Thursday, June 25, 2009

Great Summer books about the Bay Area

It’s five days into summer and already I am dreary of the fog/sun/fog routine. Somehow I can bear the gloom in the winter, but detest it between June and August. One reason is because it dampens my sense of expectation: I love waking up on a warm sunny day and feeling that almost anything can happen.

I associate summer with long days full of reading, choosing any book I want, including light-hearted fare that generally doesn’t hold my interest. I suppose it’s just as easy to read when the sky is gray with fog as when it is blue with sun. So in the spirit of our only-in-the-Bay-Area-summer, I offer a list of Bay Area-themed books to read. All of these take place in the Bay Area. All of them offer wonderful tidbits of history and lore about the region.

Not all of these books are new. The oldest was published in 1937 and the most recent in 2008. I have read all of them and can recommend all of them. I am sure there are many other wonderful Bay Area-themed books out there (I never knew, for instance, that John Lescroart’s books took place in San Francisco until I poked around for this article.) Please share your recommendations.


The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton. In this bestselling book, author Clayton writes about a group of women who meet in a playground in Palo Alto in the late 1960s and decide to form a writing group. The reader follows them as they grow older, have children, suffer from illness, marital problems, and death. Along the way they form a writing group which nourishes their creativity and friendship. It’s a great book about female friendships.

No One You Know by Michelle Richmond – In this follow up to her enormously successful The Year of Fog, (guess where it’s set) Richmond weaves a mystery story about a young Bay Area woman who is still haunted by the unsolved murder of her sister, a math genius studying at Stanford. The younger sister is a coffee buyer who unexpectedly runs into a friend of her sister’s in Central America, which sets off a renewed search to track down the killer.

Alive in Necropolis by Doug Durst – The numbers say it all. In Colma, a small town south of San Francisco, there are 1,600 living residents and 1.5 million dead ones scattered in 16 cemeteries. Durst uses this backdrop to tell the story of a rookie cop who not only chases live criminals but dead ghosts as well. The San Francisco Public Library has selected this novel as its One City, One Read for 2009.

Confessions of Max Tivoli – Andrew Sean Greer’s delightful story of a man who ages backwards is a wonderful glimpse into San Francisco’s past. Tivoli is born as a 70-year old man in 1871 and the book follows him well into the 20th century. In the backdrop is the Gilded Age, the San Franciso earthquake and fire, and meanderings through old San Francisco landmarks like Woodward’s Gardens.

Graphic Novels

The Diary of a Teenage Girl by Phoebe Gloeckner – This riveting and disturbing book tells the coming of age story of a young girl in a troubled family. It’s a pitch-perfect glimpse into the 1970s in San Francisco, with its easy acceptance of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Not for the faint-hearted or very young, but well-down and moving.


Berkeley: A City in History by Charles Wollenberg. Berkeley is not exactly a large city, but it has had an outsized influence on arts and politics in the United States. Wollenberg, a fourth generation Californian and the chair of social sciences at Berkeley City College, describes the city’s origins and the parallel development of the university. When I was a teenager I took a class on San Francisco history from Wollenberg and was fascinated by his tales of the region. Berkeley is written in an easy and absorbing way and reveals many fascinating tidbits of the city.

Boss Ruef’s San Francisco: The Story of the Union Party, Big Business and the Graft Prosecutions. This book was published in 1952 by historian Walton Bean and it tells the story of San Francisco’s notorious graft trials. I bet few Bay Area residents know the extent of the graft that flourished in the city at the turn of the 20th century. The mayor, Eugene Schmitz, and his entire Board of Supervisors routinely accepted bribes from major corporations. The money was funneled to politicians through Abe Ruef, a laywer and advisor to Schmitz and the mastermind behind the corruption. Bean does a wonderful job explaining how the graft system came into being and all the details of the three or four exhausting years when prosecutors tried to rein it in. It’s all here – the earthquake and fire, assassination attempts, jury rigging, kidnappings, mysterious suicides. Fact here is certainly stranger than fiction.

Good Life in Hard Times, San Francisco in the 20s and 30s. Jerry Flamm, a former Chronicle reporter and press agent, draws a loving portrait of San Francisco before there were bridges across the bay. He remembers swimming at Sutro Baths, going to see the Seals play baseball, and traveling on the ferries. The book is filled with great photos.

Gables and Fables: A portrait of San Francisco's Pacific Heights. Anne and Arthur Bloomfield have written a great book detailing the architecture and history of houses in this upscale neighborhood. In describing the area's homes, parks, and public spaces, they reveal the names of former occupants, gossipy details about architects and home builders, and much more. The book is illustrated with hand-drawn pictures of notable homes.

Narrative non-fiction

Disaster! The Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906 by Dan Kurzman – I thoroughly enjoyed this narrative by this former Washington Post reporter. He recounts the disaster from the viewpoint of numerous San Francisco residents, creating a sober portrait of a city in ruins.

House of Mondavi by Julia Flynn Siler – This is an I-can’t-put-it-down tale of the Mondavi family, starting when young Cesare immigrated from Italy and ending when the family sells its world-famous winery to Constellation for $1 billion . It’s a great primer on how Robert Mondavi turned a Napa Valley industry that had struggled after Prohibition into one admired and copied around the world.


Swing by Rupert Holmes – Holmes, the author of The Pina Colada song, brings back to life the 1940 International Exposition on Treasure Island. The book centers around a traveling saxophonist who comes to San Francisco with his band to play some gigs. He meets a young female composer who wants him to orchestrate her composition, called Swing. While visiting the fair, a young women plunges to her death right in front of the musician, setting off a tale of murder and espionage and the days leading up to America’s entry into World War II.


920 O’Farrell Street by Harriet Lane Levy. Levy is an underappreciated San Francisco writer. (She wrote for the San Francisco Call and The Wave) She grew up in San Francisco and was a good friend and neighbor of Alice B Toklas. The pair was together in Paris when Toklas met Gertrude Stein. (The Steins were a San Francisco family) The memoir, first published in 1937 and kept in print by Heydey Books, focuses on Levy’s childhood in San Francisco in the 19th century, at a time when the Jewish world was prim, proper, and well-defined. (ie German and French Jews were socially superior than Jews who came from Poland or Posen) Levy looks back at her authoritarian father and strict mother with a pained, if fond remembrance. Her insights into San Francisco’s upper crust are delightful.

Under Mannie’s Hat – An amusing memoir by Ruth Bransten McDougall, whose family owned MJB Coffee. McDougall details her parents’ marriage – he was from old German-Jewish stock and she was from French stock – in this hilarious tale set against the background of the 1906 earthquake.(Full disclosure: I am also a Bransten descendant, although the woman I come from retained the original name, Brandenstein.)

The Haas Sisters of Franklin Street – Have you ever wondered what went on behind the doors of that spectacular mansion on Franklin and California? For generations its was owned by the Haas family, who arrived in California in the early 1850s. Frances Bransten Rothmann (yes, a descendant of the Branstens mentioned above) published a memoir full of family pictures and reminiscences. You can look at a digital narrative of the family done by the Judah L. Magnes Museum here.

Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples – By Ruth Reichl. These memoirs take place all over the world as Reichl, now the editor of Gourmet magazine, works in various restaurants and begins her career as a restaurant critic. Large parts of the books happen in Berkeley, where Reichl lives in a commune and works at the Swallow, a collectively-owned restaurant on the ground floor of the Berkeley Art Museum. Lots of food, sex, and 1970s atmosphere.


Gabriel Moulin’s San Francisco Peninsula Town & Country Homes 1910-1930 – Moulin was one of the premier photographers on the early 20th century. He was photographer to the stars, or at least to the rich. These photos are of magnificent summer homes and gardens on the Peninsula and wonderful weddings that took place there. You can also gawk at the homes of some of the city’s most powerful residents, like the M.H. De Youngs, who owned the Chronicle. They lived at 1919 California Street. One room, called the “Display Room,” was used solely to display their collectables. Moulin Studios still exists in San Francisco. Their archive must be spectacular, but alas, it is private, not public.

San Francisco's Golden Era -- In the 1960s Lucius Bebbe and Charles Clegg, life-time partners and newspaper men, created a series of history books about the west, including this illustrated history of the city before the 1906 fire. It's richly illustrated and a good, quick read.

San Francisco in Maps & Views. Sally Woodbridge scoured the archives for maps tracing the development of San Francisco. She has maps from a 1776 Spanish expedition drawn by Jose de Canizares to prints of the 1894 Midwinter Fair in Golden Gate Park to imaginary views of a future San Francisco.

What have I missed?


Rosie said...

Thanks Frances. This is a great local list!
If anyone wants more info about One City One Book: San Francisco Reads, here is the link:


Holger B. said...

Hedge Fund is another very recent novel that takes place in San Francisco and is written by a local author. The book tells the story of a successful hedge fund manager who encounters a series of events not of his making that wreak havoc on his personal and professional lives. It's available at many local independent bookstores or directly from the publisher at

Peter said...

Great list. Here's what I think is a great Berkeley novel: False Match, by Henry Bean. Catches the city in the 70s (it was published in 1982) perfectly.

Ilana DeBare said...

Another excellent set-in-SF novel by Andrew Sean Greer is The Atory of a Marriage, which is set in the Sunset in the 1950s.