I don't usually go around telling people they must read a book. Mainly, that's because I don't generally like people telling me that I must read some that they've just finished reading. I don't mind recommendations, mind you. Love them, in fact. But I just figure that you like what you like, I like what I like, and those two things might not be the same thing.
I'm going to make an exception here. Bet you saw that coming.
Whatever you're doing right now, go out and find a copy of West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders and Killers in the Golden State (Public Affairs, 2009) by Mark Arax, and read it.
Well, finish reading this first, but then go get the book and read it.
West of the West is a spectacular book. It is a series of essays that grew out of Arax's reporting (he was a writer for the Los Angeles Times and is a contributing writer at Los Angeles magazine) and his life. The stories he tells are fascinating, and his writing is graceful without being inaccessible. No matter who or what he writes about, he is present and engaged in the story he is telling.
And he tells a wide variety of stories here. There are several stories about immigrants...from Armenia, from Mexico, from Pakistan, from Vietnam. Besides the immigrants from other countries, he also writes about immigrants to California from other parts of the United States, in a piece called "Last Okie of Lamont", that mourns the passing of the Okies from the town where the labor camp John Steinbeck used as his model for the camp in The Grapes of Wrath was located.
He also writes about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how it has affected two families in the heart of the state; about Humboldt County, in the north state, where the debate is not whether or not to grow marijuana, but whether to do it in an environmentally responsible way or in a higher-yielding but far-from-green way; about a dairy farmer who only wants to be left alone to provide raw milk products to consumers who wish to buy them.
Arax shows the reader a bit of his own life as well, and in the process perhaps a bit of how he had become able to see the world around him the way he does.
I recently heard Mark Arax speak at a writers group I belong to, and one of the things he said that day struck me as particularly important. He said that it is impossible for a writer to be completely objective, because writers are not robots, but humans. So, the writer's goal is not to be objective, but to be fair. As far as I can see, he has met that goal admirably in these essays. He has a point of view, and he sometimes shares it, but not at the expense of the point of view of others.
Perhaps the reason, or one of the reasons, I like these essays so much is that a fair amount of them strike personal chords for me. I am an Okie on my mother's side of the family, which made much in "Last Okie of Lamont" familiar. My father was an immigrant to this country, so those stories about immigrants made a lot of sense to me, as well, despite the fact that their experiences are really not at all like his in most ways. And he writes more than once here about Fresno and the surrounding area, where he was born and where I live. Some of the places he mentions are places I drive by weekly, if not daily. There are events he explores that I knew as stories in the local news section of the paper when they were taking place.
But this isn't just a "Fresno book" or a "San Joaquin Valley Book", but a book about the California experience. And although Arax has picked and chosen the stories he tells, the real and complete California experience is here. Not the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and not just the big cities and the beautiful people, but the real California. Arax's California is the California where the very poor live cheek-by-jowl with the very rich, where the farmers have to argue with the cities for their water and with the government for their very right to exist, where the most horrible and wonderful things can happen.
Okay. I'm done now.
Go. Read. This. Book.