California. I don’t think I stopped grinning when I got to California after reading wintry Alaska, then dry Arizona, then dusty Arkansas. I needed The Golden State for a little R&R. California’s got coasts and mountains, sunshine and sea air, artists, writers, actors, bums, train-hoppers, redwoods, vineyards, canneries, marine biologists, beautiful blondes with perfect straight teeth, surfers, smugglers, avocados and strawberries and oranges and lemons, and immigrant populations from China and Japan and Mexico. It is a diverse state, shiny and new and full of hope: a reading dream come true for me, the American dream come true for others, false hope for many, and hard work for everyone but the bums.
The books I selected for my project were a tiny sampling from the deep pool of California-set titles by California authors. The experience of reading this state was a luxury, like sitting by a glittering pool with a frozen daquiri and a stack of books on the lounge chair next to me. There was so much author diversity – men, women, black, white, Hispanic, Chinese-American, Indian-American, Japanese-American – I kicked back and read California for weeks. There is surf, there are freeloaders, there are migrant workers and mail order brides; there is an imagined future of what happens after the gluttony bubble bursts. And I loved every second of it.
California was a fun ride.
Novel: The Dawn Patrol
Author: Don Winslow, lives San Diego, CA
Setting: 2000s Pacific Beach, CA
Categories: Mystery, Crime drama
Published in 2008 and set in modern day Pacific Beach, California, The Dawn Patrol was everything I wanted from a California read: waves, water, hilarious surf lingo, characters with names like High Tide and Cheerful, a murder, page-turning suspense, a fast pace, and the best scenery I could have asked for. For the first time so far on my Andrea Reads America journey, I didn’t want to just read about a place, I wanted to be there.
There are days when that drive along the 101 is so beautiful, it will break your fucking heart. When you look out the window and the sun is painting masterpieces on the water…
The Dawn Patrol are a group of six surfers who are a cop, a lifeguard Love God, a giant Samoan who works for Sand Diego’s public works department, a kid named Hang Twelve, a soon-to-be pro-surfer “California girl,” and Boone Daniels, a private investigator and the hero of our story. The Dawn Patrol gathers on the waves every morning to surf before they start their jobs in the real world. They are as tight as family, and all play roles in this well-told, perfectly paced mystery that goes deeper than the original crime of a stripper’s murder. As is always the case in a decent mystery series, our P.I. Boone Daniels has depth and is haunted by past mistakes: the child molestor that got away.
The Dawn Patrol, in addition to plopping me beachside among surfers in sunny California, also gave me a great story with characters I came to love. So far there is only one more book in the Boone Daniels series. I hope Winslow plans to write more.
Novel: Parable of the Sower
Author: Octavia Butler, born 1947 in Pasadena, California
Setting: 2025 near Los Angeles, California
Categories: Speculative fiction, Dystopian fiction, Afrofuturism
Parable of the Sower, set in 2024-2027 Los Angeles, California, is the story of Lauren, the hyperempathetic daughter of a preacher (she feels others’ physical pain, often to the point of debilitation). The United States as we know it has collapsed into near anarchy as rain no longer falls in many regions, cars are abandoned because fuel is unaffordable, drugs that make people want to burn and kill are rampant, and middle-class families live inside walled communities to protect themselves from the chaos outside.
Even as a preteen Lauren sees her family’s walled life as unsustainable, and the God her father follows is not the god she believes in. She sees that change will come – big changes where she will need to know how to live off the land and protect herself with guns – and when her community’s wall is breached and her neighborhood is burned to the ground, she is thrust into the outside world where she knew she would one day end up, and where she must now survive.
Though, like Butler, Lauren is an African American girl growing up in a mixed race neighborhood, Butler does not write about race as if it were a central issue in this book; race is often little more than a descriptor or a side note. However, whereas most science fiction casts a Caucasian male in the hero role, Butler casts a young black woman: rather than pontificating about race issues, Butler embeds an African American leader in her story and leaves it at that. I liked that aspect, that there isn’t a lot of explaining or reasoning that or why the heroine is black: she just is. On with the story.
Throughout the novel, despite the misery and seeming hopelessness, Butler offers a different future through Lauren’s resourcefulness and in the less populated regions of northern California, Oregon, Washington, and Canada:
So many people hoping for so much up there where it still rains every year, and an uneducated person might still get a job that pays in money instead of beans, water, potatoes, and maybe a floor to sleep in.
It was strange to visit Highway 101 and other California landmarks, which were portrayed as idyllic in other books, through Parable of the Sower‘s lens of violence and chaos, but that’s what dystopian fiction does: it jars us. It provides an imagined future as a cautionary tale. It makes us think about the world as we know it, and imagine it as it might one day be, and maybe even inspire us to make changes in our lives to prevent the imagined chaos from happening.
For more on Parable of the Sower, please see A dystopian California: not unimaginable.
Novel: Cannery Row
Author: John Steinbeck, born 1902, Salinas, California
Setting: 1930s Monterey, California
Categories: Literary Fiction
Cannery Row, set during the Great Depression, is a surprisingly (and subtly) funny character sketch of the rundown community along the strip of sardine canneries in Monterey, California. From the Chinese grocer, Lee Chong, to the specimen-collecting Doc, to the bums Mack and the boys at the flophouse, to Dora and the girls at the neighborhood brothel, to the tomcats and freed frogs and lonely gopher without a mate, the inhabitants of Cannery Row – along with the smell of the tides, the whang of rocks thrown against corrugated metal, and the pearly light of the quiet mornings before each day’s antics begin – exhibit the personality of a place through both its people and its atmosphere. Steinbeck has captured and characterized place brilliantly in this way and has shown a California different from all the other books I’ve read. The only similar portrayal was Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, but Kerouac’s focus was human characters while Steinbeck’s aim was to characterize Cannery Row, the place, through its residents.
I was looking forward to California for the excuse to read a Steinbeck I haven’t yet read. Cannery Row did not disappoint. Steinbeck’s sentences had me reaching for my pen and notebook nearly every page to record his genius lines; his prose is rhythmic and beautiful:
Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses…
There is something about Steinbeck that moves me. He writes close to the earth and deep into our humanness, and he is able to evoke an atmosphere that satisfies my hunger for a sense of place, scratches my itch for exploring our humanity – our eccentricities and foibles, our kindnesses and will to keep trying – and that asks the big questions, like how do we go on in the face of disappointment and failure, and what would a beer milk shake taste like?
For more on Cannery Row, please see Steinbeck, Steinbeck, he’s my man.
For Further Reading in California
Books I have read and can recommend:
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
Books that have been recommended to me and I have not yet read:
Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
Mistress of the Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Lê Thi Diem Thúy
Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson
Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse
Goodbye to All That by Margot Candela
Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien
Love and War in California by Oakley Hall
I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.