Reading Log: December 2013

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Books acquired: “Los Angeles in the Thirties: 1931-1941,” David Gebhard and Harriette von Breton; “A Small Place,” Jamaica Kincaid.

Books read: “Everything is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson,” Kevin Avery, ed.; “Chronic City,” Jonathan Lethem; “The City on the Edge of Forever,” Harlan Ellison.

To end 2013, I read three books in December. Two of them have a subtle connection.

“Afterthought” is a biography and best-of of the late Paul Nelson, in the late 1970s and early 1980s an editor and reviewer at Rolling Stone, and prior to that the A&R man who signed the New York Dolls, and prior to that a folk music writer who introduced Bob Dylan to Woody Guthrie’s music and memoir. Nelson met a sad end as a virtual recluse in NYC. Among his friends was Jonathan Lethem, now of Claremont, who is quoted extensively in the biography and whose novel “Chronic City” has as its main character a pop culture visionary based on Paul Nelson.

The Nelson book was a labor of love on compiler/biographer Kevin Avery’s part. I liked this book a lot, even if watching Nelson’s slow-motion decline was a queasy part of the appeal. Lethem’s novel, meanwhile, was giddy fun for this fellow pop culture aficionado, who was fascinated by the mixture of fact and fancy and the Philip Dickian flourishes.

(Amusingly, I discussed “Chronic” on New Year’s Eve with a friend who’s read more Lethem than I have. I told him it was by far my favorite. He said it was by far his least favorite. “I was embarrassed for him for having written it,” he said. There’s no accounting for taste, especially other people’s.)

So this was a case of perfect timing. Had I read “Chronic” earlier, it might not have meant so much to me. The Ellison book made sense to read for another reason, and not just that it has “city” in its title; in November I read another Trek book, the last of the Blish adaptations and my first Trek reading in maybe 35 years. As Hillary said (Edmund, not Clinton), it was there. Before lifting myself out of whatever slough of despond led me to read it, I read the only other Trek book I have, Ellison’s teleplay of his famous episode. I’m an Ellison completist and would have got to it eventually.

The teleplay is good, of course. So was the finished episode. Ellison’s heavily footnoted, spittle-flecked 73-page rant about changes to his script 30 years earlier contrasts neatly with D.C. Fontana’s calm, six-page explanation of how and why his script was rewritten. Dismaying from a writer of Ellison’s abilities. Shouldn’t he be above this sort of thing? What with the lousy layout and cheap presentation, it looks like some nut’s homemade fanbook. Suggested alternate title: “Ego on the Edge of Losing It.”

I was embarrassed for him for having written it.

How was your reading month? Did you squeeze in anything between gift shopping and eating? Coming soon: a list of every book I read in 2013. (Or you can piece it together yourself by rereading the previous 11 of these.)

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  • Doug Evans

    I had that Ellison book! I gave it away about ten years ago in a periodic cleaning-out-of-books-I’ve-read (still a lot of books around here). I enjoyed it and have more to say about it, so much so that I’m going to give it a comment of its own below!

    I read four books in Dec!

    “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” by Ben Fountain. A novel I chose for a book club. Soldiers in the Iraq war who have become heroes thanks to a firefight that FOX filmed come home for a victory tour to rally support for the war. Left mostly unmentioned during their tour is the idea that once the tour is over, they’re being shipped back to Iraq to continue fighting. This book seemed to split members of the club: depending on where you align politically, this was either a slog to read with a beat-you-over-the-head message, or a moving look at how we’re treating the young kids we’re sending over there to kill and die on our behalf. One member admitted to crying at a certain point. I really liked it.

    “Pebble in the Sky” by Isaac Asimov. The third of Asimov’s loosely-connected “Empire” trilogy. Fun for me to relive a series of books I first read in junior high/high school. What with “The Stars Like Dust,” “The Currents of Space,” and “Pebble in the Sky,” Asimov may have been better at titles then actual dialogue and characterization… but still enjoyable!

    “Holy Road” by Michael Blake. The sequel to “Dances With Wolves.” Who knew there was a sequel to “Dances With Wolves”? Well, I have, for a while, but I’ve never read it, until on impulse one day last month I downloaded it through Kindle. If you recall the end of the film “Dances With Wolves,” there’s a screen crawl telling us that thirteen years later, the native peoples had to sign a humiliating treaty and the time of the Plains Indians was over. This is that story. It’s sad. Very sad. All the characters that we got to know and love in the movie… it doesn’t end well for them. There has apparently been talk of a movie version of this book for some time, but I can see why it’s having trouble getting going. This is a downer of a book. (All the more so, of course, because, fictional characters aside, the history is true.)

    And…

    “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. I’ve finally read “The Grapes of Wrath”! Really, really good… Still, apparently, roiling people’s emotions (a guy on Amazon from just a couple of years ago still railed at it for being nothing more than communist propaganda). Now I want to see the film version (which I wanted to get to over winter break but didn’t have the chance). After this, on my Steinbeck get-to list, is “East of Eden” and then “Travels with Charley,” and then probably “The Moon is Down,” which is part of that cool omnibus that you own and once posted a picture of, David. I don’t own the omnibus, but if that book is classic enough to be part of that set, I figure I should get to it.

    Happy reading, everyone! Here’s to a great 2014!

    • Doug Evans

      (Geeky Star Trek comment): I agree about the Ellison rant, but that’s (of course) what he does, and I can see that it would be aggravating to be remembered for a 50-year-old TV episode that didn’t bear that much resemblance to what you actually wrote. (Ellison is remembered for so much more than that, of course, and he should really get over it.) I had a realization upon reading this book that I don’t think he or Dorothy Fontana touched on: It’s true (as they point out) that in Ellison’s script Kirk is a failure at the end: he can’t force himself to make the agonizing choice to sacrifice the woman he loves in order to save the universe. We need a stronger hero if we’re going to keep watching the guy week after week, and that’s how the filmed episode portrays him. But I picked up something else about Kirk’s characterization: In the original Ellison script (as I recall… it’s been a while!), he’s completely passive at two crucial moments, one in which doing something could have caused Edith’s death (this scene may not exist! I’m having trouble remembering, and wikipedia is being no help!) and again, at the end, when Spock has to act to prevent a crewman from saving Edith while Kirk can only watch in agony.

      In the final episode, both of those scenes feature Kirk *doing* something. In the scene on the stairs, he reaches out to stop Edith from tumbling down the steps, for which Spock berates him. And at the end, he physically holds McCoy back from saving her, thus causing her death. It’s minor but important, I think… In Ellison’s script, he stands around moping but not acting (no jokes about Shatner’s acting ability here!). The filmed episode has him actually doing stuff… once, to save Edith, and again, to let her die. Subtle, but it makes a difference. Ellison’s original script is great, and he’s a genius, but I have to say in my opinion the filmed episode was the better one.

      • davidallen909

        In Ellison’s script, Kirk stops himself from grabbing Edith when she falls; it turns out not to be fatal, although Kirk’s hesitation doesn’t do much for her opinion of him. Is this what you were trying to remember? He wasn’t passive, exactly, but he was indecisive. Your point about what was wrong with Ellison’s version compared to the aired one is spot on.

        • Doug Evans

          That’s it! Thank you! And you’ve helped me to remember my specific critique of the different versions… The two scripts completely flip Kirk’s character arc: in Ellison’s original, Kirk is initially willing to let Edith die but later is unable to act to prevent her rescue; in the TV episode, he initially saves her but later reaches out to stop McCoy, thus allowing Edith to die. Ellison and Fontana both point that out; what I figured out on my own (and as I went on and on about above) is that in Ellison’s version both scenes require him to *not* do anything, and in the actual episode, both scenes require him to physically act. Ellison gave his character good emotionally-driven reasons for his behavior… but in his script, we’re essentially watching our hero stand around and make anguished faces as things take place around him, and in the other, we get to see him be a man of action.

          I’ve devoted a lot of paragraphs to this little insight of mine… But this is the first opportunity I’ve had to share this with anyone! (Not exactly cocktail party conversation!) Thanks!

          • davidallen909

            That would be the world’s nerdiest cocktail party, likely with Mountain Dew or Red Bull substituting for cocktails. Seriously, though, you made good points, and I’m strangely proud to have provided a forum for them.

    • Richard_Pietrasz

      I read those Asimovs (at least 2 of them, way back in teenage days. Pretty good for those just starting to read SF, they are not on my list to re-acquire and reread, but I would not hesitate if I ran across copies cheap. I occasionally reread SF I read long ago, with mixed results. Dune was a major disappointment, as I know to much to accept sand worms anymore for physical reasons.

      Steinbeck was one the first serious authors I really liked, and most of his stuff is really good. Twain/Clemens is no less important, but he does dress up serious with humor.

  • DebB

    I only managed one book in December, and that’s slightly cheating because I actually finished it on the first of January. It was Marcia Muller’s “City of Whispers”, another in her Sharon McCone series. I really appreciate the quality of Muller’s writing – plot, story, wording, even things like proper grammar and punctuation. I also enjoy the aging and evolving of McCone through the series (probably said all this before). I’m partway through the next book, then I’ll probably have to wait awhile for another.

    I wanted to mention a book I was given for my birthday by a fellow graphic designer. It’s called “S.”, by producer/director J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. It’s a hard-bound book that comes in a cardboard sleeve. The book is made to look like an old library book, with a Dewey Decimal tag on the spine, “Book for Loan” stamped on the inside front cover, and the various due date stamps inside the back cover.

    The book itself is titled “Ship of Theseus”, by V.M. Straka, a mysterious author that no one knows anything about. Like an old book, the type is set in the center of each page with a wide margins. And in the margins are notes written by two people, at first about the book, then in a conversation to each other as they each borrow and return the book to the library.

    Also in the book are various items the two readers left there – an old postcard, a photo, a page torn from a college newspaper, a napkin with notes written on it. I read the various reviews on Amazon which give suggestions on how to read the book. The underlining and notes written by (I think) Jen and Eric can be really distracting, so the reviewers suggest reading only the printed story first, ignoring the notes, then go back and read it again with the notes and the various inserts.

    It sounds like more work than an ordinary book, but I’m excited to get into it and see if I agree with those who say it’s well worth it. Apparently Abrams got the idea for the book when he was sitting in an airport lounge and found a paperback that someone had left behind with a note that the finder should read and enjoy the book, then leave it for someone else. (I’ve heard of this, never found one myself.)

    As a graphic designer and book lover, this is a piece of art that I absolutely love, apart from the actual story. Maybe by next month I can let you know more about it, and what I thought of it. For the moment, I’m just really enjoying the whole idea of it.

    • davidallen909

      Interesting! A meta-book. Let us know next month how you read it and what you thought of it, Deb.

      (I’ve never found a book abandoned in the way Abrams describes, but the Inland Valley has a few examples of Little Free Libraries, about which you can read online.)

  • John Clifford

    No books completed in December (sigh).

    I did receive two books as Christmas gifts. Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath” and the second volume in Mark Twain’s autobiography.

    I’ve already completed the Gladwell this year and should have the Twain done before the end of the month (at least the 475+ pages not including another couple hundred pages of notes).

    • davidallen909

      We won’t require you to read the notes, or the index for that matter. See you next month, John.

  • davidallen909

    You like the classics. Some of those writers were in their 80s or 90s, so they held on as long as they could.

    Glad to have you posting. You read some good stuff. Soon I’ll write my annual column on my reading from last year, and it’s interesting to look back at six months, as you did, or a year, as I will, and see where our reading took us.

  • davidallen909

    For unknown reasons your two comments were hung up and needed my approval to appear here. Your comments are different enough that I’ll leave ‘em both rather than choose which one to delete.

    Btw, I’ve owned Left Hand of Darkness twice but have yet to read it. Someday I’ll get to that and, if I like it, read The Dispossessed. I read Passage to India in college and recall liking it, but you’re probably right about it being more of an English novel.