Editors’ Picks: What To Read and Watch This Spring

Some of our favorite new books, documentary films, and TV shows, for your entertainment
By Editorial Staff

Our editors have curated a list of entertainment to indulge in this spring. Here are their top picks of web series, books, films, and more, all produced by UC Berkeley faculty and alumni.

Homeroom

Directed by Peter Nicks, M.J. ’99

Your senior year of high school generally follows a well-worn script: prom, social entanglements, and anxieties about the future, culminating in graduation. But 2020 was a year like no other. Peter Nicks’ latest documentary, Homeroom, offers an intimate chronicle of this unprecedented time, following Oakland High School’s Class of 2020. The film begins with the usual triumphs and tragedies of high school life, but quickly the script is upended: The students are isolated at home, with only a cacophony of smartphone alerts to connect them, prom is canceled, and they must accept diplomas on Zoom. Nicks’ camera (and indeed all the teens’ smartphones, which provide some of the film’s footage) are rolling as they process the police killings of Black Americans, the president’s impeachment, and the deadly pandemic. Shot in the cinema verité style, Homeroom is the final film in Nicks’ Oakland-centric trilogy focusing on health care, criminal justice, and education. His previous films include Waiting Room (2012), which captures life in the waiting room of Highland Hospital’s ER, and The Force (2017), which chronicles Oakland’s troubled police department (and which won the Directing Award at Sundance). Homeroom is likely to be one of many in a genre dedicated to capturing how we navigated a lifetime’s worth of turbulence packed into a single year. May you live in interesting times, indeed. 

—Laura Smith

The Documentary Films of Marlon Riggs, M.J. ’81

“Brother to brother, brother to brother. Brother to brother, brother to brother ….”

So begins Marlon Riggs’s 1989 experimental and, at the time, highly controversial documentary, Tongues Untied. At once poetry and prayer, these simple words carried a radical message: Black gay men exist. Now, three decades after its initial release, Tongues is one of several films, including Ethnic Notions and Black Is … Black Ain’t, from filmmaker, writer, and activist Marlon Riggs available to stream on Criterion and OVID.tv. Riggs, a graduate of the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and later one of the youngest tenured professors at Cal, used his films as a tool of resistance and catharsis, elevating the voices of other Black gay men, while grappling with his own alienation and later his mortality in the face of HIV/AIDS. Riggs died in 1994 at age 37. Online streaming has allowed his films to live on. 

—Leah Worthington

The Surgeon’s Cut

In December, Netflix released The Surgeon’s Cut, a four-part documentary series that follows four different doctors, each one a pioneer in their field. In the second episode, we meet Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa ’94—or “Dr. Q” as he is affectionately known—a neurosurgeon at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic. Born in Mexicali, Mexico, just across the U.S. border, Dr. Q grew up in poverty. After a first failed attempt to jump the border fence, he successfully crossed into the United States at age 19 and got a job as a migrant farmworker, pulling weeds in cotton fields. “I think that fence was symbolic for me,” says Dr. Q. “And I keep doing it. Every single surgery that I do, I feel like this is an obstacle we have to overcome.” The Surgeon’s Cut follows Dr. Q’s journey—from the cotton fields to Cal to Harvard Medical School—and also takes viewers deep inside the brain of one of his patients, Robert Hawkins, as Dr. Q attempts to extract a stubborn brain tumor. Squeamish viewers, be warned.

—Maddy Weinberg

Plague Diary

By Ben Goldberg

In his ongoing project “Plague Diary,” Berkeley Music lecturer and clarinetist Ben Goldberg distills the daily vicissitudes of pandemic life into brief, melodic snapshots. Nearly every day since the Bay Area first went on lockdown in March, Goldberg has recorded a new entry of his diary in his home and posted the improvised compositions to the streaming service Bandcamp. Some days, listeners hear just 30 unvarnished seconds of Goldberg and his clarinet. On others, it may be ten minutes of delicate, synthesized layerings that result in a round and illustrative listening experience. “Right now art is precluded from its important work of gathering us together,” Goldberg writes on the site. Without that togetherness, Goldberg seeks to imbue his work with new purpose. “The question arises again and again, what do you put into a song, what do we put into art? The answer, as I see it now, is ‘everything you know.’ ” Goldberg, like the rest of us right now, is getting to know the confines of home. 

—Katherine Blesie

The Flavor Equation

By Nik Sharma ’05

What comes to mind when you think of flavor? Sweet. Salty. Sour. Bitter. Umami. Add emotion, sight, sound, and mouthfeel to that list and your concept of flavor might start to resemble that of molecular biologist, food blogger, and self-taught chef Nik Sharma. In his second cookbook, The Flavor Equation, Sharma explores “the science of great cooking,” supplying his readers with more than 100 recipes and a variety of scientific kitchen tips. Accompanying the recipes are detailed microphotographs—taken by Sharma himself in a Cal laboratory—of ingredients like jaggery (unrefined sugar), salt flakes, and yeast. Named one of the New York Times’s Best Fall Cookbooks of 2020, The Flavor Equation seeks to arm home cooks with a deeper understanding of cooking techniques, as well as the cultures from which they came. 

—M.W.

Let Me Tell You What I Mean

By Joan Didion ’56

This new collection from Ms. Didion, now 86, comprises a dozen previously uncollected essays from her long career in letters, including specimens of the “Points West” column she and her late husband, John Gregory Dunne, took turns writing for the Saturday Evening Post over a five-year period, beginning in 1964. None of the writing is new (the most contemporary piece, a rumination on Martha Stewart from the New Yorker, is two decades old), which may elicit grumbling about old wine in new bottles. But then don’t forget, wine improves with age. 

For a taste of how well Didion’s prose has held up, readers are commended to the piece titled “On Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice.” The college of young Didion’s choice was Stanford, and the essay quotes from the rejection letter, signed by one Rixford K. Snyder, Director of Admissions. Didion was, at first, devastated, but in the fall of 1952, she reports, “I went to a junior college a couple of hours a day and made up the credits I needed to go to the University of California at Berkeley. The next year a friend at Stanford asked me to write a paper on Conrad’s Nostromo, and I did, and he got an A on it. I got a B- on the same paper at Berkeley, and the specter of Rixford K. Snyder was exorcised.”

Other standout works here include “Last Words,” her paean to Hemingway, and “Why I Write,” originally delivered as a Regents’ Lecture at Berkeley in 1975. In it, she confessed to struggling as a student, to feeling herself a fraud in the world of ideas. “All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.” What she was—what she is—is a writer, to her fingertips. 

—Pat Joseph

Fossil Men

By Kermit Pattison

In the 1990s, brash Berkeley paleoanthropologist Tim White and his team discovered Ardi—short for Ardipithecus ramidus—the 4.4-million-year-old female skeleton of a creature now thought to be the oldest known human ancestor. This discovery, and the revelations that followed, upended much of what scientists previously believed about human evolution. In his book, Fossil Men: The Quest for the Oldest Skeleton and the Origins of Humankind, Kermit Pattison writes that as White and his colleagues—including Berkeley paleontologist Berhane Asfaw, Ph.D. ’88—studied Ardi’s bones, “they would reveal new truths, send old notions to their graves, ignite hatreds, and cleave the scientific community.” In their 15-year quest to uncover the secrets of Ardi’s skeleton, the scientists proposed countless theories on the origins of humankind, attempting to explain everything from where humans evolved to how we came to walk on two legs. White’s team began to wonder: Did humans even evolve from apes? Or are we far more distant cousins than we thought? Released late last year, Fossil Men walks readers through the team’s investigation, revealing as much about Ardi’s controversial discovery as it does about the humans responsible for it. 

—M.W.

Recollections of My Nonexistence

By Rebecca Solnit ’84

It’s San Francisco in the ’80s. Seeking refuge, Rebecca Solnit boards the cross-town 5 Fulton bus heading west toward the Pacific Ocean and, she hopes, independence. This bus, and the apartment it leads her to, become the fabric of Solnit’s early adulthood as the young artist and 19-year-old college student begins a lifelong journey to find a place for herself in a world that doesn’t seem to want her. “To be a young woman is to face your own annihilation in innumerable ways,” she writes in her new memoir. “Or to flee it or the knowledge of it, or all these things at once.” In Recollections of My Nonexistence, Solnit holds a mirror to her younger self—a woman both determined to “survive as a person possessed of rights” and also “to be as invisible as possible”—and unpacks those formative years of simultaneous vanishing and becoming. How do the opposing forces of sexual harassment and sexual liberation, powerlessness and self-determination, shape her into the feminist voice she is to become? And what do they say of society? “Beyond every beginning is another beginning, and another and another,” she writes, “but my first ride on the 5 Fulton bus could be a place to start.”

—L.W.

A Peculiar Indifference

By Elliott Currie, Ph.D. ’73

“The racial violence divide … is not an inevitable fact of urban life or the result of abstract economic or technological forces” or “a reflection of biological or cultural deficiencies,” UC Irvine criminology professor Elliott Currie argues in his latest book, A Peculiar Indifference: The Neglected Toll of Violence on Black America. Rather, he insists, the disparity in racial violence “is the result of conscious decisions that, while systematically impoverishing some communities, have helped to create extraordinary privilege and wealth in others.” Borrowing language from W.E.B. Du Bois, Currie argues that the failure of the privileged to take responsibility for building a more equitable society is “our peculiar indifference.” This indifference, says Currie, is not only socially destructive and economically wasteful but a profound moral default.” Released last September, A Peculiar Indifference was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2020—and it’s not the first time Currie’s work in criminology has been nationally recognized. While teaching in UC Berkeley’s Legal Studies Program, he was a finalist for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Crime and Punishment in America.

—Fischer Davis

From the Spring 2021 issue of California.
Filed under: Arts + Letters
Image source: Ted Streshinsky/Corbis/Corbis/Via Getty Images / Collage by Leah Worthington
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