Unwelcome wagon: Hunger of Memory (Bantam, $6.99) author and Pacific News Service editor Richard Rodriguez was scheduled to receive an honorary doctorate at Cal State East Bay’s commencement exercises this month. Upon hearing this news and assuming that Rodriguez would also be the keynote speaker, several faculty and students in the university’s School of Education Leadership e-mailed campus president Norma Rees threatening to boycott the event. Their beef? Peabody Award-winning Rodriguez is a firm opponent of affirmative action. (Recalling his own college days in a 1997 article, he mused, “One year I had a scholarship for being bright; the next I had a scholarship for being brown,” and mocked the way his professors “waved their sad little ‘Diversity’ flag.”) The result of the protest? Rodriguez bowed out. The protesters maintained their boycott plan anyway, opting to hold their own separate commencement.
Props and pops: Oakland lawyer Dylan Schaffer‘s smart suspense novels Misdemeanor Man and I Right the Wrongs (Bloomsbury, $23.95) feature a public defender who sings in a Barry Manilow tribute band. “Those who don’t get it — Manilow detractors — approach me sheepishly and say, ‘You’re kidding, right?'” Schaffer says. “When I say, ‘I’m not kidding and I see nothing to kid about,’ they uniformly slink away with their tails between their legs. There’s really no intelligent way to dismiss Barry.” The large-footed vocalist who struck gold with “Mandy” and “Copacabana” “is an oracle,” says Schaffer, who has handled hundreds of cases, including the Pacific Heights dog-mauling and the Mitchell Brothers fratricide. “Consult his many albums for wisdom of every imaginable sort. … Manilow matters because his music is a looking glass.'”
Keen, unseen: She founded Berkeley’s Amoeba Records with her husband in 1990, but Yvonne Prinz is still a tweener — at least mentally. And she sees nonexistent people. A girl with a sassy, savvy imaginary friend gets her first bra in Prinz’s debut novel, Still There, Clare (Raincoast, $13.95), which has spawned a TV series now in the works. Prinz belonged to “an invisible gang … a small group of eccentric individuals of varying ages who cheered me on when I performed Swan Lake in my bedroom. … I still have one-on-one chats with a few of them but they’ve mostly moved on to other young girls’ bedrooms.” It was easy to channel kid-ism when writing the novel: “I’m deeply immature. … Just don’t ask me to balance a checkbook.”
Play with me: And when she was fourteen, future New York Philharmonic oboist, New York Times classical-music reporter, and UC Berkeley oboe teacher Blair Tindall attended an exclusive academy where one of her instructors “gazed at my torso” for “a closer look at my developing breasts,” and another “elbowed me in the boobs, pausing to let his forearm luxuriate on my left breast.” A concertmaster offered her tequila, dope, Brahms, body odor, and more: “I could see another woman’s menstrual blood smeared on the sheet,” Tindall writes in her deep-dish memoir Mozart in the Jungle (Atlantic Monthly, $24), “but I let him push me back on the bedding … he thrust himself into me. … ‘Thank you,’ I murmured.” Thenceforth it’s more boinking, insider info, and acoustics from the talented wag who recalls a gift she once gave a gravely ill ex-lover: a toy soldier, “a goose-stepping Nazi from me.” Tindall will be at Cody’s Telegraph on July 25.
Not dead yet: Last year the NEA announced that fiction-reading was moribund. No dice, retorts San Francisco editor Kevin Smokler, whose Bookmark Now (Basic, $14.95) assembles essays by young writers fueled by blogging and hip-hop: Glen David Gold writes about how he prowled cafes striving to see someone reading his first Express cover story. In the poem that epilogues the anthology, UC Berkeley student Nico Cary notes: “fuck that nigga/… vacant eyes and neo-colonialism.”
Gimme an F: Speaking of the f-word, it was a career-builder too for My Life So Far (Random House, $26.95) author Jane Fonda, whose daughter Vanessa attended Berkeley’s Blue Fairyland Nursery School, operated by the Red Family commune, in 1971. There, Fonda met fellow parent and school volunteer Country Joe McDonald. He joined her traveling anti-Vietnam War revue “FTA” — meaning variously “Free the Army” and “Fuck the Army” — along with Donald Sutherland, Holly Near, Peter Boyle, and Ben Vereen. But McDonald didn’t stay. “Jane and I got into a fight,” the singer recalls on his Web site, “over her concept of ‘GIs are just working-class guys who don’t know how to spell’ and I, being one of those, left the show.”
Once upon a third rail: There’s nothing like a labor strike to puncture the fantasies surrounding public transit, as Jonathan Richmond elucidates in Transport of Delight (University of Akron, $39.95), which chronicles the creation of LA’s rail system as an endeavor hamstrung by misguided hopes and pipe dreams. A mass-transit expert and Fulbright scholar who has taught at UC Berkeley, Richmond says: “Many of the elements of mythology I’ve observed in Los Angeles hold true with BART as well, particularly an unrealistic belief in its ability to solve transportation and other problems.”
You go, Iron Curtain-destroying girl: Communism couldn’t have fallen in Poland if not for brave female activists whose clandestine efforts, largely through the underground press, went virtually unnoticed on the world stage. Berkeley’s Shana Penn breaks the silence in Solidarity’s Secret (University of Michigan, $34.95), based on ten years’ worth of interviews. “Why was it so difficult for most American journalists and scholars, including feminists, to accept that Polish women had played a leadership role in Solidarity? Why were some Americans unwilling to allow the Solidarity legend to be more than a story about muscular working-class heroes? It takes a lot of effort to change a revolutionary legend,” Penn says, but then asks: “If Solidarity men went into hiding when martial law was declared, who was hiding the men? How was information being disseminated and by whom? If Solidarity women … weren’t making the coffee for the men, what were they doing?”
Caboose brutality: When a homeless Vietnam vet was found beaten to death on the train tracks near Albany Hill in 1994, Albany cop and Murder on the Rails (New Horizon, $23.95) author William Palmini started tracking a perp who came to be known as the Boxcar Killer — and who, like his Albany victim, was involved with the Freight Train Riders of America, a brotherhood formed in 1984 by war vets estranged from the straight world and struggling under Reagan-era social-welfare cutbacks. “It’s the kind of case that comes only once in a police officer’s career — if ever,” says Palmini, who formed a surprising bond with murderer Robert Silveria after the latter was caught. “He asked me about my sideburns. I started to explain that I was a spokesperson for a nationally acclaimed program where I used the persona of Elvis to promote traffic safety. … He wanted me to sing for him and I said, ‘No. … Why don’t you?'” The killer jumped up and sang “Heartbreak Hotel,” while playing air guitar.
Wherever you are: Come out to your co-workers; come out at summer camp; pressure the media; write to the Secretary of Defense; tell your kids what “transgender” means; patronize businesses belonging to the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce; and come out to your family “in a confident, uncompromising way” that will “teach your loved ones to love you or lose you” — find these tips and more in 50 Ways to Support Lesbian & Gay Equality (Inner Ocean, $14.95), edited by East Bayites Angela Watrous and Meredith Maran.