17 San Francisco Reads

Since I’ll regularly be posting about (I hesitate to say “reviewing”) books about San Francisco, I thought I’d kick my blog off with a post about some of the San Francisco books I’ve already read. It’s a surprisingly slim list; I could only come up with 17 books (though I’ve probably forgotten a few) that are partially or completely set in San Francisco or tell a story about it in some way. One of my shortcomings as a blogger is an annoying tendency to thoroughness (i.e. if I’ve read 17 books about San Francisco, I MUST blog about all of them, whether they were good, bad, or anywhere in between), so to combat this (and the fact that it’s been many years since I read some of them), I’ve only written a few summaries, and listed the rest without descriptions. They range from literary game-changers to Oprah’s Book Club picks to YA novels to total guilty pleasures; some deal with San Francisco very briefly, others are an open love letter to it, but they all have something valuable to say about the city.

 Slouching Towards BethlehemSlouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion (Farrar, Straus and Giroux,1968)

Most of the essays in this collection of writing on California in the sixties deal with other parts of the state (southern California, the Central Valley, or the Monterey Bay area), but the title essay, about drug use in the Haight-Ashbury counterculture, is an unflinching, de-romanticized look at a part of San Francisco history that has by now passed into legend. Unlike ecstatic writings by people inside the Beat or hippie movements or nostalgia-laden contemporary accounts, Didion writes from the outside looking in, and as such is able to capture the weakness and decay of the counterculture.

Daughter of Fortune and Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende (HarperCollins, 1999 and 2000) Daughter of FortunePortrait in Sepia

These are two in a series, and if I recall correctly Portrait in Sepia really only begins in San Francisco before moving on to other locales (though not before some interesting scenes in Chinatown and a newly-built Union Square), but I loved Daughter of Fortune‘s depiction of a wild, lawless San Francisco in the days of the Gold Rush. It’s farther back in the city’s history than I usually go in my reading, but I think Allende hit the nail on the head in capturing the chaos and multiculturalism (particularly the Chinese influence) of early San Francisco. She’s even quoted in that wonderful Literary City map you’ve probably seen linked everywhere: “All races flowed together in the muddy alleyways of San Francisco.”

Baby Be-BopBaby Be-Bop by Francesca Lia Block (HarperCollins, 1995)

Francesca Lia Block is the quintessential LA writer, and writes beautiful, glittering descriptions of her city (actually, to be honest, I’d rather experience Los Angeles through her words than by actually going there). So I’m always happy on the rare occasions when she turns the focus of her prose to San Francisco. The meat of this beautiful story of a gay teen’s coming-of-age takes place in LA, but there’s a significant part of the story that deals with his family’s history in San Francisco—it’s a clean, shimmering San Francisco, kind of like a Disneyland facade, but very romantic. And Block gets the history right—the story takes us from his great-grandmother’s youth in the Victorian era to his parents meeting at a Beat poetry slam.

Girl Goddess #9: Nine Stories by Francesca Lia Block (HarperCollins, 1998) Girl Goddess #9

Again, the majority of the nine stories in this collection take place in LA or New York, but one particular story, “Dragons in Manhattan,” follows a young girl named Tuck and her journey from New York to San Francisco to solve the mystery of her parentage. She explores the Haight-Ashbury and Golden Gate Park (including a pink hotel that’s clearly based on the Red Vic), which are described in loving, wondrous detail. The story itself is true to the queer spirit of SF, and I remember Tuck having some lovely things to say about one of my favorite parts of the city; I’ll have to post some quotes when I can get at my books again.

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (Harper & Row, 1978)

“All right, then. We all lived in this lovely, enlightened kingdom that sank beneath the sea a long time ago. Now we’ve come back to this special peninsula on the edge of the continent … because we know, in a secret corner of our minds, that we must return together to the sea.”

“The earthquake.”

Anna nodded. “Don’t you see? You said the earthquake, not an earthquake. You’re expecting it. We’re all expecting it.”

I read this last year and still don’t entirely know what to make of it, because let’s face it, it’s trashy as hell. But the nice thing about it is that, since it was originally serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle, it was written for an audience of San Franciscans, and thus is full of all the in-jokes and local flavor you’d expect. There are a lot of people who really love it; I’m lukewarm, but it’s worth a read if you want a local’s take on San Francisco in the 1970s.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac (Viking Press, 1957) On the Road

It seemed like a matter of minutes when we began rolling in the foothills before Oakland and suddenly reached a height and saw stretched out ahead of us the fabulous white city of San Francisco on her eleven mystic hills with the blue Pacific and its advancing wall of potato-patch fog beyond, and smoke and goldenness of the late afternoon of time.

The Beats are probably the literary movement most closely associated with San Francisco, and this is the quintessential novel of the Beat movement; only small bits of it actually take place in the city, but Kerouac describes it with breathless joy (see above), and it’s a celebrated part of our literary heritage (see: Jack Kerouac Lane, the Beat Museum, the dedicated Beat section in every local bookstore). It has its flaws, but I’ve also spent more time with it than I care to admit.

HowlHowl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg (City Lights, 1956)

This one actually doesn’t deal directly with San Francisco at all, but in addition to being one of the key writings of the Beat movement (and a classic title from famous local bookstore and publisher City Lights), it sparked an obscenity trial that was so big, they made a movie about it starring James Franco. Which I really must see one of these days.

rappin with ten thousand carabaos in the dark

Rappin’ with Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark by Al Robles (UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1996)

I cannot believe I almost forgot about this. I had this post all ready to go, and then Bruddah Iz’s version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow came on my iPod when I was driving home and I suddenly remembered singing it with my Filipino American Lit class at State at the end of the student-produced show we wrote, performed, and dedicated to Al Robles, who had passed away earlier that year. It was his favorite song. Not all of the poetry in this collection is about San Francisco (although Robles nailed the jazz rhythms of the Fillmore, where he lived all his life), but Manong Al was such a fixture of the city—at the Kearny Street Workshop, riding the 22-Fillmore—that I’d be remiss not to include it. It’s a damn shame that it’s out of print, but you can read the poem “Fillmore Black Ghetto” here.

More books about San Francisco:

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (Putnam, 1989)

Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac (Viking Press,1958)

PaperQuake: A Puzzle by Kathryn Reiss (Harcourt, 1998)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (Bantam, 1969)

Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice (Knopf, 1976)

The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice (Knopf, 1985)

The Witching Hour by Anne Rice (Knopf, 1990)

Bone by Fae Myenne Ng (Hyperion, 1993)

The Gangster of Love by Jessica Hagedorn (Houghton Mifflin, 1996)

Poeta en San Francisco by Barbara Jane Reyes (Tinfish Press, 2005)

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