The best books about California

22 authors have picked their favorite books about California and why they recommend each book.

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The Squatter and the Don

By Maria Amparo Ruiz De Burton,

Book cover of The Squatter and the Don

María Amparo Ruiz de Burton lived through one of the most tumultuous periods of history in California. She was born in Baja California to an elite family but moved to Mexican Alta California, as it was then known, during the Mexican-American War, marrying US army captain Henry Burton and becoming a US citizen. Ruiz de Burton watched California’s transformation under US rule, and this 1885 novel uses fiction to lay bare the very real problem of land dispossession of the Mexican Californians (known as Californios) and the arrival of ‘squatters’ from the eastern US who were claiming contested property. Ruiz de Burton is considered to be one of the earliest Mexican-American female authors to write in English, and this work illustrates how Alta California’s transition to statehood upended the lives of many people who had lived there under Spanish and Mexican rule.


Who am I?

Carrie Gibson is a London-based writer who grew up in the US and spends as much time as she can in Latin America and the Caribbean. She started out as a journalist, working at UK newspapers, including the Guardian and the Observer, before diving into a PhD and historical research on European colonialism and its legacy in the Americas. She is the author of two books and continues to contribute to media outlets in the UK and US.


I wrote...

El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America

By Carrie Gibson,

Book cover of El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America

What is my book about?

El Norte chronicles the sweeping and dramatic history of Hispanic North America from the arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century to the present - from Ponce de Leon's initial landing in Florida in 1513 to Spanish control of the vast Louisiana territory in 1762 to the Mexican-American War in 1846 and up to the more recent tragedy of post-hurricane Puerto Rico and the ongoing border acrimony with Mexico. Interwoven in this stirring narrative of events and people are cultural issues that have been there from the start but which are unresolved to this day: language, belonging, community, race, and nationality. Seeing them play out over centuries provides vital perspective at a time when it is urgently needed.

Beautiful Revolutionary

By Laura Elizabeth Woollett,

Book cover of Beautiful Revolutionary

Woollett’s novel is based on much research on Peoples Temple and Jonestown. She came to the US from Australia for interviews with many survivors and others—including Ron Cabral and me because of our knowledge of the teenagers in the Temple. It’s a great read and adds much to the understanding of those who joined the Temple. Evelyn Lyndon (all the characters have fictional names except Jim Jones) is the “Beautiful Revolutionary” who, with her idealistic husband, joins the Temple and eventually becomes one of Jones’s mistresses. I recognize many of the book’s characters, sometimes two people rolled into one. Only in a novel could Woollett be in the minds of the characters she follows in this story, who are all believable and vividly drawn.


Who am I?

I taught English and creative writing for 37 years in San Francisco, California. In 2018, Ron Cabral and I published And Then They Were Gone, which tells the story of the People’s Temple teenagers we taught. Many of them never returned after the Jonestown massacre and died there. We hope this story about our young students—their hopes, their poetry, their efforts to help make a better world—will bring some light to the dark story of Jonestown.


I wrote...

And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple from High School to Jonestown

By Judy Bebelaar, Ron Cabral,

Book cover of And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple from High School to Jonestown

What is my book about?

Of the 918 Americans who died in the shocking murder-suicides of November 18, 1978, in the tiny South American country of Guyana, a third were under eighteen. More than half were in their twenties or younger. And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple from High School to Jonestown begins in San Francisco at the small school where Reverend Jim Jones enrolled the teens of his Peoples Temple church in 1976. Within a year, most had been sent to join Jones and other congregants in what Jones promised was a tropical paradise based on egalitarian values, but which turned out to be a deadly prison camp. Set against the turbulent backdrop of the late 1970s, And Then They Were Gone draws from interviews, books, and articles. Many of these powerful stories are told here for the first time.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

By Joan Didion,

Book cover of Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a master class in how to write a personal essay. Every essay Didion writes in any of her books is beautifully rendered—she doesn’t waste a word—as well as emotionally engaging and well reported and researched. Whatever she’s writing about—politics, California, rock musicians—you are there with her, on the scene. The book’s preface explains how and why Didion did what she did and contains this nugget of truth: Writers are always selling somebody out. And the title essay is simply the best piece of writing I’ve ever read about Haight-Ashbury and the 1960s.


Who am I?

I’m a Brooklyn-born writer of what’s now called “creative nonfiction,” and whatever literary success I’ve had, I attribute in part to having studied the works of Hunter S. Thompson, Henry Miller, Philip Roth, Joan Didion, and Joseph Heller. I’ve assimilated their voices and used them as guides to help me find my own voice. Read any of my books and you’ll find subtle (and at times not so subtle) echoes of this Holy Quintet. My latest book, A Brooklyn Memoir, is in part an homage to Miller’s Black Spring.


I wrote...

A Brooklyn Memoir: My Life as a Boy

By Robert Rosen,

Book cover of A Brooklyn Memoir: My Life as a Boy

What is my book about?

A Brooklyn Memoir is an unsentimental journey through mid-century Flatbush, where Auschwitz survivors and WWII vets lived side by side and the war lingered like a mass hallucination.

Meet Bobby, a local kid who shares a shabby apartment with his status-conscious mother and bigoted father, a soda jerk haunted by memories of the Nazi death camp he helped liberate. Flatbush, to Bobby, is a world of brawls with neighborhood “punks” and Hebrew school tales of Adolf Eichmann’s daring capture. Drawn to images of mushroom clouds and books about executions, Bobby turns the hatred he senses everywhere against himself, but ultimately transcends the toxic forces that surround him. From a perch in his father’s candy store, Bobby provides a darkly comic child’s-eye view of postwar America.

Women in American Music Women's Studies Kresge College University of California

By Nancy Flixson,

Book cover of Women in American Music Women's Studies Kresge College University of California

Possibly the best and rarest of all publications about the start of the women’s music movement, this volume was prepared by the students at the University of California at Santa Cruz to serve as a textbook (and record of their experiences) for the first-ever course on feminism and music. Still available to good sleuths who find used copies floating around, the title page is Women in American Music. Women’s Studies, Kresge College, University of California, Santa Cruz, Spring 1975.

The idea for the class was initiated by Karlene Faith, who went on to be an influential producer and distributor; the book she helped edit includes interviews with early Olivia artists who were guest speakers and performers in the class. Before her untimely death, she too was working on a history of Olivia Records.


Who am I?

My expertise as a scholar of the women’s music movement spans 40 years--ever since I attended my first concert and music festival in 1981. A lecturer at UC-Berkeley, I’m the author of 19 books on women’s history, and published the first book on women’s music festivals, Eden Built By Eves, in 1999 (now out of print.) More recently I’ve organized exhibits on the women’s music movement for the Library of Congress, co-authored The Feminist Revolution (which made Oprah’s list), and I’m now the archivist and historian for Olivia Records.


I wrote...

The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture

By Bonnie Morris,

Book cover of The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture

What is my book about?

The Disappearing L offers an overview of the rise and fall of lesbian cultural spaces. What was the soundtrack of the feminist revolution? How did artists, producers, and fans create a vast network of women’s concerts, recording companies, and festivals that offered meaningful performance spaces for women coming out as lesbians—and performers too radical for the mainstream?

The book examines how women’s bookstores, women’s studies programs, and other year-round institutions built spaces that included a music subculture—only to see independent venues vanish once LGBT rights and mainstreaming were attained. As women’s music spaces are disappearing, how will we remember them?

Always Coming Home

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Book cover of Always Coming Home

This is an incredibly intricate book, braiding many strands together to tell the story of people who “might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California.” One thread tying it all together is Stone Telling, a young girl caught between her mother’s rich tribal life and the militaristic city life of the man who is her father. She tells him, “I am a woman, and make my own choices,” but learns that is not the case in the land of the Condors. Her story illuminates two of the many ways to be human. (I’m re-reading this now.)


Who am I?

Like my narrator Maggie, I was a child, then a teen wandering the woods and dreaming of a life. I’ve always hated those books/TV shows/films where women, especially young women, are helpless and reliant on a man to get them out of trouble. I gravitate toward stories where females figure out their own paths, not always to a happy ending. I’m still a wanderer today, mostly solo, from New York City to the vast Highlands of Scotland, and while the world can seem scary, I’m confident and free on my own. 


I wrote...

In the Lonely Backwater

By Valerie Nieman,

Book cover of In the Lonely Backwater

What is my book about?

A whip-smart outsider insecure in her gender identity, 17-year-old Maggie explores the North Carolina woods and avoids misery at home and school by communing with shadowy figures including a long-ago biologist. When her gorgeous cousin’s brutalized body is found at the marina where Maggie lives with her broken father, a persistent detective intimates that she’s the prime suspect—and this backwater world, where people perpetually reinvent themselves to survive, suddenly becomes more complex and dangerous.

The Tree Lady

By H. Joseph Hopkins, Jill McElmurry (illustrator),

Book cover of The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever

The city of San Diego, California, is lush and leafy now in large part due to the efforts of tree-loving Kate Sessions, who in the early 1900s missed the redwood forests of her childhood when she relocated to dry, dusty San Diego. A scientist and naturalist, she procured seeds from experts far and wide to find species that might thrive in San Diego—and she started planting. She used the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park as a reason to plant thousands more trees that residents, wildlife, and visitors enjoy to this day. No one told Kate to plant all those trees; she did it because she wanted to make the world a brighter, more beautiful place.


Who am I?

So often when things are going wrong in the world—war, natural disasters, pollution, poverty, disease—I feel really overwhelmed, and sometimes hopeless. That's when I seek out stories like these, about ordinary people (like me!) doing extraordinary, heroic things. It inspires me simply knowing these people exist, and it empowers me to do something—just one small act can snowball and generate terrific change. I, too, can help create goodness in the world by paying attention, giving my time and other resources, and joining with others. For every heartbreaking news story, there's a beautiful one waiting to happen. Every one of us has the potential to be a hero.


I wrote...

The Cat Man of Aleppo

By Irene Latham, Karim Shamsi-Basha, Yuko Shimizu (illustrator)

Book cover of The Cat Man of Aleppo

What is my book about?

The Caldecott Honor-winning true story of Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, who in the midst of the Syrian Civil War courageously offered safe haven to Aleppo's abandoned cats.

Alaa loves Aleppo, but when war comes, his neighbors flee to safety, leaving their many pets behind. Alaa decides to stay—he can make a difference by driving an ambulance, carrying the sick and wounded to safety. One day he hears hungry cats calling out to him on his way home. They are lonely and scared, just like him. He feeds and pets them to let them know they are loved. The next day more cats come, and then even more! With worldwide support via social media, Alaa creates a sanctuary to care for and keep the cats safe.

Plants And Landscapes For Summer-dry Climates Of The San Francisco Bay Region

By Nora Harlow,

Book cover of Plants And Landscapes For Summer-dry Climates Of The San Francisco Bay Region

An introductory chapter describes our greater Bay Area climate and its microclimates. The plants listed are ones that will thrive in the region with a minimum of summer water. The glory of the book is in the photographs by Saxon Holt, which include close shots for identification and wider shots that will inspire you to combine plants handsomely in your garden. 


Who am I?

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you know that its climate is unique in the U.S. and that there are many microclimates within the region. It’s all mediterranean, as you can tell by its dry summers and mild, wet winters. But near the coast, summer fog carpets the land for weeks and winter is rarely frosty, while inland summers are hot, winter frosts are frequent. I live here and use my academic and first-hand experience with plants to help regional gardeners create year-round beauty and harvests in all of our wonderful, often perplexing microclimates.


I wrote...

Golden Gate Gardening, The Complete Guide to Year-Round Food Gardening in the San Francisco Bay Area & Coastal California

By Pam Peirce,

Book cover of Golden Gate Gardening,  The Complete Guide to Year-Round Food Gardening in the San Francisco Bay Area & Coastal California

What is my book about?

Now in its third, revised edition, Golden Gate Gardening introduces readers to food gardening in California from Eureka to San Luis Obispo, and from the coast inland to the edge of the Central Valley. This mediterranean-climate region is like no other in the U. S. Summers vary from cool at the coast to hot inland, with rain only in winters. The whole region allows year-round production of vegetables, herbs, fruits, edible, and cutting flowers.

This book is an indispensable source of information on all the topics you need for success: what to plant and when, how to start seed, prepare the soil, conserve water, control weeds, and manage pests in less-toxic ways. It is a clear, friendly book that will guide you to garden success and enjoyment.

California Native Plants for the Garden

By Carol Bornstein, David Fross, Bart O’Brien

Book cover of California Native Plants for the Garden

Historically, California native plants were often grown in European gardens before they were accepted into California gardens. Now they are being grown in California for their beauty and frequent drought tolerance. Here you will see photos of plants in garden landscapes with information about the regions in which they will grow, their needs, and their care. 


Who am I?

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you know that its climate is unique in the U.S. and that there are many microclimates within the region. It’s all mediterranean, as you can tell by its dry summers and mild, wet winters. But near the coast, summer fog carpets the land for weeks and winter is rarely frosty, while inland summers are hot, winter frosts are frequent. I live here and use my academic and first-hand experience with plants to help regional gardeners create year-round beauty and harvests in all of our wonderful, often perplexing microclimates.


I wrote...

Golden Gate Gardening, The Complete Guide to Year-Round Food Gardening in the San Francisco Bay Area & Coastal California

By Pam Peirce,

Book cover of Golden Gate Gardening,  The Complete Guide to Year-Round Food Gardening in the San Francisco Bay Area & Coastal California

What is my book about?

Now in its third, revised edition, Golden Gate Gardening introduces readers to food gardening in California from Eureka to San Luis Obispo, and from the coast inland to the edge of the Central Valley. This mediterranean-climate region is like no other in the U. S. Summers vary from cool at the coast to hot inland, with rain only in winters. The whole region allows year-round production of vegetables, herbs, fruits, edible, and cutting flowers.

This book is an indispensable source of information on all the topics you need for success: what to plant and when, how to start seed, prepare the soil, conserve water, control weeds, and manage pests in less-toxic ways. It is a clear, friendly book that will guide you to garden success and enjoyment.

Flower Grand First

By Gustavo Hernandez,

Book cover of Flower Grand First

Flower, Grand, First is a collection of poems about Santa Ana, California and Jalisco, Mexico. The title comes from three streets in Santa Ana, where my husband’s family has lived for more than one hundred years. Hernandez’s poems are about place and displacement and examine what it feels like to be an outsider trying to make sense of life in a strange land, always searching for home. In the wonderful poem “My Father Shows Me Catalina” Hernandez writes: “Smile so you both know it’s okay that you are different. But once-in-a-while, the division is so clean it’ll cut into you.”


Who am I?

My father was transferred to Southern California from Charlotte, North Carolina when I was fourteen years old. I was excited and my friends were jealous. At that point, all I knew about California was the music of the Beach Boys and the Gidget television series. I thought everyone lived on the beach and knew movie stars. I didn’t know there were neighborhoods like Reseda and Anaheim and Fountain Valley, places where people live lives that have nothing to do with the glamour and celebrity of Hollywood. California has been my home for more than fifty years. I still find it fascinating and puzzling, and I still feel like an outsider.


I wrote...

The Lockhart Women

By Mary Camarillo,

Book cover of The Lockhart Women

What is my book about?

The Lockhart Women is a mother/daughter/sister story set in Huntington Beach, California in the 1990s. It's about divorce, choices, and regrets with the OJ Simpson trial as background noise. Susan Straight, author of In the Country of Women calls The Lockhart Women “deeply and thoroughly Southern Californian.”

The novel begins on June 17, 1994, the night of Simpson’s slow-speed chase through Southern California, when Brenda Lockhart’s husband announces he’s leaving her for an older and less attractive woman. Brenda’s never worked outside the home and needs to find a job. Instead, she sits down on the couch and gets hooked on the media frenzy surrounding the criminal trial. Meanwhile, her two teenage daughters make their own bad decisions in lovers and crime.

Stella Peabody's Wild Librarian Bakery and Bookstore

By Stacy Russo,

Book cover of Stella Peabody's Wild Librarian Bakery and Bookstore: A Novel-in-Stories

Stacy Russo is a librarian, professor, artist, poet, novelist, children’s book writer, vegan baker, punk rock historian, dog whisperer, and a friend. Her novel told in stories is a close observation of modern life in Santa Ana, California where her protagonist, Stella Peabody runs a bakery and bookstore. The lives of her customers intertwine and create an enviably close community. The sense of place is vivid, and the characters are finely drawn. I wish this bookstore was real and in my neighborhood. Recipes included. 


Who am I?

My father was transferred to Southern California from Charlotte, North Carolina when I was fourteen years old. I was excited and my friends were jealous. At that point, all I knew about California was the music of the Beach Boys and the Gidget television series. I thought everyone lived on the beach and knew movie stars. I didn’t know there were neighborhoods like Reseda and Anaheim and Fountain Valley, places where people live lives that have nothing to do with the glamour and celebrity of Hollywood. California has been my home for more than fifty years. I still find it fascinating and puzzling, and I still feel like an outsider.


I wrote...

The Lockhart Women

By Mary Camarillo,

Book cover of The Lockhart Women

What is my book about?

The Lockhart Women is a mother/daughter/sister story set in Huntington Beach, California in the 1990s. It's about divorce, choices, and regrets with the OJ Simpson trial as background noise. Susan Straight, author of In the Country of Women calls The Lockhart Women “deeply and thoroughly Southern Californian.”

The novel begins on June 17, 1994, the night of Simpson’s slow-speed chase through Southern California, when Brenda Lockhart’s husband announces he’s leaving her for an older and less attractive woman. Brenda’s never worked outside the home and needs to find a job. Instead, she sits down on the couch and gets hooked on the media frenzy surrounding the criminal trial. Meanwhile, her two teenage daughters make their own bad decisions in lovers and crime.

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