Top 10 Books About California | Imaginary

tWhat’s frustrating if you’re writing a set of books in California is that you have to leave so much out—the landscape is so variable and the cultures so numerous that it’s easy to get lost while exploring your subject.

I think every one of the authors I’ve chosen here is somewhat of an explorer – John Muir, of course, is the most famous photographer of our natural world, but every one of them found him or herself drawn into a world that changes every time you turn the corner – writing A Dangerous felt like Business, set about Monterey in 1851, as well as Private Life, set in Vallejo, north of San Francisco, in the late 19th century.

In each of the books on this list, there is a strong sense of the author’s love for California, along with a willingness to tell the truth and offer criticism. And the ways in which the books differ from one another reflect our many landscapes and climates.

1. My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir
In the summer of 1869, at the age of 31, John Muir worked for a man who owned thousands of sheep, and worked summers in the Sierras near Yosemite. Muir went on to be an assistant and artist. His verbal descriptions of what he saw—mountains, clouds, plants, animals, insects, horizons—are accurate, engaging, and informative, as is the background story of how the sheep (and their caretakers, who at one point ran out of food) survived. His sketches are beautiful and meticulously designed. I love the way he gives animals and trees a kind of feel that allows him to communicate with them, even bears and ants. A wonderful reminder that nature does not exist just to be exploited.

2. Pastures of Heaven by John Steinbeck
Published when Steinbeck was 30, this collection of stories developed from his turbulent exploration of the Monterey Peninsula. The valley in which the stories take place is typical of the peninsula – some lush sites of farms nestled among steep mountains and gorgeous trees, plenty of wild animals roaming around. Each story discusses one of the early families, all of whom are connected to a school, mini-market, and gossip. They do not have happy endings, but they do explore and reveal the emotional and environmental dilemmas with which Steinbeck was concerned for the rest of his life. This is an interesting immersion in late 19th century life that was completely off the grid.

Rebecca Solnit.
Like no other… Rebecca Solnit. Photograph: John Lee/The Guardian

3. Wild Dreams by Rebecca Solnit
Solnit has written or edited 29 books, and is known for not pulling punches. It was her second, and it focuses on two areas that may be from different planets, but are very close to each other — Yosemite, in California, and the nuclear test site in Nevada. It began with the testing grounds, focusing on how oblivious Americans were to the dangers of nuclear testing, as well as protests (not only about the tests, but also about the harsh treatment of the Western Shoshone). But what it shows us about Yosemite may be even more impressive. Yosemite, along with Yellowstone, was one of the first national parks. What were they for? Solnit suggests it’s just an embellishment, a way to cover up how the government and immigrants from the East are destroying the natural world. Solnit’s descriptions of each of the landscapes are vivid and, in my experience, unmatched by any other modern author.

4. Little Scarlett by Walter Mosley
Little Scarlet is part of a long line of historical mysteries set in Los Angeles. The main character is Detective Izzy Rollins (Izzy always makes sure no one pronounces her “Rawlings”). This is set around the time of the 1965 riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Easy’s mission is not to uncover the murder of 34 African-Americans killed by the police, but to uncover the circumstances of the murder of a young woman who appears to have been murdered. The police hire Easy because they know that in light of the riots, they will not be able to obtain any information themselves about the deaths of any African American citizens. The best thing about Easy as a detective is that he tells his story and reveals what he feels as well as thinks. He’s not a Holmes or Poirot he’s not pressed on—he’s a family man trying to navigate city life, family life, racism, and the complexities of life in Los Angeles.

5. China Dolls by Lisa C
It’s the 1930s, and three women in their late teens, Helen, Grace and Ruby, desire some independence from the family traditions their parents brought over from China and Japan. They connect by dancing at a Chinese American nightclub in San Francisco. The dramas of their lives, not just racism and World War II, are riveting events, each told in the first person, each handed out bit by bit to each other and the reader. See’s deft exploration of the psyche of women is compelling, as is her use of the conversational vernacular of the time.

Paul Beatty.
Funny and sharp… Paul Beatty. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

6. Selling Paul Betty
A satire on racism in America that turns our recent history on its head – we suggest that for African Americans, segregation is a good thing, because citizens and students can be themselves. Almost every word is funny and sharp. The narrator restores “Dickens”, the neighborhood he grew up in, as a farm and ghetto – no whites allowed – but when Dickens becomes a desirable place, he sues the whites for “desegregation”. The narrator (“I”) ends up defending himself in front of the Supreme Court. It is an excellent example of using a comic and sarcastic voice to entice the reader into seeing the absurdity of the world.

7. The Hardest They Come by TC Boyle
I can recommend any book by Boyle – every unusual and imaginative book. Some of it is funny and weird, but this one is realistically nerdy, even though it’s set in one of the most beautiful places in California: Mendocino County. Three characters connect – a reserved 70-year-old Vietnam vet, his psychotic son, and a middle-aged woman who rejects any form of government as an illegal theft of her rights (not wearing a seatbelt, for example). It is based on a true case, but its virtue is Boyle’s portrayal of his characters’ thoughts and feelings as he follows them through a wild landscape.

8. Coming to My Senses by Alice Waters
How does a group of hippies start a restaurant that eventually becomes one of the most famous in the world? Go ask Alice – she knows. Coming to My Senses is about how Chez Panisse evolved as Alice Waters grew up, explored, made friends and got to know the Bay Area (she grew up in NJ). Her book explores everything she learned about gardening, traveling, cooking, connecting with others, discovering California, and preserving its ideals over many decades. We also see how Chez Panisse’s idiosyncrasies have evolved and how they express the sense of connection (and making the best things happen) that Waters learned in those days.

9. Y is Yesterday by Sue Grafton
Grafton’s last Kinsey Mellon mysteries are about Santa Barbara, which she published over the course of 35 years, starting in 1982. Like Mosley, Grafton tells stories from Kinsey’s point of view, so we got plenty of insights into what she understood and what she didn’t. This one jumps back and forth between 1979, when a group of students at a prestigious private school got into trouble for cheating before one of them was shot, and 1989, when the student imprisoned for the shooting was released. Grafton is masterful at portraying the way high school students talk and think, as well as the family chaos surrounding the original crime and subsequent crime. And Santa Barbara? You feel like you are visiting.

10. There by Tommy Orange
Orange’s first published novel explores the lives of the Native Americans living in and around Oakland as they prepare for battle. Orange jumps from character to character, introducing 12 different characters (male and female, old and young) for the reader to understand. Many of the characters have problems or have experienced trauma, but they all understand that they are Native American and connected, for better or worse. Orange intended his book for a Native American audience, but it is a gift to all readers.

A Serious Work by Jane Smiley is published by Abacus in hardcover, priced at £16.99. For Guardian and Observer assistance, order your copy from Delivery charges may apply.

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