L.A. Letters Books of 2014: Part 2


Last week I covered 10 noteworthy books from 2014, this week L.A. Letters spotlights 10 more plus a poetic recording by one of L.A.'s most enduring poets. Most of the following works were published in the second half of the year and similar to last week, these titles are very L.A.-centric but there are also two titles that address Las Vegas and San Francisco. In addition to Poetry, Architecture, Urban Planning and Social Justice, there are also a few fiction choices.

The Secret History of Las Vegas
By Chris Abani
Penguin Original Fiction

For over a dozen years, the poet and novelist Chris Abani lived in Southern California. Most recently he spent a number of years as a Professor at UC Riverside. Though he is now at Northwestern University in Chicago, his latest book is a murder mystery based in the City of Sin. The book's protagonist, a veteran detective named Salazar, is determined to solve a recent spate of murders in the Las Vegas homeless community. Along the way he meets twin brothers named Fire and Water, who happen to be slightly deformed because their mother was exposed to radiation from nuclear testing in the Nevada desert. Abani creates a complicated narrative that unfolds in the Vegas underworld. The resolution is an unexpected plot twist that holds the reader in suspense to the very end. Abani does a masterful job crafting this secret history in the Valley of the Lost Souls.

Tracks to the Future
By William Bradley
Angel City Press

Originally released in 1979 in a much simpler format, Bradley's book is an in-depth history of Union Station and the previous railroad stations of Los Angeles. The new, expanded edition from Angel City Press includes dozens of both archival and glossy photos, along with a new final chapter bringing the book up to date with recent developments like the Red Line train and Metrolink services. Bradley writes, "The last great train terminal, Los Angeles Union Station is also the first great station of the modern transportation era." Recently the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association announced Bradley's book as the recipient of the Glenn Goldman Award for the category of art/architecture/photography. As Union Station celebrates its 75th anniversary, this book celebrates the great terminal it in all its glory.

Beware, Beware
By Steph Cha
Minotaur Books

Steph Cha is wise for her 30 years. In her second book, the Los Angeles native and Stanford alum connects the dots between Korean Los Angeles and the contemporary spirit of the city in spaces like the Roosevelt Hotel, El Cholo, and Santa Monica. Similar to Gary Phillips and Denise Hamilton, Cha updates and modernizes the Noir genre for the 21st Century. Cha's protagonist Juniper Song is a postmodern Phillip Marlowe, but re-contextualizes the lead detective role as a younger Korean-American woman. Similar to Chris Abani's expose on the underbelly of Las Vegas, Cha reveals Hollywood's underworld and the uglier side of Tinsel Town's glamour in this work. "Beware Beware" is neo-noir and a new take on the murder mystery.

Who We Be
By Jeff Chang
St. Martin's Press

Chang's follow-up book to his award-winning "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" does a brilliant job recounting the last half century from the Civil Rights era to Obama's presidency. Uncovering the hidden history of multiculturalism, Chang shows how Americans see race and how this has changed and not changed over the last 50 years. The narrative remixes contemporary art, comic strips, corporate marketing campaigns, campus protests, and events like the Los Angeles Riots and the shooting of Trayvon Martin to demonstrate the cultural history of race in America. Whether he's breaking down the culture wars of the 1980s New York City art scene, or multicultural poets like Ishmael Reed and Jessica Hagedorn of Berkeley and Oakland in the 1970s, Chang sheds bright light on touchstone events in recent American history and does a brilliant job at highlighting each decade and the deeper meaning imbued in every period.

The Poetry Deal
By Diane Di Prima
City Lights Publishing

Original Beat poet Diane Diprima has lived in San Francisco for the last 45 years. This book is the latest in the City Light's Poet Laureate series. Her 56 poems in this collection are bookended by two essays, including the inaugural address she delivered when she was publically declared the San Francisco Poet Laureate a few years ago. Weaving the communal, personal, political, and structural realms together in concise poetry, Di Prima shows her mastery of the poetic craft. In addition to celebrating San Francisco and reminiscing on her many years there, her poems confront everything from the deaths of poetic colleagues, political struggles in Lebanon, Tibet, and Haiti, to the rise of Obama and the legacy of the Beat Generation. In the poem, "Keep the Beat," she writes, "it's not a 'Generation'/dig---/it's a state of mind/a way of living/gone on/for centuries." She reminds readers that the spirit of the Beat Generation is a timeless zeitgeist that existed long before it was ever named. This is the first volume of new work from Di Prima in a few decades and it's definitely been worth the wait.


Look Each Other in the Ears
By Michael C. Ford
Henhouse Studios

This 11-track album of poems set to music is not a book, but it is overflowing with literary merit. Michael C. Ford is a Los Angeles poet that first performed his work in 1969 on stage with Norman Mailer and the Doors. Ford's voice is reminiscent of an old school radio DJ. In tracks like "A Simple Ode to Frank O'Hara," and "Sleeping Underwater," his unique phrasing and first-rate recitation skills shine bright. In the album's first song, "For Openers," Ford gracefully runs down the names of Los Angeles coffeehouses and Central Avenue jazz locations from his youth in the early 1960s. John Densmore, the drummer of the Doors recently said, "I defy anyone to name a cooler cat than MC Ford. His breadth of knowledge about 'the scene' is amazing. He knows more about jazz drummers than I do." This record is also the last recording Doors' keyboardist Ray Manzarek ever played on before he passed last year, and Angelo Moore of Fishbone even sings chorus vocals on the album as well. Poetry scholar Sophie Rachmuhl calls Ford, "one of the rare poets to bridge the gap between the Venice Beats and later Los Angeles poetry scene." This record showcases both Ford's poetic style and knowledge with flying colors.

Sidewalks/Faces in the Crowd
By Valeria Luiselli
Coffeehouse Press

This double book includes both essays and a novel by the Mexico City born author Valeria Luiselli. Currently finishing her PhD in comparative literature at Columbia University, this book shows off her superior multidisciplinary writing skills. In "Sidewalks," she composes several short segmented essays that cover Mexico City, New York and Venice, Italy, among other locations in a register that blends the tone of an academic scholar with the artful style of Italo Calvino in his masterpiece, "Invisible Cities." "The urban walker has to march to the rhythm of the city in which he finds himself and demonstrate the same single-minded purpose as other pedestrians," she writes. In her short novella, "Faces in the Crowd," she sets her story in Harlem's Morningside Park neighborhood. Grappling with ghosts and the idea of characters disappearing in urban space, the experimental narrative eschews chronology. The narrator searches for identity in the faces of the crowd. Rather than being overly plot-driven, this novel contemplates existential angst like a 21st Century version of "Nausea," the celebrated novel by Jean Paul Sartre. These two well-crafted books in one, foreshadow a long literary career ahead for Luiselli.


Under Spring
By Jeremy Rosenberg
Heyday Books

Rosenberg's mixed-genre work was the winner of the 2013 California Historical Society Book Award. Fusing Art, History and Urban Planning, this book collages 66 voices from performance artists, scholars, activists, urban planners, politicians and graffiti writers to chronicle the transformation of a no-man's land under a bridge next to the Los Angeles River into a dynamic art space for live performances. The focus on this one location serves as a metaphor for the wider spread changes occurring across Los Angeles in the last decade with both the Los Angeles River and the emerging art scene. For over three years Rosenberg wrote two columns for KCET, "The Laws that Shaped L.A.," and "Arrival Stories." Before his time at KCET, Rosenberg also worked for the Los Angeles Times and has written for many other publications about art, social issues and urban planning. This book combines all of his interests in this experimental narrative.

My Los Angeles
By Edward Soja
University of California Press

For over 30 years Soja has been one of the leading urban theorists of the Los Angeles school and a well-known Professor in UCLA's Urban Planning Department. His breakthrough book, "Postmodern Geographies," in the late 1980s put him on the radar for international urbanists. This recent book in many ways synthesizes his life's work and puts it all into perspective. He not only reflects on the last four decades, he ruminates on the latest changes in the city and shows how far Los Angeles has come since the Days of Reagan. Along the way, he celebrates radical women of color, a number of activist collectives and local muralists. Soja explicates the evolution of spatial justice in Los Angeles and shows how spatial theory has developed into active political practice.

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Men Explain Things to Me
By Rebecca Solnit
Haymarket Books

For the last two decades, Rebecca Solnit has been one of the most prolific contemporary thinkers and writers of our time. The book began with an article she wrote in 2008 of the same name. The article instantly struck a chord and went viral. The original piece the book grew out of has been so influential, Solnit writes that, "The term 'mansplaining' was coined soon after the piece appeared, and I was sometimes credited for it. In fact, I had nothing to do with its actual creation, though my essay, along with all the men that embodied the idea, apparently inspired it." The book not only highlights what goes wrong in conversations between the sexes, it also examines marriage equality, the silencing of women, and the frightening landscape of contemporary violence against women. "Things have gotten better, but this war won't end in my lifetime. I'm still fighting it, for myself certainly, but also for all those younger women who have something to say, in the hope that they will get to say it," she writes. This short book of seven essays was one of the most talked about tomes of the year.

Voices of A People's History
Edited by Howard Zinn & Anthony Arnove
Seven Stories Press

This new third edition of "Voices" published in the Fall of 2014 includes speeches, letters, poems and songs from 1492 to 2014. This collection is an incredible resource for anyone interested in the history of struggle and social justice with over 150 plus writers and activists in the text like Frederick Douglas, Cesar Chavez, Naomi Klein, Angela Davis, Mike Davis, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Public Enemy, June Jordan, Noam Chomsky, Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, Allen Ginsberg, John Steinbeck, Yuri Kochiyama, Paul Robeson, and countless others. The material moves from the arrival of Columbus all the way to Occupy Wall Street. The greatest asset of this nearly 700-page anthology is to have 500 plus years of the living history of America all together in one volume.

Each of these titles is especially relevant to 2014 and West Coast culture. Salute to these authors for their timely work. Together they exemplify a standard of excellence in the landscape of L.A. Letters.

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