The best California-themed books that matter

Who am I?

Visiting journalists regularly misinterpret California. Outside politicians twist it into bizarre caricatures. I know because I have worked as a journalist in all parts of the state. I covered crime for the LA Herald Examiner, spent 27 years at the LA Times, was a columnist and editorial page editor at the Sacramento Bee and, finally, was senior editor of the nonprofit news organization, CalMatters. I’ve covered governors, wildfires, a major earthquake, politics, mass incarceration, mass shootings, an execution, and all manner of policy. There are many great nonfiction books about California, including Jim Newton’s biographies of Earl Warren and Jerry Brown, Randy Shilts’s The Mayor of Castro Street, and Gladwin Hill’s Dancing Bear.


I wrote...

Kamala's Way: An American Life

By Dan Morain,

Book cover of Kamala's Way: An American Life

What is my book about?

Kamala’s Way is my first book; I’m working on a second. I first wrote about Kamala Harris in 1994 when she was a young prosecutor and got to know her in 2007 when I was part of the LA Times team covering the 2008 presidential campaign. She was San Francisco district attorney and a surrogate for Barack Obama. Later, as a columnist and editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee, I covered her campaigns for California attorney general and U.S. senator. The subtitle is “An American Life.” But I’m a California native and a California-based journalist, and juxtaposed what was happening in California as Harris rose. This project came about quickly in September 2020 after I wrote a column about Harris for The Washington Post.

The books I picked & why

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Because Our Fathers Lied: A Memoir of Truth and Family, from Vietnam to Today

By Craig McNamara,

Book cover of Because Our Fathers Lied: A Memoir of Truth and Family, from Vietnam to Today

Why this book?

Craig McNamara has written a beautiful memoir about his complex father and the ugly war that split our country in the 1960s and beyond, his involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement, and a rich and impactful life as a walnut farmer outside the California town of Winters. I’ve been to his farm and have gotten to know Craig bit. His story is authentic and from the heart. His anecdote about the chair his father occupied is powerful. I was too young to be drafted, but grew up in the Bay Area and was very much affected by the tumultuous times. Craig McNamara offers a unique perspective and one well worth reading

Because Our Fathers Lied: A Memoir of Truth and Family, from Vietnam to Today

By Craig McNamara,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Because Our Fathers Lied as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This unforgettable father and son story confronts the legacy of the Vietnam War across two generations; “an important book that should be read by every American” (Ron Kovic, Vietnam Veteran and author of Born on the Fourth of July).

Craig McNamara came of age in the political tumult and upheaval of the late 60s. While Craig McNamara would grow up to take part in anti-war demonstrations, his father, Robert McNamara, served as John F. Kennedy's Secretary of Defense and the architect of the Vietnam War. This searching and revealing memoir offers an intimate picture of one father and son at…


The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California

By Mark Arax,

Book cover of The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California

Why this book?

Mark Arax is a lovely writer who tells a riveting story about the place he knows best, California’s Central Valley. He describes the flawed giants who carved up California’s water for their benefit and the workers who toiled to make their dreams happen. Mark makes his hometown of Fresno and the rest of the Valley a compelling character in the drama. His book as essential reading for anyone who hopes to understand California. 

The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California

By Mark Arax,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Dreamt Land as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A vivid, searching journey into California's capture of water and soil—the epic story of a people's defiance of nature and the wonders, and ruin, it has wrought

Mark Arax is from a family of Central Valley farmers, a writer with deep ties to the land who has watched the battles over water intensify even as California lurches from drought to flood and back again. In The Dreamt Land, he travels the state to explore the one-of-a-kind distribution system, built in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, that is straining to keep up with California's relentless growth.

The Dreamt Land weaves reportage,…


The Browns of California

By Miriam Pawel,

Book cover of The Browns of California

Why this book?

Miriam Pawel uses former California Gov. Jerry Brown and his ancestors, who were among the early White settlers of California, to tell the California story. I covered Brown’s second eight years as governor and his term as California attorney general, and knew him from his days as Oakland mayor. As well as I thought I knew him, Miriam Pawel offers new insights into one of the most fascinating political figures of our time. The book is more than a character study of the man who served 16 years as governor, first in the 1970s and early 1980s, and later from 2010-2018. By telling the story of the Brown family, Miriam Pawel provides readers with fascinating insights into what the Golden State was and what it has become. 

The Browns of California

By Miriam Pawel,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Browns of California as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Miriam Pawel's fascinating book . . . illuminates the sea change in the nation's politics in the last half of the 20th century."--New York Times Book Review

California Book Award Gold Medal Winner * Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize * A Los Angeles Times Bestseller * San Francisco Chronicle's "Best Books of the Year" List * Publishers Weekly Top Ten History Books for Fall * Berkeleyside Best Books of the Year * Shortlisted for NCIBA Golden Poppy Award

A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist's panoramic history of California and its impact on the nation, from the Gold Rush to…


The Triumph of Nancy Reagan

By Karen Tumulty,

Book cover of The Triumph of Nancy Reagan

Why this book?

Karen Tumulty has written the definitive biography of Nancy Reagan. Readers will come away with a far deeper appreciation of the woman who was President Reagan’s fiercest defender and who helped shape his life and political ascent. I was especially drawn to the book by the insights Karen Tumulty provides about the Sacramento during Reagan’s time as governor, and about the Reagan’s California years before and after the presidency. Karen Tumulty’s description of Nancy Reagan’s years after Ronald Reagan’s death is especially compelling.

The Triumph of Nancy Reagan

By Karen Tumulty,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Triumph of Nancy Reagan as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The definitive biography of the fiercely vigilant and politically astute First Lady who shaped one of the most consequential presidencies of the 20th century: Nancy Reagan.

The made-in-Hollywood marriage of Ronald and Nancy Reagan is more than a love story-it's the partnership that made him president. Of the pair, Nancy was the one with the sharper instincts about people, the superior radar for trouble, and the keen sense of how to secure his place in history. The only person in the world to whom Ronald Reagan felt truly close, Nancy understood how to foster his strengths and compensate for his…


The Devil's Harvest: A Ruthless Killer, a Terrorized Community, and the Search for Justice in California's Central Valley

By Jessica Garrison,

Book cover of The Devil's Harvest: A Ruthless Killer, a Terrorized Community, and the Search for Justice in California's Central Valley

Why this book?

In The Devil’s Harvest, Jessica Garrison uses California’s Central Valley as an essential character in this fast-paced, thrilling, and chilling tale. Although she describes a prolific contract killer, Jessica Garrison has written much more than a meticulously researched true crime book. Readers will gain important insights into the nature of justice and California. 

The Devil's Harvest: A Ruthless Killer, a Terrorized Community, and the Search for Justice in California's Central Valley

By Jessica Garrison,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Devil's Harvest as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This suspenseful true story of a drug cartel hitman who got away with murder after murder in California's Central Valley over three decades reveals how the criminal justice system fails our most vulnerable immigrant communities.

On the surface, fifty-eight-year-old Jose Martinez didn't seem evil or even that remarkable—just a regular neighbor, good with cars and devoted to his family. But in between taking his children to Disneyland and visiting his mom, Martinez was also one of the most skilled professional killers police had ever seen.

He tracked one victim to one of the wealthiest corners of America, a horse ranch…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in California, the water supply, and Los Angeles?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about California, the water supply, and Los Angeles.

California Explore 253 books about California
The Water Supply Explore 8 books about the water supply
Los Angeles Explore 199 books about Los Angeles

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like In the Country of Women, On Gold Mountain, and Holy Land if you like this list.