A robber baron who wrested control of Oakland’s waterfront, a Sunset District-raised single mother serving consecutive life sentences, an artist-naturalist politicized by Mount Diablo—in fiction and nonfiction alike, writers continue to use small patches of the Bay Area to explore sprawling political and ecological systems of critical importance to California and beyond.
Some of the books below attempt to invent new genres—there’s a polemic atlas, a trio of unreliable memoirs and a sort of self-help guide for activists along with novels and biographies—but they have a common interest in bringing to life local neighborhoods, people, and natural settings.
Jenny Odell, 'How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy' (Melville House)
In How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell argues that by capturing and monetizing the impulse to build community, social media companies siphon our capacity to collectively build real power. She proposes instead rootedness and refusal in place, incorporating the composer-philosopher Pauline Oliveros’ concept of “deep listening” as well as bioregionalism, a way to look at human culture in its immediate natural context, as a repertoire of strategies for “resisting the attention economy.” Odell points out that the “nothing” she prescribes is only nothing from the view of capitalist productivity, and tellingly describes her book as a sort of self-help guide for activists.
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The Oakland artist and writer, who grew up in the Bay Area, illustrates many of her ideas with birdwatching, contrasting the observational practice’s generative depth with the mere units of time that social media companies consider “attention”; for advertising-sales purposes, all attention that’s quantifiable is equal. (This helps show how many “mindfulness” products and services—say, apps that restrict social media usage—overlook the problem they’re supposed to solve.) Similarly, Odell persuasively argues against “dropping out.” Righteous social-media abstention is a privilege, often performed online once someone marshals enough cultural capital to forego one platform or another. She also rejects the historical connotations of going back to the land, examining the failures and libertarian underpinnings of several utopian communes. Rather, Odell believes in overcoming the alienating undertow of social-media, with its machinations of persuasive design, by embracing the land beneath our feet, especially right here in the city.
Obi Kaufmann, 'The State of Water' (Heyday)
Obi Kaufmann grew up near Mount Diablo, where the Central Valley meets the San Francisco Bay Area, learning the names of plants and animals and creating maps of its trails. Now based in Oakland, the artist and writer eventually broadened his attention to all of California, and learning to identify the state’s flora and wildlife deepened his fascination with the complex, vulnerable ecological systems to which they belong. The contemporary artist-naturalist’s lush watercolor trail paintings and state maps fill the bestselling California Field Atlas, a meditation on the state’s overlapping, and often discordant, natural and political features, published by the Berkeley company Heyday Books. This year Kaufmann followed up with the relatively slender yet pointed The State of Water: Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource. The book finds Kaufmann using gorgeous maps to show the state’s water infrastructure as well as form solution-based arguments for conservation and restoration.
Kevin Killian, 'Fascination' (Semiotext(e))
Kevin Killian, the multi-hyphenate writer who died in 2019, authored three novels, a memoir, three short-story collections, four books of poetry, countless pieces of criticism and more than 30 plays for the San Francisco Poets Theater, along with thousands of Amazon reviews. He also had a vast influence as a mentor, collaborator and leading figure of the Bay Area literary movement known as new narrative. So where to begin? Fascination, published in 2018, brings together three memoirs, however unreliable, centered on his life of boozy abandon in 1970s Long Island. The winking, lyrical prose, which seems to revel in its own creation, conveys Killian’s interior life, relationships and outrageous sexual encounters with a palpable thrill of discovery. Killian’s work is suffused with literary and pop culture references, interpretive aids to guide the reader along, and the collection’s final piece, Triangles in the Sand, recounts his awkward, reluctant affair with the cellist and composer Arthur Russell.
Rachel Kushner, 'The Mars Room' (Scribner)
The Mars Room, the latest novel by The Flamethrowers author Rachel Kushner, follows Romy Hall from her time as a single mother and stripper in San Francisco to her life as a prisoner serving consecutive life sentences in Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in the Central Valley. The story unfolds through flashbacks that withhold the pivotal event in order to explore its two main settings, depicting San Francisco and prison along one trajectory. It’s refreshing to read about an adolescent’s specifically Sunset District upbringing in the 1990s (the tech industry is hardly mentioned), even if her experiences there are thoroughly dispiriting. Kushner’s rendering of prison, researched through correspondence and visits, comes similarly freighted with arresting detail. The Mars Room presents incarceration as a system of compounding injustice, nakedly cruel, and illustrates points similar to those of activists calling for prison’s abolition, not mere reform.
Andrew Stoner, 'The Journalist of Castro Street: The Life of Randy Shilts' (University of Illinois Press)
When Randy Shilts started working as a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle in 1981—he’s considered the first openly gay journalist on the gay beat at a major daily—he had only an inkling of the darkness gathering over his subject and community. Gay men were then developing rare forms of pneumonia and skin cancer, stoking prejudice against the “homosexual lifestyle.” Shilts foresaw what wasn’t yet known as AIDS as a public health crisis, and agitated for prominent coverage. His reporting on the epidemic’s social and political effects culminated in the 1987 tome And the Band Played On, which showed how bigotry hastened AIDS’ spread. Throughout his career, Shilts advocated for the gay community to the famously indifferent political establishment (Ronald Reagan refused to acknowledge AIDS for years), and navigated controversies within the gay community itself. The Journalist of Castro Street: The Life of Randy Shilts, a new biography by Andrew Stoner, charts his short life: Shilts was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1987, the year his groundbreaking book published, and died in 1994. He was 42.
Roland De Wolk, 'American Disruptor: The Scandalous Life of Leland Stanford' (University of California Press)
The original tech bro? Leland Stanford, co-founder of Stanford University, emerges as a spiritual forefather of Silicon Valley-style monopolism, exploitation and conflicts of interest in this dramatic new biography by Bay Area journalism professor Roland De Wolk. Stanford, working from Sacramento following the Gold Rush, wrested control of the expanding railroad by buying competitors, bribing regulators and, in a brazen feat of corruption, using his tenure as California governor to consolidate power. He was a known liar and racist who inveighed against Chinese immigrants and led state government as it incentivized the genocide of Native Americans. He commissioned depictions of himself as a deity, among other decadent gestures. And as De Wolk’s biography makes clear, Stanford’s influence pervades modern California, not least the Bay Area: His railroad ending in Oakland led to the city becoming a stronghold of African American trade unionism, and oriented much of West Oakland’s extant street grid. Stanford University, though, is his most visible artifact, a key node in what critics call our new Gilded Age.
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