Because I wrote a novel that takes place in New York City, I’m usually asked to recommend books about New York City, something I would happily spend days doing, but I haven’t been a New Yorker for a while (except at heart). I moved to Los Angeles in 2009. I’m an Angeleno now. I know what you’re thinking: which city do I like best? I’m not going to tell you, because I can’t, because it’s impossible to choose and it’s always a little surprising to me when people think I can—or that I have to. It’s impossible for me to imagine going without either and my heart is big enough for both. I love New York for all the vibrant, resplendent multitudes it contains, including 27 years of my personal history. I love Los Angeles because it’s my present and my immediate future and because it’s a gorgeous mess of contradictions: a blossoming city built on the high desert always divining for water; a tinseled town hovering above deep fissures in the earth; a place where dreamers come to reinvent themselves and end up staying because life here is… nice. And not just because of valet parking and the weather, but because of the wild expanse of blue sky, the light, the otherworldly succulents, the hummingbirds and coyotes, the lizards and lemon trees, the mountains and the oceans—all of it is food for the mind, the heart, the soul. Unsurprisingly, a lot of my reading over the past few years has centered around California’s past and present. Here are five books I particularly love.
By Jim Gavin
One of my favorite short story collections of recent years, set in a very particular slice of Los Angeles and giving voice to the people who make up much more of Southern California than the rich and famous, is Jim Gavin’s Middle Men. The men of this collection are often caught in-between, but the sense of place throughout is specific, vivid, and brilliant.
Angle of Repose
By Wallace Stegner
Not precisely a California novel, but a novel of western expansion. I first read this book many years ago and loved it because of the story it told, but it has a deeper meaning to me now as a glimpse into the hardship and courage of the people who set out to tame new territories, often with dire results, and the generations of family who tell their stories.2 .
By Marisa Silver
I read Mary Coin shortly after moving to California and so much of its imagery stays with me, particularly the chapters that focus on a migrant worker during the Great Depression, trying to keep her family alive, fed. Inspired by Dorothea Lange’s iconic photo “Migrant Mother,” this California novel is a beautiful exploration of how the past continues to haunt us, and how art can both expand and reduce a life.
Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders
By Vincent Bugliosi & Curt Gentry
Apart from exploring the sensational aspects of the Charles Manson story, (which I am hardly immune to—one of the first things we did upon moving to Los Angeles and discovering that the LaBianca house was not far from ours, was round up the kids and get in the car to do a family drive-by) Helter Skelter is also a riveting look at a very particular time in Los Angeles and the enthralling criminal justice system surrounding these gruesome murders.4 .
Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune
By Bill Dedman & Paul Clark Newell
I’m cheating a little bit because this story takes place primarily in New York City, but it follows one family through generations and is a remarkable look at the gilded age and beyond. I recommend reading this book while knowing as little as possible about the recluse Huguette Clark. Suffice it to say that part of her story includes a deserted mansion in Santa Barbara that I was obsessed with before I read the book. I’d notice it during weekend visits to that magical seaside town and wonder about the house way up on a hill. An enchanting and strange page-turner.