It’s summertime. Dig into these books with a Berkeley connection

Read a novel about an Irish-American clan or a memoir about growing up on a kibbutz, discover who “America’s Sherlock Holmes” was and his Berkeley connection, or savor a graphic novel to learn how to fix our democracy.

“Emily Reading at Wagner Falls” by CaptPiper is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

As lock-down loosens, Berkeley residents might relish the opportunity for some reading al fresco. The Berkeley Public Library is once again allowing patrons to put holds on books. Many bookstores have reopened. Here are a handful of recent books by East Bay authors that offer the chance to escape reality or explore it while soaking up some summer sunshine.

The Good Family Fitzgerald
By Joseph di Prisco
Rare Bird Books; 480 pages; $20

Joseph di Prisco’s new novel, The Good Family Fitzgerald, is a sprawling saga of an Irish-American clan, a richly comedic drama with indelible characters, told with biting wit.

Padraic “Paddy” Fitzgerald, an aging businessman and patriarch, is used to trouble – from the cops, from rival organizations, from his mistress, from his four kids. One son happens to be a priest with a secret, while another boy is a high school teacher, also keeping secrets. A third son was a straight-and-narrow attorney until he died unexpectedly. The sole female child experiments with various public relations jobs, until she finds her true calling, opening an independent bookstore with Padraic’s girlfriend.

The author of the novel The Alzhammer, the memoir The Pope of Brooklyn, various collections of poetry and many other works, di Prisco is well-steeped in the language and customs of well-heeled immigrant families on both sides of the law. His Fitzgeralds are by turns hot-headed and enigmatic, bursting with vitality or keeping their thoughts to themselves. The plot is episodic but compelling, and the dialogue clever without becoming cutesy.

The Great Family Fitzgerald is a book worth sinking into, well-suited for relaxing in a hammock on a lazy afternoon.

Equality Girls and the Purple Reflecto-Ray
By Aya de Leon
Published by the author; 90 pages; $7.99

Thriller novelist Aya de Leon both writes and illustrates the new middle-grade children’s book, Equality Girl and the Purple Reflecto-Ray.

Silly but with a serious side, the chapter book illuminates the struggle for better treatment of girls and young women who are put down by boys.

A combination of grape chewing gum, a clumsy dog and an errant laser beam gives Daniela the power to force obnoxious boys into the cliched gender roles they fear most. When the purple rays start shooting out of Daniela’s eyes, boys start giggling and wanting to wear makeup.

Daniela and her friends work for social justice, zapping the unenlightened until they see the light. When the President comes to town to judge a tween beauty contest, it’s the perfect opportunity to challenge the status quo.

De Leon is also the author of the Justice Hustlers crime novels. The latest, Side Chick Nation, spotlights a sex worker’s fight for safety and respect and highlights the ongoing crisis in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. Although a wild ride for adult readers, the series is decidedly not suitable for kids.

Berkeley Noir
Edited by Jerry Thompson and Owen Hill
Akashic Books; 250 pages; $15.95

Berkeley Noir delves into the dark side of the city, offering 16 crime stories illuminating fraud, murder and revenge. Edited by Jerry Thompson and Owen Hill, the volume includes contributions by Barry Gifford, Lucy Jane Bledsoe, Susan Dunlap, Jim Nisbet and others. Stories are set in the Gourmet Ghetto, at Indian Rock, near the North Berkeley BART Station and at other easily recognized locales.

This series of anthologies has been published since 2004, inaugurated with Brooklyn Noir. Anyone who enjoys seeing a familiar setting from a new perspective will appreciate the gems in this edition.

Nick Mamatas adds a dash of the occult to “Every Man and Every Woman Is a Star,” his tale of chaos magic and the Hayward Fault. Susan Dunlap’s “The Law of Local Karma” follows two cops as they drive two witnesses away from a crime scene on Vine Street.  Thomas Burchfield enjoys a “Lucky Day” at the Main Branch of the Berkeley Library, where silence doesn’t reign.

The heart of Berkeley may be located differently for each reader, but it is there for those who seek it. Thompson and Hill write, “The search for an authentic and eclectic voice, and the search for home, become the most important ingredients of this journey.”

Berkeley Noir is a well-curated modern mix of pulpy fiction, a strong pick for long-time Bay Area residents and newcomers alike.

Growing Up Below Sea Level:  A Kibbutz Childhood
By Rachel Biale
Mandel Vilar Press; 238 pages; $19.95

Social worker and parenting counselor Rachel Biale recounts her parents’ escape from Prague to Palestine in the 1940s and 1950s, as well as vignettes of life in a kibbutz in Growing up Below Sea Level.

Rachel Biale was born in 1952 and raised on Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin, by the Jordan River. After serving in the Israel Defense Forces, she came to the United States in 1973, earning degrees in Jewish history from UCLA and a master’s in social work from Yeshiva University.

In her new book, Biale recounts her parents’ arduous journey to the Middle East, traveling by boat from Bratyslava to the island Mauritius, before eventually being released in 1945.

Biale then recounts her memories of life in a kibbutz, where children as young as six worked and played unsupervised for most of the day. The early chapters are short and direct, remembrances of pranks, squabbles and pastimes dangerous in hindsight. As she grows up, Biale takes on more responsibility, eventually commanding a unit of 20 female soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces

Biale conveys a strong sense of what it means to live communally. Growing up Below Sea Level is an engrossing, real-life coming-of-age story, of potential interest to historians, kibbutzim and general readers alike.

Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy
Written by Daniel G. Newman and illustrated by George O’Connor
World Citizen Comics; 288 pages; $28.99

When it’s time to explore the crisis in governance the United States currently faces, the first source you might pick up probably would not be a comic book. But if you want a comprehensible blueprint of how to rebuild faith in American democracy, you could do a lot worse than opening the engaging and passionate non-fiction graphic novel Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy.

Unrig is the work of Daniel G. Newman, president and co-founder of MapLight, a non-partisan research organization based in downtown Berkeley. MapLight investigates the connections between money and politics, empowering voters with the information they need to maintain their rights. George O’Connor, creator of The Olympians series of graphic novels, supplies the art, bringing wit and energy to what could have been a dreary subject.

A cartoon version of Newman serves as the tour guide, delivering a pointed account of the many ways things can go awry on the way to the ballot box and back. He devotes chapters on what it takes to run for Congress, how “Democracy Vouchers” work, what lobbyists actually do, and where the dark money comes from.

One extra-long section details the machinations of the Koch brothers, peddling their influence across America to colleges and universities. The history of gerrymandering is explained. It’s a large amount of verbiage of which to keep track, but O’Connor manages to keep the words and pictures in balance.

By the end of Unrig, the reader will be aware of the tools that can make the system fairer. Newman has found a unique medium for his arguments. Now, the rest is up to his readers.

American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics and the Birth of American CSI
By Kate Winkler Dawson
G.P. Putnam’s Sons; 334 pages; $27

August Vollmer, Berkeley’s first police chief, is well-known for the innovations he brought to policing. Edward Oscar Heinrich, who set up one of the nation’s first crime labs in Berkeley in the 1920s, is not famous, even though his contribution to solving crimes has been more lasting. That may change with the publication of Kate Winkler Dawson’s book about Heinrich, which she wrote after digging through boxes at the Bancroft Library. Heinrich was not nicknamed “American Sherlock” for nothing.

Heinrich revolutionized forensics by applying scientific techniques to studying bloodstains, footprints, bullet markings, crime scene evidence and fingerprinting. He also applied deductive reasoning to his work and solved 2,000 cases during his 40-year career. Dawson, a former field producer for Fox News in San Francisco who teaches broadcast journalism at the University of Texas at Austin tells his story through specific cases he tackled. One compelling tale took place in 1925 when baffled police come to Heinrich with a severed ear. Heinrich found a single grain of sand in the ear. He analyzed that and told police it came from an area about 12 miles away from where the ear was discovered. Police were skeptical that Heinrich could be so precise, but they went out to dig, and sure enough, Dawson writes, they found the body.

Prison Truth: The Story of the San Quentin News
By William J. Drummond
University of California Press; 344 pages; $26.95

UC Berkeley Journalism Professor William J. Drummond wrote about San Quentin Prison when he was a reporter at the Los Angeles Times in the 1960s and 1970s. Decades later, in 2012, he returned, this time to teach a 15-week introductory journalism course. Prison Truth recounts how various inmates revived the paper in 2008 after it had been shuttered for 20 years and the impact some of the stories had, not only on the institution but on the prisoners themselves. The paper’s articles humanized those locked up inside and portrayed them as complex human beings, not just criminals. “The San Quentin News took a different path, one that emphasized healing, reconciliation and personal responsibility,” writes Drummond. Prison Truth is also a story of Drummond’s experience as a pioneering, prominent Black journalist and the role of race and public policy in our society.

Shrug
By Lisa Braver Moss
She Writes Press; 282 pages; $16.95

In her award-winning novel, Shrug, Lisa Braver Moss recaptures the revolutionary mood in Berkeley during the Sixties, when Beatlemania and the Free Speech Movement left the town rocking. Told from the perspective of Martha Goldenthal, a teen dealing with domestic abuse and an embarrassing muscular tic, the book explores the connections between art and independence.

Martha’s father runs a classical record shop at the corner of Bancroft and Telegraph. Martha’s mother stays home and wants her children to live by her ever-shifting set of demands. With her older sister Hildy and her younger brother Drew, Martha has to be ready to protect the family from her father’s often violent temper and her mother’s vicious mind games. She also needs to nurture her own dreams of attending college.

Attuned to its teenage audience, “Shrug” is carefully observed, poignant and insightful. The novel is sufficiently sophisticated for adult readers as well, especially those who want a glimpse of a Berkeley from another time, when Cody’s, Cafe Med and Moe’s ruled Telegraph Avenue and enlightened parents openly recommended marijuana use.

Often funny and frequently harrowing, Shrug speaks to the universal need for connection and the urge to separate from one’s family.

I’m Still Here: A Memoir
By Martina Reaves
She Writes Press; 264 pages; $16.95

In her new memoir, I’m Still Here, Berkeley author Martina Reaves recounts her experiences as a young professional and teacher in the Bay Area of the 1970s and as a mother and cancer patient in Berkeley in the late 1980s. The non-linear chapters bounce from Ukiah to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands to hospitals at Stanford and in Oakland, following her career as a teacher, attorney and family mediator.

Many chapters focus on Reaves’ marriage to a cable car driver/Episcopal priest, her gradual realization that she is attracted to women, and her eventual marriage, as she settles down with her former boss, an attorney named Tanya.

I’m Still Here is a love story from a time when there were few handbooks about lesbian parenting. Reaves’ depiction of her life with Tanya and their son Cooper feels honest but forgiving, a portrait of a modern family struggling with matters minute or enormous.

Much of the narrative is concerned with Reaves’ two bouts with cancer – a lymphoma in her chest and a tumor on her tongue – the second of which was diagnosed as terminal. She experiments with mainstream and alternative treatments, losing and finding hope and eventually achieving healing and acceptance.

Reaves writes gracefully and captures the warmth and compassion of her family. Subtly crafted and often funny, I’m Still Here embraces the positivity of its title, while recognizing the hard work, pain and tears that went into her healing process.

Don’t miss these other Berkeleyside stories about other authors with new books. They include Adam Hochschild, Melanie Abrams, Wendy Lesser, Bonni Tsui, Phyllis Grant, Johanna Silver, Emily Pilliton and E. Kay Trimburger.

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