We hope that you’ll carry California Book Club selections along with you on your summer travels, or perhaps get a head start on them if you’ve already finished this month’s book, Telephone, by Percival Everett, and next month’s book, Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown. For the summer 2023 quarter, we’ll be veering in another direction, bringing you three books grounded in the concrete details of underexplored stories, sometimes quite dark, about the state’s past.
Sunshine and mayhem. These have often gone together. The optimists will say no, but what about the gorgeousness, the weather? And if we are propagandists, we might argue that all of the state’s sunlight belies the violence, or, if we are disgruntled pessimists, that too much sunshine produces a kind of madness—but those of us who love the West and understand the depth and originality and sheer intelligence of its literature also know that the reality here is more variegated than that. Complex, fascinating people, most of them neither heroes nor villains nor cutouts in a predictable beach read, have made California over the years.
So, first up in July, it’s off to the Bay Area—in particular, UC Berkeley—in the lively ’90s, when high and low culture blended so beautifully for writers in the making. Next, we’ll ride a train to the aftermath of one of the most shameful periods in California history, that of the Manzanar concentration camp. And then, we’ll ride further back in time to the history of the magonistas—a searing reminder that California, now a minority-majority state in which Latinx Americans constitute the largest racial group, was once part of Mexico.
The memoir Stay True may be one of the most profound and beautiful books about coming of age in Berkeley in the ’90s yet published. On its pages unfolds the story of the deep and unexpected friendship between author Hsu and Ken Ishida, who is killed in a carjacking one night. Hsu was a straight-edge teen concerned with coolness—stapling zines and making mixtapes for car rides. Ken was a congenial frat boy comfortable in his own skin. Within these pages, both young men come to life because of how Hsu sketches their contrasting personalities and sensibilities.
Today, Hsu is a staff writer at the New Yorker, where he writes some of the most absorbing pop culture pieces the magazine publishes. Winner of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Autobiography and the 2023 National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, Stay True captures with breathtaking accuracy the vivid and indelible memories that arise when love is bound with grief, the circumstances under which a tragedy took place.
CLARK AND DIVISION, BY NAOMI HIRAHARA
Crime is also at the forefront of prolific novelist and journalist Hirahara’s fiction. Clark and Division is a 2021 novel arising from the seeming suicide of a woman in Chicago months after she receives early release from Manzanar. Her sister, Aki, can’t believe she would commit suicide just after her incarceration ended, while her family were on their way to join her, and investigates the mystery against a backdrop of anti-Asian hatred.
Hirahara writes in an immersive, transparent, and realistic style—this one will keep you turning pages while, also, learning about what happened during and after the incarceration of ordinary Japanese Americans due to bigotry. In her review for Alta Journal, book critic Paula L. Woods called the book “one of the more enlightening World War II–era mysteries in recent memory.”
BAD MEXICANS: RACE, EMPIRE & REVOLUTION IN THE BORDERLANDS, BY KELLY LYTLE HERNÁNDEZ
Bad Mexicans is historian Hernández’s third book. A work of spectacularly inclusive nonfiction, it delves into the history of the migrant rebels, or magonistas, who, in 1910, were led by Ricardo Flores Magón. The magonistas organized thousands of Mexican workers to oust Mexico’s pro-imperialist dictator. Hernández is a professor at UCLA, holding the Thomas E. Lifka Endowed Chair in History and directing the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. She was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2019, and while this book should join not only California canon but also the country’s canon, it is no ordinary academic history. It reads with the keen pacing and drama of a novel.
Here at the California Book Club, we are not the first to recognize the vital importance of Bad Mexicans. It was a finalist for the 2023 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, the Mark Lynton History Prize, and PEN America’s John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction and was long-listed for the National Book Award for Nonfiction and the Cundill History Prize.
Join us on May 18 at 5 p.m., when Everett will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest to discuss Telephone. Please visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the book with your fellow California Book Club members. Register for the Zoom conversation here.
A VISIT TO THE LOUVRE
Lauren Alwan writes about the paintings referenced in Telephone. —Alta
Critic and Publishers Weekly fiction reviews editor David Varno writes about the three versions of Telephone. —Alta
CBC contributor and film critic Katharine Coldiron (Junk Film: Why Bad Movies Matter) writes a perceptive essay about the cultural dysphoria of movies made under the strict censorship rules of the Hays Code, which was enforced from the mid-1930s to the late 1960s. —Los Angeles Review of Books
AFTERLIFE OF A BOOK
Jaime Lowe, author of Breathing Fire, writes about her investigation of the stories of more than 200 women who worked on all-female crews as part of California’s incarcerated firefighting system. —Los Angeles Review of Books
Journalist and Alta Journal contributing editor Gustavo Arellano is interviewing prior CBC author Héctor Tobar on Tuesday, May 9, at Chevalier’s Books for the launch of Tobar’s Our Migrant Souls. —Eventbrite
STRUGGLE FOR RESPECT
Nearly 80 years after Raymond Chandler excoriated Hollywood conditions for writers, writers in the WGA strike say that not much has changed. —Los Angeles Times
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