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