Fists in the Mist 

Undercover Wrestling in Babylon, trekking to Xanadu: Local authors get physical.

You might not expect a book titled Wrestling Babylon: Piledriving Tales of Drugs, Death, Sex, and Scandal (ECW, $17.95) to draw much of a crowd in the Gourmet Ghetto. But at Berkeley's Black Oak Books, every chair was occupied as compact, fireplug-shaped author Irvin Muchnick climbed into the virtual ring to talk about those golden days when oligarchic impresarios — including his uncle — held sway in a regional system redolent of Mafia fiefdoms, when "babyfaces" and "heels" squared off inside the ropes, building up to highly choreographed "spots" that worked the "marks" into a froth.

Muchnick tag-teamed with KQED talk-show host and pro-wrestling aficionado Josh Kornbluth, who drew chuckles as he recalled watching televised wrestling with his Communist grandfather. The old guy puzzled his dyed-in-the-wool fellow-traveler grandson with his gullible edge-of-the-seat devotion to an obviously staged entertainment.

Kornbluth then read aloud the first chapter of Wrestling Babylon. The moon-faced monologuist certainly knows how to talk, but the jaw-breaking complexity of some of the names tripped him up. Listeners leaped into the fray a couple times to help him untangle them. Kornbluth cued his lifelines by peering out from under caterpillar eyebrows.

Muchnick's nostalgia-drenched thesis is simple: Old-school wrestling good, Vince McMahon bad. He returned to the mike to spout off about the World Wrestling Entertainment kingpin's culpability in the popularization of soulless, corporatized "sports entertainment," which has, as he puts it, "led to the mainstreaming of antisocial behavior." During the Q&A, however, several ringside philosophers upstaged him, pontificating and elaborating Berkeleyishly with oh-the-humanity pronouncements on the context of this and the subtext of that. It was enough to make you want to crack their busy little noggins with a folding chair.

Those who prefer their spectacles still, silent, and snowcapped came to see Berkeley mountain climber Arlene Blum a week later at Cody's. Graying and chunky, the author of Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life (Harvest, $14) looks like your typical aging hippie, but she could probably kick your ass. In the '70s, after cutting her crampons on the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest, she sought to join major mountaineering expeditions. She was told that women were too weak to climb mountains back then, and she was rejected — but not dejected: Blum organized the first all-female ascents of Alaska's Denali (Mount McKinley) and Nepal's Annapurna, and was part of the bicentennial US expedition to Everest in 1976.

As her memoir reveals, dark human figures on white snow gave way to black-ink diagrams of chemical bonds on white paper when Blum took her career off the trail and onto the warpath. Having earned a Ph.D in biophysical chemistry at Cal, she's been fighting the good fight for two decades, campaigning to eliminate toxic chemicals from household goods.

During what turned into an impromptu chem lecture at Cody's, she exhorted audience members to parrot the offending compounds' megasyllabic names. Afterward, they fell all over themselves to get on Blum's mailing list and sign petitions. Charismatic she ain't, but she has a way of getting people to follow her on an uphill slog. Local legends are funny that way.

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