Archives For Novella Carpenter


A Brief Review of

Farm City: The Education of An Urban Farmer.
Novella Carpenter.

Hardback: The Penguin Press, 2009.
Buy Now:  [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

FARM CITY - Novella CarpenterFull of grit and wit, Novella Carpenter’s Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer is one of the best pieces of writing that I have read this year.  She begins, memorably:

I have a farm on a dead-end street in the ghetto.  My back stairs are dotted with chicken turds.  Bales of straw come undone in the parking area next to my apartment.  I harvest lettuce in an abandoned lot. I awake in the mornings to the sound of farm animals mingled with my neighbor’s blaring car alarm.

Having long been intrigued by the idea of urban farming and having dabbled in it a bit myself and with friends over the last few years, I knew that Farm City was a book that I had to read.  What came as a surprise, however, was how mesmerized I became by the honest, raw beauty of Carpenter’s writing.  Readers should be forewarned that this is not a how-to book (even the most passionate of my urban farming friends admits that raising pigs in the city, as Carpenter eventually comes to do, is unfathomable in most cities in the U.S.).  The book unfolds through three main storylines, all of which revolve around Carpenter’s raising of a certain type of animal: turkeys (intended for Thanksgiving dinner, although only one survives), rabbits and finally the almost unimaginable, pigs.  Interspersed throughout these primary stories are tales of her raising chickens and bees and growing a host of fruits and vegetables, both familiar and exotic.

Carpenter’s urban world is full of vibrant characters, both humans and farm animals.  It is not insignificant that Carpenter, her boyfriend Bill and this host of colorful characters inhabit a neighborhood of Oakland known as GhostTown, which she describes with her typical humor:

…[W]e discovered that our neighborhood was called GhostTown, for all its long-abandoned businesses, condemned houses, and overgrown lots.  The empty lot next to our house was not rare: there was one, sometimes two on every block.  And through the vacant streets rolled GhostTown tumbleweeds: the lost hairpieces of prostitutes. Tumbleweaves. (11)

The abandonment of this place is a key factor in the narrative of Farm City, creating in a sense a clean slate on which Carpenter and friends can reimagine urban life.  One of the book’s most striking examples of this reimagination is Carpenter’s stumbling into the opportunity to learn Italian-style meat-processing (salami, prosciutto, etc.) from Chef Christopher Lee of Berkeley’s swanky Italian eatery, Eccolo.  She meets Lee after she is caught plundering of Eccolo’s dumpster in search of feed for her ravenous pigs.  They strike up a friendship and Lee eventually helps her to process much of the meat from her pigs.

While Carpenter’s superb writing will be savored by readers of all sorts, her stories of urban farming will be an inspiration to those of us who daily imagine the transformation of abandoned urban places and who are convicted that a return to the basics of a locally-oriented agricultural existence is key to that transformation (even if we will never be so bold as to raise pigs in the city!).


ORION Magazine Reviews
Two New Books on Crows.

PERHAPS THE MOST familiar native animal humans are likely to encounter, corvids (a group that includes crows, ravens, rooks, magpies, and jays) are widely distributed throughout six continents. But history and mythology have used a vilifying pen to describe these dark birds, and they are often regarded with a suspicious and unsettled eye. Two authors across the world from one another, Lyanda Lynn Haupt (Seattle) and Esther Woolfson (Scotland) have dedicated their lives to questioning this “vague uneasiness” as Haupt calls it. As human and wildlife habitats continue to overlap in a struggle for resources, Haupt’s Crow Planet and Woolfson’s Corvus both question, then show us, how to coexist with what Haupt calls “this slight discomfort.” And even how to “rejoice in its meaning.”

After moving to Seattle, Haupt loses her bearings and falls into a depression. Stuck in the city, she must train herself how to value urban nature, and does this chiefly through observing the crows in her neighborhood, even if it means bringing binoculars on trips to the supermarket. Woolfson, on the other hand, shares not just a neighborhood, but her very home with a procession of birds. There are doves, parrots, and canaries, as well as a wild rescued magpie, starling, and crow; and at the heart of them all, Chicken, a timid but peaceful rook, rescued as a nestling (and named after a New York drag queen, of all things). In the long literary tradition of human-animal relationships, Chicken is Woolfson’s Elsa, her Rascal, her Mijbil.

Read the full review:

Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness
Lyanda Haupt.

Hardback: Little, Brown, 2009
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Esther Woolfson.

Hardback: Counterpoint, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

An Excerpt from
By Novella Carpenter.
Read the excerpt:

Novella Carpenter.

Hardback: Penguin, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Jason Byassee Reviews CHRISTIAN MISSION

The most interesting chapter in Dana Robert’s beautiful new book Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Wiley-Blackwell) describes the relatively recent cult around the feast day of Bernard Mizeki, a Mozambican missionary and martyr who evangelized the Shona of southern Africa in the 19th century. For some time, white Anglicans observed his June 18th feast day with English reserve. And then, in amidst the rejection of colonialism, the observance became Africanized, Bernard a symbol of indigenous African Christianity. Gatherings of hundreds at the place where he died became gatherings of hundreds of thousands, where “the mountainside is alive with worship to God.” Some aspects of this long weekend celebration are alarming, as with any (humanly) unplanned new movement of the Spirit. For example, one of the many pilgrims seeking healing, already being frail, will likely die during the feast. When this happens it is said that Bernard’s spirit takes one person with him in revenge for his martyrdom! Such excess enthusiasm is to be expected alongside vast multilingual communion services, healings, exorcisms, theatrical reenactments of his life, and more.

One might take this enthusiasm to be typical of “African religion”—with the sort of sneer westerners once reserved for animists and Muslims. But with Africa as Christianity’s future (as Robert and others prophesy), and such respectful treatments of its layered sophistication as hers, what more faithful thing can we say about such observances of the faith as the cult of Mizeki?

On a recent trip to Uganda I discovered a dramatically different Anglican way of observing revered founding missionaries: in almost total silence. And I saw a very different Roman Catholic way of remembering the same missionary founders. Could Africa’s greatest gift to the church catholic through time and space be the blurring of such lines as these (“Catholic” and “Protestant”) in a new conflagration of the Spirit?

Read the full review:

Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion.
Dana L. Robert.

Paperback: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

BookForum’s Review of
The Peep Diaries: How We’re Learning to Love
Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors

If you’re reading this review online, you’ve elected to do so instead of looking at baby pictures, porn, or any number of blogs, vlogs, and feeds—a seemingly limitless collection of media and information. It’s shocking what people will put online. Or, strike that, it’s no longer shocking. In a worryingly short amount of time, many of us have become very comfortable with oversharing our lives and consuming the personal details of others on the Internet. It is this rapid shift that concerns Canadian social critic Hal Niedzviecki in his book The Peep Diaries. Niedzviecki meditates on the changes wrought by the broad new set of practices, abetted by technology, in which so many of us participate. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, personal blogs, and so on constitute what Niedzviecki designates “Peep Culture,” “in which a desire to be watched and to watch others being watched pervades almost everything we do.”

Read the full review:

The Peep Diaries: How We’re Learning to Love
Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors.

Hal Niedzviecki.

Paperback: City Lights, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]


THE NY TIMES Review of
Novella Carpenter’s

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.”

Read the full review:

Novella Carpenter.

Hardcover: Penguin Press, 2009
Buy now: [ Doulos Christou Books $22 ] [ Amazon ]

by Laura Jacobs.

Laura Jacobs is an urban miniaturist. In her sleek, pitch-perfect second novel, The Bird Catcher, she lavishes delectable attention on the subtle distinctions wrought by taste, class, money, and style in the city on which she trains her eagle eye. But there is nothing diminutive in her vision: Under the force of her piercing, halogen-bright gaze, the world cracks open, large and luminous.

Her latest protagonist, thirty-one-year-old Margaret Snow, is quietly but desperately trying to keep her head above water. A dropout from the graduate art-history program at Columbia University, Margaret now spends her days at Saks, where she creates extravagant displays for the windows that line Fifth Avenue. Much of her free time is spent bird-watching, either in the upper reaches of Central Park or at her weekend cottage on the Chesapeake Bay. Jacobs limns Margaret’s mounting despair with deftness and restraint; it’s not until page 59 that we learn Margaret’s adored husband, Charles—a scholar of ancient Assyria, university professor, and fellow bird enthusiast—was killed in a plane crash.

Read the full review:

Laura Jacobs.

Hardcover: St. Martins, 2009.
Buy now: [ Doulos Christou Books $20 ] [ Amazon ]

A review of David Sedley’s
Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity

In case you haven’t noticed: 2009 is Darwin Year. On 24 November, 150 years will have passed since the theory of evolution by natural selection was first fully presented and defended, in the first edition of the Origin of Species. Darwin’s theory dealt the coup de grâce to the teleological way of thinking about nature which had dominated the minds of both the learned and the lay for more than two millennia, before it was gradually undermined by the rise of modern science (though, typically, perhaps, it spawned more arguments in its last phase than it ever did before). At least that is what people used to think where I come from. But then they had not yet been confronted with American Creationism.

‘Creationism’ in the contemporary everyday sense of the word is the view that the account of creation in Genesis is literally true and can be supported by science. According to recent polls, up to 66 percent of Americans share this view.1 Historically, this sense of the word seems to have developed from the more precisely defined (though extensionally wider) notion that the biological species inhabiting the earth have not evolved gradually from variants of other species but were created the way they are from the outset. Creationism in the everyday sense emerged in opposition to Darwinism. It invariably (I think) comes in a package with the belief that the biological species were created the way they are so as to be well adapted for a purpose. That is to say, it is closely related to a teleological way of thinking about nature.

Read the full review:

Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity.
David Sedley.

Hardcover: U. of California Press, 2007.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]