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She's acquired a cult following -- and once, though she doesn't like to think about it, a semi-stalker -- for writing hypnotically lyrical novels in which lovely young women ply dreamscapes whose glitter comes as much from Sunset Strip and surf as shattered glass. Southern California's hot, bright landscape is as much a presence in Francesca Lia Block's work as any of her characters. But in her latest novel, Echo (Harper Collins, $14.95), one of those lovely young women leaves LA to attend UC Berkeley, and plunges into sadness -- just as Block did.

As an undergraduate circa '86, the author studied creative writing while struggling to deal with her father's illness. Her heroine, Echo, vows not to eat as she marches across campus and Northside striving to be "thin, thin, pure." With a new boyfriend, Echo marvels at their status as "punks on acid with skunk-striped hair and steel-toed boots." Block's years at Cal were "very difficult emotionally," and she has, ever since, found it nearly impossible to write about Northern California at all. The section of Echo set in New York came much easier, "even though I've never lived there."

Her entertainment-industry father worked on films like Forbidden Planet, and used to bring home weird science-fiction props. Block grew up in ground zero of that "Marilyn Monroe mythology" -- and while "I don't love it," she concedes, there's a lot of material in LA's "beautiful flowery coastal lifestyle with so many toxic things mixed in. It lends itself to magical realism."

Even though "I expose myself in my fiction all the time," the autobiographical parts of Echo are so personal, she says, that it has taken this long for them to see print. She faces further exposure with her first crack at nonfiction: a memoir of her daughter's first year, due out in fall 2002.

When Karen Chiao and Mariellen OBrien set out to interview women, like themselves, whose husbands had been CIA spies, it was still peacetime. Riffling through old address books, the pair reconnected with some who talked eagerly but others who "felt they had nothing to share, perhaps as a result of those lonely nights and days when they could not disclose themselves to others.... We paid dearly for our experiences," the authors recall in Spies' Wives, new from Berkeley's Creative Arts ($16.95).

This intriguing volume's first-person accounts evoke other wars, other bombings, other evacuations -- and the anguish of living a lie, far from home. We learn of dirty diapers and cocktail parties in Danang and Mogadishu, friendships in which soul-baring can only go so far and no farther, and in one case a wild affair that begins one "hot, sultry day in Asia" and commences atop a conference table in the US consulate.

Today's war puts all those memories in a different perspective, says Chiao, who learned during seven tours overseas that to protect the country, themselves, and their families, "we had to lie every day of our lives": Her daughter was horrified to learn, at seventeen, "that we weren't State Department."

"But the agency taught me that you can live without talking about everything," Chiao says. Insiders call CIA families "the Amish of the federal government," she jokes, because they only let their hair down with their own kind.

On a post-September 11 book tour through the South, the authors met scads of young men and women eager to join up right away. But today's CIA families, Chiao says, have it harder than ever.

"The Vietcong weren't very nice, but at least in those days you knew who the enemy was." Even in the Cold War, she points out, "both sides sort of respected each other. I just don't understand hate."

Speaking of which, will lowering your tray-table on board an airplane and visiting tall, prominent tourist attractions ever feel okay again? A panel discussion at Berkeley's Easy Going bookstore on Nov. 1 will feature local writers Jeff Greenwald, Donald George, and others opining on ways in which September 11 affects travel. Maybe that solo trek through the Hindu Kush isn't such a great idea after all.

For the ethnically Chinese writers who recount their experiences in Cultural Curiosity, now out in paperback from the University of California Press ($18.95), China itself had always loomed as a distant, potent entity -- "the ancestral country," editor Josephine M. T. Khu calls it in the anthology's preface. Born in the USA, Europe, and elsewhere that wasn't China, they knew it only, but hauntingly, as a place talked about by their elders but never visited. Finally, each made a foray: to study, to seek roots, sometimes to live. After meeting others like herself who had first come to China as adults, Khu started collecting their stories. Reprinted here, they're sad, striking, and amusing -- one contributor's relatives think she's rich because she works part-time for IBM; another discovers her grandfather's carefully hidden copy of the Lord's Prayer.

"It was almost shocking," Khu writes, "how foreign China seemed" to her and some of the other writers who looked Chinese but couldn't speak Chinese, who saw their ancestral country's kindness and troubles and acres of red tape through eyes accustomed only to the West.

And that ancestral country abounds in chairs. Art historian Sarah Handler's Austere Luminosity of Chinese Classical Furniture, also new from the University of California Press ($65), shows and tells how, in the China of Li Po and Pu Yi, a chair was never merely a chair. Hundreds of glorious photos reveal the intricacies of folding chairs, armchairs, meditation chairs, and stools -- not to mention several centuries' worth of beds, tables, and cabinets that will leave you feeling very unsatisfied with your Ikea couch. The author will discuss her work at Diesel on Nov. 1.

At a launch party last week for Her Fork in the Road (Travelers' Tales, $16.95), Oakland's Lisa Bach -- who collected and edited women's stories of eating and roving for this new anthology -- was still jet-lagged from a recent trip to Japan with her girlfriend. Best part of their trip? The food, naturellement. Guests munched on deep-fried plantain chips and grilled mushrooms, and leafed through the book, which features the likes of Isabel Allende, Frances Mayes, and Ruth Reichl. A Travelers' Tales staffer was overheard wondering aloud whether newbie foodies, raised in a time that takes arugula for granted, will recognize the name of M.F.K. Fisher, whose famous recollection of a resoundingly filling French lunch appears in Bach's book.

Pictures of snakes and naked people find their way into Modern Pagans (RE/search Publications, $19.95), in which John Sulak and V. Vale -- a San Franciscan whose earlier volume Modern Primitives helped establish tattoo culture -- interview a passel of polytheists including ex-Express sex columnist Carol Queen and erstwhile Berkeley Witch Don Frew. While the interviewers tended to focus on Neopagans -- "specifically those contemporary religions reviving the pre-Christian religions of Europe and the Mediterranean," such as Wicca and Druidism, Frew says -- his own definition of "modern pagan" is a bit wider-reaching. It includes all polytheists everywhere, including "Hindus, Native Americans, and Shintoists.... By this thinking," he points out, "'modern pagans' are approximately 25 percent of the world's population."

We tend to envision John Muir as a plucky Scot striding, in his prime, through the California wilds. But one of the naturalist's bravest journeys began in 1912 when he was no less than 73. Finally making a long-denied dream come true, he left his Martinez home and plunged solo into South America and then continued on to Africa, later calling it "the most fruitful year of my life."

Thousands of pages of original manuscript -- notes, journal entries, letters -- lay unarchived and unpublished for years before Muir researcher Michael Branch launched the project that resulted in his new book, John Muir's Last Journey (Island, $27.50). Weaving personal correspondence and drawings into this passionately eloquent account of Muir's sojourn in search of baobabs and monkey-puzzle trees, Branch reveals a man more human, and much more humorous, than those who mythologize Muir might ever have imagined him.

"We cheat ourselves," says Branch, "if we simply picture a man alone in the wilderness. Muir was so tender as a father, as a grandfather, and as a friend: The myth can never encompass all that."

His favorite anecdote from the book is the one in which Muir, desperate to see a monkey-puzzle, crisscrosses a continent from Buenos Aires to Santiago, acting purely on hunches and hearsay, before finally finding a whole forest of them.

"It was a real Eureka moment," says Branch, who will be at Berkeley's Ecology Center Bookstore on November 18 with fellow Muir expert Bonnie Gisel.

Camping in that forest for the night, Muir couldn't understand his companions' desire to sleep inside tents and not under the stars.

While still a child, he was recognized as the reincarnation of a high-ranking lama, and brought to live at a monastery where the current Dalai Lama was in residence. Rimpoche Nawang Gehlek continued to live a life of pomp, privilege, and intensive Buddhist study until the Chinese took over Tibet in 1959, at which point the young monk fled for his life across the Himalayas. Later he studied at Cornell, and now he lectures all over the United States. Just back from a charity event in New York whose other spotlighters included Paul Simon, Patti Smith, and Richard Gere, the rimpoche will read from his book Good Life, Good Death (Riverhead, $23.95), reflecting on traditional Tibetan views of reincarnation, at Cody's on Nov. 7. all the news that fits about print


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