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This Year in L.A. Letters: Part 1

Books and love for Los Angeles form the backbone of this column, along with California history, urban studies, architecture, and poetry with some selected fiction. I review books, sometimes as many as three to four a week. Sometimes I cover relevant work, from the Bay Area, New York, San Diego, Chicago, or wherever -- because it's a global world and the perspective is relevant. This week L.A. Letters looks at the past year in books.

Making book lists inevitably misses many deserving titles. To cover all the bases, I have decided to make two lists: ten books presented this week, and another ten will be discussed next week. Some of the books have a shorter explanation because they have already been covered in previous columns, which you can find in the linked pages. All but two of the books below were published in 2013.

Before the book breakdown, here's a quick note in honor of Watts Prophets member Richard Dedeaux, who just passed away, less than a week after Wanda Coleman's passing. Both had been early participants in the famed Watts Writers Workshop. The Watts Prophets have been called the Godfathers of Rap along with The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. The Los Angeles Times obituary this week talked about the time Dedeaux had a brief poetic battle with Muhammad Ali. Salute to the great writers' legacy, his work lives on in great recordings like "Things Gonna Get Greater."


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Here are the ten books in alphabetical order; ten more will be discussed next week.


Recalculating
by Charles Bernstein
University of Chicago Press

Long known as one of the gurus of Language Poetry, Bernstein's newest book is his first book of new poems in seven years. He writes difficult poems that often end up being very funny and sometimes quite sad. This collection has an underlying solemn tone because his daughter's recent death had inspired many of the poems. "I embrace a poetics of bewilderment. I don't know where I am going and never have, just try to grapple as best as I can with where I am." Ranging from self-reflection, elegy, conceptual, procedural to aphoristic, Bernstein is nimble with his poetics.


Corrections and Collections
by Joe Day
Routledge Press

Architect, professor, and urban critic Joe Day reminds us that there's been a ten-fold increase in both prison and museum construction over the last 50 years, with a big spike in the 1980s. "Before the many new housing, sports, education and transit projects of the last century could take shape, civic space in the United States was first cordoned into zones of cultural and societal transgression, and the reapportioned to lure new inhabitants while containing the old," Day writes. This important book first shows the connection between museums and prisons with their use of minimal architecture, and then discusses how the increased emergence of both signals the new civic mandate in 21st Century cities, which according to Day is to: "clear the streets of the threatening poor, and provide easy, alluring access to priceless trophies."

Day notes that the L.A. County Men's Central Jail was designed by Albert C. Martin in 1963, and that Martin also designed the famous May Company Department Store in the Miracle Mile, now on its way to becoming a museum for the Motion Picture Academy. Day informs us, "Though cast completely in concrete, the Central Jail's one public space has a generic, late-modern elegance closer in its proportions, if not its opacity, to A.C. Martin's nearby Water & Power Building than a house of corrections." The unexpected connections made by Day are linked creatively with the sound logic of a true authority. At one point he juxtaposes Oscar Wilde and Public Enemy and questions man's attraction to both seduction and punishment. Embedded in the prose are aphoristic statements, like "to find the future listen for acronyms." Filled with insightful observations on contemporary urbanism, Day is a longtime SCI-Arc professor and has also taught at Yale.


From Rum to Roots
by Lloyd Francis
Marway Publishing

Lloyd Francis writes a multigenerational love story that connects the dots between Jamaica, New York City, and the Bay Area. Francis has a great eye for detail, and as a first-generation Jamaican American he possesses the necessary inside knowledge to not only portray the island accurately but also correctly word the dialogue in Patois. He pulls no punches, creating a narrative that negotiates tragedy, violence, and then finally redemption as the characters adapt to life in America after emigrating from Jamaica. The tale is action packed and contains an equal amount of insight and laughs.


Iconic Vision: John Parkinson
by Stephen Gee
Angel City Press

The first definitive book on Los Angeles architect John Parkinson is a keeper for anyone interested in Los Angeles history and design. Author Stephen Gee's narrative tells background stories behind his important projects, like the Memorial Coliseum and City Hall, and also traces the trajectory of Parkinson's life, from his childhood in England, his adventurous escape West, which included Seattle first before arriving almost penniless in Los Angeles, and then Parkinson's long reign as dean of Los Angeles architects.


A Wild Surmise: New & Selected Poems
by Eloise Klein Healy
Red Hen Press

This collection packs over 100 poems from the first official poet laureate of Los Angeles. It's especially important because it holds over four decades of poems, along with several new pieces. Healy knows L.A. well and it lurks in nearly every poem. "Art deco palm trees sway their hula skirts/in perfect unison/against a backdrop of gorgeous blue." Over the years Healy has represented Los Angeles poetry longer than just about anyone, with her tireless work at both the Woman's Building dating back to the 1970s, as well as mentoring hundreds of poets at Antioch University. It's a treasure to have all of the poems together in this volume.


Joie De Vivre
by Lisa Jarnot
City Lights

Poet Elizabeth Willis compares Lisa Jarnot to a mix of Johnny Cash and Gertrude Stein. The comparison works because Jarnot possesses both the raw lyrical pathos of Cash and the complex stylistics of Stein. Jarnot's experimental poems are highly oral pieces that flow effortlessly across the page. Some of the poems have a surrealist bent and strong sonic register that hovers in a musical sphere. In years past, Jarnot spent a lot of time in the Bay Area. One of the lines from her poem about Jack London Square in Oakland reveals her wit: "I am standing on the corner where Huey Newton got shot but you thought he was Huey Lewis." Originally from Buffalo and now living in New York City, Jarnot studied with the great Robert Creeley and seems to have the same control of language that he did.


Rage is Back
by Adam Mansbach
Viking

Released in early 2013, this work of fiction takes place in the subway tunnels of New York City and the world of graffiti writers. Equally an homage to old school hip hop and a young man's rite of passage, the work displays Mansbach's skill for writing great dialogue. The conversation moves from family misunderstandings, the history of street art, race relations, to the ever-changing streets of New York City. A struggle with a crooked cop anchors the story and gives the characters a mission to accomplish. Though Mansbach is known for his "Go the F to Sleep," this book is the one that really shows off his dexterity.


Urban Tumbleweed
by Harryette Mullen
Graywolf Press

Mullen's most recent effort is one of the most perfect poetry books I have ever come across. Written out of her daily walks, this journal uses the traditional Japanese tanka poetry form to not only catalogue her thoughts and impressions, but her daily observations of the natural environment across the city, whether it is her home near Santa Monica, at UCLA where she teaches, or various residencies across town. The book has over 300-plus three-line tankas, like this one:

At the entrance to the botanical garden,
A sign hung on the gate forewarns: "Slow down.
Watch for turtles on the roads and paths."


Los Angeles Boulevard: Eight X-Rays of the Body Public (25th Anniversary Edition)
by Doug Suisman
Hennessy & Ingalls

Excerpt from ''Los Angeles Boulevard''

Thanks to Hennessy & Ingalls, this legendary treatise on Los Angeles urbanism is back in print. Originally published in 1989 as a pamphlet, Suisman wrote eight essays that examine the great boulevards of Los Angeles. In 2011 Los Angeles Times architectural critic Christopher Hawthorne wrote about Suisman's manuscript, and word of mouth about the book had continued to spread. Hawthorne writes an excellent introduction in the new edition that puts this important work in proper context. Suisman was teaching architecture at USC when he wrote it, and found himself deeply intrigued by the city's urbanism. He writes in the new introduction, "my response was to begin a methodical study of the city and its boulevards -- driving and walking along them, observing them, researching them, reading about them, writing about them, drawing them." His research paid off because the pamphlet he eventually published quickly sold out shortly after it was published. And even though it has been out of print until now, for years he would see Xeroxed, bootleg copies of the pamphlet around architecture students.

Suisman connects the dots between the rancho era, the early pueblo, the rise of the film industry, and the logistics of how the city's urban shape has taken form. He also explains more about specific policies, like the Law of the Indies, and the difference between a boulevard and a street. One of the essays list 90 boulevards and explains why "Los Angeles is a city whose freeways have been organized by its boulevards."

His new edition includes his original text along with ten new case studies of not only Los Angeles, but Copenhagen, Hartford, Pittsburgh, and Palestine. As Christopher Hawthorne notes, Suisman's work foreshadowed elements of Los Angeles coming to rise now, and this is why millennials, cyclists, and fans of green architecture will appreciate this far reaching work as well.


The Eco Poetry Anthology
Edited by Ann Fisher-Wirth & Laura-Gray Street
Trinity University Press

The field of eco-criticism grows by the day, as does the emerging field of eco-poetry. This 600-plus page anthology is sure to be the source for enthusiasts of environmentally sensitive verse. Earlier in the year I reviewed this, and had one issue with the book leaving the Friends of the Los Angeles River Founder Lewis MacAdams out, but nonetheless the book is a landmark volume, with over 170 poets and 320 poems. Aside from usual suspects like Gary Snyder, Joy Harjo, and Wendell Berry, there are many poets in here you may not consider eco-poets, like John Ashbery, T.S. Eliot and Langston Hughes. The chronological order and historical organizing of the book make it a valuable resource for scholars and poetry enthusiasts alike. This is the closest thing there is to a definitive guide to eco-poetry.


2013 has been an outstanding year in literature. Next week's column will not only include ten more books, but will include a few announcements and reflections on the year in review. There's no shortage of outstanding work to cover. Salute to the spirit of Richard Dedeaux of the Watts Prophets and the 10 authors noted above for being leviathans of American and L.A. Letters.

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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