Top 5 Books Set in San Francisco That Everyone Should Read

Photo of Savannah Vasco
11 December 2015

It’s no secret that San Francisco is a city of readers. Whether on BART or at a café it’s easy to spot a book in someone’s hand. Many books are read in San Francisco, but what about the ones that actually take place in the counterculture capital of the USA? Here are five picks for great San Francisco-set prose for both adults and children.

Portrait of Joan Didion | © Incase/Flickr

For Adults

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

One of America’s greatest essayists, Joan Didion creates a masterpiece of prose on California in her 1968 collection entitled Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Though about California as a whole, the title piece describes Didion’s impressions of the famous Haight-Ashbury district during its 1960s heyday. It’s a welcome contrast to utopian portrayals of the district’s counterculture image. Didion portrays a grim reality of 1960s San Francisco that freshly describes the pull and revulsion many felt towards the city at one point or another.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan recounts the journey of four mothers and four daughters as they overcome the challenges of cultural transition, realize the power of storytelling, and attempt to understand the influence of the mother-daughter relationship. Beginning in 1949 San Francisco, the stories are woven through the 40 years between 1949 and 1989. Tan’s writing aides in understanding San Francisco’s rich history of Asian immigration, along with the generations that helped to make the Bay Area a continuous flux of new ideas that launched movements.

Lecture by Maxine Hong Kingston | © Jennifer Lee/Flickr

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

The Woman Warrior is the epic journey of silence and voice through the fragmented stories of past and present. Like Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston explores cultural identity and storytelling, but in a much more symbolic and thought provoking way. While The Joy Luck Club reads like fiction, The Woman Warrior is the perfect combination of prose and essay that will keep you thinking long after reading. Not just confined to San Francisco and China, Kingston weaves in tales of Oakland and Berkeley to bring forth a full-bodied read that everyone who identifies with the San Francisco Bay Area must get their hands on.

For Children

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Set in Oakland during the summer of 1968, One Crazy Summer discusses the radical period of the Black Panther Party from the perspective of three young girls visiting their mother for the first time in seven years. Rita Williams-Garcia writes about the Black Panther Party from a community-based perspective. She manages to deal with Civil Rights, injustice, black pride, and racial prejudice all while still making the reader laugh out loud. It’s a great book to learn about Oakland’s heritage and legacy from the Civil Rights period.

Alcatraz | © Nicholas Vollmer/Flickr

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko

Possibly one of the most interesting parts of San Francisco history, Alcatraz will always live in infamy as the final home of gangsters and hardened criminals. With its ever popular island tours, it’s easy to learn about those who graced its cells. But what about those who lived on the rock island outside the prison walls? Al Capone Does My Shirts tells the story of the children of the Alcatraz prison guards who live on the island. What would it be like to grow up knowing your laundry was done by Al Capone himself? A fascinating novel from a new perspective, Al Capone Does My Shirts is a great addition to the history of the famous man-made rock.

Savannah Vasco

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