Berkeley author Michael Pollan: “I’m not that old.” Photo: Ken Light
Berkeley author Michael Pollan: “I’m not that old.” Photo: Ken Light

By Karen Laws

Michael Pollan, taking the stage at the 31st Annual Northern California Book Awards on Sunday June 10, accepted the Fred Cody Award for Lifetime Achievement with two caveats: first, he’s not that old. And second, he’s lived in California (on Berkeley’s north side) for only nine years.

The internationally renowned food activist, journalist, and author gave a humorous account of a reading he gave early in his career at Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue. Botany of Desire had just come out, and among the fans to hear him read was a woman in purple attire who repeatedly raised her hand during his presentation. When called upon, the woman objected to Pollan’s use of the word “pests” to describe aphids that attack plants. Doing a fine imitation of himself as the bemused young writer, Pollan recalled asking what term she might prefer. The woman’s lightning-quick reply? “Associate species.”

Sedge Thomson, who maintained admirable poise on crutches after breaking his ankle a few days earlier, emceed the awards ceremony. Thomson, a Berkeley resident, announced the names of finalists in six categories, beginning with Fiction and Poetry in Translation. The translators received applause from the audience at San Francisco Public Library’s Koret Auditorium before exiting stage right to await the verdict.

Winning author Andrea Lingenfelter knows first hand that a translator’s work often goes unrecognized

The winner, Berkeley resident Andrea Lingenfelter, then spoke about the loneliness of a translator’s work and the delight she takes in bringing contemporary Chinese poet Zhai Yongming to the attention of American readers. Lingenfelter read a few poems from her winning translation of Zhai’s The Changing Room.

The winners in each category read aloud from their books, which in some cases were handed up to them by helpful audience members. To be eligible for an award, a book’s author must meet residency requirements established by the Northern California Book Reviewers, an organization of local critics working under the auspices of Berkeley-based Poetry Flash.

In terms of subject matter, the nominated books spanned the globe. Both Adam Hochschild’s study of wartime dissent in Britain and Barry Eichengreen’s book comparing the history and prospects of the dollar to other international currencies lost out to Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 by Ian W. Toll. Mary Jo McConahay gave a very entertaining reading from her book Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest. Children’s Literature winner Joan Dunning told the audience that she and her literary agent searched for years to find a publisher for Seabird in the Forest, a picture book about the Marbled Murrelet, before making contact with Boyd Mills Press. All but one of the winning books were published by small presses, which, like the webbed-footed treetop dweller, may be an endangered species.

From the podium, several authors expressed surprise at having won and appreciation of the other nominated books in their category. Only a small number of NCBR members knew the outcome in advance. When asked at the wine reception following the ceremony what it was like to be called to the stage as a nominee, and then retake her seat while the winner stepped up to the mike, novelist Edie Meidav acknowledged some mixed feelings. Upon reflection she said, “I truly appreciated the bonhomie, intelligence, and sense of community fostered today, helpful to any writer during the long haul of creation. I will never forget it.”

At the book-signing table, Paul Madonna, winner of the NCBR Special Recognition Award for Everything Is Its Own Reward, An All Over Coffee Collection, had his Sharpie out and was holding court. All copies of The Changing Room sold out.

Poetryflash, the Mechanic’s Institute, and the San Francisco Main Public Library sponsored the event.

2012 Northern California Book Award winners:

Michael Pollan, author, journalist, food activist & cultural critic

Everything Is Its Own Reward, An All Over Coffee Collection,
Paul Madonna, City Lights

Thread, Michael Palmer, New Directions

Sequoia Gardens, Ernest J. Finney, Southern Methodist University Press

Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest, Mary Jo McConahay, Chicago Review Press

Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942, Ian W. Toll, W. W. Norton

The Twelve Chairs, Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, translated by Anne O. Fisher, Northwestern
The Changing Room, by Zhai Yongming, translated by Andrea Lingenfelter, Zephyr Press

Young Adult
Instructions for a Broken Heart, Kim Culbertson, Sourcebooks
Younger Readers
Seabird in the Forest, Joan Dunning, Boyd Mills Press

Adam Hochschild as flour power as a strategy for activists [06.05.12]
Berkeley economist offers historical perspective on financial crisis [05.24.12]
Accolades for Edie Meidav and other East Bay authors [05.17.12]
Legendary beat poet David Meltzer up for an award [06.07.12]

To find out about events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events — the calendar is self-serve and free.

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