There's no shortage of reading material about the history and culture of California, one of the most romanticized places on Earth. Almost from the beginning, novelists and poets were an essential part of California's cultural mosaic, and the works they've created offer a fascinating window into the lives and legends that have greatly influenced California's inception and fervid growth.
History -- Readers are spoiled for choices when it comes to historical accounts of California's pioneers. Salinas native John Steinbeck, one of the state's best-known authors, paints a vivid portrayal of proletarian life in the early to mid-1900s. His Grapes of Wrath remains the classic account of itinerant farm laborers coming to California in the midst of the Great Depression. Cannery Row has forever made the Monterey waterfront famous, and East of Eden brings a deep insight into the way of life in the Salinas Valley.
Famed humorist and storyteller Mark Twain penned vivid tales during California's Gold Rush era, including one of his most popular works, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" (an annual Gold Country competition that still has legs). Other good Gold Rush reads include Bret Harte's The Luck of Roaring Camp, a sentimental tale of hard-luck miners and their false toughness, and J. S. Holliday's The World Rushed In, one of the finest nonfiction accounts of the Gold Rush still in print.
San Francisco was also a popular setting for many early works, including Twain's San Francisco, a collection of articles that glorified "the liveliest, heartiest community on our continent." It was also the birthplace of Jack London, one of the best-known American writers, who wrote several short stories of his younger days as an oyster pirate on the San Francisco Bay, as well as Martin Eden, London's semiautobiographical account of his life along the Oakland shores.
A work of fiction featuring San Francisco during the Gold Rush is Daughter of Fortune, by acclaimed novelist and Marin resident Isabel Allende. The tale begins in Chile and follows the life of Eliza, an orphan adopted by a proper English spinster and her brother. In love with a boy who has sailed for the gold fields, a pregnant Eliza runs away from home to search for him and is befriended by a Chinese doctor. Allende's vivid depiction of life in California during the mid-19th century is one of the novel's strengths.
Hollywood -- For what some critics consider the best novels ever written about Hollywood, turn to Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, a savage and satirical look at 1930s life on the fringes of the film industry, and Bud Shulberg's What Makes Sammy Run? featuring everyone's favorite amoral, desperate agent Sammy Glick. Following in these footsteps is Michael Tolkein's The Player, an unsentimental journey into the industry of filmmaking, and John Fante's 1939 Ask The Dust, wherein yet another young writer gets his hopes and dreams crushed.
And while we are recommending downer (if brilliant) books, follow Los Angeles's turbulent history and speculate on its future via Mark Davis's City of Quartz; equally lugubrious is Upton Sinclair's novel Oil! which is representative of 1920s Southern California. You can also relive some of the state's most infamous (and brutal) moments with Vincent Bugliosi's Helter Skelter, the best version of the Manson murders and the book most responsible for childhood nightmares among a certain generation, or one of the many books about San Francisco's Zodiac Killer or L.A.'s Hillside Strangler.
Mystery & Mayhem -- For all you mystery buffs headed to California, two must-reads include Frank Norris's McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, a violent tale of love and greed set in turn-of-the-20th-century San Francisco, and Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, a steamy detective novel that captures the seedier side of San Francisco in the 1920s. Another favorite is Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, where private dick Philip Marlowe plies the seedier side of Los Angeles in the 1930s.
California has always been a hotbed for alternative -- and, more often than not, controversial -- literary styles. Joan Didion, in her novel Slouching Toward Bethlehem, and Hunter S. Thompson, in his columns for the San Francisco Examiner (brought together in the collection Generation of Swine), both used a "new journalistic" approach in their studies of 1960s San Francisco. Tom Wolfe's early work, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, follows the Hell's Angels, the Grateful Dead, and Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters as they ride through that hallucinogenic decade. Meanwhile, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the rest of the "Beat" writers were penning protests against political conservatism -- and promoting their bohemian lifestyle -- via Ginsberg's controversial poem Howl (daringly published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and owner of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco's North Beach district) and Kerouac's famous tale of American adventure, On the Road.
Modern Material -- If you're interested in a contemporary look back at four generations in the life of an American family, you can do no better than Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose. The winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1971, this work chronicles the lives of pioneers on the Western frontier. Among Stegner's many other works of fiction and nonfiction about the West is his novel All the Little Live Things, which explores the conflicts faced by retired literary agent Joe Allston; the book is set in the San Francisco Bay Area of the 1960s. The Spectator Bird (winner of the 1976 National Book Award) revisits Allston's character as he reflects on his life and his memories of a search for his roots.
Set in San Francisco, best-selling author Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club is an enlightening account of bonds between Chinese-American mothers and their daughters. One of the more famous and beloved pieces of modern fiction based in San Francisco is Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City. Maupin is a Dickens for his time, and this is a must-read for a leisurely afternoon. His 1970s soap opera covers the residents of 28 Barbary Lane (Macondry Lane on Russian Hill was the inspiration), melding sex, drugs, and growing self-awareness with enormous warmth and humor.
Special-Interest Reads -- Geology buffs will want to pack a copy of Assembling California, John McPhee's fascinating observation of California's complex geological history. Most of this volume was previously published in the New Yorker.
Outdoor enthusiasts have literally dozens of sporting books to choose from, but most comprehensive is Foghorn Press's excellent outdoor series -- California Camping, California Fishing, California Golf, California Beaches, and California Hiking -- available at every major bookstore in the state.
The beauty and metaphor that is California (Gold Rush, Land of Opportunity, Go West Young Man, Silver Screen -- the list goes on) has inspired far too many moviemakers to list in any comprehensive way, but I've compiled a short list of the California-based gems that have inspired generations of movie fans.
Vertigo (1958) is the work of possibly the greatest movie director of all time, Alfred Hitchcock, who always used locations well. Remember Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest? In Vertigo, the suspense master uses San Francisco to dizzying effect (pun intended).
Monterey Pop (1969), D. A. Pennebaker's first-rate rockumentary, chronicles the glorious 3-day music festival of the same name that was actually a better realization of the Summer of Love dream than Woodstock ever hoped to be. The film wonderfully captures '60s San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury vibe and the California sound, including groups such as the Mamas and the Papas (whose leader, the late John Phillips, was the brains behind the event), Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jimi Hendrix, Canned Heat, the Who, and others, including a stunning performance by Otis Redding.
Clint Eastwood made his directorial debut with Play Misty for Me (1971), a winningly creepy thriller costarring Jessica Walter (and Donna Mills, of quintessentially Californian Knots Landing fame). Young, studly Clint looks mighty fine, but the real star of the show is stunning Carmel, which Clint films with a genuine hometown love and a master's eye. (You may remember that Eastwood was elected mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea in 1986; he still owns the Mission Ranch, an elegant country inn, and resides in town.) Watch for the great footage of Big Sur's Bixby Bridge too.
What's Up, Doc? (1972) is a Peter Bogdanovich-directed, Buck Henry-scribed gem starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal that shows off the hilly streets of San Francisco -- especially Chinatown -- at their most colorful and romantic.
A more lighthearted view of California comes from Gidget (1965). Perky Sally Field is the ultimate California beach girl in the ultimate California beach movie. This innocent romp is really a joy to watch -- far superior to the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach movies -- with excellent footage of Malibu Beach and Pacific Coast Highway (cruisin' with the top down, of course).
Staying South, Chinatown (1974) is possibly the finest noir ever committed to film, using L.A. in the '70s to re-create L.A. in the '30s impeccably. Not only did director Roman Polanski (pre-exile) capture the City of Angels masterfully, but writer Robert Towne worked in an essential slice of city history: the dirty dealing and power grabbing of water rights that allowed -- for better or worse -- the infant desert city to blossom into the sprawling metropolis you see today. And, of course, this true classic features Jack Nicholson as the hard-boiled detective embroiled with femme fatale Faye Dunaway, plus legendary Hollywood heavyweight John Huston as the evil genius behind the Chandleresque web of intrigue. Its modern-day noir and crime successor is the Oscar-winning L.A. Confidential (1997).
Valley Girl (1983), starring a teenage Nicolas Cage, is an underdog in a teen genre that includes Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and Clueless (1995), but it comes out a winner because of its New-Wave-Boy-meets-mall-lovin'-Valley-Girl love story at the height of Valley Girl mania.
The Big Picture (1989) is director Christopher Guest's first feature, a dead-on and deadly satire of the movie industry, filmed presumably on a shoestring around Hollywood and just outside in the desert. It's hilarious, and we don't just mean the locations.
Steve Martin's L.A. Story (1991) is a romantic look at everything that's wonderfully silly about life in contemporary Tinseltown.
The Player (1992) all too realistically captures the seedy underbelly and soul-selling seductive power of Hollywood influence and celebrity. Everybody who's anybody in the movie industry knows how scarily close to home Tim Robbins's portrayal of beleaguered studio exec Griffin Mill hits.
And finally, there is the film version of The Grapes of Wrath (1940). The John Ford-directed, Academy Award-winning film of dispossessed "Okie" Dust Bowl farmers who migrate west to the promised land -- California -- wins a spot on this list not for its tremendous footage of the Golden State, but because it beautifully evokes California's agrarian story.
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