Reading log: July 2011

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Books acquired: “Housekeeping,” Marilynne Robinson; “The Divine Comedy,” Dante; “The Man Who Was Thursday,” G.K. Chesterton.
(All bought at the Borders closeout sale at Victoria Gardens. Sigh.)

Books read: “The Deadly Streets,” Harlan Ellison; “Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere,” Hank Stuever; “Roadside America,” John Margolies; “The Verse by the Side of the Road,” Frank Rowsome Jr.; “Lonely Avenue,” Nick Hornby; “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us),” Tom Vanderbilt; “Highway 61 Revisited,” Mark Polizzotti.

Seven books in July, all with titles about roads or driving, even if the insides didn’t always match the theme. (I get a weird kick out of having read “Off Ramp” and “Highway 61 Revisited” in the same month.) What did match was that all seven were pretty good in their own way.

“The Deadly Streets” is a 1961 story collection by Harlan Ellison, a favorite of this blog. He’s best known for his fantasy work. These are stories of street violence, muggings, teen gangs and juvenile delinquency. Grim, brutal, efficient, these aren’t Ellison’s best, but they pack a punch.

“Off Ramp” is a collection by Washington Post feature writer Hank Stuever, who’s become renowned for his indepth approach to offbeat topics. Self-storage facilities, “kampgrounds” and roller rinks are a few of the places in the American Elsewhere where Stuever stops for his closely observed pieces. He makes time for white plastic patio chairs, the creator of Josie and the Pussycats and the longtime stars of “Jesus Christ Superstar” too. In the collection’s epic, he follows an ordinary working-class couple through their wedding, pace by pace.

“Roadside America” is pretty much what it sounds like: photos of motels, diners, coffee shops, movie theaters, gas stations and other commercial structures, some faded, some pristine, from odd corners of America. Some are paired nicely for humorous effect, such as two successive images involving a mock Statue of Liberty, one at a miniature golf course, one outside a heating and air conditioning business.

“The Verse by the Side of the Road” pairs a gracefully written history of the old Burma-Shave roadside signs with a complete compendium of all Burma-Shave jingles, some of which are awful and many of which are hilarious. One favorite, as spelled out on six successive signs: “Riot at/Drug store/Calling all cars/100 customers/99 jars/Burma-Shave.” A fine bit of Americana.

“Lonely Avenue” is a 150-page hardcover of reduced dimensions that came with the deluxe edition of a Ben Folds CD, each song with Nick Hornby lyrics. The book has four Hornby stories, otherwise uncollected. Topics: soccer in the world’s smallest country, a museum guard’s reaction to a hot-button piece of art, a VCR that fast-forwards to the end of the world and parents who discover their teenage son is in an adult film. I liked each of them.

Most of us are worse drivers than we think (not everyone can be above average, after all), and driving is a lot more complex than we dare believe. In “Traffic,” Tom Vanderbilt marshals dozens of experts and hundreds of scholarly studies, in dense but chatty prose, to lay out the psychology and physics of driving. Informative, perhaps too much so. Key points are already slipping away from me. But it’s a worthwhile book about an activity most of us take for granted.

Lastly, “Highway 61 Revisited” is from the 33 1/3 series of slim books about classic albums, this one being an examination of Dylan’s 1965 opus. Worthwhile if you love the album, as I do.

As for where the books came from, the Ellison has been on my shelf for 30 years (sigh), Stuever was bought used in New Orleans in 2008, “Roadside” was bought via mail-order last year, the Burma-Shave book was inherited from another reporter here a few years ago, the Hornby was bought at Amoeba this spring, “Traffic” was a birthday present this year and the Dylan book was bought cheap at Ontario’s Virgin Megastore closeout in 2009.

That’s a wrap for my dozens of Megastore purchases, incidentally, and also for this blog post.

What have you been reading?

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  • Will Plunkett

    July was more of a “typical” summer reading month for me, with 13 books. My summer has just one week left, so the unheard of 10,000 pages read mark is possible if I can add one more book.

    -Nothing But Trouble (R.Gibson) Trashy romance novel; I typed “hockey” into fiction and sadly only this appeared.

    -If Beale Street Could Talk (J.Baldwin) Gritty tale set in 1960s NY. Sad to read that racial and social troubles then are still troubles now.

    -Beyond Heaven’s River (G.Bear) Sci-fi novel where a Japanese WWII pilot is taken to “the future,” and how he tries to cope (spoiler: it isn’t easy for him).

    -On the Road (J.Kerouac), and Jack Kerouac’s American Journey (P.Maher) I actually enjoyed the non-fiction background of the latter more than the “fictional” former novel. I guess my wanderlust is less “lusty” than OTR’s.

    -Quantum of Solace (I.Fleming) This was an anthology of short stories that became part of James Bond films later. A nice, easy read.

    -Plunkitt of Tammany Hall (W.Riordon) As a history person, I’d heard of this and finally got around to it. We really don’t want our politicians to be honest, do we? If so, this may be what we’d hear from them.

    -On Stranger Tides (T.Powers) The Pirates of the Caribbean movie was “loosely” based on this well-written tale. Really loosely based. I think I like the book a tad better.

    -How the States Got Their Shapes Too (M.Stein) Another basis book, this is the second Shapes book that tells how borders and geographic history made today’s maps what they are.

    -Choices of One (T.Zahn) Only my second Star Wars novel this summer (publish more, then), and one of my favorites written in a long time.

    -Death on the Nile (A.Christie) My first of her mysteries; I may have to track down more.

    -Those Guys Have All the Fun (J.Miller/T.Shales) The giant 700+ pg. tome about ESPN. Not really “fun,” but very informative.

    -The Brief History of the Dead (K.Brockmeier) A dual-plot future-gone-bad novel. But the “future” it writes of could easily be next year. Scary.

    [Good job, Will. I've heard of and thought of reading the "shapes" book. As a lad I read half or more of Christie's considerable output. -- DA]

  • Doug Evans

    Hokey smoke, 13 books? (That comment is directed at Will, though seven books is nothing to scoff at in itself.) I read, um, two. More than a lot of people read last month, probably, but still… two. I really need to get off Facebook now and then. Here are the two I read:

    *The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s second novel and the one that made him famous. Good story! Bunch of ex-pat young war vets hang out in Paris and then Spain and have wacky adventures. Well, that last part’s not really a good description. But an entertaining read! Based on stuff he really did! Hemingway’s probably not a guy you want to marry. Or be friends with, if he falls in love with your fiance.

    *Hollywood and Crime, a collection of short stories loaned to me by frequent commenter Hugh McBride. Fun book! The stories (as Hugh shared last month) all feature the intersection of Hollywood and Vine in some form or other… Two of them feature quick trips to Vegas and back, and I happened to read those two while in Vegas last month for an annual vacation. In one of the stories, our detective character stops in Barstow for a quick Bun Boy burger before heading on his way, which made me wonder if the Bun Boy people moved their giant thermometer to Barstow as well when they relocated from Baker. (The story was set in the past, so fact that Bun Boy is now a Bob’s Big Boy doesn’t apply.)

    And, um… that’s it! I also cured some diseases and explored a lost continent or two last month. Or I would have, you know, read more books. I’m still making headway on Dickens’ Great Expectations… The longest I’ve taken to read a Dickens book, but I think it’s because I’m enjoying it so much I don’t want it to end, and also I know that after this I only have two books to go and my great 15-year-long read-every-Dickens book project comes to an end.

    I promise I’ll read more this month. I promise myself, if no one else.

    [You just promised anyone who's reading this comment, Doug, and we'll hold you to it. We have great expectations for you. -- DA]

  • Will Plunkett

    But from now on, if I read two books a month to end the year, I’d be surprised. For me, summer = reading books. Too much disease curing and international travel, you know! Any reading that people do should be celebrated; I like reading the titles and summaries, which give me ideas… for next summer, of course.

    [We'll be as happy to read your one- or two-book summaries as your 13-book summaries, if you care to share them. -- DA]