Books Issue 2011

Lit shorts: Cocker, on paper


Mother, Brother, Lover
By Jarvis Cocker
Faber and Faber
208 pp., hardcover, $17

Books of lyrics — words uprooted from the music and set down naked on the page — are traditionally published with either self-congratulation or doubts by songwriters. Jarvis Cocker has some doubts.

“Lyrics are not poetry: they are words to songs,” he writes in the reluctant and faintly self-conscious introduction to Mother, Brother, Lover: The Selected Lyrics of Jarvis Cocker. But the former Pulp front man doesn’t give himself enough credit. His persona as a sexual fantasist makes for devilishly entertaining stories — scotched lovers, adultery, watching someone’s sister from the bedroom closet — all of which become more vivid here. Pulp classics like “Do You Remember the First Time?” are plain funnier when you can pick up on the subtleties in punctuation and position of words. Notes in the back are similarly revealing. The title of the misfit anthem “Mis-shapes” comes from chocolates called by the same name that are too malformed to fit in boxes.

Read more reviews in our Books Issue, on stands now

Lit shorts: ‘Beck’ by the book


By Autumn de Wilde
Chronicle Books
176 pp., hardcover, $35

For more than a decade and half, pop culture photographer (and video director) Autumn de Wilde has chronicled Beck, the iconic songwriter and her personal friend, on tour, in the studio, and as he’s posed before the camera — the latter especially.

Indeed, in Wilde’s photos we find Beck looking as impenetrably cool as ever. Incorporating fewer candid shots and plenty of showy staged ones — Beck in a white suite; Beck lifting an enormous red egg; Beck surrounded by loosely clad dancers — the collection has few insights into the mythologized songwriter and too many into his eclectic wardrobe. Wilde is a fine photographer, but her photos evoke the same Beck we’ve been looking at for decades. For real insights, look to the front of the book at the conversations between Wilde and Beck, where the two are finishing each other’s sentences and looking back on their collaboration. 

Read more book reviews in our Books Issue, on stands now

Cult wonder


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cruel revolution


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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









Occupy hip-hop


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

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


By Nelson George

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Justin Bua

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Common

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

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

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

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

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

Get read!




By Chuck Eddy

Duke University Press

352 pp., paper, $24.95

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



By Christian Parenti

Nation Books

295 pp., hardcover, $25.99

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



by Joe Wolff

Interlink Books

224 pp., paperback $20

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



By Robert Morgan

Algonquin Books

497 pp., hardcover, $29.95

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



By Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher

Running Press

272 pp., paper, $14

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



By Sam Mogannam and Dabney Gough

Ten Speed Press

297 pp., hardcover, $32.50

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



By Chuck Palahniuk


247 pp., hardcover, $25

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



edited by Alison Bechdel

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

352 pp., paperback $25

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



By John Schlimm

Lifelong Books/Da Capo

164 pp., paper, $17

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



By Kira Stackhouse


352 pp., hardcover, $34.99

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



By Alex Ross


384 pp., paper, $18

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



By John Besh

Andrews McMeel Publishing

272 pp., hardcover, $35

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



By Mark Boster

Time Capsule Press

128 pages, hardcover, $34.95

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



By Jim Meehan

Sterling Epicure

368 pp., hardcover, $24.95

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



By Paul Madonna

City Lights

240 pp., hardcover, $27.95

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



By Dan Wells


320 pp., paperback, $11.95

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



S.H. Fernando, Jr.

Hippocrene Books

224 pp., paperback, $19.95

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



By Richard Rhodes


261 pp., hardcover, $26.95

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



By Jane Hirschfield


98 pp., hardcover, $25

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



By Yotam Ottolenghi

Chronicle Books

287 pp., hardcover, $35

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



By Amy Sonnie and James Tracy

Melville House

201 pp., paper, $16.95

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

(Rebecca Bowe)



By Martin Limon

Soho Press

376 pp., hardcover, $24

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



By One Ring Zero

Black Balloon Publishing

116 pp., hardcover, $24.95

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



By Geoffrey Wansell

Arcade Publishing

192 pp., hardcover, $24.95

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



By Ariel Rubissow Okamoto and Kathleen M. Wong

University of California Press

352 pp., paperback, $24.95

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


























































































































You grow, girl?


HERBWISE The average celebrity autobiography follows an arc of learning and growing. The earnestly-made mistake — whether in the form of childhood shenanigan or adult infidelity — and then the ensuing redemption. But rarely do book-sized treatises emerge from the decision to leave the celebrity fold for the greener fields of bud agriculture. Leave it to the girl from the Blair Witch Project to produce that one.

You know Heather Donahue’s snotface. Apparently too well, because as she writes in her new memoir Grow Girl: Once Upon a Time She Made The Blair Witch Project, Then She Went to Pot. Literally (Gotham Books, 286pp., paper, $26) — score nothing for succinct subtitles — too many people took the movie’s faux-reality premise seriously. Casting agents, it seems, couldn’t shake the feeling that this professional actress was merely a kid caught with a Camcorder when a malignant forest spirit got a bee in its bonnet.

But then she met a guy from Nuggettown (an actual place, renamed for anonymity). What ensued was a romance that left Donahue the proud renter of a secluded house in the wood and enough pot-growing equipment that she had to grow to stay afloat financially.

Such a pat story! Throughout Donahue’s at times overly flowery, but on the whole eminently readable narrative, the growth of her fellow (capital G) “Girls” mirrors her struggle against the confines of society — the larger, non-weed growing one but also more interestingly, the grower (capital C) Community of Nuggettown.

For not all is hunky-dory in the land of impressive tri-cone crystal formation. Women in Nuggettown are relegated to supporting roles — the kept “pot wife,” the “grow girl” that is often bossed about by her XY-chromosomed peers. On the cover of the book Donahue is clutching the top of a healthy bud plant to her naked breasts, a stereotypical male fantasy if there ever was one — but it’s ultimately all about empowerment. She blooms from a shattered ex-actress to a fuller human being, all under the Mondo Reflector she installs herself on the grow room ceiling.

One approach the medical marijuana movement might benefit from is humanizing its growers. Imagine a commercial like those for Florida oranges or California cheeses. A proud farmer fluffs up Mary Jane’s leafy bustle while a down-home voiceover plays in the background (“High CBD levels, if you want ’em. Donchaknow.”) Yes, your friendly medicine agriculturist is a person too, says Grow Girl. Possibly a person that reinforces gender stereotypes through a strict hippie code of conduct slash double standard, but a person with debts and passions and doubts nonetheless.

Donahue humanizes the cannabis industry. Some farmers, she writes, are making enough money to keep Nuggettown’s kayak store in business, but any conspicuous consumption masks the fact that it’s not really advisable for smalltown weed people to be saving their ducats in your run-of-the-mill local credit union. These are moms-and-pops, guys!

The book is slightly dated. The storyline ends in Nuggettown’s hope for a persecution-free Barack Obama presidency (Obama’s very promises rendered all the more poignant for today’s reader, informed of the President’s about-face on the issue of raiding state-legal growing facilities). For a brief moment, it seemed like cannabis would slough off the shackles of social stigma and claim to an honored position in our medical establishment.

That didn’t happen, of course — the feds raided Mendocino County’s Northstone Organics in October of this year, for chrissakes. But Mary Jane, still she rises, as does Donahue by book’s end, after agricultural disasters, horrendous break-ups, and shattered expectations.

So, Grow Girl is great if you like your marijuana stories imbued with a general sense of struggle. (And what other kind, really, exists these days?)