Book Notes

Book Notes

New and noteworthy, local and langurous

Earthworms Are Easy

I’m not normally a squeamish person, but the idea of reading Amy Stewart’s The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms (Alonquin Books; $23.95) gave me the squirms. Her subject is, after all, earthworms, billions upon billions of them, boring and churning through the earth, through root systems, through caskets, through, someday, our own bodies. But from the opening pages, when this North Coast Journal garden columnist inverts a diagram of an apple tree so that the roots are on the top, The Earth Moved wormed into me, trans-forming revulsion into curiosity as Stewart explores the natural history of the worm. Her tale, a series of connected essays, begins with Darwin, whose final book was a study of the earthworm. An avid gardener but not a trained scientist, Stewart gets up close and personal with the 10,000 worms in the black plastic compost bin on her porch, goes on an Ahab-like search for a three-foot-long giant worm in Oregon, and presents an impressive array of worm lore and knowledge, throwing in a Nietzsche epigram here, an e.e. cummings poem there. It’s a literate, engaging read that left me with a newfound respect for this deaf, dumb and blind creature. Amy Stewart has shown me my inner worm.

–R. V. Scheide

Amy Stewart reads from ‘The Earth Moved’ twice in the North Bay. Wednesday, April 14, at Copperfield’s Books, 2316 Montgomery Village Drive, Santa Rosa. 7pm. Free. 707.578.8938. Tuesday, April 20, at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. 1pm. Free. 415.927.0960.

Group Growing

In the summer of 1971, Art Kopecky and a group of friends piled into a converted bread truck dubbed the Mind Machine and wandered gypsylike across the American West. They leapfrogged between hippie enclaves and eventually landed at the New Buffalo commune where he would settle down and live for the next 12-plus years, chronicling the entire experience in a series of journals. Recently Kopecky, now a fine woodworker residing in Sebastopol, decided to unearth these journals and publish excerpts from them in a nearly untouched form, realizing that he had unwittingly produced a record of this historical time and place. The resulting book is New Buffalo: Journals from a Taos Commune (University of New Mexico Press; $24.95).

The journals are simple, quickly scribed but philosophical accounts of day-to-day life at New Buffalo: the fast turnover of names and faces, the intoxicated celebrations, the police raids, the internal wrangling, the politics of irrigation, and the ultimate satisfaction of hard work as its own reward. They are also a record of New Buffalo itself growing up, from wide-eyed idealism and endless parties, to crafts production as livelihood, to full self-sufficiency as a dairy farm. And though the details are sparse, by the end, a story arises that is far more than the sum of its individual entries.

–Michael Houghton

Arthur Kopecky reads from ‘New Buffalo’ on Wednesday, April 7, at 7pm. Copperfield’s Books, 138 N. Main St., Sebastopol. Free. 707.823.2618.

Got Nukes?

When George W. Bush mispronounces the word “nuclear” as “nucular,” is he committing a typo or what Stanford linguistics professor Geoffrey Nunberg terms a “thinko”? That’s the starting point for the title essay from Nunberg’s latest collection of NPR Fresh Air radio commentaries and New York Times articles, Going Nucular: Language, Politics and Culture in Confrontational Times (Public Affairs; $22.95). With the dexterity of a spider monkey, Nunberg picks the topic clean, providing the reader with new insight on the subtleties of language. “No president has taken more flak over his language than George W. Bush,” Nunberg writes. “That’s understandable enough; Bush’s malaprops can make him sound like someone who learned a language over a bad cell-phone connection.” It’s possible that Bush’s mispronunciation of “nuclear” is an involuntary typo, Nunberg says, a product of the word’s relatively recent folk etymology.

On the other hand, Yale-educated Bush could be committing a thinko, a conscious choice to mangle the word, either to portray himself as one of the bubbas, or to enamor himself with certain hawkish Pentagon types, who prefer to mispronounce the word when referring specifically to nucular weapons.

Rather than answer the question, Going Nucular provides readers with the tools to search out the president’s speech for themselves. Nunberg, who serves as the chair of the Usage Panel for the American Heritage Dictionary, approaches each subject with scientific objectivity delivered via a standup comic act. He cracks wise then gets wise, sifting through the data–language–to shake out ever-elusive meaning. Rarely polemical, frequently hysterical, Going Nucular is one of those rare books that can change the way you think, or at least the way you say “nuclear.”


I’m OK and So Am I

I get the willies going into the self-help section of the bookstore. You see all these needy, desperate people clutching Kleenex and searching for answers and affirmation. You can practically feel the angst-vortex around the aisle. Eeech! OK, so maybe I’m displacing some inner fear. Perhaps I’m keeping a secret from myself. So how does that make me feel? I’m not sure. Maybe somewhere between Captain Superior and King Kong. Give me time. I’m still sorting out the cast of “inner characters” described in Dan Neuharth’s Secrets You Keep From Yourself: How to Stop Sabotaging Your Happiness (St. Martin’s Press; $24.95).

This Marin psychotherapist has a breezy talk-show way of describing the dumb-ass things we do to destroy any chance at happiness. We’re consumed by a demonic hit parade of deception, procrastination, escapism and addictive behavior. We hate and reject ourselves when, frankly, the rest of the world already does that just fine without us. The good news is that for 25 bucks, Neuharth aims to cure the evil little voices in your head with exercises, check boxes and handy tables that pinpoint your exact neurosis, plus step-by-step guides for banishing those nasty self-esteem problems in a jiffy. Now don’t you feel better? I know I do.

–Heather Irwin

Beat Beginnings

Several years ago, in a roundup review of several Beat generation biographies as well as a previously unreleased book by Jack Kerouac, Johah Raskin wrote, “Given the choice between reading books by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs or reading books about them, I’ll take the originals over the biographies and critics any day of the week.” This reviewer and minor Beat fanatic is inclined to agree. Nevertheless, Sonoma State University communications professor Raskin’s seventh book, American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and the Making of the Beat Generation (University of California Press; $24.95), is essential reading for anyone interested in what was arguably the most important American literary movement of the 20th century.

Raskin has shaped an enormous amount of research, including previously unreleased material from the Allen Ginsberg Trust, into a compelling inside look at Ginsberg and the cultural milieu that brought about his most famous poem, “Howl,” first performed at San Francisco’s Six Gallery in 1955. With pain-staking detail, Raskin re-creates the post-WWII environment that led Ginsberg to his remarkable, angry denunciation of what Americans politely call progress, including the poet’s struggle with his own homosexuality. American Scream helps us understand the importance of “Howl” and the Beats. It’s also a sorry reminder that the hope that once inspired an entire generation seems now a distant memory.


Jonah Raskin reads from ‘American Scream’ twice on Tuesday, April 13. At noon, at SSU, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. Free. 707.664.2259; and at 7pm, Copperfield’s Books, 138 N. Main St., Sebastopol. Free. 707.823.2618.

Generational Healing

Mother, Heal My Self (Crestport Press; $14.95) is a most unusual title for a most unusual book, the story of a healing journey of a young woman stricken with kidney disease, written by mother JoEllen Koerner, a nurse who accompanied her daughter, Kristi, through every critical turn. It tells how modern doctors failed to diagnose Kristi’s illness, much less cure it, and of a Lakota Sioux healer who leads mother and daughter along a different path to recovery. Savvy North Bay readers will not be surprised to discover that the native way of healing treats disease as a symbolic expression of the twists or knots in a patient’s personal story. But the central premise of the book may be new to many: the principle of intergenerational healing.

Wanigi Waci, the Sioux healer, tells Kristi that her five kidney stones represent the five generations of women in her family who struggled through difficult and even fatal childbirth because of the oppression they endured in their male-dominated families. Kristi’s process of healing involves not only her mother and grandmother, but generations of women who preceded them. By opening to the inherited misunder-standings and fears she carries within herself, Kristi’s healing process actually heals the whole lineage.

For Koerner, Kristi’s illness means letting go of her own rage at the behavior of men and creates a tremendous opening to the joys of a loving relationship in a life once narrowly defined by duty. Mother, Heal My Self is dramatic and vivid, as Kristi struggles through long nights of excruciating pain so intense that she finally asks her mother to help her die.

But although it’s Kristi’s life-threatening crisis that keep the narrative riveting, it’s her mother’s honest exploration of her own feelings that yield the book’s sweetest treasures–the inspiration to change our own lives and heal the stifled sobs of our ancestors, reaching into the past for the source of the problem and looking to the future to transform the way we live on this troubled planet.

–Stephanie Hiller

A Growing Revolution

Squeeze one of Fetzer Vineyard’s grapes and you’ll see the seeds of change. They’re organic, for one thing, grown in sustainable ways with healthy soil, few, if any, chemicals and in the company of pest-eating chickens and goats. They’re picked by workers who are valued not just for their ability to perform back-breaking work, but for their contri-butions to the company’s greater good. Happy grapes, happy goats, happy workers. OK, so that’s simplifying things a bit. But in True to Our Roots: Fermenting a Business Revolution (Bloomberg Press; $27.95), Fetzer president Paul Dolan boils it down to this: an agri-cultural revolution is at hand and it’s both profitable and flavorful.

Devotees of Alice Waters have long known that sustainable food is better for us, better for the land and just downright tastier. But how profitable is it? With his company producing a whopping 4 million cases of wine per year (and growing), Dolan says that a commitment to shifting the business mindset to one that protects the land, values the worker and ultimately produces a high-quality product isn’t that hard. His six business ideals can read at times like a Tony Robbins seminar, but at the heart of it, there’s just that: heart.

Dolan is a lifer in the industry, trying to change it from the inside and succeeding with his steadfast determination to make wine–and all agriculture–sustainable. So how does the story end? Surprisingly, Dolan has just announced that, after 27 years at the helm, he’s leaving Fetzer to open two new vineyards based on the ideals of the book and his own passion for food and wine. A true revolutionary.


From the April 7-14, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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