UC Berkeley 2019 Summer Reading List: Between Worlds

Dear incoming Golden Bears,

We welcome you to UC Berkeley with the annual Summer Reading List for New Students, a selection of the very best readings enthusiastically suggested for you by Cal faculty, staff, graduate students, and your fellow undergraduates. Skim through the rich collection of fiction and nonfiction below, and you’re sure to find something that will pique your interest, whether you pick one of these up to read this summer or find it in one of the campus’s many libraries upon your arrival this fall.

This year’s theme is Connection(s). Every day we’re reminded of our connections to others, whether something as wonderful as our links to friends and loved ones or as concerning as this year’s COVID-19 pandemic. While you’re in college, you’re likely to make rich and deep connections — with other people, with your studies, and with the intersection of ideas across disciplines, history, and parts of your own life. We look forward to connecting with you when you get to Berkeley. In the meantime, we hope you’ll enjoy some of the fantastic readings offered here that suggest just a few of the many ways in which connections manifest themselves in the world.

Michael Larkin
College Writing Programs

Tim Dilworth
First Year coordinator
UC Berkeley Library

Image credit: Don't know where this R.R. was -short connecting line to where? “Our mother” is Mrs. Lawrence May with Elsie Jane May on her lap.
Bully Hill Mine Photographs Relating to the Lawrence May Family, ca. 1870-1919
BANC PIC 1982.063:37--PIC


Cover art for Exit west

Exit West

Mohsin Hamid

What if there were secret doors connecting your country to others? What if we stopped guarding those doors? Exit West by Mohsin Hamid tells the story of two independent people, Nadia and Saeed, who make a connection in night school and fall in love. But their city descends into war, and soon they find themselves passing through one of the secret doors. Their story is about what it feels like to be uprooted and forced to “exit” your home to face the unknown. Will their connection survive in these new circumstances? Set against the backdrop of migrant lives and guided by compassionate intelligence, this beautiful novel inspires big thinking about what it means to be a global citizen. Exit West is the featured text for On the Same Page 2020: Our faculty and all new students will receive copies to read over the summer, and all are welcome to attend Hamid’s keynote address on Aug. 20, 2020.

Department of Spanish and Portuguese

Cover art for Becoming


Michelle Obama

(Online ebook & audiobook access - CalNet authenticated holders only)

This book is all about connection — Michelle Obama writes about her upbringing and how connections to her family and to her South Side Chicago neighborhood shaped her and her worldview; she writes about how her connection to her husband, Barack, changed her life and shaped it in a completely different way than she expected; and, finally, how her years in the White House connected her to America and its peoples in new and important ways (for her and for us). It’s a great read, and she’s an insightful, honest, funny, and courageous person. Five stars!

Sociology, Demography, & Quantitative Research Librarian

Cover art for Continental Divide

Continental Divide

Alex Myers

Making connections is a big part of the story: The narrator/protagonist, Ron, is a Harvard student, recently out as trans, who heads out West to break his familiar connections and to establish himself (mostly to himself) as a man — to make connections with new people who will only know him as he is, without his history. There is, of course, much adventure: romance, danger, new friendships — some humbling, some exhilarating — as connections are made and as Ron learns he cannot and should not fully sever his old connections.

AP Analyst
College of Engineering

Cover art for Normal People

Normal People

Sally Rooney

(Online access - CalNet authenticated holders only)

Are you the same person that you were in high school? This captivating, highly nuanced work about two young adults in County Sligo, Ireland, explores how connections are made, how relationships evolve, and how they are stress-tested over time. If the “It’s Complicated” relationship setting were a novel, this would be it.

Class of 2020
Legal Studies major

Cover art for The Gene

The Gene: an Intimate History

Siddhartha Mukherjee

There are no greater connectors between human beings, our families, our ancestors, and even our futures than genes. We all know the basic biological facts about DNA and evolution, but this book skillfully connects ancient assumptions about heritability with modern techniques of recombination to gently expand that common knowledge. Like all great works of popular science, Siddhartha Mukherjee makes you feel like you understand, in 592 pages, a subject so complex that its development has spanned (and is likely to continue to span) literally all of human history.

Class of 2020
Legal Studies major

Cover art for Two Weeks in November

Two Weeks in November: The Astonishing Inside Story of the Coup That Toppled Mugabe

Douglas Rogers

Everyone who thinks the connections we form early in life will not be useful later on will revise their perspective after reading this book. In a fascinating and almost real-time narration, Douglas Rogers tells the story of how Zimbabwe’s then Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa came to rely heavily on his connections to escape the country after falling out with and being fired by his mentor and boss — Robert Mugabe. Mnangagwa activated his connections from his days in the Rhodesian bush war, contacts who helped him escape to Mozambique through a landmine-infested region under the cover of darkness.

But Mnangagwa’s story of becoming a fugitive overnight is just half of the story. After Mnangagwa was safely out of Zimbabwe, his connections established a command center in South Africa with a satellite center in Harare being manned by his military loyalists. These command centers worked the media, diplomacy, street protests, impeachment proceedings on Robert Mugabe, and prepared the ground for a triumphant return of their man. With ultimate precision, the plan worked. The people protested in the streets, the military drove tanks to support the mass protests, Parliament started impeachment proceedings, and before they could debate the impeachment, Mugabe resigned. Just like that, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s connections had not only kept him safe, but they had elevated their man to the highest office of the land. Rogers’ book is indeed a masterpiece that shows the power of building connections!

Class of 2020
Political economy major

Cover art for Sula


Toni Morrison

Childhood friendships are often the stuff of deep, organic, unspoken connection. Toni Morrison’s second novel, Sula (1973), traces the friendship between the title character and her friend Nel, girls who, during their childhoods in the Bottom, a segregated black neighborhood in Medallion, Ohio, were “two throats and one eye,” yet whose connection is ultimately fractured. Although they come from starkly contrasting families, Sula and Nel forge an abiding friendship and emotional connection, solidified by their holding the secret of an accidental death.

Morrison traces the path of Sula and Nel’s relationship over decades — through a deep rupture, a partial reconciliation, and the realization of how loss of connection can devastate and create “circles and circles of sorrow.” The novel challenges us to consider female friendships: their power and possibilities; how forces such as patriarchy, economics, family, and race structure and (re)strain such connections; and the price women pay for the choices they make and the agency they exercise.

Curriculum Coordinator
Centers for Educational Equity and Excellence, CE3

Cover art for Meadowlark


Melanie Abrams

UC Berkeley faculty member Melanie Abrams’ fantastic new novel, Meadowlark, follows Simone, a photojournalist, who escapes a strict spiritual compound as a teenager and later reconnects with the childhood friend, Aaron, she escaped with. Aaron is now the charismatic leader of a commune, Meadowlark, which holds some disturbing beliefs concerning children and their “gifts.” Despite her reservations, Simone agrees to come document Meadowlark’s story but arrives only to realize the commune is in the midst of a tense criminal investigation. A gripping novel about the sometimes inexplicable pull of connection and what it means to see and be seen.

Director of Marketing & Partnerships
Greater Good Science Center

Cover art for All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr

This novel is set during World War II, tracking the lives of a French girl and a German boy. While these two characters are initially separate and unbeknownst to each other, the summit of the novel arrives when their lives intertwine as they struggle to survive the war. Anthony Doerr creates a beautiful collision of two worlds in the most detailed and unexpected of ways, providing readers with a story of light set amidst a time period riddled with darkness.

Class of 2021
English major

Cover art for Where the Crawdads Sing

Where the Crawdads Sing

Delia Owens

(Online access - CalNet authenticated holders only)

I just finished reading Where the Crawdads Sing and thought it was excellent. It tells the story of a girl who is abandoned by her family at a young age. The novel traces her struggle to survive and her eternal longing for connection. Sadly, she is rejected by nearly all the people she comes in contact with and is treated as a “feral child.” The storytelling is superb, and the author creates a beautiful world in the marshlands where it takes place.

College Writing Programs

Cover art for An Unnecessary Woman

An Unnecessary Woman

Rabih Alameddin

In An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine connects the reader with an isolated, brilliant, unconventional woman living in Beirut. Her life is peopled with the characters of her beloved books, and each year — for her own pleasure — she translates one of them into Arabic. An Unnecessary Woman transports the reader to Lebanon, through great works of literature, and into the life and mind of a remarkable woman. And, as Rabih Alameddine states, the novel questions how we balance an inner life with an outer life — and how important is each?

Head, Social Sciences Division
Social Welfare Librarian & Interim African Studies Librarian

Campus Diversity:  The Hidden Consensus

Campus Diversity: The Hidden Consensus

John M. Carey, Katie Clayton, & Yusaku Horiuchi

This book is authored by two political science luminaries, John Carey and Yusaku Horiuchi of Dartmouth, as well as one of their students who was an undergraduate herself at the time of the writing, Katie Clayton.

I can’t imagine a work of nonfiction that better addresses the theme of this year’s Summer Reading List. Campus Diversity focuses on one of the central social, political, and legal issues confronting universities: whether and how race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status should be considered in college admissions and in faculty recruitment. It takes seriously what students think about an issue on which they have direct, recent experience. It acknowledges head-on the challenges students may face in openly expressing opinions about diversity, and it shows how scholars can measure attitudes even on hot-button issues. It further shows how the academic research process can unfold, identifying a puzzle, applying an innovative method to get traction on it, and presenting results graphically, in an accessible manner that requires no prior familiarity with statistical methods. It provides historical background on demographic diversity at American universities and current context on legal and political challenges to affirmative action.

Nothing could be more timely, and the book is a model of engaging, accessible social science. Perhaps most importantly, given this year’s theme, the book unearths hidden connections among students and opens the way for more open and fruitful dialogue. I think incoming students would enjoy it and profit enormously from reading it.

Political Science Department

Cover art for How to be an Antiracist

How to be an Antiracist

Ibram X. Kendi

Ibram X. Kendi narrates his own path of liberation leading to the creation of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center and his unapologetic engagement with its mission. He weaves beautiful lessons, dispels many myths, and challenges prevalent misconceptions through poignant personal stories. This book is both autobiography and magnificent scholarly work. Most importantly, the pages of this book leave one with a personal sense of possibility and responsibility.

Head, Problem-Based Learning Curriculum
UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program

This is How You Lose the Time War

This is How You Lose the Time War

Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

This book weaves a brilliant tale of spies on opposite sides of a multidimensional time war, waged primarily by two agents: “Blue,” whose society focuses on nature and natural elements, and “Red,” whose technofuturist society will have its victory no matter the cost. As they travel through time, Blue and Red thwart one another at every turn on behalf of worlds hellbent on their assimilation and unquestioning compliance. But as they say, love knows no bounds — and their connection defies all constraints, real and imagined. Excitingly paced, and with lush, lyrical prose, this book is a must-read for fans of speculative fiction, romance, and character-driven stories featuring queer characters of color.

Undergraduate Learning and Research Librarian
Doe Library

Cover art for The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind

Jonathan Haidt

(Online access - CalNet authenticated holders only)

This book explores the implications of moral philosophy for political polarization. A lot of what we disagree about can be boiled down to six foundations of moral value. Different political perspectives correlate with different moral foundations. If we don’t understand one another’s values, we wind up polarized. But the real reason this is a must-read is that it demonstrates how we base our moral judgements on emotional reaction rather than information and thought. All of us.

Associate Professor of Practice
Goldman School of Public Policy

Cover art for Disappearing Earth

Disappearing Earth

Julia Phillips

Julia Phillips’ novel opens with a crime that startles the people of Kamchatka. Told in linked short stories, the novel links the women and men of this town in a number of ways, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, showing how everyone is connected. Each character is vividly brought to life, as is this remote part of the world. While it is a thriller, it resists formulaic crime stereotypes. By showing how one act affects so many, Phillips reminds us of how we all affect one another.

College Writing Programs

Cover art for How To Be Both

How To Be Both

Ali Smith

The book has two halves — one about Francesco del Cossa, an Italian Renaissance artist, and one about George, a contemporary British teenager who is coping with the recent death of her mother — and they are related in surprising and intriguing ways. George and Francesco both think about uses for new technologies, the ways that images shape our ideas of the world, and what it means to be entertained. George is one of the great young adult characters of the past few years and worth reading on her own. But the deeper story is her imaginative relationship with Francesco del Cossa, who makes us wonder whether some very contemporary questions aren’t, in fact, very old. Another fun fact: The novel was published in two versions, with Francesco’s story appearing first in some and George’s in others.

PhD candidate
Comparative Literature

Cover art for The Travelers

The Travelers

Regina Porter

This debut novel by an award-winning African American playwright is a multigenerational, multifamily, multiracial saga told in language that is lean and prickly, full of characters who keep doing and saying things you won’t see coming, as they connect and disconnect against the backdrop of America in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Associate Director
Berkeley Connect

Cover art for Papillon


Henri Charrière

The true prison story of wrongly convicted Henri Charrière’s Papillon (the nickname given to him because of the butterfly tattoo on his chest) takes many turns up and down the penal colony of Cayenne in French Guiana and across South America.

Upon arrival, he befriends a convicted banker/counterfeiter, Louis Dega, and initially uses him to finance his escape. What starts out as a self-serving tactic of prison survival eventually turns into a deep friendship as they are repeatedly caught, and Henri refuses to name names to the prison authorities. This costs him many years of solitary confinement under the most inhumane conditions.

He is eventually taken to Devil’s Island, off the coast of French Guiana, where his old friend Louis also lives. The island’s fame for inescapability doesn't frighten Henri as he plans his final escape.

One of the best reads concerning friendship, struggle, and man’s desire for freedom.

Library Assistant III/Receiving Specialist
(Spanish/Italian/French/Portuguese/Catalan Collections)
Ordering & Monographs Receiving Unit

Cover art for If Women Rose Rooted

If Women Rose Rooted

Sharon Blackie

In this eco-feminist work, Sharon Blackie writes about the dreadful severance that has occurred between the Earth and people, especially women, and how we have become lost and estranged from the natural world. Since our Western culture is founded on philosophies of dominion over nature, that animals have no reason, and that matter is inert, she writes, “it follows that the natural world is no more than a backdrop for human activities, to be exploited. Wild places have become ‘resources.’” It’s obvious that if you don’t know a place, then you don’t feel responsible for it. This book is an electrifying call to reconnect with the Earth and remember that we belong here. She reminds us that we must guard it and make a path to an “eco-heroine’s journey,” through Earth’s forests and fields, moors (she especially writes about Ireland and Scotland) and caves, waters, islands, and mountains.

Slavic & Eastern European Catalog Librarian
UCB Library

Cover art for Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Azar Nafisi

In her popular book, Azar Nafisi narrates how she established intimate bonds with a group of female students who gathered at her home in Tehran to read works that were forbidden, clandestinely photocopying Nabokov’s Lolita and other prohibited works to avoid arrest. Nafisi does not understate the unimaginable repressiveness of a society where a government official inspects the hair and hands of female students for anything that could be considered the slightest cosmetic aberration before allowing them entry into the university where they are enrolled.

What’s remarkable about this book is not only how she maintains enduring relationships with this group, but how, through them, she is able to convey the massive cultural and political changes within Iran. For instance, the eight-year Iran-Iraq war is brought into awareness when a missile destroys a house about a mile from the living room where they’re discussing an American novel. They feel the reverberations of the strike.

Amazingly, Nafisi is able to connect her students’ lives to the lives described in detail in the novels of Jane Austen and Henry James — works that, on the surface, may seem to be completely “foreign,” and therefore “not relevant,” to people living in a Middle Eastern country that is on the verge of an Islamic revolution. One of the most spirited classroom discussions occurs when F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is put “on trial.” Some students denounce it as a glaring example of Western literature that advocates decadence; others argue that it is a sardonic critique of upper-class American society during the Gilded Age.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is not only about how human connections can endure through time, but how literature can transcend time by connecting to readers despite their cultural differences.

Curriculum Planner
College Writing Programs

Cover art for Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women

Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women

Burton, Susan, Cari Lynn, and Michelle Alexander

(Online access - CalNet authenticated holders only)

For Sue Burton, it was a vicious cycle of poverty, racism, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, drug addiction, depression, and, most tragically, the death of her 5-year-old son that led to a total of six imprisonments over the course of 15 years. Overcoming incredible odds, Burton went on to eventually create several homes where formerly incarcerated women could live in safety and be reunited with their children. These homes provided traditional re-entry services for women recently released from prison but, more importantly, provided emotional support and community. Eventually establishing a foundation, A New Way of Life, Burton’s advocacy work challenges the current criminal justice system and the institutional and societal forces that lead women into a cycle of mass incarceration.

Social Sciences Division

Cover art for The Overstory

The Overstory

Richard Powers

Did you realize that the trees in a forest are interconnected, that they can communicate and even help one another out? In fact, it turns out that they form a community the likes of which we humans would do well to emulate. This magnificent novel starts off slowly — just as a forest does not appear overnight. At first the human characters appear fleetingly, and the reader begins to think this is a story whose main characters are trees, and on a tree-based time scale, human life is indeed fleeting. But as the story builds, it turns out that the humans, like the trees, are interconnected, and their most vital connections are somehow tied to the natural environment. This is a novel that has an environmental message, but it’s conveyed novelistically, not from atop a soapbox. If you surrender yourself to it, it will repay your attention many times over.

Director of Academic Planning
College of Letters & Science

Cover art for The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How the Communicate

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How the Communicate

Peter Wohlleben

(Online access - CalNet authenticated holders only)

This book captures Peter Wohlleben’s approach to forestry, especially his enduring interest in identifying and tracing the interconnectedness of the disparate living beings of the Black Forest in southwest Germany. The implications of his ideas may serve students well, framing important scholarly questions, including, but not limited to, non-human consciousness, communication, memory, and time. Moreover, Wohlleben’s discussion of how non-human beings are affected by and respond to both short- and long-term ecological challenges may offer new ways to think about the transformative consequences of California wildfires, and the effects of climate change more generally.

PhD Candidate
Department of Rhetoric

Cover art for Od Magic

Od Magic

Patricia McKillip

This novel tells the story of Brenden Vetch, who is invited from his farm to a school for magical learning by a giantess named Od. The school's operations are tightly regulated by the city, in particular by its king, who aims to control how and which magic is taught and practiced there. Brenden's ability to develop his self identity, magical skills, and interpersonal relationships is tied up in the tension between what magic is permissible and what is not. And the story's resolution hinges on the possibility of transforming the magic school so that its underlying exclusions are incorporated. As such, this book may be of interest to students who are eager to participate in ongoing social movements, including those that seek to recognize and change the structural limitations of the university—limitations that ultimately impede the richness of scholarly discovery.

PhD Candidate
Department of Rhetoric