10 Best California books of 2020, Laila Lalami, Rishi Reddy

On the shelf

The Best California Books of 2020

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In the past few months when we quarantined and went into shutdown mode, I missed California in the most visceral sense. I know it’s there – I can see it right outside my window – but I long for the moment when I can move freely again in order to immerse myself in its breadth and depth. Maybe that’s why I read so much literature from or about the state in 2020. Despite all the horrors of the year, it was a great one for writing in California. Here are 10 favorite books that have changed or expanded the way I think about this place.

Conditional Citizens: For Affiliation in America
By Laila Lalami
Pantheon: 208 pages, $ 26

Best known as a writer, Lalami is also an acute and pointed essayist. Her first collection sheds light on the divisions and upheavals among immigrant communities in the age of Trump. Moving fluidly between the personal and the collective is political writing at its most effective, based on the author’s experience but turned outward to address the inequalities (and worse) that many Americans take for granted face.

East of East: The Formation of Greater El Monte
Edited by Romeo Guzmán, Caribbean Fragoza, Alex Sayf Cummings, and Ryan Reft
Rutgers University Press: 362 pages, $ 35

With 32 essays by writers such as Alex Espinoza, Salvador Plascencia and Fragoza, this anthology seeks to restore the “silenced stories” of El Monte, the small working class town in eastern Los Angeles County, while reinventing its future as a community itself . “The future will not take place in the cities or suburbs,” write the editors, “but in the middle, and El Monte and South El Monte were always in the middle.”

Lynell George is the author of

Lynell George is the author of “A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Heaven”.

(Noé Montes / Angel City Press)

A handful of earth, a handful of heaven: the world of Octavia E. Butler
From Lynell George
Angel City Press: 176 pages, $ 30

George’s tribute is less of a biography than an in-depth conversation between her and Butler, the MacArthur-award-winning science fiction writer (and longtime resident of Pasadena), who died in 2006 at the age of 58. George elaborates on Butler’s papers at the Huntington Library on identity and creativity, affirming that reading and writing are at their core collaborative businesses.

How much of these hills is gold
By C Pam Zhang
Riverhead: 288 pages, $ 26

This delightful debut novel, set during the gold rush, features two Chinese siblings, Lucy and Sam, who have to look after themselves after their father dies. Zhang cleverly interweaves history with a magical realistic sensibility to reclaim a place for Asian-Americans in the narratives of the American West.

Jacket of the book

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux books)

The last big road bum
By Héctor Tobar
MCD: 416 pages, $ 28

Tobar’s novel is a breakthrough and an innovation: the story of Joe Sanderson, a Midwestern who died in El Salvador after joining the rebels in the country’s civil war. Blurring fiction and non-fiction – Sanderson was a real person whose magazines and other writings Tobar used as source material – the book asks astute questions about imagination, appropriation, and where or if we belong.

West passage
From Rishi Reddi
Ecco: 448 pages, $ 29

Reddi’s second fiction does something I didn’t think was possible and tells a California story from the inside out, even though the author lives in Massachusetts. A writer with a great imagination, however, Reddi found and brought to life an overlooked piece of history in this saga of South Asian farm laborers in the Imperial Valley at the beginning of the 20th century.

Memories of my nonexistence
By Rebecca Solnit
Viking, 256 pages, $ 26

Solnit begins this book with personal and cultural explorations with the memory of looking in a mirror and seeing yourself disappear. It is a fitting metaphor for a narrative that is both a social story and a memory, addressing issues of invisibility and silence, and the way patriarchal forces try to downplay women.

A book jacket for

Set the night on fire: LA in the sixties
By Mike Davis and Jon Wiener
Verso: 800 pages, $ 35

This comprehensive story is a correction of the idea that 1960s West Coast activism was confined to Northern California, as well as a reprimand for radicalism readings through a dominant white lens. Davis (author of the transformative LA exegesis “City of Quartz”) and the emeritus professor Wiener from UC Irvine frame the city as a complex interplay of communities and agendas – home of the Black Power and the Chicano moratorium as well as gay rights and other liberation movements . Substantial and long overdue.

Summer snow
From Robert Hass
Ecco: 192 pages, $ 28

Hass, a former American poet, award winner, and Pulitzer Prize recipient, has long been a Californian writer who often uses nature as a lens, particularly the landscapes of his native Northern California. These latest poems revolve around the concept of memory – the place, the deceased, the poet’s past. However, the mood is less gloomy than acceptable, and the language is a revelation, clear and sharp.

Unforgettable: A memory of family, migration, gangs and revolution in America
By Roberto Lovato
Harper: 352 pages, $ 27

Lovato’s memoirs offer a relentless reminder of family and displacement between California and El Salvador. The poet and activist, who grew up in San Francisco, reflects on his own life and that of his father, weaving them together into a larger narrative about political influence and violence, and the intersection of private and public life.

Ulin is the former book editor and book critic for the Times.

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