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Local Lit

Brief notes on what the neighbors are up to

By Gretchen Giles and Michael Shapiro


With every Lit issue, we aim to round up the creamy goodness of area writers. Few years in memory have offered such rich excellence as what we have been honored to gather below. Read 'em and leap!

Anyone who's been awake during the past 25 years knows that corporate power has tightened its grip on our daily lives. Napa author John Harrington says in his new book, 'The Challenge to Power: Money, Investing and Democracy' (Chelsea Green; $40), that if we want to keep the world from deteriorating into a monolithic state run by the corporations for the corporations, we have to put our money where our values are. A key to regaining control of our economy and political system, Harrington argues, lies in our ability to redirect our money.

Harrington, a founder of Working Assets and Progressive Asset Management, knows how powerful money can be. He was an influential leader of the anti-apartheid divestment movement, which led South Africa to free Nelson Mandela and restore democracy to South Africa.

Analyzing the stranglehold that financial influence is gaining over public institutions, democratic societies and the environment, Harrington offers strategies for progressive investing to help counter corporate control. Of course it's not an easy task. Pension systems and other investment tools have given a stake in the stock market to more than half of Americans, most of whom are only concerned about getting the biggest bang for the buck.

But Harrington shows why making money one's sole criterion is a recipe for disaster. He also shows that responsible investing can be as lucrative, or even more financially rewarding, than traditional investing. Just ask any shareholder in Enron or Merck.

Among the actions Harrington recommends are shareholder activism, community mobilization and active citizenship. He speaks candidly about what individuals can do to challenge corporate power and create a fair market economy that makes people and the environment a priority over corporate welfare. Though most thinking people already know about many of the issues Harrington raises, they may not realize how high the stakes are. Harrington argues that unchecked corporate power threatens our survival as a species, and that time is running out.

--M.S.

Petaluma short-fiction writer Noria Jablonski enters the world most deftly carved by Katherine Dunn's Geek Love in her first collection, 'Human Oddities' (Shoemaker & Hoard; $15). Featuring not one, but two disparate sets of Siamese twins in her stories, Jablonski swiftly and perfectly captures the bleech-ugh-hatred of one's own body; those family dynamics so small and intimate as to be naturally true; and the thick taste of loathing, for self and, most certainly, for others. As with Mary Gaitskill's novel Two Girls, Fat and Thin, there are stories in Jablonski's collection that one could wish to have never read, so heartbreakingly awful are they in their precise depiction of shared human shame.

So North Bay–centric are Jablonski's stories, many of which are set in Petaluma, that her characters shop at Carl's Market, the long-defunct grocery now replaced by Whole Foods on Washington Boulevard. (Jablonski's author photo was even shot in the old-fashioned booth at HeeBee JeeBee's.) Site-spotting aside, the richer pleasures of her writing come from her three-dimensional rendering of one particular family in the collection's first section and in the final story, "The End of Everything," in which a gay man attempts a disastrous meta-mimic of his mother. Jablonski's families, her human oddities--each, indeed, unhappy in its own way--are also compellingly crafted and marvelously revealed. A writer to watch.

--G.G.

Focusing on themes of loss and reconstruction, Santa Rosa author Renée Manfredi finds love in unexpected places in her debut novel, 'Above the Thunder' (Anchor; $13.95). The book opens with fifty-something widow Anna after she leaves the home she shared with her late husband. She rents a furnished house because she can't bear the memories their possessions evoke.

After settling into a routine in her job as a medical instructor and facilitator in an AIDS support group, Anna is jolted by a phone call from her estranged daughter who's lost many battles with heroin addiction. Soon her son-in-law appears with Flynn, the 10-year-old granddaughter Anna's never met. Flynn is left to live with Anna and brightens the home with her precocious comments. Later, Jack, a gay man from the support group, becomes an integral part of the household.

Though this may sound like a plot from Six Feet Under, Manfredi, a recipient of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, skillfully brings these sympathetic characters to life. Manfredi says she seeks to "provide hope in equal measure with loss. I think humor is a survival strategy."

Publishers Weekly calls Above the Thunder "a stunning debut novel" and says, "To describe the novel as a brilliant, issue-oriented drama shortchanges Manfredi's accomplishments; the medical writing recalls the early works of Ethan Canin, and the combination of smooth storytelling, compassionate and probing narration and imaginative plotting makes for a heady blend."

Ultimately, what distinguishes Above the Thunder is the believability of its characters. Long after Anna's daughter fails to come see her dying father, Anna refuses to forgive her: "Unforgivable is a promise to a dying parent that you simply don't keep. To a father who adored her and called for her with his last breath. Unforgivable is making someone suffer because they're waiting for you. That look in the eye, that look of hope every time the phone rings. Unforgivable is not getting on a plane."

--M.S.

When typical wine lovers think about Sonoma County viticulture, they consider the fertile soil, dry summers and cool nights. But they may not credit the snaky spine that supports the great wines of the Alexander and Dry Creek valleys: the Russian River. Steve Heimoff, West Coast editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine, went on a quest to explore the river and its connection to the highly esteemed wines it helps create.

"The world possesses many great wine rivers that have writ their legends large in the epochal story of wine and the vine: the Loire, the Rhine and Mosel, the Rhone, the Dordogne," Heimoff writes in 'A Wine Journey Along the Russian River' (University of California Press; $24.95). "Among this exalted company the Russian River deserves a place."

Heimoff travels along the river, which plunges south from its source above Cloverdale and then takes a "radical" left turn west toward fog-shrouded Jenner, where it spills into the Pacific. As he traverses the river, Heimoff interviews winemakers, geologists and soil scientists to learn what makes the river valley such a superb region for the Pinots and Cabernets that thrive at Sonoma vineyards. A nice touch: he includes photos of some people he interviews.

The result is part wine guide, part history and part travelogue. Heimoff introduces readers to legendary vintners from such large wineries as Kendall-Jackson, as well as from specialty houses like Williams Selyem. And he provides a list of recommended wines and producers in the region.

His descriptions of the development of the area's grapes, from the Alexander Valley's Cabernet to the Russian River Valley's Pinot, range from history to anecdotes, offering a well-rounded understanding of how local varietals evolved. Anyone who wants to know more about Sonoma County growers and the river that sustains them is likely to enjoy this book.

--M.S.

Other Voices

The ambitious First Annual Sonoma County Writer's Conference launches its maiden daylong journey on Sunday, Oct. 23, at the Sebastopol Community Center. The brainchild of West County writing instructor Gianna De Persiis Vona and one of her students, Steven Brumm, this conference was born from another. Attending a more storied event in the Bay Area last year, De Persiis Vona and Brumm found that they learned more from the other students than from the presenters.

"The stress was all on sell-sell-sell and the three-minute sound bite," De Persiis Vona says. "It was very depressing. It got us thinking about why we write and what we want to write and why we feel we have to travel out of town and spend hundreds of dollars only to be told that we should probably quit because it's hopeless."

The two began to consider the rich cultural resources here at home, realizing that Sonoma County is lousy with writers. "We started thinking about getting together all of these people in our community who are experts in something and put them in a room where we can talk to each other."

While Brumm worked on infrastructure and, De Persiis Vona says with a laugh, "volunteered to lose all his money," she concentrated on finding the writers. Knowing only former Sonoma County Poet Laureate Terry Ehret, she soon found her list of "experts" expanding. The conference now features such speakers as Tiny Lights publisher Susan Bono, health writer Jim Dreaver, food and wine writers Ron and Sharon Tyler Herbst, NBC correspondent Peter Laufer and crime novelist Dominic Stansberry.

Speaker events are organized into two blocks, with the rest of the day featuring workshops held by playwright Lizann Bassham, poets Gillian Conoley and Katherine Hastings, actor Jane Hirsh and novelist Sherril Jaffe. Information booths on submissions, rejection, screenplays, freelancing, self-publishing, grants and writing groups as well as representatives from area presses and publications are also confirmed.

Perhaps most importantly to a gathering of writers, the food will be excellent, De Persiis Vona and Brumm having engaged the talents of Duck Club chef Jeff Reilly for an extended lunch.

Conspiring to set people down at a table for an hour, giving them booths to browse for accidental conversation and extending periods in which little but connection might happen is all part of the plan. "You never know," De Persiis Vona says simply, "how you can help each other."

The first annual Sonoma County Writers Conference is slated for Sunday, Oct. 23, from 9am to 5pm. Sebastopol Community Center, 390 Morris St. $125; advance registration requested. 707.824.8060.

--G.G.

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From the October 19-25, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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