Best Books of 2016, picked by Berkeleyside editors, guests

The reading area at Kaleidoscope Coffee in Richmond. Photo: Kate Williams

Every year some of the Berkeleyside team, aided by ardent readers in the community, select their favorite books of the year. This year we asked the new head of the Berkeley Public Library, the new publisher of Heyday Books, a Berkeley novelist, a former financial wizard deeply involved in Jewish communal life, our regular book reviewer, and three Berkeleysiders to tell us about the books they most enjoyed reading. The books did not have to be published in 2016, only enjoyed in 2016. Here are the selections. Please feel free to share your picks in the comments.

Heidi Dolamore, Executive Director, Berkeley Public Library

I dove into science fiction this year, inspired by a quote from Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock, who died in June. “…if we view it as a kind of sociology of the future… science fiction has immense value as a mind-stretching force for the creation of the habit of anticipation. Our children should be studying Arthur C. Clarke, William Tenn, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Robert Sheckley, not because these writers can tell them about rocket ships and time machines but, more important, because they can lead young minds through an imaginative exploration of the jungle of political, social, psychological, and ethical issues that will confront these children as adults.”

The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips (2015)
Quite short, more of a novella than a novel. The central conceit retains its cleverness by virtue of its brevity, and as a fellow bureaucrat, I enjoyed the languid beauty bestowed on the tedium and pallor of banal office work.

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel (2016)
This one feels fantastical and yet entirely plausible. Scientists discover what turns out to be the first piece of a puzzle (left by otherworldly beings) that is only revealed when we become scientifically clever enough to understand its meaning. I’m waiting for the sequel.


A Judgment in Stone by Ruth Rendell (1977)
Much like a Hitchcock movie, this book is a master class in creating suspense. The whodunnit is revealed on the first page, so the mystery lies in unfolding the how and the why.

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)
The surge in dystopian novels in recent years sparked my curiosity about earlier examples of post-apocalyptic fiction. This novel follows developments in the immediate aftermath of disaster with a charmingly matter-of-fact voice. It also provides a somewhat unintentional window into perceptions of people with disabilities in the 1950s.

Steve Wasserman, Publisher and Editor of Heyday Books

Benjamin Madley’s searing and scrupulous An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe does for the tragedy that befell California’s indigenous peoples what, in an earlier period, historian Raul Hilberg did in his magisterial The Destruction of the European Jews. 

Someday someone with a supple political turn of mind, not hostage to ideological partisanship and allergic to cliché, will write the history of the Bay Area Left from Jack London to Black Lives Matter but, until then, Mat Callahan’s The Explosion of Deferred Dreams: Musical Renaissance and Social Revolution in San Francisco, 1965-1975, will do. His romp through those over-oxygenated ten years, which coincided with my own coming of age in Berkeley, is an indispensable chapter of that larger story.

Czeslaw Milosz lived in Berkeley for decades, taught a famous course on Dostoevsky at Cal, which I stupidly failed to attend when I was a student, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. In the late Sixties, I was smoking pot in his garage at his home on Grizzly Peak with one of his sons with whom I went to Berkeley High School, long before I read his imperishable poetry and The Captive Mind, his damning taxonomy of the totalitarian temptation. Now, unearthed from his papers at Yale’s Beineke Library, comes his deliberately unfinished science-fiction novella, The Mountains of Parnassus, translated from the Polish by Stanley Bill. Written in the 1970s, it is a dystopian story of a future where hierarchy, patriarchy, and religion no longer exist.


Members of the Black Panthers lined up at a Free Huey (Newton) rally in DeFremery Park in Oakland. Photo: Stephen Shames/Polaris

This year marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party, and to mark the occasion the Oakland Museum mounted a superb, if largely one-dimensional, exhibit and several publishers (Abrams and Nation Books, to name only two) brought out compelling volumes, which, taken together, give some sense of the group’s heartbreaking saga of heroism and hubris, outsized ambition and tragic demise. The material is rich, some of it still radioactive. Among the best was Stephen Shames and Bobby Seale’s Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers.

Inescapably self-serving and to be read with care, these efforts at commemoration and celebration give us history as propaganda, much of it reluctant to acknowledge the party’s crimes and misdemeanors, preferring to attribute its fate almost entirely to the efforts of the government to destroy and divide it. The party’s complicated history, replete with Byzantine political schisms, murderous infighting, and a contested legacy is rarely on offer. What is plain is the erotic aura that the Panthers projected, as shown by any of the many photographs that Shames (and others) took. I well remember attending in August 1968 the opening days of Huey P. Newton’s trial for the killing of Oakland police officer John Frey. Two years later, thousands, including myself, gathered on the steps of the Alameda County Courthouse to hail Newton’s release from prison.  There, beneath the blazing August sun, as can be seen in Shames’s remarkable photograph, Huey, basking in the embrace of the adoring crowd, stripped off his shirt, revealing his cut and muscle-bound torso, honed by a punishing regimen of countless push-ups in the isolation cell of the prison where he’d done his time, a once slight Oakland kid now physically transformed into the very embodiment of the powerful animal he’d made the emblem of his ambitions.

Finally, may I recommend Heyday’s own Kirk Lombard and his revelatory The Sea-Forager’s Guide to the Northern California CoastI confess I’m not the man to root among the mollusks, but Lombard’s book is, like Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, only ostensibly about fish.  He’s the Oliver Sacks of the Marin Headlands. I’d read him on anything.

Lance Knobel, Co-Founder and Publisher of Berkeleyside

I read many fewer books this year than last, thanks to near-obsessional consumption of political coverage. But three books stood out in my lightened diet. I’m not the first to say Anthony Trollope prefigured Trump with Augustus Melmotte, the fraudulent financier at the center of The Way We Live Now. But the similarities are spine-tingling (and I’ve always been more of a Dickensian than a Trollopian).

The strangest book I read in 2016 was Constantine Phipps’ What You Want, a reworking of Dante’s Inferno in rhyming couplets, telling the tale of a failed marriage by way of discussing philosophical approaches to happiness. Not entirely convincing, but certainly unique.


Finally, John Spurling’s Arcadian Nights is a thrilling, wholly enjoyable reimagining of the great tales of Greek mythology, woven into his modern life living in the Peloponnesus. As bad as things might seem, just thank the Fates you’re not part of the House of Atreus.

Lucy Jane Bledsoe, author of the 2016 novel, A Thin Bright Line

Far be it from me to announce the “best” of anything. Comparing books is like comparing apples and oranges… and bananas and pineapples and kiwis. Besides, there are so many 2016 books I’m dying to read but haven’t yet (Rabih Alameddine’s The Angel of History, for one). With that preamble, here are some highlights:

Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is a breathtakingly powerful novel that reveals the slave trade from the point of view of Ghanaian history. This story dives deep into the lives of one family, taking readers eventually to America and the present day. The characters are emotionally complex and their stories riveting.

Don’t miss Micah Perks’ quirky – in the best way, not the weird-for-the-sake-of-weirdness quirky – What Becomes Us, in which a woman pregnant with twins decides, while buried by a snow avalanche, to leave her marriage. She runs away and gets into a lot of trouble, but trouble that is full of love.

I admire Emma Donoghue’s novels for the way she finds bizarre bits of history and dramatizes them. In her new novel, The Wonder, she mines the phenomenon of Irish girls fasting for religious reasons. Who can resist a protagonist who is a nurse trained by the legendary Florence Nightingale?

Jacqueline Woodson’s short new novel, Another Brooklyn, is flat-out mesmerizing. She captures early adolescence, through the close friendship of four girls, with perfect pitch.


Thrity Umbrigar’s The Story Hour (a 2014 title, but I read it this year) blew me away. It is so refreshing to read about characters grappling with what it means to develop relationships between people from different racial and cultural backgrounds. I long for more books like this — with multifaceted, smart characters combined with a gripping story.

I can’t leave out two late 2015 stellar titles. Genanne Walsh’s gorgeous novel, Twister (winner of the Big Moose Prize), is a compelling, haunting novel that reveals the meaning of community and how we all go forward despite terrible life events. Lori Ostlund’s After the Parade is gorgeously written and I still think about the unique, heartbreaking worldview of her protagonist.

Sue Reinhold is a former partner with North Berkeley Investment Partners

Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton
I was turned on to this 2012 publication by a former partner at Goldman Sachs and a Jewish Studies professor at Stanford, so I had to tune in. The thinking is deep but goes down easy. What is it about religion that works for humanity, our basic needs, and our most core yearnings, even if one doesn’t believe in a divine creator? There’s much that unites us and there’s an explanation of good methods here. Inquire within. The author has created a School of Life, that I know folks are thinking of adapting specifically for a Bay Area audience. Stay tuned.

The Sleepwalkers:  How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark
“What if we get in a nuclear war by accident?” my friend asked me last night about the potential impact of the incoming presidential administration. We talked for a while about this book, which dissects how Europe inadvertently (but somehow) backed into WWI, almost if by accident. There are chapters on Serbia and the German Army, but read with fresh eyes here it is a good lesson for us all for the coming months.  A combination of hubris, bad luck, illusions about power and bad stereotypes about their enemies led to WWI, so you get the picture why this is good reading for the moment.

Hope in the Dark:  Untold Stories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit
A re-publication this year of a book originally written in 2004, the 2016 edition has an update and perspective by my favorite author. She has a good point for a difficult time: 1) not all is lost, 2) we have a history of transformative victories, and 3) don’t forget that when you are feeling moribund and depressed about the current political situation. Her lyrical style permeates. I feel it’s easier to get ready to fight the battles we know are ahead with this book as a guide — to hope, even when things feel tough.

Shapeshifters:  Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship by Aimee Meredith Cox
My friend Prof. Jackie Brown, of Hunter College in NYC, turned me on to this mind-blowing work on the consciousness and social agency of poor black teenage women — arguably some of the most vulnerable people in our society — and how they navigate life as citizens on the edge of… well, everything. It is a bit academic, but the meat of the book is completely gripping. It reveals, with incredible precision and heart, how black teenage girls’ artistic performances in a teen youth shelter — and their ‘performances’ once outside the shelter in their lives — allow them to problem-solve and find power for moving forward in life. Got empathy? Start here. An incredible read.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Here’s a conundrum. An Orthodox Jew tells me to read the meta-historical work of a Gay Israeli. Of course, I go for it! This wide-ranging work on how humans became, well, human, is a grand romp through evolutionary biology, includes excellent conjecture about human history, and there’s even a TED talk to go with it. Harari is smart, fun, and clear, and, not since Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, have I felt that a macro-historical evolutionary thinker has kept us so engaged and entertained. Five stars, and the sequel, Homo Deus, comes out in the U.S. in a few months (though if you have friends in the U.K. they can send it to you now).

Mal Warwick writes Mal Warwick’s Blog on Books, and some of his reviews appear on Berkeleyside

I’d already written up my list of the 10 best books of the year when the editors of Berkeleyside asked me to supply them with a list of my five top picks. Picking just five is a tough assignment, to put it mildly. But here goes, gritting my teeth all the way. All these books were published in 2016 or late in 2015.

Homegoing: A Novel, by Yaa Gyasi
In a searing exploration of the history of slavery, an African-born American woman traces the story of a Ghanaian family over more than two centuries through the lives of two branches of its descendants, one in Ghana, the other in the United States.

The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945, by Max Hastings
A British historian’s revisionist view of military intelligence in World War II, debunking the many myths that have inspired dozens of books and taking their exaggerations down a peg with a long-lacking sense of perspective. In short, Hastings demonstrates that virtually all human intelligence (“humint”) was useless.

The Sympathizer: A Novel, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
A Vietnamese-American won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with this complex novel of the Vietnam War, viewing the conflict from those who took part both in the South and the North. It’s a perspective unfamiliar to most of us and could only have been written by a Vietnamese-American. The book is crammed with insight, and it’s beautifully written.

NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, by Steve Silberman
A science journalist traces the history of autism throughout the 20th century when it first became the subject of close study. It’s a fascinating story of myths and misunderstandings long held, both among psychiatrists and the public. The psychiatric profession does not come off well in this telling.

The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, by David Talbot
A veteran investigative journalist explores the time in the 1950s and 60s when the CIA ran amok, assassinating foreign leaders and intervening in the affairs of other countries in the belief that the USSR was bent on world domination. The focus is on the legendary CIA Director Allen Dulles. You won’t think more highly of him if you read this book.

Wendy Cohen is the Business Director of Berkeleyside

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
So much better than when I was forced to read Dickens in high school. Amazing how it stands the test of time.

The Sympathizer: A Novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen
A sometimes chilling look at the Vietnam war from a non-American perspective.

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh
It is so amazing what our brains — a mushy combination of nerve cells, fat, and water — can do.

There Was A Fire Here by Risa Nye
A very personal look at an event that changed our lives as it changed our landscape. (Risa Nye is also Berkeleyside Nosh’s Ms. Barstool).

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Another window into a world I want to understand.

Frances Dinkelspiel is a co-founder of Berkeleyside and the author of Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California

For the second year in a row, I found more non-fiction books at the top of my list than fiction books. Surprisingly, two were oral histories, a form I had never particularly enjoyed before.

The book that made the strongest impression was Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, which traces the stories of the housing-insecure in Milwaukee and the landlords who rent to them. Desmond embedded himself in the city for more than a year and delivers a searing indictment of the physical, emotional and societal costs of not being able to afford a stable home. He has some ideas how to solve this – housing vouchers that can be used in private residences – but with the Trump presidency looming the situation will probably get worse.

Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies and the Year America Lost its Mind and Found its Soul by Clara Bingham
I have read broadly about the 1960s and 1970s and thought I knew all there was to know about the year 1969 to 1970. I was wrong. It was a pivotal year with 9,000 protests, 84 acts of arson or bombings at schools across the country, the My Lai massacre investigation, the Cambodia invasion, Woodstock, and the Moratorium to End the War. Bingham talks to key players in all these events and recreates the anger, horror, and turbulence of that time.

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein
Stein is the daughter of the legendary Jules Stein who turned a small talent agency into the powerful MCA. So she grew up among Hollywood insiders, and uses her connection to her advantage in her fast-paced and absorbing oral history of Los Angeles. She creates a portrait of the city through the story of five families, some famous, some not. There are the Doheneys, known for their fabulous oil wealth and the mysterious murder of the oldest son; the Warners, of studio fame, Jane Garland, Jennifer Jones, the actress who married Norton Simon, and the Steins. Stein researched her book over many years so some of the voices included have been silent for a long time, including those of Ring Lardner, Lauren Bacall, Arthur Miller and Dennis Hopper. Plenty of current voices too such as Frank Gehry and Joan Didion.

The House by the Lake by Thomas Harding
I have been raving about this book to everyone I can and have gotten some pushback from friends about its worth. Yet I loved it. It is a history of Western Europe told through the lens of a country house built by a Jewish family on the outskirts of Berlin before World War II. The author is the grandson of the  original builder, a Jewish doctor who was forced to flee when Hitler took power. The house was then owned by a series of East Germans and was set to be demolished when the author persuaded German authorities in 2014 that the house had historic value. It’s a micro-history of the best kind.

In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi
I can’t say I actually liked this book, but I was enthralled by it. Faludi writes about the tortured relationship she has with her father, who decides to become a woman when he is in his 70s. Faludi makes multiple trips to Hungary to better understand the parent who deserted his/her family and pushes her parent to better explore his Jewish identity.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
The one fiction book on my list. This is a thriller that folds upon itself multiple times. It tells the story of physicist Jason Dessen who is mysteriously transported out of his own life and into an alternate version of his life. He must fight ­– and think – his way back to his wife and child. The New York Times called it “alternate-universe science fiction bolstered by a smidgen of theoretical physics.” I call it un-putdownable.

If you’re buying books for yourself or as gifts, remember to patronize our many wonderful local independent bookstores rather than buy online, if you can.

What books did you enjoy reading in 2016?

Related:
Best Books of 2015 (12.17.15)
Best Books of Summer 2015 (05.22.15)
Best Books of 2015 (12.16.15)
5 local cookbooks that will make great holiday gifts (12.02.14)
18 books about Berkeley for Berkeley lovers (12.23.13)
The Best Books of 2013 (12.17.13)
The Best Books of 2012 (12.21.12)
The Best Books of 2010 (12.16.10)

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