By Lou Fancher
Prolific local writers make the Bay Area a wellspring of words. Those of us whose fantasies include summer months spent in a hammock reading, and occasionally snoozing with, a good book will likely have a stack of books or a digital library of titles in our mobile devices the height of which rivals San Francisco’s 1,070-foot-high Salesforce Tower, the 17th tallest building in the United States. Or maybe we’ve been promising family and friends for decades to pen a memoir or debut novel, or to cook California cuisine and collect books to read for inspiration or to learn what not to do.
Having determined 2023 is our year to shine, either by jumping into the scary void and fray of becoming a published writer or simply eager to be well-read, a better home chef and happy about expanding our mind frame, there is, alas, FOMO to address.
What if there are great books released in the year’s first six months we overlooked? What if recent announcements of new books have slipped into invisibility underneath the daily deluge of Amazon messages on our mobile devices; messages urging us to tighten up those belly abs with 6 Easy Steps to a Six-Pack and videos with the Five Best Ways to finally tell the family member who grills hamburgers to death every summer that we prefer ours practically raw or in the form of a veggie burger with no slaughtered cattle involved?
Don’t panic. While in no way comprehensive, the following list consists of new or forthcoming books from California writers or with stories grounded in California settings and culture. What these books have in common is storytelling that seems this year to be about newfound perspectives and connections to the past. Feel free to collect one or all. As always, we welcome responses regarding books our melody of literature might have left out. Even a keen eye on the lookout for fine literature occasionally misses that gem that will remain forever on the “keepers” bookshelf.
The year 2023 started off on a high note, with UC Berkeley professor of psychology and celebrated writer Dr. Dacher Keltner’s Awe. As an expert on emotion whose best-selling books and work with CAL’s Greater Good Science Center address well-being, power, morality, decision-making and the natural and digital world’s impact on society and individuals, Keltner’s new book scooped out a niche for wonder. It invited readers to join him in unpacking the ways in which awe transforms the human experience; mostly for the good, but also sometimes with harmful results. Combining a tiny bit of woo-woo with loads of scientific research and poignant sections about having lost his brother and searching for meaning, he writes in a brisk, breezy, thought-provoking style.
It must have been a banner season for psychology profs with new books, because popping up next on the radar was social psychologist and Stanford professor Brian Lowery’s Selfless: The Social Creation of “You.” In three well-researched sections, Lowery combines acute ancient and contemporary historical framing with recent and substantial data. Selfless is backdropped by Lowery’s quest to discover and explain identity as a source of power, forgiveness and kindness. Fluidity is key to a healthy self-identity and that precept, underlined through repetition, is likely to float in and out of awareness for months after having read the book, if not forever.
Readers who love fiction and sweeping family sagas waited a long time for The Covenant of Water, a new book by Abraham Verghese released in May. Verghese’s 2010 book, Cutting for Stone, was on the New York Times bestseller list for two years. In the newest book, the narrative continues to include medical themes and shifting family and social dynamics. Covenant follows three generations of a family from Kerala, India, who are part of a Christian community and bear a terrible curse: someone drowns in every generation. The story spans the years 1900 to 1977 and centers on a 12-year-old girl who is married off to a 40-year-old widower. Gradually assuming the title “Big Ammachi,” which means “little mother,” she becomes a memory keeper of India’s lost history and the matriarch of a family beset by blessings and curses.
The Eyes and the Impossible, by Dave Eggers, claims to be a book for young readers, but the best-selling author’s latest outing carries a zany story readers of all ages will love. A dog named Johannes lives without leashes or human ownership in an urban park and serves as the “Eyes” to three ancient bison, known as Keepers of the Equilibrium. He works with Assistant Eyes—all animal buddies—to report on matters relating to maintaining the park’s equilibrium. Conflict arises—encroaching humans, building construction, incarcerated goats and more—and Johannes must find the courage to become a hero. Illustrations by Shawn Harris ingeniously layer canine images into classical landscapes by Dutch artists of the 1800s and expand the story while paying tribute to the museum collections that inspired Eggers to write the book.
Elbert in The Air pairs Berkeley-based author Monica Wesolowska with East Coast writer Jerome Pumphrey to create a story about unconditional love and rising above obstacles. When Elbert floats, everyone in town offers his mother advice for bringing him back to ground zero. Instead, his mother lets him enjoy flying free. Ultimately, Elbert must choose between staying permanently grounded or flying higher to find his dreamed-of destination. Viewed as an allegory for adults pursuing their dreams, this picture book is not only for kids and parents, but for everyone. Wesolowska is the author of the memoir Holding Silvan: A Brief Life and the picture book Leo + Lea.
Reckoning, by V (formerly Eve Ensler), burst into high visibility from the 2023 Bay Area Book Festival’s impressive lineup. The Tony and Obie award-winning playwright, author and activist is the literary generator who roars behind theatrical works such as The Vagina Monologues and In the Body of the World. Her books include The Apology, I am an Emotional Creature and others. In this memoir consisting of essays, poetry, letters and journal entries drawn from more than four decades, V turns her gaze on family, domestic and public gender-based violence, and volatile topics such as choice, solidarity, apologizing and America’s troubled history when it comes to race, gender diversity and more. A last chapter opens up a window on what could be joyful co-existence, if only people believe and live towards a moral utopia she describes and endeavors to inhabit. This book will leave readers deep in thought and admiring V’s masterful wordsmithing.
Jacqueline Winspear fans found reason to celebrate in late March with the release of her new book The White Lady. Telling the thrilling story of Elinor White, a former resistance operative who tries to leave her past behind, this new venture from the writer of the 17 much-loved Maisie Dobbs novels ramps up the tension and energy by placing an unusual woman in a male-dominated profession. Taking place two years after the end of World War II, the novel has White interacting with a family hiding secrets of their own and a situation that calls her out of “retirement.” As with all Winspear novels, broader issues address war and its largely overlooked impact throughout history on women, children and families.
In Saving Time, Oakland-based Jenny Odell demonstrates she is nothing if not ambitious. Taking on the matter of time, she ventures along the crusty landscapes of our relationship with clocks, calendars, hours, minutes and even milliseconds during the pandemic, the climate crisis and throughout history. Writing on how we have tracked time, from slave-labor worker hours logged in the West Indies to employers and unions micromanaging vast industrial complexes in America, Odell traces deep grooves using extensive research including the writings of Frederick Winslow Taylor and multiple archival texts penned by scholars. Odell unfolds time, as understood by Europeans and recent generations of Americans, and places it in juxtaposition to the time concepts of indigenous communities and ancient civilizations. People today—Odell doesn’t exclude herself—are obsessively concerned with money, profit, productivity and efficiency. Without change, we might miss out on time’s fluidity and a life she suggests holds potential to be “emancipatory and utopian.”
Time’s Mouth, by Edan Lepucki, is set in funky 1950 California, where protagonist Ursa flees to escape memories of her abusive father and her mother, who is now a widow. She has discovered she can travel—through memory—to her past, and works to perfect her unexpected gift. In a well-worn Victorian mansion in the woods outside Santa Cruz she and other women form a cultish sisterhood that eventually alienates Ursa from her son Ray. As a teen, Ray’s child and Ursa’s granddaughter, Opal, continues the family history of troubled relationships by pursuing the mother who, years before, abandoned the family under mysterious circumstances and vanished. Investigating the past on a metaphysical scale, Lepucki calls into question the gifts inherited from previous generations, the durability of family attachments, and the love lost or found between children and mothers. Lepucki is the New York Times-bestselling author of the novels California and Woman No. 17, and editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers as We Never Saw Them.
Lydia Kiesling’s Mobility follows the award-laden trail of her debut novel, The Golden State, a 2018 National Book Foundation “5 under 35” honoree. Her second book is a coming-of-age story painted on the canvas of a larger geopolitical tale about class, power, greed, desire, capitalism, climate change and politics. Central character Bunny Glenn goes from American teenager living in Azerbaijan with her Foreign Service family to middle age, when her work in the global oil industry and a world building up for the War on Terror both swirl with potential peril. Amid the drama, Kiesling’s ability to craft flawed characters in which we recognize ourselves, and find reason to forgive—or at least laugh at—human foibles held in common, stands out.
Love is a Pink Cake, a narrative cookbook by Claire Ptak, dishes up a savory and visual treat. Ptak, a California native, worked as a pastry chef for Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Later, after moving to London, she opened Violet Bakery in 2010. In this book filled with gorgeous photos, 75 sweet-and-savory bakes rely on in-season produce and a London’s East End-meets-Northern California sensibility. The results are half-indulgent and entirely delectable. Which is not to say the recipes are easy. This is a book for the serious baker, or at least someone determined to manifest the perfect blueberry muffin or titular flamboyant pink cake. With vegan and gluten-free recipes, wonderful images and plenty of name-dropping beyond that of the Bay Area’s matriarch of gustatory pleasure—Waters—Ptak’s pink-cake journey is sure to spark the reader’s desire to embark on their own and bake one.
Chími Nu’am: Native California Foodways for the Contemporary Kitchen, by Sara Calvosa Olson, offers more than 70 recipes drawn from California Indigenous cuisines. Calvosa Olson, descended from Karuk ancestors, reimagines some of the oldest foods in California within these pages. Divided by season, the recipes follow expected themes while introducing surprises with accessible ingredients and humorous writing. Fall highlights include acorn crepes. Winter brings on wild boar pozole and huckleberry hand pies. Spring bursts forth with wildflower spring rolls and peppernut molé chicken. Summer rounds out the menu with blackberry-braised smoked salmon and acorn-milk freezer pops. Described as a first tour of “decolonized diet,” the cookbook includes approximately 100 photographs. Calvosa Olson lives in Mill Valley, the unceded ancestral homeland of the Coast Miwok.
One way to end an article about worthwhile books that could have included hundreds more is with a few final suggestions. Happily, on the shelf now, or soon arriving, are these: local author and NPR personality Aisha Harris’ Wannabe: Reckonings with the Pop Culture That Shapes Me, her new book of essays; and award-winning and New York Times-bestselling author Dashka Slater’s new book coming in August, ACCOUNTABLE: The True Story of a Racist Social Media Account and the Teenagers Whose Lives It Changed. From Cristina García, the acclaimed author of Dreaming in Cuban, comes Vanishing Map, a follow-up novel that tracks four generations of the del Pino family against the backdrop of Cuba, the U.S., Germany and Russia in the new millennium. Two final books worth mentioning include The Celebrants, written by Steven Rowley and published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, which follows a group of friends who support one another by holding living funerals for each other, and Daniel Clowe’s long-awaited new graphic novel from publisher Fantagraphics, Monica, which arrives in August.