Monday, August 18, 2008

Book Review: A Year Without MADE IN CHINA

I first heard of this book on an NPR radio interview and given my interest in all things local and therefore those things not local have been curious about it ever since. I raced to Megan's blog, Fix, when I saw she had reviewed it and asked if she was up for a guest post here. She was and here it is, in an extended version of her original review. Thank you, Megan! And per her review, just in time for some end of summer reading.

A Year Without "MADE IN CHINA," Sara Bongiorni's witty, very readable chronicle of her family's year boycotting goods from China, isn't exactly a green read, falling into the slightly outlying anti-consumerism category that interests eco-readers all the same. It's not clear why Bongiorni embarks on her experiment: she expresses exhaustion from all the plastic crap creeping into her home and a desire to see just how difficult it is to buy things from places other than China. She doesn't have any major revelations, just neurotic obsessing about China and funny anecdotes about her two kids and husband. It's a lot like 'Not Buying It', arranged by the months of the year but lacking Judith Levine's subtle pathos and pointed philosophic moments.

I was astonished by the amounts of crap (Chinese or not) Bongiorni and her husband declared they absolutely had to have, especially for their kids. Plastic Halloween decorations? Squirt guns? Either her freelance writing job and her husband's academic position are unlike any other in America, or they're in a mountain of plastic-induced debt - every time they go to Target, they walk away with a huge pile, seemingly everything in the store that's not from China.

Bongiorni is surprisingly un-self-aware about this fact and others, one of the major shortcomings of the book. She doesn't delve very deeply into the economic inequalities between the US and the rest of the world, nor does she often recognize her place in the equation. Once in a while, she expresses regret about inflicting some kind of punishment on a faceless Chinese worker, but the book completely lacks a discussion of the changing Chinese economy and what this means for China's citizens. To be fair, Bongiorni admits that every American replicating her experiment would seriously reverberate throughout the world she's not proposing it as a solution. She certainly succeeds at writing an entertaining book about her individual family's experience and probably edited out historical and philosophical background in order to keep it light.

But here's where the lack of clarity on the family's intentions for the experiment weaken its impact, in my opinion. Bongiorni's not not buying from China in order to protest the effects Chinese manufacturing have had on the environment. She's not not buying from China in order to discuss unfair labor conditions or human rights. She's not not buying from China in order to examine the effect exporting manufacturing and manufacturing jobs has had on the American economy. She's not even not buying from China in order to investigate the energy and resources that go into making and transporting plastic crap in general. She just not buying from China and laughing about it. And you will too.

Rating: 3 out 5 stars, owing to the book's lack of hard facts about making stuff in and exporting stuff from China. This probably made it much more fun to read. I literally couldn't put it down!

Recommended for newly green readers, though the book doesn't itself supply the connections between environmentalism and consumerism.

Also recommended for more experienced green readers, who can supply these connections and enjoy a breezy summer read for once.


Going Crunchy said...

O.k., this book seems to bother me a little bit.

But I'm also making a comment without reading it, so this isn't really a full fledged actual commentary....more like a reader response to your review.

I guess the author still continuing to buy a hot load of junk even though it isn't from China really bothers me.

I'm all for not buying plastic lead laden stuff that traveled an ocean, but the review just kinda seemed to indicate that it was less about the reason....and more about it just being stuff from China overall.

I think this might be a book that would irritate me, but on the other hand it might make me bust a gut if I get off my plastic horse made in China.

Anonymous said...

jam & going crunchy -
I may have been unnecessarily harsh on the author: she did actually notice that they were buying a ton of crap. And because European and other crap costs a lot more, they ended up blowing their budget much sooner by buying fewer, better-made things. But that seemed more like a nice by-product than by design. They were definitely more interested in finding ways around Chinese products than in avoiding products in general. BUT - that may have just been how she represented it in the is, after all, a chronicle of the year without MADE IN CHINA. (And, I could see some crazy rationale that they actually have to keep buying so that they can figure out what ISN'T made in China...)

When you read it, please let me know what you think!

Unknown said...

Interesting concept for a book, but after your review, I'm not sure I'll keep it on my TBR list.

Sam said...

This book bothers me too. I had heard about the book and thought it would be some sort of Not Buying It copycat...but I guess it was worse in some ways? I guess the goal was just to get a book published?

Has Sara considered the used market as a middle ground between not buying from China and buying new from some other country?

I don't think I'll be reading this either.

Anonymous said...

Oh, no - now I feel a little bad...she should get a little credit because she was at least examining her consumption in some way. She started some productive, critical conversations among her family, friends, and neighbors, which is good. And she was writing from the South, a place I regard as veryvery different from my home city of NYC and this feel-good blogoshpere. The little changes need a voice too, I guess. (And a funny one at that!)

Still, if you're gonna have a book deal and everything, you'd think maybe a harder challenge or more substantive writing would have resulted...?

Thanks for the comments!

Kale for Sale said...

I'm still curious about this book and will pick it up when I see it. While it doesn't sound as if it delves into any number of issues it could have the fact that it shines a light on one idea is still a plus. I might not be as optimistic if I read it and it didn't wave pom poms for sourcing goods locally but only for sourcing them not from China. But I'm a sucker for a read that makes me laugh and in any event this book certainly generates conversation about where stuff comes from and I like that.

Green Bean said...

I'm so glad to read a review on this book. I've checked it out from the library a couple times but never got around to reading it - for the reasons you mentioned. Still, it is nice to have a quick, breezy, marginally relevant book sometimes. I'll have to keep it in mind for next time I'm in that mode. :)

Anonymous said...

Katrina & Green Bean, let me know what you think when you've finished it. I hope you have fun with it!


Kale for Sale said...

jam - Thanks for adding your review. I liked it. Especially your points about having your parter join in or not and the way friends and family react. Both interesting stuff. Thank you.

Anonymous said...


I'm so glad you enjoyed the book and followed up. I agree, the bits about her husband were hilarious! I often feel like a partner could make some of the enviro life alterations a little easier...but I should remember not all of them are into it!

thanks -

Anonymous said...

so i read this horrible pointless, I cant believe itever got published book. Why exactly is she boycotting China (but having her sister in law buy chinese products that she really needs because if its a gift, it "doesnt count")? PLEASE!
From an economic point of view, China is not the problem. America is the problem, full of Americans that want more and more for less and less. Americans who are spoiled, never satified and only consider the "Me" and never the "we". Chinese work for the good of the factory, Americans work only for the good of the I. Americans should be jealous of the Chinese who are able to overcome their beginnings and just look at the olympics, they turned themselves into a powerful economic player. Why is Bongiorni trying to put China or Wal mart for that matter in such a negative light. Her biggest dillema in life is getting a pool for her precious son and husband but lets look at the big picture, for many chinese and other third world workers who she conveniently leaves out of the discussion completely, working in a factory is still their best options. So you want to punish them, take business away from their factories, so their factories have to close?? what do you think will happen to these workers then? You think they will join the local beach club and relax over summer break? NO! They starve or become prostitiutes. This "abuse" you refer to is just an ugly word for OPPORTUNITY. Uch. I am just disgusting by how brain numbing this book is. What a waste if paper.
Shes a journalist? WHat? Where r the facts? She spends an hour in Walmart reading labels and then decides that she KNOWS how much Wal Mart imports from each country? Walmart who hires retirees, and disabled people alike, and offers $4 perscriptions for people who desperatley need it. Do you want to boycott Wal Mart a well. Then who will Bongiorni blame for all those out of work Americans. Oh, shes is really in need of help.