When Glen David Gold was still a newcomer to the East Bay, he had three wishes: to be valedictorian of his class at UC Berkeley, to write cover stories for the Express, and to see his first novel on the shelves at Cody's. The first two came true a while back; the last is coming true right now. An artwork in a Claremont Avenue poster shop first clued Gold in, some ten years ago, about 1920s master magician Charles Carter, whose outrageous feats took him from Oakland to stages all over the world. In Carter Beats the Devil (Hyperion, $24.95), a fictionalized Carter fraternizes with presidents, millionaires, and pirates -- and falls in love on the shores of Lake Merritt. Much of Gold's research took place in the Oakland Public Library's Oakland History Room, where recently retired librarian Bill Sturm showed him rare old pictures of the lake spanned by bridges.
As for where reality ends and fantasy begins in this sparklingly kinetic saga, Gold isn't telling. Reading a lot of very old magazines and watching Marx Brothers movies primed him for creating authentic jazz-era dialogue -- but nothing prepared him for a major depression that struck when he was halfway through writing the novel and lasted over a year.
Classmates reading his early chapters "kept saying they had trouble finding Carter's emotional core," muses Gold, who will be at Cody's 4th Street on Oct. 5. "And the more I thought about it, the more I realized the problem was actually about accessing my emotional core." Hitting bottom, he quit writing, tried to survive on temp work, "and scratched my way back up."
If only, back then, he had known that the novel would snag a whopping advance that tops $500,000, according to Entertainment Weekly. Asking him what he plans to do with the money was rude, admittedly, but irresistible; he spoke of outstanding student loans.
The underground overcomes: Longtime East Bay cartoonist and new media darling Dan Clowes is having a well-deserved turn in the spotlight now that Ghost World -- the live-action movie helmed by Crumb director Terry Zwigoff and based on Clowes' graphic novel about two teens who want more out of life -- is getting rave reviews from the likes of Roger Ebert.
When it came time to start writing a new novel, Mylène Dressler heard a man's voice in her head. An elderly voice, a Dutch voice, and, as she recalls, "an academic voice," it didn't sound like that of Dressler's late father, who was Dutch -- but some of the stories it told were her father's.
In The Deadwood Beetle (Blue Hen, $23.95), the author -- a former dancer with the Oakland Ballet -- weaves together present and past as a retired entomology professor finds, on a chance visit to an antique shop, a table that once belonged to his mother. As Tristan recounts his memories, we see WWII through the eyes of a child: a non-Jewish child, which makes this book a relatively rare bird in new American literature.
When Dressler was growing up, "there were rumors that certain members of my family had collaborated with the Nazis." Never knowing for sure "was alright," she says now, "because I could play around with it" in fiction. "Just before he died," Dressler recalls, "my father told me about standing on a streetcorner with his father, handing out Nazi pamphlets."
Widening our standard view of the Holocaust, the novel examines with sober delicacy its effect on those who were far from the center of the action: "people," the author says, "who were driving trucks and handing out ration cards." And being kids.
Yet another take on those terrible years comes this month from Berkeley poet Elizabeth Rosner, translation rights for whose new novel The Speed of Light (Ballantine, $23.95) have already been sold sevenfold.
It's the story of a woman who, having fled bloodshed in her unnamed Central American homeland, enters the lives of an American brother and sister, the adult children of Holocaust survivors. Violence, still fresh in her memory, persists in the siblings' world, too, but in theirs it goes back a whole generation and has always been surrounded by a disturbing silence.
In real life, Rosner's father was in Buchenwald; her mother survived the Vilna ghetto.
"So I inherited a lot of stories that both did and didn't belong to me," says the author, who will be at Black Oak Books on September 5. The key to writing this novel, she says, was "discovering how all of us who weren't there can hold those stories. How can we live in the present while honoring the dead?" Spotting each other's wounded parts with a sharp-sightedness that both hurts and heals, her three protagonists explore each other's histories amid beautiful Bay Area scenery.
As coincidences go, it's an intriguing one that both Dressler's and Rosner's novels feature, as key characters, Latinas whose perspective and recent experience serve as a counterpoint to those of their European counterparts.
And the war just keeps on comin'. As an infantryman in France during WWII, Robert L. Smith fought against the German army. Beyond that, "I didn't have the slightest idea where we were and what we were doing." A callow teen hastily trained as a medic, Smith patched up grievous injuries and consoled dismembered men. When the war was over, he went home and, to an amazing degree, forgot.
Fifty years later, he retraced his wartime meanderings through a Normandy that had changed much but which, as he writes in Medic! (Creative Arts, $17.95), reawakened memories of battles, burning vehicles, heroic acts -- and big patches of boredom.
"The nonsense that we see as war in the movies gives a wrong impression," says the Berkeley author. "It's not about excitement; it's about tedium and bestiality in the worst sense of the word." He writes frankly of good and bad guys on both sides of the line, including an American GI who went unpunished after raping a thirteen-year-old French peasant girl.
Mercifully, all the blood and guts he saw over there didn't traumatize Smith as it did others, but still it taught him a lot.
"I still marvel," he says, "at how you can blow the hell out of the human body and" -- against all odds -- "it can survive."
He remembers rock candy and Delhi's "acres of excrement," the bean-sized rooster testicles braised with garlic. He remembers the whore in Penang who looked like a sphinx and whom he wanted to rescue but couldn't. He still has her picture in his Berkeley house. And Richard Sterling remembers blood and guts at the mouth of the Mekong; he spins it all into one wide sensuous fabric with The Fire Never Dies (Travelers' Tales, $14.95).
If this "raucous romp down the road of food, passion and adventure," as its subtitle goes, evokes swashbucklers of yore, it's because Sterling devoured the works of Ernest Hemingway as a youth. Being shipped out to Vietnam made a traveler of him, and more.
"The biggest calamity of my life was also the greatest opportunity," says the author, who includes glimpses of war in a memoir that encompasses many miles, years, and incendiary peppers. As a greenhorn soldier, "I had the pleasant shock of discovering there were other things to eat than meat and potatoes"; he has since written books for Lonely Planet on the cuisines of Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Greece. Writing a memoir was something else entirely.
The war scenes "were just plain hard to put on the page. And my stories about women" -- including the brave beauty who turned out to be a man -- "were painful to write, in a sweet way." Sterling will be at Berkeley's Easy Going on October 9.
When Berkeley's Jane Gottesman was a San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter, she started a personal project: tallying the pictures of male and female athletes that appeared in the paper.
"Mostly, there were no pictures of women, so the count was simple: 15-0; 11-0," Gottesman recalls in Game Face (Random House, $35). Turning her attention to Sports Illustrated, she noted that besides the swimsuit issue, "the only female athletes on the cover were featured at their most vulnerable: Monica Seles after being stabbed; Nancy Kerrigan after being hit."
For their Game Face photo exhibition -- now at the Smithsonian -- and its companion book, Gottesman and co-curator Geoffrey Biddle pored over thousands of pictures spanning a century: not just of celebs like Serena Williams and Tara Lipinsky but also, movingly, of anonymous runners, rowers, jumpers, tumblers, martial artists, golfers ... even little girls on swings.
"We wanted it to be all-encompassing," Gottesman says. "It isn't about 'Hey, try this sport,' but about how women actually incorporate sports into their lives -- about them actually having been part of the scene."
In 1972, only one out of 27 American schoolgirls played sports. Today it's one in three.
"That's a major cultural shift," notes Gottesman.
She remembers going down -- into that dark world where life has no meaning and nobody laughs. Then Lauren Dockett worked her way back up.
"As someone who's considered suicide, taken antidepressants, met with therapists and social workers," the Oakland author writes in The Deepest Blue (New Harbinger, $13.95), "tried herbs and prayer and acupuncturists, sat in hospital-sponsored depression groups ... I can now cut a wide and knowledgeable swath through the common symptoms of this defecting state."
Based not only on her own experiences but also those of many other women, Dockett's book brings a sense of community to a condition that tends to isolate its victims. In a country where depression is so commonplace that Prozac ads are broadcast on prime-time TV, finding women to interview "was so easy," Dockett says, a bit sadly.
When she first began descending into her own depths, she didn't fight it: As a writer, "I fell victim to this myth that depression was a big illuminator that would give me revelations. It didn't."
The Deepest Blue offers empathy and emphasizes action, with lots of questions for readers to consider and discuss.
"When those symptoms start," Dockett urges, "reach out."
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