Reading log: January 2010

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Books bought this month: “Happy Days,” Samuel Beckett; “Three Coins in the Birdbath,” Jack Smith; “Baghdad by the Bay,” Herb Caen; “The Lottery and Other Stories,” Shirley Jackson.

Books read this month: “Waiting for Godot” and “Happy Days,” Samuel Beckett; “A Study in Scarlet,” A. Conan Doyle; “Baghdad by the Bay,” Herb Caen; “Three Coins in the Birdbath,” Jack Smith.

It’s a new year, but numerically the reading goal for 2010 remains the same: 50 books. Other than that, there’s no firm plan for the year, other than more literary fiction and a wider variety of books. Also, to make progress on my backlog, I hope to buy fewer books this year. Wish me luck on that score.

For January, my main goal was to avoid Ray Bradbury, a fixture of my 2009 reading logs; he was present in each of the 12 months. In that, I was successful, although I did sneak in a few stories. I also read three of the four books I bought in January. That was another strategy to get myself to slow my buying. They were all purchased at Iliad Bookshop in North Hollywood, arguably the best secondhand bookstore left in the L.A. area.

I inched along my fiction shelf by rereading “Waiting for Godot” and buying and reading “Happy Days,” both by Samuel Beckett. “Godot” is existentialist vaudeville and essential reading for the literary minded. “Happy” is an absurdist parable about a woman who tries to find the best in her lot as her options narrow in a literal sense, buried up to her waist in sand at first and later up to her neck, her beloved husband virtually invisible and uncommunicative. A proto-feminist work (1961) and one of Beckett’s most touching plays.

“A Study in Scarlet” is the first Sherlock Holmes novel. I’ve been wanting to read/reread all the Holmes books — I read two-thirds of them in childhood — for years and the movie version, while it hasn’t enticed me into a theater, put the idea on the front burner. There’s an undeniable thrill in watching as Holmes and Watson meet and move into 221B Baker Street. We also learn in passing that Holmes is an excellent boxer, a fact the filmmakers ran with.

That said, a quarter of the book is a flashback to the establishment of the Mormon colony in Utah (!) and the pacing suffers as a result. It’s perhaps not the best book to start with.

My plan is to read a Holmes book every month or so — there are nine — so look for more Holmes as the year grinds on.

“Baghdad by the Bay” is a 1953 book by longtime San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. Caen can’t have known every soul in San Francisco, but you can almost believe that he does, as well as every inch of its soil. This anecdotal account of his city is peopled by cops, judges, lawyers, hash slingers, bums, bartenders, tycoons, writers, doormen and dames, and his observant eye, lively prose and wordplay (“Skid Rowgues,” “stuccommunity”) keep his prose jumping.

“Every big city has its Skid Road, the home of the homeless, where pockets and hearts are always empty and pawnshop windows are always full” is a typical line.

Balancing out the California section of this month’s reading log is the first book by Jack Smith, “Three Coins in the Birdbath.” Smith may have been the quintessential L.A. Times columnist. This 1965 book is a collection of repurposed columns whose subject matter rarely strays from his Mount Washington home. Smith’s quiet wit makes even the mundane sparkle.

Some may find this domestic stuff dull, and even a fan like me will say it’s not a page-turner, but I liked it. (Chris Erskine mines similar territory today.) “Birdbath” is a product of what we think of as the classic period of L.A., when a home and a backyard represented the California dream.

Now, does anyone have a reading goal this year — a certain title or author — or a comment on any of the above?

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  • DebB

    As you’re going through Sherlock Holmes, you’ll eventually get to “A Scandal in Bohemia.” After reading that, take a little detour, just for fun, to Carole Nelson Douglas’ “Good Night, Mr. Holmes.” Written in 1990, it’s a reimagining of the same story from the point of view of “THE” woman (for Holmes there was only ever one, according to Watson).

    [Oh yes, Irene Adler: "To Sherlock Holmes she is always THE woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex." -- DA]

  • Julie Steinbach

    Yikes, David — you’re not haunting Magic Door IV??? I’d have thought you to be a real habitue of Dwain & JoAnn Kaiser’s fine used bookstore on Second Street. Surely, you DO know it, que no?

    [Of course. But can't a fella play the field? It was my first visit to Iliad (which is enormous, btw). I go to Magic Door all the time. -- DA]

  • http://www.hughcmcbride.com hugh.c.mcbride

    David: Congratulations on getting an impressive jump on your 2010 reading goal — and with Beckett, Caen & Doyle already in the “read” column, you’ve got a great start on a A-to-Z author’s list as well.

    I’ve set a goal of 25 books for this year. (On a related note, I also made a New Year’s resolution that, whenever facing a challenge, I will ask myself “What would David Allen do?” then do exactly half as much.)

    I completed three books (two mysteries & one historical sci-fi) in January:

    * Dog On It (Spencer Quinn)
    * The Kingdom of Ohio (Matthew Fleming)
    * Hunting Season (Nevada Barr)

    I’m currently working on “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert Heinlein. At lunch a coupla weeks back, some bozo kept confusing Ray Bradbury with Heinlein (duh!), & I guess that put me in the mood for some RH. On the purchase front, I picked up “The Art of the Lathe” by BH Fairchild & “Thereby Hangs a Tail” (Spencer Quinn’s follow-up to “Dog On It”).

    [Funny, my New Year's reso was to ask myself "What would Hugh McBride do?" and then double it. Seriously, 3 out of 25 is even better than 5 out of 50, so my congratulations. Hope you like the Fairchild book, since that was one of my picks late last year. And my B-C-D lineup in January hadn't occurred to me. Can Asimov (Isaac) and Ellison (Harlan or Ralph) be in my future? -- DA]

  • Doug Evans

    Yay, the Reading Log is back! I mean, sure, it’s here every month, but I always look forward to it.

    I’ll share again that the photos of the books on the painted wood floor add a classy touch. (I’m assuming that’s a floor and that the books aren’t stuck to a wall.)

    I’ve been having kind of a different reading experience since last September… I’ve been a member of a book club for several years, but alas, since Sept., I haven’t been able to make the meetings thanks to a change in my work schedule. I’ve been trying to be good about keeping up with the books, though, and I’ve done OK, but I’m experiencing kind of a existential/reader angst thing… Overlaying my reading is the knowledge that I won’t actually be able to discuss what I’m reading with anyone, at least not in the formal book club setting. It adds a feeling of sadness, or at least wistfulness, to these books, in a way that I’m sure the authors didn’t intend. It doesn’t happen to books I pick up on my own, just ones picked for the club. Anyway, not much of a story, but it’s a feeling I haven’t had while reading before, and it’d kind of odd. But survivable! If that’s the most I have to complain about in my life…

    On that note, the books I’m reading right now: Last month’s book club pick, which I’m listening to on CD in the car: That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx, she of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain fame. Lots of colorful characters tell lots of loooong stories about lots of other colorful characters who preceded them in and helped settle the Texas Panhandle region. I’m enjoying it but preferred the Shipping News (which was the same kind of thing except the colorful characters told colorful stories about the Newfoundland area).

    And this month’s club pick: Interview with the Vampire, by Anne Rice, written way back before the world and Rice herself went all vampire crazy. I like this one (having read it before) but a couple books into the series I felt like it had lost its verve. At least these vampires don’t sparkle.

    [Unlike your comments, which do sparkle. Thanks, Doug. -- DA]

  • Doug Evans

    Hugh: I took a Heinlein class in college and we read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress… what I remember about it is that it’s written first-person by the main character in a clipped-sounding supposed-English-of-the-future that NO ONE ELSE IN THE NOVEL SPEAKS. Somehow the main guy picked up this creole-type language despite the fact that no one around him talks that way, and somehow he’s able to quote everyone else’s speech in perfect 20th-century North American English despite not being able to speak or write a similar sentence on his own. Still… Heinlein, so we’ll give him a break.

    [Kind of you. I've only read Stranger in a Strange Land, and that was in high school. I have virtually no memory of it (the book, not high school). But I have several of his thinner novels, unread, on my shelf, to get to sometime. -- DA]

  • Jerry De Rego

    I remember Herb Caen’s column for the 8 or so years I lived in San Francisco. That was way back in the ’70s.

    I could hardly wait to read his stuff. It was always so interesting. I even would pick up the Chronicle, think it was the Chronice, when I moved to Reno.

    Broke my heart when he passed on.

    [Yes, it was the Chronicle. I didn't "get" Caen's column at first but later realized how clever a wordsmith he was and became a fan. We won't see his like again. -- DA]