Thursday, April 19, 2007

There's nothing like wandering around a vast hall full of excitement - books are in the air! Well, truthfully, a library or good bookshop is better, but it is the promise of things to come which I always enjoy at the London Book Fair. Not working at buying and selling them this year meant that I was free to roam at will. I do miss knowing ahead of time what is coming out later in the year - anticipation and delayed gratification do add to the relishing of a new title by a favourite author. So collecting catalogues and chatting with the reps I used to see in the shop was interesting.

However, LBF is changing, and some of the big publishers wall themselves in like Fort Knox, staffing the entrance with folks that eye you with suspicion ("You shall not pass!"). It is always refreshing to pass the smaller publishers, like the charming Snowbooks (whose Emma Barnes coincidentally keeps a delightful publisher blog), a much friendlier lot.

My favourite freebie from the fair is an advance copy from the kind folks at Faber of Barbara Kingsolver's ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE: Our Year of Seasonal Eating. It is not out until July, so there's no information on their website yet, but the blurb from the back of the book reads:
When Barbara Kingsolver and her family move from suburban Arizona to rural Appalachia they set themselves a task: to eat local produce, grow their own or go without, in an effort to live in a way that is better for them and the environment.

This is the story of their first year. They plant vegetables, rear turkeys and get to know their local farming community, overcoming substantial hurdles they face by trying to live a simple life in an "eat now/think later society". Along the way they discover just how compromised our food supply has become and how estranged we have become from the natural processes of the food chain.

Part memoir, part journalistic investigation, and stuffed full of delicious recipes and factual sidebars, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle makes a passionate case for living in a way that is enriching for communities and respectful of the planet.
I thoroughly enjoy this kind of book, increasingly important in today's world as we search out ways to make our lifestyles more sound and forgiving on the environment and those around us.

When I was a child, growing up on a mission station in rural KwaZulu, there wasn't much choice in the matter - we had no electricity, collected rainwater for drinking, pumped water from the river for household pipes, grew vegetables and kept chickens and geese. Town was far away and expensive, and we needed to be more or less self-sustaining. John Seymour's SELF-SUFFICIENCY was our bible and I remember having a (somewhat bizarre, I grant you) fascination with the pictures describing slaughtering animals - but then we did that ourselves too. It seemed like a perfectly normal way to live, but I realize now how incredibly hard my parents worked to keep us all going. But this re-engaging with land, growing your own vegetables, keeping your own animals is receiving a resurgence in interest in the west, which is no bad thing.

A few years ago Leo Hickman was challenged by The Guardian to live a more sustainable lifestyle in London for one year. He wrote about it in the paper and afterwards produced a wonderful book called A LIFE STRIPPED BARE: my year trying to live ethically, describing his experience. I highly recommend it (my own copy is loaned out at the moment so I can't give you a sample). It is funny and thought-provoking, and entirely non-judgemental. What comes across strongly is Hickman's desire to live a healthier lifestyle for his family's sake. He is not prescriptive, but stresses the importance of educating yourself in options available for the life you lead, and then making informed choices that feel comfortable to you, rather than simply accepting the structure of wider society as an insurmountable and overwhelming obstacle to change: engaged living, if you will. It was a funny and poignant book. A companion reference volume A GOOD LIFE: the guide to ethical living covers issues and suppliers in the UK, but read A LIFE STRIPPED BARE first, as it is the bit with soul.

Thanks to Musical Dave for pointing me in the direction of an ongoing urban sustainable living project in New York City. NO IMPACT MAN blogs daily about his family's experiment, with some wonderful, thoughtprovoking and hilarious results. The "comments" are often marvellous as people make suggestions for how to improve his life.

Something we are very interested in ourselves, although my meagre planting this week of the herb patch is such a tiny step. This weekend, it will be purple sprouting broccoli, lettuce and tomatoes going in. I'll let you know about the Kingsolver. In the meantime I'm thinking climbing beans and pumpkins...

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