That Time I Tried to Read 50 Books by 50 San Jose Authors

This ~living document~ chronicles my ongoing attempt to read 50 books by 50 unique authors with San Jose ties, in an effort to build my own sense of how and why this place I come from / reside in matters. Below you’ll find an image of each book I’ve read, along with some links to author sites, excerpts, publishers, and brief reading notes. If you have a book recommendation, please leave it in the comments!


Books completed so far: 18
Last addition: 4/3/2016

Living writers who currently reside in San Jose: 3
Living writers who once resided in San Jose: 9
Deceased writers who once resided in San Jose: 6

Oldest book on the list: 1890 
Newest book on the list: 2016

Online publications I have searched for San Jose contributors: 115
Presses and publishers I have searched for San Jose authors: 20

18. Art Rodriguez / East Side Dreams

Memoir / Dream House / 2010

Read an interview with Art Rodriguez.

ART RODRIGUEZ (1949–2011) was born and raised in San Jose. After a life-long struggle with undiagnosed dyslexia, he learned to write as an adult through his wife’s encouragement and while taking courses at Independence High School. He is the author of 3 books.

Reading notes: Art Rodriguez’s memoir touched me in such an unexpected way. His childhood stories are almost identical to ones that my father and uncle have shared with me about their own experiences growing up in an adjoining neighborhood of San Jose in the exact same era. When I showed my Dad the book, he surprisingly knew a lot of the same kids Art Rodriguez was writing about, and reminisced about the landmarks he describes. I am so grateful that an author documented this period of time with such fidelity.

Discovery notes: I remember seeing posters for this book at my local library when it first came out and being curious!

17. Mary Hallock Foote / A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West

Memoir / The Huntington Library / 1972

MARY HALLOCK FOOTE (1847–1938) was an American author and illustrator. Raised on a Quaker farm in the Hudson Valley, she followed her engineer husband to the quicksilver mines of New Almaden in the 1870s before moving onward to other locales in the American West.

Reading notes: Full disclosure: I only read half of this book. I was most interested in her time at the local mines. She wrote no girl ever wanted less to ‘go West’ with any man, or paid a man a greater compliment by doing so. And, of her journey to San Jose: we were a car full of wives, past, present, and future. I was reminded of people I’ve met who followed their techie partners to San Jose in recent years, finding themselves isolated upon arriving. Her descriptions of the mining camps are interesting, but it shows that she and her husband were (to use her own words) in the camp of labor, but not of it. This made me yearn for other forms of documentation from that era, preferably by the miners themselves rather than Victorian Gentlewomen.

Discovery notes: This book was recommended to me by a friend while on a hike at Almaden Quicksilver.

16. Wayne Koestenbaum / The Pink Trance Notebooks

Poetry / Nightboat Books / 2015

Read an excerpt from this book in the Boston Review (with a fragment that made me think of Peter’s Bakery)

WAYNE KOESTENBAUM (b. 1958) is a poet and cultural critic, and the author of 18 books. He grew up in San Jose, and now lives in NYC.

Reading Notes: This book consists of 34 poems that Koestenbaum calls assemblages. They’re composed of fragments that he scrawled in a notebook as quickly as possible, in a state approaching a trance. It was pure torrent, he says of the process. One of many subjects he explores within these fragments: his parents who lived in San Jose (and his own childhood memories by extension). I was pumped to see Tinker’s Damn in a poem.

Discovery Notes: At a vegan cafe long ago, an acquaintance recommended Koestenbaum’s Model Homes to me when I bemoaned the lack of San Jose authors/books.

15. Raymond Carver / Short Cuts: Selected Stories

Fiction / Vintage Contemporaries / 1993

RAYMOND CARVER is the author of five books of fiction and eight poetry collections. In the late 1960s, while his wife attended San Jose State University, he and his family lived in “student housing that was just like a little cracker box of a place.” Soon after they moved to Sunnyvale, and for four years in the 1970s, Cupertino.

Reading Notes: I usually have no problem getting fascinated by unlikable protagonists, but reading back-to-back stories about drunk aggro white dudes with chips on their shoulders was rough for me to bear. His stories are for sure artfully constructed, but I can’t say I’m a fan otherwise.

Discovery Notes: While searching JSTOR for San Jose writers, I discovered an interview where his son discusses their years in San Jose.

14. Carrie Stevens Walter / Rose-Ashes And Other Poems

Poetry / Watsonville Press / 2002 (first printing 1890)

CARRIE STEVENS WALTER came to California from Missouri at 10 to reunite with her father, a pioneer. In 1867, she moved to Santa Clara County. When her husband left home in search of gold and never returned, she supported her children by writing. She started a magazine called The Santa Clara. An advocate for preserving the redwoods, she campaigned to make Big Basin the first State Park of California.

Reading Notes: An enduring theme for me across her poems: nature existed in California before us, and nature will outlive us all. From a love poem to Mt. Hamilton: What is the tie that binds my heart to yours, O hills of Hamilton? / With strands that fail not, but whose strength endures / While my life’s course shall run? I appreciated the palpable longing in her work, for lost love, for death’s stillness, and more.

Discovery Notes: I first saw her name while searching the California Digital Newspaper Collection for San Jose poets. Then, by total chance, I found her poems in the stacks at Logos Books & Records in Santa Cruz.

13. Linh Dinh / Love Like Hate

Fiction / Seven Stories Press / 2010

Read an essay by Linh Dinh called The Sheen of San Jose, in which he writes “though I have no sentimental attachments to San Jose, I don’t hate it.”

LINH DINH is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.

Reading Notes: This book, described on Goodreads as a dysfunctional family saga, follows a series of interlocking characters in post-war Vietnam between the mid-1970s and the early 2000s. While reading, I appreciated Linh Dinh’s grim/humorous voice, and his blend of stories and essayistic bits about Vietnamese culture and history.

Discovery Notes: I first read this author’s work a decade ago as a student at San Francisco State University. Ever since, I’ve imagined him a San Jose writer, but further research yields that he may have only lived here one year. I’m writing him in hopes of learning more!

12. Emmanuel Cervantes Mejia / Soledad and the Sea

Fiction / Chusma House / 2016

See the author read an excerpt from this book in a video.

EMMANUEL CERVANTES MEJIA is a young Mexican-Chicano writer from San Jose. He is the author of a collection of poetry published in the fall of 2014.

Reading Notes: Midway through this Bukowski-eque novel, the protagonist says Depression has a way of making you a romantic, an irrational romantic — to feel everything and nothing at the same time. This, to me, captures the novel’s main vibe. An alcoholic drifter broods and pines while lighting cigarettes off cigarettes in downtown San Jose. His typewriter collects dust while he contemplates suicide and idolizes an ‘innocent’ girl who always wears white.

Discovery Notes: Recommended to me by Pedro, a mutual friend.

11. Colin Dickey / Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places

Nonfiction / Viking / 2016

Read an excerpt from this book on Lit Hub.

COLIN DICKEY grew up in San Jose, a few miles away from the Winchester Mystery House. As a writer, speaker, and academic, he has made a career out of collecting unusual objects and hidden histories all over the country.

Reading Notes: I learned of this book just days after Dickey gave a reading at the Winchester Mystery House, a local haunted tourist attraction that I have never entered in person. As the title suggests, this book chronicles places across the US, and, yet, Dickey’s roots come through. He writes of Johnny Johnson, for example, the famed ghost who haunts the Sunnyvale Toys R Us. He devotes a full chapter to Sarah Winchester, and debunks aspects of her tale I had previously taken as fact. Throughout, my favorite parts were Dickey’s observations on why ghosts and their stories can captivate.

Discovery Notes: an NPR article with a picture of the Winchester Mystery House kept popping up on my Twitter feed, and I had to know what it was about.

10. Caille Millner / The Golden Road: Some Notes On My Gentrification

Memoir / The Penguin Press / 2007

CAILLE MILLNER’s writings have appeared in Zyzzyva, Joyland, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and other publications. She is an editorial writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. She grew up in East San Jose and Almaden Valley.

Reading Notes: This memoir was fascinating to me because I share some biographical details with the author. I too grew up mixed in East San Jose and attended Catholic school (the other all girl’s school in town) and (eventually!) a fancy university. Despite these similarities, Millner’s mind and eye traveled to parts of San Jose I never have visited (like mid-90s tech nerd parties in the ‘burbs). Millner’s skeptical take on identity narratives was illuminating. There are a lot of identity narratives that would be spoiled if their narrators came clean, she writes. While reading, I reassessed the story I tell myself about myself.

Discovery Notes: I read of this book while searching KQED’s website.

9. Janice Lobo Sapigao / microchips for millions

Poetry / PAWA / 2016

Read an excerpt from this book in Action Yes.

JANICE LOBO SAPIGAO is a writer, poet, and educator. She is the Associate Editor of TAYO Literary Magazine and co-founder of Sunday Jump, an open mic in Los Angeles’s Historic Filipinotown. She earned her MFA in writing from CalArts and has a BA in Ethnic Studies from UC San Diego. She currently resides in San José.

Reading Notes: This book made my own city take on new contours. Before I encountered Janice Lobo Sapigao’s work, I did not know about the hazardous conditions that assembly line workers face in Silicon Valley, many of whom are immigrant women. I’m glad Janice is bringing their stories and voices to the fore, so that we are conscious of them today, and they don’t fall prey to erasure tomorrow. An homage to the author’s mother, these poems are personal and documentary. She makes full use of the page in fancy ways; in one poem, a long vertical sentence divides stanzas into two columns, standing in for a freeway.

Discovery Notes: I first found her poems while searching Entropy with the search terms “San Jose.”

8. Raymond Barrio / The Plum Plum Pickers

Fiction / Ventura Press / 1969

Read an excerpt from this book.

RAYMOND BARRIO was born to Spanish immigrant parents. He had an early successful career as a painter, and published two books on modern art. In 1969, he self-published The Plum Plum Pickers after every publisher he sent it to rejected it. Today the book is widely anthologized. He was one of the first writers to use the novel to expose Chicanx social problems.

Reading Notes: This book takes place in the famed Alviso ghost town of Drawbridge and chronicles the plight of migrant farmworkers in local orchards and fields. Researching Drawbridge’s history, I found no evidence of the world Barrio references. I even emailed an employee of the wildlife refuge where the town’s remains sink into the marshland; she wrote Drawbridge was mostly a vacation place for hunters and anglers. By 1969 Drawbridge was almost deserted. So, I guess, the book is set in a fictionalized real place for symbolic purposes, maybe to signal that the mistreatment of laborers should be left behind like a ghost town. The book is rooted in place and documentarian in tone; it describes street names and rivers and other markers from real San Jose. And yet, there’s no way of knowing which details are “true” vs “symbolic.” Whether or not this matters is something I’m still grappling with as a reader.

Discovery Notes: I spent an afternoon removing books from the Chicano Center shelves at the Martin Luther King Library, searching for those by local authors.

7. Kate Schatz / Rid of Me

Fiction / Continuum / 2007

Read her story called Folsom, Survivor in Joyland.

KATE SCHATZ is the author of of Rad Women Worldwide and Rad American Women A-Z, the New York Times bestselling feminist children’s books (for everyone). She is a co-founder of The Encyclopedia Project, and the former Chair of the School of Literary Arts at Oakland School for the Arts. She grew up in San Jose and lives in the Bay Area with her family.

Reading Notes: I can impose a San Jose narrative on this fiction: it is set in a valley town, edged in woods and near the sea. In the prologue, the author describes how she reentered PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me album, which she listened to repeatedly as a “swoony daydreamy teenager” (in San Jose, I can assert) and allowed stories to emerge and characters to take on contours. This book holds a gorgeous, atmospheric, and eerie queer feminist fairy tale, about 2 young women joined together by violence, magic, and a need to escape messed-up circumstances.

Discovery Notes: Recommended to me, long ago, by a friend in Providence, RI.

6. Timothy Liu / Don’t Go Back to Sleep

Poetry / Saturnalia / 2014

Read All Trains Are Going Local, a poem from this collection.

TIMOTHY LIU was born in San Jose, California to immigrant parents from mainland China. He is the author of nine books of poems. A professor of English at William Paterson University, Liu makes his home in Manhattan with his husband.

Reading Notes: I chose this book because an online blurb describes its contents as autobiographical (“Liu winds the clock back to the Nanking Massacre in 1937, then traces its consequences on his family of origin, his mother’s mental illness, his father’s religious fundamentalism, and Liu’s obsessive search for love.”). It was an interesting exercise to envision the poems as rooted in San Jose, though I am not sure which, if any, were set here.

Discovery Notes: Found while searching the Poetry Foundation website.

5. Mia You / I, Too, Dislike It

Poetry / 1913 Press / 2016

An excerpt from this book: “Birth Story” on Harriet, a poetry blog

MIA YOU was born in Seoul, South Korea, grew up in San Jose and Saratoga, and now lives in Utrecht, The Netherlands. She writes essays and book reviews and has published them with Bookforum, the Boston Review, The Hairpin, Jacket2, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Volta.

Reading Notes: This book marks the third time I have read about San Jose in poem form; You references Santa Clara County locales perhaps 4 times in verse. Pieces that spellbound or gutted me: a long poem about Harvard wives, the poem about childbirth that I link to above, and a piece about distraction during a poetry reading.

Discovery Notes: Found while reading a blog post about K-Pop on Harriet, a poetry blog.

4. Janice Lee / Reconsolidation: Or, it’s the ghosts who will answer you

Lyric Essay? Memoir? / Penny-Ante Editions / 2015

Watch a video of Janice Lee reading an excerpt from this book.

JANICE LEE was born in Oakland, grew up in Cupertino, and currently resides in Los Angeles, where she is Editor of the #RECURRENT Series, Assistant Editor at Fanzine, Executive Editor at Entropy, and Founder/CEO of POTG Design.

Reading Notes: This book, a eulogy for the author’s mother written in the throes of her grief, made me cry on the CalTrain.

Discovery Notes: Learned of her background while corresponding with her about a piece I had published on Entropy.

3. Rich Gutierrez / Heaven is a Place

Novella / Self-Published / 2016

RICH GUTIERREZ is a mixed brown boy, writer, musician, designer, social advocate and artist born and raised in San Jose, California. He currently resides actively in San Jose, California where he plays music in several bands, is a core member of the Think and Die Thinking collective, pummels through books, writes and facilitates workshops with Silicon Valley Debug, gives shine to his community and attempts to consume less sugar and coffee at least once every two months.

Reading Notes: This novella, written by a very talented friend and set in a Downtown San Jose era I lived through myself, holds a special place for me (and everyone else I know who has read it). It doesn’t get more San Jose than that book cover.

Discovery Notes: We’re friends!

2. Lorna Dee Cervantes / Emplumada

Poetry / University of Pittsburgh Press / 1982

Read Freeway 280, a poem from this collection.

LORNA DEE CERVANTES was born in San Francisco’s Mission District and grew up in San Jose. The author of five books, she describes herself as a Chicana writer, a feminist writer, and a political writer.

Reading Notes: In talking to San Jose poets, I find that many have a longstanding connection to Lorna Dee Cervantes’ work, and this book in particular. Like Beverly Silva’s poems (see below!), this book helped me to envision familiar San Jose locales through the lens of the past: Oak Hill Cemetery, the abandoned plots under overpasses, our city when it was known as a cannery town.

Discovery Notes: A San Jose native now living in New York City found her poems while researching Varrio Horseshoe and asked if I knew of her work.

1. Beverly Silva / The Second Street Poems

Poetry / Bilingual Review Press / 1983

BEVERLY SILVA was born in Los Angeles and lived in San Jose as an adult. She earned an MA in English at San Jose State University and taught English as a Second Language in Adult Education.

Reading Notes: Prior to this book, which I read on loan from my uncle who knew her, I had never seen poems about San Jose in print. Here, they are plentiful. From the title poem: Second St., / with a fierce passion i have claimed you. / With a fierce pride i have named a book of poems for you. / As I stand here / balanced between East and West San José / weighing my life / you hold me.

Discovery Notes: Thanks, Uncle Joe!

Potential Books To Read

Sally Ashton / Poetry / Some Odd Afternoon 
Arlene Biala / Poetry / her beckoning hands 
Colin Dickey / Nonfiction / Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places 
Mary Hallock Foote / Memoir / A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West
Wayne Koestenbaum / Poetry / Model Homes
Lavinia Ludlow / Fiction / Single Stroke Seven 
Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint / Fiction / The End of Peril, the End of Enmity, the End of Strife, A Haven (forthcoming) 
Viet Thanh Nguyen / Fiction / The Sympathizer: A Novel 
Andrew X. Pham / Memoir / Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam 
Art Rodriguez / Memoir / East Side Dreams
Carmen Gimenez Smith / Poetry / The City She Was 
Charley Trujillo / Fiction / Dogs from Illusion
Gene Luen Yang / Graphic Novel / American Born Chinese