Berkeleyside’s editors are a bookish bunch. Breaking news takes precedence, of course, but they fit in reading when they can. Frances Dinkelspiel and Lance Knobel take an end-of-the-year look at the books that they most enjoyed in 2018.
For much of the past six months, when people ask which books I recommend, two immediately come to mind: Educated by Tara Westover and Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou. And in drawing up the list of my five favorite books of the year, they are still on top. Not only do they reveal fascinating aspects of modern American culture, but they are also both well written and a joy to read.
I am not alone in naming Educated a best book of the year. The New York Times picked it as one of its top 10 books and Amazon selected the memoir as its #1 pick of the year. Westover’s tale of her fundamentalist (but not polygamous) survivalist Mormon family is gripping. Westover grew up in Idaho with a father who ran a scrap business and a mother who was a midwife and famous herbalist. Her parents did not believe in sending their children to school, and the homeschooling Westover and her siblings received was perfunctory at best. Instead, they labored in the scrap yard in the summers and mixed tinctures in the winter. The family never saw a doctor, even though the children regularly suffered serious injuries from the scrap yard. Westover did not step foot into a classroom until she was 17, but, interestingly, she and two of her siblings went on to get PhDs while her other brothers and sisters did not complete high school. The book describes the tyranny and love of Westover’s family and how she managed to forge her own path. Westover paid a high price for her independence though. Her parents and some of her siblings no longer talk to her.
The other book that I still think about is Bad Blood, Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou’s devasting exposé of Theranos, a company started by a 19-year-old Stanford dropout named Elizabeth Holmes. She claimed to have disrupted blood testing by developing a process that used just a single drop of blood to get medical readings. A striking blonde who wore black turtlenecks in imitation of Steve Jobs, Holmes wooed companies like Walgreens to invest tens of millions into the unproven technology. When people came to the Theranos campus they were escorted through fake labs that churned out quick, canned results that “proved” the technology worked. Holmes also convinced people like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and former Secretaries of State George Schulz and Henry Kissinger, to join the Theranos board. For a time, everyone wanted a piece of Theranos and Holmes, who was celebrated in fawning media accounts as one of the few female tech billionaires. Of course, in large part because of Carreyou’s reporting, the sham came crashing down. This is a page-turner about Silicon Valley hubris.
As a young girl, I grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. I read them so many times and loved them so much that I secretly thought I was Laura. I planned to name one of my daughter’s Laura. Well, Carolyn Fraser’s Pulitzer-Prize winning biography of Wilder, which also provides a lot of information about her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, stripped away some of my love for the children’s author, but gave me new insight into some of the themes promoted in the “Little House” series. Fraser is an independent historian, which means she has no university affiliation, which is another reason I admire Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder so much. Fraser reveals the violent history and racism behind Wilder’s series on the settling of the American West, such as how the Ingalls’ homestead was built on land stolen from Native Americans. She writes about how false advertising about the fertility of the land in the Dakotas lured many settlers, which was one reason “Pa,” or Charles Ingalls, had to to do more than farm to eke out a living. Fraser also describes how the Little House books extoll self-reliance, a reflection of Wilder’s libertarianism. Fraser points out the hypocrisy of Wilder’s stance, as she and her family benefited from government assistance through homesteading laws and handouts during difficult times. Prairie Fires reveals the complexity and occasional misguidedness of an American icon.
Anyone who has read either of my books (you didn’t think I could do a book recommendation post without mentioning Towers of Gold or Tangled Vines at least once, did you?) knows that I love stories that look at California through a single lens. Miriam’s Pawel’s excellent The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty that Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation does exactly that. Pawel, who also wrote an excellent biography of César Chávez, traces the Brown family from when its patriarch, August Schuckman, arrived in California from Germany in 1852, until today when Gov. Jerry Brown is about to step down after four terms as governor. In between are marvelous tidbits about how Gov. Pat Brown rose to power, his relationship with the Kennedys, the tremendous growth of the state in the 1950s, the influence of the Jesuits on Jerry, Kathleen Brown’s political trajectory and more.
A little levity. Berkeleyside hosted a “Best Books of the Year” night for our members at Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore in late November. At the event, one of the store’s owners, Ann Leyhe, recommended an author I had never heard of before: the Irish writer John Boyne who has won, or been shortlisted for, the Irish book awards numerous times. So I purchased his latest, A Ladder to the Sky, and could not put it down. It’s a literary thriller about a dashing writer who steals other writers’ ideas and prose. The tension Boyne creates is incredible and the book is fabulous escapism.
Truth to tell, I’d repeat Frances’ recommendation of Bad Blood (important journalism and impossible to put down), but in the holiday spirit, let’s spread the wealth. (Warning for booksellers: not all my favorites from 2018 were published this year.)
Sometimes, you need a novelist to help you understand complex issues. Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone takes the reader into the heart of the refugee crisis. It’s the story of retired academic Richard (a classicist whose career thrived in East Berlin before unification) whose life becomes intertwined with a group of African refugees in Berlin. The writing is quiet, plain, but it’s a powerful, personally affecting story about finding meaning and one’s place.
I’ve been on a periodic French Revolution jag for a number of years now, ever since Jamelle Bouie – in Berkeley for Berkeleyside’s Uncharted Ideas Festival several years ago – recommended the non pareil Revolutions podcast. This year, that particular interest led me to Ruth Scurr’s Fatal Purity, her biography of Robespierre (Scurr also wrote a beyond-brilliant biography of biographer John Aubrey two years ago). The road from provincial lawyer to the Estates General to the Committee of Public Safety to (spoiler alert) his execution at the age of 36 provides a gripping story. I don’t know if we’ll ever understand the mind of a tyrant, but Scurr helps us come close.
Like any sensible Bay Area resident, I’m obsessed with the Warriors and the NBA. I’ll sneakily fit two basketball books into my third choice. I finally got around to Shea Serrano’s Basketball and Other Things: A Collection of Questions Asked, Answered, Illustrated (a Barack Obama book selection in 2017) because I enjoy his often wry tweets about hoops and popular culture. BOT (as Serrano followers call it) will keep you laughing as it examines, for example, “If 1997 Karl Malone and a bear swapped places for a season, who would be more successful?” and “Was Kobe Bryant a dork?” If that’s too frivolous an approach to basketball for you: first, my condolences, second you could do worse than turn to Basketball: A Love Story, by Jackie MacMullan, Rafe Bartholomew and Dan Klores. It’s the written version of the multi-part oral history of basketball shown on ESPN this fall.
I’m not much of an outdoorsman, but in a different quantum universe, I’d be in Yellowstone with a spotting scope watching the magnificent wolves. American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee is a beautifully written story about these magnificent animals (focusing particularly on one female, O-Six), the scientists and wolf lovers who study them and, tragically, the local hunters who kill them when they stray from the protection of the national park. The restoration of the wolves in the West, brought back from near-extinction, is a triumphant story, but Blakeslee makes clear how fragile that victory might be.
I enjoyed the Swedish film We Are the Best! a few years ago (available on various streaming platforms). It’s based on a graphic novel by Coco Moodysson, Never Goodnight. I made the mistake of reading it on my Kindle (pro tip: read graphic novels on paper), but the humor and innocence of the aspiring young punks in Stockholm came through vividly. If you need some happiness in the holiday season, definitely pick it up.