An ode to California dreamin'

Al Woodworth on September 28, 2020

An ode to California dreamin'

Over on the East Coast, I've been thinking a lot about the West Coast—specifically the colorful landscape and people that make California magical. In recent weeks, fires have ravaged and threatened California's natural environment and many people's lives and homes. In an homage to California, I thought I'd pull together a collection of novels that celebrate California.

This list is by no means complete, merely a sampling of the wonder that the state and it's people bring to the page. So here's a mix of classic and contemporary fiction (plus a mystery or two for good measure) where characters live and respond to the land that they call home.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

You can't have a California booklist without John Steinbeck's classic East of Eden. Primarily set in the Salinas Valley—"a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains"—East of Eden tells the story of the interwoven lives of two families just before the outbreak of World War I. Steinbeck's masterpiece is an epic tale of family, humanity, and California.

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

You also can't have a California booklist without Joan Didion. As Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times in 1979, "California belongs to Joan Didion.... Joan Didion's California is a place defined not so much by what her unwavering eye observes, but what her memory cannot let go." A trenchant observer, Didion's second novel Play It as It Lays about a Hollywood starlet who descends into madness, is exactly the dark side of California dreamin' that makes her work iconic.

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin

First serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle, Armistead Maupin's quintessential San Francisco novel tells the story of Mary Ann Singleton, a naive young woman from Cleveland Ohio, who moves to the Bay and discovers a world bursting with hilarity and all sorts of people—gay, straight, rich, poor—all searching for meaning. The first of nine novels, Tales of the City invites readers into San Francisco a few years after the Summer of Love and before AIDS took root.

Eight Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave

For those that want to celebrate California wine country, look no further than the feel-good, laugh-out-loud, heart-breaker of a novel Eight Hundred Grapes, about family, marriage, wine, secrets, and the vineyard where they all intersect. It's a page-turner worthy of Sonoma. (And, if you're more into acerbic wines and novels, try Sideways by Rex Pickett.)

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

To venture south, pick up Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man, which takes place over a single day in Los Angeles. Isherwood perfectly captures the heartbreak and ache of a professor trying to maintain his daily routine after the sudden and tragic death of his partner. With LA as the backdrop, Isherwood's novel takes on a certain glamor, wit, and loneliness that make this short novel an absolute pleasure.

Son of Good Fortune by Lysley Tenorio

This is one of my recent favorites, The Son of Good Fortune, about a mother, Maxima, and her son, Excel, who are undocumented Filipino immigrants living in California. They each do their best to make money, blend in, and not get caught by the authorities. But what they do is not what you might expect: Maxima seduces men on the internet, eventually cajoling them to wire her money, while Excel flees to a hippie commune with his girlfriend and begins to wonder if he could make it his home. The Son of Good Fortune is a bighearted novel that disguises poverty, displacement, and disenchantment with hearty laughs and wacky characters. But don't let that fool you—Tenorio writes with gusto and compassion about the undocumented in California.

There There by Tommy Orange

While this novel brings out all the feels, it also is a razor-sharp and comic look at identity—specifically, an examination of what it means to be Indian/Native American/American Indian/Native and feeling like an Indian in the modern world of Oakland, California. As Adrian Liang wrote in her review of the book, "isolation and longing permeate the page, lifted briefly only as the characters intersect at the Big Oakland Powwow, with chaotic results." A gut-punch of a novel.

Sourdough by Robin Sloan

One can't mention California without tech culture and well, yes, the food, the glorious food. Robin Sloan's debut Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore merged tech and the bay area bookstore scene, and in Sourdough he bakes a satisfying story of a young tech California transplant who finds clarity and comfort in baking bread rather than her day job at robot tech company. Filled with delicious insights into the baking, farming, and tech scenes of California, Sloan's novel is a tribute to the magic of creation.

Santa Monica by Cassidy Lucas

Santa Monica is the perfect book for fans of the TV adaptation of Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies. Like that show, it's centered on the death of a character—in this case a personal trainer—and the way that death touches the lives of many others in the tightly knit, wealthy community of Santa Monica. Lucas does a great job of capturing flawed but relatable characters, their messy relationships, all set in a sun-kissed, affluent California town.

The Perfect Wife by JP Delaney

San Francisco is the setting for the The Perfect Wife, a mind-bending thriller that is both a techno thriller and a domestic suspense novel. When Abbie awakes with no idea of who she is, how she got here, or any memory at all for that matter, she is reassured by her husband, Scott. He's the Elon Musk of the A.I. (artificial intelligence) world, CEO of one of Silicon Valley's most cutting edge tech firms. And he fills in the gaps in Abbie's memory, a mammoth task since she recalls nothing. He tells her she's the perfect wife to him and the perfect mother to their autistic son and her memory loss is due to a catastrophic accident. But is he telling her the truth?

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