Column: Didion’s famous essay trained eye on secluded street

Joan Didion’s “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” essay, about the Lucille Miller murder trial of 1965, was about the Inland Empire and set partly on Alta Loma’s Bella Vista Drive. I visit to talk to a longtime homeowner, and also excerpt comments from readers about my recent column on Didion, who died last month, all for Sunday’s column.

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Books read, 2021

The above photo collects what I read in 2021 all in one place, in four stacks on my living room floor: from left, mass-market fiction, nonfiction, fiction and nonfiction about or from Southern California, and lastly, fiction of a literary bent.

By my count, I read 43 fiction books and 34 nonfiction, not quite the overwhelming victory for fiction I had hoped for, but better than 2020, when fiction was leading by only one. (Here’s my 2021 post.) Fourteen were audiobooks from libraries of books I owned physical copies of; these are enjoyable and helped me speed up through my backlog.

More egregiously, of my 77 books, only 11 were by women, either as writer and editor or, in four cases, as co-writer or -editor with a man. (Whoever compiled the Bourdain book, by the way, is uncredited — so probably a woman, right?) I’ll try to do better in 2022.

My most-read authors were Edgar Rice Burroughs, 14; John D. MacDonald, six; and Mark Twain, four. I completed the John Carter of Mars series and all the Tarzans I care to read, and got through half the remaining Travis McGee mysteries. And I’m in sight of finishing all of Twain’s major works.

As the above indicates, few of my 77 books were new or recent, and most weren’t even recent purchases. I’m continuing to work my way through a deep backlog of books bought back to 2002 and still unread. Tell us what you read in 2021, if you like, and whatever trends you noticed in your own reading.

1. “King Kull,” Robert E. Howard and Lin Carter

2. “The Prince and the Pauper,” Mark Twain

3. “Emperor Fu Manchu (Fu Manchu #13),” Sax Rohmer

4. “A Princess of Mars (John Carter #1),” Edgar Rice Burroughs

5. “The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (Travis McGee #10),” John D. MacDonald

6. “The Gods of Mars (John Carter #2),” Edgar Rice Burroughs

7. “Warlord of Mars (John Carter #3),” Edgar Rice Burroughs

8. “Dress Her in Indigo (Travis McGee #11),” John D. MacDonald

9. “Anthony Bourdain: The Last Interview,” Melville House, publisher

10. “Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews,” Jonathan Cott, editor

11. “Inlandia: A Literary Journey Through California’s Inland Empire,” Gayle Wattawa, ed.

12. “Desert Oracle, Vol. 1,” Ken Layne

13. “The Lady in the Lake,” Raymond Chandler

14. “The Long Lavender Look (Travis McGee #12),” John D. MacDonald

15. “Tarzan Untamed (Tarzan #7),” Edgar Rice  Burroughs

16. “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” David Sedaris

17. “Becoming Ray Bradbury,” Jonathan R. Eller

18. “Our Towns: A 10,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America,” James Fallows and Deborah Fallows

19. “Tarzan the Terrible (Tarzan #8),” Edgar Rice Burroughs

20. “A Tan and Sandy Silence (Travis McGee #13),” John D. MacDonald

21. “The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories,” H.P. Lovecraft

22. “Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery,” Scott Kelly

23. “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Mark Twain

24. “A Long Way Down,” Nick Hornby

25. “Thuvia, Maid of Mars (John Carter #4),” Edgar Rice Burroughs

26. “My Middle Name is Color,” Dee Marcellus Cole

27. “The Game-Players of Titan,” Philip K. Dick

28. “Planet of the Apes: The Original Topps Trading Card Series,” Gary Gerani, ed.

29. “The Chessmen of Mars (John Carter #5),” Edgar Rice Burroughs

30. “The Squares of the City,” John Brunner

31. “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” Baroness Orczy

32. “The Scarlet Letter,” Nathaniel Hawthorne

33. “The Scarlet Ruse (Travis McGee #14),” John D. MacDonald

34. “The Master Mind of Mars (John Carter #6),” Edgar Rice Burroughs

35. “Marooned on Mars,” Lester del Rey

36. “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” Robert A. Heinlein

37. “The Brothers of Baker Street,” Michael Robertson

38. “San Bernardino, Singing,” Nikia Chaney, ed.

39. “We’ll Always Have Paris,” Noah Isenberg

40. “American Moonshot,” Douglas Brinkley

41. “Secret Stairs,” Charles Fleming

42. “A Fighting Man of Mars (John Carter #7),” Edgar Rice Burroughs

43. “Writing Los Angeles,” David Ulin, ed.

44. “Preserving Los Angeles,” Ken Bernstein

45. “Becoming Los Angeles,” D.J. Waldie

46. “Holy Land,” D.J. Waldie

47. “The Life and Times of Los Angeles,” Marshall Berges

48. “The Turquoise Lament (Travis McGee #15),” John D. MacDonald

49. “Surviving in a Ruthless World: Bob Dylan’s Voyage to ‘Infidels,’” Terry Gans

50. “The Swords of Mars (John Carter #8),” Edgar Rice Burroughs

51. “Kidnapped,” Robert Louis Stevenson

52. “Girlz ‘n the Hood,” Mary Hill-Wagner

53. “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians,” Mark Twain

54. “Tarzan and the Golden Lion (Tarzan #9),” Edgar Rice Burroughs

55. “The Record Store Book,” Mike Spitz and Rebecca Villaneda

56. “A Man on the Moon,” Andrew Chaikin

57. “More Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” Susan Straight and Douglas McCulloh

58. “Always Running,” Luis Rodriguez

59. “To Your Scattered Bodies Go,” Philip Jose Farmer

60. “Photos of People at the March on Washington, August 18, 1963,” TM and D.D. Givens

61. “All of the Marvels,” Douglas Wolk

62. “Benchley — Or Else!” Robert Benchley

63. “Is This Anything?” Jerry Seinfeld

64. “Men and Cartoons,” Jonathan Lethem

65. “Synthetic Men of Mars (John Carter #9),” Edgar Rice Burroughs

66. “Tarzan and the Ant Men (Tarzan #10),” Edgar Rice Burroughs

67. “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls,” David Sedaris

68. “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore,” Robin Sloan

69. “The Essential Groucho,” Stefan Kanfer, ed.

70. “The Portable Hawthorne,” Malcolm Cowley, ed.

71. “The American Claimant,” Mark Twain

72. “Girl in a Band,” Kim Gordon

73. “Llana of Gathol (John Carter #10),” Edgar Rice Burroughs

74. “Funny Girl,” Nick Hornby

75. “Historic Mission Inn,” Barbara Moore, ed.

76. “Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever,” Ellen Weil and Gary K. Wolfe, editors

77. “Inter State,” José Vadi

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Reading Log: December 2021

Books acquired: “My Week Beats Your Year: Encounters With Lou Reed,” Michael Heath and Pat Thomas; “Murderers and Other Friendly People,” Denis Brian; “Monogram,” G.B. Stern

Books read: “The Portable Hawthorne,” Malcolm Cowley, ed.; “The American Claimant,” Mark Twain; “Girl in a Band,” Kim Gordon; “Llana of Gathol (John Carter #10),” Edgar Rice Burroughs; “Funny Girl,” Nick Hornby; “Historic Mission Inn,” Barbara Moore, ed.; “Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever,” Ellen Weil and Gary K. Wolfe, editors; “Inter State,” Jose Vadi

And that’s a wrap on 2021, as December has come and gone. Let’s memorialize it via my December reading — and yours.

“Portable Hawthorne” (1968): I went into this collection admiring Hawthorne, and by the end, after selected journal entries and letters, ranging from observational to heartfelt to self-deprecating, I became a real fan. Usually that stuff seems like padding, but here they really expand our image of him. The germs for potential stories from his notebooks, each a sentence or two, include the one that led to “The Scarlet Letter.” On such a slender thread was literary history made.

“American Claimant” (1892): Banged out in 71 days, this late novel is a satire on aristocracy vs. democracy, but unfortunately it’s got multiple themes and tones, none well developed, and the result is nearly incoherent. Of course this has its moments — it’s by Twain, after all — and there’s his famous admonition to readers that no weather would be found in the book. But there’s a reason this book is scarcely available in print.

“Girl in a Band” (2015): Some of the reviews on Goodreads of this memoir by the Sonic Youth singer and bass player are so petty and misogynistic. I was impressed how the guarded Gordon opened up to write about her mentally ill brother and other personal travails, revealing a vulnerable person behind her stoic persona. Besides rock, she had careers in the art and fashion worlds, crossing paths with now-familiar names, especially in NYC in the 1970s. She’s observant, candid and tough-minded. I like the book more than I like Sonic Youth.

“Mission Inn” (1998): A visual and textual tour, floor by floor, of the rococo Mission Inn hotel in Riverside. An informative, if dry, semi-official history.

“Funny Girl” (2014): A 1960s aspiring comic actress in the mold of Lucille Ball moves from the sticks to London and lands a starring role in a BBC series that becomes a sensation. A portrait not only of a good-hearted heroine but of Swinging London as the stodgy nation loosens up, told with Hornby’s characteristic humor and heart. That said, the last section, which jumps ahead 50 years to a reunion, kind of peters out.

“Llana of Gathol” (1948): ERB’s last completed Barsoom novel, this upholds the high standards of the series and, due to being serialized in four parts, the story rarely drags and just keeps building to peaks. Callbacks to many previous characters and encounters add to the fun. It’s as if ERB were taking a victory lap. Also, out of nowhere, John Carter makes a Babe Ruth joke and knocks it out of the park. Mars’ low gravity helps.

“Harlan Ellison” (2002): The 30-page biography at the start is useful, and the authors flesh it out from there with chapters on his writing for SF, men’s magazines and TV and with an exploration of themes in some of his better stories. His copious nonfiction is barely mentioned. A nice try at producing an overview and at taking him seriously, but the approach is a bit academic for a figure as outrageous as Ellison.

“Inter State” (2021): Raised in Pomona in Southern California, Vadi uprooted himself to relocate to Oakland in the Bay Area, two outsider cities perfect for an outsider like him, an aging skater and mixed-race thinker, unsure where he belongs other than that it’s got to be in California. He likes to lurk, to bear witness, whether it’s to skater spots, dive bars, SF’s tech transformation, Oakland’s gentrification or his farmworker grandfather’s journey, as he seeks to grasp “this disjointed mosaic of a state.”

That’s eight books for December, and 77 total for the year, if I counted correctly. Huzzah! Wouldn’t have believed it possible. Listening to 14 audiobooks this year (including the Gordon and Hornby books this month) made a big difference, and reading continued to be my go-to leisure activity, especially with movie theaters either off-limits or inadvisable for much of the year.

Hawthorne was the clear winner this month, with Gordon, Burroughs and Vadi jostling for runner-up status.

Here’s how these books got into my hot little hands. Ellison, Twain and Burroughs date to 2011, when they were bought at St. Louis’ late Patten’s Books, LA’s late Sam Johnson’s Bookshop and LA’s very much alive Last Bookstore, respectively. In 2015, I got Gordon at a Live Talks event in Santa Monica, signed, and Hornby at a Vroman’s event in Pasadena, also signed. (Gordon signed mine at a distance, silently; Hornby and I had a friendly chat across the table.) Hawthorne came from North Hollywood’s Iliad Bookshop in 2018 for a mere $2. In recent weeks, Mission Inn was bought at the Local History Book Fair in Riverside and Vadi at Vroman’s in Pasadena.

Books ranging across 11 years of purchases, all packed into one month — whew.

How was your month of reading? Don’t be shy, or at least hide your shyness behind a friendly comment.

Within days I’ll post my annual numbered list of all my 2021 books. If you keep up with these posts, you will have seen them all, but it’s always nice to put them all in one place and see what they add up to.

Next month: I’m playing it by ear.

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