Kabul guy: When his pal Hamid Karzai became president of Afghanistan, Said Fazel Akbar sold his Oakland hip-hop clothing shop and went home to help. He became the official government spokesman, and in 2002 his teenage son, Hyder Akbar, came to spend that summer in the ancestral homeland he'd never seen, skipping his prom to witness ambushes, bombs, warlords, al-Qaeda trails, and the gory corpse of an assassinated vice president. That and subsequent trips became pieces on This American Life and now a book, Come Back to Afghanistan (Bloomsbury, $24.95). "I consider myself an Afghan," says Akbar, who will be at Cody's Telegraph on November 16, though "I'm probably more American than I'd like to admit." His time in the nation where he plans to relocate after finishing at Diablo Valley College has entailed shock, food poisoning, and empathy: "Afghanistan is so underdeveloped that a distinct youth culture barely exists. ... Sure, in Kabul you can now buy Barbecue Pringles and bootleg DVDs," but these treats mean little to kids who grew up with war, says the author, who so feared impending boredom that he brought eighty CDs on his first visit.
Plugged in: The Huskette, the Ram-a-Lot, the Thrill Hammer, the Love Locker ... El Sobrante photographer Tim Archibald, whose work has appeared in Newsweek, GQ, and The New Yorker, traveled cross-country snapping inventors and their creations for Sex Machines (Process, $24.95), a surprisingly warm and suburban look at metal, motors, and lifelike replicas in another America where guys in Levis build stuff to -- as one inventor puts it -- "make the world happier." Thirtysomething dad Archibald isn't a scenester himself: "It's not the Folsom Street Fair-type of underground where there's a fashion and a code," he says. "These are just regular Joes." An airplane mechanic, a welder, a homesteader, a born-again-Christian motorcycle builder -- Archibald shows them not demonstrating the machines but posing proudly amid sofas, pets, crutches, bags of Tostitos: "Their homes were totally middle-class. That's something I'd always liked -- people's kitchens and garages. ... These folks didn't have dungeons.
"The greatest machine that hasn't yet been invented," says Archibald, who will present a slide show at San Francisco's Modern Times Bookstore on December 8, "is the one that'll do the dishes and listen to you."
High there: Travel impresario Rick Steves has written that pot brings smokers closer to God. He's on the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws' advisory board; addressing a local NORML meeting earlier this year, he compared being high to being in Cuba, because "anytime my government says I can't go somewhere, I feel it's one of my rights to go there. My government can't tell me I can't go to Cuba." Along with actor Tommy Chong -- who served nine months in prison for distributing bongs online in 2003 -- Steves is a key speaker at the Wonders of Cannabis festival in Golden Gate Park on Saturday and Sunday. Featuring panels, booths, and a giant rolling contest, the fair is sponsored by Oakland pot guru and Closet Cultivator author Ed Rosenthal, whose Quick American Archives publishing house has just released Spliffs 2 ($12.95).
Regular ... or super-absorbent? Lesbian theorist, Another Mother Tongue author, and Oaklander Judy Grahn now edits Metaformia: A Journal of Menstruation and Culture, festooned with a bloody-fingerpaint illustration at Metaformia.org. It's based on Grahn's Metaformic Theory, in which "ancestral humans have understood, quite reasonably, that the jelling up of menses within the womb produces a new being"; thus many creation myths entail darkness "that then separates into the forms we know as light, water, earth, sky. ... I call those forms metaforms, related to menstruation and its rituals. ... Metaforms at times 'speak' to us in some fashion, and people understand this communication as a dialogue with nonhuman intelligent spirit, or deity, as messages from the mind of the cosmos." Contributor Deborah Grenn asserts that "women's menstrual rituals created much of what we know as culture," and Grahn submits a postulate for warfare's origins: "Men developed bloodshed rites because they needed to keep up with the cultural developments women were creating."
Oh, that conspiracy: Jews are America's richest ethnic group; hence the looming presence of "Jewish elites" and "Jewish power" and a "Jewish lobby" and "the pro-Jewish bias of the corporate media" evinced by an "influential Jewish presence at all levels," writes De Paul University professor Norman Finkelstein in Beyond Chutzpah ($22.50), new from UC Press. American Jews perpetrated "a conspiracy -- this is the correct word -- to blackmail Europe," Finkelstein declares, and Jewish elites wield "a lethal brew of formidable power, chauvinistic arrogance, feigned (or imagined) victimhood. ... Coddling them is not the answer. They need to be stopped." He drew approving laughter when he told an audience in Boalt Hall this month: "What's called the new anti-Semitism is not new and it's not about anti-Semitism. Every fifteen years the main so-called Jewish defense organizations start a campaign." Today's "so-called anti-Semitism," Finkelstein said, is actually "a phantom phenomenon" engineered to manipulate public opinion about foreign affairs. In his book, he ridicules "the new anti-Semitic circus," questioning feminist Phyllis Chesler's sanity and dubbing novelist Cynthia Ozick a redundant "ancient diva, rolled out for every new anti-Semitism production."
Whether you win: He pokes lit cigarettes into a chimpanzee's belly at the zoo, but that's because the hero of Micheline Aharonian Marcom's novel The Daydreaming Boy (Riverhead, $14) has a tattered soul, having grown up in a loveless orphanage after his father was bludgeoned to death during the Turkish genocide against the Armenians in 1915. Marcom, who teaches at Mills College, has just won the 2005 PEN/USA Award for fiction. It's a $1,000 cash prize -- peanuts compared to the $35,000 Whiting Writers' Award snagged by fellow Berkeleyite Ilya Kaminsky, whose first book of poems, Dancing in Odessa (Tupelo, $16.95), came out this year. Past Whiting recipients include Jonathan Franzen, William T. Vollmann, Mary Karr, and Tony Kushner. Kaminsky, who clerks for the National Immigration Law Center, arrived here from Russia as a teen when the US government granted his family asylum. In his poem "Praise," he writes: "i was born in the city named after odysseus/and i praise no nation."
Hawks, doves, etc.: Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, Zhao Ziyang, Hosni Mubarak, and Kuwaiti Prince Shaikh Said have all owned bronze fowl sculpted by Oakland's Wheatley Allen. The Bay Area native's self-published picture book Howard Wheatley Allen: Sculptor to Emperors, Presidents & Kings ($24.95) is a who's-who of world leaders who have owned metal loons, curlews, owls, and quail.
Not really waiting: The biggest myth about unwed midlifers is "that they're out to pasture," says San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jane Ganahl, editor of Single Woman of a Certain Age (Inner Ocean, $21.95). "In our mothers' era, if you were unmarried and over, say, 45, you were considered a spinster -- a sad and forlorn woman waiting for a man to save her. These days, women consider marriage an option that they can take or leave ... especially women who have already been married." In the anthology, April Sinclair recounts moving from Oakland to rural Marin, where a drunk white woman jeeringly gave her the Black Power salute but probably wouldn't have "if I'd had a man or even a woman at my side." Ultimately, "I was alone in my blackness." Ganahl, Sinclair, and other contributors will be at A Great Good Place for Books on November 5.
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