Kimchi and Calculus 

This month's East Bay book news.

Hop on pop: In real life, Oakland appellate lawyer Dylan Schaffer has represented Marjorie Knoller, whose dog fatally mauled a woman in Pacific Heights; San Francisco pornographer and convicted brother-killer Jim Mitchell; Sacramento boardinghouse doyenne Dorothea Puente, convicted of killing nine tenants; and San Mateo firefighter George Franklin, whose daughter -- claiming to have repressed the memory for twenty years -- accused him of having murdered her best friend. He also is an all-out Barry Manilow fan. "I sing and whistle his songs all the time," says Schaffer, whose debut novel, Misdemeanor Man (Bloomsbury, $23.95), features an unambitious public defender who moonlights as the lead singer in a Manilow cover band -- Barry X and the Mandys -- and whose worldview is driven by pop's much-mocked yet most successful recording artist. Paramount optioned the book recently with an eye toward turning it into a TV series.

"Listen to the music. I dare you. Barry is hope and hopelessness. Barry is love, desire, passion. Barry is exuberance and heartache," explains Schaffer's protagonist Gordon Seegerman, who represents what the author calls "the lower end of the criminal justice system. ... That's where so many of the good stories are: the weird clients, the twisted judges." For Seegerman, whose girlfriend has dumped him and who cares for his sick father, Manilow-fandom is "a substitute for religion or other more, say, normal sources of succor.

"I do feel, as Gordy does, that Manilow has not gotten a fair shake from the critics," says Schaffer, who "grew up on Saturday morning cartoons, and one of my favorites was Scooby-Doo. I thought the idea of a band getting into trouble, and riffing off one another, could be fun to write about." He is launching the book, celebrating Barry's birthday, and benefiting the Oakland arts nonprofit Creative Growth on June 17 at San Francisco's Red Devil Lounge, with local band Farma playing covers by ... well, guess.

To pee or not to pee: In The Urinals of Hell (Superstition Street, $10), Oakland poet Joe Pachinko offers hardcore imagery that would shock Hallmark but not Shakespeare. But hey, "bull balls and urinals are poetic," says Pachinko, who was mistakenly arrested for robbing a Lakeshore Avenue bank nearly thirty years ago at age seventeen. "Things that are considered 'inoffensive' offend the living shit out of me. Walt Disney? He was a fascist FBI informer. ... There's this idea that for something to be considered poetry it has to be about trees, birds, flowers, dysfunctional families, and your maid Consuela who's really just like part of the family bringing you tea while you watch your fake Japanese garden sunset. And the book has to have a tree on the cover. The possibilities for words and ideas are infinite. I don't buy that postmodern 'everything's been done' crap." Pachinko's titles alone promise much, what with "Gimme Some Fuckin' Kumquats," "The Sea Monkeys Gave Me Unconditional Love," "URETHRA! I'VE FOUND IT!" and nearly two hundred more. The poems themselves are deep and defiant, daring you to dismiss them. You'll lose that dare.

Secret Asian man: In Leonard Chang's new thriller Fade to Clear (St. Martin's, $23.95), Oakland-bred private investigator Allen Choice wrangles with gangsters and killers, fights for his life -- and worries that he isn't "Korean enough" to please his girlfriend's parents.

Choice used to be Choi, but the tough guy is far from an expert on his own heritage. Chang can relate: "I do feel cut off from it. I've only been to Korea once. I'm not terribly close with my family." This is his third novel featuring Choice, a former football star whose figure has earned him the nickname the Block, aka Blockmeister. To write about Choice, "I channel him," says Chang, who will be at M Is for Mystery in San Mateo on June 10. "It's akin to method acting."

East Bay scenery absorbs the blood and body blows throughout this stirringly literary venture beginning with the very first scene, in which a Jamaican gunman in an Oakland warehouse packed with stolen computers calls the cornered Choice "Chinaman."

"I'm not Chinese," Choice coolly tells his would-be killer. "Actually, I'm Korean."

Hoops ... oops! Oaktown hosts more imaginary carnage in The Last King (Strivers Row, $13.95), a sensual tour de force of sports, solidarity, and homicide in which a local waif-turned-NBA All-Star is linked to a prostitute's murder, and his childhood friend risks everything striving to sort it all out. Alameda-bred Nichelle D. Tramble started writing the novel in 1999, "years before the current situation involving Kobe Bryant, but, unfortunately, crimes against women that involve athletes -- whether they be high school, college, or professional -- are abundant and I didn't want for research material.

"What initially sparked this particular story, however, was the division in opinion regarding the Mike Tyson-Desiree Washington case," says Tramble, whose debut novel The Dying Ground was shortlisted for the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation's Legacy Award. "The men and women I talked to had such strong yet opposing opinions about the subject that I admit to being a little shocked by them. And when I broke it down a little further, opinions also differed along class lines, and the generational divide made for the strangest bedfellows."

Go figure: When Gabriel Carroll was six, he did algebra for fun. At ten, he proved his first theorem. After his freshman year at Oakland Tech, he competed at the International Mathematical Olympiad -- basically the world's hardest math test. There he earned a gold medal, thanks to his dexterity with imaginary numbers, notably omega. He scored 800 on his math SAT. Studying stochastic processes, algebraic topology, and Chinese these days at Harvard, Carroll hoards what he likes to call "a collection of incommunicative statements, such as 'I hate it when that happens,' which allow me to make noise in conversations without listening to what is actually being said."

In Count Down (Houghton Mifflin, $24), Steve Olson follows six American teens, including Gabriel, through the 2001 Olympiad. It's a close look at "athletes of the mind": geniuses who shatter the math-nerd cliché -- a stereotype that springs from America's painful relationship with math.

"I'd describe it as a widespread distaste," Carroll muses. "It's a culturally propagated attitude, just like people from different cultures like different kinds of music or food. ... I will agree that American math education seems to be more routine-oriented than in many places, and that Americans on the whole have less awareness of the aesthetic side of the subject than, say, Asians or Eastern Europeans."

Carroll recalls of his time at Oakland Tech, "I had a few boring classes, and I dealt with that by using the time to do other things. ... As for my own area, mathematics, I ran out of material at school after having taken BC Calculus in ninth grade, and subsequently took classes at UC Berkeley, conveniently just a bus ride away. ... But that wouldn't have been so different had I gone to private schools. It's a matter of taking initiative with one's education regardless of one's situation. If you're in a bad class, look for a better one to switch into. If you can't find a better one but want to learn more about the subject matter, take it up on your own. And on the flip side, no matter how good your classes are, that's no reason not to continue learning outside of school."

The genius tag, meanwhile, is "not particularly helpful. Not only does it set expectations uncomfortably high, but it also tends to set them in places where they're not warranted. ... I'm often angered by people who seem to expect that I'll succeed at everything I do just because I've solved some problems on a few math tests."

Check it: At sixteen, Berkeley's Annalise Blum wrote a piece that appears in the bestselling MoveOn's 50 Ways to Love Your Country (Inner Ocean, $10.95); lately she has been persuading teens to care about politics. ... In The Success of Open Source (Harvard, $29.95), Cal poli-sci professor Steven Weber celebrates open-source code: its East Bay roots and its copyright-free-software fruits. ... Fresh outta Walnut Creek, the new literary journal Bullfight is hosting a launch party June 13 at San Francisco's Cafe Royale; this ish includes a story by Chasing the Sea author Tom Bissell. ... After twelve years, Boadecia's women's bookstore in Kensington is closing. Prices will be slashed until the final day, June 13, "so we can close as cleanly and gracefully as possible," says owner Suzanne Corson.


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