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).
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:
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”