From Here to Eternity 

New books by Bay Area authors.

Red Ant House
By Ann Cummins
Mariner, $12
There's a subterranean audacity to the best stories in this debut collection. As in Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, the narrative darts a paragraph ahead of the reader, moving with the delicate spasms of a recently awakened mind. The worst sections never gather momentum and can safely be skipped, since the rest of the book stands well on its own. Most of Cummins' dozen stories take place in a lonely Southwest of Indian reservations and featureless small towns. This Oakland author's prose, tightly wound but plain, moves swiftly but not a whole lot happens: Her characters seem to be vaguely reenacting their own sadness as a reminder that they still breathe. The strongest stories make full use of their microworld; the title story is a gently perverted riff on the Boo Radley subplot of To Kill a Mockingbird. "Dr. War Is a Voice on the Phone," the most nakedly adult story, is an icy two-page dissection of an obscene caller. While this collection is far from perfect -- its weakest links seem even bored with themselves -- Cummins, whose fans include Dave Eggers, has assembled an impressive bundle of raw material. -- Kevin Smokler

The Floating World
By Cynthia Gralla
Ballantine, $21.95
The Floating World floats, all right, but like an empty plastic makeup bottle on the surface of an urban pond. It is unfortunate that this ambitious first novel invites such a response, since its Berkeley-based author deserves commendation on several counts. Taut with promise, the first tableau depicts a naked woman lying on a low table, her body a sushi platter which men are allowed to touch with chopsticks alone. Then Liza's dance mentor, Oshima Kenzo, is introduced as a master of ankoku butoh, the dance of utter darkness. But within a few pages, the lifelessness of Liza and everyone she meets sets in and continues for the duration as butoh, then her exotic hostess job, and then the nude serving gig all supposedly contribute to her inner quest. Despite excellent descriptions, Gralla habitually commits the elementary blunder of telling rather than showing, and her characters are little more than caricatures. Interestingly, the book's PR packet contains one of her sex-industry pieces for Salon which reads like notes for the novel; nonfiction might be the better genre for Gralla's mode of floating. -- Alexandra Yurkovsky

Dream of the Blue Room
By Michelle Richmond
MacAdam/Cage, $23
Sex and death: There's a whole lot of both in this debut novel by a USF lecturer. Its protagonist, Jenny, reminisces about sex with a charismatic girl from her youth who was later murdered, has sex with an incurably ill man who asks her to put him out of his misery -- and then there's the sex with her husband, which is usually not quite as exciting (for Jenny, that is) as the doomed or morbid sex with those other two. The action takes place mainly on a cruise that Jenny and her husband are taking for not entirely recreational purposes down the malodorous, heavily polluted Yangtze. Graham is the two-dimensional, walking symbol of a man with Lou Gehrig's disease who captivates Jenny. Their flirtations often transpire along the railings of the ship, as a corpse or two and other assorted pieces of trash drift by on the river below. Scarcely a chapter goes by that doesn't include an unoriginal recounting of some kind of sexual episode. However, there also exist terse, poignant vignettes of the pain of emotional separation from someone, and of the ways in which the shadows cast by different people in one's life intersect. Richmond's narration manages to maintain simultaneously dreamlike and level-headed qualities, casting a tenuous spell -- a spell that is invariably soon broken by an interlude of banal prose. -- Kim Hedges

Wonder When You'll Miss Me
By Amanda Davis
Morrow, $24.95
It's a question every writer grapples with, one way or another: When I die, will I have anything worthwhile to show for all those hours hunched over a notebook? Enter (and exit) Amanda Davis, the young Mills College MFA instructor whose debut novel came out last month, right around the time she was killed in a plane crash. That's the bad news, and it's hard to forget. The good news is that the novel is engrossing enough to help suspend that sad reality. When we first meet Faith Duckle she's fresh out of the mental ward and haunted by the fat girl she used to be. It says something about this day and age that you can write a coming-of-age novel in which the heroine attempts suicide, mutilates someone, and runs off to join the circus, and still make it all just feel like growing pains. Faith stumbles toward self-discovery, and if that self happens to be an anorexic split personality who's a danger to herself and others, who are we to judge? Davis seems to like Faith too much to let much harm befall her -- and that's okay because we like her, too. -- Sam Hurwitt

The Barbary Plague
By Marilyn Chase
Random House, $25.95
AIDS was not the first plague to afflict San Francisco. In 1900, a rat-infested ship docked in the city's harbor. The bubonic-plague epidemic these rodents launched raged for over five years before city officials finally got a handle on it -- or said they did. When the 1906 earthquake hit, rats emerged from their underground lairs and spread the disease anew. Chase uses the outbreak as a prism through which to view Victorian mores, as well as a social disease that lingers today: racism. The plague might have quickly been quashed had the city not suppressed reports of its outbreak, then blamed it on the Chinese immigrants who'd caught it first. Happily, there are heroes in this tale. Chase brings to life two early public-health advocates: Joseph Kinyoun and Rupert Blue. Kinyoun took up the cause of controlling its spread first, but his ideas -- especially his attempt to quarantine Chinatown -- backfired, worsening conditions. Blue was more tactful in getting local and federal agencies to work together. Chase's descriptions of antiquated medical practices sometimes veers into numbing detail. More exciting are her cinematic close-ups of the people this epidemic affected, the seamstresses and shop owners who fell dead of fevers topping 108 degrees. Today's SARS crisis makes this work all the more relevant. -- John Freeman


Quick Picks

1. Cold Springs, by Rick Riordan (Bantam, $23.95). Heroin, homicide, and that ever-so-slender but seductive chance of redemption fuel this mystery by an Edgar Award-winning ex-Bay Areaite, set in Laurel Heights, Oakland, Marin, and beyond.

2. Seriously Funny, by Gerald Nachman (Pantheon, $29.95). From former car-wash attendant Dick Gregory to the formerly mute Sid Caesar to mother-of-five Phyllis Diller to Cosby, Newhart, and the rest, Chronicle vet Nachman probes '50s and '60s comedy.

3. The Rooster Trapped in the Reptile Room, by Barry Gifford (Seven Stories, $19.95). This retrospective collection spans the long career of Berkeley's prolific Gifford, still best known worldwide for penning Wild at Heart, part of which is included here.

4. We're in the Mountains, not Over the Hill, by Susan Alcorn (Shepherd Canyon, $14.95). Bay Area women aged fifty and up helped Alcorn compile this refreshing handbook of hiking and backpacking tips for those who know it isn't over until it's over.

5. Yosemite National Park, by Kurt Wolff, Amy Marr, David Lukas, and Cheryl Koehler (Lonely Planet, $19.99). By a team of Bay Area authors, this first volume in a new national-parks series from the erstwhile travel publisher appeals to hikers, bikers, climbers, and schleppers.

6. Wednesday Writers, edited by Elizabeth Fishel and Terri Hinte (Harwood, $12). The subjects of these true tales by members of an Oakland-based writers' group run the gamut from terrorism to goat-slaughter to a sock factory.

7. Buddhism, by Huston Smith and Philip Novak (Harper San Francisco, $18.95). Providing the basics for neophytes and nirvana-bound old hands alike, Berkeley's Smith and San Rafael's Novak cover tenets, texts, practices, history, and more.

8. John Galen Howard and the University of California, by Sally B. Woodbridge (University of California, $44.95). Before the advent of brutal Barrows Hall and its concrete-block ilk, UCB was a Beaux Arts wonderland, largely the brainchild of architect Howard, whose illustrated story this is.

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