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What to Read, Watch, and Listen to This Summer

Here are a few of our favorite books, shows, and more, all by people from Berkeley.

May 31, 2024
by California magazine editors
HBO

The Sympathizer

Newcomer Hoa Xuande stars in this television miniseries adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize–winning 2015 novel of the same title by Cal alum Viet Thanh Nguyen ’92, Ph.D. ’97. The Sympathizer tells the story of “The Captain,” a half-French, half-Vietnamese double agent in what the Vietnamese call the American War. As in the book, the action leaps back and forth both chronologically and geographically, between Saigon, before and after it fell to the North, and post- war Los Angeles. The war gets the Hollywood treatment in episode four, which features a cameo by Cal alum John Cho ’96, who plays an all-purpose Asian actor—Chinese, Japanese, Korean, whatever a script calls for. On set, The Captain serves as cultural consultant to the production of The Hamlet, an obvious send-up of Apocalypse Now. Director Park Chan-wook makes a daring choice in casting actor Robert Downey Jr. in four roles, including CIA agent, Orientalist professor, right-wing politicia, and movie director, the latter modeled after Francis Ford Coppola. The effect is a darkly comic commentary on the war and its aftermath—Dr. Strangelove meets The Quiet American—but from a decidedly Vietnamese perspective.

—Pat Joseph

ASSOCIATED PRESS/RAINMAKER PHOTOS/MEDIAPUNCH/IPX

Third Millennium Thinking: Creating Sense in a World of Nonsense

By Saul Perlmutter, Ph.D. ’86, John Campbell, and Robert MacCoun

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, anyone perusing the comments sections on social media or news sites might have wondered: When did everyone become an epidemiologist? Commenters with no discernible expertise casually dropped terms like “incubation period,” “age-adjusted mortality rate,” and “droplet nuclei” as if they’d cut their professional teeth fighting ebola in 1970s Congo. Citing published papers, these wannabe virologists would declare things like, “Vitamin D cures COVID-19!” or “Masking doesn’t work!” They’d done their own research, however poorly.

The little supercomputers in our pockets give us instant access to thousands of years of human knowledge (and plenty of stupidity besides). How can we possibly make sense of it all?

The answer, according to the authors of Third Millennium Thinking, is science—more specifically, a scientific approach to problem solving. The trio of renowned current and former Cal professors—astrophysicist and Nobel laureate Saul Perlmutter, philosopher John Campbell, and social scientist Robert MacCoun (now at Stanford)—argue that, in the age of “informational overwhelm,” we tend to fall back on unhelpful coping strategies; for example, taking positions on important issues based on social or political affiliation and seeking out only information that confirms rather than challenges our own biases.

ASSOCIATED PRESS/SIPA USA VIAAP

But science, which the authors describe as “a culture of inquiry rooted in the dawn of humankind,” offers tools for making sense of the information maelstrom. These habits of mind, principles, and procedures allow us to separate what we believe from what we know, to see our own blind spots, and to evaluate sources and the quality of information they provide.

Science also teaches us the wisdom of collaboration, something Perlmutter, Campbell, and MacCoun have pulled off with aplomb with their extraordinarily popular co-taught Berkeley course, “Sense and Sensibility and Science.” Meant to teach scientific problem-solving strategies to a broad audience, the course has spawned imitations and served as inspiration for the book.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist, or a scientist at all, to understand or make use of what science has to offer,” they write. We can all benefit from scientific thinking. In fact, they argue, our collective future may depend on it.

—Coby McDonald, M.J. ’17

ASSOCIATED PRESS/SIPA USA VIA AP

2020: One City, Seven People, and the Year that Changed Everything

By Eric Klinenberg, M.A. ’97, Ph.D. ’00

In March 2020, a little over a month into the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, NYU sociology Professor Eric Klinenberg sat down to write. His wi son, and mother-in-law were all showing possible symptoms of the illness, and his anxiety for his family, and American society as a whole, was building. In the resulting essay, published in the New York Times, Klinenberg argued that in addition to social distancing to quell the spread of infection, we needed social solidarity to limit the damage COVID might do.

“We’re politically divided, socially fragmented, skeptical of one another’s basic facts and news sources,” he wrote. If we failed to foster our interdependence, Klinenberg argued, the pain inflicted on America’s most vulnerable would be amplified.

His fears, it turned out, were justified.

Determined to tell the story of how COVID ravaged our divided nation, Klinenberg ventured out into New York City’s five boroughs in search of individual human stories behind the grim statistics. He conducted in-depth interviews with people whose pandemic experiences he felt reflected larger trends in their communities. These are told in his new book, 2020: One City, Seven People, and the Year that Changed Everything.

His subjects include: a Staten Island pub owner; a Brooklyn couple, both essential workers with young children; and a community representative for then-Governor Andrew Cuomo whose job it was to get resources for hospitals in the Bronx, where she grew up. Klinenberg documents their struggles, but also the ways in which they found purpose in the pandemic.

“Societies have a way of revealing themselves during crises,” Klinenberg writes. Only by digging deeper into the personal accounts of impacted Americans, he argues, can we fully understand what the COVID pandemic revealed about us.

—C.M.

Elon Musk’s tweet about his decision to reinstate former U.S. President Donald Trump on Twitter.
SIPA USA VIA AP

Extremely Hardcore: Inside Elon Musk’s Twitter

By Zoë Schiffer ’14

Elon Musk says he did it to save free speech in America. Buy Twitter, that is, at the bargain price of $44 billion. But what happens next is no tech billionaire’s noble quest to protect democracy. As Zoë Schiffer reveals in her new book, Extremely Hardcore, it’s a narcissist’s rampage.

Building on her reporting at the Verge and Platformer, Schiffer takes readers behind the scenes of Twitter’s downfall by getting insider scoops from the people who were there: the platform’s loyal employees, who called themselves tweeps. Though their stories are deeply personal, the stakes, in their view, are societal. Schiffer follows them as they try to mitigate the damage done to the “world’s public square” as Musk initiates chaotic layoffs and targeted firings, rolls back content moderation policies, and prioritizes monetization and speed—and his own personal whims—over all else.

Still, even as Musk has driven away advertisers and users—down by nearly a quarter in the U.S. since the takeover, according to one estimate—he’s attracting new audiences to the platform, which he rechristened X. As Schiffer reports, on May 9, 2023, conservative talk show host Tucker Carlson, freshly canned from Fox News, had an announcement to make: “Amazingly, as of tonight, there aren’t many platforms left that allow free speech,” he said in a video posted to the app. “The last big one remaining in the world, the only one, is Twitter, where we are now.”

And there you have it: Elon Musk is saving free speech. It’s a news headline fit for X itself.

—Esther Oh

On Our Watch: New Folsom

When a former California correctional officer dies of apparent suicide, it initiates a dramatic series of events that raise questions some would prefer left unanswered, such as: Had a culture of employee misconduct become rampant at California State Prison, Sacramento (also known as New Folsom)? Did one inmate’s death result from a random attack or was it an officer-involved hit and cover-up? And were Officer Valentino Rodriguez’s and Sergeant Kevin Steele’s deaths really suicides?

Graphics promoting KQED’s podcast “On Our Watch: New Folsom”
KQED PUBLIC MEDIA

A relief from the deluge of lurid true crime podcasts, KQED’s On Our Watch: New Folsom, produced with support from David Barstow, chair of the Investigative Reporting Program at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, delivers a deeply reported investigation into the real story of two officers-turned-whistleblowers inside California’s most dangerous lockup. The eight-part series, and the podcast’s second season, is an ambitious effort to navigate a maze of missing evidence, dead ends, and tight-lipped witnesses. For more than a year, reporters Sukey Lewis, M.J. ’15, and Julie Small and producer Steven Rascón, M.J. ’22, dug through toxicology reports, reviewed damning text conversations, analyzed violent prison footage, and tracked down sources on both sides of the prison walls. All the detective work has Lewis wondering aloud to a source, “Why are we the ones who are having to ask [these questions]? Why is this investigation not being done by the police?”

Through storytelling that is at once sensitive and unflinching, the journalists bring officers’ and inmates’ lives to bear on questions about the slippery pursuit of justice behind prison walls.

—Leah Worthington

Protesters in Sao Paulo, where Judith Butler gave a lecture on November 7, 2017.
TIAGO QUEIROZ/ESTADAO CONTEUDO (AGENCIA ESTADO VIA AP IMAGES)

Who’s Afraid of Gender?

By Judith Butler

Trailblazing philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler had every intention of writing about something other than gender. But during a 2017 trip to Brazil for a conference on democracy, they came face-to face with a mob of angry protesters who verbally attacked and burned an effigy of Butler in a pink bra and witch hat. Nearly 30 years after publishing their seminal book, Gender Trouble, Butler realized that it was time to revisit the issue and try to understand how a matter of personal identity had become such a lightning rod for the right.

The result is Who’s Afraid of Gender?, a rigorous interrogation of modern antigender movements around the world. For Butler, a distinguished professor in Berkeley’s graduate program of comparative literature, the book was less a labor of love than a necessary public service. “There was no pleasure in the writing,” they told the New Yorker. “I do keep going back to gender, even though I feel so exhausted by it and wanting very much to be liberated from it.” They argue that gender has become a sort of scapegoat for conservatives around the world—from angry Christian nationalists in Taiwan to overzealous censors in Florida schools. Butler calls it a “phantasm” that appeals to fear and distracts from more pressing climate, economic, and geopolitical crises.

At once a work of philosophy and journalism, the book is for anyone who has feelings about gender, which is to say nearly everyone. And the stakes, Butler says, are high. “In the end,” they write, “defeating this phantasm is a matter of affirming how one loves, how one lives in one’s body, the right to exist in the world without fear of violence or discrimination, to breathe, to move, to live.”

—L.W.

The Six Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Wrestlemania

By Brad Balukjian, Ph.D. ’13

Author Brad Balukjian is an unusual character: an entomologist with a doctorate from Berkeley and a journalist with a penchant for tracking down childhood heroes. His first book was called The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife (2020). In it, Balukjian went on a quest to find all the
washed-up ballplayers he found in an old pack of baseball cards. First, he chewed the gum.

Hulk Hogan and Tony Atlas in the ring
© WALLY MCNAMEE/CORBIS/CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES

In this follow-up of sorts, he goes in search of half a dozen of “the boys” of WrestleMania, including the Iron Sheik, Tony Atlas, and Hulk Hogan. Of course, those are just show names, ring personas behind which Balukjian finds real people with real names and real lives in varying states of dignity and disrepair.

“On the road” is no mere jacket copy. Balukjian really does log some miles in these books, crisscrossing the country in his Ford Fusion to report from places as disparate as Elko, Nevada, and Low Moor, Virginia.

If Balukjian’s premises sound a little gimmicky, they are. But the resulting books far exceed whatever low expectations the reader may bring to the projects. Not only is Balukjian a dogged researcher, but he writes in a style that is admirably clear and entertaining. His views on his subjects are smart and also a little sweet. He’s a sympathetic interviewer.

Balukjian does an especially bang-up job capturing the culture of what the wrestling world calls “kayfabe,” a pig Latin-esque play on the word fake. In the carny lingo of the wrestling ring, there are the marks and the workers (gullible fans and in-the-know wrestlers), heels and babyfaces (villains and heroes), works and shoots (fraudulent matches and authentic ones).

A true fan, Balukjian insists pro wrestling itself is not fake, and never was: “loosely scripted, yes; broadly choreographed, sure—but it is not fake.” To a former amateur wrestler like this reviewer, that’s a work, plain and simple. Nevertheless, I admire almost everything about this entertaining and insightful work. I think it may even offer a unique window into the phenomenon of Donald Trump (not only a WWE fan, but a fixture of it) and Trump’s America, where the line between what’s fake and what’s real is not only intentionally blurred, but also largely beside the point, lost in the intoxicating spell of bunko entertainment.

—P.J.

City of Intellect: The Uses and Abuses of the University

By Nicholas B. Dirks

Remember the old joke about why academic politics are so fierce? As the punchline had it, it’s “because the stakes are so low.” While that may (or may not) be true for individual faculty and administrators, the political stakes around the university writ large could hardly be higher.

Nicholas Dirks, Berkeley’s chancellor from 2013 to 2017
UC BERKELEY MEDIA RELATIONS

Nicholas Dirks, Berkeley’s chancellor from 2013 to 2017, knows this as well as anyone. He inherited a university in crisis, after all, one that had been severely defunded by the state and was being asked to tighten its belt in the name of austerity. It would be further tested by on-campus clashes involving right-wing provocateurs and black clad protesters. There were sexual harassment complaints and failing grades on the football and men’s basketball teams. Berkeley was in the news often, and too often for the wrong reasons.

As Cal’s chancellor, Dirks never seemed to catch his stride; he was forever the outsider, an interloper from the Ivies whose term was marred by petty scandal and lack of faculty confidence. As such, one might readily expect his book to be a score-settling exercise or self-serving tell-all.

To his credit, it’s not. It tells some, sure: We get the inside view of a chewing out by then-UC President Janet Napolitano and the farcical efforts of then-Governor Jerry Brown to compel Dirks to give some of his salary back. But the book is mostly high-minded, offering prescriptions for how Berkeley and other universities can salvage what Dirks himself sees as the institution’s original utopian aspirations.

Alas, a reader could be forgiven if, getting to the end, they are unable to say exactly what reforms the author is pushing for. Too much of the critique has an equivocal, “on the one hand this, on the other hand that” quality about it. Which is a shame. One can only wish that the former chancellor, freed from the responsibilities of office, had taken this opportunity to, for lack of a better expression, let rip.

—P.J.


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