Caring Robots 

In this month's East Bay book news, Astro Boy turns 56, and Cecil Brown wonders where all the African Americans have gone.

Cosmic ranger: When American warplanes arrived to bomb a poor Vietnamese village, Astro Boy saved the day by — zoom! — tying them into pretzels. In The Astro Boy Essays ($16.95), new from Berkeley's Stone Bridge Press, manga scholar and Astro Boy translator Frederik L. Schodt dishes on Japanese artist Osamu Tezuka, whose attractive androgynous long-eyelashed little robot pacifist, created in 1951, featured in serialized comics for more than twenty years. Tezuka crusaded against racism and social injustice, Schodt argues, by using robots as the feared and mistreated "other." One episode ended with a character intoning: "We humans who despised robots for their actions should be ashamed." Cool slick color prints evoke classic episodes such as "Crucifix Island," "Melanin Tribe," "Führer ZZZ," and "The Hot Dog Corps." Tezuka did other projects too, although his "highly animistic" Bible scenes had to be edited out of a program the Vatican and Italian TV hired him to create.

MIA: Strolling through UC Berkeley one day in 2004, Cecil Brown "realized that I had only seen one or two of us on campus." African Americans, that is. "I thought, where has everybody gone?" In Dude, Where's My Black Studies Department? (North Atlantic, $15.95), a book inspired by his 2004 Express essay of the same title, Cal Ph.D Brown blames "the whitification of Berkeley" — a school that's "on the front line of the battleground to keep blacks out of elite universities"— on other minority groups: "University officials find African Americans difficult to deal with, so they solve their diversity problem with politically correct replacements: Caribbean professors, Asian Americans, and women." (European-influenced Caribbean blacks, he charges, exemplify "albinization.") Another problem is academia's emphasis on the written word, on "literary book learning" versus "the oral reality of culture." Things would change were race reintroduced into the admissions process; the trouncing of affirmative action is yet another facet of "the American nightmare."

Star of India: He was India's Next Big Thing in 2004, a 26-year-old lit-rock star in whose magical-realist debut novel, The Last Song of Dusk (Random House, $13.95), a grieving couple sought solace in an anthropomorphized beach house (it had feelings; it yearned to dance). Soaring to Bollywoodish fame, Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi split several years between Berkeley and India but has now settled in Mumbai to be with his parents. Translation rights in eight languages have already been secured for his next novel, due out in 2008. It delves into wealth and political corruption; the Times of India has dubbed it "Shanghvi's Explosive Xposé." Asked whether he based his almost-purple erotic scenes on personal experience, Shanghvi said no: "If I drew from my life to write about sex, I'd have to write a volume and live in fear of a fatwa instead."

Tale-wagging: At one point in Eric Puchner's short-story collection Music Through the Floor (Scribner, $13), a pretentious Berkeley grad student — in art history, no less — condescends to a recovering alcoholic. She gets (spoiler alert) her comeuppance when the twelve-stepper steals her glasses. A Stegner Fellow and Stanford lecturer, Puchner dabbles in the old showoffadoccio himself, with such lookit-me details as a woman calling herself "blind as Monet," a blown-out perm resembling peyos (bit of Chassid Chumor there), and a homeless man sitting alongside "a flourish of shit."

Doo-rag: Echoing that phrase with eerie accuracy, Matt Pagett writes, "A twist of hair forms a kind of elegant flourish at one end of most fox poo" in What Shat That? ($12.95), new from Berkeley's Ten Speed Press. Detailing fifty species' dung with helpful color photos, it's a learn-and-laugh classic. "Whale poo has a high water content, and so tends to dissipate into a large cloud" — which contains undigested fish eyes — "instead of sinking as a humungous log." Diet affects hue; shrimp "will result in a pink cloud." The CIA developed a radio transmitter disguised as tiger droppings, placing these along the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War. Mother koalas produce squashy vitamin-rich dung, which they feed their babies while weaning them. Just so you know.

Bridge mix: A Mexican Muslim convert making taquitos at a Hayward mosque, planning to resettle in sharia-law Sudan where he can "study the Koran in the traditional way." PTSD-stricken Cambodian-Holocaust refugees fingerpainting in Fruitvale with their Jewish-Iranian therapist. Hot Laotian babes in wet T-shirts posing for the Mien Girls Calendar. The photographer, also Mien, "told myself I should do something for my community." An Afghan selling GOD BLESS AMERICA!!! T-shirts in his Fremont shop. African-American Soka Gakkai Buddhists, chanting at an El Cerrito funeral. Under the Dragon (Heyday, $24.95) explores celebrates the emerging state of "beyond diversity" with stunning photographs by Lonny Shavelson and compelling text by Fred Setterberg, who declares: "The Bay Area has leapt out of the melting pot and into the fire." That burns! But he means it in a good way.

Tweety birds: They clock thousands of miles each spring, veering north via stars, magnetic fields, and light patterns we can't see. "As you sleep, a thousand orioles might travel through a slice of sky above your bed," writes UC Berkeley grad Miyoko Chu in Songbird Journeys ($23). "Mixed among them, multitudes of tanagers from tropical evergreen forests and buntings from the Caribbean head for the temperate woodlands where they will raise their young. Thousands of warblers flit past throughout the night, on their way from the tropics to the boreal forests of Canada. Bobolinks ride the winds from the pampas of Argentina to the open grasslands of North America, while thrushes from Central America wing their way toward the broad taiga of Alaska and Canada." A Cornell ornithologist, Chu makes you care about sparrows — and their shrinking populations.


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