California Dreaming: 5 Books for California
Looking for a great read to accompany your trip to California? Read what Margaret has to say about her five top picks. Click on the title links to purchase a copy from Amazon and support Go Girl!
Know another Cali book that you can’t get enough of? Add your tips to the list!
Play it As it Lays/Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
Some writers just seem to breathe the air from a certain part of the world into their prose, and Joan Didion’s writing pulses with the desert-dry heat of California. I love Didion so much I’m offering you a two-for-one: if fiction is your bent, read her novel Play it As it Lays, the internal monologue of Maria Wyeth, a model-turned-actress who narrates the novel from the far side of a nervous breakdown. A haunting, fatalistic exploration of California in the 1960s and a taut, psychologically incisive novel, this book is one of the best living American writers at her best. But Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Didion’s first non-fiction work might be even better–it’s the book that made me fall in love with Didion as a prose stylist, a master of tone and syntax. Her essays on John Wayne, Joan Baez, and Haight-Ashbury and 1960s California counter-culture, alongside essays on morality, writing and memory—are all rendered in beautiful, penetrating sentence after beautiful penetrating sentence, proving page after page Didion’s downright frightening mastery of the English language. Read these. You won’t regret it.
Cannery Row would completely disappear on a shelf next to Steinbeck’s lengthy classics like The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, but this slim volume about life in Monterey is, as the back cover of my banged up paperback tells me, “a tender and bawdy fable of some gaily disreputable avoiders of work, drunks, fancy ladies, benign bums and social-outcast philosophers.” The first paragraph was so lovely that I read it three times before I got any further. Steinbeck’s descriptions are deceptively simple and almost depthlessly rich, his characters are heartbreaking, desperate and delightful, and this short, beautiful book manages to conjure up a place and a time so compellingly that you’ll feel sure by the end that you lived on Cannery Row for a year or two yourself.
First published in the 1970s as a newspaper serial in The San Francisco Chronicle, Amistead Maupin’s Tales of the City is a California classic and the first book in one of the most popular literary series in America. Chronicling the adventures and misadventures of the inhabitants of the apartments at 28 Barbary Lane, Tales of the City is a joyful and episodic exploration of life and love in San Francisco. As much a period piece capturing the culture of gay life in the Bay Area before the AIDS crisis emerged in the 1980s (the series’ later books tackle this issue) as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels are vivid recreations of New York in the Jazz Age 1920s, Maupin’s debut is full of whimsical and Dickensian characters whose exuberance, humor and eccentricities have enchanted readers for decades. Whether or not you are (or long to be) a bay area native, you’ll feel at home in Maupin’s delightful creation.
Moving further up the coast from Didion’s LA and Steinbeck’s Monterey, Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas explores the bay area through a compilation of 22 beautifully illustrated maps, each framing a different element of the city’s variegated history. If you’re looking for a street map, this isn’t the atlas for you — but if what you’re interested in is the culture and geography of a city–not only its literal layout but the imaginative configuration of its neighborhoods and niches, you’ll love this book. Its composition–the book combines the work of myriad different artists and creators alongside Solnit’s own writing–mirrors its goal: to capture the intricacy and diversity of own of the most storied cities in America, and to do so as beautifully as the city does itself. From a map of butterfly habitats and queer public spaces to a phrenological atlas of the city to a San Francisco treasure map, with you’ll find yourself in places you never expected.
I really wanted this list to include a book about California’s social and political history. The state is often the focus of considerable attention–for its financial crises, its celebrity politicians, its devastating natural disasters and the sometimes startling disparities between the liberal ideals espoused in certain areas (e.g. Berkeley, Los Angeles) and the steady conservatism that characterizes much of its population. I nearly chose Miriam Pawel’s The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement, a book which focuses on one of the most important political movements in California history (the state celebrates Cesar Chavez day every March 31st), but settled on Randy Shilts’ The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, which the Los Angeles Times calls “a remarkable work [of] biography, social history and political machination.” Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man elected to public office in California, where he served on the city’s Board of Supervisors until he and Mayor George Mascone were assassinated 11 months into Milk’s term of office. The Mayor of Castro Street is more than the biography of a single man or a monument to a modern-day martyr–it’s a book about the emerging political strength of gay America, about the struggle for recognition and equality, about activism and one particularly visionary activist, and about the LGBTQ movement which has always been integral to San Francisco and which continues to gain strength and support throughout America today.