Hooray for Propaganda 

In this month's East Bay book news, Rod Stewart reveals that Elton John used to be called Sharon.

Mighty Mao's: Grinning, brawny, wrench-wielding women. Rosy cheeked tots armed with rifles. Overall-clad workmen beaming, bayonets outthrust, alongside slogans urging viewers to defeat America. Hooray! Chinese Posters: Art from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (Chronicle, $19.95) honors an art form that motivated hundreds of millions to farm, work in factories, worship a dictator, and torture their teachers. Invoking struggle and solidarity, Ann Tompkins and Berkeley's Lincoln Cushing rhapsodize about this "mass movement to challenge counterrevolutionary and revisionist activity." The dictatorship made a wise long-term investment in Tompkins, who as a revolutionary American expat in China during what these authors fondly call "the GPCR," was given chauffeured cars and paychecks just to hang around. Forty years hence, she declares: "We were on the cutting edge of history." Good times, good times. Okay, not for the homeowners, poets, and scholars who lost their property, livelihoods, and lives. How many were executed? Dictatorships are bashful about statistics, but estimates rise into the tens of millions. Chinese Posters whistles past that graveyard, telling us only that "the Red Guards participated in a range of activities, including political education and ... debates; military training; physical fitness; the arts; efforts to assure proletarian control of educational, work, and government units; and public criticism and denunciations of perceived revisionists and class enemies." A lone, rapid reference to "excesses" leaves us guessing. The posters are glorious, all blood-red suns and golden grain and blinding smiles. Ever-chic Chronicle Books brings you a book about propaganda that is itself ... propaganda. Now grab that blowtorch and get back to the assembly line.

Man can scan: Horsewhipping, newborn fawns, war dead, fetuses, his gagging mother: In Time and Materials (Ecco, $22.95), his first poetry collection to appear in a decade, Berkeleyite and ex-US Poet Laureate Robert Hass ponders butterflies and the bombardment of Pyongyang. In these works, chocolate resembles excrement. Nietzsche nibbles sausages. A poem about a fourteen-year-old Bangkok prostitute might be the last place you'd expect to see the H-word — i.e., "Halliburton." Aren't poets clever?

Name that 'toon: A human-sized fly in a dentist's office. A man on a rooftop, machine-gunning a diapered baby holding a letter. Circus freaks, the Satan Hotel, a corpse-construction factory, a jockey-shorted totem pole. Jesus gushing blood, striding toward the portals of Cuteland, where fascist cops billyclub the ugly. One continuous 24-foot-long scene — accordion-folded to fit between hard covers — by Swiss comix artists X. Robel and H. Reumann, Elvis Road ($24.95) features thousands of densely packed, minutely detailed, minuscule figures commuting, slaying, praying, and enjoying buffets. It's yet another marvel from Oakland's Buenaventura Press, whose fat new Comic Art Annual # 9 ($19.95) — with in-depth articles on classic cartoonists including Jerry Moriarty, Lyonel Feininger, and Kaz — might revive your flagging faith in a once-great medium currently in danger of blinding itself via narcissistic navel-gazing.

Reality bites: What does a Bhutanese family of thirteen that includes two hunchbacks eat during a typical week? Eighty betel nuts, 66.2 pounds of rice, 2.8 gallons of milk, plus oranges, tea, dried fish. Compare and contrast with the weekly eats of a Mexican family of five, which includes 22 pounds of tortillas, 15.4 pounds of chicken, over a pound of chili-pepper lollipops, and six gallons of Coke. The mother of the latter clan, a Cuernavaca nurse whose husband is an undocumented worker in the US, fretted about her kids' weight gain to Faith D'Alusio, whose text accompanies Peter Menzel's vivid photographs of families worldwide and their weekly grocery hauls in Hungry Planet ($24.95), new in paperback from Berkeley's Ten Speed Press. Yes, Westerners eat the most. Yawn. But wherever in the world Coke, Pepsi, McDonald's, and KFC appear, they become instant, pathetic status symbols, proving that foreigners don't hate everything about America.

Too blue: He called Rod Stewart "Phyllis" and Elton John "Sharon." That was part of "his gay way," says Stewart of '60s British blues belter Long John Baldry in It Ain't Easy (Greystone, $18.95), a new Baldry biography by Berkeleyite Paul Myers. Both of the future superstars were in Baldry-led bands, but both soon outsold him. (Elton's stage surname is an homage to Baldry.) Yet another figure whom insiders say should have been more famous, Baldry influenced the Beatles and Stones, with whom he toured, but died in relative obscurity in 2005, according to the author, a Canadian guitarist who is Mike Myers' brother. Stewart also reminisces about attending London gay-underground parties with his hero. "All sorts of things used to go on there," he reports, "with two-way mirrors and sausage sandwiches."

Keeping it rail: As a thriving railway hub, post-Civil War West Oakland was "an African-American dreamscape," assert Thomas and Wilma Tramble in The Pullman Porters and West Oakland (Arcadia, $19.99). It "offered the long-denied opportunity to establish the family unit consisting of a father with a steady job. No longer was he in danger of being 'sold down the river.' The nurturing mother could legally be woman to her man, an academic protector to her children." Photos include gorgeous houses, Harrison Avenue's Home of the Aged and Infirm Colored People (circa 1892), and porters serving coffee and strumming banjos for white passengers wearing waistcoats or flowered hats.

Just do it: One day in a spiral pad, circa 1997, then-twentysomething Berkeleyite Rebecca Stevens scribbled a to-do list. "Re-calibrate sewing machine," it exhorted. And "Clean shower floor." Other items were "sex worker romance book" and "shit and shave." She sent it to Sasha Cagen, editor of To-Do List magazine and now of the book To-Do List (Fireside, $16), an omnibus of authentic, handwritten notes-to-selves. Get voyeuristic thrills from such vows and revelations as "Things That Drive Me Crazy: THE INCESSANT FLATULENCE!" and "Don't think about A." A list of possible birthday-party menu items submitted by chef Alice Waters includes "Dalai Lama pasta." A launch party and read-aloud "list slam" is scheduled for Nov. 10 at Cafe Royale in San Francisco.

Taster's choice: Guinness ice cream "was the logical outcome of my thinking that most ice creams are too sweet," Alice Medrich confides in Pure Dessert (Artisan, $35). Fair enough, and in this new celebration of avant-garde afters, the Berkeley chef who more or less put chocolate truffles on the Gourmet Ghetto map offers a recipe for it. And for beer granita, kamut shortbread, Mexican chocolate soup, Nutella bread pudding, and more.

Dream sequence: Emeryviller Kelly Lydick — who will be at Modern Times Bookstore in San Francisco on Nov. 6 — describes her new book as "an experimental narrative." Endorsed by the likes of Bukowski pal Neeli Cherkovski, Lydick's Mastering the Dream (Second Story, $12) finds a woman probing infinities thusly: "May, 2000: I was six years old when I discovered that light was both a particle and a wave. I was lying in the grass on the far side of the creek that ran behind my parents' house in Chicago. I wanted to see if I could catch the particles. I tried but failed."

Walk like a Hogwartian: Stretching Halloween out a little bit longer, the students and teachers of Millsmont Academy, a public K-8 school at 3200 62nd Ave. in Oakland, will parade around the block costumed as their favorite authors and literary characters at 11:45 a.m. on Nov. 2. The school, whose motto is "College for Certain," plans a book-swap and reading to precede the parade, which chief academic officer Elise Darwish calls "a great way to get students excited about reading and bridge the home/literacy connection. The students are thinking about Halloween through books. The students are now involving their parents in costume-making by sharing their books."

Strike one: Masterpieces pop up where you least expect them, as revealed in Light of India: A Conflagration of Indian Matchbox Art (Ten Speed, $16.95). Berkeley pop-culture collector Warren Dotz displays more than a hundred vintage Indian matchboxes bearing jewel-hued images of sharks, monkeys, elephants, televisions, the Taj Majal, and much more, including deities. On one box, the god Shiva dances atop a dwarf: "a symbol," Dotz explains, "of human ignorance."


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