Berkeley is a city for book lovers. There are 30 independent bookstores in the city and at least three stores specializing in rare books. Berkeley residents love their public library and check out items at a rate three times higher than other California residents. In 2008, that meant they borrowed 2.2 million books, CDS, DVDs, and tools. The University of California library system, considered one of the best in the world, has more than 11 million books scattered throughout 29 libraries on campus.
Given the community’s deep interest in the printed word, Berkeleyside asked a number of authors and library professionals for their recommendations for the Best Books of 2010. The books didn’t have to have been published in 2010; they only had to be read this year. And the eclectic choices, from the Stieg Larsson books to a book about bankers during the Depression, reveals just how broad our reading tastes are.
Ostlund’s stories, mostly of middle-aged lesbians navigating the dangerous waters of communication, and the often safer territory of travel abroad, are wry, subtle and intelligent, with memorable lines and a melancholy that lingers under the humor. I first encountered Ostlund’s great voice at a Litquake reading, and was delighted when her prize-winning collection came out in paperback this year.
Terry Castle’s book is a different kettle of fish: half of the book is a gripping, painful and funny memoir of a tormented affair she had as a grad student with a charismatic, madly narcissistic older woman. The second half is a selection of Castle’s long review essays from the “London Review of Books”, which typically combine autobiographical comedy with deep, startling readings of the authors under review. The most famous — one could say infamous — of these pieces was Castle’s appreciation/ deflation of Susan Sontag, after the latter’s death. It is hard to shake the image of the celebrated theorist darting in and out of buildings on University Avenue in Palo Alto, urgently modeling for Castle what it was like to dodge gunfire in Sarajevo.
If you are going to travel, from the comfort of your armchair or in this case your Kindle (not that I have one, yet) — you have to sample the English writer Helen Simpson’s newest story collection, In Flight Entertainment. Simpson is always sharp, true and insightful, and in this latest book takes the brave risk of using climate change as a theme in several stories, with the result that the reader is haunted afterwards, not just by great writing but by an ominous sense of where we’re all headed. This book will be coming out in paperback, a book you can actually hold, in 2011, but before then it’s on offer for Kindle readers — or those who are willing to go to Britain to stock up for their bedside table.
Sylvia Brownrigg, who lives in the Elmwood, is the author of five acclaimed novels including The Delivery Room and Morality Tale. She frequently reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and has just completed her first young adult novel, Kepler’s Dream.
Like many others, I read all three Stieg Larsson books about the busy girl, Lisbeth Salander, who had dragon tattoos, played with fire and kicked the hornet’s nest. That led to an exploration of some other Scandinavian mystery/thrillers by Henning Mankell, whose Kurt Wallender Mystery Series provides some great reads.
But the most enjoyable book for me in 2010 was Cutting for Stone, by Stanford’s Dr. Abraham Verghese. It’s an epic tale of twin boys raised in Ethiopia by two doctors after their mother dies and their father leaves them behind. A beautiful narrative seamlessly interwoven with medicine set against a backdrop of civil war.
Tip for Readers: The First Editions Club at Book Passage in Larkspur Landing and San Francisco. Each month a signed first edition of the bookstore’s choosing arrives in the mail. In 2010, some great reads landed in my lap through this club, including Tinkers (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2010) and a fur covered copy of Dave Egger’s The Wild Things.
Linda Schacht Gage, an Emmy award winning television reporter , teaches at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is the chair of the Neighborhood Library Campaign, former chair of the Berkeley Library Foundation, and chair of the Berkeley Authors’ Dinner, the major fundraiser for the foundation.
My daughter and I fought over who got to read it first the night it came out.
‘Dad, I’m fifteen! How old are you?’ my daughter argued.
Needless to say, her pleas fell on deaf ears.
After we each read it, we thoroughly enjoyed discussing the book because it presented issues that many young-adult books tend to avoid: the complexity of friendships, personal disappointment, conflicting desires. There were no easy answers to the dilemmas faced by the characters. The book’s lead character, Katniss, refuses to compromise or to acquiesce to authority, despite the pain and the loss it causes her. The book’s ending was a shock and left us unclear if she was the greatest revolutionary of young adult literature or completely insane.
Inspired by the book, my daughter and I sat around talking about politics instead of the typical who is getting together with whom, which tends to be the default subject matter most of the time. Though have no fear, there’s a love triangle in the book as well, but it just seemed so secondary after everything else. Read it, but beware.
Tomas Moniz, who lives in south Berkeley, is the author of the zine Rad Dad and an English professor at Berkeley City College.
Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret was written by an editor at the Washington Post who has led the paper’s coverage of the Great Recession. Steve Luxenberg goes back to his childhood to look into the social experiment of institutionalizing mentally ill people in the first half of the 20th century. His family’s tale shows that moving up could mean stepping down hard on a sibling. The sacrifice is a small drama in a bleak landscape, then grand opera as the Holocaust generation comes into focus.
Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age won a National Book Award a few years ago and it throws an even brighter light today on race in boom and bust. Boyle manages to make actors we may think we know well—the KKK, the NAACP, Clarence Darrow– into the wounded figures we recognize in political debates today. The story is about newcomers to Detroit neighborhoods of the 1920s, the same decade that gave us many communities with racial boundaries in Oakland and Berkeley.
The Pulitzer Prize winning Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed is sympathetic without taking prisoners. Lord Keynes’s good name is the only reputation to survive (though his market speculation was news to me — he lost three-quarters of his investments before the Great Crash). “Lunatics presently in charge,” after World War I pursued the illusion of gold as salvation or, as in the case of one president of the Reichsbank, thought his job was to efficiently deliver mountains of paper money rather than to stop hyperinflation.
Tom Leonard is University Librarian at UC Berkeley and a professor in the Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author of three books, Above the Battle: War-Making in America from Appomattox to Versailles, The Power of the Press: The Birth of American Political Reporting, and News for All.
The debut novel of Yael Goldstein Love, The Passion of Tasha Darsky, an absorbing and compelling love story about genius and motherhood, signals the arrival of a great talent. Love has her own pedigree, as the daughter of the amazing Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, whose latest novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, tops my holiday list.
Elizabeth Stark, who was born in Berkeley, is the author of Shy Girl. She is also a filmmaker, writing instructor and organizer of literary events around the Bay Area.
You don’t have to read the first book to enjoy Lit, it stands on its own and she retells some of the earlier stories as they seep into the psyche of her adult life. Lit is more about what we do as adults with our own histories; they can drown us if we let them or, as Ms Karr demonstrates, we can make poetry out of them. But, in any case, her most recent memoir is rich in humor, sorrow, reconciliation and the power of hope. Not a bad message to end the year with, told by an expert storyteller with just the right amount of humor and humility.
Whether you believe in a higher power or not, self-love, redemption and peace are the human form they take in her struggle with alcoholism, motherhood, divorce and success.
Donna Corbeil is director of the Berkeley Public Library
The other book I’d recommend from this year’s reading is Operation Mincemeat: How A Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory, Ben Macintyre’s account of the true story behind The Man Who Never Was. There’s no need for fiction when reality is this astounding.
Lance Knobel is a co-founder of Berkeleyside, an international consultant, and the former Director of the Programme of the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. He lives in the Elmwood.
My nonfiction pick of the year is Autobiography of an Execution by David Dow, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center and the litigation director of the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit legal aid corporation that represents death-row inmates. Dow defends murderers for a living, and this memoir explores both his rationale for defending those who have committed heinous crimes and the toll it takes on his personal life.
Autobiography of an Execution is a moving indictment of the death penalty, which, Dow argues, is handed out more often to those who are poor and have dark skin and upheld frequently by crooked cops and indifferent judges who are generally white. But this book isn’t a mere polemic; it shows one man’s struggle to get the system to take stock of what it is doing and the personal cost when his efforts fail.
Frances Dinkelspiel, a co-founder of Berkeleyside, is the author of Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California. She lives by the Claremont Hotel.
What are your favorite books of 2010? Please share them with us in the comments section. And be sure to buy your holiday books at one of Berkeley’s many wonderful bookstores:
- Moe’s Books
- Mrs Dalloway’s
- Analog Books
- The Other Change of Hobbit
- Books Inc
- University Press Books
- Dark Carnival
- Pegasus Books
- Builders Booksource
- Half Price Books
- Comic Relief
- Nolo Bookstore
- Shakespeare & Co
- William Stout Bookstore
- Eastwind Books of Berkeley
- Sunrise Bookshop
- Black Oak Books
- Angel Light Books
- Sultana Bookstore
- Buddhist Churches of America
- Serendipity Books
- Turtle Island Book Shop
- Cal Bookstore
- Lewin’s Metaphysical Books
- Dharma Publishing Bookstore
- Graduate Theological Union Bookstore
- Revolution Books
- Ned’s Berkeley Bookstore
- J.B. Muns, Fine Arts Books
- Cartesian Books