A lot of good books stay under the radar these days, as the New York Times and other key promoters review the same highly pushed works. So for those looking beyond the bestsellers for some good reads this holiday season, here are my top picks among the many books I read in 2016.
Frisco, by Daniel Bacon
Daniel Bacon is a San Francisco author who created the city’s Barbary Coast Trail. His love of history led him to write Frisco, a sweeping look at 1930’s San Francisco focused on the legendary 1934 waterfront conflicts. Bacon perfectly captures the blue-collar San Francisco of those days, combining love stories with a stirring depiction of the fabled longshoreman union leader Harry Bridges.
Integrating historical figures like Bridges into a novel can be risky, but Bacon is a serious historian who provides the best account of Bridges I have ever read. The drama of the 1934 San Francisco general strike is a perfect backdrop for a stirring novel, and Bacon gets readers excitedly turning pages in hopes the good guys win. He also includes an independent working woman as a major character, filling a critical historical gap too often found in conventional histories.
Frisco has some plot problems and provides more details about life on a ship than I cared to know. But its combination of love stories and gripping waterfront narrative sustained my interest. I still think about the book long after finishing it. Bacon’s account of the labor union dynamics of that era also has remarkable contemporary relevance; many readers may yearn for a Harry Bridges to emerge today.
Becoming Jane Jacobs, by Peter Laurence
Jane Jacobs’ 100th anniversary produced multiple books; Peter Laurence’s Becoming Jane Jacobs is far and away the best. I gave this book a glowing review, describing it as “an enormous contribution both to our understanding of Jacobs and more importantly to the 1950’s era that shaped both Jacobs’ perceptions and the future of urban and suburban America.”
The book has particular value to those working to improve the quality of life in cities today, and for those working or interested in urban planning. Laurence goes beyond the now familiar story of Jacobs’ analysis to explain how she reached to her conclusions by examining the failure of alternative urban strategies.
A subsequent book on Jacobs, Eyes on the Street, garnered multiple NY Times reviews (one very negative) and a New Yorker review despite being nowhere near as strong as Laurence’s work. That’s how publisher connections, rather than a work’s merits, shape the book industry.
America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century, by Gabriel Thompson
Fred Ross Sr. and Fred Ross Jr. are the greatest father son organizing team in United States history. The late Fred Ross trained Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, created the Latino electoral outreach template later used by the 2008 Obama campaign, and built a model for community organizing that continues to this day. I discuss both Ross’s contributions in my book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century, but until Gabriel Thompson’s 2016 book there had not been a biography of Fred Ross Sr.
Here is my review of Thompson’s book. It’s a great story that has finally been told.
Structured Negotiation, a Winning Alternative to Lawsuits by Lainey Feingold
That Feingold is my wife should not prevent me from promoting what I believe is a great book published by the American Bar Association on a new, far more productive way to practice law. From Walmart to Major League Baseball to the City and County of San Francisco, Lainey Feingold, her clients and co-counsel have convinced some of the nation’s largest organizations to deliver far reaching results. Her book describes how she accomplished this without filing a single lawsuit.
You can read more about the book, the praise it has gotten (such as from David Hoffman, Esq of Harvard Law School, who described it as offering “a detailed roadmap for principled peacemaking in complex cases”) and even purchase it here.
Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, by Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow
I’m breaking my rule here as this book was widely reviewed in major media. But those involved with trying to make cities more livable will really enjoy this book. Sadik-Kahn really shows the strategies local governments and their transit activist allies must use to get things done. Her discussion of how the media covered opposition to Park Slope bike lanes speaks volumes, and activists throughout the nation will quickly identify Sadik-Kahn’s account with their own local struggles (an obvious San Francisco analog to Park Slope was the fight over bike lanes on Polk Street).
New York City’s bicycle, transit and streetscape revolution only happened because Sadik-Kahn headed the city’s Transportation Department with a can-do spirit that a powerful mayor backed. She shows how individual city officials can make a huge difference when empowered, rather than deterred, by political leaders. The book is a joyride to read and will inspire those frustrated by the slow pace of transit improvements.
On a related note: if you care about transit and streetscape issues, Streetsblog USA should become a daily read. It’s the best available news source on these issues, and is free.
Randy Shaw’s Books
I will end by giving a holiday pitch for two of my books. The most recent edition of The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, speaks directly to today’s political challenges. The book has been praised by Van Jones as “A must read for grassroots activists,” and Howard Zinn described an earlier edition as “a unique book, wise, realistic, and enormously valuable for anyone interested in social change.”
I describe how activists took on Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and Obama, and won against powerful interests. The book includes many examples from San Francisco politics, particularly on tenant and homeless issues. I use case studies to show what strategies and tactics work, and which do not, an assessment more critical than ever as we begin battling Donald Trump.
I also encourage people to read my newest book, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco. Dave Eggers says that “if you want to understand San Francisco’s Tenderloin, you must read Randy Shaw’s book.” Peter Dreier wrote that The Tenderloin should be read by “anyone interested in cities, and how to resist gentrification and displacement.” Gary Kamiya, author of the best- selling Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco described the book as “A lively and opinionated history of one of the most fascinating neighborhoods in the world. Even if you think you know this unique urban time capsule, Randy Shaw’s book will surprise and inform you.”
In the early 1980’s, nearly everyone felt the Tenderloin’s gentrification was inevitable. Yet nearly forty years later, through dot com booms, tech “invasions” and housing bubbles, it remains a primarily low-income, working class neighborhood.
My book explains how the Tenderloin escaped its “inevitable” fate of becoming an upscale San Francisco neighborhood. It’s 118 photos shows the Tenderloin as you have never seen it before.
Finally make sure this holiday season to visit the Tenderloin Museum, whose special exhibition, The Unseen World of the Tenderloin: Rare Historic Photography 1907-1971, runs through early January. Copies of my book and unique Tenderloin goods are also available there.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.Filed under: Book Reviews