Cosmic Rays and Enzymes 

In this month's East Bay book news, Sarah Vowell muses about monsters and murder; Chelsea Quinn Yarbro doesn't want to see your pointy teeth.

Animate, assassinate, liberate: Emeryville's palm-fringed Pixar Studios, where she voiced Violet in The Incredibles, struck Sarah Vowell as "utopian -- suspiciously perfect. So wonderful and funny and fun that the place almost makes me wish I had an actual job." Her travelogue about presidential-murder sites, Assassination Vacation (Simon & Schuster, $14), is new in paperback. In such politically pyrotechnical times as these, you might think she'd be hearing from readers who are cooking up their own John Wilkes Booth-y schemes. "I wish," she demurs. "Nope, my readers are the sweetest, nicest, most unthreatening, most crushed-at-dodgeball-looking people imaginable." Writing really personal stuff in years past when "it never occurred to me that anyone would read or listen to me" was, says the ex-SF Weekly music columnist, "very liberating. The stakes seemed so low." Doing readings changed that, and "made me feel kind of surveilled." She isn't shy exactly. "I'm reserved. I draw a line in the sand between friends and strangers. With strangers I am very polite. ... I think this is kind of old-fashioned," Vowell says, "and not terribly California."

Bloody good: Writing three novels a year -- seventy so far, plus hundreds of short stories -- who could find the time? Chelsea Quinn Yarbro can, and she'll forgive you if you ask whether she's undead. The Berkeley-bred cult icon started writing about attractive vampires before Anne Rice did -- she began Hotel Transylvania in 1971 -- and sometimes her own fans give her the creeps. The ones who file their teeth to points "make me really nervous," Yarbro says. One devotee "I've been known to duck into men's rooms to avoid. She works in a blood bank, of all places. And when she gives you her business card, she bites it first so that you can see the impressions. I just want to tell her: 'Lady, it's just a story. I do my homework first, but I make the story up. You can't have immortality, which believe me you wouldn't like." Ex-cartographer Yarbro is widely hailed for her twenty-book series featuring Count Saint-Germain, a versatile sipper of the crimson based on a true-life mysterious European most likely born in 1690 but said by some never to have died: an aristocrat, a hatmaker, a lover, an alchemist allegedly able to increase the size of pearls. Yarbro insists on historical accuracy; too many writers and readers, she says, believe bygone times "were exactly like now, but with funny clothes." Is she afraid of blood? "That depends on where the blood is and why it happens to be there. I'm as squeamish as the next person. All horror writers are squeamish. You can't do this if you can't squeam. If you can't see something and go 'Eeeeugh,' then you can't get it onto the page." Now she's off to do a promotional tour in Italy, having just completed a new novel set in an ancient Rome ruled by the sociopathic Emperor Heliogabulus, who married a Vestal Virgin.

Peekaboo: Two in every ten Americans is under government contract to spy on the other eight ... okay, it's not real; it's the plot of A Scanner Darkly (Vintage, $12.95), the futuristic 1977 novel by Philip K. Dick, who grew up in Berkeley before winning a Hugo Award, being diagnosed as schizophrenic, becoming a literary legend, and claiming that a beam of cosmic pink light "seized me entirely, lifting me from the limitations of the space-time matrix" to reveal "that the world around me was cardboard, a fake." Keanu Reeves stars in the film version of A Scanner Darkly, opening this July. Director Richard Linklater told Filmmaker magazine that Dick's paranoia seems less strange than ever, as "we are living in science fiction now."

Unreal: After breaking the news last October in a New York Magazine story that queer San Francisco novelist JT LeRoy was nonexistent, extant queer San Francisco novelist Stephen Beachy began apartment-hunting in Berkeley. Now proven right, Beachy remembers attending his first "LeRoy" reading in 2000 and suspecting "that he was probably a middle-aged woman." The author of Distortion (Harrington Park, $22.95) and the as-yet-unpublished boneyard, Beachy is now "really getting serious about trying to tie together some of my interests and obsessions: evolutionary theory, multiple personalities, eugenics, gnosticism, this 17th-century German mystic Jacob Boehme ..."

he inhaled:

PERPY, PERVY PROFS: Ex-liberal UC Berkeley alum David Horowitz says that this week, "a consortium of radical professors, students, and like-minded leftist organizations have launched an unprecedented attack aimed at discrediting my just-released book" -- The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America (Regnery, $27.95). Agitating against Cal's ROTC 45 years ago, lawyer Horowitz is now the nation's leading anti-PC crusader, who boasts that his book exposes profs at dozens of schools who are convicted criminals and members of terrorist cells; profs who praise Osama bin Laden and fragging, who defend pedophilia and say they want to kill Caucasians. Members of Cal's faculty appear in the book, which Horowitz -- who chairs the controversial Students for Academic Freedom and created its Academic Bill of Rights -- warns is undergoing "a naked attempt by a coalition of left-wing groups including the ACLU, the National Education Association, the pro-Castro United States Students Association, and People for the American Way to censor my book before the public has a chance to read it."

Black and white and wed all over: Growing up in Oakland, shuttled back and forth between divorced parents, Diann Valentine felt that her life was a "split screen. ... My last name seemed a cruel joke." At eighteen, while earning a marketing degree, she helped plan a cousin's wedding. That's when she became outraged at "the wedding industry's blatant disregard of black brides. How dare they dismiss us! How dare they ignore our money! In bridal magazine after bridal magazine, hardly ever did I see even a lousy black cake-top couple or a menu with some soul going on." Now one of America's highest-profile wedding planners, with celebrity clients including Toni Braxton, Antoine Fuqua, and a member of Boyz II Men, Valentine unveils scenes from phat phestivities in a coffee-table book, Weddings Valentine Style (Atria, $39.95).


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