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Reading the California Dream



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As luck would have it, I designed my college major to focus on what the academic in me likes to call "the intersection between person and place." That led me to a whole lot of history, geology and literature about the American West, and California plays a central role in all those stories.

I make no claims about being an expert on "California Lit;" this is just a sampling of what's out there about California. In fact, it's technically just what's on my bookshelf at home. But I'd be curious to know what folks think of these books - and to hear what people would include on their own lists about life in California.

All the Little Live Things by Wallace Stegner
Wallace Stegner, considered by many the granddaddy of modern western American fiction, wrote this compelling story about scaling down expectations and channeling grief. Joe Allston is a retired literary agent who moved to the hills south of San Francisco with his wife after their son's death. But it's not paradise by any means: a hippie moves onto Joe's land and a neighbor provides an attractive diversion from dealing with his demons.

Assembling California by John McPhee
Renaissance man John McPhee explains California's geologic history in clear, accessible layman's terms in this book. McPhee recounts field trips he made with Eldridge Moores, a tectonicist at the University of California at Davis. This is one of four books about the geological history of North America that were later combined into a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Annals of the Former World.

Bone by Fae Myenne Ng
This is one of my five favorite books. Ever. Ng is a beautiful writer, and I was haunted by this book for weeks after reading it. It's narrated by a first generation Chinese-American woman whose family is coping with the suicide of her sister in San Francisco's Chinatown. It becomes increasingly clear through the course of the book that every member of the family has his/her own unique American Dream, and it can be hard for them to find common ground.

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner
This is the go-to book for understanding southern California water policy and water politics in the 20th century. Reisner's detailed reporting provides a thorough and timely look at how water policy has impacted the land and the people who live on it.

California Fault: Searching for the Spirit of a State Along the San Andreas by Thurston Clarke
Thurston Clarke follows the geologic spine of California, the San Andreas Fault, to see if he can uncover new knowledge about the state. This is a travel book wrapped up in California history and sociocultural observation. It's a compelling look at how the possibility of danger shapes the people who accept risk to enjoy the pleasures of living in the Golden State.

Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster by Mike Davis
Some people call Mike Davis alarmist, and I have to say I harbored images of debris flows and highways broken open by earthquakes after reading this book. But it's also a fascinating look at the "dark side" of Los Angeles — floods, fires, quakes and mudslides — and poses a valid set of questions about how southern California cities are dealing with and preparing for inevitable natural disasters.

The Gangster We Are All Looking For by lê thi diem thúy
I went to college with this author; she was an amazing writer even then. This is a lyrical and poetic string of experiences and sensations told from a child's point of view. A Vietnamese girl comes from Vietnam to San Diego with her father. Her mother joins them later. Her older brother has died. The family struggles to adjust to the cheap apartments and low-wage jobs they find in a foreign — and alienating — sociocultural landscape.

Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
This is an exhaustive and compelling account of one white family's struggle to survive in California during the Dust Bowl years. Steinbeck captures the challenges the Joads face working as sharecroppers in the Central Valley during tough times without resorting to melodrama.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
A novella about two migrant farmers in central California. George is the brains, Lennie is the brawn. Together they work toward their American Dream: having a patch of land of their own. But when things go wrong, their dream is dashed.

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III
Another book about the American Dream in California thwarted by circumstance. Kathy Nicolo is a recovering addict. Colonel Behrani is an Iranian immigrant struggling to regain the lifestyle he had at home. The county accidentally sells Kathy's house at auction; Behrani buys it. What happens next isn't what either of them could ever have predicted.

Oxford History of the American West, eds. Clyde Milner, Carol O'Connor and Martha Sandweiss
Historians and fans of the American West will find this book invaluable for understanding the region: its people, its landscapes, its conflicts and historical trends.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album by Joan Didion
Two books of essays from one of our most spot-on cultural critics. Many of Didion's essays focus on California, looking at — and often skewering — everything from 1960s hippie culture to the California Water Authority.

Stories from the Country of Lost Borders by Mary Austin
A beautiful peek into a region many people know nothing about. Mary Austin writes about the east side of the Sierra Nevada, a landscape many consider desolate and unpopulated. Her stories about the Paiute people and the land and animals they encounter are simple but rich in detail.

Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics by Rebecca Solnit
This is a book of Solnit's essays that have been published in various magazines over the last seven years. In all of them, she explores the concept of politics as seen through place. Many of Solnit's essays focus on California — she does live in the Bay Area, after all — and she looks at her home state from a number of angles in her effort to understand what it comprises.

The Woman Warrior: Memories of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston
A sad, angry and beautiful semi-autobiographical book about growing up Chinese-American in central California and feeling pulled between two worlds. The narrator is caught between China, full of challenges, traditions and ghosts, and America, which is much the same.

Lastly, there are two California books on my shelf to read. I'll let you know what I think when I finish. They are Steer Toward Rock by Fae Myenne Ng and the The Virgin of Flames by Chris Abani. Steer is the first book by the author of Bone in 15 years! It's about a Chinese bachelor butcher in San Francisco who orders a paper wife from China. Abani's book Graceland was amazing. This one focuses on a mural artist in East Los Angeles.

So what would go on your list?

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