Berkeley author Michael Chabon has just won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Random House, $26.95). The tale of two teenage Jewish cousins who create a comic-book hero as WWII gets underway comes on the heels of the hard-working writer’s Wonder Boys, which generated a burst of Oscar buzz.
* * *It was years after their breakup that Quentin Lee realized how much he really loved his first boyfriend. As a UC Berkeley English major, circa 1990, Lee was “so engaged in political things” and the blossoming of multiculturalism, he says, “that I didn’t even realize: He’s the one.”
In his new novel, Dress Like a Boy (iUniverse.com, $11.95), Lee traces the troubled sexual coming-of-age of a UC Berkeley student, circa 1990, who can’t decide between his bi beau and his closeted cousin. Blowjobs on the Bay Bridge, flashbacks to a Hong Kong childhood, and Berkeley-style ideological struggles make for an explicit, soul-searching jaunt.
“The Asian-American autobiographical novel is now a tradition,” says the author, a director whose latest work, Drift, will premiere at the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival this summer and who will appear at A Different Light Bookstore in the City on June 27. “It was started by Maxine Hong Kingston and continued by Amy Tan. My book follows that tradition, from a gay male point of view.”
He sent a copy of the book to his real-life first boyfriend.
“He called after he read it,” Lee laughs. “He said we should talk about it after getting high on Ecstasy.”
* * *Speaking of emerging from closets, Oakland’s Quick American Archives has just released Kiss of the Sun ($9.95), a new how-to that takes marijuana gardening out of the bedroom and into the backyard. With the help of high-quality photographs, John Alexander offers step-by-step instructions on planting, feeding, watering, harvesting, drying, and more, including the tricky business of determining whether your cannabis plants are female or male.
“The choice of growing site will obviously be personal,” longtime grower Alexander concedes, “but a sheltered south-facing slope is ideal”–well, so much for the Berkeley and Oakland hills. Still, “the pleasure of arriving at a secret garden around harvest time,” the author muses, “and seeing beautiful healthy plants is immense. The sun sends no electricity bills.”
British-born Alexander decries the “most unfortunate” English habit of mixing cannabis “with the dreaded killer weed tobacco” for smoking purposes. Unlike handguns and Big Macs, the unadulterated joint is, he says, “one Americanism that Europe could do well to adopt.”
* * *Americans abroad face strange spliffs, but that’s not all. In Japan, where wearing overcoats indoors and addressing one’s boss by his or her first name are both bad form, physical and cultural faux pas can really bite foreigners in the butt. Berkeley’s Stone Bridge Press offers etiquette lessons in Andrew Horvat‘s Japanese Beyond Words: How to Walk and Talk Like a Native Speaker ($14.95). The author, a journalist with thirty years of life in Japan under the belt of his yukata, will be at Easy Going on May 1: Learn the intricacies of intonation and apology, the potency of pauses, and the subtleties of eating soup. You’ll never blow a bow again.
* * *Good news for readers who’ve been waiting for a book to match In Cold Blood. Truman Capote set the bar pretty high, it’s true. But he’s had way too few worthy successors. The true-crime genre boasts built-in drama, outrageous characters, and atmosphere to spare–yet its characteristically terrible writing is a real crime.
Best book I’ve read all year is Deanne Stillman‘s Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave (Morrow, $24).
One day about ten years ago, LA-based journalist Stillman “stumbled into a bar after hiking in the desert” near the vast military base at Twentynine Palms.
“There was some talk of a knife–a murder.” Two young women, one only fifteen, had been killed by a Marine. It had been a vicious crime, with sex and a virtual rain of stab-wounds. Yet the fact that no one in the bar could remember the victims’ names made Stillman’s blood run cold.
The resultant book bares a desert culture that few of us have ever seen, a sandy maelstrom of broken hearts and last chances. (One victim’s mother, having grown up in Alameda and then with a drug-dealing stepfather in Oakland, joined the desert’s phalanx of single moms when she became a bartender in what she saw as “the land of opportunity.”) We see teenage girls “loving boys and healing them,” caring for babies and crack-addicted parents, desperately poor “at a time when all anybody wanted to talk about was our great victory in the Gulf War,” Stillman says.
The fringe dwellers she met and wrote about “are not part of the national conversation. They sell us drugs, they drive our trucks, they go to jail. They’re a lot of poor white people, and poor white people are unfashionable.”
* * *”At this turn of the century,” Berkeley poet Sandra Gilbert muses in Inventions of Farewell: A Book of Elegies (Norton, $25.95), “mourning has become not so much electric as eclectic.” We are more muddled about what to do with our grief than our ancestors were, and Gilbert, who teaches at UC Davis, compiled the new anthology “to offer some answers” to the grief question “by introducing readers to at least one way of mourning that has persisted through massive cultural and theological turmoil.”
A rich grab bag of poets ranging from Rudyard Kipling to Sharon Olds to Anne Bradstreet to Seamus Heaney to East Bay habitués Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Thom Gunn by turns rage and console, with input from dozens of others including Thomas Gray, who is indispensible where elegies are concerned.
Writing to her friend Sylvia Plath, who had committed suicide, Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Sexton, who would later commit suicide, composed this stanza, reprinted in Inventions of Farewell: “Sylvia, Sylvia,/where did you go/after you wrote me/from Devonshire/about raising potatoes/and keeping bees?”
* * *Is twelve too young for love?
Not now–and not 150 years ago, either, says Geling Yan. While researchng her new novel, The Lost Daughter of Happiness (Hyperion, $22.95), the award-winning Alameda author found accounts of boys as young as eight who haunted San Francisco’s Chinatown in those first decades after the Gold Rush, smitten with the underage prostitutes who worked there.
“I was stunned–shocked–to read about all those young white boys,” says Yan, in whose book the blue-eyed adolescent Chris falls for Fusang, whose first customer he is.
At one point in her research, “I saw this woman’s picture,” says the author, “and I knew she was a prostitute, yet she looked so regal, so dignified, so beautiful. I wanted to know what was behind that picture.”
To the Shanghai-born Yan, both the white culture and Chinatown’s largely Cantonese culture “were very exotic” to read and write about. In both cases, “I felt like a foreigner.”
The race riots and sexual slavery in her book are a world away from the dim-sum houses and curio shops of Chinatown today.
“It was a really wild period of time, and American culture then was such a young culture,” says Yan, who is working with director Joan Chen on a screenplay for the cinematic version of the novel, which was first published in Taiwan five years ago. Chen’s 1999 film Xiu Xiu: The Sent-down Girl was based on a Yan novella.
And while sex, perforce, permeates the plot, Yan chose to write around it rather than directly about it.
“The sense of sex is more beautiful to read about than the act,” says the author, who will be at Cody’s on May 8. “The texture, the feel, the atmosphere–otherwise, it’s just porno.”
* * *When radical teen Rosebud Denovo entered the UC Berkeley chancellor’s mansion in 1992 and was promptly shot dead by an Oakland cop, Claire Burch was out of town. But almost immediately upon arriving home, the Berkeley filmmaker was back in People’s Park, where the activist’s friends were demonstrating, mourning, and calling Rosebud a martyr.
Burch had never heard of the dead girl, but “I got so caught up” in the story, she says, that she spent several years filming thousands of hours’ worth of interviews to create the video What Really Killed Rosebud? and a new book by the same name (Regent Press, $18).
The official story of Rosebud’s last hours “is so full of holes,” Burch says indignantly. The petite teen, weighing just over a hundred pounds, was neither tear-gassed to drive her out of the mansion so that she could be summarily arrested nor begged to surrender by authorities or loved ones, as is done in movies about terrorists.
“The hunch,” Burch reflects, “is that the officer who killed her was deliberately sent to the scene” because he was especially skittish, having been the victim of a recent shooting himself.
“I think it was all thought out,” says the author, whose interviews include one with an ambulance attendant who was summoned to the mansion after Rosebud was shot.
“She was handcuffed–dead and handcuffed,” Burch muses. “And she wasn’t even taken to a hospital. Now why would that be?”