New books, music, and award-winning TV by Oxy alumni and faculty

Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City, by Andrea Elliott ’96 (Random House). Building on the reporting that won her a George Polk Award for a 2013 series of articles for The New York Times, Elliott chronicles eight years (from age 11 to 19) in the life of Dasani Coates, the oldest of eight kids living with her family in one room in a run-down shelter in Brooklyn. Amid the homeless crisis in New York City, Dasani must guide her siblings through a city riddled by hunger, violence, drug addiction, homelessness, and the monitoring of child protection services. Out on the street, Dasani becomes a fierce fighter to protect the ones she loves. When she finally escapes city life to enroll in a Pennsylvania boarding school, she faces an impossible question: What if leaving poverty means abandoning your family, and yourself? Elliott’s reporting “has an intimate, almost limitless feel to it, the firsthand observations backed up by some 14,000 pages of official documents, from report cards to drug tests to city records secured through Freedom of Information Law requests,” Matthew Desmond writes in The New York Times Books Review. “The result of this unflinching, tenacious reporting is a rare and powerful work whose stories will live inside you long after you’ve read them.”

Giannis: The Improbable Rise of an NBA MVP, by Mirin Fader ’13 (Hachette Books). Two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Milwaukee Bucks to their first NBA title in 50 years—and the 6'11" “Greek Freak” overcame unfathomable obstacles to become the personification of the American Dream. When Fader wrote about Giannis’ younger brother, Alex, for Bleacher Report in 2019, she interviewed Giannis one-on-one. To flesh out his story for a book-length manuscript she talked to 220 additional sources—from players to family members to residents of Greece who contributed to his development. A New York Times best-seller upon its publication in August, Giannis is the first book by Fader, a senior staff writer for The Ringer. Her work has been featured in the Best American Sports Writing series.

No Sun, by Nite Jewel (Gloriette). As Nite Jewel, Ramona Gonzalez ’09 makes synth-based compositions that twist 1980s R&B through an experimental filter. No Sun, her fifth album, was released in August to wide acclaim—“a breakup record stripped to its most elemental parts” and “her most accomplished, arresting work yet,” Eric Torres writes in Pitchfork. “The one thing that I don’t do as an artist is stick to the same exact formula. I know there are some things that are just a part of me musically that I love to include, whether it’s deep bass lines or certain melodies, but I try to challenge myself with each record,” Gonzalez told Rolling Stone writer Julyssa Lopez. “For No Sun, I finally got to do this vision that I’ve had for so long, which is very improvisatory, experimental, and focused on working outside of the pop formula.” Gonzalez has been the Johnston-Fix Professor of the Practice in Songwriting at Occidental since 2019 and is a Ph.D. student in musicology at UCLA.

Heaven’s Passport: Designing Your Biblical Passport for a Fuller Life, by Carnegie Samuel Calian ’55 (available on Amazon). “Each of us is created in God’s image, the imago Dei, with all that implies about our lives to be spiritually empowered to leave the world a better, more just, and humane place honoring God’s creation,” Calian writes. “Readers will use this book not only as a resource for strengthening their own inner sense of living under God’s grace, but also as one’s biblical passport.” Calian is emeritus president and professor of theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Doris, live in Evanston, Ill.

Living Skillfully: Buddhist Philosophy of Life From the Vimalakirti Sūtra, by Dale Wright (Oxford University Press). In his latest book, Wright—the David B. and Mary H. Gamble Professor in Religion Emeritus—offers a contemporary philosophy of life drawing upon Buddhist resources from the Vimalakīrti Sūtra. In the acknowledgments section, he writes: “I owe the motivation for this book to my former students at Occidental College. As soon as they sensed that I might be willing to teach it, they made clear to me that what they wanted most from my instruction on Buddhism was something practical, something worthwhile that could be applied in their lives. Standing at the threshold of adult life, they were able to see the startling difference between lives that appeared to be well-lived and those that just weren’t. They wanted me to teach them what Buddhism had to say about lives skillfully lived—theirs, not just someone else’s. They wanted a Buddhist philosophy of life that could be tested in their own lives here and now. … To get what they wanted, my students would have to bite the bullet of reading strange and difficult texts and of considering ways of thinking and living that at face value would inevitably seem foreign and inapplicable.”

As it turned out, Wright continues, “The most difficult and most lucrative ‘bullet’ that they would be challenged to bite was the Vimalakīrti Sūtra. On first reading they found it incomprehensible and therefore uninspiring. What they needed from me was some way to get it into existential view, some way to understand it in relation to the lives they were living. This book is the outcome of my decades-long effort to meet those needs, and I can’t begin to tell all of you how grateful I am for having been forced to do that. If any clarity or inspiration made its way through that process and into this book, I owe it to the demands my students put on me. In appreciation I dedicate this book to all of them.”

Briefly noted: Asian Americans, the 2020 PBS docuseries featuring Associate Professor of History Jane Hong (pictured, above), has won a Peabody Award. Peabodys are given in the categories of entertainment, documentary, news, podcast/radio, arts, children’s and youth, public service, and multimedia programming.