I’ve spent a great deal of time moving up and down the California coast so it only makes sense that many of my favorite novels feature it. This final list includes other great states and routes, many set in their history – a history much shorter than the rest of the country. The books on this seemingly disparate list have something in common: they’re all hardheaded and hard-won, looking for something more when the situation seems dire, and just like the real West, some of them succeed and some of them fall apart.
Steinbeck’s masterpiece details the Salinas Valley through every sense. It doesn’t just tell you about the dirt, it puts it between your fingers and coats your nostrils with it. The sights, smells, sounds, feel, and taste of everything in the Valley is brought to life through the two families that Steinbeck creates.
Thompson’s book, part fiction and part fact, simultaneously chases and dismantles the American dream. Rooted in Las Vegas, it discusses the counterculture movement of the 1960s and its failures all while under the influence of illegal drugs. The descriptions of drug use are famous, as are those of its setting.
A collection of essays that caused many to claim California as the author’s own could have been written by none other than Didion. It focuses on the political environment and history of California culture. It features her most prominent statement in its opening essay: “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Just try to get through this memoir without conjuring up a plan to pack a bag and strike out on an adventure of your own (and if you’re on a road trip, you’ve already made the first move). I’m not going to recap the book considering how much attention it’s been given over the last six months, but it’s exactly the kind of read you need to take with you on a trip to find yourself.
Divided into vignettes, Tan’s novel explores the experience of four Chinese American families who create their own club within the neighborhoods of San Francisco. It is as much a story of mother-daughter relationships as it is a generational study.
This tale of survival is told from the perspective of a dog, Buck, which makes the plotline seem much more simple than it is. Buck is stolen from his California home where he serves as a pet and is forced to become a sled dog in Alaska where his wildness must be restored in order to survive. The frozen tundra and the wild world play an increasingly large role in Buck’s life and the story’s outcome as the novel progresses.
Most of the book explores the aspects of war and a group of scalp hunters known as the Glanton gang. The kid, the work’s unnamed protagonist, traipses along the U.S.-Mexico border for a year massacring Native Americans for money and pleasure. McCarthy shows the sometimes (in this case, most) devastating effects of war on both society at large and the individual’s psyche with precision.
This novella encompasses the stories of a father and three sons over fifty years. It’s an epic set in an equally epic landscape that traverses the northern Rockies, family ties, and World War I.
We’ve seen the film (and if you haven’t, you should), but Proulx’s words add a whole different layer of grief, heartache, and desire to the tale. The short story brings not only its characters to life but also the tangible and intangible nature of the West.
This deeply moving set of essays, conversations, and observations chronicles the everyday lives, past and present, of the people with whom July chooses to interact in Los Angeles over one summer in 2009. Chosen from ads in the Pennysaver, these thirteen random people affect July’s work and life in ways that they are sure to impact yours as well.
The story follows a family of loggers who procure trees for a mill in small town Oregon in addition to those they cut for their own company while the union workers are on strike. The Stamper family dynamics, as well as the history and background of the area, are fleshed out through both physical and mental fights.
This detective story is set in an alternate reality where Sitka, Alaska became a settlement for Jewish refugees during World War II and Israel was destroyed in 1948. Sitka might have an alternative history in this work, but much of its setting is accurate to the real Alaska.
Drugs, the Manson family trial, and 1970s Los Angeles play a prominent role in this investigative plot. Doc, a private investigator and self-described pothead, is tasked by his ex-girlfriend to ruin a plan that will leave the man she’s having an affair with in a mental hospital – or so he thinks.
– M. Ray Hall