Arts + Letters

Crazy Love: Cal Performances Brings Arabia’s Iconic Love Story to the West

The epic poem Layla and Majnun is arguably the most famous love story in the Middle East, and yet many Westerners have never heard of it. It is the tale of two teenagers who fall deeply in love but are tragically kept apart, even until death. After Layla’s father rejects Qays’s request for her hand in marriage, Qays wanders the desert expressing his undying love through poetry.

From the Fall 2016 The Greatest Show On Earth issue of California.

The Bot Versus the Bard: Researchers Teach a Computer to Write Poetry

What’s in the brain that ink may character
Which hath not figured to thee my true spirit

King of hell no quarrel have I left thee
No lovely maid who gleaned in fields or skies

One pair of lines above is the work of Shakespeare. The other was written by a computer. Can you tell which is which?

The People’s Museum: Evelyn Orantes Connects Oaklanders with the OMCA

When Evelyn Orantes studied history at UC Berkeley, she lived just a few blocks from the Oakland Museum. To her and her roommates the museum seemed as inaccessible as a castle, complete with moat. The Class of ’99 had gotten involved with Chicano politics while at Berkeley, so when she finally went to the museum for its Day of the Dead celebration, it wasn’t to enjoy but to see how OMCA was co-opting the Mexican holiday.

It Can Happen Here: Linguist Jim Cohen Interprets Frank Zappa Lyrics for Germans

It’s mid-July in Bad Doberan, a small town in Germany about two and a half hours north of Berlin. More than 2,000 music fans are present, and many, many of them are sporting Frank Zappa–style moustaches (including one young woman whose facial adornment is from a magic marker).

This is Zappanale, pronounced “zap-pa-nal-lah,” a weekend rock festival dedicated to the music of the late rock musician. Standing out among them is Jim Cohen, the show’s master of ceremonies, wearing a light-blue plaid jacket and a skinny black tie.

Sun Mad: Ester Hernández, One of the Bay Area’s Las Mujeres Muralistas, Takes on Agribusiness

Ester Hernández’s Sun Mad is her best-known piece, the one she’s most associated with. It now forms part of the San Francisco Legion of Honor exhibit, “Wild West: Plains to the Pacific,” through September 11.

Jim Ganz, who curated the show with Colleen Terry, says when they were looking for some political art to include in the show—and in their collection—Sun Mad seemed perfect. He says this print, alongside Matt Black’s photos of farm workers, adds a lot.

‘Happy Birthday’ Suit Resolved: The Most-Sung Song Is Free for All

In a rare victory for the commons, “Happy Birthday to You” enters the public domain today, finally freed from a copyright long claimed by Warner/Chappell Music. Though Judge George H. King of the federal district court in Los Angeles initially ruled last September that the copyright was not valid, the company battled on, perhaps because with no rival as the most widely recognized and frequently sung song in the English language, the tune has steadily generated some $2 million a year for the publishing company.

Famous in Guinea-Bissau: In Africa, Berkeley Band Becomes ‘Non-Militarized Face’ of USA

 Drenched in sweat, I rushed to pack up my cello before the crowd stormed the stage again. It was dark, and all the dancing had filled the hot air with reddish dust. We’d just finished our set, and I couldn’t wait to get my gear locked up in the van so I could relax. But as I knelt down to pick up my rosin, the mob of kids rushed my bandmate Brendan and slammed his back against the wall. By the time I turned, a sea of hands and fingers were rippling over his entire body.

From the Summer 2016 Welcome to There issue of California.

You’re Out: ‘The Return’ Documents the Release of Former Three Strikes Prisoners

Lock ’em up and throw away the key: For several generations California’s response to rising crime rates consisted of a variation on this theme, culminating with 1994’s severe Three Strikes law. But for the past two decades, violent crime in California has been falling, and by 2012, California voters took the unprecedented step of approving Prop. 36. For the first time in American history, voters passed an initiative that ran counter to the tough-on-crime movement. Serving as a key to long-locked prison doors, Prop. 36 enables hard-time convicts to petition for early release.

Following the Yellow Brick Road to Obsession: Berkeley Librarian is All About All Things Oz

Peter Hanff was 3 years old when he stumbled across the Land of Oz; his father had 10 Oz titles and began reading them to his son before bed. The boy quickly became entranced by L. Frank Baum’s stories and the illustrations. It was the start of an obsession that would lead him to his current role as deputy director of UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, and to a life of avid Oz book collecting, research, and celebration. If ever an Oz wiz there was, Hanff would be it.

An Unusual Life Unfolding: Noted Bear Biologist Gains Acclaim in Origami World

Bernie Peyton is profoundly dyslexic, and that made his early years growing up in New York City difficult. School was hellish: He struggled to read, he was bullied, and it was hard to make friends. Then when he was 9, his stepfather gave him a book that changed his life.

Peyton still has the book—a beautifully illustrated instruction manual on origami by Isao Honda that contains examples of various works pasted to the pages. He recently opened the volume in his Berkeley home, and thumbed through it reverently.

What Sparked This Pulitzer-Winning Novelist? Dual Life, ‘Mind-Blowing’ Berkeley & a Movie

For over 20 years—before 9/11 and Black Lives Matter and Trump’s wall-building scheme, before “white privilege” and “male privilege” were common phrases—Viet Thanh Nguyen was wrestling with questions of social justice and power. For years he dreamed of writing a novel that would explore these important concepts in a well-crafted, entertaining, even funny way. And that, in turn, would coax people to keep reading, even the parts that many Americans would like to ignore, and ultimately it would inspire them to look at themselves and the world with fresh eyes.

Berkeley’s Bravest: The Cal Scholar Who Inspired Hemingway’s Spanish Civil War Hero

Six feet, two-and-a-half inches tall, rangy and handsome, Robert H. Merriman was 23 years old when in the fall of 1932 he began studying at UC Berkeley for a Ph.D. in economics. A fellow student in his department, John Kenneth Galbraith, called him “the most popular of my generation of graduate students at Berkeley. … Later he was to show himself the bravest.”

From the Spring 2016 War Stories issue of California.

Opium Dreamland: Reporter Sam Quinones on Heroin, Pills and his Punk-Rock Roots

Punk rock, which was big during the years writer Sam Quinones spent at UC Berkeley, turned out to be more than just the background noise of an undergraduate life.

For Quinones, who double-majored in economics and American history, it provided an opportunity. He produced several punk shows while he was a student living at the now-shuttered Barrington Hall co-op, bringing in well-known bands such as The Dead Kennedys and Black Flag. “They were probably the biggest shows ever at Barrington Hall,” he said.

From the Fall 2015 Questions of Race issue of California.

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