Autumn is a strange time. In California, it’s fire season. Every once in a while, we get a bright plash of rain, but there’s also the anxiety-provoking chance of dry lightning. Smoke from harvested vegetables on a barbecue stains the twilight. And the fall, like all seasons, is a good time to read—publishers often put out their biggest books this season.
At the California Book Club, we strive to highlight works that focus on the Golden State, but there are, truly, so many more superb books than we can possibly feature. Our Selection Panel, six distinguished figures in the literary world, meet a few times a year to choose books that support our mission of creating a California canon, but after every meeting, it’s clear the vibrancy of stories about our state’s many communities and histories outstrips the number of months there are in a year.
As we enter fire and big-book season, I’ve been curious about what those with whom we’re in community, whether because they are from California or because they write about it, are reading now. Here are four recommendations.
Michael Connelly, author of The Dark Hours, our April 2022 selection, recommended Gabrielle Zevin’s immersive gaming novel, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, which he called “riveting.” Connelly explained, “You get so invested so fast in Sadie and Sam that this story about the fragility of creativity and love becomes a page-turner you just can’t put down.”
William Finnegan, author of our July 2021 selection, Barbarian Days, told us he’s reading Mae Ngai’s The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics. He explained, “It’s a magisterial history of Chinese migration during the big gold rushes of the 19th century—California, Australia, the Witwatersrand in South Africa. It’s a great book, full of new, at least to me, insights about the structure and development of world capitalism in that period and the avarice and stereotyping that led to racist anti-Chinese legislation in both the British Empire and the United States.”
We also checked in with CBC selection panelist and author Lynell George (A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler). She recommended journalist Danyel Smith’s latest, commenting, “Smith’s triumphant Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop is not just about finding one’s voice—but raising it. Faceted, Shine Bright is part memoir, part historical excavation, exploring the role of Black women musical artists—spanning genres and decades. Smith’s lifelong love of music is the throughline. A Bay Area native who was raised for a stretch in Los Angeles, Smith was the first woman editor in chief at Vibe magazine in New York City. Musical riffs and vivid behind-the-velvet-rope anecdotes stream through like a radio on scan mode, as Smith spins her subject’s stories against the backdrop of her own peripatetic path toward writing and trusting her own voice. She’s seen a lot, listened a lot, and you just keep leaning in. Deeply researched, poetically assembled, it’s told with lots of heart.”
I’ll throw in a strong recommendation of my own. Recently, I read a galley of Hua Hsu’s Stay True, which comes out September 27. A near-perfect time capsule of Berkeley from 1995 to 1999, this vivid, shattering memoir knocked me out. Hsu was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley at the same time as I was, and our circles overlapped, but I never knew him, or his friend Kenneth Ishida, who was murdered. I was hooked from its first page, which riffs on friendship and mixtapes in the Bay Area, inextricable for many of us from back then. He writes, “We stayed up so late, possessed by delirium, that we came up with a theory of everything, only we forgot to write it down.” But more than 20 years later, he gets it all down, with uncanny power, onto the page here.
Finally, be sure to get ahold of our October California Book Club selection, professor and author Natalia Molina’s A Place at the Nayarit: How a Mexican Restaurant Nourished a Community, a thoughtful history of her grandmother’s restaurant in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park. Several smart pieces—a profile of Molina, a literary examination of how the book is framed, and a personal essay on Echo Park—are heading your way this month. Stay tuned!•
Join us on Zoom on October 20 at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Molina will join your host, John Freeman, and a special guest to discuss A Place at the Nayarit. Please stop by the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow book club members know what you think of this work of restaurant and racial history in Echo Park. Register here for the event.
Author Mark Haskell Smith reviews Andrew Sean Greer’s Less Is Lost, the sequel to his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, Less. Smith says it is “a looser, shaggier book than its predecessor, and all the more enjoyable for it.” —Alta
Acclaimed essayist Leslie Jamison writes about the allure of Choose Your Own Adventure while she was growing up in late-’80s Los Angeles and the story behind the series. —New Yorker
SUPPORT FOR LOCAL PAPERS
Who gets to be a journalist? The state of California is funding the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism $25 million for a fellowship program to report in underserved and historically underrepresented areas across the state and thereby strengthen local news coverage. —Berkeley News
Alta Journal contributing editor Gustavo Arellano writes about Cal-Mex restaurants and includes a mention of A Place at the Nayarit in an introduction to classic Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles. —Los Angeles Times
Alta’s California Book Club email newsletter is published weekly. Sign up for free and you also will receive four custom-designed bookplates.