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125 YEARS / ESSENTIAL READING

Los Angeles' literary landscape

April 30, 2006|Thomas Curwen and David L. Ulin | Times Staff Writers

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...."

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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 05, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
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."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 07, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
L.A. book title: In the commemorative Home section published April 30, an article on Los Angeles' literary landscape referred to a book by Reyner Banham as "Los Angeles: The Ecology of Four Ecologies." The correct title is "Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies."

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

Non-Fiction

An Architectural

Guidebook to Los Angeles

By David Gebhard and Robert Winter

Once 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.

Chavez Ravine, 1949:

A Los Angeles Story

By Don Normark

In 1949, professional photographer Normark discovered Chavez 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 Davis

When "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. Klein

Klein, 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. Waldie

Many 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 Ponce

Pacoima 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 Pitt

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