Los Angeles: Three Great Books

Travel Blog  •  Jim Benning  •  03.11.06 | 5:24 PM ET

This week we introduce a new weblog feature, Three Great Books, which highlights a few must-reads for a particular city or region or country. We’re talking about books worth picking up before a trip to that particular place, or to read purely for pleasure. These could be travel narratives, but also memoirs, novels, histories, perhaps even a book of poetry from time to time—anything that evokes a place or speaks to its essence. We begin with Los Angeles. The city might be best known as a movie town, but Los Angeles is far more than that. It has a proud literary history that includes the likes of Charles Bukowski, Joan Didion, Carolyn See, John Fante, Carey McWilliams and Walter Mosley. Three great books:

imageThe Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. Chandler is a towering figure in Los Angeles’ literary landscape. He wrote classic works of hardboiled detective fiction set in the Los Angeles of yore, recalling for today’s readers a time when the city was still young. This 1939 novel debuted Chandler’s private-eye protagonist Philip Marlowe. It opens evoking fall in L.A.: “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.”

imageCity of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles by Mike Davis. Davis is a sharp, lefty intellectual with a keen eye and a penchant for a parsing the nuances of history and place. Here he examines the ethnic and class struggles central to L.A.‘s history. It’s not always pretty, but it’s an in-depth look at the city you’ll find few other places. If you don’t mind Davis’ sometimes dense, scholarly prose, also consider checking out his intriguing Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. City. It’s a fascinating, sympathetic look at the changing face of American cities, including Los Angeles.

imageThe Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle. Boyle is one of America’s finest contemporary novelists, and here he offers an entertaining bit of insight into L.A. sociology. The novel follows the lives of a well-heeled couple who live in a Topanga Canyon gated community—the man is a hack nature writer—and a couple of undocumented Mexican immigrants who literally live in the canyon, camping out by a creek. Their lives cross paths—collide, one might say—and therein lies the story. 

Passages like this one, about the couple from Mexico living in the canyon, evoke a very different kind of life in Los Angeles:

They’d been living in the canyon three weeks now—there was no way he would expose her to life on the streets, to downtown L.A. or even Van Nuys—and though they didn’t have a roof over their heads and nothing was settled, he’d felt happy for the first time since they’d left home. The water was still flowing, the sand was clean and the sky overhead was all his, and there was nobody to dispute him for it. He remembered his first trip North, hotbedding in a two-room apartment in Echo Park with thirty-two other men, sleeping in shifts and lining up on the streetcorner for work, the reek of the place, the roaches and the nits. Down here was different. Down here they were safe from all the filth and sickness of the streets, from la chota—the police—and the Immigration.

Do you have any favorite Los Angeles books?



4 Comments for Los Angeles: Three Great Books

carpetblogger 03.12.06 | 3:28 AM ET

I’d substitute City Of Quartz (does anyone get through it?) with Cadillac Desert. It’s the story of water in Southern California and explains more than any book I’ve ever read why LA is politically and geographically the way it is. And it’s well-written.

The opening few lines of “Play it As it Lays” run through my mind every time I drive the 101 through downtown, even with traffic at a standstill.

Jim Benson 03.12.06 | 1:23 PM ET

They are not “undocumented Mexican immigrants”.  They are illegal aliens, lawbreakers, parasites, social service mooches.
Every neighborhood in which Mexican illegals invade, quickly turns into a cess pool of crime, graffiti, trash on the streets, poverty, etc.

Jim Benning 03.12.06 | 2:43 PM ET

Cadillac Desert is a great book, carpetblogger. It resides right next to City of Quartz on my shelf. I thought we might include it if we do a Three Great Books item about the larger region, because I always think of it as a book about California, or even about the West, even though its central story is the history of water and development in SoCal.

And Play It as it Lays is a classic, to be sure. I always think of some of the lines from Didion’s “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” story when I drive east from Los Angeles toward San Bernardino. That has some of the best writing I’ve ever seen on L.A. suburbs and the Santa Ana winds.

This isn’t a forum for debating immigration, so if we get any more posts on the topic, I’m going to delete them to keep the focus on books. But for the record, politics aside, I don’t believe people can be illegal. It’s a question of grammar. People, or aliens, can commit illegal acts, but they cannot be illegal.  Although plenty of media still use “illegal aliens” or even “illegal immigrants,” that’s changing and will continue to change.

AG 03.17.06 | 3:49 AM ET

(moving off the immigration topic) I’ve got two, both skewing toward an era when LA’s essence seemed particularly specific in a non-Chandler way…

* Robert Winter’s Architecture in Los Angeles: A Compleat Guide was published in 1985, but if you can lay hands on it it’ll open your eyes to the city that was as well as several cities that might have been. Looking at it two decades later, you sense a city in which any number of possibilities had yet to collapse. Sic transit urbes.

* A less serious suggestion, though still incredibly evocative of a particular time and place: A Day In The Life Of Los Angeles, one of those 24-hours-of photo books done before that concept so utterly played itself out. (It’s another mid-80s book—what can I say, I have good flea-market karma.) Looking at it now, it feels like it comes from a world of webcams and phone cams, decades before that technology came to pass.

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