Category Archives: Book Club

Book Review: How to Be a Victorian

Cover of How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life. Written by historian Ruth Goodman. Image from Amazon.com.

I recently finished reading How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman. I really enjoyed it. Goodman devotes a chapter to each major aspect of Victorian life and organizes the book by the time of day, beginning with morning grooming and dressing rituals and ending with evening activities such as bathing and sex.

Goodman provides a ton of great detail, including the results of her own personal experiments with Victorian life (trying period clothing, recipes, chores, etc.). She is careful, too, to compare the widely varying experiences of the wealthy, middle, and poor social classes, as well as the differences between those living in urban London and those in the countryside of England, Ireland, etc.

If you had lived in Victorian London, the odds were that you would be most likely poor, and most likely:

Cold. Coal was expensive and used sparingly, mostly for cooking. Plus, the early Victorians believed that illness was carried via bad odors/air, so homes, workplaces, and schools were left drafty and windows left cracked for ventilation where possible, even in the winter. It was so cold inside buildings that ink would regularly freeze in ink wells. People wore intricate, thick, layered clothing to combat the cold.

In the dark. Again, fuel was expensive. Most people went to bed early for warmth and to avoid burning fuel for light.

Dirty and smelly (in some ways). Victorians were very clean when water was accessible, with regular laundry schedules, daily sponge baths, etc. There were no sewers, however, and the outdoor privies (deep holes dug into the ground and surrounded with sheds) filled up quickly in the overcrowded cities. The poor could not pay to have the privies emptied regularly (a manual process that took place at night by specialized workers), so the overflow would seep into yards, streets, basements, houses, and natural waterways.

Exhausted. The middle and poor classes worked extremely hard, and 12 to 14 hour-days were not uncommon, even for children in the early years of Victoria’s reign. Housekeeping was physically difficult, too, and required hauling water and fuel, washing heavy clothes and linens by hand, copious amounts of sewing, etc.

Sick. Horrific overcrowding, poor sanitation, and poor nutrition made people especially vulnerable to the many (and deadly) infectious diseases of the time period, such as cholera.

Addicted. The popular, heavily advertised health “tonics” and “cures” of the day were made with opium, cocaine, alcohol, and other addictive ingredients. It was easy to become inadvertently addicted. I was sad to learn that many working mothers would dose their children with these tonics to keep them quiet and docile and avoid having to feed them during the busy day. Many of the opiates and other ingredients were appetite-suppressants, though, so the hungry babies wouldn’t eat even when milk and food were finally offered to them.

Malnourished. Fresh fruits and vegetables were difficult to find in the city, plus prevailing thought held that starchy foods such as potatoes and bread were better to eat (especially for children).

Hungry. Many people suffered insufficient caloric intake. The poorest of the poor often found themselves in charity-run workhouses and jail. Records show that some of these residents/inmates received only 80% of the calories they needed each day, so they were slowly starving to death.

Endangered. The jobs of the Victorian period were horrifically dangerous. You could be easily injured, maimed, or killed while working in factories, mines, railroads, etc. In addition, food, medicine, and other goods were not inspected or regulated in any way, and unscrupulous vendors would sell goods adulterated with chalk or brick dust (or worse) to stretch profits.

Crowded. The poorest London Victorians crammed into rundown tenement houses. If I remember correctly, Goodman reported that some houses had only 1 privy for every 80 people.

Of course, those in the middle and upper classes were more comfortable and healthy than the poor, but even they still suffered from illness, addiction, and malnutrition.

Ugh. It all sounds miserable.

I was particularly surprised to read that Goodman tried wearing corsets in her experiments and really liked them. If the corset wasn’t laced too tightly, Goodman found that it actually provided welcome back and torso support for the hard physical work of Victorian womanhood.

I was also struck by Goodman’s details regarding household laundry routines. Laundry was incredibly hard physical work and quite time-consuming. Goodman concludes that:

My own historical laundry experiences have led me to see the powered washing machine as one of the great bulwarks of women’s liberation, an invention that can sit alongside contraception and the vote in the direct impact it has had on changing women’s lives.

Wow. That’s a big, bold statement, but it makes perfect sense when you consider the tremendous labor of the many women who could not afford to send out their family’s clothes and linens to the commercial laundries.

The only thing I feel this book lacked was a chapter on religion/spirituality that could have touched on the elaborate Victorian funeral and mourning customs, etc. There are many other books on the subject, of course, but I would have liked to hear Goodman’s thoughtful take on it.

It was especially timely to read How to Be a Victorian over Thanksgiving week, because it reminded me of the hard work and sacrifices made by our ancestors to give us the more comfortable, healthy lives that we live today. Thank goodness for their fights for worker rights, consumer rights, voting rights, etc. Our lives would be much, much different without them.

— Angela

Gird Your Loins

As good as gold. Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump.

Lately, it seems like every day the news breaks that another powerful person in Hollywood or the US government has allegedly exploited his position to abuse, harass, and/or attack one or more junior or less-powerful colleagues or citizens (e.g., Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Roy Moore, Kevin Spacey, George H. W. Bush, etc.).

In the wake of these non-stop allegations, there’s a meme making the rounds on social media that almost made my heart stop. It shows a photo of Tom Hanks, with a news headline: “Another Woman Comes Forward to Accuse Tom Hanks of Being a Nice Guy.”

Did your heart skip a beat as you began to read that faux headline? Mine did, and my mind began to race: Noooo! Not Tom Hanks! Is there anyone good left in the world? Oh, wait. It’s a joke. Whew.

The meme reminded me, though, of the many times I’ve been disappointed when I learned more about many of my favorite authors, musical artists, etc. When you’ve repeatedly found solace or advice in someone’s books, songs, or rhetoric, it can sometimes be upsetting to learn that s/he is just as morally flawed as the rest of us (or more so?!). And yes, perhaps the artist or leader is wise and helpful because of those very flaws and the lessons s/he has learned from them…

But sometimes you just want a hero, you know? Someone steady and good and wise, someone to admire and aspire to. Someone with no violent skeletons in the closet, someone who hasn’t humiliated or exploited another, and someone who is solid gold, not silver plate. Or just someone without gross hypocrisy, you know? But maybe this is too high a standard.

For example, I recently read Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol as part of my literary Advent calendar. Dickens was a moral compass of Victorian England. His stories trumpeted the value of honesty, hard work, and charity, among other virtues.

So I was surprised to read, recently, that Dickens kept a mistress for decades (I can’t find the link now, of course, but just Google “Nelly Ternan” for some sources). After his wife bore him several children, family life began to bore Dickens, and he found diversion and companionship in a young actress 27 years his junior. The mistress was kept very secretly, because Dickens knew that his whole career would crumble if the news got out.

Sigh.

And you don’t have to dig deeply to find dirt on other favorite authors. Hemingway left his first wife, Hadley, just as his career began to take off, after she had stuck by him and supported him (emotionally, financially, and domestically) for many poverty-stricken years. Author Joyce Maynard relates a creepy, strange relationship with a much older J.D. Salinger in her memoir At Home in the World. There’s strong evidence that Fitzgerald stole from and suppressed the art of his wife, Zelda. It’s been reported that Faulkner once cruelly told his daughter that “No one remembers Shakespeare’s children.” (But I’ve never liked Faulkner. He seems like an ass. Didn’t Faulkner pretend to have a war wound? Or was that Hemingway?) These are just a few examples of the many shady things these authors have done in servitude to fame, success, and/or alcoholism.

So I try to tread carefully now when it comes to learning more about my heroes. I read a Tom Petty biography a few weeks ago, eager for more of Petty after his sudden death. Well, perhaps “read” is a strong word. I only skimmed the book quickly, because after the first few chapters I 1) became bored with the many dull business details of a long commercial music career, and 2) began to fear that I would learn something about Petty that might make me like him less.

I don’t recall any great personal or moral failings in the Petty biography, but maybe I just missed them in my haste and fear? He kicked a heroin addiction, but that’s a good thing in my book. The long details about contract negotiations and business meetings did threaten to take some of the magic out the music for me, however, so I flitted through them.

I just want to imagine Petty jamming out in a garage with his band, or writing poetry in a ragged spiral notebook while strumming a guitar, maybe with bare feet and his long, lank hair hanging in his face…not Petty arguing with bandmates or meeting with record executives. Yes, I want to know more about Tom Petty, which is why I read the book, but please spare me the gory details.

It’s not realistic or fair, but sometimes I just want magic, purity, and divinity.

So, a warning: When you scratch away the surface, be prepared for what you might find.

Have you ever found out something about a hero that disappointed you, or made you like them less?

–Angela

A Literary Advent Calendar

Illustrated by Haddon Sundblom for the Coca-Cola Company.

I started reading Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. So far, Ol’ Scrooge has been visited by the ghost of his deceased business partner, Marley, and warned that he must change his selfish ways. I don’t believe I’ve ever read the actual story before; I’ve just seen a bazillion movie and cartoon renditions. The prose isn’t difficult to understand and it’s pretty spare for Victorian literature. The descriptions of the hauntings are surprisingly spooky and creepy. Dickens is always good for hopelessness and despair, I suppose.

Anyway, I cracked open A Christmas Carol because, as I mentioned in this post, I like the idea of organizing a literary Advent calendar for yourself or your family. It doesn’t have to be fancy: just a list of favorite Christmas- or winter-related passages to read for a few minutes every day in December leading up to the 25th. It would be fun to read your daily bit with your morning coffee or before you drift off to sleep.

It might seem early, but now is probably the best time to make your list and begin to gather your material from the library, your bookshelves, etc. I’ve included some ideas below. Some of these are novels or essay collections and some are individual stories, chapters, picture books, or poems. The longer books can be divided across multiple days, of course:

  • A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (free Kindle book)
  • Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris
  • The American Girl historical character Christmas books: A Surprise for Felicity/Kirsten/Addy/Samantha/Molly, etc.
  • The Christmas chapters in Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary
  • The Christmas chapters in each Laura Ingalls Wilder book (Little House on the Prairie, The Long Winter, etc.). Here’s a handy compilation of many of the Christmas chapters.
  • “The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Andersen (text can be found online)
  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
  • The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
  • “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry
  • The first few chapters of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (free Kindle book)
  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
  • The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (did you see these stamps?!)
  • “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore (text can be found online)
  • The Bible (Book of Luke, etc. describing the birth of Jesus)

There are so many other Christmas books and stories, too, especially for kids. Almost every book/television/toy series has one or more Christmas books: Bernstein Bears, Little Critter, Pete the Cat, Llama Llama, Sesame Street, Richard Scarry, etc.

Would you consider creating your own literary Advent calendar? What passages would you include?

–Angela

Literary Gifts

Beezus helps her beloved Aunt Beatrice bring in packages from her cool car. Illustration by Louis Darling in Beverly Cleary’s Beezus and Ramona.

I found a charming blog called A Lovely Inconsequence via Fiona Ferris’s How to Be Chic blog. Donna MacDonald is the writer behind A Lovely Inconsequence and she has a post or two that discusses how much fun it is to read about gift-giving in favorite old books.

I never thought about it, but I love those passages in books, too—the gifts that characters give or receive in different eras and places in the world.

In this post, MacDonald recalls the gifts that the March girls give their mother for Christmas in Little Women. Christmas falls during the Civil War, when their father is away at war, money is tight, and Marmee is exhausted after caring for a poor family in the neighborhood. The girls pool their modest savings and present Marmee with the best, most thoughtful gifts they can muster:

“I’ll tell you what we’ll do,” said Beth, “let’s each get her something for Christmas, and not get anything for ourselves.”

“That’s just like you, dear! What will we get?” exclaimed Jo.

Everything thought soberly for a minute, then Meg announced, as if the idea was suggested by the sight of her own pretty hands, “I shall give her a nice pair of gloves.”

“Army shoes, best to be had,” cried Jo.

“Some handkerchiefs, all hemmed,” said Beth.

“I’ll get a little bottle of cologne. She likes it, and it won’t cost much, so I’ll have some left to buy my pencils,” added Amy. [She later exchanges the small bottle for a larger one that uses all of her money.]

In turn, Marmee secretly places small devotional books (or maybe New Testament Bibles?) under the girls’ pillows on Christmas Eve, each bound in a different color: a green one for Meg, a crimson one for Jo, a dove-colored one for Beth, and a blue one for Amy.

I also love the gifts that Mary and Laura Ingalls receive in Little House on the Prairie, when their “bachelor” neighbor Mr. Edwards meets Santa Claus and brings gifts to the girls on Santa’s behalf.

I don’t have the book handy, but I think I remember the gifts each girl received: a peppermint stick, a shiny penny, a small cake made with prized white sugar, and a tin cup. The girls were so bedazzled and enchanted by the extravagant (!) gifts and Mr. Edwards’s encounter with the real Santa!

I also recently re-read Beverly Cleary’s Beezus and Ramona, which I believe is set in 1950’s/1960’s Oregon, and I love the descriptions of Beezus’s gifts for her tenth birthday. At breakfast, Beezus finds “a new dress to wear to school” and some “birthday books,” including 202 Things to Do on a Rainy Afternoon. Her beloved young aunt comes for dinner and brings more surprises, including a cake from a fancy bakery (naughty little sister Ramona had ruined TWO homemade cakes earlier in the day):

Aunt Beatrice always brought such beautiful packages, wrapped in fancy paper and tied with big, fluffy bows.

[…]

“Oh, Aunt Beatrice,” exclaimed Beezus, as she opened her first package. It was a real grown-up sewing box. It had two sizes of scissors, a fat red pincushion that looked like a ripe strawberry, and a tape measure that pulled out a shiny box. When Beezus pushed the button the box, the tape measure snapped back inside. The box also had needles, pins, and a thimble. Beezus never wore a thimble, but she thought it would be nice to have one in case she ever wanted to use one.

I love the description of this sewing box. I imagine each item has its own special compartment and that Beezus will have so much fun arranging and re-arranging the items. I also love how wise, cool Aunt Beatrice thoughtfully gives such a sophisticated, flattering present to a growing girl.

In all of these examples, the author perfectly captures the character and spirit of the giver, the recipient, and the time and place in which they live—and so efficiently and charmingly. I love that. In fact, I think that would be a good thought exercise for creative writers: What gift would your character love to receive? What would your character give as a gift to another character?

Do you recall any favorite holidays or birthdays in your own life, or favorite gifts that you’ve received? Do you have any favorite gift-giving passages in books you’ve read?

–Angela

P.S. When I was writing this post, I also thought about the Christmas gifts exchanged in O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” and the wonderful Christmas and birthday stories in the American Girl historical character books. Wouldn’t a literary Advent calendar be fun? Like, you read the Christmas passages from different books each day in December leading up to Christmas Day? Hmm…

Remembering The Baby-Sitters Club

Hmm. Not her best outfit.

Hmm. Not her best outfit.

I recently took this BuzzFeed quiz and it rekindled my long-dormant memories of The Baby-Sitters Club book series!

I LOVED The Baby-Sitters Club (BSC!) books when I was a kid, and just seeing the characters’ handwriting reproduced in the quiz made me so nostalgic. I earned a perfect score, but my correct answers were less about remembering the plot lines (which must be from books released after I outgrew the series) and more about remembering which handwriting belonged to which character (the books always included snippets of handwritten text from each girl).

We all know the premise of the BSC books, right? A group of middle school friends joins together to form a babysitting collective. They advertise (with flyers!) and meet at the same time and place each week to receive (landline!) phone calls from neighborhood parents looking to schedule responsible, affordable babysitters. The girls live in fictional Stoneybrook, Connecticut—a super-safe, super-idyllic, and super-WASP-y suburb. The BSC books are all about the girls’ adolescent adventures in this sweet, perfect bubble of a world. Each character was unique so readers could quickly identify with or aspire to one or more of the babysitters—Kristy was the sporty firecracker, Claudia was the artsy free spirit, Mary Anne was the shy Victorian bookworm, Dawn was the hippie chick, etc.

My favorite babysitter was Stacey McGill. The word used to describe Stacey in every book was “sophisticated,” and she had a certain kind of pre-teen glamour. She had grown up in New York City, where she was allowed to take cabs and trains without an adult (and this was before Mayor Giuliani cleaned up the place). Stacey had fluffy blond hair (probably feathered, now that I think about it) and she wore makeup and had the most stylish clothes. Maybe she even had her ears pierced twice? (Like I said—GLAMOUR.) Stacey moved to Stoneybrook when her parents divorced, I think.

Stacey had diabetes, too, which added another layer of exoticism and maturity to her character. She kept a strict diet, managed her own medicine regimen, and went to fancy city doctors. I loved going to the doctor as a kid, so I think this aspect of Stacey’s identity made her even more attractive to me. I only had asthma and allergies, but I loved the special, important feeling that a doctor’s visit gave me—conferring with this respected, educated man, being out alone with my mom, and maybe going out for lunch together after my appointment.

I read the BSC books in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, so I can only imagine how far diabetes treatment has come in the last two decades. I remember an especially poignant scene in the books when Stacey is babysitting her favorite charge—a quiet, sweet little girl named Charlotte—and they visit a candy shop. The store is beautiful and bursting with colorful candy, including fancy individual chocolates set out on silver trays. Charlotte begs for a treat—”Just one? One each?”—and Stacey feels in her pocket and realizes that she has “more than enough money for two pieces of candy.” Stacey’s sorely tempted, and she goes so far as to pull out her money and place it on the glass case, but then she makes the right decision. She can’t afford the extra sugar, and Charlotte can’t ruin her dinner, so they leave the store empty-handed and disappointed.

Ugh. I can’t even. Just imagine not being able to eat a single piece of candy for fear of derailing an entire delicate balance of glucose and insulin! The unfairness! The grave responsibility! The perfectly coiffed exterior belying deprivation and severe illness!

So I especially loved tragic, beautiful Stacey, but I loved everything about the BSC. The girls were so organized and they had a surprisingly strong grasp of parliamentary procedure for their age. They had formal titles (president, vice president, etc.), fulfilled clearly defined roles and responsibilities, kept attendance and meeting minutes, called for discussion of new and old business, kept a master schedule, etc. They also collected monthly dues from each member, and the money was used for advertising (flyers), communications (Claudia’s personal landline—the height of privilege in that time), and inventory—that is, outfitting their “Kid Kits,” the boxes of craft supplies, small toys, and other goodies that they would take to babysitting jobs to entertain the kids.

GAH. All of that order and independence and responsibility just SPEAKS TO ME, then and now. These girls were making and managing their own money, organizing their own time, and handling their own affairs. What could they have accomplished with business degrees? Syncing calendar apps? Or even driver’s licenses?! It boggles the mind.

All of that organization and wholesomeness may sound boring, but it wasn’t—at least not to me. The girls had their interpersonal issues, family dramas (divorce, remarriage, death, sibling rivalry), babysitting challenges, and some limited romantic experiences. And when things got too calm and predictable in Stoneybrook, you could always read one of the BSC Super Specials. These books were extra-long and usually followed the girls on some kind of vacation or adventure. They worked as camp counselors in one Super Special, went on a cruise in another, and visited Disney World in another.  My family couldn’t afford to go on any fancy trips like these, so I loved taking in every detail about the amenities and attractions.

I kinda want to re-read the BSC books after writing about all of this, but I’m afraid that re-reading them might ruin my good memories. I don’t want the books to seem flat and trite, and I don’t want pesky facts to mar whatever impressions or memories I have. (In a similar way, I don’t plan to read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. I love Atticus and Scout just as they are in my head.)

So—did YOU ever read the BSC books? Which babysitter was YOUR favorite?

P.S. Stacey’s handwriting was cute and bubbly and she dotted her lowercase i’s with hearts. Totes adorbs, of course.

P.P.S. So I took this quiz, too, and got Logan Bruno. Weird.

Book Review – The Book of Joan

Image from Amazon.com.

Image from Amazon.com.

Ack. Last week I read The Book of Joan by Melissa Rivers.

I laughed, I cried. I gobbled it up in a day.

I miss Joan Rivers terribly, so I was super-excited for the chance to read this book and “visit” with her again. It did not disappoint, either–Joan’s voice rings through truly and clearly. Melissa did a great job recounting her mother’s many wonderful stories and quotes, and I loved hearing Melissa’s voice throughout, too.   She clearly inherited her mother’s sense of humor and knack for joke-telling–her timing and zingers are (usually!) just as funny.

I have a lot of admiration for Joan Rivers, particularly for her wit, courage, honesty, work ethic, and generosity. I don’t have Joan’s wicked wit or tireless work ethic, but I was so excited to find out that she and I share some key traits:

– Joan placed a huge emphasis on the importance of education, and believed that the mark of a good education (and mind) is being well-read and knowledgeable about various authors and thinkers. (Me too!!! Is this old-fashioned now?!)

– Joan loved TV shows about criminals and would DVR Lockup and Lockup Raw. (OMG…Those are some of my favorite shows, second only to COPS.)

– Joan disliked watching her loved ones play sports. (God, me too. It’s so boring. I love my family and want to support them but going to their amateur sporting events just makes me crazy. The games are long…and slow…and too frequent…and too hot/cold/loud.)

– Joan was a stickler for correct grammar. (Yes! Although I noticed an error in one of her handwritten letters included in the book–hah!)

– Joan majored in English literature. (We’re like twins!)

The Book of Joan is definitely funny, and it’s all about Joan’s personal (and hilarious) idiosyncrasies. Melissa also sprinkles in plenty of serious “life lessons” that her mother learned as a woman, parent, showbiz professional, etc. The book gets serious towards the end, too, when Melissa recounts a graduation speech her mother gave, and I think that’s where I started to really tear up. Melissa also generously shares some personal details about Joan’s death that are absolutely heartbreaking.

I highly recommend this book and will definitely read it again. If you’re a fan of Joan’s, you MUST see the fantastic documentary A Piece of Work, too.

– Angela

The Honest Company – Mini Reviews of 25 Products!

My most recent shipment...

My most recent shipment…

I don’t remember how I got hooked into actress Jessica Alba’s book The Honest Life, but it was my introduction to the importance of “clean” ingredients in household and personal care products. Alba’s book really struck me and changed the way I shop for and use makeup, sunscreen, cleaning supplies, food, etc. As a result, my eczema is better than it has ever been in my life (for real) and I’ve been able to clear out so many sketchy chemicals from my house. I highly recommend The Honest Life as a first “primer” for people who are curious about the chemicals in the products that they use every day—or for people who are struggling with skin allergies. Alba’s book was easy to read and understand and it covers a lot of ground. I still refer back to it every now and again!

Image from Amazon.com

Image from Amazon.com

Because she was frustrated at the limited quantity and quality of clean household products for her home and family, Alba started a safe, all-natural, mail-order line of household, personal care, and children’s goods called The Honest Company. I’ve subscribed to the Honest Company’s discounted “bundles” for a couple of years now, and I order a new supply of goodies about every three or four months. I’ve tried quite a few of the Honest products by this point, so I thought I’d give some mini reviews. Read on if you’re interested…

What I Love And Regularly Purchase:

Laundry Detergent and 4-in-1 Laundry Packs. My clothes get really clean with the liquid detergent and the laundry pods, and neither has perfume or fabric softeners. My eczema really improved after I began using this for all the household laundry (towels, linens, etc.). Highly recommend.

Conditioner in Sweet Orange Vanilla scent. This is hydrating and detangling and it smells like a Creamsicle. I use it as a great shaving lotion, but others in my family use it as a great conditioner.

Organic Lip Balm Trio in Sweet Orange Vanilla, Rosemary Mint, and Pure & Simple flavors. These lip balms are the bomb. The Sweet Orange Vanilla flavor is my favorite and I have one at my desk, one in my purse, and one on my bedside table. The balm lasts a long time on your lips and is very moisturizing. Works great during dry, cold winters.

Stain Remover in French Lavender scent. I hate the strong smell of most stain removers, so I really appreciate the lavender scent of the Honest version. This remover works just as well on clothes as other brands, plus I use it directly on carpet to clean up pet messes.

Organic Healing Balm. This is good stuff to use in place of petroleum (yuck) jelly to moisturize and waterproof skin.

What I Like and Sometimes Purchase:

Sunscreen Lotion (SPF 30). This stuff works, but I find it thick and hard to spread, plus it’s expensive. My sister likes it a lot, however.

Oxy Boost laundry pods. Hmm. I didn’t see much of an effect from this on my laundry. The regular Honest detergents are very effective on their own.

Toilet Cleaner in Tea Tree Eucalyptus scent. The cleaner smells fresh, herbal, and pine-y. I like knowing that I’m not dumping chemicals into the water supply when I use it. However, I could probably achieve the same results—i.e., a clean toilet—with just my toilet brush and some baking soda. Note: This cleaner got thick/sticky/clogged over several months. Always close the spout after using it and aim to finish the bottle in a few months.

Bubble Bath in Tangerine Dream scent. This smells great and foams up decently. The bubbles are short-lived, but that’s okay with me. I’d rather have “clean” temporary bubbles than more persistent and chemical-laden bubbles. I use this more for the scent than the bubbles. Would be a great gift idea for kids.

Conditioning Detangler Spray in Sweet Orange Vanilla scent. Smells great and works great. Personally, I need to wash it out before going a second day after using it or my hair looks greasy.

Hand Soap and Foaming Hand Soap in Mandarin scent. Smells good, rinses clean.  (I also use diluted Dr. Bronner’s liquid castile soap in the peppermint scent.)

Hand Sanitizer Gel. This gel is fine. I just don’t use hand sanitizer. The smell of sanitizer (including this one) is too strong for me.

Dish Brush and Caddy. The short, chunky shape of this brush is comfortable to use and the bristles are medium-firm. Inside the caddy, there’s a pierced platform mounted atop a spring, so you can add soap and water and then pump the brush up and down to produce bubbles.

Wipes. I don’t have a baby, but these are good wipes to have around. They are very large, thick, and soft.

What Did Not Work For Me and What I Will Not Repurchase:

Bug Spray. This did not work for mosquitos. I would spray my skin and then watch the mosquitos light on me right afterwards.

Air & Fabric Freshener in Orange Cypress scent. Ugh. This scent was very bitter and medicinal. Also, the pump-style spray nozzle was hard to use and there was no cap.

Organic Body Oil. This was too runny and greasy for me. Would probably be great for babies. I prefer the Organic Healing Balm instead.

Shampoo & Body Wash in Sweet Orange Vanilla scent. This was drying to my hair.

Face & Body Lotion. I loved the original formula of this (it used to smell lightly like roses and absorb quickly) but I dislike the new version, which doesn’t absorb into my skin.

Dish Soap in White Grapefruit scent. This didn’t cut through grease for us. (We use Seventh Generation dish soap instead.)

Multi-Surface Cleaner in White Grapefruit scent. This counter spray didn’t seem much more effective than plain water for us.  (We use J.R. Watkins pomegranate spray instead.)

Glass & Window Cleaner. This is essentially vinegar and water. I could have made the equivalent on my own.

Toothpaste. Does not contain fluoride, which I prefer in toothpastes. (We use Tom’s of Maine toothpaste instead.)

What I’m Trying Next:

Spray Sunscreen
Stick Sunscreen
Dryer Cloths

For me, the discovery of the laundry detergent, lip balm, stain remover, and conditioner is more than enough to keep my subscription with The Honest Company. Let me know if you want more details on any of the products I’ve tried.

P.S. – You can find Honest products at Target now, too! Look in the baby section. I’ve also seen Honest toilet paper at Target!

P.P.S. – Honest also sends fun free treats every now and again. Once I got a baby tree in commemoration of Earth Day or maybe Arbor Day (sadly, it died after I planted it), and once I got an extra lip balm for Mother’s Day. Last Christmas, subscribers received organic sugar cookie mix and a snowflake cookie cutter, but I skipped that month. D’oh! 🙂

P.P.P.S. – This is just a reminder that I am not being paid or compensated by any company in any way. I just like this company and I’m sharing my thoughts.

Junk Mail War!

Just some of this past week's junk mail--ugh!

Just some of this past week’s junk mail–ugh!

I’ve been devouring Bea Johnson’s book (and blog) entitled Zero Waste Home. Johnson is a French-American wife and mother who began to completely overhaul her family’s consumption habits several years ago. After she and her family:

  1. refuse things they don’t need,
  2. reduce what they do need,
  3. reuse whatever they can,
  4. recycle whatever they can, and
  5. rot (compost) everything else,

they produce only a quart-size jar of landfill garbage each year. It’s pretty amazing.

Johnson has years of research and trial-and-error under her (secondhand) belt, and her book and blog are full of tips and tricks to reduce waste. I produce a LOT of personal waste, and my two biggest culprits are probably food packaging from (frequent) drive-thru visits and packaging/shipping materials for (frequent) online purchases. I’m inspired by Johnson, though, to take some steps to reduce my impact. For starters, I’ve decided to start a junk mail war.

When I moved into my house several years ago, I received TONS of junk (and legit) mail for TENS of people who no longer lived there. It was insane. The former tenants never must have completed formal change of address paperwork with the post office. I would mark everything “return to sender” and scribble a note about the addressee not living there anymore, and then send it all right back. I even wised up and made a few sheets of stick-on labels with the same language so I didn’t have to write the same messages over and over. The misdirected mail dropped off sharply after two or three months of this attack, but I still receive all the junk mail that’s properly addressed to my family. I decided to use a similar label method for my junk mail war.

This past week, I collected all of the junk mail we received, which was about 15 pieces. It doesn’t sound like much (and maybe it isn’t?) but each piece was a doozy–lots magazine-type advertisements with multiple pages stapled together, and big envelopes stuffed thick and full with paper. Seeing it all together made me realize, interestingly, that most of the junk mail my family receives is from companies with whom we already have an account. In other words, the bulk of our junk mail is not from “new” companies who want our business, but from companies who already have our business and want us to do something else with them–change pricing plans, order new products, etc. How annoying.

Anyway, I made two sets of labels with the following language (I couldn’t get all the language to fit on one label in a readable font size):

  1. “REFUSED – RETURN TO SENDER. Please remove me from your mailing list. Thank you.”
  2. “Please do not sell, share, rent, or trade my name or address. Thank you.” (The bit about “do not sell, share, rent, or trade my name or address” is Johnson’s suggested language, so I’m using it. She’s done the research and is nothing if not thorough.)

The labels I had were eco-friendly (i.e., the labels and packaging were made from post-consumer waste and were recyclable), but all label backing sheets are coated with a plasticky finish and are NOT recyclable (I learned this from Johnson’s blog). Sigh. Baby steps.

I then applied both labels to the front of each piece of mail. If the junk mail was from a company with whom I already do business , I wrote a note to the effect of “Please remove me from your marketing mailing list. Send account-related correspondence only.”

A couple of tips from Johnson:

  1. Do not open the obvious junk mail, because then you cannot return it for free.
  2. If mail is addressed to “Current Resident” or “Occupant” or another generic term, you have to contact the sender directly (via phone, email, or website) and ask to be removed from their list. This kind of mail does not include return postage.

I’m keeping my labels by the front door and I plan to keep up my attack. I’m curious to see how this will work!

P.S. This past weekend I also canceled three catalogs I don’t want/never asked for (via website/email), one recurring coupon pack (via website), and our annual copy of THREE different area phone books (via website). Yeah!

The Carry On Cocktail Kit

Image from PunchDrink.com

Image from PunchDrink.com

Starting an unintentional (but wonderful) theme of kits and travel, look what I stumbled across on Instagram:  the Carry On Cocktail Kit!

How cute is this? The metal tin is about the size of a deck of cards, and it includes everything you need to make two Old Fashioned cocktails–except the alcohol!  You take this (TSA-approved) little kit on the plane, buy a mini bottle of bourbon from the flight attendant, and then mix up your drinks per the instructions!

The Carry On Cocktail company only makes an Old Fashioned kit right now, but they’ve hinted that more kits are coming.  I’ve never drank an Old Fashioned, but I’d like to try one. It sounds strong but good–and very Mad Men.  I would love to see kits for dirty martinis and margaritas, too!

Here’s what’s inside the kit:

  • Aromatic bitters
  • Cane sugar
  • Spoon/muddler
  • Linen coaster
  • Recipe card

These little kits would be a great stocking stuffer or “bon voyage” gift for a friend flying out for vacation.  The only downside: The kits are pricey–$24 a pop!–but I guess you’re paying for the cool idea and presentation.

This also gives me another idea–wouldn’t it be fun to make (or receive!) a DIY basket of little kits like this for several different cocktails?  You could buy mini bottles of liquor, pair them with the appropriate mixers and garnishes, and then include instructions on how to make each kind of drink.  You could also throw in swizzle sticks, cocktail napkins, etc.  This gift could work for so many occasions (providing the recipient drinks alcohol, of course!).

Bottoms up!

P.S. – Speaking of cocktails, check out this book–Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist.  Wouldn’t it be fun to make these drinks for a book club meeting, writer’s group, or an English major’s graduation party?

Book Review: Some Assembly Required

Image from Amazon.com.

Image from Amazon.com.

Anne Lamott wrote one of the seminal books on writing techniques (Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life) and I’ve been meaning to read some of her other work. I recently downloaded and read several free samples of her books on my Kindle, then bought Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son.

To start: Lamott is smart, talented, and funny. She’s a writer, a writing teacher, a Christian, a recovering alcoholic, a single mother, a grandmother, and a middle-aged white woman with dreadlocks. Some Assembly Required chronicles the first year of her grandmotherhood, when she must adapt to the reality of her college-aged son and his on-again, off-again girlfriend having a baby boy. The story has many of the same elements as the MTV show Teen Mom (which I love)–a rocky relationship between two young parents of no professional means–but this story takes place among an artsy, academic family with a quirky, loving matriarch (Lamott) who can float the entire enterprise financially.

I enjoyed reading Some Assembly at first, but I never felt a pull to return to the book and finish it…but I did. I probably would have abandoned it if I hadn’t paid for it.  Mothering and grandmothering just isn’t very interesting to me, I fear–unless, apparently, it’s totally dysfunctional and in 30 minute chunks on MTV. I found myself glazing over during some of the book’s passages describing the adults’ intense baby love and parental angst. The baby is like an addictive drug to this family, and everyone is held rapt by him. They can’t stop observing him, describing him, celebrating him, fighting over him, etc. This is parental love, I suppose, but I probably will never under the fanaticism of parents until I have biological children of my own. The gushing words of star-struck moms and dads always sound so overblown and thin to me. Perhaps words cannot truly describe that kind of love?

Anyway, I was mostly reading to find the (frequent!) nuggets of Lamott’s good writing and jokes. She will relate seemingly mundane details about her life, but then suddenly and subtly turn the corner into something funny, poignant, or thought-provoking. Lamott’s very funny and self-effacing, especially about her lapses in spiritual faith and her propensity to get (slightly, and endearingly) jealous and controlling when the intoxicating baby is in question. Lamott practices a kind of casual but fervent Christianity, too, that is nice to see. She’s a true believer, but she’s not afraid to cuss, question, joke, and incorporate non-Christian elements of spirituality into her personal religious practice (like Eastern meditation techniques). I admire her for this.

In short: I really like Lamott, but I’m lukewarm on this particular book. No biggie!  Check this out for some essays that give you an idea of Lamott’s style and humor. And here is a list of her (many!) good quotes.