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Cult wonder



LIT If you’re shopping for that special thriller fan on your list, you might want to pop an I.O.U. into his or her stocking: the best thriller of the year doesn’t hit bookstores until Dec. 27.

That would be The Innocent (Crown, 336 pp., hardcover $24) by Taylor Stevens, who came out of nowhere to hit the New York Times bestseller list with her first novel, The Informationist. Stephens back with the same series character (Vanessa Michael Munroe), the same edgy but brilliant prose, and a plot that takes us into the real — and chillingly autobiographical — world of an abusive apocalyptic cult.

That’s where Stevens grew up: she was born into the Children of God, where nobody was allowed more than a fifth-grade education, adults took sexual advantage of teenagers, young women were forced into prostitution (all in the name of recruiting new members), and adults were almost as frightened to leave as to stay.

There’s a bit of a J.K. Rowling story here: Stevens started writing The Informationist when she arrived in Houston with her then-husband and two kids. With no job skills, just out of the cult, her family was living on minimum-wage jobs, barely scraping by — and after buying a Robert Ludlum book at a garage sale, she decided to write a thriller. “I was really, really just scraping by, it was horrible,” she told me in a recent phone interview.

“Selling The Informationist changed everything.” Although the money from the bestseller hasn’t fully trickled down to her, “if I want to buy something for the kids, It’s actually possible now.”

The Informationist introduced the world to Monroe, who is slight, sexy, and moves back and forth easily between male and female appearance. She kicks serious ass, speaks 22 languages and peddles black market information. Her childhood was harsh; she spent her teens living with a violent gunrunner in Africa, but the wildness and the pain were the only elements of Stevens that made it into the first book.

Yet Stevens told me she had to write about the cult world at some point. “People keep asking me what my life was like,” she said. “So I can tell them — if you want to know what it was like growing up, read this book, that’s what it was like.”

The characters, she said, are fictional, “but everything that happens in the book happened to someone.”

The Innocent is set in Buenos Aires. A five-year-old girl named Hannah is snatched and brought into the world of The Chosen, led by a charismatic figure known as The Prophet who refers to the world outside the cult at The Void.

Hannah’s father has been searching the world for her, and discovers that the cult is hiding her in Argentina. He convinces Munroe to go in and get her. That involves slipping into the world of the cult herself — and in the process, Stevens shows us a life that very few people have ever experienced. Among the most painful elements: Once Hannah is rescued, she isn’t sure she whether she wants to go back.

Along the way, of course, is vintage Michael Monroe action, including an escape from four armed men in a locked warehouse. (Munroe is better with a knife than most mob thugs.)

The Innocent, for whatever reason, isn’t as raw as The Informationist. There’s less blood and less intense violence. And Monroe is developing as a character — the cold face that she showed us last time is mellowing a bit, and in The Innocent, she even kinda, sorta falls in love. Maybe.

There’s always a challenge in continuing-series characters, and writers have struggled with it since the advent of the modern pop-culture novel. Ian Fleming got bored of James Bond after a few books, and you could tell. John D. MacDonald let Travis McGee get old before his time. Robert. B. Parker never let Spenser change much, but he was Spencer, and that was always enough. Lee Child is struggling to keep Jack Reacher from becoming a caricature of himself.

Stevens is still in the early stages; she told me she’s not even sure where Monroe is going next. Which is why, I think, The Innocent works, and the next one will work, too — you really sense that the writer is growing with her protagonist in this, the best thriller series in a long time.

Cruel revolution



LIT “As one survivor told me,” author Julia Scheeres writes in her introduction to A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown (Free Press, 320 pp., $26), “nobody joins a cult.”

I remembered this refrain, possibly spoken by the same survivor, from Stanley Nelson’s 2006 Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. Recent works like Nelson’s film and Scheeres’ book suggest perceptions about Jonestown are shifting away from sensationalism. The broad strokes are well-known: a charismatic, maniacal preacher; a jungle settlement; over 900 people dead, including a Congressman; a vat of poisoned punch. But the story — explored in A Thousand Lives as a deeply disturbing human tragedy on a nearly unthinkable scale — neither starts nor ends there.

Scheeres, who keeps an office in the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, pored through recently-released FBI files while researching A Thousand Lives. “The FBI released its files on three CDs, without a real index. So a letter that started on CD one, page 20, could end on CD three, page 350,” she remembers. “Organizing the material — 50,000 pages of documents — a lot of it was really boring shipping manifests. Crop reports. But then, oh, hey! Here’s a memo from the camp doctor discussing with [Jim] Jones how they’re gonna kill everyone.” Building from this material, the book focuses on five Peoples Temple members and views the experience of Jonestown through their eyes.

“[I chose my subjects] based on whether they were still alive, and I was able to interview them at length, or whether they had left a lot of primary source documents behind,” she says. “I also wanted to talk about the different demographics of the church, so you have old, young, black, white. A woman who has an MFA from San Francisco State, and a young black man with a GED from Oakland.”

Though A Thousand Lives does offer some background on Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones, “I wanted to know what it was like to be a rank-and-file member of the church,” Scheeres says. She uncovered powerful evidence that Jonestown was not a mass suicide, as the unfortunate phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” suggests. Instead, she says, “it was a mass murder.”

As suggested by that sinister memo from the camp doctor, A Thousand Lives’ most startling revelation is that Jones had been fixated on killing his followers long before the events of November 18, 1978. According to Scheeres, he considered loading his congregation onto buses and plunging them off the Golden Gate Bridge, or onto a plane “and having someone shoot the pilot.” (Eerily, he even sent one of his followers to flight school in preparation.)

Soon, though, he was consumed by the idea of Jonestown: “a new society in the middle of the virgin jungle, a utopia that would be free of sexism, racism, elitism, and all other evil-isms,” Scheeres writes. The promises of Jonestown echoed Jones’ seemingly progressive message of equality, which is what attracted most Peoples Temple members to the church in the first place. It was also what had endeared Jones to San Francisco politicians, who were in awe of his ability to “mobilize thousands of people to vote,” according to Scheeres.

But in reality, “he had no desire to see his followers flourish in South America. He was already fantasizing about their deaths. Would his people die for him if he asked them to?” Turns out they had no choice. While she was writing A Thousand Lives, Scheeres took a trip to Guyana and visited what’s left of Jonestown.

“It’s remote, dense jungle,” she says. “Everything looks the same. It would be so easy to get lost. And as you’re walking through, you can hear things slithering in the leaves. Jim Jones told [his followers] that if they tried to escape, they’d be killed by ‘mercenaries’ — really, his sons that were [hiding and] shooting on the camp — or they would be killed by the jungle animals.”

Of course, when they left San Francisco, more or less willingly, Peoples Temple members — like Scheeres subject Hyacinth Thrash, an elderly African American woman who dreamed of a place where racism didn’t exist — expected to find a “utopia,” as they’d been promised.

“[Jones] was so suave and gentle in San Francisco, and would tell you what you wanted to hear, like the ultimate caring father figure. Then once he got down to Jonestown and had everyone trapped there, he just turned. You can hear him on those tapes just screaming, you know. ‘You old bitch, you’re gonna die!’,” Scheeres shudders. “The rank-and-file had no idea that he had this ideation of ‘revolutionary suicide’ until it was too late. They couldn’t escape. They were surrounded by guards holding crossbows, and behind them, a circle of guards with guns, and basically told, ‘If you don’t drink the poison, we’re going to shoot you.'”

Though she has no direct personal connection to Jonestown, Scheeres’ own background, detailed in her 2005 memoir Jesus Land, made her an unusually sympathetic outsider. “The interests aligned: race, religion, seclusion. When I was a teen, my brother and I were sent to this religious reform school in the Dominican Republic, where all of our communications with the outside world were censored, where all of these horrible things were happening that we couldn’t let anybody know about,” she says. “Obviously my situation wasn’t as bad [as Jonestown]. The head of the school wasn’t goading us toward revolutionary suicide. But the whole sense of powerlessness and feeling trapped and helpless — I could identify with that.”

Decades later, Jonestown continues to fascinate; dozens of books have been written by survivors, relatives of survivors, conspiracy theorists, cult experts, and scholars of macabre history. A Thousand Lives — meticulously researched, and written with clear-eyed, sensitive perspective — is a valuable resource for readers seeking truth, not misinformation, about the tragedy.

“Most people under 40 probably don’t remember Jonestown well, if at all. But most people have heard the phrase ‘drinking the Kool-Aid.’ I find that phrase very offensive, because they didn’t drink the Kool-Aid. First of all, it wasn’t Kool-Aid, it was Flavor Aid. Second of all, they were forced to drink the poison. ‘Drinking the Kool-Aid’ implies naïve, stupid, not thinking, kind of dumb, following the leader, and not questioning. And they were questioning. That’s what my book argues throughout,” the author says. “They argued with Jones: ‘We didn’t come down here to die. We came down here for a better life for ourselves and our kids.’ So I think ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’ needs to be excised from the cultural lexicon.”

What’s more, “I hope people will reconsider the conclusions of Jonestown after reading the book,” Scheeres says. “I think it’s a tremendously compelling tale; 918 people died that day, as a result of Jim Jones, and younger generations need to be cognizant of that. Again, he had his people trapped in Guyana, so by the time they were saying, ‘I want to go home’ — and that’s another heartbreaking thing, was finding all these notes from people to Jim Jones, saying ‘I want to go home. I want to go back to San Francisco. I hate it here. I’m miserable. My children are afraid and I don’t know how to tell them that death is a good thing’ — [it was too late]. Reading all of those notes, these voices have been silenced. Now, finally, I feel like I am the loudspeaker, or their medium for letting their voices be heard. It’s too late [to save them]. They’ve been dead for 33 years. But for the record — they did not want to die.”










Occupy hip-hop



LIT The Occupy movement, though it’s been criticized by many for the lack of racial diversity among protesters, has certainly attracted its share of black rappers. Here in the Bay, Boots Riley has been a vocal supporter, participating in Oakland’s November 2 general strike. On the other side of the country Occupy Wall Street has met Kanye West, not to mention music mogul Russell Simmons (okay, he’s not a rapper) making space in his predatory debit card-selling schedule to stage rants over the influence of lobbyists on the federal government. And how could forget the furor that erupted over Jay-Z’s line of OWS-inspired Rocawear T-shirts?

The admirable efforts of Boots notwithstanding, there was a time when all of hip-hop was going to save the world, not just sell its most vital revolutions for $22 a shirt. The time is ripe, it seems, for some books to pay homage to that fact. And although they vary in the specifics, there are a few that are doing just that.


By Nelson George

(Akashic Books, 176pp, paper, $15.95)

Hip hop academic par excellence Nelson George is occupying the bottom half of a computer screen for a Skype-conducted interview with the Guardian.

George’s latest novel (his third, though he’s better known for his non-fiction, including the seminal Death of Rhythm and Blues) follows the adventures of D. Hunter, a security guard from the projects of Brownsville, Brooklyn. Hunter is embroiled in the murder of Dwanye Robinson, a hip hop academic who bears more than a passing resemblance to George himself. To solve the crime, Hunter must plunge into the untoward world of the hip-hoperati — the movers and shakers and producers and makers that may or may not be out to annihilate the culture’s populist powers.

George isn’t an adherent of all the conspiracy theories in the book. But he is concerned about a “chill factor” that has artists considering the views of corporate sponsors before penning lyrics that speak truth to power.

“This stuff they’re making,” he says, speaking of today’s radio stars in his characteristically familiar tone (he is, after years of writing about them and producing VH1’s Hip Hop Honors awards show, on a first name basis with many of the big guns). “They’re not even hoping for art. They’re just hoping to sell sugar water, T-shirts — whatever Jay(-Z)’s selling this week. I don’t think people were feeling that way about L.L., Eazy E.

“There was a whole period when every success, every commercial was a cause for celebration,” he says. “Now, the whole game has to change.”

And in Occupy, he sees an opportunity. Emcees have made their way down to Zuccotti Park — and not just Simmons and Jigga. Talib Kweli, Lupe Fiasco, and David Banner (of “Whisper Song” fame) have performed and listened at their local Occupy encampment. “I think this will goose people to deal with a lot of things that are going on,” says George.

Reading the rife-with-history Plot Against Hip-Hop can’t hurt one’s knowledge of the institutional forces behind what we hear on the radio. Says George before signing off: “Every book I write is a tool of education.”


By Justin Bua

(Harper Design, 160pp, hardcover, $34.99)

Of course, not every one believes in the institutional approach to social change. Hip-hop artist and author Justin Bua follows the personal habit gospel. “Veganism, that would really change the world,” he says. “Everyone should have a garden if they can. When people lead, the leaders follow.”

This individualized vision of change makes sense in relation to Bua’s art. He is a portraitist, famous for “The DJ,” a print of which went viral in the college-dorm-room-poster sense of the word. Though he started out by painting jazz scenes, he created “The DJ” after convincing his distributor that there was a chance that hip-hop images would sell just as well. He was right — that initial foray turned out to be one of the top selling posters of all time.

His most recent project is a love ode to similarly meteoric rises: to the B-boys, graffiti artists, emcees, and producers that made it to the top of the pack. In Legends of Hip-Hop, Bua pairs his trademark expressive faces and limbs with kind-of journal entries that sum up what they to him, or to the world of hip-hop at large. Veganism doesn’t make an appearance — but that’s not to say the book is without social significance for him.

“These people are part of our history,” Bua says during his Guardian interview at vegan Mexican restaurant Gracias Madre. “It’s really in the tradition of the Grecos, the Raphaels, the Rubins.”

And where the old masters painted kings and queens, Bua paints Biggie and Queen Latifah. To Bronx-bred Bua, they are royalty and more than that, the meter sticks of our time. Hip-hop’s effects can even be seen in the Oval Office (President Obama’s is the face that concludes Legends of Hip-Hop).

Bua thinks this power can be harnessed. “If you look at all the money generated by hip-hop — that could change the world.” And by no means does he think that the animal-product-free lifestyle and that of beats and breaks are unrelated.

“I think being vegan is the ultimate expression of hip-hop,” he says before rattling off a list of dairy-free icons. (KRS-ONE, Russell Simmons, Dead Prez, DJ Qbert, and famous breakdancer Mr. Wiggles the are all vegans.) “It’s irreverent, subversive, truth — it’s about having a clear head and mind. The ultimate form of respect is to not eat each other. That’s fucking weird.”


By Common

(Atria Books, 320pp, hardcover, $25)

Common’s autobiography (which he penned with the help of ghostwriter Adam Bradley) debuted in the 20th spot of the New York Times’ hit parade. The book itself is heartrendingly earnest — you’ll find none of the sly jabs of Bua or George hidden among its pages. But in a way, it is the more personal ode to the curative powers of hip-hop than either of those authors’ tomes.

Putting aside the namedropping of ex-lovers (Erykah Badu) and current brothers (Kanye West), Some Day exposes a shocking truth. Common, he himself insists, is no more godly than the rest of us — he just chose the music as the rope that would pull him to that level. Sure, he wrote the woman-worshipping “The Light,” but don’t you still hear him using the word ‘bitch’?

Common has perhaps the most call of the three authors to strike out against Tea Party tomfoolery and mechanized mediocrity in American government. (Lest we forget, when Obama invited him to perform at the White House, the Fox News Palin-Hannity-O’Reilly cabal screeched he was a “vile rapper” in part due to his song for Assata Shakur — something he speaks frankly about.) He also seems to have realized something that many haven’t: hip-hop can be, in fact has proven itself to be, a tool towards whatever ends an artist has in mind.

The player shapes the game. Which is something, I fear, that will take a long time to start making sense to some.

Get read!




By Chuck Eddy

Duke University Press

352 pp., paper, $24.95

Chuck Eddy glides through music criticism like a grumpy fanatic. Each article included in Rock and Roll Always Forgets — culled from Eddy’s vast back catalogue of music journalism articles, beginning with the early 1980s — is packed with cultural references, touchstones, facts, witty asides, a dash of snark, and acknowledgments of once-obscure acts. Yet, he approaches each band like he’s the first to have discovered it. He’s a musical anthropologist, but also, archeologist, digging up the remains of musicians past, lest we forget. Take a piece on a Marilyn Manson show, written in 1996. More than simply describing the stage and the crowd (which he does, expertly: “[they] wore too much black makeup, but they didn’t scare me — most seemed to be upper-middle-class Catholic school teens from the burbs…”). He wanders near profundity, dissecting Manson’s overall persona, his ticks, his own cultural references, and those who came before him, namely Alice Cooper, but a great many more. Most importantly, Eddy alludes to why that all matters in the least. (Emily Savage)



By Christian Parenti

Nation Books

295 pp., hardcover, $25.99

Through historical research and on-the-ground reporting in Kenya, war-torn areas of Afghanistan, and other regions marked by intense conflict, Christian Parenti offers an unusual and compelling analysis of violence through the lens of the environment. Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence teases out the idea that increasingly unstable weather patterns stemming from climate change have fueled conflict throughout impoverished areas of the Global South. In the savannahs of northwest Kenya, for instance, deadly cattle raids have intensified as intertribal warfare heats up in the face of water scarcity. Recurring droughts and floods in Afghanistan have made it exceedingly difficult for farmers raise traditional crops, making them increasingly reliant drought-resistant poppy — the raw ingredient for heroin — for economic survival. Parenti also turns a sharp eye upon the repression, surveillance, and counterinsurgency that first-world nations have employed to combat growing violence in water-scarce, conflict-ridden regions, and calls for a more enlightened approach. (Rebecca Bowe)



by Joe Wolff

Interlink Books

224 pp., paperback $20

Small quirks in this guide to the city’s cafes and coffeehouses — the sixth in a series that includes Sydney, New York, and Venice — will let you know its not strictly, strictly for locals. Java Beach is lumped in with more gearhead-oriented Mojo Bicycle Cafe and Ninth Avenue’s Arizmendi Bakery is filed under the catchall “Sunset District and vicinity.” The introduction’s discussion of “San Fran” versus “Frisco” versus “the City” is one that became boring long ago. But those things matter little. In-depth histories of some of your favorite cafes, from Java Beach to Philz’ to Caffé Baonecci are lucid looks at the facts and rewards of small entrepreneurship in the city. And Roger Paperno’s loving photography of velvet crema and foccacia sheets combines with words to create an ode to the city’s third spaces that any caffeine-laptop addict will appreciate in their stocking. (Caitlin Donohue)



By Robert Morgan

Algonquin Books

497 pp., hardcover, $29.95

Biography can be the best history; stories of the people who changed the world (for better, and often for worse) are more compelling than turgid texts of dates and places. Lions of the West recounts the development of the American frontier from the end of the Revolutionary War to the Civil War era through the lives of 10 men. Yeah, all men. In fact, Morgan (by choice or by the longtime bias of American historians) makes it appear as if all of the great and evil deeds done as the nation moved Westward Ho were the province of the male of the species. At times, the profiles are a bit over the top (I don’t really care that much about Kit Carson’s personal life.) Overall, though, it’s a detailed, lively, and informative book that minces no words, especially when discussing the theft of much of the southwest from Mexico. San Franciscans will enjoy learning who Stockton, Sloat, Castro, Winfield, and a few other streets were named after. (Tim Redmond)



By Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher

Running Press

272 pp., paper, $14

Found Footage Festival founders and comedy writers Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher are apparently the Indiana Joneses of VHS, unearthing remarkable video package cover art that would otherwise be relegated to hoarder basements, bonfires, and anywhere else the worst (a.k.a., the best) videotapes go to die. I salute these dudes, even though the captions they tag each page with aren’t always funny or necessary. Truly, the covers (soft-focus and garish, tacky and baffling) speak for themselves, direct dispatches from ye olden days, long before YouTube brought WTF-ness to anyone with an Internet connection. You see, children, back in the 1980s or 90s, home viewers had to seek this shit out: instruction in squirrel-calling, chair-dancing, seduction, hairstyling (“What the Heck Am I Going to Do With My Hair?”), baby-proofing, spotting counterfeit Beanie Babies, etc. Straight-to-video masterpieces (F.A.R.T.: The Movie). Horrible exercise fads (“Bunnetics: The Buttocks Workout”). Well-meaning but also ghoulish-looking self-improvement vids (“Face Aerobics”). Every page is magical. Your mind will be blown. (Cheryl Eddy)



By Sam Mogannam and Dabney Gough

Ten Speed Press

297 pp., hardcover, $32.50

Bi-Rite Market is the ultimate neighborhood grocery. Shockingly small (with ambition to expand), it’s jam-packed with the best in organic produce, meats, cheeses, and artisan food products, much of it local. Now, Bi-Rite founder Mogannam has a new book loaded with recipes for such inviting delectables as white bean puree with prosciutto crespelle and strawberry rhubarb pie. But don’t relegate it to the cookbook category. Hewing to Bi-Rite’s mantra of creating community through food, the authors share extensive tips on shopping seasonally and locally for the healthiest and best-tasting products, no matter where you may live. You’ll learn what to look for at the grocery, storage and usage tips, and more. Well-illustrated sections feature produce (broken down by season), wine, beer, cheese, deli meats, butchery, baked goods, and even farmer profiles. Bonus: stay tuned for Sweet Cream and Sugar Cones, Bi-Rite’s ice cream and frozen treats recipe book from its renowned creamery, out this April. (No word yet on whether it’ll tell us how to beat the ever-present line outside.) (Virginia Miller)



By Chuck Palahniuk


247 pp., hardcover, $25

Welcome to Hell, as seen through the eyes of 13-year-old Madison Spencer, the daughter of a jet-setting yet eco-hyperconscious movie starlet and philanthropist. This is Dante’s Inferno meets The Breakfast Club, a film that overtly informs the plot and its main characters. As in Palahniuk’s breakout novel Fight Club, it’s hard distinguish between reality and perception as Maddy leads readers past the Vomit Pond, across Dandruff Desert, and right into Satan’s black Town Car. As she recalls her final weeks on earth, you’re pretty sure that she didn’t really die from a marijuana overdose. Clearly, things are not what they seem as the novel looses an American teenager’s perspective on modern life in both the underworld and earthly realm, with wry commentary on everything from pop culture and capitalist excess to the defeated religions whose fallen gods roam Hades. The gags alone — like the telemarketing and chatroom porn the damned deliver to Earth, and Hell’s endless loop of The English Patient — make this a tough book to put down, all the way to its slightly unsatisfying conclusion. (Steven T. Jones)



edited by Alison Bechdel

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

352 pp., paperback $25

Chris Ware’s textbooky flowcharts; Angie Wang’s Technicolor, spiraling pistil-armed super-flower-heroine; Peter and Maria Hoy’s intricately plotted cause-and-effect grid art — the sixth year of this hardcover assemblage of the year in superlative strip art soars as a holiday gift for your fave comic nerd. Visual trickery and innovative page staging aside, many of the graphic narratives in this book hold up on plot alone. An excerpt from Kevin Mutch’s Fantastic Life effectively mines zombie philosophy, dating paranoia, and begging drinks off your service industry friends for comic gold. Many of the best pieces, perhaps indicative of the graphic novel mood these days, explore the darker side of the human psyche. But what graphic novel fan is unfamiliar with complicated? (Caitlin Donohue)



By John Schlimm

Lifelong Books/Da Capo

164 pp., paper, $17

Every time I think we’re past the stereotype of the sullen, uptight vegan, I get another comment like, “Wait, don’t you only eat vegetables?” Why yes, I do eat plenty of veggies, but I also eat decadent dishes such as The Tipsy Vegan‘s Party Monster Pancakes, loaded with the sweet nectar of amaretto and drenched in syrup. This book is a carnivorous teetotaler’s nightmare, boasting 75 boozy recipes stuffed with everything from “beer to brandy” for the liquor-loving vegan cooks among us. It’s not, as I initially imagined, a book on vegan cocktails — that would be far too easy. Written by John Schlimm (Ultimate Beer Lover’s Cookbook), a member of “one of the oldest brewing families in the United States,” the book includes booze-infused treats for parties, brunch, and supper: fried avocados, slur-baaaaked peaches with Cointreau, “Bruschetta on a Bender” — all of which kind of sound like stoner food to me. An nice touch: glossy food porn shots on every page. (Emily Savage)



By Kira Stackhouse


352 pp., hardcover, $34.99

Local photographer Kira Stackhouse experienced an inspiration so intense that she ditched her high-profile marketing job to pursue it: she would photograph specimens of the 50 most popular canine breeds officially registered with the American Kennel Club (“purebred dogs”) that had been purchased from professional breeders — and pair them with photos of the exact same kinds of dogs found in local dog rescues and shelters. The purpose was to start a dialogue about the effects of professional breeding and highlight the many kinds of dogs available for adoption (and also to change peoples’ perceptions about rescue dogs). But a major part of the story — and what makes this book so fantastic — is the wonderful doggy photography and sumptuous layout. Dogs are posed, or pose themselves, against iconic Bay Area backdrops, accompanied by often hilarious, always revealing, biographies and profiles. Project Dog became an online sensation: this book cements its reputation. Available at www.projectdog.net. (Marke B.)



By Alex Ross


384 pp., paper, $18

In the expanded paperback edition of his absorbing and erudite collection of essays, Alex Ross of the New Yorker writes what could be called his mantra as critic: “I have always wanted to talk about classical music as if it were popular music, and popular music as if it were classical.” Ross listened exclusively to classical until he was 20, something he admits may sound “freakish.” But whether he’s describing Björk in her recording studio in Iceland, or composer John Luther Adams’ sound and light installation in Alaska, Ross draws from an immeasurable well of knowledge and plunges into his subject with gusto. He can find commonalities between Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, clear away the myths that have clouded both Franz Shubert and Bob Dylan, and thoroughly explain why OK Computer and John Cage’s 4’33” are equally astonishing. Informative, eye opening, Ross is every lover of music thrown harmoniously into one. (James H. Miller)



By John Besh

Andrews McMeel Publishing

272 pp., hardcover, $35

To know anything about New Orleans’ dining scene is to know John Besh. As one of Nola’s great chefs, he has a number of restaurants, including the acclaimed August, elevating local cuisine in forward-thinking ways. His original book My New Orleans is a striking post-Katrina tome to one of the greatest cities in the world and its vibrant culinary history. It’s a gorgeous coffee table volume packed with photos of the region’s people, places, and foods — more than 200 recipes from Mardi Gras specialties to gumbo, many with a contemporary twist. Besh just released, My Family Table, with welcoming, everyday recipes he cooks with his family that are healthy, fresh, simple, and heartwarming. Besh’s star power (Iron Chef champion and James Beard award-winner that he is) never dominates. Like New Orleans, it’s a visually beautiful book, but this time themed by “School Nights,” “Breakfast with my Boys,” and recipes like “Curried Anything” or “Creamy Any Vegetable Soup.” Closing with the key element of cooking, the communal, he writes: “If asked what my last meal would be, I’d reply, ‘Any Sunday supper at home, cooked with love, for people I love.'” (Virginia Miller)



By Mark Boster

Time Capsule Press

128 pages, hardcover, $34.95

John Muir would have loved this book, the spectacular result of a passionate love affair with Yosemite National Park involving all of the principals in this impressive project. Muir helped glorify and preserve Yosemite with his voice and pen. Robert Redford, who fell in love with Yosemite as an 11-year-old boy recovering from a mild case of polio, wrote an eloquent introduction to the book. Photojournalist, Mark Boster was smitten by the beauty and grandeur of the Yosemite when he first visited the park as a child with his family. He spent a year in the park detailing its seasonal changes in more than 100 magnificent pictures. “I felt the breezes, analyzed the light, listened to the sound of the rivers and falls, and tried to capture the images that moved me,” he writes in his introduction. Catherine Hamm’s delicate haiku add a poetic touch to many scenes. (The two principals who brought this project to life with loving care are Narda Zacchino, a former editor of LA Times and the Chronicle, and Dickson Louie, a former executive at both those papers. Zacchino serves as publisher and editor and Louie as president and CEO of Time Capsule Press, which specializes in creating books by using the archival content of newspapers and magazines.) Available at www.fourseasonsofyosemite.com (Bruce B. Brugmann)



By Jim Meehan

Sterling Epicure

368 pp., hardcover, $24.95

Few bars have made as much impact on the New York cocktail (and thus the international) scene than PDT. Known as an early mover in the speakeasy trend, PDT revives classic recipes and invents new ones in the classic spirit. Bartender Jim Meehan put PDT on the map, and he’s since gone on to write about drink and educate bar managers and tenders everywhere. In the PDT Cocktail Book, he shares more than 300 cocktail recipes in a comprehensive collection inspired by classic tomes like The Savoy Cocktail Book. There are recipes from generations of hard-working bartenders, tips on glassware, bar tools, equipment, garnishes, techniques, a listing of seasonal ingredients, even a spirits primer. In keeping with PDT’s connection to neighboring Crif Dogs who serve creative dogs in the bar, there’s a section of hot dog recipes from big-name chefs who are regulars at the bar, including David Chang (Momofuku), Wylie Dufresne (WD-50), and Daniel Humm (Eleven Madison Park). From the comfort of home, cook up a Mason Dog fried in cornmeal and huitlacoche (corn smut/fungus, a Mexican specialty) to go with the Little Bit of Country cocktail, which mixes bourbon, maple, and jalapeño. (Virginia Miller)



By Paul Madonna

City Lights

240 pp., hardcover, $27.95

Like Ben Katchor’s classic “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer,” local artist Paul Madonna’s “All Over Coffee” — published every Sunday in the Chronicle and on essential Web zine The Rumpus (www.therumpus.net) — draws me into a psychic space that is at once serene and troubled, surreal and hyperreal. The effect comes as much from the drawing style as the dreamlike non-narrative: both are direct descendants of Winsor McKay’s “Little Nemo.” Madonna gets an extra chills-up-the-spine boost from his illustrations of semi-familiar San Francisco architecture and intersections, lucid as etchings of bleached Kodachrome shots. For this second collection of the strip, he broadens his nib to include not only the City by the Bay, but Paris, Rome, Buenos Aires, and Tokyo. Overheard quotes, snatches of philosophical discourse, interior monologue snippets, existential doubts, random observations, and short stories are floated over the images to capture a peculiarly lovely eddies in the zeitgeist.



By Dan Wells


320 pp., paperback, $11.95

Some of this is sick shit. You need a warped sense of humor and a love for random violence to enjoy the tale of a young man who lives with his mom in a mortuary and fights a demon made of black goo who takes over the minds and bodies of humans. But it’s a different type of thriller — complete with its own kinda sweet moments of teenage love and angst — and it’s packed with great detail. (Did you know that undertakers use Vaseline to fill up bullet holes? Cool.) John Wayne Cleaver, perfect name for a demon hunter, is a sociopath who is beastly to his mother and can’t get along with the other kids . Except for a super-hot chick who he thinks must be a demon, otherwise why would she like such a loser geek? The demon is nasty and gouges out eyes, cuts off tongues, sticks bodies on poles … you gotta check it out. (Tim Redmond)



S.H. Fernando, Jr.

Hippocrene Books

224 pp., paperback, $19.95

After a tongue-inflaming visit to the East Village’s fantastic Sigiri restaurant in NYC a couple weeks back, my interest in — and lust for — spicy Sri Lankan treats like kiri hodhi (coconut milk gravy), rossam (coriander-tamarind broth), kool (seafood soup), Jaffna goat curry, and ulundu vai (savory donuts) was, er, inflamed. Fortunately for me, author “Skiz” Fernando recently spent a year on the island rediscovering his roots and delving into the varied cuisine (later serving as a guide for that cheeky culinary colonist Anthony Bourdain). The punchy, informative Rice and Curry is the result, and includes nice introductions to Sri Lankan geography and history, as well as tips on what to stock in your cupboard to achieve the certain Sri Lankan “oomph” that sets the cuisine apart from Indian. A particular passage that profiles Leela, Fernando’s aunt’s ancient maid, offers some real insight into the island’s food tradition and customs — and yields a marvelous, corruscating crab curry from her hometown of Chilaw, just in time for Dungeness season. (Marke B.)



By Richard Rhodes


261 pp., hardcover, $26.95

An author best-known for his 1986 Pulitzer-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes might seem like an unlikely biographer for movie stunner Hedy Lamarr, who lit up Golden Age films like Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 epic Samson and Delilah. But her above-average qualities (she was called “the most beautiful woman in the world”) extended beyond the superficial. After escaping her gilded-cage marriage to an Austrian munitions magnate, Lamarr found success — and five more husbands — in Hollywood; between roles, she started inventing “to challenge and amuse herself.” During World War II, she got serious about her hobby. Showbiz circles led her to avant-garde musician George Antheil, renowned for his groundbreaking composition for 1924 short Ballet Mécanique. As Rhodes writes, “[Lamarr] began thinking about how to invent a remote-control torpedo to attack submarines just at the time she met Antheil, who knew quite a lot about how to synchronize player pianos.” Together, the “charming Austrian girl” and “the bad boy of music” worked on that torpedo, as well as “spread-spectrum radio,” an innovation that paved the way for contemporary wireless technology. Unlikely? Yes. Fascinating? Indeed. Never underestimate a beautiful woman — or a skilled writer’s ability to humanize complicated characters and bring drama to a tale loaded with tech-speak. (Cheryl Eddy)



By Jane Hirschfield


98 pp., hardcover, $25

As it happens, one of Bay Area poet Jane Hirschfield’s passages currently adorns the famous Kahn and Keville auto repair shop’s marquee in the Tenderloin: “What some could not have escaped/ others will find by decision/ each we call fate.” Well, you could never blame her for not thinking big. As a well-known and approachable poet, she sports a blurb from O, The Oprah Magazine on this, her ninth collection, the first in six years since releasing her arresting After. And while her slightly witchy, be-scarved, grandiloquent persona screams marketable poetess, there’s some understated magic in her latest poems. These ones are full of plums and glass and vague Zen spells that give off, in their overall effect, an rueful, anticipatory sigh. Some childlike wonder seeps in: “Another year ends./ This one, I ate Kyoto pickles,” says “Washing Doorknobs,” my favorite from the collection. “But one thing you’ll never hear from a cat/ is Excuse me” goes “A Small-Sized Mystery.” Sometimes you can almost Hirschfield her straining for ambiguity, the poems’ heavy life lessons tearing through her delicate webs of observation. Still, each poem here showcases Hirschfield’s incisive power. (Marke B.)



By Yotam Ottolenghi

Chronicle Books

287 pp., hardcover, $35

Recently I returned to London, eating my way extensively through the city. One of my gustatory highlights was Yotam Ottolenghi’s beloved bakery and restaurant, Ottolenghi (with four locations). Not only were his baked goods otherworldly delights, his straightforward but elegant dishes using pristine ingredients were among the freshest and satisfying of my London travels. Plenty, his new cookbook, is a cleanly designed book with vivid photos of recipes like broccoli gorgonzola pie and mushroom herb polenta. Most impressive? Ottolenghi’s recipes are 100% vegetarian. The meat-free aspect is barely emphasized, and one feels no lack in the diverse range of flavors (with Middle Eastern influences) presented. Since 2006, Ottolenghi has penned the UK Guardian’s vegetarian column — and he’s not even a vegetarian! This speaks to how respected he’s become as a chef in his use of veggies and grains. Plenty shows this talent off, but most importantly delivers approachable, easy-to-replicate recipes to tickle our palates. (Virginia Miller)



By Amy Sonnie and James Tracy

Melville House

201 pp., paper, $16.95

Gazing back in time to the era when the Black Panthers were serving up free breakfast to low income youth and coming into the crosshairs of COINTELPRO, few may be aware that an interracial coalition of radical organizers included a contingent of poor white southerners bent on fighting capitalism in solidarity with communities of color. Written by a cofounder of the Center for Media Justice and a longtime San Francisco housing activist, this detailed bit of radical history spotlights the organizing efforts of poor whites, transplanted from rural Appalachia to the low-income Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, to build coalitions of poor people in solidarity with civil rights leaders. Groups like Jobs or Income Now (JOIN), the Young Patriots, and Rising Up Angry launched campaigns against neglectful landlords and cops who brutalized their youth. They represented the white arc of the multiracial Rainbow Coalition, initiated by the Black Panthers in Chicago as “a code word for class struggle.” Bizarre as it may seem, “It became common to see [Panther] Fred Hampton ‘give a typically awe-inspiring speech on revolutionary struggle, while white men wearing berets, sunglasses, and Confederate rebel flags sewn into their jackets helped provide security for him.'”

(Rebecca Bowe)



By Martin Limon

Soho Press

376 pp., hardcover, $24

Korea in the 1970s. The United States has 50,000 troops in country, mostly near the Demilitarized Zone, and they don’t always behave. In general, the Korean authorities allow the military to police its own — but when a young Korean woman is brutally raped on a train to Seoul, and the assailant appears to be an American, all hell breaks loose. Martin Limon lived in Korea for ten years, and he does a (fairly) good job of presenting a portrait of the Cold War tensions between the two supposed allies. There’s a little bit of American bias — the author is former military himself — and his potrayal of Korean society isn’t as sensitive or oddly loving as John Burdett’s descriptions of Thailand in the Bankok 8 series. Limon’s great storytelling and his lively and compelling protagonists, Sergeants George Sureno and Ernie Bascom, pull readers past those issues. Perfect gift for someone who likes international crime thrillers. (Tim Redmond)



By One Ring Zero

Black Balloon Publishing

116 pp., hardcover, $24.95

It’s part cookbook, part music journalism, part rock opus, and hell, part coffee table book. The Recipe Project (subhead “A Delectable Extravaganza of Food and Music”) is a concept spearheaded by New York-based gypsy-klezmer act One Ring Zero. The band’s co-founders, Michael Hearst and Joshua Camp, created songs using the recipes of well-known chefs (Mario Batali, Isa Chandra Moskowitz, Chris Cosentino) as the word-for-word lyrics. The meals themselves served as musical influence; each recipe inspired a different sound. While the songs are not likely ones you’d listen to say, on a long lonesome drive, they do have a glint of childlike glee. It’s conceptual. The true genius of this project is its overall cohesiveness. It’s an all-in-one package. Follow the recipe, listen to the song, get some interesting background factoids. The Recipe Project also includes full recipe playlists, articles by rock journalists, and some pretty interesting interviews with chefs. (Emily Savage)



By Geoffrey Wansell

Arcade Publishing

192 pp., hardcover, $24.95

Back in print (it was originally released in 1996), this paen to the dapper star of North By Northwest (1959), An Affair to Remember (1957), Notorious (1946), His Girl Friday (1940), and approximately 10 zillion other classic films is somewhere between a biography and a coffee-table book. It’s worth picking up for the lavish black-and-white photos alone, illustrating the span of Cary Grant’s career with film stills, behind-the-scenes shots, and the occasional almost-candid image (did he ever take a bad picture)? The accompanying text is straightforward, but — as its title suggests — doesn’t shy away from Grant’s well-documented countercultural experiments. (“Grant became so enthusiastic about the value of LSD that he extolled its virtues during the shooting of his next picture.”) Nor does it gloss over Grant’s vices (he smoked 30 to 40 cigarettes a day) and sometimes troubled personal life (he was married five times). But the book’s chief focus is Grant’s brilliant career. As Stanley Donen, who directed him three times, remarks to author Geoffrey Wansell, “He’s thought of as a man who achieved a certain elegance and savoir faire. But in truth he was a fantastic actor.” (Cheryl Eddy)



By Ariel Rubissow Okamoto and Kathleen M. Wong

University of California Press

352 pp., paperback, $24.95

Drag queens, beat poets, burlesque dancers, hyphy rappers, dot com techies — the human species of the Bay Area have been well-documented, but information on the non-human dwellers of the bay itself has been left to scattered guidebooks, obscure blogs, and academic sources. Authors Rubissow Okamoto and Wong have collected a wealth of biological and environmental information in their book, published this November. The cross-country saga of the striped bass, the hidden beauty of eelgrass, the varied contentions of the California water wars are presented in highly readable, easily digestible sections. The emphasis here is on environmental impact and recent conservation developments — I did not know that it’s officially dangerous to eat more than one pound a month of fish from the bay! — and the history of decades of restoration triumphs and setbacks is related sleekly and straightforwardly. Absorbing all the information in this illuminating primer helped me appreciate the seething loveliness and churning forces that make up the place I call home. (Marke B.)


























































































































The message of 1968


By J.H. Tompkins

LIT On October 16, 1968, in Mexico City, American Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos electrified the world by accepting their medals with heads down and gloved fists thrust proudly in the air. Their defiance provided a fitting end for a year that began with Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring and America’s military humiliation during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and saw the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and its explosive aftermath, the general strike in France, the riveting presence and influence of the Black Panther Party, mushrooming opposition to the draft, and rioting in Chicago during the Democratic Convention.

Like Mohammed Ali, who in 1967 went to prison rather than fight in Vietnam, Smith and Carlos wrote an important page in American history. Like Ali, they have remained true to the principles they embodied years ago. Now, 43 years down the road, it’s hard to find anyone to speak against what they did.

But at the time, precisely because their enemy was weakened by exposure and their supporters inspired, they faced a blistering backlash. They were banished from Olympic Village, and sent back to the United States. Their crime? Smith and Carlos were allegedly guilty of tarnishing the spirit of an Olympic games that were supposed to be above and beyond politics.

Author-columnist-cultural critic Dave Zirin, who with Carlos has just published “The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World,” has more than a few things to say about the sanctity of sports and the way political context shapes athletes as well as the games they play. These days, a conversation with Zirin has a special quality: not only has he written a book that sheds new light on an important, long-ago event, the present moment is energized by political turmoil that brings to mind the 1960s.

“I was an absolute sports junkie in the ’90s, when I was in college,” Zirin told me in a recent interview. “I memorized stats, followed every sport, it was my oxygen. I didn’t follow politics, much less politics in sports, until something happened that stopped me cold: In 1996 [Denver Nuggets guard] Mahmoud Abdul Rauf made a decision not to stand during the National Anthem. He was asked whether he understood that the flag was a symbol of freedom and equality throughout the world, and he said it may be to some, but to others it’s a symbol of oppression and tyranny. This was before the spread of the Internet, and Rauf’s stand was only covered by the mainstream media. They crushed him.”

Zirin realized then that there was an aspect of sports history he hadn’t concerned himself with, “the place where social justice and sports intersect,” as he put it. It has shaped the work he’s done since.

Among many other things, Zirin writes a column, “Edge of Sports” for the Sports Illustrated Website, has a weekly radio show called “Edge of Sports Radio” on XM, and contributes regularly to The Nation and SLAM Magazine. Along with “The John Carlos Story,” he was written books including “What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States,” “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics, and Promise of Sports,” and “A People’s History of Sports in the United States.”

As Zirin and Carlos point out in the book, the futures of both runners were shaped by what they did in Mexico City. They struggled to find jobs, stability, and peace of mind. Still, Zirin writes “Unlike other 1960s iconography — Woodstock, Abbie Hoffman, Richard Nixon — the moment doesn’t feel musty. It still packs a wallop.”

It resonates because the injustices they protested are still rife in America, and because the arena in which they took their stand — sports — creates common ground for so many people.

“I don’t think there’s any place where the contradictions in American society are on such sharp display as in sports,” Zirin told me. “Think back to African American boxing champions Jack Johnson and Joe Louis. Neither made explicit political statements, but they had representative political power, representing power and pride in the context of racism and white supremacy. They weren’t just entertainers but in fact their presence, the inspiration they provided, was a threat to the established order of things.”

In sports today, there’s no doubt that athletes, in particular African American athletes, play a similar role. NBA hall of famer Charles Barkley once objected — perhaps with his tongue somewhat in his cheek — to the idea that he was a role model. Zirin laughed at the mention of this, saying, “Yeah, and the sky isn’t blue. You don’t chose to be a role model, you are one. It’s an objective thing. And if people are going to be role models, like it or not, then we all have to examine what they’re modeling. If you believe that the fact that a player can dunk makes him a great person, that says one thing. If having a sense of purpose in politics is important, then that says something very different.”

When Zirin and Carlos planned their book, both agreed that they weren’t interested in producing a sports memoir. “We didn’t want to say ‘look at me, genuflect at my athletic greatness.’ We wanted to say that not everyone can run at a world-class speed, but anyone can live a life dedicated to a sense of purpose.”

That approach runs head-on into a mainstream media that has made a point of emphasizing how “today’s pampered athletes,” as the media often put it, want nothing more than a fat pay check. There’s truth in this perspective — although it should be noted that both the NFL and NBA have experienced lockouts this year and that the same media outlets rarely describe the fabulously wealthy owners of professional franchises as pampered billionaires.

“I wrote an article,” he explained, called “‘NBA Players: Welcome to the 99%.’ Despite their money and privilege, they found themselves in a position where they were facing arrogant billionaires asking for a bailout because they made a lot of bad business decisions as NBA owners. It’s just like Wall Street bankers want American working people to cover all their bad bets. Will their proposed savings go back to fans? I don’t think so, they’ll just get a bigger slice of the pie.”

Besides, Zirin pointed out that there’s a lot more to the story that rarely reaches the public. Professional sports will publicly punish athletes who are caught crossing certain lines. But when it comes to speaking to the politics of injustice, the leagues try to deal with transgressions behind the scenes.

“There’s a ton of corporate and financial pressure on these athletes,” he says. “And these players talk to each other about guys like Craig Hodges [a guard on three Chicago Bulls championship teams], who in 1992 passed a note to Bush Sr. about Iraq War I when the Bulls visited the White House. He was drummed out of the league for that and these stories are passed down almost like scare stories. At the end of the day, we have to remember what Carlos and Smith did was in the context of global revolt and crisis. It was a symbol of the moment and a perfect merging of movements and moments. We can’t forget that.”

Although Zirin makes a point in his work to include athletes of all nationalities and sexual preferences, he has particular insights into the role African American athletes play in American culture.

“John Thompson says that Black athletes have the blessing of the burden of representation,” he noted. “It’s a burden because if one athlete does something, then it’s an issue for all Black athletes to deal with, for instance Michael Vick’s involvement with dog fighting. It’s not Peyton Manning’s problem that Chris Herron [a white one-time basketball standout from the mid-2000s] got on drugs. It works in a different way for Black athletes. The blessing part is the you’re part of a tradition, you stand on the shoulders of men and women like Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Wyomia Tyus, and Mohammed Ali, and you have an ownership of that tradition. It’s true that Steve Nash and all athletes are part of the tradition, but it runs more seamlessly through the African American community.”

These days, the sports world is talking about another scandal, this time the ugly situation at Penn State. Zirin discusses those problems in the context of a bankrupt culture, where the NCAA — the self-proclaimed moral arbiter of college sports — refuses to speak to hypocrisy that links all the problems in order to ensure its own survival.

Sooner or later, he said, the NCAA will either sink beneath its own corrupt weight, or athletes — who because of the professionalization of youth sports know each other in many cases from their early teens — band together and demand some compensation for the money that they generate. College presidents are the loudest complainers and the most important enablers.”

GOLDIES 2011 Lifetime Achievement: David Meltzer


GOLDIES “This isn’t a conflict of interest, I hope?” David Meltzer asks. We’re smoking on the back porch of his Piedmont apartment with his wife, poet Julie Rogers, about two bottles of wine into our interview, wondering whether he’s the first former Guardian contributor to get a Goldie. A decade or so ago, he was writing CD reviews and the odd feature on anything from pedal steel guitar to new age music. But Meltzer had made a reputation long before, as the youngest poet (along with Ron Loewinsohn, now a UC Berkeley professor) in Donald Allen’s seminal New American Poetry (Grove, 1960). Now, at age 74, he’s fresh from his latest achievement, When I Was a Poet, chosen by Lawrence Ferlinghetti as #60 in the City Lights Pocket Poets Series.

Between these two events he’s made so many distinctive contributions to Bay Area culture that his foray into music journalism for the Guardian is simply characteristic of his protean endeavors. Indeed, his musical endeavors alone would earn him a place in San Francisco history, beginning with his late ’50s jazz poetry readings at the Cellar. In the mid-’60s, Meltzer hosted the Monday night hootenannies at the Coffee Gallery — folk jam sessions attracting visitors like David Crosby, as well as now-legendary locals like Jerry Garcia — as well as performing there regularly with his late first wife, Tina Meltzer (who died in 1997).

“It was the genesis of the SF rock scene,” Meltzer says, and he soon found himself, like Dylan, “going electric,” as guitarist, songwriter, and co-lead vocalist of the Serpent Power, a psychedelic folk band featuring Tina on vocals and poet Clark Coolidge on drums, along with stray members of the Grass Roots. Released on Vanguard Records in 1967, Serpent Power’s eponymous LP went nowhere at the time, but in 2007 was named #28 on Rolling Stone‘s top 40 albums of the Summer of Love (which, if you think of the number of classics released in ’67, is extraordinary). As an example of the possibilities of long-form rock, the 13-minute, album-closing “Endless Tunnel” is widely considered ahead of its time.

Meltzer’s a natural raconteur — easily outlasting my digital recorder — because his life’s been so extraordinary. By the time he moved from L.A. to SF in 1957, first inhabiting the window display area of a defunct radio repair shop at 1514 Larkin, the Brooklyn-born Meltzer was already a former child performer on radio and TV, as well as a recent participant in the art scene around Wallace Berman. But SF was an irresistible lure for a 20-year-old poet.

“It seemed to be the place of a kind of creative surge,” he recalls, having already encountered Pocket Poets books such as Ferlinghetti’s Pictures of the Gone World (1955) and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956). “I needed to be in a place where you dealt with language rather than paint and images.”

“Of course, when I got here, the first place I went to was City Lights,” Meltzer continues. “It was much smaller back then, like a more proletarian Gotham Bookmart, with an emphasis on literary production.”

By 1961, Meltzer would find himself co-editor of the first issue of City Lights’ occasional Journal for the Protection of All Beings, the first of several projects he worked on at the press. But, despite Ferlinghetti’s admiration for his work, When I Was a Poet is Meltzer’s first book of poems for City Lights, some 54 years after his arrival. “It’s just one of those things,” says Meltzer, who published many books over the years on presses ranging from Black Sparrow to Penguin.

Space precludes a full rehearsal of Meltzer’s career, and significant items — such as editing the poetry and kabbalah journal Tree in the ’70s or co-founding the New College poetics program in ’80s — can only be mentioned in passing. His precociousness has engendered a sort of perpetual youth, and you can still find Meltzer giving readings around town, solo or in tandem with Julie Rogers. He remains one of the key people who make San Francisco great.

Strive to fail



LIT As I watched Occupy Wall Street grow and spread to other cities in recent weeks, I’ve been alternating between reading two books by familiar figures — a pair of fearless entities that have helped pry open public spaces using the simple weapon of creative expression — and I’m struck by the lessons they offer at this strangely hopeful moment in our history.

Together, they’re like a one-two punch to the status quo and to the notion that we’re all essentially prisoners of the existing political and economic systems. They encourage their readers to strive for impossible goals, to be guided by something bigger than our tiny selves, and to embrace failure rather than fearing it. These are the same ideas embodied by protesters occupying the streets of San Francisco and other major U.S. cities, this sense that they have nothing to lose by making a stand now but everything to lose by continuing to be obedient to the powerful forces that seek to dampen their spirits and rob them of their futures.

The Reverend Billy Project: From Rehearsal Hall to Super Mall with the Church of Life After Shopping is by Savitri D and Billy Talen, the couple behind the performance art church that critiques hyper-capitalism by doing exorcisms and other telling rituals in banks, chain stores, and other examples of what they call the “devil monoculture.”

So the Occupy Wall Street movement that began Sept. 17 in their adopted hometown of New York City is right in their sweet spot. They’ve been down there almost every day delivering sermons, songs, and support — Savitri D as the group’s stage manager and creative director and Talen as his alter ego, Rev. Billy, the evangelical pastor of a large flock of creative activists they’re organized into a choir.

“It feels like the culture is breaking open,” Talen told me by phone as he surveyed the scene at Occupy Wall Street. “These kids are really going for it.”

I’ve long been an admirer of their work and I included Billy as a character in my own book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture, along with longtime burner and San Francisco-based showman Chicken John Rinaldi, the author of the other book I’m discussing.

The Book of the IS: Fail…TO WIN! Essays in engineered disperfection was launched by Chicken and the eclectic group of culture-shakers in his orbit during a spectacular free party on Sept. 30. The 111 Minna Gallery contained 50 unique, custom-designed covers to his already well-designed book, selling for a whopping $250 each — and they sold out! Outside, the closed-off alley was filled with variety acts, strange artsy spaces to explore, a buzzing Tesla-coil tree, and hundreds of people.

Both Chicken and Billy have run for mayor in their respective cities, Chicken in 2007 and Billy in 2009, both injecting art and unconventional creativity into their campaigns. Ironically, it is Chicken who discusses his campaign at some length in his book, despite his basic disdain for politics, while Billy and Savitri — whose art is performed in service of political principles they hold dear — don’t include the campaign in their book.

“We believe that the five freedoms of the First Amendment — religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition — that you need to have these freedoms flourish in public spaces, and that has been shut down in New York City since 9/11,” Billy told me from Occupy Wall Street. “We’ve suffered a loss of our public spaces in New York, and to have all these young people open that back up is very exciting.”

But it wasn’t the politics of their books that struck me as much as their sense of possibility and the way they agitate for a new kind of world. Chicken didn’t run for mayor to win or even to make a political statement. He ran because he sees San Francisco as a “city of art and innovation,” and because then-Mayor Gavin Newsom was more focused on keeping the real estate market booming than keeping the city a fun and interesting place.

“No one was stepping up to challenge him, because no one could beat him. It was in the bag. But Gavin didn’t represent San Francisco very well in a few key departments, and I wished that someone would provide a referendum on the values of the city. Or something. Whatever else it was, running for Mayor was an opportunity to bring my shtick to a bigger stage,” Chicken wrote.

And Chicken’s shtick was the show, his raison d’etre, the need to create culture that drove the various pursuits that he chronicles in his book, from his adventures with the Cacophony Society to his touring with Circus Redickuless and the hardcore punk Murder Junkies to piloting a fleet of boats built from garbage to hosting strange spectacles at his Odeon Bar.

“I mean it’s all a show, of course. And all shows are just stories. And in the end, it’s all the same story,” Chicken wrote. And that story is about what it means to be human, to strive for something authentic and important in this mediocre, manufactured culture that corporations create for us, to reach so far for that truth that we fail — in the process touching the divine, or achieving what Chicken calls Severe Comedy — and then to start that process all over again.

“You can never really say you gave your all unless you fail,” Chicken tells me, recognizing that same spirit in the Occupy Wall Street movement. “I think we’re literally witnessing history in the making. This is the dawn of new ideas.”

That same spirit has animated the work of Billy and Savitri, and their book tells stories from their many demonstrations and events from around the world, ping-ponging between their two perspectives on what happened. Some actions are well-planned and meticulously rehearsed, other more impromptu, like leading a group from a talk they gave in Barcelona to a nearby Starbucks to lick all the surfaces and take it into their bodies.

“Now! Now! Let your body tell you. Do you accept or reject this devil chain store? Will you allow the alien corporation Starbucks to come into your body, into your neighborhood, into your town? Do you accept the devil chain store?” Billy preached.

In reading their books, I got the sense that they didn’t always know what they were doing, that they were just acting, trying to stay in motion, to just do something and figure out what it really means later. Chicken even confirmed the observation when we spoke: “I never have any clue what the fuck I’m doing.”

But that’s okay. Maybe a lot the kids on Wall Street and in front of Federal Reserve building in San Francisco don’t know what the fuck they’re doing either. But, in the face of the greed and corruption that plague our economic and political systems, at least they’re doing something. And even if they fail — maybe especially if they fail big — we’re a better and more interesting country because of their efforts.

Shakin’ spines



LIT Once again, the raucous, two-week Litquake festival is set to liquidate our shores with the mighty crack and crash of living language. Dazed authors and reeling poets will grace our lesser known alleyways; literary agents and bookstore owners will awaken satisfied on the curbs of our better sex clubs. Kindles will be hijacked, asses will be signed. Some actual writing may get done.

And yet, while the larger events justly command the spotlight (opening party “The Devil’s Lexicon” on Fri/7, New Directions 75th anniversary party on Tue/11, infamously drunken unofficial closing blowout Litcrawl on Sun/15), there are a host of smaller and satellites events that tap into the true flavor of contemporary literature. Below are some attractive-looking ones. (Unless noted, more info can be found on these functions at www.litquake.org.)



This two-part event is the quavering blood and guts of Litquake: an unabashed free showcase of some of the most cutting-edge talent on offer. Rhyming or Not: Bay Area Poetry (Sat/8, 1 p.m., free) shores up the verse side of things, while Golden Gate and Beyond (Sun/9, noon, free) props up the prose. This year’s theme is, “to explore writing in extreme circumstances and from deep within the mind—defined in terms spiritual, physical, or cybernetic.” I’m bringing popcorn.

Sat/8 and Sun/9, Variety Room, 582 Market, SF.



OK, this isn’t officially a part of Litquake — but the ‘quake also spawns a slew of satellite events, so let’s just shake things up. Christine Beatty is tearing up the transsexual literature circuit with her memoir, “Not Your Average American Girl,” which tells her fascinating story from growing up hippie, serving in the military, hooking in the Tenderloin, engineering software, and much more. It’s a great slice of Northern Californiana.

Sat/8, 8 p.m., free. Center for Sex and Culture, 1349 Mission, SF. www.sexandculture.org



I know next to nothing about this night except that it takes place at one of my favorite bars, Vesuvio, and involves some very interesting writer-personalities, like Jack Boulware, Beth Lisick, Missy Roback, and Frances Stroh. I hope it’s Jell-O wresting, but I’ll be happy with a good ol’ round of slams and shots.

Sun/9, 4 p.m., free. Vesuvio, 255 Columbus, SF.



Am I terrified of an expert on metaphors who is also a juggler, and who illustrates his points by “juggling balls as well as words”? I am kind of terrified of this person! And yet, I find the promise of respected writer James Geary’s lecture almost too tantalizing to resist. Should I let my prejudices keep me away, or should I let the wild carnival of knowledge commence? Right now, it’s a toss-up.

Sun/9, 4 p.m., $5–$7. Z Space, 450 Florida, SF.



You either have come to accept that teenagers are rightfully taking over this world, or you need to look up this little thing called the Internet. Of course, teens have maliciously kept most of the best recent fiction writing to themselves, via “young adult” books. (If I’m addicted to Hunger Games does that mean I’m young forever?) Popular teen fiction writers Simone Elkeles, Becca Fitzpatrick, Michelle Hodkin, and Moira Young come together to dish their secrets.

Mon/19, 7 p.m., free. Books Inc. Opera Plaza, 601 Van Ness, SF.



Will the six authors — including Ladipo Manyiko and Shawna Yang Ryan — who were asked to “look deep into the heart of the flaky soul and emerge with original short stories on the theme of failing to commit” even show up? Now that would be some performative literature right there. If you’re stood-up, you’ll at least have the Lone Palm’s excellent cocktails for succor.

Mon/10, 7 p.m., free. Lone Palm, 3394 22nd St., SF.



The gays do love to fuss about their tops! This party-slash-gathering of LGBT writers in the fab Joe’s Barbershop has already become a Litquake fixture for lit queens and their chasers, and proof that our community’s writing talent hasn’t been sucked into Grindr chats and Dinah missed connections.

Tue/11, 9 p.m., free ($5–$10 suggested donation). Joe’s Barbershop, 2150 Market, SF.



Boxing, schmoxing — the real money melon for sports book fans of the last two decades have been professional reminiscences of flamboyant flings in the ring. I mean, c’mon, Rowdy Roddy Piper, people: what more titillation do you need (besides a kick in the rear from the Iron Sheik’s pointy-toed shoes?) Writers Alia Volz, Rick Luxury, Alan Black and many more cactus clothesline this important body of work with tributes and testimonials.

Fri/14, 7 p.m., $10. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF.



“Alternative self-guided walking audio tour” purveyors Invisible City combine music, words, sonic landscapes, and historical information to create realtime experiences that map the ethereal onto SF streets. Latest work “Everywhere Man” is a mystery that whose clues are divulged while participants ride cable cars throughout the city. This sounds too, too cool, especially for first-time visitors.

Sat/15, 2 p.m., pre-order accompanying map and podcast at www.invisiblecityaudiotours.org for $15. Meet at the cable car turnaround, Market and Powell, SF.



The North Bay literary scene gets some incredible shine at this event, which takes place on the houseboats of Sausalito. Move from one houseboat to the next and experience samplings of such topics as “Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash: Tall Tales from the Boat Dwellers” on Boat #134, SMITH Magazine’s “Water, Fire, Rocks: Life in Six Words” on Boat #42, and “Vanda Marlow, Poetry Faerie” on Boat #12 (actually a restored World War II landing craft.) Get saucy, Sausalito. Literally.

Sat/15, 1 p.m., $25 advance. Private houseboat pier (for exact location email wotw@litquake.org), Sausalito.

Addicted to print



LIT Poet Nick Hoff is best known for his acclaimed translation of Friedrich Hölderlin’s Odes and Elegies (Wesleyan, 2008), while Matt Borruso has achieved some notoriety as a visual artist (his “The Hermit’s Revenge Fantasy” is at Steven Wolf Fine Arts through Sat/8). Yet both are also seasoned book scouts, those scavengers of estate sales, thrift shops, and flea markets who find saleable treasures buried in otherwise worthless piles of printed matter. And it’s in this capacity that they’ve embarked on a collaborative experiment in what one might call “conceptual commerce:” Scanners, a used bookstore that opened October 1 and closes at the end of the month.

The impulses behind Scanners are various. In the face of what Hoff calls “the media’s hysteria about the death of print,” both he and Borruso remain interested in the book as material object rather than simply bearer of text, easily replaceable by more efficient digital media. But in an immediate sense, the project is informed by their experience in a profession that, like many, has felt the digital squeeze. The word “scanner,” says Hoff, is a derisive term among book scouts for the increasingly numerous competitors whose knowledge of a book’s value solely stems from their mobile barcode scanners.

“At a library sale,” Hoff continues, “for every person without a device, there’s 50 people scanning books. The device tells them whether it has value. The traditional book scout who knew about book culture is becoming a thing of the past.”

While scanners have drastically increased competition, devaluing that knowledge built through long practice, Borruso and Hoff are quick to own the advantages of the digital age; their ability to sell books online directly to consumers rather than a book dealer has offset the blow to their bottom line. And knowledge retains its edge. “Not everything has a barcode,” Borruso says with a sly smile, and throughout our conversation, it’s clear both men value the thrill of the chase at least as much as its results. Borruso speaks of the “adrenaline” that comes from finding that overlooked tome, while Hoff dwells on the more profound relationship a reader has with a long-sought book than with an instantly purchased text. Both savor the role chance plays in their acquisitions.

With Scanners, they seek to replicate the conditions for such discovery. Herein lies the name’s opposite sense, of scanning physical shelves for the book chance may bestow. To this end, the duo intends to organize the store according to non-traditional categories — replacing the specific “economics,” for example, with the open-ended “money” — and emphasizing face-out visual display. Perhaps inevitably, the artist Borruso is more interested in the display aspect, while the writer Hoff is eager to see what categories will emerge from the 400 boxes of books they’ve stashed away over the past year.

Much of this, Borruso says during our interview, “is still theoretical,” as they only had a three-day window at the end of September to set up shop, using a break in the exhibit schedule of the Mina Dresden Gallery to inhabit its foot-traffic-friendly Valencia space. There’s something appropriate about staging this bookstore in an art gallery, for the project is at once scrupulous and absurd, requiring all the effort of opening a real bookstore — cash registers, credit card capability, etc. — even as they intend to close in a month. “It’s not a viable business model,” Borruso laughs.

Being temporary, as Hoff notes, makes the bookstore “into an event itself.” Nonetheless, there will be events within the event, beginning with a conversation on bookselling between William Stout, owner of William Stout Architectural Books, and Paul Yamazaki, bookbuyer for City Lights. Upcoming events — listed on the store’s website — focus on archiving in the digital age, the neuroscience of reading, and artists’ use of found source material, reflecting Hoff and Borruso’s diverse interests in printed matter.

“Our idea is to highlight things people will respond to a physical level,” Borruso concludes. “To base a store on things you wouldn’t be able to appreciate in digital format. Some of these things you might see and think, ‘I want that,’ but you would never know that seeing it even in jpeg form. You need to see it as an object, as a thing.” 2


William Stout in conversation with Paul Yamazaki

Wed/5, 6:30 p.m., free

312 Valencia, SF


Write what you know



LIT Most fans probably associate Will “The Thrill” Viharo with Thrillville, the awesomely cool series of B movie screenings he hosted at the Parkway (now closed) and Cerrito (now operating under new ownership) theaters. But in recent years, Viharo’s become “The Quill,” shifting his focus to his first love: writing. He’s written several novels and numerous short projects in a retro, neo-pulp vein; he’s currently working on new material as well as publishing several of his older novels, some of which go back decades. He started his first novel, Chumpy Walnut — about a foot-tall boy lost in a world of macabre make-believe — when he was only 16.

“I am a born writer, as pretentious as that may sound. I’m basically unemployable, possess no other marketable or practical skills, and so realistically, my career options are severely limited. It’s a matter of simple survival: sink or swim, write or die,” the 48-year-old Alameda resident explains. “Once I started writing, I just couldn’t stop. It’s how I respond to life and the world in general, my natural mode of expression. I really have no choice.”

Viharo’s first published novel, Love Stories Are Too Violent For Me, was released in 1995 by Wild Card Press. Movie rights to the book, which introduced recurring character Vic Valentine, have been owned by the actor Christian Slater for the past ten years — though Valentine, a San Francisco private eye, has yet to make his big-screen debut. Undeterred, Viharo has penned a slew of other killer, colorfully-titled books, including A Mermaid Drowns in the Midnight Lounge, Fate is My Pimp, Romance Takes a Rain Check, and Diary of a Dick. All are written in a feverish style that recalls not only the hard-boiled detective novels of authors like Raymond Chandler, but also a wide variety of cinematic influences.

“My work has always been informed and creatively inspired by films, particularly exploitation cinema, and all kinds of ‘mood music,’ even more so than my sundry literary influences,” Viharo says. “I think that’s why my stuff has a keen visual sense and fluent rhythm unique to the form, kind of like graphic novels, sans the graphics.”

It makes perfect sense then that Viharo has made a book trailer to help promote his work. The clip, posted on his website (www.thrillville.net), recalls a classic film noir narrated by tempting excerpts from Viharo’s books. The brand-newest Viharo tome, Freaks That Carry Your Luggage Up To The Room, is a blistering tale he describes as “gonzo bizarro pulp;” it’s due out in November. He’s self-releasing it, as he has all his works since Love Stories.

“My stuff is good, I know it, and I’m taking it directly to the audience I know is already out there, bypassing the corporate middleman,” Viharo says. He’s learned that the mainstream publishing industry is a conservative, fickle beast — and he’s done trying to win the hearts of corporate titans. “I’m actually riding a new wave since digital publishing has usurped the marketplace, opening doors for many neglected talents at both ends of the scale.”

Viharo’s novels are available online through Lulu as eBooks or print-on-demand paperbacks, and he recently got approval to sell Down a Dark Alley on iTunes after a period of “special review” — it seems his more lurid material had triggered an additional vetting before being given the green light.

“Basically, after several decades of self-exploration, I have no more inhibitions, at least artistically,” Viharo says. “My brain has been irrevocably damaged over the years, via sustained exposure to the insanity of our world as well as endless viewings of seriously fucked-up movies, and it shows, but I’m shameless by nature.”

Although his books can feature sensationalistic and savage settings, events, and characters, they are still meant to be simply entertaining — a goal that they exceedingly achieve, thanks to Viharo’s artistic outlook.

“Even the most graphic depictions of XXX kinky sex and ultra-violence are presented in a satirical, cartoonish context, not meant to be taken too seriously,” says Viharo. “I’m a softie at heart; my hard-boiled veneer is pretty transparent, I think. It’s impossible for me to remove my tongue from my cheek no matter how twisted my subject matter happens to be.”

The man, the myth, the legend


LIT To comics cognoscenti, Grant Morrison is something of a superhero himself. He is the scribe behind such subversions of comics convention as the avant-garde super team adventures of Doom Patrol and the confoundingly, sinisterly cartoonish Seaguy. But he’s also taken on the heavy hitters, from Batman to the X-Men, winning new fans and pissing off purists in the process.

In his new venture into prose nonfiction, Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, Morrison presents what he calls “a personal overview of the superhero concept from 1938 until the present day.” In some ways, it’s a mystifying text, tumbling as it does between cultish history, autobiography, and the pop philosophy suggested by its title. Undoubtedly a labor born of immense passion, Supergods gives the impression of a transcribed walking tour through the Hall of Justice, narrated by an obsessively knowledgeable fanboy-made-good.

The work is founded on the conceit that superheroes are manifestations not only of mythic principles (shades of Joseph Campbell) but of thoroughly utopian humans. Morrison posits this as a reason that the superhero genre has endured decades of changing public sentiment, and he furthermore wholeheartedly endorses it as a metaphysical truth. Stories are real in themselves, he concludes — “the paper skin of the next dimension down from our own.”

Morrison’s text is organized chronologically, taking as its starting point the blistering novelty of Superman’s first appearance in 1938’s Action Comics No. 1. Morrison dissects the subliminal symbolism of its cover with shamanic wisdom, and goes on to contrast Superman with his eternal counterpart, Batman. From there, he embarks upon a whirlwind of descriptions of the editors, artists, and writers who shaped the form, from the rough visionary mythos of Jack Kirby to the psychoanalytic preoccupations of Superman editor Mort Weisinger. Morrison’s accounts of their works are ecstatic, often deconstructing the minutiae of the comics page to get at the effects these sacred texts had on young contemporary readers; the descriptions become weirdly, repetitiously formal as Morrison details each creator’s transcendent improvement over his predecessors.

Woven throughout this historical review are anecdotal references to Morrison’s youthful encounters with superhero comics, as a child of Scottish pacifists living in constant fear of the bomb. But as the narrative catches up to his earliest work as a comics writer and artist, the content resolutely shifts towards his feverish autobiographical account of adolescent displacement and punk-influenced experimentation. Suddenly Supergods is about Grant Morrison, the writer-as-superhero-as-human. From here on out, he is inextricably bound to even the historical portions, as he becomes a major player in DC and Marvel superhero comics.

After Morrison experiences visions in Kathmandu that reveals to him the 5D nature of reality, and writes himself into a comic to become “semifictional,” his perspective changes radically. Morrison definitely gets that each reader’s mileage may vary as to the real source of his “magical” visions, but he insists on their symbolic usefulness in understanding that fictional universes are just as real as ours, and can translate into inspiration for real change.

Morrison makes no effort to separate his personal philosophy from his narration of comics history, tending towards polemic in the book’s second half. The observations about superheroes are generally brilliant, as one would expect from Morrison’s fantastic comics output, but the book’s structural inconsistency and forced New Age-y conclusions are a bit disappointing. The book works as yet another profession of Morrison’s love for superheroes as a form of life-changing magic, but it’s neither a complete history nor a coherent statement of how to make superheroes work for you, self-help style. But it makes you desperately want to read the books he describes, and perhaps that’s enough. 



Fri/5, 7 p.m.
Book Passage
51 Tamal Vista, Corte Madera

All-ages signing, Sat/6, 2-5 p.m., $28 (includes copy of Supergods) 

Supergods celebration, Sat/6, 8 p.m.-midnight, $40 (includes copy of Supergods)


326 Fell, S.F.


Bright on



QUEER Heady, hilarious, heartbreaking: Big Sex Little Death explores legendary sex writer, educator, and instigator Susie Bright’s coming of age from the 1960s to the present. Bright’s memoir focuses on her involvement with The Red Tide, a radical high school newspaper in Los Angeles in the 1970s, and her subsequent membership in a socialist sect that sends her halfway across the country. Her union organizing stint lasts until the Party leadership expels her for “joining or leading a cult of personality.” Personality is certainly one of Bright’s strong points, so perhaps we should be grateful for this particular falling out. It eventually leads to Bright’s role in founding the first lesbian porn magazine, On Our Backs, in San Francisco in 1981, as well as her pioneering work as a fiery spokesperson for free speech and sexual liberation. I spoke with her over the phone about sex and memory and writing.

SFBG You do such a great job of talking about your sexual coming of age as a teenager: describing your sluttiness without shame, your curiosity about bodies and pleasure and the intricacies of sexual positioning.

Susie Bright I think it’s because I wrote my memoir like a storyteller, like a poet — not a polemicist. I wasn’t ashamed; it never occurred to me. Margaret Mead would have found my little teenage tribe to be quite poignant.

SFBG There’s a tendency for many sex-positive spokespeople to glamorize even the most annoying, mundane, or gross sexual experiences as somehow — well — positive. Sometimes this sex-positive rhetoric ends up making those of us who don’t always succeed at having a wonderful sex life feel like failures …

SB I think bad sex — obnoxious, absurd, BIG FAIL sex — is funny, nostalgic, and more endearing as you grow older. It also goes hand in hand with adventurous, rapturous, mind-blowing sex. You actually know the difference. You’ve spanned the spectrum, you’ve lived. The big bummer with American sex right now is the unrelenting banality and flat-out scarcity.

SFBG The most striking part of Big Sex Little Death for me is the way you describe betrayal in the social and political realms you choose to inhabit — places that initially give you so much hope. Like when you helped to start On Our Backs, the first lesbian porn magazine, in the early ’80s. Feminist bookstores refused to carry it, claiming that you were aiding the patriarchy.

SB It was more than that. The whole mainstream feminist movement was calling for our heads. Or, as Barbara Grier of Naiad Press put it, “Everyone I know thinks y’all should be assassinated.”

It’s been a part of every civil rights and social justice movement that I’ve been a part of. We know it — we talk about how the powers that be would prefer to let the weak fight among themselves. We see how divide-and-conquer tactics are so effective, but it’s very hard to resist.

What kills me is the blindness, even years after the fact. Sometimes it’s comical. I got a letter from an ambitious writer the other day who told me that in the ’80s she fought the sex-positive On Our Backs types tooth and nail, no tactic too dirty. “We” were pimping the patriarchy and she was on point to take us down. She asked me if I found it amusing that she’s now in a submissive relationship with a man — no! Then she asked me if I would blurb her new book.

Someone asked me on this tour if I ever got an apology, and I was startled. No, not for the bombings or the death threats or the bannings or the locked doors or the bizarre libels and slanders. No way.

SFBG When the feminist movement refused to support you, you found several surprising allies. Among them were John Preston, at the time the editor of the gay leather magazine Drummer; cult filmmaker Russ Meyer of Faster Pussycat fame; and even the Mitchell brothers of that legendary exploitative straight strip club on O’Farrell Street.

SB Well, those were strange bedfellows, eh? They were all mavericks, iconoclasts, outlaws, film buffs, and we shared that in common. Aside from public librarians and ACLU lead attorneys, these guys were probably the most eloquent defenders of the First Amendment you ever met.

SFBG On Our Backs was started by two strippers who worked at various clubs in the Tenderloin and North Beach. One of the most heartbreaking chapters in Big Sex Little Death is where you show us how so many strippers worked to support their lovers financially, male and female, and then ended up strung out on drugs, homeless, or dead after their lovers used and abused them.

SB “Legalize it,” as Peter Tosh said. That is why these tragedies happen — because sex work is criminalized.

SFBG In your preface, you say, “I’m more preoccupied with people dying than with people coming.” And so of course you want to prevent these unnecessary deaths. Toward the end of the book, you also mention the deaths of friends, lovers, and confidantes to AIDS — but only briefly. It’s as if it’s still too painful to talk about.

SB The main deaths I talk about are my parents’, where I could fit more of the puzzle together; then John Preston, as a small example of what went on in early ’80s plague life; and the dykes I first knew at On Our Backs, some of who died too young. I am angry and too ragged to write about it all yet — I don’t have the distance from it. The last memorial I attended this past fall was [for] one of my greatest inspirations, a total ball-of-fire who ate a Fentanyl patch, choked to death on her vomit, and left a suicide note.

It was the exact one-year anniversary of the death of her father, a Southern fundamentalist preacher who beat and raped her as a child. She left him at 15 to come to California and made her way as one of the first generation of out dyke strippers and punk rockers. My redheaded friend was a leader of a local NA chapter by the time she was 20. What happened to her, all these years later, breaks the heart of everyone who knew her. She was a wonderful, wonderful, caring, radical feminist creative dyke who wanted to be a superhero who would vanquish all the abusers. It’s not fair.

SFBG Fairness is one of the central issues of the book — who lives and who dies, which cultures disappear and which remain. At the end of the book, you talk about deciding to give birth to a child, Aretha, and raising her. I’ll admit I got a bit worried that you would suddenly talk about this trajectory in a way that erased your sexual and political history, the histories of people like the friend you just mentioned.

SB My daughter has a trajectory of her own, now!

SFBG But somehow you’re able to talk about your love for Aretha while making it clear that child rearing certainly isn’t for everyone, and still articulating an anti-assimilationist queer world view focused on sexual liberation and radical politics.

SB I’m just drawn that way.

SFBG Why do you think gay assimilationists emphasize marriage, military inclusion, and child-rearing as the only choices for respectable queers, narrowing the options for everyone and rejecting sexual liberation as something dangerous from the past?

SB They’re squares — what can I say? They’ve always been around. Square used to be a synonym for straight. We’re constantly caught in the middle on this, the boho bunch. Of course we want civil rights for all, duh. I defend anyone’s right to let the state be their pimp, to fight the wars, be the cannon fodder, acquire family assets like a stamp-collecting hobby. Bully for you. But as Peggy Lee said, “Is that all there is?” Christ, I hope not.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (mattildabernsteinsycamore.com) is most recently the author of So Many Ways to Sleep Badly.


3348 with a bullet



A name like writer James Boice’s no doubt washes up waves of adulation. His partner-in-assonance is a certain modernist master whom Boice, at 29, surely knows something about. The Good and the Ghastly (Scribner, 288 pages, $25), a wicked new novel, is the kind of towering bildungsroman-cum-crime fiction carnival that is both entertaining and well-crafted — something we’ve come to expect from writers like Chuck Palahniuk, but don’t usually get these days.

For all its explosions, the book isn’t mere spectacle for spectacle’s sake. Often contemporary imaginations of literary violence sink into the page-filling, glittery sands of ersatz — but James Boice, quite the contrarian, has conjured a brutal, sharp diamond in the literary rough. The Good feels fresh and urgent while culling themes as old as the Bible and as zeitgeist-y as The Sopranos: the neo-noir crime epic. Boice has certainly eaten his cultural vegetables; at the same time, he isn’t afraid to spew them up to create a pulpy piece of work that is contemporary and allusive. It’s enough to satisfy readers in need of instant gratification as well as those less ravenous who prefer to sip and savor.

The Good and the Ghastly is a mad picaresque, the story of antihero Junior Alvarez’s rise and fall as criminal overlord. It is the 34th century. Seminal cultural artifacts were lost in some kind of nuclear devastation centuries before, so Sarah Palin and Oprah are among this world’s spiritual and intellectual pundits. Someone called Kevin Lithis is the new Jesus Christ. Everybody believes Stephen King wrote the works of Shakespeare. Ikea tables are considered antiques. But down in the underbelly, an implacable race to power wages between the Italians and the Irish as Josefina, a good mother turned hardened revenge-seeker, sets out to avenge the death of her son — one of Junior’s victims — by assassinating Junior and his unctuous underlings. And how far she goes I won’t say, but it does involve, in one scene, a bazooka, a baby, and a priest’s garb. Yeah.

A peak at the epigraphs inaugurating The Good and the Ghastly give a real sense of Boice’s literary antecedents. There are quotes from Faulkner, Shakespeare, Stephen King, and the OJ Simpson trial. With this mixed bag of chestnuts as synecdoche, Boice traverses the furrows of the high- and lowbrow in his novel. At once, The Good deserves the literary fiction crown and yet, it is also, in its own right, a piece of glorious trash. It is ugly and sensational, yet Boice is an evocative writer who knows what he’s up to.

With no degree to speak of, he has made himself something of a literary wunderkind. When Boice began writing, he “purposefully wanted no formal education,” he explained to me in an e-mail. “I did not want to be a proficient and well-executed writer. I wanted to be a writer who writes in blood. I wanted to live on the margins of decency and write things that were dangerous and true.” After dropping out of college, he moved to San Francisco and holed up in a room at the Halcyon Hotel on Jones Street, writing, drinking coffee, listening to Blood on the Tracks. Now, he lives in New York City and “life is good. I’m happy as a pig in shit.” And he should be. He already has two novels — MVP and NoVA — under his belt. This third entry is set in northern Virginia, where Boice is from. “I feel it is a microcosm of America, the quintessential American place,” he said. But here, NoVA is run by gangsters.

“Part of the impetus for the book was to sort of acknowledge our culture’s twisted relationship to gangsters,” Boice said. “We glorify them. We do. We love Scarface and Goodfellas and The Godfather. It’s fucked up that we do, because gangsters are evil motherfuckers.” Boice says the best writing is “the work of the subconscious.” Guy’s got a sick subconscious.

Like The Godfather, Boice creates a kind of ensemble piece, oscillating between a few different characters and third- and first-person while also generating a universe peppered with striking verisimilitude. Pop cultural references abound, and Boice’s prose contains an arsenal of neologisms — “smuck” is the new “fuck,” Visa rules the world, and Bar With Pool Table is Junior’s haunt. Boice’s invocation of particular brand names and coinages — reminiscent of Anthony Burgess, Bret Easton Ellis, or more recently, Junot Díaz — underscores the kind of fully imagined, multifaceted literary universe that would sate science fiction or fantasy nerds. And like those contemporaries, Boice is doing satire here, although it never feels heavy-handed because the mores of this literary world mirror ours. The year 3348 isn’t looking so glamorous after all.

The novel’s balls-to-the-walls violence, in scenes that glide as giddily as Scorsese’s camera, has a point: “Violence is not fun to think about, but it exists and has a way of interrupting your peace and penetrating your isolation out of the blue whether you want it to or not,” Boice said. “I believe in describing violence in a violent way. Otherwise you’re not telling the truth.”

Great works of art are always something of a mystery, and Boice leads us unflinchingly into the dark while cutting believable characters out of cardboard archetypes, right down to their flesh and bone (literally). Boice saves his most packed punches for last, where he rains down a reckoning upon Junior and Josefina. But all the while, Boice sidesteps easy moral punctuations in favor of ambiguity and open questions. In the end, it’s like a brick through a windshield.

Shaking the city



LIT Activist, writer, and fast-talking leftist public intellectual Chris Carlsson, cofounder of the monthly bike happening Critical Mass, spearheads the online local history repository Shaping San Francisco. I recently spoke with Carlsson about Shaping SF and his associated projects, including three collections of cultural and political essays published by City Lights Books, the most recent of which, Ten Years that Shook the City: San Francisco 1968-1978, will be released June 15.

Carlsson began work on Shaping SF — a multimedia digital history project — in 1994 with co-conspirators from his often hilarious dissident magazine Processed World.

Reclaiming San Francisco: History , Politics, Culture, edited by James Brook, Carlsson, and Nancy Peters, was published in conjunction with the first CD and kiosk release of Shaping SF in early 1998. The collection of essays sets the tone for what would become, in Carlsson’s words, “an ongoing series of contrarian history anthologies about San Francisco.”

The second book in the series, The Political Edge (2004), examines cultural and political dynamics behind the popular mobilization to elect Green Party candidate Matt Gonzalez, a surprisingly close mayoral race that Gavin Newsom won in part with massive support from the San Francisco Chronicle and the national Democratic Party.

Carlsson says Ten Years that Shook the City continues his work “to counter our amnesiac culture.” More specifically, the book takes on the argument that the 1960s were filled with experiments that didn’t work out. Carlsson told me that evidence to the contrary “has systematically been flushed down the toilet” by mainstream commentators.

The book begins with a remembrance of the 1968 San Francisco State College strike, but in his introduction Carlsson writes: “From today’s organic food and community gardening movements to environmental justice, gay rights, and other social identity movements, neighborhood anti-gentrification efforts, and much more, the 1970s are the years when transformative social values burrowed deeply into society.”

In more than 30 years of activism, he also has crossed paths with many who became contributors to the series. Carlsson recalls when he attended an anti-nuclear rally in 1979 and was handed a flyer from a group called the “Union of Concerned Commies.” The leaflet featured a drawing of the White House with nuclear cooling towers on either wing, done by veteran underground cartoonist Jay Kinney. Kinney contributed one of the most entertaining pieces in Ten Years, a short history of underground comix (in a move below mainstream radar, “comics” became “comix”).

Former Guardian staffer Rachel Brahinsky contributed a heart-wrenching look at the (ongoing) African American exodus from the City by the Bay in the wake of the neighborhood-destroying process officially called “urban renewal.” In the chapter that follows Brahinsky’s, veteran organizer Calvin Welch describes further tenant victories in the creation of what he refers to as “the community housing movement.”

Carlsson’s chapter, “Ecology Emerges,” parallels a series of green history talks of the same name held this year at Counterpulse, Shaping SF’s home base at 1310 Mission St. Carlsson links the 1990s emergence of the environmental justice movement to David Brower, especially the more radical work Brower began when he left the Sierra Club and cofounded Friends of the Earth in 1969. Brower felt Greens should be antiwar, and was keen on making connections between movements. The ecologically-minded individuals and groupings Carlsson highlights also shared a disinterest in becoming a permanent cheering section for Democrats, working instead to keep pressure building from below.

I asked Carlsson for his take on the Obama administration’s announced plans to allow the mining of millions, possibly billions, of tons of coal on public lands.

“Obama was supported from the beginning by Big Finance an Big Coal,” Carlsson responded. He has never shown any indication he is anything but their front man. His lack of imagination on the energy crisis, the economic crisis, the military-empire crisis, and the social crisis is nothing less than remarkable.”


Thurs/2, 7 p.m., free

City Lights Bookstore

261 Columbus, SF

(415) 362-8193



‘AMERICA’ the beautiful



LIT/VISUAL ART Dear Mr. Ligon,

I’d like to begin this letter with an apology.

For years I’ve included your work in my personal pantheon. Since my first encounter with your text-based paintings in the pages of Artforum during your early days at the Whitney Museum, to your critiques of Mapplethorpe, to your contributions to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I have always found your work intriguing, inspiring, and — at times — exasperating. In short, you’ve never failed to impress me. Even more so when I consider your very vocal status as a gay black man in the high-end art world and as a gay black artist in the world at large. Still, I owe you this apology because, though I’ve held you in high esteem, I have underestimated you.

AMERICA, the catalog for your 20-year retrospective show held at the Whitney this year, has given me the opportunity to study the breadth and depth of your body of work. Being able sit with this sturdy black book, this 300-page piece of art in itself has — frankly — put me through some changes, brother.

Scott Rothkopf’s introductory essay talks about your early days as an Abstract Expressionist seeking your voice and how you found “that there was too much of a gap between what I wanted to say and the means I had to say it.” This reminded me of the line, “I’m simply without the means to conduct my own prism” from Will Alexander’s poetry collection Compression and Purity — which is what inspired me to write you this letter instead of some critique or some such. If you haven’t yet, you should read Alexander’s book. You’d like it.

Pulling inspiration from sources like Basquiat, David Hammons, Adrian Piper, Jasper Johns, and Martin Puryear, you began to make literary-based pieces where text is the primary — but not the only — means of communicating your newfound voice. And this, I confess, is where I got all messed up.

Take your dreambook series. As a viewer of painted text, I took it as a given that everyone knew what a dreambook was. That everyone knew what those three stenciled numbers in the middle of each piece meant. I thought everyone knew that you were preserving a magical artifact, and lucky magic at that. Only you knew better. You knew that everyone did not know dreambooks, or magic numbers — and where better to preserve this occult knowledge than in a museum of modern art? You understand curatorial expression, that how and where you say it is just as important as the saying itself. You have created literary-based multimedia narratives. I didn’t see this until AMERICA, and for this, I apologize.

I also apologize for what I can say, in hindsight, was a once-over of many of my favorite text pieces. In my defense, I didn’t get the opportunity to study your work in such great detail as the lush and plentiful plates in AMERICA have allowed me. Perhaps if I had, I wouldn’t be feeling so bad right now. I was so taken by the passages you chose from Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Richard Pryor that I seemingly glossed over the statements the paintings themselves were making.

In one of my favorites, the words, “I’m Turning Into A Specter Before Your Very Eyes and I’m Going to Haunt You,” are painted in bold black stencil that starts at the very top of a large white canvas. And as the phrase repeats again and again, the letters begin to merge and darken, so by the bottom of the piece the letters are so thick, smeared, and obscured that all that remains is the intent of words, the feeling behind them. The effect is eerie and liberating at the same time. Okwui Enwezor’s essay “Text, Subtext, Intertext: Painting Language and Signifying in the Work of Glenn Ligon” shed much light on that.

I guess because of your dry wit and wry observations, I have not given you your “teeth.” Your take on runaway slave posters, placing yourself as described by friends and associates as the runaway, or your tribute to Henry “Box” Brown, the man who mailed himself to freedom, have intrigued me. But it was in the interview with Thelma Golden, where you mention that quoting Richard Pryor was scary, that I found my missing piece. There is something in the way that I laugh when I listen to Pryor that is relieving. His every punch line is like a daredevil outrunning the hell-hounds once again. You’re right, Pryor is scary.

For your part as the impetus to the “post-black” movement, for your haunting texts and textures, for deciding that AMERICA is the best theme for your retrospective — you scare me. I wrote this to say you scare me, Glenn Ligon. And I like it.

A better tomorrow



“‘I am the carnivore/ The hounded night walker/ Searching for my wings scattered under glass.'<0x2009>” So begins “Blood Penguin,” the first poem in Will Alexander’s latest collection, Compression & Purity (City Lights, 100 pages, $13.95). Alexander is an honest-and-for-true black surrealist. In 2011, he will have three books of poetry, one novel, one book of essays, and a book of philosophy coming out. Even if you’ve never heard his name before, you gotta admit that Will Alexander is a bad muthafuckah. “because of my leaning,” he writes in the same poem, “I know the stark Egyptian soma/ Much as would the blinded cemetery scribe.'”

Invoking equal parts Homer and Ray Charles, Alexander excavates as only a black surrealist can — by revisiting and resurrecting cults and symbols of the past with new eyes while taking a biographic, confessional tone. Many of the pieces coalesce into declarations/definitions for an ever-shifting identity meeting the limits of contemporary classification.

“I am simply without means to conduct my own prism,” Alexander writes in this opening poem. A lament of all artists and creative others who find themselves at this juncture where capability could possibly override access and capital, enabling us to manifest our truest visions.

In “The Deluge in Information,” we once again meet this fluid identity. “I am more like a crow from crucial underwater fires,” Alexander writes, “a crucial underwater crow/ Neither Chinese or Shinto/ But of the black dimensionality as hidden underwater mass.”

Whereas Alexander’s Sunrise in Armageddon (2006) was a whop over the head that only the most Joycean among us could dare to hold with a steady grip, Compression & Purity hovers over a series of consistent, graspable subjects throughout. The treatment of identity/biography in “Blood Penguin” and “Deluge” is fully unmasked in “On Anti-Biography,” where Alexander makes the succinct, clear statement: “I am only concerned with simultaneity and height, with rays of monomial kindling, guiding the neocortex though ravens, into the ecstasy of x-rays and blackness.”

This and the poem that follows, “My Interior Vita,” ring like an Afrosurrealist’s manifesto. When Alexander writes, “Yet above all, the earth being for me the specificity of Africa, as revealed by Diop, and Jackson, and Van Sertima, and its electrical scent in the writing of Damas. Because of this purview I have never drawn to provincial description, or to quiescent chemistry of condensed domestic horizon,he seems to be speaking for those who have rejected the quiet servitude that characterizes existing roles for African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and queer folk. Even as he’s speaking from a universal mind with a universal tongue, he always seems to land on the side of “otherness.”

“Yet at a more ancient remove,” he continues, “there exists the example of Nubia and Kemet unconcerned with life as secular confiscation, but with the unification of disciplines, such as astronomy, philosophy, law, as paths to the revelations of the self. Knowledge then, as alchemical operation, rather than an isolated expertise.” Word.

Though Afrosurreal, Alexander is “Afro futurist” as well. “Alien Personas,” the name of yet another strong poem in this collection, could easily be a rubric for the other driving force in this book. Beginning with the personification poem “Water On A New Mars” (“Being water/ I am the voltage of rocks/ Of algid suns in transition/ Flying across a scape/ Of bitter Martian dioxide”), Alexander reaches from the semi-utopian science fiction of Octavia Butler to dystopian Delanyian homage and the expansive cosmology of Sun Ra. What we find is an artist seeking a unified-all-inclusive art theory. A noble, if totally insane, gesture for a better and brighter tomorrow.

Compression and Purity works well as an introduction to Alexander’s black surrealist oeuvre while still engaging and challenging his longtime readers. Though emotionally cold and detached, the poems more than make up for it with a genuine love of language and its power to effect change. 



Wed./18, 7 p.m.; free

City Lights Bookstore

261 Columbus, SF

(415) 362-8193



Bleak frames and guilt



LIT From the first page, an anonymous manifesto denouncing the pharmaceutical industry, to a bronze sculpture of a suppressed anti-Nazi headline from the Lippische Tages-Zeitung weighted down by a giant hammer and nails on the last, David Lester’s graphic novel The Listener (Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 304 pages, $19.95) explores how words often fail their intended purpose, precipitating actions with unforeseen consequences.

The unintended consequence of the manifesto: an amateur activist falls to his death while hanging a banner from a radio tower. The unintended consequence of the unpublished article: the rise of the Third Reich and the fall of a nation’s conscience. In Lester’s book, both events become entangled within the scope of Louise Shearing, a Canadian sculptor wracked with guilt over the death of the activist, who took the phrase “action speaks louder than words” to heart.

Although The Listener eventually makes reference to the fallen activist, Vann, being influenced by Louise’s sculpture of French anarchist Louis Michel, it’s not immediately clear to the reader why Louise, as opposed to the scribes behind the manifesto, must bear the brunt of the guilt over his death. Like many young people in a state of flux, Louise winds up backpacking across Europe, hanging out in art museums and hooking up with cute but pedantic European men. In one of those almost-magical chance encounters so common to the open road, she has a conversation with an elderly couple in a café, which culminates in an unexpected history lesson.

Rudolph and Marie are from the former German state of Lippe (now part of North Rhine-Westphalia), site of the last free election in Germany before Hitler took the chancellorship. As journalists and members of a smaller right-wing party (the DVNP), which balks at towing the Nazi Party line, they nonetheless go along with the suppression of an article exposing corrupt Nazi campaign tactics. The headline pulled at the last minute is preserved for posterity on a secret plate that Rudolph smuggles home. “Our failure to defeat the Nazis in Lippe is a regret we live with every day,” Marie says.

It’s tempting to draw a parallel between Lester’s The Listener and Jason Lutes’ Berlin, but to compare the two does The Listener a disservice. Where Berlin is a meticulously-rendered serial drama characterized by painstakingly clear lines and weighted text, The Listener is a shadowy morality play cloaked in the mantle of German Expressionism. The black guilt that weighs heavily within Louise and the German couple seeps across each page like a Rorschach blot. Each bleak frame is a single painting, rendered in messily urgent layers of gray, interspersed with replications of newspaper headlines trumpeting the rise of the Third Reich. Also unlike Berlin, most of the book’s action actually takes place in the present day, where the reverberations of the dead can be, and are, remarked on by the living.

The Listener flags during Louise’s unstructured attempts to ascertain what art means to her by discussing it at length. She swoons over Cézanne and deconstructs Picasso, but is so rarely shown in the act of creation that it’s easy to forget that her art has served as a catalyst for action. It’s possible to imagine Lester — painter, musician, activist — having these very conversations with himself, but they don’t have the same impact as the sculpture Louise finally creates in the last frame, a picture truly worth a thousand words. 


This place



LIT Begun in part as a series of maps accompanying public lectures, Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas (University of California Press, 167 pages, $24.95) is a remarkable act of gathering, one that presents myriad versions and visions of San Francisco and its surrounding areas that can inform a reader’s experience.

Infinite City was recently selected by the Northern California Independent Booksellers as one of its 2011 winners. Duality is a fundamental aspect of the book’s breadth and depth and sense of sharply critical appreciation — structurally, Solnit pairs distinct maps with corresponding chapter-length essays. In keeping with that characteristic, and also with the book’s group spirit (though admittedly on a much smaller and less intensive scale), I asked different Guardian contributors to share appraisals of one, or in most cases two, of the 22 sections. The result provides just a hint of what can be found within Infinite City. (Johnny Ray Huston)

MAP 3. “Cinema City: Muybridge Inventing Movies, Hitchcock Making Vertigo

The map for this chapter tracks the San Francisco life of Eadweard (sic) Muybridge, alongside landmarks from Alfred Hitchcock’s Bay Area masterpiece Vertigo. In “The Eyes of the Gods,” Solnit, who won the National Book Critics Circle award for her 2003 Muybridge bio River of Shadows, writes of the 19th century artist’s breakthrough high-speed photography, “It was as though the ice of frozen photographic time had broken free into a river of images.”

Many such rivers flowed all over this fair city when Vertigo premiered at the Stage Door Theatre at 420 Mason St. on May 9, 1958. Alas, only 10 of the more than 60 single-screen venues extant that year, all demarcated on Shizue Seigel’s fine map, are still functioning. Solnit rightly describes the shift to watching films on various digital delivery mechanisms as leaving contemporary culture with a “curious imagistic poverty.” As she concisely describes watching Milk and Once Upon a Time in the West on the Castro Theatre’s giant screen, we’re reminded that there is no comparison between enjoying cinema in such a grand setting and staring at a laptop. The great 20th century memoirist and observer Quentin Crisp wrote, “We ought to visit a cinema as we would go to a church. Those of us who wait for films to be made available for television are as deeply suspicious as lost souls who claim to be religious but who boast that they never go to church.”

That applies to you too, Netflix subscribers! The Roxie, Castro, Red Vic, Clay, and a small number of other houses of worship are still in business, so what are you waiting for? (Ben Terrall)

MAP 4. “Right Wing of the Dove: The Bay Area as Conservative/Military Brain Trust”

In “The Sinews of War are Boundless Money and the Brains of War Are in the Bay Area,” Solnit argues that antiwar, green, and left Bay Area hotspots are well known and don’t need to be charted again — unlike military contractors and assorted other forces of reaction in the region.

Solnit notes that many military bases that used to operate in the Bay Area are closed, “but the research, development, and profiteering continue as a dense tangle of civilian and military work, technological innovation, economic muscle, and political maneuvering for both economic and ideological purposes.”

Among the hard-right compounds providing counterevidence for that demonstration chestnut “the people united will never be defeated”: Lawrence Livermore National Labs (birthplace of Star Wars — the Reagan era money pit, not the George Lucas movie); Lockheed Martin, world’s largest “defense” contractor; the Hoover Institution, Stanford’s reactionary think tank; and Northrop Grumman, missile component designer. It’s useful to have so many of them in one place, if queasy-making.

On the lower left of the map sits Sandow Birk’s beautifully warped code of arms, which features the Cicero quote (Nervi belli pecunia infinita) that Solnit cites in her chapter title, under a half eagle/half dove, a rifle-toting soldier, and a scythe-clutching skeleton. It should be on the door of every U.S. military recruiting center. (Terrall)

MAP 6. “Monarchs and Queens: Butterfly Habits and Queer Public Spaces”

“How thoroughly the lexical landscape of gay history is invested with [a] paradigm of emergence,” notes poet Aaron Shurin in “Full Spectrum,” the chapter accompanying Infinite City‘s sixth map. Like one of the dazzlingly-named butterfly species rendered by Mona Caron on the map, Shurin flits gracefully between memoir and historiography as he tracks San Francisco’s ongoing evolution as a locus for queer emergence.

From North Beach to Polk Gulch, from Folsom to Castro, LGBT folk — be they American painted ladies, Satyr angel wings, or Mission blues — have continually migrated to and within the city to shed their cocoons and show their true colors. Local faux-queen Fauxnique traced this metamorphosis at the 2003 Miss Trannyshack Pageant when she climatically emerged as a regal butterfly to Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (apropos to Shurin’s royalty motif, she won the crown). So too did the late Age of Aquarius painter Chuck Arnett, who often nestled butterfly imagery into his portraits of SoMa’s leather demimonde, and whose murals once adorned some of the many now-extinct bars also denoted by Ben Pease’s cartography. Only more than half a dozen of these “wildlife sanctuaries,” in Shurin’s parlance, have survived, with the Eagle Tavern’s announced closure marking another loss of habitat. Queers, though, are if anything adaptive, and my hope is that the future fluttering tribes of San Francisco will keep alighting on new ground to unfurl their wings. (Matt Sussman)

MAP 7. “Poison/Palate: The Bay Area in Your Body”

“Food is part of the Bay Area you hear about nowadays, exquisite upscale food at famous restaurants and gourmet markets. But it’s so boring we couldn’t stay focused on it in this map.” These refreshing, if rarely uttered words come two-thirds of the way through the chapter that accompanies the “Poison/Palate” map, Rebecca Solnit’s “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Gourmet.”

The phony Tuscany of Napa and the once-orchard-filled, now-EPA-Superfund-site-speckled Silicon Valley are wisely singled out for derision, a convenient duality in both geography and culture and the perfect framework on which to hang a critique of the local culinary community’s smug, myopic self-indulgence, by raising the not-so-elite-specters in Bay Area food history (the It’s It, the Popsicle, the Hangtown Fry, the Rice-a-Roni), and reintroducing the politics of food into the conversation, in the form of the chemical tonnage used to produce wine grapes, food giveaways at community gardens, Diet for a Small Planet, and Black Panther breakfast programs for school-kids. The sprawling topic is almost given too short a shrift, threatening to leap its mutant-mermaid-bedecked map.

Better is the 18th chapter, “How to Get From Ethiopia to Ocean Beach.” Solnit begins by loosely charting the ingredients that go into your cuppa joe: the water from Hetch Hetchy, the milk from West Marin, the coffee that courses through the port of Oakland, and, impishly, the leavings that flow toward the Southeast Water Pollution Control Plant. All that’s missing from the equation is the sugar that I need to make the darkest, brandy-and-cherry-tinged brew palatable. SF’s cafe culture is also deservedly lionized — though some might want to hurl china due to the exclusions on the accompanying map: why, for instance, call out Blue Danube Coffee House and not the grungier, more Chinese-populated Java Source? (Kimberly Chun)

MAP 8. “Shipyards and Sounds: The Black Bay Area since World War II”

Though author Joshua Jelly-Schapiro opens this chapter, subtitled “High Tide, Low Ebb,” with an eloquent invocation of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” — penned in Sausalito, by the way — it was the slight mention of Lowell Fulson’s “San Francisco Blues” that most resonated with me. “Ohh, San Francisco,” the lyric goes, “Please make room for me.” The facts presented in “Shipyards and Sounds” record The City’s answer as a genteel and progressive “No nigger.”

Beginning at the start of WWII, when Southern blacks migrated to the Bay Area to build ships in Hunters Point, Jelly-Schapiro points out that the main areas of wartime shipbuilding (Richmond, Hunters Point, Marin City) are “places that today remain centers of black population and of black poverty.” Indicating, to me, that little has changed since the 1940s in some significant ways. Don’t get mad at me, I didn’t say it. Jelly-Schapiro did.

Jelly-Schapiro also shows how terms like “redevelopment” displaced black Fillmore District residents to housing projects they’d been banned from during the war and land-grab euphemisms like “urban renewal” decimated black neighborhoods such as West Oakland. Electoral laws mandating that the SF Board of Supervisors be elected by citywide contests and not by district allowed a city that desegregated its schools and transit system in the 1860s to remain progressive and very, very white.

Jelly-Schapiro’s conclusion contains a critique of Bay Area celebrations when “Negro president” Barack Obama was elected in 2008. What he won’t say is covered in Shizue Seigel’s map. A sidebar shows the dwindling soul of a city, while the headers cover the founding of the Black Panthers and Sylvester’s solo debut at Bimbo’s. (D. Scot Miller)

MAP 9. “Fillmore: Promenading the Boulevard of Gone”

After the damned disheartening facts presented in the previous chapter, it’s both merciful and hopeful that “Little Pieces of Many Wars” — though just as rage-inducing — establishes some kind of equilibrium.

Gent Sturgeon’s incredible Rorschach-inspired artwork opens a thoroughly-researched piece on Fillmore Street and its many incarnations. Mary Ellen Pleasant’s abolitionist work and her eucalyptus trees — which still stand on the corners of Bush and Octavia streets — are a starting point for a leisurely stroll with Solnit, who runs the voodoo down, “The war between the states left its traces here,” she says, “as did the Second World War, and the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the stale and ancient war of racism, and the various forms of freelance violence.”

She remembers San Francisco as an abolitionist headquarters, and Fillmore Street as the first place Allen Ginsberg read “Howl.” Recalling the Fillmore’s rich heritage of jazz, poetry, and art, Solnit takes it even further, adding, “The wealthy sometimes claim to bring civilization to rough neighborhoods, but the Upper Fillmore neighborhood that was so culturally rich when it was the property of poor people in the 1950s is smoothed over in significance now.”

The tragedy of Japanese internment, and the cross-cultural exchange that was demolished by it and redevelopment loom like white sheets over the city to this day. But Solnit closes with an optimistic sense of resurgence, even though Nickie’s has gone Irish.

Ben Pease’s cartography shows the cross-currents of culture of yesterday’s Fillmore Street, but not much else. That’s not a complaint, really. (Miller)

 MAP 13. “The Mission: North of Home, South of Safe”

Two 2009 shootings on 24th Street pop out, in blood red, on the map accompanying Adriana Camarena’s “The Geography of the Unseen,” in much the same way that the spate of shooting deaths the previous year marked my brief time spent living in the Mission. In ’08, I lived in a Victorian flat at Treat and 23rd, distinguished by the fact that it was a favorite hang for the teenaged homies — its steps were slightly tucked back off the street, ideal when it came to hiding out, smoking dope, and snacking out — until my landlords installed a fence, ostensibly to keep the steps free of spit.

We were on the same block as an appliance-loaded junkyard; the last stop of an ancient Mission industrial railroad; and the Parque Niños Unidos, with its swampy, grassy corner, so often cordoned off to keep the tots from wading in the mud, its circling ice cream carts and its de facto refreshment stand, El Gallo Giro taco truck; and the community garden, where the feral kittens tumbled and hid and fresh produce was given away free every Sunday afternoon.

The Parque likely was the last thing 18-year-old poet Jorge Hurtado saw when he was shot and killed on our corner at 1 a.m. that year. I remember waking up that night to what sounded like a cannon boom, only the first of a slew that sweltering, ominous summer — Mark Guardado, president of the SF chapter of the Hells Angels, was killed a little over a week later, down Treat, in front of Dirty Thieves. The tension was thick and gooey in the air — who was next? The beauty of Shizue Seigel’s Mission map lies in how intimate it is, how it’s threaded around the shaggy-dog snatches of yarns Camarena catches among the day laborers waiting at Cesar Chavez and Bayshore, from the long litany of splintered families, time spent in the refuge of gangs at 24th and Shotwell, and then, in Frank Pena’s case, lives cut sadly short farther up 24th at Potrero. The included stories, rarely straying beyond the tellers’ voices and the facts they choose to reveal, stay with you — even if her sources’ internal lives remain, as the chapter’s subtitle goes, “the Geography of the Unseen.” (Chun)





Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, stories, Yiyun Li (Random House, 240 pages, $25)


Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, Mary Roach (W.W. Norton and Company, 336 pages, $15.95)

Honorable Mention: Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1, (University of California, 760 pages, $34.95)



Come On All You Ghosts, Matthew Zapruder (Copper Canyon, 96 pages, $16)

Food Writing

My Calabria: Rustic Family Cooking from Italy’s Undiscovered South, Rosetta Costantino, Janet Fletcher, and Shelley Lindgren (W.W. Norton and Company, 416 pages, $35)

Children’s Picture Book

The Quiet Book, Deborah Underwood and Renata Liwska (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 32 pages, $12.95)

Honorable mention: Zero, Kathryn Otoshi (KO Kids, 32 pages, $17.95)



The Sky is Everywhere, Jandy Nelson (Dial, 288 pages, $17.99)

Honorable mention: The Mockingbirds, Daisy Whitney (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 352 pages, $16.99)



Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, Rebecca Solnit (University of California, 167 pages, $24.95)

Honorable mention: A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California, Laura Cunningham (Heyday, 352 pages, $50)


Ghosts in the machine


LIT According to the Bureau of Invented Statistics, 99.9 percent of all poetry disappears into the void. This rate remains steady throughout history, though at certain times and places the figure undergoes radical fluctuations, plummeting to as low as 99 percent. Such periods are eventually given names like the San Francisco Renaissance, or the Elizabethan Renaissance. I mention this because I think Bay Area poetry has quietly entered one of those periods. Currently on my desk are four local debuts — Palm to Pine by Sunnylyn Thibodeaux; A GUSTONBOOK by Patrick James Dunagan; El Golpe Chileño by Julien Poirier; and gowanus atropolis by now-New Yorker Julien Brolaski — each of which appeared in the past six months, and each of which is ass-kicking and assured. In the 15 years I’ve been a poet here, I can’t recall a similarly fertile time.

The situation’s gotten so out of hand, a book I edited, Stranger in Town by Cedar Sigo, was nominated for an NCIBA award, and I actually knew the work of all the other nominees. The list was so good it didn’t matter who won, so I was pleased to see former and newly-returned SF resident Matthew Zapruder snag the award for his third full-length collection, Come On All You Ghosts (Copper Canyon Press, 96 pages, $16).

I haven’t checked, but I imagine most reviews of this book are compelled to describe it as “haunted” since it has Ghosts in the title and deals in part with the death of the poet’s father. It’s not a Kaddish-like outpouring of grief, in other words, but it’s haunted by death in a more oblique, post-New York School fashion. “This book you are holding/ is about dying,” Zapruder writes, yet too, it is about love (a relationship, it appears, inspired his return to SF). Such topics are strongly emotional, and Zapruder grapples with them through a self-conscious distance: “let us live/ here in this apartment and make/ sounds of love,” he writes, rather than simply “make love.” Or, in a characteristic locution, where a sentence becomes a unit within itself: “It doesn’t spoil my time is what/ spoils my time.” You could call this “emotion recollected in tranquility” — Wordsworth even appears — only there’s little tranquility. It deals more with the long run; when someone close to you dies, they’re dead for the rest of your life, long after grief has passed, and Ghosts wrestles with this haunted aspect of the human condition throughout.

As a fellow poet, I’m not without prejudices. I feel ambition is the enemy, and most long poems are baggy, misguided affairs. While Zapruder hasn’t shaken this belief, he has provided a mighty exception in the title poem, which may in fact be the greatest piece in the book. As a long poem, it’s taut and disciplined, only 15 pages entirely in tercets. Indeed, my one criticism of the book is that Zapruder is preeminently a poet of the single verse column, but my favorite poems in Ghosts — “After Reading Tu Fu,” say, or the one prose poem, “April Snow” — are those that break with this form. “Ghosts” rips along without being hemmed in by the three-line form, using it instead for gymnastics:

I myself am suspicious

and cruel. Sometimes

when I close my eyes


I hear a billion workers

in my skull

hammering nails from which


all the things I see

get hung. But poems

are not museums,


they are machines

made of words

I like this because Zapruder entirely flouts the formal constraint even as his lines retain status as individual units. The way the second stanza seems to well up to an image that disintegrates with the third stanza’s interestingly unseeable “all the things I see” and the midline off-rhyme of “skull” and “hung” reveal considerable technical chops concealed in the single verse form. They exert themselves there, but discreetly, shifting the sense of lines through intricate syntactic ruses like a modern-day Basil Bunting, whereas here they assert themselves more forcibly. The theme of the poem as a machine — that “anyone with a mind/ who cares can enter” — returns to close “Ghosts,” and this is not a bad way to think about poetry. As Zapruder’s book attests, the poetry that endures is built to last.


Tome time



LIT This week brings the 30th installment of the National California Book Awards. Some of the books up for awards have been written about in the Guardian during the past year, including Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, Richard O. Moore’s Writing the Silences, and Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, by the 2011 Fred Cody Award for Lifetime Achievement winner Tamim Ansary. Local authors, editors, and translators among this year’s nominees include Solnit, Moore, Aife Murray, Brian Teare, Damion Searls, Michael Alenyikov, John Sakkis (who has contributed to the Guardian), Kate Moses, Matthew Zapruder, Lewis Buzbee, Neelanjana Bannerjee, and Pireeni Sundaralingam.

The 2011 edition of NCBA arrives at a time when the value and resolve of independent booksellers is clear. For many years, Borders and other chain stores seemed poised to kill small businesses devoted to selling books, and in fact, chain marketing undoubtedly has had a negative impact on individual shops. But Borders recently filed for bankruptcy, while a number of unique booksellers in the Bay Area and beyond continue to survive and thrive. Thanks to the Berkeley-based Small Press Distribution and San Francisco shops such as Needles & Pens, small publishing is also alive and within real-life reach. Here is the list of this year’s NCBA nominees, for the next time you venture into the neighborhood bookshop or library.



 Ivan and Misha, stories, Michael Alenyikov (TriQuarterly Books, 212 pages, $18.95)

 Heidegger’s Glasses, Thaisa Frank (Counterpoint, 320 pages, $25)

 Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, stories, Yiyun Li (Random House, 240 pages, $25)

 Death is Not an Option, stories, Suzanne Rivecca (W.W. Norton, 22 pages, $23.95)

 The More I Owe You, Michael Sledge (Counterpoint, 320 pages, $15.95)


 Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson (Simon & Schuster, 368 pages, $27)

 The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, Michael Lewis (W. W. Norton, 320 pages, $15.95)

Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language, Aífe Murray (University Press of New England, 324 pages, $35)

 Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future, Robert B. Reich (Alfred A. Knopf, 273 pages, $27.95)

 The Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons, Richard Rhodes (Alfred A. Knopf, 400 pages, $29.95)



 Not by Chance Alone: My Life as a Social Psychologist, Elliot Aronson (Basic Books, 304 pages, $27.50)

• A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California, Laura Cunningham (Heyday, 352 pages, $50)

• Cakewalk, a memoir, Kate Moses (The Dial Press, 368 pages, $26)

 Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, Rebecca Solnit (University of California Press, 167 pages, $24.95)

 Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean, Julia Whitty (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pages, $24)



 Suck on the Marrow, Camille T. Dungy (Red Hen Press, 88 pages, $18.95)

Trance Archive: New and Selected Poems, Andrew Joron (City Lights Publishers, 120 pages, $14.95)

 Writing the Silences, Richard O. Moore (University of California Press, 136 pages, $19.95)

• Rough Honey, Melissa Stein (The American Poetry Review, 96 pages, $14)

 Pleasure, Brian Teare (Ahsahta Press, 88 pages, $17.95)

 Come on All You Ghosts, Matthew Zapruder (Copper Canyon Press, 96 pages, $16.95)



 Translation by Anne Milano Appel, Blindly, by Claudio Magris, from Italian (Penguin Group Canada)

Translation by David Frick, A Thousand Peaceful Cities, by Jerzy Pilch, from Polish (Open Letter Books, 143 pages, $14.95)

 Translation by Damion Searls, Comedy in a Minor Key, by Hans Keilson, from German (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 144 pages, $22)



• Translation by Kurt Beals, engulf—enkindle, by Anja Utler, from German (Burning Deck, 96 pages, $14)

• Translation by Joshua Edwards, Ficticia, by María Baranda, from Spanish (Shearsman Books)

• Translation by John Sakkis and Angelos Sakkis, Maribor, by Demosthenes Agrafiotis, from Greek (Post-Apollo Press, 86 pages, $15)



• Arroz con leche/Rice Pudding: Un poema para cocinar/A Cooking Poem, Jorge Argueta, illustrator Fernando Vilela (Groundwood Books/Libros Tigrillo, 32 pages, $18.95)

• The Haunting of Charles Dickens, Lewis Buzbee (Feiwel and Friends, 368 pages, $17.95)

• The Vinyl Princess, Yvonne Prinz (HarperTeen/HarperCollins Publishers, 320 pages, $16.99)

• Other Goose: Re-Nurseried!! and Re-Rhymed!! Children’s Classics, J. Otto Seibold (Chronicle Books, 80 pages, $19.99)

• Shooting Kabul, N.H. Senzai (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers/Paula Wiseman Books, 272 pages, $16.99)



Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry, edited by Neelanjana Banerjee, Summi Kaipa, and Pireeni Sundaralingam (University of Arkansas Press, 220 pages, $24.95)



Tamim Ansary 


Sun/10, 1 p.m.–2:30 p.m.

Koret Auditorium

San Francisco Main Library

100 Larkin, SF

(510) 525-5476



Cult fiction



LIT I read a lot of thrillers. Mysteries, murder, international intrigue, weird pulp crime … I’ve been addicted since I was in high school and discovered John D. McDonald, Alistair McLean, and Trevanian. These days, I live by James Patterson, Michael Connolly, Robert B. Parker, Janet Evanovich, Lee Child, and John Lescroart.

And I just found the best new thriller writer, and the best new character, to come along since Mr. Child invented Jack Reacher. The writer’s name is Taylor Stevens, her character is Vanessa Michael Munroe, and the first book of what I hope will be a continuing series is called The Informationist (Crown, 307 pages, $23).

Buy it. It’s amazing. And when Stevens is as big as Patterson, you can say you helped discover her.

V. M. Munroe is an awesome protagonist. She ran away from her missionary parents as a teen to sign on with one of Africa’s most notorious gunrunners, and now she deals in information — secrets somebody wants but almost nobody can find.

The book’s set in Central Africa, where Munroe has been hired to find the kidnapped daughter of a Texas oil billionaire.

By the way: she’s skinny, slight, and a total fucking badass who rides a Ducati and effortlessly beats the shit out of the poor losers who try to accost her at a gas station. She speaks 22 languages. She’s the first trans thriller lead, too, a person who slips effortlessly from female to male. Of course, she’s got personal demons, and part of the back story is her battle to silence them. By the end of the second chapter, I had written this in my notes: “I love Vanessa already. Nobody else like her on the literary scene. Nobody.”

The plot is tight, the characters come alive, the sex is fun and intense sometimes but not overdone. The scene at the end involving a sniper, a knife fight, and a stunning decapitation (tell you more and I’ll ruin a gut-wrenching chapter) as good as anything I’ve read in years.

Unlike a lot of thriller authors, Stevens can write. Check it out:

The details of the case ran through her head, and with them came the memories. It was another life, another world, untamed and vast, where stretches of two-lane tarmac ran vein-like through sub-Saharan emptiness, and buses — old, rusting, belching black smoke — pumped the blood of humanity along the way.

And this from a woman who has a sixth-grade education.

Seriously. One of the most amazing things about Stevens is that she grew up in a cult in Central Africa, wasn’t allowed to go beyond basic education, and wasn’t allowed to read books.

I caught up with her in February; here are some excerpts from our talk.

SFBG Tell me a little about your background and how you came to write this book.

Taylor Stevens I was born into and raised in the Children of God, an apocalyptic religious cult. That’s the only world I knew. It was very secluded; all our interactions with what went on outside the community were accompanied by an adult cult member. We didn’t have access to TV; books were almost nonexistent; we didn’t listen to the radio. My entire world was framed within the context of the cult.

SFBG When did you get out?

TS I didn’t get out until I was in my late 20s. I was quite afraid to leave, not of what the cult would do to me, but of what God would do to me. My ex husband — then my husband — and I took a long time to plan how to get out because we didn’t want to end up like some other cult members who had left with no education, no money, no career, on the streets. We had a baby at the time. The group didn’t believe in education. The standard acceptance was sixth-grade education.

SFBG So where did you learn to write?

TS It’s a big mystery, huh? Like my main character, I guess, I absorb languages — at least I absorbed English. I had to teach myself.

The ultimate inspiration came from reading Robert Ludlum, one of the first authors I read, and it was quite by accident. After we made it to the United States, we were so broke, we were living — a family of four — on $13 an hour. I would buy books at garage sales because it was so cheap, then I would sell them again and use the money to buy more books. The first book I read was The Holcroft Covenant. It was so much beyond anything I’d seen before in reading, so I started reading Ludlum voraciously. I found The Bourne Identity and started reading it, and when I was reading The Bourne Ultimatum I was amazed by these places and people. I said to myself, “I wish I could write about all these exotic settings.” And then I thought, “Wait a minute, I’ve lived in places far more exotic than this.”

I’ve always wanted to write, but the cult would never let me write. I got in horrible trouble growing up and trying to write.

SFBG So did you just sit down and start working on The Informationist?

TS That was the first thing I wrote. I had dabbled when I was 15, but I had all my stuff taken and burned. I figured that if I’m going to write, I’d

better learn something about writing. So I bought a couple of used books on writing fiction and I learned from those.

SFBG In this genre of thriller fiction, there aren’t a lot of female protagonists. Was that something you were thinking about?

TS No, because I had no idea. I didn’t know what was out there at all. Even to this day, I’m not very widely read. I’ve read maybe 250 books. I just wrote what made sense to me.

SFBG One of the interesting things about Vanessa is that she has something of a trans element to her. Sometimes she’s Vanessa and sometimes she’s Michael. How did you come up with that?

TS When I first started writing this book, it didn’t have any plot. I just wanted to use Africa as my setting. Jason Bourne was my ideal because I wanted a character who was tormented — not the ideal good guy or good girl, because life doesn’t work like that. Right while I was reading the Ludlum books, I saw the Tomb Raider movies, back to back, and what I loved about Lara Croft was that, while she was a bit of a caricature, she was very sexual, very feminine on every level. I didn’t want my character to lose her femininity in her badassery.

As far as playing the role of a male, in my experience in having lived in some of these countries, it’s completely implausible that you would have a woman be able to go in there and root around and get what she needed. It wouldn’t happen. So the only way she could do it is if she could pull herself off as a man.

SFBG I’m not going to give away too much of the plot, but the subplot of her coming from of a background where she was living at 14 with a gunrunner, there is a certain parallel with you.

TS Her life and my life are not at all similar. But to understand her pain and the frustrations she went through — there’s no way to create that without living with it. I did draw on the sense of emotions my friends and I grew up with. We didn’t have a happy childhood, so it wasn’t difficult to conjure that emotional torment, because it’s very real.

SFBG They’re going to make a movie out of this book, and I’m thinking if they stay true to the scene at the end with the decapitation, you’re going to have a hard time getting even an R rating. I read a lot of thrillers, and I’ve rarely seen such a graphically brutal thing. It’s brilliant, and it’s gut-wrenching. Where did that come from?

TS It just made sense. This person already straddles a fine line between brilliance and insanity. And for her to lose the only one person who loves her for what she was, in such an arbitrary manner, there was no other way she could respond.

SFBG I hope there’s a sequel.

TS It’s already written. And I use my background in a more direct way — and there’s a third book I’m working on now. And if I’m given an opportunity, I hope there will be much more of Michael Munroe.

Burn this culture



LIT “I didn’t want to write a love letter to Burning Man.” Those words may come as a surprise out of the mouth of Guardian City Editor Steven T. Jones, who has been covering the freaky desert art festival and its year-round scene for nearly seven years in these very pages. They’re also surprising given that news of the book has already spread across the country by the vast Burning Man network: listserves, counterculture word-of-mouth, and through an important nod by the festival itself, which included a mention of Jones’ in-depth exploration of 2004-10 burner culture, The Tribes of Burning Man (Consortium of Collective Consciousness, 312 pages, $17.95) in its Jack Rabbit Speaks newsletter, which lands in 70,000 inboxes across the country.

Although Jones critiques many aspects of playa life, the book seems to be resonating with people immersed in the DIY, creativity a-go-go, Black Rock City milieu. “Man,” a burner friend told me on a recent trip to Washington, D.C. “You just don’t see books about Burning Man around these parts!” Which is kind of the point — Jones wanted to highlight a culture he says is vastly underreported yet culturally significant (and have a good time in the process). The book may be the most researched history of the festival to date, and romps through some of the biggest parties and most innovative art experiments on the playa in first person. “I was lucky to be reporting on this event at this time,” Jones says. “It was really epic stuff.”

Love the burn? Find yourself in the book’s pages — and at Jones’ series of readings all over town, he’ll be holding to celebrate its release. Hate everything it stands for? Read it and you’ll never have to go. I sat down with Jones at the newly remodeled Zeitgeist last week to learn more about the Man.

SFBG Why did you write this book?

Steven T. Jones Burning Man has been largely misunderstood and marginalized. Even those who know something about the event assume that its moment has past, that it’s “gone corporate” or otherwise lost its essential energy and appeal. Those who aren’t familiar think of it as just a festival. But it still absolutely floors newcomers, giving them what many describe as a chance to rediscover some more authentic sense of self in this strange and challenging new world. In recent years, this culture has expanded outward all over the world, a development that has begun to be even more important than the event itself to many people. It’s spawned vast social networks of creative, engaged people pursuing really interesting projects, and I’m honored to be able to tell their stories.

SFBG What initially drew you to write about Burning Man? You’re the Guardian city editor and most of your pieces are about politics.

SJ I think it’s hard to separate political culture from the counterculture. This book is probably more about San Francisco than it is about Black Rock City. Burning Man is the most significant culture to come out of San Francisco in years, especially considering its longevity and reach. I mean, some of our progressive political views have spread, but there are groups of burners in every major American city.

SFBG Who are the burners?

SJ There’s a census taken every year, so we know exact demographics on this one. There’s a wide age range and a wide cultural range in terms of ethnicities and geographic regions, and a range of how people live. There are the super-conservatives …

SFBG Really?

SJ Yeah, there are plenty of libertarians there. That’s how it was founded — the gun nuts and the freaks. Then the hippies discovered it. There’s the old hippie-punk divide at Burning Man that we see play out in San Francisco politics all the time over the last 40 years.

SFBG Throughout much of the book, you’re struggling with Burning Man’s political significance. In 2008 you even took a break in the middle of the festival to attend the Democratic National Convention and Barack Obama’s nomination. What was your final conclusion — is Burning Man important, politically speaking?

SJ It’s a good question. I wanted it to be. Larry Harvey wanted it to be, given what was going on with the rest of the country at the time. Ultimately, it just is what it is. I think it’s at least as relevant as the Tea Party — it’s got a better thought-out ethos and value system, but it doesn’t get as much press. It is a city, and the example the city offers is very relevant to the rest of the country.

SFBG Let’s say I’ve never gone to Burning Man and I’m never going to go. What does this book have for me?

SJ Burners are my main target audience, but it was important to me to make this book interesting and accessible to those who don’t go to Burning Man. I firmly ground this book in an intriguing sociopolitical moment in 2004, when the country really lost its mind. Bush was being reelected president and things were about to turn really ugly with the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina, events that would further divide an already fractured country. I don’t think it’s an accident that the country hit its nadir just as Burning Man hit its zenith. People were desperate for authenticity, creativity, and a life-affirming way to spend their time. The most innovative and impactful cultural developments often happen on the margins, so to ignore Burning Man is to be incurious about what is animating the counterculture in San Francisco and other cities — people who will help lead this country back from this cultural desert we’re in, if that is ever going to happen.

SFBG Are you going to continue to write about burner culture as extensively as you’ve been doing?

SJ No, I think I’ll back off on it. I’ve got a few ideas for the next project — I’m fascinated by bike culture. I think it’d be fascinating to explore the international bike movement in the fashion of this book.


“Burning Man and the Art of Urbanism”

Tues/8 6 p.m., free for SPUR members, $20 for nonmembers


654 Mission, SF

(415) 781-8726


“Tribes of Burning Man Reading and Powwow”

Fri/11 7:30-10 p.m., $5–$20

Westerfield House

1198 Fulton, SF

Facebook: Tribes of Burning Man Reading and Powwow