Thursday, July 31, 2008

Gardening Books



With all the environmental, economic, and social damage that our hyperconsumerist capitalist system has caused, I'm coming to believe that the best way to resist the system is to reduce our dependence on it. Perhaps the most effective way to do this is to try and take control of our most basic needs, food being one of them. With that in mind, growing vegetables might be the most radical action we can commit in America today. In an effort to act on that belief, I've started mucking about with vegetables in my own meager backyard.

I live in a building in San Francisco's Sunset District. Before this area was covered over with asphalt and concrete, it consisted primarily of sand dunes, which don't support much plant life. Couple the poor soil quality with the general lack of sunlight--this area is notorious for its fog and cold, especially in the summer--and you've got very challenging conditions for agriculture. A few months ago I planted a few broccoli and tomato plants, only to reap meager crops. Hoping to gain whatever advantages I could, and thereby improve my yield, I've started reading books on gardening for growing tips. The two books pictured here are the first I've finished.

THE ORGANIC HOME GARDEN: HOW TO GROW FRUITS & VEGETABLE NATURALLY, by Patrick Lima, details the author's experience with organic agriculture. The bulk of the book is informational in its focus, but you get enough tidbits here and there to piece together an idea of the author's life, and it's a pretty interesting story. He mentions living in a city with his partner (who happens to be the guy who took the pictures for the book) working as a waiter and just getting buy. On a whim, Lima plants a few things in his backyard, and he becomes so excited by the concept of growing his own food that both he and his partner go out to the country and squat on some land. They don't have a car, or a house, or even a tent, and they end up passing the snowy winter by living off dried beans and rice in a canvas dome, reading gardening books all the while. When the summer comes they clear land and start planting. Twenty years later, they're still there, still growing food. That's a pretty radical story for a book aimed at a mainstream audience.

A lot of the information in the book concerns itself with soil quality. You get the feeling that turning organic matter into compost, and using it to improve the soil, has made up the majority of his life's work. And it's interesting to read about such a long-term pursuit, especially when our modern lives seem to be shrinking our attention spans into shorter and shorter sections. I get impatient when I have to wait 15 minutes for a bus, but Lima's spent days, weeks, months, for Twenty Years, just helping things rot.

There's also a lot of info on individual plants, how to plant them and care for them, how to work with the seasons. Most of it doesn't apply to me, cause the Sunset doesn't have a summer, or a winter either. Just continual fog and cold.

The other book, CROPS IN POTS by Bob Purnell, takes the fertilizer and pesticide approach to growing things. I'd originally been interested in the idea of growing things in pots because I saw it as a way to get around my soil quality issues--just fill the pots with decent soil and you're ready to go--but this book states that a plant will use all the nutrients in a pot full of soil in just a month or so, while its growth period might last a lot longer. Purnell's solution is to dump in fertilizer, which doesn't appeal to me because doing that causes the very environmental damage, and dependence on our economy, I'm trying to minimize by growing some of my own food. The book spends more time on arranging for visual appeal than it does on growing for food purposes. In the end, it was a waste of my time.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

DESPITE EVERYTHING: A COMETBUS OMNIBUS


After I finished high school, I spent a few years bumming around, riding greyhound and hitchhiking, picking up disposable jobs and crashing in flophouses/communes/hostels. Eventually, it got kind of boring. Without committing to a location, you limit the sorts of things you can experience and achieve. Picking up and leaving every few months makes it hard to get beyond a shallow relationship with a place and the people living there. That's the conclusion I came to, anyway, and so I decided to drop anchor in San Francisco, and see what I could build.

Aaron Cometbus, who's been writing the Cometbus zine for more than 25 years now, doesn't seem to feel the same way. He's spent the bulk of the last three decades as a perpetual roadrunner, and Cometbus is largely dedicated to the chronicling of his experiences. This huge tome (600+ pages) collects selections from Cometbus 24-43, plus a smattering of stuff from the earlier issues.

At it's best, Cometbus makes for compelling reading, and I'd even go so far as to say that certain issues represent for me the pinnacle of zine or other periodical achievement--you couldn't put together a better magazine. At its worst (like "The week I rode the bus a lot: a greyhound hell journal" from issue 27, in which Aaron spends almost every hour, for a week long period, either sitting on a bus or waiting in a greyhound station) the zine feels monotonous, pointless, and utterly boring; similar to what aimless traveling had become for me, and why I gave it up. The whole book is kind of a grab bag, with certain issues that I really enjoyed, and other issues that came across as Aaron just feeling obligated to put something out, and raking together a pile of crap for that purpose.

One of the things that I love about Cometbus (and this might seem strange given my general lack of interest in fashion and tv and other mediums focused on visual communication) is the sense of design it showcases. A lot of punk zines are ashy nightmares, just a bunch of crappy pictures/text pasted together and poorly xeroxed. Cometbus shows a more sophisticated visual ascetic. Admittedly, part of the superior visuals in Cometbus relates to the fact that the zine is pressed instead of photo-copied, which means the pictures are pretty clear and not the gritty headaches you get when you xerox a color shot. But it goes beyond mere print quality. Aaron often laid articles out in a way that reflected the article's topic--a visual echo of the textual meaning. For example, a lot of the first-person anecdotes are handwritten, which further enhances the idea that we're reading about a personal experience--how one unique individual (unique down to his handwriting, which reflects individuality more than a uniform computer/typewriter font ever could) experienced one event. Aaron also uses borders and inserts and graphic approaches to tie an article together over the course of several pages, to help you know you're still on the right piece when you flip the page. And sometimes Aaron uses creative visual approaches to completely break away from the orthodox left to right, up to down way we read a story, like in his account of Greenday's first tour (in issue #25), which starts in the lower left corner of the page and snakes around a map of the United States, visually taking us along on the journey. All of it's done in a way to make the most out of the black-and-white format.

Another interesting thing about Cometbus is its representation of the punk culture. This book starts with an issue in which Aaron decided to stop focusing on music (no band interviews, no show reviews) and instead start focusing on the lifestyle. By doing that, he ends up framing punk-life in a broader way, a way that can be recognized as similar to other counter-culture movements (like the lost generation and the beats and the hippies). There are certain things that I view as more-or-less unique to the punk ascetic, like its appreciation of obnoxiousness and irreverence, its affection for childhood interests (sugary cereals and toys), its fascination with urban grit (dumpstering and homeless people), but there are a lot of other things that you'll find in any culture that arises as a conscious response to the mainstream. Instead of communes you get punk-houses; they look different but are pretty much the same thing. As Aaron travels from place to place, he meets up with like-minded people and experiences things with them. In the end, this fostering of a sense of community might be the most important thing about Cometbus.

Part of the community aspect in Cometbus comes from Aaron's travel accounts, but another part comes from his inclusion of columnists and guest writers. A few people turn up again and again, in issue after issue, and they add a lot to the zine. Anna Joy comes across as a cynical genius in some of her pieces; very funny and entertaining, and appreciated for her feminine (in a hard-edged way) input. Richie writes clever weirdness that brings to mind modern favorites of mine, like Sam Pink but not as dark. Here's a Richie poem, to give you a taste:

"birds"
a sunny summer's morn
the birds twitter prettily
so
i go inside
and
get my gun
and
kill them

Some of the one-shot contributors are great, too. The piece on train-hopper graffiti ("Who is Bozo Texino" in issue #27) comes to mind.

All in all, I'm really enjoying this book. It's been a chance to see some of the older Cometbus gems I missed out on, and I've still got several hundred pages to go. There's some crap in here, to be sure, but when it's good Cometbus gives you something that no big-budget book or magazine can offer: the purest (editor-free) connection with a stranger that writing can offer.

It's even got me thinking of putting together a zine of my own. I'll post info on this blog if I manage to get anything together.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

RONIA, THE ROBBER'S DAUGHTER, by Astrid Lindgren


As I read this book, I found myself comparing it to THE REPTILE ROOM, another book aimed at children which I read only a few weeks ago. THE REPTILE ROOM is a product of today, while RONIA feels like it comes from a different time. Technically, RONIA isn't all that old--it was first published in 1981--but it comes from the pen of a woman born in 1907, and it reflects certain values and interests, and an approach to children, that aren't in keeping with our current mores.

For one thing, RONIA is written with a harder hand than THE REPTILE ROOM. That book, second in A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS, is rather maudlin in tone, a mimicry of Victorian tragedy. The tragedy in this book, the level of pathos it deals with, is decidedly more sincere. RONIA, which tells a sort of friendship-based Romeo and Juliet story with two people drawn together despite their warring families, is unflinching in its portrayal of how a parent's prejudices can hurt children. When turmoil unsettles the relationship between Ronia and her father, it is real turmoil. The emotional pain is not handled with kid-gloves; it is given raw and red.

Part of the reason the pain feels so much sharper in this book than in THE REPTILE ROOM relates to the solidity of the characters in each work. Ronia and her companions feel more complicated, more rounded, and more real than the three Baudelaire children and Count Olaf, which are so simple that their identities are basically explained by a single repeated action (for example: the oldest Baudelaire kid is a girl who likes to invent and ties her hair up with a ribbon when doing so, and that's pretty much all you need to know about her). The conflict Ronia experiences isn't simple, it doesn't have any truly easy answers, and its eventual resolution feels believable but not cheap.

I'm tempted to think that this reveals something about the changing nature of our relationships with children. Astrid Lindgren gives the impression, in RONIA, that children are capable of handling authentic difficulty and tragedy. She gives them credit that Daniel Handler doesn't really give to his audience with the Lemony Snicket books. The fear of being rejected by a parent because of the parent's deep-seated prejudices, which comprises the conflict in RONIA, is a real fear for a lot of kids, and Lindgren allows her audience to face that real fear. She doesn't protect them from it; she gives it to them straight, no pandering. It shows a lot about what she thought kids were capable of, and it reveals a respect for children that I think we might be losing.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman


Back before I reached my teenage years, when I started concentrating on punk rock and being cool, I read a lot of fantasy novels. I was particularly fond of the Dragonlance series, based on the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game. Dragonlance was huge in scope, with a new book coming out every few months (eventually passing 190 in number), and story-arcs usually playing out over three or more books. The very first book, the one that started it all, was DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT.

It's been at least fifteen years since I've read anything from Dragonlance, or even thought much about it, but I've recently become somewhat nostalgic for the old days before I turned into a grumpy old loser. I decided to pick up a copy of DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT, in hopes of revisiting a part of my youth. The library didn't have a copy, and I couldn't find one in any of the used book stores in town, so I was compelled to do something I almost never do: I went to the bookstore and bought a copy new.

I read the book over the course of the last week, and reading it has shown me that you can't go home again.

To put it plainly, the book isn't very good. It consists of an overabundant series of events, one after another after another, cobbled together in a way that doesn't give much sense of significance to their order. It's like the authors came up with a bunch of scenarios, and then rolled dice to decide on their chronology. Within a few dozen pages I was bored, and my level of interest wavered between bored and mildly interested for the next 440+ pages.

The writing itself is far from artful, too. Generally the description is plain, and limited. Most of the prose focuses on action, and the action rarely amounts to anything exciting. Here's the first fight, for an example:

"The goblin dove at Flint, hoping to knock him down. Flint swung his ax with deadly accuracy and timing. A goblin head rolled into the dust, the body crashing to the ground."

Ho hum, right? There isn't any spice to the writing, or any compelling imagery. In fact, the actions are described in a fairly vague way: Flint swings his ax and a goblin head rolls. We aren't shown the ax as it makes contact with the goblin's neck. We aren't given details relating to what the ax looks like, how heavy it feels in Flint's hand, what it feels like when it makes contact with the enemy. We aren't even given a description of the goblin, here or before, that gives us any developed idea of what it looks like. It seems to me that the writing is relying on the reader's familiarity with scenes of this type, a familiarity gathered from reading other books and watching movies. The book depends upon the reader's previous knowledge to supply a mental image of the goblin. If we've never heard of a goblin before, we're not going to learn what it is from this book.

And that's the main beef I've got with the writing in general. It's a bare bones, stripped down account of a series of actions. It's like a basic script, and we're expected to use the script to make a full movie in our minds. But if we're just going to imagine things on our own, with only flimsy prompting on the part of the book, why use the book at all? Why not turn to a better book, one that gives us the mind-movie already fully produced?

So I'm done with Dragonlance. I'll leave it to my past. I still haven't given up on fantasy fiction altogether, though. I remember enjoying some of the Conan stories, so maybe I'll see if my current mind still likes them. Or maybe I'll give the HOBBIT a go.