The Best Books of 2015 by L.A. Authors

The Best Books of 2015 by L.A. Authors


You're on the verge of being bombarded by best-book lists — in fact, The New York Times and Publishers Weekly published their lists last week, a full month before the year's end — but we've taken a decidedly more localized approach. From a new novel by "the Edith Wharton of the O.C." to a 100-year history of the comedy industry, we've compiled a list of must-reads released in 2015 by authors who call L.A. home, or have done so.
Shetani’s Sister by Iceberg Slim (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, $14.95)
Iceberg Slim wasn’t born in Los Angeles (nor was he born Iceberg Slim), but the erstwhile Robert Beck from Chicago went on to become one of the most potent cultural exports from South Central L.A. Slim arrived out west around 1960, launching his writing career in the wake of the 1965 Watts Riots and dying in a hospital bed from diabetes complications just as the ‘92 riots ignited. In between, in books such as Trick Baby and Pimp: The Story of My Life, Slim took the raw material culled from a hard life lived on mean streets and wrote essays, short stories and crime novels (and one spoken-word album) credited with godfathering gangsta rap and inventing a genre. Shetani’s Sister, written in the early '80s but left to molder for 30 years over a contract dispute with L.A.-based publisher Holloway House, exhibits the social and psychological preoccupations and graphic vernacular style that made Slim one of the most popular African-American writers of the 20th century. Shenani comes with a short but fascinating introduction by English professor Justin Gifford, who also wrote the new Slim biography Street Poison, released in conjunction with the novel. Pick up both to get the full story. —Mindy Farabee The Little Brother by Victoria Patterson (Counterpoint, $25)
Victoria Patterson doesn’t live in Newport Beach anymore (“First of all, I don’t think they would let me,” she says). But she spent her formative years there before lighting out for L.A. County, taking notes and honing a gimlet eye that earned her the title “the Edith Wharton of the O.C..” Indeed, over the course of one book of short stories and two novels, her work has incisively captured social strictures and skewed mores among Orange County’s upper crust — pithily summed up by one critic as “money and the power it gives to stupid people” — and the collateral damage it creates all the way down the pecking order. Her latest takes as its point of departure Newport Beach’s infamous 2002 Haidl sexual assault case — in which a group of teenage boys violently gang-raped an unconscious acquaintance — in order to craft a complex and startlingly empathetic exploration of toxic masculinity and American rape culture. —Mindy Farabee

The Paper Man by Gallagher Lawson (Unnamed Press, $16)
Michael, the titular hero of Gallagher Lawson’s debut novel is, in fact, a man made of papier-mache. He is also a stranger adrift in a strange and sinister land, arriving at the book’s opening in a dank and nameless seaside city, where he is greeted by a one-eyed thief and a mermaid’s corpse, and the unsettling feeling that war might be brewing with the North. His most pressing source of danger, however, befalls him in the form of a sudden rainstorm — Michael was comprised of flesh and blood once, until a peculiar accident required his father to reconstruct him of much flimsier material. The metaphor Michael embodies — a person constantly to be mended and remolded by others, constantly on the cusp of disintegration — drives Lawson’s magical tale, a work sensitive to the dark currents of creativity and the surreal work of self-creation. —Mindy Farabee

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir (Razorbill, $19.95) Much has been made of California author Sabaa Tahir's childhood, growing up in motel in the Mojave Desert owned by her parents. Her girl-power fantasy novel, An Ember in the Ashes, seems to have risen from those bleak yet beautiful real-life surroundings, its lead character Laia even sporting the silky, dark hair that Tahir reveals in her jacket photo. The quest by the educated, Scholar-class 17-year-old to save her brother by infiltrating the world of brutal young Masks who quail before a torture-loving female Commandant they call “sir” is aimed at girls and young adults, with its careful presentation of violence without gore and love without graphic sex. This morality play, positioned to include future installments and designed to appeal to Hollywood, is not nearly in the class of George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, failing to weave much suspense or to unveil the complex motivations that drive key heroes like Cook or villains like Marcus. And we're asked to believe that Laia can be feloniously naive and incurious while wildly brave and bold. Even so, by the end, you're left imagining how the hunky but troubled Elias and Keenan, and the beautiful but terribly scarred Izzi and Laia, will meet again and resolve their smoldering emotions and youthful dreams. —Jill Stewart

Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class by Scott Timberg (Yale University Press, $26)
A longtime West Coast culture writer covering everything from Spoon to Noah Purifoy, Scott Timberg famously quit L.A. over the summer in style, by penning a beautiful story about what it means to leave the city of dreams. Now a staff writer for Salon living in Athens, Georgia, in 2008, Timberg was a calendar writer primarily on the books and music beats who found his status as a middle-class American revoked by the sad devolution of the L.A. Times in particular (full disclosure, Timberg and I overlapped for a while in the calendar section) and the larger digital unraveling of the culture industry. In response, he produced Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, a well researched, strongly argued assessment that in the bloody battle between art and the Internet, it’s unchecked capitalism and short-sighted corporations, no dehumanizing technology, that are starving the artists. Crunching numbers and connecting dots between market forces and cultural forces, and strange alliances between the two (“‘deconstruction’…promptly became one of the most misused words in the language,” he writes in a chapter unpacking the anti-intellectual strain in pomo theory), the book ultimately rests its case on the premise that in the future, no matter how we rejigger our business models, cultural consumers and producers alike will be much better served by a stronger critical resistance to groupthink. —Mindy Farabee

All Involved by Ryan Gattis (Ecco, $27.99)
During the 1992 riots — six days that still constitute one of the most destructive weeks in the country’s civic history — the Los Angeles Police Department is reported to have essentially ceded large swaths of the city to the insurrection. Into that lawless vacuum, gangs could have easily unleashed a wave of retaliatory violence, brutally settling old scores confident their tracks would be covered by the totality of the devastation. All Involved, Ryan Gattis' searing novel set during the ‘92 riots, focuses in on one such what if, a gang war ricocheting unchecked through a Lynwood neighborhood. The book has already been sold to HBO and it’s easy to see why — written with a sharp visual eye and rife with street patois, there’s a whiff of The Wire to its machinations of race and class and the structure of its character-heavy plot, refracted as it is through the various, interwoven POVs of a wide-ranging cast of nearly 20, including nurses, firefighters, brothers, sisters, merciless killers and innocent bystanders. —Mindy Farabee

Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy by Kliph Nesteroff (Grove Press, $28)
Nesteroff is a former stand-up guy, a comedian who has built a second career taking delightfully deep dives into the arcana of showbiz history (he hosts the Classic Showbiz Talk Show; this book was born from his extensive WFMU writings on the subject). His hundred-year survey manages to be both breezy and exhaustive — it begins with vaudeville and ends with Twitter and WTF With Marc Maron — and is peppered with tidbits to store away for future cocktail parties (like how the term “working blue” originated from the blue envelopes passed backstage by morally superior theater managers at the turn of the last century, which detailed all the objectionable bits to be cut from future iterations of an act). It’s a book fascinated by personalities, warmly disposed to even the most irascible of them, and motivated by all the ways American culture and American comedy create each other. —Mindy Farabee

LAtitudes: An Angeleno's Atlas edited by Patricia Wakida (Heyday, $30)
There are surprisingly few non-fiction books that try to understand Los Angeles, with many focused solely on Hollywood, and one of the best-known, Ecology of Fear, having been soundly debunked for its gross inaccuracies and apocrypha. What a delight, then, to lose yourself in the engrossing and freestanding chapters of Latitudes, An Angeleno's Atlas, edited by Patricia Wakida and sprinkled with beautiful maps depicting such revelations as the locales of old war fortifications and catacombs, the region's highest concentrations of non-chain Mexican restaurants (Pico-Union), the best fishing holes on the Los Angeles River and the city's ugliest buildings. Michael James-Becerra tells the moving tale of Maria, part of the city's Latino female-owned business class who launch small taquero enterprises and work like mad to emerge victorious, as members of the middle-class. Dan Koeppel explains the mysterious and long-gone Cycleway, a two-mile raised bike path and breakthrough idea of 1900. Jason Brown weaves a tale of underground Los Angeles, from tunnels burrowed by the military to twisting shafts dug with government approval by a mad gold-seeker of the 1930s. Written by an eclectic group of wits and scholars, this colorful and beautifully designed volume can be read again and again. —Jill Stewart


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