“Paperback L.A.” is one writer’s attempt to combat misrepresentations of an often misread city

By Colin Newton

It’s almost a cliché, but Los Angeles can be a city of clichés: bathing-suited bodies playing hooky at the beach, endless freeways bordered by palm trees, pool party entrepreneurs and weary writers struggling on the outskirts of Hollywood.

That last character may be to blame for those clichés. Los Angeles has always attracted writers and artists, but their sometimes snap judgments of the city have given it a global identity that doesn’t always look familiar to locals.

“Any city that’s interesting enough to attract visitors attracts shortsighted comments or wrongheaded praise,” says Susan LaTempa. “We feel it very much as Angelenos because we’re such a popular destination for writers over the years.”

LaTempa is the series editor of “Paperback L.A.,” an anthology that attempts to create a more comprehensive picture of the city through book excerpts, short stories, photo essays and other observational writing.

She’s definitely qualified, in part because she is one of those local writers. LaTempa started her career as a drama critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, and from there she appeared on the mastheads of publications such as L.A. Style Magazine, Westways and the Los Angeles Times; she also wrote guides for families traveling internationally and within California.

Travel writing is a fine format, LaTempa says, but it’s just one of many ways to write about a place.

“Memoir is, I think, a really interesting way for talking about place. I think humor is a really expressive form for talking about place,” she says. “Using the form of a timeline gives us a different sense of place.”

Even fiction plays a part in understanding somewhere real, she argues, as “very often, people who are travelers and want to get a sense of place read novels or short stories.”

Letters to the editors of 19th-century newspapers, 20th-century immigrant memoirs and 21st-century wildlife photo essays fill “Paperback L.A.,” which LaTempa hopes will both expose readers to views of Los Angeles they haven’t considered before and connect them with their own memories of the city.

Longtime Westside residents might remember, with writer Eve Babitz, what it was like traveling by bus to Santa Monica Beach in the 1950s.

They might consider how things have changed with historian Benjamin Madley’s bittersweet description of the culture of California coastal Indians before statehood and the Spanish missions.

They could also decide that some things stay the same while reading an account of old Venice in an excerpt from Ray Bradbury’s weird detective novel “Death is a Lonely Business.”

The titular heroes of Dan Bern’s comic “The Ballad of Dave and Eddie” should sound familiar as well.

“The main characters are two stoner guitarists playing on Venice Beach,” LaTempa says of the comic piece. “They decide L.A. needs another freeway, and they’re going to build that. It’s really a favorite of a lot of people.”

The blend of serious and surreal, full-length and fact list, and old and new results in a fuller picture of the Los Angeles area than perhaps any one author could have ever created alone — and in a very inviting way. Readers have often reported seeking out the complete form of some of the excerpted works, LaTempa says.

For someone who describes herself as “one of those people” — the people who are always recommending books to friends — that must be high praise.

The third volume of “Paperback L.A.” hit bookstores on April 9. Visit PaperbackLA.com for more information.

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