California can’t be beaten when it comes to having fun. It’s possible to ski and surf on the same day, then eat a Michelin-starred meal after that. Zen out at a yoga retreat or go to a music festival in the desert with a lot of other people and enjoy yourself.
But the best books about California don’t just look at the pretty parts of the state. They also look at the dirty parts, like Didion’s disillusioned look at San Francisco’s counterculture in the 1960s or T.C. Boyle’s satire of woke liberalism or Steinbeck’s view of the Pacific coast not living up to its image as a Garden of Eden. This is a list of some of the best books we’ve read about California.
Best Books About California
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
In Didion’s book, the title refers to a poem by W.B. Yeats called The Second Coming. In it, the falcon can’t hear its owner, the world is going to end, and so on. Behind her sunglasses, Didion’s eyes were wide open as she snooped around Haight-Ashbury in the late 1960s with her eyes wide open. In the book’s title chapter, she reads a pamphlet that tells hippies how to avoid getting caught. In her writing, she says that “the center was not holding.” Didion is still going strong in her late 80s. She is a fifth generation Californian. Her ancestors went west with the Donner party, but they were lucky because they didn’t take the short cut.
She was the first person to use narrative and literary techniques to tell a story. This became known as “New Journalism.” And a lot more than just a little bit. It’s now called “creative nonfiction,” and people are calling it that. She’s never been a spy, though. She manages to keep herself above all the bad things, and she’s always been honest about being a reporter. At least, that’s how she tells it to us. The term “media poisoner” is used by someone who knows her. She doesn’t let the fact that she’s a writer stop her from writing about runaways who are drugged into trafficking or toddlers who trip on their mother’s milk supply. She doesn’t make it seem like she’s not in charge of the events – the New Journalism. It turns out that she was right about Reagan’s false promise and the coming real estate bubbles. She was California’s governor at the time.
In this book of essays about California, she takes a trip to Vegas because any account of Los Angeles isn’t complete without mentioning Vegas, so she takes a trip to Vegas. If you time it right and have a heavy foot, it’s a three and a half hour drive. Presciently, she says, “the sense that what happens there [Vegas] has nothing to do with real life.” There are too many words in this ad, says the Nevada ad exec decades later: cut them down. In this book, people are named but not explained at all, and they disappear as quickly as they came. This can be very upsetting to read. When she goes to a fundraiser with Paul Newman, though, she’ll be with him as well There isn’t a lot of structure in the world right now, so that’s why it works They didn’t fit together, were mad, and the center wasn’t holding.
The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle
Cándido Rincón and his pregnant wife, América, came to the U.S. without any documents. They ended up living in the woods at the bottom of Topanga Canyon. The Mossbachers love nature, so they live in a gated community just above, in Malibu.
There isn’t a single break for the Rincóns. At the same time, the Mossbachers complain about their housing board, which stops them from living in nature the way they want to. If you watch it, you won’t laugh. When Cándido is hit by Delaney Mossbacher, who is driving near his home, the two men meet up and become friends. No one wants to report the accident, but Delaney gives him “$20 blood money,” which is what he says. From then on, the two are linked together.
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
A group of four Chinese women meet to play mahjong and eat dim sum. They also talk, complain, and brag about their American daughters. They call their group “Joy Luck.” It’s become a difficult book because it plays up Asian American stereotypes and caters to the “model minority” trope, which is bad. It still has a strong effect on many people. Tan’s masterpiece is about what happens when two cultures don’t get along. It’s set in San Francisco in the 1980s, and it’s about what happens when that happens.
Four daughters, all of whom were born and raised in the United States, don’t understand why their mothers, the ones who brought them here in the first place, don’t like that they’ve changed their ways. The success of their daughters is always a disappointment to their mothers. They run after their tails to make their mothers happy, but they end up with unsatisfying marriages, messy divorces, and difficult kids.
The book also talks about the things that happen between generations, whether they’re intentional or not. It turns out that the women of the Joy Luck Club aren’t as perfect as they think they are. There were a lot of mistakes made by the mothers, but they were trying to protect their daughters from their own mistakes. Tan’s mothers had to make choices that were heartbreaking and hard to understand, but they hoped they would never have to answer for them. And don’t we all want to forget some things?
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
There is a lot of rain and dark and depraved things in LA in Chandler’s best-selling book. You can’t see the sunset when you drive by the coast. Instead, you get the “smell of kelp” coming off the water and a world of “wet empty space.”
Philip Marlowe is the best hard-boiled detective. Holmes, Poirot, and Dupin are all smug. He is not. Because he’s so drunk, self-destructive and flailing that it’s hard to know what to say about him. If you like Harry Bosch, V.I. Warshawski, or Inspector Morse, you should thank Raymond Chandler, who wrote the books. The Big Sleep has a great story with blackmail, death, dames, and riches, but it also gives you a chance to enjoy the atmosphere of Los Angeles in 1939. Short, too. And it’s not boring at all. Finish it in one sitting.
They Called Us Enemy by George Takei
Around 120,000 Westerners were sent to prison during World War II because they had Japanese ancestors, which was against the law at the time. George Takei’s comic book shows how he lived as one of these Americans.
Following Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s book Farewell to Manzanar, Takei not only talks about his own time in the camps but also the larger geopolitical context and his career as an actor and a political activist. If you want to know more about California’s complicated history and how Asians and Asian-Americans have been treated in the past and still are in the state, this book is a must-read.
Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
Maupin started writing a serialized column about single people in the 1970s for the San Francisco Chronicle, and it grew into nine books and other versions.
You will meet and fall in love with these characters, the people who aren’t from where they live. Mary Ann Singleton, the mysterious Ms. Madrigal, and the adorable, fool for love, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver are all new to the show. During the disco and the 80s and political upheaval and family drama and the birth and death of them, you’ll live with them. You’ll laugh, cry, and be sad when you’re done.
The King and Queen of Malibu by David K. Randall
Los Angeles newspapers called Frederick Rindge’s purchase of Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit or “Malibu Rancho” in 1892 “a profligacy of millionaires” because he bought the land with a grant from Spain. Almost everyone in California thinks that Malibu is a given. Randall’s well-researched book reveals the usually corrupt legal wranglings that made it so.
Rindge came to Malibu as a conqueror and land speculator more than 100 years ago. Having a lot of money and connections from the East, Rindge didn’t give Malibu a second thought. Rindge had already bought up a lot of land all over Los Angeles. May Rindge, his widow, would fight against Los Angeles County and the state of California until 1923, when she finally lost. She stayed away from the Roosevelt Highway for a long time, but not for good. It’s now called the Pacific Coast Highway because of all the people who drive it.
If you were a Hollywood movie star and you wanted to build a vacation home in “the Colony,” May Rindge was able to get you to do so. An act of protest worked. Union Pacific was forced to move their northbound line inland, then return to the coast in Ventura. And so Malibu became a quiet, railroad-free beach community where the stars we know live and where tens of thousands of people go every day to enjoy the sun and sand.
Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made by Jim Newton
Earl Warren was a conservative judge in California when he was young. He would become Chief Justice of the United States. He drove through the Japanese internment and jailed Takei and a lot of other people because he was racist.
In 1953, Eisenhower put Warren on the Supreme Court because he thought he was a safe choice. But then, he started a Constitutional Revolution. He led to the unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which said that separate-but-equal is inherently unfair. Because mixed-race couples could get married, birth control was available, and women faced fewer barriers to exercising their right to choose and terminate unwanted pregnancies after his court did this, more people could get married than before.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
After failing as a writer in New York, Steinbeck went back to California and worked as a manual laborer and wrote as much as he could while he could. With Tortilla Flat in 1935, Steinbeck’s work finally broke through. The title of Boyle’s book, Tortilla Curtain, isn’t a coincidence, because both books deal with the loss of land by the Latinx community. In 1937, he wrote Of Mice and Men, and two years later, during the Great Depression, he wrote The Grapes of Wrath, one of his best works. When the Joad family is evicted from their farm because of the Dust Bowl, they set off on Route 66, “the mother road, the highway of flight.”
Once they get to Central California, they can’t believe how rich the soil is. This makes for a lot of fruitful orchards. The area is still the breadbasket of the United States. It produces 13% of the country’s total food supply, more than any other state. But the Joads set up camp in a Hooverville and soon found out that they were in the same class struggle that they had tried to escape. Californians aren’t very friendly to “Okies.” At the same time, people are still starving because of their greed and corruption. He couldn’t put a pretty bow on it because of the time. But the ending will give you a tiny glimmer of hope.