Here's my pick for a last-minute gift: Novella Carpenter's Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer (The Penguin Press, $25.95). Of all the local-eating guides and tales that have been published this year, hers is still my favorite.
With total honesty, she recounts the story of how she set up an actual subsistence farm in her dodgy Oakland neighborhood, complete with crops growing in the abandoned lot next to her house, a beehive on the deck, and turkeys, ducks, and chickens in the tiny yard—along with rabbits and two voracious pigs. (Because they can't really afford sacks and sacks of pig chow, she and her boyfriend, wearing headlight helmets, dumpster-dive at night to bring them food.) She manages to keep them alive, too, unlike her predecessor-in-prose, Manny Howard, who inadvertently killed off most of his livestock in his Brooklyn backyard a few years ago.
The book is extremely funny and well written, but what I love most about it is its compassion and its fearlessness. Novella lets homeless people harvest from the garden--in fact, it makes her feel good. She butchers ducks and rabbits for dinner (the pigs she sends off to be dispatched, given their sheer strength), and when her turkey Maude somehow flies into the car yard behind the house and into the jaws of two guard dogs, she scales a razor-wire-topped fence to try to rescue her. (Sadly, the turkey doesn't make it, but Novella gets away unharmed.) One night, biking through an especially dicey area where she gathers weeds for her chickens, she runs into a gang of young kids--one of whom points a gun at her--and delivers a "strange oration, which at its heart was motherly." She tells him, "You have to be careful...I care about you. Please be careful or you'll wind up dead." He walks away, and all she can think about is not her own mortality or desire for revenge but the "stupidity and injustice in this world, the cycles of violence that seem they will never end, and my inability to change anything."
Anyone reading this book can see that it's people like Novella Carpenter, courageous and unsentimental and fiercely energetic, who actually do change things.