So much great writing from California

04/22/2012 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 10:35 AM

Everybody knows California is a nation unto itself, culturally and geographically unique. From Gold Rush argonauts to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, we've always been at the forefront of daring and innovation.

Hey, we invented the movie industry, hard-boiled noir fiction, Mickey Mouse and the digital age.

It follows that we literate Californians owe it to ourselves to cherry-pick from the millions of California-centric books available to us and take a look – even if it's just to remind ourselves of how special we are (or think we are).

But which ones? What would a "dream list" of California reading look like?

We asked a group of book-savvy Californians to come up with their best recommendations of books we Californians should have read or should read, along with their brief comments. Think of their choices as a sampling of the Golden State itself – full of predictable and surprising entries.

Salinas-born Nobel laureate John Steinbeck is prominent, of course. Showing up are "The Grapes of Wrath," "East of Eden" (which he considered his masterpiece), "In Dubious Battle," "Cannery Row" and its sequel, "Sweet Thursday."

"If someone could read only one book about California, it should be 'Cannery Row,' " said Rivkah Sass, director of the Sacramento Public Library system.

(Check out the details of the May 3-6 Steinbeck Festival at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas; 831-775-4726,

"Farewell to Manzanar" by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston is another familiar title, a memoir that captures the surreal terror of Japanese American internment in "camps" in the United States. Though hundreds of books have been written about the experience, perhaps none has found more resonance among Californians of all ethnicities than this one.

On the lists, too, are John Muir ("My First Summer in the Sierra"), Jack London ("Valley of the Moon," "Martin Eden"), Wallace Stegner ("Angle of Repose"), Raymond Chandler ("Red Wind"), Dashiell Hammett ("The Maltese Falcon") and Alice Waters ("Chez Panisse Café Cookbook"). They all helped define California in different, ground-shaking ways.

One way or another, California history – both unadorned and with fictitious flair – showed up on most lists, reflecting the validity of the adage, "To understand the present, look to the past."

For instance, one largely forgotten title – huge in its day – was named by both National Book Award winner William T. Vollmann of Sacramento and Michael Troyan, community relations manager for Barnes & Noble in Citrus Heights and co-author of "MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot."

As a propaganda piece aimed at political change, "Ramona" by Helen Hunt Jackson (1884) has been compared to "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Through a tragic love story set largely in Southern California, Jackson hoped to bring awareness to the plight of American Indians.

The best-seller has been reprinted hundreds of times, and four movies and a Mexican telenovela have been made from it. Since 1923, the Ramona Pageant (an outdoor play) has been performed each year in Hemet.

"Loretta Young and Don Ameche starred in the 1936 film," Troyan said. "It was Fox's first color movie."

History of a less fanciful sort dominates the recommendations from university professor and author Kevin Starr, perhaps the world's premiere authority on the far-ranging power of California's past.

Lighter and with a twist of irony is California state librarian Stacy Aldrich's pick of "Gidget" by Frederick Kohner. The prolific screenwriter based his first-person novel on his daughter Kathy's immersion in the Malibu surf scene of the 1950s – history of a sort. Seven sequels followed, along with five movies and two TV series.

Much more of what makes California great is reflected in our panel's picks, as well: the Gold Rush, Silicon Valley, the immigrant experience, multiculturalism, agriculture, water wars, geology and geography, the Beat generation, art, adventure and much more.

There's even a children's picture book about camping in Yosemite National Park. Are we there yet?


Each of our California experts has chosen five books they believe best reflect the Golden State's people, culture and history. What are your picks?

Read this story, then email your five choices to Please put "California Books" in the subject line and include your full name, daytime phone number and city of residence. We'll run a sampling in an upcoming Between the Lines column in A&E.


Join the Discussion

The Sacramento Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service