Reading Log: February 2014

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Books acquired: none.

Books read: “Ubik,” “Ubik: The Screenplay,” Philip K. Dick; “Waging Heavy Peace,” Neil Young; “The Swerve,” Stephen Greenblatt; “Stranger Passing,” Joel Sternfeld.

Welcome back to my monthly recap of what I read the previous month, as I navigate among the shocking number of unread books on my shelves and share the results.

As the shortest month, February would have been a good time to devote to extremely short books. Instead, as it was the month before my birthday, I opted to read books friends gave me for my last birthday.

(I’m terrible at reading books gifted to me, I’m ashamed to say, and I could profitably spend five or six months catching up on past gifts stretching back a couple of decades. Well, here’s a month, and that will have to suffice.)

Three of my books this month were gifts: “Ubik: The Screenplay,” “Waging Heavy Peace” and “The Swerve.”

Sensibly, first I read “Ubik,” the novel on which the unproduced screenplay was based. Even more shamefully, this is another of the books I’ve owned since I was a teenager and never read. Is my entire reading life about guilt? Anyway, this month provided an excuse to read it, and I’m glad I did, because it was the best book all month, one of Dick’s wackiest, full of humor and contemporary-seeming concerns about privacy in a world in which telepaths are everywhere.

You know it’s going to be great when a CEO, confronted with a vexing problem, tells his underlings, “I’ll consult my dead wife,” and it’s only page 2. He does it, too: The dead are kept in glass coffins in “moratoriums” — ha! — and awakened upon request for conversation. The plot involves a group of people who find the 1990s fading around them as 1939 re-emerges. Is reality changing, or does it only seem to be changing because they’re actually dead and don’t know it? It’s the usual mind-bending stuff. Dick’s screenplay wasn’t as good as the novel but made for a good companion piece.

Neil Young’s memoir hops around in time and place as the muse takes him. Similar to Dylan’s “Chronicles,” in that it’s not a straight autobiography but a book that focuses on random moments; dissimilar, in that it’s shaggy, off-the-cuff, overlong and kind of a mess. Young comes off as a big dork with his Lionel trains and other geeky projects and yet as far more normal than you’d expect. Refreshingly relaxed, but at 500 pages, maybe too relaxed. A sequel is promised/threatened.

I’d never heard of Lucretius or his poem “On the Nature of Things,” so everything in “The Swerve” was new to me. Yes, yes, the subtitle (“How the World Became Modern”) is awfully bold, but then, it’s a subtitle, meant to hook you to buy the book. Personally, I got the book as a gift (maybe the subtitle hooked the friend who bought it for me) and, as it’s not the sort of thing I normally read, I was dubious. But I’m glad I read it: It was fascinating.

Lastly, “Stranger Passing” was loaned to me by a friend last month. Random-seeming portraits of people around the country, doing whatever it was they were doing: shopping, sitting, buying gas, nursing a child. The individual photos didn’t make an impression on me, but collectively it’s a portrait of America. All the subjects retain a certain dignity, even the shopping cart wrangler on the cover.

(That book was so large I couldn’t fit it flat on a shelf for the obligatory spine photo, so I propped it up. The weird cover deserves to be seen again anyway.)

So that was my February in books. How was yours? As always, you’re encouraged to share your own reading below.

Next month: 31 days of colorful books, i.e., with a color in their title.

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  • DebB

    I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t read one book in February! And March isn’t looking much better. I’m now in two charity sewing groups and a new charity knitting group, and it’s really hard to read and knit at the same time!

    • davidallen909

      I’d suggest you turn to audio books, but if you’re sewing in groups, that might be considered rude. Plus, we wouldn’t want you to drop a stitch while breathlessly following a plot.

  • John Clifford

    As I recall I had posted about reading The Swerve a while back. My recollection is that I really liked it.

    Finished “The Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume II” in February with enough time left to read two just for fun, Stephanie Plum stories.

    Twain was a person of his time as well as forever. He talks about such things as phrenology, psychics, palm readers, and then goes off on the state of the copyright laws (in about 1906) to a condemnation of celebrity for the sake of celebrity without every having accomplished anything (and, believe it or not there wasn’t a Kardashian in sight). He also gives some humorous stories of the misadventures of his brother Orion and a look at the scoundrel, Bret Harte (he was a fan of his literature, but definitely, NOT of the man).

    The two Janet Evanovich Stephanie Plum books (very short, small books with large type) were from the “between the numbers” series and followed the former lingerie sales girl turned bounty hunter which featured a character named Diesel who is either a space alien, some kind of mythic character, or just really good at what he does. Having a leprechaun and a cupid in the books, as well as a gangster who is turned into a frog (you’ve got to read them to understand) adds to the mystique. The who I read were Plum Lovin’ and Plum Lucky. Very funny!

    • davidallen909

      At some point I’ll get to the Twain autobios, I’m sure. For now I want to read his classics. You do make his opinions seem lively and even relevant.

      By the way, over the weekend I finally uploaded a photo, as you’ll see attached to this and other comments here. No more generic avatar! About time the host of this blog (that’s me) stepped it up, especially as a few readers such as yourself and Ramona have your own avatars.

  • Richard_Pietrasz

    In a pretty good month for me in this department, I lead the pack and get my post in before the thread gets stale. 2 Nonfic., 2 SF, 1 lit.,1 crime fiction.

    Paradise, Mike Resnick, 1989, SF.

    Humans colonize a planet with a low level of civilization, hunter-gatherer with large tribes, no cities, in an environment resembling Kenya, and humans behaving similar to the Brits did there. Overall, a pretty good book, even if it didn’t rate a separate mention. Resnick has 5 Hugos, all for shorter fiction, no Nebulas (different voter pool, but they intersect), some other awards, so he is quite prominent even if I hadn’t read that much by him before.

    The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Michael Pollan, 2006, NF.

    I give this a more enthusiastic rersponse than DA did, it is worth reading, even if I did know a lot about the down-side of US agriculture previously. Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser was better, IMO, but the two books cover some different topics, some the same.

    The Best Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov, 1986.

    A misleading title, as these are Asimov’s own favorites, minus robot stories and a few many-anthologized ones. These are mostly from the 1950s, mostly shorter lengths, and include Asimov’s intros for each. Typical Asimov, good not great, and no clunkers. His depiction of computer technology relative to what we have now is amusing.

    Three Short Novels, William Faulkner, Fic. Spotted Horses, 1931; Old Man, 1948; The Bear, 1942.

    My literature for the month, by the sage of Mississippi, who was obscure until awarded the Nobel Prize, now mandatory in American Lit course. Spotted Horses was OK, but I found it not much more than an illustration of life in the place and time it was set. Old Man was set in the great Mississippi flood of 1927, I put this story way up there. The Bear was the worst and degrades into the Faulkner stream of consciousness mess that makes some Faulkner work difficult to read without any payoff for the reader. (Perhaps that is why
    literature teachers love it so, explaining this gives them something ordinary people don’t perceive just by reading the work.) But, The Bear is the fourth of a seven story cycle in the book Go Down, Moses, and maybe it does work well in that context.

    Pegasus Descending, James Lee Burke, 2006, Crime Fic.

    One of the Dave Robicheaux series, which I like enough to have read maybe ten novels, set in Louisiana bayoux country. This one turned me off; I’ll wait a while before I read another. It is not that much different than the others, and I think he already used the ending in a previous book. What turned me off was the attitude that all the violence illegally perpetrated by “good guys” deputy Robicheaux and his sidekick private eye Purcel was swept under the rug as being bad by “good gals” the sheriff and a former nun.

    Lion in the White House: A Life of Theodore Roosevelt, Aida Donald, 2007, Bio.

    A short and lightweight bio of TR. Praised by some, and probably not a bad introduction, but the author could have done far better in the same length. She overpraises her subject, which always bothers me. The author’s credentials are far better than mine in history and in writing, but I think I might have done far better on material (she used well known published sources) and with a good editor, well enough on the writing.

    As for books read by others, Ubik was excellent. My copy sat on my shelf for a long time until I figured out I hadn’t read it many years ago. I describe it as a very dark novel, plot-wise, with some humorous treatments.

    Plot giveaway alert:
    I am fairly certain the genesis of the Matrix movies starts with this book, followed by Raymond Z. Gallun writing up the Matrix scenario in the Eden Cycle, which I read years ago and recommend.

    • davidallen909

      Richard, you had a wide-ranging month! You may be right about Matrix. A lot of PKD’s books are about the nature of reality, although Ubik does posit a collective conscious.

  • davidallen909

    I read Travels With Charley years ago and remember liking it, although my main memory of the book and the experience of reading it was puzzlement at Steinbeck’s fascination with mobile homes. Maybe they were new at the time? Maybe Steinbeck didn’t get out much? This may be a skewed memory on my part. The topic just seemed to take up more space than it deserved.

    The truck in which he and his dog traveled is at the Steinbeck museum in Salinas, which is well worth a visit.

    The Swerve made me feel smarter. If you make it through, I’ll look forward to your take.

    One burning question: Are the Doctor Who books only for Who fans? Nobody ever really addresses this. Shocking that you would sidestep it.

  • Richard_Pietrasz

    I really liked Travels With Charlie.

    The Gods Themselves came out with great fanfare, and I read it soon after. While it didn’t lead up the hype, which was massive, it was pretty good.