She was way ahead of her time: an explorer, naturalist, farmer, and philanthropist, sugar heiress Annie Montague Alexander founded two UC Berkeley natural history museums in an era when American women weren't allowed to vote. Not only that, but the partner who shared her life and work for forty years was a woman.
Braving the elements and a virtually all-male scientific community, Alexander collected thousands of animal, plant, and fossil specimens throughout an American West that was undergoing rapid development and would never be the same again. Much of her work was done side by side with Oakland-bred Louise Kellogg.
In On Her Own Terms (UC Press, $35), author Barbara R. Stein explores the life and loves of Alexander, a woman she calls "virtually unknown."
"Of the four women who were the university's great benefactors" during the first half of the 20th century -- Phoebe Apperson Hearst, Jane Sather, Cora Flood, and Annie Alexander -- "Alexander is the only one whose name does not appear on a single structure on the Berkeley campus," Stein points out. Yet Alexander's work and that which she funded yielded a wealth of knowledge about what lived where, from bears to ferns to saurians. In the book, we follow Alexander and Kellogg on expeditions to Alaska and the Pyramids of Giza and beyond.
They definitely were a couple. "But Alexander was such a private person that, although there's a mountain of circumstantial evidence" supporting the pair's relationship, Stein says, "there's almost nothing concrete. They worked hard at keeping it private," which might help account for Alexander's low profile, then and now. Stein found "almost no correspondence" between the two women. And in forty years of diaries, "after the first few months there's almost no evidence that there was more than one person there."
One of Alexander's key strategies was to finance research in pieces of territory that faced imminent development, Stein says. It was an early kind of environmental impact report.
"She never lost sight of her vision," says Stein, who was Curatorial Associate at Cal's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology for fifteen years. "And it was an uncompromising vision."
As UC Berkeley's chancellor from 1952 to 1958 and then university president from 1958 to 1967, Clark Kerr watched all of American culture changing forever, with UCB in the vanguard of that transformation. In The Gold and the Blue (UC Press, $35), the hefty first volume of his memoirs, Kerr looks back.
Berkeley and its crowning university are now dubbed "Athens West," but fifty years ago, comparisons to Sparta were more apt. Compared to other schools at that time, Kerr recalls, UCB was a cultural wasteland.
"An abandoned utility building just east of Sather Gate served as an excuse for an art gallery. The large classroom in Wheeler Hall, holding 800 persons, was used for dramatic performances," he laments. "Both were very unsatisfactory." Ribbings by colleagues from colleges farther east spurred Kerr into action; among the results of his mid-'50s development plan are Zellerbach Hall and the Berkeley Art Museum -- though he and his administrators were foiled in their attempt to persuade Peggy Guggenheim "to give her Venice collection of paintings and other artwork to us."
Amid musings on the "political theatrics" and "so-called Free Speech Movement" that marked the campus toward the end of his years there, Kerr calls People's Park "the one tragedy" that came out of the development plan. Intended for a residence hall, the Southside property was the scene of an infamous student takeover which, upon the arrival of the National Guard, ended in over a hundred injuries and one death. "In practice," Kerr declares, "the area has been held ever since by street people" and "is, I believe, the only area relinquished to street people on any US university or college campus -- relinquished by Governor Reagan's Board of Regents."
For UCB students, alumni, and faculty, this book is a goldmine of inside information and nostalgia. Called by his critics the "red chancellor" of the "red campus," Kerr now mourns other missteps -- including Wurster Hall. Home of UCB's College of Architecture, the blocky behemoth went up when "the style in our age was brutalism, and Wurster Hall was the very summit of its age." Kerr's first sight of the finished product left him "aghast." Even now, "I sometimes dream that I am planting blue gum eucalpyti all around this building and then watering them!" he confides slyly.
Couples who haven't lost that lovin' feelin' fill the pages of Sweet Life (Cleis, $14.95), an anthology of explicit tales. Its editor, Berkeley's Violet Blue, is a Good Vibrations sex educator; the "lucky characters in the stories" by 21 different authors, she explains, "bring their forbidden fantasies into reality in any number of ingenious ways." In some instances, "boyfriends and husbands become doctors, headmasters, daddies -- or simply do as they're told and emerge more satisfied than ever." In others, "girlfriends and wives try on schoolgirl outfits and strap-ons to discover what they've been missing." Been wondering what to do during these cold, rainy days?
And while we're in that pulsing, throbbing vein, consider The Book of the Courtesans (Broadway, $24.95), in which Berkeley's own Pulitzer Prize finalist Susan Griffin unveils dozens of elegant enchantresses, including Madame de Pompadour, Lola Montez, Marion Davies, and Sarah Bernhardt.
"To claim that courtesans were prostitutes would be deceptively simple," the author warns. "To become a courtesan was a promotion of great proportions, a fortunate leap into an unimaginably better life. Unlike a prostitute, a courtesan did not live in a brothel, never walked the streets, nor did she, strictly speaking, have a pimp to control and bully her."
Always literary, the book blends biography and thoughtful analysis with salacious gossip -- Davies, who "was neither especially good nor bad at acting" and whose closeup reveals crooked teeth, once hurled raw vegetables at a butler who opened the door of a mansion at which she was trick-or-treating. And Marie Duplessis, whose short life is the basis of both La Traviata and Camille and who made starvation wages at a sweatshop before meeting the count who would make all the difference, worked hard at exchanging her Norman accent for a French one.
Though the women we meet in this book date way back, Griffin maintains that the "kind of magic" they wove goes on and on.
"Josephine Baker, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Gracie Allen, Elizabeth Taylor, Susan Sarandon, Madonna, and Chloë Sevigny," the author notes, "reshape and continue what is even now a living legacy."
A lost childhood friendship haunts the expatriate heroine of Holly Thompson's new novel Ash (Stone Bridge, $16.95) everywhere she goes: to an Obon festival, a love hotel, and through the weird miasma of a town at the mercy of an active volcano. Thompson had never given Japan much thought till one night a while back when she met a man in an East Coast bar who was wearing geta -- wooden Japanese clogs. She married him, and now lives in Kamakura. Her world there, where she's raising two kids, is "the Japan that is not sleek and urban, nor the exclusive world of geisha and samurai," explains Thompson, whose debut work from the small Berkeley press brings alive day-to-day details that give the tale an authentic and often wrenchingly honest feel.
Living and writing "outside one's home country strips a person down to an embarrassingly naked self, without familiar referents," she notes. The book is set in Kagoshima, during a year "when ashfall from Sakurajima was intense and alarming ... my husband and I returned time and again, enamored of the surrounding lush volcanic landscape and fascinated by this unique ash lifestyle."
Berkeley's Small Press Distribution is hosting its annual open house and book sale on Saturday, Dec. 1 in its warehouse at 1341 7th St. Refreshments will be served, and writers reading from their work will include Francisco X. Alarcón, K. Silem Mohammad, and guest of honor Vallejo-born Joanne Kyger. The company's attractive sign was swiped last month, then bits of it started appearing, letter by letter, for sale at a local salvage yard. You might think a clue to the thief's identity lay in whichever letters didn't turn up at the yard, but no. The missing letters spelled out INSI. Or SNII. Then again, it also spells I SIN.
In The California Coast (Voyageur, $29.95), packed with pictures by East Bay photographer Gary Crabbe and text by UC Berkeley grad Karen Misuraca, we learn that Ralph Waldo Emerson once called California's best feature "its days. It has better days, and more of them," he mused, "than any other country."
Misuraca and Crabbe traveled up and down the coast preparing for the book, and rediscovered "places we hadn't seen since we were kids." She fell in love all over again with Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, near Orick in redwood country. One of the park's canyons "is a mile-long gorge splitting a coastal bluff and walled by fifty-foot cliffs lavishly draped in sword ferns, lady ferns, horsetail, and five-finger ferns." Salamanders nearly a foot long slither around the wild strawberry and rhododendron.
Writing about Southern California was a little harder.
"You can't just ignore the smog and traffic. It's there." But if you stand on the sand facing the sea "and don't look behind you," the author suggests, the region has more than its share of charms. Designated a national park, the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara "were a total revelation." En route, "you can see literally thousands of dolphins."
If fear of flying is taking its toll, our own beaches beckon. Their mystique isn't just a Hollywood invention, says Misuraca, who will present a slide show with Crabbe at Book Passage in Corte Madera on Feb. 10. "It's all real." all the news that fits about print
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