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A San Francisco Reading List
Travel / Impressions

Martin Amis The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America (Penguin). An assortment of essays that pull no punches in their dealings with American life and culture, including the moral majority, militarism and high-energy consumerism.

 

John Miller (ed) San Francisco Stories (o/p). Patchy collection of writings on the city with contributions from Lewis Lapham, Tom Wolfe, Dylan Thomas and Hunter S Thompson to name a few.

 

Czeslaw Milosz Visions from San Francisco Bay (US Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Written in Berkeley during the unrest of 1968, these dense and somewhat ponderous essays show a European mind trying to come to grips with California's nascent Aquarian Age.

 

Mark Twain Roughing It (Penguin). Vivid tales of frontier California, particularly evocative of life in the silver mines of the 1860s Comstock Lode, where Twain got his start as a journalist and storyteller. His descriptions of San Francisco include a moment-by-moment description of an earthquake.

 

Tom Wolfe The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Bantam/Black Swan). Tom Wolfe at his most expansive, riding with the Grateful Dead and Hell's Angels on the magic bus of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters as they travel through the early 1960s, turning California onto LSD.

 

History, Politics and Society

Walton Bean California: An Interpretive History (UK McGraw-Hill). Blow-by-blow account of the history of California, including all the shady deals and back-room politicking, presented in accessible, anecdotal form.

 

Joan Didion Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Flamingo). Selected essays from one of California's most renowned journalists, taking a critical look at the West Coast of the Sixties, including San Francisco's acid-culture and a profile of American hero John Wayne. In a similar style, The White Album (Penguin) traces the West Coast characters and events that shaped the Sixties and Seventies, including The Doors, Charles Manson and the Black Panthers.

 

Edmund Fawcett and Tony Thomas America and the Americans (o/p). A wide-ranging, up-to-the-minute and engagingly written rundown on the USA in all its aspects from politics to sport and religion. An essential beginner's guide to the nation.

 

Frances Fitzgerald Cities on a Hill (US Simon & Schuster). Intelligent, thorough and sympathetic exploration of four of the odder corners of American culture, including San Francisco's Castro district, the Rajneeshi community of Oregon, and TV evangelism.

 

Jamie Jensen Built to Last - 25 Years of the Grateful Dead (US NAL-Dutton). Photo-filled history of San Francisco's psychedelic heroes from their early days in the Haight to their present near-divine stature, by one of the authors of this guide.

 

Charles Perry The Haight-Ashbury (US Random House). Curiously distant but detailed account of the Haight during the Flower Power years, written by an editor of Rolling Stone, a magazine that got its start there.

 

Mel Scott The San Francisco Bay Area: A Metropolis in Perspective (o/p). Though somewhat dry and academic, this enormous tome will tell you all you ever wanted to know about the evolution of San Francisco and the Bay Area.

 

Jay Stevens Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream (HarperCollins/Grafton). An engaging account of psychedelic drugs and their effect on American society through the Sixties, with an epilogue covering "designer drugs" - Venus, Ecstasy, Vitamin K and others - and the inner space they help some modern Californians to find.

 

Hunter S Thompson The Great Shark Hunt (Ballantine/Picador). Collection of often barbed and cynical essays on 1960s American life and politics - thought-provoking and hilarious. Generation of Swine (Random/Picador) is a more recent collection of caustic musings on the state of America and those who control it, assembled from his regular column in the San Francisco Examiner.

 

Tom Wolfe Radical Chic & Mau Mauing the Flak Catchers (US Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Wolfe's waspish account of Leonard Bernstein's fund-raising party for the Black Panthers - a protracted exercise in character assassination - is coupled with an equally sharp analysis of white guilt and radical politics in City Hall, San Francisco. Often ideologically unsound, always very funny.

 

Specific Guides

Adab Bakalinsky Stairway Walks in San Francisco (US Wilderness Press). Small, nicely illustrated guide detailing pretty back streets and stairways through San Francisco's hills. Excellent for turning up lesser-known spots on a walking tour.

 

California Coastal Commission California Coastal Access Guide (UC Press). The most useful and comprehensive plant and wildlife guide to the California coast, packed with maps and background information.

 

Don Herron The Literary World of San Francisco (City Lights). A walk through the San Francisco neighbourhoods associated with authors who have lived in and written about the city. Detailed and well presented, it's an essential handbook for anyone interested in San Francisco's literary heritage.

 

Judith Kahn Indulge Yourself (US Kahn Publishing). The ideal companion for the café animal, this book covers San Francisco's most famous and beautiful coffee spots, giving hints on when to go, what sort of people you'll see and what's on offer.

 

Karen Liberatore The Complete Guide to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (o/p). Easy-to-read book covering San Francisco's extensive waterfront areas and large green spaces, with historical perspective. Lots of photos.

 

Don and Betty Martin The Best of San Francisco (Chronicle Books). A lighthearted series of top-ten listings of the best that San Francisco has to offer. Categories range from the "Top Ten Seafood Restaurants" to the "Ten Naughtiest Things to do in San Francisco". More amusing than helpful, but some interesting pointers.

 

Grant Peterson Roads to Ride (US Heyday Books). As its subtitle says, this is a bicyclist's topographic guide to the whole Bay Area, and is particularly good on the back roads of Marin County.

 

Don Pitcher Berkeley Inside/Out (US Heyday Books). This is an extremely well-written, fully illustrated and encyclopedic guidebook to the most dynamic small town in the Bay Area.

 

Peggy Wayburn Adventuring in the San Francisco Bay Area (US Sierra Club). If you are planning to spend any time hiking in the Bay Area's many fine wilderness regions, pick up this fact-filled guide, which also details a number of historic walks through the city's urban areas.

 

Fiction and Poetry

Ambrose Bierce The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary (Dover/Penguin). Spiteful but hilarious compilation of definitions (ie "Bore: a person who talks when you wish him to listen") by turn-of-the-century journalist. Bierce also wrote some great horror stories, including the stream-of-consciousness "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", collected in Can Such Things Be (Citadel, US) and his Collected Works (Citadel/Picador).

 

Richard Brautigan The Hawkline Monster (US Houghton-Mifflin). Whimsical, surreal tales by noted Bay Area hippy writer.

 

Philip K Dick The Man in the High Castle (Random House/Penguin). Long-time Berkeley- and Marin County-based science fiction author imagines an alternative San Francisco, following a Japanese victory in World War II. Of his dozens of other brilliant novels and short stories, Bladerunner (Balantine/Panther) and The Trans-migration of Timothy Archer (Random House/Gollancz o/p) make good use of Bay Area locales.

 

John Dos Passos USA (NAL-Dutton/Penguin). Massive, groundbreaking trilogy, combining fiction, poetry and reportage to tap the various strands of the American Experience. Much of the first part, The 42nd Parallel, takes place around Sutro Baths and Golden Gate Park.

 

Allen Ginsberg Howl and Other Poems (US Friendship Press). The attempted banning of the title poem assured its fame; Howl itself is an angry rant that will often make you wince, but a Whitmanesque voice shines through in places.

 

Dashiell Hammett The Four Great Novels (Random House/Picador). Seminal detective stories including The Maltese Falcon and starring Sam Spade, the private investigator working out of San Francisco. See also Diane Johnson's absorbing The Life of Dashiell Hammet (Fawcett/Picador).

 

Jack Kerouac On the Road (Penguin). The book that launched a generation with its "spontaneous bop prosody", it chronicles Beat life in a series of road adventures, featuring some of San Francisco and a lot of the rest of the US. His other books include Lonesome Traveller (Grove-Atlantic/Paladin), The Dharma Bums (Penguin/Paladin) and Desolation Angels (Riverhead Books/Paladin).

 

David Lodge Changing Places (Penguin). Thinly disguised autobiographical tale of an English academic who spends a year teaching at UC Berkeley (renamed in the book) and finds himself bang in the middle of the late-1960s student upheaval.

 

Jack London Martin Eden (Penguin). Jack Kerouac's favourite book; a semi-autobiographical account tracking the early years of this San Francisco-born, Oakland-bred adventure writer. The lengthy opus tells of his rise from waterfront hoodlum to high brow intellectual, and of his subsequent disenchantment with the trappings of success.

 

Armistead Maupin Tales of the City (HarperCollins/Black Swan); Further Tales of the City (HarperCollins/Corgi); More Tales of the City (HarperCollins/Corgi); Babycakes (HarperCollins/Corgi); Significant Others (HarperCollins/Black Swan); Sure of You (HarperCollins/Black Swan). Six lively consecutive soap operas, wittily detailing the sexual and emotional antics of a select group of archetypal San Francisco characters, taking them from the late 1970s to the end of the 1980s.

 

Seth Morgan Homeboy (Random House/Vintage). Novel charting the sleazy San Francisco experiences of the former junkie boyfriend of Janis Joplin.

 

Frank Norris McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (Norton/Penguin). Dramatic, extremely violent but engrossing saga of love and revenge in turn-of-the-century San Francisco; later filmed by Erich von Stroheim as Greed. Norris's Octopus (Penguin) tells the bitter tale of the Southern Pacific Railroad's stranglehold over the California economy.

 

Thomas Pynchon The Crying of Lot 49 (HarperCollins/Vintage). Follows the labyrinthine adventures of techno-freaks and potheads in 1960s California, revealing the sexy side of stamp collecting.

 

Vikram Seth The Golden Gate (Random House/Faber). Slick novel in verse, tracing the complex social lives of a group of San Francisco yuppies, by the subsequent author of the spellbinding blockbuster A Suitable Boy.

 

Gary Snyder Left Out in the Rain (US Farrar, Straus & Giroux). One of the original Beat writers, and the only one whose work ever matured, Snyder's poetry is direct and spare, yet manages to conjure up a deep animistic spirituality underlying everyday life.

 

Amy Tan The Joy Luck Club (Putnam/Minerva). Four Chinese-American women and their daughters gather together to look back over their lives. Moving story of immigrant struggle in the sweatshops of Chinatown.

 

William T Vollman The Rainbow Stories (Penguin/Deutsch). Gut-level portraits of San Francisco street life: Tenderloin whores, Haight Street skinheads, beggars, junkies and homeless Vietnam vets. Visceral and involving stuff.