Natural Selections 

This month's East Bay book news.

Wild, wild half-life: In his new short-story collection, The Amount to Carry (Picador, $23), Berkeley's Carter Scholz returns to that crossroads where science meets literary fiction. In one tale, a boy builds a catastrophe machine. In another, Josef Mengele learns from master physicist Werner Heisinger the story of Schrödinger's cat. Scholz, who has in the past collaborated with ex-Berkeleyite and Moe's Books employee Jonathan Lethem, speaks up for the type of sci-fi that isn't all rocket ships and Martians.

"It's unfortunate," he tells Press Here, "that LucasProduct tends to eclipse the wealth of 'SF' writers who are conversant with Kafka, Borges, Joyce, and García Márquez. The best science fiction is kind of a class traitor to both science and fiction. It doesn't necessarily respect the current boundaries of science or the niceties of literature, so it can tell a kind of truth unavailable to its more upstanding cousins. It can tell the secret history of our present and our recent past, sometimes encoded as 'the future.'" Both Thomas Pynchon and (yeah, him too) fellow ex-Berkeleyite and fellow role model Philip K. Dick "understood that reality is too weird for realism.

"For most readers, science is just another rhetoric," Scholz says. "You can read a popular book on relativity, or quantum mechanics, and sort of feel that you get it. Of course you don't really get it unless you're trained in the field, but it's close enough for lit. It's a rhetoric that we all encounter increasingly in our lives, so in a sense it's just scenery, and can be read as such." In his own work, though, he adds, "I try to make it substantial enough to hold up to scrutiny."

Speaking of Dick: Vintage has just released another one from Philip K. In Our Friends from Frolix 8 ($12), ninety tons of protoplasmic slime play a role -- as well they might -- in a possible new world order.

Have M-16, will meditate: Seventeen years ago, Aikido black-belt Richard Strozzi-Heckler was hired to teach Asian martial arts to Green Berets. The project merged Asian values and disciplines with traditional Western soldiery; Strozzi-Heckler's Bay Area friends were horrified, demanding to know how he felt "about teaching meditation to trained killers." His answer -- though it's not so simple as all that -- was In Search of the Warrior Spirit ($18.95), reissued with thoughtful new chapters this month by Berkeley's North Atlantic Books. The Petaluma author views current world events with an insider's insight:

"Those in the military are a cross-section of American culture. For many of the young Marines, sailors, airmen, and soldiers on the front lines, the military is their opportunity to obtain leadership skills and to further their education. They are not bloodthirsty seekers of violence," he says, "but men and women who hanker after warrior virtues, though not necessarily war.

"From the youngest infantryman to the most senior officers, I have yet to meet someone who was personally excited or eager about going to war," Strozzi-Heckler says. "At the leadership level, there are still a significant number of senior officers who were in Vietnam, and they are very careful about committing our armed forces to a conflict in which the country is divided. They work for their civilian bosses and do what our elected officials tell them to do -- after first arguing against the use of military operations. It has been clear to me and those who have interacted with leaders at this level that they are the last ones to want to implement their violent and destructive profession. Ever wonder why you've never seen the chiefs of staff of the services in front of CNN making the case for a war in Iraq? That's one of the reasons."

T-t-t-talkin' 'bout...: As a '70s Bay Area-wide FM-radio icon, Oakland's Wes "Scoop" Nisker rendered himself legendary with the tagline, "If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own." It's still relevant, dude. On April 21 at Cody's on Southside, Nisker will read from his new book The Big Bang, the Buddha, and the Baby Boom: The Spiritual Experiments of My Generation (Harper San Francisco, $24.95), which traces a trajectory from the mid-20th-century Midwest to Buddhist enlightenment right here in the new Wild West.

And the satori never stops: Inspired by hermit monk Thomas Merton, Oakland's William Claassen traveled the world experiencing monastic life firsthand in Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, Sufi, Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu traditions. Studded with photographs and revealing interviews about the solitary and mostly silent path, Claassen's book Alone in Community (Forest of Peace, $13.95) might make you want to steal away without telling anyone where you've gone. He'll be at Easy Going on April 24.

Business model: He was a prep-school boy "well-versed in the black arts in terms of all the trouble you could get into"; then he was an unfulfilled Stanford-grad filmmaker.

"I know now I would have been a very good producer," says Charlie Winton, "but when you're 22, no one's going to give you that chance."

No, but last year he sold a $130 million Berkeley company, and now he's at the helm of another venture.

In 1979, Winton cofounded Publishers' Group West, a book-distribution firm that sold its clients' titles aggressively to stores rather than simply waiting for orders. This MO proved instrumental in getting smaller-press books into chains, which could make or break new authors.

"You start with a good idea, and the merit of that idea determines how long your company's going to last," Winton says. "Webvan, for instance, was a good idea for about eight months."

Emboldened, PGW started buying controlling interests in some of its client companies. In 1994, these were forged into the Avalon Publishing Group, whose members now include Moon, Seal, John Muir, Carroll & Graf, Foghorn, and Nation Books, affiliated with The Nation magazine. Set to launch this fall is Shoemaker & Hoard, with new books by Anne Lamott and Gary Snyder.

After PGW's sale to San Diego-based Advanced Marketing Services -- a move that many called the end of an era -- Winton is now CEO of Avalon, which has offices in New York and Emeryville.

"I've been as large a character in the independent-publishing industry as anyone in the last quarter-century," he muses. Four Avalon titles have made the New York Times best-seller list this year, most recently Gore Vidal's Dreaming War (Thunder's Mouth, $11.95). Once upon a time in the East Bay. ...

Mucusfilm: We no longer need or wish to keep things into which we've blown our noses, but in an earlier era of silk and lace and steam irons, snot stayed put. In Hanky Panky (Ten Speed, $29.95), Chez Panisse tea buyer and longtime collector Helen Gustafson offers a colorfully illustrated history of handkerchiefs in America.

And speaking of arugula: Did you see restaurateuse and Chez Panisse Fruit (Harper Collins, $34.95) author Alice Waters at the antiwar rally in San Francisco on March 15, bearing a huge tricolor and telling TV reporters how proud she is of France?

Ball one: On Billy Bean's wedding day, he stepped in dog doo. It made the church reek, and was revealed when he knelt to take communion. His bride laughed, but baseball-star Bean thought it might be a bad omen.

A veteran of the Tigers, Padres, and Dodgers, now-divorced Bean (not to be confused with current Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane) has since become a role model for gay athletes everywhere. Coauthored with Marin County's Chris Bull, his uncensored new memoir Going the Other Way (Marlowe, $23.95) includes a scene in which Berkeley-born former Oakland A's manager Billy Martin calls another player "faggot" in front of his team. In another scene, a still-closeted Bean walks in on four teammates gangbanging a girl who looks underage. When he declines their invitation to join in, one demands, "Dude, are you a fag or something?"

"I thought of reminding him," Bean recalls, "that he was the one having sex in front of three other naked guys."

Snippets: Reindeer hide, embroidered peacocks, and jewel-bright silk all figure into John E. Vollmer's resplendent history of Qing-dynasty costume, Ruling from the Dragon Throne (Ten Speed, $40). Lake Tahoe father-and-son sex killers do the unthinkable in Like Father, Like Son (Pinnacle, $6.50), the latest from Orinda's true-crime maestro, Robert Scott.


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