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A Berkeley Reading List for the Holidays (or Anytime)

December 14, 2020

There’s no better time than these chilly months to ensconce ourselves in comfy furniture with a book. After the year we’ve had, some quality time with a brilliant read is just what the doctor ordered. No matter what your genre of choice is, this list will hopefully introduce you to the book(s) that keeps you company during a holiday season unlike any other. Happy reading, and happy holidays from the Cal Alumni Association!

Girls Garage: How to Use Any Tool, Tackle Any Project, and Build the World You Want to See by Emily Pilloton ’03

Cover of Girls Garage by Emily PillotonEmily Pilloton ’03 has changed communities through her construction projects and creative approach to educating youth. Her work includes building tiny homes for homeless people and shipping container classrooms with high school students; a school library designed by eighth-grade students; and a playhouse with the daughters of abused women. Pilloton earned her B.A. in architecture from Cal and is a lecturer in the College of Environmental Design. In 2013, she founded Girls Garage, a nonprofit based in Berkeley that provides a supportive space for girls between the ages of 9 and 18 to pursue their interests in building. Girls Garage offers classes and workshops in architecture, carpentry, woodworking, engineering, graphic design, and welding. Read further about Pilloton and her work building a more diverse and welcoming world.

Girls Garage: How to Use Any Tool, Tackle Any Project, and Build the World You Want to See contains more than 175 illustrated tool guides, 11 do-it-yourself building projects, and 15 stories from female builders—all to make the world of STEM more accessible to girls. In an interview with Family Handyman, Pilloton spoke of her vision for Girls Garage: “Tools for many [women] are a metaphor for power, … voice and … for how we see ourselves in the world. I wanted the book to embody the technical aspects of building, and then also this more nebulous—but just as powerful—emotional feeling that … women feel through the act of building.”

Parachutes by Kelly Yang ’02

Cover of Parachutes by Kelly YangKelly Yang ’02 is an award-winning author whose debut book, Front Desk, won the 2019 Asian/Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature. Remarkably, she attended Berkeley at the age of 13, majoring in political science, and proceeded to Harvard Law School at age 17. It was not until after Yang earned her J.D. that she realized what her true calling is—writing.

Parachutes is Yang’s first young adult novel, and it deals with classism, racism, and sexual assault through the lens of two 17-year-old girls of color from different social classes. Inspired by her own experiences as a first-generation immigrant and woman of color, the book tackles explorations of identity and female empowerment. Some of the salient questions it poses, Yang tells Publishers Weekly, include: “What happens when people deem your voice to be too loud? What does it mean to be penalized for speaking out?” “I enjoy writing characters who find how much we have in common as women—the amazing extent to which we can band together and speak out.” For younger readers, Yang’s latest novel, Three Keys, is a sequel to Front Desk and shares a compelling message about immigration and discrimination.

Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang ’10

Cover of Days of Distraction by Alexandra ChangDays of Distraction is a debut novel about a young Asian American woman trying to feel acknowledged and find a sense of belonging in various aspects of her life. Written in fragments, it speaks to the narrator’s struggles coping with a society that underestimates and misunderstands her. “For me growing up, I was in predominantly white spaces—and this is reflected in the book in certain places—that I did sometimes have this desire to fit in or to be accepted in white society. As I got older, I started to realize that chasing assimilation was not actually the way I wanted to live. Also, racism against Asian Americans is not something that exists outside of racism against all marginalized people,” says Alexandra Chang ’10 in an interview from earlier this year. “It’s strange and sad to think that my book might be more ‘relevant’ now because of the increasing visibility of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia. The book takes place in 2012 and 2013, and a lot of it is about the ways in which the narrator experiences and navigates veiled forms of racism—microaggressions from supposedly well-intentioned people, lack of visibility, lack of access to opportunities, an overarching feeling of loneliness.”

It’s Not All Downhill From Here by Terry McMillan ’77

Cover of It’s Not All Downhill From Here by Terry McMillanTerry McMillan ’77 writes empowering fiction about relatable Black women and their experiences of aging, loss, and love. Her latest novel, It’s Not All Downhill From Here, follows 68-year-old, successful businesswoman Loretha and her friend group. When we meet her, she is coping with the sudden death of her third husband while trying to move forward with her life.

How does McMillan respond to those who label her work “chick lit”? “I tell stories the way I want to tell stories,” she tells NPR. “I have watched women over the years—my mother, my aunts, my friends and teenage girls—and all the stuff that we go through. Our lives are hard. We have to manipulate and second-guess folks, and we still want to be happy, and be sexual beings, and smart and educated. We’re not chicks. We’re women and girls.”

The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family by Bettye Kearse ’65

Cover of The Other Madisons by Bettye KearseIn writing her memoir, The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family, Bettye Kearse ’65 took on the responsibility of keeping her family history alive. Growing up, she was always reminded of her troubling, unwritten origin story—she was descended from President James Madison and his slave. So, she set out to confront the brutality in her family narrative.

Kearse shared the significance of her memoir with California magazine: “In recounting the struggles, perseverance, and contributions of eight generations of my family, The Other Madisons illustrates that slaves possessed hope and inner strength, by which they survived, and talents, by which they contributed enormously to America. Then they passed down those same qualities to their descendants. My life’s purpose, hopefully fulfilled through this book, is to inspire those descendants, especially our children, to believe in themselves by embracing their slave ancestry and nurturing their own hopes, inner strength, and talents so they, too, can contribute enormously to America.”

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu ’97

Cover of Interior Chinatown by Charles YuCharles Yu ’97 innovatively examines and deconstructs tropes pertaining to Asian Americans in the book Interior Chinatown, winner of the 2020 National Book Award for fiction. More screenplay than novel, the work follows William Wu, or “Generic Asian Man,” who lives in a single-room occupancy building in Chinatown and works in the Golden Palace restaurant, the location for a procedural cop show. Reality and fiction fade into one another as he struggles to burst through stereotypical social roles. Interior Chinatown is a provocative read with its commentary on race, popular culture, assimilation, role-playing, and Asian experiences in America. “It exists in a mental space,” Yu tells the Los Angeles Times, “a kind of collective imagination for Asian Americans who grew up in my generation, feeling like you don’t exist fully inside of America. The closest analogy I could come to is something like a cartoon, where the rules of physics or logic don’t always apply and you can walk from one room to another plane of existence.”

The Yellow House by Sarah Monique Broom, M.A. ’04

Cover of The Yellow House by Sarah Monique BroomIn her debut book, The Yellow House, Berkeley Journalism alumna Sarah Monique Broom, M.A. ’04 writes about New Orleans East as someone who spent her youth in the mostly Black, working-class suburb. It opens with engaging descriptions of Broom’s family—her grandmother, parents, and 11 older siblings. She then relives her roller coaster of a childhood residing in a decrepit yet charming yellow house.

The destruction brought by Hurricane Katrina also takes center stage in the memoir, which leads her to ruminate on the concepts of home and belonging. What does it mean to be attached to a physical place? What defines “home”? These are among the questions Broom delves into as she reflects on her past and compares her family’s hardships with current social issues.

The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton ’09

Cover of The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson SextonThe Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton ’09 connects women of different races and generations in a family tree by going back and forth between 2017, 1924, and 1855. The novel first introduces Ava, a bi-racial, single mother who moves in with Martha, her white grandmother. With Martha’s help, Ava comes to terms with the story of her great-great-grandmother, Josephine, an escaped slave, landowner, and matriarch. Her storyline is intercut with Josephine’s storyline to convey how generations have changed (or haven’t) over the years.

Who are the “revisioners”? “1924 [is] when we meet [Josephine],” Sexton tells NPR, “… [and] she’s consistently flashing back to her time as an enslaved little girl when she and her family are planning this escape. And the community that’s planning this escape in 1855 is a group called the revisioners. … And they perform these very supernatural, spiritual rituals where they’re attempting to get themselves out of slavery…through the power of their minds and their imaginations… And that tradition carries her into the rest of her life.”

From Kraków to Berkeley: Coming Out of Hiding by Anna Rabkin ’74, M.A. ’77

Cover of From Kraków to Berkeley by Anna RabkinFrom Kraków to Berkeley: Coming Out of Hiding by Anna Rabkin ’74, M.A. ’77 explores how historical events such as the Holocaust, the Free Speech Movement, and the women’s movement have shaped Rabkin’s personal journey. The memoirist writes of her traumatic childhood and how love enabled her to use her voice. She was six years old when her Jewish family fled Communism and Nazism during the Second World War. Smuggled out of the Lvov ghetto, only she and her brother survived, and in 1946, at age 10, the Kindertransport took her to the UK to boarding school. Later, she got married in New York and settled in Berkeley, where served for 15 years as City Auditor.

by Luciné Jamkochian