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The Year In Review: Entertainment

Los Angeles Times arts and entertainment writers and critics look back at a 2017 where gender and race upended the industry.

Essential records of 2017 from Los Angeles artists.
Essential records of 2017 from Los Angeles artists. (Courtesy of respective labels)

Like wealth disparity in America, the divide between L.A.-based musical megastars and the other 99% of musicians reveals the extent to which big business controls the narrative.

While the headliners get prominent pushes on streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, a whole subset of artists release music into a sonic black hole. Absent placement on key playlists or a major media push, the music lies in wait on faraway servers.

Which is to say, is there too much recorded music in the world? Yes. Is most of it forgettable? Certainly. Below are 30 albums, alphabetically arranged, by Los Angeles-area artists issued this year that deserve your investment. (Note: Kendrick Lamar’s “Damn.” is excluded from this list to make room for a lesser-known artist.)

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I was late to reading Paul Beatty's "The Sellout" but loved it as I knew I would, having been a fan since his 2001 novel "The White Boy Shuffle." He wrote so many lines and deployed so many ideas I wished I had, beginning with the legal case that begins the novel: Me vs. America.

Less well known than "The Sellout" is Kao Kalia Yang's "The Song Poet." Her second memoir is a deeply moving account of her Hmong father, a working-class machinist in English-speaking America but a world-class song poet in the Hmong language. If you have a choice between spending 18 hours on a Vietnam War documentary or reading Yang's book — read Yang's book. You'll learn something new, including how the Vietnam War was also fought in Laos and devastated the Hmong people.

You might not believe it. I read or re-read more than 500 novels this year, to make an epic interactive map of our literary nation with regional fiction. There are 737 novels on that map, which I made for Granta. In choosing specific locations for each novel, I often stayed up all night re-reading a favorite book, or finding a new treasure. I drove across the country, re-reading books in the places where they were set: Stephen King's "Carrie" in Maine, Joyce Carol Oates' "Marya: A Life" in upstate New York, Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" in Lorain, Ohio, Mary O'Hara's "My Friend Flicka" in Wyoming, Vu Tran's "Dragonfish" in Las Vegas. The last novel I added to the map was among my favorites of 2017: "Woman No. 17," by Edan Lepucki, so precise and laser-like in depictions of women in wider Los Angeles, from the Hollywood Hills to the Valley.

But the book that entranced me, one I carried around the country and recommended to people in every state, was a slim memoir not set in America, but Colombia. "The Book of Emma Reyes: A Memoir," translated by Daniel Alarcon, consists of 23 letters written to set down Reyes' early life: on a garbage heap in Bogota she and other children attempt magic; her truly evil mother transports her children to country towns Guateque and Fusagasugá, where disaster ensues; finally she abandons her daughters, 7 and 6, at a train station. Reyes spends fifteen years at a Catholic orphanage in Bogota, where she works like a small animal. Whether watching fireworks and bulls destroy a village, or lying on her back for six hours a day, inches from an ornate altar cloth where she receives a needle threaded with gold and makes a tiny new hole for the next stitch, Reyes' voice is wondrous.

If Rachel Maddow and H.L. Mencken had conceived a child in Los Angeles in 1837, he'd be Francisco P. Ramírez. Paul Bryan Gray's criminally overlooked "A Clamor for Equality" (published in 2012) tells the story of this trilingual teenage journalism prodigy, who editorialized against police brutality, vote-selling and lynching. Since devouring Gray's richly researched biography, I've spent three months teaching, translating and even writing fiction about this lost hero. What would it finally take for Ramírez to get his day, and his due? Maybe if the Getty's next triennial PST theme were "2020 Hindsight: Art in Dialogue with L.A. History"…

Paul Bryan Gray’s "A Clamor for Equality: Emergence and Exile of Californio Activist Francisco P. Ramírez"
Paul Bryan Gray’s "A Clamor for Equality: Emergence and Exile of Californio Activist Francisco P. Ramírez" (Texas Tech University Press)
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"We Are Never Meeting in Real Life," Samantha Irby's collection of candid, funny and deliberate essays will make you laugh until you pee and cry and ache in your belly. It's like nothing you've ever read, because Irby is like no one you've ever met, although you will never really know, because I'm pretty sure the title of this book does not lie. Take heart, though, meeting Irby in writing is plenty rewarding enough. From the essay "A Case for Remaining Indoors": "Picture it: you're chilling in the corner at a party full of people you've never met before and hated on sight, humming the lyrics to a Coldplay song to yourself to drown out the Swedish death metal the hostess put on to prop up her apparition of coolness, then here comes ... who makes her own yogurt and just discovered Ta-Nehisi Coates condescending to you about how damaging reality shows are to impressionable youth." I mean, can you blame her for never wanting to meet anyone in real life?

I don't think adults spend enough time reading children's books. To be sure, not all of them are great grown-up reads, but I'd like to think, both as a parent and an avid reader, that the ones we want to share most with our kids are the ones we should take the time to read on our own, too. Such is the case with "Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut" by Derrick Barnes, beautifully illustrated by Gordon C. James, a real standout that reads like spoken word poetry in its bold tenor and lyrical writing. And it's not just a pleasure to read, it also does something important, and that is to show up and show out for black kids, black culture and black language. It's about that time honored tradition for black folks of sitting in the chair at the barbershop, and the power of being seen as a black boy beyond stereotype out here in America. Barnes writes: "A fresh cut does something for your brain, right? It hooks up your intellectual." Hook yourself up with this sweet and mighty book, both for you and your kids.

I've loved and admired Mary Gaitskill's essays over the years as they've appeared in between her novels and short story collections, and here, collected at last in "Somebody with A Little Hammer," with a cover she designed herself, I felt like I had not just a collection of her essays but an essential aspect of her intellect. Personal essays are here alongside major reviews, and whether reflecting on her lost cat, Updike, or her religious upbringing, Gaitskill brings her tremendous critical capacities to bear and the results are surprising, delightful and sublime.

Yiyun Li is one of our great living social realist fiction writers, and in "Dear Friend, from My Life, I Write to You in Your Life," she gives us a memoir in interconnected essays, drawing the connections she has made over the years between the writing she loves and the life she has endeavored to live. As she reflects on leaving Beijing for America, leaving a career as a doctor to become a writer, she takes us through the writers that have kept her alive — William Trevor, Marianne Moore, Ivan Turgenev and Katherine Mansfield, whose work supplies the title — and the result is an unforgettable portrait of the life lived behind her own great works.

Good nonfiction writers are able to use the smallest details to recreate entire lives. In "What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories," Laura Shapiro uses food to illustrate the lives of six cultural and political figures: Dorothy Wordsworth, Rosa Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Barbara Pym and Helen Gurley Brown. Food is never "just food," but instead offers insight into the life of mind of each woman, as well as into the exterior luxuries and hardships each faced. Dorothy Wordsworth (William's sister) ate blood pudding one night, and Shapiro offers entertaining analysis on the significance of such a happening. Both a biography and a book of culinary history, "What She Ate" is charming, well-researched, and thoughtful. Food has never meant so much.

“What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories,” by Laura Shapiro
“What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories,” by Laura Shapiro (Viking)
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A scene from "Mudbound"
A scene from "Mudbound" (Steve Dietl / Netflix / Associated Press)

It’s as if the movies answered our call. In a year that has seemed long and confusing, movies became an unexpected centering point, a beacon. As the era of “Peak TV” has toppled over on itself, cinema at least partly took back the reins of cultural conversation. Amid an ongoing onslaught of news and information, the idea of genuinely focusing on something else for a few hours often seemed the better thing to do.

Going back to January’s Sundance Film Festival, which coincidentally overlapped with the presidential inauguration, the movie year has been locked in a strange push-pull with current events and the real world. The world on-screen became a renewed source of reflection, both by presenting differing views and allowing for a focal point of contemplation. From the hypnotic horror of “Get Out” on through the eccentric wisdom of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” contemporary reality was filtered through cinematic storytelling this year to allow people a moment to get outside their own heads while also doing some free and deep thinking.

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in "The Shape of Water."
Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in "The Shape of Water." (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

The year grinding to a close was a paradoxical one for cinema. There was no lack of excellent films in all genres and from all corners of the world, with one notable exception: Hollywood USA.

Yes, the major studios that make up the nominal film capital of the world spent a lot of money and turned out a lot of films, but, with the exceptions noted below, very few of them were fated to grace 10-best lists, mine or anyone else's.

I don't mean this because they had mass popularity on their mind. Hollywood's legacy as a creator of popular entertainment is one I take seriously, and some of my favorite moments in cinema have been spent watching hugely popular movies I loved as much as anyone.

Kendrick Lamar, "Damn" (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)

The year's most immediate album — and also its most replayable — "Damn" showcases the pride of Los Angeles hip-hop at the top of his game.

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