Jerry Lee Lewis wasn't the only guy who ever had a thirteen-year-old bride. Sgt. Luís Peralta, born circa 1759 and on whose former property you almost undoubtedly now live, married adolescent María Alviso at the South Bay's Mission Santa Clara in 1784. Her seventeen-plus subsequent pregnancies increased the East Bay's population some; in 1820, Peralta secured the land grant for what was then called Rancho San Antonio. It spanned the territory "between San Leandro and El Cerrito creeks, and reached from the crest of the hills to the water, all of which is now occupied by six and a half cities," we learn in The Peraltas and Their Houses (Alameda County Historical Society, $8.50), a reprint of a landmark 1951 work by historian J.N. Bowman, who taught at UC Berkeley from 1906 to 1912.
The slim volume, pinpointing the locations of former adobes such as the dirt-floored, tile-roofed one "built," as the book tells us, "in the middle of the present block bounded by Telegraph Avenue, Fifty-fifth, Fifty-sixth, and Vicente streets, Oakland," is "strangely entertaining," confesses historical-society boardmember Kenneth Pettitt, who wrote the preface to this edition. Picturing "a small adobe, perhaps 30x18 feet, on the south bank of Codornices Creek in present Berkeley," produces a curious thrill.
"And it all really happened," Pettitt reminds us.
It's got sea turtles, deserted sugar-white beaches, smooth new highways, drinkable tap water, and some of the friendliest folks on the globe. So why is Panama still such a well-kept secret?
"Costa Rica's got better PR," says William Friar, whose new Adventures in Nature: Panama (Avalon, $17.95) might just have you packing your swimsuit and heading southeast in seconds. "When people think of Panama, they think of Noriega and cocaine and snakes, but that's not fair."
The Contra Costa Times rock-music critic grew up in Panama, so he should know. It's got a lot of things those more popular places don't. Cultural diversity, for one: "It's been a crossroads for hundreds of years." Fabulous national parks, for another. And smiles, the author says.
"I've never seen so many as in the Azuero Peninsula," says Friar, who will give a slide show at Easy Going in Berkeley on June 14. "Not just contented smiles but truly happy ones."
And you can't beat those empty beaches.
One of Friar's favorite lodgings "has no electricity except in the dining room. In the evenings they bring you a kerosene lamp." Simplicity, he says, goes a long way.
She was writing a novel about an imaginary island. Then one day Edie Meidav told a friend about the plot. It sounded, said the friend, like a page out of the history of a real island: Sri Lanka.
"So I thought: If that's true, let me go see," says Meidav. One Fulbright fellowship and a few years later, the Berkeley native's new book The Far Field (Houghton Mifflin, $25) is, in fact, set in pre-WWII Ceylon.
Memories of Madame Blavatsky haunt her protagonist, a bumbling American steeped in the ambitious if pretentious spirituality of that Theosophist diva's drawing room--from which he ventures overseas on a mission to build a model Buddhist society.
Writing a nearly-600-page book from a male character's point of view and setting the story amid a culture not her own were gambles, the author admits. "But I have a real belief in the saving power of empathy."
Her character has his share of rude awakenings, many of which, Meidav says, "arise from that strange combination we have in Berkeley of extreme curiosity about 'the other' and, at the same time, extreme self-satisfaction." Growing up in what she calls this town's "cultural buffet" sparked a lifetime's worth of insights into imperialism and idealism, all of which she works into the story.
Way out west, kids and adults all "knew they were part of history," Luchetti says. "And they were all growing up together. The parents didn't know how to plow fields or shoot guns. They'd say to a five-year-old, 'Okay, Johnny, keep an eye out and kill any bears that come by.' And oddly enough, those kids measured up."
This haunting look at frontier family life, packed with revealing photographs of families at work and play in the wide-open spaces, is the author's ninth excursion into a world inhabited by her own pioneer ancestors, one of whom planted the Napa Valley's second-ever vineyard. In a time and place where adventure and sudden death were ever-present, "these kids had a feeling of optimism, that they could do anything they wanted," Luchetti muses. Kids today, on the other hand, "even though they have all the advantages, too often have a sense of despair."
Compassion's one answer, she says. Pioneers knew how much they needed each other, both inside and outside the family.
"There wasn't any such thing as a stranger."
But then came Dec. 7, 1941. "Rumors spread," the artist later wrote, that Japanese Americans all over California "were being taken out to the desert and shot by a firing squad."
In Henry Sugimoto: Painting an American Experience ($24.95), Berkeley's Heyday Books offers a look at Pearl Harbor and its aftermath that you won't get at the movies. Confined with his family first at Fresno and then at Arkansas' Jerome Relocation Center, Sugimoto left a chillingly lovely record in the form of paintings and sketches of barracks, babies, and workrooms. The book's running commentary includes much of Sugimoto's own writing. ("Of course, it was impossible to be picky about what you wanted to eat," he recalls about the mess hall.)
"The mark you leave on this world can be washed away without a trace," the artist wrote not long before his death in 1990. "I was convinced that I could not let the mark I leave behind ... be washed away and disappear." That's a lesson for all of us.
Newsham's hundred-day journey, thirteen years ago, in search of a stranger to invite home became his book Take Me with You (Travelers' Tales, $24). Now that stranger, a father of five who has never before left the Philippines, will join Newsham, at the author's expense, on a cross-country trek.
"That's the most American experience of all," says Newsham, a cabdriver, who plans to start that experience with an A's game and a soak at clothing-optional Harbin Hot Springs. CBS' Early Show will screen the pair's leave-taking on June 12.
Also new this month from the San Francisco publisher is 365 Travel ($14.95), a day-by-day compendium of meditations and ruminations on hitting the road by dozens of celebrated writers. Who better to put you in the ticket-buying, train-boarding mood than Isak Dinesen, Edward Abbey, and Freya Stark? Not to mention surprises such as S.J. Perelman, Virginia Woolf, and Sir Winston Churchill.
"I found wonderful writers whom I didn't know ever wrote about travel," laughs the book's editor, Oakland's Lisa Bach, who spent hours and hours in her local Temescal Branch library and beyond. The challenge "wasn't just finding 365 pieces, but 365 that went well together and weren't all, 'Great place, lotsa fun,'" Bach points out. "We've got the shadow side of travel here too."
Culture Spy - February 19, 1:45 PM
What the Fork - February 15, 2:00 PM
Culture Spy - February 15, 10:30 AM
Culture Spy - February 12, 5:45 PM
What the Fork - February 8, 3:57 PM