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Snap Judgments

January 2012

BOOK
NOVELLA CARPENTER AND WILLOW ROSENTHAL: THE ESSENTIAL URBAN FARMER
(Penguin Books)
Gardening books are rarely page-turners, but this one comes as close as they get. Fans of Carpenter know her from her bestselling memoir, Farm City, and from her blog, Ghost Town Farm, named after the garden she established in her Oakland backyard. Now she and Rosenthal, founder of Oakland’s City Slicker Farms, have written this laugh-out-loud, rip-roaring, and miraculously thorough guide to raising your own produce, animals, and bees, in cities or anywhere else. Distilling
a combined 10-plus years of experience with organic, biodynamic, intensive, and permaculture farming, the authors offer easy-to-follow, sustainable, and often cheap
solutions to everything from soil testing, grafting, and pruning your own “urban fruit forest,” to curing a backyard chicken of a cold, to forming a producers’ cooperative. Whether your interest in the current urban-farming revolution runs to harvesting the perfect tomato, saving seeds, or building your own plotting container, you’ll want this book. A+ - EMILY KAISER THELIN

BOOK
JULIA FLYNN SILER: LOST KINGDOM: HAWAII'S LAST QUEEN, THE SUGAR KINGS, AND AMERICA'S FIRST IMPERIAL ADVENTURE
(Grove/Atlantic)
Lost Kingdom is Siler’s second exploration of the death of a dynasty. Her first, The House of Mondavi, was an account of the spectacular fall of the famous wine family. This time, she tackles the last native rulers of Hawaii and their vain attempts to stave off American annexation of their land. She focuses on Queen Liliuokalani, a gifted composer and far-seeing leader who tried to save the monarchy but was outmaneuvered by a rogues’ gallery of American missionaries and magnates and weakened by her own political rivals. Siler, an award-winning reporter, culls her material from a wealth of primary sources (the endnotes alone take up nearly 100 pages), constructing a narrative of both the Hawaiian and the U.S. sides of the struggle. Local history buffs will appreciate anecdotes about the schemings of San Francisco’s own sugar baron, Claus Spreckels, and an unfortunate visit by Mark Twain, whose racist portrayals of the Hawaiian court were widely read at home. Lost Kingdom is not just a valuable account of a particularly ugly chapter in American history; it also serves as a timely cautionary tale of how divided
leadership in the face of a collusion between foreign corporate interests can end in the collapse of a sovereign nation. B+ - SHEERLY AVNI

FILM
SID & NANCY
(MGM)
The new pristine presentation of Blu-ray might seem at odds with the scuzzy squalor of a seminal punk biopic, but then, Sid & Nancy doesn’t exactly shy away from bracing clarity. With as much anarchic vitality and shrewd humor as a movie about gradual mutual suicide can have, director Alex Cox’s 1986 feature recounts the
violent and doomed romance between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his beloved, fellow heroin fiend Nancy Spungen. They’re played by Gary Oldman, in a volcanic, career-launching performance, and a devotedly shrill Chloe Webb. Using the narrative fulcrum of the Pistols’ final show, staged at Winterland in the Western Addition in 1978, Cox keeps a close watch on the toxic love affair, which plays out in scene after scene of paradoxically peppy miserabilism. The resulting portrait is compassionate and comprehending, but drawn with enough detachment to avoid glorifying its subject, and that’s why it still holds up. Cox’s hyperreal style—visually
odd but alive and unpretentious—stays true to the spirit of his enterprise, and also remains fresh. Any film pitting fed-up young people against billy club–swinging cops seems topical now, and this one is instructively timeless. It’s a bracing reminder of how soft movie portraits of musicians have gone lately. A - JONATHAN KIEFER

BOOK
AARON SHURIN: CITIZEN
(City Lights)
This latest book of prose poems from USF creative writing professor Shurin (he has written 10 others) is at least half satisfying. All 64 poems employ the metaphorpacked stream of consciousness that Shurin is known for, each telling its story in one long, reeling sentence, generously punctuated with dashes and ellipses. The best pieces, like “The Stillness,” a monologue by a character who dreams of being a sailor, are moving meditations on human desire; the fluid sentence
structure beautifully captures a man’s sense of longing. Shurin’s strangely evocative imagery is also a delight to unpack, as in this intriguing line from “Cool Dust”: “A
heave of afternoon light pulls a tulip from the turf.” Yet a frustrating number of poems, like “Spring Breeze,” with lines such as “I’m as stupid as a spitball in a jumpsuit,” or “[Cowboy, Don’t…],” about a rabbit asking a cowboy not to eat it, feel somewhat slight—even goofy. Other readers might enjoy the back-and-forth between profundity and playfulness, but by the end of the book, I felt a bit whiplashed. The subtitle of this slim volume could well be “Which of these poems are
not like the others?” B - CASSANDRA FELICIANO

BOOK
FRED SETTERBERG: LUNCH BUCKET PARADISE
(Heyday)
Fictionalizing your childhood memoir is a great way to steer clear of the genre’s potential pitfalls (the cloying first person, the overindulgence), which is exactly what Setterberg has accomplished in this wonderful tale of growing up in the 1950s and ’60s in a suburban Oakland neighborhood. It also helps that Lunch Bucket isn’t your typical bitter exposé of a dark, unhappy youth. The hero does suffer his share of adolescent traumas (what’s a coming-of-age narrative without some bullying
and a horrible first date?), but mostly, his is a rollicking, sometimes heartwarming story. His adventures include getting supremely lost with a handful of ragtag Boy Scouts, learning about sex from his lewd, chain-smoking neighbor, and falling in love with jazz. Setterberg also paints a larger picture of the era’s post– World War II optimism—“The ingenuity that won the war is now lavishing its innovations on the home front…[in the form of] vinyl flooring, portable phones, and Betty Crocker”—
both in the story itself and in page-long philosophical interludes between chapters. But the hero’s youth ends abruptly when a friend is drafted for Nam. He then realizes he doesn’t quite fit into the Edenic world of his middle-class Catholic mother and eccentric father, and leaves it, presumably to start his next chapter: adulthood. A - TAYLOR WILES