The 10 Best California Books of 2021
These new works of fiction and nonfiction vividly render the state’s past and present.,
The end of 2021 is approaching, and with it comes the traditional slew of year-end lists.
Today I’m adding to the “best of” barrage. Below are 10 excellent books about California that were published this year and reviewed in The New York Times.
These novels, short story collections, essay books and cultural histories span California’s past and present. They vividly render the Venice Beach boardwalk of the 1980s, the Cambodian diaspora that settled in Stockton, and a ramshackle and eccentric pre-tech San Francisco.
“Afterparties: Stories,” by Anthony Veasna So
An excerpt from our review, “Glimpses of Cambodian Life in California”:
“‘Afterparties’ is a deeply personal, frankly funny, illuminating portrait of furtive, meddling aunties, sweaty, bored adolescents and the plaintive search for survival that connects them. Its nine stories sketch a world of hidden histories, of longings past and present, and of a culture carving its way out of historical trauma.”
“Damnation Spring,” by Ash Davidson
An excerpt from our review, “From Towering Redwoods to Tiny Creatures, This Novel Has It All”:
“The book unfolds in a tightknit community in Northern California over the course of four seasons, in the late 1970s. It’s a vivid portrayal of the land and its people, a snapshot of a not-so-distant time, but it also digs into the gnarled history of the place. And it’s a glorious book — an assured novel that’s gorgeously told.”
“Frankie & Bug,” by Gayle Forman
An excerpt from our review of this children’s book, “A Different Kind of California Dreaming”:
“In Forman’s capable hands, the setting of late ’80s Venice Beach is a living, breathing character. You can smell the coconut suntan lotion and hear Duran Duran playing in the background.”
“L.A. Weather,” by Maria Amparo Escandon
An excerpt from our review, “Married 39 Years, and Ready to Call It Quits Over Their Kids’ Objections”:
“Escandon drops us into the Rancho Verde four-bedroom home of the Alvarados, a wealthy Mexican American family harboring a host of secrets and lies. It’s a capacious book, chock-full of human drama set against the backdrop of a record-breaking California drought, and Escandon writes with a great deal of energy and love for her characters.”
“Something New Under the Sun,” by Alexandra Kleeman
An excerpt from our review, “A Climate Nightmare in a Burning Los Angeles”:
“What constitutes an emergency? That is one of the questions posed, with chilly, stylish composure, by Alexandra Kleeman’s new novel, ‘Something New Under the Sun,’ an unlikely amalgam of climate horror story, movie-industry satire and made-for-TV mystery. Its dreamy Los Angeles is a waking nightmare whose contours emerge in offhand asides.”
“We Run the Tides,” by Vendela Vida
An excerpt from our review, “Her Best Friend Claims They Witnessed a Sex Crime. She Has Her Doubts”:
“Vida’s San Francisco is ramshackle and eccentric, home to heiresses but also tide pools of counterculture backwash … The affectionate specificity of the portrait she offers is one of the book’s real pleasures.”
“The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power,” by Max Chafkin
An excerpt from our review, “The Alarming Rise of Peter Thiel, Tech Mogul and Political Provocateur”:
“‘The Contrarian’ is chilling — literally chilling. As I read it, I grew colder and colder, until I found myself curled up under a blanket on a sunny day, icy and anxious. Scared people are scary, and Chafkin’s masterly evocation of his subject’s galactic fear — of liberals, of the U.S. government, of death — turns Thiel himself into a threat.”
“Everything Now: Lessons From the City-State of Los Angeles,” by Rosecrans Baldwin
An excerpt from our review, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Los Angeles?”:
“To write the definitive book about Los Angeles would be impossible. In ‘Everything Now,’ the novelist Rosecrans Baldwin doesn’t try. And in not trying, he may have written the perfect book about Los Angeles.”
“Hollywood Eden: Electric Guitars, Fast Cars, and the Myth of the California Paradise,” by Joel Selvin
An excerpt from our review, “From Brian Wilson to Nancy Sinatra: The L.A. Music Scene in the ’60s”:
Selvin, the former pop music critic of The San Francisco Chronicle, “tells the story, set between 1957 and 1967, of a network of young Angelenos who ‘captured a California of the mind’ — one of ‘cars, sun, sex and surf; “Gidget” set to a rock ‘n’ roll beat.'”
“Rock Me on the Water: 1974 — The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics,” by Ronald Brownstein
An excerpt from our review, “Why Did Los Angeles Become a Cultural Mecca in the Early 1970s?”:
“These are not new stories, of course — the brief window of early-1970s creative filmmaking, the Laurel Canyon music scene, the golden era of television. All have been relentlessly examined, artifacts of a once-mighty baby boomer civilization. What Brownstein has done is expertly knit the scenes together, giving the reader a plus-one invite to the heady world of Hollywood parties, jam sessions and pitch meetings, as well as a pointed demonstration of how culture can be made and unmade.”
If you read one story, make it this
Starting Wednesday, California will once again require all residents to wear masks in indoor public settings.
The rest of the news
Fires, landslides and lack of snow: The ski industry girds for battle amid environmental threats.
Solar industry changes: Regulators proposed requiring homeowners with rooftop solar panels to pay higher fees.
Outdoor dining hurdles: The red tape that once prevented California restaurants from easily expanding outdoor seating is slowly returning, The Atlantic reports.
Weather warning: A storm is expected to dump both rain and snow over much of the state, potentially creating hazardous travel conditions in some areas.
Antifa charges: A case against anti-fascists who protested a “Patriot March” in Pacific Beach on Jan. 9 is the first time prosecutors have charged antifa with conspiracy, The San Diego Union-Tribune reports.
Teen sensation grows up: Everyone seemed to love Chloe Kim when she was a snowboarding prodigy. Now she has built a life beyond the halfpipe.
Investment scam: A former financial adviser from Oceanside was sentenced to 14 years in prison for conning older people out of their retirement savings, The Associated Press reports.
Clams: Pismo Beach was once the clam capital of the world. Then the clams disappeared, The Los Angeles Times reports.
A city famous for tolerance: Amid burglarized restaurants and boarded-up storefronts, San Francisco is losing patience, The Associated Press reports.
What you get
See three $2.8 million homes in California.
What we’re eating
Crispy gnocchi with burst tomatoes.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s travel tip comes from Mary Kay Wulf, who recommends visiting the Crestwood Hills neighborhood, which is nestled above Brentwood in Los Angeles:
“As always, quiet and civility must be observed when driving or walking through a residential enclave, and a good GPS will help to navigate the ins and outs and the switchbacks in between. The hillside land was originally purchased in 1946 by four studio musicians who then hired architects, A. Quincy Jones and Whitney R. Smith, to design modest homes that maximized views of the Pacific Ocean and offered buyers premium privacy. Glass walls, open floor plans, and butterfly, flat and shed roofs are only a few of the features that turned the community into a little midcentury miracle. Over the years it grew from four houses to 500, attracting modernist architects like R. Neutra and Paul Williams among others. A particular standout is the Sturges House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument.
After taking a self-guided tour of Crestwood Hills, Brentwood Village just east on Sunset offers a winding, open-air plaza known for its popular restaurants and boutique shopping.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
What we’re recommending
Ten classic Christmas movies our critics didn’t see coming.
An annual tamales party, New Year’s in Palm Springs or an order of Ikeda’s pies for Christmas dinner — what are your Golden State holiday traditions?
Email me at CaToday@nytimes.com.
And before you go, some good news
This month, the brightest comet of 2021 is showing in a sky near you.
Comet Leonard, which was first discovered in January, has quite likely spent the past 35,000 years traveling toward the sun, CNN reports. And once it passes the sun on Jan. 3, it will be out of our view forever.
So how do we see it before it’s gone?
Between now and Christmastime, peer at the sky just after the sun sets and look for an object resembling a fuzzy star. You can use Venus, which is currently bright in the southwestern sky around that time, as a guiding light.
“I feel there is going to be something to be seen even for the casual observer,” Greg Leonard, the astronomer who discovered the comet, told CNN. “Find yourself a dark sky with a good view of the horizon, bring binoculars, and I think you may be rewarded.”
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Store that sells chairs, beds and … meatballs? (4 letters).
Mariel Wamsley contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.