Book Review “Farm City” or–Living vicariously through memoir

I’m reading Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer.

I am sure there are plenty of people reading this book in preparation for building their own raised beds on a vacant nearby lot, ordering their own box of mixed poultry to raise, getting their hands dirty, then red with blood, as the cycle of life brings butchering time around.

Not me. I don’t want to be a farmer. It’s much more pleasant to read about someone else’s labor than to contemplate doing the same thing oneself.

As an entry in the genre of “read it, don’t live it,” this book is a treasure. (Leaders in this genre are the euro-house-porn books, A Year in Provence and Under the Tuscan Sun.) I like that Novella Carpenter’s Farm City takes place in a locale much less romantic than Provence or Tuscany–an Oakland neighborhood dubbed “Ghost Town.” It reduces the jealousy factor to a comfortable level.

Carpenter’s writing is lively but straightforward. She evokes character and place with satisfying detail; modest events yield sufficient dramatic action, like the theft of an heirloom watermelon or the murder of a turkey by junk yard dogs, to give each chapter a focus and move the story forward.

The nice thing about a “read it, don’t live it” tale is that it comes with its own dramatic arc based on the thing being lived. Gardening progresses from planting to harvest. Remodeling progresses from this-old-wreck to home-sweet-home. The writer doesn’t have to struggle with figuring out where to point the story; that’s already dictated. The writer can instead focus on making the journey enjoyable through self-reflection and observation.

As a reader, my enjoyment comes through living vicariously, and in the company of a pleasant new acquaintance. Thanks, Novella Carpenter, for taking me along on your urban farming adventure–getting your hands dirty so I don’t have to.

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About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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