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Books of the East Bay

This summer, hook up with where you live through locally inspired literature.


Photograph by Diablo Imaging

Summer is here, and with it comes the time-honored ritual of lounging in a beautiful vacation spot with a really good book. You could search Oprah’s Book Club for ideas on what to read. Or, you could check out Diablo’s selection of novels and nonfiction works, which will remind you of what’s cool, quirky, and culturally significant about the East Bay. From the Jacks (London and Kerouac) to Maxine Hong Kingston, our area has a rich and wonderful literary tradition. Here are some famous works as well as some little-known gems by great writers who drew inspiration from East Bay events, locations, and people.

Martin Eden, Jack London, 1909

This book is the most autobiographical work by London, the godfather of East Bay literature. The protagonist comes of age in working-class Oakland and sets out to avoid the hard life of an industrial laborer. Eden hits the high seas to find his fortune, as he struggles desperately to embark on a literary career. London wrote the book at the age of 33, after he had achieved fame with The Call of the Wild and White Fang, and he bestows similar success on his main character. But, Eden eventually becomes disillusioned and commits suicide—a foreshadowing of London’s own premature death.

“The Scorched Face,” Dashiell Hammett, 1925

Even before The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, Hammett pioneered the art of hard-boiled crime fiction with short stories starring his nameless Continental Op, a private eye working for a detective agency in San Francisco. In “The Scorched Face” (included in the anthology The Big Knockover), Hammett’s detective must find two runaway heiresses who have become mixed up with a shady car dealer and a possible blackmail scheme. The detective’s search takes him by ferry and train to the sheriff’s office in Martinez, then to a farm near Mount Diablo where he makes an unpleasant discovery: “At the base of a tree, on her side, her knees drawn up close to her body, a girl was dead. She wasn’t nice to see. Birds had been at her.”

The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac, 1958

The 1958 follow-up to Kerouac’s earth-shattering On the Road, this book shares many stylistic qualities with its predecessor. As with On the Road, the characters are for the most part facsimiles of members of Kerouac’s Beat circle—Ray Smith is Kerouac, Japhy Ryder is Gary Snyder, Alvah Goldbook is Allen Ginsberg, and so on. The book recounts Kerouac’s summer spent atop Desolation Peak in the Cascades and the Six Gallery event in San Francisco where Ginsberg first publicly read “Howl,” but much of the pleasure for an East Bay reader will come from accompanying Kerouac as he wanders the streets of Berkeley and Oakland from his base at Ginsberg’s Milvia Street cottage.

Seize the Time, Bobby Seale, 1970

Learn how the Black Panther Party was born by reading this book, a sometimes profane memoir by Bobby Seale, who cofounded the Panthers with Huey P. Newton. Seize the Time recounts such famous incidents as the Panthers’ 1967 storming of the state capitol and the Chicago Seven trial, at which a judge ordered Seale to be bound and gagged, and sentenced him to four years in prison for contempt of court. This book provides a great primer on the conditions and philosophies that gave rise to black militant politics.

The Mistress of Spices, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, 1997

Set in Oakland, this novel tells the story of Tilo, a shopkeeper who is ordained a mistress of spices and charged with solving the spiritual crises of her customers, mostly Indian immigrants and their children. Trouble arises, however, when Tilo falls in love with an American man. The prose has a sensual flair befitting its title, and the novel gets bonus points for spawning a 2005 movie with the same title.

The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini, 2003

This tremendously popular novel needs little introduction, but any list of East Bay books would be incomplete without it. Hosseini’s moving tale centers on Amir, the son of a wealthy Afghan, and his bond with Hassan, who is being raised by Amir’s father’s servant. The story takes us from peaceful prewar Kabul to the enclaves of South Asian immigrants in Fremont and back to the war-torn Taliban-dominated Afghanistan of the late 1990s.

Moneyball, Michael Lewis, 2003

In this paean to the genius of Billy Beane, Moneyball tells how the general manager of the Oakland A’s built a team that consistently won as many games as the New York Yankees—despite having a payroll less than a third of the Bronx Bombers’—by using statistical analysis to exploit inefficiencies in player evaluation. A’s fans get a chance to relive the 2002 season with such familiar characters as submarine-style pitcher Chad Bradford, brash first-round draft pick Nick Swisher, and converted first baseman/20-game winning streak hero Scott Hatteberg.

The Fifth Book of Peace, Maxine Hong Kingston, 2003

Kingston is best known for The Woman Warrior, her award-winning, controversial 1976 memoir of growing up in a Chinese laundry in Stockton. The Fifth Book of Peace, another memoir, describes how Kingston lost her home—and the novel that she was working on—in the Oakland Hills fire of 1991. Kingston blends fiction and nonfiction, first telling of her desperate attempt to get through the fire to save her manuscript, then reconstructing the lost novel, and finally connecting it all with her experience of teaching writing workshops to Vietnam War veterans.

Also of note


The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon, 1966

In this postmodern tale by one of America’s most lauded writers, a woman travels to San Francisco and Berkeley while uncovering a worldwide conspiracy.

Gun, With Occasional Music, Jonathan Lethem, 1994

Science fiction meets detective fiction in this novel set in a futuristic Oakland and Piedmont.

How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Terry McMillan, 1996

A divorced professional woman in her forties travels from her East Bay suburban home to Jamaica and falls for a younger man. Don’t let the real-life unraveling of the author’s second marriage, also to a younger man, distract from what critics hailed as a “liberating love story.”

A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe, 1998

Part of Wolfe’s sprawling best-selling satire of late 20th-century America takes place in Oakland and the Alameda County jail.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers, 2000

Best-selling memoir of a Generation Xer who finds himself raising his eight-year-old brother in Berkeley after both of their parents die of cancer.

Daughter’s Keeper, Ayelet Waldman, 2003

A Berkeley pharmacist’s pregnant 22-year-old daughter suddenly faces a 10-year prison sentence for a drug crime.

Blues City: A Walk in Oakland, Ishmael Reed, 2003

Critic and novelist Reed celebrates and rants about what makes his hometown such a vibrant, underappreciated American city.

The Green Age of Asher Witherow, M. Allen Cunningham, 2004

This historical novel beautifully depicts the lives of coal miners who worked in the hills around Mount Diablo in the 19th century.

Not a Genuine Black Man, Brian Copeland, 2006

The KGO 810 radio host recounts growing up African American in lily-white San Leandro in the early ’70s. Based on his wildly successful one-man stage show.

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