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What to Read, Watch, and Listen to This Spring

Here are a few of our favorite books, shows, and films by people from Berkeley

March 21, 2022
Pauli Murray
Pauli Murray of New York shown Dec. 31, 1946, winner of a 1946 Mademoiselle Merit Award for signal achievement in law.

My Name Is Pauli Murray

“How can one person be so pivotal and yet their name is just one that we never learn?” 

The question is posed by Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper, about the late Pauli Murray, LL.M. ’45, a multifaceted activist whose contributions to the Civil Rights Movement have been largely forgotten, until now. Created by the pair that made RBG, Julie Cohen and Betsy West, the new documentary My Name Is Pauli Murray addresses the historical oversight by bringing Murray’s influential life to film. 

Despite the lack of fanfare, Murray led a life of many firsts. In 1940, 15 years before Rosa Parks’s famous refusal to give up her seat on the bus, Murray did the same. Murray also became the first female-presenting Black person to receive a Yale JSD degree and to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. 

Murray’s private life was kept secret even from close friends, but letters and doctor’s correspondences reveal relationships with women, pleas for testosterone, and depression related to gender nonconformity. In death, Murray is considered nonbinary (and sometimes referred to with they/them pronouns), despite never having come out while alive. 

In 2020, the ACLU built on Murray’s ideas to ensure LGBTQ rights be upheld, and their work also influenced thinkers like Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the latter naming Murray as a co-author in her work on Reed v. Reed.

Of course, this brief summary barely scratches the surface of Murray’s rich life; even a 90-minute documentary feels 
too short. 


A man passed out on the sidewalk
In this April 26, 2018, file photo, a man lies on the sidewalk beside a recyclable trash bin in San Francisco.

The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope  in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth

By Sam Quinones

In The Least of Us, author and former Los Angeles Times reporter Sam Quinones introduces readers to the synthetic drug era, in which fentanyl and a new class of methamphetamine have largely eclipsed heroin and cocaine, and the idea of growing narcotic crops like poppies and coca is becoming increasingly quaint. 

Fentanyl in particular has made the drug scene in America far more dangerous, as fatal overdoses have skyrocketed. Methamphetamine, meanwhile, has penetrated communities never before plagued by drug problems and has a tendency to induce psychosis in users. 

Quinones’s reporting points to meth—particularly ultra-potent “P2P” meth created in industrial-scale Mexican laboratories, as opposed to small-batch meth cooked from ephedrine—as a key contributor to the surge in homelessness. 

While sympathetic to those who advocate legalization, Quinones argues the stakes have become too high for that. “Yesteryear’s myths about illegal drugs are coming true, largely due to their prohibition and lack of regulation. One hit of ‘heroin’ has killed many people; so, too, has a line of coke. Meth does turn people mentally ill. Pot sends people to emergency rooms with psychotic episodes.” 

The Least of Us is a natural sequel to Quinones’s earlier Dreamland, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award. That book tracked how the opioid epidemic progressed from doctors’ offices to street dealers as users who became addicted to prescription OxyContin later resorted to black tar heroin for their fix. Many of those addicted are now dying of fentanyl overdoses. 

No Christian, Quinones nevertheless takes his title from the Gospel of Matthew, and his message is at once larger and more humane than any drug war bromides. He sees the current narcotics crisis and everything it has wrought as a symptom of American alienation and loneliness. What’s the antidote? “In a time indeed when drug traffickers act like corporations and corporations like drug traffickers,” Quinones writes, “our best defense, perhaps our only defense, lies in bolstering community.”


Yahya Abdul-Mateen
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II arrives at the premiere of “The Matrix Resurrections” on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021, at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

The Matrix Resurrections 

Starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II ’11

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II takes on the role of Morpheus in the latest installment of the long-running and influential Matrix franchise, The Matrix Resurrections

Abdul-Mateen, who studied architecture and ran track at Berkeley, got his start in acting after working in the San Francisco city planning office and studying drama at Yale. Since then, he has had a meteoric rise, with parts including Black Manta in Aquaman and Bobby Seale in The Trial of the Chicago 7. He is probably best known for his role in the TV series Watchmen, which won him an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie. Wired recently called Abdul-Mateen “the future of Hollywood.” 

Speaking with Entertainment Weekly, Abdul-Mateen insisted he is not attempting to replace actor Laurence Fishburne’s iconic performances as Morpheus but is undertaking “a different iteration of the character.” 

“This Morpheus is on a journey of self-discovery, and there is transition in his own identity,” the actor told USA Today. “This is a chance for him to be sort of rebirthed in a new body and consciousness. That’s part of the complexities of who he is and who he’s growing to be.”

 The Matrix Resurrections was released December 22 in theaters and for a limited time on HBO Max.


Ancient calendar

The Week: A History of the Unnatural Rhythms That Made Us Who We Are

By David M. Henkin, M.A. ’92, Ph.D. ’95

Like “smallpox, firearms, or pigs,” Western nations transplanted the seven-day week to places it never existed. That’s the assertion of David M. Henkin, Margaret Byrne Professor of History at Berkeley, in his new book, The Week. Unlike any other marker of time, the week stands “outside of nature,” Henkin reminds us. It has nothing to do with Earth’s orbit or shifting seasons. It’s purely a social institution, rooted in ancient religious practices: the Jewish Sabbath and the Roman astrological week. And it was America, he writes, that made the week into “a calendar for scheduling and coordinating.” 

Henkin hasn’t written an invective against the modern workweek; rather, it’s a continuation of his scholarly fascination with the living habits of early Americans and follows previous books on urban reading and the postal service. If The Week feels especially timely, that’s probably because of where we stand in time, amid a pandemic that continues to muddle our rhythms. Henkin acknowledges this, as well as the ways remote work threatens to erode the boundaries of the weekend. He also challenges the notion that the seven-day week is on its way out. To the contrary, America’s responses to the shutdown “paradoxically reaffirm just how far we are from the end of the regime of the week.” 


Gordo book cover


By Jaime Cortez, MFA ’06

“Steinbeck might not be the No. 1 literary pride of Watsonville for long,” says NPR’s Michael Schaub, by way of paying a compliment to author Jaime Cortez, whose debut collection of short stories has garnered widespread critical acclaim. (NB: Steinbeck was actually from Salinas, but Watsonville was the model for the setting of In Dubious Battle.) Gordo follows the eponymous and partly autobiographical protagonist as he grows up in the dusty farm worker camps and farm towns of Pajaro Valley in the 1970s. The collection opens with a story about a girl who manages to buy two donuts for 20 cents then shares tiny morsels with the other kids, but only in exchange for obedience. The kids dream of the donut, but also resent the power she holds over them. Throughout, Cortez delicately weaves joy and humor into his gritty tales as Gordo watches drunken brawls, learns about sex, struggles with his sexuality, and discovers what it means to be documented versus undocumented. Who, he asks, belongs to America?


Broken Record

Co-hosted by Justin Richmond ’12, M.J. ’15

If you were watching VH1 in the ’90s, you’ll remember the show Behind the Music, which followed musicians’ triumphs and struggles on their way to chart-topping glory. Often, the stories behind the music were better than the music itself. Broken Record, a podcast produced and co-hosted by Justin Richmond, is like Behind the Music’s less salacious, fanboy cousin. The creators describe the show this way: “For generations of music lovers, the liner notes on albums were a central part of the way music was heard. You bought an album and it came with an accompanying narrative: a digression, an aside, a backstory—maybe even an invented history.” In the digital age, there are no liner notes, so Broken Record is an attempt to remedy that and keep the stories flowing. The show, which thrives on candid conversations, has made it a point to include artists from across the spectrum, including punk rocker Henry Rollins, Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast, and Eminem, who sat down for its pilot episode in 2017. Richmond’s co-hosting cast is stacked with industry titans: Rick Rubin, the co-founder of Def Jam Recordings; Malcolm Gladwell, the New Yorker golden boy and best-selling author; and former New York Times editor Bruce Headlam. If they’re lucky, they’re treated to mini performances from the artists during their interviews. The music industry surely has enough stories to fill a Library of Babel, so we won’t have to worry about any broken records here. 

—Laura Smith

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