Productive People Doing Things
April 15, 2018 8:52 AM   Subscribe

What are some entertaining books, fiction or nonfiction, that focus attention on people doing things, such as walking, cooking, taking care of a farm or a house, exercising, working at their job or project, etc. on a regular basis?

I'm looking for books that feature productive, not lazy people. It could be anything that has a regular theme of a person doing physical stuff. Examples are stories by David Sedaris where he describes riding his bike or walking and collecting trash or cleaning or painting (I've read all of his books) or Julie Powell cooking her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

I'm mostly interested in physical activities, not necessarily writing or creating art unless the writer also has a physical activity he does and describes. I'm not interested in characters, real or fiction, who are raising small kids as the focus of the book.

Books I've already read:

Wild by Cheryl Strayed
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
The Wife's Tale by Lori Lansens (the protagonist walks a lot and is busy)
Yoga memoirs like Hell Bent and Finding More on the Mat
The Road by Cormac McCarthy -- people on the move, trying to find food
I've read books that describe the business of the White House -- getting ready for state dinners, etc.

It doesn't have to be about a person formally exercising. It can be any book that shows a busy or energetic person repeating and action, such as getting up and going to auditions or job interviews, or a person tending to her farm, or a person taking walks, or preparing food or cooking. I especially like a pull yourself up by the bootstraps tale. It can be any book that describes a person, or people, with a lot of energy and productivity or business in their lives.

Thank you.
posted by loveandhappiness to Media & Arts (45 answers total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey is full of people working hard.
posted by Redstart at 9:10 AM on April 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am watching this thread with interest because I also like books like this!

If I understand you correctly, the Little House (Laura Ingalls Wilder) series might suit you -- to me, it was all about how life worked in the different environs her family moved through and how the common day tasks were done. Farmer Boy, the episode about her husband's boyhood in Malone, NY, gives an entirely different version of everyday life, as they were a prosperous family in the East and he was a boy.

Also, this is a TV show, but Bear Gryllis's Man vs. Wild is basically all about setting up house and cooking, but in different wilderness survival situations.
posted by batter_my_heart at 9:20 AM on April 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

The Farm in the Green Mountains by Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer would be great for that. It's a memoir of the five years Herdan-Zuckmayer and her husband -- well-to-do German intellectuals -- spent as refugees running a farm in Vermont during the war. Lots of hard work, delightfully related. Recently reprinted by NYRB Classics. Here's the Introduction by Elisa Albert.
posted by neroli at 9:28 AM on April 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver fits the bill.
posted by peep at 9:34 AM on April 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

Robinson Crusoe would fit this - or if you like science fiction, The Martian.
posted by meronym at 9:35 AM on April 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

Amanda Owen has written two books about the challenges of running a sheep farm - The Yorkshire Shepardess and A Year in the Life. IMO they are both great reads and also quite funny.
posted by janepanic at 9:54 AM on April 15, 2018

I enjoyed Worldwalk by Steven Newman and Peter Jenkins' A Walk Across America and The Walk West.
posted by belladonna at 10:00 AM on April 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's a YA/children's book, but a fabulous one: Jean Craighead George's My Side of the Mountain. The protagonist runs away to live in the woods in the Catskills, building a shelter, foraging and hunting. I have reread it as an adult and it holds up beautifully.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:05 AM on April 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

Many of John McPhee's books are about people working effectively --- though the work is not always strenuously physical.
posted by JonJacky at 10:14 AM on April 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

There's The Egg and I. It's from 1945, though, so some things can be disturbing.
posted by dilettante at 10:25 AM on April 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

Read some Annie Proulx. Her story "Brokeback Mountain," originally in the NYer sometime in the 1990s, became the movie, so you can imagine how much work, physical labor, movement is in her writing in general. I'd read her story collection that includes Brokeback Mountain, Close Range: Wyoming Stories.
posted by velveeta underground at 10:40 AM on April 15, 2018

Also, My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante is so good, and is very much full of busy, working people, including young girls pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. (There are 3 in the series but I think this one fits the question most accurately.)
posted by velveeta underground at 10:44 AM on April 15, 2018

Swiss Family Robinson really scratches this itch for me!
posted by peacheater at 12:19 PM on April 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

belladonna beat me to it—I immediately thought of Worldwalk and Walk Across America.
However, I didn’t know about The Walk West so I’m going to have to check that one out!
posted by bookmammal at 12:36 PM on April 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's been a lot of years, but I read and re-read All Creatures Great and Small and All Things Bright and Beautiful and was always charmed by those tales of a hardworking country vet in England.
posted by Glinn at 12:38 PM on April 15, 2018 [7 favorites]

You might just love Cold Comfort Farm
posted by Mchelly at 1:14 PM on April 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

A Year in Provence came to mind.
posted by third word on a random page at 1:20 PM on April 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

ah! Came here to say Cold Comfort Farm as well. It's an excellent book, with an OK movie made out of it that is generally available. Tweaking centuries of overwrought English fiction, young woman loses parents, has to find a 'situation,' gets turned down by other relatives, finds herself with rural relatives who suffer from a lot of issues, not least of which is laziness.

Imminently satisfying if you've read or seen melodramas and thought "Come on! If there was one sane person in this plot..."
posted by randomkeystrike at 1:20 PM on April 15, 2018

The Girl with the Pearl Earring has lots and lots of housework described in detail, along with the mixing of paints and other artist's behind the scenes tasks.
posted by Temeraria at 1:22 PM on April 15, 2018

Two sailing boat ones - Sloop: Restoring My Family's Wooden Sailboat, by Daniel Robb, and Sea Change: Alone Across the Atlantic in a Wooden Boat by Peter Nichols.

One about running - Feet in the Clouds: A Story of Fell-Running and Obsession, by Richard Askwith.

One about swimming - Waterlog, by Roger Deakin. There's a list of other swimming-related books here, but I haven't read the others.

I asked a question about fiction where the protagonists are restoring a house a few years ago, and some of those might work for you.

Also, gardening memoirs - The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift, and The Jewel Garden by Monty Don.

Polly Toynbee's memoir of working low-paid jobs - Hard Work: Life in Low-Pay Britain.

"Work memoirs" might be a useful way to find these books, and led me to this Goodreads list.
posted by paduasoy at 1:25 PM on April 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

I like these books too!

The Dirty Life is a good story of a couple starting a farm.

In Better Off, they move to an Amish (? iirc) community and farm.

The Heart and the Fist gets kind of preachy and slow in some parts, but there are also good chapters where he trains as a boxer and later as a Navy Seal.

You might find some other answers in this question I asked.
posted by slidell at 1:47 PM on April 15, 2018

You might enjoy Kon-Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl's account of his 3-month raft trip across the Pacific Ocean.
posted by belladonna at 1:50 PM on April 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

Tom Neale's account of his time alone on an island in the South Pacific pretty riveting.
It was published as a book, but the entire text is also available here:
An Island to Oneself
posted by clockwork at 2:04 PM on April 15, 2018

Rocket Boys by Homer Hickham.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 2:20 PM on April 15, 2018

One of my all time favourite books, The Worm Forgives the Plough, by John Stewart Collis, was written in England right at the very dawn of mainstream agricultural mechanisation. It's an account of life as a farm labourer in the early part of the Second World War. Detailed, poetic and very evocative. He observes the work in great detail, but always without romanticising it and somehow still makes it all sound beautiful.

Worth finding.
posted by JohnnyForeign at 2:30 PM on April 15, 2018

Mystery series "Shakespeare" by Charlaine Harris. The lead character is Lily Bard who cleans houses for a living in a small Southern town and gets drawn into odd and terrifying situations. (5 books)

Mystery series "Home Repair is Homicide" by Sara Graves. Lead character is Jake Tiptree who bought a fixer-upper house in a small New England town. She discovers that her imagined idyllic life doesn't preclude murder which interferes with home repair. (last I noticed the series is up to #13)
posted by MovableBookLady at 2:31 PM on April 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

In the nonfiction book Hammer Head the writer loses her job at a newspaper and takes one as a carpenter having never done that type of work before. I enjoyed it very much.
posted by Botanizer at 3:07 PM on April 15, 2018

Thank you very much for these suggestions. They all sound appealing (and I've read some of the suggestions). Thank you again!
posted by loveandhappiness at 3:18 PM on April 15, 2018

Longbourn by Jo Baker, a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the servants' perspective (although the events of Austen's novel only take place in the background and you get fully immersed into the twists and turns of their employees lives).

It was a bit of a shock for me to fully realize the amount of hard work that went into keeping the wheels running in even a relatively modest household such as the Bennetts'. But it's also a thoroughly enjoyable and well written book in its own right, not only descriptions of washing laundry by hand (although I'm pretty sure I paused somewhere around page 5 just to give my washing machine a hug, because damn).
posted by sively at 3:23 PM on April 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

You might try the historical novels of Mary E. Pearce. I read an interview with her once in which she said she was fascinated by people at work. It certainly came across in her novels. She wrote ten in all. The Two Farms, Polsinney Harbour, and Apple Tree Lean Down are the three that I've read.

I see Tracy Chevalier's Girl With the Pearl Earring has been mentioned upthread. Another one of hers that will also fit the bill is The Last Runaway, in which the heroine, a young Quaker seamstress, approaches her sewing (she mainly does quilting and millinery) with the seriousness and aesthetic sensibility of an artist. I haven't read any of Chevalier's other novels, but if work is such a focus in those two, it may well be in her other books too.
posted by orange swan at 4:40 PM on April 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Hild by Nicola Griffith has lots of 7th Century Britons (mostly women) going about daily chores while noblemen scheme and wage war.
posted by Quietgal at 5:38 PM on April 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think you want Working by Studs Terkel.
posted by athirstforsalt at 8:47 PM on April 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

I loved Erica Van Horn's Living Locally; as excerpts from a rural diary, it is very activity focused, whether that's renovations or walking the dog.
posted by solarion at 2:23 AM on April 16, 2018

I've enjoyed a couple of Tracy Kidder's books along these lines: The Soul of A New Machine (about developing one of the early mini computers), and House (about building a custom-designed house). He's a very good writer, and they both have a strong narrative flow, so they read more like a novel than non-fiction.
posted by Bron at 7:53 AM on April 16, 2018

Have you read Tracy Kidder? Most of his books are documentaries of real life jobs.
The Soul of a New Machine is about the design of a new Computer at Data General and the protagonist, Tom West, was mefi's own jessamyn's father.
Among Schoolchildren - a year in the life of Mrs. Zajac, a school teacher
House - about the process of designing and building a house.
In a similar vein is A Civil Action by Jonathon Harr, which is about the process of the civil suit brought for trichloroethane contamination in the Woburn water supply.
posted by plinth at 8:01 AM on April 16, 2018

slidell: The Heart and the Fist gets kind of preachy and slow in some parts, but there are also good chapters where he trains as a boxer and later as a Navy Seal.

FYI, I enjoyed this book, but it's Eric Greitens's autobiography. Nothing relating to the events of the past few years, but I suspect that some folks won't want to engage with the guy.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:04 AM on April 16, 2018

I haven't re-read it in years, but I recall that "Lonesome Dove" and Larry McMurtry's other books set in the Old West involved a lot of dust and dirt and sweat and work.

Willa Cather's books "O Pioneers!" and "My Antonia" are set in Nebraska as the first white settlers arrive, and all those poor people did was work and die.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:07 AM on April 16, 2018

Perhaps The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. Lots of jungle trekking.

Also full of hardships on the Amazon is State of Wonder.
posted by agog at 9:09 AM on April 16, 2018

on the science fic side, Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice series is written very much in this vein. it's written from the perspective of an AI in a tone of procedural rationality, a lot of 'oh she is acting this way because of such and such context and this is how I will proceed due to the likely outcomes' or 'this system of government is acting this way because something is imperfect, I will find out starting with basic first steps of talking to the affected parties and whoever else has power in the system to affect this situation'
posted by runt at 9:13 AM on April 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I came here to rec My Side of the Mountain but it was already here! I heartily second that book, it is a great read. Also in the YA trend, I seem to remember that Island of the Blue Dolphins had a lot of description of survival and sustenance work.

This is a little bit of a departure from a lone narrative, but I just finished reading Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey and it was really interesting to get a brief description on some of the daily routines of some prominent artists, writers, musicians, scientists, etc. Not as much of a deep dive as these other works, and not all of the folks listed had a physical activity component in their routines, but it was still a good read.
posted by helloimjennsco at 10:18 AM on April 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Sweetbitter is a semi-autobiographical novel about a young woman working in the Front of House staff of a fancy restaurant in Manhattan. LOTS of description of physical labor and dedication to perfecting a craft (that many people don't actually see as a craft).

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is another semi-autobiographical novel that follows several characters, and because it involves an immigrant family, there's a lot of hard work and bootstraps.

Ken Follet's historical epics have a LOT of this. Pillars of the Earth has the cathedral design and building, and his century trilogy (Fall of Giants and Winter of the World, especially), has a lot of descriptions of people working hard at things.

One of my favorite books of the last decade was The Passage by Justin Cronin. Like The Road, it's a post-apocalyptic novel where small groups of people spend a lot of time traveling to find some sort of salvation. But it's more communal and has more of people working together, so it's a bit less bleak. There's a lot of really great description of how people work to keep small communities (in a lot of danger) afloat, including a lot of descriptions of the actual literal work they do, like keeping ancient wind turbines running. It's the first book of a trilogy, and they all have a lot of this.
posted by lunasol at 1:52 PM on April 16, 2018

Pure, by Andrew Miller (about the guy charged with moving a cemetery in Paris)

Island of the Lost, by Joan Druett (about shipwrecked folks)

Working Stiff, by Judy Melinek (about being a medical examiner)

The Birth House, Amy McKay

Alone, by Richard Byrd
posted by RedEmma at 1:54 PM on April 16, 2018

slidell: The Heart and the Fist gets kind of preachy and slow in some parts, but there are also good chapters where he trains as a boxer and later as a Navy Seal.

FYI, I enjoyed this book, but it's Eric Greitens's autobiography. Nothing relating to the events of the past few years, but I suspect that some folks won't want to engage with the guy.

Oh wow, I just googled him. Somehow I had not made that connection at all. Yeah probably skip that suggestion. Mea culpa.
posted by slidell at 8:42 PM on April 16, 2018

Seconding The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball!
posted by tangosnail at 1:40 PM on April 17, 2018

A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich -- sounds like it'd be boring but is in fact super fascinating. Martha Ballard (obviously) delivered babies with exactly the "energy and productivity" that you describe. I remember one specific passage where she, like, fords a river on horseback in a storm or something equally heroic to get to a mother in labor. She kept METICULOUS diaries about both her midwifery and her domestic life which make for incredible source material, and Ulrich does an excellent job of weaving a biographical and historical narrative about a topic that doesn't get enough attention.
posted by Ragini at 12:05 AM on April 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

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