A section of Lance Knobel's bookshelf
A section of Lance Knobel’s bookshelf. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

It’s almost the end of 2012, which means it is the time for lists tallying up this year’s big events. Berkeleyside will be weighing in on what we consider the biggest cultural and news happenings of the year. Today we consider books. If there was any question about whether we at Berkeleyside love books, all it would take was a glance at our bookshelves to give you a clue. (See Lance’s above) Here are our picks for 2012:

Lance Knobel


It’s been a great year for biographies. Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens vividly portrays the endless energy and productivity of the great Victorian writer, which puts anyone of our era to shame. But the landmark achievement of the year for me was the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s definitive biography of LBJ. It’s hard to imagine The Passage of Power being bettered, but perhaps when the fifth volume comes out in eight or so years, I’ll revise that judgement. Thinking Fast and Slow, by psychologist Daniel Kahneman, is the book that I keep thinking about, even months after reading. For fiction, John Lanchester’s Capital was my favorite of the year, particularly for the frisson of recognition his portrayal of modern London provided. The unclassifiable great work I read this year is Frances Spufford’s Red Plenty, which fictionalizes a largely accurate account of the Soviet planned economy.

Frances Dinkelspiel


Three novels stuck with me for a long time after I set them down, and all for different reasons. I have long been a fan of Gillian Flynn, having read Sharp Objects and Dark Places. I enjoyed those books, but they left me vaguely unsatisfied.  That is not the case with Flynn’s most recent book, Gone Girl, about a man whose wife goes missing. I was hooked from the first chapter, and Flynn kept drawing me in with unexpected twist after unexpected twist. And I was not the only one. Amazon reported that Flynn’s mystery was second highest selling novel of 2012, just behind Fifty Shades of Gray. This is one where the hype lives up to the reality.

It’s rare to laugh your way through a book and then chuckle when you think back on it. But reading Where Did You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple was pure delight. This novel is a mystery of sorts told through the eyes of 15-year old Bee, daughter of Bernadette, once a famous architect, and a Microsoft-guru father. Set in Seattle, Semple pokes gentle fun at politically-correct private schools, ambitious moms, and hip culture (her observations could easily be about Berkeley). When Bernadette mysteriously vanishes, we follow Bee’s attempt to find her through emails, texts, FBI documents, and  letters. I liked this book all the way through to the end; Lance thought the last part lagged.


The Innocents by Francesca Segal is a modern version of The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, only this time it is set in an upper class tightly knit Orthodox Jewish community in London. Adam Newman, the prize catch of Temple Fortune, is all set to marry his childhood sweetheart Rachel Gilbert, until an encounter with her unattached, slightly disreputable cousin Ellie Schneider, who has just moved back  from the U.S. after she is smeared in the tabloids. What should Adam choose? Respectability and the embrace of his community? Or freedom and uncertainty with a woman whose middle name is impulsiveness? Just as I loved being drawn into the world Wharton created of19th century Gilded Age New York, I loved sinking into modern, materialistic Manhattan. (And it’s a nice accompaniment to Lanchester’s excellent Capital, which Lance mentions above.)


The best non-fiction book I read this year was Seth Rosenfeld’s remarkable Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power. Not only is this a fantastic book about Berkeley from the late 1940s through the 1980s, it’s a stunning portrait of the nexus of political ambition, government overreach, and political resistance. Rosenfeld spent more than 30 years working on this book (he looked at his first FBI documents when he was a Cal undergrad working for The Daily Californian) and has woven the stories of Ronald Reagan, J. Edgar Hoover, Mario Savio and Clark Kerr into a readable page turner (see Berkeleyside’s full review).


Another entertaining and surprising book was Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. At 26, following the death of her mother, overly reliant on drugs and determined to ruin the only relationship that matters to her, that with her husband, Strayed sets out on a solo hike that tests her endurance, psyche, and stamina. She is a brutally honest and entertaining writer. When she steps off the trail at the end of the book, I almost cheered for her accomplishment.

You can get any of our recommendations at the many wonderful, independent bookstores that Berkeley still supports — long may that continue. The links above are to Worldcat.org, which directs users to nearby libraries that have the books. We’ve suggested what we liked; let us know what your favorites were in the comments below. 

Best Books of 2010: A Berkeley perspective [12.16.10]

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Berkeleyside is Berkeley, California’s independently-owned local news site. Learn more about the Berkeleyside team. Questions? Email editors@berkeleyside.org.