Berkeley’s been blessed with an abundance of local writers, thanks to the longtime presence of a major university and the city’s reputation as a haven for dreamers and free thinkers that dates back to the 19th century. Shopping local, therefore, means more than patronizing one’s favorite independent bookstore but also reading the works of the deep thinkers here, many of whom routinely contribute to the major discussions of our time. Here is a sampling of recent books by Berkeleyans and by other authors writing about the city.
American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis
By Adam Hochschild
Harper Collins, 432 pages, $30
Populists raged against immigrants. Racist nationalist groups flourished. A deadly virus claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Mobs burned Black churches to the ground. Vigilantism was on the rise, while the president took aim at dissenting voices.
Though these events may sound painfully familiar, they actually took place between 1917 and 1921, a period historian Adam Hochschild calls the “Trumpiest period of American history before Trump.” “It was an era of widespread vigilante violence, an earlier version of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers,” he’s written. “And finally it was a time that saw several things Trump would have dearly liked to do: throwing his political enemies in jail by the thousands, for instance, and shutting down newspapers that criticized the government.”
Hochschild chose this dark and overlooked period because of its contemporary resonance.
The book portrays a cast of characters who fueled or fought against injustices, including Woodrow Wilson, who, Hochschild writes, “presided over the greatest assault on American civil liberties in the last century and a half,” to antiwar advocates Kate Richards O’Hare and Emma Goldman, labor champion Eugene Debs and a then little-known bureaucrat named J. Edgar Hoover.
This is Hochschild’s 11th book. The topics of his previous books include the brutality of colonialism (King Leopold’s Ghost), the antislavery movement (Bury the Chains) and the Spanish Civil War (Spain in Our Hearts).
Asian American Histories of the United States
By Catherine Ceniza Choy
Beacon Press, 240 pages, $27
The past few years have taken a tremendous toll on the Asian American community. Former president Donald Trump’s referring to the COVID-19 as “the China virus” heaped fuel on a long-smoldering history of racism and xenophobia.
The Stop AAPI Hate reporting center logged 1,500 hate incidents against Asian-Americans in a one-month period of 2020. Violence against Asian Americans continued to escalate through the pandemic and reached a deadly climax with the murder of six Asian-American women who worked in an Atlanta spa in March 2021.
Such events, along with decades of oppression, inspired UC Berkeley ethics professor and historian Catherine Ceniza Choy to pen this chronicle of the nearly 200-year history of Asian migration, labor and community in the U.S.
“We remain targets of hate,” she writes. “How did we get here?”
Choy’s interviews reflect the many voices within the Asian diaspora: Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino, Cambodian, Hmong, Laotian, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian and Pakistani.
The book traces and analyzes the histories of Asian Americans through three themes: violence, erasure and resistance. Choy begins with the pandemic and goes back in time to explore major events in Asian American history that continue to influence the modern world, like the Page Act in 1875, which prohibited the recruitment of unfree laborers and women for “immoral purposes” as the first of many immigration laws designed to keep Asians out of the U.S.
Other often-overlooked milestones include the adoption of Korean children in 1953, which Choy calls the first mass wave of international and interracial adoptions in world history, and the displacement of thousands of refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia from 1975-1978.
“It ought to be essential for all Americans to learn about the journeys that Southeast Asian refugees undertook to get to the United States,” Choy writes.
Speculative Futures: Design Approaches to Navigate Change, Foster Resilience, and Co-Create the Cities We Need
By Johanna Hoffman
North Atlantic Books, 224 pages, $20
If traditional approaches to urban design have culminated in failure (i.e., our overcrowded cities, lack of collaborative planning and looming ecological catastrophes), perhaps the answers to what lies ahead can be found in what’s known as “speculative futures,” a design approach inspired by art, film, fiction and industrial design that uses speculation to imagine new and potential worlds.
Artist and urbanist Johanna Hoffman is at the forefront of this approach. As the co-founder and director of planning at Design for Adaptation, she uses strategic planning and speculative design to help communities, cities and organizations “translate future uncertainties into present day choice,” according to press materials. The book blends precedent-making studies, research and professional memoir.
Intended for a niche audience of professionals in urban design and planning, the book is also for readers who, according to a press release, “resist received, capitalistic, technocratic ways of thinking” and “ seek new solutions to old problems with anti-colonial, living-systems-oriented lenses.” In other words: what sounds like many Berkeley residents.
How to Sell a Poison
By Elena Conis
Bold Type Books, 400 pages, $30
Like a cautionary tale right out of The Twilight Zone, DDT was first considered the wonder chemical of World War II that wiped out insects that caused disease, boosting Allied forces. Post-war, the chemical was sprayed on everything from crops and livestock to cupboards and curtains. Because exposure to the chemical can cause birth defects and infertility in humans — and because it builds up in the ecosystem, wiping out birds and fish — the U.S. banned DDT in 1972. Now, in an age of spreading misinformation and rewritten histories, DDT has been repackaged again as an effective product that just happens to be poisonous.
Conis teaches in UC Berkeley’s media studies program and at the graduate school of journalism. Her current research focuses on scientific controversies, science denial, and the public understanding of science. Her first book, Vaccine Nation: America’s Changing Relationship with Immunization, published in 2015, felt like a harbinger for the radical anti-vaxxing to come during the pandemic.
In How to Sell a Poison, she likewise dives deeply into the subject matter, following DDT from postwar farms, factories, and suburban enclaves to the floors of Congress and social clubs, where industry barons met with Madison Avenue to sell the idea that a little poison in your body wasn’t anything to worry about.
Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century
By J. Bradford DeLong
Basic Books, 624 pages, $35
Hard to believe, given the state of things, that today Americans are almost nine times richer than we were in the world of 1870, according to J. Bradford DeLong, an economic historian and former deputy assistant secretary of the treasury under the Clinton administration who now teaches at U.C. Berkeley. If that’s so, why doesn’t it feel like we’re living in a utopia?
DeLong seeks to address that and many other complex economic questions in this 624-page tome that explores the last century, which he defines on his own terms. DeLong starts in 1870, because of the quadrupling of global technological advances that reset “the gameboard of how history works,” and ends in 2010, because of that year’s “failure to make rapid economic recovery a high priority.” This was the first century whose history was primarily economic, with massive growth in technology and wealth that drove change across every generation, according to DeLong.
Nevertheless, economic inequality has persisted and even accelerated, while technological advances have not delivered fairness and prosperity for all. DeLong’s analysis of these forces reveal what’s keeping us from achieving an economic paradise.
GOLDEN: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise
By Leigh Marz and Justin Zorin
HarperWave, 384 pages, $29
Noise pollution, according to the World Health Organization, is ranked second to air pollution in terms of its impact on well being. Noise, as defined by the authors, is not only the aural sound of sirens and phone pings but the more abstract din that clutters our screens and our minds. The average person, according to the book, receives 125 emails a day. Modern society has lost its connection to silence, this book argues, to our detriment.
Marz is a collaboration and leadership coach from Berkeley; Zorn has served as a strategist and meditation teacher in the U.S. Congress. Together they explore topics such as why all the world’s spiritual traditions honor silence as a path to truth, the economics and psychology of why our world is so noisy, and offer practical approaches to find “little moments” of silence, along with techniques for deeper immersion, in our noisy world.
LISTEN, WORLD!: How the Intrepid Elsie Robinson Became America’s Most Read-Woman
By Julia Scheeres and Allison Gilbert
Seal Press, 352 pages, $30
From the annals of Overlooked Women in History comes the loud voice of Elsie Robinson, a radical feminist and progressive newspaper columnist from a century ago who pushed readers to rethink many of the issues we’re still grappling with today: gender inequality, immigrants’ rights, racism and antisemitism. The book’s title comes from Robinson’s syndicated column that was read by more than 20 million Americans on a daily basis from 1921 to 1956.
“I’m tired of hearing the differences of men and women emphasized and exploited,” she wrote in 1922. “It has built a wicked ball between the sexes and it’s time we knocked it down.”
Robinson grew up poor in Benicia but dreamed of a life as a writer. After a bitter divorce that made her the sole caretaker of her chronically ill son, she moved in with her sister and mother on Telegraph Avenue, before moving to Hornitos, where she became a gold miner and spent evenings typing up short stories and essays in an attempt to break into publishing. When the mine closed, she stormed into the offices of the Oakland Tribune and demanded a job. In 1924, William Randolph Hearst hired Robinson and made her the highest-paid woman writer in his national newspaper empire.
Robinson also made history by being one of the first columnists to draw her own accompanying editorial cartoons. One standout image must have been controversial for 1924: a flapper with a bob and a dangling cigarette, sowing from a bag of wild oats. The caption: “If her brother sows ’em, suppose she sows ’em too?”
What World Is This? A Pandemic Phenomenology
By Judith Butler
Columbia University Press, 144 pages, $18 (paperback) and $80 (hardcover)
Judith Butler is a philosopher and gender theorist at UC Berkeley who explores in this book how the political, economic, social and ecological consequences of COVID-19 have challenged us to reconsider our sense of the world. In it, she draws on the work of Max Scheler and Maurice Merleau-Ponty and critical feminist phenomenology as she seeks to illuminate the conditions we seek to make sense of our disorientation, precarity and social bonds.
The pandemic, she suggests, illuminated the potential of our shared vulnerabilities and pervasive inequalities. Butler argues for a radical social equality and modes of resistance that can establish new conditions of livability and a sense of a shared world.
Five Laterals and a Trombone: Cal, Stanford, and the Wildest Finish in College Football History
By Tyler Bridges
Triumph Books, 256 pages, $28
It is such a legendary event that even those who have no interest in college football (like me) have heard about it and seen the hilarious video on YouTube. Simply known as “The Play,” it is the finish of a Nov. 20, 1982, game between legendary rivals Cal and Stanford that ends when five laterals on the final kickoff ended with a sprint through the opposing team’s marching band that prematurely took the field to celebrate. The Play is considered one of the most memorable moments in college football history.
The book reconstructs the pivotal moments and resulting lore based on hundreds of interviews with key figures, including Stanford star quarterback John Elway, Cal linebacker Ron Rivera, the final lateral receiver Keven Moen and, of course, Cardinal trombone player Gary Tyrrell.
By Hua Hsu
Doubleday, 208 pages, $26
New Yorker staff writer Hua Hsu’s much-anticipated memoir racked up accolades even before its September release date. The book has been placed on several 2022 best books lists and called “an evolutionary step for Asian-American literature” by Ryu Spaeth of Vulture. Because of all the buzz, Hsu’s Nov. 3 appearance at Books Inc., where he was interviewed by Oakland author Tommy Orange, drew more than 200 people.
The memoir is described in press materials as capturing “a period in life when differences of taste and sensibility seem insurmountable in the desperate search for one’s tribe.”
The child of Taiwanese immigrants, Hua grew up in Cupertino. This coming-of-age story begins in 1995, when he arrives at Berkeley, desperate to create an identity free from his first-generation American status. To mask his insecurities, he threw himself into ’90s counterculture — “Kurt Cobain, ’zine making and ironically worn cardigans,” according to the press release. When he first meets Ken, he hates him. Ken is everything Hua is not. Ken’s a San Diego native whose Japanese family has been in California for generations. He’s also dashing, confident and culturally mainstream, a fan of Abercrombie & Fitch and Dave Matthews.
The unlikely friendship captures both the boredom and hijinx of undergraduate life, from binge-drinking to vandalizing a frat house and wandering the aisles of Telegraph Avenue record stores and driving along the coast. Just before the start of their senior year, Ken is killed in a carjacking. Devastated by the loss, yet determined to preserve his friend’s memory, Hua turns to writing. The book was 24 years in the making.
The Ethical Psychic
By Jennifer Lisa Vest
North Atlantic Books, 208 pages, $17
Intended for mediums, spirit workers, psychics or aspiring Reiki masters, The Ethical Psychic is a go-to guide to help them become more grounded and effective healers.
Bringing some authority to the subject is Jennifer Lisa Vest, an Afro-indigenous healer who has a foot in both the academic and spiritual worlds. She holds a Ph.D. in indigenous philosophy from UC Berkeley and is a medical intuitive, master reiki practitioner and has been trained in the traditions of African-American hoodoo, Native American sweat lodge, Jamaican revivalism, Trinidadian shango, spiritualism and pranic healing, among others.
She preaches a philosophy of humility, a dedication to services and listening to a higher source, which she hopes will dissuade less-than-ethical practitioners.
“There is no religion greater than service,” she writes. “That should be the path of everybody.”
The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships with Their Jobs
By Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter
Harvard University Press, 272 pages, $28
For almost every level of worker, the pandemic put a spotlight on job burnout. From front-line and essential workers to parents who struggled to work online while homeschooling their children at the kitchen table, the increased demands introduced new stressors to nearly every part of life. According to a study by the American Psychological Association, workers across the board saw increased burnout rates in 2021. The APA warned that in this, the third year of the pandemic, “these stressors have become persistent and indefinite, heightening everyone’s risk of burnout.”
Geared to managers to help them identify worker burnout, pioneering researchers Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter, who have been at the forefront of burnout research for decades, identify key causes of workplace burnout and offer advice on implementing change.
Tell Me the Truth about Love
By Erik Tarloff
Rare Bird Books, 360 pages, $28
As one of Berkeley’s most prolific writers, Erik Tarloff is a novelist, playwright and screenwriter who’s written for both the small and large screen. His previous book, The Woman In Black, was a Los Angeles Times bestseller. His novel Face-Time became a national bestseller. All our Yesterdays, which came out in 2014, set in Berkeley, follows the lives of six friends, beginning in the tumultuous year of 1968.
In this, his fifth novel, he tells the story of Toby Lindeman, a dashing San Francisco opera fundraiser and divorcee. Toby’s living a bachelor’s dream life until he enters a passionate affair with a woman who happens to be the longtime mistress of a powerful man on whom his future depends.
“All the complications are here, neatly plotted against a background of arts’ intrigue,” author Zachary Leader wrote in a blurb. “This is among the best of Tarloff’s novels — funny, smart and full of unexpected twists.”
Leo + Lea
By Monica Wesolowska
Illustrated by Kenard Pak
Scholastic, 40 pages, $19
Monica Wesolowska’s first book, Holding Silvan: A Brief Life, is a heart-wrenching narrative about the loss of her infant son. It was named a best book by Library Journal and the Boston Globe and recommended by Berkeley’s Ayelet Waldman, who praised Wesolowska’s “graceful prose, her unflinching eye, and most of all her indomitable spirit. This book taught me more about a mother’s love than anything I have ever read before or since.”
Leo + Lea symbolizes Wesolowska’s foray into children’s picture books. Another title, Elbert in the Air, is coming out in February.
Leo + Lea celebrates differences: Leo loves numbers; Lea loves patterns. Behind this friendship story is a clever structure inspired by and constructed using the Fibonacci sequence, a mathematical pattern in which each number is the sum of the previous two: 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13, etc. The idea is to have young readers count the words and illustrations on each page. The sequence can also be found in the natural world and is a metaphor for the interconnectedness of all things.