Last year, I experienced my first winter. I'm not trying to pull the wool over your eyes or anything; I'm a Los Angeles native, and I'm used to no seasons and basically eternal sun. Having moved to New York, I was the coldest I have ever been in my life. One day, I was walking to the subway when I became so overwhelmed by the temperature that I felt like I couldn’t walk anymore, so I went into a used bookstore. While I was waiting to feel my toes again, I asked for a recommendation for books about Los Angeles.
Slight wrench in the works: the guy who worked there told me there weren’t any books about Los Angeles, and if they did existed, they weren’t any good. Imagine my face: I was disappointed, homesick, and seriously considering one of those seasonal happy lamps. But more than anything, I didn’t want to go outside again. So, I decided to make my own list of books about my hometown, Los Angeles, right then and there. Sticking it to the man. The bookstore man.
For the people who are born and raised in Los Angeles, it is sunlight, traffic, and home. It's also where people wear jeans to Michelin starred restaurants, and no ones asks Kira Knightly for a picture when they see her at Sqirl. Los Angeles is a place for everyone and every type, so while there is no universal Los Angeles experience, here are a few good books that'll give you the dish on what the LA experience is really like, no smog included. (OK, maybe a little.)
The White Album by Joan Didion
The White Album looks at the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in California, but focuses on Los Angeles, where Didion moved after living in New York (she explains this move in the classic essay Goodbye To All That). Didion is the kind of writer and cultural critic that any city would benefit from, but I think no relationship was more symbiotic than the one between her and LA.
David Hockney By David Hockney
David Hockney once said that "California is always on my mind." He put it on the minds of many other people, as well. The first time I saw his paintings I thought, I want to go there — little did I know I had already been. In his memoirs, he talks about his decision to move to Los Angeles, and what the art world was like when he arrived.
Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis
You may have seen Less Then Zero the movie starring Robert Downy Jr. on Netflix (I highly recommend it if you haven’t) and thought, This is the hardcore high school ‘80s movie of my dreams. But wait until you read the book. Ellis wrote Less Than Zero when he was 21 and newly graduated from Bennington. It is based on his time at Los Angeles’s most expensive high school, The Buckley School (alumni include Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, and Paul Thomas Anderson), and will make you wonder how anyone could survive THAT MUCH casual cocaine use.
A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
A Scanner Darkly is set in a Los Angeles that is addicted to a new drug called Substance D, and follows a narcotics agent who eventually gets hooked on the drug that he is trying to bring down. Phillip K. Dick is half author and half philosopher, and if that isn't enough to get you interested? Kim Gordon loves him. Bam.
Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon
And speaking of which! Sonic Youth might be a New York band, but Kim Gordon is a California girl. Gordon explains her family’s gold rush roots at the beginning of the book, but the Southern California theme goes beyond that. She credits her approach to death and her basic aesthetic to her Los Angeles upbringing. Part of what's fun about Gordon's portrayal of Los Angeles is that of a city unfinished, where kids play on dirt mounds that will become highway ramps.
The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
Even if you aren't familiar with Los Angeles, you probably know a thing or two about Hollywood, right? The Day of the Locust takes place in Hollywood during the Great Depression and shows the desperate side of a city that isn't visible from your bungalow at the Chateau. It's a portrait that you probably haven't seen before, but one that's definitely worth getting to know.
White Oleander by Janet Fitch
Yes, White Oleander was in Oprah’s Book Club, but if Abbi from Broad City has taught us anything, it is to trust Lady O. White Oleander is written like a poem. Some of the most striking paragraphs are about the weather, which is saying something once you know the plot. The novel follows Astrid through the Los Angeles foster care system after her mother is sent to prison. It's a dark story, and Astrid's struggles will break your heart, but it will also remind you that friendship can be found in unexpected places.
Bathwater Wine by Wanda Coleman
Bathwater Wineis a book of poetry that takes a powerful look at race and anger in Los Angeles, where Wanda Coleman grew up. An Amazon reviewer described her as the "Black, female Bukowski" — but she is so much better than that. How? She is searing, sincere, and unafraid of her own feelings. That's quite a package if you ask me. And, hey! You did.
The Tortilla Curtain by T. Coraghessan Boyle
Just like most major cities today, Los Angeles is a city of haves and have nots. The Tortilla Curtain brings together two couples from different sides of the same canyon — Topanga Canyon, to be exact — and questions what living the American Dream really means. If you've never read T.C. Boyle, this is a great place to start.
The Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar
A contemporary novel that captures Los Angeles is hard to come by, but Héctor Tobar does just that in The Barbarian Nurseries . Araceli, the main character, goes from live-in maid to caretaker when the couple she works for accidentally leaves their kids at home unattended. Araceli and the boys go through LA looking for the kids’ grandfather, but the book is really about their environment, which is the city in the harsh light of the 21st Century.
Counter Intelligence by Jonathan Gold
Some people have their parents to thank for their taste in food. I have Jonathan Gold. Not only was Gold the first food critic to ever win a Pulitzer, but his blend of high and low taste is a perfect way to capture LA. Read this book (even though it is 15 years old!), check out his yearly list of Los Angeles's best restaurants, and look out for City of Gold, the new documentary about him that recently premiered at Sundance (yes, even our food critics get movies... oh, LA).