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Cal's 'unofficial' summer reading list
War and peace is the 2003 theme; the usual suspects are AWOL

| 05 June 2003

"We're sending you something that you don't need to figure out, fill out, or even respond to," reads a recent letter from the Berkeley campus to the incoming freshman class. What follows is a reading list — not an official list or a required list, but the campus's popular annual "unofficial" compendium of recommended titles (both fiction and nonfiction) for students about to launch their Cal careers.

This year, with international conflict much on people's minds, campus librarians, faculty, and staff were asked to offer suggestions on the theme of war and peace. The responses were not at all predictable: War and Peace is not on the list of 13 summer-reading tomes; nor are the Civil War classic The Red Badge of Courage or the monumental World War I novel All Quiet on the Western Front.

Consider, however, Kate Seredy's The Singing Tree, a children's book set in Hungary, or War Torn, an anthology from women reporters who covered the War in Vietnam.

Professor of African American Studies Bil Banks, in his pitch for the timely tome The Language War by Berkeley linguist Robin Tolmach Lakoff, notes that the Berkeley campus "provides no refuge from the contentiousness of the world outside. Incoming students," he says, "will be bombarded with arguments about matters like 'nation building,' 'color blindness,' and 'unintended consequences.'… Their intellectual struggle would be aided by digesting The Language War."

A few titles — such as Tim O'Brien's Vietnam memoir/fiction, The Things They Carried — "are really directly about war," says Steve Tollefson of College Writing Programs, who compiled this year's list along with Elizabeth Dupuis, head of Instructional Services at the Library. "Others are slightly askew but still wonderful."

Colonialism and its consequences figure in several selections — Jean Rhys' West Indian Jane Eyre doubletake, Wide Sargasso Sea; a treatise on colonial India, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Ni๑o Famines and the Making of the Third World; and the lyrical Indonesian novel This Earth of Mankind. Meanwhile, Earth soldiers do battle with outer-space insects in a more quintessential beach read, Starship Troopers by sci-fi great Robert Heinlein.

Here are the 13 recommended titles, with blurbs from their campus sponsors.

The Singing Tree
By Kate Seredy
"This is a children's book set in Hungary before and during World War I. It is about war and tolerance and the common humanity of everyone, regardless of national origin. It's also a coming-of-age novel, with a spirited, independent girl as the main character, and lots of detail about daily farm life in Hungary. The story of the "singing tree" which the father recounts when he returns from the war is truly memorable. If you have children, read this to them. If you've never read it, or read it as a child, read it again now."
— Aija Kanbergs, Teaching Library Program Coordinator

Late Victorian Holocausts: El Ni๑o Famines and the Making of the Third World
By Mike Davis
"In the world at the moment, it is hard to think of war and peace in terms of anything but military violence. Nonetheless, it is hard to think of the six million civilian deaths between 1876–1878 in India resulting from British colonial free market policies as anything other than war. People died not from food shortages due to an El Niño drought but from food shortages resulting from the export of food to England and the concentration of resources on celebrating Queen Victoria as Empress of India. This is a searing book. Read it and you will never again think in the same way about famine, population, trade in food, the British Empire, or Queen Victoria."
— Louise Fortmann, professor, Environmental Science, Policy, and Management

The Things They Carried
By Tim O'Brien
"This book does what all good books do—transports the reader. In this case, I was transported back to times I did not want to revisit: May 11, 1969, Mother's Day, my uncle was killed on Hamburger Hill in one of the last major battles of the Vietnam War. April, 1975, the fall of Saigon, another uncle, with the Department of State, and my aunt, a supply pilot, were evacuated. They returned to the U.S., guarding treasures from their Vietnamese friends, brought back for safekeeping as the South fell. My aunt and uncle's stateside home looked like a Vietnamese secondhand store. Over the years, some families came to reclaim their possessions, and the house was slowly emptied out of the memories stored there.

"The Things They Carried feels like my aunt and uncle's home: a collection of memories brought back from the war, slowly emptied out. Some of them horrify in familiar ways that war stories do; others deal more with the pre-war and post-war interior conflicts.

"Although characterized as fiction, this book rings very, very true. And, as O'Brien himself writes, 'A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.'"
— Maggie Sokolik, lecturer, College Writing Programs; assistant director, GSI Teaching and Resource Center

Wide Sargasso Sea
By Jean Rhys
"It tells the 'other half' of Jane Eyre—the story of Rochester's 'madwoman in the attic.' It is a violent, lyrical novel that challenges colonialism, race, gender, and power. It is also written by a woman of color about a woman of color—i.e., nonwest. There are all kinds of wars going on—from slave/indigenous revolts against the colonizing British, to more oblique attacks on the nature of hierarchical systems in general—power/gender/race."
— Jeff Reimer, professor and associate dean,
chemical engineering/Graduate Division

War Torn: Stories of War From the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam
Edited by Tad Bartimus
"Watching C-Span's Book TV one night, I came across a panel of journalists who were discussing their experiences in Vietnam as the first women allowed to report from the combat field. Though this experience took place more than a quarter of a century ago, it was very present in their animated expressions and emotional voices. Listening to them, I could not decide whether to watch the program or rush out to the bookstore and buy a copy. I put in a videotape and went to the bookstore. These nine essays are as different as the experiences of the women who wrote them. The book contains vivid accounts of what it took for a woman to get a press pass to cover the war; hop a chopper into the combat field; survive being held as a prisoner of war; undergo reconstructive plastic surgery after coming out of the field with a face full of shrapnel. The book reads like an adventure story on one level, and on the other it is a graphic, lucid illustration of the commitment these women had to finding and reporting the truth of the war in Vietnam."
— Jane Hammons, lecturer, College Writing Programs

Starship Troopers
By Robert Heinlein
"Perhaps best known because of the recent film, this provocative book links citizenship to military service in a deep-space epic war against enemy aliens whose culture resembles those of colony insects such as ants. It follows the adventures of young Johnny Rico from high school to command as an officer of starship troopers. Incidentally, while the troopers are men, all of the astronauts who command the starships are women, because they are better equipped mentally and physically to handle the job."
— Charles Faulhaber, director, The Bancroft Library; professor, Spanish

The Assault
By Harry Mulisch
"Mulisch turned 75 last year and was highly celebrated in the Netherlands. He is a writer whose family was enmeshed in the history of World War II. His family on his mother's side almost entirely perished in the concentration camps; his father was imprisoned for being a Nazi sympathizer. His novel, made into a movie in 1986 (De Aanslag in Dutch), tells the story of Anton Steenwijk in episodes during and after the war. He gets caught up in the pain and contradictions of the war, a reflection of Mulisch's life. This is a morality play, where right and wrong are often hard to distinguish from each other. I think it reflects on our time as well, a time where we have to look at all sides of the situation and see that everything is not so black and white."
— Steve Mendoza, research, reference, and collections specialist

By Pat Barker
"This is the first of a trilogy set in World War I Britain (Volume III goes on to the Front), describing what happens when an officer, who believes the war is insane, is himself declared insane by psychiatrists and other officers to avoid having to execute him for treasonous convictions. Richly written, based in part on the life of gay poet Siegfried Sassoon and the psychiatrist Dr. William Rivers whose work pioneered new insights into modern psychology. The other volumes in the trilogy are also excellent: The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road."
— Joe Barker, Teaching Library program coordinator

Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity
By Primo Levi
"This isn't exactly a book about a war; it's a book about making war against humanity and therefore its original Italian title, "If this is a man?" is more apt. This autobiographical account of Auschwitz by the great Italian writer is a miracle of writing. It is so meticulous, so precise, and so detailed. It raises the largest possible questions as it depicts the most specific material details. And while it rigorously avoids sentimentalism and moralizing, the great beauty of its writing offers the reader an encounter with the very humanity that the concentration camp sought to exterminate."
— Susan Maslan, assistant professor, French

The Language War
By Robin Tolmach Lakoff
"Fortunately, the Berkeley campus provides no refuge from the contentiousness of the world outside. Incoming students will be bombarded with arguments about matters like 'nation building,' 'color blindness,' and 'unintended consequences.' Given the curiosity of Berkeley undergraduates and the mission of the university, they will work to sift through the rhetoric and draw some conclusions. Their intellectual struggle would be aided by digesting The Language War by Robin Tolmach Lakoff. Lakoff, professor of Linguistics at Berkeley, provides a thoughtful examination of how and why language is mobilized as a weapon in contests for power and authority in society. She analyzes the interests and ideologies at play when powerful and less powerful groups brawled over issues like political correctness and hate speech, the 'cult of victimology,' and the O.J. Simpson trial. Lakoff's thesis, that the control of language has an effect on economic and civil rights, is worthy of critical reflection. During 2003–2004 phrases like 'diversity, 'collateral damage,' 'nation building,' and even 'The American People' may come to be understood differently by those who read Lakoff and rise to her important challenge."
— Bil Banks, professor, African American Studies

The Company of Strangers
By Robert Wilson
"Covering a fifty-year sweep, World War II–Cold War–European
localities—East Berlin, Lisbon, London, featuring a fully realized female protagonist in a "manly" milieu. Simultaneously romantic and unsentimental, this superb, filmic, willfully honest novel is for lovers of the espionage genre who are game to re-imagine the roles and relationships of mothers and daughters. War, peace, reconciliation—among nations, among ourselves—Wilson both captures the period and illuminates the motivations and consequences in an oh-so-human enterprise."
— Imani Abalos, library research, reference, and collections specialist

This Earth of Mankind
By Pramoedya Ananta Toer
"Toer wrote This Earth of Mankind, the first of four novels known as the Buru Quartet, while a political prisoner on Buru Island from 1965–1979, a time when he was often forced to do hard labor. Because of writing Indonesia's history truly, with understanding portrayals of the Chinese and of the Communists, his government banned his works. Although many of his writings were destroyed, these lyrical novels, formed as he told stories of his people's history to lift the spirits of fellow prisoners, survived. Written on scraps of paper, this novel was then smuggled out of prison. Toer's works, long banned in Indonesia, have been published in over twenty languages. His depictions of Indonesia's anti-colonialist struggles resonate profoundly with other such struggles worldwide. When Toer read on the Berkeley campus in May 1999, he was heard in pin-drop silence; many believe he ought long since to have received the Nobel Prize for Literature."
— Phyllis Bischof, African and African American Studies librarian

The Face of Battle
By John Keegan
"The author's focus is upon the soldier's experience in this military history. Keegan tries to answer the question, "What was it like?" His descriptions of the French knights' experience at the battle of Agincourt, or the Tommies' on the Somme are both utterly convincing and surprising. This sort of history tells us not only what we didn't know but what we should know. If we're going to send armies off to war, we ought to know what it will be like for them and those they will encounter. This book is a beginning."
— Diane Fortner, physics librarian

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