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Four Iconic Books in the Landscape of L.A. Letters

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Metabolic Studio, located under the Spring Street Bridge, is discussed in the book 'Under Spring' | Photo: Micki Krimmel/Flickr/Creative Commons

The landscape of L.A. Letters is an amalgam of neighborhoods and culture that also includes books of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, music, architecture and urban planning. Each of these topics are equally influential in the city's emerging 21st Century culture. This week L.A. Letters reviews four iconic and timely books that each offer special insight into the past, present and future of the city.

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Under Spring
By Jeremy Rosenberg
Heyday Books

Longtime KCET readers will remember Jeremy Rosenberg for his two columns, "Arrival Stories," and "The Laws that Shaped L.A." Rosenberg is also known for his many writings on art and urban planning in the Los Angeles Times and other publications. This new book was the winner of the 2013 California Historical Society Book Award and combines all of his interests in one mixed genre narrative. From 2005 to 2009, Rosenberg worked for the Annenberg Foundation on the Downtown Los Angeles-based projects of the artist Lauren Bon, who was involved with the creation of "Not a Cornfield" on the current site of the L.A. State Historic Park, as well as Farmlab and Metabolic Studio. Over the course of these four years, Rosenberg was a daily witness to the rise of an emerging art community where urban planning, architecture, environmental, and political issues all collided.

In the Preface he explains: "As a writer, I was used to having to travel from place to place in search of fantastic stories. During the years above, I didn't have to go anywhere. All the stories came to me. One day, the mayor would stop by. The next, leading academics. The next, Native American activists preparing for a ceremony. The next, famous international artists, musicians, or actors. Then, a homeless heroin junkie looking for a fix. Or somebody looking to take their dog on a walk down the river."

Rosenberg's experimental narrative weaves all of these voices together to tell the tale of the transformation of space beneath the North Spring Street Bridge adjacent to the Los Angeles River. Essentially the book is an oral history of the years Rosenberg spent documenting the spaces' transition from a no-man's land to an experimental art project with dynamic live events. His chronicle includes sixty-six figures from all walks of life, including artists, scholars, laborers, graffiti writers, urban planners, DJs, activists and homeless. Rosenberg describes his organizational format: "The interlaced and overlapping storytelling style in the book echoes the pace and mood of the project. Scores of mostly one-on-one interviews were conducted for this book, and sixty-six of those voices ultimately made their way into the text." William Deverell, the director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, says, "This is important work, as moving as it is thoughtful."

The resulting text has a rhythmic beat that echoes the dynamic scene under the bridge over those four years. The aptly titled book achieves multiple purposes through its assemblage of voices. Gregory Rodriguez, the publisher of Zocalo Public Square, notes, "It captures the smell of concrete and the colors of graffiti, and tackles big questions about development and public space in order to bring a changing city to life."

On Sunday, November 16 at 4 p.m. Rosenberg will be celebrating the book's release with a launch party at the site where it all began, the Metabolic Studio at 1745 North Spring. More info here.

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Open 24 Hours
By Suzanne Lummis
Lynx House Press

This book of 52 poems by stalwart Angeleno poet Suzanne Lummis was the winner of the 2013 Blue Lynx Prize. Anyone who has heard Lummis read live knows her for her wit, cleverness, and punchy lines. Her vibrant personality leaps from the page: "It's not my fault, I'm a conduit!" She has the ability to capture everyday speech in her verse and still maintain formality in print. Beneath all of her edgy humor though, some of the poems emit a beautiful melancholy, adhering to the poem noir she is also known for teaching in her citywide poetry workshops. The first two sections of the book, "Substandard Housing," and "Broken and in Need of Repair," are especially comprised of poems that blend comedy and tragedy in a lyrical cocktail.

A few years ago I called her a poetic Raymond Chandler, and this quality is especially apparent in this collection. She demonstrates this form in poems like "Misses Jensen, Apartment 101," "Man's Shirts Flung from Window," and "Ways to Make Money #1." Lummis has not only been a key poetry teacher in Los Angeles, she is the founder of the Los Angeles Poetry Festival, has won a number of awards over the years, and was most recently published in the pages of the New Yorker. Her best known previous book, "In Danger," was published by Heyday Press. This new collection captures her skill and sarcasm perfectly: "You make me happy sometimes-- /but let's not get sentimental, and anyway/you don't all that often!" Suzanne Lummis remains one of the most active and important contemporary Los Angeles poets.

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Beware, Beware
By Steph Cha
Minotaur Books

Steph Cha knows Los Angeles as well as anyone. In her second book, "Beware, Beware," Cha presents a 21st Century heroine and a Korean-American female version of Raymond Chandler's great detective Phillip Marlowe in her protagonist, Juniper Song. Song is an apprentice private investigator that combs the L.A. streets with the same intensity as Marlowe did during the Jazz Age. In this book, Song finds herself in the tangled web of a Hollywood murder scandal with a myriad of twists and turns that will keep the reader on the edge of their seat to the last page. In addition to the nonstop events within the work, Cha also gives an inside glimpse into the culture of Korean-American Los Angeles through the interaction of Juniper Song with her sister and friends.

Whether she's at the Roosevelt Hotel or on the Westside in Santa Monica, the action-packed narrative is definitely postmodern noir and much more up to date than just about any other current accounts. A great example of her descriptive powers can be seen in her characterization of the famous eatery El Cholo. Cha writes, "I was supposed to meet Donnie at El Cholo on Western, in the heart of Koreatown. It was an old stately Mexican joint that pre-dated the big influx of Korean immigrants in the sixties and seventies. It was a survivor from another phase of the neighborhood, a jellyfish swimming among dolphins." The entire book is filled with similarly accurate and insightful descriptions of neighborhood locations. Similar to Raymond Chandler, Cha also reveals her leading characters inner dialogue and how they tackle the obstacles of the city. Cha is a native Angeleno and her knowledge of her hometown shines through on every page. "Beware, Beware," is neo-noir at its finest and foreshadows a bright literary future for Steph Cha.

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Check the Technique: Volume Two
By Brian Coleman
Wax Facts Press

Coming in at over 500 pages, Coleman's third book lives up to its subtitle, "More Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies." Coleman discusses 25 classic hip-hop albums through in-depth stories from the artists who produced these records. Each chapter covers the behind-the-scenes development of each record and goes track by track into the thought process behind every song. Coleman lets the artists tell the story and uses the oral history method of storytelling to cover the history. Each chapter's narrative is composed of interviews from all the key figures behind each record. Several of the chapters are over 30 pages long and include as many as 7 or 8 voices who were key participants in the recording process.

For Angeleno hip-hop fans the 29 pages Coleman spends dissecting Ice Cube's "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted," will be extremely insightful. This landmark album was Ice Cube's debut solo record, recorded in 1990 shortly after he left N.W.A. Depending on who you ask, many still consider it the greatest West Coast hip-hop album ever produced, often even more critically acclaimed by hip-hop purists than Dr. Dre's "The Chronic," released a few years later. Coleman covers how Ice Cube split from N.W.A. and traveled to New York to record most of the album with the Public Enemy production team, the Bomb Squad. Before describing the step-by-step process and back and forth sessions in New York and Los Angeles, Coleman describes Ice Cube's early years on Van Wick Street in South Los Angeles. As much as Ice Cube was known for his affiliation with Compton, he actually grew up a few miles west of there in a Los Angeles neighborhood just north of Southwest College and east of Inglewood. Coleman includes commentary from a few of Ice Cube's early friends and co-conspirators from this area.

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Ice Cube had already recorded his major work with N.W.A. before his first solo record and was only 19 when he recorded "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted." In songs like "A Gangsta's Fairytale," and "Once Upon A Time in the Projects," Cube captured the early 1990s in Los Angeles just before the 1992 Uprisings. The chapter also includes fascinating commentary from co-producers Chuck D and Hank Shocklee from Public Enemy. Equally insightful chapters cover landmark albums by groups like The Coup, Dr. Octagon, Mos Def & Talib Kweli, Black Sheep, Company Flow, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, 3rd Bass, Raekwon, Jeru the Damaja and Diamond D among several other Golden Age hip-hop artists. "Check the Technique: Volume Two," also includes an Introduction by Adam Mansbach, known for his books like "Rage is Back," and "Go the F to Sleep." The 500 plus pages of hip-hop history in the book will surely lead many readers to dig deeper and listen to these great records again.

Brian Coleman will be debuting "Check the Technique: Volume Two," in Los Angeles on November 11, 2014 at U.S.C. Coleman will be appearing on a panel moderated by Professor Josh Kun that will also include Brother J from the X Clan, musician Adrian Younge, Professor and photographer Brian Cross, Professor and DJ Oliver Wang and the celebrated Los Angeles DJ Monalisa Murray.

Salute to these four authors for creating timely work especially relevant to the landscape of contemporary Los Angeles. They are each critical figures in the geography of L.A Letters.

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