Berkeley is a city for book lovers. There are 30 independent bookstores in the city and at least three stores specializing in rare books. Berkeley residents love their public library and check out items at a rate three times higher than other California residents. In 2008, that meant they borrowed 2.2 million books, CDS, DVDs, and tools. The University of California library system, considered one of the best in the world, has more than 11 million books scattered throughout 29 libraries on campus.
Given the community’s deep interest in the printed word, Berkeleyside asked a number of authors and library professionals for their recommendations for the Best Books of 2010. The books didn’t have to have been published in 2010; they only had to be read this year. And the eclectic choices, from the Stieg Larsson books to a book about bankers during the Depression, reveals just how broad our reading tastes are.
Sylvia Brownrigg: The great thing about literature is that it travels so swiftly, leaving no carbon footprint -- you don't need to be a locavore when it comes to reading. However, it is always a pleasure to enjoy and champion writers from around town, and two brilliant books were published in 2010 by San Francisco authors: The Bigness of the World, by Lori Ostlund, and The Professor: A Sentimental Education by Terry Castle.
Ostlund's stories, mostly of middle-aged lesbians navigating the dangerous waters of communication, and the often safer territory of travel abroad, are wry, subtle and intelligent, with memorable lines and a melancholy that lingers under the humor. I first encountered Ostlund's great voice at a Litquake reading, and was delighted when her prize-winning collection came out in paperback this year.
Terry Castle's book is a different kettle of fish: half of the book is a gripping, painful and funny memoir of a tormented affair she had as a grad student with a charismatic, madly narcissistic older woman. The second half is a selection of Castle's long review essays from the "London Review of Books", which typically combine autobiographical comedy with deep, startling readings of the authors under review. The most famous -- one could say infamous -- of these pieces was Castle's appreciation/ deflation of Susan Sontag, after the latter's death. It is hard to shake the image of the celebrated theorist darting in and out of buildings on University Avenue in Palo Alto, urgently modeling for Castle what it was like to dodge gunfire in Sarajevo.
If you are going to travel, from the comfort of your armchair or in this case your Kindle (not that I have one, yet) -- you have to sample the English writer Helen Simpson's newest story collection, In Flight Entertainment. Simpson is always sharp, true and insightful, and in this latest book takes the brave risk of using climate change as a theme in several stories, with the result that the reader is haunted afterwards, not just by great writing but by an ominous sense of where we're all headed. This book will be coming out in paperback, a book you can actually hold, in 2011, but before then it's on offer for Kindle readers -- or those who are willing to go to Britain to stock up for their bedside table.
Sylvia Brownrigg, who lives in the Elmwood, is the author of five acclaimed novels including The Delivery Room and Morality Tale. She frequently reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and has just completed her first young adult novel, Kepler’s Dream.
Linda Schacht Gage: When a Cal journalism student gave me a copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, I read it in one night. The book is the true story of cancer patient Henrietta Lacks and the impact her resilient cells have had on the medical industry. I liked the combination of compelling family story and accessible scientific information. It's also a mystery with a strong social justice theme running through it.
Like many others, I read all three Stieg Larsson books about the busy girl, Lisbeth Salander, who had dragon tattoos, played with fire and kicked the hornet's nest. That led to an exploration of some other Scandinavian mystery/thrillers by Henning Mankell, whose Kurt Wallender Mystery Series provides some great reads.
But the most enjoyable book for me in 2010 was Cutting for Stone, by Stanford's Dr. Abraham Verghese. It's an epic tale of twin boys raised in Ethiopia by two doctors after their mother dies and their father leaves them behind. A beautiful narrative seamlessly interwoven with medicine set against a backdrop of civil war.
Tip for Readers: The First Editions Club at Book Passage in Larkspur Landing and San Francisco. Each month a signed first edition of the bookstore's choosing arrives in the mail. In 2010, some great reads landed in my lap through this club, including Tinkers (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2010) and a fur covered copy of Dave Egger's The Wild Things.
Linda Schacht Gage, an Emmy award winning television reporter , teaches at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is the chair of the Neighborhood Library Campaign, former chair of the Berkeley Library Foundation, and chair of the Berkeley Authors’ Dinner, the major fundraiser for the foundation.
Tomas Moniz: One of the best things about having teenagers in your house: an excuse to continue reading young-adult novels. Even though my own children have, in their own words, moved beyond ‘those childish books’, I seem to have acquired a debilitating appetite for wizards and dragons, sibling detectives, and teen revolutionaries. So, with that excuse, I completely enjoyed the culminating third novel in The Hunger Games series: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins.
My daughter and I fought over who got to read it first the night it came out.
‘Dad, I’m fifteen! How old are you?’ my daughter argued.
Needless to say, her pleas fell on deaf ears.
After we each read it, we thoroughly enjoyed discussing the book because it presented issues that many young-adult books tend to avoid: the complexity of friendships, personal disappointment, conflicting desires. There were no easy answers to the dilemmas faced by the characters. The book’s lead character, Katniss, refuses to compromise or to acquiesce to authority, despite the pain and the loss it causes her. The book's ending was a shock and left us unclear if she was the greatest revolutionary of young adult literature or completely insane.
Inspired by the book, my daughter and I sat around talking about politics instead of the typical who is getting together with whom, which tends to be the default subject matter most of the time. Though have no fear, there’s a love triangle in the book as well, but it just seemed so secondary after everything else. Read it, but beware.
Tomas Moniz, who lives in south Berkeley, is the author of the zine Rad Dad and an English professor at Berkeley City College.
Tom Leonard: 2010 is a year of economic wreckage, from our neighborhoods to the international community. There is no better perspective than to look at things falling apart in the clear light of history.
Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret was written by an editor at the Washington Post who has led the paper’s coverage of the Great Recession. Steve Luxenberg goes back to his childhood to look into the social experiment of institutionalizing mentally ill people in the first half of the 20th century. His family’s tale shows that moving up could mean stepping down hard on a sibling. The sacrifice is a small drama in a bleak landscape, then grand opera as the Holocaust generation comes into focus.
Kevin Boyle's Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age won a National Book Award a few years ago and it throws an even brighter light today on race in boom and bust. Boyle manages to make actors we may think we know well—the KKK, the NAACP, Clarence Darrow-- into the wounded figures we recognize in political debates today. The story is about newcomers to Detroit neighborhoods of the 1920s, the same decade that gave us many communities with racial boundaries in Oakland and Berkeley.
The Pulitzer Prize winning Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed is sympathetic without taking prisoners. Lord Keynes’s good name is the only reputation to survive (though his market speculation was news to me -- he lost three-quarters of his investments before the Great Crash). “Lunatics presently in charge,” after World War I pursued the illusion of gold as salvation or, as in the case of one president of the Reichsbank, thought his job was to efficiently deliver mountains of paper money rather than to stop hyperinflation.
Tom Leonard is University Librarian at UC Berkeley and a professor in the Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author of three books, Above the Battle: War-Making in America from Appomattox to Versailles, The Power of the Press: The Birth of American Political Reporting, and News for All.
Elizabeth Stark: In Karen Joy Fowler’s mind-blowing new collection, What I Didn’t See and Other Stories, a child in the final story describes her favorite book: “The stories in Castles and Dragons are full of magical incident. Terrible things may happen before the happy ending, but there are limits to how terrible. . . . The stories are much softer than the (Brothers) Grimm and (Hans Christian) Anderson. It was many, many years before I was tough enough for the pure thing.” Reaching beyond the limits of imagination and beyond terror toward dazzling pleasure and transformation, Fowler’s book is the pure thing. A wonderful read.
The debut novel of Yael Goldstein Love, The Passion of Tasha Darsky, an absorbing and compelling love story about genius and motherhood, signals the arrival of a great talent. Love has her own pedigree, as the daughter of the amazing Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, whose latest novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, tops my holiday list.
Elizabeth Stark, who was born in Berkeley, is the author of Shy Girl. She is also a filmmaker, writing instructor and organizer of literary events around the Bay Area.
Donna Corbeil: The most memorable books for me tend to be those most recently on my nightstand, an age thing no doubt. One author – two books -- top my list for this year. Mary Karr is a poet and storyteller extraordinaire; her stories are all the more powerful because they are her own and told with honesty and bravado. I read for the first time, though it is now 15 years since it was first published, The Liar’s Club, followed by her more recent Lit, A Memoir. Ms Karr brings to life all the pain, humor, terror and awe of an unsettled and at times destructive childhood in The Liar’s Club and then in Lit shows us what kind of adult that can make.
You don’t have to read the first book to enjoy Lit, it stands on its own and she retells some of the earlier stories as they seep into the psyche of her adult life. Lit is more about what we do as adults with our own histories; they can drown us if we let them or, as Ms Karr demonstrates, we can make poetry out of them. But, in any case, her most recent memoir is rich in humor, sorrow, reconciliation and the power of hope. Not a bad message to end the year with, told by an expert storyteller with just the right amount of humor and humility.
Whether you believe in a higher power or not, self-love, redemption and peace are the human form they take in her struggle with alcoholism, motherhood, divorce and success.
Donna Corbeil is director of the Berkeley Public Library
Lance Knobel: This was a year for reading about financial crisis. Michael Lewis's The Big Short was the most engaging account of the crisis, even if it didn't attempt a systematic view. There's even a Berkeley connection (beyond Lewis himself): one of the contrarian investor groups that Lewis writes about had its start in the North Berkeley hills. Liaquat Ahamed's Lords of Finance, which covers the maneuverings of central bankers in the 1920s, gave me a historical perspective on our current travails, as well as a fascinating portrait of those financiers -- Montagu Norman, Emile Moreau, Hjalmar Schacht and Benjamin Strong. I don't think future historians will find Ben Bernanke and Jean-Claude Trichet quite so interesting.
The other book I'd recommend from this year's reading is Operation Mincemeat: How A Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory, Ben Macintyre's account of the true story behind The Man Who Never Was. There's no need for fiction when reality is this astounding.
Lance Knobel is a co-founder of Berkeleyside, an international consultant, and the former Director of the Programme of the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. He lives in the Elmwood.
Frances Dinkelspiel: One of the best discoveries I made this year was City of Veils, a literary mystery by San Francisco writer Zoe Ferraris. Her first book, Finding Nouf, won the 2008 Los Angeles Times Prize for First Fiction, but I hadn’t heard of it until I read its follow-up. Ferraris lived in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s with her then-husband, and in City of Veils she brilliantly conveys the inner workings of that society, particularly the conflicts between men and women. Her main characters are a female forensic scientist, Katya Hijazi, who has to pretend she is married to hold down her job as a technician in a Jeddah homicide unit, and the desert guide Nayir Sharqi, who helps her solve the mystery of why a woman’s body washed up on a beach. Sharqi is an orthodox Muslim and he struggles to reconcile his fond feelings for Hijazi with the realization that propriety means he should keep his distance. While the mystery drives the narrative forward, the real treat of the book is its examination of a modern Arab country.
My nonfiction pick of the year is Autobiography of an Execution by David Dow, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center and the litigation director of the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit legal aid corporation that represents death-row inmates. Dow defends murderers for a living, and this memoir explores both his rationale for defending those who have committed heinous crimes and the toll it takes on his personal life.
Autobiography of an Execution is a moving indictment of the death penalty, which, Dow argues, is handed out more often to those who are poor and have dark skin and upheld frequently by crooked cops and indifferent judges who are generally white. But this book isn’t a mere polemic; it shows one man’s struggle to get the system to take stock of what it is doing and the personal cost when his efforts fail.
Frances Dinkelspiel, a co-founder of Berkeleyside, is the author of Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California.