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A Zen center is the last place you'd pick as a hotbed of greed, careerism, suicide, and extramarital mayhem. Early rising and shaved heads, yes, you might think; womanizing, no.

But in Shoes Outside the Door (Counterpoint, $26), novelist Michael Downing turns to nonfiction with a study of San Francisco Zen Center. Founded in 1959 and linked with luminaries such as Gary Snyder, Lawrance Rockefeller, Stewart Brand, Jane Hirshfield, Jacques Barzaghi, and Jerry Brown, the Western Addition meditation and teaching hub flourished through the '70s, hailed by sociologists and reporters as the birthplace of a new spiritual era. The center branched out, acquiring properties and opening businesses such as the wildly popular Greens Restaurant in Fort Mason. But, as Downing learned from the dozens of past and former students and administrators he interviewed, there was trouble in paradise -- largely in the form of roshi Richard Baker, whose affairs with students and expenditure of Zen Center funds on $20,000 statues struck a sour note among community members whose own sex lives were the subject of scrutiny and who labored in kitchens and fields for $150 a month.

Downing, who is not a Buddhist, interviewed Oakland's mayor for this book. While governor, Brown was a highly visible Zen Center visitor; Baker himself performed Barzhagi's wedding ceremony.

"Brown," the author recalls, "answers most questions with lists of words and phrases that I fail to patch together in any meaningful way. ... The mayor says global feminism,' and phenomenal world,' and skin the cat,' but by then, I don't think either of us really knows why we are trying to talk to each other."

We could use a visit from Sailor Moon right about now, not to mention Mai the Psychic Girl. Capping its reputation as the source of English-language reference books on Japanese animation, Berkeley's Stone Bridge Press has just released The Anime Encyclopedia ($24.95). And encyclopedic it is. Starting with cartoons made as early as 1917, authors Jonathan Clements and Helen McCarthy applied scholarly precision to a topic they also happen to adore, and it pays off. Get the lowdown on thousands of anime: plot lines, lists of creators, alternate titles, and here and there a bit of dish. Retrace the Bubblegum Crisis saga and all the rest; yearn for features as yet unseen Stateside. Magic plants from outer space? Sexy ghosts haunting high-school restrooms? Giant robots, wistful vampires, catgirls? It's all here.

Keep your bodily fluids off the carpet at orgies, Rob Cohen and David Wollock advise us in Etiquette for Outlaws (Harper Collins, $14). Trolling the nether regions of sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll, they collected hundreds of tips on how to act when you're beyond the pale.

"You might think, What could possibly be rude at a swinger party?'" says Wollock, a UC Berkeley graduate. "But places like that have rules and conventions too." The book answers "questions that would never occur to you normally. You know what to do about tipping valets. But do you tip a hooker?" (Yes, the authors say; especially if you plan to be a repeat customer.)

No one could ever accuse this volume of being in good taste, with its pointers on porn and clever ways to break wind. Yet it's drawn from serious interviews the authors did with strippers, submissives, proctologists, piercers, Crips, and ex-cons.

"We're regular guys," Wollock offers. "We're nerds. I did not get laid a lot in college and I don't think Rob got laid at all. So there's a harmlessness about us that made these people open up."

They talked to celebrities, too. Magician Penn Jillette riffs on casino decorum, Pat Boone on practical jokes, Dave Navarro of Jane's Addiction on groupies, and Ice-T on strippers ("At least with a hooker, you get somethin' for your money").

"Essentially, all this advice boils down to three basics," Wollock says. "Don't be an asshole, don't be a poseur, and tip."

Cohen and Wollock write about outlaw biker clubs as well, but not all bikers are hell-raisers. A far cry from the pack that horrified Hollister in The Wild Ones, Barbara Joans doesn't even like riding fast.

"Some ride on one side of the law and some ride on the other," says the author of Bike Lust (University of Wisconsin, $21.95).

When their six-year-old granddaughter had her first ride on the back of a Harley-Davidson, Joans and her husband fretted "that she could, if she tried hard enough, fall off." No harm was done, but "we know the risks and they scare us."

Yet a desire to share "that sense of adventure, bravado, accomplishment, and courage" courses through this book, which lends an anthopological perspective to an insider's look at biker culture. The chair of Merritt College's anthropology department and director of its museum, Joans learned to ride ten years ago, at 56. She has discovered a striking "Harley camaraderie" and met women like the one, interviewed for this book, who rode while pregnant and was riding when the contractions started. Joans met a lawyer, a mother of six, who rides to work and scrapes smashed bugs from her forehead before entering the courtroom. She met groupies, dykes on bikes, and riders who mourned their first roadkill.

"I'm in awe of women like that," says the author, who will be at Diesel on Oct. 4. "They've changed the whole definition of femininity."

The book provides insights into Harley history, clubs, and biker funerals.

"This is a community that crosses economic, class, race, and gender lines," Joans points out. "The bike brings us together."

Karin Evans and her husband saw their dream come true in Guangzhou, China, where after a long, nervous wait they adopted a baby girl they called Kelly. She had been found, left all alone, in a marketplace. Similar fates, Evans learned, befall untold numbers of girls in a country whose one-child policy and traditional preference for baby boys take a terrible toll.

The former Outside magazine editor, who will appear at Easy Going on Oct. 4, threads Chinese history and politics through The Lost Daughters of China (Tarcher, $23.95), a moving memoir that reshapes such tricky concepts as home, family, and heritage.

Evans, who returned from China two months ago with a second baby girl, wrote the book with adoptive parents in mind. "But at book signings, the parents ask me to inscribe it for their adopted daughters to read someday."

She wonders what questions the generation of Chinese babies now living far from their birthplace will eventually ask about how this came to be. At five, Kelly "knows she was born in China, but she's still too young to understand the loss involved" -- that somewhere out there is a mother who gave her up.

"No longer does it seem fair or accurate to say that she was abandoned or left there," writes Evans, who urges prospective parents to check out the Families with Children from China organization. "Rather, I think, she was delivered' to safety -- so clearly was it her mother's intention to save her."

Former East Bayite Valerie Miner also explores the meaning of identity and immigration in The Low Road: A Scottish Family Memoir (Michigan State University, $26.95). The award-winning author traces three generations of her own clan journeying from abject poverty in Edinburgh to far-flung corners of the world. In the process, she uncovers long-held secrets and grapples with issues of her own. Miner will be at Diesel on Oct. 28.

A closer-to-home version of the British documentary series that started with 7 Up and then checked back with a group of children every seven years can be found in the work of UC Berkeley's Judith Wallerstein.

She started her research when the American divorce rate was mushrooming, when staying together "for the sake of the children" was completely passé. Adults went their separate ways with an air of independence and good riddance, most of them believing that "divorce was a minor upheaval in the lives of children," Wallerstein recalls.

Tracking Marin County kids whose folks had split up, "I found that many children of divorce were caught in an intense inner conflict -- afraid of repeating their parents' mistakes while searching for lasting love. Many were either avoiding commitment or jumping impulsively into relationships with troubled people they hardly knew."

Now in paperback, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (Hyperion, $14.95) is the 25-year update on Wallerstein's original study.

"We have not fully appreciated how divorce continues to shape the lives of young people after they reach full adulthood," she writes. "After twenty-five years the jury is no longer out."

Nor do we like to dwell on what to do when our parents are well past the age of driving us to music lessons and insulting our boyfriends, and actually need our help. But Berkeley novelist Dorothy Bryant, brave as ever, tackles that topic with wrenching honesty in The Test (Feminist Press, $13.95). Fiftyish Pat has her share of troubles. Her son's lover has AIDS, and her mother died fifteen months ago, leaving behind Pat's senile father. "Dying, I have accepted," the heroine reasons. "Growing old is something else."

After five years of frustration at not being able to walk down to her local business hub "and buy a book," Luan Stauss has opened one herself. Laurel Book Store opened Sept. 15 at 4100 MacArthur Blvd. -- in Oakland's Laurel District, as its name implies. Stauss had been working for a major publisher, "where I was dealing with moving 600 copies of this and that instead of being able to tell one person, You're gonna love this book.'" Now she can. Having built the store's shelves and fixtures by hand, she plans to schedule readings and other events. During the grand opening, visitors filled out questionnaires about the kind of books they'd like her to stock.

"Any thriving community," Stauss declares, "has to have a bookstore."


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