Despite its beaches and potential for celebrity sightings, Los Angeles can be a truly strange place: the stuff of both fantasies and nightmares.
Palm trees sway in smog-choked skies; Hollywood looms, glittering and smothering; and a long drive down a major street can reveal both extreme wealth and persistent poverty. A city with a glamorous, gritty past and a historically diverse population, L.A. has served as a riveting backdrop for storytellers throughout the decades.
If you’re in the mood to hurtle into a seedy, sun-soaked, Southern Californian daze this summer, check out these 10 books:
The synopses in this post were provided by Amazon and Goodreads.
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1. Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion
A ruthless dissection of American life in the late 1960s, Play It as It Lays captures the mood of an entire generation, the ennui of contemporary society reflected in spare prose that blisters and haunts the reader. Set in a place beyond good and evil—literally in Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the barren wastes of the Mojave Desert, but figuratively in the landscape of an arid soul – it remains more than three decades after its original publication a profoundly disturbing novel, riveting in its exploration of a woman and a society in crisis and stunning in the still-startling intensity of its prose.
2. The Barbarian Nurseries, Héctor Tobar
Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson have always relied on others to run their Orange County home. But when bad investments crater their bank account, it all comes down to Araceli: their somewhat prickly Mexican maid. One night, an argument between the couple turns physical, and a misunderstanding leaves the children in Araceli’s care. Their parents unreachable, she takes them to central Los Angeles in the hopes of finding Scott’s estranged Mexican father—an earnest quest that soon becomes a colossal misadventure, with consequences that ripple through every strata of the sprawling city. Héctor Tobar‘s The Barbarian Nurseries is a masterful tale of contemporary Los Angeles, a novel as alive as the city itself.
3. The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West
The Day of the Locust is a novel about Hollywood and its corrupting touch, about the American dream turned into a sun-drenched California nightmare. Nathanael West’s Hollywood is not the glamorous “home of the stars” but a seedy world of little people, some hopeful, some despairing, all twisted by their by their own desires—from the ironically romantic artist narrator to a macho movie cowboy, a middle-aged innocent from America’s heartland, and the hard-as-nails call girl would-be-star whom they all lust after. An unforgettable portrayal of a world that mocks the real and rewards the sham, turns its back on love to plunge into empty sex, and breeds a savage violence that is its own undoing, this novel stands as a classic indictment of all that is most extravagant and uncontrolled in American life.
4. The Sellout, Paul Beatty
Paul Beatty‘s The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. A biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, it challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality—the black Chinese restaurant.
Born in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens—on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles—the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: “I’d die in the same bedroom I’d grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that’ve been there since ’68 quake.” Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father’s pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family’s financial woes, but when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that’s left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.
Fueled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town’s most famous resident—the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins—he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.
5. Ask the Dust, John Fante
Ask the Dust is the story of Arturo Bandini, a young writer in 1930s Los Angeles who falls hard for the elusive, mocking, unstable Camilla Lopez, a Mexican waitress. Struggling to survive, he perseveres until, at last, his first novel is published. But the bright light of success is extinguished when Camilla has a nervous breakdown and disappears, and Bandini forever rejects the writer’s life he fought so hard to attain.
6. Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A., Eve Babitz
Eve Babitz captured the voluptuous quality of L.A. in the1960s in a wildly original, totally unique voice. These stories are time capsule gems, as poignant and startling today as they were when published in the early 1970s. Babitz is not well known today, but she should be. Her first-hand experiences in the L.A. cultural scene, translated into haunting fiction, are an unforgettable glimpse at a lost world and a magical time.
7. The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
“Down these mean streets, a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid….He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.”
This is the Code of the Private Eye as defined by Raymond Chandler in his 1944 essay “The Simple Act of Murder.” Such a man was Philip Marlowe, private eye, an educated, heroic, streetwise, rugged individualist and the hero of Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep. This work established Chandler as the master of the ‘hard-boiled’ detective novel, and his articulate and literary style of writing won him a large audience, which ranged from the man in the street to the most sophisticated intellectual.
8. If He Hollers Let Him Go, Chester Himes
This story of a man living every day in fear of his life for simply being black is as powerful today as it was when it was first published in 1947. The novel takes place over four days in the life of Bob Jones, a black man who is constantly plagued by the effects of racism. Living in a society that is drenched in race consciousness has no doubt taken a toll on the way Jones behaves, thinks, and feels, especially when, at the end of his story, he is accused of a brutal crime he did not commit.
9. L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City, John Buntin
For more than three decades, from Prohibition through the Watts Riots, the battle between the underworld and the police played out amid the nightclubs of the Sunset Strip and the mansions of Beverly Hills, from the gritty streets of Boyle Heights to the manicured lawns of Brentwood, intersecting in the process with the agendas and ambitions of J. Edgar Hoover, Robert F. Kennedy, and Malcolm X. The outcome of this decades-long entanglement shaped modern American policing–for better and for worse–and helped create the Los Angeles we know today.
A fascinating examination of Los Angeles’s underbelly, the Mob, and America’s most admired–and reviled–police department, L.A. Noir is an enlightening, entertaining, and richly detailed narrative about the city originally known as El Pueblo de Nuestra Se–ora la Reina de Los Angeles, “The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels.”
10. White Oleander, Janet Fitch
Hailed as a novel of rare beauty and power, White Oleander tells the unforgettable story of Ingrid, a brilliant poet imprisoned for murder, and her daughter, Astrid, whose odyssey through a series of Los Angeles foster homes—each its own universe, with its own laws, its own dangers, its own hard lessons to be learned—becomes a redeeming and surprising journey of self-discovery.