Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Quake, Rattle, & Roll

Last week saw the 8th annual Litquake, a festival of literature, books, words, and oh so much more. We didn't get to see all the events, that would have taken the ability to be in many places at once and probably more hours than there are in a day, but we made it to a couple quality readings that will, inevitably cause me to purchase more books. Not that I needed another excuse.

Noah Levine is a Buddhist teacher and counselor who has found his path through a life of trials and tribulations. He is exceptionally traditional in his take on Buddhist teachings, but you would not know it by looking at him. Levine's head is shaved to the skin, he is covered head to toe in tattoos, and can be seen riding around the freeways of L.A. on a motorcycle. He has spent most of his life in the Punk Rock scene, and has reconciled the angry rebellious angst of that movement with the revolutionary teachings of Buddhism and has begun sharing his own message, both through meditation groups around the country and especially in juvenile halls and prisons. His first book, "Dharma Punx", is his autobiography, detailing how, from a youth spent as a law-breaking punk he found a new path in the teachings of Buddhism. His second book, "Against the Stream" is the world of Buddhism as seen through Levine's eyes, a traditional message delivered by a exceptionally un-traditional man. We saw him at the Roxie Movie Theater in conversation with the Chronicle's columnist Mark Morford, who questioned Levine on everything from his past, his present, and both of his books. Time to find enlightenment.

That was Thursday. Skip to Saturday, to the culminating event known as Lit-Crawl. With a cold Anchor Steam in hand, we settled against the wall in the standing room only Casanova Lounge to listen to travel writers share their adventures abroad. We heard stories ranging from braving a blizzard in Antarctica, to the market places in Timbuktu, Mali, Africa, (yes, there is such a place as Timbuktu), to the back alleys of Saigon. Next, we jumped to one of my favorite places, 826 Valencia, where just inside, past the pirate store, the kids of 826 read some of their pieces in the new 826 Quarterly. The kids were great; such amazing imaginations and such a variety of styles for people so young.

Last, but certainly not least, we settled into a booth at the Makeout Room for the authors of Mcadam Cage, one of San Francisco's top independent publishers. I was really there for just one writer, Craig Clevenger, but found a couple more authors I might need to check out soon. Clevenger, author of "Dermaphoria" and "The Contortionist's Handbook", is working on his third novel, titled "St. Heretic". Unfortunately, though, he did not read from this unpublished work, but from a short story he had written. It was, to say the least, very Clevenger-esque. The effect was most clearly expressed on my fiance's face, a look that just said "What?" He has that effect sometimes. For those interested in historical lit, Janis Cooke Newman's debut novel "Mary" tells the story of Mary Todd Lincoln after her husband's assassination. May be a little dry for some, but could be a great story for those who like to revel in the past.

A few beers down and the night over, we trudged back up to our car and out of the mission. It was a good night, all in all, a bunch of authors, a pile of books, some good, some not as good. I've got a lot of reading to do.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Does Memory Serve?

How much of your memory is truth, and how much of it is imaginary? Are the details of your life, how you met your first love, the first time you rode your bike on your own, or the first time you stole something, a creation of your imagination, or did it really happen that way? Could those memories that have shaped your life up to this point be, at least in part, completely fictional?

In "Dermaphoria", Craig Clevenger's sophomore effort, the lines between truth & fiction, memory and imagination, past and present become tangled and twisted into an inscrutible mess. As the book moves along, the memory of its main character becomes clearer and clearer, but you can never be sure if what he remembers is truth, or if the pieces of the puzzle are falling into the wrong places.

Eric Ashworth, a brilliant mind who's path leads him into clandestine chemistry, wakes to find himself in jail, badly burned, and no memory of what got him there. Slowly, with the assistance of shadowy new friends and illicit chemicals, he begins to piece his sad past together. While experimenting in his lab, Ashworth discovers a way to synthesise a new drug that becomes the new big thing on the street, and the big drug rings want a piece. Ashworth becomes a big piece in the drug racket, until it all goes wrong one night.

The beauty of "Dermaphoria" is the disjointed accounts of memory playing against the scattered and paranoid world of the present. As Ashworth begins to figure out who he was, his world begins to unravel, and the only thing he can remember he truly loved becomes an obsession. This obsession, a woman called "Desiree", may only be a figment of his imagination, but his consuming desire to find her pulls him deeper into the abyss. Finally, the world comes into sharp focus, and Ashworth does the only thing he can to put things right again, and finally find Desiree.