California was a stage for famous novels, its lyrical landscapes the proscenium and often the star. And the state’s urban rivals, Los Angeles and San Francisco, bow to each other’s attention whether you’ve boiled your words hard or showered with literary foam.
A couple of really big volumes, leafing through books where California is the context capitalized or lower case, deserve to be considered part of a canon of our golden state. Let’s try to see if we can reduce this canon to a dozen works, starting with a gripping drama. (Note: no definitive spoilers here, just a pinch of flavor.)
Andre Dubus III’s “House of Sand and Fog” is a book that will make you scream out loud: “No! Waiting! Do not do that! “The story takes place in fictional Corona, CA – a replacement for the actual sandy and foggy Pacifica, the true role model for the city. It begins with a real estate mistake between a recovering drug addict and an Iranian immigrant who finds himself in a snake pit of misunderstandings, Inappropriate pride, misguided valor, and emotional failure. As tensions escalate breathtakingly, Dubus gives you reasons to take care of all characters. Be warned, your grave mistakes will exclude you.
San Francisco’s dense, intricate Chinatown is the setting for Amy Tan’s classic “The Joy Luck Club”. Through its intricate, well-integrated structure, the book operates eight perspectives: four mothers, four daughters telling their stories, mixing and differentiating the American perspectives and traditions of the daughters with those of their native Chinese mothers. It is humorous, sad and surprising to discover how well – or not – we know our parents and how well they know us.
Maxine Hong Kingston’s “The Woman Warrior: Memories of Girlhood Among Ghosts” broke new ground in autobiography in 1976. The story weaves an intriguing web of both mythology she heard from her Chinese immigrant parents and a coming-of-age tale about growing up in Stockton, where she was born.
Despite the promise of palm trees and endless summer, so much literature on and from Los Angeles shows a world that has gone south. Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” is set in LA and Hollywood in the 1930s and features many bouquets of flowers – all dirty and corrupt. People are bought and thrown away, trust is scarce, meanness is in abundance. Besides you get the crispy detective Marlowe – played in the 1946 film by the crispy but captivating Humphrey Bogart – who, despite its rough edges, has a code of honor. Crazy and perhaps inexplicable twists and turns abound.
“Ask the Dust” by John Fante is set a few years later as “The Big Sleep”, but has some parallels in the portrayal of people with broken dreams. The main character Arturo came to LA from Colorado to become a writer. His girlfriend is Camilla, a Mexican waitress, and let’s say their relationship is not ideal. There is depression and exhaustion and – like California – an earthquake disaster. In the end, the dreamers in the book are only left with their dreams.
Hollywood is also the setting for “The Day of the Locust”, a classic by Nathanael West. The main character is another transplant who wants to establish itself in the film industry. There he meets a motley crew of people from elsewhere (including a clumsy guy named Homer Simpson). Expect stealthy relationship attempts, foiled lust, maimed dreams, and a crazy mob scene at the end of the story. Released in 1939, it still feels relevant with its vivid language that delimits the contradictions of the California Promise – with deeper attention to the toxicity of the film industry and the darker realities of SoCal.
The impressive work of Walter Mosely cannot be overlooked. His first published book, Devil in a Blue Dress, introduces us to Easy Rawlins and the unjust, layered world of Los Angeles in 1948. Written decades after the works of Chandler and West, the novel is both hard-boiled and full of social commentary that still resonates.
(Courtesy of Simon & Schuster)
Not all avocado toast up in the Bay Area is either. Dave Eggers’ “The Circle” is a profitable piece of dystopia, a bit like the frog in a pot that is slowly brought to a boil: the idealism and camaraderie of technical innovations that want to change the world become a terrifying revocation of personal rights and obligations. The reader’s thoughts of “Ugh, that couldn’t happen, could it?” followed by some “Wait, it’s already happening!” Eggers did a good job showing the main character, who went from bright optimism to … well you have to read it.
Sail across San Francisco Bay to Oakland to see Tommy Orange’s “There There” complex, an intricately woven fabric of urban Native American people, some of whom have surprising and initially unknown relationships that end in a difficult one at the end of the story , gloomy finale at Big Oakland Pow Wow. Orange does a good job by separating and differentiating the individual perspectives and thoughts of a varied cast and bringing in the power, the pain and the interdependence of memory, history and generational burden.
Nevada City, the New Almaden mining camp, and a dash of Santa Cruz provide the setting for Wallace Stegner’s story within a story. “Angle of Repose” opens with its main character, Lyman Ward, writing a story of his grandparents who came from the west to pursue this elusive Californian dream. Lyman’s own marriage has collapsed, as has that of his grandparents, and Lyman’s exploration of both cases sets the story. Maybe you just can’t go west enough to actually get away.
But who wants to leave angry? Instead, celebrate the humor and humanity of John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” when Monterey was a sleepy place. The goofy and sometimes awkward camaraderie of Mack and the other characters throwing a huge party to celebrate Doc – along the lines of Doc Ricketts, the true Steinbeck marine biologist – and his kindness ends insanely sad. But the second party – it’s a bumblebee.
We can’t go without mentioning Joan Didion. “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” one of the essays in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” defines the Southern California landscape like no other. The edgy Los Angeles alienation novel, Play It As It Lays, provides excellent examples of her crisp prose.
And that makes 13. We have to call that a dozen classics.
Books To Know About If You Call Yourself A Southern Californian
It always asks for trouble and makes any kind of list that smells like “best of” even from a distance. So that’s not it. Instead, think of this as a reminder of some of the many great books that have been posted to SoCal by local authors that you may not have read …
Janet Fitch’s mega hit “White Oleander” inseparably combines tragedy and beauty and describes Los Angeles in an unforgettable way. It is reminiscent of the work of Kate Braverman, whose collection of short stories “Squandering the Blue” will delight with its lyrical language and hard truths. Carolyn See is another lover of darkness and breathtaking prose; “Golden days” is her must.
Wendy Ortiz describes the complex dynamics of sexual abuse in “Excavation,” her treatise that also vividly depicts the San Fernando Valley of the 1980s and early 90s, while Sandra Tsing Loh’s “A Year in Van Nuys” takes a completely different route. “Will make you laugh at dingy houses and celebrity aspirations on the D-list. The blatant prose of DJ Waldie’s “Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir” makes Lakewood epic and unforgettable.
Michael Datcher’s “Raising Fences: A Black Man’s Love Story” is both a chronicle of the struggle on the streets of southern Los Angeles and evidence of the possibility of success and personal triumph. Reyna Grande’s first memoir, “The Distance Between Us,” offers an unforgettable portrait of the Mexican immigrant experience, while “The Barbarian Nurseries” is Hector Tobar’s driving novel that combines acrid social commentary found in the manicured suburbs of Orange County and the Migrant play churches in East LA
Long before the wave of addiction / recovery narratives existed, there was Jerry Stahl’s “Permanent Midnight,” an unforgettable chronicle of heartbreak and breakdown on the edge of Hollywood. In this sense, Eve Babitz’s “Slow Days, Fast Society: The World, Meat and LA” is an indispensable reminder of boozy, drugged days and movie star nights. But nobody illuminates the underbelly of Hollywood narcissism in the nasty way Bruce Wagner does, starting with “Acts of God”.
As for poets, a new collection of Wanda Coleman’s greatest works, “Wicked Enchantment,” will bring you up to date with her unforgettable, haunting voice.
And what’s a list about SoCal if it doesn’t include the drunken bard of San Pedro? The posthumous collection, “What Matters Most Is How Well You Get Through the Fire” provides some of the best examples of the bare blow of Charles Bukowski’s poetry. –Samantha Dunn