Best Books from California 2004.

Winter Vacation Reading List:

Here’s a haphazardly selected and tremendously subjective list of the best books out of California this year. Feel free to accept or reject these suggestions at your leisure, but I promise each of the books on this list will evoke a strong response and promote gray matter growth from and within your undoubtedly media-addled brains. Books make great gifts and, remember, if you want to read something before the year ends, this is your last chance.


The Grim Grotto By Lemony Snicket

Illustrated by Brett Helquist

Book No. 11 in the Series of Unfortunate Events collection by San Francisco author Helquist. Still pursued by the evil Count Olaf, the Baudelaire orphans attempt to reach a very important VFD meeting, but first they must travel in a rattletrap submarine to the Gorgonian Grotto, a dangerous underwater cave, in search of the sugar bowl.

McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories

Edited by Michael Chabon

Contributors include Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Jonathan Lethem, Ayelet Waldman, Steve Erickson, Stephen King, Jason Roberts, Heidi Julavits, Roddy Doyle, Daniel Handler, Charles D’ Ambrosio, Poppy Z. Brite, China Miéville, Joyce Carol Oates and Peter Straub. The book benefits 826 Valencia, the San Francisco writing lab for kids founded by Dave Eggers, the voice of the X generation.

American Desert By Percival Everett

Part parable, part satire, part fantasy novel, this is the story of Theodore Street, a college professor on the brink of committing suicide. When the decision is taken out of his hands—he is hit by a car and his head is severed from his body—Street must come to terms with himself. The author, Percival Everett, is a professor of English at USC and has written fourteen previous novels.

The Dog Fighter By Marc Bojanowski

Northern California writer’s debut novel set in 1940s Mexico about a young man who becomes involved in a brutally violent spectator sport and must choose his loyalties in the fight for a city’s future.

Oblivion By David Foster Wallace

You either love him or hate him, but he’s moved to California so I can include him on this list. The first new fiction in five years from one of the most prodigiously talented and original writers at work today. If you loved Infinite Jest, you’ll love this collection too.


Small World: A Microcosmic Journey By Brad Herzog

From Moscow (Maine) to Mecca (California), Small World examines the big picture through the prism of tiny American towns struggling to live up to grandiose names. Herzog, who lives in Pacific Grove, concludes the book with a chapter about the town of Mecca.

Burro Genius: A Memoir By Victor Villasenor

The author of Thirteen Senses and Rain of Gold offers a passionate memoir exploring the journey of a misunderstood, humiliated and angry young man to the bestselling and lauded writer the public knows today.

Zero Break: An Illustrated Collection of Surf Writing By Matt Warshaw

The author of The Encyclopedia of Surfing returns with an anthology of writing about surfing. The collection speaks to surfing’s widespread and longstanding appeal: from Mark Twain’s nineteenth-century description in “Roughing It” to Susan Orlean’s essay on girl surfers in Maui and Tom Wolfe’s “The Pump House Gang.” This anthology roves from early surfing literature to descriptions of the sport’s most colorful characters, from hair-raising tales of big-wave surfing to an exploration of surf culture. Also includes contributions by local MPC professor/author/playwright Allston James, and R. Crumb, Daniel Duane, William Finnegan, Rick Griffin, Frederick Kohner, Jack London, Herman Melville, and Charles Schulz.

Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer By Lynne Cox

At age 14, Cox swam 26 miles from Catalina Island to the California mainland. At ages 15 and 16, she broke the men’s and women’s world records for swimming the English Channel—a 33-mile crossing in nine hours, 36 minutes. At 18, she swam the 20-mile Cook Strait between North and South Islands of New Zealand, was caught on a massive swell, and after five hours found herself farther from the finish than when she started, yet still completed the swim. She was the first to swim the Strait of Magellan, the most treacherous three-mile stretch of water in the world. She was the first to swim the Bering Strait—the channel that forms the boundary line between the United States and Russia—from Alaska to Siberia, thereby opening the US-Soviet border for the first time in 48 years, swimming in 38-degree water in four-foot waves without a shark cage, wet suit, or lanolin grease. And she was the first to swim the Cape of Good Hope (a shark emerged from the kelp, its jaws wide open, and was shot as it headed straight for her). Whoa! Read this book.

Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within By William Minor

The Pacific Grove writer/musician/poet/artist’s personal odyssey through the jazz scene in Japan: part music history, part cultural meditation, part travel narrative.

The Esselen Indians of Big Sur Country By Gary Breschini and Trudy Haversat

The Esselen Indians represents the culmination of more than 30 years of the Salinas-based couple’s research in the Big Sur Mountains and the Ventana Wilderness. Breschini and Haversat have scattered lush photographs throughout the book at random, rather than arranging them in a strict order within the appropriate chapter. In addition to being gorgeous, The Esselen Indians is also a comprehensive and groundbreaking work that sheds light on the past.


Americus, Book I
By Lawrence Ferlinghetti

A book-length poem, a “born-in-the USA narrative” in which the world-famous San Francisco poet “stalks our literary and political landscapes, past and present, to articulate the unique voice of America and create an autobiography of our collective American consciousness.”

By Philip Levine

A new collection from the Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet, who divides his time between Fresno and New York.

Danger on Peaks
By Gary Snyder

In his first collection of new poems since Axe Handles (1983), Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder shares 55 poems and prose poems.

The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems
Edited by Mark Eisner. Preface by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Pablo Neruda was born in Chile in 1904. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. A team of poets and Neruda scholars in both Chile and the US selected this collection from SF’s City Lights Publishers.

The Anthology of Monterey Bay Poets
Edited by Ryan Masters

You’ve come to expect the shameless plug, so here it is. Chatoyant Press has published this highly readable sampling of the considerable poetic talent in Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties. The anthology includes such luminaries as Adrienne Rich, Morton Marcus, Bill Minor, Ellen Bass, Frances Payne Adler, Diana Garcia and Robert Sward as well as 90 other talented poets. Look for readings on either side of the bay in January.  

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