Go on a literary road trip through the Golden State

From California dreaming to California realities, here are five books to escape with when you’re stuck at home.

 

For generations, California has held a mythic appeal for those yearning to transform. People often come to the Golden State to strike it rich, achieve fame or shake off the trappings of their past and become someone new. But despite its glittering reputation, the state always throws plot twists into its residents’ lives: earthquakes, fires, droughts, immigration raids and exclusion laws, land grabs and skyrocketing housing prices. Writers know that California will assert itself in the stories they set there. Readers may be stuck at home now, but these five new books will take them on a literary road trip into the California of dreams and realities, and the climate, people and opportunities that shape all those who live, lose and strive there.

Imperial Valley: Passage West, by Rishi Reddi

448 pages, hardcover: $28.99
Ecco, 2020.

Let’s set out from the southern border in the Imperial Valley, with Rishi Reddi’s riveting epic Passage West. Focusing on the years between 1913 and 1924, Reddi tells the story of a group of settlers from India who build a prosperous farming operation in the arid valley, growing cantaloupes, cotton and lettuce, using the knowledge that Ram Singh, who emigrated at age 21, gained from irrigation farming on his uncle’s land in India. “If he looked past Karak’s dastar,” Ram thinks, “past this sparse cluster of trees, he would see his uncle’s farm near the edge of the lower Chenab Canal.”

Although bountiful harvests inspire community generosity and enable remittances to the families in India, this is not a peaceful farming story. The men are beset by shifting laws regarding “aliens” and hectored by prejudiced locals. Ram’s farming partner Karak thinks, “Injustice was the way of the world; what mattered was what one could accomplish between its cracks and fissures; happiness could still be found, money could still be made, comfort could still be enjoyed.”

While spinning an enthralling and dramatic story, Reddi details how these Indian farmers in California pioneered techniques for preserving cantaloupe and hybridizing lettuce, and follows the evolution of the Alien Land Laws that first prevented Japanese from owning land. Passage West informs the reader at great depth about the history of Indian, Japanese, and Mexican immigrants in California without breaking the spell of the narrative.

Los Angeles: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

343 pages, hardcover: $27
Riverhead, 2020.

Driving north from the Imperial Valley, past the desert landscape of Mojave National Park and west toward the coast, we arrive in Los Angeles. While the men in Passage West came to California to make their names, the characters in Brit Bennett’s poised second novel, The Vanishing Half, move to L.A. to disappear. Bennett’s story begins in 1968 in Mallard, Louisiana, a town comprised almost entirely of light-skinned Black people, who, after years of persecution by whites, harbor internalized colorism against all who can’t pass the paper bag test.

Two Mallard teenage sisters, Desiree and Stella, vanish. Desiree disappears into the world, passing for white, while years later Stella returns with Jude, the child she had with a dark-skinned man, a choice all in Mallard frown upon. Jude, ostracized for her skin tone, takes up running and earns a track scholarship to UCLA in 1978. She relishes the anonymity Los Angeles provides and befriends two people who have also come to L.A. to transform — an unassuming science teacher who performs as a drag queen, and Reese, who was born a woman but came to the city to become a man, buying hormones and steroids from the bodybuilders at Muscle Beach. Then Jude happens to glimpse Stella, her mother’s twin, who becomes terrified the niece she never met will reveal she isn’t white.

In this clever, unsettling book, Bennett shows how Los Angeles serves as a singular beacon for people bent on reinvention, determined to change their bodies, their names, their identity and their fate. “You could live a life this way, split,” Bennett writes. “As long as you knew who was in charge.”

Topanga Canyon: Kept Animals, by Kate Milliken

368 pages, hardcover: $27
Scribner, 2020. 

Moving northwest from Los Angeles, we arrive at Topanga Canyon, an artsy hideaway in the Santa Monica Mountains overlooking the Pacific Coast. This is the setting of Kate Milliken’s first novel, Kept Animals, which circles around the 1993 Topanga wildfire. “If you cut down a canyon oak,” Milliken writes, “you can see within its rings the marks of the fires it has withstood, wisps of smoke in the shape of half a heart.” Milliken’s 15-year-old protagonist, Rory Ramos, is likewise scarred by the fire and other secrets. Twenty-two years later, when Rory has become a war photographer stationed in Syria, her daughter tries to fill in the gaps in her mother’s story. Rory was a poor, horse-obsessed teenager, working at Leaning Rock Ranch stables alongside undocumented Mexican employees and rich teens who trained as equestrians. After a heart-wrenching accident, Rory’s fate became intertwined with the daughter of a Hollywood star who lived in the neighborhood, who seemed to be on the same destructive path as the tinder-dry forests around them. Milliken weaves love and tragedy into the dynamics of class, race and chance.

Central Valley: God Shot by Chelsea Bieker

325 pages, hardcover: $26
Catapult, 2020.

Continuing north up I-5, we reach the flat inland stretches of the Central Valley, where Chelsea Bieker’s sparkling debut novel, God Shot, takes place. The fictional town of Peaches, outside of Fresno, once known for its raisins, is mired in drought. Desperate people seek signs and saviors, and into this void enters Pastor Vern, who declares himself God and makes strange demands, ordering his congregation to shop solely at the local Pac N’ Save, for example, even though it stocks only canned goods and “the occasional bag of corn chips.” Water is so scarce, brown liquid runs from the taps; Pastor Vern conducts baptisms with off-brand cola.

Bieker’s winning narrator is 14-year-old Lacey May, whose mother quits drinking at Pastor Vern’s behest but is also ordered to take an “assignment” at the local phone sex line. When Lacey May becomes a “woman of blood,” Pastor Vern assigns her a disturbing task as her mother runs off, following a dubious chance at a Hollywood break.

At first, God Shot appears to be a work of post-apocalyptic fiction, set sometime in the near future. But Bieker references the devastating 2018 fires in Paradise, California, revealing this quirky, smart novel as a story about the apocalypse now, and how quickly climate change can ravage a community and make it susceptible to opportunistic charlatans like Vern. Still, for all its dour elements, God Shot is a hopeful book, mostly because of the pluck of its protagonist, who learns how to save herself despite her upbringing. 

San Francisco: Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana and the Stoning of San Francisco, by Alia Volz

432 pages, hardcover: $27
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020.

Continuing north, we reach San Francisco, which Alia Volz vividly portrays in her delightful, heartfelt nonfiction debut Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana and the Stoning of San Francisco. Volz’s mother, Meridy Domnitz, moved to San Francisco in 1975 after beating a pot possession charge in her native Wisconsin. “She was like most everyone who traveled west hoping to reinvent themselves and ended up reinventing the West,” Volz writes. A woman who sells pot brownies at Fisherman’s Wharf leaves town and gives her business to Meridy. Volz details how her larger-than-life mother turns hand-selling pot brownies throughout San Francisco into a successful clandestine business called Sticky Fingers.

As Mer and young Alia make their brownie-selling rounds, their paths cross those of Harvey Milk, the disco star Sylvester and other San Francisco luminaries. Home Baked is part memoir, part ethnography, part lively history of a beloved city that Volz chronicles with tenderness and verve. “Mostly, I recall a feeling of being elemental to the world we lived in,” Volz writes, “as if there were no difference between me and the city itself.”

When the AIDS crisis guts San Francisco’s gay community, Mer’s brownies become essential medicine to those in pain. But as Volz grows up, the city fills with mostly white, tech-rich Tesla drivers who push out the diverse neighbors she once knew. “In a city limited in size by its geography … when new people arrive, others must leave. Change is always violent to what came before.” Volz asks the haunting question: What is lost when the people who give a place its character are pushed out and erased?

SUCH TURBULENT CYCLES OF CHANGE have long been characteristic of California. Together, these five books portray a state that is always churning, attracting strivers bent on self-reinvention at the same time that it expels those who came before, through environmental, social and economic cataclysms. This clash of cultures and desires produces compelling stories that thrill the reader for every mile along this literary drive through the Golden State.

Jenny Shank’s novel, The Ringer, won the High Plains Book Award. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic and The Washington PostEmail HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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