There has been a bumper crop of books this fall by Berkeley authors and those with something to say about the city. Readers can explore Vice President Kamala Harris’ early days in Berkeley, a true thriller about U.S. and Polish espionage, the meaning and politics of being Asian American, the incredible life of the painter Sam Francis, the movement for sustainable drinking, and more.
Friends from the Beginning: The Berkeley Village That Raised Kamala and Me
By Stacey L. Johnson-Batiste
Much has been made about Vice President Kamala Harris’ childhood in Berkeley. She first focused attention on her early years here during a presidential debate when she told Joe Biden — in a pointed voice — about her experience being bused to Thousand Oaks Elementary School. Many news articles also pointed out how her parents, one a student from Jamaica, one from India, fell in love pursuing graduate studies at UC Berkeley.
But there is much the public does not know about what Harris was like as a child and how living in Berkeley shaped her. Now, one of her earliest friends, Stacey L. Johnson-Batiste, has written a memoir, Friends from the Beginning: The Berkeley Village That Raised Kamala and Me, to share details about Harris’ upbringing and the influences in her life.
The two met when they both attended kindergarten at Berkwood Hedge, a private progressive alternative school just a few blocks from Berkeley High. Kamala and Stacey’s mothers immediately became close friends, which meant that the families spent a lot of time together, having dinners, playdates, going to Fairyland and seeing movies at the Grand Lake Theater. Johnson-Batiste describes how the two families’ visits to the Rainbow Sign, a cultural center on Grove Street (now MLK Jr. Way), shaped their Black consciousness. Rainbow Sign featured some of the decade’s leading performers and thinkers, such as Maya Angelou, Nina Simone and James Baldwin. There was food, dancing and lots of conversation. “I remember the energy felt in the space,” she writes. Johnson-Batiste also writes about the time Harris defended her against a kindergarten bully and got hit in the head as a result. Harris still carries a scar from that incident, but it showed Johnson-Batiste how the future vice president stood up for the underdog. Living in radical Berkeley in a supportive and loving Black community shaped both women and helped Harris become a leader.
Former Washington Post Warsaw correspondent and Berkeley author John Pomfret has crafted a thrilling true tale of the unlikely intelligence alliance between the U.S. and Poland, two countries once on opposite sides in the Cold War. As the USSR fell apart and its grip weakened, the two countries began to work clandestinely together. The U.S. relied on Poland because of its access to countries it couldn’t penetrate, such as Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Angola and the West Bank. Poland wanted to create a bulwark against its former ally, the USSR, but also was in it for the money (the U.S. supposedly helped halve its $33 billion in foreign debt). One CIA director described it as “one of the two foremost intelligence relationships that the United States has ever had.”
This is shoe-leather reporting told well. Pomfret combed both sides of the Atlantic to interview former intelligence and government officials. He poured over every declassified document he could find. The result is a book filled with fascinating details. From Warsaw with Love opens in 1977 with the tale of Marian Zacharski, a Polish salesman and avid tennis player, who persuaded William Bell, an engineer at Hughes Aircraft in Los Angeles, to reveal classified material on the aerospace industry, including early stealth technology. That level of spycraft made the CIA realize the Poles were good at subterfuge. The relationship has ups and downs: Polish spies helped in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. But Poland felt blindsided when it found out the U.S. has set up a secret rendition and torture site in the country.
The center of the book takes place in 1990 during the first Gulf War when six American intelligence officers were trapped in Iraq. Pomfret describes in heart-pounding detail how a Polish intelligence officer entered Iraq with six fake Polish passports, six Polish worker uniforms, and a dangerous plan to sneak the CIA agents away from Saddam Hussein. However, the once-beneficial relationship between the two countries no longer exists with the rise of Poland’s right-wing government.
Light on Fire: The Art and Life of Sam Francis
By Gabrielle Selz
On May 31, 1969, as Berkeley convulsed over UC Berkeley’s decision to shut down the recently built People’s Park, the artist Sam Francis – himself a UC Berkeley grad – took an unusual step. After thousands marched in the streets to protest the presence of the National Guard, the shooting and eventual death of a bystander, and the helicopter tear gassing of much of the city, Francis rented a helicopter to fly over Berkeley trailing a banner that read “May a Thousand Parks Bloom.” The saying was a paraphrase of a famous saying by the Chinese leader Mao Zedong.
That dramatic gesture, meant to convey disapproval over the way the state and university were treating students and protesters, was so Sam Francis, an artist known for larger-than-life gestures. He painted humongous canvases filled with color and white, lived life on three continents, had five wives and countless lovers, created a wind energy company and a lithograph studio, and co-founded the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Gabrielle Selz, whose father, Peter, was the founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum and a Francis champion, has written the first in-depth biography on Francis, Light on Fire: The Art and Life of Sam Francis. Drawing on Francis’ personal papers, hundreds of interviews with his family, friends, fellow artists and former assistants, Selz has created a riveting portrait of an artist whose paintings once commanded the highest prices in the world, but who is much less known than some of his contemporaries. Selz fills the book (I’m a friend and read early drafts) with extraordinary details that create an arresting portrait, such as how Francis accidentally shot and killed his best friend when he was a preteen and how he taught himself to paint while suspended in the air in the hospital recovering from spinal tuberculosis.
A Good Drink: In Pursuit of Sustainable Spirits
By Shanna Farrell
In the food-obsessed Bay Area, we want to know everything about what we eat. Is this organic? How far did it have to travel from farm to plate? Who grew this lettuce and these carrots, and who raised this cow or that pig? The same demand to know where something comes from doesn’t hold true for spirits such as gin, whiskey, tequila and the many aperitifs that we imbibe, including Aperol and Campari, argues Shanna Farrell in her book, A Good Drink: In Pursuit of Sustainable Spirits. Wine drinkers might think about terroir or the kinds of grapes going into the bottle, but spirit drinkers rarely put down the glass to ponder what’s in it. If they did, they might be disconcerted to find that their whiskey is made from industrial corn, most likely the dominant variety known as yellow dent field corn, Farrell writes. Other spirits are also mass produced and are full of artificial ingredients such as dyes.
Farrell, who started investigating the spirits industry as an interviewer for the Oral History Project of the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, writes about distillers who want to transform the industry by producing delicious drinks that don’t harm the environment, that use a variety of heirloom grains, that show off complexity, not conformity, that are conscious of the carbon footprint of importing exotic ingredients from far away.
To understand if there is the beginning of a true farm-to-table concept in the spirit universe, Farrell seeks out distillers who put taste and sustainability first. She visits Arturo Campos, a fourth-generation mezcalero in Mexico, and Ann Marshall and her husband, Scott Blackwell, who use an heirloom corn, Jimmy Red, for their whiskey. She spends time with the brothers Scott and Todd Leopold, the only commercial brewers in the U.S. to malt their own barley — a key component in creating a sustainable distillery. They distill 23 types of spirits just outside of Denver. Farrell also goes to St. George Spirits on the old naval base in Alameda to watch the distillery make pear brandy. But that product has been impacted by the tremendous growth in the wine industry. St. George Spirits once sourced its pears from Northern California orchards. But so many have been uprooted to plant Pinot Noir grapes that the company now has to get the fruit from Colorado.
Czesław Miłosz: A California Life
By Cynthia L. Haven
The Polish poet Czesław Miłosz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. The news – and the regard in which he was held – was somewhat of a surprise for his friends and neighbors in Berkeley. While Miłosz was well-regarded in Europe, he was still somewhat unknown in the Bay Area even though he had moved to Berkeley in 1960 to accept a visiting lecturer position at UC Berkeley.
While much has been written about Miłosz, Cynthia L. Haven, a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar, looks at his life through a California lens for the first time. Czesław Miłosz: A California Life, published by Heyday, is a rumination of Miłosz’s 40 years in the Golden State, a place he came to love but one with which he had a complicated relationship. On one hand, he embraced California’s beauty. He bought a house on Grizzly Peak Boulevard with a commanding view and often wrote poems while staring at the sun-dappled San Francisco Bay. He extolled the different types of trees in the state. But Miłosz, a formal man with European manners, also felt isolated in a city teeming with social upheaval. He was at odds with the young protesters of the Free Speech and anti-Vietnam movements. He wrote in Polish and often read his work out loud in his native tongue with an English translator at his side, making it difficult to cultivate a natural audience. It wasn’t until 1978 that a breakthrough work of poetry of his, Bells in Winter came out in English.
Haven has edited two previous books on Miłosz and interviewed him twice in 2000, right before he returned to Poland permanently. Those were the last two interviews he did in the U.S. She also interviewed his translators for this book, including Robert Hass and Peter Dale Scott; his son and brother-in-law; Mark Danner, a UC Berkeley professor now living in Miłosz’s Grizzly Peak home. She interweaves those perspectives with her own, and includes two very California poems ofMiłosz’s, “A Magic Mountain” and “Throughout Our Lands.”
Patterns of Connection: Essential Essays from Five Decades
By Fritjof Capra
Fritjof Capra, an Austrian-born physicist whose world view was shaped by the radical politics of the 1960s, including the Paris student uprising of 1968, has come out with a book that collects many of his essays from the last 50 years and shows the evolution of his thinking. Capra, a Berkeley resident whose 1975 book The Tao of Physics sold more than one million copies, argues in Patterns of Connection: Essential Essays from Five Decades that many of the world’s problems are interconnected and can only be solved by a holistic approach. “These essays combine and interrelate the two sides of my professional life as a scientist and science writer, on the one hand, and as an environmental educator and activist on the other,” Capra writes in his preface. “Hence they reflect not only the trajectory of my career but also the history of several movements for social change — from the counterculture of the 1960s to the New Age movement of the 1970s, the emergence of Green politics in the 1980s, and the rise of the global civil society from the 1990s to the present.”
Capra, who started the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley in 1994 (then known as the Elmwood Institute), sets forth solutions he believes could help resolve some of the globe’s most vexing crises, including climate change, the depletion of the soil from industrial agriculture, economic disparities and upheaval, the energy crisis and more. But they can only be done once world leaders step away from the fallacy that world economies need to continually expand, he writes. The earth’s resources are finite, and it is imperative that global leaders acknowledge this.
Capra presents some examples of how an integrated approach can help solve more than one problem at a time. One example is a push to plant 1.3 trillion trees around the globe, which could draw down two-thirds of the carbon emitted in human history. Another is to move away from industrialized, centralized, energy-intensive agriculture to sustainable, community-oriented regenerative farming. That would not only produce better food that can help improve people’s health, it would reduce farming’s carbon footprint, he writes.
Capra has an interesting take on the devastating spread of COVID-19. He told The Green Earth, a radio show out of Park City, “The coronavirus must be understood as a biological response of Gaia (our living planet) to the ecological and social emergency that humanity has brought upon itself.”
First Class: The U.S. Postal Service, Democracy and The Corporate Threat
By Christopher W. Shaw
In 2012, when the U.S. Postal Service announced it intended to sell Berkeley’s 1914 neoclassical post office on Allston Way, both the community and local officials stepped up to protest. For 17 months demonstrators camped outside the Renaissance Revival building, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Berkeley City Council created a historic overlay of the building and surrounding property, which severely limited future commercial uses of the post office. The USPS sued Berkeley in federal court, but a judge upheld Berkeley’s actions. Other historic post office buildings have been sold, however, including the building in Washington D.C. that eventually became the Trump International Hotel.
Selling off valuable properties, buildings that the taxpayers paid for, is just one of the ways corporate interests and political ideologues are dismantling the postal service, Christopher W. Shaw argues in First Class: The U.S. Postal Service, Democracy and the Corporate Threat. The push to take the postal service from public to private hands is steady and unrelenting and has serious implications for democracy. This threat came into clear view during the 2020 election as the pandemic pushed many states to emphasize mail-in voting. Louis DeJoy, the postmaster general appointed by Trump, announced plans to slow down delivery times and raise rates, making many people fear the moves were intended to impact the election. Shaw traces the essential role of the post office ever since Benjamin Franklin served as the country’s first postmaster general. He details the fights to preserve it and to ensure it remains an essential component of democracy.
The Loneliest Americans
By Jay Caspian Kang
Jay Caspian Kang, a journalist, New York Times columnist and Berkeley resident, has written a meditation/memoir on the question of what it means to be an Asian American. The concept, Kang believes, is overly broad and lumps together people from too many countries and backgrounds. Kang believes a significant divide has emerged between two classes of Asian Americans: the upwardly mobile educated urban elites like himself and those who are at the low end of the economic spectrum. Neither exactly fits into American society.
In The Loneliest Americans, Kang explores the tensions of being Asian in the U.S. He describes his own family’s journey from Korea to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Chapel Hill., North Carolina, to an island in Washington where his parents now live and grow grapes and lavender. He describes his time at Bowdoin College in Maine. He spends time in Koreatown in Los Angeles and at Asian academic cram schools in New York City. He has a chapter titled “The Rage of the MRAZNs,” referencing a term for certain kinds of Asian “men’s rights activists” who grow up in mostly white communities and then have an Asian “conversion” in college.
Kang also focuses on Berkeley, where he and his family moved from Brooklyn in 2020. To get a sense of the city, he wandered around and couldn’t help but note the large number of Asian American students at Cal. Many of them ate at the “Asian Ghetto, a charmingly filthy food court with a thick cloud of flies bussing about it at all times.” Kang observed — but did not talk — to the Asian students at Cal. “They seem completely uninterested in making friends with people of other races or backgrounds.” Dressed in baggy sweatshirts like every other UC Berkeley student, Kang had the sense they had no interest in creating their own culture, unlike the Cal students of the 1960s who not only protested to establish a department of Asian American Studies but may have even coined the phrase, Asian American. Kang attributes that disconnect to the fact that the 1969 protesters had “lived through a brutal American history of exclusion,” including Japanese internment and the Chinese Exclusion Act. Today’s students, in contrast, are the descendants of Asians who came to the U.S. after the passage of the 1965 Hart-Cellar Immigration Act that brought tens of millions of people from around the world.
Ultimately, Kang determines that his identity is in-between. The title is a description of Kang’s sense of alienation. “When I say Asians are the loneliest Americans … I am talking about the loneliness that comes from attempts to assimilate, whether by melting into the white middle class or by creating an elaborate, yet ultimately derivative, racial ‘identity.'”
Freedom to Discriminate explores the role of realtors in segregating America by ensuring racial exclusion in certain housing tracks. Slater tells the story of how Duncan McDuffie, a Berkeley realtor, pioneered the idea of creating “Caucasians only” covenants. He first did this in 1905 in the Claremont Court area of Berkeley. In 1916, to control adjoining neighborhoods, he led Berkeley’s effort to adopt the first zoning of single-family districts. “Expedited to stop a ‘prominent negro dance hall’ from locating in the Elmwood District adjacent to Claremont Park, this ordinance pioneered single-family zoning in America,” Eden writes. UC Berkeley later gave McDuffie an honorary doctorate for his work in residential development. Slater then goes on to try and draw an association between whites’ “freedom” to live only among other whites to the rise of Ronald Reagan and, eventually, today’s conservative climate. The Berkeley City Council recently voted to end single-family zoning as one step toward undoing the harm caused by the racial covenants enacted 116 years ago.