Superfreaks 

This month's East Bay book news.

Those other white stripes: She was a cute coke fiend from Hillsborough whose dad -- his initials were B.A.D. -- pressed his manhood against her in bed and moaned, "Love me." She told herself that everything would be alright if she could just get a Ferrari. She arrived in Berkeley when she was "eighteen years old going on forty and had everything college kids ever dreamed about. The Julia Morgan Tudor I lived in is now a historical landmark. Oooh, if those walls could talk."

Maryanne Comaroto titled her new memoir Skinny, Tan and Rich (Bridge the Gap, $24.95) because that's what she was. But its subtitle is "Unveiling the Myth." She says her glam days of leather-upholstered convertibles and trips to Hawaii with rich older guys who gave her huge diamonds weren't worth it.

"The illusion of happily-ever-after drove me, so that I was sold and bought for the low, low price of my soul," says Comaroto, who now teaches courses in self-esteem, which she used to lack. (Knowing you look hot doesn't count.) The endless yet illusory quest for tangibles was inevitable, she reasons, in a life such as hers where "every low point seemed my all-time low point ... my father molesting me was relative to my girlfriend dying on the back of my boyfriend's motorcycle. My life was lateral low points peaked by glimpses of freedom from suffering."

But the blame game is all too convenient, Comaroto warns after years in rehab: "Most of us have been involved in some form or another of addiction or at the very least self-medication. I think it may be older than prostitution."

Word balloons: A sulky young bear dreams of running away from home, hitchhiking to Paris, and being picked up by a babe in a bar who takes him upstairs to paradise in bed. The dream turns nightmarish as she drugs him, ties him up, and sells his butt to the louts in the bar. Elsewhere, a family of talking bees discusses career choices at the dinner table. Where else could this happen but a comic book?

If the artist behind Belly Button Comix (Fantagraphics, $4.95) ever discussed careers around the family dinner table, her folks couldn't have dissed the one she picked. She is Sophie Crumb, daughter of Robert Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and after growing up in France she now lives in Berkeley.

"I just ended up here 'cause I knew someone, then I met a guy and decided to stay longer. And my best friend from France moved here too and lives with me," says Crumb, who at 22 is the same age her father was when he drew "Fritz the Cat." Berkeley's "co-ops are pretty cool. ... I just can't stand all those fucking yoga health-crazed carb-diet thirtysomething fake blonde joggers."

Her stories blend fantasy and autobiography; in "The House of Shame" the artist confronts farting, nose-picking, intoxicated, egotistical visions of herself and wails, "I'm a slob! ... Am I really that repulsive!?!"

Drawing "gives my life a meaning for a couple of hours. Otherwise I feel dumb and unproductive. It was very satisfying to see the comic in print, 'cause the paper's real nice, even though I can't stand the damn thing anymore -- it still felt good. And fan mail feels good too."

Bunt it: Having taught seminars on baseball for newly arrived software workers from India, El Cerrito's Jeffrey Lichtman wrote Baseball for Rookies (TGF, $14.95), a handbook for neophyte fans.

Wild man blues: One day in 1911, a group of white Oroville meatcutters was startled by a starved, dark-skinned figure emerging from the woods. Swiftly "adopted" by UC Berkeley anthropologists, the stranger attained instant fame as Ishi, America's last "wild man," sole survivor of his Yahi tribe. When he died five years hence, the scholars attempted a traditional Yahi ceremony -- cremating Ishi's remains with bows, arrows, acorn-meal, and shell-money, then installing the ashes at Colma's Mount Olivet Cemetery.

The only thing missing was his brain. For 83 years, rumors swirled that it had been removed during Ishi's autopsy, pickled, and stashed away somewhere. Duke University anthropologist Orin Starn was at the forefront of the search that led, ultimately, to a jar in the Smithsonian institution -- and to a fervent mandate for repatriation.

In Ishi's Brain (Norton, $25.95), Starn reexamines "a controversial symbol of survival, hope, and the crimes committed against Native Americans that accompanied the conquest of this continent. We're a forgetful society, and too often choose to remember little of our past. Not many Californians know much of anything about the fascinating, diverse history of this state's native peoples or the brutal campaigns of extermination to which they were subjected. The story of Ishi and his people forces us to confront the realities of our history, and all that was sacrificed along the way," says Starn, who will be at Cody's on March 9.

Ishi was not always "quite so gentle and good-humored as latter-day stories would have it, but he did adjust to what for him was the very alien world of modern-day San Francisco. ... He'd take neighborhood boys hunting for quail with bow and arrow in Golden Gate Park and ride the Muni down to Fisherman's Wharf with his Papago Indian friend, Juan Dolores."

Most striking of all is that "we will never know Ishi's real name. To reveal your name to anyone but those closest to you was viewed as improper and even dangerous in Yahi culture, perhaps a bit like giving your credit-card number to a stranger today." The anthropologists settled on ishi, Yahi for "man."

"The last 'wild' Indian in North America remains in this sense always a bit beyond our greedy curiosity," Starn says drily.

Speaking of cremations: In 1965, Berkeley students yearned not to strike it rich as corporate CEOs but to seek enlightenment somewhere far from flush toilets. In her memoir Sleeping in Caves (Monkfish, $16), Cal dropout Marilyn Stablein recounts her Himalayan sojourn spent crossing paths with the likes of Baba Ram Dass and the Dalai Lama.

Among many sages she met was a toothless holy woman, dreadlocks piled a foot high, who "like most traveling sadhus owned only a water pot, fire tongs, a pipe, and the cloth she tied around herself. At the burning ghat in Benares she was completely at home tending her fire pit, next to the cremation pyres on the banks of the Ganges," Stablein says. "Funeral processions paraded by her campsite, the dead adorned with marigold malas and silks, accompanied by mournful death chants. ... She ordered me to get a log for her fire from a cremation pyre. When I refused, she stomped off and stole one herself, bellowing at the top of her lungs."

Just breathe: Since surviving the war in his homeland, Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has penned a long string of meditation manuals. Hanh lives in a French meditation village, but his exclusive American publisher is Berkeley's Parallax Press. His latest, Finding Our True Home ($12), is a new annotated translation of Buddhism's ever-so-enigmatic Amitabha Sutra, which poses the premise that happiness simply cannot exist in the absence of suffering.

Got guts? And it is Hanh's description of the Rodney King beating as a horror show in which "we were all beaten at the same time, we were all the victims" with which veteran reporter Mike Sager ends his own chapter on that incident in his new book Scary Monsters and Super Freaks (Carrol & Graf, $15.95). This collection of crime and celebrity sagas includes those of John Holmes, porn superstar turned crack addict, thief, pimp, and accessory to murder; camera-ready Rob Lowe; sadistic superfreak Rick James; an ex-Berkeleyite Heaven's Gate cult member; and Pulitzer Prize-winning liar Janet Cooke, who was once Sager's lover.

How to write well about crime? "A good journalist is one who can put his or her own ideas and ego aside, who can go in and listen and suspend their disbelief long enough to learn something," Sager says. "I have interviewed all kinds of people. The supreme leader of the Aryan Nations. Pimps and whores and drug dealers. Cold-blooded killers. Being a good journalist means getting over yourself and your ideas of right and wrong. It's about being totally nonjudgmental -- until you sit down to write. Once you sit down to write, you earn the right to be the ultimate judge, at least as far as this one little story goes."

Writing about Cooke -- whose Jayson Blairesque invention of an eight-year-old junkie brought front-page fame, then shame; she now ekes out a living as a store clerk -- "was actually cathartic," Sager says. "Anyone who has ever had an intense love affair with a deeply troubled person would easily understand. That I was 24 years old and a full-fledged staff writer at the Washington Post [when the scandal broke in 1981], answering to Bob Woodward, compounded matters considerably. It was a trial by fire, certainly. But ... some life lessons you couldn't learn anywhere else. You are what you experience, after all. Back when I was a reporter, we used to joke, gallows style, 'the worse it is, the better it is.' Like, if you had a story of a local bus crash, and nobody was killed, your piece would only be making the metro section. You needed dead bodies to make the front page."

The scan man: Cody's Bookstore in Berkeley isn't named after either Kathie Lee Gifford's child or Buffalo Bill Cody. Its namesake is its original owner, the late Fred Cody, in whose name the Northern California Book Awards also honors a distinguished writer every year for lifetime achievement. This year's Fred Cody Award, highlight of a ceremony preceded by a reception and signing at San Francisco Public Library's main branch at 5 p.m. on March 24, goes to trouper and Pulitzer winner (he got to keep his) Philip Levine, who lives in Fresno. Winners in the competition for best fiction, nonfiction, and poetry among local authors will be announced and belaureled as well. For details, visit PoetryFlash.org

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