Natalie Singer’s Latest Memoir Is a Keeper

She has moved north to Seattle, but the hold California has over her remains.


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Photo by Stuart Isett

Find a permanent place on your bookshelf for writer Natalie Singer’s startling memoir, California Calling, A Self-Interrogation. This is a book you won’t want to let go of, for fear it may never return. Constructed in call-and-response format with brisk questions or commands, like “What is at risk?” and “Draw a map of your heart,” Singer tells of falling in love with California. Her descriptions of people and life in the East Bay in particular are written with the flair and honesty of writers like Joan Didion, whose words are quoted in the book’s opening. More than anything, Singer catches the zeitgeist of California and its pioneer history that includes good-bad paradigms such as glorious celebration of free speech and LGBTQ acceptance colliding with crass commercialism, exploitation of indigenous Native Americans, and discrimination that has long-labeled Latino, Asian, and other immigrants—including Canadian-born Singer who is of Jewish ancestry—as “aliens.”

What makes this memoir plunge like a knife into a reader’s heart, leaving wounds but also a sense of being incredibly alive, happens as Singer transforms what could be a standard coming-of-age story into a masterful portrayal of family, place, and home. Born in Montreal, her parents split and remarry. She moves with her mother, stepfather, and siblings to California, a state she learns is not a country as she once supposed in fourth grade and yet anticipates in one response will be like a secret society, pineapple Jell-O, marmalade, a pink tattoo, Barbie dolls, and “… a woman in a silver Speedo and an alligator mask. Shaving her legs in a public fountain.”

Singer fails at a court hearing to speak in defense of family unity, and her silence means her father wins custody of her younger brother. The damaging schism is permanent, especially in Singer’s self-perception that reverberates with guilt from that moment forward. In reaction, she longs to belong to anyone and anything regardless of shifty terrain. She’s a bit like the state’s ubiquitous palm trees that “lodge firmly in a loamy base.”

The intentionally cool and fractured storytelling partially dissolves in melodic final chapters, regrettably losing some of the book’s powerful, cool-hot tension. Singer has moved north to Seattle, but even so, with California Calling, there’s no question of the pull the adopted state retains on her heart. Hang on to this book for its stunning, wry language alone, if not more; a second read provides newfound pleasures.

California Calling, A Self-Interrogation by Natalie Singer (Hawthorne Books, 2018, 291 pp., $18.95)

This report was originally published in our sister publication, the East Bay Monthly.

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