12 new books by Berkeley authors to read in the summer of 2021

Some of the city’s most prominent authors have new books out, including Alice Waters, Michael Lewis and Michael Pollan.

Summer reading. Photo: Creative Commons

School is out, summer is almost here, browsing is back and libraries and bookstores have reopened. So what better time is there to pick up a book by a Berkeley writer?

Three very famous Berkeley residents all have new tomes this summer: Michael Lewis, Alice Waters and Michael Pollan. A number of other prominent Berkeleyans do too, including Malcolm Margolin, the founder of Heyday Books and author of the iconic The Ohlone Way. Heyday is about to publish Margolin’s memoir of the 50 years he spent “deep hanging out,” with California native communities. Grant Faulkner, who as the executive director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) cheers hundreds of thousands of authors to write a complete novel each November, is publishing a collection of short stories in July. Bill Issel, best known for his academic history books, has just published the second book in a trilogy set in World War II-era San Francisco. And Joan Steinau Lester, a white woman who married a Black man before the landmark 1967 Supreme Court ruling legalizing interracial marriage, has a memoir of those times. Here are nine recently published and about-to-be-published books by Berkeley authors worth checking out.

Fiction

My Good Son by Yang Huang

Huang’s third book explores the scope and limitations of parental love. Set in China in 1990, it centers on Mr. Cai, a tailor, and his son Feng, who is floundering academically and can’t pass his university entrance exams. Desperate to see his son succeed. Mr. Cai makes what may be a Faustian pact with Jude, a gay, ex-pat customer. Even though Feng wants nothing more than to be a fashion designer and work in his father’s business, Mr. Cai convinces Jude to sponsor Feng to study in the U.S. What could go wrong? Plenty. Huang, who grew up in China’s Jiangsu province and participated in the 1989 student uprisings before moving to the East Bay and taking a job at UC Berkeley, explores differences between American and Chinese cultures, how fathers and sons relate to one another, sexuality, family expectations and more.


Traitors by William Issel

I first stumbled upon Bill Issel’s work when I read the iconic book he co-authored with Robert Cheney: San Francisco, 1865-1932: Politics, Power, and Urban Development. It still holds a place of importance on my bookshelf. Issel, who lives in Berkeley and is an emeritus professor at San Francisco State University, is still exploring heady issues (he is writing about the competition between the Catholic Church and the Communist Party from the Russian Revolution to the end of the Cold War) but has also ventured into fiction. He has just published Traitors, a novel set in San Francisco in 1942, the second book of a trilogy. It is based on true events and Issel combed FBI files and private and public archives to come up with the story. The novel opens four months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor when an assassin shoots the German American president of the isolationist group America First. A trio of San Francisco detectives and a local FBI officer must hunt down the killer. Was the assassination politically motivated? Will uncovering the truth incite more violence?

All the Comfort Sin Can Provide by Grant Faulkner.

Faulkner, the executive director of Berkeley’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and the co-founder of 100 Word Story, writes about “people wrestling with who they are, who they want to be,” he said in an author’s note. In a series of short stories, Faulkner looks at how people mess up, how they hurt themselves and others, how they seek out grace and look for salvation. “As Jung said,” Faulkner writes, “inside of every alcoholic there’s a seeker who got on the wrong track.” Written over a span of decades (he wrote one story just a week before he turned in his manuscript), Faulkner takes readers from Arizona highways to Iowa in the wintertime, to New York corporate suites.

Dominus by Steven Saylor

For 30 years, Steven Saylor, who splits his time between Berkeley and Austin, TX,  has been writing about ancient Rome. His first book, Roman Blood, came out in 1991 and launched a 13-book series featuring Gordianus the Finder, a sleuth of ancient Rome. The books traced 40 years of the Roman Republic from Cicero’s first murder trial to the assassination of Julius Caesar.

Saylor’s second series, The Roma Trilogy, follows the fortunes of the Pinarius family over 1,000 years, from the reign of Marcus Aurelius when Rome was just an inconsequential settlement on the Tiber River up to Constantine the Great, who made Christianity the state religion and moved the imperial capital to Constantinople (modern Istanbul). The Pinarius family sees it all: the madness of Caligula, the decadence of Nero, the Golden Age of Rome, wars, plagues, famines. Dominus, the last book in the Roma trilogy, will be published on June 29.

Nonfiction

We are What We Eat: A Slow Food Manifesto by Alice Waters

Alice Waters is the doyenne of eating locally and seasonally, a philosophy she showcases at Chez Panisse and proselytizes with The Edible Schoolyard Project. Her new book, We Are What We Eat: A Slow Food Manifesto, explores those ideas and connects them to climate change, social unrest and inequality, In the book, Waters writes about the perniciousness of fast food culture where convenience and low-cost are more important than everything else. The embrace of disposable culture is sickening our world, Waters writes. She encourages people to slow down, to watch and appreciate what is around, to eat foods that are ripe and in season. Following that rhythm rather than one of fast consumption will improve people’s health — as well the health of the planet, writes Waters.

The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis

In a full-page ad in the New York Times for Michael Lewis’ new book, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, the publisher asks, “Where did we go wrong? And how can we get it right?” After all, as the ad states, “In 2019, a panel of public health experts judged the U.S. to be more prepared for a pandemic than other G7 nations.” And we all know how that worked out. Michael Lewis explains why in just 300 pages — and spotlights the heroic efforts of a handful of medical scientists working behind the scenes to move the country toward an effective response to the COVID pandemic.

So why DID we go wrong? It’s well understood that one of the principal reasons the United States fumbled the response to the COVID pandemic was the incompetence, denial, and foot-dragging of the Trump administration, and the President himself. But Lewis, and the many public health doctors he profiles in The Premonition, make clear that other factors loomed large as well. Almost pathological risk-aversion and ass-covering by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The innate inefficiencies and distortions of the country’s for-profit health care system. The decentralized US public health care “system” that’s not a system at all. And resistance to essential public health measures by a disbelieving and sometimes hostile citizenry. (Continue reading this review on Mal Warwick’s Blog on Books.)

Loving Before Loving: A Marriage in Black and White by Joan Steinau Lester

Joan Steinau was just 22 in 1962 when she heard a man play the guitar at a camp in the Catskills. He called himself “Julie,” short for Julius Lester, and he would soon become Joan’s husband. She was white, from a middle-class Connecticut family. He was a Black man from Nashville, Tennessee, a son of a Methodist minister. They fell in love, drawn together by their mutual interests in writing, music, and politics and moved to New York City at a time when the world was often hostile to interracial relationships. Lester’s memoir, Loving Before Loving: A Marriage in Black and White, explores her marriage to a man who rose to prominence in the civil rights movement with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, her quest to define herself as an independent woman and writer, and the personal and political forces that pushed the couple apart. (They had two children and divorced in 1970). Lester’s book continues to the present and also explores her own awakening, how she pushed to be published, (Her first book, The Future of White Men and Other Diversity Dilemmas came out in 1994 and addressed race, white privilege, diversity and equity), how her growing feminism helped her realize she wanted to be with women. “Like an armchair Red, I became an armchair lesbian,” writes Lester, who now lives in Berkeley with her wife, Carole Johnson.

Deep Hanging Out: Wanderings and Wonderment in Native California by Malcolm Margolin

Since the early 1970s, Malcolm Margolin has been wandering around Californian Native communities talking to people, collecting their stories, and creating lasting friendships. He has also written frequently about native lives, starting with his 1978 book, The Ohlone Way: Indian Life in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area and through Heyday’s News from Native California. Deep Hanging Out is a collection of 30 articles Margolin has written over the years brought together in one place for the first time. He writes about pre-contact hunting, the quest of Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino to bring Ohlone food, both traditional and reimagined, to the wider public, the cultural revival salons Heyday hosted, explorations of traditional native practices and wisdom, and how various American Indians are working to review their language, among other topics. Margolin is a wonderfully clear writer who brings readers right next to him. Who can resist a line like this? “So how did a balding, bearded, Jewish guy from the other side of the country end up serving acorn mush to a cluster of Indian elders? Let me try to explain.” Deep Hanging Out will be released on July 6.

This Is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan last wrote about the power of psychedelic drugs in his 2018 book, How to Change Your Mind. The Berkeley author and professor of journalism at UC Berkeley is still interested in mind-changing matters. But in his new book, This Is Your Mind on Plants, Pollan delves into three plant drugs: opium, caffeine, and mescaline. Trying the drugs (or avoiding their consumption in the case of caffeine), Pollan asks why humans constantly seek out changes in consciousness. If we love getting high so much, why have we passed so many laws restricting the use of drugs and psychoactive plants? In This is Your Mind on Plants, Pollan once again delivers a great read that brings together memoir, participation, science and history. Available July 6.

In My Mother’s Footsteps: A Palestinian Refugee Returns Home by Mona Hajjar Halaby

This memoir explores the lives of two women: Zakia Jabre Hajjar, who fled Palestine after the formation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the Arab-Israeli War that followed, and her daughter Mona Hajjar Halaby, who was born in Egypt in the 1950s and also had to leave that country. While her mother eventually moved to Geneva, Switzerland, Halaby moved to Berkeley and became a teacher. In 2007-2008, Halaby took a sabbatical from Park Day School in Oakland to teach conflict resolution in Ramallah. Much of her knowledge of Palestine had come from the stories her mother had told her and Halaby used that year abroad to learn more about her roots and trace her mother’s journey. In the spring of 2008, Halaby’s mother, then 84, came to Palestine, her first visit after 59 years of exile. The two went to Jerusalem to find her house. It was still standing but they were only able to visit the garden. “In 2015, three years after my mother died, and a year after my Palestinian husband died, I was able to enter my mother’s house with the help of an Israeli friend. Needless to say, it was a bittersweet experience,” said Halaby. In My Mother’s Footsteps, Halaby vividly describes Palestinian landscapes, foods and the lives of people who live under military occupation, as well as her family’s personal history. Available as an e-book, audio book and print-on-demand on August 5.

Full Spectrum: How the Science of Color Made Us Modern by Adam Rogers

Nature is full of vibrant colors: green grass, pink flowers, the black and yellow of a bumblebee. For hundreds of thousands of years, humans have tried to reproduce those colors for our own uses with varying degrees of success. In Full Spectrum: How the Science of Color Made Us Modern, Adam Rogers, a Berkeley resident and a senior correspondent at Wired, takes readers on a globe-trotting journey of the human quest to reproduce color. Adams begins the book in Cornwall, the edge of England, where a reverend discovered titanium in 1791. While it would take some time for the importance of that metal to be fully realized, today it is ubiquitous. It’s used in airplanes, tennis racquets, mobile phones. Rogers, however, is most interested in how the titanium atom can be joined with oxygen atoms to make titanium dioxide, “the whitest pigment on Earth,” used in paint, in food, and ceramics. (The blackest black, Vantablack, in contrast, is not broadly used as the artist Anish Kapour has exclusive rights to it). Adams, an accomplished science writer with a vivid conversational style, brings readers to a 100,000-year-old paint shop in South Africa’s Blomblos caves, to the caves at Lascaux, to the mechanics of dye manufacturing. He also explores how humans perceive color and how that perception can differ from one person to the next.

Poetry

Hope and the Sea by Magda Portal. Translated by Kathleen Weaver

Few in the U.S. know and appreciate Magda Portal, a Latin American avant-garde poet, as much as Kathleen Weaver. The Berkeley resident published a biography of Portal, Peruvian Rebel: The World of Magda Portal, with a selection of her poems, in 2009. Now Dulzorada Press is issuing the first English translation of Hope and the Sea, translated by Weaver. The poetry book came out in Lima, Peru, in 1921 and was immediately praised. “Already an acclaimed poet by the age of twenty-three, Magda Portal became a key participant in the political and intellectual milieu surrounding the Peruvian journal Amauta, eagerly absorbing the winds of change sweeping across the continent and embodying them within her own intensely personal experience,” according to the publisher. Portal fought for the equality of women and the rights of the poor and was instrumental in forming the first mass political party in Peru. Weaver, who teaches English at Berkeley City College, has co-edited a number of anthologies of women’s poetry and translated many books from Spanish.

Update June 19: We added three more books to this list after publication.

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Berkeleyside. Email: frances@citysidejournalism.org.