What can I say, I’m a city girl

December 15, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimbal 2010. French title: Une vie pleine. Mon histoire d’amour avec un homme et une ferme.

A while ago, I read Le mec de la tombe d’à côté by Katarina Mazetti, a nice little novel about a Swedish city girl falling in love with a farmer. So someone lent me The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball, which is in appearance, the same kind of book. Except that Katarina Mazetti is a writer creating a funny story while Mrs Kimball relates her life. Kristin Kimball was journalist, working in New York and she was sent on an assignment in a farm in Pennsylvania. Mark grows organic vegetables and raises animals. They fall in love, she leaves New York to start a new life with him on a decrepit farm. She wrote a book about their first year together.

That’s for the story. I could be fine with it. After all, I had already read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver.

Before writing more about The Dirty Life, I have to say a few words about myself. I grew up in an urban environment. My first encounter with country life was when I was seventeen. That summer, I had signed up for a three weeks stay in a German family and ended up in a farm in Bayern. The farmer there thought that t-shirts were optional pieces of clothing, went around the place bare chested in tiny shorts, scratching his behind. The couple were very nice to me but I can’t say I enjoyed getting up in the middle of the night and stand in the barn in my nightgown to watch the cow calve. No epiphany there. My idea of a perfect location for a home is How far is it from the bakery and from the cinema? Although this is not a life for me, I have a deep respect for farmers, they work really hard and they love their job, otherwise they’d quit. I also cook mostly from produce, we compost part of our food scraps, so I know what vegetables and fruit look like before they’re in cans or in frozen pieces. In addition, I believe in moderation in every thing and I have trouble getting along with extremists of all sides because black and white situations are just too simplistic for me. Now that I’ve written a long disclaimer, let me tell you my opinion about The Dirty Life.

Mrs Kimball and I started off on the wrong foot right from the first pages when she describes her first encounter with Mark:

I recorded two impressions in my notebook later on: First, this is a man. All the men I knew were cerebral. This one lived in his body. Second, I can’t believe I drove all this way to hoe brocoli for this dude.

Then a few pages later you have:

Michael [a farm employee] handed me a hard-toothed rake, and we set off in adjacent rows. Penn State was just down the road, and Michael, a film major, had graduated that spring. He’d begun volunteering weekends at Mark’s farm to see if, as he put it, hard work would make him a man.

Kimball_Vie_pleine_HardI can deduct from these quotes that cerebral men are not real men but only ersatz and that being a real man means working with your hands. Hard work at university or in the office doesn’t make a man of you. I frowned. Old clichés don’t apply only to women. I could have forgiven her that gratuitous comments if she hadn’t nailed them a few pages later when she says she wishes to every woman that she finds a man with a body fit by hard work and not by working out at the gym. Well, Mrs Kimball, there’s no accounting for taste but I rather like living with a graduate of the French equivalent of an Ivy League school who wears business suits to go to work and doesn’t come home caked with mud or stinking cow dunk. I can live without the farming muscles. Who does she think she is?

As expected, she describes with lots of details her experience with farming. I skipped lots of pages of descriptions of vegetables, milk, the colour of butter and other edifying explanations. To be fair, she doesn’t hide that it’s exhausting and that it takes their whole days. But I’m a bit suspicious about the rosy description of her neighbourhood: what? All are perfectly friendly, no one’s nosy, no one’s eyeing suspiciously the newcomers and their crazy project?

Because, I haven’t told you everything yet. They start farming but Mark is an extremist: no tractor, no chemical products. He doesn’t want plastic anywhere, had a phase of living without electricity and doesn’t own a car. He rides a bike. I’m all for organic agriculture and being cautious with technology but really, was horsedrawn farming absolutely necessary?

Of course, she glorifies farm work, sometimes in a strange way. The slaughtering of animals doesn’t bother her but ploughing does, she finds it violent to the Earth. (obscene is the word used by the translator) That puzzled me. What surprised me too is how little regulation there seem to be in America. In France, you can’t slaughter a pig or a calf in your backyard; you need to bring them to the slaughterhouse. And is putting a horse to sleep with a gun authorised?

Kimball_Vie_plein_1018I finished this book out of respect for the person who lent it to me. I can’t wait to discuss it with her. As you now know it, I didn’t like The Dirty Life neither in substance nor in form. Barbara Kingsolver honestly shared her experience of farming with her reader. It was an interesting and intelligent narration. Here, I found the tone patronizing.  I’m married to a man who spent his adolescence making up fake homework to avoid being enrolled to farm work by his father, I don’t find farming glamorous. I don’t envy her, I don’t think her life is fuller than mine. If living from farming was that fantastic, can you explain to me why all these people left the country to take a job in factories and in cities in the 20th Century?

PS: I have a copy published by France Loisirs, that’s right in their alley. But I discovered that 10:18 published it as well and I’m disappointed that my favourite publisher picked this book for their collection.

  1. December 15, 2012 at 10:50 pm

    I know this would annoy me. You know this would annoy me. And yes it is legal to shoot a horse: euphemism: put to sleep

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    • December 15, 2012 at 11:22 pm

      I think annoy is too mild a word. Infuriate seems more appropriate. Stay away from it.
      I’m going to ask, but I don’t think it’s legal in France. Anyway, there aren’t so many guns and rifles around.

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  2. December 15, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    Hmm, it doesn’t sound like a book I want to read LOL.
    All of us like to think that our work is important, but I sometimes find that people who work on the land somehow think that their work is more worthy, and more noble. Perhaps because they can actually see what they’ve produced, and of course they suffer the vagaries of the weather, they seem to think that people who produce ideas don’t work in the ‘real world’ and are therefore lesser people. It’s a kind of inverted, anti-intellectual snobbery. (But I bet if they need it they take themselves off quick smart to get a tetanus injection that was developed by someone working with head not hands.)
    I like my food unprocessed and chemical free too, but even so, I sometimes find the puritanism of the organic lobby a bit tiresome, because the truth is that moralising about the environment obscures a rather chilling lack of concern for the welfare of other peoples. Although economic and political factors mean food is not shared fairly with developing nations, the earth can and does produce enough to feed the world if modern farming methods are used. That’s not ever going to be possible using traditional farming methods, so the kind of lifestyle described in your review is a somewhat self-indulgent one.

    I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you joyeux Noël, and merci beaucoup for another year of thought-provoking reading through your blog:).
    Lisa

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    • December 15, 2012 at 11:29 pm

      I agree with your comment. This is all sweet and nice but all the farms cannot start producing food that way.
      I like your comment about the tetanus injection; that’s true and they’re happy to call the vet when an animal is sick.

      I don’t think it’s anti-intellectual snobbery from her; it’s more about a woman acting Neanderthal. Women are also responsible for the standardized visions of genders.

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  3. December 15, 2012 at 11:29 pm

    Loved your review ! Thanks!

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    • December 15, 2012 at 11:38 pm

      Thanks.
      I don’t agree with extreme positions and giving up technology just because it is technology. We can also go back to living in caverns, if you think about it. 🙂

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  4. December 16, 2012 at 9:55 am

    Not my cup of tea either, I’m sure.
    I find it horrible to talk a bout “real men”. I thoight we had left that behind us. Reading that would have turned me off right away.
    I’m rather into the biker type wearing jeans and leather jacket than those in tie and suits but I’d never call either the one or the other more of a real man. It’s just a question of taste.
    As for the organic farming, this sounds very extreme and the idea to feel for the earth but not for the animals is horrible.
    I could have a flower or vergetable garden but never kill animals.

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    • December 16, 2012 at 10:46 am

      I have to say that a horrible German word came to my mind too when I read the sentence about the man.
      For me, this is part of the feminist fight. The fight for equality is also for men; both genders need to get rid of clichés.

      Biker outfits aren’t part of the corporate executive uniform, I’m afraid. For both sexes. I’d love to go to work in jeans, boots and leather but I can’t. (My feet would particularly love that I dropped the stilettos.)

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      • December 16, 2012 at 10:08 pm

        I thought we were refrring to what men (or women) wear in private. Of course you can’t go to work in a biker outfit in most corporate companies, much less if you’re an executive.
        I don’t get the stilettos though. It’s not very common in Switzerland or the US for women anymore. No matter what you wear. I wear stilettos only outside of work.

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        • December 16, 2012 at 10:12 pm

          Thank God he doesn’t wear a suit on weekends!
          Wrong choice of English word on my side: I meant “escarpin”.

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          • December 17, 2012 at 11:28 am

            I’m glad this was the wrong word because nobody should be forced to wear stilettos all the time.
            I’m still tacken aback by her calling one man a real man while another one because he looks or dresses differently is not.
            It really should be part of the feminist fight. Everything is linked in the end.

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            • December 17, 2012 at 10:29 pm

              You’re right, escarpins are nasty enough to wear. What a torture.

              I think it should be part of the feminist fight too; that’s why men should support women in this. In the end, it’s a fight for every person to be able to be who they are without complying to cliches.

              The other day, I noticed that the ad for a beauty shop is of course of a woman with a child. It’s never a pilot, a lawyer, a doctor or a scientist; always a mother. And of course, you have these ridiculous business trophees for the woman of the year. Equality will be real when nobody will find it relevant to throw a contest for women only.

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  5. December 16, 2012 at 10:40 am

    A witty review Emma! Real men don’t work in offices – slaving over computers as I did for so many years. I should have gone out into the fields instead according to this writer. Over here in the UK there is a dating agency for farmers and apparently many women subscribe to Kristine’s views because the agency claims many successes.

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    • December 16, 2012 at 10:50 am

      It’s a bit insulting for cerebral men, isn’t it? I’m sure she didn’t meant it that way, but that’s how it looks like and how I took it when I read it. I felt insulted for my husband, actually.
      I talked about it with him, he wasn’t surprised and thought it’s part of the country way of thinking.

      I’m sure we have that kind of dating agency here too.

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  6. January 7, 2013 at 6:18 pm

    What a sexist piece of crap. Not one for me I think Emma.

    It sounds insulting to women too. You can’t have an old fashioned concept of real men without importing an old fashioned concept of real women with it.

    That aside, I do rather dislike articles and books by middle class journalists who spend a year doing something not particularly exceptional (living on a farm say, similarly I saw one on the Guardian recently where the journo hadn’t bought new clothes for a year but had instead relied on her existing large wardrobe of previously purchased items), and then write it up as some form of revelatory/transformative experience. I tend to suspect most of them have gone back to life as it was before on month 13, not that I actually care. Self-absorbed vacuity.

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    • January 7, 2013 at 11:24 pm

      I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone. Since I wrote this billet, I’ve seen the person who lent it to me. She had the same feeling about it, not about the sexist part but about the lack of nuance, the will (intentional or not) to describe her way of life as THE way of life. Not to speak about the backward idea of using horses for farming.

      It is insulting to women; I felt insulted actually.

      She didn’t spend a year there, she changed of life. They’re still living on the farm, selling vegetables and meat to local consumers. Of course she gave birth at home, probably without an epidural like the real woman she is whereas wimps like me prefered the safety of a hospital.

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