A beautiful book to read in a beautiful place.
April 7, 2011 10:28 AM   Subscribe

Please suggest something beautiful, appropriate, challenging, and substantive to read in a beautiful place--California setting a plus, but not absolutely essential.

In a couple weeks, I will be headed to Santa Barbara (California) for a few days to meet up with my husband, who is a visiting researcher at UCSB for a few weeks. He has been rhapsodizing about the place, describing it in paradisical terms (and if any jaded West Coasters think "paradisical" hyperbolic, please keep in mind that we are Midwesterners who have just survived yet another dreary prairie winter).

I expect to do lots of touristy things and bird- and sea-critter-watching, but I also hope to spend some time just hanging out on the beach while he's working, and for that (and the longish time I will spend in flight and in airports) I need some reading material worthy of what I expect will be my gorgeous surroundings.

I read pretty widely, but I tend to prefer what someone else has described as "fruitcake books" (great term!). What I'm looking for here are books that you think are perfect, or very nearly so. Uplifting, but not necessarily "feel-good"--more humanistic than anything else. Books that are so vivid and so suffused with place that they transport you there, that are impossible to put down, and the end of which you deeply regret reaching, but when you do reach the end, you put them down believing that they are perfect.

Some of my favorites (these are pretty well-known): Mark Helprin's A Soldier of the Great War or A Winter's Tale, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, anything of Louise Erdrich's, Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Non-fiction is also great--Jason Elliot's An Unexpected Light about his travels in Afghanistan, Douglas Preston's Cities of Gold, in which he traces the route of Coronado across the Southwest in pursuit of the Seven Cities of Cibola, Wallace Stegner's The Hundredth Meridian, or Erik Larsen's The Devil in the White City come to mind, although I'd rather not read about Chicago right now, or about serial killers--I want something that, while it doesn't shy away from the dark and disturbing, ends up giving the reader something to hope for, as I'm kind of burned out on life and I need that right now. (So, not Ron Rash's Serena--for the moment, I've had enough of large-scale sociopaths and predators from reading about the Koch brothers and their minions.) And no subway reads or anything resembling Eat Pray Love or The Kite Runner.

I hope my query isn't terribly redundant--I've also read this question; however, I suspect that the capacity of metafilterites for great--and specific--recommendations is infinite. As I said, in particular, I'm looking for beauty and hope and possibly California (Thomas Pynchon novels and Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert are currently my only real literary connection to the place). As I'm traveling light, I'd like works that are available on Kindle, but if it's really, really all-engrossing, I'm willing to lug along a physical copy.
posted by tully_monster to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
What I'm looking for here are books that you think are perfect, or very nearly so. Uplifting, but not necessarily "feel-good"--more humanistic than anything else. Books that are so vivid and so suffused with place that they transport you there, that are impossible to put down, and the end of which you deeply regret reaching, but when you do reach the end, you put them down believing that they are perfect.

The first thing that comes to mind is Play it As it Lays by Joan Didion, which is set mostly in LA. The bulk of the book is not what anyone would call uplifting though (it seems to me to be kind of about the disillusioned aftermath of the 60s), but it's definitely humanistic and there's a catharsis at the end.
posted by Ashley801 at 10:33 AM on April 7, 2011

My first thought was Jamesland by Michelle Huneven. I found it lovely and quirky--some dark stuff but ultimately hopeful. Suburban California setting.
posted by dlugoczaj at 10:36 AM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't know whether it's your cup of tea (maybe not fruitcaky enough, maybe a bit too much black humor for your current mood?), but I wanted to mention that TC Boyle's new book is set on the Channel Islands off SB.
posted by The Toad at 10:38 AM on April 7, 2011

Ooh, ooh! Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. Won the Pulitzer Prize and is deeply, deeply evocative of place. It's a love story, between people and places and families. It's amazing.
posted by stellaluna at 10:43 AM on April 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

I should add that the narrative runs through a variety of locations, but the majority of the story is set in California.
posted by stellaluna at 10:45 AM on April 7, 2011

Came here to suggest Joan Didion too, Her beautiful cerebral writing about California is something else. Personally I would suggest her essay collections Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album over Play it as it Lays though.
posted by crabintheocean at 10:50 AM on April 7, 2011

Have you read East of Eden? Lots of Steinbeck's work takes place in California, but that one in particular always resonates as home for me. Here's a teaser:

"And mixed with these were splashes of Calfornia poppies. These too are of a burning color--not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the color of those poppies."

It's full of transcendent everyday moments and humanity.

Disclaimer: This is my favorite book.
posted by chatongriffes at 10:55 AM on April 7, 2011 [6 favorites]

Oh man, I freakin love questions like this!

You've already read Pynchon's Vineland and The Crying of Lot 49, right?

Blame, also by Michelle Huneven, made my top ten list last year. Melancholy, vivid, gorgeous. Of Didion's California books I'd have to say the essay collections Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Where I Was From are the ones I find most nearly perfect. Also in nonfiction, everyone always recommends Mike Davis's Ecology of Fear and John McPhee's Assembling California, and that's because they are awesome.

Maybe the Moon is one of my favourite Armistead Maupin novels. Its main character is based on the woman inside the ET costume, who was a personal friend. There's a vivid sequence on Catalina Island.

You're not a genre snob are you? Don't be a genre snob :) Of the many, many kickass science fiction books set in and around California, I'd single out The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (one of my all-time top ten books) and Gibson's All Tomorrow's Parties. Karen Joy Fowler's Wit's End is a lovely Santa Cruz novel with science fictional elements, although shading into just a really good novel about tech. Other good novels about the tech industry include Hari Kunzru's Transmission and Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector.

OMG OMG I hardly ever get to recommend Vikram Seth's novel-in-verse, but The Golden Gate is so wonderful! Read it and then read Hugh Gusterson's mindbending anthopological study of Livermore Labs scientists, Nuclear Rites.

The most perfect California novel I've read so far, though, is the unjustly neglected masterpiece Cassandra at the Wedding. It is just AMAZING.
posted by rdc at 10:58 AM on April 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Another hearty recommendation here for Angle of Repose!

Also, The Track of the Cat by Walter Van Tillburg Clark.
posted by kirst27 at 11:01 AM on April 7, 2011

Oh - and Desert Solitaire (not CA, but UT) by Edward Abbey.
posted by kirst27 at 11:02 AM on April 7, 2011

Joan Didion's Where We Were From is all about California. I found it a really interesting read. She's such a clear and expressive writer, too.

I'd also recommend Steinbeck's Cannery Row (a fun little book that will make you want to visit the Monterey Bay) or The Log from the Sea of Cortez. The bulk of the latter takes place down in Baja, but they're basically in the same stretch of water you'll be staring at from the beach. There's a lot of Steinbeck's normal commentary on the people around him (which I always find very entertaining), and some interesting information about the flora and fauna of the Pacific Coast.

King of California is another option. I haven't read it yet -- waiting for my next sit-on-the-beach vacation!
posted by mudpuppie at 11:04 AM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hmm, I really enjoyed MFK Fisher's memoirs of growing up in Whittier, CA. It's very evocative of California early in the last century, and I've always liked her writing. However, I see Among Friends gets very mixed reviews on Amazon, some of which I don't understand. I devoured it in in just a few days.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:09 AM on April 7, 2011

I can't recommend anything but the Tao Te Ching, given the situation. I re-read it on a beautiful, relaxing vacation and it resonated like it never before had.
posted by Alcibiades. at 11:10 AM on April 7, 2011

Oh, I haven't read this yet, but it's on my wishlist: Testimonios: Early California through the Eyes of Women, 1815–1848.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:15 AM on April 7, 2011

Books that are so vivid and so suffused with place that they transport you there, that are impossible to put down, and the end of which you deeply regret reaching, but when you do reach the end, you put them down believing that they are perfect.

J.L. Carr - A Month in the Country
Verlyn Klinkenborg - Timothy, or Notes of an Abject Reptile
William Maxwell - So Long, See You Tomorrow

Non-fiction is also great--

CA / West-specific:

John McPhee - Assembling California
John Muir - The Mountains of California
John Suiter - Poets on the Peaks [ranges from San Francisco to the Cascades and back - beautifully written + absorbing if you have even a small interest in American poetry or the Beats.]

Sheer, unadulterated, smart travel pleasure reading:

Roger Deakin - Waterlog: A Swimmer's Journey through Britain
Patrick Leigh Fermor - A Time of Gifts

Two more that I recommend whenever I can, while I'm at it:

Joseph Mitchell - Up in the Old Hotel
Ian Frazier - Family

posted by ryanshepard at 11:33 AM on April 7, 2011

Oh, foo, I forgot one of my all-time favorites: Mona Simpson's Anywhere But Here, much of which is set in California (also Wisconsin). Several of Simpson's other books are wholly or partially set in CA, but I've never found them as satisfying as Anywhere (granted, I haven't yet gotten to My Hollywood).

I'll also second the recognition above of The Golden Gate. It may take you a little time to get used to the form (especially if you don't ordinarily read much poetry) but it's really worth it.
posted by dlugoczaj at 11:40 AM on April 7, 2011

me in to recommend Stegner's Angle of Repose.
Also, Steinbeck's Cannery Row
posted by theora55 at 11:43 AM on April 7, 2011

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Meditative, gorgeous, luminously American.
posted by sestaaak at 12:44 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Possession, A.S. Byatt
Bel Canto, Ann Patchett
posted by scody at 1:06 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Stopped by to nth Steinbeck. Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.
posted by ChuraChura at 4:04 PM on April 7, 2011

Nth Bel Canto, or her other book set in Georgia, exactly what you want minus the California.

I'm reading King of California now. Since you're not in the Central Valley I'm not sure it's exactly the thing.

Joan Didion's books are not suffused with hope! At least not the essays I remember. Great reads nonetheless.

I recommend On the Road and some of Gary Snyder's poetry for great scenes of California.

Jack London's Valley of the Moon is largely set in coastal CA (Marin or Sonoma Counties, I believe); I have not read it, though.
posted by salvia at 12:10 AM on April 8, 2011

Wow, what a fantastic response! Thank you so much. I feel like I should mark all your answers as "best," and now I can't wait to get reading! I will definitely put Wallace Stegner and Joan Didion high up on my list since they've gotten so many recommendations, but I won't leave out anyone else! And to my delight, John Muir's book is actually free on Kindle, yay!

The Toad, it's been too long since I read T. C. Boyle. The novel you linked is probably a little too bleak for me right now, although it would otherwise be perfect--maybe when I'm feeling a little less depressed about the world and fragile. But I'm betting The Women might also be worthwhile (and also at least tangentially about California).

chatongriffe, theora55, and ChuraChura, I forgot all about Steinbeck. Thank you for reminding me. I've always meant to read Cannery Row someday.

rdc, yes, I've read both. Love Vineland especially--hilarious. I hope I'm not a genre snob--I don't devour science fiction the way I do mysteries, but I do like well-written science fiction and fantasy. If Timothy Archer is the third part of a trilogy, is it important to read the first two volumes? And my husband, who is a physicist and knows people at Livermore, would probably like the Gusterson book.

kirst27, I know Edward Abbey's work very well--Desert Solitaire is a great book.

scody, I thought of including Possession as an example of the kind of book I'm talking about. Yes, it's definitely perfect.

Again, thanks, everyone! These all sound great!
posted by tully_monster at 12:33 AM on April 8, 2011

What I'm looking for here are books that you think are perfect, or very nearly so. Uplifting, but not necessarily "feel-good"--more humanistic than anything else. Books that are so vivid and so suffused with place that they transport you there, that are impossible to put down, and the end of which you deeply regret reaching, but when you do reach the end, you put them down believing that they are perfect.

Not sure if you are still reading the thread, but after having finally read it, I can't imagine anything that fits this better than My Antonia. A few dozen pages into reading it, during a description of of the grass in Nebraska, I realized out of nowhere, "This is what a masterpiece is."
posted by Ashley801 at 3:37 AM on October 4, 2011

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