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In "Ramona," her 1884 novel of Southern California, Helen Hunt Jackson did more than tell the story of the illicit romance between a mestizo orphan and an Indian sheepherder. Caught in the pages of her famous melodrama is a picture of the land that is perhaps more timeless than the tale itself.

"The billowy hills on either side of the valley were covered with verdure and bloom…. Father Salvierderra paused many times to gaze at the beautiful picture…. The fairer this beautiful land, the sadder to know it lost to the Church…."


FOR THE RECORD:
Book title:—In the commemorative Home section published Sunday, a story on Los Angeles' literary landscape listed an incorrect title for a book by Reyner Banham. The correct title is "Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies."


Jackson's lyrical descriptions capture a reverence for the Western sky, for the gardens and orchards of the region, for the open fields of wild mustard — and an implicit understanding that this world has played a role in shaping her characters.

Writers since Jackson have consciously — or unconsciously — tumbled to similar truths. Whether the backdrop is bucolic or sprawling, nostalgic or postmodern, the drama of Southern California is often caught up in the topography or the development of this urban environment. Fiction writers portray it, nonfictions writers explain it, and between the two is a rich body of literature.

No list of these books is complete, but these 20 titles are a good starting point.

Non-FictionAn Architectural Guidebook to Los AngelesBy David Gebhard and Robert WinterOnce known as the "Blue Brick" (for its size and format) but recently updated and redesigned, it is now simply the bible. Gebhard and Winter's collaboration — informing and entertaining — is as indispensable as a Thomas Guide (and sits as easily under the seat of your car). In their mapping of the region and their identification of its notable buildings, the authors never forget that the architecture of L.A. is the best repository of our historic and cultural identity.

Chávez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story By Don NormarkIn 1949, professional photographer Normark discovered Chávez Ravine, a Mexican American community lost in time, surrounded by the emerging metropolis. Wandering the steep hillsides with his camera, he documented this "poor man's Shangri-la," not knowing that its residents would be gone within a decade. His account of this forgotten neighborhood, told in pictures and interviews, is lovingly redemptive.

City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles By Mike DavisWhen "City of Quartz" detonated over Los Angeles in 1990, Davis' critique was notably different from either the high-minded criticism or the facile observations of this city that come and go with each season. Drawn through his own working-class experience, his view is so visceral, and his catalog of our collective failures so impassioned, that you might believe that at one time he loved the city and its possibilities. Whether we agree with Davis or not, we are often the wiser for what he demands of us.

The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory By Norman M. KleinKlein, who teaches at the California Institute of the Arts, writes a new — and inherently Southern Californian — kind of history, in which what we have abandoned is as important as what we have maintained. For Klein, Los Angeles' past continues to linger in traces — from those ghostly stairways leading nowhere to the images captured by old motion pictures — in which L.A. is both preserved and overshadowed, a city photographed and forgotten all at once.

Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir By D.J. WaldieMany disparaging words have been lavished on our postwar suburbs, but it wasn't until this quiet, beautifully written homage to Lakewood was published in 1996 that we were given an alternative. Waldie splices his memories of growing up on the grid (the plat of streets and homes laid out in the 1950s) with his experience as a Catholic, a poet and as public information officer for Lakewood to reveal truths that are often felt but seldom expressed.

Hoyt Street: An Autobiography By Mary Helen PoncePacoima may not register on anyone's mental map of Los Angeles, but for working-class Mexican families who arrived in the 1940s, it was more than home. It was perhaps the first place where they could own property. Ponce grew up here, and although her story may lack the magical realism of Sandra Cisneros' "The House on Mango Street," its heartfelt picture of the meaning of place for immigrants in this city has not been surpassed.

Los Angeles A to Z: An Encyclopedia of the City and County By Leonard Pitt and Dale PittWith some 600 pages and 2,000 entries, it would be easy to shelve "Los Angeles A to Z" with other reference books on the city, but there is something so breezily wonderful and authoritative in this record that it begs for a more steady perusal. Written with authority and style, with entries ranging from the most ordinary ("birds") to the most esoteric ("Zamorano Club") — and with illustrations and tasty quotes to boot, the Pitts know the prerequisite of good storytelling: Just get out of the way and let the facts do all the work.

Los Angeles: The Ecology of Four Ecologies By Reyner BanhamThirty-five years after publication, its tone may seem oddly defensive — at the time, L.A. was an easy target — but its appreciation of this city and its memorable prose have yet to be surpassed. Perhaps it took a Brit to turn L.A. inside out (rather than repeat the accepted wisdoms), but Banham's profound understanding that the terrain of this city — its four ecologies — has determined how we live and behave here was, and still is, radically brilliant.

Southern California: An Island on the Land By Carey McWilliamsWhat's remarkable about this groundbreaking book is that 60 years after it was published, the region it describes is still recognizably ours. McWilliams was the first to offer a coherent vision of the Southland, encompassing both its mythos and its reality, andidentify not just our obsession with real estate but also the ethnic dislocations that mark both our psyches and the city's streets.

Truth Serum: MemoirsBy Bernard CooperThis collection of essays details the author's coming-of-age in Los Angeles during the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. With pieces like "Burl's," which takes its name from a local coffee shop, Cooper gets at the fabric of his Los Feliz neighborhood, but even more, his writing highlights a uniquely contemporary L.A. literature, in which the individual's experience becomes the defining characteristic of a city in search of itself.

**

FictionAsk the DustBy John FanteConsidered by many the starting point of Los Angeles literature, Fante's novel evokes the longing and desperation of downtown Los Angeles in the early 1930s, an environment far removed from the glitzy facades of Hollywood. For Fante, Los Angeles is less a dream factory than a gritty urban landscape, in which every desire comes at a price.

The Big Sleep By Raymond ChandlerIt's tempting to include all of Chandler's work here, since perhaps no other writer is as responsible for how we think about the city as a physical and psychological entity. In this novel, however, Chandler also captures a vision of a long-lost Los Angeles, including the Hollywood Boulevard booksellers that private eye Philip Marlowe visits and the gambling boats that once lay anchored in Santa Monica Bay and more.

The Crying of Lot 49 By Thomas PynchonWhen Oedipa Maas first beholds San Narcisco, a vast sprawl of houses somewhere near L.A., it is all dystopia sheathed in smog — and ripe for a conspiracy as dark as any Jacobean tragedy But what matters most is that Pynchon in a little more than 100 pages captures a topography straight out of our local past. The high jinks at Yoyodyne, the cavorting at Echo Courts, and the pink glow of the sky at night — we fail to recognize this world at our own risk.

The Day of the Locust By Nathanael WestForget the painting, the riot, and the dwarf. It's West's picture of Los Angeles in the opening that hits a sublime note. Twilight is falling on a cityscape of "Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages," and in a moment of charity, Tod Hackett realizes: "It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous." No writer better captures the bittersweet emotions that seep up through the streets of this city than West.

Devil in a Blue Dress By Walter Mosley"I loved going home. Maybe it was that I was raised on a sharecropper's farm or that I never owned anything until I bought that house, but I loved my little home." When Mosley penned these words to describe Los Angeles for the unemployed Easy Rawlins, he told us something we had long forgotten. The city might not have been perfect for working-class blacks after the war, but it represented more than home. It was hope — no matter how easily that hope could be dashed.

Double Indemnity By James M. CainStill the greatest of all noir novels, Cain's second book captures the desolation of Depression-era Los Angeles, where everyone, it seemed, was out to make a score. Densely atmospheric and abidingly cynical, the novel's dark view of human nature reflects the underside of the California fantasy, suggesting that when there's nowhere else to run to, there may be nothing else to lose.

Golden Days By Carolyn SeeWhat can you say about a novel that ends with the nuclear apocalypse — but it's a happy ending after all? Nothing, except that such a work could not be set anywhere else but in Los Angeles, which has winked at its devastation all along. See understands the rhythms of the city; when her protagonist drives from Echo Park through Westwood to Topanga, the journey becomes a lesson in not just geography but also in the social structure of the place. "They say L.A. is large," See writes, "but they lie."

Los Angeles Without a Map By Richard RaynerThis autobiographical novel — the main character's name is Richard Rayner — offers a dead-on portrait of Los Angeles in the 1980s as seen from the fringes of the movie industry. Whether describing long bus trips down Venice Boulevard, or the odd rendezvous in the Mojave desert, Rayner captures a sense of Southern California as a territory in constant motion, even (or especially) if, like Rayner's narrator, you have never learned to drive.

Play It as It Lays By Joan DidionDidion's 1970 novel is famous for its opening description of driving on the freeways, but equally important is its sense of Los Angeles as a peripatetic landscape, where it is impossible to settle and all we have to sustain us is a certain frantic reflex to move. Unlike Rayner, who regards L.A. — for all its overstated lunacy — as in some odd way fantastic, Didion never sees the city as anything less than apocalyptic, a territory of brittle surfaces and deep anxieties, ringed by roads that do not take us anywhere.

White Oleander By Janet FitchThe narrative can get a bit melodramatic, but this 1999 novel is the first book of L.A. fiction to portray the city as a collection of neighborhoods, rather than as a faceless urban sprawl. As we follow Fitch's teen protagonist through an array of foster homes, we get a panoramic view of Los Angeles as it was and still remains, a landscape of small communities that change, in some cases block to block, according to an intricate, and in many cases unrecognized, set of codes.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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