Not So Quiet on the Eastern Front 

This month's East Bay book news.

Cold warrior: One spring day in 1950, an American was shot and beheaded while attempting to reach Tibet from far northwestern China. He was Douglas Mackiernan, the first CIA agent killed in the line of duty. Mackiernan had been spying in China. Ironically, it was Tibetans who killed him. Details of his murder were kept secret for fifty years. Uranium, secret codes, the sticky fingers of Madame and Chiang Kai-Shek -- it's all in Thomas Laird's Into Tibet (Grove, $26). Laird, an American who has lived in Nepal "on the fault line between two worlds" for thirty years, wrote part of this Cold War page-turner in Albany.

"I remember climbing out of my car on Key Route Boulevard late one fall afternoon" carrying a photocopy of the diary kept by Mackiernan's wife, who lived in Fairfax. "The red sky was glowing over the bay, over the quiet homes, the lights just coming on." It was only then that Laird felt he had finally completed his research.

He had traveled to India to interview the Dalai Lama and then around the world tracking down leads uncovered in the Tibet files at the National Archives in Washington, DC. "To follow a story that long, when everyone said you could not do it ... when the fucking CIA has called up your sources and tried to get them to hide this history ... knowing that you did it anyway, despite every effort to prevent it -- that was a wonderful feeling," says Laird, who'll be at Black Oak Books on October 10.

Driving down Oakland's Hegenberger Road also gave him pause for thought. "I would look at all the commuters and wonder how many of them knew who Hegenberger was. Not one in a million, I supposed." General Albert Hegenberger -- the navigator on the first-ever mainland-to-Hawaii flight -- later led a top-secret program that detected atomic explosions at long range. This program, in which Mackiernan played a key role, gave Harry Truman the first proof that Joseph Stalin had first tested an atomic bomb in 1949.

"How many of those commuters," Laird reflects, "knew that this perfectly paved American street owed some of its wealth and safety to men and women on camels, wandering across the Taklamakan Desert and the Kunlun Mountains to see the Dalai Lama?"

Om brother, where art thou: Speaking of the jewel in the lotus, check out two new books on Tibetan Buddhism from Berkeley publishers: Mind Over Matter by Lama Tarthang Tulku (Dharma, $16.95) and Reflections from the Journey of Life: Collected Sayings of the Dalai Lama (North Atlantic, $14.95), edited by French TV personality (and Buddhist) Catherine Barry.

Black Hawk home: This year's most riveting return flight into the heart of darkness is Christian Bauman's The Ice Beneath You (Scribner, $13), in which a young army vet, fresh from service in Somalia, crosses the USA still stunned from what happened over there. He ends up holed up, down and out, with a friend of a friend in Berkeley among "kids in new BMWs ... smart-looking fuckers walking around with hands in pockets ... and I've never seen so many homeless in one place."

The vet "isn't me, and his experiences aren't mine," says Bauman, who lived in India for a year when he was thirteen and became a husband and father at seventeen. At 21, he joined the US Army Waterborne, with which he served in Somalia.

"I know what it is to be very young, very poor, all alone, and out of options a long way from home. And the Bay Area may be one of the worst places to be those things. It's not a good place to be an outsider looking in, to be a 'have-not.' It's not at all forgiving. Or, more important, it doesn't seem that way" to the thin-walleted newcomer.

Bauman's own first visit here "was horrible. I was nineteen or twenty, didn't know anyone, didn't have any money, and rolled into town on a Greyhound. A bad beginning, and it went downhill from there." His impressions mellowed in time.

"I love Northern California," says the author, who now lives in Pennsylvania. "The Bay Area is always such a visceral experience for me -- still is. It's warm and it's colorful and it smells good and you want to be in it. I don't pretend to be a native, but I know it well enough, and long enough, to have opinions about it."

In the novel, his protagonist finds work as a peep-show-booth dancer. His scenes in the club called XXXSTASY are as searingly real as the ones in which he's holding a gun. But hey, Bauman reminds Press Here, this is a work of fiction.

En garde: Literary agents turned down Millie Mogulof's new book because they hated its real-life heroine: Helene Mayer, the half-Jewish German fencing champion who, having left her native land to teach at Oakland's Mills College, went home to represent the Reich during the 1936 Olympics. There, raising her arm in the Hitler salute, Mayer won a silver medal. Then she came back to Mills.

"People find her despicable," Mogulof says of the athlete whose tale she tells in Foiled: Hitler's Jewish Olympian ($17.95), new from Oakland's RDR Books. "She's a very tainted heroine; she's morally obtuse."

In Germany, Mayer was so popular that fans collected tiny statuettes in her image. At Mills, she was a favorite with students. But the subsequent years have not been kind. Mayer could, critics argue, have refused the German government's invitation to join its team.

"Should she have done that, and taken the high moral ground?" asks Mogulof, who will be at Avenue Books on November 2. "This is not just a matter of character and circumstance, but also choice -- the big 'what if?' of history."

Gang-war story: Written on San Quentin's Death Row, Stanley "Tookie" Williams' books for children about the ills of gang violence have twice won him Nobel Peace Prize nominations. Even so, Williams lost a federal appeal earlier this month of his sentence, and could be executed as soon as next year for the four murders that landed the Crips cofounder behind bars. Coauthored with Richmond's Barbara Becnel, Williams' works include Gangs and Drugs, Gangs and Your Neighborhood, Gangs and Weapons, Gangs and Your Friends, Gangs and Self-Esteem, and Gangs and the Abuse of Power. The first Nobel nomination, by a Swiss parliamentarian, came in 2000. The next came earlier this year, as did yet another for the Nobel Prize in Literature. But that cut no ice with the panel of judges who stood by Williams' sentence for killing a 7-Eleven clerk and three motel owners in 1979.

Into the light: Berkeley-born nature photographer and mountain-climber Galen Rowell's shots of sunrise, sunset, and sand adorn California the Beautiful (Via, $16.95), a visual and literary tribute to the state. Now tributes are in order for Rowell and his wife, fellow photographer Barbara Cushman Rowell, who died last month in a small-plane crash near Bishop. The former, who worked all over the world and published nearly twenty books, also completed the first-ever one-day ascents of Alaska's Mount Denali and Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro. Barbara Rowell's first book, Flying South: A Pilot's Inner Journey ($35), documents her 25,000-mile, 57-leg flight through Latin America and will be out next month from Berkeley's Ten Speed Press.

Lexicon of the loaded: Another new one from Ten Speed is making international headlines. Britain's daily The Guardian marveled, earlier this month, at The Hippie Dictionary ($19.95), whose author John Bassett McCleary "attempts to define the term which itself defined the '60s and '70s." McCleary, a San Francisco native, defines a lot more words than that, and introduces key East Bay figures such as Augustus Stanley Owsley III, "the King of LSD," whose Berkeley meth lab was dubbed "the Green Factory" and whose product is said to have sparked the historic performances of Jimi Hendrix and Country Joe McDonald (who both also have East Bay ties) at 1967's Monterey Pop Festival. An appendix on the Vietnam War includes a timeline in which, in 1965, UC Berkeley students protested and Oakland Hell's Angel Sonny Barger announced his club's offer to serve as mercenaries behind enemy lines.

Snippets: Oakland's Jonathan Schorr tells the hopeful but harrowing story of launching a charter school in Hard Lessons (Ballantine, $26.95). Among those lessons are that success depends largely on clear vision, consensus, skilled teachers, and, like it or not, lots of fund-raising. ... Ground-breaking Berkeley architects Max Jacobson, Murray Silverstein, and Barbara Winslow offer the ten essential keys to residential design, with four hundred pics to prove it, in Patterns of Home (Taunton, $34.95). ... Mark Carwardine and Ken Watterson (founder of the Basking Shark Society) discuss shark-viewing cruises out of Alameda in The Shark-Watcher's Handbook (Princeton University, $24.95), with tips on how to avoid, as they say, "becoming plat du jour." ... A correction: Thomas Farber's novel, mentioned in last month's Press Here, is really titled The Beholder. ... Vehicle adorner Harrod Blank, local author of Art Cars (Lark, $18.95), is coproducing the Art Car Festival 2002; its krazy karavan will kruise the East Bay along I-880 on September 26. Check out www.artcarfest.com for details. ... Radical urban-planning maven Chester Hartman will be at Diesel on September 29 to discuss UC Press' newly updated release of his hard-hitting City for Sale ($24.95).

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