The 10 best California books of 2021

These novels, short stories, essay books and cultural histories span the state’s past and present

By Soumya Karlamangla

The New York Times

The end of 2021 is approaching, and with it comes the traditional slew of year-end lists.

The best poetry of the year. The most memorable red carpet moments. Our favorite plays and musicals, our favorite songs and our favorite movies.

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.

Happy reading.

FICTION

“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 tight-knit 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 María Amparo Escandón

An excerpt from our review, “Married 39 Years, and Ready to Call It Quits Over Their Kids’ Objections”:

“Escandón 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 Escandón 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.”

NONFICTION

“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.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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