Jason DeRose, NPR
You can't see them in this picture of Jason, but there's a pool and a book outside the frame.
—Jason DeRose: Why does someone like myself—with an abiding love for the Midwest—like to read about the Golden State? I avoided California for the first 25 years of my life. But a much-needed post-grad school vacation here in Los Angeles made me fall in love with the place. Drinking margaritas on the patio. Lolling by the pool. And, of course, reading. I read books about or set in the places I vacation. So, over the last decade, I've been reading about Southern California. Then, earlier this year, I moved here from Chicago to work on Day to Day. I think the reading had something to do with the move. Oddly, not all of these books are flattering. California is a place of contradictions. But they're all true—even the fictions.
Here's my list:
Where I Was From by Joan Didion
Where I Was From is a steely examination of California's history set against Didion's family history. I was raised in Florida without a sense of place or history. When I moved to the Midwest for college, grad school and a career, I was too busy to think about personal history. Where I Was From helped me consider how the place we're raised influences us in ways we will understand only much later in our lives.
Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion
Play It Has It Lays is the story of an actress who hasn't done much work she's proud of. English majors like myself love this book—and everything Didion writes—because of the author's exact and exacting language. It's also chocked full of symbols: snakes, eggs, etc. It's also quite possibly the most depressing book I've ever read. Make sure you have a Cuba Libre (rum and Coke with lime) close at hand.
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49 is, frankly, the only Pynchon book I've ever been able to get through. The names of the places and characters—Oedipa Maas, Pierce Inverarity and San Narciso—alone make up for the confusing plot about rival mail delivery organizations. Since it's a "post modern" novel, don't expect any sort of conclusion or resolution. But do expect to be entertained.
Shopgirl by Steve Martin
Shopgirl is about a doomed long distance love affair between a middle aged businessman and young L.A. women who sells gloves at a department store. These are not gloves designed for warmth. These are gloves so delicate you could pick up a pin while wearing one. It's sweet and sad. The movie did not do it justice.
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
Cannery Row is about people living in Monterey here in California during the Great Depression. I hadn't read the book until I heard a piece about Ed Ricketts by Renee Montagne on Morning Edition a few years ago. The character Doc in Cannery Row is based on Ricketts.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein
This autobiography isn't one at all. It's rather a biography of Alice written by Gertrude. It's one of the few readable Stein books. Most of it takes place in Paris, but the opening chapter is set in Toklas's native San Francisco. It has a great, Steinian opening: "I was born in San Francisco, California. I have in consequence always preferred living in a temperate climate but it is difficult, on the continent of Europe or even in America, to find a temperate climate and live in it."
Tales of the City (and everything else) by Armistead Maupin
These novels began as serialized stories in San Francisco newspapers. They tell the story of a groups friends living in San Francisco in the 1970s and early 1980s. A recent follow up novel brought the characters into the present. There isn't much plot, but what plot there is mostly there to help us spend time with these lovable characters. Mary Ann is a Midwestern girl transplanted to the West Coast in search of her California dream. Mrs. Madrigal is a landlord with a great secret. Michael "Mouse" Tolliver has terrible luck in love. Five minutes with one of these books will have you looking for a Barbary Lane of your own.
How does this list strike you? What would read while lolling by a California pool? Also, for more books about California, check out this list from Day to Day producer Skye Rohde.