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Thinking Girl’s founding author Shirin Bridges creates books about princesses who’ve got more than landing a prince on their minds, at the 12th Annual Sonoma County Book Festival this Saturday, September 24, 2011

Award winning Bay Area author Shirin Bridges saw a need for some intelligently-written books about real-life princesses and started Goosebottom Books and published the “Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses.” Bridges will at the 12th Annual Sonoma County Book Festival this Saturday at Santa Rosa’s Courthouse Square. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Ask almost any woman what she thinks of when she hears the word “princess” and you’re likely to get an earful.  I’m 50 and when I was a kid, the princess thing was mainly about reading story books, dressing up and waving a wand and dreaming about your prince.  While it wasn’t a very healthy message about female self-empowerment, it was fairly innocent.  Nowadays, “princess”  is an entirely different animal―it’s all about the princess diva who wears designer clothes and make-up and defines herself, and others, from the outside in…and, of course, still waits for her prince. (Disney Consumer Products Reports (DCP) in 2011 states that Disney Princess brand products are a $4 billion industry  all wrapped in seductive pink glitter, the new gold.)  And no matter how bohemian, liberal, feminist or hip a mother considers herself to be, there’s no guarantee that this baffling craze won’t strike a girl in their family.  What to do?   Enter award-winning Bay Area author Shirin Bridges, who observed her young niece coming off her Disney fixation and saw a niche for a new princess story done differently.  Last year, Bridges founded Goosebottom Books and self-published The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses about six real-life princesses―Hatshepsut of Egypt (1500 BC), Artemisia of Caria (500 BC), Sorghaghtani of Mongolia (1200 AD), Qutlugh Terkan Khatun of Kirman (1300AD), Isabella of Castile (1400AD), and Nur Jahan of India (1600AD)―who led glamorous lives but also wielded power and had a lot more on their minds than hair and make-up. The six-book series, targeted to  9-13 year-old girls, employs a fun and lyrical story-telling style, a rich cultural backdrop and beautiful artwork including maps, historical artifacts and pen and watercolor illustrations by Albert Nguyen that help bring the stories to life.  The underlying goal is to fascinate girls with intriguing stories about real women, with loads of rich detail, that ignite a love of history and show girls that they can do it.  Bridges also recently completed a second series, The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames,—which explores six women in history who were so powerful that they couldn’t be ignored and got labeled with terrible nicknames─ Cleopatra “Serpent of the Nile,” Agrippina “Atrocious and Ferocious,” Mary Tudor “Bloody Mary,” Catherine de’ Medici “The Black Queen,” Marie Antoinette “Madame Deficit,” and Cixi “The Dragon Empress.”   For this series, Bridges commissioned six different authors, all of them co-incidentally from the Bay Area, and the series is unified by the pen and watercolor illustrations of Peter Malone.

Bridges will be in Santa Rosa this Saturday at the 12th Annual Sonoma County Book Festival, signing books and greeting people and Goosebottom authors Mary Fisk Pack (of Santa Rosa) will read from Cleopatra “Serpent of the Nile” at 2:00 PM and Liz Hockinson (of Novato) will read from Marie Antoinette “Madame Deficit” at 2:45 PM, at the Peanuts Pavilion in Courthouse Square. 

I met Bridges last October at Goosebottom’s launch party at Books Inc.’s Opera Plaza store in San Francisco.  She sent me the six books in The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses series and recently sent Agrippina “Atrocious and Ferocious” from The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames.  I read them all and was enthralled.  Because I love history and art, I was especially impressed with their sumptuous design which packs in a lot of easy to digest contextual information. The Dastardly Dames series had special appeal to me because I have nieces who are now entering a period when they’re fixated on the dark side, and throwing some real life villains into that weird vampire-fantasy brew is a great idea.  I couldn’t wait to talk with Bridges about Thinking Girls and her future plans.  Here is our conversation:

Marie Antoinette "Madame Deficit" (2011) by Liz Hockinson tells the story of the young, pretty queen who is remembered for supposedly uttering, “Let them eat cake.” Marie Antoinette had fun and spent money on beautiful things, while her people starved. But was she as heartless as everyone believed?

 What was the special niche you were trying to fill with the series? 

Shirin Yim Bridges:  The stories had been in my head for years but the idea for the series came about when I saw that my niece, Tiegan, was growing older and out of that Disney princess fixation.  I said to her “Do you know there are many princesses in real-life who did really amazing things?”  And she wanted to know but when I went out to find books about them, there weren’t any.  That’s when I discovered that there was a huge gap in girls’ literature.

I get asked often if I consider these to be feminist books and I think that word means different things to different people but I do consider these “girl power” books.  There are many mothers out there who have an axe to grind with Disney, but the princess stories themselves existed long before Disney and they really do have shockingly bad messages for girls.  You have to be beautiful and you sit on your butt and wait for your prince who whisks you away and solves all your problems for you and it’s happily ever after.   This is the very antithesis of what we want to tell our girls these days. 

My generation is the first generation where it’s expected that you work.  For my mother, it was optional.  There are a lot of women out there who have benefitted from this new playing field but the literature has not kept up.  The children of these self-actualized women are still out there going for the old Disney princess route and that’s not really all we need to offer our kids.   One of the things that I want to say is “Girls can do it and girls have done it and in much tougher times─ all across the world, all throughout history and in all different cultures.”  Of course, girls can still be all wrapped up in this fascination with princesshood, which does seem to be innate.  My feeling was, if they’re so fascinated, let’s use that interest to expose them to much better examples of princesses who give them much better messages about what they can do for themselves.  These women made decisions that changed their own lives and actually changed history.   

I was successful with my first two books (Ruby’s Wish, one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Children’s Books of 2002, and The Umbrella Queen, named one of the Best Children’s Books of 2008 by TIMEmagazine).  Without any planning, my stories tended to be about girls who do things that people don’t expect them to do.   I decided to do something unexpected, too, and self-publish the series.  

Artemisia of Caria (2010) by Shirin Yim Bridges, founder of The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses, tells the story of Artemisia I, the ruling Queen of Caria (500BC) who somehow managed to learn sailing and led a fleet of 72 ships to join the Persian Great King, Xerxes, in war against the Greeks. The Greeks were so intimidated by her that they offered a special 10,000 drachmae reward for her head.

You conceived the series in February 2010, and by October 2010, you had six done.  How did you achieve this?  Did you pick all six princesses at the same time and work on the stories simultaneously, using the same format to make the research more efficient” Or did you complete one and then move on to the next? 

Shirin Yim Bridges:   The stories had been ruminating in my head for a long time, but I actually researched about 12 stories simultaneously at the British Library.  My brother calls me a “power nerd” and I love history and I tend to get very immersed in my work.  Amy Novesky, our editor and my former editor with Ruby’s Wish, helped me with the final selection of women.  For example, Elizabeth I of England (the last Tudor queen of the “Elizabethan era”) seems an obvious choice.  If you want to find books for this age group, your best chance is with her as she’s also quite easy to find, so we left her off the list.  We wanted to make it more multicultural and to really focus on some interesting women who have not been written about in this way.

After that, it was a matter of establishing guidelines and sticking to them.  My work didn’t require much editing and the development of the series itself, the way it was styled, was a collaborative effort that worked so well because of the core team I had in place―I had worked with them all before― and we all agreed to work to schedule.  So we imposed the deadline-driven demands of journalism and advertising onto the process yet were still very attentive to quality. 

When other commanders were silent, Artemisia of Caria expressed her true opinion to the Persian Great King, Xerxes, and tried to discourage him from engaging in the Battle of Salamis, which he ultimately lost. "The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses" tells stories of real-life princesses who made difficult decisions.

I grew up in the 1960’s and my exposure to stories about princesses was largely through fairy-tales, which were imaginary.  In writing the stories in your series, what responsibility did you feel to adhere to the true facts of these women’s lives?  Do you expose any of their errors in judgment?

Shirin Yim Bridges:  Absolutely.  Artemisia of Caria is an example that immediately comes to mind, one of my favorite princesses in the series.  She lived in ancient Greece and in that world, women were not even supposed to leave the house.  There were special women’s quarters on the second level of the house and, whether you were royal or common, you basically spent your life within this narrow confine.  Artemisia somehow taught herself to sail ships and not only did she sail ships but she also managed to lead a squadron and a navy, and she actually took a fleet to join the great king Xerxes in the Greco-Persian wars.  Herodotus writes there were over a million men there and she was the only woman that we know of and she was recognized as being the best admiral of the day.  Who isn’t inspired by that story? 

Do we expose their bad side?   In the war, Artemisia actually did something dicey, super dicey.  In order to get out of a tight spot, she actually rammed a ship and the ship was on her own side. The book poses the question to the kids―do you think she was doing a good thing by saving her men whom she sails with every day, or was she doing a bad thing by ramming people who expected her to be on their side and depended on her?  In such a large navy, she probably didn’t know the people she was ramming but she did know very well the people who she was trying to save.  Does this matter?  Where is that moral line and how is it drawn?  So, yes, there are good and bad parts exposed…these princesses are human.

Agrippina "Atrocious and Ferocious" (2011) by Shirin Yim Bridges, tells the gripping story of Roman empress Agrippina, a woman of power who amassed even more power through marriage to her uncle. When she demanded to treated with the same respect given the emperor, she was called haughty. She was later accused of poisoning her husband with mushrooms.

 In your new second series of books, Dastardly Dames, you chose to write just one book and had other authors write.  Who did you choose to write about and why?

Shirin Yim Bridges:   First, I have to tell you how underrepresented women are in biographies of historically significant people.   Women have played a huge role but just aren’t written about enough.   When I started thinking about doing this series, I knew that the audience of 9 to 13 year olds has this fascination with the dark side and we wanted to keep our books fun and not too moralizing or preachy.  The idea was to present women who wielded enough power in the past to actually be considered villains, at times when women were suppressed and basically ignored.  We got some feedback about the idea and were surprised about comments expressing concern about whether or not these women would be good role models.   We don’t do that with men—there’s plenty out there about Hitler, Stalin, Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun and on and on.   I was a little offended by the notion that only “good women” should be talked about and that made me want to the do the series even more.   The idea is to present some of the binds these women were in and let the readers evaluate some of their decisions, good and bad, so that they can start to think about what it really means to use power responsibly.  

I chose to write about Roman empress Agrippina.  She was actually the mother of the Emperor Nero, the sister of Emperor Caligula, and the wife of Emperor Claudius.  She had a very strong personality and was very bossy and demanded that she be treated with respect, the respect that was given to men of power, which angered a lot of people.  She was accsued of many horrible things, including several murders, but in the end, there was no conclusive  evidence.   One of the things that always struck me about her was that, whether she was good or bad,  was that she was a woman of amazing endurance.  At one point Nero tried to murder her by capsizing her boat and drowning her and she, in her long robes and all, managed to swim to shore and survive.  There were no gyms in those days either.  She was just amazing.  

Peter Malone’s illustrations for Agrippina "Atrocious and Ferocious" (2011) by Shirin Yim Bridges are lavish and the book’s graphics convey loads of information.

How did you pick the other five women authors who contributed to the Dastardly Dames series?

Shirin Yim Bridges:   We posted on Facebook.  Also, Amy Novesky, our editor, actually does a lot of workshops and she just knew a lot of writers because she used to be an editor at Chronicle Books and is incredibly well-connected.  We got applications from all over the country from which we made a short list.  And there were some amazing coincidences.  One of the first authors she picked happened to be my sister, Natasha Yim, a published children’s books author and playwright.  Believe me, there was no preferential treatment.  And then, we found that all of the writers we selected lived in Northern, California.

Any Sonoma County writers?

Shirin Yim Bridges:  Yes, Mary Fisk Pack, who wrote Cleopatra “Serpent of the Nile,” lives in Santa Rosa and she will be at the book festival.

How did you balance each author’s desire to craft the story in her own way with the demands of a series?   Did they write to a format to make it more uniform?

Shirin Yim Bridges:  We decided to keep the sidebars because they have been so popular―about what they wore and ate and that type of cultural context.  And the main narrative would be told in the same way.  

Artist Albert Nguyen (right) illustrator for “The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses” created a real-life princess portrait of ARThound (Geneva Anderson) (left) depicting her as a working journalist (tape recorder and pen in hand) out on the town in her ball gown. Photo taken at Goosebottom Books’ launch party in October 2010 at Books, Inc. Opera Plaza, San Francisco. Photo: Susan Cohn

I like the illustrations in your books–the women are not “embellished” with big breasts and tiny waists and big hair.  Did you give your illustrators any instructions about how you wanted the women to be presented?

Shirin Yim Bridges:  The whole idea was not to defeat the purpose with illustrations that made these women look like fashion models or to go too much in the other direction either.  It was a balancing act, nothing was too idealized in the face or body.  Our idea is that each series will be tied together by one illustrator, and so Albert Nguyen did The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses and Peter Malone did the Dastardly Dames series.

Do you have any plans for a third series?

Shirin Yim Bridges:  Yes, but we’re not planning to release that until 2013, and it’s currently under wraps.   I can tell you that, in 2012, we are planning to add two new titles to our existing series: in The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses, Sacajawea of the Shoshone, by Natasha Yim, illustrated by Albert Nguyen, and in The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames: Njinga “The Warrior Queen” by Janie Havemeyer,  illustrated by Peter Malone.

I understand that you also have a new children’s book coming out in 2012.

Shirin Yim Bridges:  My third book, Mary Wrightly So Politely, will be published in fall 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  It’s a picture book about a little girl who has a small voice and how, in certain situations, she learns to make herself heard.  Like many kids out there, she’s shy and very very polite and soft spoken and she doesn’t want to disturb people around her.  She doesn’t change who she is but she learns how to speak up when she needs to.

September 23, 2011 Posted by | Book | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sonoma County Book Festival’s Windrush Farm benefit features columnist Michele Anna Jordan in conversation with author Anne Zimmerman on writer M.F.K Fisher, Sunday, August 21, 2011

Anne Zimmerman’s biography “An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher” (Counterpoint, 2010, 261 pages, $26) is a very personal account of the celebrated writer’s life. Photo: courtesy Counterpoint Press.

Every August, in preparation for the Sonoma County Book Festival in September, now in its 12th year, there is a delightful benefit at Mimi Luebbermann’s rustic Windrush Farm in West Petaluma.  This Sunday, August 21, 2011, from 2 pm to 5 pm, local author and columnist Michele Anna Jordan will be in conversation with Anne Zimmerman, author of An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher (Counterpoint, 2010, 261 pages, $26).  In addition to lively conversation, the afternoon will feature gourmet wood-fired pizza served straight from Mimi’s outdoor oven, an oyster bar, Sonoma County wines and an “Everybody Wins” raffle where everyone will take home a great book. 

“I love the opportunity to talk about Mary Frances,” said Michele Anna Jordan. “A lot of people don’t know her any more, which is a shame.  She’s tremendously misunderstood in today’s world, where food has become passive entertainment.  I was happy to discover Zimmerman.  She takes a look at M.F.K. Fisher’s first five books and does a fairly close reading of them. She adds her own very personal story, which shows why M.F.K. Fisher had such an appeal to her at the time.”

 “Fisher always bristled at being called a food writer─she was a writer,” added Jordan.  “In those first five books, you see her at the height of her powers—her passion for life and for writing.  She was driven to write by her own muse, not by economic need.  There was a lot of heartbreak, too, which was the unspoken foundation for all of these first books, and our conversation will explore that.” 

For those who aren’t aware, M.F.K. Fisher also had close ties to Northern, California.  In 1972, at the age of sixty-three, after decades of extensive travel that took her all over the world, she moved into a home designed by architect David Bouverie that was situated on his 535-acre Glen Ellen ranch (today’s Bouverie Preserve). She lived there for the next two decades, writing prolifically from a cabin that she called “Last House.”  She welcomed frequent guests—famous and not famous– whom she loved entertaining in a low-key, pitch-in-and-help style.  Julia Child, James Beard, Alice Waters, Anne Lamott, Herb Caen, and Maya Angelou all visited and Bill Moyers filmed his PBS interview with her there.

Santa Rosa author and columnist, Michele Anna Jordan, will be in conversation with author Anne Zimmerman on writer M.F.K Fisher, this Sunday, August 21, 2011, at a benefit for the Sonoma County Book Festival at Windrush Farm in West Petaluma. Image: courtesy of Michele Anna Jordan.

It is the early years and Fisher’s love and knowledge of food and passion that Ann Zimmerman focuses on in An Extravagant Hunger.  “No matter her location or level of emotional anguish, she always noticed the meal in front of her,” Zimmerman writes. From her first salad on the rumbling train into Paris, to the inky wines that swayed in her glass on [a ship called] the Cellina, the colors and flavors of great food and wine brought her incomparable pleasure.” 

“This event at Mimi’s is always a special treat,” said JJ Wilson, one of the co-founders of the festival, a co-founder of The Sitting Room: A Community Library, a retired Sonoma State University Professor Emeritus, and a literary tour de force.  “There’s amazing food and there’s always a discussion about a great new book. People have stopped reading M.F.K. Fisher and that’s too bad because she’s not dated. She is a wonderful stylist and writer and she so is quotable and that’s one of the joys of reading Anne Zimmerman’s book.  She takes so much from Fisher and she had access to a lot of materials—her letters and so forth– that weren’t available to others. This resulted in a fascinating book─it’s like the very best gossip.  That’s not a very high-minded way to put it, but this is very good and totally fascinating inside information.”     

The “Everybody Wins” Raffle, a fundraiser for the festival, is expected to be quite popular.  $10 automatically gets an entrant any book from an outstanding selection of new or gently used books.  Culled from the personal collections of avid readers on the Book Festival Steering committee, these books include best sellers from Lorrie Moore, Abraham Verghese, Yiyun Li, Stieg Larsson and others.  In addition to the book, the $10 gets the entrant a raffle ticket to win one of these terrific prizes:

– A copy of guest speaker Anne Zimmerman’s book, An Extravagant Hunger
– Lunch for two at the popular Dierk’s Parkside Cafe in Santa Rosa
— A bucket of seeds from the Petaluma Seed Bank supplied by Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company
Raffle tickets are $10 each or 3 for $20.

Anne Zimmerman, author of An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher, is in conversation this Sunday, August 21, 2011, at a benefit at Windrush Farm, for the Sonoma County Book Festival.

The Windrush fundraiser menu seems to get better every year.  Wood-fired pizzas made with farm-fresh local organic produce will be assembled and baked by Mimi Luebbermann and her team of volunteers.  There will be an oyster bar, with oysters from Tamales Bay Oyster Company, and champagne.  A cheese board will feature Joe Matos’ famous St. George Azores-style cheese made on his Santa Rosa farm.  Windsor Vineyards has provided two cases of wines for the event and Lagunitas Brewery, of Petaluma, has donated its popular beer.  Dessert is Michele Anna Jordan’s own elegant creation, “Honeydew in Absinthe, with Fresh Mint.” (recipe provided below for ARThound readers)

 Sonoma County Book Festival:  This year’s Sonoma County Book Festival is September 24, 2011 and it sponsored by The Literary Arts Guild, a Sonoma County non-profit dedicated to the arts.  The book festival is the main literary event in Sonoma County and, every September, for one glorious afternoon, it transforms Santa Rosa’s sleepy downtown square into a glorious hub for readers.  “What it really is, is a fashion show for books,” explained of JJ Wilson. “It’s a way of drawing attention to the joys of literacy and, while it’s not in our mission statement, we want to keep these few remaining independent book stores in Sonoma County alive.  This gives them a platform from which to meet readers, to sell books and to remind people that they are there.  The goal is to get people to read.  Sadly, we are the only book festival left in Northern, CA.”  

This year’s festival will feature a mix of local writers and big-name draws like Ann Packer, Belva Davis, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jane Hirshfield.  There are readings, presentations, book-signings, and panel discussions—including the ever popular panel discussions for mystery book writing and writing for film and stage.  Megan McDonald, author of the Judy moody books, is the headliner for an amazing line-up of children’s programming that includes storytellers, marionettes, and a Secret Agent Jack Stalwart Treasure Hunt. There will be over 100 booths and exhibits focused on small and independent booksellers and publishers too.   Visit http://www.socobookfest.org for a schedule of the days’ events and more information.  

Hungry to start reading?  If you haven’t read Fisher yet, Jordan recommends starting with The Gastronomical Me.  “It’s Fisher at her height and the essence of who she was as a writer, said Jordan. “It covers her early experiences in California and life in France in the 1930’s and all her exploits─passionate and powerful.”  Readers’ Books, of Sonoma, will be selling copies of Zimmerman’s book, An Extravagant Hunger, and an assortment of books by M.F.K. Fisher at the event on Sunday.

Details:   Mimi Luebbermann’s Windrush Farm, 2263 Chileno Valley Rd., Petaluma
Sunday, August 21, 2011, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.  Tickets: $40; children 12 and under are free.
Tickets are available at Brown Paper Tickets and can be purchased (cash or check only) on Sunday at Windrush Farm.

 

 

 

 

August 19, 2011 Posted by | Book | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Grisha the Scrivener: Barbara Baer’s novella delivers a Soviet-era Bartleby of sorts

Like most journalists I know, I love stories involving journalists, especially those with personality.  Barbara’s Baer’s new novella Grisha The Scrivener is a short read perfectly scaled to the big and unforgettable character of Grisha at its center.  Set in the far reaches of Central Asia—Uzkbekistan and Georgia—and spanning some 30 years, the story both transcends and depends upon its political context—repression in the former Soviet Union from the Stalin-era forward.  It doesn’t matter if you know nothing about the brutal history of Georgia, or the Soviet Union, Grisha is foremost the story of a great survivor who lands on his feet, even when drunk, and who can find a clever Shakespeare quote for every occasion.  Those familiar with the history and region will appreciate Baer’s fictional reconstruction—which rings true in surprising detail.  The big question that Baer explores through the heroic, comic and tragic antics of Grisha is one we have all pondered to some degree—do you deserve what you get?   Grisha’s whole experience in exile—his survival and gradual transformation all with its built-in paradoxes–will pull you in and hold you tight while she delivers her answer.  

Barbara Baer is a Forrestville writer who wowed me a few years ago with her project related to the plight of the pomegranate– Pomegranate Roads (Pomegranate Roads: A Soviet Botanist’s Exile from Eden, by Dr. Gregory Levin, translated from Russian by Margaret Hopstein, Floreant Press, 2006).  I’ve since devoured her articles related to her horicultrual activism and travel in formerly-closed regimes like Iran.  Baer is not Georgian or Uzbek but her writing in Grisha has the nuances of someone very familiar with the culture in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  She presents this in a very tactile way— smells, noises and rumblings—evoking a vivid connection between experiences and memories—so much so that we are transported back, right alongside Grisha, strutting across a dance floor or savoring pilaf. 

Baer went to college at Stanford and then spent 1967 and 1968 in remote Tashkent, Uzbekistan, with her French diplomat husband.  She taught at a foreign language institute there, where she made friends with teachers, students, dissidents and Gulag survivors, one of whom became immortalized as her brave Grisha.  Then, she went on to stints in several proper European capital cities—Vienna, London, Paris.  Insatiably curious and comfortable in almost any environment, she has been a journalist, a writer, and has now chosen a life in rural Forestville of writing, publishing and farming those endangered pomegranates species in Pomegranate Roads.  I suspect Grisha is her magnum opus, a way to fictionalize but process real people and experiences that have followed and tugged at her throughout her life.  

Gregory Gregorvich Samidze is Georgian, a native of Tbilisi, Georgia, who spent his early childhood happily in a cosmopolitan home in Paris.  His father, an avant-garde cinema director, returned with his family to Russia in the 1930’s to serve the Revolution, and, for an editing mistake, was ultimately exiled to a gulag and then executed during Stalin’s (the “Great Moustache’s”) purges.  After his father’s death, like many offspring of the intelligentsia, Grisha was sent to labor camp in Siberia.  By re-telling Shakespeare’s classics, instead of hard labor, he got a kitchen job and survived.  He was functionally exiled by the organi (secret police) from his native Georgia and from a productive professional life in Moscow to the nether reaches of Tashkent, Uzbekistan.  There, in the fourth largest city in the CIS, after Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev, he “keeps his head low” as an Agricultural journalist, interpreting facts and figures—numbers of bushels.  “You won’t find me at the reviewing stand interveiwing little girls they send up to present flowers to fat men with jowls hanging over medals.  Never. “ (p. 11) 

 “As it is, I don’t look at my own copy after I make my evening deadline.” (p. 10) I take the damp pages off the presses to wrap my bread.  Warm flat bread from the Alaisky Bazaar, that’s something to care about even with the smear of printer’s ink on the sesame seeds.” (p. 10)

Like many during the Stalin era, Baer’s Grisha was “robbed” of the pleasure of thinking.  His attitudes indicate a strong opposition to the regime but his subversiveness is hidden– he doesn’t share his truth with anyone.  “Cynic man is angry in general but takes no sides.  I prefer not to.” (p. 41)  Grisha’s humor is frequently crass but, at the same time–like the wine taster/connoisseur he ultimately becomes–he is capable of great discernment, poetry, when he pleases.  He quotes Shakespeare, Melville’s Bartleby, Keats, Abkhaz author Fazil Iskander,  listens to the bard music of Bulat Okudzhava (a Russian, of Georgian origin, whose songs combining Russian poetic and folk traditions and the French chansonnier style were not recognized by the Soviet cultural authorities.) and his record collection of American jazz “means everything.” (p. 10)

Over the 30-odd years that span the novella, four decisive moments that shape his personal history are explored—his father’s death, extending himself to save someone dear, love, and rebirth through a new identity.  Through these, we see that Gregory Gregorovitch is more suited to playing Hamlet than Macbeth and that it is not the luxury of happiness but rather survival that has occupied him.  But, where Baer ultimately lands him, in the Kakheti region of Georgia—as a winemaker in a magnificent, ancient, and fertile cradle of winemaking along an intersection of the Great Silk Road—he could do no better.

 The novella opens with its most memorable vignette—how Grisha helps “Lisa”, Elizaveta Cogan, a dear friend, get out of Tashkent and off on a full scholarship to a Foreign Language Institute in Moscow.  “She hardly knows if she’s eaten or not, lives on poetry between a cup of black tea and two puffs of air.” (p.13)   Lisa is first in her university class, but Jewish, which is problematic for the dean who is considering the voluptuous Tamara–half-Tartar, half-Uzbek, also his second cousin—over her.   Grisha, while seeming perfectly disinterested, persuades the dean to pick Lisa.  His reasoning illustrates the calculations that people concerned themselves with when it came to the Communist Party—Lisa Cogan, Jew, is the unpopular but actually ‘safer bet’ because if she is not selected, she is more likely to appeal the decision and to cause trouble for the dean than her competition.  And choosing Tamara could be read as endorsing an Uzbek over Russian perspective, signaling a dangerous leaning.

Lisa gets the scholarship to Moscow and emerges as the other strong voice of note in the novella.   

When a chance encounter at the 1971 Cotton Harvest Dance Party brings the beautiful American, Sally Washington, into Grisha’s life, he is smitten.  Baer’s description of the dance itself is magical–

“Our tsoyck kolkoz ladies make such whirling spirals that their striped ikat dresses bring to mind the story of tigers tricked into chasing each other around a banyan tree until they melted down to butter.” (p 26)

Sally Washington is “a lightly brown Aphrodite in knee-high white boots and a fringe of purple mini skirt that showed more beautiful leg than he could take in at a glance.” (p. 27).  She not only matches Grisha step for step on the dance floor, in one of the book’s most comic scenes, but she is interesting.  As her jet was landing in Tashkent, she was reading the last volume in Deutscher’s iconic biography of Leon Trotsky, The Prophet Outcast, which could not be a better metaphor for Grisha.  And she challenges him: “Why do you always use Shakespeare as some kind of excuse not to say what you mean?

As the infatuation unfolds, Baer introduces us to herb-infused vodka, poet-troubadour Bulat Okudjava’s enchanting songs, the Alaisky Bazar—an outdoor market/cornucopia of produce, meat and Lada parts—and a feast of first-class pilaf, aimed to put Sally in the mood.  Baer also covers fascinating history, linking race, cotton, politics, and jazz.

Sally’s husband, Dan, who specializes in Twentieth Century Soviet-American relations, serves an iconic purpose—the Western outsider/official/rival.  He is doing historical research on a group of African American agricultural experts who arrived in Tashkent in 1932 to help modernize cotton production by hybridizing a short-season cotton suited to Tashkent’s broiling summers.  They were led by Communist Party member Oliver Golden.  Paul Robeson and Langston Huges visited Tashkent during this period too… At night, after work, their voices carried the blues over the cotton fields of Soviet Central Asia.  

 Baer doesn’t get into details but she lights a spark.  The imagined egalitarianism of Soviet Russia must have been a huge draw to these men and a marked contrast to the segregated American South and the general treatment of black workers in America.  Dan Washington is thus someone who could potentially understand, even assist, Grisha.  When he doesn’t immediately express sympathy for Grisha’s status as a “zek” (a gulag ghost), Grisha pushes him away concluding they have opposing views of history and decides to focus on scoring with his wife.  Washington defends himself– “You were a victim. You got a raw deal.  Not trying to take that away.  But remember, this was a time when the only worker’s state in the world faced threats from all sides.”  (p. 43)

 The novella spans blocks of years but credibly.  Not knowing what his future holds, Grisha says farewell to Lisa in Moscow before he assumes his new identity as Peotr Peotrovich, winemaker, from Georgia’s Kakheti region.  At the Golden Fleece restaurant, they feast on satsivi chicken “smothered in a creamy sauce of pomegranates and walnuts, upon a mound of fluffy rice, pureed greens with goat cheese and lemon.” (p. 70) 

 “Foolish, isn’t it, how we feel so gay one moment that we can bang two spoons together and sing like a whole orchestra, and the next we are crying our hearts out and pounding on a friend’s head as if to kill him.” (p. 72)

As Peotr, Grisha feels freer and writes a book of primitive poetry, which is read by Lisa, who recognizes his voice and reenters his life through an exchange of impassioned letters that are elegies to poets and to free artistic expression. Their correspondence takes them into the early 1990’s, when Georgia is embroiled in civil war.

You write what is undeniable and true, without false sentiment or exaggeration.  In a few words, you have revealed our disastrous epoch, the Terror distilled in images like waves crashing so loudly on the shore that one cannot sleep.  Yet there is a place for the spirit and enjoyment of life; you give us breath and hope, bread and wine.”  (p. 79)

Peotr admits he still hears the unquiet dead from time to time but does not let them take over his life. (p. 87)   “The truth is dear Lisa that I have lived my life in the only way I knew how, a dog nose catching a pleasant scent when it came along.” (p. 91)

In all, Grisha is a great read, as light or as heavy as the reader cares to make it.  The trajectory of Grisha’s life has a fantastical quality to it, though several hints of the real world are there, namely Baer’s exploration of exile against the backdrop of stifling political repression.  In answer to that eternal question– do we get what we deserve in life—Baer gives us a Grisha who emerges a better man for his suffering.  After the book ended, I was as full and satisfied, as if I had eaten a full meal.  The only thing better was attending the Sonoma County Book Fair and hearing her melodic voice, reading in person.

GRISHA THE SCRIVENER by Barbara Baer, 112 pp.  Denver, Ghost Roads Press, 2009.  Paper, $15.95.

February 25, 2010 Posted by | Book | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Field Days–Jonah Raskin’s Year-long Odyssey to find the Perfect Local Farm Yields an Abundant Harvest. Photographs on view at Sonoma State Library through April 2010

Several months ago, I was given a feast–Jonah Raskin’s memoir Field Days, A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking in California.  His writing is elegant, the content substantial and the story is moving–one of personal growth through re-connection with farming the land—our land, here in Sonoma County.  While busily harvesting my own garden, I found myself reading a chapter or more a day of Field Days and underlining like crazy, which I did not do with Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  Pollen gave me so much to think about factually that it was overwhelming and his writing, while excellent, didn’t really stir me.  With Field Days, not only did I learn about the local organic farming movement around our community of Sonoma through the well-told stories of involved individuals and passionate local farmers,  I witnessed Raskin’s transformation as well.   In the course of a year, as Raskin digs into this project and embraces the locavore lifestyle (a locavore is a person who shops locally), we witness his reconnection to the earth and ultimately to himself.  It almost seems that he is channeling Thoreau.

 Jonah Raskin is a well-published author, poet and journalist who is chairman of the Communications Studies Department at Sonoma State University.  He is proud of his activism and status as a 1970’s counterculture radical and his previous books reflect that.  He has written about marijuana, Abbie Hoffman, Alan Ginsberg and imperialism. In recent years, he has published poetry and begun to explore Northern CA writers—The Radical Jack London, Writings on War and Revolution (2008). 

Jonah Raskin speaking at Windrush Farm, Chileno Valley, August 2009 by Geneva Anderson

Field Days is immersive reporting or participatory journalism at its best—it springs from Raskin’s curiosity about the renaissance in local organic farming in Northern California– from a sociological and personal health and happiness perspective.   Raskin grew up in Long Island in the 1940’s and 50’s with free thinking parents who grew all their own food.  As suburbia encroached, the family relocated to the bohemian haven of Occidental and again found their rhythm.  Raskin lived in the family home until a few years ago and fondly recalls his fruit trees.  At age 65– after surviving a life-threatening health situation—he realized it was time to refocus and to get around to some things he’s been meaning to do—learn how to live in real harmony in this magical and historic place Sonoma that the rest of the world calls paradise.

What I lost was not a mystery to me.  I had lost the world of my childhood… Before it was too late, before life passed me by, I wanted to be in touch with the earth again.  I wanted to regain something I felt I had lost, and to work alongside men and women who were cultivating the earth.  I wanted to eat as though for the first time, with a sense of newness.(page 13)

Organizationally, Field Day’s 12 chapters can each be treated like a short story, entertaining and fulfilling, with digressions here and there.  Raskin starts his quest by talking with his friends like Mimi Luebbermann (Windrush Farms, Chileno Valley).  Mimi is a farmer, herder, foodie and a transplanted Berkeley writer who has authored several best-selling cookbooks.  With the assistance of local photographer Paige Green, who documents his journey, Raskin explores the old rural life in his neighborhood.  He has been living in an old barn close to Sonoma State University.  His chats with his neighbor “The Bean Queen”– Sharon Grossi of Valley End Farm, Penngrove,  the largest organic vegetable grower in Sonoma County about her struggles.  He explores the concept of “local” with Lure of the Local author Lucy Lippard.  Lippard, originally from New York, found her special place elsewhere and put down roots, a process Raskin seems fascinated with.  Momentum builds as Raskin listens to Alice Waters advocate for small organic farms at Copperfield’s bookstore in Petaluma and understands that she and other restauranteurs depend on California’s small organic growers for their produce. 

Raskin starts interviewing “founding farmers,” along with field workers, restauranteurs, farmer’s market vendors, people at the Whole Foods corporation, and smaller grocers.  Particularly interesting are his profiles of the visionaries who spearheaded California’s local organic movement and infused those around them with an environmental consciousness– Warren Weber (Star Route Farms, Marin), Anne Teller and her family and colleagues (Oak Hill Farm), and farmer and teacher Bob Cannard (Sonoma, founder Green String Farm).  Later in the book, members of the work crews at Oak Hill farms, laborers who toil in the fields and are the backbone of the California farm, are brought to life.  Through these unfortgettable farmers and workers, Raskin builds a emotional landscape whose foundation—of hopes, dreams, visions, struggles, rivalries, extreme risk and hard work—is every bit as important as the physical environment he is exploring.

After six months of talk and research, he zeros in on his farm of choice, Oak Hills Farms of Glen Ellen, in the heart of Sonoma Valley, owned by Anne Teller widow of Otto teller, one of the founders of the environmentalist movement in Sonoma County.  Glen Ellen is comfortable territory for Raskin whose 2008 book explored Jack London’s life there.  Jack and Charmain London were among the ancestors of today’s organic farmers and ranchers and created a life for themselves in Glen Ellen that gave them a great deal of satisfaction, a satisfaction Raskin yearns for also. 

But even at first sight I felt enclosed and protected within the Oak Hill world that surrounded me, and I wanted to embrace it in return.  Of course, I didn’t blurt out my feelings on that first day.  I wanted to see if the place was really as spectacular as it seemed to be.  Was the beauty skin deep or was there also underlying beauty not immediately apparent. (page 64)

He describes his first meeting at Oak Hill’s Red barn store with a “locavore” –a person who shops locally.  The concept takes hold of him and he realizes that he has entered “the world of the locavores” and he digs it. 

Why not shop, cook, and eat what was available…expressing much the same attitude as Henry David Thoreau, who urged his contemporaries to “live in the season as it passes” and “open all your pores and bathe in all the tides of Nature in all her streams and oceans, at all seasons.”  (page 71)

Oak Hill’s owner Anne Teller, a passionate advocate for the responsible stewardship of the land, invites Raskin to wander around Oak Hill and take it all in.  By chapter 3, Raskin is in London, England, discussing farming there, but his heart is back in Glen Ellen.  When he returns, he sets up interviews at Oak Hill and soon he is working “like hell” in the fields, tilling, planting and harvesting right along with Mexican farm-workers whom he befriends and learns how to plant and harvest from.

Jonah Raskin planting at Oak Hill Farm by Candi Edmondson

Writing of the day the workers regarded him as one of them—

I had never worked so fast or so accurately.  No one had told us to work quickly, but we all did.  All I could see was the ground in front of me.  No one spoke; there was nothing to say.  No one had assigned individual tasks, but each of us assumed a responsibility and took turns doing what had to be done.  By now I had also lost a good deal of my self-consciousness and awkwardness.  The field was my home now, and I knew instinctively what to do.  I loved the earth, and it belonged to me. (page 161) 

Raskin also works at the local farmers’ market in the Sonoma Plaza and connects with people who embrace the farm to table lifestyle.  He begins to cook, eat and live  more consciously, sumptuously and passionately.  Inspired by Michael Pollan’s writing, Raskin flushes out the difference between local organic and Big Corporate Organic as he penetrates the Whole Foods chain via the Sonoma store and shows why the store and what it stands for is a bad fit for the town of Sonoma but a better fit for the towns of Napa and Sebastopol.  Now that the organic agriculture business has attained cultural legitimacy, it ironically has become a paradox—it has come so far from its anti-industrial food roots in the early 1900’s that it now fully embraces the logic of capitalism, specifically of California agribusiness.  Raskin, an old skeptic, does a good job of pointing out that eating ethically has become very complex.  Food choices are moral choices and we need to think about how we want our food produced and delivered. 

For Raskin, buying and eating foods grown locally and organically, with the chain from farmer to customer as small as possible, is a no-brainer from the perspective of taste and values.  His wish is that if we all could embrace this locovore lifestyle, we could be happier and healthier.  I thank my lucky stars that I reside in Sonoma County where farmers markets are plentiful and where for most of us, our political consciousness is backed by the economic means to eat largely what we want to eat.  The stark reality of the global situation is that not everyone can eat what they want or even regularly.  And for most consumers right now, even in California, the difference between big organic versus sustainably grown and locally produced organic is nuance.   For Raskin though, having thought these issues through, connected with the land and discovered the joy of eating locally and of a local network, it has made all the difference– 

A change had come over me at Oak Hill.  The more I went down to the ground, the further up my imagination and my spirit had soared.  The earth elevated me even as it held me in its embrace. … With my hands and face in the dirt I had been inspired. (p 285)

What would a book about food be without a mouthwatering feast?   Raskin delivers–to celebrate his year in the fields, he lovingly prepares a vegetarian dinner for 8 friends and serves it outdoors under the oak trees.  This rustic feast is comprised of the freshest local organic ingredients—tomato soup from slow roasted tomatoes topped with shaved Gruyère, a creamy risotto with his own reduced vegetable stock topped with grated Parmesan, a green salad dressed with a De Vero olive oil and rice wine vinegar, corn on the cob with Strauss Family Creamery butter, heirloom tomatoes, sautéed brightly colored peppers, fresh picked pears and peaches with dark Scharffen Berger chocolate.  The meal, which goes on for hours, is savored by all and documented by photographer Paige Green–the empty table becomes the cover shot for the book.  Of course, those friends gathered at the table must have also been celebrating the remarkable transformation they observed in their friend.

I felt local now, too, a part of the earth, attached to the barn, the contours of the land, the valley and mountains an these people…When I went home to my barn, I felt as happy as I had at any time in my life.  Feelings of happiness I had learned to distrust over the course of my life.  If something was good, it was sure to change for the worse.  I had learned that lesson early and well.  But this time I trusted the happiness; it felt a part of me—something inside and organic and I allowed it to surge. (p. 286)

Field Days makes an enormous contribution to the way people should think about where their food comes from and celebrates the local people who toil with passion to grow it.  I really love the way Raskin brings his poetic insight to our local history and shares his own journey of self-discovery.  Anyone who is interested in growing and eating really fresh food will enjoy this book.

The show “Field Days Search for a Sustainable Feast” at Sonoma State Library Art Gallery (on the second floor), through April 2010, pairs Raskin’s elegant passages from Field Days with photos taken by Paige Green and Candi Edmmondson.  Field Days, A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking in California, is a UC Press, Simpson Book in the Humanities, hardback, May 2009, ISBN 9780520259027, paperback September 2010, ISBN 9780520268036.

January 26, 2010 Posted by | Book | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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