The Best East Bay Books of 2019
It’s been a year of fantastic travel in pages by Bay Area writers, so here’s what you need to read.
In 2019, books took readers through the portals of imagination, history, and science to amazing places in time and location. Lit “travel” explored the human immune system, kitchens of East Bay chefs, a shooting victim’s dying thoughts and memories, the hidden interior world of dementia and Alzheimer’s, the horrors of contemporary politics, the heroic deeds of gutsy women, a practicum of literary craft, five generations of an African-American family, the woes and wonders of immigrants and more.
These 10 most worthy books of 2019, selected to achieve diversity — and, for the most part, with a given Bay Area bias — arrive from a variety of genres. Many are written by local writers or about Bay Area people, influences, and locations. Plus, there are some suggestions for a handful of noteworthy must-have books for the rest of 2019.
The Other Americans by Laila Lalami (Pantheon): The weight of secrets hangs heavy in California-set Lalami’s shape-shifting novel. Deftly weaving deeply human, unforgettable characters in the alternating narrative voices of two families — among them, an Oakland jazz composer — they confront the ties and tangles of racism, immigration, love, and death. Lalami’s masterful drama is spellbinding.
The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton (Counterpoint): The Oakland author’s second novel spans nearly 100 years and alternates between two dynamic narrators to tell the enthralling story of America’s history of slavery, economic inequality, and racism. The nobility of humans who rise up in powerful, peaceful protest and elements of magical realism bring to mind the work of the late, great Toni Morrison.
The Atlas of Reds and Blues by Devi Laskar (Counterpoint): Told through the perspective of the unnamed narrator known only as The Mother, the Bay Area author’s novel disintegrates conventional barriers of time and memory. Generational experiences of racist wounding as an immigrant bleed out in visceral, physical realities while The Mother lies in the driveway of her upscale neighborhood home, dying from a gunshot wound. Each word counts in this stunning debut.
An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System by Matt Richtel (William Morrow): The myth-busting arena of science is a welcome place to hover when world chaos overwhelms. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist’s rigorous, in-depth research and meticulously curated sources and references are enlivened by a storyteller’s knack for weaving an intriguing tale. Explore the fascinating realms of diabetes, asthma, arthritis, cancer, fever, overprescribed antibiotics, HIV, T cells, macrophages, and more.
The Last Ocean by Nicci Gerrard (Penguin Press): Gerrard with co-author Sean French is the writer of the U.K.-bestselling Nicci French thriller series. Here, she turns her talent for raw, courageous prose to the real life devastating loss of her father. During and after he disappeared into the vacuum that is dementia, Gerrard delved into the difficult journey’s treatment and compassionate care. She emerged with strong ideas about life well lived — and ended — and founded John’s Campaign, a growing movement in the U.K. This book is for anyone anywhere whose family includes a person living with diminished mental states.
The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang (Graywolf Press): Bay Area journalist Wang delivers in 13 high-paced, research-backed essays her experiences as a person diagnosed with bipolar-type schizoaffective disorder, complex PTSD, and other non-typical neurological conditions. Aimed at disrupting stigmas about mental health, the personal stories lay strong connections with issues we all face: having children, finding acceptance, falling in and out of love, developing self-identity. Each chapter is a story brilliantly told.
Whose Story Is This? by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket Books): Applying the wisdom of ages with whippersnapper words and thrusting always toward enlightenment, the Bay Area champion searches for truth amid contemporary society’s rage, bullying, voter suppression, exploitation of women, of people of color, of anyone not on the white male power grid. Sure, some may say Solnit is left of center: For others, she is the center. If for no other reason than to witness a writer at her prime, read Whose Story.
Lit Starts: Little Books of Writing Prompts created by the Writers Grotto (Abrams Notorie): San Francisco Writer Grotto’s quartet of pocket-sized writing guides feature introductions written by local authors and prompts to self-workshop your skill set. The first four cover writing action, humor, character, and dialogue. What else is there? The Grotto gang knows, so look for additions to the edition coming in 2020. Meanwhile, get busy.
We Are La Cocina by Caleb Zigas and Leticia Landa with multiple contributors (Chronicle Books): The La Cocina kitchen incubator’s 40 alumni and 75 recipes serve up inspiring stories of women entrepreneurs and recent immigrants to the United States. From mac and cheese to tamales los mayas to alfajores, kuku sabzi, and beyond, there are few forces as powerful as food, cooking, eating, and the sharing of recipes for uniting cultures across the globe. Eric Wolfinger’s sumptuous photos will make anyone drool. The women chefs’ strength, determination, and independence is undeniable … and victorious.
Father’s Day by Matthew Zapruder (Copper Canyon Press): East Bay-based Zapruder is a Saint Mary’s College associate professor and 2016-17 editor of the poetry column for The New York Times Magazine and author of the marvelous, Why Poetry? Here, he ventures into the full spectrum of fatherhood, his own, the world’s, the dilemmas, and joys therein. The structures are laid out with rigor and welcome sparsity. The best poems branch into parenting the genre, protecting and preserving the value of words well chosen, especially in the age of Twitter and other social media.
Looking Ahead: Must Reads
The Book of Gutsy Women by Hilary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton (Simon & Schuster)
A Particular Kind of Black Man by Tope Folarin (Simon & Schuster); Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch (Riverhead Books)
Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists by Mike Kendall and A. D’Amico (Ten Speed Press)
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (Doubleday)
We, the Survivors by Tash Aw (Farrar, Straus, Giroux)
Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2020 curated by a panel of travel experts (Lonely Planet Global Limited)
To be Re-Read:
Toni Morrison no longer marches across the earth, but her realm is nonetheless unlimited. Read and relive the magic poetic prose of one of America’s finest writers.