Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Safe at Home

New book offers suggestions for improving one's abode

By Michael Sims

MARCH 13, 2000:  As a single male who lives alone and works at home, I am becoming ever more appreciative of the virtues of having a home that welcomes and protects me. But that doesn't mean I know how to go about creating such a nourishing environment. Until a friend gave me Cheryl Mendelson's astonishing new Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House, I didn't realize that my housekeeping philosophy consisted merely of vague notions--a few guidelines à la hints from Heloise, a determination to keep the hair dryer away from the bathtub, and the secret conviction that we should all own robot maids like Rosie on The Jetsons.

The current fads of Feng Shui and Martha Stewart notwithstanding, most Americans seem to have little notion of how to create a home that is a refuge from the soulless mediocrity of modern life. Mendelson, a philosopher and lawyer in New York City, has single-handedly remedied this situation. No wonder the subtitle of her book refers to both the art and the science of housekeeping. In elegant and witty prose, she explores both the philosophical reasons for attending to home life and the practical ways to go about it. Home Comforts embodies one of the tenets of Zen--that enlightenment comes as much from attending to the details of day-to-day life as from pondering deep philosophical issues.

Despite being a modern woman with a busy career, Mendelson confesses, she has a trait that for a long time she concealed: "a passion for domesticity." Being as philosophical as she is practical, she set out to create a field guide to everyday life that is firmly based upon principles of good living. In her chapter "The Cave of Nakedness," for example, she explains why one ought to keep the bedroom a private sanctum for sleep and lovemaking--and then she explains how to go about it. This advice involves such details as lighting, the thread-count of sheets, and which distracting items to keep out of the room. Elsewhere she explains how to clean an iron, make a bed, choose "kindly" lighting, store dangerous materials, keep food safe, and make sure your home is secure. She points out everything from which basic tools will simplify your home life to how to choose fabrics and rugs.

If you want to know about dust mites or setting a table or smoke detectors or keeping household records, the answers are in this book, and they're often surprisingly entertaining. One chapter is entitled "Peaceful Coexistence With Microbes" and another "The Air in Your Castle." The first chapter on the kitchen, "The Center of the Dwelling," sketches a whole philosophy of life by setting out guidelines for storing utensils and stocking the pantry. Some 200 appealing little drawings throughout the book clarify subspecies of knives and wine glasses, detail the steps in building a fire in a fireplace, and even demonstrate how to hang different articles of clothing so they will dry with the least wrinkling.

"It is not in goods that the contemporary household is poor," Mendelson writes, "but in comfort and care." The key word here is care. This thoughtful book about "keeping" house asks the question we must all ask ourselves, in both public and private life: What do we care about? It is no coincidence that the second word in Mendelson's title is both a noun and a verb. The double meaning of Home Comforts nicely expresses Mendelson's theme: If you make your home genuinely comfortable, it will comfort you.

Without reservation

On the Rez (FSG, $25), Ian Frazier's new social/historical memoir, results from his lifelong fascination with Indian culture. Perhaps "fascination" is too mild a word: In the past 20 years, the former New Yorker humorist has twice packed up his family and left the East Coast for Montana to research his "tribe-by-affinity," the Oglala Sioux. The Oglala, living 750 miles away on the Pine Ridge Reservation, weren't exactly the Fraziers' neighbors, but the author's frequent visits, as well as his long-term friendship with his tribal "brother" Le War Lance, allowed him a firsthand look at Oglala life today.

The author's lengthy and sometimes hazardous trips, made largely on back roads, shape On the Rez's engagingly digressive structure. Indeed, one of the book's great pleasures lies in its easy, elliptical meandering between historical fact and personal meditation. For example, Frazier's opening pages indirectly address a charge of "wannabe-ism" by segueing into the story of Crazy Horse.

The Sioux warrior, who personifies the "uncaughtness" and "self-possessed sense of freedom" Frazier envies in today's Oglala, would doubtless have proved a failure in the service economy that has created our current economic boom. If you work in the service sector, Frazier points out, you "mak[e] a living by being nice." Indeed, Crazy Horse only came to social accommodation late in life, and to his peril: Finally relenting to requests that he "come into the agency" (the early version of the Pine Ridge Reservation) after the Battle of Little Big Horn, he was promptly turned over to the Army, which jailed and then killed him under what Frazier calls "confused and shameful circumstances."

Frazier's most compelling Oglala friends "on the rez" resist the agency, for good and for ill. Magnanimous, deeply spiritual, and charming, Le is also an alcoholic and unrepentant mooch; his resistance is largely self-defeating if not downright self-destructive. On the other hand, SuAnne Big Crow, a young Sioux leader and athletic star, resists by engaging in a high-spirited, spontaneous celebration of her tribal identity at a basketball game. The event provokes Frazier's most lyrical prose. "Our country," he writes, "does not live unless we make the leap from our tribe...and land on the shaky platform of that idea of a good country which all kinds of different people share."

Yet once on that platform, would the Indian qualities Frazier most admires dissipate? Maybe not. After all, the author produces a number of statistics citing Indians' successful resistance to assimilation. But their "uncaughtness" might finally disappear in that "good country," just as Le War Lance himself does at the conclusion of Frazier's compendious, essential, and haunting On the Rez. --Diann Blakely

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