We have selected 18 books set in, or about, Berkeley — Photo: Daniel Parks

It’s the holiday season and a slew of “Best Books of 2013” lists have come out, including one from Berkeleyside editors. But do you want to go beyond what everyone else is buying and reading and give something different? How about gifting a novel set in Berkeley, or one focusing on Berkeley history? That would bring a smile to anyone who lives or has lived here.

The following is a list of ten non-fiction and eight fiction books that feature Berkeley prominently. Of course it is not exhaustive, and we include links at the bottom to other lists of books about Berkeley. (We welcome your additional suggestions in the Comments.) Thanks to history professor and author Charles Wollenberg, and the staffs of the Berkeley Public Library and California magazine for their suggestions. These are ordered by publication date.

Berkeley books: Nonfiction


Crime Fighter: August Vollmer (1961) by A. E. Parker. August Vollmer was Berkeley’s first police chief (1909) and is widely credited with modernizing American policing. He introduced a host of inventions and firsts, such as putting officers on motorcycles and then in patrol cars, setting up a police radio system, insisting on a systematic collection of evidence, and using lie detectors. He also was the first to require that officers had college degrees. Sadly, there are no great, readable, new biographies on Vollmer, in part, perhaps, because Vollmer, suffering from Parkinson’s, burned all his personal letters before he committed suicide in 1959 (The Bancroft Library has many of his professional papers). Crime Fighter: August Vollmer is one of the few books that examines the arc of Vollmer’s life.

Nuel Phar Davis’s Lawrence and Oppenheimer (1968). This is a dual biography of two UC Berkeley professors who explored the secrets of atomic energy. Ernest O. Lawrence won the Nobel Prize in 1939 for inventing the cyclotron. The Lawrence Berkeley Lab, Lawrence Livermore Lab, and the Lawrence Hall of Science are all named after him, a nod to his achievements in science. J. Robert Oppenheimer was a theoretical physicist who headed up the development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos. The men were friends, but ended up as bitter enemies as they approached the question of how best to harness and use atomic energy. Lawrence and Oppenheimer is a study of the men’s friendship, years at Berkeley, and the reasons for their falling out. Another book on this subject, published in 2003, is Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller by Gregg Herken.


Yoshiko Uchida’s Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese-American Family (1982). Berkeley had a thriving Japanese-American community before World War II. It was almost completely uprooted when the U.S. government decided those of Japanese descent were potential enemies and ordered them interned in bleak camps around the west. Uchida’s parents had emigrated from Japan in the early part of the 20th century and established a new home in Berkeley. Uchida was a senior at UC Berkeley when her family was sent first to a camp at the the Tanforan Race Track and then to one in Topaz, Utah. Uchida taught English at the detention centers but was allowed to leave in 1943 to attend graduate school at Smith College. She published her memoir about her experience, Desert Exile, in 1982, one of 30 adult and children’s books she penned. It was a landmark book and sold widely.


Shallow Grave in Trinity County by Harry Farrell (1997). Stephanie Bryan, 14, was heading home from Willard Middle School in 1955 when she was abducted from the set of steps behind the Claremont Hotel. A man named Burton Abbot was arrested and convicted, mostly on circumstantial evidence, of the crime and was put to death at San Quentin in 1957. Stephanie’s abduction shocked the Bay Area, and when a reporter from the San Francisco Examiner, and not the police, discovered her body in a shallow grave in Trinity County the country became riveted.  Farrell, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, recreates the crime and the innocence of Berkeley at that time.

Berkeley 1900: Daily Life at the Turn of the Century by Richard Schwartz (1999). Local historian Schwartz has written a visually rich book full of photos and newspaper clippings. He describes what life was like in Berkeley before its population exploded in 1906 after refugees from the San Francisco earthquake and fire made their way across the bay. Readers can see a university with more trees than buildings, unfettered creeks making their way down from the hills, farms and farm animals, women in white-cotton dresses and early suburban trolleys. Other interesting photo books about Berkeley include Berkeley Bohemia: Artists and Visionaries of the Early 20th Century (2008) and Tales from the Elmwood: A Community Memory. (2000).

Class Dismissed: A Year in an American High School by Meredith Maran (2000). Maran spent a year immersed in the classes and hallways of Berkeley High, following three students of the Class of 2000 who represented the school’s racial and economic mix. By selecting these kids, Maran highlights the school’s different cultures and the different experiences each student has. There is Autumn Morris, who is biracial and high achieving, Jordan Etra, a white boy from the hills struggling with the death of his father, and Keith Stephens, an African-American who is a star on the football field but who struggles in the classroom. Sadly, Stephens was murdered on Dwight Way in 2006 when he was 24. While it has been more than a decade since Class Dismissed was published, many of the same cultures and tracks still remain at Berkeley High.

Berkeley Landmarks: An Illustrated History of Berkeley, California’s Architectural Heritage (2001) by Susan Dinkelspiel Cerny. Cerny, an architectural historian, describes the history of more than 250 important buildings in the city. This book has 400 photographs that show the buildings at various times. This is a great book to keep in your car or backpack so you can whip it out when you pass an interesting building. Cerny includes information about when structures were built, their architects, and tidbits about residents as well.


Berkeley: A City in History by Charles Wollenberg (2008). Wollenberg was a popular history teacher at Berkeley City College who has written numerous books about the Bay Area during World War II. This book is a rich and concise chronicle of Berkeley, from its founding, through the railroad era, the Depression, both world wars, the 1950s, the turbulent sixties, to recently. Wollenberg not only writes about interesting figures like August Vollmer, the police chief who is credited with modernizing policing, but he explains how each of Berkeley’s neighborhoods developed and got their names. He is particularly good at charting the important but sometimes tortured relationship between the city and the university.

Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the Sixties by Robert Cohen (2009). Mario Savio rose to international fame in 1964 when he fought UC Berkeley’s restrictions on distributing political material on campus. His sentence, “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious… you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop,” became the clarion call for rebelling against 1950s conformism and it led directly to the civil and political unrest of that decade. Yet Savio neither sought nor enjoyed fame and spent his later years far from the limelight. Cohen draws on unpublished letters and notebooks to bring this important figure to life.


Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power by Seth Rosenfeld (2012). Rosenfeld spent 30 years working on this book. He stumbled into the subject matter by happenstance, when his editor at the Daily Cal called him up in the late 1980s and asked him to look at some files the paper had just received  from the FBI. That launched Rosenfeld on a quest to uncover the FBI’s secret spying endeavors against student activists, UC Berkeley professors, President Clark Kerr, Mario Savio, and others. Rosenfeld brings the 1950s and 1960s to life by intertwining narratives of Kerr, Savio, and Ronald Reagan, who, as president of the Screen Actors’ Guild, was only to happy to smear those he thought held leftist political views. Reagan was encouraged and supported by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Rosenfeld also reveals that a well-known radical was an informant for the FBI.

Berkeley books: Fiction


Western Shore, by Clarkson Crane (1925). A graduate of UC Berkeley’s class of 1916, Crane “took the cliché-ridden genre of the “college story” — with its pennants and hip flasks and coonskin coats” — and gave it a new and unexpected twist: one of the main characters is a homosexual professor of English teaching at Berkeley in the year 1919, according to the Bancroft library. Crane sold his first short story to the Atlantic Monthly right after graduation, served in the U.S. Ambulance Corps during World War I, made up mostly of Cal alums, and returned to France in 1924 where he wrote Western Shore in a small hotel on the Left Bank. Western Shore shows readers the Cal campus of the teens, including places like the Old Men’s Swimming Pool in Strawberry Canyon. It also exposes what life was like when people had to hide their sexual orientation.

Anthony Boucher is a pseudonym for William Anthony Parker White, a science fiction editor and mystery writer who set several books in Berkeley. His novel Nine Times Time, was voted one of the best locked room mysteries ever written. He got his master’s in English from UC Berkeley in 1934, and his first mystery, The Case of the Seven of Calvary, was published in 1937. It was set on the Cal campus and the heroine was modeled after local writer Helen Rand Parish, according to the Berkeley Public Library. Other titles include The Case of the Crumpled Knave, The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars, and Rocket to the Morgue.


George R. Stewart’s post-apocalyptic novel Earth Abides (1949) takes place in Berkeley. Most of humankind has been wiped out by disease when young Isherwood Williams, who is for some reason immune from the disease, comes down from the mountains and starts to rebuild society. It won the first International Fantasy Award in 1951 and Stephen King has said it inspired his book The Stand. Stewart, born in Pennsylvania in 1895, was a professor of English at Cal. He is also well known for Ordeal By Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party, (1936) which stood for decades as the definitive work on the doomed expedition.

The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974), by Ishmael Reed, a “hoodoo detective novel,” traces the steps of Papa LaBas as he investigates who killed Ed Yellings, the owner of the Solid Gumbo Works. The book satirizes the Berkeley political scene of the 1960s, and pokes holes at the pretentiousness of academic merit.


Susan Dunlap set many of her mysteries featuring Detective Jill Smith in Berkeley. They include Cop Out, Death and Taxes, Diamond in the Buff, A Dinner to Die For, Karma, and more. She has scenes in People’s Park, the Gourmet Ghetto, the Berkeley hills, and elsewhere. Michaelyn Burnette, Humanities Librarian at UCB, wrote a blurb for the Berkeley Public Library: “In her attempts to bring justice to the Berkeley streets, Jill often runs afoul of her superiors in the police department and of the town-gown politics of the city. Dunlap has a keen eye for location, and part of the fun of reading the novels is tracing Jill’s path through Berkeley and trying to identify local characters.”


The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman (2010). Billed as Sense and Sensibility for the tech age, The Cookbook Collector focuses on two sisters, one a Palo Alto-based tech whiz and one studying for her doctorate at Cal. The latter starts to work for an eccentric rare book dealer who owns a story much like the now-gone, long-lamented Serendipity Books. She becomes obsessed with cookbooks (appropriate for the Bay Area). There are a number of scenes set in Berkeley. Read Berkeleyside’s interview with the author here.

Radiance, A Novel by Louis B. Jones, (2011) centers around Mark Perdue, a 42-year-old UC Berkeley physics professor. As a middle-aged physicist, Perdue is considered to be something of a has-been. He also suffers with anxiety fueled by Lyme disease. In a desperate attempt to shake things up, he skips a physics conference in Germany to take his daughter to Hollywood for a “Celebrity Fantasy Vacation,” where she will be a star for three days. The New York Times said: “Jones manages to draw bold discussions of Big Questions — life, death, time, space and what the universe is made of — from seemingly superficial events.”


Maya’s Notebook by Isabelle Allende (2013). Allende set scenes in a previous novel, The Infinite Plan, in Berkeley, but this book, released earlier this year, has large chunks set in Berkeley. It focuses on a young teenage woman who attends the local high school, lives with her grandmother, who is an immigrant from Chile, and her African-American grandfather. She gets in trouble and later flees to a small island off of Chile.

Other lists of books about Berkeley:

The best books of 2013, as chosen by Berkeleyside editors (12.17.13)
Calling for Berkeley references in books — from you (10/17.10)

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...