Alta Readers Help Define California Canon

We asked our readers what titles they’d include in John Freeman’s “The New California Curriculum,” an essay describing how recent literature reflects the real Golden State.

The New California Curriculum
The New California Curriculum

John Freeman didn’t parse words when it came to calling out the literary establishment for its obliviousness to works from the West. “It took an absurdly long time for America’s so-called center to see that a new wave of California literature was happening,” said Freeman in his essay “The New California Curriculum.” “Literature of so many kinds and so many genres from so many different types of people—at the highest level—has been coming out of California and from Californians for decades now.”

Freeman’s suggestions for books that help define California include Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. The essay struck a nerve. Alta members’ responses to Freeman’s curriculum reveal a collective passion for books that best represent the culture, complexity, and diversity of the Golden State. As for agreeing on what books deserve to be included? That’s a whole different story. Some of the suggestions:


I would like to express my appreciation for John Freeman’s essay in the latest issue of Alta. Like Freeman, growing up in Northern California I was plagued by the feeling that literary life was over there, “back East.” There was a profound disconnect between the authors I was reading and what passed as serious literature in my PhD program. It’s a gap I try to close in my own teaching now. It was wonderful to read Freeman’s account of his own coming-of-age as a reader and writer, and I also very much appreciated the addition of a “curriculum” at the end.

Many thanks to Freeman and to Alta for showcasing the diversity and excellence of California literature.

—Jasmin Darznik
Larkspur, California


In the not-California-titled book A Bar in Brooklyn by Andrei Codrescu (Black Sparrow Press, 1999), there is a novella called “Perfume: A Tale of Felicity.” It is essential NorCal, even if it doesn’t all take place there.

—Andrei Codrescu
Brooklyn, New York


Citizen Hearst by W.A. Swanberg.

From the cover: “The Monumental and Controversial Biography of one of the most fabulous characters in American History.”

W.R. Hearst practically invented the notion of “modern media.” His contributions, and that of the Hearst family, to California are immeasurable. No understanding of our state, or of the modern world, is possible without a thorough reading of the life of this man.

—James Dinwiddie
Menlo Park, California


Definitely An American Genocide: The United States and the California Catastrophe by Benjamin Madley.

Professor Madley is also an excellent speaker. I’ve listened to a few of his interviews and lectures on YouTube. I was introduced to the book by the CA Historical Society and the Presidio’s public historian, Dr. Barbara Berglund Sokolov.

—Chris Greene
San Francisco, California


My recommendation would be Towers of Gold by Frances Dinkelspiel. Through one immigrant’s story, she traces the transformation of California from a frontier society to one of the world’s largest economies. Isaias Hellman exemplified the spirit of what we now call venture capitalism.

If you’d allow a second recommendation, it would be River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit. The guiding historical forces that lay the groundwork for California becoming the center of technology and innovation.

I look forward to the California Book Club!

—Deborah Abel
Menlo Park, California


Thank you for your story about your California History class. Your stack of books is inviting. What about Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose? Or Steinbeck’s Cannery Row? I’m looking forward to your California Book Club in October.

—Sarah Calvani
Kentfield, California


Mark Arax has written two excellent books, mostly about water in California, West of the West and The Dreamt Land. He’s very readable, and his books are well researched. You will learn a lot about the history of our state, as well as water issues—there really is no separation between the two. If you only have time to read one of the above, my suggestion is the latter.

—Becky Richardson
Madera, California


Frank Bergon’s dazzling California Trilogy—Jesse’s Ghost (2011), Two-Buck Chuck & The Marlboro Man (2019) and The Toughest Kid We Knew (2020)—brings alive the many races and ethnicities of California’s Great Central Valley, including Bergon’s Basque heritage. The trilogy is also the first to render fully contemporary voices of Okie California since Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

—Marie Grace
San Diego, California


Your citations about California crime fiction were woefully meager. While you may consider it merely genre fiction, there are several excellent works that use the conventions of the genre to explore California’s myths and harsh realities.

I would suggest you consider: James Elroy’s The Black Dahlia; Ross Macdonald (take your pick of titles); Nina Revoyr’s Southland; Michael Nava’s Henry Rios series; Ivy Pochoda’s recent These Women and my own first mystery, Inner City Blues, about the intersection of policing black and brown bodies, sexual harassment and the social reckoning that was the 1992 Rodney King Uprising.

And while not in the mystery genre, I don’t recall seeing Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust.

Happy reading!

—Paula L. Woods
Los Angeles, California


How could Mr. Freeman neglect the Eugene Burdick classic California novel The Ninth Wave, about a surfer from Manual Arts High who is screwing his English teacher, hitting the waves, then going to Stanford and working nights at a bakery and ends up enmeshed in Sacramento politics? Disclaimer: the author was my Uncle Bud.

—Chris Burdick
Inverness, California

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