Screen Gems 

This month's East Bay book news.

Aim and shoot: The Manchurian Candidate started life as a book. Richard Condon's 1959 novel about a GI brainwashed into betraying America for the communists was a big McCarthy-era best-seller. Director John Frankenheimer yearned to film it, and yearned to cast Frank Sinatra in any role. But studios were leery of the project, says Berkeley's Greil Marcus, whose new book about the film is out this month.

"Sinatra had to intercede with [then-President] JFK to get the movie made," Marcus says. "The novel was considered too dangerous, too hot. So JFK called the head of United Artists and said, 'Arthur, I want to see this movie.' "

It's Marcus' favorite film. The Cal grad has seen it "many, many times" and calls it "prophetic: not in the sense of predicting the future -- though presidential assassination plays a key role -- but in its presentation of a sense of dread, of despair, of things being hidden in this country, that this new ideal of valor and vigor was some kind of con game, and that we would never know who was really holding our destiny."

Kennedy was killed soon after the film's 1962 release. Then began what Marcus calls "the whole cycle of assassinations in this nation."

Part of a series issued by the British Film Institute in which celebrated writers not known for writing about film get a chance to wax about beloved flicks, The Manchurian Candidate ($12.95) flashes back and forth expertly between today's palpable jitters and yesterday's less jaded ones. This tale of a putative American hero-cum-secret communist operative drew career-topping performances from its lead actors -- Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, and Angela Lansbury -- as well as supporting castmembers including Janet Leigh.

"These people got to a place that not only you didn't know they could reach but they didn't know existed," says Marcus. "I watched a lot of Sinatra movies while I was writing this book," for comparison. But even the roles that made him famous -- in From Here to Eternity and The Man with the Golden Arm -- "are just juvenile compared to this one."

Layers of irony can be discerned in this film along with layers of prophecy. Sinatra, set to portray a soldier, was in fact a close pal of the American president: a high roller who introduced Kennedy to mob figures and women, including Marilyn Monroe, with whom he secretly dallied.

"Frank Sinatra was JFK's pimp," Marcus says simply.

Burned: Known as the "guru of ganja" for writing such how-tos as Marijuana Grower's Handbook, Oakland's Ed Rosenthal is in hot water. Arrested last year by federal agents, he was convicted a few weeks ago of marijuana cultivation and other drug charges. Now the author of Why Marijuana Should Be Legal ($11.95) -- out in a new edition this month from Thunder's Mouth -- faces a minimum of five years behind bars, and potentially decades more.

Days after delivering their verdict, six of the jurors in Rosenthal's case held a press conference in which they accused the judge of having lied to them, saying they would have acquitted him if they'd been told he was growing medical marijuana. But they weren't told.

In the weeks since, the case has been covered by media channels ranging from Dateline to the Jewish Daily Forward.

"The response has been so positive," says Rosenthal's wife, Jane Klein. "Those jurors are such heroes. They gave up two weeks of their lives to sit there and judge someone's fate, then they came home and found out that their decision was based on a house of cards -- and they feel it's immoral, and they're willing to speak up about it."

Rosenthal's lawyers have filed motions for a new trial. In the meantime, he awaits an early-June sentencing.

"What this whole case has shown," Klein says, "is that our laws about drugs are based on lies and distortions and political posturing."

Which, of course, sounds rather like the con game Greil Marcus describes.

Top drawer: When he first heard that Spirited Away had been nominated for an animation Oscar, Peter Goodman -- owner of Berkeley's Stone Bridge Press -- thought it was high time. Stone Bridge's Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation ($18.95), by Helen McCarthy, is the only book in English that covers the creator of Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and many others in depth.

"We knew all along what a terrific artist he was," Goodman says. "In Japan, he's an object of near-worship."

Tender tendrils: In The Vine of Desire (Anchor, $13), Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni returns to her beloved East Bay -- and to the two heroines introduced in her last novel, Sister of My Heart. Anju and Sudha, cousins as close as sisters, reunite a world away from their native India, but jealousy and the consequences of old traditions follow them.

"Because I came back to it after some years," says the author, who will be at Book Passage in Corte Madera on February 28, this new work tells "a very different story. I had changed -- and so had the characters. So this is a very different kind of book in texture and tone."

As a literary ambassador of Indian culture, Calcutta-born Divakaruni -- who has lived in Berkeley but now teaches in Houston -- shoulders the hefty task of rendering that culture for a mostly non-Indian audience. "The Indian notion of the importance of family," which so affects Anju and Sudha, "has grown more dear to me as I've lived in America. ... But it has also made me realize that I have many families, not just my biological and marital ones." She cites her colleagues at a hotline for South Asian women in distress as one of her families. "On the other hand, I've given up a lot of traditional notions about the place of the woman in the home, and what is not okay for her to do," she says.

Unwedded bliss: Beijing-based singer, model, and prolific author Yang Erche Namu has been compared to Madonna. But she comes from a much more interesting place: a part of Yunnan Province called "the Country of Daughters," where women of the matrilineal Moso ethnic group choose a series of local men to father their kids. Namu tells of leaving village life, breaking taboos, and bringing Moso concepts of sexual freedom and ethnic pride to modern mainstream China in her new memoir, Leaving Mother Lake (Little, Brown, $23.95).

Coauthor Christine Mathieu, a professor of anthropology at St. Mary's College in Moraga, met the singer ten years ago, shortly before Namu lost her hearing in one ear and had to change careers.

"Namu sings traditional ethnic music, not pop, and she did not become a celebrity on account of her singing, which incidentally is extraordinary," says Mathieu, who will be at Cody's on March 12. Having won Cosmopolitan's first annual fashion award in 1999, Namu now writes "enormously successful books dealing with lifestyle and fashion. She is very much a celebrity by virtue of her personality and how she has been able to present herself to the Chinese public and break social conformity."

Dealing frankly with culture shock and racism, the memoir includes an emotional scene in which Namu, taunted repeatedly by a college roommate, finally beats the hell out of the young woman.

"In China," Mathieu says, "the prejudice which Namu faced was also coupled by class prejudice. City people often look down on people from the countryside, hence the slur 'muddy butt.'"

As one of very few scholars to have explored Moso society, Mathieu feels a strong "responsibility to set straight some of the exaggerations written in the mass media." For example, she says, contrary to rumor it isn't true that there's no Moso word for "father," or that the Moso never marry.

Check it out: At its information desk, the Berkeley Public Library offers free bookmarks printed with a helpful guide to "filmed fiction" -- novels whose titles were changed when they were transformed for the screen. Among these are Stephen King's Different Seasons, better known as Stand by Me; Jane Austen's Emma, of which Clueless is an update; and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the source of Apocalypse Now.

Lit chat: Kensington novelist Teresa Le Yung Ryan and Berkeley mystery writer Ayelet Waldman (who also happens to be married to Michael Chabon) are among those hosting workshops at the Jack London Writers Conference, set for March 15 at the San Francisco Airport Holiday Inn. For details, call 650-615-8331.


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