This post was originally written for a KCET series on things to do over the summer in Southern California (reading included!)
Southern California is an amazing place to live. We have beaches, mountains, deserts, lakes, rivers, food and people from everywhere in the world, fresh produce, and a reasonable excuse to have a story on the news about how to handle a few inches of rain (seriously. I wish I could find the clip, it was pure gold). Our sunsets are beautiful, every city has something interesting going on, and we house the movie capital of the world, Disneyland, and some of the best independent bookstores in the country. Ok, maybe that was a bit of a shameless plug, there, but Southern California has inspired authors since they knew it was here. Fiction, non-fiction, travel guides, and even cookbooks have used Southern California as a backdrop countless times, both for its stunning beauty and abundance and for its gritty edges. As the largest independent bookstore in Southern California, Vroman’s keeps a sharp eye on books about our area – check out our California and the West section next time you’re in the store, or come to one of our author events, which frequently feature local authors. For now, though, take a look at some of my favorite books set in or inspired by Southern California’s endless variations.
1. Michelle Huneven: Blame, Jamesland, Round Rock
Michelle Huneven is one of those great local authors who writes about her area in a way that makes you feel like you know a place, covering both the good and the bad. It’s not the names that tell you where the book is set, it’s in the details – the way the buildings look, the types of flowers, that intangible feeling that just says you’re in Southern California. Blame follows a recovering alcoholic through Pasadena and the surrounding cities, Jamesland takes place in Los Feliz, and Round Rock covers rural California in the fictional Santa Bernita Valley, the location of a ‘drunk farm’ and a love triangle.
2. Prospect Park Books/Colleen Dunn Bates: The Hometown Series, EAT LA, Helen of Pasadena
Colleen Dunn Bates edited the first ‘hometown’ book, Hometown Pasadena, in 2006. Since then, Prospect Park Books has published an updated version, plus Hometown Santa Barbara, Hometown Santa Monica, and books on California places from Mammoth to San Juan Capistrano. Every single one is beautifully laid out with plenty of pictures and packed with useful information, anecdotes, and fun things to do. For the Los Angeles foodies, try EAT LA 2011: it’s got the same blend of usefulness and fun. To round out the Prospect Park book line, there is also Helen of Pasadena by Lian Dolan for the fiction set – the events in the book start when Helen’s husband is killed by a rogue Rose Parade float. What could be more Pasadena?
3. Suzanne Goin: Sunday Suppers at Lucques
It was a friend that introduced me to this cookbook, which remains among my favorites to this day. The difficulty level is sometimes high, especially since it calls for ingredients and kitchen devices your average cook doesn’t have on hand, but if you read the recipe carefully and are willing to experiment and improvise (or shell out some cash) you end up with some amazing food. Why does it belong on this list? Because Lucques Restaurant, located in Los Angeles, uses local produce in their Sunday prix fixe menus (the main contents of the cookbook). Goin provides a directory of local farmers markets all over Southern California, plus profiles all of the produce used in the cookbook, including when it is in season, what to look for when you’re buying it, and other helpful tips.
4. Naomi Hirahara: The Summer of the Big Bachi, Gasa-Gasa Girl, Snakeskin Shamisen, Blood Hina
Focusing on a different area of the city in every new mystery, Naomi Hirahara follows grumpy gardener, Hiroshima survivor, and reluctant sleuth Mas Arai as he navigates life in Southern California and solves the crimes that always seem to find him. Her latest book in the series, Blood Hina, takes Mas to the Los Angeles Flower Market among other places, and all four books in the series deal with the multi-cultural nature of Los Angeles (Japanese American culture gets the heaviest focus).
5. Kevin Starr: The America and the California Dream Series
No list of books about any part of California is complete without mentioning Kevin Starr. His multi-volume history of California, starting in 1850 and covering periods of change through 2002 has to be the most intense, in-depth examination of California out there. Not specifically Southern California, but really, there is no replacement. This is the one.
I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface, here: There’s John Buntin’s history L.A. Noir, Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, Nina Revoyr’s Southland, James Ellroy, Charlie Huston… the list goes on and on. Feel free to add your own favorites in the comments; let’s keep the list growing!