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Buy local


› lit@sfbg.com

WISH LIST There are two kinds of gift books: the coffee-table book and the bathroom book. One has the cool cover and arty pics for people to gasp over at parties. The other has teeny bits of content that you zip through while transacting your effluvia. Of course, rents in San Francisco being what they are, for many the toilet now doubles as the coffee table. We don’t judge. In any case, here are five new books from Bay Area authors and publishers that will make your friends feel sophisticated and brilliant.

Thea Hillman’s supercharged For Lack of a Better Word (Suspect Thoughts Press, 192 pages, $16.95 paper) is definitely more bathroom (or purse) than coffee-table reading, with lots of short, provocative essays. But it’s also a book your friends would be proud to have on display. Partly a memoir of Hillman’s child- and adulthood with a hormonal imbalance and the painful process of coming to identify as intersex, For Lack is also about Hillman’s evolving relationships: with the queer community, her lovers, and her mom. In Hillman’s world, the surer you become about who you are, the more vulnerable you get.

Instant City 5 (102 pages, $8 paper) straddles the privy–coffee table divide pretty handily, thanks to its gorgeous cover and interior art and some razor-sharp short fiction and essays. The literary journal’s focus is San Francisco, and the latest installment takes crime as its theme. So Stephen Elliott muses (in a fetish club) on the burglars he knew as a kid, and Sona Avakian explores how a husband’s illicit cigarette can turn into an affair with a snake woman. Morbid Curiosity czar Loren Rhoads leads readers on a tour of San Francisco crime scenes, and Richard J. Martin teaches the Fisherman’s Wharf hustle.

Another brilliant hybrid is Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects with Unexpected Significance (Princeton Architectural Press, 176 pages, $17.50 paper). Edited by Joshua Glenn and Carol Hayes and featuring several Bay Area contributors, Things is chock-full of gorgeous color illustrations, but the text is equally illuminating. Each miniessay details the writer’s love affair (often tortured) with a particular object, and the fact that it’s frequently a piece of mass-produced crap doesn’t lessen the revelatory power of this compulsive read.

Edited by Michelle Tea, the anthology It’s So You: 35 Women Write about Personal Expression Through Fashion and Style (Seal Press, 300 pages, $15.95 paper) is in a similar vein, its contributors sharing anxieties about having the "right" clothes, being taken seriously, sending "a message." The collection would be worth picking up just for the brilliant neuroses of Beth Lisick and Jennifer Blowdryer. But you also get Samara Halperin’s tragically failed attempt to fit in by wearing an Izod shirt and Ali Liebegott’s doomed romance with a pair of slippers. Plus, there are comics and cutout dolls. And wherever your giftee puts this book, people will linger over it, laughing as they identify with the sartorial traumas detailed.

Finally, your friends will probably want to put local science fiction hero Rudy Rucker’s Postsingular (Tor Books, 320 pages, $25.95) on public display — it’ll make them look smart — but they’ll end up reading it while curled into a little ball on the bathroom floor at 3 a.m. anyway. It’s fast-paced and subversive: nanomachines dismantle all life on Earth and send everyone to a virtual world, and you’re still only on page 20. Postsingular turns the singularity, the mythical moment when we all transcend our humanity and become cyberer, into something much weirder and more ambivalent. Just as other cyberfiction is becoming more cautious in its predictions, Rucker takes wilder and wilder leaps into outer possibility.

Seeing other people


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WISH LIST When I give a book as a present, I like to have a good story to tell about where it came from — about the author’s travels or secret family life or public stunts. Many of 2007’s best bets for worthy literary gifts tell such stories on their own. Curated, compiled, and translated, they have the marks of an outside force, concerning themselves with how other people — an author’s child, a lover from another culture, eccentrics from California’s Central Valley — secretly see the world.

Sexy, contemplative, elusive, and addictive, Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear (New Directions, 400 pages, $15.95 paper), translated by Margaret Jull Costa, is the first installment in Javier Marías’s Your Face Tomorrow detective trilogy. Marías maps the sharpness and strange beauty of interpersonal relationships onto a larger relationship between Spain and England. The narrator’s intense observations of people expose the spooky ways in which we read our lives: "those who catch or capture or, rather, absorb the image before them gain a great deal, especially as regards knowledge and the things that knowledge permits."

Orhan Pamuk’s Other Colors (Knopf, 448 pages, $27.95), a collection of essays and one story, translated by Maureen Freely, is similarly a book that anyone interested in literature or love or cities or sounds or writers’ families will return to. "When Rüya Is Sad," one of several snippets about Pamuk’s daughter, ends so touchingly that the richly detailed worlds evoked in the Nobel Prize–winning Turkish author’s novels become more intimate, less imagined: "The two of us gazed out the window without speaking for the longest time, I in my chair and Rüya on the divan, and we both — Rüya sadly and I with joy — thought about how beautiful it was."

When Pamuk spoke in Berkeley in October, he noted that it can take him a long time to warm up to even the best translations of his work. New World/New Words: Recent Writing from the Americas (Center for the Art of Translation, 266 pages, $18.95), edited by Thomas Christensen, is a continuously exciting Spanish-English exploration of the passion of translation. "O body, love and Lord, / Show me a tree made in your image," poet Pura López-Colomé writes in "Prisma/Prism," translated by Forrest Gander.

The characters in the new edition of Highway 99: A Literary Journey Through California’s Great Central Valley (Heyday/Great Valley Books, 592 pages, $18.95 paper) also ask the land to reveal divinity. Editors Stan Yogi, Gayle Mak, and Patricia Wakida present a fantastic stable of story makers, from Yokuts California Indians to Joan Didion. The resulting read is hot, dry, wet, and, ultimately, mythic — something hard to achieve on a road trip through Fresno. In "The Underground Gardens," Robert Mezey writes hauntingly of Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere’s underground gardens in Fresno (still maintained), remembering that Forestiere "clawed at the earth forty years / But it answered nothing." In the poem, the gardener becomes both Christ and seeker.

I wish that cultural critic Antonio Monda had trod similar earth-meets-human ground in Do You Believe? Conversations on God and Religion (Vintage, 192 pages, $12.95 paper), or at least asked his famous interviewees (Spike Lee, Grace Paley, David Lynch, and 15 others) to do what they do best: create something that more fully tells the story of their views of the divine. Either the editors cut out a lot to fit in so many interviews, or Monda was often in a rush; it’s hard to imagine the subjects really responded with one or two brief sentences to provocative questions and statements such as "What does death mean to you?" and "Religion teaches us to defend life to the last breath." Nonetheless, there are moments of clarity here. The book’s symphony of voices reaches a climax when Toni Morrison, pressed about her belief in an "intelligent entity," replies that when she thinks "of the infiniteness of time, I get lost in a mixture of dismay and excitement. I sense the order and harmony that suggest an intelligence, and I discover, with a slight shiver, that my own language becomes evangelical."

Of course, there are ways to be excited without being evangelical. Harold Bloom’s close reading of the gospels in Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine (Riverhead, 256 pages, $15 paper) renews our faith in the value and spirit of the critic. A trio of photography books also transcend theological back-and-forth: The Black Hole, by Anouk Kruithof and Jaap Scheeren (Episode, 102 pages, $32 paper), is a delightful response to a series of newspaper articles of the same name about the future of art school graduates. Reading Jeff Wall, a collaboration between the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Modern Art (168 pages, $50), is like strolling down the block with an old friend who happens to have curated the wide-eyed Canadian artist’s current retrospective at SFMOMA (through Jan. 27, 2008). Ghosts Caught on Film, by Melvyn Willin (David and Charles Publishers, 160 pages, $16.99), is a foray into the world of double-exposed — I mean paranormal — photography, more fun than a game of Balderdash in which you’ve already looked up all the words beforehand. And one last idea: Give everyone on your list the same book and you’ll feel like a City Arts and Lectures moderator, or maybe even the contented curator at an invite-only museum of life.

Shelf help


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WISH LIST My family of origin is so nuclear that on smoggy days a mushroom cloud can be seen above the suburb where my parents still reside. During the holidays we gather there to rehearse and stage the roles we will alternately perform and resist in the ensuing year. While Dad tracks holiday cards sent and received on an Excel spreadsheet, Mom dons a pair of felt antlers and holes up in the kitchen. As for me, I revert to fatigued, endless reading, as if by some cruel law of repetition I have returned to that sullen moment in junior high when my only friend suddenly became popular, leaving me with nobody but books as my companions. Without intervention, I might remain in this half-hypnotized state, rereading Flowers for Algernon until the world outside grows dim, like a dream I can barely remember. This year, however, I’m readying myself with an eclectic batch of new books, books that make me want to participate instead of turning into a listless blotch of angst. These titles provide critical frameworks for dissent, suggest avenues for engagement, and probe cultural blind spots — generating new aesthetic possibilities along the way.

I, for one, like to kick off the holiday season with a powerful dose of well-researched feminist analysis, supplied this year by Susan Faludi in The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America (Metropolitan Books, 368 pages, $26). It’s akin to taking vitamins to ward off the winter cold that’s going around the office. I read some Faludi, I ask my brother to help out in the kitchen. Faludi argues that a highly gendered mythology reasserted its virulent hold over the national psyche (as writ large by the national media) in the wake of Sept. 11. Drawing from an abundance of sources, she parses out the myth: strong male heroes rescue helpless girls, feminism is dismissed as a frivolous and dangerous mistake, and cowboys and manly men rise again to keep the home soil safe. In debunking this overblown narrative, Faludi demonstrates that it doesn’t actually help those it valorizes, nor does its rehearsal expedite an increase in national security or political accountability.

Investigating the symbolic construction of identity and myth from the angle of art, Tisa Bryant’s Unexplained Presence (Leon Works Press, 167 pages, $15.95 paper) takes up "black presences in European literature, visual art, and film." Fusing criticism, film theory, and fiction with a keenly poetic ear, Bryant reenters cultural artifacts to open up these symbolically loaded but structurally silenced or backgrounded characters and motifs. Her stories trace the ways in which black subjectivity is distributed or denied within pictures and plots, between viewers and artworks and artists, and in acts of conversation and debate, of queer identification or refusal to see. What is most remarkable is how Bryant transforms these elisions into acts of imagination, restoring or reconfiguring partially glimpsed subjects via fleet and surprising sentences that traverse the distance between representation and meaning.

Renovating symbolic systems can be hard work, and nothing restores a fatigued body and mind like making changes to the physical infrastructure — such as sawing through your drainpipes to divert "barely used" household water from sewers to gray-water systems for gardening and washing clothes. Sexily linking the macro to the micro, the locally grown junta known as the Greywater Guerrillas has expanded its how-to know-how into Dam Nation: Dispatches from the Water Underground (Soft Skull Press, 416 pages, $19.95 paper), a collection of essays that examine the global plight of water misuse and attendant broad-scale ecological impacts. I don’t think it undermines the gravitas of the issue to mention that portions of the book are a sheer pleasure to read, especially when editors Cleo Woelfle-Erskine, July Oskar Cole, and Laura Allen (illustrations were supplied by Annie Danger) detail their efforts to "disengage from the water grid" by taking plumbing into their own hands.

What James Kochalka takes into his hands in American Elf Book Two: The Collected Sketch Book Diaries of James Kochalka (Top Shelf Comics, 192 pages, $19.95) is his life, tidbits of which he transforms into daily diary comics. Visually and verbally, Kochalka risks a silly, reckless sweetness — a sampling of titles includes "Romance of Life" and "Everything was fine until the old wakey wake." The strips are also a little bit perverted and weirdly honest, as Kochalka’s elf-eared stand-in catalogs a receding hairline, farty dairy hangovers, and arguments with his beloved and salty-mouthed wife. As the pages and days pile up, the effect is infectious, such that, while under the diaries’ spell, I began to sense secret fissures of creative potential and magic in the mundane flow of everyday life.

Isa Chandra Moskowitz, Terry Hope Romero, and the army of flavor lovers they run with have changed the landscape of vegan cooking. In Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook (Marlowe and Co., 336 pages, $27.50), Moskowitz and Romero draw inspiration from a variety of international cuisines, without making any claims to authenticity. The resulting recipes (mole, saag, and lasagna, to name a few) are adventures in surprising flavor combinations. A helpful foreword details how to stock a vegan pantry, and tips offered alongside the easy-to-follow recipes instruct on where to find specialty items or how to organize your cooking tasks — advice that, as an unskilled, distractible cook, I found particularly useful. An appendix of menus ranges from rich party foods to low-fat and easy-to-prepare options.

Printed in large type, so it’s easy to read when splayed open next to a bicycle, the repair-manual portion of the illustrated Chainbreaker Bike Book: A Rough Guide to Bicycle Maintenance, by Shelley Lynn Jackson and Ethan Clark (Microcosm Publishing, 256 pages, $12), builds from the ground up. Starting with the ethics and rewards of skill sharing, it moves on to detail parts, tools, and instructions for system-by-system checkups and repairs. The book’s second half comprises reprinted issues of the Chainbreaker zine, originals of which were lost when zinester Jackson’s New Orleans home flooded after Katrina. The zines complement the how-to portions with a wider view of the bicycle’s cultural impact — e.g., the role of bikes in the women’s clothing revolution, the democratizing potential of this low-cost form of transportation. Note: the book hits shelves in February, but aspiring bike enthusiasts can order it now at www.microcosmpublishing.com.

And to come full circle … Sherman Alexie’s first young adult (and graphic) novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown Young Readers, 240 pages, $16.99), reminds me that a return to YA reading can be the opposite of mind-numbing — when undertaken with a book that’s emotionally spring-loaded, linguistically gymnastic, and devastatingly funny in turns. Drawing from his experiences growing up, Alexie tells the story of Junior (a.k.a. Arnold True-Spirit Jr.), a comic-drawing Indian kid who leaves his reservation to attend an all-white high school. Between racism at school and conflict with friends on the reservation, Alexie nails the ups and downs of a young artist learning to navigate by his own radar, amid competing claims from family and a sometimes encouraging but often deviously indifferent world. Ellen Forney’s inspired illustrations channel Junior’s manic, tell-it-like-it-is sensibility and provide a visual anchor for Alexie’s loquacious narrator.

Lust and loss


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Many dedicated faggots have made the comparison between cocksucking and prayer, especially when knees are planted in the ground, eyes closed because of something too powerful to look at. But Christopher Russell’s Landscape, a book of black-and-white photos of men cruising San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park, at first appears to take this assertion one step further — with the trees towering above and light cascading onto shirts, hands, exposed asses, it’s almost as if these men have stumbled into heaven. If so, they appear unaware — in one early photo, someone crouches forlorn in the shadows between trees; above him beckon three perfectly crafted beams of light. There’s an eeriness to many of these photos, as the sumptuousness of the foliage and the brashness of the sunlight render the sex acts comparably mundane: white T-shirts pulled up and white briefs pulled down like on a porn set; the spooky silhouette of a face pressed against a waiting crotch; baseball caps and dark sunglasses holding distance.

It’s when the images become fractured that they reveal depth of feeling — faces merging with leaves and light, heads blending into trees awaiting sky, the motion of hands and arms and legs conjuring a certain type of flight. When the camera pulls back, it’s the sky that’s shimmering, a brightness between branches and leaves with just a tiny figure below. We see a face turned, or the back of a head — yet the action is not where the figure is gazing but above and around, leaves swaying in the breeze and branches shaking underneath the glow of the setting sun. It’s here that we can truly appreciate the complex landscape of lust and loss, adventure and longing.

In one photo, the silhouette of someone’s coat blends so neatly with that of a tree that it resembles a sagging branch, and it brings to mind an image reproduced in the French writer Tony Duvert’s Good Sex Illustrated, a scathing 1974 critique of a five-volume "liberal" sex manual published the previous year in France. The photo, taken from the handbook in question, shows a park somewhat more groomed and far less picturesque than Buena Vista, but we see light reflecting off trees and a man in an overcoat standing to the side of a path, his back to us. Unlike in Russell’s photos, however, it’s the man who seems monumental and the trees a backdrop as a child gazes up from several feet away, apparently immobilized by what he sees. The image, from the volume aimed at 10- to 13-year-olds, is meant to illustrate the dangers of pedophiles who apparently lurk in parks. But Duvert indicts the motives of parents who warn their children about such violence, declaring, "What they are really trying to do isn’t to protect the child but their own exclusive right to do whatever they want with him."

In Good Sex Illustrated, published in English for the first time this month, by Semiotext(e), Duvert skewers the emerging field of sex education as nothing but "science taking charge of the old moral order." With a savage glee, he dissects the volumes of the manual allegedly geared toward helping young adults discover their sexual selves but instead intent on "libidinal dismembering" and centered on a "pro-birth obsession." Duvert is most hilarious when he compares what the handbook calls a "feeling of total fulfillment" from pregnancy to that of a teenager getting fucked in the ass: "Jean scrubbed his ass pensively: is this what they call a feeling of total fulfillment?" In a related footnote he brilliantly comments, "It goes without saying that as soon as the pleasure of having a cock inside your body stops being depreciated, the honor of having a fetus there won’t be over-emphasized." But if this is one of Duvert’s most skillful reversals, it also illuminates a gap in his analysis. After all, he’s comparing a woman’s alleged feelings during pregnancy to a man’s response to getting fucked (we hear nothing about a woman’s sexual pleasure). While Duvert incorporates a nuanced gender critique into many of his readings, he prioritizes male sexuality throughout the book, which ends up thwarting him in his overall mission of subverting the social order by encouraging the sexual freedom of all children.

David Halperin’s What Do Gay Men Want? An Essay on Sex, Risk, and Subjectivity has a similar aim of moving conversations about sexuality (and sexual safety) away from standards of "healthy functioning" and "rational" or "irrational" behavior. Halperin seeks to champion queer cultural traditions over the judgments of psychology and the false dichotomy between risk and safety. (In a homophobic culture, what gay sexual behavior, after all, isn’t risky?) In searching for a more comprehensive approach to gay male sexual splendor, Halperin revisits a vulnerable and challenging 1995 essay by Michael Warner in the Village Voice, "Unsafe: Why Gay Men Are Having Risky Sex," in which Warner at one point states that "abjection continues to be our dirty secret." If Warner talks about abjection as a sense of "dirtiness" due to societal condemnation, Halperin describes it as "an experiment with the limits of both destruction and survival, social isolation and social solidarity, domination and transcendence." In other words, "the more people despise you, the less you owe them, and the freer and more powerful you are." Halperin proposes, "Instead of worrying about the appeal of abjection to gay men, … what we really should be doing is trying to think concretely about … how to make it work for us."

It’s a provocative idea, but unfortunately Halperin here departs from his methodical (and meticulously footnoted) analysis of safer sex strategies to endlessly circle around Warner’s essay and certain passages from the writing of Jean Genet, resulting in a repetitive rhetorical jumble. To be sure, Halperin provides a few illuminating examples (including the writing of porn star Scott O’Hara and the brilliant and short-lived zine Diseased Pariah News), but What Do Gay Men Want? could certainly have benefited from an analysis of the wealth of queer world-making in the era of AIDS that has centered on the possibilities (and perils) of an embrace of outsider status — the work of David Wojnarowicz, Samuel Delany, Derek Jarman, Gregg Bordowitz, Justin Chin, or Essex Hemphill, to name a few among innumerable possibilities. Or, perhaps, an analysis of Christopher Russell’s photos, where the messiness of desire becomes landscape.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (www.mattildabernsteinsycamore.com) is the editor, most recently, of Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity.


By Christopher Russell

Kolapsomal Press

70 pages, $49.95


By Tony Duvert; translated by Bruce Benderson


184 pages, $14.95 paper


By David M. Halperin

University of Michigan Press

176 pages, $22.95



› paulr@sfbg.com

Reading a work of fiction is a little like getting into someone else’s car for a trip that someone else has planned without consulting you: it’s an act of trust. The car pulls up and you climb in. You hope that the headlights and brakes are in working order and that there is no liquor on the driver’s breath. You assume that the driver knows the route, even if you don’t; you assume the destination is a worthy one, even if you’ve never heard of it. Discreetly you fasten your seat belt. The car pulls away from the curb, perhaps smoothly, perhaps amid squeals of burning rubber.

You might soon find yourself bouncing along unpaved rural roads or roaring through hairpin curves in the mountains, wishing you’d remembered your Dramamine. Snow, rain, fog, sleet, sunshine, boring vistas of cornfields, stunning views from turnouts, all are possible — and eventually you’re there, wherever it was you were meant to be taken. You didn’t get lost, the car didn’t crash, no one was killed or maimed, the journey was memorable if not always agreeable, and this is what we call literature. If you don’t like the destination, you make a silent note to yourself and, thumb extended, wait for another car to come along.

In Philip Roth’s new novel, Exit Ghost (Houghton Mifflin, 292 pages, $26), there is a good deal of perseveration about the Library of America, our pantheon of literary immortals — of greatness, that great American obsession. Roth, notably, has already been admitted to this black-jacket collection, and his alter ego in the novel, the now-aged Nathan Zuckerman, a bundle of genitourinary woes and other peeves of the sort that afflict the solitary when they find themselves tossed into the simmering kettle of metropolitan life, is keen to see his late mentor, E.I. Lonoff, similarly enshrined. But Zuckerman isn’t the only character interested in Lonoff’s legacy; there’s also Richard Kliman, a 28-year-old literary ambitionist. Kliman wants to write Lonoff’s life and believes he’s caught an exciting whiff of incest in the dead writer’s story.

Zuckerman and Kliman, needless to say, aren’t fated to be chummy, though they do meet in an impressive shower of word sparks. Google tells us that Lonoff is probably a semiportrait of Bernard Malamud, author of The Natural and a friend of Roth’s, but the particulars of Lonoff’s fictive life — a house deep in the Berkshires, a flitting shadow of sexual transgression — struck me as a mingling of details in the lives of real-lifers J.D. Salinger and Henry Roth.

The other Roth — Philip — may or may not be a great writer, whatever that means (more anon), but he is certainly a good writer. He pulls up to the curb in an unassuming rig, and within moments we are under way, the scenery gliding by, the author in complete control, with a route and destination plainly in mind. The language is effective, not showy; its pull is strong and steady. The writer of these words has obviously thought about life as he’s lived it; the experience of growing older is rendered with vivid precision and an equally vivid lack of sentimentality. The author has nothing to prove, only something to tell, and we are only too pleased to listen, as the journey ticks by and the pages turn one after the other.

"Good writer," like "friend," is possibly too temperate an expression for our intemperate times. Gore Vidal once suggested that the good is the enemy of the great — a splendid aphorism — but he seemed to understand great as gifted, with good being highly polished, self-approving, and perhaps slightly resentful ordinariness, the glittering gemstone that turns out to be zircon. That is the truth about most glittering gemstones. Yet great, in our demotic culture, carries another meaning: it means "celebrated," and celebration is often the result of telling people, intentionally or not, what they wish to hear. Good writers can do this as well as bad writers.

Being considered a great writer in this sense is a political achievement, like winning the presidency. It’s a symbiosis that has to do with the writer’s times and the writer’s relation to those times. How does the writer see the times, and how is he or she seen by them? What if the relationship is adversarial? What happens if the writer is inclined to commit the unpardonable sin of telling the truth? Does the Library of America take these factors into account?

Long ago I noticed, and I continue to notice, that the animus at the heart of most unfavorable comment about fiction is You didn’t write the book I wanted you to! I am a disappointed consumer in a land where the customer is always right! Much favorable comment merely inverts this proposition; such noise is idiotic but at least doesn’t hurt the writer’s feelings. (Imaginative writers bruise easily, like peaches.) Lost in this welter of vainglory and petulance is the patient attempt to understand what was attempted, measure what was achieved, and describe the gap between the two. Some dare call this criticism, and while criticism might lack the autoerotic thrill of anointing the great or carrying out drive-by shootings on literary misfits, it remains our only trustworthy method of separating the good from the rest.

The art world


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REVIEW Somewhere along a Los Angeles freeway, a couple have a tense conversation about hamburgers. In Southwick, Mass., three women allow their hair to be braided together, and a Houston resident writes the eventful story of her life in a day. In a bedroom in Sydney, Australia, the dress a young woman wore the day she lost her virginity is laid out on the floor, along with the shoes that, she notes, stayed on for the duration. A sign goes up in a patch of parkland near Penn State detailing the markings and habits that distinguish the common raven from the American crow.

The pages of Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July’s Learning to Love You More are filled with such earnest explanations, recorded interactions, humble creative feats, and scraps from memory or fantasy or some complicated combination — all of them compiled from the thousands of audio, visual, and textual contributions to Fletcher and July’s Web site of the same name. Begun in 2002, the project was launched with the goal of offering concrete creative inspiration to any and all comers in the form of detailed assignments: to make an encouraging banner or an educational public plaque, to start a lecture series or compose the saddest song, to write down a recent argument or make a neighborhood field recording, to spend time with a dying person or heal oneself.

"Assignments" suggests a classroom exercise, and as the title implies, education in various guises is one aspect of the project; another is the goal of simply freeing participants to be artful. As Fletcher and July note in the introduction, "Sometimes it seems like the moment we let go of trying to be original, we actually feel something new — which was the whole point of being artists in the first place."

As word of the project has spread in unpredictable patterns via clusters of participants and viewers drawn in over time, LTLYM has put art-making inspiration, instruction, and encouragement in the hands of a sizable, indeterminate, dominolike scattering of humans across the globe. The result here is a succession of works that provoke the viewer to unpredictable reactions as the pages turn. A sound might begin somewhere between a snicker and a giggle, as when one flips to the back to see a re-created poster of Jack Nicholson baring his teeth in The Shining from the teenage years of Jack McCalla of Farmville, Va., but it’s likely to resolve into a capitulatory sigh over a press release written by Toronto resident Emily Holton that announces to selected media outlets her late-night gastric troubles and uncertainties about love’s power to last.

Some of the tasks result in the merely adorable or the gently nostalgic, like the high quotient of bright-eyed household pets found amid the dust bunnies during "Assignment 50: Take a flash photo under your bed," or the series of old book covers from "Assignment 45: Reread your favorite book from fifth grade," which turns up A Wrinkle in Time, Pet Sematary, and Amazing Secrets of the Psychic World and does offer the quiet pleasure of noting experiential connections with formerly young and faraway strangers. Similarly, the encouraging banners of Assignment 63 run the risk of slogans everywhere — but who knows what would happen if, on one of those demoralizing, head-in-gas-oven sort of days, one rounded a corner and came face-to-face with "You Have a Spine!" or "Death Is Not the End."

The past is a minefield and thus ripe for artistic endeavor, and here the weight of memory brings a charge to mundane objects like those clothes laid flat on the floor. So does the weight of regret, as in "Assignment 53: Give advice to yourself in the past," which provokes Wendy in North Carolina to tell her 15- and 16-year-old iterations, "Please eat. You are not ‘fat.’"

This and other conversations produce some of the most poignant and painful and pleasurable moments — such as Assignment 52’s "phone call you wish you could have," which produces two siblings catching up across the mortal coil barrier and a mutual coming-out and profession of love between friends, punctuated by phrases that progress from "Hey, wuddup fool?" to "Fine! I’m gay!" to "I love you too much to hate you." The insubstantial nature of the person on the other end of the line is affecting, whether they’re beyond the grave or simply unlikely to answer.

As was Fletcher and July’s hope, their project offers the humbling, heart-expanding experience of recognizing that the globe is dotted with original and inventive humans, busy thinking and suffering and wondering about love — and making work that turns the world into a more recognizable and yet more startling place when it’s seen. *


By Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July

Prestel Publishing

160 pages, $19.95 paper





When the obituary of the Republican Party is written, it will be noted that the GOP died of war wounds, many but not all of them taken during the kamikaze mission in Iraq. For over the past half century, it has gone from being the party of cautious, America-first realism to one of reflexive belligerence; its embrace of militarism has been passionate and, perhaps, fatal. Over the same half century, meanwhile, the world’s great powers, except us, seem to have come to a gingerly understanding that war may not have much of a future on an environmentally brittle, densely interconnected Earth.

As for the obituarist: John W. Dean offers a strong audition. Dean, a self-described "Goldwater Republican," served as legal counsel in the Nixon White House and testified during the Senate Watergate hearings of 1973 that he’d warned the president about "a cancer growing on the presidency." After Nixon’s crash, Dean left political life for several decades, but he has forcefully returned in the past few years as the author of an accidental trilogy about the Republican Party’s long journey into night. The books have raised alarms about the extreme right’s taste for secrecy (Worse than Watergate, 2004), the psychopathology of authoritarian conservatism (Conservatives Without Conscience, 2006), and now the extent of constitutional ruin wrought by a party interested only in power, not governance (Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches, Viking, 352 pages, $25.95).

Dean’s critique carries particular weight because he is, simultaneously, a longtime Republican, a onetime White House insider, and a lawyer who understands that "proper process … produces good policy," while "compromised processes will lead to bad policy." This is a succinct definition of what is sometimes called process liberalism, the idea that if a society’s institutions are established and operated according to a set of rules and customs generally agreed on, those institutions will produce results that most of the population will be able to accept, if not always cheer. Related ideas in America are the rule of law — the notion that individuals, even self-styled wartime presidents and vice presidents, must respect certain institutional constraints — and the separation-of-powers doctrine, which contemplates that each branch of government will try to curb overreaching by the others.

It is beyond dispute that Republican abuses of process in the past 15 years have been unprecedented and calamitous. Dean is particularly interested in the Bush regime’s use of so-called signing statements to change the meaning of laws duly enacted by Congress. Neither the Constitution nor any statute gives the president such a power, and so such statements are, or should be, legally meaningless. But their plain political purpose is to create what Dean calls a "presidential autocracy"; the statements are (in the words of Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe) "declarations of hegemony and contempt for the coordinate branches — declarations that [Bush] hopes will gradually come to be accepted in the constitutional culture as descriptions of the legal and political landscape properly conceived and as precedents for later action either by his own or by future administrations."

What invading body snatchers have turned the party of Lincoln and abolition into this freak show of power-crazed pod people? Dean doesn’t say, and perhaps he isn’t sure, but he is strangely silent on the military angle. The Constitution grants solely to Congress the power "to raise and support Armies," with the telling proviso that "no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years." The framers did not want a standing army sitting there like a loaded gun, waiting for some president to grab it and start shooting. And for nearly two centuries, the country’s practice was to demobilize after conflicts. As Doris Kearns Goodwin observes in No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (1994), the US Army in 1940 was smaller than Belgium’s. But over the next decade the military was to swell unimaginably, and it remained swollen, even as the "military-industrial complex" a departing President Eisenhower warned us about became a cancer growing on our politics, while its propaganda affiliates assured us that, whether the problem was poverty, drugs, terror, or Manuel Noriega, the answer was war.

The Republican Party chose to dance with this soul-sucking devil at some Mephistophelian ball, only to find later that its throat had been slit and a dagger plunged into its back. For us, the only remaining business is to assign the obituary and then find some way to operate our rickety two-party system with just one party. Unless … some nervy Republican presidential aspirant acknowledges the obvious: that given a choice between democracy and empire, a true Republican — a true American — chooses democracy. A true Republican puts America first by cutting the military budget by 90 percent and redirecting that money into a crash alt-fuel program, into education and health care and environmental protection. Rebuild America. Assuming such a braveheart didn’t soon perish in a mysterious plane crash, next year’s presidential election would immediately become more interesting. *

The big guns


› lit@sfbg.com

REVIEW Over the past 15 years, a steady stream of good, bad, and indifferent anthologies has promised to deliver the thrills of pulp fiction. But for all the retro cover art, melodramatic blurb copy, and Quentin Tarantino allusions, their contents have been shockingly deficient in what aficionados consider to be the real pulp fiction: stories that originally appeared in the luridly covered popular fiction magazines — printed on incredibly cheap pulp paper — that were the medium for popular and genre fiction during the period between the two world wars.

Even the staunchest purist, however, will be pleased with The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps. No false advertising here. The Big Book is big, roughly the size of the San Francisco yellow pages. And it offers up nothing but the purest in pulp mystery fiction. Save for one story by the iconic James M. Cain, every one of the 45-odd full-length novels, novelettes, and short stories here originally appeared in the pages of long-gone pulps such as Black Mask, Clues, Detective Story, Gun Molls, and Detective Fiction Weekly.

The Big Book is packed with appearances by what is arguably the pulps’ greatest contribution to posterity: the hard-boiled private eye. Excellent, seldom-reprinted stories by Raymond Chandler ("Red Wind," "Fingerman") and Dashiell Hammett ("The Creeping Siamese," "Faith") are joined by clipped-prose gems such as Paul Cain’s ultra-hard-boiled exercise in blackmail, "One, Two, Three," and Frederick Nebel’s tough tale of nightclub murder, "Wise Guy," along with a bevy of unsentimental gumshoe stories by unfortunately lesser-known writers, among them Roger Torrey, Stewart Sterling, and Leslie White.

The pulps weren’t all about tough-talking dicks, though. In a section titled "The Villains," the Big Book focuses on the "bad" guys who often weren’t that bad. In one typical story, Raoul Whitfield’s "About Kid Deth," a sympathetic racketeer beats a bum murder rap with a few of his less-savory fellows. And rounding out the volume is "The Dames," a selection of stories featuring strong female characters. While there were no women PIs in the pulps, there were plenty of broads like the chorine protagonist of Cornell Woolrich’s "Angel Face," who could out-wisecrack the sharpest-tongued gumshoe.

Of course, picture-perfect prose is in short supply. The bulk of the material in the Big Book was written by poor bastards trying to make a living pounding out stories at a penny a word. At that rate, experimentation was idiotic and rewriting a rare luxury. But these strictures guaranteed that the stories would be relentlessly paced and action packed. Someone’s getting knocked over the head, if not shot or stabbed, on every other page.

And even in these bullet-riddled sagas, there is no shortage of rough-hewn beauty. In Steve Fisher’s "You’ll Always Remember Me," the psychopathic protagonist concludes that "one person more or less isn’t so important in the world anyway, no matter how good a guy he is." In Frank Gruber’s "The Sad Serbian," a skip tracer notes, "The noise she makes when she hits the floor reminds me of the time I got drunk at a dance and fell into the bass drum." And the opening line of Woolrich’s "Angel Face"? "I had on my best hat and warpaint when I dug into her bell." Well, who can resist?

After a thousand pages of this, you’ll never want to go back to the fake stuff. The Black Lizard Big Book puts the pulp back into pulp fiction. *


Edited by Otto Penzler

Vintage Books

1,168 pages





By Shalom Auslander

Riverhead Books

320 pages, $24.95

It’s possible that one of the 613 commandments in the Torah is "Thou shall not read Foreskin’s Lament." Which of course means read it. If you’ve got the time, read it twice, once from right to left. You’ll still laugh. It’s that funny.

Shalom Auslander’s memoir of life as a black sheep in a black hat picks up where his first book, the short-story collection Beware of God (Simon and Schuster, 2005), left off, taking a well-hewed ax to the image of the Almighty. But unlike God bashers du jour Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, Auslander believes in the pie maker in the sky. And as his worn punch line goes, it’s been a real problem for him.

It was a problem while he was growing up in the Orthodox community of Monsey, NY, where he developed a penchant for pornography and junk food. It was a problem throughout his teens, as he padded his résumé of sin with lots of pot smoking and shoplifting. And it was even more of a problem, years later, after his wife became pregnant with their first child, a son no less. Having a family aggravated Auslander’s deep-seated religious paranoia. God, the wrathful stalker who smites first and asks questions later, was surely going to murder his family. It would be payback for years of vioutf8g the laws of Judaism. As his second-most-tired punch line goes, that would be so God.

Auslander plays the alienation and theological abuse (his wife’s words, not mine) for laughs, defiling his religious upbringing in ways that will win him friends and enemies in equal measure. But his paranoia — the idea that God will get him and his family — casts some very dark shadows over the book, not so dismal as to ruin a good time, but grave enough to bring the story to its supplicant knees. Still, Foreskin’s Lament is a romp — relentlessly unrepentant and irreverent. Auslander may be a weak man and a bad Jew, tempted by tits and traif, but he’s a better writer for it. Here’s hoping he has enough raw material for future laments over other parts of the body. (Scott Steinberg)


With Steve Almond

SF Jewish BookFest

Sun/4, 12:45–2 p.m., free

Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, Kanbar Hall

3200 California, SF

(415) 292-1233, www.jccsf.org


Written by Percy Carey; illustrated by Ronald Wimberly


128 pages, $19.99

While reading Sentences: The Life of MF Grimm, Percy Carey’s graphic-memoir debut, it comes in handy to know a bit of the backstory — such as the recent controversy surrounding Carey, a.k.a. MF Grimm, and his former artistic partner MF Doom, onetime tight collaborators who have fallen out publicly through dis tracks. Familiarity with the innovative rapper’s street life–meets–transcendence flows is also a plus. Readers who come to Sentences fresh may be taken aback by Carey’s grittiness and what seems to be an argument that people don’t really change — they either calm down or die.

And yet Sentences, more HBO drama than MTV interview, will get you in the end. As we follow Carey, a gifted rapper but a natural fighter, from a rebellious Upper West Side youth through drug dealing, a paralyzing gunshot attack, and harsh jail time, he never stops believing that hip-hop is the most positive outlet for his particular type of raucous energy. And when he finally makes it — albeit in a wheelchair — starting multimedia label Day by Day Entertainment, we are right there with him.

Ronald Wimberly’s black-and-white artwork calls to mind Paul Chadwick’s careful inkings in Concrete (Dark Horse), with its use of shadows and silhouettes to emphasize emotional relationships. Although Wimberly has worked on fanciful Vertigo titles such as Swamp Thing and Lucifer, Sentences proves he has a knack for human antiheroics. Carey’s wandering storytelling style fits perfectly with the fluid, figurative scenes, which depict an urban reality full of countless ups and downs: watching a friend get set up by the cops; losing at the MC Battle for World Supremacy; standing face-to-face with Dr. Dre and Suge Knight, laying dreams on the table. When Carey presents his journal-style thoughts, the result is weirdly intimate, as when he admits that "in the end, it was my own stupidity that sent me to prison." Carey is usually less gushy, but be prepared: even the shoot-outs are heartfelt. (Ari Messer)


By Brian Bouldrey

Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press

296 pages, $26.95

If narratives are like hikes, best begun in lighthearted whimsy before the climb to bleak summits and bracing vistas both earned and unexpected, then Brian Bouldrey’s narrative of a hike, Honorable Bandit: A Walk across Corsica, could well be a model of its kind. The book recounts a journey by foot that Bouldrey and a friend made a few years ago across the enchanted Mediterranean island (ethnically Italian but politically part of France) where Napoleon was born. And while the tale is full of vivid detail about the expedition’s joys and travails (soaked shoes, crowded tents, sharp rocks, bad weather, wild boar, comically strange fellow travelers, the occasional glass of local wine), it also becomes, through a series of interpolated "why I walk" personal essays, a meditation on its author’s life.

Bouldrey (a former Guardian contributor) spent his young adulthood in the plague-ridden San Francisco of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the loss of a beloved to AIDS plainly still aches. Serious walking, then, is an occasion for remembering and reflecting and also, in its very meanderingness, a form of redemption: we save ourselves simply by making the effort to do so. Although most pilgrimages end up at some holy site, the literary value and interest of any pilgrimage has less to do with the destination than with the getting there, and in this sense Honorable Bandit joins a long line that begins with The Canterbury Tales.

Bouldrey has for some time been among our cheeriest bards of sorrow. As in an earlier collection of essays, Monster: Adventures in American Machismo (Council Oak Books, 2001), he is candid about his griefs and losses without descending into self-pity over them, and his sense of the ridiculous never fails him. He is especially sensitive about his Americanness, to his being "a representative of the prevailing power" in a restive Europe. He doesn’t want to be outed as a Yank, and at the same time he is impatient with his native land and its bizarre Francophobia: "And you Americans," he thinks, "you have only one kind of mustard — and you call it French’s!" Vive les moutards. (Paul Reidinger)


Nov. 13, 7 p.m., free

Get Lost Travel Books

1825 Market, SF

(415) 437-0529, www.getlostbooks.com


By Adrian Tomine

Drawn and Quarterly

112 pages, $19.95

Ben Tanaka, the protagonist of Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel Shortcomings, is an ambitionless Berkeley cinema manager who attributes his outsider status not to race but to his being "a nerd with a bad personality and no social skills"; his girlfriend, Miko, is a successful organizer of an Asian American film festival who resents Ben’s attraction to Caucasian women. Every conversation between the two becomes an argument, and Ben sees every argument as a personal attack on him. So it’s with some relief that the two "take a break" while Miko’s in New York, leaving Ben free to pursue a pair of blonds.

But the girls he idealizes turn out to be just as flawed as he is, as revealed by one’s earnest but ridiculous art projects and the other’s passive-aggressive cruelty. Even Miko proves to be a hypocrite, shacking up with a "rice king" designer in Manhattan.

Compiled from the past three issues of Tomine’s Optic Nerve comic, Shortcomings isn’t all heartache and betrayal. There’s subtle comedy in small details like Crepe Expectations, the name of the café where Ben holds venting sessions with his friend Alice, a wisecracking womanizer, as well as moments of outright hilarity, as when Miko’s new white boyfriend (sorry, I mean half Jewish, half Native American) busts out a defensive karate stance when confronted by Ben on the street. And Ben’s recurring tirades about how shitty a place New York is (Tomine recently moved from the Bay Area to Brooklyn) might even be a nod to Woody Allen, the ultimate geek-cum-lothario whose wit, charm, and, above all, ability to laugh at himself are passable currency for his own shortcomings.

The thing is, Ben doesn’t seem to possess these qualities, except perhaps when courting the ladies, and we don’t get to see what he was like before his relationship went sour. So is he a sarcastic but sweet loner in need of understanding, or is he a superficial, insensitive creep who deserves a life of rejection and loneliness? Ultimately, Shortcomings is an honestly told story about the ugly end to a relationship that isn’t that black and white. (Hane C. Lee)


Conversation with Glen David Gold

Nov. 14, 7 p.m., free


1644 Haight, SF

(415) 863-8688, www.booksmith.com

Visual presentation and signing

Nov. 15, 7 p.m., free

Cody’s Books

1730 Fourth St., Berk.

(510) 559-9500, www.codysbooks.com


By Jane Austen and Charles Dickens


192 pages, $16.95

Jane Austen wrote her History of England when she was 16, in 1791, and she intended it to be read aloud at home. Her sister, Cassandra, drew pictures for it. These have not been reproduced in Ecco’s new edition of the history, one of several odd choices here. Various collections of Austen juvenilia include this work, and Algonquin Books published a facsimile and transcription in 1993. Why wouldn’t her fans just buy one of those? And why is her history twinned with an excerpt from Charles Dickens’s 1851–53 A Child’s History of England?

Austen’s recent pop-cultural upsurge no doubt explains this volume’s publication. And David Starkey makes a plausible case for reading both histories in his introduction, an apologia that’s longer than Austen’s entry. But he’s less convincing regarding their appearance in one volume, and Dickens’s inclusion calls to mind the useless (but equally space-consuming) footnotes T.S. Eliot provided to make The Waste Land book length. His contribution here covers a shorter period than Austen’s (although they both end with Charles I’s reign), and it’s hard to imagine Dickens devotees not searching out the complete text.

This book, then, seems suited primarily for the dabbler in English literature or history. Austen ascribes her work to "a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian"; the first two adjectives certainly apply to Dickens. The description is tongue-in-cheek, but the approach it suggests does allow these authors to write with, as Starkey says, "freshness and wit," producing unforgettable scenes and characters. Although Austen’s work is a satire of boring contemporary histories, it is amusing enough to spark the interest of a modern reader in the period she covers; meanwhile, Dickens’s was written for his Household Words journal and was meant to appeal to a broad audience — and was used in British schools until the 1950s. These writings make history interesting and even entertaining, and whatever they lack in scholarship can be picked up elsewhere. Whatever its failings, Two Histories has the potential to be an excellent gateway drug. (Juliana Froggatt)

Cemetery days


› lit@sfbg.com

REVIEW A smaller selection of the poems in A Wall of Two would have been easier to take. Presented here in more than 50 bone-shaking adaptations by poet Fanny Howe, the devastating early works by sisters Henia and Ilona Karmel, survivors of the German concentration camp Buchenwald, are so harrowing I could read only a few at a time. But a lighter load would have detracted from their representation of a horrific captivity and possibly kept us from looking at suffering as the Karmel sisters do: directly in its dirty, doomed face.

When they were sent from Kraków, Poland, to forced labor camps in 1943, Ilona was 17 years old, Henia 20. Amid brutal work shifts behind barbed wire in Germany and Poland, the determined women, bordering on starvation but inspired by an education rich in literature and verse, scribbled poems on stolen work sheets. They sewed them into the hems of their dresses, and Henia, believing that her death was imminent, managed to hand them off, during a forced march near the end of the war, to a cousin, who in turn got them to Henia’s husband, Leon Wolfe. By the time the sisters were reunited with Wolfe, they had suffered mutiutf8g injuries by German tanks and, oddly, had each had one leg amputated.

Smuggled away from such darkness, the poems in A Wall of Two are intimate, physical, sometimes clumsy observations of a dire reality. They home in on a sense of looming threat, evoking the state of captivity as relentlessly as Jacobo Timerman did in sections of Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, his 1981 masterpiece of human rights literature. In "A Child’s Vision of Peace," Ilona, who would later win acclaim for her 1986 novel An Estate of Memory (set in the concentration camps), envisions two boys cautiously standing face-to-face. They "grasp hands and hang on / As if they held a hammer and sickle," then suddenly lash out at each other: "Take that, and that." In "The Land of Germany," Henia is surrounded by wires "Barbed and bright / Like mad-dog teeth."

In many of her bleak little songlike poems, Henia scratches lines as stark as etchings on a prison wall: "Cemetery days / One after the other"; "You don’t believe what’s happening here, / Do you, my poor horrified brothers?"; "Sometimes a dream stupidly hangs on" — her verse rendered in Howe’s minimalist adaptations of literal translations from the Polish. Howe writes that she often chose to prune back "dangling clauses" or "excess adjectives" in order to bring forth the essential images in the poems, and such scaled-back lines cast a light on Henia’s brutal irony in "Snapshots":

And do you want to know

what I do for a living?

I’m not joking.

I sort shell casings

It’s the best job

because killing is good

and time passes fast

when the work has a purpose.

Cunning and immediate, poems such as this are sandwiched between remarkable letters and essays, stories and acknowledgements, reminders that if any of the little twists of fate hadn’t occurred, everything could have quickly disappeared — not just the wall of words, but the women fighting behind it. *


By Henia Karmel and Ilona Karmel

Adaptations by Fanny Howe

Translated by Arie A. Galles and Warren Niesluchowski

University of California Press

158 pages; $45 hardcover, $16.95 paper

All that noise



Boundary issues



Fast, cheap, and out of control



Click here for the Guardian‘s interview with Robert Reich.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 led a lot of pundits to talk about “the end of History.” The big battle of our lives, the defining philosophical and political conflict of the century, was over. Communism lost. Capitalism won.

But in the United States, the real war was just getting under way, a conflict between two visions of society: in one, the public sector, operating under a democratic system, dominated economic and political life; in the other, the central players in the game of life were private corporations. This war, which drags on today, poses a profound question: does the capitalist economy work for us — or are we slaves to its whims? The answer continues to transform almost every aspect of American life.

Clinton-era labor secretary Robert Reich, now a professor at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, takes on a big piece of this epic struggle in his new book, Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy and Everyday Life. The cogent, well-documented, and critically important argument he makes is that the American people have prospered as consumers and investors at the expense of their role as citizens.

And in the end, we’ve been hurting ourselves.
This is the essential paradox of modern global capitalism: you can buy high-end electronics cheap, get amazing bargains at Wal-Mart, enjoy the growth of your 401(k) plan — and in the process, become poorer. Because the race to the bottom of the price chain and the top of the market has costs, and in the end, we’re all paying them. The only solution, Reich says, is a more aggressive government: more regulation, higher taxes, and, quite possibly, some consumer and investor sacrifices.

Reich goes back to what he calls the “Not Quite Golden Age,” the roughly 25 years after the end of World War II that were marked by continuous economic growth, relative prosperity, and remarkable (compared with today) economic equality. The top tax rate, for the very rich, was 91 percent (compared with 35 percent today). American industry was controlled by an oligopoly, in which a handful of businesses held the reins — and because they faced little competition, they were able to share their profits with labor. Back then, companies didn’t distribute their wealth to investors; it went to the employees.

For all the denunciation of socialism and idolization of the free market that goes on in American politics today, Reich points out that cold war America was defined by centralized economic planning. It just wasn’t the government doing that job; it was private industry.

He doesn’t contend that the model in operation back then was perfect — and anyone who has followed the postwar transformation of San Francisco, driven by secret private-sector planning, knows the painful impacts of such policies. But public resources were adequate to pay for massive infrastructure advances (the interstate highway system), gigantic educational benefits (the GI bill), and phenomenal tax breaks for home ownership. Labor unions, dealing with domestic companies that didn’t face competitors with cheaper offshore labor, were able to negotiate a division of the wealth that helped create the modern American middle class.

The gap between rich and poor was much, much smaller during that period than it is today; as Reich notes, “the potent incentive of great wealth was often absent,” so the economy was far more equitable and stable. High taxes on the rich didn’t slow a period of remarkable economic growth. And in 1964, 75 percent of the American public thought the government could be trusted to do the right thing most of the time — a statistic that seems inconceivable today.

That was, of course, before Vietnam, before Watergate, before the (first) energy crisis, stagflation, the California tax revolt, and cultural disillusion with the public sector, factors Reich doesn’t discuss in great detail.

But he does point to the changes that came in the 1980s and later: Deregulation, which transformed the banking industry, turning savers into investors. Globalization, which created a cutthroat type of capitalism promoting low prices and high returns at any cost. And government policies — such as the creation of private retirement plans and the promotion of the stock market as the central tool of investment — that encouraged Americans to focus on their own bottom line and ignore the larger issues facing society.

The result today, Reich says, is a supercapitalist world, in which you can fill your house with amazing piles of cheap stuff — but in the end those bargains wind up hurting you. “Consumers get great deals because workers get shafted,” he notes. “Ironically, they’re often the same people.”

Unlike a lot of people on the left, Reich doesn’t go around bashing big corporations and blaming them for society’s ills. In today’s ultracompetitive world, he says, corporations are simply doing what they have to do to survive: cutting costs, fighting for the bottom line, striving for the best possible returns for investors. There is no such thing as corporate social responsibility, he argues; under supercapitalism, it’s all about making money.
Instead of complaining about corporate greed, he says, we need to think as citizens and demand new rules, new laws and regulations, that force companies to do what we want them to do. We have to take back control of the American economy — and to do that, we have to reclaim democracy.

Reich places a large part of the blame on the role money has assumed in politics. He suggests that corporations, which are in reality just paper constructs, should be stripped of any rights to legal standing, any rights to participate in the public process — any rights to act as anything but pieces of paper. Campaign contributions should all be put into blind trusts: anyone could give money to a candidate, but that candidate would never be allowed to know who gave what.

Those reforms would be tough, and they might not happen anytime soon. But the value of this book isn’t in promoting any specific policy prescription. It’s about waking up and educating several generations of Americans who can’t seem to understand that you can’t have it all for free: that a decent society with universal health care, good public education, safe cities, and a commitment to protecting the environment requires some sacrifice; that the very rich (and even the run-of-the-mill well-off) among us have to pay taxes and accept responsibility for a decent nation and a decent world. That means creating a public sector we can trust — and not dismissing out of hand the notion that government has a positive role to play.

It’s the most important message anyone can impart today to the deluded, selfish population that makes up so much of modern America.

Oct. 16, 7:30 p.m., free
Moe’s Books
2476 Telegraph, Berk.
(510) 849-2087, www.moesbooks.com

By Robert Reich
272 pages



The boarding school novel has long been a droopy flower in the garden of American literature, and its wanness can be explained only in part by the fact that we don’t have many boarding schools. A boarding school is an institution of the elite, a temple of privilege, and since American mythology teaches us that we enjoy a classless society in which any child can go to public school and still become president and/or a millionaire, glimpses of class reality are easily dismissed as both offensive and meaningless.

The British, by contrast — longtime and unconcealed minders of an ornate class topiary — are rich in storied boarding schools and in stories about them. Many of Britain’s greatest writers have been educated at places such as Eton, Harrow, and Rugby and have later written about the experience (Evelyn Waugh in his comic novel Decline and Fall, George Orwell in his lacerating essay "Such, Such Were the Joys," to name two pertinent, if quite different, examples), while even such minor writers as Michael Campbell have made unforgettable contributions. Campbell’s 1967 novel Lord Dismiss Us is an unsung school-days masterpiece; it is also frank about matters of boy love and boy sex to a degree its American counterparts cannot match. Some might regard this as unexpected, considering that the long-running play No Sex Please, We’re British is famous enough to have a Wikipedia entry.

Perhaps the erotic charge of the typical British boys-school story is simply the more pleasant of male physicality’s two faces. The other face is, of course, violence, and in the British tales there is plenty of this to go around, whether as hazing or corporal punishment. The two great American prep school novels, by contrast, John Knowles’s A Separate Peace (1959) and Louis Auchincloss’s The Rector of Justin (1964), offer much less by way of flesh colliding in either joy or enmity, though the moral meaning of the former book does turn on a moment of oblique violence.

Taylor Antrim’s first novel, The Headmaster Ritual (Mariner Books, 320 pages, $13.95 paper), is compared by a jacket blurb with A Separate Peace and, like that earlier work, is set at a New England prep school resembling one of the fabled Phillips academies, but the book describes a world far removed from Knowles’s. In so doing, it gives us a vivid measure of the past half century’s cultural shifts. (Antrim, incidentally, was a frequent contributor to these pages from 1998 to 2004 and is an alumnus of Phillips Andover.) Despite the double entendre title, there isn’t much sex in Headmaster beyond an offstage act of public masturbation — part of a cat-and-mouse exhibitionist game with an intricate scoring system. The hazings, on the other hand, are relentless, brutal, and occasionally ingenious. It takes a black brilliance to conceive of a humiliation that involves filling a humidifier with piss and steaming up some wretched boy’s room with it. "Lacquering" is the genteel term for this ammonia-stink degradation.

Antrim’s Britton School is largely peopled by the privileged: senators’ sons, scions of industrial fortunes, and hoary faculty in old tweed coats. But despite the familiar-looking dramatis personae, there is little sense of noblesse oblige among this elite. The novel’s real theme is survival, and in this respect it is a far closer relation to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), in which a troupe of unsupervised boys descend into savagery, than to any boarding school novel.

Headmaster‘s stakes, accordingly, are both higher and lower than one might expect. Seeing the sun rise again tomorrow over the jungle is about as basic as human hope gets, even if the jungle consists of ivy and smelly humidifiers, but characters who spend most of their time inflicting or enduring gratuitous peer cruelties aren’t going to have much energy left over for the edification of the self or service to others. If the ancient ethos of the American upper classes — "To whom much is given, much is expected" (Luke 12:48) — retains any meaning in this setting of muffled barbarities, it’s only because what is expected is not public mindedness or moral awareness but worldly success: fame, fortune, social position.

Civilization presumes and promotes survival, while "class" used to be — and perhaps still is — a way of referring to behavior that meets a society’s highest standards. The path upward begins with the recognition that tomorrow is another day and you will live to see it; there will be food, water, and shelter, and if human beings have gathered themselves into groups — camps, villages, cities — to provide these essentials, they will also have developed codes of behavior to ensure that things don’t get out of hand in ever closer quarters. Manners are a social lubricant, and it is no coincidence that the most sophisticated sets of manners have evolved on crowded islands: Japan, Britain, even Manhattan, whose closely pressed denizens don’t get enough credit for keeping their elbows in.

Boarding schools are crowded islands too, and (one would think) at least as in need of a social credo as those other places. Classiness matters most in tight situations that tempt our lowest inclinations, and while the classless society might be a fantasy — a phantom visible only in the pages of fiction — the rituals of grace are as real as we care to make them.*




By Chris Abani

Akashic Books

164 pages


In the secret sign language of Song for Night‘s mine diffusers — the child vanguard of an unnamed war somewhere in West Africa — silence is a steady hand, palm flat. Narrated in such a silence — of signed phrases and internal monologue — by a mute boy soldier named My Luck, Chris Abani’s new novella is both deceptively understated and harrowing. My Luck has been stripped by violence of his freedom, his family, and his very voice, and as he travels in search of his missing platoon, he is propelled across a once familiar terrain become an endless battlefield populated with shadows.

Winding throughout My Luck’s journey, a slow-moving river binds together wistful dreaming and uncomfortable reality. Contaminated by death, the river nonetheless remains a comforting constant — too familiar to mistrust entirely, too treacherous to ignore. A conduit to memories of a gentler past, as well as a gruesome reminder of the consequences of war, the river slowly takes on the metaphorical weight of the Styx, which the dead must cross to be admitted into the underworld.

No stranger to entrenched horrors within the West African political landscape, Abani was imprisoned several times in his native Nigeria, earning a death sentence for treason for one of his plays at the age of 21. Released in the face of international pressure, he has lived in exile ever since, first in the UK and now in California, where he wrote his previous novella, 2006’s Becoming Abigail (Akashic). Beyond questions of format, there are numerous echoes here from Abigail, in which another river flows and carries memories with it, and children with no guardians are drawn out of childhood into nightmare. Neither Abani’s nor Abigail’s story, however, is My Luck’s, and their sorrows are not the same. My Luck perhaps best sums up his own when dryly listing the pros and cons of child soldiering at the front of the line. Among the former: prime pillaging opportunities and choice of weapons. And the latter? Death, death, and death. (Nicole Gluckstern)


With Joe Meno and Felicia Luna Lemus

Oct. 4, 7 p.m., free

City Lights Bookstore

261 Columbus, SF

(415) 362-8193, www.citylights.com

Oct. 5, 7 p.m., free

Black Oak Books

1491 Shattuck, Berk.

(510) 486-0698, www.blackoakbooks.com


By Zoran Zivkovic

Translated by Alice Copple-Tosic


136 pages


With its humanist rewriting of superpowers and its emphasis on the malleability of time and fate, Steps Through the Mist may inevitably call to mind a certain heroics-themed blockbuster television program. Unfolding in crisp scenes that emerge from a foggy landscape, the five stories in Serbian fantasy-oriented author Zoran Zivkovic’s "mosaic novel" depict people whose fates are being decided before their eyes, their tales linked by an initially obscuring but ultimately redemptive mist that is brought to an almost visceral life in Alice Copple-Tosic’s attentive translation from the Serbian.

Although dreamlike, the mist seems charged with a purpose: to bring each female protagonist — a controlling teacher, a dreamer in a straitjacket, a neurotic woman on vacation, a struggling fortune-teller, and an elderly woman in love with the ticking sound of her alarm clock — face-to-face with her own strong views of fate and chance. Each woman encounters another individual — in four of the tales, a man — who triggers her insecurity about the future and taps into her obsession with how things ought to be.

Unlike the heroines of Heroes, who continually struggle with reutf8g to the wider world as it is, the often bewildered women in Zivkovic’s harsh imaginings — whether gifted with the ability to visit the dreams of others, beset with ghostly visitations from the past, or cursed with the horrifying task of choosing one of all possible futures (none, alas, very appealing) — are engaged in a struggle with imagined, internal landscapes that have little to do with the reality of others.

"Would you consent to be the one to choose who should be sacrificed on the altar of the happy majority?" asks Katarina in "Hole in the Wall." Faced with the alternatives of her own death and choosing the future every time she closes her eyes, she is really questioning which is better: to withdraw from the world or to act in it, despite the possibility of less than ideal outcomes. This question echoes throughout the book, answered finally in the last and most beautiful story, where the older woman with the cherished alarm clock sees her past reenacted and is thereby cleansed of overwhelming memories. "Who knew what dreams might visit her?" Zivkovic writes, when "[no] urgent work awaited her anymore." (Ari Messer)

The afterworld


› lit@sfbg.com

REVIEW "Stress eternal life." Irène Némirovsky inscribed these words in her diary on July 1, 1942, less than two weeks before she was arrested under Vichy race laws, a month and a half before her death at Auschwitz. She wrote concerning a cycle of novels conceived to reflect the everyday qualities of life during wartime — a portrait emphasizing pettiness and pity, fear and loathing. The manuscripts for the two she finished were published as Suite Française in 2004, a discovery that seemed the improbable product of luck and literary heroism. A Russian-French Jew who converted her family to Catholicism in 1939, Némirovsky held no illusions regarding her bleak fate but maintained a Herculean work ethic during the occupation, drawing on a strong conviction — palpable in both the fiction and the journals — regarding the immemorial qualities of inner life and writing.

It would be dishonest to ignore the extratextual aura of such works, how they arrived in our hands, the time and lives bridged. And yet, Suite Française‘s literary flaws — chief among them a tendency toward simplistic moralizing and characterizations freighted with cliché — are unmistakable. What a welcome relief, then, to hold in one’s hands a slim volume of few wasted words called Fire in the Blood — another, earlier novel rescued from Némirovsky’s notebooks.

Whereas Suite‘s indirect narration delivers Némirovsky’s closely observed social realism with a brittle, didactic tone, the first-person narration of Fire in the Blood‘s Monsieur Sylvestre, a solitary, middle-aged landowner hoping only to be left alone to his gardens and journal, offers this same sensibility in fuller bloom. When Sylvestre’s reticent voice invokes the thick, guilty-by-association social atmosphere in the provinces, where the book is set, it is with the shadow of self-implication.

It being the provinces, everyone in Fire in the Blood is related, if not by blood than by deeply intertwined personal experiences, unspoken proprieties, and the land itself. Sylvestre is a cousin of Hélène, the matriarch of a proud family of landowners, and the book first takes up the narrative of the younger generation, specifically Hélène’s daughter Colette and her drowned husband, Jean.

Far from resting in peace, Jean in death reveals a web of infidelity and foul play, and the specter of an older story emerges via the youthful indiscretions at hand. Unfolding with slow mystery at first (Némirovsky occasionally overplays her hand in this regard, interjecting foreboding drumrolls), it picks up speed and urgency, until the past fully overtakes the present in the final thundering pages of the book: an enfolding, transmuting structure designed to convey the "roaring, all-consuming tidal wave of love."

Reliving his former passions, Sylvestre muses, "I felt as if I’d been asleep for twenty years and had woken to pick up my book at the very page I’d left off." Back, then, to that tonic of literary heroism and luck. We are, in the end, moved by this writing not just because the books did endure but because one senses Némirovsky willing it to be so. With 20 pages left, we finally get "But wait. Let’s start from the beginning …" As Sylvestre the narrator ends his story suspended in timeless reverie, so too does Némirovsky the writer end her book singing out to us: "What I could not foresee was the flame that would be locked inside me, whose cinders would continue to glow for years to come." What he could not foresee, she knew beyond doubt.*


By Irène Némirovsky

Translated by Sandra Smith

Alfred A. Knopf

160 pages


True crime


› lit@sfbg.com

REVIEW In a July 31, 2007, editorial, the New York Times decried the "more than 5,000 murders … reported each year" in Guatemala, noting that "many are committed by the same groups — both left and right — that terrorized the country" during its 36-year civil war. Yet as author Francisco Goldman writes in The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?, the Catholic Church–<\d>initiated report that precipitated the murder of human rights leader Bishop Juan Gerardi "concluded that the Guatemalan Army and associated paramilitary units … were responsible for 80 percent of the killings of civilians, and that the guerillas had committed a little less than 5 percent of those crimes."

The Times‘ "plague on both their houses" take is a splendid illustration of how poorly served we are by our media’s reporting on Guatemala — and Latin America in general. When Goldman states that the Guatemalan war "was a consequence of a coup engineered by the CIA against Jacobo Arbenz, only the second democratically elected president in Guatemala’s history," he may shock an American audience largely oblivious to events widely known outside the United States.

On April 22, 1998, Gerardi briefed the Guatemala City media on an Archdiocesan Office of Human Rights investigation so thorough that it named more than 50,000 of the war’s estimated 200,000 casualties. At the time, "no Guatemalan military officer had ever been convicted or imprisoned for a crime related to human rights," Goldman writes. And the military planned to keep it that way. Four days later, Gerardi was bludgeoned to death in his garage.

It was a killing so bold as to suggest that military assassination specialists could not have been involved. But, as one Guatemalan journalist wrote, "crimes planned in the [Presidential Military Staff] are executed to look like common violence," and a disinformation campaign immediately sprang into action, one in which, Goldman notes, famed novelist and former Peruvian presidential candidate Mario Vargas Llosa played a particularly despicable role.

The Guatemalan-born, US-based Goldman has written three novels, a background that serves him well in his first nonfiction book, a complicated story of high-level government and military obfuscation eventually penetrated — to a degree — through dogged work by low-level government investigators and prosecutors working at great personal risk. At least two special prosecutors, four witnesses, and one judge involved in the case have gone into exile, and one witness was murdered. But three members of the army and the priest who shared Gerardi’s house were convicted for participating in his "extra judicial execution." Their sentences were finally upheld this year, although by that time one of them had been decapitated in a prison riot.

Goldman observes that Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, whose militaries the United States backed in similar conflicts, all became societies with "some of the highest murder rates in the world," where "the powerful and well connected acted with impunity." The story pauses on a positive note, though, with one prosecutor declaring the beginning of "the second stage of prosecution," aimed at higher-ups involved in the crime, possibly including Otto Perez Molina, the right-wing candidate in Guatemala’s current presidential campaign.<\!s>*


By Francisco Goldman

Grove Press

416 pages



Oct. 21, 5 p.m., free

City Lights Bookstore

261 Columbus, SF

(415) 362-8193, www.citylights.com

On the bright side


› amanda@sfbg.com

The most masterful crafters of fiction depend on the deliberate omission of details. Ernest Hemingway, in a 1958 interview with the Paris Review, called it the iceberg of a story, an eighth of which pierces the surface, known and visible, while an untold reality remains submerged beneath the narrative. This art of absentia served Hemingway well, layering his stories with nuance and mystery. The icebergs in Bjørn Lomborg’s Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming serve their author’s purposes too, but they’re likely to melt under the glare of critical scrutiny.

Lomborg, a Danish statistician and adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School, examines the problem of climate change through the lens of expense, and according to his calculations, the public benefits of cutting carbon dioxide emissions aren’t worth the cost. If we really want to improve future conditions, he contends, we should pay more attention to social problems like hunger and disease, causes that have been relegated to the status of ugly stepchildren by the new hype around saving the climate. Early in the book he concludes that, calculated in purely economic terms, the Kyoto Protocol is a "bad deal." Every dollar spent cutting carbon emissions translates to 34 cents of "good" — a term he neglects to define.

Whatever his definition, it demands investigation. Lomborg is, after all, "the skeptical environmentalist," as he first made plain in 2001’s The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, which was roundly debunked by scientists and Lomborg’s avowed fellow environmentalists. The Union of Concerned Scientists got concerned with his optimism about the state of the natural world and convened a panel of leading experts, including biologist Edward O. Wilson, water expert Peter Gleick, and climate modeler Jerry Mahlman to delve into the details of his data. They determined that his conclusions were drawn from an artful manipulation of facts disguised by a narrative deftly criticizing other artful manipulators of facts.

In Cool It, Lomborg attempts to defame the doomsday scenarios presented by respected environmentalists and thinkers such as Al Gore, Bill McKibben, and James Hansen by focusing on their offal: the potential positive impacts of global warming. He points out that more people die from cold-related deaths than heat-related deaths and wonders why no one’s talking about the fact that fewer people may freeze to death in 2050.

Lomborg never denies that climate change is occurring, but he proffers interesting statistics to show that things aren’t as bad as has been reported, and he blames the media for distorting facts by employing easy iconography — hurricanes, Mount Kilimanjaro, polar bears, Antarctica. And it’s true: the media often go for the easy image — such as Time‘s cover photo of a polar bear bereft on a chunk of ice, which played a role in bringing the term "global warming" into the common vernacular. Lomborg, by the way, made that same magazine’s "100 most influential people" list in 2004.

This influential person writes with cool-headed assurance that global warming will not adversely affect polar bears any more than hunting them does, that some populations of them are actually increasing, and that evolution will equip the fittest for the future. He writes, "Yes, it is likely that disappearing ice will make it harder for polar bears to continue their traditional foraging patterns and that they will increasingly take up a lifestyle similar to that of brown bears, from which they evolved." His back-of-the-book footnote to that statement reads: "The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment finds it likely that disappearing ice will make polar bears take up a ‘terrestrial summer lifestyle similar to that of brown bears, from which they evolved.’ "

And the hawks begin to circle. In a recent interview with Lomborg, Salon.com’s Kevin Berger said, "But you edited the quote. The whole thing goes like this: ‘It is difficult to envisage the survival of polar bears as a species given a zero summer sea-ice scenario. Their only option would be a terrestrial summer lifestyle similar to that of brown bears, from which they evolved. In such a case, competition, risk of hybridization with brown bears and grizzly bears, and increased interactions with people would then number among the threats to polar bears.’ " Lomborg defends himself by saying he talked to a different expert.

While it would be easy to discredit the remainder of the book based on this exposé, there is some worth in Lomborg’s reminder that we’ve been asleep at the wheel on far too many social problems, such as clean water, hygiene, disease prevention, and hunger. He isn’t wrong when he says that solving them would better equip populations for dealing with climate change. But further tugging at the roots of his footnotes is almost unnecessary because Cool It is virtually devoid of fully explored ideas.

For example, at a 2004 meeting the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a consortium of economists headed by Lomborg that think tanks on global challenges, drew up a global priority list of issues we should be addressing rather than shuttling cash toward cutting CO2 emissions. Ranking third is increased trade liberalization — code language for more NAFTA-type agreements, which have proved detrimental to developing countries. And what exactly is meant by number five, "development of new agricultural technologies"? Genetically modified organisms? Newer, stronger, somehow nontoxic pesticides? It’s hard to believe an environmentalist might promote pesticide use, but in his chapter on eradicating malaria Lomborg writes, "Concerns from Western governments, nongovernmental organizations, and local populations make it hard to utilize DDT, which is still the most cost-effective insecticide against mosquitoes and, properly used, has negligible environmental impact."

Such a statement underscores Lomborg’s priorities when it comes to health — both human and environmental. His definition of cost gives primacy to cold, hard cash at the "negligible" expense of humans and their environments. Likewise, when the discussion turns to ratifying Kyoto, which he claims — without much explanation — would cost the US economy $160 billion a year, the price tag refers solely to the cost of disrupting business as usual.

"If we try to stabilize emissions, it turns out that for the first 170 years the costs are greater than the benefits," Lomborg writes. But for the past 200 years we’ve been doing business on the cheap — and that shouldn’t be our baseline cost of existence. What’s the true cost of a species? Do we really know until it’s gone? What about the other negative environmental impacts of business as usual? Or the positive impacts of, say, more public transit to reduce car trips to reduce emissions? Plus, a decrease in the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas means more than just a decrease in carbon emissions. It means less mining, less drilling, less invasion into remote or protected areas questing for new ores. It means fewer oil spills, less mountaintop removal, less ground, water, and air pollution for the communities that have the misfortune of being sited in the backyards of industry.

In the book’s conclusion, Lomborg pushes for a $25 billion investment in research and design for alternative technologies. Seven times cheaper than adopting the Kyoto Protocol or establishing a rigorous carbon tax to encourage less CO2 emission, R&D investments are, in Lomborg’s economic rubric, a better deal.

Of course, there are already operational solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal units, vehicle-to-grid electric cars, and biodiesel recipes that could be more aggressively produced and adopted. But in Lomborg’s eyes they’re too expensive, bound to be replaced by superior technology, and thus a waste of money, to invest in now — he brushes aside economists who contend that prices will drop as demand increases. And beyond offering no ideas on diminishing the use of fossil fuel, he in fact encourages burning more in the communities that aren’t yet — though the sole upside to fossil fuels is economic cost, and the only cap on price is the perception of abundance.

He also fails to acknowledge that we can’t have both. We can’t have an increase in alternative technologies and an unabated use of fossil fuels. To actually deploy alternative technologies in the market — the hoped-for end result of all that R&D — would require the fossil fuels to step aside. This would, in turn, cut CO2 emissions. One must necessarily replace the other. There isn’t room for both. It’s like trying to put ice in a glass that’s already brimming with cold water.

One could argue that any adoption of alternative technologies would cover increased use, but that ignores what numerous researchers have pointed out: we should be universally deploying simple, effective, already established energy-efficiency measures. For the past 30 years California has done this, and despite projections and escautf8g energy use nationwide, the state’s needs have only increased in lockstep with the population — about 1 percent a year. Lomborg doesn’t aggressively push for energy efficiency, despite its cost-savings popularity with the same economically driven corporations, governments, and individuals likely to elevate Cool It to biblical status.

Lomborg criticizes as too extreme and costly proposals by Tony Blair and Gore to slash CO2 emissions by 50 or 80 percent respectively. Similarly he writes, "Restricting transportation will make the economy less efficient. Cutting back on hot showers, plane trips, and car use will leave you less well-off. It will also reduce the number of people being saved from cold, it will increase the number of water stressed [people], and it will allow fewer to get rich enough to avoid malaria, starvation, and poverty."

Is it too bold to ask people to foreswear some of the excesses they’ve enjoyed, to put to bed some creature comforts, to fundamentally change the way they perceive living in the 21st century if they hope for a 22nd century for their children? Lomborg doesn’t ask these questions, so Cool It becomes more of a distraction than a contribution at a time when environmentalists should be busy promoting solutions, not debunking the carefully crafted fables of Lomborg’s dollar-driven theses. *


By Bjørn Lomborg

Alfred A. Knopf

272 pages


Something worth fighting for


› tredmond@sfbg.com

REVIEW If you want a guide to the players who are trying to refashion the Democratic Party in America, Matt Bai’s The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics is a nice handbook. It’s easy to read, brings the characters to life, and reveals how big chunks of money from a few very rich liberals are going to a handful of organizations and think tanks most people have never heard of. Not everything Bai says is true, but even where he’s wrong, it’s an interesting read.

Bai, a writer for the New York Times Magazine, offers a lot of interesting and useful history about the Howard Dean phenomenon and the rise of bloggers and online politics in the Democratic Party. His portrayals of some key bloggers, like Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos, as people who lack ideology but demand respect is a bit off base, though. I think Moulitsas, for one, could easily outline an ideology, and if you read his stuff regularly, you get a pretty good sense of it.

Bai gives some credit to Dean and his supporters for creating a successful "50 state" strategy — investing party resources throughout the country, not just in targeted swing districts — and then claims (not entirely inaccurately) that the battle within the organization has been more about empowering the grassroots than about any specific policy prescription. But he doesn’t seem to recognize the inherent politics in community organizing: Saul Alinsky argued half a century before Dean that teaching marginalized groups how to exercise power was in itself a radical act, whether or not it was driven by a specific political analysis or ideology. (The Marxists have typically disagreed, and that battle has raged on the left for a long, long time, but Bai, who rarely writes about anything outside the mainstream of political thought, pays that history no heed.)

Still, Bai’s overall point — that the reformers in the party, particularly the ones with the big money, lack a coherent ideological vision for the country’s future — is both accurate and alarming. Nobody, Bai says, is making "the Argument" — the case for electing Democrats. In the 2006 congressional elections, "what voters had not done was endorse any Democratic argument — because, of course, there wasn’t one." All the party under the likes of Rep. Nancy Pelosi has been able to do is point out that Democrats aren’t Republicans (and aren’t quite as bad on the Iraq war) — and that, he notes, will never be a recipe for long-term success.

Anyone interested in the future of the Democratic Party and progressive politics ought to read this book, if only to get the discussion started. Bai makes a powerful statement: that transformational political change has typically come when there is a set of issues and governing philosophies that can be presented to the voting public. But he leaves the reader deeply dissatisfied — because he doesn’t offer any answers. It’s all fine and good to bash the reformers in the party, and I agree with a lot of his criticisms. But if you want to whine about the lack of an argument, you ought to spend some time thinking about what that argument might look like and putting it on paper.

A couple of years ago I was on a right-wing talk show arguing that Pelosi wasn’t exactly a "San Francisco liberal," and one of the hosts asked what that term mean. I gave it a try, on the fly, in the few seconds they allowed me. A San Francisco liberal, I said, believes that we should tax the rich to feed the poor, that we should protect the environment, including the urban environment, from the attack of greedy developers. A San Francisco liberal believes in civil liberties and civil rights, including same-sex marriage, and isn’t afraid to say so.

A San Francisco liberal, I would have added if they hadn’t cut me off, thinks the invasion of Iraq was wrong, the occupation is a disaster, and the only sane approach now is to get the US troops out of there. A San Francisco liberal believes that money has ruined politics and that the answer is not for the Democrats to try to raise more than the Republicans. A San Francisco liberal believes this city can and should be a force for progressive thought and set the standard for the rest of the country.

A San Francisco liberal isn’t afraid to lose.

There’s a lot more I could say, but that’s the start of an Argument. That wasn’t so hard, Matt, was it?


By Matt Bai

Penguin Press

336 pages


A theocratic democracy?


My old friend Reese Erlich is remarkably optimistic about Iran, which is a pleasant perspective. I’m glad somebody is.
In his insightful, if sometimes choppy, new book, The Iran Agenda: The Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis, he offers an alternative view of a nation and a culture that has been either ignored or demonized by the mainstream press for more than 30 years. His basic thesis — that US policy toward Tehran is moronic, driven by foolish politics, bad information, and greedy geopolitical aims — is hard to dispute. His subtext — that there’s real hope for democracy in Iran — is a bit of a tougher sell.
Erlich has done what few US journalists ever do: he’s visited Iran, repeatedly, and taken the time to meet not just with government officials and activists but with ordinary Iranians. Almost across the board, they condemn the United States and support the Islamic state.
We’re presented with “liberal” politicians — which might be a bit of a stretch — and radical activists, including Marxists, who offer a vision of a democratic Iran. Me, I’m dubious about any hope for theocratic democracy; as a proud atheist, I think that separation of church and state — strict, inviolable separation — is essential for any functioning democracy.
But Erlich’s willing to give other cultures and ways of thinking a break, which is one of the main reasons he’s such a good reporter. And in The Iran Agenda he presents a picture of a nation far more complex than the caricatures we’ve seen depicted by the administration and the evening news.
That’s the real value of this book: you get a sense from a veteran journalist of what you’ve been missing all these years. Erlich tries to sort out the ethnic geopolitics of Iran and explain which groups are aligned with whom (and why the United States supports some of them). It’s all somewhat dizzying, but that’s part of the point. This situation is more complicated than most American opinion makers are willing to admit.
And for all that, it’s a good read.
By Reese Erlich
PoliPoint Press
192 pages, paper
Sat/22, 2:30 p.m., free
City College of San Francisco, Mission Campus, Auditorium (Room 109)
1125 Valencia, SF
Sat/29, 7 p.m., free
Book Passage
51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera
(415) 927-0960
For information on more Bay Area events, go to www.p3books.com.

Joining the party


In 1946, after three and a half years spent fighting in the segregated US Army on the Pacific front of World War II, Nelson Peery returned to a home front marked by joblessness, mob violence, lynchings, police tyranny, and red-baiting hysteria. Discussing the homecoming of black veterans such as himself in his new memoir, Black Radical, he says, “We had become conscious defending other people’s freedom.”
Black Radical is the sequel to Peery’s first memoir, Black Fire, which takes us from Peery’s childhood during the Great Depression to the wartime experiences that lead to his expanding racial consciousness. Black Radical focuses on Peery’s time in the Communist Party, which he joins soon after his return to Minnesota. Shortly thereafter, Peery’s father, an American Legion stalwart, chooses patriotism over paternity and declares to the state legislature, “I have seen my seven sons swallowed in the bloody maw of Communism.” This “good Negro” pose is exactly what Peery has vowed to struggle against, although he is equally skeptical of black nationalism, embracing instead a Marxist analysis that sees the overarching system as the problem, not just white racists and their deluded allies.
Peery’s dedication to the Communist Party, which he likens to his commitment to his army division during the war, is sometimes stunning when juxtaposed to the organization’s systemic racism. And while he is forthright about his ethical struggles and political development, there is a staginess to much of the dialogue that transforms plot turns into vehicles for Peery’s soul-searching. But the book is also filled with anecdotes that lend emotional depth to Peery’s revolutionary rhetoric, such as when a white librarian hands him a copy of Karl Marx’s The German Ideology, though such a gesture could lead to her immediate dismissal. Or when Peery hosts legendary blues singer Leadbelly at his Minneapolis home and the singer ends up entertaining a crowd of 200 revelers that includes the visiting Dean of Canterbury.
Black Radical concludes in the LA neighborhood of Watts, where Peery attempts to do organizing work as relentless police harassment of poor black residents leads to the Watts uprising of 1965. Peery visits a supermarket where customers are piling their shopping carts high and then wheeling everything past smiling clerks. One woman tells Peery, “You can take whatever you want. They ain’t chargin’ today.” While the riots are eventually suppressed by 24,000 law enforcement thugs, this moment still illuminates the possibilities for the self-determination Peery invokes.
By Nelson Peery
New Press
272 pages
Sept. 20, 7 p.m., free
City Lights Bookstore
261 Columbus, SF
(415) 362-8193, www.citylights.com

Black-and-white beatitude


Given all the media hype and hand-wringing that’s attended the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and the upcoming posthumous appearance of Allen Ginsberg in Todd Haynes’s Bob Dylan bio-fantasia I’m Not Here — in which the goaty poet, played by David Cross, pays awkward tribute to a limo-driven Dylan (Cate Blanchett) from a speeding golf cart – you’d think the rainbow spectrum of Beats had finally been winnowed down to the twin poles of James Dean-ish sexpotism and portly Zen-molestation.

Sure, there’s Grandpappy William Burroughs in there somewhere, and Neal Cassady, popping up like a scarecrow in a field of blurry mental imagery, but ask kids today who the Beats were and they’ll skip straight past the tilted berets and beaten tablas, the smoke-wreathed faculties of Naropa, and various Coney Islands of the mind, pausing only when they meet their own reflections in whatever Gap-like ad campaign features Jack and Al at the moment.

Which is precisely why photographer Christopher Felver’s handsome picture book Beat comes as a revelation. In the tradition of the Beats’ artistic intentions and pretensions, Felver’s collection of historical black-and-white photographs expands our mental perceptions, including among the pantheonic Beat coterie a plethora of artists and writers who were influenced by, accompanied, or descended stylistically from the well-packaged icons of the era. Scribbled haiku, scrawled excerpts from heartfelt letters, and other typographically authentic ephemera accentuate 187 pages of gorgeously immediate photographs of rapidly fading fellow travelers such as Gary Snyder, Ken Kesey, Richard Brautigan, Ed Sanders, Anne Waldman, and Tom Clark — as well as more liberally categorized Beat types such as Kathy Acker, Lou Reed, Kurt Vonnegut, and composer Lou Harrison.

Sometimes this methodology of including every personality possessed of “creative spirit and joyous antics” (as the book’s dust jacket has it) who happened to cross Felver’s lens leads to a little stretching. I have a feeling Denise Levertov, Tatum O’Neal, and Hunter S. Thompson would raise half an eyebrow at their inclusion here. But the pictures are frank and fabulous, so it’s best just to go with the flow.

San Franciscans may be forever hovering at the edge of Beat burnout, but whatever the lasting cultural merits of these pranksters, posers, protesters, tireless Orientalists, and gangly graphomaniacs (Beat’s press materials suggest that these folks all shared “themes of spirituality, environmental awareness, and political dissidence”; one is tempted to add “unbridled onanism” to the list), they sure lived fast and left great-looking corpuses.

By Christopher Felver
Last Gasp
240 pages

Pinkos, painters, and pansies


› marke@sfbg.com

REVIEW Los Angeles has lately become quite a hot spot for queer studies scholars, their investigations slipping out of the Hollywood Babylon mode of starstruck speculation and into the lives of everyday Angelenos. In the wake of Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons’s well-received 2006 volume, Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians (Basic Books), comes Daniel Hurewitz’s Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics, an ambitious, fascinating attempt to show how Communists, postsurrealist artists, civil rights activists, and pre-gay "fairies" converged in the crucible of early 20th-century Silver Lake — then called Edendale — to create the modern notion of identity, in particular queer identity.

Bohemian Los Angeles is bookended by two extraordinary characters who made their home in Edendale: lauded vaudeville female impersonator Julian Eltinge and gay-rights giant Harry Hay. Both of these men had sex with other men, but they couldn’t have been more distant in their conception of their own identity. The idea of gayness, or the notion of a true inner self that relied on sexuality to achieve its public expression, was as alien to Eltinge and his time (the 1910s) as Grand Theft Auto. Despite the expensive stage gowns and fellatio, the otherwise macho Eltinge was enraged by the showy "cissies," dandies, and fairies who claimed to have "woman’s blood in them" and made up much of his fan base. For him and other prominent male-on-males, homosexuality was a private act that needed no community or publicity to ensure its satisfaction. Hay, who came to prominence 40 years later as the first official gay activist, was a different fish entirely. His Mattachine Society insisted that homosexuality was an underlying impulse knitting everyone who was "that way" into a kinship with a shared cause: civil rights.

Hurewitz’s project is to trace how Eltinge’s view gave way to Hay’s, how activity was transformed into identity and gay pride was born. To do this, he recounts the history of Edendale as one of transformative communities, paying close attention to the artists who gathered around guru Jack Zeitlin in the late 1920s and began exploring the idea of an inner essence that could be communicated through the arts. He looks at members of the Communist Party of Los Angeles who experimented in communal living in Edendale in the 1930s and, in the wake of World War II’s Zoot Suit Riots and Japanese internments, agitated for a notion of civil rights based on ethnic identity. And he tracks the growth of homosexual networks in LA, the prototypes of a community based on sexual desire.

All of these bohemian groups, Hurewitz argues, laid the groundwork for Hay’s and others’ ultimate politicization, their embrace of a sexual inner essence worthy of public declaration. A further inspiration was the steep uptick in homosexual arrests in the 1920s, as the city’s politicos seized on the notion of "degeneracy" as a moral-panic strategy. (One of Hurewitz’s fabulous insights is that the idea of degeneracy was once embraced by some homosexual men as a way to divorce their actions from their character.)

Many gays today feel exhausted by identity politics yet trapped in a ghetto of conformist sexual expression. Refreshingly, this sharply written, well-researched history brings to light some of the magically diverse, willfully perverse, and politically immersed foundations of who we are now. *


By Daniel Hurewitz

University of California Press

377 pages