The question was asked of us by intelligent and genuinely curious friends while we were far from home: What books should one read, novels or nonfiction, to get a real sense of California, to understand its history and its present? Monte and I have been thinking about this ever since, and we’ve tried to come up with a list. This is a large and complex state, after all–in its cultural and geographical diversity, some would say it is several states–and it certainly has a complicated history. But here’s our list so far, in no particular order:
Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana
Up and Down California, 1860-1864, the Journal of William H. Brewer
California Coast Trails: A Horseback Adventure from Mexico to Oregon in 1911
by J. Smeaton Chase (and maybe also California Desert Trails: Two Years of Adventures)
South of the Angels by Jessamyn West
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Where I Was From by Joan Didion (also The White Album or Play It As It Lays)
The Lakewood Story by Don Waldie
Tapping the Source or Tijuana Straits by Kem Nunn
Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner
The Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
The more I ponder this, however, the more possibilities I come up with. For example, I might add a little book called Ishi:Last of His Tribe by Theodora Kroeber, the haunting and sad story of the last lone survivor of the Yahi Indians, who wandered into the mining town of Oroville in 1911, which is in some ways a sentimental choice but certainly part of the tapestry of California history. There’s always some genocide and heartbreak at the core. I also happen to be interested in The Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez, who spoke only Spanish when he began attending school in Sacramento; I’ve read other things he’s written, not this, but I’m inclined to think a California reading list should include something of the recent Mexican-American experience. Also, quite randomly, I read a novel some years ago called White Oleander, which I recall as having conveyed a vivid sense of a certain southern California atmosphere, particularly during the Santa Ana winds.
On our own living room bookshelf, I see two books by Carey McWilliams, one called Southern California: An Island on the Land, which came highly recommended as the best nonfiction book about Southern California of the 1920s to 1950s, and another called California: The Great Exception, and I think it’s high time I actually read these. Same must be said of The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory by Norman M. Klein. There’s also an intriguing anthology called Unknown California (Classic and Contemporary Writing on California Culture, Society, History, and Politics) edited by Jonathan Eisen and David Fine with Kim Eisen which includes pieces by John Steinbeck, Wallace Stegner, Henry Miller, John Gregory Dunne, Cesar Chavez, and others.
Finally, because of my own Gaviota bias, I would recommend books and journals about the Spanish land grant days. The story must be told of how those great concessions of land evolved into ranches, and that distinctive way of life, and the changes in ownership over time from the Californios to the Yankees, as happened in our very neighborhood. And because there remain in this area a few ranches and farms where the pastoral life continues, one could do worse than read a few poems and essays by our own late Robert Isaacson. As I said, I have a bias. I see California from here.
But help us out. I’m sure our list is flawed and lopsided. I invite any of you readers out there to comment, critique, or add suggestions.
Shortly after I posted this, I received the following comment from my literary friend Treacy Colbert:
“Your list is thorough. But here are a few more titles that came to mind. My Hollywood by Mona Simpson (not everyone far away will know that she is Steve Jobs’ sister) is a scathing look at LA life. The Gangster We are Looking For by Le Thi Diem Thuy describes the Vietnamese immigrant experience — it’s set in San Diego in the 1970s. Neither novel casts California in a very happy light, but they’re real. Naomi Hirahara just published Murder On Bamboo Lane about an LAPD rookie who happens to be a woman. It’s a great read with keen observations of modern LA. And Dianne Emley’s Nan Vining suspense novels are wonderful — set in Southern California. (Hers have been translated into French, Italian, German, and Dutch, in case your European friends and family want to know.)”
And another friend, Weston DeWalt, wrote: “Make room for Jack London & Mike Davis. Klein & McWilliams good choices.”
Here’s yet another, from Cele Donath: “I’d add Lands of Promise and Despair: Chronicles of CA 1525-1846, A World Transformed: Firsthand Accounts of CA Before The Gold Rush, California’s Frontier Naturalists, On Gold Mountain, Diary of A Sea Captain’s Wife– and of course Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona. Also Literature of California: Writings from A Golden State and Kevin Starr’s California.”