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L.A. Letters Books of 2014: Part 1

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As someone that is perpetually reading three or four books at the same time, I can never get enough literature in my life. This week L.A. Letters spotlights 10 standout books that epitomize the zeitgeist on the West Coast in 2014. Most of them deal directly with Los Angeles in one way or another, but the few that do not, are still very timely to the spirit of this period and Southern California. As much as I read across all genres, there is a special focus on poetry, urban planning, architecture, and social justice. Next week's column will include 10 more selections. Almost all of the titles listed here were released in 2014, the lone exception was published in late 2013.

The Folklore of the Freeway
By Eric Avila
University of Minnesota Press

Avila's cultural history of the nationwide freeway revolt sheds great insight on the countless communities across America that were destroyed by the interstate highway program during the 1960s and '70s. Rather than just highlighting the damage done to the various communities, Avila demonstrates how the artists and activists that fought the freeways found identity and became empowered through their struggle. "It brought women to the forefront of political organization and provoked a sense a feminist critique of modernist city planning," writes Avila. His chapters on East Los Angeles and Chicano Park in San Diego are especially powerful. Avila reveals how "new expressions of identity and difference disrupt the master narratives that guided urban design during the age of the interstate."

The Changs Next Door to the Diazes
By Wendy Cheng
University of Minnesota Press

Focusing on how demographic shifts in the San Gabriel Valley have reshaped cities like Monterey Park, Alhambra, San Gabriel, and Rosemead over the last 40 years, the author offers a model for reconsidering the emerging racial and spatial dimensions of 21st Century California and also America. Cheng's focus on the daily experiences of citizens in these cities gives an in-depth perspective of life in a multiracial landscape with a nonwhite majority. The narrative's blend of academic analysis with specific details of the daily lives of the many people interviewed, make it a well-rounded account for a wide range of readers. Whether it's the story of a Boy Scout Troup in Monterey Park, or the multiracial activists that helped save Monster Park in San Gabriel, this book captures the transformation of racial consciousness that has happened in the San Gabriel Valley and now underway across America.

Poetry Los Angeles
By Laurence Goldstein
University of Michigan Press

This book is a very well-researched and thorough account of Los Angeles poetry. Goldstein comments on over 40 poems that he deems essential Los Angeles poems. Goldstein was born in Culver City and attended UCLA in the 1960s as an undergraduate. Though he has not lived in Los Angeles for over 40 years, he has maintained a close connection to his birthplace and its literary tradition. He acknowledges in his preface, "This is not a study of Los Angeles poets, many of whom have published high-quality work on a variety of topics. This is a study of poems about Los Angeles, whether by local authors or visitors." To this end he includes many essential Los Angeles poets like Wanda Coleman, Luis Rodriguez, Lewis MacAdams, Suzanne Lummis, and Amy Uyematsu. One chapter that some may find controversial is titled "How Good, or Bad, is Charles Bukowski's Poetry?" I would have liked seeing the work of Marisela Norte, Kamau Daaood, and Sesshu Foster in this account, but all in all, Goldstein's book is still an indispensable guide to anyone interested in Los Angeles poetry.

Dreams Gone Mad with Hope
By S.A. Griffin
Punk Hostage Press

Dating back to the late 1970s, S.A. Griffin has been one of the most active poets in literary Los Angeles. In poems like "Songs My Stepfather Taught Me," Griffin offers a glimpse into his long and often tragic journey. Originally influenced by both the Beat Generation poets and Punk Rock, Griffin's aesthetic epitomizes the outsider spirit. Nonetheless there is a palpable warmth and sentiment in pieces like "The Stuff of Dreams," and "Your Worlds Make Beautiful Music Together." His poetic register shifts with every page. The 37 poems in this collection poignantly move from the deaths of family and friends, his wives and a son, the Hollywood scene and his cruel stepfather. The entire time we see Griffin "wearing his inside out."

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The Black Man of Happiness
By Peter J. Harris
Black Man of Happiness Project

The 20 essays in this collection culminate into a very inspirational book that is very unique. Harris explores his journey from his 1960s childhood in Washington D.C. to his adulthood as a nationally published writer, educator, and cultural worker in Los Angeles. Long known as one of the most active writers based out of Leimert Park, Harris answers and explicates the question of what is a happy Black man? Approaching the topic as a son, father, stepfather, and grandfather, Harris shows his compassionate and huge heart in a narrative that extends for over 340 pages. Whether he's crafting brotherhood with his gay Homeboy or confronting his youngest daughter's rape by her stepfather, his honesty is powerful and awe-inspiring.

Patter
By Douglas Kearney
Red Hen Press

Kearney's third book shows him masterfully grappling with private realms with both humor and tenderness. He reimagines miscarriages as minstrel shows, magic tricks and comic strips. He also confronts public history with irreverence and powerful wordplay. In cycles of poems like his "Father of the Year" series, he interrogates societal standards and also his own mortality. Engaging in a technique he calls "Performative Typography," Kearney's text takes concrete poetry to another level. He first began experimenting with this technique over a decade ago with a poem about breakdancing, and he has not looked back since. The writer Tim Seibles lauds Kearney for his "sonic-semantic wizardry" and rightfully so. "Patter" shows this award-winning poet at the height of his powers.

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Open 24 Hours
By Suzanne Lummis
Lynx House Press

Suzanne Lummis has long been known as one of the key figures in the Stand-up Poetry movement. This new book of poems shows her highly skilled technique and bold humor. She balances sly cynicism with an underlying melancholy. Poems like "Marilyn in the Los Angeles Central Library," spotlight both her creative prowess and connection to civic history. This collection won the Blue Lynx Prize, and Lummis was also recently published in the New Yorker. Her cocktail of sarcasm and sentiment makes her an iconic Los Angeles poet.

Citizen
By Claudia Rankine
Graywolf Press

Pomona College Professor Claudia Rankine was nominated for a National Book Award for this powerful collection of prose poems. In many ways the experimental text that is this book defies categorization. Above all, Rankine is fearless and she interrogates what it means to be a Black citizen in the United States in the early 21st Century. Published right before the murder of Michael Brown, Rankine discusses everything from the Stop and Frisk policy in New York City, Rodney King, Trayvon Martin to the media's depiction of Serena Williams. She asks: How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another?" Rankine reminds us: "What feels more than feeling?" This book will be read for years to come.

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Lowriting
Edited by Santino Rivera
Broken Sword Publications

This anthology of poems and short stories includes over 30 authors like Lalo Alcaraz, Gustavo Arellano, Robert Flores, Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez, and Luis Alberto Urrea, among others. Featuring the photography of Art Meza, this collection spotlights the low rider culture that began in Los Angeles over a half century ago. The juxtaposition of photos and stories celebrating low riding makes this book both highly readable and ideal for the coffee-table.

The Speech
By Gary Younge
Haymarket Books

The award-winning columnist from the Nation, Gary Younge tells the background story to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream Speech." As much as everyone knows about King's great speech, Younge explicates the year before the speech and all of the events that led up to that fateful August day in 1963 when King spoke in Washington D.C. Younge also showed the central role that men like Bayard Rustin played in the event as well. Connecting the dots over the last 50 years of the Civil Rights movement, this account expands the narrative from the standard story and also further explains the genius of MLK.

Next week will cover 10 more books. Salute to these authors for creating these iconic books in the landscape of L.A. Letters.

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