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
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.
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.
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.
Berkeley books: Fiction
Western Shore, by Clarkson Crane (1925). A graduate of UC Berkeley’s class of 1916, Crane “took the
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.
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.
The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman (2010). Billed as Sense and Sensibility for the tech
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.”
Other lists of books about Berkeley:
- The Berkeley Public Library keeps a running list of novels set in Berkeley.
- Ploughshares Literary Magazine took a look at Berkeley and books set here.
- California magazine has written extensively about books set in Berkeley.
- Joe Eaton wrote a 2004 article in The Daily Planet about where literary notables lived.
- Randal Brandt of UC Library has a tally of mysteries set in the Bay Area.
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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