Hacks, Pigs, and Dragons

In this month's East Bay book news: schoolbooks turn sinister, Green Day gets dissected, and killers hope to hasten the Resurrection.

A night to dismember: How did Michelle Michaud turn from a Catholic altar girl into a Mustang Ranch prostitute, then a brutal killer who mutilated one East Bay victim with a curling iron? Contra Costa native Robert Scott was a delivery-company driver plying the highways where Michaud’s crime spree unfolded when the case so captivated him that he switched careers and became a true-crime writer: “I wanted to discover what inner demons had sent her on a murderous downward spiral.” After Rope Burns, Scott covered other killers in a grisly parade of such books as Unholy Sacrifice (Pinnacle, $6.50), about Martinez brothers Glenn and Justin Helzer, who dismembered people in hopes of hastening Jesus’ resurrection. What moves Scott most are the slain: “It is absolutely necessary to advocate for the victims of these crimes, and I wholeheartedly agree with a plaque in [prosecutor] Camille Bibles’ office: ÔTo the living we owe compassion; to the dead we owe the truth.’ … Closure is more than just a catchphrase for the surviving family members. … After the Helzer trials were over, the daughters of Ivan and Annette Stineman and the family of Selina Bishop and Jenny Villarin threw a Ôclosure party.’ They invited detectives, friends, and family. … The whole affair was absolutely elegiac in its love and remembrance of the victims. I was very, very proud to be one of only two journalists to be invited.”

Greenbacks: Some call them sellouts, having sold over fifty million records. Some call them pseudopunks, a distinction that seems pitiful now that punk is thirty years ancient. Some call them seditionists and hypocrites. Journalist Ben Myers sorts it out in Green Day: American Idiots & the New Punk Explosion (Disinformation, $19.95). Raised in Rodeo, lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong met his bandmates at Rod’s Hickory Pit in Vallejo, where his mom worked after her jazz-musician husband died of esophageal cancer. It’s all in this first full and totally unauthorized biography: Mike Dirnt‘s mom was a junkie; he was born hooked … and so much more.

Camera crisis: A filmmaker losing her eyesight — how ironic is that? After archiving Berkeley’s homeless for more than twenty years on video and in such books as Homeless in the Eighties, Homeless in the Nineties, and What Really Killed Rosebud?, Claire Burch has been struggling with health problems sure to affect her operation of Regent Street Press and the Art and Education Media project.

Slay lady slay: Men Are Pigs and I’m the Butcher was Jody Henning‘s original title for her debut novel. Too bad she got talked into changing it. Set in the Livermore of the author’s youth, Deadly Dreams and Desires (Authorhouse, $31) is about a woman who murders eleven men, including a cop. “I started the book as therapy,” Henning says. “After the grueling task of putting the bad memories to paper, it suddenly became fun, as my main character did what I couldn’t do: She got even.” Her fictional victims are based on real males whom Henning didn’t kill. Her ex “is murder number five. My current husband of 26 years, Donnie, also died in the book. He was a little disappointed but he got over it pretty quick. … I won’t let him read it, though. I think it would bother him.”

Learning, disabled: Bribery. Quackery. Idiocy. Religious extremists. Threats. Hardly what you’d expect under the seemingly tame surface of public-school textbook publishing — but it’s rampant, according to a local group devoted to outing dumb mistakes and willful deception (two separate problems, both of which make for bad books) in volumes used by millions of American students. The equator bisects Florida. Sputnik was a ballistic missile. Jihad means “to do one’s best to resist temptation.” All wrong. (Sputnik was a satellite. Jihad means “holy war.” Equator’s way down there.) Yet all of these appear as facts in popular textbooks deplored by longtime editor and Columbia School of Journalism alum William Bennetta, founder of The Textbook League, whose directors include UC Berkeley faculty members. Textbooks aren’t written by experts, Bennetta asserts, but by “hacks” and “fakers”: in-house staffers at such firms as Houghton Mifflin and Prentice Hall. “These books are consumer products, like soap or motor oil, made to appeal to utterly ignorant consumers: namely, teachers. So … just load the things up with pretty pictures and flashy statements” that aren’t vetted or fact-checked, Bennetta says. Content is influenced at public hearings, “sham proceedings concocted and run by the publishers at which louts of every stripe — swindlers, phonies — show up and demand that their versions of the facts appear in the book.” Among these influencers are Christian groups and Muslim groups such as the Council on Islamic Education, which Bennetta calls “liars of the lowest sort and abusers of children. The CIE, we can reasonably infer, uses threats and bribes.” For the next edition of The Textbook Letter, he’s reviewing a new “so-called biology book” that promotes intelligent design, and a history book that presents Mohammed’s dialogue with an angel as fact. Accountability? “The editors don’t know where the equator is, and they don’t care.”

Junk no more: What do you do when you’re interned, artistic, and restless? Unpick the fibers from vegetable sacking to weave cigarette cases. Sift lakebeds for snail and clamshells, then glue these into brooches shaped like flowers, fruit, and Minnie Mouse. Delphine Hirasuna shows slides based on her book Gaman (Ten Speed, $35), about what interned Japanese-American artists made with found materials, at the Pacific School of Religion’s Badé Museum on April 10.

Winning is glorious: Was the title of Diane Di Prima‘s 2001 memoir, Recollections of My Life as a Woman, meant as a joke? Are its last three words really necessary? Di Prima — pursuer of Gnosticism, mother of five, author of thirty-plus books — is renowned as the One and Only Female Beat Poet the Average Person Can Name. She nets special laurels for lifetime achievement at the 25th annual Northern California Book Awards ceremony, held at San Francisco Library’s Main Branch on April 5. The late Berkeley poet/dramatist/Revolutionary Worker contributor/Ebonics advocate June Jordan is pegged for a posthumous prize. Nominees in many categories include Richmond husband-and-wife publishing team Omnidawn, whose Poems in Spanish ($14.95) by San Francisco State professor Paul Hoover is up for a prize. His poems are in English, “but it is an English that surprises with its sharply etched and yet resonant cadences,” explains Omnidawn’s Rusty Morrison, and which “reminds us that we often must hear our own voice translated through other mediums before we can receive it most accurately.” She calls poetry and fabulist fiction “vital means of awakening minds from the narcotizing effects of capitalist culture.” For more on the awards, visit PoetryFlash.org/NCBA.html.

Ho ho hotel: A spunky Filipino-American boy turns activist, leading his tap-dancing, drum-beating, karaoke-singing adult homies in a protest against their eviction from a residential hotel in Anthony D. Robles’ Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel/Si Lakas at ang Makibaka Hotel (Children’s Book Press, $16.95). San Leandro illustrator Carl Angel researched the project by browsing photo archives of past and present eviction struggles. The publisher claims that although Filipino Americans comprise the second-largest Asian population in the country, no picture books for kids cover their history. Angel says it’s a money thing, because mainstream publishers assume the Filipino-American market is too narrow: “It’s easier to make their investment back on a project that appeals to the widest audience possible. I think ethnic-specific stories can appeal to a wide audience.” The Kite Runner, anyone?

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