Reading log: March 2010

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Books bought this month: “Kolchak: The Night Stalker Casebook,” Joe Gentile, ed.; “Vineland,” Thomas Pynchon; “Supreme Courtship,” Christopher Buckley.

Books read this month: “The Lottery and Other Stories,” Shirley Jackson; “What Mad Universe,” Fredric Brown; “The Quick Red Fox,” John D. MacDonald; “Dark Carnival,” Ray Bradbury.

Four books read in March: one science fiction, one mystery and two creepy fantasy. The latter includes my first Bradbury book of the year (after, er, 24 last year — did I overdo it?). I’ve already devoted a post to the not only out of print but barely in print to begin with “Dark Carnival”; it’s pretty good, but anyone but a completist can stick to “The October Country,” which reprints the best of its stories, and not miss out. More on “October Country” next month.

Incidentally, here’s a portion of a comment Doug Evans left on that “Dark Carnival” post:

“Here’s what you should now do in your spare time: become a wiki editor and update the ‘Dark Carnival’ page, providing info on which stories from that collection can now be found in which of Bradbury’s later collections, minus the four that have never been collected elsewhere. Think of the service you’d be doing humankind! Or at least the Bradbury completist like yourself.”

Humankind, look upon the updated Wikipedia page for “Dark Carnival” and tremble. (I added paragraphs two through four. It took way longer than you’d think.)

And now, back to the countdown.

Jackson’s “The Lottery and Other Stories,” bought used in January, was astonishingly good. Nearly everyone has read the story “The Lottery” in school, right? If not, do so immediately; it’s an American classic. The rest of the stories are of the same caliber. Some are straight fiction, some have an element of unreality, but most are unsettling. Women’s concerns drive several pieces. A favorite involves a wife who travels into NYC for a tooth extraction and finds more than her tooth liberated.

The SF novel is Brown’s “What Mad Universe.” I’m chagrined to report that I’ve owned this one for 30 years, give or take, purchased used with its corner seemingly chewed away, and shelved all this time. What can I say? The promised absurdity interested me, too much so to discard the book, and yet never quite enough to actually read it. Finally, the shame spurred me to action (by action, I mean sitting with it in my hands). I wish I could say I didn’t have other unread books of this vintage but I can’t. You’ll hear this a few more times this year.

“Universe” is a 1949 novel about a sci-fi magazine editor who suddenly finds himself in an alternate reality much like his own, except one with elements that seem straight out of a sci-fi magazine: bug-eyed purple aliens, attractive women in revealing garments, etc. How did this happen? Not in a dream, you’ll be relieved to hear. It’s a sly work and easy reading, as long as you don’t factor in the decades of preparation.

“The Quick Red Fox,” the fourth in MacDonald’s Travis McGee series whose titles invoke the color wheel, finds our Florida-based hero in Southern California investigating a blackmail attempt on a movie star. I got this one used a year or so ago.

The McGees are pleasurable reads, a cross between adventure fiction and mysteries (McGee isn’t a private eye or a cop, just a boat bum), a bit dated in their treatment of male-female relations, but full of deft asides and nice observations.

“When she laughed or smiled broadly,” McGee says of a female acquaintance by whom he’s intrigued, “I could see that one of the eyeteeth, the one on the left, was set in there aslant, making a little overlap with the tooth in front of it. When an imperfection looks very dear to you, heed the message.”

Notice the different backdrop on the photo above than the usual painted floor? Because I was reading “Dark Carnival” at a bookstore, as it’s too valuable to borrow, I took the photo at the store, laying the books on a rug. This was early in March, which meant I had to make a good guess as to what books I’d be able to finish, and bring them along. Hedging my bets, I took a second photo without the McGee book but managed to finish it March 30.

The three new books received this month were birthday gifts. I hope to get to them within the next 30 years, give or take.

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  • Doug Evans

    Wow! Not only did get I quoted on the blog, but I changed the face of Wikipedia forever! Well, indirectly. I’ve never edited a wiki page before, so I don’t know exactly what’s involved. But maybe this is the way to do it! Just suggest to others what should be done. (BTW, I’m geeky enough to have clicked on the “history” tab, and I see that you created a wiki account and call yourself “columnboy.” :-) )

    I’ve read that Travis McGee book, in that same edition. Those books do have a funny sixties-Playboy way of looking at male-female relationships. In another book, one of McGee’s female friends becomes an emotional and sexual basket case after, er, breaking up with a boyfriend, but a month living with McGee in his houseboat is all it takes to restore her to mental health. McGee, master therapist! Therapist with benefits?

    I love the idea of reading a thirty-year-old copy of a book and finally crossing it off the list. I’ve got several of those myself.

    The book I’m going to plow through this month is Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, to further increase my nerd credibility. I’ve always heard that this is pretty dense going and severely lacking in hobbits, but so far, a couple of pages into it, it’s not too bad. The writing style is very King James Bible-ish, which in lesser hands would have been a disaster, but I think Tolkien’s got the chops to pull it off.

    [After The Silmarillion, your nerd credibility is going to be off the charts. (Likewise, before the Silmarillion...) Oh, and I like your description of the McGee mindset. I think the book you reference is one of the three previous ones I've read, but they kind of blur, like Bond movies. -- DA]

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

    Another great reading roundup, David. My wife & I have been enjoying Kolchak reruns via Netflix over the past few weeks, & I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know the series had its start in books/short stories. The DA blog — educating as well as entertaining!

    I kept pace with you this month, polishing off four books myself:

    * Thereby Hangs a Tail — Spencer Quinn’s second “Chet & Bernie” mystery

    * The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks — Rebecca Skloot’s thoroughly reported account of the first human cells to be cloned into immortality, the woman from whom these cells were taken, and her family’s efforts to learn the truth

    * The Big Sleep — Raymond Chandler’s first Philip Marlowe novel

    * The Black Dahlia — the first of James Ellroy’s LA Quartet

    Yeah, it was a noir kind of a month on my bookshelf.

    Final thought: Although I always look forward to that soothing blue backdrop behind your month’s books, this taking of the show onto the proverbial road is an intriguing development, too. Any chance this is going to lead to a “win an afternoon with David & his books, and have your living room floor featured on the DA blog” contest? If so, I just wanna say that, with all due respect, my floor is *much* more photogenic than Doug Evans’s :-)

    [Maybe I can combine the Reading Log photos with our occasional Photo Quiz feature, taking my books into the public sphere and letting readers not only see what I've read but guess where we were. OK, not really. As you may now know, Kolchak began as two novels; several volumes have been penned in recent years by admirers. I'm impressed by your four-book pace as well as by your taste. -- DA]

  • Linda Frost

    Shirley Jackson brings back school memories. I read it in school, and I taught it, too. Even though I do not usually ready short stories (I am into longer, more complex plots), Shirley Jackson is an exception. Ray Bradburys short stories are also winners. One I used to teach was The Foghorn. The test of a story was when I could teach the same one year after year and be excited about it each time. There were very few that passed that litmus test, and for me to survive the school year and the students, too I had to bring in new material.

    ["The Foghorn" is a good one, I agree. -- DA]