Laughing Matters 

This month's East Bay book news.

Everything is relativity: Daring to suggest that Einstein was wrong -- e.g., that the speed of light is not constant -- former UC Berkeley visiting scientist João Magueijo is sticking his neck out. But he's laughing his head off, too. The first chapter of Magueijo's new book Faster Than the Speed of Light (Perseus, $26) is titled "Very Silly"; a later chapter is called "God on Amphetamine." Even while recounting the progress of a radical but potentially earth-shaking idea, this theoretical physicist and self-described heretic offers a narrative studded with riotous anecdotes and sly jibes à la the late Richard Feynman, whom he emulates "mainly in my refusal to do what everyone else is doing ... but the Feynman approach is very uncommon in modern physics, where the sheep instinct prevails."

Featured in a recent British TV documentary called "Einstein's Biggest Blunder," the author is set to appear at Cody's on February 5. Magueijo joins a proud tradition of illustrious Portuguese. But he notes that "Vasco da Gama was a total bastard by all accounts."

Whip it good: All those who bought copies of Barbara Ulrich's The Hot Girls of Weimar Berlin (Feral House, $19.95) after a slide show she gave at Moe's this month got freebies: repros of a vintage board game based, as Ulrich said, "on how to get laid in Berlin."

A vanished Babylon where libidinous pierrots and dissipated clowns pulled pranks, and where cocaine could be ordered publicly in restaurants -- "drugs were absolutely a part of this environment," says the San Pablo author -- is revived in this collection of cartoons, photos, and fine art. In one painting, a voyeuristic monkey pours champagne. In another, a female hotel guest flagellates a bellboy. Amid these hundreds of corsets and high-heeled boots are many pictures featuring whips and riding crops: "Lots of horse fantasies," says Ulrich. "The Germans were great equestrians."

You jerk: In ancient Greek comedies, "it's always the buffoons who masturbate," says UC Berkeley history professor Thomas Lacquer, "as if, if you do it, you're almost by definition a rube." It was also joke fodder in Roman poetry, whose narrators basically told each other to stop jerking off and start siring heroes.

"That type of joke has been around for a really long time," says Lacquer, whose new Solitary Sex (Zone, $34) starts with a reference in Gulliver's Travels to "my good master Bates." But Lacquer seeks to discover why something considered so hilarious has also been considered "wildly threatening" by the likes of Immanuel Kant, Sigmund Freud, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Self-pleasuring symbolizes a departure from society, says the professor. "It says that you've dropped out of the social order, that either you've rejected the system or the system has rejected you."

An alternative Abe: In his new novel Mr. Lincoln's Wars (Morrow, $23.95), Berkeley-born Adam Braver paints a heart-wrenching fictionalized portrait of a popular president haunted by both national and personal sorrow. While writing the book, Braver moved to the South.

"Having grown up in the Bay Area, it had not been a part of my consciousness how despised Lincoln still was" elsewhere in the country. One day, the author met a Mississippian who "eyeballed me kind of strangely. 'I hope that you are not planning on contributing to the greatest PR campaign of the 20th century,'" the man warned Braver, who will be at Barnes & Noble in Jack London Square on February 19. "He then ranted on about the conspiracy of the North to canonize an otherwise demonic figure. He had his own set of facts and conclusions drawn from interpretations of speeches and an alternate version of history. Initially I was taken aback. But in fact it helped me with my story about John Wilkes Booth -- to see that fire in the eyes at the mere mention of Lincoln's name."

See Emily play: Black-haired, baleful little Emily "aims low" and "always gets even," we learn in Emily the Strange (Chronicle, $12.95). Created by the Oakland design group Cosmic Debris, whose fashions are worn by fadsters including Björk and Fatboy Slim, the wee she-devil is world-famous.

"The Japanese love her," says Cosmic Debris creative director Rob Reger. "They look like her, but it's not only that. They like that she can kick ass."

Reger based Emily on his own loner-ish childhood self -- "though maybe I wasn't as strong as she was." Armed with a slingshot, playing poker with five aces, "she's a celebration," he says, "of just being bad."

Just do wit: Concord-bred Mark Hosler calls his band, Negativland, "smaller than a pimple" while discussing the absurdity of its being sued by U2 in The Tenacity of the Cockroach (Three Rivers, $16), a bracingly funny new anthology of interviews previously published in The Onion with "entertainment's most enduring outsiders" -- a pantheon of underground heroes and blasts from the past including Oakland's KRS-One, Santa Cruz' Tom Lehrer, John Waters, Dr. Demento, Pam Grier, Elvira, and dozens more.

Dim, some: Once joshing about a stroll with friends through San Francisco's Chinatown, Mark Twain wrote of "small, neat sausages" displayed in a shop; "but we suspected that each link contained the corpse of a mouse, and therefore refrained." This and other East-West contretemps punctuate J.A.G. Roberts' China to Chinatown (Reaktion, $29.95), a comprehensive history of Chinese food's sojourn around the world. Longtime Berkeleyite and internationally acclaimed chef Ken Hom is cited here as a scion of the fusion faction -- with his Goat's Cheese Wonton Soup presented as evidence.

Buy, buy, baby: In 1998, Berkeley High School faculty negotiated a contract granting Pepsi "sole pouring rights" on campus in exchange for two sports scoreboards emblazoned with the Pepsi logo. Student protester Sarah Church is one of the brave young activists cited in Alissa Quart's Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers (Perseus, $25) -- and one of the few. In this Fast-Food Nation for the advertising industry, Quart bares the dynamics now turning American youth into walking billboards.

For the middle-class kids she dubs "megashoppers," acquisitiveness produces "a new sort of depersonalized identity" that she believes may yield troubling long-term consequences: "What does it mean to grow up as an Abercrombie & Fitch kid rather than just a kid?" Quart asks.

Pop art: In the poignant new anthology The Man I Might Become: Gay Men Write About Their Fathers, former UC Berkeley Art Museum staffer Bill Hayes recalls the time his dad begged him to not "act gay" at an upcoming family wedding. In other tales, Alexander Chee reads aloud to his comatose tae kwon do-champion dad; and Rakesh Satyal muses: "My father plays with Barbies. Indian Barbies, but Barbies nevertheless."

Once upon a howdah: "People assume Cinderella is purely a European story," says Renee Ting, whose family owns Shen's publishing company in Fremont. Most people don't know there's an Egyptian version in which Prince Charming is a pharaoh. And a Mexican version whose heroine is a leathercrafter. Shen's catalog includes dozens of book-length versions of the fairy tale.

"What surprised me at first was how many teachers use the story in their classrooms," Ting says. "They use it in discussions about gender and equality."

Snippets: Union City high-schoolers confront 9/11 and its aftermath in Nine of One (Immedium, $2.95), a sleek but serious new comic book blending fact and fiction by former Harvard Crimson staff cartoonist Oliver Chin. ... At the Graduate Theological Union on February 12, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, author of Jewish Spirituality: A Brief Introduction for Christians (Jewish Lights, $12.95), will discuss past events on Mount Sinai; for details, call 510-649-2422.


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