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From L.A. History to Poetry: 23 Notable Books of 2018

The Last Bookstore
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As someone who is always reading about seven books simultaneously, my reading habits are interdisciplinary with a special focus on Los Angeles history, California literature, geography, cultural studies, ethnomusicology, creative nonfiction, urban studies, and poetry. Within my aforementioned favorite genres, there are always a few outlier titles that sneak their way into the lineup.

The following list of 23 books is especially relevant to Los Angeles, the state of California and the overall spirit of the content of KCET’s programming and website. Almost all of the titles were published in 2018, but a few came out towards the end of 2017 but were read by me in 2018. Many of these choices are books that I wrote long reviews of and in these cases, there are links embedded within the text for those that want to know more. The list below is in alphabetical order by either author or editor.

History of Gangster Rap

"The History of Gangster Rap," Soren Baker, Abrams Image

Published in the Fall of 2018, this new book documents the rise of gangster rap from its roots in Philadelphia with the pioneering rapper Schoolly D in 1985 through Compton with NWA and Ice Cube in the late 1980s to Houston with the Geto Boys and New Orleans with Master P and his No Limit Family in the 1990s and back to Southern California in the last decade with newer voices like YG and Nipsey Hussle. Hundreds of songs and artists are discussed from DJ Quik to Snoop Dogg to Tupac to Too Short. Baker not only does a great job capturing the spirit of the music, he weaves in the social history of Los Angeles in the Reagan era and the economic conditions that gave rise to the music.

"Lake Michigan, Daniel Borzutzky," University of Pittsburgh Press

Borzutzky is an avant-garde poet that pulls no punches. This collection of poems meditates on 21st Century Chicago in a style that is equally surreal and realistically gritty. The scene-poems revolve around an imaginary prison on the edge of the Windy City. The poet reminds us, “They want to locate our reality outside of their reality, but their houses are not under water.” Quotes from disparate voices like University of Chicago Economist Milton Friedman and the revolutionary poet Pablo Neruda reveal the contradictory political realities addressed within the text.

Icon - F. Douglas Brown

"Icon," F. Douglas Brown, Civil Coping Mechanism

The San Francisco-born poet, F. Douglas Brown was named after the 19th Century abolitionist icon Frederick Douglass, and this new collection of poems addresses not only Douglass but Harriet Tubman, Sandra Bland, Rashida Jones, Don Cheadle, the poet’s mother, Bruno Mars, and his own name. Brown confronts race, American masculinity, African-American and Filipino-American history in well-crafted musical poems that use forms like ghazals, ekphrasis, and erasure. Patrick Rosal calls it “a compendium of story, song, catalog, and remix.”  

"Attendance," Rocio Carlos & Rachel McLeod Kaminer, The Operating System

This collaborative work is documentary poetry at its finest. The opening note explains that the title “Attendance,” “was born from Rocio’s description of going outside every morning to check on everything that grows in her backyard. Together we decided that one of us would attend to the flora and one of us would attend to the fauna. Of course, we found it difficult to stay in our lanes. The whole world crept in.” The work comes in at over 200 pages mixing poems with reflections on natural locations like La Tuna Canyon, Altadena, the Bolsa Chica Wetlands, Echo Park Lake to dozens of other sites. In addition to geographic musings, there are words on hawks, ravens, species of trees, their families and politics. This is truly a unique book.    

Invisible Light, Teresa Mei Chuc

"Invisible Light," Teresa Mei Chuc, Many Voices Press

Teresa Mei Chuc is the Altadena Poet Laureate and an ecopoet of the highest order. Chuc’s latest collection of poems goes from her birthplace in Vietnam and her father’s time in a war camp to her immigration to Southern California and her deep interest in California native plants and the history of the indigenous Tongva tribe. Chuc also laments the plight of Skid Row residents and oil spills in Santa Barbara. Her empathy and compassion can be felt on every page. The last line of her poem, “Women With Carrying Poles,” characterizes much of what she does in these poems: “like my ancestors, I learn to work hard and balance the earth on one shoulder.”   

"GhostNotes," Brian Cross, University of Texas Press

Brian “B+” Cross’s book “GhostNotes: Music of the Unplayed” is an extended photo essay of 200 plus images bringing together LA Black Arts poetry, underground West Coast hip-hop, Jamaican dub, Brazilian samba, Ethiopian jazz, Cuban timba and Colombian cumbia. The photos themselves are arranged thematically like songs mixed together on a well-made mixtape. Cross’s documentary style photos connect music, visual art and radical politics. Shots include Kendrick Lamar, the Watts Prophets, Lauryn Hill, Brian Wilson, George Clinton, Erykah Badu, J Dilla, David Axelrod, Bill Withers and Biggie Smalls among hundreds of others.

Old Gods, New Enigmas, Mike Davis

"Old Gods, New Enigmas," Mike Davis, Verso Books

Davis’ latest is a departure from his previous books like “City of Quartz” and “Ecology of Fear” and more in line with his first book, “Prisoners of the American Dream.” Combining historical sociology, cultural analysis and a discussion of Marxist proletarian agency, this one is his most autobiographical with a Preface where traces his own Southern California youth in the 1940s and 50s before becoming a truck driver and meat-cutter in the 1960s and then studying at UCLA as an adult-freshmen in the 1970s. The final essay in the book, “Who Will Build the Ark,” is one of the greatest contemporary treatises on global warming that goes beyond theory to suggest strategic action. “The more affluent, to be sure,” Davis states, “can now choose from an abundance of designs for eco-living, but what is the ultimate goal: to allow well-meaning celebrities to brag about their zero-carbon lifestyles or to bring solar energy, toilets, pediatric clinics, and mass transit to poor urban communities?”  

"Radio Imagination," Edited by Susan Duckworth & Savannah Wood, Clockshop

This catalog collection includes new work from four writers and eight artists that celebrates the work of the late great Octavia Butler. Clockshop commissioned these creators to conduct research in Butler’s archive at the Huntington Library and then use their findings for inspiration. Original creative nonfiction and poetry by Tisa Bryant, Lynell George, Robin Coste Lewis, and Fred Moten are included along with many images from Octavia Butler’s Collection at the Huntington like early photos and her original letters. Artwork in several mediums by artists like Laylah Ali, Malik Gaines, Alexandro Segade, Lauren Halsey, Mendi + Keith Obadike, Connie Samaras, and Cauleen Smith are also in the text.

"Heaven is All Goodbyes," Tongo Eisen-Martin, City Lights

"Heaven is All Goodbyes," Tongo Eisen-Martin, City Lights

The winner of the California Book Award, this collection is the newest title in City Lights famed “Pocket Poets Series.” San Francisco-based bard Tongo Eisen-Martin, according to Terrance Hayes in the “New York Times Magazine,” “displays the poetics between Babel and Babylon, a style compressed and personal enough to conjure Amiri Baraka, Baudelaire and Bob Kaufman. It makes reading a kind of revision, a reviewing, a reseeing.” The 42 poems in this poet’s second book are a volatile cocktail of surrealism, blunt images, raw observations, and transcendent epiphanies. Eisen-Martin is a poetic Jimi Hendrix on the page and the stage. 

"City of the Future," Sesshu Foster, Kaya Press

Sesshu Foster is one of the most influential Angeleno authors of the last generation. Hailing from the City Terrace section of East Los Angeles, his latest book from Kaya Press, “City of the Future,” continues his legacy of mapping the real Los Angeles and resisting the “apartheid imagination” through writing, poetry, and the mentorship of new generations. Foster’s writing bends genres such as documentary and poetry with surrealism, the elegiac with urban studies. His hybrid poetics reflect his mixed heritage. Born to a Japanese-American mother and Caucasian father, Foster is often assumed to be Chicano because he’s spent so many years in the Latin arts community and lived almost all his life in East Los Angeles.

"After/Image," Lynell George, Angel City Press

"After/Image," Lynell George, Angel City Press

The native Angeleno journalist Lynell George provides a personal and deep perspective on shifts across Los Angeles because she’s been covering the terrain longer than just about anybody. This book of essays and photographs examines and explicates Los Angeles in search of place and belonging with uncanny verisimilitude. Rooted in personal experience, George catalogs the changing landscape, delving deeply into the city’s shifting districts and ever-evolving zeitgeist coming to rise because of these shifts. A lifetime of covering her hometown is distilled into eleven meticulous essays complemented perfectly by her own poignant, original photography.

"Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo-Wop Singer," Ruben Guevara, University of California Press

Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara is a Los Angeles native Chicano musician, singer, songwriter, poet, performance artist, activist, producer, short story author, and historian. Famed for his beautiful singing voice and performances with Frank Zappa, Johnny Otis, Tina Turner, Celia Cruz, and Bo Diddley, his book explicates the roller coaster ride of his 50-year career offering a primer to core concepts of Chicano history and a panoramic overview of the last 75 years of Los Angeles history. Ultimately, the recollections demonstrate again and again how Guevara’s indomitable “ancestral spirit mixed with the need to reveal the untold history of social injustice,” to propel him into becoming what he calls “a Chicano Culture Sculptor.”

"Peregrinations," Amy T. Hamilton, University of Nevada Press

"Peregrinations," Amy T. Hamilton, University of Nevada Press

This interdisciplinary exploration combines literary analysis with cultural studies and ecocriticism. The book’s subtitle, “Walking in American Literature,” centers the narrative’s focus as it explores the function of walking in Native American, Chicanx and Euroamerican literatures over the last three centuries. Hamilton shows how walking is the very basis of human agency. Though she briefly mentions Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau’s noted ideas on walking, Hamilton deconstructs the notion that walking is merely “a masculine tradition of conquest and domination of the American land,” by spotlighting several examples of Native American and Southwest border literatures that use walking as a means to interrogate place and identity.   

"American Sonnets," Terrance Hayes, Penguin Poets

The recipient of both the National Book Award and MacArthur Genius Grant, Terrance Hayes is one of the most progressive Poets writing today. Composed during the first six months of the Trump presidency, this book meditates on America’s past, present and future with deep insight, sarcasm, and compassion in 70 American sonnets. Hayes credits the great Los Angeles poet Wanda Coleman and her three-decade project of writing American Sonnets as the book’s inspiration. Combining pop culture references, current political issues and American history with double-entendres, puns, extended metaphors, interior rhyme and paronomasia, Hayes blows his poetic soul with the sophistication of Coleman.

"Hiroshima Boy," Naomi Hirahara, Prospect Park Books

"Hiroshima Boy," Naomi Hirahara, Prospect Park Books

The Pasadena-born Naomi Hirahara is in many ways a one-woman Japanese-American history project. Her books have tackled seminal Japanese-American topics like Terminal Island, the flower industry, Japanese-American gardeners, the Japanese-American concentration camps, and survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Best known for her Edgar Award-winning seven-book Mas Arai crime novel series, her newest Mas Arai mystery title is the final one of the series and it features the protagonist returning to his boyhood home in Hiroshima. Poet Amy Uyematsu says, “I love how skillfully she weaves Japanese-American culture and community into her plots; by the end of the novel, the reader finds out ‘who-done-it’ along with an insider’s view of everything from baseball to strawberry farmers, spam musubi, a snakeskin shamisen, and more.”

"Chocolate Cities," Marcus Anthony Hunter & Zandria F. Robinson, University of California Press

Focusing on film, fiction, music, and oral history, the authors of “Chocolate Cities” map the past, present and future of Black America from emancipation to the 21st Century. The mix of geography, cultural studies, and sociology, creates a book that is equally engaging to scholars and the average reader. Legendary musician George Clinton calls it “a testament to the magic that is possible when you combine the funky wisdom of the Mothership with the best scholarship from the Ivory Tower.” There’s a perfect mix of oral history and hard data that makes the book relevant on multiple levels.

"California Field Atlas," Obi Kaufmann, Heyday Books

"California Field Atlas," Obi Kaufmann, Heyday Books

This tour-de-force is over 500 pages with 300 plus hand-painted maps. Author Obi Kaufmann is an Oakland-based poet and painter extolling a principle he calls “Geographic Literacy.” Geographic literacy, according to Kaufmann, “involves a basic knowledge of one’s place: it’s systems of ecology, it’s historic narrative, and its political trajectory. Geographic literacy is the baseline for any plan of collective sustainability.” Kaufmann sees the process of creating his detailed handcrafted maps as a tool to promote geographic literacy and to shift consciousness. “With the right information and the right spirit, and a bit of ingenuity,” Kaufmann writes, “we can ensure that the natural California that our grandchildren and their grandchildren know is in even better condition than it is in today.”

"Paperback L.A.," Books 1 & 2, Edited by Susan LaTempa, Prospect Park Books

The first two books of this eventual four-book series move across nearly 200 years of Southern California history. Moving from Native American roots to the Mission era to early Hollywood to race relations in the 1940s to hardcore punk to Dodger baseball and Vin Scully, this series of stories and vintage photos aims to create a new-school anthology. Book One includes Eve Babitz, Paul Beatty, Susan Sontag, Vin Scully, Hector Tobar, and Victor Valle among others and Book Two includes Ray Bradbury, Naomi Hirahara, Wendy Gilmartin and a rare short story by Chester Himes along with several others. The mix of short fiction, architectural criticism, poetry, creative nonfiction, photography, and even recipe, make these two titles unique among the dozens of anthologies celebrating Literary Los Angeles. Both titles are stand-alone collections but the brief nature of most of the pieces make for quick reads that bring a new dimension to the city’s literary canon.    

"Latinx Writing Los Angeles," Edited by Ignacio Lopez-Calvo & Victor Valle, University of Nebraska Press

"Latinx Writing Los Angeles," Edited by Ignacio Lopez-Calvo & Victor Valle, University of Nebraska Press

This new fascinating anthology features nonfiction writing from Latin authors from the birth of Los Angeles to 2018. The editors aim to redefine Los Angeles’s literary history by filling in gaps missed by historians and earlier anthologies. In addition to the great pieces within the work, the two opening Introductory essays will be required reading for future literary scholars examining Los Angeles literature. The two editors team up for the essay, “Decolonizing Latina/o Nonfiction in LA’s Writing,” which outlines their intention in the book. “The texts included in this collection, “ they write, “can therefore be read as a geology of a contested urban present that, in challenging the uncritical, untheorized, or disjointed descriptions that kept this literature’s rarely understood matrix of texts in the shadows, now requires a fresh reading of the literature’s historical and literary precursors.” This fresh reading includes voices like Ricardo Flores Magon,  Helena Maria Viramontes, Harry Gamboa, Alejandro Murguia, Hector Tobar, Sesshu Foster, and Ruben Martinez.

"This is for the Mostless," Jason Magobo Perez, Wordtech Editions

The debut book by writer, performer, and professor Jason Magobo Perez is a lyrical collection of autobiographical poems, short essays and oral histories. Meditating on his Southern California upbringing in the Filipino community, Perez sings of girlfriends, gangsters, grandparents, poets, superheroes and close friends who were gone too soon. Mixing cartography, epistemology, and ethnography with ultra-personal musings, Perez makes the personal universal. Whether he’s traveling up and down California, reflecting on Tookie Williams or attending a mindfulness retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, Perez’s book offers a praxis for living and loving.

"Your Golden Sun Still Shines," Edited by Denise Sullivan, Manic D Press

"Your Golden Sun Still Shines," Edited by Denise Sullivan, Manic D Press

This new anthology illustrates San Francisco and how its evolved in the 21st Century. 23 authors contribute short fiction and personal histories in the text. Accounts range from activists grappling with the bad attitudes of new money tech transplants to why “Skid Row is Still Skid Row (and closer than you think.” Native San Francisco voices like Norman Antonio Zelaya pull back the veil on their hometown. Current San Francisco Poet Laureate Kim Shuck pontificates on the city’s changing identity. In her poem “Rename,” she states: “ In the radical renaming we will call homes / Five alarm fire we will call a / Hardware store the / Point of ignition we who will not move will be / Changed / Until we don’t / Recognize until we can’t.” These authors want the world to know that San Francisco’s golden sun still shines even as times change. This collection shows a city snapshot of a city in transition.  

"Trickster Feminism," Anne Waldman, Penguin Poets

Waldman’s kinetic poetry bridges movements and generations in her dynamic oeuvre. Dating back to her close connection to Allen Ginsberg, Waldman continues the Beat tradition of oral poetry intertwined with mythopoetics, blues, and chance operation. Tackling anthropocentrism and attacks on feminism, most of her poems are calls to action. Moreover, just when a piece almost feels too abstract she utters something so direct that it’s like a thunderclap within the text. For example, “take down the big horrible men / destroy them in their icy sleeves / cuff them / not you brethren but imposters / and their minions.” Waldman has written over 40 books and still rocks a live crowd though she’s now in her 70s. This collection continues her tradition of excellence.


There were a number of other books I intended to read this last year, but there’s only so much time. Nonetheless, as the above titles demonstrate, there’s no shortage of great authors tackling today’s important topics. Long live these authors and here’s to more in 2019. Thank you for reading and happy new year.   

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