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?