Sunday, July 26, 2009

Farm City (Novella Carpenter)

Last month I spent a good hour pulling weeds that had grown up to my knees in the garden. After I was finished you could actually see the pepper and tomato plants that had been camouflaged in a green jungle of overgrowth for the past few weeks. Gardening is not my strong point. Or rather, taking time to learn how to garden and actually maintain it aren't my strong points. My approach is to buy transplants at the farmer's market in May, put them in the ground, and then I let nature take over. Luckily nature is a lot better at growing things than I am.

Novella Carpenter is really good at gardening. So good that she moved way beyond vegetables and kept bees, chickens, turkeys, rabbits, and even pigs in her garden. But she's in Oakland. As in downtown Oakland. Which is not really amenable to large-scale gardens, or as she calls it, her urban farm. Farm City is her account of her time raising livestock, vegetables, and fruits in her backyard.

I wanted to not like Novella. I was afraid she was going to be one of those hipper-than-thou types that goes on and on about how great city life is and how much cooler and better she is than everyone else because of the choices she's made for her lifestyle. And sometimes she did veer toward that area in her writing, but mostly she just comes off as a gutsy urban homesteader taking the term locavore to the most extreme level, exploring her relationship with these animals-turned-dinner in a humane and honest way, feeding her pigs on a diet of Chinatown dumpster dives. Her sense of humor that comes across in her writing separates this book from other locavore accounts; it's not the idyllic rural account of Barbara Kingsolver. It's more no nonsense and sparse at times, but in a good way.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Do-Over! (Robin Hemley)

You know those things you did when you were a kid/teenager that still kind of haunt you? Like not learning how to ride a bike (just a generic example). And giving up on piano lessons because the teacher wanted you to play classical music and you wanted to play the Beatles (again, just another generic example). Robin Hemley confronts his own list of do-overs at the age of 48 in Do-Over!, including kindergarten, an elementary school play where he flubbed his lines, eighth grade, and a foreign exchange year cut short.

I loved reading this book. I would end a chapter and ask Jim questions like if he ever went to camp (answer: yes), what his favorite grade was (answer: twelfth, because it was the last) and his least favorite one (eighth grade, same as Hemley's). (My favorite was tenth grade, the year I went to a great school in Colorado Springs, and my least favorite was seventh, when it was very, very uncool to be smart). Hemley assimilates easily back into kindergarten. Of all the grades he revisits, these kids are most accepting of him.

By the end of my first day, we're all a bit confused. If I wasn't having a midlife crisis before, I am now. And my classmates are having a bit of a beginning-life crisis---not quite sure what to make of the new kid.

As we're waiting at the end of the day to be dismissed, we sit on the floor with our coats and backpacks, legs "crisscross applesauce," which is a little difficult for me.

"Are you going to Extended Day?" Stefan asks me.
"No," I say. "I'm going home."
"Do you ride the bus?" Louis asks.
"Oh. Well, who's picking you up?" Haley asks.
"My wife," I say.
There's a long moment of silence as they take that in and blink at me like cats.
"Oh," says Stefan finally. "I thought you were going to say your dad."

Hemley finds that the second time around isn't necessarily easier, and still feels a lot of the nervousness/embarrassment he felt the first time. Or there's added nervousness when he starts to think about the strangeness of his project and what others must be thinking about it.

I'd often think about my own do-over list while reading. The only item I really could think of was piano lessons (a common answer, according to Hemley), but instead of a do-over list, I was forming a different list in my head, what some people call a bucket list, or a life list (my favorite example is Maggie Mason's Mighty Life List, and she even recently got herself a sponsor!). I haven't really decided what would be on it, but in some ways it might resemble a do-over list in that some items would be things that I could have done in the past but didn't (like learn how to ride a horse, hike Pikes Peak) and other items that either I'd forget that I'd want to do or might need an extra push to actually go do them (either because they're out of my comfort zone or take commitment or extra funds, etc.). Sometimes just writing down a list of things you want to accomplish can really help push you in the right direction. I'm thinking of posting it on Facebook so then I have a built-in cheering section and can document the progress.

(Oh, and I did finally learn to ride a bike. At age 25. In a Jewish Community Center parking lot on a borrowed bike. So in some ways I guess that's a version of my own do-over.)

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Shakespeare (Bill Bryson)

Most of my reading these days gets done at night, right before I fall asleep, which is translating to a lot of "easy" reading, for lack of a better term: entertaining, nothing with too many details, uncomplicated, nothing really considered too literary. So I surprised myself when I requested a biography of Shakespeare at the library. But it was by Bill Bryson, who I've loved, and who I've loved not so much. I knew I had made the right decision when I read the first sentence of the book:

Before he came into a lot of money in 1839, Richard Plantagenet Temple Nugent Brydges Chandos Grenville, second Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, led a largely uneventful life.

Fiction workshops can be built around first sentences, and this one, although considered nonfiction, is right up there with the best. (Grenville had been the owner of what is now known as the Chandos portrait, which is believed to be of Shakespeare.) Shakespeare: The World as a Stage, Bryson explains, "was written not so much because the world needs another book on Shakespeare as this series does. The idea is a simple one: to see how much of Shakespeare we can know, really know, from the record. Which is one reason, of course, it's so slender."

There isn't a lot on record of Shakespeare, but this hasn't stopped people from speculating, sometimes wildly, about his life and who exactly he was. Bryson brings us back to Shakespeare's time, tells us what we know, what we might, and what we don't. (He does an excellent job near the end of the book dispelling some of the myths of the Shakespeare conspiracists who believe that someone else wrote the plays, noting that much of the drive behind that movement came from Delia Bacon, an American who believed, quite wrongly, that she was connected to Francis Bacon, and that Francis Bacon was then the real playwright.)

It's definitely a good read and would probably be an excellent audiobook for those of you who appreciate such things.