California, here we come! My adopted home state. We’ve been here since 2011. The company my husband works for moved from Milwaukee to Los Angeles when its founder did, and we came too. When we found out about the move, we looked at each other and grimaced. Los Angeles? LA-LA land? But we love it!
Of course it’s the weather–but the thing is, it’s not just that the temperature stays nice during the winter. For me, the biggest things are that we aren’t swarmed by mosquitoes, and there is little humidity. Which means that not only can you be outside in the winter, but you can be outside in the spring, summer and fall as well.
And just because it doesn’t snow in LA doesn’t mean my son misses out on snow play. We just drive up to the mountains–Big Bear or Mammoth are day or weekend trips–and have our winter. Because California is HUGE, and varied. Although I’ve come to be quite the city girl–I love being in a neighborhood where I can walk my son to school and stop at the store on the way home–California has it all. Small towns, farming communities, tourist getaways, big cities; local playgrounds and city parks, state and national parks; deserts, mountains, big trees, beaches, fertile farmland, city streets. And the size! The city of Los Angeles is actually about 400 square MILES! It takes 12-16 HOURS to drive from the northern border to the southern border of California, depending on your route (and traffic).
I’m really hoping to find a good mix of that variety in my book selections for California!
I stumbled across a post from The Guardian about books set in San Francisco. It’s a great list, and is part of a series: there are also book lists for Miami, Austin, the Twin Cities, Cincinnati, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Honolulu, Detroit, Portland (Oregon), Seattle, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. (For this post, I’ve linked to the two California lists, but I’ve also linked to the main Reading American Cities page where you can jump to the other cities.)
For young readers, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell is the classic choice, and since I’ve never read it, I immediately wanted to add it. However, there are several strong contenders, and I also want to mention one I’ve already read: Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko, with its two (now three!) sequels, set on Alcatraz Island. It has a character with autism, but check it out first–she’s on the mid- to lower-functioning end of the spectrum, and, given the time period, other characters are not always kind.
I read Octavia Butler’s Earthseed series quite a long time ago and loved it–it’s a wonderful magical realism / near-future dystopian series set in California–but frankly, I was surprised at how many realistic fantasy books there are that are set in California! I’m talking about books set in a real location, but with a magical, apocalyptic, or dystopian twist (or some combo). Sometimes they are set in the near future, with some sort of catastrophe, and sometimes in the past, with an alternate history. I’ve picked two.
One other recommendation: Brothers and Sisters by Bebe Moore Campbell. For the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots following the initial verdict in the Rodney King beating, the LA Times had a few suggestions of books that give a good feel for the city at the time, and Campbell’s book was one of them. I read it then and have to agree–it’s a great book for capturing that time period in Los Angeles history. If I hadn’t already read it, it would be on the list.
I also want to give a shout out to Amy Tan–The Kitchen God’s Wife is one of my most favorite books of all time, and The Joy Luck Club is great too. In fact, if I hadn’t already read all of Tan’s books, I’d have to put one on this list.
UPDATE: On a personal note, I originally posted this list in July. It is now mid-September. During those two months, we’ve bought a house and moved–a local move, but still chaotic. I’ve been able to do a fair bit of reading, but have had a hard time writing reviews and updating the site.
So, without further ado, my “short” list for California:
The Buddha In the Attic by Julie Otsaka (2011) – This one tells the story of a group of young women brought from Japan to San Francisco as “picture brides” in the first half of the twentieth century. It won a PEN/Faulkner Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. It’s written in the first person plural (“we” and “some of us”), which seems an intriguing choice, but some reviews said that got tiresome and made it hard to connect with the characters. UPDATE: I did finish this one, and it’s beautifully written, but I have to agree with the reviews that the first person plural was, perhaps, not the best choice. On the one hand, it clearly illustrates the universality of the stories, and on the other hand, it really does make it difficult to connect – essentially there is no continuity. Where I really felt it worked best was in the last couple of chapters, when the author is addressing the internment during World War II, and switches perspectives to the non-Japanese, but still using the same “we” voice that has been used all along.
Devil In a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley (1990) – This is my LA noir choice–it’s noir from a black perspective. Set in the late 1940s, this is Mosley’s first Easy Rawlins book. Rawlins is an unemployed black war veteran who’s asked to find a woman who frequents black jazz clubs. I’m looking forward to the jazz scene as well. (In case you’re wondering, I’ve already read Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, which is THE classic noir. I’ve also seen The Maltese Falcon, based on Dashiel Hammett’s book, which is often the second suggestion for the genre. I have not seen the movie version of this book, with Denzel Washington.)
Walk On Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson (2015) – This is a historical fiction and fantasy mix. Set during the Gold Rush days, the main character can actually sense gold–handy… and dangerous if discovered. And since she’s on her own, she’s hiding her gender as well. This is the first in a trilogy, and it mainly covers the journey to California, so I may end up reading at least the second one, Like a River Glorious, to really hit the California setting. UPDATE: I have read the second book in the series, Like a River Glorious, and it is actually a great one for this challenge!
The Jekyll Revelation by Robert Masello (2016) – This book combines present-day Los Angeles and historical London, and connects Robert Louis Stevenson with Jack the Ripper–and a modern-day Jekyll. Another intriguing mix of real-world setting with fantastical elements. UPDATE: Not the best for our challenge, perhaps, though it captured Topanga Canyon culture well, and was wonderful when discussing the wildlife and the recent extended drought. I enjoyed learning more about Robert Louis Stevenson, and the discussion of what bits are historically accurate – about Stevenson and the Ripper – was fascinating.
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (2012) – This “Great American Novel” tells the story of two couples and their shared businesses–the men operate a classic record store, and the women are midwives. On this backdrop, a threat to the record shop appears, and so does a teen-aged illegitimate son. UPDATE: Ugh! I’m having an awful time getting into this book. I’ll try to push through, because it does seem to have some great bits about San Francisco, but I’m not optimistic! SECOND UPDATE: I’m sorry to say I’m marking this one DNF (Did Not Finish) and switching to the Vikram Seth sonnets… it may seem a bit odd that I find the Onegin sonnets easier to read than Chabon’s rambling, but… there you have it.
The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth (1986) – Set in 1980s San Francisco, this book is written in verse–which is intimidating and appealing at the same time. “John Brown, a successful yuppie living in 1980s San Francisco meets a romantic interest in Liz, after placing a personal ad in the newspaper. From this interaction, John meets a variety of characters, each with their own values and ideas of “self-actualization.” However, Liz begins to fall in love with John’s best friend, and John realizes his journey of self-discovery has only just begun.” (From Goodreads’ publisher’s excerpt.) UPDATE: I’m thoroughly enjoying this one, but the style does require a bit more attention and focus while reading, so it will probably take me longer than usual.
(I only expect to do one of these, but both are highly acclaimed. I’ll probably start with Vikram Seth, and move to Michael Chabon if I can’t deal with the sonnets. UPDATE: LOL – it actually worked the other way – I tried the Chabon and switched to the sonnets with great relief!)
The Wild Birds by Emily Strelow (2018) – This one follows three timelines, two of which are in California–one revolving around a lighthouse off the coast in San Francisco Bay, and one in the Sierras–and one in Oregon. Despite the multiple states, I may still include it (birds!), or I may decide to push it to Oregon, since I’m racking up an impressive stack of books for California! NOTE: Although my map arrow below points to the central Sierras, this takes place in very northern California, near Yreka (not to be confused with Eureka on the coast!), and also very southern/eastern California, near the Arizona border. UPDATE: I’m so glad I decided to keep this one! It’s a wonderful book and fantastic for my challenge as well! Review soon!
The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (1997) – This one sounds like a lovely dose of magical realism set in San Francisco. I love to cook Indian food, so a book based on a spice shop written by an Indian American sounds right up my alley. And this is an immigrant population that we haven’t really discussed or read much about yet (and frankly, not the first (or even second) immigrant group that comes to mind when thinking about California). UPDATE: Although I read and very much enjoyed this one, it really didn’t work well for my challenge. The main character had basically been confined to her shop for her entire existence in the city, so even though she begins to venture out, and there is even an earthquake, we really don’t get much of a feel for San Francisco. It was a charming book, however, and even managed to overlap Indian magical realism with Native American Raven mythology!
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue (2014) – I added this one halfway through my reading for California, and I’m so glad I did! It popped up in one of my Goodreads emails and totally hooked me with this quote from the author: “One journalist kindly alerted me to the fact that there was a hoax in my Wikipedia entry, a claim that I was writing about “the murder of a cross-dressing frog-catcher!”–and was abashed when I told him it was true.” It’s a murder mystery, mixed with a feminist story, set in San Francisco in 1876 during a heat wave and a smallpox epidemic. And it’s based on a true story, which is sort of hard to believe, given the premise above, but then again, that premise is so San Francisco! The historical murder was never solved, but Donoghue fleshes out what is known from court records and newspaper clippings (or what remains of them after the 1906 earthquake and fire) to make a lively story, then she adds in a soundtrack of historically accurate folk songs from the era that make the whole book sing.
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell (1960) – This is the classic young readers’ pick set in California (it was required reading for many school kids in the 1970s and 1980s). It’s a Newberry Award winner, and is a survival tale set during the time of the Chumash people (and reportedly very well-researched). Many reviews mention the fact that the main character is a young girl (girl power!). UPDATE: I had been concerned about reading a book with a 1960 viewpoint of Native Americans, so I actually read an expanded and annotated version of the book, which gave a lot of insight into O’Dell’s research, as well as observations about the Robinson Crusoe trope and the Vanishing Indian trope that heavily inform the story. There was also discussion of archaeological research that has been done on the island and of the Lost Woman of San Nicolas on whom the story is based. With all of the extra information, it was a really interesting read, and fit our challenge nicely! 2nd UPDATE: I also read Dear Miss Karana by Eric Elliot, and would highly recommend this book as a supplement to Island of the Blue Dolphins! It addresses the “vanishing Indian” trope that’s prevalent in IBD, from the perspective of a California Native, and addresses a number of questions that astute, culturally-sensitive readers might have about the original. Wonderful insight and a nice story as well.
Ana of California by Andi Teran (2015) – This is another young adult pick. It’s supposed to be a modern American take on Anne of Green Gables, which means there were a number of Anne fans who hated it. I am a fan of Anne–though more of the movie versions (I loved the Kevin Sullivan versions with Megan Follows, haven’t yet seen the Netflix series Anne With an E) than the books. If you’ve read any of my posts from Kansas, you may remember that I loved the Little House books and hated the TV series. I’m interested in giving this a try.
Operation Redwood by S. Terrell French – This is another young readers pick. It shows kids working to make a difference, fighting for the environment. I’ve actually purchased this book twice, intending to read it with my son, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Maybe if I put it on this list we’ll get to it! UPDATE: So… I haven’t read this one yet… It’s still on my Want to Read list, but California has dragged on for far too long, so I’m going to have to put it aside for now.
Additional or Alternate Reading for California:
There are just so many good book choices for California! Obviously, my To Read list above contains way more than 3-5 books, so some of those may slip down here, but there were a couple of others that were also highly recommended that I want to highlight.
City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles by Mike Davis (1992) – This one was at the top of the Readers’ Picks list for Los Angeles on The Guardian’s site. It looks at the social history of Los Angeles–what makes it tick, and how it got to be the way it is. While this sounds fascinating, it’s not quite the kind of book I’m looking for with this challenge.
Ask the Dust by John Fante (1939) – It tells the story of a young writer who comes to Los Angeles and falls into a love-hate relationship with a waitress. When she disappears, he loses his muse. This book also showed up on The Guardian’s list, and seems to have almost a cult following who claim it as the best Los Angeles novel ever. I’m a little skeptical of such superlative praise for a book and author I’ve never heard of, but I’m willing to give it a try. It actually says it’s book 3 of The Saga of Arthur Bendini, but hardly any of the reviews mention the other books.
L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy (1990) – I may have to add LA Confidential or Black Dahlia, two of James Ellroy’s acclaimed noir series as well, but that may be overkill for me (no pun intended).
Golden Days by Carolyn See (1986) – This is another possibility for a California apocalypse book. Set in LA in the 1970s and 1980s, it’s a nuclear holocaust novel that embraces disaster as a way to reinvent oneself.
House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III (1999) – This was an Oprah pick for her book club, but one that I never got around to. It showed up in one of the Little Free Libraries in my new neighborhood, and I realized it’s set in California. I’ve started reading it, and I have to say it’s a great one for this challenge! However, since I’m already up to 12 California books, I’m not going to do a full review. If you’re following this blog and looking for suggestions for your own California reading list, then this one would be a great addition! It is set in the California hills above San Francisco. It tells the story of an Iranian family who flee to the United States in the wake of political changes, and who buy a house at auction in a last hope attempt at the American Dream. It also tells the story of the young woman who is forced out of that house, and her desperate quest to get it (or some semblance of her previous life) back.