Category: Reviews


Native Eye

by Dugan Aguilar

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

Editor’s note: Dugan Aguilar has made a life’s work of photographing California Indians. Malcolm Margolin, publisher of Heyday and a Boom editorial board member, writes of Aguilar, in his preface to the photographer’s new book She Sang Me a Good Luck Song:

“He’s generous in his judgment of people. He approaches his subject not as a conqueror, not as a hunter out to capture an image, but as a shy, diffident admirer. He treats everyone and everything with deep and genuine respect. He seems more than willing to step out of the way. Watching him work, one has the feeling that he is not ‘taking’ pictures—‘taking’ is such an aggressive word. He seems to set things up in such a way as to allow a picture to happen.

“Yet make no mistake. In his quiet and persistent way, Dugan is a fighter, for some forty years now battling an enemy that has done everything it can to destroy Indian people: silence. Silence has erased Indian names from the landscape, has all but written Indians out of the history of California, has expunged Indian presence from the our daily consciousness. In the face of this pervasive silence, the tendency is to turn the dial up and make loud noises—photos that scream at you, overloaded with drama and intensity. Dugan has chosen another way. Rather than overdramatize, his photos whisper. They whisper to us with quiet intimacy, revealing not only people’s physical presence but hinting at their daydreams, suggesting something of the richness of their inner lives.”

She Sang Me a Good Luck Song, edited by Theresa Harlan, will be published by Heyday in June 2015.

Cousin Fred, Truckee, 1982.

Franklin Mullens, veterans’ gathering, Susanville, 2000.

Mimi Mullen (Maidu), grand marshal, 1997 Greenville Gold Digger Days parade.

Feathers with Flair, Susanville Parade, ca. 1987.

Jennifer Bates, Oakland Big Time, 1996.

Isabella, Spring Flower Dance, ca. 2004.


The Atlas of California: Mapping the Challenge of a New Era

For decades a global leader, inspiring the hopes and dreams of millions, California has recently faced double-digit unemployment, multi-billion dollar budget deficits and the loss of trillions in home values. This atlas brings together the latest research and statistics in a graphic form that gives shape and meaning to these numbers. It shows a new California in the making, as it maps the economic, social, and political trends of a state struggling to maintain its leadership and to continue to offer its citizens the promise of prosperity.

Among the world’s largest economies, California is the nation’s agricultural powerhouse, high tech crucible and leader in renewable energy. The state is the most populous and most diverse state in the continental U.S. Yet its infrastructure is coming under increasing pressure. Water supply systems are strained, the legendary highways are over capacity, and the celebrated system of public schooling is unable to offer affordable quality education at all levels. Health and welfare services, particularly for the poor, needy, disabled, and seniors, are at great risk.

Richard Walker and Suresh Lodha’s The Atlas of California shows a new California in the making.


Dances with California

Brenda Hillman, Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (Wesleyan University Press, 144pp, $22.95)

Reviewed by Elizabeth A. Logan

What might a seed utter while talking back to Monsanto?

What would the creative process of a squirrel writing a poem look and sound like?

Brenda Hillman’s Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire dances with seeds and squirrels and will inspire today’s “people moaning at gas pumps” and tomorrow’s ecopoets.

Hillman’s poems embrace the layered world of the everyday – of memories, violence, activism, and the encounters we share with other living species even including termites.  She captures topics running through today’s news cycles such as drones, healthcare reform, and “Facelessbook.” But the work also reveals elements of the foundations of her present, be they onion soup flakes, Camus or brothers playing chess at Christmas.

If your reading style is to skip around like the hummingbirds that fill Hillman’s verses, consider reading first the dedication and then “Ecopoetics Minifesto: A Draft for Angie.” Within these two sections, Hillman provides a helpful framing of the work’s themes and concerns.

Seasonal Works is a treasure of letters on fire, miniature photographs, and scientific and non-English phrases. Hillman challenges us to more intensive observation and action. Pick up a copy and wander out into California’s noisy landscapes with Hillman as a guide.

Image at top by Chris.


Man with a Mission


By Sara V. Torres

Three hundred years ago in the Mediterranean isle of Majorca, the man who would become known as the father of the California missions was born.  “Junípero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions” at the Huntington Library  commemorates the tricentennial of his birth with a visually stunning exhibition that weaves together the intertwined stories of Serra’s career as a missionary to Spanish America and the complex Indian responses to mission life through rich artifacts of material culture drawn from both Spain and early California. It is open through January 6.

On display are important documentary records of Serra’s own life and the founding of early California missions, along with maps, paintings, reliquaries, and early Indian artifacts, comprising nearly 250 objects from The Huntington’s collections and sixty lending institutions in the US, Mexico, and Spain. The exhibition gives voice to the wide range of Native American experiences in California missions and captures, through documents, artifacts, and oral histories, their spirit of cultural resilience in the face of pandemic illness and the incursion of new cultures. Audiovisual features help convey the rich cultural diversity of the nearly 350,000 Native Americans who lived in California at time of Serra’s arrival, and the survival of indigenous traditions through centuries of upheaval.

Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Conveying the full arc of the missions’ history, the exhibition moves forward in time to explore the secularization of the missions and the subsequent displacement and social marginalization of Indians during the annexation of Alta California into the US. Displays focusing on romanticized “myths of the missions,” including The Mission Play and the popular Ramona stories, stand in stark counterpoint to the documentary records and photographs of real-life missions, challenging visitors to think critically about the place of missions within state history and legend.

Co-curator Steven Hackel’s new biography, Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father (352pp, $27), complements the exhibition by painting a full and nuanced portrait of the famous Franciscan missionary in great scholarly detail, with a particular emphasis on the cultural, intellectual, and theological contexts of Serra’s upbringing and early career in Mallorca and how these experiences informed his mission work in Baja and Alta California. Together, the exhibition and biography tell a fascinating history of a man whose memory is lined with an aura of saintliness and whose legacy is imbued with controversy.


Growing the California Dream

Trees in Paradise: A California History by Jared Farmer (W. W. Norton and Company, 592pp, $35)

Reviewed by Annie Powers

Imagining LA conjures a series of well-known images: the Hollywood sign, Sunset Boulevard, the sunny seashore. The less enthusiastic might imagine traffic jams on the freeways, a sea of cars roasting in the too-hot sun. And above all of these symbols, both literally and metaphorically, is just one—the palm tree. From postcards and tourist brochures to music videos and movie shoots, the palm marks any scene as quintessentially Los Angeles—and even quintessentially California. Tree and city, tree and state, are imagined as fundamentally interlinked.

Jared Farmer takes on this connection between trees and symbols in his impressively researched Trees in Paradise: A California History. Spanning the state’s history from the Gold Rush to the present, Farmer analyzes the ways in which people interacted with redwoods, eucalyptuses, orange groves, and palm trees in order to create the California dream. Crucially, Farmer’s history is neither strictly environmental nor strictly cultural. Instead, he carefully details the ways in which the people living in California used and abused trees to create a mythological paradise, a verdant land where anything at all was possible. Californians created that mythology on the trunks, leaves, and fruit of trees—and exported it to the rest of the nation. California’s trees came to signal an imagined state where dreams came true in the warmth of the sunshine and the shade of its leaves.

California has more trees now than it has had since the late Pleistocene about ten thousands years ago, but, Farmer argues, this process was far from natural. While Californians—and Americans—imagine the state and its mythology through its trees, those trees and that mythology had to be carefully planted, grown, and cultivated. With the exception of redwoods and a few species of palm, none of the trees Farmer discusses are native to California, and even those that are native have been modified and commodified for human use. But trees, too, are subject to changing tastes and sensibilities. Although non-native trees like the palm and orange remain embedded in the idea of the Golden State, others, like the eucalyptus, have fallen out of favor. Once beloved, the eucalyptus is now demonized as a hazardous non-native – in language eerily similar to the rhetoric used to criticize and exclude people who have come to California from elsewhere.

Farmer’s work is detailed and nuanced. Trees in Paradise weaves environment and culture into a single narrative. If you’ve ever eaten a California orange, seen a palm on a postcard, or marveled at a redwood, this book is for—and about—you.

Photograph at top by Gregory Wass.


Origins of the LA Riots

The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots, by Brenda Stevenson (Oxford University Press, 423pp, $29.95)

Reviewed by Annie Powers

On March 16, 1991, African-American teenager Latasha Harlins walked into the Empire Liquor Market in South Central LA. She grabbed a bottle of orange juice, slipped it into her backpack, and walked to the counter to pay. Korean shopkeeper Soon Ja Du, concerned that Harlins was trying to steal the juice, tried to take the girl’s backpack. Harlins fought back, and the pair struggled. Harlins threw punches. Du threw a stool. Finally, Harlins disengaged, leaving the orange juice, and turning toward the door. Du grabbed a gun from under the counter and shot Harlins in the back of the head. Latasha Harlins died clutching $2 that she had planned to use to buy some juice. Du was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, a conviction with a maximum sentence of 16 years in prison. But Soon Ja Du would serve no prison time. Instead, Judge Joyce Karlin, a Jewish woman, sentenced her to five years probation, community service, and a $500 fine. Less than six months later, police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted, and Los Angeles erupted into violence. The LA riots had begun.

The three women involved in the shooting of Harlins and sentencing of Du—a poor black girl, a Korean woman from a small-business owning family, and an affluent female Jewish judge—are the focus of UCLA historian Brenda Stevenson’s new book, The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins. By focusing on the death of Harlins and trial of Du, Stevenson moves away from a male-dominated narrative that emphasizes the police beating of Rodney King as the main cause of the LA riots. Instead, Stevenson argues, it was the Harlins murder and trial, a story centered on women, that was the real spark for the violence of spring 1992. The Harlins case crystallized frustrations among African-Americans about Korean-American shopkeepers in South Central LA, who seemed to regard their black customers as criminals. In the wake of Du’s sentencing, black Angelenos acutely felt that justice had been denied to Harlins and the black community. It was in reaction to the Harlins case that boycotts of Korean businesses began. It was through the experience of the Harlins case that African-Americans understood the Rodney King verdict and during the riots destroyed Korean shops. Stevenson’s shift of focus from Rodney King to the Harlins murder and verdict changes our understanding of the LA riots.

In her acknowledgments, Stevenson writes that this book has been in the works since 1991. Her long-term effort shows. Carefully assessing the intersections of gender, race, and class, Stevenson explores the circumstances under which Du could shoot Harlins and get off with a light sentence from Karlin. Stevenson does this by probing into the deep pasts of each player, extending her analytical reach into long histories of slavery, immigration, discrimination, poverty, and racism. This book is about Latasha Harlins, Soon Ja Du, and Joyce Karlin, but in many ways, it is about much more than that. It is about the importance of race, gender, and class in crime, justice, and, most crucially, lived experience. And perhaps most of all, it is about the ways in which history bleeds ever-forward into the present.

Photograph at top by Flickr user Dark Sevier


Reading for Liberalism

Reading for Liberalism: The Overland Monthly and the Writing of the Modern American West, by Stephen J. Mexal (University of Nebraska, 320pp, $65)

Reviewed by Sara V. Torres

Before there was Boom or Sunset, there was Overland Monthly. From 1868 to 1875 and from 1883 to 1935, this San Francisco-based regional periodical published writers such as Jack London, John Muir, Mark Twain, Ina Coolbrith, and Bret Harte, entertaining readers on both coasts with poetry, travelogues, short fiction, and political commentary. But the Overland Monthly aimed to do more than entertain—its early editors hoped it would help transform the social landscape of California itself by aiding in the state’s material development—a process they figured would ultimately expand the magazine’s own readership. The Overland Monthly often portrayed California as sophisticated and civilized—a far cry from its earlier reputation as a lawless, rough-and-tumble outpost—and thus contributed to the construction of some of the enduring, foundational, cultural myths of California. As Mexal writes, “The magazine’s auxiliary pose—dedicated to ‘development’ of both country and reader—meant that its literary output engaged certain master narratives about liberal selfhood and land use and then localized those narratives in California.” The Overland Monthly helped tame the cultural imaginary of the “wild West” by coloring California’s frontier land past with shades of romantic nostalgia. But, as Mexal’s incisive book points out, the magazine’s writers also engaged critically with discourses of wilderness and civilization at a decisive moment in California’s history as the state began to take the form we now recognize as home.

Illustration of Bessie Love and Douglas Fairbanks from the Overland Monthly.


Salsa Rules

Salsa Crossings: Dancing Latinidad in Los Angeles, by Cindy Garcia (Duke; 208 pages; $79.95)
Reviewed by Robert Smith

It takes two to tango, but LA-style salsa demands much more: at least one well-heeled pair of dancers and an admiring audience. For in Los Angeles, salsa dancing is a real production governed by unwritten rules that are nonetheless quite visible to the salsa cognoscenti. Apparently what amateur Angelenos do while twirling each other round their living rooms after watching Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights doesn’t cut it, according to Cindy Garcia, a professor of theater and dance whose Salsa Crossings: Dancing Latinidad in Los Angeles delineates the dizzying turns salsa takes on and off the dance floor — twists that most casual spectators might not appreciate.

The world of LA-style salsa that Garcia reveals is a select meritocracy that won’t admit dancers with the wrong clothes, the wrong shoes, and, especially, the wrong moves. Serious salseros and salseras must submit their bodies and movements to pedantic correction, for they must not betray markings of certain class or national origins. Particularly, the LA-salsa style that Garcia classifies as a “sequined” latinidad distinguishes itself from clothing that is easily identifiable with “la limpieza,” the cleaning industry, or other thankless, low-paying, service sector labor. Beyond the cultivation of an acceptable look, comportment on the dance floor is of utmost importance. To pass muster salsa technique should be specific to LA, for, unfortunately, among Los Angeles-salsa connoisseurs, “dancing like a Mexican” (or, more generally, “like an immigrant”) has become the most pejorative simile.

Those exceptionally adept at LA-style salsa have, even if only superficially, established the most distance between their nightclub identities and some of the most troubled history behind their choreography: the effects of racism, income disparity, gender politics, and anti-immigrant vitriol. Yet, as Garcia shows, salsa’s dance-floor revolutions aren’t just escapist fantasy—the most competitive dancers circulate upwards in a “salsa hierarchy” that rewards the paradoxical combination of conformity and innovation. In several clubs around Los Angeles, Garcia observed dancers attempting to better themselves and best each other in performing a conspicuously LA-style salsa. Salsa Crossings offers an insightful guide to reading these dancers who might look like they’re just having fun.

Photo courtesy of Gabriel Madrigal Photography.


A Passion for Place

Passion for Place: Community Reflections on the Carmel River Watershed, edited by Paola Fiorelle Berthoin, Laura Bayless and John Dotson. RisingLeaf Impressions, 2012, 172 pages; $49.50

Reviewed by Jonah Raskin

Like rivers, books can take time to reach their destinations. Published in 2012 after years in the making, Passion for Place—a compendium of art, essays, and interviews—is finding a niche close to the river that inspired it.

Paola Fiorelle Berthoin, the editor and driving force behind the book, is taking the book this August, September, and October, along with her own paintings and photographs, to events around Monterey County. The literary Carmelites Mary Austin and George Sterling, who lived in the watershed a hundred years ago, would likely join the festivities if they were around today. So would their summer guests, Jack and Charmian London, who often visited from Sonoma. Jack London raved about Carmel; he’d probably rave about Passion for Place. Like his best books, it takes readers on a journey, in this case inland, upstream, and into a watershed.

The product of grass roots creativity, the coffee-table book offers short stories, poems, sketches, essays, and a CD, plus color paintings and photographs by Berthoin, an Englishwoman who arrived in Carmel in 1965 and has never taken her eyes off the place. In more than 50 dazzling oil paintings, including “View from Carmel Valley Road,” she transforms familiar scenes into magical landscapes with bold, bright colors. Her “Storm Clouds, Los Laureles Grade” conjures an ominous scene that the Big Sur poet, Robinson Jeffers, might have depicted in blank verse.

In the foreword, Freeman House— author of Totem Salmon, a classic about Humboldt’s Mattole River—distinguishes between denizens linked to the land and citizens connected to cities. He suggests that Californians might want to define themselves as inhabitants of watersheds rather than urban or suburban neighborhoods.

In “How I’m Taught Green,” Barbara Mossberg plunges into the vegetation around the river. “It could be a weed, wild, /How it grows by the river, free,/Unplanted by any human hand—a dart of random green,” she writes. Pam Krone-Davis aims to think and feel like a steelhead trout. “When I first hatched from the nest my mother had made in the small stones with her tail, I was very small,” she writes. Mark Stromberg keep track of the animals in and around the river, including a ring-tailed cat that looks in the artist’s rendition like a creature from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Stromberg and fellow denizens depict the watershed as a wonderland to explore and protect—and as an expensive one, too. Inhabiting a beautiful watershed, Stromberg points out, comes with a price tag these days, in more ways that one.

At its best, Passion for Place creates a strong sense of a singular environment that is sacred to Native Americans and beloved by landscape painters such as Berthoin. Moreover, the book could serve as a guide for artists and writers who might want to explore, portray, and work to save California’s endangered watersheds, from the Sierra Nevada to the Pacific, and from urban and suburban neighborhoods to rural farmlands.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Natives, Newcomers, Exiles, Fugitives: Northern California Writers and their Work and a frequent contributor to Boom.

Images courtesy of Paola Fiorelle Berthoin: painting “View from Carmel Valley Road,” photograph “Reflections on Black Rock Creek Lake.”

On her website——Berthoin posts up-to-date information about events.


Why Walls Do Not Work

Why Walls Won’t Work: Repairing the U.S.-Mexico Divide, by Michael Dear (Oxford; 288 pages; $29.95)

Reviewed by Robert Smith

Michael Dear, a professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley, is interested in problems of division, problems posed by the literal and metaphorical divides that determine the relationship between the United States and Mexico, problems that may hide solutions in plain sight along the borderline.

In Why Walls Won’t Work, Dear historicizes the U.S.-Mexico divide to demystify it. The plural “walls” of Dear’s title signal the several obstructions that thwart our apprehension of not simply a border but a “third nation” forged in what Dear suggests we should appreciate as the overlap between two contiguous nations. Appropriately beginning with the Treaty of Hidalgo, Dear elaborates how material demarcations succeeded abstract discursive ones, and both the treaty and subsequent fences are subject to Dear’s well-considered interpretations. Citing Andrés Reséndez, Dear reminds us that the border established by the Treaty of Hidalgo was once an invisible and completely permeable line that conscripted, for example, Mexicans into United States citizenship. Dear’s book documents the history of the efforts to make this border conspicuous and impenetrable, a condition that some American citizens translate as “secure.” But for the moment, for non-citizens the border and the politics surrounding it remain a decreasingly negotiable obstacle to better economic opportunity, family reunification, and U.S. citizenship.

When Dear turns his attention to the phenomenon of “twin cities,” such as El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez in Mexico, it is clear that these cities are children of separated parents. If El Paso and Juárez, Brownsville and Matamoros, San Diego and Tijuana are “twins” they certainly aren’t identical, for, as Dear demonstrates, the prosperity of one city often measurably impoverishes the other. Nevertheless, the border that divides city from city and nation from nation also, according to Dear, hybridizes one with the other. For Dear, it is not only individuals but specifically shared “sentiments” that breach the physical barriers between the two nations. Unfortunately, the financial and political interests that the United States has invested in maintaining divisive border security and immigration policies pose formidable challenges to what Dear identifies as the “hybridization of sentiments.” Dear claims that “walls always come down,” which may be literally true of physical walls. But, ultimately, Why Walls Won’t Work makes plain that entrenched attitudes about the U.S.-Mexico border are much harder to fell than physical fortifications.

Photograph at top: U.S. Mexico boundary line, Tijuana, circa 1925.