Threaten 'n' thrive: PEN Oakland -- local chapter of the International Organization of Poets, Essayists, and Novelists -- presented its Eighth Annual Literary Censorship Award December 9 to George Theodule, who as a fifteen-year-old San Jose high schooler in 2001 handed classmates a copy of his poem, "Faces":
Who are these faces around me? ...
They would probably become the
next doctors or loirs or something.
All really intelligent. ...
All so happy and vagrant. Each
origonal in their own way. They
make me want to puke. For I am
Dark, Destructive & Dangerous. ... I can be
the next kid to bring guns to kill students
at school. So Parents
watch your children cuz I'm BACK!!"
Hmm, could the major themes here be resentment, vindictiveness, and the desire to massacre smart people? Convicted in juvenile court of making criminal threats, Theodule was expelled from school and did time in juvie. Championed by noted writers including 2003 Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee, he took his case to the California Supreme Court and won what PEN Oakland calls a "successful legal battle for freedom of artistic expression." Give that young man a prize and tickets to next weekend's gun show.
Meanwhile in the Garden of Eden: Samson was a suicide bomber, Moses had a speech impediment, King David was bi, and not every lesson in the Old Testament is as obvious as you were led to believe in Sunday school. In The Triumph of Eve & Other Subversive Bible Tales (Skylight, $19.99), Matt Biers-Ariel finds lessons within the lessons.
"For example, the story of the Flood did not end with the dove flying over the rainbow while the animals left the ark two by two," says the author, who taught courses on rabbinical texts in Oakland for fifteen years. "The story ended with Noah being sexually assaulted by his son Ham. The true meaning of the Flood was that it was a failure. It didn't rid the earth of evil. Though Eve is looked at by many as a villain, I believe she is a heroine. It is a coming-of-age story, and when a person comes of age, she has to disobey her parents and strike out on her own. God, of course, has to know enough psychology to know what will happen as soon as God says, 'Eat everything but this.'
"I love the Bible in a nonliteralist way. It is an amazing piece of literature."
The evil that men do: This year's award for Most Cumbersome Yet Most Perfect Title goes to Claudia J. Ford's Why Do I Scream at God for the Rape of Babies ($9.95), new from Berkeley's North Atlantic Books. It's the tragic true story of Vyanna, born in a Johannesburg porn theater where prostitutes including her mother rented cubicles by the day, who was only five months old when she was gang-raped by some acquaintances of her mother's and left for dead. After intensive surgery (she will wear a colostomy bag for life), Vyanna was adopted by the author, an international-development expert who heads a charity -- the Princess Trust -- aimed at breaking the silence about child rape in South Africa, where widespread belief that sex with a virgin cures AIDS results in two to three hundred rapes of girls under twelve every day.
She gives him fever: By the time Robert Strom was born in 1961, Peggy Lee had already been a singing sensation for twenty years.
"Why did I love a singer so many years my senior? A singer whose last hit -- 'Is That All There Is?' -- was recorded when I was eight?" muses the author of Miss Peggy Lee: A Career Chronicle (McFarland, $49.95).
He first heard the smooth blonde's name as a San Leandro High School student. "We were in rehearsal for our spring musical, Little Mary Sunshine. Our director, Bruce Hyde -- a veteran of the original Star Trek TV show -- was explaining charisma to us. He said he had seen two people who really had charisma and changed a room simply by entering it. One was the legendary Mabel Mercer and the other was Peggy Lee. ... I went to the San Leandro Library and checked out all of their Peggy Lee albums. ... Finally I saw Miss Lee in person at the Fairmont Hotel's Venetian Room in April 1981. Words cannot describe what I heard and saw that evening, or on the sixty-plus other times I saw her perform."
After founding the Peggy Lee Fan Club in 1987, Strom worked for five months in 1991 as Lee's personal assistant.
"Peggy Lee was hypnotizing. She was one of the wittiest and most intelligent human beings I have ever met. Once Peggy Lee has you in her web," Strom reflects, "it is difficult to escape."
State of grace: You never know when having a dad who worked in a funeral home will come in handy. In Jason Headley's exquisitely tender Small Town Odds (Chronicle, $23.95), the 24-year-old protagonist does his share of displaying newly embalmed corpses to grieving loved ones in a tiny West Virginia town not unlike the one where Headley grew up and where, he says, folks help total strangers who show up in the middle of the night saying their cars have broken down.
After leaving West Virginia, Headley moved to Clayton. This fall, he was one of five debut novelists comprising the First Fiction Tour, a whirlwind series of readings not in bookstores but bars throughout the American West. The tour's tag line was "Five authors, six cities, and many drinks."
"The tour gave me a real respect for people who run for national office, although I'm sure if you're running for president you don't get frisked as often as I did at airports," Headley says. "And you probably don't drink as much. But other than that, it's probably just about the same."
Now that his book has been named one of Barnes & Noble's Best of 2004, he's making deals with reading groups nationwide: "If you read Small Town Odds in your club, I'll call in to discuss it with your group. Go to JasonHeadley.com and contact me, and if the schedule works out, I'll call in. Taking it directly to the people, see?"
Slanty shanties: When Spanish explorers met the Huchiun people -- the Oakland Hills' original inhabitants -- they were given dried geese stuffed with grass as gifts, explains Montclarion columnist Erika Mailman in Oakland Hills (Arcadia, $19.99), an endearing photographic record of hill history, from dairy farms to May Day fairs to the firestorm. The 1921 nuptials of celebrity hillite Juanita Miller, poet Joaquin's daughter, entailed consecrating the soil with goat blood.
Go for the Pokémon: For cartoon and comic-book addicts, aka otaku, Tokyo is Shangri-la. In Cruising the Anime City ($16.95), new from Berkeley's Stone Bridge Press, Patrick Macias and Tomohiro Machiyama reveal where to shop, play, ogle, and hang. They introduce subcultures such as the kigurumers, who dress up as anime characters in full-body costumes that hide every inch of skin and hair: Since some kigurumers cover their faces in layers of cloth, there's an asphyxiation risk.
"The kigurumers have their roots in S/M. ... During the day, they can be businessmen or schoolteachers -- with a wild side," Macias says. "They only dress up when it's time to play, and put as much time into their 'thing' as your friendly neighborhood dominatrix or slave does."
Then there's the Doll Love movement, whose adult male adherents collect life-size dolls in the shape of female anime characters and other cute young girls -- say, wearing French-maid outfits. "The fun of having a doll is not just dressing it up," Machiyama notes, "but cuddling with it. ... The emotional attachment to them becomes overwhelming."
Most "Dollers," as they're called, "don't have wives, kids, or girlfriends. So it's usually not a big problem. But if and when they do meet someone, it's usually a case of 'You can have your hobby, or you can have me.' Usually, the hobby goes."
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