In the new anthology California's Best: Two Centuries of Great Writing from the Golden State, editor Peter Fish puts the state's sense of place first. Yes, the collection is filled with rich human stories, both modest and grand, but the book's 41 essays, excerpts and poems are organized according to the state's geography, painting a portrait of California that benefits from both the periscope look back and the magnifying-glass study of the here and now.
A Mirrielees Fellow in creative writing at Stanford and now Sunset magazine's editor-at-large, Fish begins, fittingly, just off the shore of his home town of Santa Barbara with an entry from Two Years Before the Mast, an 1840 work by Richard Henry Dana Jr. Right away we know Fish is up to something when he not only chooses Dana's charming description of the town, but also his observation that the hills appear to have "all burnt by a great fire." 'Twas ever thus.
From Santa Barbara we head up the coast for a dip into Jack London's White Fang, published in 1904. In two strokes, Fish gives us fire and fog, and we've barely cracked the 20th century. In fact, Fish is consistently good at choosing examples that seem to amplify and riff off each other. For example, before he leaves the Pacific, Fish shares a few verses from 1927 by Carmel's Robinson Jeffers: "Point Joe has teeth and has torn ships: it has fierce and solitary beauty..." A few pages later, we're treated to a different sort of fierceness and beauty in Daniel Duane's 1997 Caught Inside: A Surfer's Year on the California Coast. This is inspired editing.
Next the Sierras, where Clarence King leads us up Mount Whitney, circa 1871. Whitney, of course is the state's highest mountain, so Fish follows it with a 1901 account by John Muir of the state's largest tree. Sort of. In fact, the lovely passage Fish has selected is notable for its description of the almost inaudible sound made when the tiny Sequoia Gigantea seed lands on a leaf. Again, the contrast is effective and carefully plotted.
The Wallace Stegner except and Gary Synder poems that close the section feel like a literary sorbet, clearing our heads for a descent into the valleys, "Sacramento, San Joaquin, Owens, and Death," as Fish puts it in his Introduction. The Robert Louis Stevenson excerpt about Napa valley dirt from 1883 is a classic, as is the scene Fish selects from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, in which the Joads get their first whiff of the "hot green smells" of the Salinas Valley. Fish then gives the floor to Joan Didion, who recalls her childhood only a valley away, where "girls who could not even get into Stephens or Arizona or Oregon, let alone Stanford or Berkeley..." were sent off on consolation voyages to Honolulu. Could there be life experiences that are more different than those of the fictional Joads and Didion's real-life kin? No doubt Fish was just getting started.
Fish closes California's Best with sections about San Francisco Bay and Southern California. In the first, we join Mark Twain for a drink at the Cliff House in 1864 (no disrespect, but what a relief not to be reading Twain's account of Calaveras County frogs). In the second, Walter Mosley returns us to Dana's sea, only this time it's the view from the shore that captivates the author in the 1990 novel, Devil in a Blue Dress. The water, he writes, "glittered with a million tiny glints. It looked like every shiny fish in the sea had come to the surface to mimic the stars that flickered in the sky." A lot of things have changed in 200 years -- Fish's book is littered with examples -- but sometimes it's worth pausing to consider the things that have not.