There often come points in our lives, usually in our adult years, when the only way to move forward is to look back. Part of coming into ourselves as more discerning, insightful people is knowing both where we’re going and where we’ve been. And this is no easy project. Indeed, some do not even embark on such a journey: it is risky business, a considerably fearsome and bold endeavor. Yet the rewards are immense, invaluable, and, most important, earned; Dana Johnson, in her stunning novel, Elsewhere, California—which Alta Journal’s California Book Club will discuss at its August 19 gathering—presents a vivid case for why.
Told through the perspective of Avery Arlington, a Black artist born in South Los Angeles and raised in the predominantly white suburb of West Covina, Elsewhere, California charts many migrations—emotional, spatial, intellectual, cultural—in the Golden State and across the South. At the start of the novel, Avery has just turned 40 and is beginning to reflect on the scenes of her tumultuous and somewhat uproarious childhood, where she was a witness to her parents’ abusive relationship and had to negotiate the different social worlds of her new environment. The novel alternates between Avery as a child and Avery as an adult, most strikingly using Black southern vernacular to formally showcase her many mediations.
Elsewhere, California builds narrative momentum after there is a break-in at the glamorous Hollywood home she shares with her Italian husband, Massimo, when she is out with her childhood friend Brenna. Avery is shocked to learn that a burglar has stolen her painting of her cousin Keith, with whom she has a rocky relationship, and it becomes a catalyst for tunneling the deepest mines of her past. In what follows, Elsewhere, California not only showcases the journey of self-discovery and what it means to face one’s trauma, but also informs us that introspection is an unfinished project. While there might be powerful epiphanies and affecting denouements, there are never neat endings. We don’t arrive at conclusions but, instead, openings.
To join Alta’s California Book Club conversation with Johnson on August 19, click here. I also invite you to join your fellow CBC members in the Alta Clubhouse for an ongoing conversation about Elsewhere, California:
In preparation for our book club gathering with Johnson, here is a close reading of the opening passage, in which the main character dreams of another world. —Alta
LENS OF ART
Claire Dederer considers how Matthew Specktor, in his book Always Crashing in the Same Car, “uses a handful of writers, filmmakers, and musicians to explore a specific idea: that failure is the secret story of Los Angeles.” —Alta
UNSUNG PUNK ROCKERS
“The richest stream of American punk rock is actually Mexican-American punk rock,” Rachel Kushner says of the little-known artists who transformed a genre of music. —Literary Hub
L.A. ART SCENE
“Progress for Latinx artists in LA has been hard won, and the struggle continues,” Travis Diehl says of the growing representation of Latinx artists in the City of Angels. —Financial Times
VIOLENCE AND VIGILANTES
Kevin Waite charts the troubling history of California’s white supremacist vigilante tradition, which played a major role in the 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol. —Los Angeles Review of Books
“The Hollywood memoir is a perfect genre for summertime, when your mind is as gooey and malleable as a slice of American cheese, because it demands that you be willing to suspend your disbelief and indulge in dazzling lies,” Rachel Syme notes of the art and romance of Hollywood memoirs. —New Yorker
Katie Kitamura, the author of the highly acclaimed novel Intimacies, has recommended 13 books to read during the waning days of summer, including Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. —Jezebel
The Jack Kerouac estate has teamed up with writers Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge to launch a new podcast series based on Kerouac’s Belief and Technique of Modern Prose, which features his notes on writing for his longtime friend Allen Ginsberg. —Deadline
DARKNESS AND DESERT
“I started looking at the crime log, and I would just get blown away by all the crime in Palm Springs, because you don’t think of it that way,” says Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, the editor of the Palm Springs Noir anthology, about Palm Springs as a distinctive site for California noir in an interview with Halley Sutton. —Los Angeles Review of Books
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