Can you recommend good books about Los Angeles?
October 29, 2008 6:16 AM   Subscribe

Can you recommend good books about Los Angeles? Non-fiction preferred but fiction as well.

Have been fascinated with this city when visiting on business. I would think there would be some good books about the city out there. On the non-fiction side I would love to see a book that breaks down the cultural history of the neighborhoods and emphasizes the quirky, unusual and outrageous. Pictures would be great as well, though not necessary. On the fiction side anything that is able to give me that same sense of explaining the city's history in the context of narrative.
posted by jeremias to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
For contemporary fiction that very much captures what it was like to live and breath LA in the 80-'s-90's

Rachel Cline's My Liar

posted by silsurf at 6:50 AM on October 29, 2008

City of Quartz. Short on the quirky, but long on cultural-historical paranoia.

On the fiction side, Day of the Locust by Nathanael West. And anything by John Fante.
posted by notyou at 6:57 AM on October 29, 2008

Ask the Dust by John Fante gives a nice glimpse of LA in times gone by. Also, alot of Charles Bukowski's works do the same.
posted by scarello at 7:04 AM on October 29, 2008

Against The Day has some parts set in LA, as does Crying of Lot 49, if you likes you some postmodernism. Not a ton about LA in either case (although each is a fantastic book), but Pynchon's such a good writer that I find that his descriptions of LA in each (one in roughly 1920s-era LA, and the other in 60s LA) are almost unrivaled in giving the reader a sense of the area and culture in each period.
posted by Damn That Television at 7:11 AM on October 29, 2008

In addition to writing City of Quartz, Mike Davis also wrote "Ecology of Fear" about Los Angeles. He has his own particular perspective on the city (which some might not agree with), but the writing is fabulous.
posted by waylaid at 7:14 AM on October 29, 2008

Nthing 'City of Quartz' and 'Ecology of Fear.' In crime fiction, Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy and Michael Connelly, among many others, have all portrayed memorable versions of Los Angeles. Among nonfiction books about music, Barney Hoskyns' 'Waiting for the Sun' and William Shaw's 'Westside' are definitely worth reading.
posted by box at 7:37 AM on October 29, 2008

I got a lot of good answers when I asked about this previously.
posted by Durin's Bane at 7:49 AM on October 29, 2008

'city of quartz' is awesome and goes hand-in-hand with norman klein's History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory.

I haven't had a chance to check out Bleeding Through--Layers of Los Angeles, 1920-1986, which is also by him, but I'm anticipating a package from amazon any day now.

full disclosure: Klein is a former instructor of mine at art center and I massively dug his class. he teaches at other colleges as well and if you're in the area and want to know about the city, I highly suggest dropping in some time.
posted by krautland at 8:00 AM on October 29, 2008

I like Holy Land, by D.J. Waldie.
posted by escabeche at 8:03 AM on October 29, 2008

Seconding James Ellroy. Outstanding stuff.
posted by shallowcenter at 8:17 AM on October 29, 2008

I've never set out specifically to read about LA, but both "Cadillac Desert" and one of the major chapters in John McPhee's "In Control of Nature," both provide interesting perspective on some of the environmental factors that have influenced the growth of the city.
posted by Good Brain at 8:33 AM on October 29, 2008

On the fiction side Michael Connelly has some nice descriptions of LA in his novels.
posted by bjgeiger at 8:34 AM on October 29, 2008

Official Negligence by Lou Cannon is a great book covering the era of the Rodney King riots and the years leading up to it. It includes a lot of history of the city's development, the LAPD, and a much more comprehensive understanding of why the city exploded than any other source I have found. Cannon recognizes that there was much more going on than the King incident itself.

It may seem like ancient history after everything the country's been through in the Bush era, but the riots and everything around them did have a profound effect on LA.

(I lived in SoCal from 1988 - 1994 and again in 1998 - 2004.)
posted by scaryblackdeath at 8:55 AM on October 29, 2008

Oooh, check out "Bright Shiny Morning" by James Frey. It's not semi-autobiographical at all, so not as controversial as "A Million Little Pieces," but it's fictional stories woven into nonfiction, historical facts about LA itself. It's almost got a "Crash" feel to it, because some of the fictional stories he develops more than others, but none of the characters in each story ever get involved or anything like that. He's got stories about everyone from a Hispanic woman born in the US who has to pretend to be a non-citizen to get work as a maid, a homeless guy who lives on the Santa Monica Pier and a movie star living a double life.

It's hard to describe and it looks a little intimidating because it's a pretty good-sized book, but I can almost guarantee you won't be let down. I read it in about 2 days because I couldn't put it down, it was that good!
posted by slyboots421 at 9:01 AM on October 29, 2008

Once you are done reading City of Quartz you might want to look at Joan Didion. Neither is solely about LA but Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album both have essays covering her time in LA in the sixties and early seventies.
posted by tallus at 9:47 AM on October 29, 2008

Southland is a little clumsy, fiction-wise, but is very vivid when it comes to atmosphere, and takes place in LA.

However, for my money, there is no book, fiction or non-fiction, that captures the quirky beauty of Los Angeles better than The Weetzie Bat series. It's Young Adult, written for young girls, but do not let that sway you. It's good stuff.

Not about Los Angeles in and of itself, I'll bet you'd really enjoy The Kid Stays in the Picture.
posted by pazazygeek at 9:57 AM on October 29, 2008

Kage Baker's Mendoza in Hollywood is set in Los Angeles in 1862. As an LA resident I really enjoyed the historical perspective it gave me on the city then, and especially the mythos surrounding the Laurel Canyon area. That lead me into reading more about that area afterwards, which definitely gets filed under 'quirky and unusual'.
posted by Joh at 10:12 AM on October 29, 2008

I forgot the ultimate film about los angeles: robert altman's short cuts.
posted by krautland at 11:39 AM on October 29, 2008

keep in mind that the works by mike davis (city of quartz, ecology of fear) may be more fiction than fact.
posted by jimw at 11:46 AM on October 29, 2008

Muckraker Carey McWilliams wrote two classic histories of Southern California in the middle of the twentieth century:

Southern California: An Island on the Land (1947?)

California: The Great Exception (1949)

Architectural historian Reyner Banham wrote the lovely

Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (Freeways, Flatlands, Beach, Foothills)

For quirk, I'm enjoying the catalog for a 2005 Santa Monica Museum show for beat-era Topanga-canyon based photographer and artist Wallace Berman:

Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle

For the lightly-fictionalized seamy side of Hollywood, try anything by Gavin Lambert,
particularly The Slide Area (1959), for Santa Monica Beach Bum culture when it was cheap.

Joan Didion wrote a novel describing the freeway's ability to narcotize time, Play It As It Lays. Her 1960's essay "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream" in Slouching Toward Bethlehem captures the San Bernadino Valley of the mind. She's the bard of Southern California anomie.

For a more recent fictional view of second and third generation (Hollywood) industry-types in West L.A., try the novels of Bruce Wagner, particularly The Chrysanthemum Palace.
posted by doncoyote at 1:53 PM on October 29, 2008

Another recommendation for Joan Didion. Look into her collections of nonfiction essays, specifically Slouching Towards Bethlehem (leans journalistic; if you pick only one, I'd choose this one — some of it is downright remarkable), The White Album (leans personal), and Where I Was From. It's not all Los Angeles stuff, but even the stuff that isn't is distinctly Californian.

M.F.K. Fisher was raised in southern California around Los Angeles (Whittier, I believe) during the early years of the 20th century. She's known almost entirely for her (magnificent) food writing, but many of her books hew more closely to the standard memoir template, and she provides an intimate and intensely felt experience of childhood and adolescence during that era and in that place. I'm thinking mainly of Among Friends, but I'd also recommend The Gastronomical Me and To Begin Again: Stories and Memoirs, 1908-1929.
posted by jeeves at 3:12 PM on October 29, 2008

Seconding Jeeves. Reading Slouching toward Bethlehem these days. Fantastic.
posted by namesarehard at 4:38 PM on October 29, 2008

Nthing Block's Weetzie Bat series (¡Soy Niña Bruja!) and the sequel Necklace of Kisses, The Hanged Man, I was a Teenaged Fairy....and to go off on a completely different tangent: James M. Cain.
posted by brujita at 10:54 PM on October 29, 2008

I'd recommend David L. Ulin's Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology (Library of America). Plenty of information on the Library of America website:
posted by davemack at 7:14 PM on October 30, 2008

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