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You might not think, having endured and continuing to live through it yourself, that you could be highly entertained by a memoir of the pandemic. But you’d be mistaken. “My Little Plague Journal” (Villa Books, $34.30, 128 pages), by Berkeley-based author and self-styled “flaneur” L. John Harris, is an amply illustrated record of his year in isolation that is by turns quirky and erudite, inventive and purposely derivative, sometimes sobering, often satirical and occasionally downright hilarious.
Partially fueled by posts and images he delivered on social media from spring of 2020 to summer of 2021, this collection of artful ramblings is divided into five main sections, beginning with “My Pandemic Potato Clock” and continuing with his ruminations on “Plagues Then and Now,” “Masks and Miasmas,” “Pandemics and Politics” and “A Plague Diner’s Diary.” In the first entry, a spud he forgetfully leaves on the kitchen windowsill sprouts, wrinkles and shrinks, as he continues to track and document its progress over time in photos and wacky drawings, until it comes to resemble — OMG! — a COVID-19 sphere.
Both a verbal and visual pyrotechnician, Harris has a background and peripatetic lifestyle (when no pandemic prevails) that fairly screams jack-of-all-trades. He has been an art student, a food worker in a few of Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto outposts, a publisher and cookbook author, a garlic expert and cofounder of its namesake festival in Gilroy, a magazine contributor, documentary filmmaker and a classic guitar aficionado who now curates the collection of the instruments he has donated to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He lives in a beautiful, 100-year-old Bernard Maybeck villa-style mansion in North Berkeley that doubles as a music venue when conditions permit but spends much of his non-plague time in Paris, observing, as the aforementioned curious flaneur, all of the social and cultural goings-on around him. His “Little Plague Journal,” which uplifted and educated and squarely resonated with me, will occupy a permanent place on my bookshelf.
Author alert: The latest from the ingenious Berkeley author Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” “The Botany of Desire,” “Cooked” and more) continues the intriguing pivot he took from food to psychoactive substances in 2018 with the runaway bestseller “How to Change Your Mind.” In “This Is Your Mind on Plants” (Penguin Press, 2021), the ever-curious and willing-to-experiment Pollan turns his attention to three plant-based drugs that have a dramatic impact on how humans think and feel: mescaline, opium and caffeine. Now winding up a national tour for the July 19 publication of the paperback edition of the book, Pollan has two Bay Area appearances coming up. He will be featured in conversation with podcaster and public radio show host Lauren Schiller at 7:30 p.m. July 26 in a City Arts & Lectures event at the Sydney Goldstein Theater, 275 Hayes St., San Francisco. Tickets, $28, are available through https://www.cityarts.net/ and include a paperback copy of the book, distributed at the event. Pollan will also appear in an in-person and virtual event at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd. in Corte Madera, at 1 p.m. July 30, with fellow author, journalist and educator Mark Danner. Tickets are $23 and include the book, available at any Book Passage location. Find them at https://www.bookpassage.com/. And since we are on the subject of Michael Pollan, note that a Netflix documentary series on his earlier book, “How to Change Your Mind,” with Pollan and Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney as executive producers, begins streaming on July 12.
In the pipeline: He may not be my all-time favorite, but he’s definitely up there. I know of few writers more eclectic in their subject matter and more endowed with talent than British novelist Ian McEwan. His 2001 masterpiece “Atonement,” utterly absorbing from Page 1, brought me to tears at the dramatic reveal at its conclusion. The 2007 novella, “On Chesil Beach,” much narrower in its sharp focus on an awkward wedding night for two virgins, was both mesmerizing and discomfiting. The outrageous concept of his 2016 “Nutshell” (2016), inspired by “Hamlet,” is a murder mystery narrated by a fetus that made me burst out laughing at its first lines: “So here I am, hanging upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for.” (How could you not keep reading?) His 2019 novel “Machines Like Me,” also rather outré in subject matter, delves into a love triangle between a man, his girlfriend and the male android they program themselves — with both fascinating and unpredictable results. So it is with great anticipation that I am looking forward to the Sept. 13 release of “Lessons” (Knopf, $30, 448 pages), another sweeping history, like “Atonement,” that follows the tumultuous life of an Englishman from his preteen days in a boarding school through decades marked by upheaval — the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Berlin Wall, the encroachments of climate change and even the current pandemic. The publisher’s blurb is declaring it “a powerful meditation on history and humanity told through the prism of one man’s lifetime.” I’m in!