After winter’s cyclonic storms and the general dreariness of recent months, it’s high time to light up the advent of spring with the revelation of reading a good book. Northern California offers a garden of abundance when it comes to regional authors, so claim copies of these recent and upcoming releases at a favorite independent bookstore.
Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism and the World
By Malcolm Harris
Little, Brown and Company
Arguably, the “big read” for 2023 comes from Malcolm Harris, who has chronicled the history of modern civilization as seen through the privileged prism of one spot on the San Francisco Peninsula. In Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World, Harris describes his hometown: “As kids,” he writes, “when we talked about the place where we lived, my brother, sister, and I used to make morbid jokes about Sunnydale, the fictional California setting for the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where perfect weather conceals the portal to hell under the high school. As I got older, I began to think of the idea earnestly. We have a word for idyllic towns where the youth suicide rate is three times as high as it’s supposed to be: haunted. Palo Alto is haunted.”
But don’t expect a personal memoir. Instead, Harris meticulously reviews the historical record of the region for 720 pages, covering everything from the oppression of the native Ohlone to the arrival of the railroad tycoon Leland Stanford and the eventual rise of Silicon Valley, big tech and global capitalism. As Harris said in an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, “There’s a lot of debate about where and when capitalism starts and how, but there’s not a lot of debate about where and how it becomes a world system. And that’s at the second half of the 19th century with the incorporation of California, Australia, China and Japan and this link that closes this chain around the world to establish, for the first time, a true global system of production.” (SS)
Poverty, By America
By Matthew Desmond
Crown Publishing Group
Also on the topic of capitalism: Silicon Valley is one of the most affluent regions in an affluent state—but great concentrations of wealth provide commensurate pockets of inequality. That makes the latest book by Matthew Desmond relevant reading in Silicon Valley.
Desmond’s 2016 book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, won the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction. Now he’s shedding further light on inequality in Poverty, By America. As he told Poured Over podcast host Miwa Messer, despite all the progress in the fields of medicine, technology and science, “the poverty rate has been incredibly stubbornly persistent and I think it’s rather shameful for the richest country in the history of the world.”
Desmond isn’t reluctant to suggest that affluent Americans need to examine the price of their own good fortune. As he explains to Washington Post Live interviewer Damian Paletta, “You know, we build walls around our community. We hoard opportunity behind those walls, and that concentration of affluence creates pockets of poverty, which is the side effect of our concentration of wealth. So, these are ways that many of us are connected to all this poverty around us.” (SS)
Closing the Equity Gap: Creating Wealth and Fostering Justice in Startup Investing
By Freada Kapor Klein and Mitchell Kapor
Freada Kapor Klein and Mitchell Kapor (the designer of Lotus 1-2-3) are founders of the impact investment firm Kapor Capital. In this urgent, example-filled book, they collectively offer a social activist’s energy and missionary mindset and an entrepreneur’s perspective on tech startups and the efficacy of investing in doing good by bridging the “gaps of access, opportunity, or outcome for low-income communities and/or communities of color.”
Their firm, Kapor Capital, has done nothing if not support underrepresented Black and Latinx entrepreneurs whose companies and businesses often directly or indirectly impact immigrants and children of immigrants, racial minorities, women and individuals who identify as non-binary, queer or transgender. Using real-life stories from over 200 ventures their firm has helped launch, Klein and Kapor demonstrate how ethical investment is far more than a feel-good frolic.
In example after example, they substantiate how the company’s method, approach and practices form a pathway that has led to actual, bottom line, financial success. A new ecosystem is what they prescribe and encourage for venture capitalism, a system that sheds exclusionary practices and outdated mythologies to establish broad, inclusive impact and create a future world worth backing with investors’ every dollar.
Valley of Heart’s Delight: Environment and Sense of Place in the Santa Clara
By Anne Marie Todd
University of California Press
Like Palo Alto author Malcolm Harris, San Jose State University associate team Anne Marie Todd has chosen the Silicon Valley to paint her broad historical canvas. But her emphasis is different. Valley of Heart’s Delight explores how the Santa Clara Valley has been transformed over the past 100 years from an agricultural paradise into the world’s technology capital.
In a post on the UC Press blog, Todd describes what was then the top fruit-producing region in the United States: “At the valley’s productive peak in the 1920s, 86% of the land in this valley was agriculture. 24,000 farms had tens of millions of fruit trees and produced 250 million pounds of fruit a year. Prunes, apricots, cherries were top crops. Fruit defined the economy and also the community and identity of the valley. Summertime was simply called “the Season” because from May to September, nearly everyone in the valley supported the fruit industry in some way.”
How did this “integrated economy with strong connection to land and community” transform into its current state? Todd writes, “It’s a remarkable story of urbanization, the development of agricultural lands and the transformation of rural regions.” (SS)
Easy Money: Cryptocurrency, Casino Capitalism, and the Golden Age of Fraud
By Ben McKenzie and Jacob Silverman
Available July 18
Speaking of the darker side of capitalism, one book to watch for is Easy Money, co-written by actor Ben McKenzie. After diving into the world of cryptocurrency, attracted by the promise of taking power from banks, McKenzie began to wonder if the whole industry was a “total scam.” Together with journalist Jacob Silverman, he wrote an exposé that follows crypto visionaries, anti-crypto whistleblowers, government agents worried about a crash and, yes, crypto victims.
Their book isn’t out until July 18, but to get some insight into the imploding industry, check out The Naked Emperor (CBC Podcasts) This four-part series by Silverman follows the trajectory of Sam Bankman-Fried, the poster boy of crypto and the face of the trading platform FTX. A billionaire by age 30, he now faces charges that could land him in jail for life. (SS)
The Questions that Matter Most: Reading, Writing, and the Exercise of Freedom
By Jane Smiley
Available June 6
This volume of nonfiction essays might surprise readers more familiar with Smiley’s novels, such as the Pulitzer Prize–winning A Thousand Acres or The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton or her most recent novel, A Dangerous Business, published in 2022. As an essayist, Smiley’s writing style is exuberant, penetrating, at times exhilaratingly bold or humorous and her short-form work can be found in The New York Times, New Yorker, Harper’s, The Nation and others.
Here, the prescient questions Smiley addresses are angled at California and American literary history through the work of a cohort of seminal writers, among them, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Franz Kafka, Halldor Laxness, Marguerite de Navarre, Charles Dickens and more.
The ambiguity of the Golden State in terms of freedom, autonomy, race, class, identity, sex and other topics is filtered through Smiley’s perspectives as a resident of California and paired with the work of these classic writers whose work informs her own. It’s not a book about answers, per se, but a profile of a writer unafraid to explore questions that, for some people, matter most.
Bay Curious: Exploring the Hidden True Stories of the San Francisco Bay Area
By Olivia Allen-Price
Available May 2
Olivia Allen-Price’s curiosity knows no bounds. For readers interested in adventures involving the region’s legends, landmarks and less-explored histories, Bay Curious is the ticket. In 49 brief essays and fascinating sidebars enhanced by stimulating, colorful illustrations from Alexandra Bowman, Allen-Price explores local people, culture, places, food, nature and iconic elements of San Francisco and cities in the nine counties comprising the greater Bay Area.
Her search for the soul of San Francisco and other cities has become a project that includes, in addition to the book, a collection of online articles and videos, a newsletter, a series of live events and a KQED podcast, Bay Curious. A few highlights from the book: Learn the true story behind the man most responsible for public nudity being illegal in Berkeley, the origins of Green Goddess salad dressing, an explanation of the love affair with sourdough bread, why there are buried ships underwater and butterflies in the skies above, and the reason one should thank Oakland—ok, Emeryville—if one loves mai tais.
Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock
By Jenny Odell
Following on the heels of her 2019 bestseller, How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell launches an exploration of time and activism on a broader scale. A daylong trip that began at the Port of Oakland and included a stop at a nearby beach, a community library and a columbarium led her to considerations of phrases and terminology such as “time is money” and “time management.” Eventually, Odell turned to thoughts about the climate crisis, mortality, mass incarceration, leisure and work and planetary time, European colonialism, bird-watching, existential dread and more.
Odell suggests that revisiting conceptions of time and choosing actions that lead to a better future for oneself and the Earth is vital and holds potential to transform relationships and alter the values placed on human labor and the planet’s natural resources. A voracious intellectual appetite is behind Odell’s books: Expect to be both fed and left hungering by Saving Time.
Deep Oakland: How Geology Shaped a City
By Andrew Alden
Available May 2
Curious about Oakland’s origins? Pick up geologist Andrew Alden’s immersive investigation of the area’s geological underbelly. Fault lines and flat lands, high hills and Lake Merritt, ice-age sand dunes that preceded oak forests, a volcano and shaking tectonic plates—plus stories of Oakland’s Ohlone people, early settlers and transplants—fall into the narrative about urban structure and the city’s every nook, cranny, rock and road.
Eleven pen-and-ink illustrations by Laura Cunningham provide a compelling map of the city’s landscape throughout history. Alden suggests geology defines not only cities, but if attended to, geology reveals people as they once were and shapes who they might become. Oakland and the geological story told of its history, he concludes, “is a good place to start listening.”
You Can’t Stay Here Forever
By Katherine Lin
Available June 13
Katherine Lin is a Bay Area-based attorney and writer whose debut novel is getting some buzz. You Can’t Stay Here Forever picks up steam from its setting in a high-and-mighty San Francisco law firm, where young widow Ellie Huang has not only suffered the death of her new husband, but a horrifying, infuriating secret. Her husband had a longtime sexual liaison with a woman who is a colleague in Huang’s office.
Enraged, escape is high on her mind when Huang cashes in his life insurance policy and flees with her best friend to the French Riviera. Lin’s sharp writing and perspectives on the Asian American experience in modern times, the shifting tides of marriages and the complexity of friendships signal a captivating new voice on the literary scene.
Some book picks added by Sharan Street (SS).