8 Books About Living in Los Angeles
María Amparo Escandón, author of "L.A. Weather," recommends stories about Angelenos
I’ve probably said it more times than Randy Newman: I love L.A. And to prove it, I pay homage to my city in my three novels, Esperanza’s Box of Saints, González & Daughter Trucking Co., and my latest, L.A. Weather, where I tell the story of a Mexican American Angeleno family making sense of their complicated relationships, crises and ordeals as drought and fires close in on them throughout a momentous year in Southern California.
But I’m not the only writer infatuated with the incomprehensible and fascinating sprawl that is Los Angeles. As Scott Timberg and Dana Gioia explain in The Misread City, we’ve had “the gumshoes, the wisecracking Englishmen, the Boosters, the Beats, and the boozers, after the despairing heroines of Joan Didion and the cocked-up rich kids of Bret Easton Ellis,” all attempting to give us their own version of L.A., however disastrous, devastating, uplifting or irreverent, but always so L.A.
When looking at this city, no writer should use a telescope. A kaleidoscope is a far better instrument, with its multifaceted prisms projecting endless configurations. In this selection of books, I offer you a few of those sparkles in the understanding that we’re not even getting started.
Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion
A literary icon of the L.A. counterculture movement, Joan Didion portrays a devastating vision of 1970s Los Angeles in the story of Maria Wyeth Lang, an actress living in Beverly Hills, who suffers an emotional breakdown at a psychiatric ward. When asked by her doctor, she tells of her distressing and lonely life as a Hollywood socialite. Neglected by her film director husband, Carter, she spends her days driving around the city, attending pointless parties, using drugs, and engaging in risky and self-destructive behavior. After her husband forces her to have an abortion (the result of an affair), she divorces him. And to illustrate the notion that the rich also cry, she fantasizes in the psychiatric ward about reuniting with her institutionalized mentally ill daughter. This is the story of the self-inflicted collapse of a life.
Golden Days by Carolyn See
Carolyn See starts this social satire when her lead character, Edith, returns to Los Angeles with her two daughters after a less than positive life in New York—both personally and professionally—and settles in Topanga Canyon surrounding herself by a tribe of locals. Soon, her life makes a turn for the better, developing relationships with eccentric characters (a madcap guru, a television evangelist, you get the idea) that eventually launch her into success and paradise, until the nuclear war darkens her blissful life. But, unlike other gloom and doom apocalyptic novels, Carolyn See portrays a renewed and hopeful human race emerging from the scorched rubble—never mind the absence of the infamous “nuclear winter” and other related devastation—as a testament of L.A.’s perpetual optimism.
This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes
This is a novel of reinvention, of giving the world a chance and a place in your heart. Based in Los Angeles with its corresponding weather calamities and cultural idiosyncrasies, the story tells of how Richard Novak—a homebound securities trader—is launched out of his home office and personal treadmill into the outside world by happenstance. He discovers the wonders of being a community hero (composed of a cast of very L.A. characters like Anhil, a doughnut-shop owner) by solving crises (saves a horse from a huge sinkhole in front of his house). A.M. Homes is known for her extraordinary ability to write psychological and intense stories, social satire, and black comedy, and if you’re into this, you won’t be disappointed.
Palmdale & Granada Hills
Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha
Your House Will Pay is Steph Cha’s powerful, haunting exploration of a decades-old crime and its far-reaching effects on two Los Angeles families—one Korean American, and one African American. This thriller follows Shawn Matthews, a black Angeleno who is still reeling from the murder of his sister by a Korean woman in the early 1990s, and Grace Park, who lives a quiet life with her immigrant parents until she discovers that her mother might be hiding a dark secret about her past. Inspired, in part, by true L.A. events, Your House Will Pay is a story of loss, injustice, trauma, and reckoning that captures the complicated history of two Los Angeles communities.
Mt. Hollywood in Griffith Park
Hollywood Notebook by Wendy C. Ortiz
Born in Los Angeles and with a profound connection to this city’s psyche, Wendy Ortiz delivers a map of the city transformed into words: a fragmented memoir of hurt, love, loss, and reinvention. What does a young writer (one of thousands) living in this city and trying to make it worry about? Joblessness. Rent. Bills. Riding the metro. Alcohol. And yes, sex and publishing too, of course.
Lithium for Medea by Kate Braverman
Kate Braverman lived in Los Angeles for years and set many of her stories in this city, like Frantic Transmissions To And From Los Angeles or Palm Latitudes. In Lithium for Medea, Braverman tells the sad and dark story of Rose and her dysfunctional family, a love-hate relationship with her mother, her dying father, and drugs, lots of them. It is a disturbing, cruel and irreverently poetic story. I survived her writing workshop in the early ’90s. Kate taught me the weight of words and I thank her for that. My copies of her books are yellow from the excessive use of my highlighter. If you enjoy reading poetic prose, Kate Braverman is the master to go to.
If You Lived Here You’d Be Famous By Now by Via Bleidner
If You Lived Here You’d Be Famous By Now is a debut novel by Via Bleidner, a young writer who reports her experiences living in the L.A./San Fernando Valley enclave of Calabasas and attending Calabasas High School. Calabasas—for those who might not be in the pop cultural know—is home to the Kardashians. Bleidner writes about the world she has inhabited as a reporter. She participates, but she also is able to maintain a certain writer’s detachment describing the shenanigans the natives engage in: lip surgery, social media, and dog celebrities. But there is humor in this slice of the L.A. experience. Bleidner not only describes, but also tries to understand and reflect.
Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Malibu Rising is a novel that captures the glamour, the empty façades, and the excesses of a celebrity-oriented surfing family. Malibu is part of the L.A. scene: a mix of money, sport, beach culture, and make-believe in approximately equal parts. Jenkins Reid focuses on the events of a single day when four siblings, children of a famous crooner, are throwing the end of summer party that every partygoer wants to attend. Hundreds show up and the party catalyzes the individual and family tensions until excess turns into mayhem and disaster. The four siblings are surfers and one can gather that the waves and their consequences are a proxy for lives lived on the edge: on the edge of financial, existential and emotional disaster, when the beauty of catching the perfect wave can be followed by a tumble into the angry ocean.