Editors’ Picks: What to Read and Watch This Summer

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

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

The God Equation

By Michio Kaku, Ph.D. ’72

In his latest book, theoretical physicist and master storyteller Michio Kaku walks readers through humanity’s gradual discovery of the fundamental forces of the universe—gravity, electromagnetism, quantum mechanics—before explaining how string theory can unite them all under a single grand framework that might allow us to, as Einstein put it, “read the mind of God.”

Kaku has written a book about unified field theory that’s digestible by just about anyone, packed to the brim with colorful metaphors and simple explanations that delight as much as they inform. To hear Kaku tell it, the laws of physics are the harmonies found among the elemental strings of the universe, chemistry, the melodies you make from them, and string theory itself is “cosmic music resonating throughout space-time.” If that’s a bit too woo-woo for you, Kaku gets in plenty of no-nonsense explanation, too, covering topics that range from how electric currents work to how we know that space-time is curved to just what, exactly, these mysterious strings are that might tie the universe in a bow.

—Katherine Blesie

The Place That Makes Us

Directed by Alexandra Nikolchev ’05

“After steel mill closures in the late 1970s led to the exodus of nearly two-thirds of its residents, Youngstown, Ohio, was plagued by rising crime, widespread housing vacancies, and a sudden drop in civic engagement. But the remaining residents haven’t given up hope.

The Place That Makes Us, a documentary film produced by Alexandra Nikolchev, follows a small group of Youngstown community leaders as they fight to revitalize their city. “The easy thing is to flee like everyone does in the Midwest,” says Ian Beniston, executive director of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation, a nonprofit that fixes up abandoned homes to attract new residents. “But those of us that are gonna change these places, it’s gonna be the ones that stay and fight.” Crowned “Best of the Festival” at the Arlington International Film Festival, The Place That Makes Us challenges common misconceptions of Rust Belt towns, focusing not on urban blight or the factory closures that rocked the region, but on the hard work and resilience of those who live there. “As cities struggle to emerge after COVID, themes in our film feel as relevant as ever,” says Nikolchev. Originally aired on PBS’s America Reframed series, The Place That Makes Us is now available for streaming on PBS platforms.

—Maddy Weinberg

Fugitive Pedagogy

By Jarvis R. Givens ’10, Ph.D. ’16

In this scholarly work, Givens, a former CAA Achievement Award Scholar and now an assistant professor at Harvard, elucidates the historical struggle of African Americans to educate themselves in spite of staunch white resistance.

His title is an interesting one;  as Givens notes, our modern word “pedagogy” comes from the ancient Greek, paidagōgos, denoting a slave tasked with accompanying a boy to school. And fugitivity is a powerful idea in Black history, both in terms of the escaped slave as folk hero and the educated mind as a freed spirit. As Frederick Douglass’s master once put it, a slave learning to read was a slave “running away with himself.” As an exemplar of this fugitive spirit, Givens presents the story of Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950)—teacher, historian, founder of Black History Month, and author of the 1933 treatise, The Mis-Education of the Negro. As one reviewer remarked, Givens’s work restores Woodson, now somewhat overlooked, to his “rightful place alongside figures like W. E. B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells.”

—Pat Joseph

Don’t Let It Get You Down

By Savala Nolan Trepczynski, J.D. ’11

In the 12 essays that comprise Don’t Let It Get You Down: Essays on Race, Gender, and the Body, Savala Nolan Trepczynski explores what she calls her “in-betweenness,” navigating the vast, politically charged, and often uncomfortable grey area between the opposing forces in her life: Black and white. Fat and thin. Rich and poor.

Trepczynski—a Berkeley Law alumna and the current executive director of the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice—invites readers along as she traces her past, reckoning with her anxieties and internalized rage, her lifelong struggle with dieting, and her complex family lineage, which is composed of both enslaved people and slaveholders. In her opening essay, “On Dating White Guys While Me,” Trepczynski autopsies a string of failed relationships with rich, preppy white men and concludes that her early romantic endeavors were not attempts at love, but at self-erasure. Don’t Let it Get You Down will be published by Simon & Schuster on July 13, 2021.

—Maddy Weinberg

The Fire and the Forgotten

In collaboration with Eric Stover

One hundred years ago, the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, also known as Black Wall Street for its thriving Black businesses, was burned to the ground by a racist mob. As many as 300 Black residents were killed and some 10,000 were left homeless. Many survivors were placed in internment camps in the aftermath and the truth of the incident was suppressed for decades.

Today, many Black Tulsans are demanding reparations, and efforts are underway to locate and document mass graves from the massacre. Adjunct law professor and war crimes investigator Eric Stover of the Berkeley Human Rights Center joins Washington Post reporter Deneen L. Brown and director Jonathan Silvers to tell the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre and its disturbing legacy in this 90-minute documentary. “This is not some history project for the city,” Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum tells the filmmakers. “This is a murder investigation and we’re trying to find neighbors of ours who got murdered. …” The Fire and the Forgotten premiered on PBS on May 31, the centennial of the atrocity.

—Pat Joseph

Hunt, Gather, Parent

By Michaeleen Doucleff, Ph.D. ’07

Michaeleen Doucleff has traveled the world and I’m afraid she has returned with some bad news: You’ve been raising your children all wrong. In this fullhearted account from her travels with her spirited 3-year-old to observe parenting styles in far-flung places like Yucatan and Tanzania, Doucleff discovered that kids in other cultures are, well, better.

They’re more helpful, better at sharing, and just generally less annoying. The problem, as always, is you. You’ve given your kids too many toys, you’re not calm enough, you play with them too much. And don’t get me started on your excessive praise. This very morning, when your toddler managed to put a single block back where it belonged, you showered her in high-pitched congratulations. A nod, Doucleff found, suffices in many cultures.<

There is a grand tradition of books by Americans dismayed by American child-rearing who advocate for the parenting styles of the French or the Danish or some other wealthy, Western, majority-white country. Astronomically popular books like Bringing up Bébé and the Danish Way of Parenting (and the way we devour them) reveal thinly veiled racism when it comes to our ideas about who is, and by extension who is not, a parent worthy of emulation. Doucleff, with her focus on a wider range of cultures and an insistence on not viewing them as “frozen-in-time,” is a breath of fresh air in that regard. Of course, it would be better still to highlight the voices of hunter-gatherer parents themselves. As every journalist knows, there are dangers to “parachuting in,” to believing you understand a culture after a short visit, a danger that Doucleff, a seasoned NPR reporter, seems keenly aware of and sensitive to. I wait with bated breath for Simon & Schuster’s surely forthcoming Inuit guide to child-rearing written by an Inuit woman. In the meantime, Doucleff gets a gentle nod of approval.

—Laura Smith

The Hard Crowd

By Rachel Kushner ’90

In her sophisticated fiction, Rachel Kushner ’90 writes about themes like incarceration, revolution, art, radical politics, and speed (on motorcycles and skis). Kushner has twice been a finalist for the National Book Award—for Telex from Cuba (2008)  and The Flamethrowers (2014).

Her last novel, The Mars Room (2018), was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. As Elliot Frank noted in the Chicago Review of Books, “both the boosters and skeptics of her work shared the assumption that Kushner’s subject material was separate from her own life.” The Hard Crowd banishes that idea.

In this new collection of essays written across 20 years, Kushner recounts growing up among a wild crowd in San Francisco, being raised by bohemian academics who lived part-time in a converted school bus in Oregon, and waitressing in a blues bar, “huffing nitrous for kicks while earning $1.85 an hour.” Along the way, Kushner, who enrolled at Berkeley at age 16, espouses her political opinions, praises her favorite authors, and details the adventures of her peers, whose lives were marked by prison, drugs, and premature death.

—Nathalia Alcantara

The Code Breaker

By Walter Isaacson

In sixth grade, Jennifer Doudna came home to find a used copy of James Watson’s The Double Helix on her bed. Enraptured by Watson’s account of his and Francis Crick’s quest to crack the genetic code, young Doudna was equally taken by Rosalind Franklin’s underplayed role. “It was an eye-opener,” recalled the future Nobel Prize winner. “Women could be scientists.”

The “successful female scientist” is one of many recurrent themes in Walter Isaacson’s nearly 500-page biography of Berkeley’s star chemist. At once a deeply researched portrait of Doudna’s life and a treatise on our modern genetic revolution, The Code Breaker is almost biblical in its grandiosity; indeed Part One begins with an epigraph from Genesis. Which is not entirely unwarranted; Doudna became, in some ways, an almost godlike figure after her 2012 discovery of CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing. Like the Tree of Knowledge, Isaacson suggests, CRISPR has given humans the power to literally rewrite the future of our species—for better or for worse. “Should we edit our species to make us less susceptible to deadly viruses?” Isaacson wonders. “Should we allow parents to enhance the IQ and muscles of their kids?”

These possibilities and their ethical implications dominate much of the book. Interwoven with references to Orwell, Frankenstein, and the atomic bomb are cautionary tales (notably, the one about a rogue Chinese scientist and the world’s first CRISPR babies) and Isaacson’s own musings. “I was pleased, but also a bit unnerved, to see how easy it was,” he writes of conducting a human gene-editing experiment himself. “Even I could do it!” It is, perhaps, this idea of democratizing CRISPR that gives The Code Breaker its raison d’être: Isaacson emphasizes the inevitability of our genetically modified future and the importance of bringing everyone into the conversation.

“All of us, including you and me,” he writes. “Figuring out if and when to edit our genes will be one of the most consequential questions of the twenty-first century, so I thought it would be useful to understand how it’s done.”

—Leah Worthington

Jackpot

By Michael Mechanic ’87, MJ ’94

Striking it rich is part and parcel of the American dream—or fantasy—and Americans spend tens of billions of dollars annually chasing it—on the Lottery.

In reality, the richest one percent of Americans have a lock on almost 40 percent of the country’s total wealth, while the bottom 90 percent claim barely a quarter. Michael Mechanic, senior editor at Mother Jones magazine, probes wealth inequality in the United States with a character-driven story gleaned from dozens of interviews with some of the richest people on the planet and their acolytes. The book’s ensemble cast includes the likes of Bentley dealers, sports agents, lobbyists, lottery winners, and even a woman who gives combat training to the nannies of billionaires. New Yorker writer Jane Mayer calls the book an “entertaining and eviscerating peek behind the velvet curtains and into the real lives of America’s Super-Rich.”

—Dano Nissen

From the Summer 2021 issue of California.
Filed under: Arts + Letters
Image source: Collage by Leah Worthington
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