David L. Ulin on His Favorite California Books

The California Book Club panelist praises the writings of Joan Didion, Armistead Maupin, Walter Mosley, and Wendy C. Ortiz.

david ulin
Noah Ulin

Few are more steeped in the world of California literature than David L. Ulin. A native of New York City, Ulin moved to Los Angeles in 1991, bringing with him an outsider’s curiosity, fresh perspective, and fondness for the state. Leave it to a New Yorker to write a book—Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles—that embraces walking in the nation’s car capital. The former longtime book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times, Ulin is Alta’s books editor and a member of Alta’s California Book Club selection panel. In all, he has written or edited a dozen books, including three for the Library of America: Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, Didion: The 1960s & 70s, and the forthcoming Didion: The 1980s & 90s. Ulin is also the editor of a new online literary journal, Air/Light, published by the English Department at the University of Southern California, where he teaches. The California Book Club reached out to him by email.

What’s your most treasured book about California—or that’s set in the state?
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.

What are some of the best overlooked books that take place in the Golden State?
The book that comes immediately to mind is Hisaye Yamamoto’s Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories. This collection of 19 spare and lovely stories spans 40 years, the full range of Yamamoto’s career. My favorites are the early ones: the title story, about a mother-daughter relationship that changes when the mother begins to write haiku, or “The Legend of Miss Sasagawara,” which takes place in the relocation camp at Poston, Arizona. (“How far away Los Angeles seemed!” her narrator laments.) It’s writing in the vein of Grace Paley or Tillie Olsen, and it is remarkable.

Who are some new California authors you’re most excited about?
Certainly C Pam Zhang, whose How Much of These Hills Is Gold—a California Book Club selection—is a rewiring of the mythic structure of the state. I love its playfulness, and also its seriousness, and the language is spectacular. I’m a huge admirer of Wendy C. Ortiz, who’s not a new author, exactly, but one who should be better known. I’m very much looking forward to Carribean Fragoza’s debut collection, Eat the Mouth That Feeds You, which City Lights Books will publish in 2021. (Alta will have a story by Fragoza in its Winter 2021 issue.) The writing is sharp and unexpected, and full of vivid turns. Last, two books that Alta is covering this fall: Lynell George’s A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky, which is about Octavia E. Butler, and Felicia Luna Lemus’s Particulate Matter, which is a memoir that blurs the lines of form. Both of these writers have been working for some time now (George is an Alta contributor and a fellow California Book Club panelist), but both deserve to be much more widely known.

What’s a California story that deserves to be told in a book?
The story of William Money. I wrote a bit about him in my earthquake book, The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith. He was a self-proclaimed Southern California prophet in the mid-to-late 1800s (Carey McWilliams once called him “the leading Los Angeles eccentric from 1841 until his death, in 1880”) who lived in “a weird oval structure in San Gabriel” and predicted the destruction of San Francisco—a city he hated—by earthquake and fire. I’m fascinated by 19th-century California and its cranks: Emperor Norton, anyone? But Emperor Norton is still remembered, while Money is forgotten. There’s a whole world there, waiting to be discovered or, better yet, reimagined.

What’s the one California book that people need to read right now?
Does there have to be just one? I’d read all the California literature. But if I have to choose, let’s go with Héctor Tobar’s novel The Last Great Road Bum, which doesn’t take place in California but turns a California perspective on the world. Tobar is a former colleague; I admire everything he does. He’s an embodiment of the stature of California writing, California thinking, and what I like to think of as the California diaspora, which is a double lens, involving not just those who are from here but also those who come here. It’s a tension that drives the state itself, and it sits at the center of Tobar’s work.

John McMurtrie edits for McSweeney’s Publishing and the literary travel magazine Stranger’s Guide.
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