While California may be mythologized as the ultimate stimulant for the imagination, it has, oddly enough, inspired comparatively few travel books. In contrast, floods of fiction have poured out of the state, in particular Los Angeles, over the last few decades, not only shaping perceptionsof the region, but often redefining the whole course of contemporary American writing.
Tim Cahill Jaguars Ripped My Flesh (UK Fourth Estate). Adventure travel through California and the world, including skin diving with hungry sharks off LA and getting lost and found in Death Valley. Thoughtful and sensitive yet still a thrill a minute.
Jan Morris Destinations (OUP). Of the essay on LA in this fine collection of essays written for Rolling Stone magazine, Joan Didion said, "A lot of people come here and don't get it. She got it."
Peter Theroux Translating LA (Norton). East Coaster-gone-West Theroux tours some of the more interesting neighbourhoods which make up his new home. Part history, part observation and part anecdote, it digs deeper than some, but ultimately fails to spark.
Mark Twain Roughing It (Penguin). Vivid tales of frontier California, particularly evocative of life in the silver mines of the 1860s Comstock Lode, where Twain got his start as a journalist and storyteller.
John Waters Crackpot (Fourth Estate/Random House). Odds and ends from the Pope of Trash, the mind behind cult film Pink F lamingos,including a personalized tour of LA.
Edmund White States of Desire (Picador/NAL- Dutton). Part of across-country sojourn that includes a rather superficial account of the gay scene in 1970s LA.
Tom Wolfe The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Black Swan/Bantam).Take a trip with the Grateful Dead and the Hell's Angels on the magic bus ofKen Kesey and the Merry Pranksters as they travel through the early days of the psychedelic 1960s, on a mission to turn California youth onto LSD.
Walton Bean California: An Interpretive History (UK McGraw-Hill). Blow-by-blow account of the history of California, including all the shady deals and back-room politicking, presented in accessible, anecdotal form.
Daniel Boorstin The Americas 2:The National Experience (USVintage). Heavy going bec ause of the glut of detail, but otherwise an energetic appraisal of the social forces that shaped the modern US, with several chapters on the settlement of the West.
Carey McWilliams Southern California: An Island on the Land (USGibbs Smith). The bible of Southern Californian histories, focu sing on the key years between the two world wars. Evocatively written and richly detailed.
Kevin Starr Inventing the Dream (OUP). One of a series of captivating books -- the other two are Material Dreams (OUP) andAmericans and the Californian Dream (US OUP) studying the phenomen on known as California. Cultural histories written with a novelist's flair.
Jean Baudrillard America (Verso/Routledge Chapman & Hall). Scattered thoughts of the trendy French philosopher, whose (very) occasionally brilliant but often over reaching exegesis of American Pop Culture, especially in LA, is undermined by typos and factual inaccuracies.
Mike Davis City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (Vintage/Routledge Chapman & Hall). The best modern history of LA bar none,with a wealth of factual and anecdotal i nfo painting a clear picture of a city on the edge of apocalypse.
Joan Didion Slouching Towards Bethlehem (UK Flamingo). Selected essays from one of California's best journalists, taking a critical look at1960s California, from the acid culture of San Francisco to a profile of American hero Jo hn Wayne. In a similar style, The White Album (UK FarrarStraus & Giroux) traces the West Coast characters and events that shaped the Sixties and Seventies, including The Doors, Charlie Manson, and the Black Panthers.
Frances Fitzgerald Cities on a Hill (US Simon & Schuster). In telligent and sympathetic exploration of four of the odder corners of American culture, including San Francisco's gay Castro district.
Lynell George No Crystal Stair (Verso/Doubleday). A perceptive account of life in LA's black community from one of the city's most respected African-American journalists; particularly welcome in the wake of the Rodney King riots.
Russel Miller Barefaced Messiah (US Holt). An eye-opening studyof the rise and rise of L Ron Hubbard and his Scientology cult, who have their world HQ in LA and their devotees lurking everywhere.
Jay Stevens Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream (Grafton/Harper Collins). An engaging account of psychedelic drugs and the irrelationship with American society through the Sixties, with an epilogue to bring things up to date with "designer drugs" - Venus, Ecstasy, Vitamin K andothers - and the inner space they apparently help some modern Californians chart.
Danny Sugarman Wonderland Avenue (Sphere/Little, Brown). Publicist for The Doors and other seminal US rock bands from the late Sixties on, Sugarman delivers a raunchy autobiographical account of sex, drugs, and LArock 'n' roll.
Reyner Banham Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (UKPenguin). The most lucid account of how LA's history has shaped its present form - the author's enthusiasms are infectious.
Philip Jodidio Contemporary Californian Architects (Taschen). This glossy trilingual (English, French and German) book argues that the public and private buildings of Frank Gehry, Eric Owen Moss, Frank Israel and Michael Routundi, among others, are strongly influenced by the state itself. The gorgeous photographs strengthen the case.
Sam Hall Kaplan LA Lost and Found: An Architectural History of LosAngeles (US Crown). The text is informative but dull, though the outstanding photos vividly portray the city's growth and the trends in its design.
Charles Moore The City Observed: Los Angeles (US Random House). The best book to guide you around the diffuse buildings and settings of LA, loaded with maps, illustrations and historical anecdotes.
Kenneth Anger Hollywood Babylon (Arrow/Dell). A vicious yet high-spirited romp through Tinseltown's greatest scandals, although the facts are bent rather too often. A rarer second volume covers more recent times, but was hurriedly put together and shoddily researched.
David Bordwell, Janet Staiger & Kirstin Thompson The Classical Hollywood Cinema (Routledge/Colorado Univ Press). Academic handbook aimed at the serious student but still a generally interesting account of the techniques used in the best-known Hollywood movies up to 1960.
Bruce Crowther Film Noir: Reflections in a Dark Mirror (Columbus/Burning Deck). A welcome down-to-earth description of the background and realization of the American film noir genre.
Clayton R. Koppes & Gregory D. Black Hollywood Goes to War (I BTauris/UC Press). Masterly examination of the influence of World War II on the film industry - and vice versa.
Michael Munn The Hollywood Murder Casebook (Robson Books/StMartin's Press). The tragic, seamy side of fame and fortune in Tinseltown is revealed in these case studies of murders of actors and actresses.
Barry Norman Talking Pictures: The Story of Hollywood (UK Arrow). The most accessible mainstream outline of the growth of movies in Hollywood, informative and pleasantly irreverent in tone.
Julia Phillips You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again (Mandarin/NAL-Dutton). From the woman who became a Hollywood somebody by co-producing The Sting; a diary of drug abuse, spouse abuse and film-business bitching.
Bicycle Rider Directory (US Cycle America). Low-cost guide todo-it-yourself bicycle touring around the Bay Area and Napa and Sonoma valleys,with good fold-out route maps.
Tom Steinstra and Michael Hodson California Hiking: The Complete Guide (US Foghorn Press). Dense 800-page tome detailing over 1000 hikes, from hour-long strolls to the 1700 Californian miles of the Pacific CrestTrail. Unfortunately, the trail notes and maps are limited, and the text is hardly inspirational.
Jack Erickson Brewery Adventures in the Wild West (RedBrickPress). A comprehensive list of over 100 beer-bars and breweries.
Tom Kirkendall & Vicky Spring Bicycling the Pacific Coast (Mountaineers Books). Detailed guide to the bike routes all the way along thecoast from Mexico up to Canada.
National Audobon Society Nature Guides: Western Forests; Deserts; Pacific Coast; Wetlands and others (US Knopf).California has six of the world's seven major ecosystem types, and between them, these immaculately researched and beautifully photographed field guides, though not specific to California, cover the lot. At $20 each, you might wan tto pick the one most relevant to the area you're visiting.
National Geographic Society A Field Guide to the Birds of North America (National Geographic). Self-explanatory - and thoroughly useful.
Peterson Series Field Guides: A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians; A Field Guide to the Insects of America North of Mexico; A Field Guide to Pacific State Wildflowers (Houghton Mifflin). Excellentgeneral field guides to the flora and fauna of California and the West Coast.
Schaffer The Pacific Crest Trail (California) (Wilderness Press). A guide to the southern section of the trail that leads all the way from Mexico to Canada through the Sierra Nevada range.
David & Kay Scott Traveling and Camping in the National Park Areas: the Western States (Globe Pequot). How to get around and camp in the West's national parks, including Yosemite, Kings Canyon, etc.
Walking the West Series: Walking Southern California; Walking the California Coast; Walking California's State Parks and others (Harper San Francisco). Well written and produced paperbacks each covering overa hundred excellent day walks from two to twenty miles. They're strong on practical details (maps, route decriptions etc) and walking ethics, and boast inspiring prose and historical background. Recommended.
James P Blaylock Land of Dreams (US Morrow). A fantastic tale spun out as the twelve-year Solstice comes to a Northern Californian coastal town.
Ray Bradbury The Martian Chronicles (Flamingo/Bantam). Brilliant, lyrical study of colonization, of new worlds and new lands - it's very easy toread the Martian setting as a Californian one. Bradbury's first, and still best, book.
Scott Bradfield What's Wrong With America (Picador/St Martin'sPress). Humour and idiosyncratic absurdity combine as Bradfield explores America's malaise through an elderly woman's slide towards mental breakdown. Southern California provides the backdrop and its people the caricatured bitplayers.
Charles Bukowski Post Office; Women (both Virgin/BlackSparrow). Three hundred-hangovers-a-year Henry Chinaski (the author, thinly veiled) drinks and screws his way around downbeat LA, firstly as a misfitma ilman, then as a moderately successful writer with his own tab at the local liquor store and an endless supply of willing female fans. Savage and quite unique. See also Factotum (Virgin/Black Sparrow), which recounts Chinaski's early days.
James M Cain The Five Great Novels of James M Cain (UK Pan); Double Indemnity; The Postman Always Rings Twice; TheButterfly; Mildred Pierce; Love's Lovely Counterfeit (US allVintage). Haunting stories of smouldering passion told with clipped prose and terse dialogue.
Raymond Carver What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (USRandom House); Where I'm Calling From: New and Selected Stories (Harvill/Random House). Set mostly in the Northwest and Northern California, Carver's deceptively simple eye-level pictures of plain-dealing Americans,concise and sharply observed, are difficult to forget.
Raymond Chandler Three Novels (Penguin/Random House); The Raymond Chandler Omnibus (US Random House). Essential reading, some of the toughest and greatest LA crime fiction of the Thirties and Forties - including The Big Sleep, The Lady in the Lake, and Farewell My Lovely, to name only the best.
Susan Compo Life After Death and Other Stories (Faber). Strange and zany romp through the clubs, clothes and characters of LA's goth scene; completely original in style and scope, and very believable.
Philip K Dick A Scanner Darkly (Panther/Random House) . Of all Dick's erratic but frequently brilliant books, this is the best evocation of California. Set in the mid-1990s, when society is split between the Straights, the Dopers and the Narks, it's a dizzying study of individual identity, authority and drugs. Among the pick of the rest of Dick's vast legacy is Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Panther/Ballantine),set (unlike the movie) in San Francisco.
Joan Didion Run, River (US Random House. Focuses on the Sacramento Valley of the author's childhood and follows its change fromagriculture into a highly charged consumer society. In contrast, but just as successfullyd one, Play It As It Lays (Flamingo/Farrar Straus &Giroux) is an electrifying dash through the pills, booze, and self- destruction linked with the LA film world.
Bret Easton Ellis Less Than Zero (Picador/Penguin). Numbing but readable tale of wealthy LA teen life. A classic brat-pack tome, with influence and fame far in excess of its worth.
James Ellroy White Jazz (Arrow/Fawcett). The final instalment of Ellroy's quartet of LA books exploring, in nail-biting noir style, the mind-set of corrupt LA cops and psychotic criminals over three decades. The series began with The Black Dahlia and continued with The Big Nowhere and LA Confidential (all Arrow/Warner).
Robert Ferringo The Horse Latitudes (US Avon). Drug-dealer turned lecturer on Mayan civilization returns to his Newport Beach house after a midnight swim to find his wife has run off - leaving behind a corpse.
David Freeman A Hollywood Education (Sceptre/Carroll & Graf). Cumulatively powerful collection of short stories concerning a writer's lot in Hollywood.
Ursula le Guin Always Coming Home (UK Harper Collins). Impressive archeology of the future, describing the lifestyles and culture of a mysterious race living in Northern California many years from now.
Dashiell Hammett The Four Great Novels (UK Picador); TheMaltese Falcon (US Random House). The former is a volume of seminaldetec tive novels starring Sam Spade, the private investigator working out ofSan Francisco; the latter is probably Hammett's best- known work. See also the absorbing biography of Hammett: Diane Johnson's Dashiell Hammett: A Life (Picador/Fawcett).
Joseph Hansen The Dave Brandsetter Omnibus (U K No Exit Press); Death Claims (US Holt); Gravedigger (Peter Owen/Holt;Skinflick (US Holt); Troublemaker (US Holt ). Entertaining tales of Dave Brandstetter, a gay insurance claims investigator, set against a vivid Southern California backdrop.
Aldous Huxley Ape and Essence (Flamingo/I R Dee); After Many aSummer Dies the Swan (Panther/I R Dee). Huxley spent his last twenty years earning a crust as a Hollywood screenwriter, and both these novels are aproduct of that time. The first chronicles moral degeneracy and Satanic rituals in post-apocalyptic Southern California; the latter, based on William Randolph Hearst, concerns a rich, pampered figure who surrounds himself withart treasures and dwells on the meaning of life.
Jack Kerouac Desolation Angels (Paladin/Riverhead Books); The Dharma Bums (Paladin/Penguin). The most influential of the Beat writers on the rampage in California. See also his first novel On The Road (Penguin), which has a little of San Francisco and a lot of the rest of the US.
David Lodge Changing Places (Penguin). Thinly disguised autobiographical tale of an English academic who spends a year teaching at UC Berkeley and finds himself bang in the middle of the late 1960s studentupheaval.
Jack London The Call of the Wild (UK Penguin); White Fang and Other Stories (UK Penguin); Martin Eden (Penguin); The Iron Heel (Wordsworth Editions/Star Rover). The Call of the Wild, a shortstory about a tame dog disco vering the ways of the wilderness while forced tolabour pulling sleds across the snow and ice of Alaska's Klondike, made Londoninto the world's best-selling author almost overnight. Afterwards, frustratedby the emptiness of his easy fame and success, the young, self-taught authorwrote the semi-autobiographical Martin Eden, in which he rails againstthe cultured veil of polite society. Besides his prolific fiction, London alsowrote a number of somewhat sophomoric political essays and socialist tracts;the most effective was The Iron Heel, presaging the rise of Fascism.
Ross MacDonald Black Money (Allison & Busby/Rando m House); The Blue Hammer (Allison & Busby/Amereon); The Zebra-Striped Hearse (Allison & Busby/Knopf); The Doomsters; The Instant Enemy (both US Knopf). Following in the footsteps of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, private detective Lew Archer looks behind the glitzy masks of SouthernCalifornia life to reveal the underlying nastiness of creepy sexuality andmanipulation. All captivating reads.
Armistead Maupin Tales of the City; Further Tales of the City (both Black Swan/Harper Collins); More Tales of the City (Corgi/HarperCollins). Lively and witty soap operas detailing the sexual antics o f a selectgroup of archetypal San Francisco characters of the late 1970s/early 1980s. See also Babycakes (Corgi/Harper Collins) and Significant Others, which continue the story, though in more depth, and Sure of You (last two Black Swan/Harper Collins) - set several years later and more downbeat, though no less brilliant.
Brian Moore The Great Victorian Collection (UK Grafton). A professor dreams up a parking lot full of Victoriana, which becomes the biggest tourist attraction of Carmel, California.
Walter Mosely Devil in a Blue Dress (Pan/Pocket Books). The book that introduced Easy Rawlins, a black private detective in late-1940s South Central LA, the central character in an excellent portrayal of time and place. Easy gets further into his stride in the subsequent A Red Death and White Butterfly (both Pan/Pocket Books).
Thomas Pynchon The Crying of Lot 49 (Vintage/Harper Collins). Follows the hilarious adventures of techno-freaks and potheads of 1960s California, and reveals the sexy side of stamp-collecting.
Richard Rayner Los Angeles without a Map (UK Paladin). An English non-driving journalist goes to LA on a romantic whim and lives out movie fantasies made even more fantastic by the city itself.
Danny Santiago Famous All over Town (US NAL-Dutton). Coming-of-age novel set among the street gangs of East LA, giving a vivid depiction of life in the Hispanic community.
Vikram Seth The Golden Gate (Faber/Random House). A novel inverse which traces the complex social lives of a group of San Francisco yuppies.
Mona Simpson Anywhere But Here (Abacus/Random House). Bizarre and unforgettable saga of a young girl and her ambitious mother as they pursue LA stardom for the daughter.
John Steinbeck The Grapes of Wrath (Mandarin/Penguin). The classic account of a migrant family forsaking the Midwest for the Promised Land. For more localized fare, read the light- hearted but crisply observed novella, Cannery Row, capturing daily life on the prewar Monterey waterfront, or the epic East of Eden (both Mandarin/Penguin) which updates and resets the Bible in the Salinas Valley and details three generations of familial feuding.
Michael Tolkin The Player (Faber/Random House). Convincing, multilayered story of a movie execut ive using his power and contacts to skirt justice after committing murder.
Nathanael West Complete Works (UK Picador). Includes The Day of the Locust, an insightful and caustic tale that is the classic satire of early Hollywood.
Rudolph Wurlitzer Quake (Midnight Classics). Long out of print, this recently republished 1972 cult novel follows its nihilistic narrator's passage through LA's western suburbs on the day the Big One struck. A product of its time, more intriguing than it is entertaining.