Maybe it’s me, but I don’t think so. So far as I can tell, people living in what has become my hometown of Berkeley, California, have been writing an inordinate number of really good books in recent years. That’s probably because the town attracts creative people like . . . well, should I say, like flies? No, that wouldn’t fit. For example, we have our own famous “Three Michaels” — Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay), Michael Lewis (Liar’s Poker), and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma). They’re hardly alone. It’s tough to stumble into any corner coffee shop here and not find some future Pulitzer-winner hunched over a laptop and the coffee cup by her side that’s been empty all day.
Though I do have a certain affection for the products of the town I call home and am thus more likely to pick up a locally grown effort than one labeled Brand X, I can’t possibly keep up with all the collective literary output of my landsmen. So, what I’ve read is just a smattering of what’s on offer. And it all arrived on my Kindle only after squeezing through the finely meshed sieve of my idiosyncratic reading taste.
Here, then, are 37 books I’ve read and reviewed in the last few years that I can still wholeheartedly recommend. Nearly all of them were written by people currently living or working in Berkeley. The remainder either were written by others with strong Berkeley ties or prominently feature Berkeley scenes and events. Some of the authors have moved away but were once living in Berkeley.
Below you’ll find a list of my five favorite books by Berkeley authors, followed by a second list of the 32 others, all of which are still well worth reading. Within each section, these titles are all arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.
My five favorite books by Berkeley authors
The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner by Daniel Ellsberg—Daniel Ellsberg’s dramatic second act
Dan Ellsberg is, of course, best known, not to say famous, as the man who released the Pentagon Papers. However, in his view, his work in the 1950s and 60s in nuclear war planning was at least as significant. In this latter-day memoir, he recounts the shocking lessons he learned from that experience. And they’re relevant to this day.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi—African Roots through African eyes
This extraordinary debut novel 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 book opens in the mid-eighteenth century, when the slave trade was at its peak, follows the rollercoaster fortunes of the family through the turbulent years of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and concludes in present-day Ghana, where two descendants of the family have returned to explore the land of their ancestors—and the meaning of their lives. The tale in Homegoingparallels the story told in Alex Haley’s Roots over roughly the same period.
Autonomous by Annalee Newitz—In 2144, Arctic resorts, autonomous robots, and killer drugs
You hope the world will never look like this. It’s 2144. Slavery has revived, camouflaged as indentured servitude. The pharmaceutical industry and the lives of most of the world’s citizens are dominated by a handful of huge pharma corporations. These companies produce patented drugs that lengthen lifespan, enhance productivity, and induce euphoria as well as prevent illness. Unfortunately, officially sanctioned drugs are far too expensive for most of the world’s people. A flourishing pirate economy fills some of the gaps by reverse-engineering the most popular drugs.
Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power by Seth Rosenfeld—J. Edgar Hoover, Ronald Reagan, and the violence in 1960s Berkeley
Grounded in thirty years of dogged research, including mountains of documents from Freedom of Information Act lawsuits, an investigative journalist reveals the close collaboration between J. Edgar Hoover and Ronald Reagan that brought violence to a generation of University of California students and the Right Wing to the White House.
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles—The first robber baron and the emergence of the corporation
He was the first robber baron. Other familiar names associated with the nineteenth century—John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan—were young men in the early days of their careers when he was at the peak of his fame. Vanderbilt was one of the original architects of the modern corporation, “consolidating” one regional railroad into another to form one of the country’s first massive, impersonal corporations. And he singlehandedly restored order and stabilized the US economy in the midst of one of the most severe financial panics in our history.
32 other good books by Berkeley writers or with a Berkeley theme
Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende—Isabel Allende’s triumphant new novel spans the Western Hemisphere.
A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves by Walter Alvarez—The unlikely story of life on Earth.
Wasted: Murder in the Recycle Berkeley Yard by John Byrne Barry—Love, betrayal, murder, recycling.
Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin III—Berkeley in 1969: Black Panthers, the FBI, and the Vietnam War.
Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown—She’s missing, presumed dead, and now the mystery starts.
Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon—A glorious Michael Chabon novel, set in my neighborhood.
Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California by Frances Dinkelspiel—Wine, wine everywhere, and not a drop to drink.
Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water, by Peter H. Gleick— Berkeley scientist questions the safety of bottled water.
Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex by Michael Hiltzik—The man who fathered Big Science.
To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild—World War I: Learning history the hard way
Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 by Adam Hochschild—The American role in the Spanish Civil War.
Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild—What Trump voters believe: a Berkeley sociologist goes to the source.
A Measure of Darkness (Clay Edison #2) by Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman—The Kellerman father-son team produces a new crime thriller.
The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis—Michael Lewis on the science of decision-making.
Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World—What goes around, comes around: following the financial meltdown around the world.
The Big Short, by Michael Lewis—The clever investors who made fortunes from the Great Recession.
Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, by Michael Lewis—”The stock market is rigged!”
The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas—In Cairo, a perfect Torah scroll, without flaw or innovation.
A Theory of Small Earthquakes, by Meredith Maran—A first novel from a brilliant nonfiction writer.
The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life by Lauren Markham—”Illegal immigrants” come to life in this sensitive personal account.
Consequence by Steve Masover—Exploring the boundary between terrorism and peaceful protest.
Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, by Annalee Newitz—Will the human race survive climate change and a mass extinction?
Patriotic Betrayal: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Secret Campaign to Enroll American Students in the Crusade Against Communism by Karen M. Paget—How the CIA infiltrated the National Student Association.
From Kraków to Berkeley: Coming Out of Hiding by Anna Rabkin— “Survival is sweet revenge”: The odyssey of a Holocaust survivor.
The Common Good by Robert B. Reich—Robert Reich diagnoses what ails American society
Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few by Robert B. Reich—Robert Reich explains how to make capitalism work for the middle class.
Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party, by Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost— Tea Party politics may not be what you think.
Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory by Elizabeth Rosner—The Holocaust, mass trauma, inherited PTSD, and genetics.
Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T. J. Stiles—A superb biography of George Armstrong Custer.
Game Changers: Twelve Elections That Transformed California by Steve Swatt, with Susie Swatt, Jeff Raimundo, and Rebecca LaVally—12 elections that were game changers.
All Our Yesterdays, by Erik Tarloff—Sex drugs revolution: Berkeley in the 70s.
David Brower: The Making of the Environmental Movement by Tom Turner—The remarkable life of David Brower.
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Mal Warwick writes Mal Warwick’s Blog on Books.