five books on a table with a pencil
A sampling of some of the new books by Berkeley authors, writers with roots her and those who write about Berkeley subjects. Credit: Joanne Furio

Summer is one of the publishing industry’s busiest times of year, when a summer beach read remains a seasonal ritual. From this season’s bounty comes a dozen books by Berkeley writers or by authors who have Berkeley roots or write about Berkeley subjects.

Unraveling: What I Learned About Life While Shearing Sheep, Dyeing Wool, and Making the World’s Ugliest Sweater

Unraveling jacket cover including image of sheep

By Peggy Orenstein
Harper Collins, 224 pages, $28

Peggy Orenstein’s breezy pandemic memoir, Unraveling, is partially inspired by Michael Pollan’s groundbreaking 2006 book, the Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which Pollan investigates where his food comes from and ends up making a meal without the use of industrialized ingredients. Like Pollan, Orenstein is curious about the origins of her clothing and goes DIY, undertaking every step that goes into the making of a wool sweater, from shearing the wool to dyeing and spinning it and finally knitting the garment.

“While everyone else was stress-baking and doom scrolling, I felt an inexplicable, unquenchable urge to confront a large animal while wielding a razor-sharp, juddering clipper; shear off its fleece; and figure out how to make it into a sweater,” she writes.

Unlike Pollan, Orenstein’s exercise serves as a jumping off point for the major life changes she finds herself pondering during the pandemic: her daughter going away to college, the recent loss of her mother, her father’s dementia and her own aging — making the book somewhat of a memoir, with the jaunty prose and quick humor she is known for. 

Along the way, Orenstein manages to knit in brief histories exploring natural versus synthetic fibers and dyes, turn-of-the-century garment worker women and women’s knitting during the wars and as a sign of protest, among other engaging threads. 

The book also offers a place for Orenstein to re-examine the fraught relationship she had with her mother, who taught her how to knit when she was around 11. That generational transfer is so widespread among women, Orenstein even created an acronym for such learning: SLFHM (She Learned From Her Mother).

“For my mom and me, knitting bridged the generation gap, created reliably neutral ground where we could meet,” Orenstein writes. Though her mother “could not be the guide to contemporary womanhood I needed, we could still bond over a trip to the yarn store.”

This is Orenstein’s eighth book. Previous titles include her New York Times bestsellers exploring adolescent sexuality, Boys & Sex and Girls & Sex.

Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life

Book cover with aurora borealis in a forest

By Dacher Keltner
Penguin Random House, 336 pages, $28

Dacher Keltner is an expert in the science of human emotion. A professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and the faculty director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, Keltner has spent decades studying how emotions shape us and steer our moral intuition. His new book, his third, is the product of his last dozen years of research on awe. 

As Keltner describes it, awe is the emotion we experience “when we encounter vast mysteries that we don’t understand,” such as the birth of a child or the immensity of the Grand Canyon. Awe, he writes, is an essential ingredient to a happy life. Though awe has animated the “stories, ceremonies, rituals and visual designs of Indigenous peoples dating back tens of thousands of years,” it has only been studied scientifically within the past 15 years. The book incorporates new research into how awe can transform our brains and bodies, examines awe across history, culture and within his own life during a period of grief. 

Awe, it turns out, is worth expressing because it has proven benefits. Awe sharpens our reasoning, orients our brains toward big ideas and new insights, dulls our immune system’s inflammatory response and inclines us to share and create strong communal bonds, among other plusses. 

Awe is a book for our times, Keltner argues. Awe breeds empathy, connectivity and community at a time of great disconnection — from each other and the planet.

Sea Change: An Atlas of Islands in a Rising Ocean

Book cover with outline of an island against yellow background

By Christina Gerhardt 
University of California Press, 320 pages, $35

The word “island” is practically synonymous with paradise, writes UC Berkeley senior fellow and environmental journalist Christina Gerhardt in her new book. Yet life on islands around the world is no fantasy. In fact, island life has increasingly become dystopian as islands around the world bear the brunt of climate change.

“Atlases are being redrawn as islands are disappearing,” Gerhardt writes. “Yet many on continents are not even aware of where these islands are located, what their names are, or how climate impacts them.” With sea levels rising, low-lying islands are harbingers of the future that awaits coastal cities around the world. 

Gerhardt could have created a purely scientific report of what’s been happening to such far-flung places as Lnnui Mnukuk, the Mi’kmaq name for Lennox Island in Canada’s North Atlantic provinces, and the Republic of Nauru in the Pacific, the world’s smallest independent island nation. Instead, she considers her artfully designed book a “transportive atlas” that incorporates maps, essays, poetry and images, along with brief histories outlining the impacts of colonialism and imperialism, providing more of a holistic and multi-media experience. 

Gerhardt lets islanders, from ordinary folk to presidents, speak for themselves, with an emphasis on indigenous and Black voices. Hilda Heine, the former president of the Marshall Islands, which, according to estimates, may be underwater in the next 20 to 50 years, describes how sea water frequently breaches a sea wall and floods her property. 

Though the science is disheartening — a 2018 report found that the melting in Greenland could lead to twice as much sea level rise as previously thought — the book doesn’t end without hope. 

“If climate change necessitates a radical retooling of our economies and infrastructures, why not do so in a way that deals not only with the climate threat but also with social justice, economic justice, and racial justice in a way that ensures environmental justice.” The book includes ideas to do just that. 

Take the island nation of Tokelau in the Pacific, which became the world’s first country to be fully solar powered in 2012. Tokelau plans to use the $829,000 it previously spent annually on importing fossil fuels on health care and education.

This Is Not Who We Are: America’s Struggle Between Vengeance and Virtue

Book cover with an eagle superimposed on the lettering

By Zachary Shore
Cambridge University Press, 333 pages, $28

Zachary Shore’s fifth book poses the question, “What kind of country is America?” and answers it by examining some of the most morally muddled moments of World War II, from moving Japanese Americans to internment camps to imposing a punishing peace on Germany and dropping atomic bombs on Japan. 

As he explored the process that led to such decisions, Shore expected that racism and wartime hatreds would explain them. “To my surprise, the majority of key decision makers, along with much of the American public, opposed these harsh measures,” he writes. Yet a minority pushed their policies through. “The most remarkable aspect of these policies was precisely how little support and how much ambivalence they actually produced,” he writes.

Shore, a senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Institute of European Studies, devotes the first part of the book to exploring how and why America’s vengeful policies were adopted and the second part to how leaders sought to “atone for some of its own wartime cruelties.” By the end of the war, Shore describes an America that was feeding the hungry, rebuilding Western Europe and Japan and airlifting supplies to a blockaded Berlin, transforming its image in the eyes of the world.

Brown Eyes from Russell Street

book cover and back of book with author photo

By Héctor Muñoz-Guzmán
Sming Sming Books, 146 pages, $36

“I make art to keep peace within myself and to have connection to my family,” Héctor Muñoz-Guzmán said in an interview earlier this year. “It’s what keeps me grounded.”

The artist’s first book launched at the San Francisco Art Book Fair on July 15, where he also gave a talk. Muñoz-Guzmán will again talk about the book at the Latinx Research Center at UC Berkeley at 5 p.m. on Oct. 14. Muñoz-Guzmán recently completed a seven-panel canvas mural commissioned by the city’s Civic Arts Commission that’s a tribute to South Berkeley. He now lives in Oakland.

Brown Eyes, whose title references where he grew up, traces Muñoz-Guzmán’s artistic practice during a transformative and critical period in his life when he struggled with isolation, mental health, hospitalization and alcoholism. Presented in a non-chronological format, the book groups together themes and time periods in his work, capturing a range of experiences: growing up in South Berkeley, attending the Rhode Island School of Design for a year, being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and working in the agave fields of Tepatitlan, his family’s ancestral home in Mexico.

Muñoz-Guzmán draws his inspiration from the resilience of his family, from Mexican political icons like Emiliano Zapata and artists like Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco, and from the street murals and graffiti of the East Bay. His work favors bright color and portraiture and often has political undertones. 

Initially, his work depicted a lot of violence until he realized he was perpetuating negative stereotypes. Now his goal is to “put Mexican people on the highest pedestal to help change the narrative of perception,” he said. “We are more than just our suffering.”

Moving the Needle: What Tight Labor Markets Do for the Poor

Book cover in the form of a help wanted ad torn from a newspaper

By Katherine S. Newman and Elisabeth S. Jacobs
University of California Press, 376 pages, $30

In June, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unemployment rate has been holding steady at around 3.6%. And that’s good news for workers, according to the authors of this new book. They contend that very low unemployment boosts wages at the bottom, lengthens job ladders and pulls the unemployed into a booming job market. 

The authors share an expertise in worker-related issues. Berkeley resident Katherine S. Newman is provost and executive vice president of academic affairs at UC Berkeley and the author of 14 books on topics that include the working poor and social mobility. Elisabeth S. Jacobs is a senior fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. and cofounder of WorkRise, a research-to-action network on jobs, workers and mobility, where she serves as deputy director. 

Their research draws on more than 70 years of quantitative data and interviews with employers, job seekers and longtime residents of low-income neighborhoods. 

In addition to investigating the positive consequences of tight labor markets, they also consider the downside of “overheated economies that can ignite surging rents and spur outmigration.” So they are calling for governmental policies that will maintain those low unemployment rates and prepare for any slowdowns that may lie ahead.

The Making of American Buddhism

book cover with the US capitol overlapping with a pagoda'd building

By Scott A. Mitchell 
Oxford University Press, 233 pages, $30

According to this new book, there were 3 million to 4 million Buddhists in America as of 2010, and now are likely more. Author Scott A. Mitchell seeks to explain how that happened. 

Though the Bay Area has long been a hotbed of American Buddhism, beginning with the arrival of Chinese and Japanese immigrants in the 19th century, popularized by Beat generation writers like Kerouac and institutions like the San Francisco Zen Center and Spirit Rock in Woodacre in the 20th century, Mitchell focuses on the community he is most familiar with: the Institute of Buddhist Studies, which in the 1960s became the study center for the Berkeley Buddhist Temple, established in 1911. Mitchell is the institute’s dean of students and faculty affairs and holds its Yoshitake Tamai Professional Chair.

The book explores the intersection of race and religion in the United States before, during and after World War II, “when Nisei Buddhists reacted to the trauma of racial and religious discrimination by laying claim to an American identity inclusive of their religious identity,” Mitchell writes. 

Though he admits that some readers might suspect his position doesn’t provide him with distance from his subject matter, he insists that it gave him access to people, archives and histories not available to the general public. That’s clear in his focus. Mitchell’s primary source is the Berkeley Bussei, a temple-supported magazine published from 1939 to 1960, where Nisei Buuddhists “argued that Buddhism was both what made them good Americans and what they had to contribute to America, a rational and scientific religion of peace.” 

Turning Words: Transformative Encounters with Buddhist Teachers

book cover with subtle pattern on letters that alludes to stitching

By Hozan Alan Senauke
Shambhala Publications, 152 pages, $19

Hozan Alan Senauke, the abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center since 2021, has had a nearly 40-year practice in Zen Buddhism and “engaged Buddhism,” an activist Buddhism that engages with social and political issues. Senauke founded the Berkeley-based Clear View Project, a nonprofit supporting humanitarian projects in Asia, most recently by aiding the cause of the Burmese people against the repression of a military junta. He has also served on the board of the Nevada Desert Experience, which protests nuclear testing. 

Given his long history in Buddhism, Senauke has met many of the world’s most prominent teachers and influential leaders and shares what he’s learned from them in a new book. Turning Words relays more than 30 encounters he’s had with Buddhist luminaries who include the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Joan Halifax and Joanna Macy. The vignettes touch on topics such as meditation, insight, social action, race and family matters and offer lessons from the masters, like how to take one’s work seriously without taking oneself seriously. 

Nondual Love: Awakening to the Loving Nature of Reality

Book cover set against abstract, yellow, almost astral background

By A.H. Almaas
Shambhala Publications, 248 pages, $21.95

Almaas is the pen name for A. Hameed Ali, the creator of the Berkeley-based Diamond Approach, which dubs itself as “a modern-day spiritual approach” that combines ancient spiritual wisdom with modern psychology. Since 1976, the organization has guided students through its Berkeley-based Ridhwan School, which now has a global reach. 

Almaas has written 20 books for Shambhala on spirituality and this one, the second volume in a trilogy on love, is a follow-up to his 2020 book, Love Unveiled. In that book, Almaas explores the idea of spiritual love. 

This volume explores “divine love,” aka nondual or universal love, “when our spiritual nature manifests its unbounded infinity as a shoreless ocean of sweetness, softness, and goodness.” Almaas describes the ways this type of love can be experienced, as well as the obstructions that might hinder it. The main obstacle, he notes, is the belief in a separate self, along with other types of conditioning that “stand in the way of true nature manifesting itself as this expanse of pure selfless love.”

The Sun Walks Down

Book cover that illustrates a close-up washed out view of the sun

By Fiona McFarlane
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352 pages, $28

Fiona McFarlane’s third novel was inspired by a hike she took in her native Australia’s Flinders Ranges, where 19th-century Europeans quickly set up — and then abandoned — settlements that became ruins in the middle of the bush. That landscape and its complicated history become the setting for the novel, which follows the disappearance of a boy named Denny Wallace during a dust storm. The narrative brings together the many characters of an Australian colonial town, from indigenous trackers to railwaymen, cameleers and landowners, along with the various ways they perceived the landscape. 

“From the beginning of European settlement onwards, the story of the white child lost in the bush or the wilderness has been a really important part of our national mythology — often predicated on the idea that the bush itself is sinister in some way,” McFarlane told The Bookseller in December. “I wanted to approach the landscape from multiple points of view because for some people it does feel barren and strange and empty and hostile, but for others it feels full of life.”

MacFarlane garnered international attention with the publication of her first novel in 2013, The Night Guest, which won the International Dylan Thomas Prize. She teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley. 

Tell the Rest

Book cover of a church in a forest

By Lucy Jane Bledsoe
Akashic Books, 320 pages, $29

Bledsoe’s seventh novel tackles conversion therapy, aimed at turning queer folks straight, as practiced by certain evangelical Christian churches. Bledsoe recently told Berkeleyside that she came to this topic “from my complete dismay that people who call themselves Christians are driving some of the most hateful campaigns in this country.” She did not, however, want to tackle that topic by arguing, but by showing how “community and friendship and love do overcome hate.” 

The novel starts with Delia Barnes and Ernest Wrangham meeting as teens at Celebration Camp, a church-supported conversion therapy program. After witnessing a tragedy, they escape in the night to their respective homes. Many years later, circumstances bring them together again and they are forced to grapple with the repercussions of the conversion therapy and the necessity of remaining steadfast in one’s truth. 


Book cover with rough sketches of various famous authors of 20th century such as Nelson Algren, Borges, Dickinson, Bolano, etc.

By Barry Gifford
Seven Stories Press, 169 pages, $17

In “Writers on a Train,” Gypsy Rose Lee squeezes into a seat next to Willa Cather on a trip from Chicago to new York in 1945, then proceeds to tells Cather about her career as a “striptease artist,” her mother’s preference for women and how she doesn’t wear undergarments because “they get in the way.”

That’s one of 19 fantastical vignettes in the book, in which Gifford throws together famous writers and imagines seeing them at their most vulnerable. Though Gifford realizes each is written in play form and can be performed as plays, they are mainly intended to be read as stories. 

In addition to Cather and Lee, Gifford gives us Albert Camus chatting with a young prostitute while staring at himself in the mirror of a New York City hotel room; André Gide and Georges Simenon discussing their wildly different approaches to narrative; and Marcel Proust imploring the angel of death as a delirious Arthur Rimbaud lies dying in a hospital bed. 

In an author’s note, Gifford admits taking lots of liberties with “what in several cases has passed for biographical information,” but insists that “the facts are to be found in what they wrote.”

Gifford’s written more than 40 works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, including Roy’s World: Stories 1973-2020. He’s probably best known for the 1989 novel Wild at Heart, which became a Palme d’Or-winning film.

"*" indicates required fields

See an error that needs correcting? Have a tip, question or suggestion? Drop us a line.

Joanne Furio is a longtime journalist and writer of creative nonfiction. Originally from New York, she has been a staff writer, an editor and a freelance magazine writer. More recently, she was a contributing...