Just because you can’t physically travel, doesn’t mean you can’t get away from it all and experience a new place from the comfort of your armchair.
We’ve collaborated with a few travel bloggers to find out more about their favourite books set in California, and how these books inspired them to travel to the Golden State.
Books set in California
Reading is often described as being a window to the world, so why not use it as a form of escapism to get a perspective on another place?
These books are the favourites of travel bloggers, and while some of them aren’t wholly set in California, they characters spend some or a lot of time in the state.
Enough explanations, let’s dive into some California Dreamin’!
There There by Tommy Orange
Submission written by Kay from The Awkward Traveller.
Not many people know about Oakland, California which was founded on the ancestral land of the Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone Indigenous people. Even less choose Oakland as a vacation destination. But just over the bridge from San Francisco, Oakland – or “The East Bay” – offers charming local experiences as well as the opportunity to learn about California’s diversity. California is already so beautiful, from the Redwood forests to the high sun deserts, but it is also rich in history and culture, which inspires hundreds of books exploring California through fiction and literature.
One of my favorite fiction books on California, with a specific emphasis on Oakland, California, is the novel “There There” by Tommy Orange. I greatly appreciate the value Tommy Orange brings to contemporary literature, especially his perspective as a Native American author.
There There is a novel that tells the collective stories of its Native American main characters in Oakland, California. All of the characters are completely distinguishable, and the writing does an incredible job of giving unique tones in their individual passages. The novel follows these characters from their varied pasts up to the main event of the book, the big Oakland Powwow, that eventually brings all of the characters to the same scene.
It is one of the most powerful books I have ever read. Thought-provoking. Immensely witty. There There is a book that actually makes you pause after you finish, and immediately look up a discussion forum online to hash out your feelings and realizations about it. If you are able, I highly recommend getting the audiobook.
The next time I’m in California, I am headed straight to Oakland!
The Last Season by Eric Blehm
Submission written by Allison from She Dreams of Alpine.
While The Last Season by Eric Blehm tells the true story of the disappearance of Park Ranger Randy Morgenson, the underlying theme running through the book is Morgenson’s love for the land of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, and the Sierra Nevada mountains. This reverence for the California wilderness inspired me to want to explore the Sierra Nevada myself and push myself by attempting a solo backpacking trip of the Mount Langley trail.
The Last Season explores the possibilities of what might have led to the mysterious disappearance of Morgenson, who had spent 28 summers as a park ranger in the Sierra Nevada before he vanished in 1996. Though Morgenson could be seen as a solitary man in many ways, he also had become one of the most celebrated rangers in the National Park Service, and his disappearance shocked the tight-knit community of rangers and led to a massive search-and-rescue operation.
When reading The Last Season, it’s hard not to develop an appreciation for the vast wilderness that Morgenson loved so much. The book definitely made me long to visit the Sierra Nevada myself and see in person the magic that Morgensen felt there. In fact, I felt motivated to try a solo backpacking trip of Mount Langley and the Cottonwood Lakes, which seemed like the perfect way to explore the land described in the book.
If you are looking for inspiration to explore the back country wilderness and majestic mountains of California, I highly recommend The Last Season. Don’t be surprised if you start planning your own trip to the Sierra Nevada before you even finish the book.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Submission written by Mikaela Ferguson from Voyageur Tripper.
I stumbled across a battered and beaten copy of Wild while cleaning out a shed at camp many years ago. Little did I know beneath that dirty cover was a story that would completely change my view on the sunshine state.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, begins with Cheryl Strayed at rock bottom; her mother has passed away, her marriage has ended and she is developing a concerning relationship with heroin. When things seemingly can’t get any worse nor better, she stumbles upon a guide to hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650 mile trail connecting two US borders and running through the deserts and mountains of California, Oregon and Washington.
With essentially no hiking experience, Cheryl sets off to tackle a 1,100 mile section of the trail and in doing so tackles a few of her own demons. The book was later turned into a movie, with Reese Witherspoon playing Cheryl. Having the California scenery brought to the big screen only convinced me more: California is the most beautiful place in the world.
Ever since reading Wild I’ve had an urge to follow in Cheryl’s footsteps (the hiking part, not the heroin). I’d love to camp along the Sierra Nevada, walk beneath the redwoods and through the sprawling desert.
My only trip to California brought me to Santa Monica for a few days, and on the way we flew over the striking landscape and I thought with determination “I will get there some day”. I love that with thru-hiking, I could experience so many different environments all within a single state. While I haven’t made the thru-hike yet, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail remains top of my bucket list.
Shadow Play: Ten tales from the In-between by Sarina Dahlan
The rest of these entries are books that I have read and loved.
Firstly, credit where it is due. I came across Shadow Play by Sarina Dahlan through an Indie author reading challenge set by The Uncorked Librarian (see her blog for more awesome book ideas). It was just the book I needed going into quarantine, when my attention span for reading dwindled significantly, and I was having trouble motivating myself to stay focused on a book.
Shadow Play is a series of 10 short stories set in Thailand and the United States – the US portions are set mainly in Californian cities and towns – and while they are standalone stories, they also intertwine beautifully. That was the real delight of this book for me, not feeling the pressure of having an entire book to get through, but realising as I went, that the stories had common threads.
The book jumps through time just as easily as it occupies different places and characters. They are all tied together by elements of the supernatural that aren’t so far fetched as to make them fantastical. From the story of a tarot card reader who goes missing from her San Francisco apartment, to a young girl in rural California, learning about her powers, Dahlan is able to draw you to her characters in such a short time.
Dear Girls: Intimate Tales, Untold Secrets, & Advice for Living Your Best Life by Ali Wong
If you haven’t seen at least one of Ali Wong’s comedy specials or her Netflix movie Always be my Maybe, then stop right now and turn on your TV. It’ll set the stage for this book, written as letters of advice to her two daughters, through stories of her life in California and New York.
There’s plenty to love about this book, including its hilarity, but I was most touched by the way she didn’t sugar coat anything. The good and the bad of her life were all told with the same gusto and unabashed attitude. I think it also helps that I agree with a lot of her opinions on travelling, studying abroad, marching to the beat of your own drum, the importance of family and compatibility in a partner.
This books takes you through growing up in the Pacific Heights neighbourhood of San Francisco, into the Chinatown restaurants her family frequented, and out to UCLA where she studied Asian American Studies. But it also reveals her love of travel and returning to your family’s roots, which she did during a summer in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Wong doesn’t hold back in her comedy, so you’d hardly expect her book to be devoid of the tales most of us would squirm away from telling. It makes for a “dying of laughter” read that I will come back to again and again.
Of Mice and Men, by John Stienbeck
John Steinbeck’s classic novella, Of Mice and Men, is mainly set on a ranch in Soledad, east of Big Sur State Park, and not far from Steinbeck’s birthplace of Salinas. He set a few of his books in California, including East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath.
Written in the late 1930s, the story focuses on two migrant workers, George and Lennie, who are travelling around California in search of work. This isn’t the book to pick up if you’re after something light-hearted. Of Mice and Men focuses on some tough themes of racism and the two-tier society it breeds. But it also touches on dreams of a better future, and of the loneliness that many characters try to stave off in different ways.
This is a book that will make you think, and probably brood if you’re anything like me. But it’s also an important snapshot of life in rural California.
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
During my high school years, I went on a binge of reading Asian and Asian-American stories, which I think was sparked by not being allowed to watch The Joy Luck Club movie on TV. My solution to movie bans back then, was to find the book instead, which is also how I scared myself silly with The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal.
The Joy Luck Club follows the lives of four Asian women who migrated from China to San Francisco, and that of their daughters who grew up in the Californian city. When Jing-mei Woo’s mother dies, she starts attending a social group of her mother’s friends and hears all about their past lives in China and how they feel disconnected from their American daughters.
I related to The Joy Luck Club on one main level, being probably 14 when I read it, I wasn’t exactly great at interpreting novels. As the daughter of an immigrant farmer, I related to being torn between two cultures and ways of life. I also vaguely understood the expectations placed on children of immigrants to do better and achieve more than their parents, and the guilt of feeling like they were failing in this respect.
More books set in California
My memory isn’t the greatest when it comes to books I’ve read, so I’m sure I’ve read heaps more books set in California and just can’t quite bring them to mind. Here are a few more California-based books to fuel your wanderlust.
- White Oleander by Janet Fitch
- Big Sur by Jack Kerouac
- This Wicked World by Richard Lange
- Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende
- The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth
- Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
- The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy
Is there a book you love that is set in California? Let me know in the comments so I can add to my reading list!
**Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. If you purchase something through one of these links you don’t pay a cent more, but I receive a small commission, that is put towards the running of this blog.