Dogs, Bugs, and Whips 

This month's East Bay book news.

Plastic factor: As Vanity Fair's profiler of the stars, Maureen Orth has seen Michael Jackson from close up enough to know that "his face is caked with white makeup, which conceals a prosthesis which serves as the tip of his nose." Celebrities have a knack for eluding justice, UC Berkeley grad Orth avers in The Importance of Being Famous (Holt, $25), in whose other chapters Madonna quips about whips, Woody Allen's head is in his seven-year-old daughter's lap, and Arianna Huffington "made plays for" then-Governor Jerry Brown but to no avail. Also under Orth's microscope squirm Carlos Menem, Margaret Thatcher, Vladimir Putin, and other players in what she dubs "the celebrity-industrial complex.

"There is an enormous apparatus in place today of both huge media conglomerates and all the handlers of celebrity from stylists to accountants who are taking up more and more media space as the world goes wired and cable TV is a voracious 24/7," the Alameda native tells Press Here. "This has enormous implications for our culture because the camera does not discern whom it focuses upon, and as we can see with Scott Peterson and Paris Hilton, for example, fame and infamy are merging: Fame is no longer coupled with achievement. ... Just look at the successes of your own governor if you don't think you should pay attention to how big-time celebrity works today."

And a complex it is: "After not disclosing the connection for their Richard Clarke interview, 60 Minutes ... is being forced to put a disclaimer on the TV screen during their upcoming interview of Bob Woodward and his new book about the lead-up to Iraq. Now the viewer will know that both CBS and Woodward's publisher, Simon & Schuster, are owned by Viacom. If you want to understand how power works in this society you have to know how celebrity works."

Undercover brother: In the new potboiler, Mugged in Marseilles (Action Tales, $12.97), by pseudonymous Oaklander Coby Derek James, an African-American CIA courier suffers identity theft, then wrangles with Algerian terrorists plotting to blow up a Kenyan hotel. James is a longtime employee of high-security government agencies, so he knows how it goes.

Sneaky peter: The "out" in In-N-Out Burger is all about feculence -- a premise reinforced by the huge diaper pins fastening employees' aprons. Ads for Naturalizer shoes and Sauza tequila pass off androgynous male models as hot chicks to arouse latent bi and queer desire. A movie poster for Cast Away includes a bit of Photoshopped bonking, embedded in a yellow twist of flame. On a 1977 People magazine cover celebrating the TV show Three's Company, an erection is airbrushed under John Ritter's tongue. Ex-Berkeleyite August Bullock's The Secret Sales Pitch (Norwich, $19.95) scouts subliminal messages -- and it's weirdly addictive.

With megabucks at stake, advertisers benefit from slipping extra messages under the radar, says the San Jose lawyer: "If we didn't unconsciously interpret images within images, we wouldn't be able to discern which image is 'real' -- and we wouldn't be able to interpret reality. We would walk around 'seeing' the spaces between the trees or the faces in the rocks, instead of the trees and the rocks themselves." In any case, "it certainly makes sense that embedding a penis on the cover of a magazine would make that cover more dramatic."

And check out the alleged incest/castration fantasy in that La-Z-Boy ad.

Cal can: At a meeting this month showcasing the University of California Press' new spring titles, guests learned that Stanford biology professor and lizard expert Joan Roughgarden, author of the season's keynote book, Evolution's Rainbow ($27.50), used to be a man.

"She used to be John. She went through a sex-change operation," UC Press Director Lynne Withey told the assembled crowd. "So she has a personal interest in what she's writing about." Subtitled "Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People," the book flies in the face of established yet non-PC data -- call them facts if you will -- collected by Charles Darwin et al., and proposes instead a vision of biological history in which transgenderism and homosexuality are standard and communalism trumps self-interest. (Tell that to the mako shark.)

"We have to be very careful," Withey noted, "about not exploiting her personal life in public."

Also on display were Merrill Goozner's The $800 Million Pill ($24.95), which exposes sham clinical trials and other drug-company demonry; Constance M. Lewallen and Steve Seid's Ant Farm ($29.95), about the renegade architecture collective whose peak performances included plowing a Cadillac into a tower of burning TVs in the Cow Palace's parking lot; and Robert L. Herbert's Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte ($35.95), a whole book about a single picture. (But hey, it's pointillist.) Each guest was invited to take home a volume from the press' colorfully illustrated and impeccably detailed series of California natural-history guides, packed with everything the frond spotter needs to identify that odd quivering thing in the backyard. After the dust settled and all the wildflower guides were gone, it became clear that fewer people want to spot beetles than ferns.

Trek star: Having spent half his life thus far on the road, Oakland's Jeff Greenwald is just back from Jordan. On the heels of his latest collection Scratching the Surface (Regent, $18) -- which recounts, among other antics, palavering with a recovered-alcoholic astronaut and immersing in an electrified Japanese bath -- he has a gig at San Francisco's the Marsh every Wednesday night through May in which audience members spin a big fanciful wheel of fortune, then Greenwald tells true travel tales based on which of its thirty symbols pop up.

New world odor: After years spent hunting for missing persons, Santa Cruz cop Kat Albrecht trained in Livermore for her new career as a pet detective, working with her own bloodhounds to locate missing dogs and cats. Learn about a whole new breed of forensics in her memoir The Lost Pet Chronicles (Bloomsbury, $23.95), which recounts the sniffing, the rivulets of saliva, the joyous reunions, and the mangled clots of blood and fur that bring closure, at least.

"I am one of those lucky people who is paid for their passion," Albrecht says. "I know I'm making a difference in the lives of people who are alone, engulfed in fear and grief, and who need help in locating their lost pet. The worst part is that many people laugh at my chosen profession and I'm mocked and treated like a buffoon."

Bake it: Samba-dancing Berkeley mom Barbara Quick will hand out home-baked cookies with every signed copy of Even More/Todavía Más (Raven Tree, $16.95) -- a bilingual picture book for kids charting the mother-daughter bond from babyhood to cronedom -- at the Ark Toy Store on Fourth Street from 1 to 2 p.m. on May 8, the day before Mother's Day.

Regal baring: The Conspiracy of Beards, a fifteen-member all-male chorus that sings nothing but the songs of Leonard Cohen (in three-part harmony), headlined a launch last month for Oakland-based lit quarterly Watchword's latest issue, which includes a Pushcart Prize-nominated tale by Melvin Sterne. Celebrating his birthday that night was contributor and licensed blimp pilot Evan Rehill. Raised nudist in New Jersey, Rehill notes that this heritage has taught him "to undress for success" and "to be uninhibited in the process of stripping my stories down until they look just right." Watchword's next issue will be launched May 23 at San Francisco's Make-Out Room. Each copy includes a CD featuring one-act plays by local singer-songwriter Sonny Smith.


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