Whatsyerface: His name is Cesar Chavez but his body is that of a thirtysomething gay Berkeleyite who works for Fox TV. Likewise, Elvis Presley is a Houston hospital administrator, Helen Keller is a part-Tlingit gill-netter, and Martin Luther King is on dialysis. In Great Americans (Bloomsbury, $24.95), photographer KK Ottesen tracked down ordinary people with famous names.
She shared a few tears with Chavez, who waxed eloquent on living "the good life" and on the commitment ceremony he and his partner held in an East Bay botanical garden.
"Names are important because they are often the first connection when people meet," says Ottesen. "And, like the weather, a dog someone's walking, or a baby, it is an acceptable excuse to talk to someone."
In your faith: Chabadniks -- ultra-religious Jews wearing black hats, white shirts, and black jackets or long skirts and heavy wigs -- are on a mission to persuade nonobservant Jews to feel the spirit. Sue Fishkoff wasn't persuaded, but she was inspired to write a book about this sect whose "level of commitment and motivation is mind-blowing," and who "have all the exotic appeal of the Amish, yet they're very much part of the modern world."
The Rebbe's Army (Schocken, $26.95) is a story of outreach and tolerance, of messianic zeal and ten-child families inhabiting a world within a world, where TV, secular novels, and intersex handshakes are verboten. Featured in Fishkoff's book is Oakland-born Rabbi Yosef Langer, who now heads San Francisco Chabad.
"He's still a wild man" who hands out Grateful Dead tickets at Chabad dinners -- "not on Shabbat, of course," says Fishkoff, who will be at Black Oak August 6. At 1997's Woodstock anniversary concert, Langer wore a "Grateful Yid" T-shirt and drove a van "filled with hundreds of challahs and bottles of kosher wine, so he could bring in Shabbat with the Jewish youth at the concert."
You do know Jack: Morphing actual historical figures into fictional characters is a trendy novelistic trope, but Marjorie Leet Ford has a leg to stand on. Her grandfather ran a drugstore at Oakland's 12th and Broadway where Jack London "hung around, sitting on the counter, swinging his legs and spinning yarns for the ladies."
Oakland-born Ford, whose last book was The Diary of an American Au Pair (Anchor, $13), is currently busy re-creating the days of 1907 when her grandfather showed "motion pictures to his friends: the mayor, the publisher of the Tribune, sometimes the governor. Everyone except London wore tails to these movies. Until yesterday, in my novel the Tribune Tower 'stood white as sugar,' and ladies glided under parasols along the lawns of City Hall. But the day before yesterday I Googled Oakland City Hall and found it wasn't built until 1914. The Tribune Tower probably wasn't there in 1907 either." Oops.
Filial ever after: Vintage posters from the collection of Yeng-Fong Chiang illustrate Cloud Weavers: Ancient Chinese Legends, new from Berkeley's Pacific View Press ($22.95). A favorite tale of coauthor Rena Krasno is "Min Ziqian and His Stepmother," a Cinderella-esque male-tale whose motherless hero is kind to his oblivious father and spoiled sibs.
Buoys and grills: A SoMa soiree feted Berkeley raconteur Richard Sterling, whose colorful, compact World Food California (Lonely Planet, $14.95) guides diners from artichokes to zinfandel. "The word 'burrito' is the diminutive for burro, the Spanish for donkey, or ass," Sterling notes helpfully. And as "everybody in California eats burritos," he continues, we clearly love to "eat a little ass."
Got milk? Sonoma's Jacqueline Kramer will sign copies of Buddha Mom (Tarcher, $23.95) during the Guinness Book of World Records Breastfeeding Contest in Berkeley's Civic Center Park August 9.
Snippets: Disasters abroad (of the strip-search and dysentery variety) keep on coming in I Should Have Just Stayed Home, new from Oakland's RDR ($17.95) and edited by Roger Rapoport, Bob Drews, and Kim Klescewski: They'll be at Easy Going on August 20. ... Unemployed at age sixty, Bruce Moody stood beside I-80 with a sign saying "Will Work for Food or $"; the Crockett-based New Yorker and National Lampoon contributor will be at Borders in Fremont on August 23, reading from the memoir (Red Wheel, $24.95) whose title echoes the plea on his sign. ... Barbara Seranella, whose roots are in Piedmont, offers Unpaid Dues (Scribner, $25), in which a corpse in a ditch unsettles gal mechanic Munch Mancini.
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