Reading Log: November 2023

Books acquired: “Palm Springs Legends: Creation of a Desert Oasis,” Greg Niemann; “A Battle of Love and Glory,” Reyna Grande; “Anatomy of 55 More Songs,” Marc Myers

Books read: “Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angels,” Paul Pringle; “The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone,” Olivia Laing; “A Walker in the City,” Alfred Kazin; “Tokyo Ueno Station,” Yu Miri; “The Fiddler in the Subway,” Gene Weingarten: “Read Me, Los Angeles: Exploring L.A.’s Book Culture,” Katie Orphan; “Humpty Dumpty in Oakland,” Philip K. Dick

Happy December! I had a big November, books-wise (which is the entire point of these posts), with eight (!) books read. I listened to two as audiobooks, one was short, two were read from my nightstand and the final one was finished Dec. 5, which maybe was cheating a bit. But it fit the loose theme, which was fiction or nonfiction with titles that either included the word “city” or seemed to involve cities.

“Bad City” (2022): A story about scandals at an elite institution in LA, the nitty-gritty of how those scandals were unraveled by reporters and the bureaucratic logjams at the newspaper that kept the story on ice for months. (The investigation eventually won a Pulitzer.) It’s also a window into the slow collapse of newspapers. Overall, it’s valuable. I do question the decision to summarize the scandal at the outset, making the process of uncovering of the details less exciting (since what’s news to the reporters is now old news to us). And there’s more than a whiff of revenge narrative behind the takedowns of various LA Times editors who served as roadblocks. Also, “Bad City”? What a strange, reductive title. (Birthday gift, 2023; listened to on audio.)

“Lonely City” (2016): I hadn’t expected these “Adventures in the Art of Being Alone” to consist largely of an exploration of a half-dozen outsider artists, half of whom I’d never heard of, but one of whom I love (Hopper), and most of whom were connected to NYC. Still, the profiles of and meditations on the artists held my interest due to Laing’s deep-dive research, lucid writing, passion and empathy. (Bought in 2021 at Milwaukee’s Downtown Books; listened to on audio.)

“A Walker in the City” (1951): Very evocative of a certain time and place, the late ’20s and early ’30s in the Jewish tenements of Brownsville, a far eastern outpost of Brooklyn that to young Kazin didn’t even seem to be part of NYC. Vivid, sometimes florid remembrances of sights, smells and activities: candy shops, street games, books, Socialist meetings, hot nights on fire escapes. Lyrical, but not quite compelling. (Also, I expected more walking.) (Bought in 2015 at New York City’s Strand Books, which seemed appropriate.)

“Tokyo Uno Station” (2021): A man’s bad luck leads to homelessness, a condition that continues after his death. Spare and observant, sometimes lovely, but it didn’t grab me. NPR called this “a harsh, uncompromising look at existential despair,” which it turns out is not really my thing. (Bought in 2021 at St. Louis’ Subterranean Books.)

“The Fiddler in the Subway” (2010): Journalist Weingarten’s persona online can be aggressive and juvenile, but here, thankfully, that’s seen only in some of the introductions. These essays and feature stories, two of which won Pulitzers, are insightful, surprising, observant and sometimes devastating, whether the topic is a reunion with an elementary school crush, a chat with a non-voter, a visit to a remote Alaskan town, a search for the “armpit of America” or a sympathetic portrait of parents who accidentally forget their children in the backseat. (Bought in 2016 at St. Louis’ Patten Books.)

“Mojave Project Reader, Vol. 2” (2021): This is the second of four (to date) intelligent, well-designed compendiums about desert topics, taken from an ongoing online journal. In this case, topics include desert tortoises, the folk-art Amargosa Opera House, the town of Needles (clever title: “Needles and the Damage Done”), Joshua Tree musicians, the former mining camp of Darwin, the story of Borax and a mythical underground river of gold. (Bought in 2023 at Yucca Valley’s Acme 5 Lifestyle.)

“Read Me, Los Angeles” (2020): A breezy, diverse look at L.A. literary culture, via profiles of authors living and dead, lists of books (mysteries, fiction, nonfiction, crime, YA, etc.) set in the county, lists of bookstores, lists of must-read books in different categories, visits to places described in fiction, book quotes about L.A. and more. A good, attractive nightstand book. (Birthday gift, 2023.)

“Humpty Dumpty in Oakland” (1986): Fairly strong — in contrast to protagonist Al Miller, who is apathetic and passive. Dick manages to incorporate a lot of his classic themes, tropes and settings into this long-unpublished 1960 social-realist novel: the Bay Area, working-class losers, paranoia, a conspiracy that may or may not be real. Compared to “The Broken Bubble” (the last of these PKD novels I tried, and which was a bit sodden), this was interesting and had enough deadpan comedy to keep me engaged. (Bought in 2013 at Berkeley’s Moe’s Books.)

“Fiddler” was the best of the lot, worth reading if you like narrative nonfiction. “Read Me” would be fun for the literarily inclined of Southern California. The rest were good to so-so.

How was your penultimate month of 2023?

I don’t have high hopes for December, in part because I really wanted to include the “Oakland” book with these despite finishing it Dec. 5, after 10 days of reading. (It wasn’t a hard book, there were just a lot of interruptions.)

I’d had an idea for December, which was to read “The Black Book” by Orham Pamuk, “The Red and the Black” by Stendhal and “Free Fall in Crimson,” the 19th Travis McGee novel. Clever, eh?

But the first two are 500-plus pages, and I could tell from the first page of Pamuk’s book (which he’d signed for me after a Claremont talk) with its Turkish names that I didn’t have the patience for it. I read about 30 pages of Stendhal’s novel before concluding that I didn’t have the patience for it either. Both are books I’ve owned for a dozen or more years and at this point the main reason I had for reading either is that I owned them, not that I was particularly compelled to read them. (Note to Terri: I’m curious if you’ve read Stendhal!) In the near future I probably won’t own these any longer, which will take care of that. That’ll lighten my unread material by about 1,100 pages. (Brushes imaginary dust from his hands.)

So what will I read in December? I picked out and put back three different novels off a bookcase this morning (Dec. 7), after picking out a different one last night and putting it back this morning. There’s no telling if I’ll like the one I settled on or will choose again, but I doubt I’ll finish more than one or two in the remaining time. It’s a frazzling period of the year. Maybe after November, I’m “read out” for a bit.

Next month: I’m at a loss! But I’ll come up with something.

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Column: From Chino Hills, ‘fake news,’ plus a prayer for hedges

I found myself back at a Chino Hills City Council meeting, not intending to stay after I interviewed someone who would be there. Except he wasn’t available until afterward, so I resolved to sit through the meeting. My attendance was rewarded during the public comment period by a congressional candidate criticizing me. Also by a somewhat puzzling invocation. My night out is the subject of Wednesday’s column.

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Column: These wreaths run rings around the competition

Are you familiar with the Della Robbia Christmas wreaths made by Boys Republic in Chino Hills? They’ve been produced since 1923, an even 100 years. Curious about the wreaths, about which I’ve read yet knew little about, I visited the production barn last week to learn how they turn out 30,000 of these things and how this tradition got started. That story is told in my Sunday column. (As I joked to someone on my tour, I figured I’d better visit for the 100th anniversary, as I hope to be retired by the 150th.)

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Column: ’60s garage band tribute rocks Pomona, reunites friends

The dA Center for the Arts in downtown Pomona is hosting possibly its most ambitious and well-attended exhibit ever, “Sounds of Pomona: Coming of Age in the Golden Era of Music, 1955-1975.” It’s a tribute to the city’s thriving music scene of the early rock era and its Latino-led bands who played at local dances. I’ve been to two of the events so far and they’ve been remarkably well-attended. I write about the effort in my Friday column.

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Column: In ‘Hondo,’ John Wayne has a ranch ‘east of San Dimas’

The 1953 movie has a classic bit of “local” dialogue. For its 70th anniversary, I watch the movie again, quote the full exchange and explain how the Louis L’Amour novel of “Hondo” is actually a novelization of the movie rather than the movie being an adaptation of the book, as I’d assumed. All that is in my Wednesday column, which misses the 70th anniversary by two days (but who’s counting?).

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‘Truly a columnist’s columnist’

Photo by Gustavo Arellano

I had dinner in Santa Ana two weekends ago with journalist and LA Times columnist Gustavo Arellano, writer Susan Straight and journalist Cynthia Rebolledo after Gustavo and Susan’s event at LibroMobile, the subject of my column last Friday. Gustavo, seated across from me, asked to take my photo after our food arrived but before I dug in. I agreed, without asking why.

Well! On Saturday morning, a week later, I opened Gustavo’s weekly newsletter, to which I subscribe, to find that he’d featured me. Gosh! He wrote about the event, our dinner and our long association. And he used the restaurant photo seen above. Ha! I like the picture; I think it captures my amused tolerance.

Gustavo’s write-up about me is very generous, with lines like these: “He’s the best type of columnist, too – the one that gets better as the years go on, that continues to learn and documents a region until you don’t know a region unless you know the columnist.”

It’s not for me to say if any of that’s true, but certainly I continue to learn, I like to think I’ve gotten better and if I’m a must-read, well, that’s a goal, albeit one that to my mind remains elusive. (Especially given the very poor reader numbers for my column on the Santa Ana event, cough.) You can read his newsletter here and judge for yourself.

And Gustavo: thank you!

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Column: Sculpture of dog in RC has critics sniffing

A sculpture of a 12-foot dog, made of steel, slightly abstracted and painted bright yellow, stands outside Rancho Cucamonga’s new Bark at Central Park dog park. It’s got its detractors, both online and at the dog park, but some admirers too, including me. I round up opinion, speak to the artist and tell the tail, er, tale in my Sunday column.

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Column: Susan Straight swaps stories outside swap meet

Last Saturday I headed to Santa Ana to see an appearance by Riverside writer Susan Straight, who would be interviewed by a journalist friend, making this event a twofer. Then on Monday night I headed to La Verne to see an appearance by writer Reyna Grande, who’s not local (nobody’s perfect). Why did I cover two events during my off-hours? Whatever it takes, baby, especially during a shortened workweek. Read about ’em in my Friday column.

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Column: How Ontario reacted to JFK’s assassination 60 years ago today

JFK’s assassination caused a scramble at the Ontario Daily Report, but the late-morning news was able to be included in the evening edition Nov. 22. The next two issues offer a window into the immediate impact on daily life. I offer some highlights and perspective in my Wednesday column, appearing Nov. 22, 2023, 60 years to the day later.

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Column: There’s an art to getting to LACMA by transit

I make my first visit to the L.A. County Museum of Art in ages and as usual do so by transit, also incorporating a Koreatown restaurant into my outing. Details are in my Sunday column.

After I asked in Wednesday’s column if anyone would like to read about this trip, only one person responded — affirmatively, to be clear. At that point, I was halfway through writing the column. What can I say, it seemed like it would make a good column, especially so with a short workweek coming up.

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