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'There There' by Tommy Orange was one of the most recommended books about the Bay Area and California in our social media callout. Sandhya Dirks/KQED
'There There' by Tommy Orange was one of the most recommended books about the Bay Area and California in our social media callout. (Sandhya Dirks/KQED)

The Best Books About the Bay Area and California (According to You)

The Best Books About the Bay Area and California (According to You)

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The Bay Curious podcast team is always in the mood for a good book, but now that summer is finally here and months of beautiful weather (and maybe a little less work) are stretched out in front of us, it feels like an especially good time to get reading.

Being Bay Curious, we're particularly interested in books that explore the Bay Area and California. So we put out a call on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for your recommendations for your favorite Bay Area and California books — and y'all came through.

From hundreds of your great suggestions, here are the 10 most recommended books (in no particular order) about the Bay Area and California. Plus, scroll down for a few bonus recommendations from local authors and librarians.

1. "Tales of the City" by Armistead Maupin

A well-worn copy of Armistead Maupin's 'Tales of the City.' It was the San Francisco Public Library's One City One Book pick in 2014.
A well-worn copy of Armistead Maupin's 'Tales of the City.' It was the San Francisco Public Library's One City One Book pick in 2014. (Ryan Levi/KQED)

In the words of one person on Instagram, "Tales of the city because duh." Maupin's classic story of the residents of 28 Barbary Lane in San Francisco started out as a serialized column in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1976. It eventually grew into a nine-book series and is the inspiration for a new Netflix series. "I loved the characters when they were young and full of hope in their new city," said another on Instagram. "It is both a snapshot in time and truly, truly timeless."


2. "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" by Joan Didion

"When I first went to San Francisco, I did not even know what I wanted to find out, and so I just stayed around awhile and made a few friends," writes Joan Didion in the titular essay of her classic collection chronicling California in the 1960s. Covering one of the most eventful decades in the state's history, these essays range from the hippies of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury to the lifestyles of the rich and the famous in Los Angeles. As a portrayal of a particular place in time, they're essential reading.

3. "The Golden State" by Lydia Kiesling

"The Golden State" has only been out for less than a year, but given the number of you who cited it as a piece of great California literature, it may have already attained "instant classic" status. Kiesling's novel centers around Daphne, a young mother who flees her life in San Francisco with her toddler and drives to the fictional California desert town of Altavista. Esmé Weijun Wang, the San Francisco author of "The Collected Schizophrenias," calls Kiesling's debut novel "a beautiful book about motherhood and being a person who is trying to gain her footing in her life and in the world."

4. "East of Eden" by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck featured heavily in your recommendations with California classics like "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Cannery Row," but "East of Eden" was the work that you mentioned most. This sprawling tale of two families — the Trasks and the Hamiltons — takes place in the Salinas Valley where Steinbeck grew up, and mirrors the biblical story of Cain and Abel. "It brought me home when I read it living in Japan," wrote one person on Instagram.

5. "The Language of Flowers" by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Another debut novel, "The Language of Flowers" is about Victoria Jones who has spent her childhood bouncing between foster homes in Northern California and finds her greatest connection is to flowers. Diffenbaugh was born in San Francisco, grew up in Chico, and now lives in Monterey, where she and her husband are foster parents. She also started a nonprofit dedicated to helping young people transitioning out of the foster system.

More Books!

6. "The Joy Luck Club" by Amy Tan

Published in 1989, "The Joy Luck Club" weaves together the story of four mothers — all Chinese immigrants who moved to San Francisco and bonded over mahjong — and their U.S.-born daughters. "It’s a beautiful story about strong Chinese mothers and their strong American daughters," wrote one person on Instagram.

7. "Season of the Witch" by David Talbot

A nonfiction classic, "Season of the Witch" tells the story of one of the darkest and most chaotic periods of San Francisco's history: the late 1960s through the early 1980s. Talbot goes from the city's days as the center of the counterculture revolution to the dark years of the 1970s filled with serial killers, political assassinations and the tragedy of Jonestown — and, finally, the HIV/AIDS epidemic that ravaged the city's gay population.

8. "Lucky Boy" by Shanthi Sekaran

"Lucky Boy" explores the story of an Indian-American woman and a young undocumented immigrant from Mexico who comes to Berkeley with her infant son. Sekaran, who has lived in Berkeley for more than a decade, has said the city was the perfect place to set this story with its mix of good intentions and intense privilege. "Sometimes those two elements don’t mix," Sekaran told Berkeleyside. "Sometimes people’s good intentions blind them to their own insensitivities."

9. "Daughter of Fortune" by Isabel Allende

Given the Gold Rush's pivotal role in California history and culture, of course your recommendations would include works that explore it. "Daughter of Fortune" follows the journey of Eliza, a young woman who leaves her home in Chile for Gold Rush San Francisco in search of her first love, and finds California to be worlds away from the sheltered life she lived back in South America. Allende's book hit popular heights when it was selected for Oprah's Book Club in 2000.

10. "There There" by Tommy Orange

"There There" chronicles the intersecting lives of generations of Native Americans living in Oakland. The book takes its title from an often-misunderstood quote about the Town from Oakland-raised writer Gertrude Stein. Orange said writing this book was in part an attempt to make Oakland and Native Americans — especially those living in cities — more visible.

Honorable Mentions go to: "The Tortilla Curtain" by T.C. Boyle, "Sourdough" and "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" by Robin Sloan, "The Maltese Falcon" by Dashiell Hammett, "The Circle" by Dave Eggers, and "The Girls" by Emma Cline.

Bonus Recommendations from Local Authors and Librarians:

We couldn't resist getting some expert opinions on this one, so we reached out to a few local authors and the Oakland Public Library for their recommendations. (Spoiler: They love a lot of the same books as you clearly do.)

Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, author of "A Kind of Freedom" and "The Revisioners":

  • "There There" by Tommy Orange
  • "The Golden State" by Lydia Kiesling
  • "Goodbye, Vitamin" by Rachel Khong
  • "Elsewhere, California" by Dana Johnson

Vanessa Hua, author of "Deceit and Other Possibilities" and "A River of Stars":

  • "The Golden State" by Lydia Kiesling
  • "Bone" by Fae Myenne Ng
  • "The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Brothers and the Making of an American Life" by Lauren Markham
  • "The Joy Luck Club" by Amy Tan
  • "The Oracles: My Filipino Grandparents in America" by Pati Navalta Poblete
  • "In the Country of Women: A Memoir" by Susan Straight
  • "Every Night is Ladies Night" by Michael Jaime Becerra
  • "Unaccompanied" by Javier Zamora
  • "Ordinary Light: A Memoir" by Tracy K. Smith

Lydia Kiesling, author of "The Golden State":

  • "A River of Stars" by Vanessa Hua
  • "Off Course" by Michelle Huneven
  • "Woman No. 17" by Edan Lepucki
  • "There There" by Tommy Orange
  • "Lord of California" by Andrew Valencia
  • "Deep Singh Blue" by Ranbir Singh Sidhu
  • "Gold Fame Citrus" by Claire Vaye Watkins

The librarians from the Oakland Public Library sent a list of more than 60 recommendations of great California and Bay Area books. Below is a small sampling:

  • For adults: "Better to Reign in Hell: Inside the Raiders Fan Empire" by Jim Miller and Kelly Mayhew, "California: A History" by Kevin Starr, "Kindred" by Octavia Butler, "Valencia" by Michelle Tea
  • For teens: "Internment" by Samira Ahmed, "The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives" by Dashka Slater, "You Know Me Well" by Nina LaCour and David Levithan, "Little Brother" by Cory Doctorow
  • For kids: "Esperanza Rising" by Pam Muñoz Ryan, "Smile" by Raina Telgemeier, "A Jar of Dreams" by Yoshiko Uchida, "The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights" by Steve Sheinkin

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