Looking for a great book? Here’s what Berkeleyans are reading this summer

Summer reading. Photo: Baddogwhiskas/Creative Commons

Ah, summertime. With school out and people on vacation, time slows down — for a brief moment. The interlude is a great time to delve into books and be transported away. How do you find your next book? Reviews? Recommendations from friends? The bestseller list?

Inspired by Politico’s annual feature “What Politicos Are Reading This Summer,”  Berkeleyside decided to do its own version of a summer reading list. We reached out to a mix of people and asked what books are on their nightstands. (or on their Kindle) We got answers from a novelist, a graphic memoirist, a professor and biographer, a publisher, a book critic, and a 10-year-old boy who devours books.

Lucy Bledsoe: ‘I like indie novels’

Lucy Bledsoe is the author of seven books. Her latest novel, The Evolution of Love, is set in Berkeley.

I tend to read quieter or indie kinds of novels, and delight in finding wonderful little-known titles, but this summer I find myself reading lots of bestsellers, maybe because that’s one way to take the pulse of a culture, and I sure am wanting clarification about ours.

I’ve read Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, and Shobha Rao’s Girls Burn Brighter. I admire how the latter author turns an unflinching eye on the extraordinarily painful topic of human trafficking, how she doesn’t spare the reader the details of her two female protagonists’ traumas, and yet doesn’t fetishize their trials (as so often happens in big books purporting to reveal abuse while perpetuating it at the same time), or even reveal them as victims. Instead, the engine moving Rao’s story and characters forward is their love for one another and their courageous quests for freedom.

Don’t miss the recently released Winter Kept Us Warm by Anne Raeff or My Old Faithful by Yang Huang. Both are smart, unique, and gripping reads. Finally, Micah Perk’s True Love and Other Dreams of Miraculous Escape, a collection of stories, is a delight.

Alberto Ledesma: ‘Expertly crafted essays’

Sandra Cisneros. Drawing by Alberto Ledesma created for this Berkeleyside story

Alberto Ledesma, a graduate diversity director at UC Berkeley, is the author of the graphic memoir, Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer, which focuses on his time as an undocumented immigrant student during the early 1980s. He drew the illustration above for this story.

Reading: A House of My Own: Stories from My Life by Sandra Cisneros

As the reader consumes each of the expertly crafted essays in this book, the story of the author’s evolution as an artist emerges. Each piece — most of them previously published as introductory pieces or short articles — chronicles a point in Sandra Cisneros’ pursuit of a geographic, cultural, and spiritual home. Each piece is contextualized by the author, as she explains its significance for the reader and reflects on all that has changed since she originally produced it.

It goes without saying that the essays are beautifully curated, complimented with period photographs that bring the subjects of each piece alive in black and white textures. In all, the book offers a highly satisfying glimpse into Cisneros’ life as an artist and answers many of the questions those of us who know and admire her work have had about the genesis of this Macartura. Similar to Eduardo Galeano’s entries in Memory of Fire, the pieces in this book are brief enough to be read in spurts, ideal for airplane reading.

Highly recommended!

Ismail Muhammad: In a reading whirlwind

Ismail Muhammad, a writer, is a Ph.D. candidate in English at UC Berkeley, a staff writer for The Millions, a contributing editor to ZZYZZYVA, and a board member at the National Book Critics Circle.

This summer has been a reading whirlwind for me. I’m serving my first year as a board member of the National Book Critics Circle, so between awards considerations, my doctoral studies, and teaching, I’m reading at a volume that I’ve never encountered before. But I consider myself lucky — there’s an extraordinary amount of impressive fiction, nonfiction, and poetry dropping this summer, much of it emanating from right here in the Bay Area.

In terms of poetry, Berkeley poets Jane Gregory and Claire Marie Stancek have entranced me with their new collections, Yeah No and Oil Spell. These books are smart, funny, and shocking formal experiments that test language’s capabilities to capture human experience’s texture. There’s little sense to be found in either collection. They regard language as a set of aural possibilities, and ask what might happen if we free language from the need to reason. In this sense, Gregory and Stancek’s books are political in the broadest way possible: they ask us to trade reason (or what passes for it) for the alternatives that lie hidden in poetry. Simone White’s hybrid essay and poetry collection Dear Angel of Death has also been a highlight; it’s a skilled and challenging foray into the question of what constitutes “blackness.” Finally, I’ve really enjoyed Terrence Hayes’ latest collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.

There’s been so much incredible fiction released this year—especially for books by writers of color. My highlights have been Jamel Brinkley’s short story collection A Lucky Man, Nafissa Thompson-Spires Heads of the Colored People, and Natalia Sylvester’s Everyone Knows You Go Home. So many writers from the Bay are publishing novels that have inspired me in a time of political darkness. Vanessa Hua’s River of Stars, Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ The Fruit of the Drunken Tree, and R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries are important explorations of race, identity, immigration, and faith in contemporary America. They take issues we’re only used to thinking about as political and home in on their human dimensions.

Zadie Smith’s Feel Free is an engaging, if flawed, collection of her criticism over the last decade. Smith is an avowed liberal who eschews ideological extremes, and her writing preserves a fondness for close reading and discovery rather than argument. It’s sorely needed in our current political landscape, even if her conclusions ignore the privileged conditions in which their author reached them. Kiese Laymon’s excellent Heavy has also been a highlight. It doesn’t drop until the fall, but I urge everyone to read this affecting memoir about the heaviness of living while black in America. It’s not a didactic book, opting instead for a nuanced exploration of how the trauma that America imposes on black people reverberates through generations.

Scott Saul: Time traveling back to Obama

Scott Saul is a professor of English at UC Berkeley. He is also the author of ‘Becoming Richard Pryor,’ a biography of Pryor who lived in Berkeley for a time.

Since I’ll be teaching a new class this fall on “American Culture in the Age of Obama,” I’ve been using my summer reading to time-travel to that seemingly bygone era — which was not so rosy for many. (The Occupy and #BlackLivesMatter movements will help structure the class.) That said, there’s something bracing about going back to Obama’s four-hundred-page memoir Dreams from My Father, in which the future president works so hard — as if his life depended upon it — to see the world from a multitude of perspectives, whether it be through the eyes of his Indonesian stepfather, embittered by the compromises he’s made, or his Kenyan half-brother, with his too-hearty laugh, or the working-class black woman, his ally in the trenches of Chicago community organizing, who treats herself by wearing blue contact lenses.

I’ve been listening to the (abridged) Dreams from My Father audiobook with my 11-year-old son, and this adds another layer: Obama is an impressive ventriloquist, trying out different accents as he throws his voice into the many characters he summons on the page. He’s happy to cede center stage and model the art of listening, driven by the sense that he’ll never unravel the mystery of his own life unless he awakens himself to the mysteries in theirs.

Other books I’ve been delving into, with pleasure: Leslie Kaplan’s Excess — The Factory (from our local Commune Editions), a late-60s poetic diary of an American-born worker in a French assembly line, which I’m looking to pair with BAMPFA’s upcoming Alain Tanner retrospective; Eugene Lim’s recent Dear Cyborgs, an unruly novel that twists together a Midwestern Asian-American coming-of-age tale with a story of disaffected superheroes hanging out at karaoke bars; and John Keene’s awe-inspiring Counternarratives, a brilliantly inventive re-write of race- and slavery-charged episodes in our national saga.

Steve Wasserman: “I’m in love with Rebecca West”

Steve Wasserman was raised in Berkeley and is a graduate of UC Berkeley. He is the publisher and executive director of Heyday, a publisher in Berkeley. He is a former editor-at-large for Yale University Press and editorial director of Times Books/Random House and publisher of Hill & Wang and The Noonday Press at Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

“For well over 30 years, Rebecca West’s 1,200-page Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, about the distempers of the Balkans, an Everest of 20th-century literature and reportage, has stood on my bookshelves, rebuking me for having never fully scaled its heights. I’d read in it but never through it. Acclaimed as a masterpiece when first published in two volumes in 1941, the result of several visits to Yugoslavia in the mid-1930s, it has endured down the decades. Perversely, I took the occasion of a recent stay in an island off the coast of Honduras while my wife and family and friends went scuba diving to celebrate her birthday, to hole up beneath the cabana on the beach and tackle the great book. What a revelation! And what a page-turner! I’m in love with Rebecca West. She’s every bit as good as George Orwell. I’m in awe of her erudition, her surpassing intelligence, the way she seamlessly braids together unrivaled descriptions of places and people, her mastery of the English sentence, her allergy to cliché, her acute and ardent understanding of the human condition. Her one-time lover, H.G. Wells, with whom she had an out-of-wedlock child, during a tempestuous ten-year relationship, once said of her that she possessed a “seriously disturbed brain” and “wrote like God.” I’m sure he was wrong about the former but he was right about the latter. Highly recommended for anyone seeking insight into the many ways history inflames the brain of the living as fever-dream, shaping the crooked timber of our species.”

Eli Leichter Wilson: Survival-and-revenge story

Eli Leichter Wilson, 10, will soon enter fifth grade at Prospect Sierra. He has been working at Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore this summer and is the founder, writer, and editor of ‘The Elmwood Times,’ a newsletter he circulates among his neighbors.

This summer I’ve been reading some advance review copies (books that haven’t been published yet) provided by my favorite local bookstore, Mrs. Dalloway’s. I recently finished Kate Marshall’s very first novel, I Am Still Alive, an absorbing and suspenseful survival-and-revenge story set in the Canadian wilderness. It’s told in a “before” and “after” structure. The “after” begins in the forest, with a 12-year-old girl named Jess standing in the ashes of a burned cabin. The “before” begins on a tarmac in Alaska about a month earlier. The viewpoints alternate until one story catches up to the other, and we get a thrilling finale. It will be released in July, and I totally recommend it. I also just finished Nevertheless We Persisted, which is a collection of 48 first-person essays about the struggles and challenges the authors faced. From 96-year-old Holocaust survivor Fanny Starr, to 12-year-old boxer Jesselyn Silva, this book offers a wide variety of stories, describing victories as well as losses. It features a forward by Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. It is scheduled to be released in September 2018.