Saturday, August 3, 2013

Literary Saturday: Homeward Bound, Overbooked and Chosen by God

Books read recently:

Homeward Bound, Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, by Emily Matchar

When I saw this book at the library, I jumped on it. I grew up canning, gardening, sewing and knitting, and I've watched in some bemusement as the weird stuff my family did has become hipster-chic. It was never a lifestyle or a statement when my mother made jam; it was just life. I didn't understand how weird we were until I brought my high school boyfriend for a visit home and he gawped at the quilts, the cottage garden, and the bread rising on the kitchen counter. But now, thrifting is no longer a sign of poverty, people brag about making their own clothes, and Mason jars are used as drinking glasses.

I really enjoyed the way Emily Matchar cobbled together a cultural history of canning, natural foods, baking, blogging, homeschooling and gardening. One of her main arguments is that these trends represent a rejection of government authority and an embrace of individualist, DIY solutions. She's right to a degree, but I just don't buy her conclusion that the new domesticity is the main reason middle-class white women aren't banging down doors on Capitol Hill, trying to get federally subsidized daycare, extended maternity leave, and other family-friendly political reforms passed. She has no numbers back up her thesis. How many would-be career women are leaving their jobs to attachment parents, extended breast feed and homeschool anyway? Is it really a social movement, or is domesticity just a short-term trend?

I think that if the new domesticity has taken off because many people, male and female, are finding white collar labor lacks a sense of realness that constructive domestic labor doesn't. Among other reasons, I knit because, after a day of breaking my brains working on spreadsheets, it's nice to do something physical, tangible, and easily quantifiable. I continue to bake not only because it tastes better, but because my husband really appreciates the food and I like to make him happy. It provides an intangible happiness to our lives that I quite like.

I was disappointed that Matchar didn't talk to any women who never stopped being domestic, because I would have liked to hear both how they view this movement and how they think of their own work around the house. She mentions Mormon mommy-bloggers briefly, but they are hardly the only group that has placed a high value on women tending hearth and home. It would have been nice to hear from more women from traditionally domestic cultures as a counterpoint.


I saw this book in Barnes and Noble and hit the library on the way home to nab it. I spent two years working in the travel industry, but this is the first thing I've ever read about the business as a whole. Elizabeth Becker points out that tourism is one of the world's biggest industries, but it is largely ignored by governments and economists. One billion people took a trip for leisure travel last year, and it's a multi-trillion dollar business, as big a business as oil or banking. None of the destinations I specialized in are covered here, but it was nonetheless fascinating.

Becker looks at how tourism affects the places visited. In Zambia, tourism is one of the best hopes for saving Africa's wildlife, while in Venice, so many people have bought vacation homes that it's almost impossible for actual Venetians to afford their own city. The U.S. government barely has a national tourism office, while in France, laws are passed to ensure that the country retains the rural charm and historic buildings that make it the world's top tourism destination. American cruise companies have their ships fly foreign flags so they can pay their workers $50 a month in wages. The tourism that draws millions to Angkor Wat is also causing the slow destruction of the temple complex, while locals make very little money in exchange. Sex tourism enslaves millions of women, boys and girls around the world.

One of the more depressing takeaways I got from the book is that ethical travel is very, very difficult, and you might as well stay home. That being said, this is a fascinating, illuminating read, and I almost considered buying a copy, and I never do that. Joshua Hammer, who wrote the book I reviewed below, wrote a very good review of the book in the New York Times.

My only pet peeve was that it was clearly edited by someone who was not in travel. Abercrombie and Fitch sells expensive faux-prep clothing; Abercrombie and Kent is a high-end tour operator. Only one of them was running tour programs to a newly-opened China.


I bought a used copy of this book years ago, and it's been kicking around the house ever since. I have a thing for religious memoirs, so when I was craving one, I picked it up. Author Joshua Hammer traces his brother Tuvia's (formerly known as Tony) journey from a Marxist actor to devout Orthodox Jew and father of six.

As I said, I'm kind of obsessed with the "person grows up secular, becomes religious" and "person grows up religious, becomes secular" genre of memoirs. I've noticed that most people who become much more or less devout than their parents had dysfunctional childhoods. It seems few people wake up one day with the revelation that the Torah is the complete word of God and a manual for living. More often, a person is unhappy with their life, and this throws them into a tailspin of questioning everything about their life.

As Hammer traces Tuvia's transformation, he considers how much his brother suffered when their parents divorced, their baby sister died, and both of Tuvia's best friends died, all while he was in high school. Hammer grapples with his brother's decision to so wholly turn his back on modern life, shunning work for religious study, teaching his children Yiddish before English, and generally rejecting his past self. It's a beautifully written book, which reveals as much about Hammer's own difficult childhood as his brother's history. The author swings from blind fury at his brother, to frustration, to finally, a grudging acceptance. It was a fantastic, fast read, and I'm passing it on to a friend.

And once again, I wish they had hired an editor who knew the subject matter better; there were translation and transliteration errors in the Hebrew and Yiddish words. Sloppy, but not the author's fault.


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