A Sense of California (Via Books)

sense of caThe 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.”

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8 Responses to A Sense of California (Via Books)

  1. The list: lopsided, NO!
    The tip of the iceberg of lit & art about/in/of California, YES !
    Art, architecture, history past, present, & future. Wow.

    Three California paintings for consideration for the feel of California:
    1) Recent Past: E. Carlton Fortune’s “Study of Monterey Bay”, c. 1917
    2) Present: John Comer’s “California Incline” c. 1990’s
    3) Distant Past: Alfred Bierstadt’s “Giant Redwood Trees of California”, c 1874

    “Natural State”, an anthology edited by Steven Gilbar with a foreword by David Brower, including an all-star cast of Steinbeck, London, Didon, Synder, Ehrlich, Muir, McFee, Stegner, Twain, Nunn, & Kerouac.
    “The Gaviota Land”, A Glimpse into California History From a Bend on El Camino Real, by Merlyn Chesnut (out of print, some copies available at the Book Loft in Solvang, CA.

    • cynthia says:

      Wow! Thank you for these recommendations, Kit. It’s a great list in itself. I really appreciate your input, and I like the idea of including paintings too. Now you’ve got me thinking about that. There’s this one guy who nails it, name’s Kit Cossart. (Also, I was going to mention the out-of-print Gaviota Land…does Book Loft really have a few copies? It’s very hard to find.)

  2. david holden says:

    I would toss in a couple more that occur to me:

    The spirit catches you and you fall down – A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures, is a 1997 book by Anne Fadiman that chronicles the struggles of a Hmong refugee family and highlights different mindsets at work as well as the divergent histories of the two cultures.

    John McPhee’s Assembling California, reprinted in Annals of the Former World, Pulitzer Prize winner. Spirited account, first appearing in pages of the New Yorker, on the geology of the state.

    Kenneth Millar aka Ross Macdonald (via Lew Archer, his detective/protagonist), Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett – the trinity of detective writers – explored social class, mores, and pretensions of their era and I would say did more to influence our perception of southern California than any Day of the Locust ever would.

    • cynthia says:

      Wonderful suggestions, David. Thank you. I especially like the inclusion of John McPhee for that geological perspective.

  3. Miki Holden says:

    “The Circuit” and “Breaking Through” by Francisco Jimenez–two books about the author’s childhood in an ‘illegal’ and later ‘legal’ immigrant farm laborer family. Written for kids–I used them with my 5th graders and they are wonderful.

  4. I found some copies of “The Gaviota Land” by Chestnut on Amazon – about $20.

    Also, I forgot to post one of my fav’s: “Paintings of California” by Arnold Skolnick, a small paperback about 130 pages, probably sums up the historical sweep of the California Experience both urban & rural, rich & poor. Under $10 from Amazon.

  5. Tess says:

    So happy about the list….can’t wait to delve in to some of the titles. I agree with Miki. I use The Circuit and Breaking Through with my Adult ESL Class at AHC. It’s wonderful the way my students enjoy them and identify with the stories. I always enjoy your blog. Your future friend, Tess

    • cynthia says:

      Hi Tess. I’m so glad this list has proven to be interesting and even useful, and I appreciate your feedback. Hope you’ve been having a wonderful summer. One of these days we need to turn “future” into “current” friend.

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