your book waiting for a buyer to come along.
If you are an indie author, print-on-demand is the way to go. You pay (extra!) for only the physical copies you need to hand-sell at events. You do not have to warehouse books. You do not have to do fulfillment. You do not make as much money per copy sold either. It’s a trade-off.
My other issue is that A People’s Guide to Publishing does not have an index! It needs an index! Yes, the table of contents is detailed and yes, the book is well laid-out with plenty of subheadings in the text. Nice charts and illustrations, too. Nonetheless, to be most useful, a book like this Needs. An. Index. I have no idea why Joe Biel thought an index wasn’t needed. Maybe his comps for A People’s Guide to Publishing didn’t have one or perhaps, he didn’t think the cost of indexing (a professional subspecialty that publishers contract out) was worth it when he figured out how much A People’s Guide to Publishing would cost to produce versus how much it would earn.
He was wrong. But Joe Biel is right on so many other topics about publishing.
I highly recommend A People’s Guide to Publishing for writers (traditional and indie) and readers who are interested in the publishing business. Most of all, if you want to start a publishing house because of the sad lack of ferrets-solving-mysteries titles, you need this book. Badly. It might save you from bankruptcy. At the very least, you’ll understand what you’re getting into before you start throwing money into holes in the ground with very little hope of a return on investment.
Here are the links:
If you want to purchase the book directly from Microcosm Publishing (since that’s how they make the most money thereby keeping the company afloat): https://microcosmpublishing.com/catalog/books/3663
If you insist on ordering via Amazon (and they’ll take their fair share of the sale price too): https://www.amazon.com/Peoples-Guide-Publishing-Successful-Sustainable/dp/1621062856/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8
If you want to learn more about Joe Biel and Microcosm Publishing (they have a very esoteric line of books you won’t find elsewhere): https://microcosmpublishing.com/
Inside Charlie’s Chocolate Factory: The Complete Story of Willy Wonka, the Golden Ticket, and Roald Dahl’s Most Famous Creation by Lucy Mangan
Nonfiction, movies and literary works
I’ve always liked Roald Dahl’s children’s books. Like Doctor Seuss, he has a wonderful sense of the absurd along with more than a touch of the macabre. Nonetheless, I hadn’t given him much thought recently, especially as my children aged out of reading his books.
So it was a serendipitous moment when I was at the library and spotted the brilliant, dare I say, Oompa-Loompa orange cover of Inside Charlie’s Chocolate Factory beaming at me. What a find, what a treasure, I’d give it more sparklers if I could.
As the title indicates, the book addresses every aspect of the fantabulous novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, originally published way back in 1964. How long ago that was! I was four years old then so I think I’ve always known about Charlie. His story has held up remarkably well, although I can’t say that for many of the children’s novels I read when I was a kid. Tastes change.
The book leads in with an introduction by Sophie Dahl, Roald’s granddaughter and then we get to one delightful, informative, lavishly illustrated chapter after another. I did not know that while Roald was writing the book, he was also dealing with his four-month-old son’s injuries from being hit by a taxi or his daughter’s death at age seven from severe complications of measles. It must have been a much-needed escape to write Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, since the text gives no indication at all of his grief.
There are chapters devoted to adaptations for stage and screen, along with more detail on both movie versions. I had no idea that there are numerous stage versions or that it had been adapted to radio. I only knew about the two movie versions. Even better is a discussion of the four illustrators who left their mark upon the book: Joseph Schindelman, Faith Jaques, Michael Foreman, and Quentin Blake. It is utterly fascinating to see all four illustrators’ versions of the same scene, side-by-side. Each artist’s interpretation is radically different and yet each brings out the joyful lunacy in the text.
As an added bonus, there’s a lengthy discussion of the notorious review written by Eleanor Cameron in The Horn Book Magazine in 1972. Ms. Cameron was a children’s librarian and the author of numerous children’s books. She considered Charlie to be one of the most tasteless books ever written for children; sadistic and phony, and like candy, sweet-tasting and bad for you. She actually compared it (see page 186) to A Clockwork Orange since both books destroy the human spirit. One wonders what she would think of Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series. She didn’t like Oompa-Loompas either (colonialism, don’t you know) which is rich considering her own book The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet and its sequels involve brave, white, ten-year-old boys demonstrating their mental superiority to the benighted inhabitants of said Mushroom Planet and saving the aliens from their enemies. I read those books as a kid, remembered them, and I must admit, I wouldn’t read them today. But I would read Charlie again.
Reading Inside Charlie’s Chocolate Factory inspired my dear husband and me to watch both movies again, one on Friday night and one on Saturday. If you enjoy movies, it’s always interesting to watch the same story retold and see where the director, writer, and actors changed things. The two versions (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory from 1971 and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2005) are very different in tone, styling, emphasis, appearance, how well they portray children and their parents, and most of all, in the two Willy Wonkas. Gene Wilder nailed Willy Wonka. I can’t say the same for Johnny Depp’s version.
This is a terrific book, especially if it inspires you to reread Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or any of Roald Dahl’s other wonderful, loopy books.
Here are the links:
Inside Charlie’s Chocolate Factory by Lucy Mangan: https://www.amazon.com/Inside-Charlies-Chocolate-Factory-Creation/dp/0147513480/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=lucy+mangan+inside+charlie%27s+chocolate+factory&qid=1586898171&s=books&sr=1-1
I will assume you already have a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There are dozens of editions available in every possible format at every library, bookshop, thrift shop, and yard sale.
The movie versions are:
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1972): https://www.amazon.com/Willy-Wonka-Chocolate-Factory-Wilder/dp/B002YNGNG6
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005): https://www.amazon.com/Charlie-Chocolate-Factory-Johnny-Depp/dp/B0012DT9VK
If you would like to read what Eleanor Cameron thinks is acceptable children’s literature (it’s good for you!): https://www.amazon.com/Wonderful-Flight-Mushroom-Planet/dp/0316125407
If you want to read what Eleanor Cameron would most assuredly deem unacceptable children’s literature (it’s bad for you!): https://www.amazon.com/Adventures-Captain-Underpants-Dav-Pilkey/dp/0590846280
Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson
Non-fiction – Information, history of food
One of the few constants across the amazing variety of human culture since the dawn of time is eating. We all eat, sometimes more and sometimes less. What we eat varies wildly depending on location, accessibility, and wealth. Three meals a day — spaced out at regular intervals — is a wonderful, modern invention based on copious supplies of food, available year-round. How else can you enjoy fresh strawberries in December, fresh apples in April, or fresh lettuce in August? Or for that matter, fresh eggs in February. True seasonal eating, is by its very nature, limiting.
So. We all eat. What we choose to eat, how we cook it, and the utensils we use can vary hugely depending on our culture. While none of us would dream of eating without forks today (unless we use chopsticks), somebody had to think of a fork and invent one. Someone had to figure out how to make a container in which to boil water and then make pottage and then cook otherwise inedible grain into gruel. That’s after someone figured out how to make fire reliably and control the flame.
Similarly, someone had to look at that bag of salty snot sitting inside an ashtray and say “hey, that looks delicious. We’ll call them oysters.” Whatever we eat today, wherever we are in the world, someone had to go first, hopefully not poisoning themselves along the way. Over time, our ancestors refined what they ate, how they cooked it, and then they used what and how they ate as cultural markers to say ‘this is us’ and ‘those savages who eat that funny-looking, evil-smelling stuff are not us’.
Thus today, we have an entire world of foods and cooking styles to choose from. We are not limited to what bits are locally available, in season or carefully preserved, that our great-grandmothers ate.
Douglas Adams said it best: “The history of every major galactic civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Enquiry, and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question ‘How can we eat?’, the second by the question ‘Why do we eat?’, and the third by the question ‘Where should we have lunch?’”
Bee Wilson’s book in concerned with all three of those questions. She begins with the evolution of pots and pans. Did you know that a Roman set of cookware isn’t very different from what we use today? I didn’t. An entire chapter is devoted to knives and their use at tables. Ever thought of why table knives are so terribly dull? Because prior to the invention of sets of flatware, every diner used his or her own knife, razor-sharp, and used for other things as well. Table knives were deliberately dull since they weren’t supposed to be used to stab other dinner guests, no matter how much you wanted to. Dull table knives are a safety feature.
Ms. Wilson addresses the use of fire and devotes pages to the English history of roasting just about everything over huge fires. Why did the English specialize in roasting? Because they had an abundance of two things: a huge variety of animals and plenty of wood to burn. Why don’t the Chinese roast everything? Not as many animals and a severe, chronic, unrelenting scarcity of fuel to use for roasting.
How do we measure our ingredients? By weight or by volume? Both have their problems. How do we show our wealth by what we eat? If you’re rich, you eat out of season and you eat things that show you can afford to pay someone to slave in that kitchen for hours. How do we preserve food so it can be eaten out of season? More importantly, how do we preserve food so it can be eaten when there is nothing much available. Any culture that has to deal with winter and agriculture has to manage ‘the thin time’. That’s the season of late winter to early spring when nothing grows and you’re eating whatever you stored up during the bounty of the summer and fall harvests.
You get very hungry during the thin time. That’s why, historically, rich people carried some fat. They could afford to eat when other, poorer people could not. Today, being tanned and scrawny is a sign of wealth and self-control. Scrawniness used to be a sure marker of poverty and being tanned meant you slaved in the fields all day.
Ms. Wilson also goes into some detail on certain, selected kitchen items: rice cookers, mezzalunas, tongs, molds, and the like.
It’s a terrific, readable history of what and why we eat. Its focus is primarily on the Western world, which is understandable since Ms. Wilson is British and not Thai. There are plenty of great, historical details that could be very useful to historical fiction writers. If your opus is set in 16th century Wales, your characters are going to be roasting almost everything they’re eating. 16th century China? Nope, completely different style of cooking and eating and wildly different ingredients.
So why don’t I give this terrific book five sparklers?
It needs pictures. Lots and lots of pictures. Ms. Wilson describes many, many kitchen objects but let’s face it. A picture is worth a thousand words. There are tasteful line drawings scattered here and there in the text. They are not always identified, nor is it always clear how that mysterious object is being used.
This book needs pictures and plenty of them. It is not a cookbook, by the way, so it does not come with recipes. Recipes are easy enough to find but a good picture of the clockwork mechanism on a roasting spit is not that easy to locate.
Other than the lack of pictures (in the next edition, please!), this is a great addition to your reading list. Ms. Wilson has written a number of other books about food and eating so if you like Consider the Fork, you may want to peruse those titles.
Here are the links: https://www.amazon.com/Bee-Wilson/e/B001HD3T5M%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share
Teresa on 31 March 2020
Quilt As-You-Go Made Modern: Fresh Techniques for Busy Quilters by Jera Brandvig
Nonfiction- how to book
I make quilts, although my quilts aren’t sewn like anyone else’s. Technically, they are not even quilts although the finished product looks like a crazy quilt. I’m working out my procedures and eventually will write it up book form and before you ask, it’s not foundation piecing. In the meantime, I read quilting books to see how other authors approach their subject.
Thus, I discovered Jera Brandvig’s first quilting book, Quilt As-You-Go Made Modern. Ms. Brandvig is a quilter, blogger, mom, and fabric designer based in Seattle. I’d never heard of her — no surprise as I don’t follow quilt blogs — but she’s worked out an easy way of making quilts faster than the usual cut out a thousand teensy diamonds and piece them back together.
Her book gives complete instructions on her piecing method and it looks fast. Her piecing style is improvisational, which I happen to like very much. I love the serendipity of piecing a quilt without knowing exactly what the finished product will look like. A quilt kit or explicit directions and fabric choices guarantee a fixed result but that’s boring for me. I like that high-wire act, without a net. I’m willing to risk time, effort, and material to see what I end up with.
You may not.
Being the cheapskate that I am, even if I don’t like my results, I still use the quilt. If it keeps the sleeper warm and it can be successfully washed, any quilt is a success, no matter how jarring the color choices turn out. You’ll never catch me ripping and resewing. If it’s really bad, layer the ugly quilt underneath another, more styling one.
Ms. Brandvig provides a number of techniques to design your own quilts as-you-go from start to finish. Each piecing variation results in a quite different looking quilt, even without taking fabric choices into account. No one else’s quilt will look exactly like yours. If you don’t feel as brave, you can use one of her thirteen projects to test the waters. You really can stop and start these quilts as they’re sewn and quilted a block at a time. Her blocks are manageable in size and can be easily finished in stolen moments and easily set aside when life interrupts. It’s only at the end, when you’ve pieced and quilted all the sections you want that you sew them together into the final, finished, bound quilt.
Ms. Brandvig’s method also lets you use up plenty of scrap from the stash, always an important consideration when your long-suffering spouse gives you the fish-eye when you come home from the fabric store with more gorgeous, must-be-bought cloth because you’ll just regret it forever if you don’t.
Why don’t I award Quilt As-You-Go five sparklers?
Remember that I said I like designing on the fly. I like working without a net. I like interesting pattern and color juxtapositions. I take design risks because I am going to use up that scrap from the stash and I am not going to buy more fabric for any reason. But even so, I try hard to make my quilts look good.
I did not like Ms. Brandvig’s finished quilts. At all.
Her book provides plenty of color photographs of each of her thirteen projects, along with pages of lavishly illustrated techniques to design your own. She has zero color sense nor does she have a designer’s eye based on the copious evidence provided. Her finished quilts are so random, even when she’s using a limited fabric palette. I look at the photographs of Chief Sealth or The Emerald City and I cringe. They should have been better.
I want my asymmetry to be symmetrical and balanced. I want my colors to be evenly dispersed across the quilt surface and not bunched up in one corner as if I threw them there in the dark. If I have a piece of blue hippos wearing spacesuits in the upper-left corner, then by God, I’ll have a corresponding piece of blue hippos wearing spacesuits in the lower-right corner and probably the other two corners as well. I want the observer’s eye to flow across my quilt, spiraling across the surface instead of getting trapped in muddy, unrelated dead ends.
I don’t think that she spends enough time considering what the finished quilt will look like. Even with the limited fabric palette, she sews each block as a one-off. But they are not one-offs. They have to work with each other as a unified whole. Ms. Brandvig would be better served if she sewed up her blocks and then laid them out on the carpet to work out the best arrangement. Then, she could see if she needed to make a few more to square up her design. As it stands now, the individual parts do not add up to a greater whole.
When I make my quilts, I’m always spreading them out on the carpet to see if my design idea is working. I don’t believe Ms. Brandvig ever gave a second look at her quilt designs. She sewed them up, photographed them, and that was that. One and done. First draft material, for you writers out there, without bothering to run spellcheck.
Obviously, you do not have to do this. I wouldn’t. Her method is fast enough that some time could be spent on studying the finished blocks, laying them this way and that, and choosing the most pleasing array. It would not be wasted time.
I like this book. I like her methods. I can easily adapt them to my own color and design sense. I don’t like her finished designs. But you might! This is a good book to add to your quilting library, especially if you want to try something different, fast, unique, and that has a good chance of success if you’re paying attention to your fabric choices and layout.
Here’s Ms. Brandvig’s website if you want to follow her adventures: https://www.quiltingintherain.com/
She’s also got a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/quiltingintherain/
Here’s the book if you want to purchase a copy: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1607059010/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0
Ms. Brandvig wrote a follow-up book called Quilt As-You-Go Made Vintage: 51 Blocks, 9 Projects, 3 Joining Methods if you want to explore her methods further. Here’s the link: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1617454729/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i1
Teresa on 24 March 2020
Mind Your Manors: Tried-and-True British Household Cleaning Tips by Lucy Lethbridge
I’ve always been interested in how people actually live; not just the ones who make the history books. Most people never make the history books. Most people are support staff for history-makers. After all, do you really think that Queen Victoria washed her own laundry or scrubbed her own chamberpot?
She did not. She had servants.
Lucy Lethbridge, our intrepid author, wrote a fascinating, in-depth book a few years back titled Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times. That was a much better book than this one.
Mind Your Manors distills out the first-person reports, the drudgery, the endless scutwork, the attitudes of our betters towards their servants (no modern devices “because we don’t want you being lazy, now do we?”), the resentments, and finally, the slow, forced changes because the servant class found better alternatives. Servants went into great detail on all those subjects. Without that immense attention to detail, Mind Your Manors is a skimpy book.
It also doesn’t contain nearly as many household tips as you would expect from the subtitle. There should be a lot more pictures and diagrams too, along with a bibliography for further reading.
So who is this book for? I’d have to guess someone being introduced for the very first time to the reality of servant life. This same someone doesn’t really care about the immense day-to-day drudgery an English country house requires to keep it clean, properly fed, clothed, and staffed. That someone wants a quick overview and nothing more.
Don’t misunderstand me. Minor Your Manors is an amusing little introduction to the subject; quick and easy and enjoyable to read. Since it doesn’t have a bibliography, the reader cannot explore further. Another tip for you: this book was originally published in Great Britain as Spit and Polish: Old-Fashioned Ways to Banish Dirt, Dust, and Decay so don’t be deceived into thinking Ms. Lethbridge wrote three books on the servant class.
If you are genuinely interested in learning how a mansion is maintained and the lives of the army doing the work, I highly recommend reading Servants instead. My copy is heavily underlined throughout; one amazing tidbit after another. When I was reading it over many breakfasts, I would read passages aloud to my long-suffering husband. I was particularly taken with servants’ memories about their upper-class suffragette employers railing on about the rights of women while completely oblivious to the laboring housemaids who made it possible for them to go out and march for the vote. As with Queen Victoria, those ladies didn’t beat their own carpets or brush down their own clothes or scrub the soot off their light fixtures.
There are none so blind as those who will not see.
Servants provides plenty of raw material for background and even plots for all you writers out there. It comes with an extensive bibliography too, for further education. I would give it five sparklers.
If you’re still interested in Mind Your Manors, get your copy from the library.
If you want a good, involving, genuinely useful resource, get Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times. Here’s the link for purchase since the library won’t like you underlining and making notes in their copy: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0393241092/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0
Teresa on 20 March 2020
Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time by Sarah Ruden
( (I’d give it more if I could)
This is an astonishing book that changed my views of Saint Paul. We all think we know who Saint Paul is. He was touched by God on the road to Damascus, changing him into the great missionary, founding Christian churches all over the Roman world. We think we know how Saint Paul thinks, based on the books he wrote in the Bible.
But do we really?
It’s hard enough to understand an era of history that is still barely within living memory (say, the 1930’s in the United States during the long, slow, grinding run-up to World War II when no one and I mean no one in 1935 had any idea of what they’d be doing seven years later) and is reasonably well-documented in the language we speak today.
How much harder is it to understand the world two thousand years ago, with an enormous language barrier and cultural and behavioral barriers that are even larger. The Greeks and Romans at 1 A.D did not think like us. They didn’t act like us. Their entire social structure was wildly different from ours and not just because it was a world built almost entirely on human and animal muscle.
This was the world of Saint Paul.
Why then, do we think that Saint Paul should have thought like a modern person and fault him when he doesn’t? Judging people of the past by the standards of today is chronocentrism and it gets in the way of understanding better what actually happened as opposed to what we think should have happened if only those unenlightened savages knew better, like we do today.
So meet Sarah Ruden, a classical scholar and a Quaker, who decided she needed to understand Saint Paul better. Fortunately, as a classics scholar, experienced in ancient Greek and classical Latin, she could go to the source materials. Even more interesting, she chose to examine the written records we do have of the world that Saint Paul actually lived in. That is, Ms. Ruden translated all kinds of writing, from Juvenal to Ovid to Petronius (and a host of others) to help us understand a very different world. Then, she uses her translations to explain how Saint Paul was influenced in his writings by the world he lived in.
As an example, why does Saint Paul tell women to cover their hair in church? Because at the time, there were two classes of women: upper-class ladies with wealth and family backing and everyone else. Everyone else means poor women, slaves, and whores. Those categories are not mutually exclusive either. If you were poor and female, you got zero respect of any kind and if some wealthy man wanted you, well, you complied. One of the ways to distinguish upper-class women was they were veiled in public. Poor women didn’t cover their hair.
Covering your hair in church meant that poor prostitutes got treated with respect, almost as though they had the status of upper-class women.
Why did Saint Paul tell women to remain silent in church? The scandal here was not women remaining silent. It was that women were in church in the first place! Again, a very different world, one in which women – unless they were slaves or whores or desperately poor – didn’t normally go out in public to socialize or work. They stayed home. Behind walls and closed doors. Certain public functions were acceptable but not very many. The Romans were more accepting of women in public than the Greeks were, but not by much.
Thus, Saint Paul allows women in a public church at a time when this was shocking. He asks that they remain silent basically as a sop to contemporary mores and get their questions answered afterwards. But he expects them to be there and he expects them to have questions that should be answered. Groundbreaking.
Another fascinating aspect of Ms. Ruden’s book is how nasty so much of the classical writings were. Those Romans didn’t censor themselves. I’m reminded of Catullus #16 which is so viciously obscene that it is still almost never translated into English. I didn’t know that little ditty even existed until a few years ago, when I was looking into Catullus’ poems for another project. In Paul Among the People, Ms. Ruden provides her own translations and she keeps close to the invective-laden spirit of the original writing. She thoughtfully provides an extensive bibliography so you can brush up your Latin and Greek and check for yourself.
Paul Among the People also answered one of those questions I’ve had for years. As we head deeper into a post-Christian world, it becomes harder and harder to understand why Christianity swept the world, moving from an obscure Jewish sect in 32 A.D. to becoming the official religion of Rome as per Constantine in 313 A.D. This took less than three hundred years and during an era when most people never traveled more than a few miles from where they were born. The world at that time had many, many religious sects and movements to choose from.
Why Christianity? Because it offered hope, for the very first time, to huge numbers of people at the very bottom of the social ladder, people who were used to being treated as worth less than dirt. Christianity valued those people, many of them for the first time ever. Christianity and the gospel worked. Prayers were answered by the living Christ as they still are today.
If you are interested in the early church, in Saint Paul, Christianity, or in the classical world, I can’t recommend Paul Among the People enough. It is very readable, lively, and fascinating. Expect to be alternately entertained, horrified, and challenged.
If you’d like to learn more about Sarah Ruden you can visit her website: https://sarahruden.com/
If you’d like to learn more about Paul Among the People: https://www.amazon.com/Paul-Among-People-Reinterpreted-Reimagined/dp/0385522576
If you’d like to read Catullus #16, here’s the original text (get out your unabridged Latin dictionary from graduate school) along with a translation if you didn’t attend graduate school for classical studies: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catullus_16
Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter
Nonfiction – How To
I have a longstanding interest in garbage, recycling, waste management, and sustainability. The culture of unknown civilizations can be deciphered by their garbage heaps. That’s what archeologists are: history’s garbage analysts. What we throw away shows what we use. How we discard objects and their condition demonstrates our wealth. We are the wealthiest society on the face of the earth, ever, and our garbage proves it.
Thus, I was thrilled to discover that Adam Minter had written a new book, Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale. Minter is a longtime business journalist with a special interest in the waste stream, due to coming from a family that owned a scrapyard. I read his previous book Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade with great interest. Since he grew up in a scrapyard, he has a much better feel for what recycling really is as opposed to someone who tosses cans into the bin and never gives them another thought.
We talk about recycling all the time but most of us don’t understand it. Yes, your recycling bin is a harvest point for materials. However, if those harvested materials cost more than virgin materials, recycling doesn’t mean a thing. Cost always wins because manufacturers are primarily concerned about how much they’re about to spend on feedstocks for what they make.
So when do you recycle?
When you’ve done all the other steps.
This is the correct order if you are serious about being sustainable, saving money, reducing your carbon footprint, and saving the environment:
Reduce, reuse, repair, repurpose, recycle.
You recycle last; when there is zero life left in the object.
In Secondhand, Minter takes us around the world (as he did in Junkyard Planet) to see how other people reuse, repair, and repurpose our discards. It can be heartbreaking. He starts with those firms that cleanout other people’s houses. If you’ve ever wondered what to do with your parents’ 3,000 square-foot house packed to the gunwales with stuff (I certainly do), cleanout firms will take care of your problem. Does everything get carefully reused and restored for eager buyers?
Not a chance. Most of what we hold dear isn’t dear to anyone else and it goes straight to the landfill. Even Goodwill can’t sell everything that gets donated and they try, first in the main store and then in their bargain bins. Then it goes to the landfill.
There’s just too much stuff.
Too many clothes, especially poor-quality fast fashion. Too many books. Too many outdated electronics that were never meant to be repaired.
Yet much of this avalanche of stuff can be reused in the third world. Goods we wouldn’t carefully disassemble and rebuild using cannibalized parts such as old TV’s are routinely rebuilt and reused.
Minter explores the secondhand market in the US, Japan, Mexico, Malaysia, and Africa, dispelling myths and wrong ideas along the way. He also proposes a potential solution to the tsunami of stuff: make better stuff that can be repaired.
Yes, as you suspected, plenty of things are designed so they cannot be repaired. I’m looking at you, Apple products. Clothing made to fall apart after four washings with 1/4-inch seam margins and fabric so cheap it can’t be reused. Did you know that lightbulb manufacturers got together in 1926 to enact standards so that lightbulbs failed quicker so they’d sell more? I didn’t. Minter also spends some time discussing why car-seat manufacturers insist that a car-seat is only good for six years and then poof, it expires and will kill your kids. There is actually no proof and no government standards for this position. It’s designed to sell more car-seats.
I could go on and on but you’d be better off reading Secondhand yourself. Then, go back and read his first book, Junkyard Planet, for a look into what actually happens to that scrap paper and those cans you tossed into the recycling bin. Both books will open your eyes to a world you didn’t know existed, quietly humming away as it reuses what you don’t want anymore and makes money doing so.
And after you’re finished reading? And you’d like to make a change in your own life? Reduce, reuse, repair, repurpose, recycle. Buy less stuff, buy better quality stuff so it can be reused (clothing that can be worn more than a few times), repair your stuff (replace those lost buttons and resew those seams), repurpose your stuff so it gains another life (felt that wool sweater and turn it into potholders), and then recycle what’s left.
You can find both of Adam Minter’s books in most libraries or bookstores.
Or, if you want to go online, go to https://www.amazon.com/Secondhand-Travels-Global-Garage-Sale/dp/1635570107/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
For Junkyard Planet: https://www.amazon.com/Junkyard-Planet-Travels-Billion-Dollar-Trash/dp/1608197913
If you’d like to visit Adam Minter’s minimal website: http://shanghaiscrap.com/
The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide by Richard Conniff
If you’ve ever wondered about the habits and mores of the rich, look no further than The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide by Richard Conniff. This is a gossipy, amusing investigation by a long-time science writer who specializes in human and animal behavior.
And boy, oh boy, is it gossipy. Sadly, Mr. Conniff frequently doesn’t reveal the names because of embarrassment to the gossipers or, more likely, the threat of lawsuits. There are amazing stories about the denizens of Palm Beach, the luxury retreats in Aspen, the Hamptons—all those places that mere mortals like me only go to in order to scrub the toilets.
And this would be after I signed a non-disclosure contract prior to donning my rubber gloves and picking up my scrubby because God forbid I should reveal my employer’s total lack of personal hygiene. Or the array of pharmaceuticals in the bathroom or the ahem, astounding array of personal toys in the bedrooms all of which need to be washed. If you doubt me, there are now loads of this kind of photographs online courtesy of Jeffrey Epstein’s death. He can’t sue anymore, making him fair game.
As a named name, here’s a sample anecdote from page 69: Alva Vanderbilt in 1899 owned a “cottage” in Newport, RI. She sponsored the first car race in North America on the lawn. The race was “an obstacle course of dummy policemen, nursemaids, and babies in carriages. Biographer Barbara Goldsmith writes that the driver who killed the fewest innocent bystanders won the race.” DeathRace 1899, folks!
A relative of Alva, Consuelo Vanderbilt, wrote a memoir of her life among the moneyed and titled elite (she was an American heiress married off to the Duke of Marlborough who didn’t like her but he sure loved her multi-million-dollar dowry). She didn’t worry about being sued so her memoirs are apparently quite the read. Our intrepid author quotes her frequently.
The book comes with a marvelous index, so if you’re looking for a specific name, you can go right to Seward L. Johnson numerous pages or the multiple pages devoted to the Getty family or to the Gates family. Make sure you don’t skip the index, or the footnotes either (Wilt Chamberlain among other tidbits). There’s also plenty of anecdotes devoted to Viktor Kozeny who knew rich idiots when he saw them and stole plenty of money from them.
Why did Viktor Kozeny go after the wealthy elite? It wasn’t just because that’s where the money was. It turns out that hitting the financial lottery (by luck or hard work or choosing your parents wisely) does not confer intelligence or common sense. Who could have guessed?
What comes through loud and clear is that Scrooge McDuck types of piles of money does change behavior. The lucky recipient starts to wholeheartedly believe that they are better than the rest of us. That they are superior in every possible way because, well, they must be! Why else would a beneficent providence grant so much money to the Rockefeller clan? Because they deserved it and you didn’t.
I devoured this book, reading large chunks of it aloud over breakfast to my own dear, longsuffering husband. The parallels between monkeys and rich people, warblers and rich people, insects and rich people were all fabulous and funny.
If you’re looking for an amusing read to better explain our elites and their behavior, this is a very good start. If you write about rich people, you’ll get some terrific inspirations from page after page of hijinks and oh-my-God-can-you-believe-this stories. Since the anecdotes are heavily footnoted, you can track them down yourself via the extensive and detailed bibliography. The bibliography – if you omit the biology textbooks – provides even more sources for bad behavior among the wealthy.
What a great read this was. I highly recommend The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide.
Check your library or, if you’re rich, head on over to Amazon and buy your own copy: https://www.amazon.com/Natural-History-Rich-Field-Guide/dp/0393019659/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
If you’d like to see what else Richard Conniff does in his spare time, he’s got a website: https://strangebehaviors.wordpress.com/
Teresa, Dec 2019
Violence: A Writer’s Guide by Rory Miller
This book is excellent. Even if you aren’t a writer, it’s worth a read to get a better understanding of violence in all its forms. If you are a writer, well! What a fabulous resource.
The author, Rory Miller, is a long-time corrections officer, Army vet, and a martial artist. He knows violence and violent people and what violence does to mind and body. He also knows how little reality there is in movie and book violence.
If you’ve ever wondered, like I have, how tiny Scarlett Johannsson (she’s five-foot three-inches tall) could possibly whip a dozen goons into submission, the answer is she can’t. Not ever. No amount of girl power and coolness factor will make the vast majority of women able to tackle and subdue a typical man. Not without a gun, training, plenty of ammo, and probably not even then. It’s amazing how much punishment a motivated crook, fighter, or warrior can endure and keep on fighting.
Rory Miller discusses this currently fashionable idea and how wrong it is.
He covers everything a writer (or anyone else) could want to know: viewpoints of criminals, the elements of an act of violence, the stages of an assault, what violence does to the mind and body; the list goes on and on in sometimes stomach-churning detail.
He doesn’t pull his punches, based on the reality of what he sees in the real world so if reading that a five-foot three woman can’t outfight a group of men gets your knickers in a twist, don’t read this book.
He covers a lot of ground in this book and there’s plenty of online resources in each chapter to see, via the miracle of modern surveillance technology, what actually can happen in a fight when your body armor fails. When the bad guy doesn’t go down with a single shot (hint: most of them don’t). How hard it can be to actually stop someone from fighting. Most of these videos are gruesome and come with warnings. Even MMA bouts don’t accurately convey how fast, brutal, and messy a street fight can be. MMA has rules, such as no fish-hooking (catching your opponent’s open mouth so you tear the cheeks open) or eye-gouging. In a real street fight, those are definite risks. Real street fights and real wars have terrible odors and horrible sounds to go with the bloody visuals, the pain, and even the tang of blood in your mouth.
We’re a violent species. Get over it. We’re violent today; the difference between modern American life and ye bad old days is that we pay the police and lawyers to be violent on our behalf so we don’t have to do that dirty work ourselves.
That said, not being involved in that kind of dirty work means that as writers, we can get our details seriously wrong. Artistic and acrobatic leaps look good in the movies; they don’t work in the real world. Nobody dies ‘instantly’ unless you guillotine them. If a nail-gun to the head won’t stop someone, why would you assume a bullet will? What will kill your villain (or hero) will be sepsis from poorly treated injuries which takes time. Even bleeding out from a slashed artery takes a few minutes. A vein takes longer so don’t mix them up when you write that battle scene.
For myself, I much prefer to stay safe and learn the ins and outs of violence from writers who do have firsthand experience, such as Mr. Miller. This book was tops. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I did not, I will admit, go looking at the gruesome suggested videos online. I don’t need to see someone being shot to death.
So, if you write scenes of violence and you’d like to make sure they’re somewhat more accurate, add Violence: A Writer’s Guide to your reference library.
Here’s Rory Miller’s website so you can learn more about him:
Here’s the book link for purchase (he self-published so you probably can’t get it via the library):
97 Orchard: The Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement by Jane Ziegelman is a valuable addition to your library if you’re interested in how normal people lived in the past. Not the aristocracy. Real people.
Ms. Ziegelman is the director of the Tenement Museum’s culinary center. Her well-researched book covers the lives of five immigrant families, starting with the Glockner family in 1864. Lucas Glockner, a German immigrant, saved his pennies and built the tenement house which his family then lived in. He rented out the rest of the building to everyone else.
The tenement, now a museum, was five stories high, with no running water. Subdivide that building into twenty-two apartments, each about 325 square feet with three rooms, and you can imagine how many people were crammed into this one building.
Yet 97 Orchard was not unique. Plenty of tenements were built in New York City, all similar to this one. Five stories seemed to be the maximum height a building could be, without elevators or pumps to move water up to the top floor.
Tenements were cheap housing, and eventually, if a family could afford better, they’d move on. More light, more space, running water, the shifting ethnic composition of the neighborhood; families moved in and out. Sometimes they moved because they were skipping out on the rent.
There were many more than five families residing at 97 Orchard Street, but the focus on five families lets the author go into depth about the different ethnicities flooding into New York City from 1860 or so on up to the 1930’s, their different eating habits, and their different futures.
These families had a few things in common. They were all desperately poor and they all needed to eat and survive in a strange new world.
After the Glockners and an in-depth discussion of early German immigrants, we meet the Moore family (Irish, utterly destitute, 1869), the Gumpertz family (poor German Jews, 1870), the Rogarshevsky family (destitute Russian Jews, 1908), and the Baldizzi family (poor Sicilians, 1928). Although the author doesn’t tell us, it’s likely that these families, especially the first three, knew each other.
Tenements are crowded. The residents can’t avoid each other, even if they want to.
The author uses each of her chosen five families to describe a much larger picture of immigration, culture clash, foodways, upward mobility, and managing poverty. There are recipes too, although this is not a cookbook. It’s a series of snapshots of a vanished world, one that usually doesn’t get addressed in fiction or history because these snapshots are of normal, poor, working-class families. They didn’t make history. They weren’t famous. They existed and did the best they could, while struggling to ensure their children had a slightly easier time of it.
These people were tough. They had to be. It’s hard for us today to imagine a world in which salt and pepper are considered luxuries. Fortunately, 97 Orchard brings that notion to life.
I really enjoyed reading 97 Orchard. I have a much better picture of the swirling, crammed, dirty, noisy neighborhoods in New York City as it grew by leaps and bounds and immigrants poured in from everywhere else. If you’re interested in the time period (the history of some of the immigrant groups starts earlier than 1864), this is a great resource.
You’ll get a much clearer picture of how people actually ate, day to day, and how hard they worked to get that food, and how grateful they were to have it. There were huge differences between ethnic groups, leading to different outcomes over the years. Eventually though, most people made it up the ladder, at least a rung or two.
What the five families had in common was culture shock. What was normal back home was unavailable or very different in New York City. At one and the same time, there was amazing abundance (if you could afford it) yet you couldn’t find what you were used to eating back home in the old world. Jewish families had the additional burden of having to find food in a strange new world that was kosher.
What you won’t find in 97 Orchard is a discussion of the Chinese (or any other Asian) immigrant experience, African-American, or anyone from Spain, France, Scotland, or any of the other myriad groups that settled in New York City.
Every one of those groups deserves a history of their own.
If you’d like learn more about 97 Orchard Street and you can’t get to New York City to tour the Tenement Museum, here’s their website: https://www.tenement.org/
If you want a copy of the book: https://www.amazon.com/97-Orchard-Immigrant-Families-Tenement/dp/0061288519/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8
The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage: Queen of Pulp Pin-up Art by Stephen D. Korshak with J. David Spurlock
Nonfiction, biography, history
Wow. Just wow. This is a gorgeous, lavishly illustrated history of one of the great, forgotten cover artists of the 1930’s pulp magazines.
Artist Margaret Brundage lived an interesting, challenging life but what she is remembered for today are her pulp magazine covers, mainly for Weird Tales. This history reproduces virtually all of her Weird Tales covers along with covers done for other pulps and a smattering of other art.
If you’ve always believed that magazine covers of the 1930’s were dull because kinky sex didn’t exist way back then (postal regulations don’t you know), you are wrong. Sex has always sold magazines and lurid stories need sexy covers. In 1932, Margaret Brundage, purely by accident, stepped onto the scene with her lush pastel chalk artwork of virtually or entirely naked women being menaced by other virtually naked women, savages and barbarians, demons, evil statues, snakes, and predatory beasts.
The publisher of Oriental Stories was smitten when she walked in one day with her portfolio. Where had she been all his life with her carefully detailed, luminescent-fleshed damsels in distress? He didn’t know until that moment he had been looking for soft-focus, softcore porn to sell magazines. How he got those illustrations past the post office censors and onto newsstands across the country is a mystery.
Leafing through the book is an exercise in saying over and over “Oh my God. Look at this one.” After the initial shock wears off, you’ll be able to see how Weird Tales liked to pair Margaret with Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, Seabury Quinn and a host of other pulp greats. She matched them so well! What would Conan the Barbarian do without terrified naked damsels to rescue? Her cover art for Howard’s story Red Nails is definitely one for the ages.
Nobody illustrated curvaceous flesh like Margaret; sensuous, living bodies captured in that most fragile of mediums, pastel chalk. Her men look good too.
If you need to justify gaping at naughty pictures by reading, there is plenty of text to go along with the full-page illustrations. You’ll find Margaret’s biography, information about the pulp era, the difficulties faced by Weird Tales and the move to New York that damaged Margaret’s career (pastel chalk doesn’t ship well), interviews, even an extensive discussion of the radical politics in 1930’s Chicago. Margaret lived a fascinating life.
If you’re interested in the pulps, Chicago in the 1930’s, or book and magazine covers, this is a terrific resource.
Why do I give this book four sparklers instead of five? I wanted to see more of Margaret Brundage’s art. Unfortunately, chalk pastel is probably the most fragile art medium there is and pulp magazines were ephemera to be read and thrown out. Who knows what Margaret Brundage treasures still lurk in attics, waiting to be rediscovered? She also had a career after Weird Tales left Chicago, but not much of it was reproduced in the book. I understand. The focus was on her pulp magazine covers. Nonetheless, if there was space for radical Chicago politics, there was space for more of her other art.
If you’d like to learn more about Margaret Brundage, here are some places to start.
Meet the Frugalwoods by Elizabeth Willard Thames.
The information contained within the book is critical to everyone’s financial independence journey but the author wasn’t truthful about her own personal finances.
I’ve done a lot of reading about thrift, self-reliance, and financial independence over the last two decades. It’s a subject near and dear to my heart as what could be more interesting than being able to do the work I want to do and not be a slave to some job I hate?
Financial independence is so important to me and my family that I changed how we lived so we too, as a household, could gain some freedom. I’ve established regular ways of doing things so we stay on our track of not spending any money we don’t have to. Despite everything I’ve learned, I still keep an eye out for new books on the subject as you never know when you will learn something new and useful. Also, reading about thrift and financial independence as achieved by other people helps me stay focused.
It’s inspiring. Other people’s hard work reminds me to keep going and that thrift, like physical fitness, has to be maintained.
You don’t get there and then stop, finished forever. Like life, it’s a process and you’ll never, ever be done until you pass onto your reward.
So I was very interested when I discovered Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living by Elizabeth Willard Thames. Naturally, I got the book from the library.
I had never heard of these people before but they, Mr. and Mrs. Frugalwood, live a happy, debt-free, self-sufficient lifestyle on their sixty-six-acre homestead in the woods of Vermont. Mrs. Frugalwood keeps a blog and has since 2014 or so. It details all their adventures in thrift and how this thriftiness enabled them to flee the city (Cambridge, Mass.) and made their current lifestyle possible.
It’s an interesting book, both for what it says and for what it doesn’t say. I fully agree with Mrs. Frugalwood’s basic themes.
Here they are: Nobody cares about your family and its well-being like you do. You may not control the amount of your income, but you can control how you spend it. There are nearly always cheaper alternatives to buying new. Plan for the long haul. Distinguish clearly between needs and wants. Many needs are actually wants in disguise. You need a place to live in, but does it have to be in a special part of town? You need a car for transportation, but does it have to be brand-new? And finally, you can do it, if you really want to and you set your mind to it. But you gotta wanna. Financial freedom won’t drop into your lap without plenty of effort on your part.
This is all 100% true.
Doing all those boring, mundane things such as hanging winter laundry and saying ‘NO’ continuously helped my household so when my husband got laid off, we weren’t thrown into an instant panic. Instead, he became the full-time writer he always wanted to be, and I’m writing too.
Here’s what I didn’t like about the book.
Despite all Mrs. Frugalwood’s self-flagellating discussions of her ‘privilege’, she carefully glosses over the most important privilege she and her husband have. A quick survey of Google shows that they are rich. They may not claim to be rich, but when the median income of a U.S. household in 2017 is about $58,000 and their annual income (based on public records since Mr. Frugalwoods still works for a non-profit and she used to) is over $200,000; well, you do the math.
We’ve never earned more than the median income for our entire household. In fact, it was a happy day when we made a taxable income of $53,000 in 2012. We couldn’t believe we’d broken $50,000. Then my husband got laid off and since then we’ve lived off our savings as we make a go of the writing business. Let me tell you, this would have been impossible except we’d paid off our house and we had zero debt. I’d be standing behind a supermarket cash register right now, instead of writing this review. Even so, we’re burning through our savings and it has been damn difficult to compress our spending still further. Life insurance? Bye-bye! One car for four licensed drivers? That’s us. Free lunch program at school? You bet! Keeping the house at 64 degrees during the winter? Put on a second sweater and quit complaining.
I think very few of us have to spend every nickel that we do; there are always choices. But it is hard and the smaller your income, the harder it becomes to cut back spending still further to save up an emergency fund and to pay off debt. Money is freedom from hassle. Money is a safety net. More money means you have more freedom of action. The closer you live to the bone, the less room you have to make mistakes. If your income is below the median, you already know this and it’s hugely, enormously irritating to have some rich woman tell you to be thrifty and all your dreams will come true and financial freedom is within your grasp.
Don’t misunderstand me. Mrs. Frugalwood isn’t wrong.
But she also isn’t admitting how the lower your income is to start with, the longer it will take for your household to get to financial freedom. She’s also not talking about how you, if you are starting way down on the food chain, may never get there. But you can get closer; closer so you have some money tucked away in an emergency fund to fix the car when the transmission falls out. Closer so you can take an unpaid day off from work when your kid gets sick. Closer so you can afford the upfront price of giant, economy size packages of toilet paper that cost so much less per roll than buying the small packages, just like the giant, economy size jug of laundry soap costs far less per load than those teensy, cheaper bottles cost when you price out what you are really paying per use.
If you look at what she says about how they got to Vermont by their early thirties and look around at your life and wonder why you haven’t been able to save half your income; well, you probably weren’t earning six figures either. Don’t compare yourself to Mrs. Frugalwood. She didn’t start at the start line like the rest of us; she and her husband began their race with a lap already under their belts.
But don’t discount her either. She’s not wrong. You can get closer to your goals by controlling how you handle your income.
It’s still hard to save serious money. Nothing in our culture encourages thrift. Reward yourself! You deserve it! Treat yourself! You’ve heard every one of those messages your entire life (I know I have) and those messages do not encourage staying home to eat frozen pizza and watch a DVD from the library. There are plenty of six-figure income people who live paycheck to paycheck. Unbelievable, I know, but it is true. It takes self-discipline, team effort, and a vision of a better future to say ‘no’ all the time. It’s so much easier and so much more fun to say ‘yes’.
So as for Mrs. Frugalwood’s book: should you read it? Sure, why not. She’s not wrong. However, get your copy from the library (she doesn’t need your money and your tax dollars already paid for that book) and read those one-star reviews online carefully.
The book you should buy is Amy Dacyczyn’s The Complete Tightwad Gazette published way back in 1998. The prices are dated and so is some of the information but Amy’s book is still the best guide to achieving financial freedom I’ve ever found. You can easily find a copy in most libraries or online at abebooks.com starting at $6. She made it possible for my household to get there. Start by reading the success stories at the back of the book if you don’t believe me. Those people made it and you can too.
The other book you should think seriously about is Your Money or Your Life: Nine Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. It’s been revised a few times since its original publication. The edition doesn’t matter since the important information remains the same.
If you want to visit Mrs. Frugalwood’s website go to:
If you want to purchase her book online:
Here’s the link to the book you should buy (Amy Dacyczyn’s):
Or, for more philosophy and less practical how-to: