Incense and Carnage 

This month's East Bay book news.

Dying to tell you: True-crime queen Ann Rule detests mystery fiction. "I don't care so much about the how of crimes but about the why," says Rule, whose new Heart Full of Lies (Free Press, $26) recounts the 2000 murder of nice blond Concord-born airline pilot Chris Northon by his smart, sociopathic screenwriter wife. Liysa Northon spent years telling everyone Chris beat her -- but exactly the opposite was true. "She was shining them on. Everyone thinks it's just women who are the victims of domestic violence," warns Rule, who would rather write about female murderers than male ones any day.

"Women kill for different reasons than men do. Women kill for love, and that's broadly defined to include jealousy and desire. Female killers plan. They think. Even in murder, women want more foreplay. It's so cold-blooded to sit across from your husband putting poison in his breakfast cereal."

She conducted hundred of interviews for this book but none with Liysa. "If you want to learn about a sociopath, you don't go to them and say, 'Tell me about yourself.' I thought I knew Ted Bundy very well," muses the author, whose 1980 blockbuster The Stranger Beside Me was inspired by her early-1970s stint working at a Seattle suicide hotline with the future serial killer. "I never suspected a thing."

These days she's working on a book about Washington's Green River Killer. When Pentecostal truck painter Gary Ridgway was recently tagged as the elusive killer of 49 women, Rule recalls, "My daughter saw his picture on the news and said, 'Mom, that's the guy who used to come to all your book signings. He'd stand there leaning against the wall.'"

Mod cons: Oakland's Elana Dykewomon ponders the passage of time. Set a hundred years ago and first published six years ago, her Lambda Award-winning novel Beyond the Pale has reemerged in a new edition from Canada's Raincoast Books ($15.95). Fleeing pogrom-riddled Europe, Dykewomon's characters find love and labor in Manhattan, where the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is one price of industrial life.

"The intervening years have confirmed what I discovered while writing Beyond the Pale: that 'modern' is a reference to time, not a state of being," the novelist says. "While we live in the modern moment, the real accomplishments of our species often lie behind us, and our belief that we're at the pinnacle of progress is often an illusion." The dawning 20th century was "a much more progressive time than this -- a time of great change, when ordinary folks felt they could shape the course of history, and did."

Gangsters on the Ginza: Japan's ravishingly tattooed crime mob, the yakuza, casts a powerful spell on the public mind which is funneled into films, lovingly critiqued by The Asian Wall Street Journal's Mark Schilling in The Yakuza Movie Book ($19.95). New from Berkeley's Stone Bridge Press, it covers everything from 1948's Drunken Angel to 1995's The Carnage Comes and beyond.

"The '60s and '70s were when the genre had its strongest hold on the male imagination -- college boys swaggering out of theaters thinking they were Ken Takakura," Schilling says. Those films' heroes were "noble types, more like John Wayne than Clint Eastwood: defending the giri-ninjo ideals of self-sacrifice and loyalty against Westernized types whose only motivations were power and greed. The big difference is that where the Western hero was essentially an individual agent, the yakuza hero fought for a group. ... In the climactic scene he faced down dozens of bad guys alone, not because his buddies were too cowardly to join him, but because he wanted to spare them a prison term. Not the kind of ending you'd find in a John Wayne movie."

In the real world, "you still read about the occasional gang hit or body being dug up," Schilling says, "but the headline-making gang wars of the postwar period are a thing of the past. Foreigners, mainly Chinese and other Third World types, are muscling into Shinjuku and other former yakuza havens, putting native gangsters on the defensive. It's not the best of times to be a yakuza."

Om games: He met grown women who were molested as kids in Hare Krishna ashrams. He met ex-Jesus freaks and polygamous self-proclaimed prophets. In Following Our Bliss: How the Spiritual Ideals of the Sixties Shape Our Lives Today (Harper San Francisco, $24.95), Berkeley's Don Lattin prods the legacies of Rajneesh, Ram Dass, Ramtha, and dozens more. The award-winning San Francisco Chronicle religion reporter evokes scenes such as a 2,000-couple Moonie mass marriage and Big Sur's Esalen, whose first caretaker circa 1964 was a not-yet-famous but fully armed Hunter Thompson.

"It's easy to bash the '60s and '70s. There was a lot of silliness and recklessness," which made it "much easier for the right to blame the social ills of the '80s and '90s on some past period of permissiveness," says Lattin, who will be at Rakestraw Books on October 30. But "there was also lots of hope, idealism, innovation, empowerment, liberation. Those are good things." There's nothing wrong with seeking, advises the author, "but don't turn it into a lifelong spiritual practice. Whirl like a dervish, read some Thomas Merton, and study kabala, but you may want to eventually decide." So ... do the spiritual vets he interviewed feel their sojourns were worthwhile?

"Those who can remember it, yes."

Rear view: A photograph of ex-Express sex columnist Carol Queen with her fist up the bum of a friend was part of David Steinberg's slide show at Good Vibrations launching Photo Sex (Down There, $35), a proud collection of exactly that. Queen was present at the slide show, serving refreshments with presumably clean hands.


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