Six distinguished literary figures join host John Freeman in selecting titles for the California Book Club. We asked each to name the Golden State–centric title they treasure most. These are some of their picks.
These are always difficult for me, because I wander into different books for different moods/feelings or for a certain sense of place. Books I often treasure/reread are for those reasons. I should just walk over to my shelves and see which books have the most worn-out spines and/or dust jackets: I grab Wanda Coleman (Imagoes or Native in a Strange Land) if I’m aching for a very particular L.A. voice, rhythm, and POV about my hometown. I used to fairly frequently reread James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce (or Nathanael West’s or Chester Himes’s work) for mood and settings to help envision a past L.A.’s grid. Sometimes I would dip back into just a few pages, to get myself ready for my own writing session.
This is a hard question because there are so many: Devil in a Blue Dress, by Walter Mosley (the next guest of Alta’s California Book Club, on December 17); Southern California: An Island on the Land, by Carey McWilliams; Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion; If He Hollers Let Him Go, by Chester Himes. I’m tempted to say Mary Hunter Austin’s The Land of Little Rain, which is a touchstone work for me, a deft and personal reflection on the Mojave, originally published in 1903. But in the end, I’m a city person, and California has great cities and great writing about them. So I’m going to go with Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City—not one book but the whole series. This is the work that, when I first discovered it during a year off before college—I was an 18-year-old living on Haight Street—unlocked a new way for me of thinking about California and its cities, and how to write about them.
That’s tough to answer, as what I treasure shades in and out of cherishment with what the day may bring. All the works that dig into how hard life has been in California, and relate that struggle beautifully, are what I am especially grateful for being available to us. That covers a lot of ground, from In Dubious Battle and I Hotel to City of Quartz and The Revolt of the Cockroach People.
I Hotel, by Karen Tei Yamashita. Yamashita is one of the most masterful contemporary American authors. I Hotel captures the political and cultural ferment in the late 1960s and early ’70s with political insight and humor. I Hotel sits on my bookshelf next to Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives.