The List: 18 books about Berkeley for Berkeley lovers

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

vollmerCrime 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.

desertexile 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.

shallowgrave174587-MShallow 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.

wollie9780520253070 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-239x360Subversives: 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 westernshorescliché-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.

Earth_Abides_1949_small 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.

dinnerimages 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 cookbookcollectorage, 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'snotebookMaya’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:

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

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out our All the News grid.

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  • Kate

    what a great article!

  • bgal4

    http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1714354.The_Berkeley_Archipelago

    wonder why he left Lyford’s historic account of civic events 1969-1979 off the list.

    review from good reads site:

    This is a wonderful, and wonderfully subversive, portrait of Berkeley in the 1960s
    and 1970s. The Cal library has it — and it’s worth reading if you’re
    at all curious about the city, and how it got the way it did.

  • Jeanie

    You missed “Borrowed Rites” by Judith Stephens, about an extra body found in the Hearst (formerly Lowie) Museum collections.

  • Doremus

    You left out Philip K. Dick’s sci fi novel Radio Free Albemuth,

  • Aram Jahn

    The staffs and Wollenberg will necessarily miss tons of stuff, simply because there’s so damned much written about Berkeley and set in Berkeley. I was thinking the other day about Jane Vandenburgh’s memoir, A Pocket History of Sex in the 20th Century, which describes her getting hit by cars in two specific places in Berkeley, and her B-based novel Physics of Sunset. Then there’s R. Howard Bloch’s satire on Berkeley city politics, Moses In The Promised Land. Bloch is (was?) a Prof of French Lit at UCB. I also liked Aaron Cometbus’s The Loneliness of the Electric Menorrah, an eccentric guide to Berkeley bookstores. I’ve been telling people about Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives (on the list above) ever since it came out, because it revealed Reagan had been a fink for so long…this needs to be better understood by as much of the population as possible, in my opinion.

    Berkeleyside had an article about a young guy who collected info about novels that mention Berkeley, but I forget the guy’s name.

  • http://berkeleyside.com Frances Dinkelspiel

    Thanks for the suggestion, I know I missed a lot.

  • http://berkeleyside.com Frances Dinkelspiel

    Sounds interesting

  • http://berkeleyside.com Frances Dinkelspiel

    I put a link above to the original article Andrew Davis King wrote, but here is a link to the article about the article

    http://www.berkeleyside.com/2012/07/17/a-roadmap-to-berkeleys-literary-scene/

  • http://berkeleyside.com Frances Dinkelspiel

    Thanks. Philip K Dick wrote a lot of great stuff. This was not meant to be comprehensive but a taste

  • Aram Jahn

    You’re aces, Frances!

    Thanks. Very cool article! Appreciate the links, too. It makes me want to read all the books listed here that I haven’t already.

  • bgal4

    You should read it, it covers the origin of Hancock’s April Coalition and the morphing into the BCA. The depictions of the school board and city council meetings made me laugh out loud, so similar to what transpires today. The library has a copy, reserve it, it is a short but fascinating read.

  • Christin

    Also Ruth Reichl writes about the Berkeley in her food memoirs.

  • Jan Elise Sells

    I love reading books that are about or take place in Berkeley. Thank you for this list! BTW, my book, LOST and FOUND: HEALING TROUBLED TEENS IN TROUBLED TIMES, takes place at Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley. Jan Elise Sells

  • Ilana DeBare

    Great list!

  • susiefisch

    Two questions: Is Susan Cerny related to you? and What are the publishing time-frames for Susan Dunlap’s mysteries and those of Anthony Boucher? Thanks!

  • http://berkeleyside.com Frances Dinkelspiel

    I love the Berkeley scenes in Reichel’s memoirs, She had a wild life.

  • http://berkeleyside.com Frances Dinkelspiel

    Dunlap’s series started to come out in the early 1990s, An no, Susan Dinkelspiel Cerny is not related to me, despite our shared hard-to-pronounce names.

  • Godot

    ‘The Iron Heel’ by Jack London… has at least one vivid scene set in Berkeley

  • guest

    from the Iron Heel” … It was in February, 1912, that I first met him, when, as a guest of my
    father’s* at dinner, he came to our house in Berkeley. I cannot say that
    my very first impression of him was favorable. He was one of many at
    dinner, and in the drawing-room where we gathered and waited for all to
    arrive, he made a rather incongruous appearance. It was “preacher’s
    night,” as my father privately called it, and Ernest was certainly out of
    place in the midst of the churchmen…..”

  • Randal Brandt

    Thanks very much for this great article. And thanks for the link to my “Golden Gate Mysteries” website, which has a Geographic Index that includes a rundown of many more mysteries set in and around Berkeley: http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/sfmystery/extras/geographic.html
    Also, a slight clarification about Anthony Boucher: While he attended Cal and lived in Berkeley (on Dana Street), he only used the city as the setting for The Case of the Seven of Calvary and a story or two. Most of his novels, including Nine Times Nine and The Case of the Crumpled Knave, are set in Los Angeles.

  • guest

    By Jack London, of course!

  • Alina
  • Charles_Siegel

    I found another one that is not on this list: Ellery Queen, The Four Johns. I enjoyed it, despite some bad reviews at http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3907346-the-four-johns There was lots of Berkeley atmosphere.

    I bought it at Moes for $2, and the clerk was surprised when I told him that there was an Ellery Queen mystery set in Berkeley. Actually, there was no such person as Ellery Queen. A team of two writers wrote mystery books using that name. This book got the right to use the name, though it was not even written by the original two. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I read Anthony Boucher’s The Seven of Calvary, and it made me aware of an amusing bit of Berkeley history.

    The panels on Sather Gate with sculptures of nude men and women were removed at some point and were replaced (I believe) during the 1970s or 1980s. At the time, people said that they were removed because the repressed Victorian students of the early twentieth century were embarrassed and made jokes about the nudes, but they wouldn’t cause that problem in our more enlightened times.

    They were there in 1937, when Boucher wrote The Seven of Cavalry, and he includes what must have been a common joke about them at the time. The joke was that the figures of naked men were right above the inscription that says “Erected by Jane K. Sather” (which is on the south side of the gate).

    When they put them back, they put the women on the south side and the men on the north side of the gate. People no longer make the joke because they moved the male figures away from this inscription.

    This is the best I can do at reconstructing the history. I would be interested if anyone has more details, such as when the figures were first installed, removed, and replaced.

  • http://berkeleyside.com Frances Dinkelspiel

    This was so much fun, and there are so many other books about Berkeley out there, that we will do this again. Thanks for the suggestions. Keep them coming and we select another sampling in the future.