Lynell George on Her Favorite California Books

The California Book Club panelist celebrates the work of Wanda Coleman, Tommy Orange, and Octavia E. Butler.

lynell george
Aaron Salcido

Journalist and essayist Lynell George is one of the six panelists who will select titles for the new California Book Club. Based in Los Angeles, George was a longtime staff writer for L.A. Weekly and the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of two books. No Crystal Stair: African-Americans in the City of Angels (published by Verso in 1992) paints a fuller picture of her hometown. After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame is a 2018 collection of her essays and photographs; it was released by Angel City Press, an independent publishing house in Santa Monica whose books explore niche historical angles, particularly about the West. Angel City Press will also publish George’s third book, A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler. It comes out on October 20. The California Book Club caught up with George via email to discuss California literature.

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

What are some of the best overlooked books that take place in the Golden State?
Carolyn See’s memoir, Dreaming—its specificity of time, place, texture, and mood. It’s a tough book about struggle and disappointment, but it’s also a story of resilience and making more than “do.” The gold in the shatters. Also Central Avenue Sounds, which is an essential collection of oral histories about the famous avenue, or the Main Stem, that featured West Coast jazz in Los Angeles. But the book contains so much more than memories of who was on the bandstand and who played what session. So many of the stories reanimate a Los Angeles that for the most part has been paved over and rebuilt multiple times, but it comes alive in these stories of musicians making their way in their aerospace jobs, or teaching school, or building their own businesses. It’s a dazzling social history about pre- and postwar Southern California. (Also, I’d add to this list Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle.)

Who are some new California authors you’re most excited about?
I loved Tommy Orange’s Oakland in There There; images continue to flash back, characters linger, and the final few pages of motion left me breathless. I was also quite taken with Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, which is set in both Los Angeles and Louisiana. Her evocation of a vast, multidimensional city (as stage) full of people constructing themselves and stitching together found family felt both fresh and personally familiar. I am looking forward to what comes next from her. (Her first novel, The Mothers, was set in Southern California.)

What’s a California story that deserves to be told in a book?
I couldn’t stop talking about Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns after I first wrote about it years ago. It’s a book I put in people’s hands because the vivid stories sound like voices of family members. And while California is certainly one of the backdrops in it, I would love to see an entire book (on the scale and sweep of Wilkerson’s book) that focuses deeply on California in the second half of the 20th century—particularly the end-of-the-line railroad destinations of Los Angeles and Oakland—and the Black migrant families who landed here. What did that dream they were chasing look like when they arrived; did it deliver? How did they shape their new lives in spite of what greeted them? How did the next generation then shape place? (Perhaps a second installment of Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America, by Douglas Flamming, which looks at the first half of the century.)

What’s the one California book that people need to read right now?
I just finished rereading Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Talents. Set in the 2030s, it’s the second novel in the Parable series (Parable of the Sower is set in the 2020s). With Northern California as its setting, I found that reading it against a backdrop of heat waves, fires, and a fraught election cycle (featuring a zealot president who hopes his constituents will “make America great again”), it entered my dreams—not comfortably. Butler was frequently asked if she’d meant the books as prophecy; she was quick to say, “I certainly hope not.” She tried to tell us so that we might take action.

Read more about the California Book Club selection panel here.

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