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LA Letters Top Eleven Book Picks for 2012

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Behold the lore of L.A. authors! The burgeoning tide of Los Angeles literature grows bigger every year. Over the last year I've reviewed or previewed over two dozen books for LA Letters. Among the picks below, several were previously covered in the column. A few may have been released at the end of 2011, but I read them in early 2012. The following book list mixes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, urban studies and sociology -- L.A. is the commonality.


by Steve Abee

MP Publishing

Abee's novel is a kinetic post beat jaunt through 21st Century Los Angeles with a protagonist called Johnny Future: "The Alvarado concrete and people are piling into my skull: El Salvador mothers, no-pants children, dudes, girls, moths, glowing feathers from pigeons circling the head of the crazy bum man that feeds them rice from the Chinese Restaurant." Johnny Future trolls L.A.'s underworld looking for the fantastic.

by Chiwan Choi

Writ Large Press

Featuring cover art by the renowned artist Risk One, "Abductions" is 100 pages of charged poems about alien abductions, miscarriages, memories of adolescence, coming of age and enduring marriage. Choi's poetics gracefully utilizes the microscope: "I tell her/this is why I write:/to keep all of us alive/on white sheets of paper,/in combinations/of abstract shapes/with harsh angles,/even those/who have been taken/from us,/one time long ago/and/once more;/to keep us,/not breathing/but/permanent." Choi specializes in frozen moments, these poems are well crafted.

by Wanda Coleman

University of Pittsburgh Press

Coleman's newest book discusses her L.A. childhood, different marriages and the loss of her son. "My son was murdered by the nation of our birth, the nation we loved." Douglas Kearney writes, "Wanda Coleman's hard-edged new collection interrogates death's nearsightedness. Mother outlives son. Feet wear out before the heart. And the truth teller dies before truth frees her. These poems don't go gently. Elegy turns protest." Coleman has widely been considered the heir apparent to Charles Bukowski as LA's best known poet for a generation now.


by Andrew Deener

University of Chicago Press

Rather than being another Venice history book, this work takes a sociological angle and analyzes the economic and social changes occurring in five neighborhoods of Venice over the last 30 plus years. Piggybacking off of the foundational ideas of urban theorist Jane Jacobs, the book's last chapter "The Future of the American City" asks a lot of questions about cities undergoing gentrification, economic change and shifting levels of diversity. Deener uses his close reading of Venice as a microcosm for forecasting the future of the American neighborhood. Though his book offers no big answers, he does an excellent job identifying the issues in question.

Edited by Susan Morgan

East of Borneo Press

This anthology collects over 50 essays from the famed architectural historian Esther McCoy. Author Susan Morgan masterfully edited the anthology and wrote the introductory essay on the importance of McCoy that frames the whole work. McCoy's oeuvre connects Frank Lloyd Wright to Frank Gehry, Reyner Banham to Ray Bradbury, Italian Renaissance Revival to Postmodernism; for over 60 years McCoy charted American culture and how it manifests in architecture. This book also includes some of her out of print essays and is indispensable for aficionados of L.A. design and local landscapes.

by Cathy Park Hong

W. W. Norton & Company

"Engine Empire" showcases the L.A.-born, East Coast-based award-winning poet Hong's well developed skills in lexical integration. The elasticity and dimensions of her poetics manifest in this three section book of lyric and narrative poems that connects the dots between the Old West California, industrialized China and the far future; the three sections are "Ballad of Our Jim," "Shangdu, My Artful Boomtown," and "The World Cloud." Her vernacular is packed with technical innovation and a dash of swagger like the first four lines in "Man That Scat":

I'm a natty crossdressing
Wrastler in possum
Chaps, my boots can smash
Any clapboard slat,

Poems like "Ballad in A" shows why Hong's vocabulary is one of the most versatile in verse culture, capable of constructing a barrage of polyphonic syllables that even the best battle rappers could appreciate: "At dawn, marshal stalks that ranch,/ packs a gat and blasts Kansan's ass/and Kansan gasps, blasts back./A flag flaps half-staff." "Engine Empire" is innovative, futuristic poetry coupled with soulful surrealism.

by Douglas Kearney

Deadly Chaps Press

Kearney's 18-page chapbook is a tour-de-force of concrete poetry, paranomasia and racial commentary. Poems like "Drop It Like It's Hottentot Venus," "Well Hung" and "The American Blacks" play with typography and meaning in a highly stylized manner using different size print, bold face and crossed out lines. Kearney's well-designed work combines humor with raw observations to create a visual field that accentuates his range of meaning.

by Gary Phillips

Kensington Publishing

Taking place in a once tony housing tract in the Inland Empire known as Willow Ridge, the action-packed narrative involves a tough guy drifter hero named O'Conner who accidentally lands his motorcycle in suburbia, where he squats in a foreclosed home, meets hot and bothered housewives, and ends up clashing with both the Vandal Vikings Bikers and the Mas Trece Gangs. Phillips knows Los Angeles like Chester Himes and Raymond Chandler, masterfully using geography as O'Conner negotiates locales like Fontana, Hawaiian Gardens, Hollywood, Olvera Street, Richland Farms in Compton to San Pedro and back again. Witty dialogue, passion and betrayal tangle in this crime novel that has a lot to say about 21st Century Suburban America.


Mickey Cohen: The Life & Crimes of L.A.'s Notorious Mobster
by Tere Tereba

ECW Press

Mickey Cohen was L.A.'s Al Capone; the man survived 11 assassination attempts. Journalist Tere Tereba traces Cohen's trajectory with a detailed account, leaving little out and painting a vivid biographical portrait of the Boyle Heights-bred kid that became the West Coast's greatest gangster. The new film "Gangster Squad" is set to be released in January detailing Cohen's epic 1949 feud with the LAPD; those that want to know even more than the film reveals about Cohen should read this book.

by LAura Pulido, LAura Barraclough and Wendy Cheng

University of California Press

Equal parts Urban Studies and California history, this masterfully executed work subverts the typical Los Angeles guidebook, containing over 300 pages of sites, stories and maps "where struggles related to class, race, gender, sexuality and the environment have occurred." Naming 115 places across Los Angeles, the work's true magic is its celebration of more unknown sites like Biddy Mason Park, Kashu Realty, Mark Twain Library, Cambodiatown, the Southern California Research Library, and the Studio for Southern California History.

Edited by Santino Rivera

Broken Sword Publications

Inspired by Arizona's 2011 ban on Chicano Studies literature, "Ban This!" includes poetry, prose, short fiction and illustrations from 39 contributors like Francisco X. Alarcon, Gustavo Arellano, Lalo Alcaraz, Luis Alberto Urrea, Rodolfo Acuna, Art Meza, Matt Sedillo, and Frank Mundo, among many others. Conceived by the Florida-based writer/publisher Santino Rivera, three generations of scribes are included. Rivera's anthology represents the best Chicano writing from barrios coast to coast, truthfully capturing the zeitgeist of these times from the frontlines. The back cover reads: "Warning: This book is a weapon. This book is extremely dangerous. This book is explosive. This book is illegal. This book could land you in jail!"

These 11 picks represent some of the finest L.A. writing from 2012. As 2013 unfolds many more great L.A. books will be published and expect to see them reviewed here. 2012 has been a great year for L.A. Letters -- See you in January and happy new year!

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