Monthly Archives: July 2009

Farm City

my friend Novella's book is AWESOME

Farm City is an awesome read, written by Novella Carpenter, whose book I rank up with Bill Buford’s Heat, with the spirit of Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. And I love the voice–Novella the narrator often wonders why people open up to her and accept her so readily (among others, Chris Lee of Eccolo, who teaches her how to prepare pork from her pigs); the voice of the narrator (straightforward, funny, unblinking to the point of childlike wonder, compassionate) is hers, and as a reader I found myself liking her so very much.

I mean, she describes her community in the ghetto with compassion and humor (describing the “tumbleweeds” as “tumbleweaves”).

I’ve been meaning to buy the book at one of our local stores, at one of Novella’s book tour readings, but my availability did not intersect with her schedule. And so I ordered the book off Amazon–but for as long as I waited to buy her tome, I wasted no time in cracking it open and settling in for what turned out to be an absorbing, delightful, educational reading of a book that drips with optimism and moxie in a world that has in recent months, gone dark and brooding.

Novella has a farm.  She has a farm on an abandoned lot in a part of Oakland nicknamed “Ghost Town,” near the freeway and BART tracks. I’ve visited her farm and was astonished on my first visit to discover an oasis in a part of town that is not a destination site for many–most people drive past it on the freeway, ride past it on BART, there are very few grocery stores, and abandoned lots are many. Like the Valley of Ashes in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  But on her street corner, behind a chain link fence, is a lot full of green vegetables and myriad fruits, with a quiet symphony of animal noises.


The farm is serious work, with its share of tragedy: some of her birds die at the mercy of wild neighborhood dogs. Because the abandoned lot on which she squats and plants the garden is purposely unlocked, sometimes others come by and harvest things without permission.  (This, she takes in stride–it’s not “her” land and she willingly shares the harvest).  A farm, rural or urban, is not a perfect fairytale. Nature is unpredictable–but rewarding and complex, too.

When Novella’s animals are slaughtered (by her or, rarely, by a third party), it is not a heartless act but a very complex one; sad, respectful, awful, spiritual, and ultimately, pragmatic.  Once during a visit I commented on how “cute” her rabbits were and Novella quickly responded, “They’re food. Don’t fall in love.”  BTW, they were totally cute.

When she buys pigs at auction, unsure of what “Barrow” or “Gilt” might mean, she asks a boy, “Does G mean ‘girl’?” The way she describes the boy’s reaction, “He looked at me as if he might fall over from the sheer power of my enormous idiocy. Then he nodded, so stunned by my stupidity he couldn’t speak,” is so full of humility and frank humor that I was bowled over as a reader. I laughed out loud. (lol to you). Most writers in the foodie/food realm are so pompous and full of themselves, that I was truly delighted and charmed by Novella here, as I am in real life.

I’m always interested in novel structure (in recent months, I’ve been blogging less because I’ve been steeped in writing my fiction), and I took a quick look at how Novella structured Farm City: Rabbit, Turkey, Pig. (Those who read her blog know she has added goats to her farm in recent years, goats with whom I have visited and fallen in love).  She now has goats because during her month of living exclusively off her farm and a 100 yard circumference, which she includes in Farm City, she decided she wanted to have a ready source of milk, sorely missed during that month.

Bilbo and the baby goats sunning on the steps
(Bilbo, Georgina, and Orla).

The book is written, more or less, chronologically–because Novella really did start with rabbits, moving on to turkeys, and then pigs.  But I still found the livestock-centric structure interesting and effective because yes, to a farmer life and time revolves around the livestock at hand.

The book is on Oprah’s list of 25 books to read this summer, and deservedly so.