California is a large and incredibly diverse state. From the pristine beauty of far Northern California to the agricultural Central Valley to the picturesque beauty of the Bay Area to the stunning cities of Southern California, California's attractive uniqueness makes it the perfect state for many different people.
It's also a popular travel destination. Whether you need help deciding which parts of the state to visit or you just want to travel from your armchair, here are five books that evoke different sections of California perfectly. Of course, there are hundreds of books set in California, so I've probably missed your favorite. As always, leave your suggestions in the comments!
Dashiell Hammett's masterpiece is practically a walking tour of San Francisco. He takes you all over the city and his terse descriptions somehow capture the city perfectly. From the fog to the twisting, labyrinthine streets, Hammett captures it all. Of course, The Maltese Falcon is set in the 1920s, so some of the details are a little dated, but overall, the novel has some of the best descriptions of the city ever written. If you really enjoy the book, you can always take a Dashiell Hammett walking tour when you manage to actually visit the city. (If you want to take a thorough trip to San Francisco, check out Hammett's Continental Op stories. They aren't all set in San Francisco, but they still give you a pretty good feeling for the city, while also showing off other cities in the state. You can also watch the film adaptation of this book, thought it doesn't quite capture San Francisco as well.)
Oakland isn't necessarily at the top of everyone's "Must See" list, but after you read Novella Carpenter's memoir/call to arms, you'll want to visit. Carpenter moved to Oakland and started a squatter garden in the empty lot next to her house. Her trials, tribulations, and successes in urban farming are funny and inspiring. She is honest about her experience, which means you get the occasional wince-worthy section (also, don't read this if you have a weak stomach — Carpenter details her processing of several animals that she raises for meat), but overall, she is a cheerful and humorous writer. Carpenter is also an excellent guide, showing you around Oakland, nearby Berkeley, and even the Oakland Hills. Not only will this book make you look at troubled cities in a different way, it'll make you want to start gardening and keeping bees. Carpenter also keeps a blog, if her book isn't enough for you.
Joan Didion is a fantastic essayist, with a keen eye for detail, who always offers insightful and original analysis of social movements and modern American culture. Slouching Towards Bethlehem can be uneven, but it's at its finest when its analyzing California. She has an exceptional essay on Sacramento and the Sacramento Valley, where she grew up, as well as evocative essays on Los Angeles and the Bay Area. She doesn't take you on guided tours, but instead describes the way these different parts of the state impact you and change the way you consider things.
In some ways this impressionistic view of the state is the best way to experience the state. After reading about her family and its connection to Sacramento, you'll want to visit, just so you can try to experience it the way she did. This collection of essays also has pieces on more general topics, so you'll not only learn more about California; you'll start thinking more about history and even your own experiences.
John Steinbeck wrote more about California than any other author, it seems. He's at the very least deeply associated with the state. While his longer novels capture the Central Valley magnificently, it's his slim collection of short portraits of the inhabitants of Monterey that I recommend. Cannery Row describes the community that exists beyond society, the light underbelly of contemporary American culture. You'll meet hobos, shopkeepers, partiers, and scientists, all of whom converge on the mild, lovely city. Once you finish Cannery Row, try tackling East of Eden or Grapes of Wrath. Both novels, but especially East of Eden, describe the Central Valley, in all of its agricultural glory. Once you finish, you'll feel like you've practically moved to California.
Brando Skyhorse grew up in the Echo Park neighborhood in Los Angeles. He saw the changes the neighborhood experienced, from its early days as a densely-settled but strong community to the isolation caused by putting a freeway through the area to its eventual gentrification. He captures all of this in his excellent novel The Madonnas of Echo Park. Combining multiple viewpoints, the book weaves together the lives of different immigrants all struggling for the American Dream. The ending is a surprise as all the story arcs suddenly converge at the park. You'll want to read this book at least twice, and once you're done you'll feel you actually understand (or that you've at least visited) Southern California.