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Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Ultimate Guide to Homesteading Isn't The Ultimate, But It's Darn Close

Some months back I reviewed a book called Deliberate Life: The Ultimate Guide to Homesteading, by Nicole Faires, which I really liked.  I wanted to see more pictures in it, and I wasn't crazy the way that much of the subject matter was introduced as questions, which I just found annoying.  But what I did like about it was that she covered a lot of subjects that other homesteading books didn't, like getting water in the wilderness, disposing of your waste, making tools and farm equipment, how to prepare and sponge flax into linen; useful stuff like that.  Then it turned out it wasn't in print anymore.

So I was delighted when the new publisher, Skyhorse Publishing offered me a copy of the book. I've read other books Skyhorse has published, and I can think of only one that I've read that was pretty good, but the others were pretty lame.  I can't say it's the fault of the authors; Skyhorse seems to publish with stock photography and they splash stuff onto the page in such a way as to be distracting rather than helpful.  And I did want to see more pictures in Ms. Faires book, a picture being worth a thousand words of explanation.  I just don't think Skyhorse gets it.

Ms. Faires's goal for the book was this: if you had nothing and suddenly had to survive in the world by doing everything yourself, what would you need to know?  What if you live in an apartment and suddenly the grocery store was empty? Etc., etc.

The new book is similar to the old book, but it's not as improved as I would have liked to see.  I suspect that is the fault of the publisher, however, rather than the author.  For instance, in the chapter on The Basics, on page 59, the publisher has chosen to take up nearly half the page with a useless photograph of two jacketed individuals purifying water with a portable pump filter (something you have to buy), which teaches the reader nothing, and then devotes one eighth of the page to the author's illustration of a slow sand filter, which one could presumably build oneself.  The next two pages are worse; again, one eighth of page 60 is devoted to the author's illustration of a simple pot still, and a solar still, now reduced to such a scale that you need a magnifying glass to read her labels.  The pot and solar distillers are intended here for the purpose of purifying water, which is pretty important to the homesteader.  And yet on the next page, they've devoted nearly half of the page to another useless photograph, this time of a giant hand plastering a wall.

Honestly, the pictures are the worst thing about this edition. Instead of useful photos showing how to actually get something accomplished, it's as if they looked through a bunch of stock photography and randomly picked stuff out.  It's clear to me that whoever was responsible for choosing the photos had no grasp whatsoever of what the book was about or what the author was intending.  Okay, that's an exaggeration. Not all the photos were useless.  The pictures of various dog breeds were. Useless, I mean. On page 361 was a photograph of antique hand tools.  It was captioned 'The essential hand tools'.  There was not one screwdriver. There was not one pair of pliers. There was no tape measure.  There were, however, several different kinds of wood chisels, a couple of pairs of nippers, several awls, a hint at a hammer and two saws, and lo, and behold, a brace and bit, which admittedly would be essential for drilling holes if you had no electricity. But most of the stuff in this picture was not essential.  Esoteric, yes; essential, no.   The next page devoted half its space to a picture of a simple pocketknife.  It was captioned 'the versatile pocketknife'.  Now to me, a Victorinox Swiss Army knife is a versatile pocketknife, or at least a Leatherman is a versatile pocket tool that has a knife among its tools.  But I can't call a knife that doesn't help me into a bottle of wine versatile.  Call me picky.  I just hate seeing photographs labeled incorrectly- I know better, but what about the poor person who doesn't? On page 382, there are two pictures of different plants labeled hyssop.  The one on top is correct, but I'm pretty sure the one on the bottom is Lady's Mantle, or Alchemilla. Google images appears to corroborate my guess. It seems to me that in the instance of plant identification, you'd pretty much better have your photographs identified correctly, and not getting them correct is pretty inexcusable, especially when getting them wrong could cause real harm to someone.

It's a shame that a better publisher didn't get to Ms. Faires before Skyhorse Publishing did, because the right editor could have made this book a real crackerjack resource.  It's a shame because Ms. Faires has done a really commendable amount of research, with only one exception that I could see, and that was her section on raising rabbits, which I found inadequate.  Rabbits could be a critical food source for homesteaders, and in hard times past, definitely kept the wolf from the door.  But two paragraphs doesn't cover even the basics.  For instance, in her second paragraph, titles 'How do I breed rabbits?', she writes,"the males and females should be kept separately and only put together for breeding for a short time under supervision."  She doesn't mention that it's important to put the doe in with the buck, and not the other way around, for if you put a buck into a doe's cage, she may fend off her territory to the point of killing the buck!  If you only bought one buck (which is all you need, unless you're going commercial) then where would you be?  A really good editor would have fixed this issue, but as it is, this is only one section of the book where I can criticize the author; most of the book is well researched, and there is a lot of good information in it.

At the end of the day, I would still buy this book, but only as  a kind of insurance because of the breadth of oddball information that it contains that could be really handy someday.  Kind of like saving stuff that most folks think of as trash but you know there could be a use for it.  I have a lot of oddball things like that squirreled away and you'd be surprised at how much of it I pull out and use for something else. During the Depression folks saved stuff and found uses for it again, and I think things might be like that again in the future.  And I'll be glad I have large olive oil cans and bits of wire socked away, and I'll be glad that I have this book too, in case I need to look something up. I just really disagree with its title.

I still haven't read the ultimate homesteading guide, but this one comes closer than most.


Maria said...

Nice review Paula (as always from you).
Shame about the pictures in the book! I can understand your aggravation, especially regarding plant ID.

Carolyn said...

I'm glad I stumbled across your blog! It sounds like you are doing what I'd like to do here, the difference though is that I am in a small apartment.
Great book review. Like you, i don't want glossy pictures that don't teach me anything. Truly useful homesteading books are already so hard to find that we need every honest and objective review we can get.
Keep up the good work!

morgaineotm said...

Agree with you. You forgot the big picture of hands knitting - still looking for some words to go with that picture! Still, for someone who thinks they want to homestead, its a great book for what things you want and need to know. Check out the Homesteading Handbook by Abigail R Gehring. Not as comprehensive as the other, but more detail on the subjects she covers

Anonymous said...

I was flipping through this book today on one of my rare visits to a store that sells new books, but didn't have time to go through it in depth, so thanks for the review. The one thing I did notice, though, was the photographs - they seemed to be there just for the sake of being there in a lot of cases, which I don't really find all that useful.