Self-Immolation & Ozone 

This month's East Bay book news.

Family affair: Why was Shakespeare fixated on incest? Ex-UC Berkeley prof Stephen Greenblatt concludes his engaging new biography Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (Norton, $26.95) by noting that several plays reveal the Bard as "deeply anxious" about father-daughter bonds. Pericles, Prince of Tyre, for instance, starts with the description of a king's daughter "so buxom, blithe, and full of face ... with whom the father liking took; And her to incest did provoke: Bad child; worse father! to entice his own." Another speech in that play lambastes "your uncomely claspings with your child." No hard evidence sheds light on this issue in Shakespeare's personal life, Greenblatt says, "other than his will, in which he bequeathed virtually everything to his daughter Susanna" -- cutting off his widow and his other daughter.

And as for why the next Shakespeare play to hit cinemas will be The Merchant of Venice, starring Jeremy Irons as a bony Antonio and Al Pacino as a spittle-spraying Shylock, Greenblatt speculates: "Maybe we are in a cultural moment of tragicomedy."

I'll give you something to cry about: Berkeley librarian Alan Bern and his pregnant wife Lynn were in a motel room 25 years ago when Lynn complained of a headache. (Hypochondriacs: stop reading here.) The ache was the result of an aneurysm; Lynn emerged from brain surgery comatose. In that state she bore a baby boy, later regaining consciousness severely brain-damaged. She lingered a while, then died.

That's the narrative linking Bern's poems in No no the saddest (Fithian, $12), which invokes grief, waiting, and sexual longing. At Moe's Books on November 8, Bern reads his poems as fellow Berkeley native Lucinda Weaver accompanies him with dances choreographed to match.

Rectal, linear: Enemas -- they're not just for constipation anymore. In Intimate Invasions ($13.95), new from Oakland's Greenery Press, erotic enema administrator M.R. Strict boosts the bag, nozzle, and hose as S/M pluses, but warns that "having to expel in front of the disciplinarian is so emotionally charged an experience that it should not be undertaken until a real rapport exists."

Thunderbolt and lightning: In Extreme Weather: A Guide and Record Book (Norton, $24.95), Christopher C. Burt offers charts, maps, anecdotes, and amazing color photos: a girl posing in front of a tornado, a boy about to be struck by lightning, the world's biggest hailstone, and oodles more. But Burt lives in Oakland -- "a city of unremitting weather dullness."

He knows extremes. He was studying meteorology at the University of Wisconsin when the town of Barneveld, twenty miles from Madison, was struck by a Force 5 tornado in June 1984. Whipping up 300-mph winds, Force 5 tornadoes are the strongest kind, extremely rare, and unique to the United States. The lightning from the thunderstorm that produced the Barneveld tornado resembled a disco strobe light, and Burt danced in that light with friends in his lakeside backyard.

"When I drove out to look at the countryside around Barneveld a few days later, it looked like a lawnmower half a mile wide had roared across the landscape ... and not a single object over five feet tall was left standing for ten or fifteen miles. Even the asphalt on the highways had been sucked from the earth."

Is global warming real, is it our fault, and should we stop driving cars? Yes, yes, and yes, but for another reason.

"There is no question that the increase in carbon dioxide levels has contributed to the relatively sharp increase in global ambient temperature averages since about 1990," and that cars and machines spiked this rise, Burt says. "However, I personally think the global warming debate is a bit of a red herring. The climate is always changing, always has, and always will. Would we be better off if we were in a preglaciation stage and the global temperatures were falling rather than rising, as was the supposition in the 1970s?

"Understanding the long-term consequences of human influence on the climate is the real issue. A global depletion of the ozone layer is of far more importance as far as what might happen to us or our children than global warming. ... Pollution of the atmosphere and the introduction of new chemical compounds to it are what the focus of the debate should be."

Crayon and on and on: Growing up in Castro Valley, Brian Palmer never knew about the Sequoians nudist camp that flourishes on its sunny slopes. That's only one reason his new novel, The Last Page (PublishAmerica, $19.95), isn't about nakedness. It's about a kindly barista with a painful past, and Christian principles inspiring newfound friends to find redemption and second chances. Palmer started writing the book spontaneously with a crayon on a paper tablecloth at a Hayward bistro during a jazz show.

"A stream of words just popped into my head. ... I had just finished college, was interning with Chronicle Books, and had no idea what was going to happen next."

What happened next was his crayoned blurb taking on a life of its own. He wrote without a plan. "I wanted the characters to tell me the story they wanted to tell, so that I would read the story for the first time with all of them. It was strange to sit back and reread what I had written and see that not only did certain aspects fit in logically with the story as a whole, but often there were new connections I hadn't even thought of previously."

Generation X-pat: In Leza Lowitz's short story, "Sayonara, Tokyo," a Berkeley High School alumna contemplating suicide on a Tokyo subway platform meets an ex-BHS classmate. They end up in a love hotel, arguing over whether anyone ever self-immolated in Sproul Plaza, and they savor having escaped from Berkeley and made it to the "Secret Capital of the World." As small and smooth as sake cups, the tales in Lowitz's new collection Green Tea to Go (Printed Matter, $15) brim with rainy-day dreams and hearts not quite broken.

Being an expatriate in Japan, real-life BHS grad Lowitz says, means being able to do stuff that native-born Japanese could never get away with. "If we had been Japanese, the rules and codifications of this society would have been unbearable. ... We did not have to abide by them." Working as an editor at a Japanese government think tank, Lowitz felt free to criticize the boss: "I gave him honest, direct feedback and he was immensely grateful." We'll have to take her word for that.

These days, she runs a Tokyo yoga studio. "There are three booms right now in Japan among the younger generations: Zen meditation; sutra-copying, which used to be done by old ladies; and yoga. I think these disciplines are pointing young people in the right direction -- back to inner peace and consideration for others, and away from their video games."

Buck the system: The latest ad gimmick from Book Zoo co-owner Erik Lyngen entails rubber-stamping real $1 bills with the shop's name and address, then leaving the money around Berkeley in plain sight. Some of the bucks have been slipped between discs at Amoeba. But if capitalism drives the doyen of Telegraph's littlest libreria, then why are volumes about Ho Chi Minh and Karl Marx prominently displayed below the cash register?

Oh hill: After placing a dummy resembling a corpse in the middle of the street on which he lived, Robert Lawrence -- son of famed physicist Ernest Lawrence -- watched from the bushes as his neighbors freaked. "He was sort of a ghoul," recalls a neighbor in Tamalpais Tales (Buckeye, $14.95), Mildred S. Barish's detailed history of a Berkeley Hills road just one curvy block long.

And now you can grow: Diesel is diversifying. No longer merely an Oakland bookstore, it is now a chain with a sister store in Malibu. Not only that, it's a publisher too. Diesel has issued its first book, Read 'Em and Weep: My Favorite Novels (Diesel, $10) by Berkeley's ultraprolific Barry Gifford, who earned his right to riff on other people's books by having written more than two dozen himself.

They're shaped like beans: Which bodily organ won't be on the menu at the National Kidney Foundation's sixteenth annual Authors Luncheon, set for November 6 at the San Francisco Hilton? Cohosting is Oakland-born Amy Tan -- her new book The Opposite of Fate (Putnam's, $24.95) is a collection of essays about fame and philosophy -- with David Baldacci, Andrew Sean Greer, T. Jefferson Parker, Peggy Post, Peter Sis, and actor Ben Gazzara all on hand to boost a good cause and sign their books.

Greer, whose novel The Confessions of Max Tivoli (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23) is about a San Franciscan born hoary and old and growing ever younger, knows all about kidney trouble -- it runs in his family. He remembers spending hours at an Oregon hemodialysis unit with a relative, meeting patients awaiting transplants in the long term, and in the short term waiting to be hooked up for the lifesaving but hardly pleasant procedure.

"The most indelible moment was when I was left alone in the waiting room with a white-haired woman, probably no more than sixty though she seemed much older to me back then. ... She told me she knew there was no kidney for her. The waiting list was long and her doctor said she could not expect a last-minute change," recalls Greer, who became writer in residence at Saint Mary's College in Moraga last year. "She knew also that dialysis could not go on forever. My relative called her the 'fun lady' at dialysis, and I expect she was, but I left her in that room and have no idea what became of her. I don't quite know what else to say about it -- my silence in listening to her, my relative who, because of an experimental program, got two kidneys when this woman got none, her white hair against the orange wall of the waiting room -- but I can only feel that by helping to raise funds for the National Kidney Foundation, I am in some way making reparations for not knowing what to say to that woman back when I was very young." For details, check out


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