Fresh Crop

New books blossom in the North Bay

Who says winter is the only time for settling down with a good book? In this year’s spring literature issue, we present a variety of works from local authors. We sought a range of books—fiction and nonfiction. Some of them were recommended by booksellers, others were walked into the office by the authors themselves. It doesn’t get more local and independent than that. Happy reading.—Stett Holbrook

Behind the Gates of Gomorrah (Gallery Books), Stephen Seager

In his first-person memoir of his time working at the Napa State Hospital, Dr. Stephen Seager offers lots of anecdotes and insights into the gory goings-on at one of the country’s more notorious prison-hospitals.

The Cramps played at the Napa Hospital in the 1980s, which is kind of cool, but Seager’s experiences are nothing to sing home to Lux Interior about—the mental hospital is a violent hellhole, whose dangers are very real and in-your-face.

Another doctor there had been beaten into a coma, writes Seager, and the prison-hospital hybrid, with its minimal correctional protocols, created a climate of maximal uneasiness for staffers.

In his author’s note, Seager explains that a lot of people had asked him why the Napa State Hospital was such a violent but “persistently unguarded place.” The answer, says the psychiatrist, is simple: “You can’t be a prison and a hospital at the same time.”

The book has two basic narratives running through it. One is Seager’s sharp blow-by-blow account of his daily encounters with inmates and staff, their interactions and struggles to remain safe while serving the client-criminals.

To put it mildly, there’s lots of stress and blood and violence between the covers of this book. The other, more reflective thrust of the book is when Seager starts asking deeper, historical questions about the uneasy relationship between mental illness and criminality—and how this history plays out at the hospital.

He writes that many of the patients at the hospital fall into the category of “psychopathic sociopaths,” sort of the worst of both worlds, and quite difficult to manage from a clinical perspective—especially when the child rapist-murderer insists on wearing a raccoon mask.

He knew some of the patients were psychopaths, “which helps explain the often bizarre and grisly nature of their crimes,” he writes. “Sociopaths will perpetuate a stock fraud, steal your wallet, or shoot you during a botched drug deal. Psychopaths slice you into small pieces because God told them to.”

Scary stuff, yet Seager isn’t just interested in laying out the nasty details to sell books. He argues that this is no way to run a mental-health system, and concludes
with a call to citizens to get on Gov. Brown’s case about it.

“Up to this point, the state Government of California . . . has been unable to successfully dodge blame for this epidemic of hospital violence. . . . Jerry Brown is ultimately responsible for the mayhem committed in the state facilities that he oversees.”—Tom Gogola

A Thousand Slippers (self published), John McCarty

I had a blast reading John McCarty’s fun, historical novel about the early days of World War II, in San Francisco, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The novel tells the story of Anne Klausen, an aspiring ballerina who winds up working in burlesque after the 1941 sneak attack. She and her father get caught up in all sorts of intrigue involving the Black Dragons, a homegrown Japanese-American “terror cell,” in today’s vernacular.

San Francisco in the early days of the war was on high, panicked alert. The Japanese were going to invade the mainland, and the so-called Yellow Peril arrived with super-top-secret submarines that could launch airplanes, very stealthy.

A freaked-out city expected to be bombed and invaded at any moment—and yet when the invasion finally came, it was one guy in an airplane launched from a submarine, with one bomb. He was expected to die a hero’s death on the exploding deck of the USS Lexington, but instead crash-landed the plane, escaped into the city and got a job (before he is eventually captured).

A Thousand Slippers provides some perspective on our own quivering, al-Qaida times, with its rampantly paranoid xenophobia and the fear of a new “other” in our midst with malevolence towards ‘murica. The novel hits on some of the big wartime themes that unfolded in those early days, not the least of which was the debatable wisdom of sending Japanese-Americans to internment camps for the duration. After 9-11, numerous right-wing media thugs called for the same treatment of Muslim-Americans.

McCarty also provides some nuanced historicity when he lays out the war-borne complexities of the Japanese-American population of San Francisco and what to do with it. Through dialogue between his characters, McCarty demonstrates how some Japanese-American citizens were permitted to join American intelligence agencies, even as the city was, by and large, emptied of Japanese-Americans pretty soon after Pearl.—T.G.


Kiss of Salvation (McCaa Books), Waights Taylor Jr.

On his way to Sunday morning mass, homicide detective Joe McGrath gets a phone call that will change everything. Set in the blistering heat of autumn in Birmingham, Alabama, 1947, the intensely paced Kiss of Salvation by Waights Taylor Jr. explores a pre-civil rights southern city at the mercy of a serial killer targeting black prostitutes.

Joe McGrath is a smart, Shakespearean-quoting fellow, but he quickly realizes he can’t solve the case alone. To help him work with the black community in Birmingham, he covertly hires African-American private investigator Sam Rucker, against the better wishes of his chief and the town’s white elite. Together, the two take on a bullying police force and even the Klan in this sizzling detective novel written in the vein of pulp fiction crime novels from the 1940s.

Author Waights Taylor Jr. himself grew up in Birmingham, which explains the flawlessly atmospheric settings he describes. This history also informs Taylor, now living in Santa Rosa, in his less-than-politically-correct dialogue and action, an unfortunate yet authentic sign of the period. Taylor isn’t afraid to confront the racial currents of the time, as when an innocent witness is beaten into a confession simply for the color of his skin.

Throughout, McGrath and Rucker are incredibly progressive figures, astounding even to their peers, one of whom looks on slack-jawed at the sight of a simple conversation. In fact, the partnership between the heroes here is the central victory of the novel, and if it ever feels out of place, it’s only because Taylor has crafted such a thoroughly convincing context of racial fear and intimidation on a daily level.

Kiss of Salvation is a page-turner from the very beginning—it twists in all the right ways and concludes in heart-pounding fashion, when McGrath’s unexpected entrance into Birmingham’s high society uncovers a seedy underbelly that could hold the key to his mystery.—Charlie Swanson

Eliminating Satan and Hell: Affirming a Compassionate Creator God (WIPF & Stock),
V. Donald Emmel

Heaven and Hell is a great Black Sabbath album from the Ronnie James Dio era, but as far as actually being a reflection of your available post-death destinations—thanks, but no thanks. Science has rendered dead-and-buried that mythically Manichean construct, and good riddance.

The basic premise of Eliminating Satan and Hell,
a semi-academic treatise by
V. Donald Emmel, is that Satan is a bunch of baloney, and Hell is for children. No, wait, Pat Benatar said that.

Emmel says that Hell is basically a mythic construct that reflected the cruel and stupid worldview that created it, back in the pre-enlightened day when people believed in things like the sun rotating around the earth.

Back in the day, there was thunder, lightning, big floods and all kinds of scary natural-world things happening, and nobody knew what the hell was going on. So they said: It’s God, and he’s punishing us, and now I’m going to commit this incredible act of human savagery on you, heathen.

Nowadays we just turn to the Weather Channel for spiritual guidance in the rain. Who needs to blame Superstorm Satan when you’ve got Doppler radar telling you that it’s a really just an upper atmospheric disturbance?

Emmel is a theologian and professor at San Jose State, and he’s respectful and polite toward the Christian faith—but makes the point, often, that science has proven that there’s no discernible destination out there called “Heaven.”

You can look through that telescope all you want, Ted Cruz, but that’s Uranus we’re all staring at now, not Heaven. Or, as the great theologian-rocker Belinda Carlisle once declared, “Heaven is a place on Earth.”

And hell? Where the hell is hell?

I thought it was in aisle two at Whole Foods. Wrong again! Here it is: “Ancient populations were very conscious of evil: the evil of occupying nations, the evil of economic exploitation, the evil of personal enemies and their vendettas,” Emmel writes. “The myth of a Satan was developed to explain for them the cause of evil. The myth of hell was developed to justify for them that their enemies would be punished.”

All it took, then, was an Angry Creator to mete out the punishment. Then you could go back to skinning heretics alive, confident in your status as dumb-dumb medieval sadist, and with God on your side. —T.G.

Vegan Cowboy (self published), Carol Treacy

Rae O’Brien is on another disastrous date at the beginning of Carol Treacy’s Vegan Cowboy. A divorcée and single mom, O’Brien is an instantly relatable and sympathetic character, a single mom whose teenage son is strikingly cruel to her, and whose hopes of a partner have all but dissolved. O’Brien is also a devoted vegetarian and animal rights advocate, and her struggles to make a difference culminate in an ambitious documentary film project to expose the horrific realities of factory farming.

Enter Granger Bowden, the titular cowboy of the novel. Running a Petaluma dairy farm-turned-animal sanctuary with his daughter, Allie, Bowden is a rugged, no-nonsense cowboy in every sense of the word, yet his work is dedicated to caring for creatures rather than consuming them, and he regularly rescues abused animals. A traumatic event brings O’Brien and Bowden together, and in the aftermath, the novel follows them as a romance blossoms between the two that revolves around their shared animal rights interests and efforts.

Treacy’s real-life passion about veganism is evident throughout Vegan Cowboy. Her characters are emphatic about it; Allie even has a tattoo of the word “Vegan” on her arm. And sprinkled all through the novel are striking images and descriptions that almost read like after-school specials, but Treacy’s treatment of the subject matter never outweighs her investment in the storytelling. One such scene in particular, where a severely beaten sow is brought to the sanctuary in a flatbed pickup truck, is of the most enduring and memorable moments in the book.

Treacy, who lives in Petaluma, includes plenty of lighthearted moments and numerous local references to keep the pace quick and the action realistic. The romance between O’Brien and Bowden progresses gracefully amid early awkward conversations and feelings, and Vegan Cowboy succeeds in sharing sincerely relatable individuals who happen to be older and maybe a little grayer on top. The book is available at local stores and online at—C.S.


A Terrible Beauty: The Wilderness of American Literature (Regent Press),
Jonah Raskin

Santa Rosa’s own Jonah Raskin, a contributor to these pages, has published this amazing literary treatise on the intersection of wilderness and words in the American experience. He jumps off the diving board at Walden Pond to explore numerous post-Thoreau moments in American letters where the great outdoors plays a key role—or is itself the central character.

In A Terrible Beauty Raskin describes that which he wishes to preserve—the rapidly disappearing American wilderness—and writes that, “It may be that the wilderness will not loom large in the world of the future. But there will continue to be interest in wilderness,” he says, because it’s basically in our (mostly European) blood as Americans. “Ironically, the wilderness as a place that came to be synonymous with America and the United States began as a transplanted European trope. The wilderness trope went wild in America.”

There’s a very basic connection here that lies at the heart of Raskin’s beautifully written book. And I’ll just go and beat you over the head with it: Writers he admires and emphasizes in A Terrible Beauty—Henry Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson and others from the American Renaissance—”are among the wildest writers that our nation has ever seen.”

Raskin displays the wise and nimble mind of a literary trickster of the highest order as he conjures an awe at nature with a correspondent awe at the literature that reflects and honors it—and brings it all back home under the shared thematic bosom implied in the title, which is drawn from a line of Yeats’ that goes, “A terrible beauty is born.”

In Raskin’s able hands, the “terrible beauty” of nature animates an activist spirit that honors the power and beauty of language as it cuts across a wilderness that’s as pungently real as it is a metaphor for our own inner Wildman. At some protean level, we’re all eager for release into living poetry along the long trail (at least I am, your experiences may differ).

But if you pack it in, pack it out, Raskin warns. The wrath is beautiful, is terrible. Writing on Moby Dick, he notes, “attack the wild and the wild will seek revenge, Melville seems to say. Aim to destroy it, and it will destroy you.”—T.G.

More Than Meatballs (Skyhorse Publishing),
Michele Anna Jordan

Meatballs not only happens to be one of Bill Murray’s finest cinematic accomplishments, meatballs are a favorite around my dinner table. But I always make them the same way—ground beef, onion, fresh herbs, breadcrumbs and an egg. They’re good, but Michele Anna Jordan’s new book More Than Meatballs has opened my eyes to a whole world of new recipes. “World” is the right word, because meatballs are a global staple cooked in any number of ways that travel well beyond the stereotypical Italian-American meatball—some aren’t even made with meat. The humble meatball is dynamic, changing to take on the flavor, ingredients and techniques of any number of culinary traditions.

“Admittedly low on the trendie/foodie food chain of our day,” writes L. John Harris in the book’s foreword, “the meatball is, at its core, more a strategy or methodology than a specific recipe, the poor man’s way of using leftover cooked meat or uncooked meat and fat scraps.”

At least that’s how meatballs may have started out—peasant food. But as Sebastopol’s Jordan lays out in her comprehensive book, specific recipes and fresh ingredients are definitely worth seeking out. The recipes range from traditional to contemporary. One chapter is dedicated to meatless meatballs—an oxymoron but that sounds better than just calling them “balls.” Think falafel, arancini (rice balls), Spanish croquettes and K&L Bistro’s beloved salt cod fritters.

The final chapter of recipes is my favorite because it offers them in context, with accompaniments, i.e., meatball soup, Thai salad with duck meatballs, meatball tagine and, of course, themeatball sandwich. Like meatballs themselves, the cookbook deserves to be a staple in your kitchen.—Stett Holbrook

One Too Many (Tough Rose Press), Maureen Anne Jennings

By day, Rose Leary writes murder mysteries; by night, she tends bar to pay the bills. Set in 1980s New York City, One Too Many continues the adventures of writer-turned-witness Rose Leary. First captivating readers in Jennings’ debut novel, Bartender Wanted, our witty protagonist is still struggling in all the usual ways, trying to finish a novel while dealing with new management at the bar and strained relations with detective Frank Butler.

That’s when Leary finds the body of a murdered colleague and sets off another round of mystery that escalates the action and the humor. At the heart of One Too Many is Jennings’ fully realized world of New York City. The author calls west Sonoma County home today, but in another time she was a veteran of several Manhattan dives while working as a copy writer and journalist. Here, Jennings creatively culls these real-life experiences for a vividly crafted re-creation where a simple walk down Houston Street comes alive with vendors and colors and where a “promiscuous musk scented the humid air, as if damp sheets tented the city.” It would be easy to get lost wandering these endless streets, but luckily Jennings never lets the action wander, as our heroes must confront a series of dangers and their own suspicions before time runs out.

One Too Many works well as a murder mystery with a mix of murky atmospheres and compelling characters. Leary doesn’t suffer fools, and she isn’t afraid to tell you so. Yet at the same time, Jennings achieves a subtle level of detail throughout the novel in her brief but knowing descriptions of looks and drink orders that read volumes of character development between the lines. —C.S.