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.