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UC Berkeley Press Release

Unofficial Summer Reading List looks at lighter side

– Before they hit their textbooks in the fall, incoming freshmen at the University of California, Berkeley, are getting campus recommendations for summer reading that is funny - or just plain fun.

The unofficial UC Berkeley Summer Reading List, an institution of sorts since 1988, is a collection of books that faculty and staff offer up to new students as enjoyable, enlightening reading. Selections this year come from the Presidential Chair Fellows and Mellon Library/Faculty Fellows for Undergraduate Research.

Steve Tollefson, a lecturer in the College Writing Programs and faculty development coordinator in the Office of Educational Development, helps assemble the annual list. He said he expected his request this year for funny books to generate recommendations for authors the likes of political pundit Molly Ivins or humorist William Thurber. But not all of the books on this year's list, given to freshman at summer orientation sessions, are so predictable.

The biggest yucks are most likely to come from Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Confederacy of Dunces" by John Kennedy Toole.

"I can still recall the jealous, even pained, glances of my parents and sister as I laughed my way through this book in the summer of 1984 while they somberly continued on with whatever normal books they were reading," said Ingrid Seyer-Ochi, an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education.

The book's main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, launches a one-man crusade against fools that, she said, produces "pain-in-your-side, laugh-out-loud, giggle-months-later" results.

"Ignatius reminds me to celebrate the absurd, to take on the unthinkable ... and to laugh - three things I need to do more of," said Seyer-Ochi, a Mellon Fellow for Undergraduate Research.

In much the same vein is Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash," recommended by Philip B. Stark, professor of statistics and a Presidential Chair Fellow, who called the book "brilliant, thought-provoking and an incredibly fun read."

A nominee for the 1994 Arthur C. Clarke Award, the futuristic novel is set largely in virtual reality with the United States maintaining its world superiority at making rock and roll and microchips, and delivering pizzas. The book dabbles in such topics as Sumerian mythology, neurology, computer viruses and Samurai swordsmen. It also explores religion as an informational "virus" and how language impacts the brain.

"It's a wonderful adventure story and an incredible blend of ideas," said Stark, noting "Snow Crash" characters include pizza delivery boy and computer hacker Hiro Protagonist and a courier with a high-tech skateboard and a magnetic harpoon.

Another book on this summer's list qualifies by title alone: "My Idea of Fun: A Cautionary Tale." John Welsh, a lecturer who teaches technical communication in the College of Engineering and is a Mellon Fellow, said the book by Will Self is a "pretty raunchy example of 'sick' British humor."

He recalled experiencing the satire "rather the way one 'enjoys' William Burroughs, for the visit to the obscene depths, with humor." New students reading it should find a "good, edgy intro to the South Side of campus," said Welsh.

Set in a different part of the world, "Village Childhood" is a story of boyhood pranks, school, flirtation and more in the highlands of Western Sumatra in the 1920s and '30s. Author Muhammad Radjab's autobiography tells a story of a boy living amid a Muslim culture that to this day maintains a matrilineal society where women control the family name, family home, land and more. This occurs despite the region undergoing a jihad in the early 19th century led by local Minangkabau who made the pilgrimage to Mecca and who were influenced by the teachings of Mullah Wahab, the ultra-conservative Muslim leader whose lingering influence is seen today in Saudi Arabia and served as much of the foundation for the Taliban.

Jeffrey Hadler, an assistant professor of South and Southeast Asian Studies and a Mellon Fellow, said the book is "artfully constructed" and "deceptively simplistic." On one level, he said, the book written just after Western Sumatra broke free of colonial domination by the Netherlands is a basic childhood tale. On another, it is a veiled lesson to young Indonesian boys about how to approach postcolonial life.

Hadler includes the book in almost all of his undergraduate class reading lists, and reported students typically "fall for it in exactly the way the author intended." That's when he initiates discussion about developing a more critical, questioning approach to reading.

A genuine summertime book is "The Greengage Summer" by Rumer Godden, recommended by Anna Livia Brawn, a lecturer in French and a Mellon Fellow. The setting - a British family on vacation in eastern France just after the World War II - will seem distant and old-fashioned, she said. Yet, it also is about young love, coming of age and includes a murder mystery.

"I think that new students will like the interplay of the familiar and the exotic," said Brawn. "The fact that the novel takes place over one sun-drenched summer makes it strangely relevant to the summer before the start of their academic careers."

Undoubtedly the most startling selection on the 2004 Summer Reading List is "Finding Freedom: Writings from Death Row," by Jarvis Jay Masters, which was submitted by Barbara Abrams, professor of public health and a Mellon Fellow.

"The book touches many different emotions, and there are some funny stories in it," Abrams said about the story of Masters, an inmate on Death Row at San Quentin State Prison who has become Buddhist and taken a vow of peace. "Some of the most humorous parts describe the creative approaches that Jarvis takes to attempt to keep peace in a place that's so violent."

For example, when Masters hears prison chatter about plans to murder a guard, he offers an alternative that will serve to humiliate guards but not take a life. He suggests that all inmates simultaneously flush their toilets, flooding their tier and requiring guards to work all night cleaning up the mess.

"This well-written book is alternately funny, sad, inspiring and thought provoking," Abrams said. "I recommend it to any Cal student."

Tollefson said he hopes this year's theme provides a balance of sorts after last year's theme of war and peace.

In previous summers, themes have included banned books, and books that changed the lives of those recommending them. All the books chosen are widely available.

The 2004 unofficial UC Berkeley Summer Reading List:

1."Village Childhood" by Muhammad Radjab
University of California Press, (c) 1950, 1995

2. "Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson
New York, Bantam Books, 1992

3. "My Idea of Fun: A Cautionary Tale" by Will Self
New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994

4. "The Greengage Summer" by Rumer Godden
New York, Viking Press, 1958

5. "Finding Freedom: Writings from Death Row" by Jarvis Jay Masters
Junction City, Padma Publishing, 1997

6. "A Confederacy of Dunces" by John Kennedy Toole
Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1980

7. "A House in the Country" by Jose Donoso
New York, Knopf, 1984

8. "The Diary of Samuel Pepys" by Samuel Pepys
New York, Modern Library, 2001, (c) 1893

9. "The Third Policeman" by Flann O'Brien
Normal, Dalkey Archive Press, 1999, (c) 1967

10. "I Don't Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother" by Allison Pearson
New York, Knopf, 2002