Donuts & Polar Bears 

This month's East Bay book news.

Hard target: Ten years ago in Berkeley, Nicholson Baker wrote literary novels about phone sex and the power to stop and start time. Three weeks ago, a reviewer for Slate called Nicholson's latest novella "a work of pornography," but the reviewer meant this in a totally different way. In Checkpoint (Knopf, $15.95), in a hotel room near the nation's Capitol, a man explains to an old friend his plan for assassinating George W. Bush. Is it a joke? Well -- as an official statement from Baker's publisher explains -- some of the book's dialogue is funny. And the would-be assassin's weapons of choice are radio-controlled flying saws and a remote-controlled boulder made of depleted uranium. But Baker wasn't laughing when he wrote his first draft in a few fevered weeks this April, driven by his response to the war in Iraq.

"How do you react to something that you think is so hideously wrong?" Baker reflects. "What are the thoughts -- the secret thoughts, the unpublishable thoughts, so to speak -- that go through your head?"

Such thoughts put the thinker on dubious legal ground. Threatening a president's life is against the law. Freedom of the press protects most fiction because it's fiction. But when the target of the fictionally threatened assassination is a nonfictional, flesh-and-blood head of state, the plot definitely thickens. So far, the FBI has reserved judgment on Checkpoint one way or the other.

Sketch me if you can: Several times a year at an East Bay studio, two dozen artists' models assemble for marathons at which some eighty attendees pay to draw them in hundreds of different poses all day. The models include "balding Anglos who might, if clothed, be hardware-store clerks ... cheerleaders and vamps and clowns ... a three-foot dwarf," writes Peter Steinhart in The Undressed Art (Knopf, $23), an impassioned investigation of why humans draw.

Children scribble, then sketch their first humanoid figures at around age four -- but most stop drawing around age eleven, says the Palo Alto naturalist, who never stopped.

We draw to see more clearly, he says. In today's Photoshopped world, a movement is afoot to reconnect with reality via pencils and paper: "Practically any North American or European city [has] a place where one can drop in and, for a small model's fee, draw for a couple of hours," Steinhart says. The Bay Area alone boasts nearly a hundred.

Lit kin: Invisible Man author Ralph Ellison wasn't the only writer in the family. His cousin Harold L. Ellison is an Oakland process server, First Church of God boardmember, and poet who writes about Jesus (You have only one Boss/Without Him you are lost), reckless driving (Speeding down the highway/At the speed of 92 ... /The injured or deceased person/Could be you), and his job:

You say your name is Jean
But I know it's Sabrina
Just open this door
And accept this civil subpoena

After sending a 9/11-inspired poem (It wasn't a bird/It was two big full airplanes) to Rudy Giuliani, Ellison received a letter of thanks from the New York mayor.

Weed 'n' write: High-quality hashish doesn't get squishy at room temperature and, when dropped onto a glass or metal surface, should make "a hard 'tick' rather than a dull 'thud,'" writes cartoonist Bobcat in Joint Rolling Handbook 2 ($11.95), whose hilariously illustrated instructions go beyond blunts to the making of windmill-shaped, diamond-shaped, tulip-shaped, forked, and braided spliffs, not to mention foot-long "ceiling-scrapers." It's new from Oakland's Quick American Archives, which is helmed by pot guru Ed Rosenthal -- whose Big Buds 2005 calendar ($11.95) matches radiant pix by noted international photographers with the dates of marijuana milestones.

Land of the rising something: This month The Japanese Art of Sex ($16.95) from Berkeley's Stone Bridge Press was named a Book Sense pick: chosen by booksellers nationwide as one of the ten most interesting new small-press titles. Jina Bacarr authored this guide to what Stone Bridge calls "geisha power" after studying the art of kimono, performing in Japanese tofu and cola commercials, and working as a Yamaha Corporation "companion girl" -- posing for pictures and chatting up passersby at trade shows.

"My mother was a Harry Conover model, radio personality, and beauty columnist. At a young age, I learned from her about fashion, grace, 'how to walk,' etiquette, art, voice -- these basics are more important today than ever before, when women strive for equality but also want to be sensual and sexy. ... I am a woman with life experiences in the art of seduction," says Bacarr, who can make her own obi.

Imperiled pol: From 1997 to 2000, Oaklander Terry E. Hill directed the San Francisco Mayor's Office on Homelessness. In Hill's new debut novel, Inside the Fall (ReGeJe, $15), the city's first African-American mayor -- a dapper man with far-reaching political connections and a high-society wife -- has a gay affair and commits suicide in the City Hall rotunda. "Though Mr. Hill is a previous employee of former San Francisco mayor Willie L. Brown's office," reads a note from the publisher, "all characters and situations depicted in Inside the Fall are fictional and are not intended to imply factual states of affairs."

Good clean funds: Berkeley dildorium Good Vibrations makes an appearance in Stocking Up on Sin (Wiley, $27.95), in which Forbes financial columnist Caroline Waxler tells "how to crush the market with vice-based investing. ... Vice is nice," Waxler notes, in large part because it never goes out of style: Think vodka, smoking, slot machines, porn, thongs, and doughnuts. Aimed at actual investors, the book is big on stats, diagrams, and sources for predicting future trends. Howard Stern, Waxler asserts, "is really a great indicator of the next big vice thing."

She sees true value in strippers and Red Bull, but "personally, I would never invest in any company that I felt exploited its workers."

Polar eyes: En route to the North Pole aboard a nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker, Kathan Brown lost all sense of spatial perspective because "there was nothing familiar, only ice stretching to the horizon." The ship rammed into ice sheets, breaking them into blocks the size of SUVs. In The North Pole (Crown Point, $25), the ex-Berkeleyite crosscuts her own story with early Arctic explorers' journals, interviews with fellow pole-probers, and astounding color photos of a stark strange world. Underlying these images of polar bears, ice, and houses built on permafrost is a sense of dread: Will pollution and global warming, Brown wonders, wreck this fragile milieu?


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