Books

You Listen, You Read

As part of our ongoing look at the California Dream, we aired a segment today on two books with roots in Santa Cruz, James D. Houston's Where Light Takes its Color from the Sea and Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club.

We've also been publishing lists of books about California, with Day to Day staffers Jason DeRose and Skye Rohde providing lists of the favorite Cali reads. We'd like to keep adding to our list, so tell us about your favorite CA-themed books.

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As a midwesterner who has never been there, California has been a mythical place in my mind, presented by artists, authors, and friends who have been there. Phil Ochs compared Los Angeles to "a beautiful, sensual morgue" and stated it was the final chapter in the history of Western Man. Woody Guthrie's Do-Re-Mi echoes Steinbeck's Grapes of wrath presenting California as paradise. But of course, most cannot afford the price of admission. Douglas Adams described "a sunset that no one of any sensibility would dream of building a city like Los Angeles on front of." A good friend's son jumped from a cliff in Yosemite nearly too years ago, and Ansel Adams's photos flash through my mind.
California seems to weave together themes of the best and the worst, a perfection that can't be reached, loaded with metaphors for the paradoxes of the human condition.
I would like to share some lyrics from a song I wrote chronicling the journey of two friends who moved to Paradise, California.
They left Minnesota on a fine, fine, fine summer's morn
headed out to California, two thousand miles from the towns where they were born
they were searching for something new, I could see their hope as they were passing through
on their journey to be free of their Midwestern ties,
they were on their way, on their way...they were on their way to Paradise

They made it out to California, they might have thought they knew just what fate would bring
pretty pictures and paintings and poems, and a thousand unsung songs to sing
they made it all the way out to Paradise, wanting nothing more than to live and love beneath its star-filled skies
but all too soon did they realize they'd been fooled again by that serpent's lies
and they had to leave, had to leave...yes they had to leave Paradise

They escaped to Colorado, and there they almost fell apart
in the evening shadows of the rockies with broken peaks, broken dreams and broken hearts
but they decided they would go on together, though they knew they'd have some more of that stormy weather
when you search for the truth the illusion dies
and the truth was found, the truth was found...the truth was found out in Paradise

They headed east towards Illinois on a hot and humid August day
they were both just a little bit older and wiser than they'd been when they'd gone the other way
they were still searching for something new, and I could feel their hope as they were passing through
but I could hear the sound hidden deep within their sighs
that they'd left behind, left behind a piece of their hearts in Paradise

They say life is but a journey, and no one really knows just where it ends
You spend every moment walking through, when it's over, it's over but what then
You may find out that all your hopes and dreams, were never quite what they seemed to be
and you may whisper through the wells of tears in your eyes:
so long, so long, so long....so long Paradise

Sent by Jason Faas | 1:55 PM | 8-13-2008

Read Raymond Chandler and P. G. Wodehouse! They were not similar writers, but they have something in common that will surprise anyone who reads both: both were Englishmen who wrote about LA (though Wodehouse wrote about other places as well). In fact they both attended Dulwich College in the 1890's, and may have known one another there.

Sent by R. H. Mayr | 2:03 PM | 8-13-2008

What about Janet Fitch? I just finished 'Paint it Black' which paints a vivid picture of 80's punk L.A. Though it seems some business names have been changed, the spirit of the place comes across beautifully.

Sent by katie | 2:10 PM | 8-13-2008

California Themed Books:

Philip K. Dick springs instantly to mind when I think of California authors. With his novels of the 60s editions of The Modern Library selling well it looks as if his time has finally come. As far as I know all of these books are set in a California of the future.

Sent by Scott Radtke | 2:10 PM | 8-13-2008

Tortilla Curtain by T Coraghessan Boyle is my recommendation.

Sent by Bob Hartman | 3:03 PM | 8-13-2008

Since Katie started it...

We Got the Neutron Bomb : The Untold Story of L.A. Punk by Marc Spitz & Brendan Mullen is a great oral history of the 70's and early 80's punk rock scene.

Sent by Randy | 3:31 PM | 8-13-2008

The Ninth Wave by Eugene Burdick. California politics. You won't forget it.

Sent by gbrice999 | 3:43 PM | 8-13-2008

I often drive between Los Angeles and Sacramento and on those drives I have often wondered about the history of the valley and how it came to be such an agricultural powerhouse. I recently read Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman exceptional book titled The King of California. It is a fantastic look at the JG Boswell Company and the role the company played in helping to make the great central valley.

Sent by Tim Schroepfer | 3:51 PM | 8-13-2008

Kem Nunn's surf noir novels, The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland, Denis Johnson's Already Dead and Jesus's Son, Evelyn Waugh, The Loved One...

Sent by Dale Everett | 3:54 PM | 8-13-2008

The California Poem by Eleni Sikelianos

Sent by elizabeth | 4:00 PM | 8-13-2008

Ursula K. LeGuin's novel "Always Coming Home" is set somewhere north of the Central Valley, yet (as best as I can tell) south of Mount Shasta -- some indefinite thousands of years in the future, long after seismic activity caused much of the Valley to become an inland sea. Though Ms LeGuin is famous as a science fiction author, and the novel easily falls within that category, the publisher (UC Press) markets the book as "California Fiction".

http://www.powells.com/biblio?isbn=0520227352

Sent by Lalo Fox | 4:25 PM | 8-13-2008

Earlene Fowler's mystery series with a focus on quilting and the mid coast area. Yes, they are popcorn for a lazy summer day, but they show a place in California the rest of the nation would never meet.

Sent by Betty Veveiros | 5:06 PM | 8-13-2008

Read Almost Dead by Denis Johnson. It gives a fantastic feel for New Age Northern California.

Sent by Kelly | 5:32 PM | 8-13-2008

Charles Bukowski, the poet laureate of LA's skid row, flop houses and dead end jobs.

Sent by Jeff Duncan | 5:50 PM | 8-13-2008

Ralph Flores' American Dreams places California as the dream destination of Mexican immigrants. Winner of the American Book Award in 2005, this collection of stories about a Mexican family which fled the Mexican Revolution by migrating to Arizona ends with a chapter entitled "Califas." "The land of gold and honey," Califas during the depression turns out to be a place where Mexican-American workers earn less than they had been paid in the lettuce fields outside Phoenix. After several disheartening discoveries, the young men, returning to Arizona in an unreliable Model T, are thrown back on their own resourcefulness.

Sent by Geri Rhodes | 5:52 PM | 8-13-2008

Francesca Lia Block writes beautifully about her home city, Los Angeles. Her work is very much based in the sense of place, and especially the way people and places collide, shape one another, and fit together. She has a gift for exploring the personality of a city as thoroughly as she explores the personalities of human beings.

Sent by Emily Gardner | 5:55 PM | 8-13-2008

You can't do better than Kevin Starr's wonderful series on California history,including Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era, and The Dream endures: California Enters the 1940's.

Sent by Melinda Anderson | 6:06 PM | 8-13-2008

Karin Coddon's The Shadow Man is set in Del Mar, CA and Los Angeles. She evokes the drug culture in LA, the contrast between the surface perfection and realities of Del Mar, and the "otherness" that afflicts many native Californians.

Sent by Marty Weiner | 6:16 PM | 8-13-2008

Tweak: Growing up on Methamphetamines by Nic Sheff - a harrowing memoir by a young recovering addict. Despite the harrowing subject matter, Sheff beautifully evokes the places and cultures of California, particularly Marin County, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. His father's book about Nic's addiction (Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through his Son's Addiction, David Sheff) covers the same geographic territory in a slightly different way.

Sent by Ann | 11:30 PM | 8-13-2008

Two come to mind immediately, Rain of Gold by Victor Villasenor and a mystery series based in the San Francisco Bay Area by Hailey Lind.

Rain of Gold traces Mr. Villasenor's family story -- quite a saga. The characters are fascinating and you want to know what will happen as they wind their way through their lives in southern California.

The series is called Art Lovers Mystery Series. The first two books are mostly in San Francisco, but the third, Brush with Death, is mostly in Oakland. Since I am new to the Bay Area, these books have helped to make me feel more at home here -- plus they are fun and full of intrigue. Writing this makes me think of the Walter Mosley Easy Rawlins books. I read a lot of them when I lived in New Jersey -- it helped me feel closer to home (southern California).

Sent by Anna | 2:33 PM | 8-14-2008

My mother gave me her copy of Cress Delahanty, by Jessamyn West (Harcourt, Brace, 1953) when I was in high school in the 80s. It remains one of my favorite novels and chronicles a young woman's coming of age in California. I've recently returned to West's wonderful fiction and am enjoying her Collected Short Stories. Her glorious, graceful prose offers an insightful glance back at California in the mid-1900s.

Sent by Amy Hodson | 3:34 PM | 8-14-2008

Try the work of T.C. Boyle. He spans both Southern and Northern California.
"Budding Prospects" is a hilarious take on Humboldt County and its crop o' choice. Ditto: "Crop City," about NorCal hippie culture. "The Tortilla Curtain" skewers SoCal vapidity. Other novels, such as "Riven Rock" and short stories, use Santa Barbara as a sense of place.
"Sorry Fugu" is a wonderful story that features an L.A. food critic, chef, immigrant dishwasher and assorted punks.

Sent by Sam McManis | 5:12 PM | 8-14-2008

Jessamyn West!

Sent by Barbara | 5:45 PM | 8-14-2008

Walter Mosely!

Sent by Barbara | 5:48 PM | 8-14-2008

The amazing Michael Ondaatje's last book-Divisadero-is the story of a family from Northern California. Wonderful characters and interesting for anyone who loves this area.

Sent by Linda Dekker | 2:06 PM | 8-15-2008

a CA must read is Eve Babitz' collection of short stories, Slow Days, Fast Company. Out of print now but worth tracking down for its snapshot of life in LA

Sent by elizabeth cantillon | 6:05 PM | 8-15-2008

Ask the Dust by john Fante

Sent by Liz Yeh | 6:32 PM | 8-18-2008

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