Local Lit


Growing up in Sonoma County, I have heard about 3,432 Grateful Dead stories, and yet there is something so charming about ‘Confessions of a Dead Head: Trips and Travels with a Magical Band’ (Orange Barrel; $9) that I don’t mind hearing more. Written by “the Starburst Commander,” who discovered the Dead through repeat listens of Europe ’72 on a cross-country road trip in his 1964 Econoline, the memoir has the wide-eyed innocence of eternal youth combined with hyperbolic statements such as “greatest vocal rock stylists of all time” and “best cover band ever.”

Addressing fellow fans, the Starburst Commander (he got his nickname while on LSD) provides 88 pages of stories, insights, memories and more. Drugs, vans, sex, the Greek Theatre, bootleg taping, the Wall of Sound and more are explored with pure enthusiasm, but it’s the passage on “Brokedown Palace” and the turning point it played in the author’s grieving process over his father’s death that epitomizes this short book’s humanity. The Commander is now president of operations at Petaluma Market, but he’s written a quick page-turner, even for the jaded ones who’ve heard it all.


Life is beautiful, but for a foggy and confused mind, understanding beauty is sometimes hard to find. For Sebastopol writer Kristi Bowman, growing up a Jehovah’s Witness and suffering suicidal depression made finding peace and answers a personal battle. ‘Journey to One’ (iUniverse; $20.95) is her story of emotional healing, discovery and spiritual awakening. Bowman introduces us to her journey darkly, describing her suicide attempt, and then circles back to the beginning with a story about her complicated birth. She often refers back to stories about birth and death, and bounces between the two, to help the reader understand how each experience has affected her journey.

The adversity of living her first five years with a cleft palate, and then fighting depression, rebuilding her spiritual life and discovering her sexuality makes for a compelling and moving story, complete with excerpts from personal journals, poems, quotes and dreams. With an educational background in psychology and an emphasis in counseling, Bowman now practices as a communications and relationships coach. Journey to One asks the big questions of life, and searches for answers. It’s a journey where the great capacity of human potential and the power of overcoming adversity are proven. When Bowman is able to live out her dreams, she inspires others to do the same.


Sebastopol’s Ceres Project is a highly regarded community service providing over 25,000 gourmet meals a year to people with life-threatening illnesses and their families. ‘Nourishing Connections: The Healing Power of Food and Community’ (The Ceres Community Project; $29.95) by founders Catherine Couch and JoEllen DeNicola, expands the concept to the community at large. In a lavishly photographed 200-page book, executive director Couch and licensed nutritionist DeNicola share recipes from breakfast to dinner and the nutritional basics of each meal. They also discuss the history of the Ceres Project, and the involvement of local high school students. The authors note that introducing teens to cooking skills and the nutritional value of the meals prepared gives them lifelong knowledge for healthier living habits and improving their diets. Alternatives to established eating habits are also offered; breakfast doesn’t necessarily mean eggs or cereal. Health tips, like how to grow your own sprouts, and inspirational quotes are found in sidebars throughout the book. Pen and ink line drawings of fruits, vegetables and cooking equipment round out the beauty of this information-packed, practical and beautiful spiral-bound book.


In ‘The Water Giver’ (Simon & Schuster; $24), Marin author and San Francisco Chronicle writer Joan Ryan evokes all of the joy and elation of receiving the gift of her adopted son—until page 55, when he’s 16 and gets the speed-wobbles on his skateboard on Lagunitas Road, in Ross. The resulting injury could easily have been just a pile of medical bills and a horrible episode to any other family, but Ryan, an award-winning sportswriter, uses the trauma for a reassessment of her role as a mother. Why had she anguished so in raising her son? Why had she approached motherhood with the fact-collecting of a reporter instead of an open heart? Why was he now laying in a hospital bed with a terrible brain injury? As her son heals, so does Ryan, and her simple prose carries the reader along for a journey full of exasperation with doctors, family context, sports stories, medical details and a mother’s love.


There is a sense of harmony in a writer’s collection like ‘Vintage Voices—Centi’ Anni: May You Live 100 Years’ (A Few Little Books; $12). When the skilled members of the Sonoma County branch of the California Writers Club (CWC) joined their works of poetry, memoirs, short stories and essays, they created an easy and thoughtful read. Starting with a Tomoko Ferguson’s poem about the “artificial device of time” and following with Linda Loveland Reid’s short story of how traffic school creates a day off for the author, this collection flows through works about the past, present and future. Stories of loss, love and life fill this anthology edited by Sonoma county locals Karen Batchelor and Catharine Bramkamp. Founded in 1909 by such historical figures as Jack London and John Muir, the CWC celebrates its centenary with this collection and finishes with the “Redwood Branch History.” Literary excellence is achieved through the branch’s motto “Writers helping writers” and Vintage Voices expresses the talent of these North Bay writers.


Stefanie Freele has put into words the tiny domestic snapshots that we take for granted in ‘Feeding Strays’ (Lost Horse Press; $16.95), a collection of short stories. With sparse language evocative of Raymond Carver, Freele uses baking, cleaning and sleeping as conduits for life’s deeper meaning, letting simple details like the smell of frosting and child-unsafe earrings hang in the reader’s mind. The 2010&–’11 Healdsburg literary laureate, Freele also incorporates a number of local touches into her poetic stories, including Sebastopol’s tin-hat movement (“Tinfoilers”) and Guerneville’s great flood of ’86 (leading to “The Flood of ’09”). Beds are for sideways apologies, for late-night phone conversations, for sweating out a drinking binge. Ships are for nudity, for impromptu wedding engagements, for whisking away recent divorcees with nice legs and no home. There’s toughness in Freele’s writing, belied by some wholly amusing titles—”Because Condoms Seem So Desperate, She Also Buys a Fern,” “James Brown Is Alive and Doing Laundry in South Lake Tahoe,” “Every Girl Has an Ex Named Steve”—but ultimately, Feeding Strays nips at the heels of raw emotion.


Everyone and their mother’s mother is wiped out. The economy. Global warming. Healthcare debates. It’s enough to drive society over the edge with incurable, anxiety-induced insomnia that threatens to turn us into zombies on crack. With the world spinning on that never-ending hamster wheel around us—and with no signs of pulling the reins back any time soon—it’s almost impossible to even entertain the idea of simplifying or slowing down to a steady pace. The result? Hordes of adults dragging around with various levels of fatigue. The solution? ‘The Fatigue Prescription: Four Steps to Renewing Your Energy, Health and Life’ (Viva Editions; $16.95) by Marin County author Dr. Linda Hawes Clever.

Dr. Clever outlines the causes and remedies of fatigue without doling out guilt about workaholic lifestyles or poor stress responses that plague so many in this day and age. Her book underscores the crucial need for self-care, reprioritizing and making lifestyle changes based on core values and quality of relationships. Filled with antidotes and medical insights along with several exercises and self-assessment worksheets, The Fatigue Prescription speaks to readers in an “I feel your pain” tone and offers encouragement and advice on recharging, renewing and banishing the inner zombie.


Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and love, would be pleased to see that her domain is strong in the United States and, indeed, the world. People, particularly women, are obsessed with beauty. Attaining and maintaining it is a multibillion dollar business, influencing consumers of every age and sex from the minute they are old enough to open a magazine or watch a TV commercial. Unfortunately, this obsession depends heavily on the chemical industry, and users of beauty aids unwittingly apply products to their bodies or faces that are unfriendly to humans and the earth. In ‘Look Great, Live Green: Choosing Beauty Solutions That Are Planet-Safe and Budget-Smart’ (Hunter House; $16.95), Sebastopol’s Deborah Burnes, owner of Sumbody body products and stores, debunks the cosmetic industry and gives beauty-product consumers solid information on making better choices. Look Great covers the history of cosmetics from “Cleopatra to Clearasil,” and enlightens readers on the toxins in commercial products. Burnes then offers multiple alternatives, from going “natural” to beautifying with organic products. Testimonies from actresses Kyra Sedgwick and Marcia Gay Harden, as well as other celebrities add color to the text. Burnes was assisted by her two daughters, and the book contains many photos of the mother-daughters team at work. Aphrodite would be pleased with this three-woman crusade to protect her sphere of influence and the planet.


What if there is no God? That’s the question that drove Ransom Stephens’ ‘The God Patent’ (Vox Novus; $14.95) to spend over 13 weeks on Sribd.com’s Top 10 most-read fiction list. And while for just $4.95 one could go online and read Stephens’ involved tale of religion, spirituality, science and drugs on their computer screen, the runaway success of its online venture has finally landed the book in print. The story is rich: engineer Ryan McNear jokingly submits a patent for the human soul during the dotcom boom, buoyed by a friend’s rewriting of the Book of Genesis as a “power generator.” Years later, with the economy in shambles, he finds a company that’s actually developing his patent and raking in the dough while claiming to provide eternal energy and proving God’s existence. Pursuing a legal claim to the patent in order to rebuild his shattered life, McNear soon finds himself torn between science and religion and fighting the insidious undercurrent to his inadvertent creation.


Reading Between the ‘Vines’

“Baby’s Remains Found Amongst Old Vines” screams the headline from 25 years ago. A disturbing idea, and one thankfully confined to a sinister cold case that exists only in mystery maven Erica Spindler’s new novel, Blood Vines (St. Martin’s Press; $24.95), a thriller set in the Sonoma Valley. Riddled with deceit, wine, sexual revelations and a string of murders and suicides, Blood Vines follows Alexandra Clarkson, who, after the death of her mother, embarks on a quest back to her Sonoma roots for answers to a growing series of mysterious and unsettling events.

Yet while Spindler, who earned the coveted title of New York Times bestselling author for her novel Breakneck, delivers an admittedly page-turning tale, the New Orleans&–based writer’s portrayal of Sonoma Valley life warrants a decided smirk. The locals are always unexplainably clothed in absurd wardrobes of buckskin, suede and boots, as though they’re trapped in a Soft Surroundings catalogue. And for the many who make the daily commute from Sonoma to San Francisco (or farther), Alexandra’s serious preparation for the supposed trek from the city to the Valley is laughable, the vibe being that they are a thousand miles apart—not a straight shot down the 101.

To Spindler’s credit, some level of research is apparent, and many familiar names—from Sonoma County Sheriff Bill Cogbill to Larson Family Winery—can be found in the acknowledgements. Plot points thicken over meals (and many, many bottles of wine) at hot spots such as the Girl and the Fig, El Dorado Kitchen and the Red Grape, and Bartholomew Park Winery makes an appearance as “Bart Park.” But in a disappointedly predictable fashion, Sonoma life is only shown from one side, the East Side. As with most portrayals of the small wine town, the more colorful West Side of the Valley—home to Boyes Hot Springs, El Verano and Agua Caliente—conveniently does not exist, and Sonoma, a town with a Latino influence deep in its bones, has never read so vanilla.

While Blood Vines might provide a light, chilling read to those from outside the area, for residents, its amusing inaccuracies prove distracting, and with its hefty price, it’s worth waiting till the book hits the shelves at the Sonoma County Library. After all, that’s the very location of one of Vines’ many twists.

—Kate McFarland

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