Bridget Hoida on: California Top Ten

Not many people know this, but a novelist invented California. Really. Over five hundred years ago, long before it was a real geographic place, California was described in the pages of a book, written by Garci Ordonez de Montalvo, as a golden land “very near the terrestrial paradise” and populated, almost exclusively, by courageous women. I cannot tell you how fabulous I think this is. Not only because California existed in the imagination before it existed on a map, but also because California was quite literally written into being.

As a Nor Cal native (and So Cal transplant) I’ve always been drawn to California writers and it’s no secret that I have an incurable girl-crush on Joan Didion. Her use of whitespace is particularly inspiring to me and, if forced, I’d have to choose her novel, Play It As It Lays, as my favorite book. Ever. Although some may call my Didion ardor an obsession—it’s not stalking if she writes you back—I maintain it’s not so much Didion the woman but rather the sound of Didion’s words that have me so hung up. If you have yet to read Joan Didion I recommend all of her California cannon (from Run River to Where I Was From, with large bits of Blue Nights, and huge pieces of Slouching Towards Bethlehem strategically tossed in-between) but most especially, I recommend Play It As It Lays (with the original 1970s paperback cover, if you can find it, because nothing says “serious literature” like a topless blonde and a snake).

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After Didion, who for me will always be the author of my California I offer neither a rank list, nor the usual jacket covers, but a compendium, of sorts; the models and voices that inspired me when I set to work on So L.A. There is no London. No Norris. No Steinbeck, or Chandler even. Not that their moonish valleys, railroad entanglements, big sleeps and brambling grape vines aren’t inspiring, quite the contrary, but chances are if you’re reading this, you already know their works—if not also their words—and so instead I offer you:
Ask The Dust (1939) by John Fante
Although it is chronologically impossible, I’m secretly convinced Ask The Dust is what happened in the stacks of the L.A. public library when Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust (1939) and Charles Bukowski’s Post Office (1971) had a torrid, and heart-achingly beautiful literary love affair. Pages were dog-eared. Spines were spent. And nine months later Ask The Dust was born.
Cover of "Ask the Dust"
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Why Did I Ever? (2001) by Mary Robison
Fragmented, fractured and wildly brilliant, Robison’s Why Did I Ever tells the story of Money Brenton, a Hollywood script doctor who struggles to make her way, while making the rent. Money has ADD and a dysfunctional home life. What’s more, her son Paulie was recently the victim of an unspeakable assault and her daughter Mev is a meth-addict. This book is dark. This book is angry. This book (and everyone in it) is emotionally damaged. And it’s also one of the funniest books I have ever read. In Why Did I Ever Robison masterfully allows illness to not only define the structure, but also the narration of her novel and the result is stunning. I don’t use the word “genius” all too often, but Mary Robison is a genius. Because she can write a chapter in three sentences, like this: “I feel around in my handbag, extract something, use it, and put it back.  Later on I might need something else.  This is my life, what my life is really made of.
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The People of Paper (2005) by Salvador Plascencia
A bit of a disclaimer, I happen to know Sal. We went to grad school together, but I am convinced that even if I had never met him I would adore this book, because beneath its paper cover is a magical boldness that I covet, as Sal’s people are literally made of paper. There are bees and knees, international borders drawn in chalk, little girls who rot their teeth eating lemons, a graveyard of mechanical turtles, and a violent gang of carnation pickers who wage a war against sadness and omniscient narration. If you can find the McSweeneys rectangular edition buy it! Not only because you can stick your finger straight through the pages in spots, but also because it conforms to the papal decree.
The Land of Little Rain (1903) by Mary Hunter Austin
When I came across The Land of Little Rain I didn’t expect to like it, let alone fall madly in love with it. I mean who picks up a book about basket makers and sheep farmers in the desert and falls in love? But amazingly, that’s just what happened. The descriptions of California are so vivid and so reverently environmental that you feel not only as if you are walking Austin’s exceptionally described trails, but that you are also a damned fool for living in a man made house and abandoning the divine harmony of a more natural dwelling. Reading this book is like yoga without a mat. And if that’s not a high enough endorsement, I’ll also share that I named my firstborn child after a story in this collection. Really, I did.
Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1990) by Maxine Hong Kingston
There’s an opening moment in Tripmaster Monkey where the gloriously named Whittman Ah Sing contemplates suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Would he jump, like the other 235 others had, facing the land with “Coit Tower giving you the finger all the way down?” No. “Whittman would face the sea.” In Kingston’s book, Whittman thankfully doesn’t jump. Even though the sun setting over the ocean is tempting, Whittman never jumps. And that’s why I like him. I first read this book in Berkeley, on a co-operative rooftop with a view of the city –and on good days a view of the Golden Gate Bridge—and Whitman’s dilemma became for me, a sort of party favor. I’d bring it (and the book) with me almost everywhere and in a metaphorical game of truth or dare I’d ask unassuming cocktail guests from which side they’d jump. Not that I would. Not that any of us ever would. Ever. But it is such an interesting question. A question that complicated my relationship with San Francisco in ways even East Bay public transportation maps are still unable to accomplish.
 
The Serial (1977) by Cyra McFadden
I honestly don’t remember how I came across this book, which isn’t a book really, but a spiral bound collection of 52 short columns exploring the marriages, child rearing tactics and label laden domestic lives of Marin’s post-hippy and pre-yuppie “flash on” culture. It is satire at its best, and best of all, McFadden never shies away from using loads of cultural jargon, consumer references and “real” places.
America (1956) by Allen Ginsberg
Even before I attended college at UC Berkeley I’d make day trips to San Francisco and walk the “Beat” streets of North Beach. I’d duck into City Lights with the earnestness of most any awkward fifteen-year-old bookworm, and if I walked back to BART—instead of talking the bus or the trolley—I’d have enough money to buy a single used pocket edition of a City Lights book. I bought “America” in the early summer of my junior year in high school. By summer’s end I had memorized all of it.  Twenty years later I now teach it to my students “every chance I get.” For me, it never gets old.
In A Country” (1977) by Larry Levis
My final selection is a single poem by Larry Levis. I chose one poem because it seemed too gluttonous to choose all of them (although truth be told, I haven’t read a Levis I didn’t like). One of the infamous “Fresno poets” Levis’ poetry taught me how to write, with love and fear, about the soil of the San Joaquin and in So L.A., although the title invokes the perceived glamour of the Southland, it’s actually equally concerned with the hardscrabble beauty of agrarian culture,  which as Michael Ventura might admit is an equally “hard, hard beauty to love.”

*This post originally appeared on my new favorite blog spot, Conceptual Reception, thanks to the huge heart of poet and collector of obscure vocabulary, Karen!
From Karen: “I am so excited to post today.  In fact, this might be one of my favorite all-time blog entries to date.  The lovely women behind TLC Book Tours linked me up with the amazingly smart, fun author Bridget Hoida, whose new book  “So L.A.” is tearing it up. Completely convinced that Bridget is my kindred California spirit, I asked her to write a guest post of her “Recommended California Reading.” For more info on Bridget and her book, check out her rad website (and check back here for an upcoming review).  But I am now so excited to hand you over to her sharp, inspiring guest post for today.  Look out, though.  Your “to be read” list is about to get several books longer.”

-Karen Marie, Conceptual Reception, September 12, 2012

Bridget Hoida On: Top Down Days

It’s hot in Southern California.

Which means everyone is talking about the weather. Spoiled as we are on the coast, we tend to complain, loudly, every time the temperature drops below 72 degrees or rises above 78.

There’s a reason our license plate frames read: Best Climate on Earth, and when mother nature denies us this boast, we get a little cranky, and more than a little vocal. Mostly because we don’t have in-home air conditioners, or if we do, we’ve forgotten how to clean an air vent, to turn them on.

In addition to living at the beach, or splashing in the pool until your toes are prunish, one way to escape the heat is to drive. Tops and windows down, we crank up the radio and blue dial the air-con and drive until the heat breaks.

In Play It As It Lays—or the best Los Angeles novel ever written as I call it—author Joan Didion drives her protagonist Maria through the heat as she takes on the iconic interchange of the L.A. freeway in brilliant and breathtaking fashion. She writes of roads and off ramps, rest stops and lane changes unlike any other writer.

In my book, So L.A., I was very much inspired by Didion’s freeway devotion. Particularly, the ways in which driving becomes a brilliantly choreographed dance, like in this passage:

Once she was on the freeway and had maneuvered her way to a fast lane she turned on the radio at high volume and she drove. She drove the San Diego to the Harbor, the Harbor up to the Hollywood, the Hollywood to the Golden State, the Santa Monica, the Santa Ana, the Pasadena, the Ventura. She drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and just as a riverman feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking, so Maria lay at night in the still of Beverly Hills and saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy miles an hour. Normandie 1/4 Vermont 3/4 Harbor Fwy I. Again and again she returned to an intricate stretch just south of the interchange where successful passage from the Hollywood onto the Harbor required a diagonal move across four lanes of traffic. On the afternoon she finally did it without once braking or once losing the beat on the radio she was exhilarated, and that night slept dreamlessly.”

-Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays

So, in an effort to escape the heat, I invite you to join Joanie D. and me as we hop into something convertible, our hair wrapped in brightly covered scarves that flutter in the wind. Remember to buckle up. Use your hands free device, and above all, do not forget to press your oversized sunglasses tight against your faces as I put the car in drive.

Backing out of the driveway at Joan Didion’s “suburbia house” in Brentwood Park, the one that used to harbor a garden of “mint, stephanotis and the pink magnolia,” we’ll have to navigate the city streets until we catch the 10 freeway east to the 110 to the 101 before briefly hopping back on the 10 again to exit on Temple. There, we’ll find ourselves (if, of course we find parking), on streets well walked by another Los Angeles writer I adore, John Fante.

Often hailed as the best Los Angeles book that no one has read, Fante’s Ask The Dust (1939), is situated in Bunker Hill, in the heart of downtown. Part love song to an illusive women, and part love song to the city of L.A. herself, Fante declares his devotion (and his distaste) for the city of angles in breathless lines such as these: “Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town!”

-John Fante, Ask The Dust

From here we can walk to the corner of Alameda and Main. I know, I know. I’ve heard the song plenty and nobody walks in L.A., but trust me, in the time it would take us to find our keys, make a left turn on a red light and repark we could walk to Alameda and back five, maybe six times, so settle up your peep-toed shoes and follow me to old Terminal Annex Post Office building where Charles Bukowski spent years sorting the mail (and his various rejection slips) before the publication of his book Post Office (1971) where he confesses: “I wanted the whole world or nothing.”

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Next door, at Union Station, we can buy a round-trip Metrolink ticket to El Monte, home of the imaginary sun-bleached flower fields of the El Monte Flores, a notorious carnation picking gang who wage a war against Saturn and omniscient narration in Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper (2004). And if we listen carefully, we can hear the words of Plascencia’s papered people: “She had heard that Los Angeles was the last refuge for those who had lost their civilization and were afraid of the rain.”

-Salvador Plascencia, The People of Paper

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Off the train, we can walk back to fetch the car and end the day with a drive down Hollywood Boulevard, stopping for a drink at Musso and Frank, a place Gore Vidal said, “is like stepping into a warm bath.” Frequented by William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler and Nathanael West, the martinis never fail, and neither does Manny Aguirre, the 78-year-old bartender who is rumored to have once poured a drink for James Dean.

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With cocktails and dinner done, we can then turn in at the Hollywood Patio Hotel, with the “ugly maroon bedspread” where Money Brenton, the protagonist of Mary Robison’s brilliant Why Did I Ever (2002) spends her undermedicated days doctoring Hollywood scripts, while passing out beautiful zingers like: “There’s an anemic moon out there, milked over, hanging low in the low green sky. That couple in the heated pool. How do they, I wonder, figure into things?”

-Mary Robison, Why Did I Ever

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In the morning as we ease into rush hour traffic, remember, to put on your blinker. As Magdalena says in So L.A.:  “Ricky, like most Angelinos, doesn’t believe in the blinker. He maintains that by initiating the blink you actually hinder any small chance you have of actually getting over. The guy on your right, when he sees the click-click of the yellow light, will speed up and close in on the gap. But I disagree. One of the remarkable things about Los Angeles, one of those things that no one seems to talk about, is how we all do manage to get where we’re going. We slide from the fast lane (wave) to the middle lane (wave) to the slow lane (wave) to the exit ramp (blinker off), and we merge. It may not be singularly graceful or without incident, but 99.9 percent of the time we do manage to make our exits, our left turns, our way home.”

-Bridget Hoida, So L.A.