Philosophical Dribblers & Mean Meat 

This month's East Bay book news.

Block parties: It was bone-chilling December days like these that made Francesca Lia Block homesick for Los Angeles while a UC Berkeley student in the '80s. She went back south and wrote a slender novel, Weetzie Bat, and soared to instant cult status. Block's magical-realist realm of beaches and breaking hearts lit with brilliant but otherworldly sunshine and skeins of tiny Christmas lights -- revisited in a string of subsequent novels -- is now the darling of countless fan sites. Devotees celebrated an International Francesca Lia Block Meet-Up Day on December 15. In her latest, Wasteland (Harper Collins, $15.95), a bereaved teen mourns the brother who may or may not have killed himself, and whom she loved in a way that siblings aren't supposed to. "It's a more realistic book than many of my others," Block tells Press Here. "I was interested in depicting my own youth, growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the '70s. I just found the whole time -- the emergence of punk, the end of disco, the violence, the decadence, the sexual freedom before the onslaught of AIDS -- very fascinating. I had never written much about the Valley because I wasn't that interested in it before; I always ventured into Hollywood for the inspiration for my work. The Valley did feel like a wasteland, without culture or sophistication. But as I have matured I have become more interested in exploring the terrain that formed me in spite of myself. There is beauty and magic hidden everywhere and I wanted to show that: the weight of the heat, the thick texture of magnolia flowers, kids creating their own strange, romantic worlds in dark, cheap nightclubs in the middle of nowhere, the close proximity to the ocean."

With Wasteland, "I wanted to write a true tragedy," she explains. "This is the darkest of my books by far. After I'd written it -- I write a lot from my subconscious -- I looked at why I had chosen to explore so much pain." While the book is far from strictly autobiographical, she calls it "a metaphor for my adolescence, which did feel full of tragedy. Writing the book somehow freed me from that."

And speaking of cult figures: When Press Here first met Aaron Cometbus , he was a skinny blond Berkeley teen with a 'zine. Later he was lionized as the drummer-lyricist of Gilman-born indie-punk band Crimpshrine . In a recent postcard, he declared himself to be working at a NYC bookshop, but Cometbus-trackers can catch up on years and years of club life, rough life, and revelations in his jolting new Double Duce (Last Gasp, $6.50), a compilation of journals proving once and for all that punks can really write, and revealing why the VLS, among others, has compared this punk to Kerouac . What's he doing tonight? "Every year, I look forward to having a miserable Christmas," Cometbus confides. "If possible, I stay up all night on Christmas Eve so as to be all the more miserable and emotionally fragile on Christmas Day."

It's been renal: How did the American Kidney Foundation raise nearly $300,000 one Saturday night this month? By offering donors dinner with Lemony Snicket (he showed baby photos) and East Bayites Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston at the San Francisco Hilton at $95 a plate. (Kidney pie was not on the menu.) Tan told the crowd she'd contributed to medical research as a child in that her mother, boning up on injection skills while an allergist trainee at Oakland Kaiser, used to practice by shooting up the Tan kids, who stoically wore their needle tracks to school. Cruise control: At the Castro Street Gold's Gym, "guys go into the showers, check each other out, and then make their way into the steam room for some action. The justification is always, 'I need the steam to relax my muscles.' What they mean is, 'I need the steam to relax my 'muscle,'" write coauthors Betty Pearl and Pansy in their newly updated Severe Queer Review of San Francisco (Cleis, $16.95). Decisively droll, this last word in gay guidebooks is devoted mainly to SF -- whose Mission District, we learn, "is home to many poor yet culturally sensitive faggots and dykes" -- but includes bigger, longer East Bay coverage. "How does the East Bay stack up as a gay haunt?" Pearl, lately of Fire Island, mused to Press Here. "I guess that depends on what you're comparing it to. If you are from the middle of nowhere I'm sure it's the cat's pajamas." Compared to SF, though ...

"When I moved to San Francisco in 1989 I thought I'd be hangin' in Berkeley all the time. Let's see -- once I had a dinner date with a guy who turned out to be a straight frat boy who didn't realize we were on a date, and another time my friend got rolled on Telegraph trying to buy mushrooms. I know it's just faboo for lots of fags and dykes -- I'm sure if you live there you find your routine in varying shades of gayness. However, as a visiting queer I always wondered what the hell I'd do if I lived in the East Bay and the answer always was: alternate nights between Steamworks and the White Horse. I'd also station myself outside the Pacific Center on nights they had a coming-out group for young men and try to scoop up the fresh guys."

Go ahead and jump: When Houston Rockets guard Yao Ming played his first game against the Miami Heat, the Heat distributed free fortune cookies to fans. Blunder: Fortune cookies weren't invented in Yao's native China but in San Francisco. Besides, fortune cookies "are too small," lamented the 7'5" hoopster as reported in The Tao of Yao (Frog, $13.95), in which Oakland's Oliver Chin riffs on a celebrity whose "impact on American culture and Asians at large deserved more in-depth examination than the mainstream media were capable of providing." The title's more than just cute, Chin says. Yao's a yin-yang kinda guy. "The real story that unfolds is how Yao's actions and insights in his breakthrough rookie season were grounded in the eternal relevance of Taoism. That's what fans, coaches, and players have unwittingly responded to. Yao has said that sometimes the hardest things to do are the easiest to accomplish. So did Lao-tzu more than two thousand years before. Putting the ball in the basket, defending Shaq , and being the center of attention for more than a billion people can be tough. But Yao did it. And there is a wealth of lessons that can be learned from it that play-by-play announcers aren't paid to explore. Through the prism of Yao Ming and basketball, readers can ultimately learn a little more about themselves as they too struggle in the pursuit of finding true meaning in life." Tot chicks: Aiming to save new moms from baby-talk madness, the first-ever mother-centric literary magazine explores infantile botulism, mud pies, and breastfeeding in public -- in cutting-edge fiction and nonfiction by women who know. The East Bayite founders of all-online Literary Mama include two UC Berkeley grads: Mother Shock (Seal, $14.95) author Andrea Buchanan and The Complete Idiot's Guide to a Well-Behaved Child (Alpha, $10.95) author Ericka Lutz.

Assume the position: Berkeley-based Yoga Journal, which is the nation's biggest magazine about downward-facing dog and other fine asanas, has just announced the winners of its annual Karma Yoga Awards, honoring those whose work exemplifies selfless service. This year's winners include the Mahatma 's grandson Arun Gandhi , who follows the family trad by running an institute promoting nonviolence; the Amicus Foundation's James Winkler , whose work aids disadvantaged youth in Bhutan, and Mind Body Solutions' Matt Sanford , who teaches yoga to students who -- like Sanford himself -- cannot walk and/or have no sensation below their mid-torsos. Talking turkey, actually: A roasted drumstick speaks in Andrew Wong 's award-winning new comic -- and it's not happy. By the time Wong realized that Los Angeles-based Japanese-comics publisher Tokyopop was staging its second annual Rising Stars of Manga contest, the recent Cal grad and El Cerritoite had only four weeks to devise a story -- and write and draw it.

"I knew I had to be original," Wong muses. "Then I remembered an episode of Jim Henson's animated TV show The Muppet Babies, which I saw as a kid. It featured a song-and-dance number called 'Give Food a Chance,' about being open to trying new things ... but then I thought: What would food have to say about that? And what if a kid could hear it?"

The result is Fowl Play, in which poultry snarks, one of ten entries chosen from nearly a thousand to be included in Rising Stars of Manga II (Tokyopop, $9.99).

The influence of Japanese comics is spreading westward, Wong says. "The experience of reading manga in America is still a recognizably foreign one. But a lot of independent and self-published comics now have mangaesque features -- monochrome artwork, minimalist character renderings -- and aren't targeted at males aged 14-25. If these are successful, comics in America will have the kind of widespread appeal and diversity of genres that manga has in Japan," where tens of millions shamelessly read comics in public.


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