From hawks to Berlin to Salinger to neurosurgery to sci-fi: 6 great reads to start off your summer

Caption here. Photo: Bill Newton
If you hurry, you can grab one of our recommended summer books at a Berkeley public library. Photo: Bill Newton

It’s not quite June gloom outside, and May gloom doesn’t have the same ring. While the weather isn’t cooperating, Memorial Day marks the unofficial beginning of the summer. To usher in a season of more relaxation (if you’re lucky) the Berkeleyside editors (Frances, Tracey and Lance) have some book suggestions.

“Golden State,” Stephanie Kegan

Golden State “The Bay Area was in the midst of an autumn heat wave, hot, dry, and unnatural. The air electric against my skin, I had the sense that a single match could ignite us all…” So begins “Golden State,” a debut novel set in Berkeley by Stephanie Kegan. The book tells the story of Natalie Askedahl, who teaches at a progressive school she co-founded and who lives in the hills with her husband and two daughters. Natalie’s world blows apart when she begins to suspect her beloved, hermetic older brother Bobby, a math prodigy who went to Princeton at 16, is really a Unabomber-type figure whose bombs have killed seven people at UC Berkeley, Stanford, and elsewhere. As Natalie grapples with this terrible revelation, she must decide where her loyalties lie – with her brother, once her protector, or with the world at large that stands to be harmed by him. Filled with great details that reveal Kegan’s native California roots (and her time at UC Berkeley), Golden State is a page-turner, one that will only take a short time to read.

MSY_paperback“My Salinger Year,” Joanna Rakoff

This beautifully written memoir about a young woman working at a preeminent literary agency on the cusp of the digital age is really a love letter to books. Joanna Rakoff, freshly graduated from Oberlin, takes a job at The Agency for The Boss, whose biggest client is the reclusive J.D. Salinger. One of the first things Rakoff learns is never, ever to give out Salinger’s phone number and address and to quickly steer all Salinger calls to The Boss. Left to answer Salinger’s fan mail (which Salinger has asked never be sent to his home) Rakoff’s heart melts as she reads letters from fans who believe the author is talking directly to them. She is supposed to respond with form letters, but can’t resist writing back to the neediest fans. Rakoff eventually develops a phone relationship with the hard-of-hearing Salinger, and even meets him briefly. Rakoff only works at The Agency for one year, but it is enough to persuade her of the power of literature. She later goes on to write the well-received novel, “A Fortunate Age.” Newly out in paperback.

“Do No Harm,” Henry Marsh

do no harmMarsh is Britain’s pre-eminent neurosurgeon, but the wonder of “Do No Harm,” in which he relates in powerfully descriptive prose the surgeries that have left a mark on him personally throughout a distinguished career, is the humility on display. From the outset Marsh is as candid about his failings as his successes. Doctors are only human after all. Compelling and enlightening.

H is for Hawk“H is for Hawk,” Helen Macdonald

On the surface, it’s surprising that this book, in which the author breaks and trains a hawk as a way to cope with grief following the death of her father, has proved such a hit. “H is for Hawk” won the prestigious Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction in the UK where it originated, and has made bestseller lists in both Britain and the US. Its appeal is Macdonald’s glorious writing, which ranges from the scientific to the almost poetic, and the way the narrative draws you deep into the mysterious, wild world of predatory birds.

“Leaving Berlin,” Joseph Kanonleaving-berlin-9781476704647_lg

If you enjoyed Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir Bernie Gunther series, you’ll find plenty of echoes in Joseph Kanon’s latest book, “Leaving Berlin.” Kanon, however, is the better writer. Alex Meier, a German Jew, returns to Berlin from his exile in the US after falling afoul of McCarthy and HUAC’s Hollywood witch hunts. He finds the postwar wasteland of East Berlin (pre-Wall) not quite the peoples’ paradise they expected. Everyone seems to lead at least a double existence, with the Stasi, Stalin’s KGB and the CIA all jostling for advantage.


Poor Man's Fight 2“Poor Man’s Fight,” Elliott Kay

It’s summer, and you probably want some escapism. Elliot Kay‘s science fiction novel was self-published on Kindle a couple of years ago and, purely by word of mouth, was a sensation. “Poor Man’s Fight” is out next month in paperback (and if you like it, you’ll rush to read the sequel, “Rich Man’s War”). “Poor Man’s Fight” is a book of dramatic battles in space with the twist of a keen political sense: the worlds in Kay’s universe are dominated by mega-corporations that keep control thanks to the huge debts people pile up for their education. Of course, that’s wildly speculative fiction…

Don’t forget books recently recommended by Mal Warwick, including “Infamy: The shocking Story of Japanese Internment,” by Richard Reeves.

Find these books at the Berkeley Public Library and at Berkeley’s many independent bookstores.

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