New Yorker

Someone emailed me a few days ago to tell me my book was mentioned in the New Yorker. I went to my unread stack of reading materials (it’s busy, prime farm time) and found the latest issue, and frantically found the following mention from Elizabeth Kolbert:

The basic setup of “No Impact Man” is, by this point, familiar. During the past few years, one book after another has organized itself around some nouveau-Thoreauvian conceit. This might consist of spending a month eating only food grown in an urban back yard, as in “Farm City” (2009), or a year eating food produced on a gentleman’s farm, as in “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” (2007). It might involve driving across the country on used cooking oil, as in “Greasy Rider” (2008), or giving up fossil fuels for goats, as in “Farewell, My Subaru” (2008).

Of course anyone who has read Farm City knows that it is more than a stunt. I’ve been farming in the city for over ten years! When I met with my editors, I was clear: I will not write this as if it all happened over one stunt year (it *is* their favorite literary device). Why? Because farming takes time. You learn things over years, not weeks or months. So I was really disappointed to be locked into the stunt year category. It’s true that there are a few chapters in Farm City devoted to telling the story of eating out of my farmlet exclusively for one month. I decided to include that stunt because almost everyone’s first question is: do you live off the products of your farm? Do you ever go to the grocery store? The idea of self-reliance is particularly American, and I think that is why so many people want to read books about survival stunts. By the end of my stunt month I discovered that the idea of self-sufficiency is a ruse. Like Kolbert points out at the end of her article, real environmental change won’t happen until we come together and work for change as a community.

As for my book, I hope Kolbert will take the time to read Farm City and see that urban farming is not just a stunt, it is a true life: and it is taking the country by storm.



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Readings this Week

Hey, just a reminder that if you haven’t seen my little dog and pony show, I’ll be at the following bookstores this week:

Thursday, July 30 at Pegasus on Shattuck in downtown Berkeley. I’m bringing honey and comb, hopefully! 7:30.

Sunday, August 2 at Reader’s Books in Sonoma, 130 E. Napa Street. I heard there’s going to be some yummy foodstuffs! 4pm

Can’t wait to meet you!

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So many wonderful people

I should really get off the farm more often. I’ve had a few lovely experiences recently while on book tour.

1. Copperfield’s reading in Sebastopol. There’s something lonely about showing up to a town, knowing no one, wandering around the park, wondering which part of the book I’ll read. But then I walked into the bookstore and the great staff were so welcoming and friendly, I immediately felt like I was with family. We had a small but eager crowd, and I set off reading and talking. Right before I got my spiel on, the mom and dad of Willow (a character in Farm City and my future co-author) showed up–with flowers! So adorable.

After I read some passages, everyone had great stories to share and I signed books and cut off tiny slices of my ever-shrinking prosciutto. One couple told me about a restaurant owner in Amsterdaam who is keeping two hogs in the back of the restaurant. The plate scrappings are collected and then pointedly carried through the dining area and out to the sty. Yes!

2. Back at the ranch, I have received some amazingingly generous gifts. A burdizzo! The goat castrating tool of my dreams. Thank you so much Art! A care package from some awesome ladies in LA. And yes, the bras fit, thank you. Someone else sent me a Target card, another a check for the farm. Gifts like these make me so happy and I feel blessed to be a writer who appeals to the generous.

3. I had the chance to meet a few really amazing photographers, too. One is Brown Cannon, who shot some really lovely photos of me and Chris at Eccolo, and on the farm. They will appear in August in the SFMag’s food issue. Another photo fella I met recently is Rob Howard. He kicks ass. After a long morning of shooting, we went out for Pho breakfast and talked travel. Look for his photos of me in the September issue of Popular Mechanics.

4. I cringe when I’m invited to do a tv show. I’m not photogenic, I have chin hair, and I have a problem with my sailor’s mouth. So I was grumpy when I headed to Hayward to shoot a live interview with Henry Tennebaum. I arrived uncaffienated and annoyed, I had to get up extra early to milk the goats. Henry was hilarious, with a John Water’s ‘stache and surrounded by Ms. Asia contestants. We ended up having a lot of fun. I have no idea how the show turned out. Same day I went to KGO in SF to be on Gene Burns–an AM radio show. He has one of those real radio guy voices and can read ad copy like a mo-fo. He was so sweet and had great questions, and frankly, I have a little crush on him now. Another great radio interview was with Sinday Roy with KPFA. He had really read the book and had insightful questions. Interestingly, Rose Aguilar is a raw food vegan, so maybe that’s why Sinday did the show?

Weird fact: many of the audience members of my readings have been vegan. At Green Arcade (god: their book selection is mind-blowing), a lovely vegan came up and we chatted for a long time about gardening and writing before she mentioned that she doesn’t eat meat. Now, how cool is that?

Anyway, all I’m saying is: life is surprising.

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Tour Recap

FYI: This is just the same post from the GT Farm blog….

A wise person advised me to keep a journal about my book tour–writing down the names of people I met, things I saw, and questions that were asked. Of course I didn’t do it. Much to my regret.

Here’s what I remember, very hazily: Flew to Portland and went to KBOO for a radio interview (never heard it). Dinner at Paley’s Place (rabbit raviolis) with my uncle and aunt (delish). Met up with Lana and Bill at my hotel. So good to see her. She brought her grandmother’s  tweezers. Which we employed that next morning as I had to go on Northwest AM–a television show–and couldn’t do so with my beard. Lana also cut my hair that morning, to the horror of room service. Met an urban farmer in Portland randomly (we just drove up, she came outside and gave us a tour). Her garden–Kung Fu Farm–put mine to shame. To shame! Lots of chickens. Read at Powell’s to a nice audience and offered people prosciutto (if they bought a book!).

Bombed into Seattle around 1:20am after my reading in Portland. Billy was demanding Dick’s burgers, so we stopped in and had a deluxe and milkshake. Stayed on my friend’s floor for the next three days. Read at the beautiful Town Hall. Met people from Grist. Rode my friend’s bike to Third Place Books. Interview with KUOW. Ate Thai food. Did a conversation/dinner/chocolate reading with Warren Etheridge. We mostly talked about growing pot. He’s great.

Went to my hometown of Shelton where I recuperated and my mom fed me in between naps. Her rural town garden is really going great guns, and she’s thinking about bees. Flew home the next day. Arrived home to see that our landlord painted the house pink and red, the goats were thirsty, and the garden just looked okay compared to what I had seen in the great Northwest.

Also: took zero photos. I’m an ass.

Tomorrow, July 1 (rabbit, rabbit) I’ll be on It’s Your Call with Rose Aguilar at 10am on KALW (call in with some love, ok?), then reading at Green Arcade books on Market, a new awesome bookstore filled with green living and nature titles.  It’s right by Zuni. 7pm.

July 2, I’ll be at Copperfields in Sebastopol. Might bring my extractor and do a demo.

Finally, Michael Jackson: RIP. I really loved you. And I’m so sorry.


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Paging Dwight Garner

Dwight: I want to send you some prosciutto, what’s your address? It’s not a bribe–you already wrote the most wonderful, sweet review of my book in the New York Times–but a big thank you.

A positive review like this has made my book life very happy indeed. In fact, the other day, after reading the review, my serotonin levels were so high, I got pulled over. I was still smiling when they gave me the $147 ticket for driving on the wrong side of the road.

Here’s the review, in all of its glory:


June 12, 2009
Living Off the Land, Surrounded by Asphalt

The Education of an Urban Farmer
By Novella Carpenter
276 pages. The Penguin Press. $25.95.
I had a feeling I might like this memoir when I came upon on its first sentence, a gentle twist on the opening of Isak Dinesen’s “Out of Africa.” Here is Novella Carpenter: “I have a farm on a dead-end street in the ghetto.”
But I didn’t truly fall in love with “Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer” until I hit Page 38. That’s when the bees that Ms. Carpenter has purchased from a mail order company arrive at her post office in Oakland, Calif. A panicked postal employee calls, begging her to pick them up because they’re attracting other bees and “freaking everyone out.”
So Ms. Carpenter hurries over, picks up the humming box, and casually plops it into the front basket of her bicycle. Then she has a parade. “I proceeded to ride down Telegraph Avenue, laughing out loud at the bees who tried to follow us amid the traffic,” she writes. “At stoplights I looked down at the mesh box, the bees churning around, and told them to get ready for” — and here she gives her neighborhood’s nickname — “GhostTown.” Fresh, fearless and jagged around the edges, Ms. Carpenter’s book, an account of how she raised not only fruit and vegetables but also livestock on a small, scrubby abandoned lot in Oakland, puts me in mind of Julie Powell’s “Julie & Julia” and Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love.”
Like those writers Ms. Carpenter is not a pampered girl or a trustafarian; in fact she has a beautifully cranky side and can drink and swear like a sailor. Like them too she is hyper-literate. The whole beekeeping business is preceded by a bit of Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Arrival of the Bee Box,” including these excellent lines: “I lay my ear to furious Latin./I am not Caesar./I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.”
And finally, like Ms. Powell and Ms. Gilbert, Ms. Carpenter is very, very funny. She won’t kill the slugs that have wrecked her garden, as some people propose, by drowning them in Budweiser, because “this seemed suspiciously close to buying the slugs a beer, which was more generous than I felt.” When “yoga people” suggest she stop drinking coffee, she thinks: “I want to tell them maybe they should saw off their legs.”
“Farm City” begins as Ms. Carpenter and Bill, her auto-mechanic boyfriend, move from Seattle to a small apartment in Oakland. They steer clear of San Francisco, she writes, because they are misfits and because San Francisco “is filled with successful, polished people.” Oakland, on the other hand, “is scruffy, loud, unkempt.” They fit right in. They fill their apartment, at least partly, with furniture they’ve scavenged from the street.
It is a rough neighborhood, “a postcard of urban decay.” There are gunfights and drug dealers; homeless men wander about, muttering. Oakland has the highest murder rate in the country, she notes. She and Bill take it all in and begin referring to the lost hairpieces that flutter down the street — they have fallen off the heads of hookers — as “tumbleweaves.”
The garden Ms. Carpenter begins to create, at first squatting and then getting the owner’s permission, is anything but bucolic. A loud freeway runs nearby; the place borders on a repair shop and junkyard; a billboard overlooking the lot warns against sexual predators.
Before long, however, she transforms this lot into a small slice of paradise. “There was a lime tree near the fence, sending out a perfume of citrus blossoms from its dark green leaves. Stalks of salvias and mint, artemisia and penstemon. The thistlelike leaves of artichokes glowed silver. Strawberry runners snaked underneath raspberry canes.” She begins to add animals — the bees, turkeys, ducks, a goose, rabbits and finally pigs — to the mix.
“Farm City” is filled with terrific stories. But as it strides artfully along, you begin to see that Ms. Carpenter has other things, even a larger argument, on her mind. Her own parents were back-to-the-landers whose marriage went bust when she was only 4. She blames rural solitude. And by gardening in a bustling urban space she wants to have it all: ducks and heirloom artichokes and, well, friends.
“I still regard the country as a place of isolation, full of beauty — maybe — but mostly loneliness,” she observes. “So when friends plan their escape to the country (after they save enough money to buy rural property), where they imagine they’ll split wood, milk goats and become one with nature, I shake my head. Don’t we ever learn anything from the past?”
At heart “Farm City” is more about Ms. Carpenter’s experiences with livestock than it is about growing plump tomatoes. In fact “Farm City” is a serious, if tragicomic, meditation on raising and then killing your own animals. She wants to have “a dialogue with life,” she writes, and she realizes she can do that only by also having a dialogue with death.
Animals run through this book like messy toddlers at a busy playground, and Ms. Carpenter names and adores just about all of them. The bustle is invigorating. But she is raising most of them as meat animals and sees no contradiction in loving them and, ultimately, seeing them — as painlessly and humanely as possible —to their ends. There is gallows humor here. She dispatches a duck in her bathtub and notes that it “went from being a happy camper to a being a headless camper.”
The two pigs, Red Durocs, are the biggest job. They eat so much that by the end Ms. Carpenter and Bill are forced to spend hours foraging through Dumpsters to feed them. These pigs once ate pellets. “Now they were eating Chinese,” she proudly writes, “like good urban pigs.”
On one of her Dumpster-diving missions, for which she often wears a headlamp, Ms. Carpenter meets a local chef, Chris Lee, who was for many years a farm produce buyer for Alice Waters’s restaurant, Chez Panisse. He allows her to feed her pigs from the glorious dumpster behind his own restaurant, Eccolo.
Once her pigs are killed (and badly, to her horror, by a woman she’d hired to do the job), Mr. Lee helps her carefully make prosciutto and salami and soppressata out of them. “We had used all the parts of the pig,” she writes, “the ultimate show of respect.”
“Farm City” is a consistently involving book that includes one of the purest expressions of happiness I’ve read in a while, so I’ll end with that: “I felt young and healthy,” Ms. Carpenter writes, “and nostalgic for the present.”


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NY Times book review

I almost barfed with happiness the day I read the NYTimes Book Review’s blurb about my book. I’m a fan of the reviewer–writer and editor Dominique Browning–so when she wrote: “FARM CITY: The Education of an Urban Farmer (Penguin, $25.95; available in mid-June), is easily the funniest, weirdest, most perversely provocative gardening book I’ve ever read. I couldn’t put it down,” I hit my hand on the desk and said, “no way!” My co-worker squealed when I read it aloud.  

Later on in the review, Ms. Browning wasn’t as kind–she intimated that I might be a psychopath–but it’s cool (I mean, maybe she’s right). For me, a first time author, just being reviewed in the nytimes is a great honor and I am humbled and escastic and yes, a little barfy. 

 To read the whole thing, go here.


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Bookseller lunch report

God, why didn’t I take photos?

Wendy Pearl, the greatest sales rep on planet Earth arranged two great pre-pub events at Ghosttown Farm last week. The idea was to show people who will be selling Farm City that I wasn’t making shit up. That there is indeedy a farm in the ghetto.

Okay, maybe not. I think the idea was to have fun, show booksellers the farm, sign a couple books, and of course, hold some baby goats.

Chris Lee and Samin arrived first, bringing delicious Ghosttown Farm goodies like a frittata with new potatoes and kale, rabbit rillettes (yes, one of the bunnies made the ultimate sacrifice), a salad, and Chris’s specialty salamis and pancetta. Since they are in the pig section of the book, it made sense for them to be there cutting salumi, right? Chris had never been to the farm, so it was fun to show him around.

As we set up, Chris eyed the farm–my outhouse to be specific–“so are these people straight?” he said. Meaning, are they “normal”. I shrugged. Maybe they would be horrified at my rickety found tables, the greywater system, the goat turds on the stairs?

Then they began to trickle in: all manner of freaky book-loving people. Some of them had even read the advance reading copies and said they liked my book. I exhaled. Chris broke out his knives, Samin passed out the food. Booksellers came from all over the Bay Area, and I was mighty flattered. Thanks to Wendy and Lindsay and all the good book sellers!

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