The KENZINE Eight - A California Reading list
Back in 1945, Los Angeles literary group the Zamorano Club (named after California’s first printer), created the ‘Zamorano Eighty’, a list of indispensable reading on the West coast state. We think it’s well overdue an update, so here’s the ‘KENZINE Eight’, our selection of books to transport you to the sunshine state this summer.
Pulp - Charles Bukowski
Born in Germany, Bukowski moved with his family to South Central, Los Angeles, aged 10. Working in a pickle factory and then as a filing clerk at the post office and writing on the side, he became one of the biggest names in 20th century American letters (excuse the pun), and a landmark on California’s literary landscape. A piece of meta-Pulp fiction which provides an ironic twist to the LA crime novel genre, Bukowski’s last novel, ‘Pulp’ was published in 1994 and provides more of the author’s withering world-view: “It wasn’t my day. My week. My month. My year. My life. God damn it”. Hey, the sun can’t always shine.
On the Road – Jack Kerouac
Where would a discussion of California literature be without a book written by the father of the Beat generation? Typed up in three weeks on one continuous scroll of paper, ‘On the Road’ is an homage to the automobile and an ode to the asphalt veins running through the United States. While it races from coast to coast, the Sunshine State is at the heart of the book, from the shipyards of Sausalito and the wild jazz clubs of San Francisco, to the dusty white plants and copper-coloured soils of Southern California’s cotton fields, all the way to the madness of Los Angeles. “LA is a jungle”, says the narrator Sal Paradise. No one can deny Kerouac knew how to coin a phrase.
The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
The first Chandler book to feature detective Philip Marlowe, ‘The Big Sleep’ is set in a brooding, boozy, undercover Los Angeles. This is a book overflowing with West Coast Cool, a steely mix of razor sharp one-liners (“It seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in”) and a plot tighter than the screw-down lid on a hip flask. Most importantly, in-and-amongst the intrigues are passages and passages of stunning writing: “Under the thinning fog the surf curled and creamed, almost without sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness”.
Blonde – Joyce Carol Oates
Question: How do you find a new angle on Marilyn Monroe? Answer: make it up.
A semi-fictionalised retelling of the actress’s life story, Joyce Carol Oates brings her laser vision to the tinsel-town tale of Norma Jean Mortenson, who lived, loved, and died in Los Angeles, the original home of the peroxide heroine. As the book puts it: “Her problem wasn't she was a dumb blonde, it was she wasn't a blonde and she wasn't dumb.” Mixing Hollywood kitsch with penetrating insight, the book’s celebrity cameos include Monroe’s husbands Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, referred to as “the ex-Athlete” and “the Playwright”, and of course, President Kennedy.
James Franco – Palo Alto
California is the polymath state: a postmodern mix of movies, music, books, politics, poetry, fashion campaigns, and ‘General Hospital’. It’s the only place you could dream up a character like James Franco. Published in 2010 and taking its name from the multitalented actor’s hometown, Franco’s debut collection of short stories shifts from teenage narrator to teenage narrator, in a soft slide of juddering adolescent misadventure. “This was the way the night had cashed in. Choices had been made and things happened, and here we were. It was sad, and funny. My life was made of this. Stuff like this.”
(Ed.) James Franco's Palo Alto is now a feature film, directed by Gia Coppola. Read more here.
A Single Man - Christopher Isherwood
Published in 1964 and set in Southern California, the book zooms in on one day in the life of George, an English college professor who has recently lost his lover (loosely based on Isherwood’s own partner, painter Don Bachardy). Stylishly written, and packed with moments of playful yet never arch meditation, ‘A Single Man’ is Isherwood’s undeniable Cali classic. “A few times in my life I’ve had moments of absolute clarity. When for a few brief seconds the silence drowns out the noise and I can feel rather than think, and things seem so sharp and the world seems so fresh. It’s as though it had all just come into existence”, says George.
Bret Easton Ellis – Less Than Zero
Aged just 21 when it was published, the Los Angeleno novelist and screenwriter hit gold with his debut work, which was named in turn after a song on Elvis Costello’s first album. Let’s pitch it like Hollywood would: When 18-year-old Clay comes home for Christmas from his college on the East coast, Things Get Wild. Get ready for disconnected dialogues in place of conversations, and wry riffs on the automobile and advertising culture of ‘80s Los Angeles, all summed up in the repeated motifs: “People are afraid to merge” and a billboard reading “Disappear Here”. The classic California elements are all racked up, including the holiday season pool parties, Valley girls on Valium (and more), and exotic sexual escapades told through a detached stream of consciousness: “You're a beautiful boy, Clay, but that's about it”.
The White Album - Joan Didion
“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image” writes Joan Didion in ‘The White Album’, a book in which the Sacramento-born and Berkley-educated writer indirectly stakes her own claim to ownership of her home state. Published in 1979 as a volume of essays weaving high-literary style into a blend of cultural tourism and journalism, ‘The White Album’ skips from the Manson family, to a Black Panther Party press conference, to the story of the John Paul Getty museum. It’s a book punctured with California glamour, which punctures glamour itself (like the “rats in the avocado tree” in her garden). “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”, says Didion, sounding every inch the California girl.