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Ivy Pochoda’s LA: A Life in Stories

Ivy Pochoda’s LA: A Life in Stories
Alex Mellon / © Culture Trip
Ivy Pochoda chooses eight novels that capture the diversity, complexity and restless energy of Los Angeles.

Pop culture regularly reduces Los Angeles to the Hollywood sign, palm trees and the oiled-up poseurs of Muscle Beach. This glamorous veneer conceals the city’s social, cultural and architectural variety – and the experiences of those who populate its diverse neighborhoods. It is this other side of LA that author Ivy Pochoda, a Los Angeles resident for nearly a decade, captures in her 2017 novel Wonder Valley. Told from the perspective of six different characters, Pochoda’s novel paints a kaleidoscopic picture of LA, revealing its unforgiving and enchanting nature. Now, in celebration of her city, Pochoda has chosen eight books that best portray the LA she knows, from the seedy dive bars of John Fante to the intricate social politics of Walter Mosley’s mystery novels.

Alex Mellon / © Culture Trip

‘Sidewalking: Coming to Terms With Los Angeles’ by David L Ulin

“The title says it all,” says Pochoda. “Former LA Times journalist David L Ulin – a transplanted New Yorker (like myself) – takes on the evolving landscape of Los Angeles on foot in this terrific collection of essays that is the city’s answer to Alfred Kazin’s classic A Walker in the City [1951]. Ulin explores the street life of LA – from its art and music to the pedestrian malls – and uncovers surprising moments of true beauty usually overlooked while speeding down the freeway or sitting in traffic. It’s a wholly original and important take on a city too easily derided for its car culture and bumper-to-bumper commutes.”

Alex Mellon / © Culture Trip

‘Ask the Dust’ by John Fante

“This is becoming a classic among writers transplanted to LA, who ply our trade here and grapple with the elusive and deceptive city around us. And it certainly falls in line with my enduring fascination with downtown Los Angeles – which is for me the heart of the city and where I wrote my first LA novel, Wonder Valley. Fante’s best-known book follows struggling writer Arturo Bandini as he tries to survive amid the flophouses, dive bars and other seedy corners of a city that won’t conform to his ideals.”

Alex Mellon / © Culture Trip

‘American Dream Machine’ by Matthew Specktor

American Dream Machine [2013] is the ultimate Hollywood story. It moves from the old-school grit of Venice in the 1960s to the formerly dangerous streets of downtown to the glitzy hills and oceanfront mansions whose distracting beauty hides unpleasant truths. It’s an iconic story of Los Angeles that doesn’t wallow in the supposed glamor, but tangles with the reality of a city populated with false idols and fallen heroes. It is an intimate portrait of a vast metropolis that is unafraid to scratch the veneer and to reveal what lies beneath.”

Alex Mellon / © Culture Trip

‘Angels Flight’ by Michael Connelly

“One of the things I love about Michael Connelly’s (and also Walter Mosley’s) books is how they take the reader into Los Angeles neighborhoods underrepresented in fiction – from South LA to the deepest valley. But it’s his novel Angels Flight [1998] that exemplifies my vision of Los Angeles. The story at the center of the book is propulsive, but the depiction of downtown, not a conventional setting of LA fiction – with the vintage trolley, Grand Central Market and the surprisingly beautiful office buildings – is a masterful call back to the golden age of noir that unfolded on the exact same streets.”

Alex Mellon / © Culture Trip

The Easy Rawlins Mysteries by Walter Mosley

“For nearly three decades, Walter Mosley has been writing a socio-economic history of post-war Los Angeles in the form of his terrific Easy Rawlins novels. Rawlins, a PI, is uniquely able to navigate the city’s evolving landscape. He understands the shifting ethnic make-up of its neighborhoods, from East Los Angeles to Watts to South Central, as well as the codes of conduct that operate in each of them. Mosley’s novels don’t simply take place in the city or in just one section of the city; they are the city. They are the books that taught me the most about LA – about the various diasporas that have combined to give my neighborhood (currently West Adams) and others surrounding it a wonderful and unusual diversity.”

Alex Mellon / © Culture Trip

‘Dead Soon Enough: A Juniper Song Mystery’ by Steph Cha

“Steph Cha might be the world’s only author of Korean-American feminist noir. Her Juniper Song detective series, which features a female Korean PI, elegantly plays by most of the conventions of the noir genre. Juniper might idolize Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s great hard-boiled detective, but she more closely resembles Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins. Like Mosley, Cha weaves her mysteries around Los Angeles’s immigrant and outsider communities, creating a richer and more ethnically diverse (and more accurate) portrait of the city than the average detective novel. Dead Soon Enough [2015] is a gritty, politically charged mystery that takes Juniper from Koreatown into the Armenian-American neighborhood in Glendale and explores a community that intrigued me upon my arrival in Los Angeles, but one I had never encountered in fiction.”

Alex Mellon / © Culture Trip

‘Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America’ by Jill Leovy

“Leovy’s masterful work of reporting is a kaleidoscopic story that examines the scourge of murders of young black men by young black men (‘ghettoside’) in South LA. It’s a story of disenfranchisement and heartbreak, a personal journey into the lives of victims and their families, as well as a complex and nuanced exploration of the officers who try to stop this plague. As a crime writer (or crime-adjacent writer, I’d argue) and an inhabitant of a neighborhood near South LA, I took away from Leovy’s book a deeper understanding of my own streets.”

Alex Mellon / © Culture Trip

‘All Involved’ by Ryan Gattis

“Ryan Gattis’s electric novel unfolds in the six days after the Rodney King verdict when riots ravaged South LA and fires consumed the city, even burning down the hardware store near my current house. Gattis’s novel (which recalls Anna Deavere Smith’s 1993 one-woman show, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992) takes us deep into the outraged communities most affected by these events – communities that were mostly ignored by the media – to reveal prejudices, buried histories and the untamed anger of decades of disenfranchisement. The result is an unforgettable portrait of the city as it was tearing itself apart, narrated by voices that are rarely heard, the voices whom I like to hear in my own fiction.”