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Been there, done that


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REVIEW Bruce Williams and Donnell Alexander’s Rollin’ with Dre (One World/Ballantine, 192 pages, $25) is a strange and sinister book. What makes it strange is that it’s actually about Williams, who worked as a bodyguard, valet, personal manager, and confidante for Dr. Dre. It’s his biography, not Dre’s, so it falls into the category of an insider’s tale. Typically I avoid this subgenre like I avoid the boasting "friend of a friend of somebody famous" at a party.

But as I read about Williams’ small-town upbringing, love of sports, time overseas, arrival in Los Angeles, and 20-year tenure as Dre’s confidante, Rollin’ with Dre took on a picaresque sheen. Plus, its story is intriguing. Thanks are due to ghostwriter Alexander, who helps mold a samurai-like image of Williams.

As for Dr. Dre, Williams and Alexander render him an introverted genius most comfortable in the studio, surrounded by friends and fellow artists. Suge Knight at Death Row and Jimmy Iovine at Interscope serve as the story’s ravenous, predatory lords, preying on Dre’s talent. Williams plays the part of loyal, selfless guardian from Dre’s early days with NWA through his blockbuster success with Eminem and 50 Cent. He keeps dire forces at bay so the artist can create masterpieces and travel the world.

A surprising thing about Williams’ book is how little actual sex and violence it contains. It’s rare that a tell-all is so frank without giving way to lurid gossip and dish. Rollin’ with Dre is a manly man’s tale, complete with free weights, fast cars, drinking contests, and plastic bags of stagnant urine dropped from building-tops. There are bitches and niggas here, yet the book is damn near scandal-free. In places it appears that Williams is still protecting Dr. Dre, only this time from the potential fallout of his tell-all.

We get the story of a reasonably stable, sober, law-abiding father and husband who once guarded a mutually beneficial arrangement with a mega-star by tapping into a cool detachment acquired from his days as a Marine and as a corrections officer. Indeed, a remote tone permeates even the most intimate of passages. When near the deathbed of Eazy-E, for example, Williams’ emotional investment in the moment seems sparse. With every flying fist, whizzing bullet, and falling body, he shakes his head, says "That’s a shame," and keeps moving. The same tact that served him well in his profession sometimes leaves the reader outside in the cold.

Still, Rollin’ with Dre‘s glimpse into the creative process of a world famous hit-maker is compelling, as is its look at the pitfalls and perils of the unscrupulous, violent, and larcenous world of corporate gangsta rap. Throughout the episodes involving groupies, the tales of blunts getting smoked, and weapons being brandished, Williams seems to effortlessly walk a tightrope that separates cool-headed big guy from Type A gung-ho asshole. Yet Alexander allows him to stumble on enough occasions for the reader to suspect the book’s overall sheen of sugarcoating. With violence, double-dealing, and revenge the norm, how could anyone survive for more than 20 years without getting a little blood on their hands? There seems to be a lot going on between the beats.

"Gangsta," Williams remarks at one point, "I don’t know if it’s right, but I know that it’s true." It’s that perspective that makes Rollin’ with Dre sinister.

CC Riders


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LIT When filmmaker Bruce Baillie founded Canyon Cinema in the early 1960s, it was a backyard bohemia to show artisanal films and drink wine with neighbors. But it quickly took root as a cooperative serving the needs of a movement of underground filmmakers. In scholar Scott MacDonald’s lovingly detailed history, Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor (University of California Press, 480 pages, $29.95), Baillie’s early shambling is halcyon past, a sweet moment of spontaneous invention that then, rather surprisingly, begot a sustainable model for communal eclecticism.

Canyon wasn’t the only game in town — indeed, MacDonald describes the New York Film-Makers’ Cooperative, which preceded Canyon, as "a single instance of an idea whose time had come." But the organization’s underlying West Coast flavor, open channels of communication, and relatively clean distribution record put it at the center of an unwieldy film culture.

Drawing from a wealth of primary materials, MacDonald has woven a compelling narrative of American avant-garde cinema. One hardly needs to be aware of obscure corners of the underground to appreciate the book’s lively mix of voices. MacDonald doles out generous segments of Cinemanews, Canyon’s in-house clearinghouse for letters, critiques, advice, poems, recipes, and — in later years — extended interviews with the anointed giants of the avant-garde.

Among Canyon Cinema‘s five historical "portfolios," we get a full panorama of Canyon’s burning personalities: Baillie’s Zen road correspondences (describing pies that contain grapes and flowers); John Lennon’s zonked fan letter to Bruce Conner; Conner’s fierce riposte to Jonas Mekas’ NY Cinematheque; Saul Landau’s exposé of police pressure on a local Jean Genet screening; a photograph of the board of directors forming a naked pyramid; Stan Brakhage holding forth on etymologies; Robert Pike’s thoughtful report on how programming avant-garde cinema in peep houses could be a profitable venture; a tender letter from Will Hindle worrying over teaching filmmaking in art institutes; George Kuchar comics; and last, a precious line from Commodore Sloat: "Maybe more bits of film history next letter: Hollis Frampton and my junior high astronomy book (which he won’t admit he has and has refused to return)."

Canyon Cinema is wonderful in its particulars. It’s a pleasure to explore the depths of an organization that was emblematic of the counterculture without being beholden to it. Of course, being located in San Francisco and Sausalito, it had a pretty good view. Canyon keeper and former Pacific Film Archive programmer Edith Kramer recalls of the 1967-69 heyday that "The East Coast people were coming out; everybody wanted to come out — for the right reasons and the wrong reasons." Already in 1968, Robert Nelson writes of "the ever-growing dirge of psychedelica that in three years has gone from far-out to ad nauseam." Things dry up a bit with the intellectualization of the ’70s, though there are passionate, nothing-for-granted debates over the currents of the co-op’s milieu.

One suspects this overarching prudence is because, as filmmakers and co-op members, these people were intimately familiar with the economics of personal expression. Canyon is a romantic, idealistic group, but also a utilitarian one. Despite frequent brushes with insolvency, the amazing fact remains: "During the past 40 years, Canyon has evolved into the most dependable distributor of alternative cinema in the United States, and it has done so without betraying the fundamental principles on which it was founded."

You’ll go blind doing that


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ISBN REAL Nobody knows better than writers that there’s nothing inherently special or ennobling about reading a book. Fiction abounds with infatuated references to studious ritual, yet there’s also no shortage of passages that portray reading as a distraction, or an ingredient in a tedious bourgeoisie mating dance. The Great Gatsby (1925) may stroke the ego with its halfwits who treat books as props, but Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence (1919) and Edmund Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County (1946) get straight to the point and portray reading as a fool’s pastime.

It still brings me down a bit when I think of that blip of a minor character in Wilson’s book martyred to this belief: a sort of intellectual Margaret Dumont. Here was a woman who undoubtedly read millions of words — and good ones — and all it got her was the position of deluded gadfly.

Meta-masochism is hardly required to appreciate the point that books ain’t all that. There are plenty of sad reminders in the three-dimensional world, like an acquaintance of mine during college who sported on his backpack a button with the mating call "I STILL READ BOOKS." Clearly we had an enlightened soul on our hands, one with an intellect of such dexterity, no less, that he somehow pulled off the Orphean mental journey necessary to think Pay It Forward was a high-quality movie. The world is so full of bookworm poseurs and onanists it’s hard not to question one’s own motives for curling up by the fire.

Mikita Brottman’s new book, The Solitary Vice: Against Reading (Counterpoint, 224 pages, $14.95) takes a crack at this question on our behalf, attempting a scholarly treatise against the assumption that reading, in and of itself, makes you a better person. Brottman, a language and literature professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, wonders if perhaps our faith in the alchemical power of the practice "draws its power from a toxic brew of magical thinking, narcissism, and nostalgia."

Them’s fightin’ words. Unfortunately, Brottman’s punches don’t land nearly as often as they should. It would be hard to find the academic who could give the hyper-literate life a sound thrashing. But to maintain a modicum of fidelity to one’s thesis, not to mention one’s doubly barbed title, seems a modest expectation. The articulate introduction of Brottman’s book, sprinkled with aperitif-caliber evidence, lugs behind it 200-plus pages of disposable items from the trove of idiosyncrasies that is modern readership. Equal parts trivia, anecdotal digression, and halfhearted cautionary tale about the perils of culture-sanctioned solipsism, the result is not easily distinguishable from a valentine to reading.

I picked up Solitary Vice expecting to intermittently yell, "Preach it!" and have my opinions about literary fetishism fortified with case studies and garnished with academic authority. I don’t buy the spiritual democratization argument put forth in books such as Mark Edmundson’s 2004 Why Read? (Bloomsbury USA, 160 pages, $12.95). A book’s availability is the democratizing factor, not its contents. It seems wise that we’re introduced in our dumb-ass youth to the many types of intellectual life ripe for the plucking if we ever become so inclined. What’s not wise is assuming that students shouldn’t shuck those disciplines they find obnoxious immediately upon leaving school — that the best examples of literature aren’t at their core well-executed indulgences of an impractical enthusiasm. My reading life has helped the world only inasmuch as the world has to put up with a much less cranky person.

I will not fault you, Mikita Brottman, if you humbly disagree.





By Näkki Goranin

W.W. Norton

224 pages


A character on the Bush-era TV show The Hills once suggested churches’ confessionals be turned into photo booths. That idea sums up today’s brand of American narcissism, if you’re feeling pessimistic. On the other hand, Näkki Goranin’s nostalgia-drenched collection of photo booth images — and her light US history of the machine — cures such cynicism. Goranin traces the lives of photo booth inventors and pioneers (none as famous as the Lumiere brothers or Thomas Edison), then shares hundreds of anonymous images. One looks like a real-life version of 1973’s Paper Moon. A few use the booth’s privacy for same-sex affection. Couples pull faces, narcissists pose, and one or two looks could illustrate loneliness. Everyone aims to create keepsakes, a tradition that persists in the digital age. I carry a photo booth image of the guy I love in my wallet. (Johnny Ray Huston)


By Walter Mosley

Black Classic Press

190 pages


Tempest Landry is a slightly modernized, more complex, and smarter version of Langston Hughes’s ne’er-do-well sidewalk lothario Jesse B. Semple. A rogue and hustler, Tempest is also the first soul who refuses to repent at the Pearly Gates. Thus he’s sent back to Earth, along with a celestial foil, to prove his case. But if his assertion that he was predestined to have a raw deal in life proves true — if he shows that being born black in racist America forces one to place values ahead of morals — it could threaten to undo all existence. Ending eternity or going to hell for eternity — which would you choose? Tempest Tales weighs this question with an impeccable sense of pace. In dimly lit areas of modern-day Harlem, Mosley mixes a love story, an analogy for individuation, and a supernatural game of cat and mouse, throwing in a white devil for emphasis. It makes for a fun, funny, and poignant experience. (D. Scot Miller)

You’ll go blind doing that


> a&eletters@sfbg.com

ISBN REAL Nobody knows better than writers that there’s nothing inherently special or ennobling about reading a book. Fiction abounds with infatuated references to studious ritual, yet there’s also no shortage of passages that portray reading as a distraction, or an ingredient in a tedious bourgeoisie mating dance. The Great Gatsby (1925) may stroke the ego with its halfwits who treat books as props, but Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence (1919) and Edmund Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County (1946) get straight to the point and portray reading as a fool’s pastime.

It still brings me down a bit when I think of that blip of a minor character in Wilson’s book martyred to this belief: a sort of intellectual Margaret Dumont. Here was a woman who undoubtedly read millions of words — and good ones — and all it got her was the position of deluded gadfly.

Meta-masochism is hardly required to appreciate the point that books ain’t all that. There are plenty of sad reminders in the three-dimensional world, like an acquaintance of mine during college who sported on his backpack a button with the mating call "I STILL READ BOOKS." Clearly we had an enlightened soul on our hands, one with an intellect of such dexterity, no less, that he somehow pulled off the Orphean mental journey necessary to think Pay It Forward was a high-quality movie. The world is so full of bookworm poseurs and onanists it’s hard not to question one’s own motives for curling up by the fire.

Mikita Brottman’s new book, The Solitary Vice: Against Reading (Counterpoint, 224 pages, $14.95) takes a crack at this question on our behalf, attempting a scholarly treatise against the assumption that reading, in and of itself, makes you a better person. Brottman, a language and literature professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, wonders if perhaps our faith in the alchemical power of the practice "draws its power from a toxic brew of magical thinking, narcissism, and nostalgia."

Them’s fightin’ words. Unfortunately, Brottman’s punches don’t land nearly as often as they should. It would be hard to find the academic who could give the hyper-literate life a sound thrashing. But to maintain a modicum of fidelity to one’s thesis, not to mention one’s doubly barbed title, seems a modest expectation. The articulate introduction of Brottman’s book, sprinkled with aperitif-caliber evidence, lugs behind it 200-plus pages of disposable items from the trove of idiosyncrasies that is modern readership. Equal parts trivia, anecdotal digression, and halfhearted cautionary tale about the perils of culture-sanctioned solipsism, the result is not easily distinguishable from a valentine to reading.

I picked up Solitary Vice expecting to intermittently yell, "Preach it!" and have my opinions about literary fetishism fortified with case studies and garnished with academic authority. I don’t buy the spiritual democratization argument put forth in books such as Mark Edmundson’s 2004 Why Read? (Bloomsbury USA, 160 pages, $12.95). A book’s availability is the democratizing factor, not its contents. It seems wise that we’re introduced in our dumb-ass youth to the many types of intellectual life ripe for the plucking if we ever become so inclined. What’s not wise is assuming that students shouldn’t shuck those disciplines they find obnoxious immediately upon leaving school — that the best examples of literature aren’t at their core well-executed indulgences of an impractical enthusiasm. My reading life has helped the world only inasmuch as the world has to put up with a much less cranky person.

I will not fault you, Mikita Brottman, if you humbly disagree. *

After the ruins


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ESSAY In a journal entry dated Dec. 27, 1835, from his 1840 book Two Years before the Mast, student-turned-seafarer Richard Henry Dana recorded his first impressions of the area we know as the City, while his ship, The Alert, traveled through the Golden Gate:

We passed directly under the high cliff on which the presidio is built … from whence we could see large and beautifully wooded islands and the mouths of several small rivers … hundreds of red deer, and [a] stag, with his high branching antlers, were bounding about, looking at us for a moment and then starting off …

Dana arrived in the Bay Area after one era had ended and before another began. Until the coming of the Spaniards a generation earlier, some 10,000 people, members of around 40 separate tribes, lived between Big Sur and San Francisco, in the densest Native American population north of Mexico. Despite the existence among them of as many as 12 different languages, the people collectively referred to now as the Ohlone lived in relative peace for some 4,500 years.

On his first visit, Dana predicted that the Bay Area would be at the center of California’s prosperity. When he returned more than 30 years later in 1868, he discovered that his hotel was built on landfill that had been dumped where The Alert first landed.

Then in middle age, Dana wrote, "The past was real. The present all about me was unreal." Making his way through the crowded streets where the new city he’d predicted was being built, he remarked, "[I] seemed to myself like one who moved in ‘worlds not realized.’" Thus Dana became one of the first to articulate the peculiar San Franciscan combination of nostalgia for a lost past and despair over an unrealized future.

The past and future are always alive here. On his first visit, Dana wrote in his notebook about the great city to come. But like many residents of SF today, he slept on the cold, hard ground.

In George Stewart’s 1949 science fiction classic Earth Abides, a mysterious disease has killed 99 percent of the Earth’s population; the main character, Ish, roams the City and East Bay until he finds a wife. Stewart’s book ends in a Twilight Zone scenario, as an old, feeble Ish — now the last living pre-plague American — watches in dismay while his illiterate offspring hunt and frolic like the Ohlone, wearing animal skins and fashioning arrowheads from bottle caps.

After a wildfire, Ish notices that a library has been spared. All the information is still in there, he thinks. "But available to whom?"

Perhaps the knowledge Ish once begged his children to learn can be found in 1970’s The Last Whole Earth Catalog. Its 450-plus yellowing Road Atlas–size pages contain terse recommendations of publications about plant identification, organic gardens, windmills, vegetable dyes, edible mushrooms, goat husbandry, and childbirth, while also sharing the fundamentals of yoga, rock climbing, making music with computers, space colonization, and — of course! — the teachings of Buckminster Fuller.

The initial Whole Earth Catalog sought to reconcile Americans’ love of nature and technology. In Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism (University Press of Kansas, 303 pages, $34.95), author Andrew Kirk credits its creator, Stewart Brand, with bringing a sense of optimism to environmentalism. A character in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Brand embodied the cultural intersection of acid and Apple at mid-1960s Stanford University. Kirk examines Brand’s 1965 "America Needs Indians" festival, his three-day Trips Festival in 1966, and his time riding the bus as one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.

Counterculture Green correctly suggests that Brand’s utopian lifestyle has a hold on our imagination. But Brand was a leader of the counterculture, not a revolutionary. He believed that the market economy, not political change, would usher in a better world. While today’s market — at the behest of individuals — has started to demand renewable energy or sustainable growth, it also has brought us the SUV, suburban sprawl, and the highest fuel prices in history. Apple may empower the individual — or want consumers to believe it does — but at 29, Silicon Valley has the highest concentration of Superfund sites in the country.

Brand deserves credit for intuiting the peculiar "machine in the garden" Bay Area we live in today, a place perhaps more "California Über Alles" than utopian. It’s far from the postmarket SF envisioned in Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel Ecotopia, which is set in 1999, nearly 20 years after Northern California, Oregon, and Washington have seceded from the United States to form the titular nation. A colleague of Brand’s, Callenbach bases his society on ideas from the Whole Earth Catalog, but for one major difference — Ecotopia comes into being not through the free market but through an environmental revolution. (I won’t spoil it, but here’s a hint: it starts in Bolinas!)

While Callenbach’s future sometimes resembles a mixture of the Haight Street Fair and Critical Mass, there are twists. Ancient creeks have been unearthed, and on Market Street there is a "charming series of little falls, with water gurgling and splashing, and channels lined with rocks, trees, bamboos and ferns." Ecotopians have instituted a 20-hour work week that involves dismantling dystopian relics such as gas stations. There is a surplus of food produced close to home. Materials that do not decompose are no longer used. This new world is no wilderness — it reconciles civilization and nature. Yet perhaps its most radical idea is that humans can create a utopia without help from a plague, apocalyptic war, or earthquake.

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake leveled 4.7 square miles — or 508 city blocks. It destroyed 28,188 structures, including City Hall, the Hall of Justice, the Hall of Records, the County Jail, the Main Library, five police stations, and more than 40 schools. Yet strangely, many apocalyptic tomes — including recent ones such as the speculative nonfiction best-seller The World Without Us and the born-again Christian Left Behind series — are reluctant to imagine a totally destroyed San Francisco.

In contrast, Chris Carlsson’s 2004 utopian novel, After the Deluge (Full Enjoyment Books, 288 page, $13.95), suggests the City is at its most charming when at least partially in ruins, like the old cities of Europe. In Carlsson’s post-economic SF of 2157, rising sea levels from global warming submerge much of the Financial District, yet the City adapts by serving old skyscrapers — now converted into housing — with a network of canals.

After the Deluge‘s vision of reduced work, free bikes, and creeks unearthed from beneath streets borrows from Callenbach’s Ecotopia. Yet Carlsson seems to have his most fun imagining a city transformed by ruins: take a subtle comment on the Federal Building at Seventh and Market streets. In Carlsson’s map of SF circa 2157, the monstrosity that some call the Death Star is simply labeled "The Ruins."

Similarly, the photographs in After the Ruins 1906 and 2006: Rephotographing the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire (University of California Press, 134 pages, $24.95) appear to delight in the City’s impermanence. Mark Klett presents famous images of the smoldering city in 1906 alongside carefully shot contemporary photographs from the same vantage points. Cleverly, these images are arranged in a manner that suggests the ruins aren’t just the past but also an inevitable future.

The aftermaths of SF’s earthquakes are often described in utopian terms, as if cracks in the landscape revealed the possibility of a better world. In After the Ruins, a 1906 quake survivor remembers cooperation not seen since the days of the Ohlone:

A spirit of good nature and helpfulness prevailed and cheerfulness was common. The old and feeble were tenderly aided. Food was voluntarily divided. No one richer, none poorer than his fellow man.

In an essay accompanying After the Ruins, Rebecca Solnit recollects the 1989 earthquake similarly:

The night of the quake, the liquor store across the street held a small barbecue … I talked to the neighbors. I walked around and visited people. That night the powerless city lay for the first time in many years under a sky whose stars weren’t drowned out by electric lights.

Greta Snider’s classic early ’90s punk and bike zine Mudflap tells of a utopia for bicyclists created by the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. Until torn down, a closed-off section of damaged Interstate 280 became a bike superhighway where one could ride above the City without fear of cars. Earthquakes are seen to have utopian potential in SF, because, like protests or Critical Mass, they stop traffic. In 1991, Gulf War protestors stormed the Bay Bridge, shutting down traffic on the span for the first time since the 1989 quake. Perhaps in tribute to the utopian possibilities of both events, William Gibson’s 1993 book Virtual Light imagines a postquake-damaged Bay Bridge as a home for squatter shanties and black market stalls.

Carlsson’s new nonfiction book, Nowtopia (AK Press, 288 pages, $18.95), explores new communities springing up in the margins of capitalist society. Subtitled How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-Lot Gardeners Are Inventing the Future Today, it looks for seeds of post-economic utopia in places such as the SF Bike Kitchen and the Open Source software movement. According to Carlsson, these communities "manifest the efforts of humans to transcend their lives as wage-slaves. They embrace a culture that rejects the market, money, and business. Engaging in technology in creative and experimental ways, the Nowtopians are involved in a guerilla war over the direction of society."

A founder of Critical Mass, Carlsson praises the biofuels movement and bicycle culture for promoting self-sufficiency through tools. With its optimism and endorsement of technology, Nowtopia occasionally evokes the Whole Earth Catalog. Yet unlike Brand’s tome, it focuses on class and how people perform work in today’s society. Carlsson finds that in their yearning for community, people will gladly perform hours of unpaid labor on behalf of something they love that they believe betters the world.

Within today’s SF, Carlsson cites Alemany Farm as an example of nowtopia. Volunteers took over an abandoned SF League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG) farm next to the Alemany Projects, farming it for several years before the City gave them official permission. "Instead of traditional political forms like unions or parties, people are coming together in practical projects," Carlsson writes. "They aren’t waiting for an institutional change from on-high, but are getting on with building the new world in the shell of the old."

Ironically, the only literature that truly envisions the complete destruction of large areas of the City are the postwar plans of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. In 1956, it began the first of two projects in the Fillmore, slashing the neighborhood in two with a widened Geary Boulevard and demolishing over 60 square blocks of housing. Some 17,500 African American and Japanese American people saw their homes bulldozed.

With their dreams of "urban renewal," the heads of SF-based corporate giants such as Standard Oil, Bechtel, Del Monte, Southern Pacific, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America reimagined the City as a utopia for big business. The language of a Wells Fargo report from the ’60s evokes the notebooks of Dana: "Geographically, San Francisco is a natural gateway for this country’s ocean-going and airborne commerce with the Pacific area nations." Likewise, Prologue for Action, a 1966 report from the San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Association, might have been written by dystopian visionary Philip K. Dick:

If SF decides to compete effectively with other cities for new "clean" industries and new corporate power, its population will move closer to "standard White Anglo-Saxon Protestant" characteristics. As automation increases the need for unskilled labor will decrease…. The population will tend to range from lower middle-class through upper-class…. Selection of a population’s composition might be undemocratic. Influence on it, however, is legal and desirable.

This dream of turning San Francisco into a perfect world for business required that much of the existing city be destroyed. First, the colorful Produce District along the waterfront was removed in 1959, its warmth and human buzz replaced by the four identical modern hulks of the Embarcadero Center. Beginning in 1966, some 87 acres of land south of Market — including 4,000 housing units — were bulldozed to make way for office blocks, luxury hotels, and the Moscone Center.

The dark logic of the Redevelopment Agency’s plans are projected into the future in the profoundly bleak science fiction of Richard Paul Russo’s Carlucci series from the ’90s. Russo’s books are set in a 21st-century SF entirely segregated by class and health. The Tenderloin is walled off into an area where drug-addicted and diseased residents kill each other or await death from AIDS or worse. Access to all neighborhoods is restricted and even the series’ hero, stereotypical good cop Frank Carlucci, submits to a full body search in order to enter the Financial District because he lacks the necessary chip implant to be waved through checkpoints.

Russo’s nightmares have their real side today, and many dreams found in Ecotopia and the Whole Earth Catalog — composting, recycling, widespread bicycling, urban gardening, free access to information via the Internet, Green building design — have also come to pass. (There is even a growing movement to unearth creeks like the Hayes River, which runs under City Hall.) Pat Murphy’s 1989 novel, The City Not Long After, imagines these opposing visions of the city will continue even after a plague wipes out all but one-thousandth of SF’s population. In Murphy’s book, those still alive turn the City into a backdrop for elaborate art projects, weaving ribbon and lace from Macy’s across downtown streets and painting the Golden Gate Bridge blue. This artists’ utopia is threatened when an army of survivors from Sacramento marches into SF. But the last forces of America, unlike the dot-com invaders of the ’90s, prove no match for the artists, who use direct action tactics and magic to rout Sacramento in an epic showdown at Civic Center Plaza.

In Carlsson’s After the Deluge, several people enter a bar called New Spec’s on Fulton Street. The walls are covered with old SF ephemera. One character explains to Eric, a newcomer, "Its all about nostalgia, a false nostalgia." Was the City a better place before the war, before the earthquakes, or before it was even the City? So many utopian visions of the future evoke a simpler past that one wonders if believing in one is the same as longing for the other. It’s a question that would make sense, once again, to Philip K. Dick.

Perhaps no fiction about a future SF captures utopian yearning as well as Dick’s decidedly dystopian works, because his stories, though full of futuristic gadgets, are really about the ways human characters relate to them. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) is set in a radically depopulated postwar SF of 2021. The air is filled with radioactive dust and the streets are hauntingly empty as humans race to colonize Mars. Main character Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter assigned to "retire" humanlike androids, yet he’s mostly concerned about his electric sheep. Because there are almost no animals left on Earth, owning a fake one helps a striver like Deckard keep up appearances.

In 1962’s The Man in the High Castle, Dick imagines life in SF after the Nazis and Japanese have won World War II. Nostalgia haunts this story, too. Protagonist R. Childan makes his living selling rare prewar Americana to rich Japanese collectors. Not much has changed in this alternate SF, though. Market Street is still a place of "shooting galleries [and] cheap nightclubs with photos of middle-aged blondes holding their nipples between their wrinkled fingers and leering." While most utopian futures look to the past, Dick’s dystopian futures are all eerily about the present.

So how does Mr. Childan deal with the pain of living in a world where Nazis have won the war? How else? "To inspire himself, he lit up a marijuana cigarette," Dick writes, "excellent Land-O-Smiles brand."

Erick Lyle is the editor of Scam magazine. His book, On the Lower Frequencies: A Secret History of the City, is out now on Soft Skull Press.


Wed/9, 7:30 p.m.; $20 suggested donation (includes book, reading/discussion, and contribution to site)


1310 Mission, SF

(415) 626-2060

Speed Reading



By Rónán McDonald


160 pages


Rónán McDonald notes that upon hearing his book’s Roland Barthes–inspired title, people assume he is celebrating the death of so-called (and often self-deemed) experts. The Death of the Critic‘s jacket image mordantly plays off this assumption — one might think the contents were a fictive, rather than nonfiction, whodunit. Those who look beneath the red-and-black color scheme will discover McDonald has penned a passionate four-chapter eulogy for a practice that he believes can be reborn. His reference points are United Kingdom–centric, and in this newspaper critic’s opinion, he could go beyond name-dropping certain populist writers with vernacular voices to engage with their ideas as seriously as he does those of scholars. But in a pair of core chapters — about critical value, and science and sensibility — McDonald’s phrasing and historical erudition are as sharp as the bloody knife on the cover. (Johnny Ray Huston)


By the staff of the New York Post


191 pages


Probably the greatest headline ever written (outside of The Onion) is the title of this book, a collection of New York Post zingers that prove no news is above mockery ("Al-Qa-ught: Cops catch five London bombers") and that a good pun never gets old ("NO KWAN DO: Michelle threatens to quit Games"). The cover artwork, reproduced with full-page treatments for notable efforts, is worth mentioning, such as the "755: Bonds breaks home-run record" cover, which illustrated the feat by spelling out "755" with syringes. Divided into chapters by subject (politics, celebrities, mafia, etc.) Headless Body is well worth reading through in one sitting before stashing in the john for future, random-page chuckles. (Cheryl Eddy)

Outlaw representation


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I love Dick and I cannot lie. I am of course referring to my Chocolate City homeboy Richard Bruce Nugent — who was never called "Dick," but was outfitted with "Paul Arbian" and other choice names by his friend, rival, and fellow Harlem/Negro Renaissance leader Wallace Thurman. Nugent, who died impoverished but grand in 1987, has been one of my abiding heroes since childhood. But with the rediscovery and publication of Gentleman Jigger (Da Capo Press, 332 pages, $18), in which Nugent names and reclaims his uptown good and hard times from speakeasies to sidewalks, the youngest Harlem Renaissance genius truly ceases to be a cipher.

I first read about Nugent at age 10, in David Levering Lewis’s epic study When Harlem Was in Vogue (Penguin, 1989). A provocative iconoclast and bon vivant, Nugent — who’d had the nerve to live past 27 and even be a vital raconteur during his sunset-and-threadbare years — enjoyed a meteoric ascent into the flux of my prepubescent consciousness. My Nuge was clearly brilliant, and a proto–rock star due to the mere rumor of his gay lit landmark from 1926, the short story "Smoke, Lilies and Jade." Though raised sheltered in Washington, DC’s Adams-Morgan black bohemia of the 1980s, I inchoately got that the Harlem Renaissance was the official coming out of black queer radical subculture — a coming out linked to Nugent’s historic meet-cute with Langston Hughes at one of DC salon hostess Georgia Douglas Johnson’s "Saturday nighters."

Having followed a trajectory similar to Nugent’s leap from DC to NYC, I still find him inspiring. His Gentleman Jigger reads eerily, stunningly, as if it were written about a black blogospheric bohemia that continues to wrestle with the ish Hughes laid out in his famed 1926 essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." Although Nugent appears to have been scooped (possibly ripped off) in defining le tout fashionable Harlem by his prematurely dead and duskier podnuh Thurman, he almost lived to witness the emergence of such latter-day inheritors of his vision as poet Essex Hemphill and cultural critic Ernest Hardy.

Editor Thomas Wirth, who maintains a Nugent Web site and worked on Duke University Press’s 2002 Nugent collection Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance, has done us all a great service by unearthing and recolutf8g Nugent’s masterful roman á clef. It’s an intriguing, nudge-winky funhouse that holds a mirror to the New Negritude milieu circa 1927 while presenting a flipside to the Niggerati Manor events captured in Thurman’s 1932 Infants of the Spring (Northeastern). With its wit, passion, racial skullduggery, fearless self-analysis, and an arch framing of uptown/downtown creative types fit to rival Ann Douglass’s nonfiction ’20s Manhattan history Terrible Honesty (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Gentleman Jigger pulls off the shroud of dilettante-ism that obscured Nugent for decades. Twentieth-century sexual revolt was not always about a Revue Négre pickaninny and her bananas — or a notorious Englishman’s liver lips. It was also the province of dangerous minds with a will to political or social activism.

In Gentleman Jigger, at a soiree held by Serge Von Vertner, Nugent’s alter-ego Stuart Brennen holds forth: "Oh, I always sprawl," he declaims. "Sprawling is a Negro art. Else you might never know I was one. Appearances are so deceitful, and that would never do. So I merely flaunt a trademark."

If that ain’t a postmortem fit for the post-Basquiat, post-Gnarls, Black Renaissance 3.0 era, then I don’t know what is.



Vanity Fair would like to know: "Who Says Women Aren’t Funny?" Magazinester would like to know: "Who Says Women of Color Aren’t Funny?" Granted, Wanda Sykes and Maya Rudolph represent. But why no Margaret Cho? Also, "Who Says a Story Like This Makes Up for Vanity Fair Saying Women Aren’t Funny in the First Place?," seeing as how the entire cover package is a response to Christopher Hitchens’s 2007 essay, "Why Women Aren’t Funny," for the same magazine.

Beefcake competing in this month’s sultry man-stare contest: George Clooney (Esquire) and Eric Bana (GQ). Does Daniel Craig on the cover of British rag Arena count?

Random quote from another British import, Mojo, on the subject of Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson: "Arrogant proof of Harry’s belief in his own genius."

ReadyMade offers tips on "How to Mount Heavy Stuff," but can’t resist snarking on velvet Elvis paintings. Another feature challenges three designers to redesign an Ikea bookshelf into something less grossly prefab-looking, including a pretty nifty credenza.

The American version of OK! promises a peek at Britney Spears’s home life — yikes! — but reveals little beyond quotes from anonymous "frequent visitors." Spears is apparently a neat freak who "loves rearranging her furniture and fluffing up her pillows." Shocking! Other features in this issue include the expected "Who Wore It Better?" and "What Were They Thinking?" fashion spreads, as well as mad doting on the lavish lives of celebrity offspring like Violet Affleck, Kingston Rossdale, and Brangelina’s assorted shorties. Clearly, the market demands a mag called Hollywood Tots. Coming soon, no doubt.

Karaoke revolution



REVIEW The radio at my neighborhood Laundromat is a source of pop music melancholy. That a-ha song "Take on Me" gets me misty while folding socks — damn it.

Something similar happened when I first saw British artist Phil Collins’s captivating Smiths karaoke video project, dünya dinlemiyor (Turkish for "the world won’t listen") at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2006. The piece documents Turkish Smiths fans performing versions of the band’s classics in front of high-keyed landscape photo backdrops — many depicting sites far more tropical than Istanbul. Throughout the run of the exhibition, the cozy projection room was packed with people who stayed far longer than they would for more blatantly arty video pieces. They laughed with empathy — and perhaps to deflect the mix of emotions roused by their own powerful memory triggers.

Dünya dinlemiyor was just one-third of a recently completed trilogy by Collins: to bracket his shoot in Istanbul, he also conducted karaoke sessions at Bogotá, Colombia, and two Indonesian cities. All three were recently united as a triptych at the Dallas Museum of Art. That Texas metropolis — site of the 1992 concert DVD Morrissey: Live in Dallas — is a long way from here. But the monograph produced for the exhibition, Phil Collins: the world won’t listen (Yale University Press, 132 pages, $45), serves as something akin to an edifying concert brochure. This is particularly true of a historical essay (regarding the Smiths oppositional relationship to Thatcherism and corporate label hegemony) by music critic Simon Reynolds.

In addition to Reynolds’s observations, Phil Collins: the world won’t listen includes still photos from videos, related imagery, two other illuminating essays, and a particularly engaging interview with Collins. "Karaoke is a form of joyful treason in which you quite materially supplant your idol," he tells the book’s editor, Dallas Museum curator Suzanne Weaver. Her conversation with the artist illuminates his interest in mediated subjects, and positions his Smiths project as an anti–American Idol. "Every single season [American Idol] is about complete conformity around the idea of the songbook," he observes. Collins’ Smiths project shatters that conformity, presenting an international range of people swayed by the idiosyncratic, outsider, emo aura of, say, "The Boy with the Thorn in His Side."

Critic Bruce Hainley links American Idol to the George W. Bush administration in a manner that — fittingly, considering that the Smiths are a touchstone of Collins’s project — combines longing with astute social observation. "What does it take to be a celebrity (not a star), circa 2007?" he asks, and then provides the American Idol–inspired answer: "Twelve weeks, and consumers voting with more gusto than they have voted in any recent American presidential election." Just as insistently, Hainley points to the crush-generating erotic lure of pop music collateral, citing a shirtless Joe Dallesandro on the cover of the first Smiths album, as well as the camera’s apparent lust for a Smiths fan in a red T-shirt in Collins’s Bogotá-set video. Next, Liz Kotz provides descriptive insight into Collins’s other works, which subvert standard practices of popular media in their depictions of Kosovo refugees, Iraqi citizens, and people emotionally scarred by their appearance on reality TV.

Because musical performance is so central to Collins’s work, it’s a shame that this slip-cased volume doesn’t include a DVD with a few song snippets and examples of the similarities and differences between each national version of the project. But there are compensations: the book does sport images of the Smiths’ set lists, an unauthenticated 1981 handwritten note from Morrissey, and Hainley’s comic acknowledgment of Collins’s pop music namesake: "Why not Genesis karaoke?"

Where’s Otto?



ISBN REAL Graphic novels, obviously, aren’t just movies with a lot of missing frames. In the hands of artists like David B. or Craig Thompson, the elastic potential of their subjects, and of the panels that hold them, is realized in a manner entirely at odds with the medium of film.

From the perspective of screenwriters, however — particularly ones beaten repeatedly over the head with the knotty stick of the studio system — that’s nothing that can’t be worked out over a cup of coffee. More and more frustrated writers and directors are reviving their dead film and television projects in the form of comics and graphic novels, either as a last, affordable option or as a way of seeing an original vision make it through the production process intact. Joss Whedon could follow his and not the WB’s muse with the illustrated-only eighth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and certainly no one was knocking down Richard Kelly’s door to film the six-part prequel to Southland Tales.

Alex Cox, writer and director of the 1984 cult classic Repo Man, also has seen the light. His sequel to that film, Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday (Gestalt Publishing, 164 pages, $19.95), is finally coming out, after more than a decade in the drawer, as a graphic novel. The script, written for the screen in the mid-1990s, was presented unsuccessfully to Universal and then later was the source material for an unfinished independent venture. So Cox posted the screenplay on his Web site, as well as dozens of others he has written or cowritten, with the open offer of a yearlong license to anyone interested in making a film.

Comics artist Chris Bones responded with a graphic novel proposal. The finished version, with artistic contributions by Justin Randall, is a richly drawn and smartly assembled festival of scuzz.

Waldo, as one might expect, answers the questions Repo Man raised with equivocation and deferment, and adds a couple of revelations that are quite cool if I understand them right.

You’ll recall that Repo Man left our hero, Otto, as he was shooting off into space in a glowing green 1964 Chevy Malibu. What we are kinda informed of right off the bat in the sequel is that Otto, now calling himself Waldo (presumably in a legal sidestep), has come back from a 10-year stint on Mars, maybe, though he thinks he’s only been gone for the night. Expecting to find his numskull parents where he left them on the couch, he shows up at their door only to discover he owes rent to a couple of bachelors (one "confirmed") now living there in meticulously rendered squalor.

Waldo more or less shrugs off his situation and proceeds to hop from one doomed job to the next, each of them overseen by the same mysterious man, though under different names. All the while, he abuses the trusting nature of the Russian Shopping Network and makes several attempts to use free tickets to Hawaii he earned by sitting through a real estate pitch. (I’m still not sure what was glowing in the Malibu’s trunk in Cox’s movie.)

Of course, there are more aliens and whatnot, but the strangest thing is Otto-now-Waldo’s change in temperament. The edgy, snotty Emilio Estevez of Repo Man is nowhere in sight. Waldo is a gentle, courteous kind of punk who says things like, "I’ll just redouble my efforts … buy a printer, get these job applications out, find another job ASAP." Waldo must have learned the word "redouble" in space, where he also picked up a considered cheeriness that could have been mistaken for maturity if it weren’t so apparent that Cox is up to something.

It helps to know that Cox is not one to shy away from the polemical, particularly at the expense of economic imperialism. The introduction to X-Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker (Soft Skull Press, 304 pages, $17.95), an upcoming book about his experiences as a filmmaker, is only a few angry pen strokes shy of a screed, and his 1987 film Walker lampooned — not very elegantly, really — the 19th-century American mercenary William Walker’s overthrow of the Nicaraguan government. Amongst Cox’s movies, Three Businessmen, a 1998 love child of the gospel according to Luke and Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), presents the closest echoes of Waldo. Its characters share Waldo’s aimless, profligate compliance with the dictates of modern capitalism.

And that’s really what Waldo’s Hawaiian Adventure is about, probably.

Would you finance that movie?

Big book, tiny topic


› johnny@sfbg.com

REVIEW This week, I’m reviewing a book about toothpicks, a book about citrus, and a book about pigeons. When I first mentioned this plan to a fellow editor, she said it prompted visions of a surrealist game of Clue: the orange stabbed the pigeon in the study with a toothpick.

In truth, my motivation is pragmatic. I want to draw attention to the publishing industry’s love of big books devoted to tiny topics. It seems that one surefire way of selling a nonfiction tome is by focusing on a very specific subject. For evidence, one need only look at recent efforts such as Pierre Laszlo’s Citrus: A History (University of Chicago Press, 252 pages, $25), Henry Petroski’s The Toothpick: Technology and Culture (Knopf, 443 pages, $27.95), and Andrew D. Blechman’s Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird (Grove Press, 239 pages, $24).

Without snappy cover art and a colon followed by a subtitle, these books would be ready for inclusion in the next edition of Russell Ash and Brian Lake’s Bizarre Books: A Compendium of Classic Oddities (Harper Perennial, 224 pages, $14.95), a collection devoted to ridiculous and arcane tomes. Today, the colon (note that Ash and Lake’s book also sports one) is a way for author and publisher to assert an awareness of the potential absurdity that might arise from inscribing a world history on the head of a pin — or the tip of a toothpick.

Which brings us to The Toothpick. It’s the latest endeavor by a writer who specializes in large books on tiny topics. Petroski’s previous lengthy portrait in words was devoted to the toothpick’s cousin of sorts, the pencil. He brings an ease born from familiarity to his latest project. He also brings an anti-Wikipedia agenda, beginning his toothpick odyssey with a collection of false "stuff rustled up from the wild, wild Web." In the United States, the toothpick does have ties to Charles Forster — as claimed by answers.com and other Web sites — but Forster did not "invent" it, as one online source of misinformation states. If you read The Toothpick, you’ll learn about Forster and about Benjamin Sturtevant, a contemporary who has been erased from the toothpick’s United States–origin myth. Neither Forster nor Sturtevant are the most fascinating men ever to have probed their gums.

The point of Petroski’s toothpick testament is sharpest when he uses his small subject to touch upon ideas from different eras and cultures. Thus, before Forster and his Charles Foster Kane–like name (though not, alas, story) take over, The Toothpick cites a long passage from James Joyce’s 1916 A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that cries out for a toothpick, provides illustrations of Chinese toothpicks that look like chandeliers, and notes that the Renaissance was "the golden age of toothpicks." Perhaps literally — there are golden toothpicks, as well as ones made from walrus whiskers.

As its title might suggest, Laszlo’s Citrus: A History presents a fruit-centric — though by no means fruitopian — history of the world. Via the erudite Laszlo, the travels of an orange can blossom into a discussion of religious persecution. Laszlo is a retired professor of chemistry, and his prose presents a mix of stuffiness and frolic, whether imagining a correspondence with the first person ever to write a book about citrus (an 11th-century Chinese governor named Han Yen-Chih), randomly leaping from a descriptive passage into a recipe, or redundantly telling the reader that he is about to tell a story. Ultimately, Citrus does have the passion — if not always the juice — of a labor of love, even when its author favors the kind of obvious symbolism found in this sentence.

In comparison, Pigeons author Blechman is a storyteller who has a way with a hilarious turn of phrase. He writes of "backyard geneticists" who create birds "more akin to a Dresden figurine than a child of nature," notes that the pigeon "has been prized as a source of companionship (and protein)," and confesses his fondness for the Frillback, a breed with feathers that look like they "were dipped in Jheri Curl." Over the course of one winter, he meets as many breeds of pigeon obsessives as he does pigeons. The wildest marriage might be between Parlor Rollers and their owners. Parlor Rollers somersault backward up to 600 feet in a single effort, a display that Blechman deems "the avian equivalent of obsessive-compulsive disorder." When Blechman asks one owner why the birds do what they do, the man replies, "Because they’re retarded, that’s why."

Actually, Pigeons makes a strong case for recognizing and respecting the oft-abused pigeon, a case drawn from no less a source than Charles Darwin’s 1859 On the Origin of Species. Blechman’s book contains some disturbing passages (especially a foray into a Pennsylvania town that made bird slaughter into an annual holiday replete with teen boys delivering body slams) and no shortage of funny adventures. By the end, it transformed the way I view pigeons. Though I’m a vampire for blood oranges and I abuse toothpicks like an addict smokes cigarettes, I’m afraid the other two books didn’t have quite the same impact.

One ear to the ground



REVIEW Ah, the morality police — you’ve gotta love ’em. At least artists who get free publicity from the overzealous watchdogs should. With freedom of speech still miraculously in decent shape in this country, one might be forgiven for forgetting the unique dilemma of the banned book: once branded immoral, it automatically becomes sought after.

Such is the case with Yousef Al-Mohaimeed’s Wolves of the Crescent Moon (Penguin, 192 pages, $14), which was banned in Saudi Arabia by theocratic thought-cops for casting too many spotlights on societal problems that the authorities insist don’t exist. Upon being labeled dangerous and sinful, the book gained a large audience throughout the Arabic-speaking world. It has since been translated into French, and now, into English by Anthony Calderbank. While hardly as inflammatory as Saudi authorities might lead one to believe, the novel paints a troubling portrait of a traditional society embracing and fighting modernity. Government claims notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia is not free from abuse, prejudice, racism, and religious hypocrisy, and the author minces no words in giving voice to the marginalized, the abandoned, and the otherwise ignored. While the titular animal does figure prominently in the story, the main wolves appear to be of the human variety.

Wolves of the Crescent Moon reveals itself in fevered rushes of storytelling that concern three characters: a one-eared bedouin, a eunuch, and a one-eyed orphan. Turad, the one-eared tribesman who has tolerated an endless run of degrading jobs since leaving the desert for the city, arrives at a Riyadh bus station without a plan. Paralyzed by indecision, he finds himself trapped in nightmarish reminiscence and speculation; thus, we are introduced to Tawfiq, Turad’s elderly eunuch coworker, whose life of misery is retold by the bedouin. While trying to decide which bus ticket to buy, Turad discovers a discarded government file involving an abandoned one-eyed baby; from there, the experimental narrative expands to include anecdotes about the orphan’s distressing childhood, as well as reveries imagined by Turad in an effort to fill in the gaps left by the impersonal official documents. His inability to inject even the briefest respite into the child’s conjectured history speaks volumes. For Turad, life is an endless chain of pain and suffering.

Told over the course of an evening, and engulfed by mental fatigue, Al-Mohaimeed’s novel presents a variant of the existential dread found in works by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, albeit with more violence. The spellbinding narrative rarely feels anchored to its chief time and place, but instead hangs suspended within a hellish realm governed by fear, agony, and resentment.

In volleying between carefully recalled memories of his own suffering, detailed anecdotes about Tawfiq’s forced slavery and eventual castration, and embellishments about the abused orphan he never knew, Turad takes the role of a downtrodden Scheherazade. He’s capable of spinning 1,001 tales without the faintest hope of saving a single life. But his creator — at least until he was censored — speaks directly to those huddled in the margins of a secretive society. Wolves of the Crescent Moon might remain banned in Saudi Arabia for the foreseeable future; for now, Al-Mohaimeed will receive his well-deserved audience elsewhere in the world.

Ghost writer


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REVIEW In the English-speaking press, Roberto Bolaño is widely touted as the hottest novelist to come out of Latin America since Gabriel García Márquez. There are no levitating virgins in the work of Bolaño; he depicts instead a more recognizable if still defamiliarized Western Hemisphere, full of intellectuals, tragic activists, poets, queers, prostitutes, and drug dealers. And Nazis.

Although Bolaño died in 2003, his death hasn’t slowed the rise of his reputation; he is posthumously leading the revolt of a generation of writers and readers who were crushed under the weight of Latin America’s major literary exports, the Boom writers. Bolaño’s idiosyncratic style isn’t magical realist or sentimental about folk traditions, but he isn’t exactly a realist either. Nazi Literature in the Americas (New Directions, 280 pages, $23.95), newly translated into English by Chris Andrews, follows the path of Jorge Luis Borges. It presents brief bios and bibliographies for 30 imaginary right-wing writers from North and South America.

Although Nazi Literature was first published in 1996, it follows its catalog of writers past that date and into the future: Willy Schürholz, for example, born into a mysterious, walled-off community of Germans within Chile, is a solitary poet who sets out "countless variations on the theme of a barbed-wire fence crossing an almost empty space," and eventually publishes a book of children’s stories that idealize "a childhood that was suspiciously aphasic, amnesic, obedient and silent." Its nameless boy protagonist "displaced Papelucho as the emblematic protagonist of children’s and teen fiction in Chile," while Schürholz himself ends up in Africa working as a photographer and guide until his death — in 2029.

Bolaño’s writers interact with recognizable historic and literary worlds; they are wandering Colombians who fight for the fascists in Spain; they are aristocratic Argentines handled by Hitler as infants; they are Beat-influenced North American poets who, after being hit on by Allen Ginsberg, flee to panicked careers filled with homophobic and anti-Semitic invective, becoming enormously successful in the process. They write stories, poems, and novels with titles like Cosmogony of the New Order, I Was Happy with Hitler ("misunderstood by the Right and the Left alike"), and The Children of Jim O’Brady in the American Dawn. In Bolaño’s hands, these biographies are hilarious. At the same time, they are often surprisingly moving and sometimes terrifying.

Throughout Bolaño’s translated work, from By Night in Chile (New Directions, 144 pages, 2003), the monologue of a dying priest, to The Savage Detectives (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 592 pages, 2007), which follows a group of avant-garde poets in Mexico in the ’70s along their downward-spiraling paths, he is concerned with the sometimes surprising intermingling of radical and conservative literary and political realities. If Bolaño’s monsters are occasionally ridiculous and moronic, it is to his credit that they are also always complicated, and sometimes brilliant and romantic. His Nazi writers are not so different from his non-Nazi writers; they are ambitious or derivative or avant-garde in equal measure. They fall tragically in love and develop drinking problems alongside their leftist peers. Bolaño’s clear-sighted examinations of social context underline the insight that literature isn’t innocent — an invigorating insight in our own cultural moment, when the very act of reading or writing is usually considered harmless but inherently ennobling.

Perhaps Bolaño’s most seductive, fascinating, and terrifying monster is the Chilean poet Carlos Ramírez Hoffman. Bolaño readers will recognize his story as that of Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, elaborated in more detail in Bolaño’s second novel to be translated into English, Distant Star (New Directions, 149 pages, 2004). His tale is worth revisiting for those readers, as it functions differently as the conclusion to Nazi Literature. The book suddenly becomes more intimate, more frightening, and more ambiguous, as Bolaño appears for the first time as a character and becomes personally linked to the fate of Ramírez Hoffman. "Bolaño," like the author of the same name, is arrested and briefly imprisoned by the Pinochet dictatorship after the coup in 1973. While Ramírez Hoffman transforms himself into a torturer, a murderer of women, and a skywriter, Bolaño watches the ephemeral poems appear in the sky from the prison yard. The story of the narrator’s obsession with the traces of this enigmatic antihero’s literary career becomes a discomfiting mirror in which some of our dearest romantic myths about literary outlaws are laid bare with startling implications.

In less thoughtful hands, Nazi Literature could be a terrain inhabited largely by "repressed" homosexuals, following the 20th century’s tidy equation of fascism and sublimated male homoeroticism. Whatever sexual desires are repressed or unrepressed by this horde of monsters, they are as varied and bizarre as those of the rest of the human race. Bolaño was the queerest of straight male writers and his sensibility the queerest I know of, period, in all of Latin American literature — notwithstanding José Lezama Lima, José Donoso, Manuel Puig, Reinaldo Arenas, and the many closeted contributors to the fussy literature of the Boom.

Bolaño’s descriptions of the experimental and speculative works of his dark doubles allows his own baroque imagination free rein. He dreams up plays in which "the action unfolds in a world inhabited exclusively by Siamese twins, where sadism and masochism are children’s games," and poems in which a 90-year-old Leni Riefenstahl makes love with 100-year-old Ernst Jünger, their jaws creaking, their eyes lighting up, hinting at the lesson that "it is time to put an end to democracy."

The literary references in Nazi Literature are dense and possibly unfamiliar to a North American audience; we may not always know which pompous literary critics actually lived, or which dueling Cuban queens are real and which are imaginary. Bolaño has the most fun with his speculative and science fiction writers, and with those who assume fake identities in order to promote their derivative work. This book is full of rumor, unverifiable reports, and false claims: it fundamentally entwines the false with the true to create a kind of vaporous zone that we immediately recognize as the world we inhabit. At the same time, Bolaño’s writing cracks that world open and charges it with startling electricity. It’s a reminder that writing is life — organic, complicated, sick, heartbreaking, and hilarious.

Years of Lead


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REVIEW Reflecting on his work on millenarian Europe, the autonomist and political philosopher Antonio Negri stated, "This is certainly one of the central and most urgent political paradoxes of our time: in our much-celebrated age of communication, struggles have become all but incommunicable."

Long an influential campaign in Negri’s native Italy, autonomia, or self-rule, has received little critical attention from the English-speaking world. Editors Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi’s Autonomia: Post-Political Politics (Semiotext(e), 340 pages, $24.95), originally released as part of the short-lived Semiotext(e) magazine series in 1980, proffers the first English-language introduction to one of the most controversial movements of postmodernity.

Developed in the vibrant Götterdämmerung of the late 1960s in reaction to the largely corrupt and co-opted Eurocommunist parties, the worker-inspired Potere Operaio and its immediate descendent Autonomia Operaia were a philosophical umbrella, or, as one government critic put it, "a veritable mosaic made of different fragments, a gallery of overlapping images of circles and collectives without any social organization." At its heart, autonomia was a rejection by individuals and marginalized groups of not only the capitalist state but also its traditional ideological enemy — Marxism and its central doctrine of class struggle — for a postideological and immaterial way of life.

Brokered in universities throughout Bologna and Rome but dedicated to labor activism and the street-level situationism of sessantotto (student unrest), autonomia was powered by a number of formidable philosophical proponents. They included Negri, Oreste Scalzone, and Paolo Virno, as well as French sympathizers and arch collaborators Félix Guatarri, Gilles Deleuze, and Paul Virilio. Autonomia collects the various polemics, letters, and récits of these authors in an attempt to again dramatize the revolutionary and sometimes violent struggles between neofascists, unionists, and the ultraleft during the ensuing "Years of Lead."

Semiotext(e) editor Lotringer prefaces this new edition with a short travelogue describing his interactions with the various underground factions of Rome and Bologna in the shadow of politician Aldo Moro’s assassination by the dreaded Red Brigades, or Brigate Rosse. Long associated with the neofascists and socialists as the armed division of the Autonomia Operaia, the Red Brigades began resorting to terrorist propaganda, bombings, and assassination in the wake of government crackdowns in the late 1970s.

Lotringer encounters a gaggle of activists, intellectuals, and simulationists who may or may not pledge loyalty to the Red Brigades and who live in compounds and squats hiding from the omnipresent carabinieri, who continue to surveil the streets. Some are in costume and others spin Velvet Underground records; still others may be government informants or simply thrill to the hip simulacra of espionage. According to Lotringer, this alternative and autonomist space may have accomplished, however briefly, the utopic "non-fascist living" of Deleuze and Guattari.

Throughout Autonomia‘s 300 pages of densely translated text — from theorists and tricksters, reporters and members of the lumpen proletariat — the truly inclusive and sometimes circuitous worlds of the title movement become all the more apparent, yet never transparent. Negri’s contributions are particularly inspiring and frustrating in their brilliant opacity. Ultimately, in rejecting the verticality of hierarchies of power — textual, political, and economic — the autonomists opened up larger interpretative spaces: realms that existed beyond capital and beyond empire.

To be, or to be autonauts


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

REVIEW Certain travelogues can be likened to love letters to a destination, though rarely does actual romance play a part in their construction. But when acclaimed postmodern Argentine author Julio Cortázar took to the road with his third wife, Carol Dunlop, it was a journey precipitated by mutual fondness as much as a desire for discovery.

In Autonauts of the Cosmoroute (Archipelago Books, 354 pages, $20) an author best known for his nonsequential opus Hopscotch and collections of surreal short stories approaches the task of travel with the same whimsy and contradiction that characterize his literary oeuvre. Setting out on a pseudoscientific expedition to map the freeway between Paris and Marseilles, a distance of approximately 500 miles, Cortázar (nicknamed El Lobo) and the Canadian Dunlop (La Osita) spend a full 33 days en route, confining themselves to two rest stops per day.

Diligently recording their every meal, the time and temperature, and the specifics of local flora and fauna, the two intrepids further intersperse their daily log reports with expository musings on the nature of games, perception, and existence; fictitious letters from a fellow freeway traveler; and sweetly sincere tributes to their May-December romance. From Dunlop: "This genus of wolf is capable of the worst insanities, which are usually the most beautiful." From Cortázar: "My new day, my reason to live a new day."

Whether perused as an exploration of the external world or a map to an interior one, Anne McLean’s translation of Autonauts of the Cosmoroute compels the reader to examine the minutiae of the mundane with the microscope of wonderment. Reveling in inconsistency, El Lobo and La Osita aim not to simply bridge distances but to illuminate them. Their unique approach is perhaps best espoused by Cortázar, who apocryphally quotes another, unnamed metaphysician: "When you concentrate your attention in that gap, in the void between two objects … then at that one moment, you see reality."

Speed Reading



By Aram Saroyan

Ugly Duckling Presse

283 pages


Clear the dross and bric-a-brac from your brain and start anew with Aram Saroyan’s minimalist poems. The quickest thick-book reading experience you’ll ever have (unless you take the time to savor its simplicity), this collection of Saroyan’s writings from the ’60s offers pages of poems that make haiku seem lugubrious and cumbersome; only Taylor Mead’s poems are similarly immediate. Delight leaps from: a list of radio stations beginning with the letter W; an m, perhaps strayed from an m &, that has sprouted an extra leg; the repeat appearance of crickets in forms that convey their sonic properties and number; remarks about Ted Berrigan’s impish spirit and Ron Padgett’s judgment; a sensory appreciation of mown grass and (somewhat parodically) William Carlos Williams motifs; mirrors seen through a marijuana haze and money as seen while on LSD; numbers; all the keys of a typewriter keyboard. One work missing from this collection is Saroyan’s The Beatles, a posthumous tribute to the Fab Four that extends the basic beauty of the cover art of "The White Album." Like that sleeve, Complete Minimal Poems recognizes the beauty of an almost blank page.


By David L. Chapman and Thomas Waugh

Arsenal Pulp Press

208 pages


Don’t judge a book by its cover or title: this collection of Denny Denfield’s stereoview photography isn’t the kitsch burger of beefcake silliness suggested by the cheeky image on its front. Denfield might indeed possess more dimensions than his ’50s and ’60s contemporaries (such as the more famous Bob Mizer) who photographed nude men at a time when doing so could lead to serious prison time. His stereoviews — meant to be viewed through 3-D glasses, a sturdy plastic pair of which are provided with the book — don’t just spontaneously step outside the sucked-in abs and strained muscles of physique pictorials into occasional messy, drunken hardcore. More successfully, they venture into atmospheric realms. This is especially the case in photos taken at Baker Beach and the nearby woods: rock formations and sun-dappled tree trunks and branches dramatically play off and sometimes even overshadow the human subjects. Furtiveness and a potent melancholic experience of the ephemeral are built into this adult version of the childhood ViewMaster experience, which requires cross-eyed participation on the part of the gazer. Denfield’s stereoview work might be richest when viewed as a light West Coast — with an emphasis on the coastal — answer to Alvin Baltrop’s gay lib–era photos of the piers in New York. Both photographers took their vision to the literal edges of America.

Speed reading


In 2005, Xiu Xiu embarked on a tour and invited their fans to send them blank Polaroid instant film and an SASE. In turn, photographer David Horvitz took on the task of documenting the group’s travels, snapping shots in places ranging from backstage nooks to hotel bathrooms. Each day, Horvitz mailed packages containing 10 unique candid photos to the fans who provided film and envelopes: anyone who participated was rewarded with personal art from the tour. But Horvitz first scanned the photos and compiled them to create Xiu Xiu: The Polaroid Project (Mark Batty Publisher, 126 pages, $24.95). The result is a book containing nudity, blood, and urine, as well as empty skies, ocean views, and the landscape of backwoods America. The reader is left to fill in the blanks and imagine the circumstances behind each photo Even for those unfamiliar with the band, the adventure is well worth it. (Vice Cooler)

Continuum’s 331/3 series takes an unexpected turn with critic Carl Wilson’s witty, insightful, same-named exploration of Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk about Love (Continuum, 176 pages, $10.95). Tellingly, the book is subtitled A Journey to the End of Taste; the 1997 album — which sold more than 30 million copies and contains the dental-office standard “My Heart Will Go On” — is not. Wilson discusses how his feelings for his fellow Canadian’s music shifted from loathing to — well, he never becomes a fan, but during her Vegas show he has a moment of near appreciation. Along the way, he peers into the singer’s soul, touching on Quebec’s cultural history (including Dion’s rise from hometown hero to international superstar), Dion bashing at the height or depths of Titanic mania (in a chapter titled “Let’s Talk about Hate”), and the meaning of schmaltz, via analysis and some well-placed pop-cult references. He also investigates bigger questions that transcend the Dion debate: by whose standards, exactly, do we define guilty pleasures — and bad taste? (Cheryl Eddy)

Your cassette pet


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

REVIEW How’s this for a universal truth: if you’ve ever given a good goddamn about music and you’ve ever been touched by someone in your life (or wanted to be touched, as the case may be), you’ve surely sat yourself down and made a mixtape to put all of those feelings into 90 minutes or less. It’s a rite of passage for any music freak who dares to live beyond the safe confines of his or her headphones; many of us revisit that breathless, nerve-racked experience over and over again, freezing our latest crushes in little plastic time capsules, hoping they’ll build to something bigger. The messenger may have changed — we’ve gone from tape to disc and now maybe to the playlist — but the message remains the same: "I like you. Do you like me?"

Rock journalist Rob Sheffield is an expert on such matters, as Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time (Three Rivers Press, 224 pages, $13) clearly demonstrates. Taking the reader on a song- and swoon-studded travelogue through the inner workings of his heart, the memoirist begins with the wince-along bumblings of a gangly adolescent mixtaper and continues through to the instant click of meeting his similarly tune-centric wife and eventually to — and here I am not giving away anything that isn’t already mentioned on the book’s cover — her sudden death from a pulmonary embolism. It’s a genuinely moving, thoughtful, and frequently cackle-inducing work, and — perhaps best of all — it bounces as much as a book can with boundless verve about songs that have soundtracked every blunder, triumph, and openhearted, weak-kneed moment of falling in love.

For every smile and nod of appreciation at the mention of particularly meaningful musical moments — Sheffield’s anecdote about Gladys Knight and the Pips’ legendary "Midnight Train to Georgia" resonates so effectively in part because everyone knows the song in the first place — there’s a delightful story about an obscure songwriting gem just waiting to be found, thanks to the enthusiasm with which Sheffield conveys his household’s eclectic tastes. His bright-eyed declaration of love for "In a World Without Heroes" — a fey 1992 glam ballad from a short-lived Mark Robinson one-off named Grenadine — could very well send a few readers scurrying to the record shop.

Love Is a Mix Tape isn’t just a collection of musings about favorite songs from a rock critic; Sheffield celebrates the music by placing it in the context of finding his soul mate and thus allows the tunes to help tell the story of their relationship. Whether capturing the endorphin rush of being introduced to a new all-time classic, grinning unapologetically over so-bad-it’s-good radio cheese, or seeking solace from a country weeper, he offers music lovers a sympathetic reflection of their emotional lives, bumps and all. Readers, in turn, will laugh, shout, and cry — not solely because of the experiences detailed by Sheffield, but also in reaction to the author’s pinpoint prose. At its best, this book is a glowing little wonder that reminds us never to dismiss the joy or comfort we receive from a simple song.

Bound for better


› kimberly@sfbg.com

INTERVIEW You probably stumbled over it during your holiday shopping travails: a little 2008 pocket date book branded "Slingshot" with a hand-drawn cover of kids wearing engineer boots and "A is for anarchy" garb, picking flowers, vegetables, and fruit in an idyllic garden scene, a cityscape looming in the distance. Inside, each page is embellished with a quirky hand, oddball fonts, and quintessentially activist remembrances like "1979 Police machine-gun a mass rally on the steps of San Salvador cathedral, killing 25" (May 8) and "1925 Lenny Bruce b. ‘If you can’t say FUCK you can’t say FUCK THE GOVERNMENT!’" (Oct. 13), as well as faithful reminders for all of the Berkeley Critical Mass rides in ’08. The bold-faced coups de grâce: the international radical contact list, quasi phrasebook, and quick tips to "Resist Government Repression." Other anarchist groups throughout the world put out calendars, but this year Berkeley collective Slingshot published an organizer that allows you to literally organize more than just the crap that surrounds you.

This year is a banner one for the planner, and for the 20-year-old nonprofit as well. After several cryptic bouts of phone tag, I spoke to a group representative — who appropriately called himself Slingshot — earlier this month, and he said the group printed 30,000 pocket and spiral-bound 2008 editions, a jump from the wee 400 copies issued when the organization began printing them 14 years ago. Now with distribution in 50 states and a dozen countries, they’re almost sold out, though copies are still available at Bound Together Books at 1369 Haight.

What started out as a fundraiser — inspired by the radical organizers made by European collectives — for Slingshot’s free newspaper has taken on a somewhat anarchic life of its own. "Technically we’re trying to promote historical knowledge about liberation struggles and trying to disseminate contact info for those engaged in social justice work," Slingshot explained, though the handmade, cut-and-pasted, non-computer-generated paperback is also a pure product of a pre–digital age, DIY aesthetic.

Each collective member worked independently on four pages per organizer, drawing from a huge compendium of historical events for each date, so no one person controlled the overall style or process. "It’s contrary to the way the mainstream press looks, where everything [is] programmatic," Slingshot stressed. "Just like life, each page has a different look." The artists, whom Slingshot described as "the people who were filling the streets at the [World Trade Organization]," remain anonymous, except on the cover, which is signed Molly Crabapple.

"Anyone can make art. If we waited for professionals to start the calendar or the paper, we never would have gotten there," he continued. "I think that’s why people like our calendar. People want to feel engaged and not just spectators in their lives."

Next up in Slingshot’s own organizer: the collective hopes to create a zine-making space in its office at the Long Haul Infoshop in Berkeley, complete with typewriters and other materials. "We’re not really against computers per se," Slingshot confessed. "But it’s not a good thing to not question whether everything has to be computerized. We can make it accessible here: people don’t have to have skills other than using scissors."

Thrower’s flames


› johnny@sfbg.com

REVIEW You can judge a book by its cover when the cover is as scarily impressive as the one for Stephen Thrower’s Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents (Fab Press, 528 pages, $79.95). It’s a map of the United States, with each state composed of a fragment from a low-budget horror film. Blood drips from the edges of the South. The entire top of the Midwest is blocked by a large image of someone in an asbestos suit. He’s aiming a lively flamethrower directly at you and me.

Also sporting a pair of amazing inset spreads that showcase the title credits of 300 films, Thrower’s tome deserves a spot next to Carlos Clarens’s An Illustrated History of the Horror Film (Capricorn, 1967), Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws (Princeton University Press, 1992), Michael Weldon’s The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film (Ballantine, 1983), and Bill and Michelle Landis’s Sleazoid Express (Simon and Schuster, 2002) on a healthily horrific bookshelf. Its closest relative in terms of loose format and interview content might be Incredibly Strange Films (RE/Search, 1986), but Thrower casts aside V. Vale’s coolness for the passion found in Danny Peary’s series of Cult Movies books.

More pointedly, Thrower’s study of American exploitation film from the 1970s through the mid-’80s applies terribly to the current moment. For one thing, recent Hollywood torture porn owes a multimillion-dollar influential debt to the small-time labors of twisted love celebrated by Nightmare USA. For another, Thrower is flashing a spotlight — or beaming a flashlight — on the American death drive at a time when this country seems increasingly or wholly out of touch with, and idiotically clueless about, its violent id. It helps that this catalogue of what United Kingdom censors called video nasties proves as visually and verbally lively as the toothy title grubs in The Deadly Spawn (1982).

And for a book bathed in blood and drawn to depressing and despairing expressions of murder such as the infamous Maniac (1980), Nightmare USA is surprisingly and endearingly warmhearted. "Watching the materialistic beach babes and sexist volleyball hunks of Slumber Party Massacre 3 (Sally Mattison, 1990) driving down a coastal road in an open-topped car listening to awful AM pop-rock, I hug myself with excitement, treasuring my affection for these bubbleheads and jackasses," Thrower writes. "They are my friends and I can’t wait to see them die." Themes of friendship also emerge from the book’s profiles — along with some equally unexpected juxtapositions. Deadly Spawn director Douglas McKeown now runs a storytelling group at New York’s Gay and Lesbian Center. Frederick Freidel, the director of Axe (1974), says his assistant consulted with esteemed critic Manny Farber. Joseph Ellison, director of Don’t Go in the House (1979), discusses jazz and watching Federico Fellini films and shares a photo of his film’s producer with a beaming Frank Capra.

That photo couldn’t be stranger, considering that Ellison’s truly scarifying film provides Nightmare USA with the fire on its front cover. That man in the asbestos suit is grafted from an infamous scene, set in a steel room, that — after decades of deciding it was beyond my threshold of experience — I recently discovered (thanks in part to my brave cohort Cheryl Eddy) is both superior to and an obvious source for Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005). "Horror has always been sad to me," Ellison remarks with casual profundity to Thrower, who rightly states that Don’t Go in the House‘s scorching early centerpiece "takes the viewer through shock into a kind of stunned admiration." It’s up to you whether you go in the house, but I’ll be breaking the bank and getting ready for some heavy lifting when Thrower flames readers with volume two of Nightmare USA.


Pinball Machine


› amanda@sfbg.com

INTERVIEW Toni Mirosevich thinks imagination has a prominent place aboard the great ship of nonfiction, and she knows that vessel travels on waters as wide as an ocean. The Rooms We Make our Own, her first book of prose and poetry, was published in 1996 by Firebrand Books; most recently, she’s authored a collection of creative nonfiction, Pink Harvest (Mid-List Press, 203 pages, $16). Mirosevich teaches at San Francisco State University and lives in Pacifica, but I caught up with her by phone in Seattle, on the last leg of her Pacific Northwest book tour. She’ll be back in the Bay Area for a Feb. 14 reading at the Poetry Center at SFSU.

SFBG When I saw you read at Modern Times Bookstore, you said you had a very wide definition of creative nonfiction.

TONI MIROSEVICH Memoir and nonfiction have become very big. A lot of people are doing it, but everyone has a very different definition. Some people have a very strict definition: you have to have evidence, almost like a police report. But nonfiction, for me, includes the imagination.

SFBG How is that different than writing an essay and specuutf8g in it or wondering aloud?

TM That’s a nice way to define it. It really is wondering aloud. I read last night my story "Pinball." I’m driving down the coast with a friend, and he says, "I’m lonely when I pump gas." All of the rest of the story is wondering and specuutf8g on what it’s like to be lonely. That’s as nonfiction as sitting in that car seat with him.

SFBG I was speaking with Candice Stover, another writer and teacher. She was saying what she doesn’t like about creative nonfiction is that she doesn’t know what she’s stepping into.

TM Yes, isn’t that great? [Laughs] I think that’s wonderful. The messier it is, the more excited I am.

SFBG Genres have specific expectations — did you find yourself employing any kinds of rules or restraints when you were putting these stories together?

TM Not many. The thing I like to do is make what I call the net of association as wide as I can, so that I try not to limit when memory comes in or goes out, or the projection of the future that comes in or goes out. There’s a cross talk of past and present, a cross talk [between] genres.

SFBG One of the stories in Pink Harvest that I thought manifested that is "The Nutria." So much of the physical act of writing is being in the moment and not being in the moment, because you have to focus on the task of writing, but your mind is not in the room. It’s elsewhere.

TM That’s exactly it. You have to not have many strictures or limitations to allow your mind to pinball off the past and present like that.

SFBG Who are some of the writers whose work you have students read?

TM W.G. Sebold is a real favorite of mine. Jamaica Kincaid. Oh, and one of the most gorgeous, poetic writers in the Bay Area is Brian Hoffman. He does the Fishing Report on Thursdays in the Sports section of the San Francisco Chronicle.

SFBG What do you read?

TM Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead [Farrar, Straud and Giroux, 2004]. I’ve always loved Jamaica Kincaid. I love, love, love Carolyn Chute. I read a lot of poetry. One of my favorite poets is Truong Tran. And Tsering Wangmo Dhompa.

SFBG A lot of my good ideas, or what I think are good ideas, come to me in the middle of the night. Do you have the discipline to get up, turn on the light, break out the pencil, and do it?

TM If it’s a really good idea. And I get up a lot at night. You gotta do that. I used to be a truck driver, and I would write down little things as I was driving along, and I think that still happens. But if you’re talking about the discipline to sit down and work it into something else, that takes time. Then you really have to sit down.



“Hello-Now, From Everywhere”


On the corner of 20th and Valencia streets, there’s a window that makes people think of the dead. The reason is a series of annotated sketches that, over the past few years, has gradually accumulated on the glass to the right of the doorway at Dog Eared Books. A sort of eulogistic message board for drifting window shoppers, these paper notices gently call attention to the passing of poets, visual artists, writers, teachers, and other cultural heroes, some renowned, some formerly celebrated, and others largely unknown — though not to Oakland artist Veronica De Jesus, the creator of this memorial window.

Now, with the window grown crowded, another local artist and a friend of De Jesus’s, Colter Jacobsen, has published a collection of the memorials (Allone Co., $18). Tributes to Susan Sontag, Jacques Derrida, Robert Creeley, Octavia Butler, Will Eisner, Quentin Crisp, Richard Pryor, and Rick James are interspersed among pages dedicated to death row prisoner Stanley "Tookie" Williams; Al "Grandpa Munster" Lewis, whose roles also included circus performer, Pacifica radio host, and Green Party candidate for governor of New York; the New Zealand experimental novelist and poet Janet Frame; and "Don" Magargol, a folk dance instructor at San Francisco’s Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

The spiral-bound notebooks in which these memorials are collected — and the cover image, a drawing of a largely denuded but vibrant dandelion superimposed on what looks like crumpled paper that’s been imperfectly smoothed out — suggest a continued meditation on impermanence and remembrance, the attempts we make to prolong or enlarge the presence of our heroes and loved ones in the world after they leave us.

Initials B.B.


› johnny@sfbg.com

REVIEW A few months ago, at a bookstore in another city, I came across a few copies of the ’60s arts and literature journal Kulchur. Scanning them, I discovered that the Bay Area poet Bill Berkson had contributed some film essays and that his writings on cinema were followed an issue or two later by reviews from a fledgling critic named Pauline Kael. The presence of Berkson’s and Kael’s movie notes in Kulchur reflects a time when the boundary between making art and writing about it wasn’t so fixed. Here was Kael, a friend of the poet Robert Duncan, making her first published sojourns into criticism (which were eventually reprinted in I Lost It at the Movies [Little, Brown, 1965]), while Berkson was trying out an essayistic voice that is more vivid and vibrant today, as evidenced by the seven (lucky) pieces in Sudden Address: Selected Lectures 1981–2006 (Cuneiform Press).

Cinema lights up the poetry of Berkson’s friend and mentor Frank O’Hara, so it is slightly less of a surprise, though no less of a pleasure, when Berkson — in the midst of a Sudden Address essay about the painter Philip Guston — turns a brief mention of the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan into a brief blast of instantly classic film criticism. "It’s as if [Jean-Luc] Godard’s movies had predicted the space of" the assassination footage, Berkson remarks. This comment, while not a direct observation about a particular Godard film, captures — and more important, opens up — the cramped, antic, and absurdly violent energy of Godard’s new wave heyday as well as any of Kael’s great celebrations of the director.

Movies are a tangential subject at most in Sudden Address: Berkson might love Louise Brooks almost as much as O’Hara adored James Dean, but the cast that parades through these pieces is more likely to range from Gertrude Stein and Dante to a number of Berkson’s New York school or new realist peers and then back to Dante (in relation to Kenneth Koch) and Stein again. These artists and writers, harmonizing motifs within the overall text, occupy a living history quite different from the cold terminology of the academy and much contemporary art criticism. Attuned to the poet’s flair for "observation for observation’s sake" rather than dedicated to the tedious assemblage of "frames of judgment," Berkson claims that "pleasure in writing criticism is often connected with the surprise of vernacular…. Most critics are Philistines in the sense that they ignore the cardinal rule of art practice, which is never to give the game away."

It would be a matter of hinting, and not one of giving the game away, to suggest that Berkson’s passionate engagement with the kinship between poetry and painting — a passion that rules Sudden Address‘s first piece and gradually possesses its last one — might have a role in the rise of the Mission school and other painterly Bay Area inspirations of recent years. Certainly a number of musicians and visual artists have looked to Berkson’s onetime home of Bolinas as a source of sustenance, albeit temporarily. Born from teaching gigs and lectures at the San Francisco Art Institute and elsewhere, the oratorical style of this book remains energetic throughout. Berkson’s roving intelligence stops to enjoy the infant nature of Italian phonetics and puzzles over the sublime. It tellingly notes that Walt Whitman and Charles Baudelaire "were the two most-photographed nineteenth-century writers" and places painter-poet Joe Brainard and critic Clement Greenberg at the intersection of Hans Hoffman’s paintings in order to take on Greenberg’s famous good-or-bad mode of attack. It also takes issue with former fellow "poet who also writes about art" Peter Schjeldahl’s gradual abandonment of poetry.

Sudden Address‘s cool enthusiasm sometimes gives way to a passion even more at odds with what Berkson deems "the glacial moraine" of postmodernism. Composed in memory of Berkson’s feelings for O’Hara’s poem "In Memory of My Feelings," the 2006 piece "Frank O’Hara at 30" overcomes the assumed importance and first-name logrolling of many New York school–style remembrances. It exemplifies Berkson’s ability to make one style of criticism function as a rich libretto surrounding the aria that is a particular poem or painting. Virgil Thomson attested that when faced with a choice between work, friendship, and passionate love, finding two out of three ain’t bad. But Berkson wants to have all three. At its best, Sudden Address embodies that possibility.