Who’s Kidding Whom?

This month's East Bay book news.

(Hip) Hop on Pop: Baseball cap on backwards, headphones around his neck, young face tense with determination to be a star … it’s not Eminem, it’s Turntable Timmy, titular hero of a phat new kids’ book by Hayward’s Michael Perry (Free Will, $10.95). Illustrations by Doug Cunningham accompany the rhyming saga of a boy with big DJ dreams: “Perfection takes practice/now he’s quick like a fox/sharp as a cactus.”

Perry, who back in the day was the lead vocalist and songwriter of the rap outfit DFTC (Down for the Cause), was inspired to found Free Will while searching for multicultural fiction for his own daughter — who is now thirteen and a rapper herself. In Turntable Timmy, he writes of “the four pillars” of hip-hop culture: breakdancing, graffiti art, rapping, and skratching/DJing. “Hip-hop is a state of mind, not just a musical genre,” Perry tells Press Here. “It’s the way you feel, dress, and act. You don’t just listen to hip-hop. You live it.” Learning about the four pillars can “help open the minds of people young and old — not just to one culture, but to all cultures, religions, and art. Then and only then will you have a better handle on life. Uncle George Clinton said it best” with the title of his 1978 Funkadelic album, One Nation Under a Groove, Perry says.

Every copy of the book includes a CD with renderings by DJ Q-Bert and Perry himself. Timmy resembles his creator in many ways, but mainly in the force of his determination.

“Timmy definitely has my ambition. He knows what he wants and he’s willing to work hard to make his dream a reality.”

Dr. Seuss‘ Sam I Am, green-eggs-and-ham sensibilities proved it forty years ago: rhymes learned in childhood can last your whole life.

“Hip-hop is and for many years has been a great poetic medium,” Perry reflects. “From Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ to Tupac Shakur’s ‘The Rose That Grew from Concrete’ to my daughter Christina’s ‘My City’ — hip-hop is and forever will be poetry.”

Just shoot me:
When Berkeley photographer Rondal Partridge was a child of five, he started spending time in his mother’s darkroom. She taught him to develop film. She was Imogen Cunningham. In Oakland, where his father taught at Mills, Partridge grew up at the feet of family friends Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Dorothea Lange. In Quizzical Eye (California Historical Society, $21.95), a new collection of Partridge’s quirky and consummately canny shots of submarines, farmworkers, his own kids, and more, spanning seventy years, we learn that his “first memory of photography was ‘burning negatives.'” Cunningham was “an especially inconsistent technician, so what else was there to do with the exposures she judged inadequate but let her sons dispose of them in the fireplace?”

The afterlife is not a toy: Our ancestors quaked in unapologetic terror of the underworld. While today’s secular, scientific, and rational society hasn’t exactly evolved beyond such fears, Victoria Nelson posits in The Secret Life of Puppets (Harvard University Press, $29.95) that our old fears emerge in the shape of B-movie monsters and comic-book villains. In short, kid stuff.

“I see a lot of very old Western ideas inherent in these lowbrow forms,” says the Albany scholar, whose essays comprising this book are densely packed with evidence that the humanoid golems and ka of yore still wield power in the form of the Terminator et al. “I call it the great technological puppet upgrade,” says Nelson, whose research traces how “Pinocchio has morphed into robots, androids, and cyborgs. These creatures are superhuman, defying time and space. I see it as an incredibly positive blossoming of half-conscious ideas about the afterlife and immortality — and these ideas are exchanged every afternoon on the Cartoon Network.”

Small wonder: Standing in a supermarket checkout line one day, Sarah Wilson perused a tabloid article headlined, “How to Tell If Your Neighbor Is a Space Alien.”

“It was written in a semi-serious way, but brought up all kinds of wonderful, whimsical imagery — asking things like, ‘Are your neighbor’s clothes wildly mismatched?’ and ‘Does your neighbor use everyday objects inappropriately?'” And that’s what sparked George Hogglesberry, Grade-School Alien (Tricycle, $14.95). Illustrated by Chad Cameron, it’s the story of royal-blue George, who has a detachable nose and only looks like a boy when he isn’t transforming himself into a tomato, a clock, or some other object.

“The plot may have sprung from a love of astronomy and space, coupled with childhood memories of growing up in a Navy family,” says the Danville author. “We moved a lot, so there were plenty of times when I went into a new school with a mixture of excitement and hopefulness, missing old friends and feeling small and quiet in surroundings where everybody else knew each other. More than this, however, I think all of us experience childhood as a time of universal challenges, adaptations, and survival celebrations.”

P is for prepuce: “When people get very turned on,” Good Vibrations cofounder Joani Blank writes in The Playbook for Kids About Sex (Yes, $5), “they sometimes feel a rush of excitement … called an orgasm or a climax or ‘coming.’ It’s pretty hard to describe,” she concedes, but compares it to whooshing down a slide or “peeing after you’ve had to wait all morning.” In this and A Kid’s First Book About Sex (Yes, $6), Marcia Quackenbush‘s drawings augment Blank’s easy-to-read explanations and assignments — from drawing a picture of “something or someone you think is sexy” to specifying favorite masturbation methods, from “rub[bing] myself against the bed or table” to “rid[ing] a horse or bicycle.”

Remembering Ramona: More than fifty years and thirty books ago, Beverly Cleary published her first novel for children, Henry Huggins. Still very much in print, Henry and friends have captivated three generations of readers and sold tens of millions of copies. How many of Cleary’s fans know that she graduated from Cal in 1938? UC’s former Haste-Channing dorm was recently renamed Cleary Hall in her honor; Ramona’s World (Harper Collins, $5.99) is her latest.

Look homeward, angel: Inner-city savvy and a bone-deep bond entwine two sisters growing up on the shores of Lake Merritt, in Walnut Creek, in Cody’s Books and beyond, circa 1980, in Danyel Smith‘s exquisite More Like Wrestling (Crown, $23.95). “We’re from Oakland,” explains one sister, now a seasoned narrator. “Oakland builds quality.” Smith herself grew up here, then went east to write for The New York Times, Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Spin, and Vibe.

Hello, Dalí: Berkeley Pulitzerian Michael Chabon‘s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is cited in Salvador Dalí’s Dream of Venus (Princeton Architectural Press, $60), a look at an extraordinary Surrealist funhouse/pavilion the painter created for New York’s 1939 World’s Fair. As author Ingrid Schaffner reports, in Chabon’s novel a cocktail party is held to celebrate the funhouse, at which Joe Kavalier saves Salvador Dalí from suffocating in a diving helmet; later, Kavalier performs magic alongside bits of scenery salvaged from the funhouse. Schaffner’s text accompanies a collection of dazzling and only recently discovered photographs by Eric Schaal, showing Dalí’s complex constructions: tanks stocked with lushly made beds, lobsters, birdcages, a bandaged cow, and bare-breasted, fishnet-stockinged swimmers, with backdrops featuring burning giraffes and, naturellement, limp clocks.

Please pass the Dharma: In his introduction to the coffee-table spectacular Visions of Buddhist Life (University of California, $39.95), Berkeley’s venerable Huston Smith recalls the day ten years back when he was scheduled to talk with the visiting Dalai Lama for an hour in front of an audience at UC Berkeley.

“As I was working my way through the crowd that was entering the theater, someone in the throng recognized me and said, ‘You’re going to be dialoguing with him, aren’t you? He’s goofy.’ Recognizing a good line when I hear one,” Smith — to whose studies in religion and philosophy Bill Moyers has devoted a five-part PBS special — decided to launch the dialogue with it. But the Tibetan interpreter didn’t know the word “goofy,” so “it took several minutes of negotiating … for him to arrive at a Tibetan equivalent. We settled on ‘playful.'”

Lustrous globe-spanning photos and text by Don Farber capture saffron robes and stupas that spur Smith to note, “When I reflect on the unimaginable suffering experienced by my cousin who survived Auschwitz … I am reminded of how critically important it is to generate ahimsa“: the Buddhist mandate to do no harm.

Why we’re mean: Smith and the Dalai Lama also have something to say in Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them? (Bantam, $39.95), in which Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman narrates a meeting that took place two years ago in India between the Buddhist leader and an international coterie of top scientists and philosophers. So … why do seemingly intelligent people blow other people to bits? Is peace plausible? Drawing on realities Eastern and Western, inner and outer, this posse does its darnedest to unearth answers.

Snippets: Dragon lore and more makes Exploring Chinatown ($22.95) by Carol Stepanchuk and illustrated by Leland Wong, published by Berkeley’s Pacific View Press, a perfect Lunar New Year pick. Kids nurse WNBA dreams in Hoop Girlz (Holiday House, $16.95), new from Berkeley’s Lucy Jane Bledsoe. Former Contra Costa Times travel editor Carol Fowler takes a new look at familiar places in Insiders’ Guide to Berkeley and the East Bay (Globe Pequot; $10.95); she’ll show slides at Easy Going on January 28 at 7:30.

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