New paperbacks about living off the land

By Nora Krug
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A guide to new collections from some of fiction's top authors.

Being raised by back-to-the-land hippies turned Novella Carpenter into a cynic about the pastoral life. When friends tell her they want to move to the country to "split wood, milk goats, and become one with nature, I shake my head," she writes in Farm City (Penguin, $16). For her, bucolic idylls go hand-in-hand with loneliness. But Carpenter, who became a writing student of Michael Pollan's, still yearned for the fruits -- both literal and philosophical -- of an idealized agrarian life. So in 2005 she turned an abandoned lot behind her apartment in Oakland, Calif., into a small farm, complete with honeybees, chickens, ducks, rabbits, turkeys and pigs. "I felt a bit nuts, yes, but I also felt great," she explains.

Readers wary of yet another tome preaching the benefits of eating locally needn't worry: Carpenter's chronicle of urban farming -- a trend she has helped foster with this book and her blog, Ghost Town Farm -- is as much a cautionary tale as a celebration of self-sufficiency. "The garden," she writes, is a "verdant cornucopia on one hand, [and a] rodent-attracting breeding ground on the other." A brief experiment in which Carpenter eats only food from within 100 yards of her home turns her so grumpy, thin and desperate that she uses a corncob mantel display to make cornmeal.

Urban-agrarian tension emerges at almost every turn in this entertaining account, as Carpenter's chickens meander into neighbors' apartments (during the avian flu scare!) and her farm is threatened by various forms of the city's indigenous wildlife: opossums, guard dogs, hungry vagrants, real estate developers. Carpenter rolls with it all, though, pausing only for a moment to appreciate the rigor of her task: "I would never laugh at my parents' hapless experiment again."

When William Powers, an international aid worker, met a successful doctor and tax-resister voluntarily living in a 12-by-12-foot trailer in rural North Carolina, he was both intrigued and disturbed. "The edifice was so slight that, viewed from a certain angle, it seemed as if it might simply vanish," he writes in Twelve by Twelve (New World, $14.95). "To choose to live in anything that small was insane." Tucked amid a permaculture farm ripe with berries, fruit trees and other relatively easy-to-maintain food sources, the doctor's property offered neither electricity nor running water.

Powers, who had recently returned to the United States from Bolivia, was no stranger to ascetic living conditions. But he was burned out and in search of a new mantra. "My creed -- We can learn to live in harmony with each other and nature -- was stressed to the breaking point," he writes. When the doctor asked him to house-sit for 40 days, Powers -- who, at six feet tall, didn't have much head room -- grabbed the opportunity.

His account of this experience offers an enlightening and eloquent (if at times pious) look at the challenges of living off the grid. "Taking five-gallon solar showers, harvesting my own teas, throwing cedar chips into the composting toilet" reminds him that "everything comes from the Earth." Not a profound thought, he admits, "but to once again touch, breathe, and eat this reality feels like reconciliation with a loved one after a long feud."

From our previous reviews:

In Lost in the Meritocracy (Anchor, $14.95), Walter Kirn "throws spit wads at his Ivy League education"; his memoir "recounts the many ways that the American educational rat race betrayed him," despite his achievements, noted Rachel Saslow.

Eugenia Kim captures "the arc of a woman's experience" against the backdrop of early 20th-century Korean history in The Calligrapher's Daughter (Holt, $16). Sybil Steinberg called the novel, much of which is based on the author's mother's life, "a poignant family history."

The Bolter (Vintage, $15.95), by Frances Osborne, is a biography of Lady Idina Sackville, whose husband-leaving tendencies earned her the nickname "the bolter." The book offers a vivid depiction of "the adventuring English upper class" of the 1920s and '30s, according to Carolyn See.

A.J. Jacobs praised In the Land of Invented Languages (Spiegel & Grau, $16), Arika Okrent's survey of artificial tongues such as Esperanto and Klingon. Okrent, he wrote, "is that rare linguist with a gift for lively language."

In Methland (Bloomsbury, $15), Nick Reding traces the methamphetamine epidemic in small-town America, showing how the drug "has taken root in -- and taken hold of -- its soul," according to David Liss.

It's Our Turn to Eat (Harper, $15.99), by Michela Wrong, an account of whistleblower John Githongo's attempts to fight corruption in Kenya, reads "like a John le Carré novel as it traces the cloak-and-dagger maneuverings of Kenya's political bosses," wrote Caroline Elkins.

Krug is The Post's monthly paperback columnist.

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