Reading Log: April 2014

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Books acquired: “Urban Tumbleweed,” Harryette Mullen.

Books read: “The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop,” Lewis Buzbee; “The Red Pony,” John Steinbeck; “Darker Than Amber,” John D. MacDonald; “The Green Hills of Africa,” Ernest Hemingway; “The Green Hills of Earth,” Robert A. Heinlein; “Outlaw Blues,” Paul Williams.

Six books read in April, each with a color in the title. What a reading rainbow, to quote a phrase. I’d plotted out potential titles three or four years ago, which made finally reading them all the more satisfying as well as something of a relief. Also, some of the books go back quite a ways.

I was supposed to read Hemingway’s “Green Hills” back in college for a Hemingway class but didn’t make it. Years ago I abandoned the other unread one on the syllabus, “Death in the Afternoon,” out of disinterest in hundreds of pages of nonfiction on bullfighting, but I did always hope to read this one, about a safari. The first chapter is where Hemingway’s famous comment about all American literature springing from “Huckleberry Finn” comes from.

Well, I learned that hunting is hard work: Even when Hemingway kills an animal, he might have to track it for hours and then never find it. Not without interest, especially some of the nature descriptions and the byplay with his father-in-law. He undercuts his own myth. But he also reinforces it, and despite the rigors he’s privileged and oblivious. A little boring, a little sad. This wasn’t for me.

I hadn’t read a Heinlein in two years so this seemed like a good month to read his “Green Hills,” a collection of short stories from the 1940s. I liked it. Most have a cheerful optimism about space flight, human relations and the promise of the 20th century that, while dated, scratches a certain itch. The final, and longest, story, “The Logic of Empire,” is an anti-slavery allegory and a worthwhile early attempt at melding politics and SF.

“The Red Pony” I’d read as a teen, but I read it again as part of a Steinbeck omnibus of short novels that I bought in 2009. All I’d remembered was the birth scene. I liked it this time, and even found it reminiscent of Bradbury’s (later) “Dandelion Wine,” particularly the section about the old man who’s a little like a time machine.

Buzbee’s “Yellow” is a memoir about his days as a bookseller and publisher’s rep in the Bay Area, as well as about his lifelong love of bookstores and books. He sprinkles in a history of books and bookselling. Unexciting, but a gentle, reflective tome for those who like bookstores and the sense they impart of being alone among others.

“Amber” is the seventh Travis McGee mystery novel. As with Heinlein, it had been a couple of years since I’d read one, and I’m glad to have finally cleared whatever mental block had kept me from progressing. That said, this one had its unsavory aspects, so that even though I like the series, this may not be among the better entries.

Lastly, “Outlaw Blues” is a collection of writings circa 1967-68 by the man who may qualify as the first rock critic. Offers a look at how a segment of hippie rock intellectuals viewed the scene, when each release seemed to be advancing the youth movement: Loved the Byrds, Dylan, Jefferson Airplane, Beach Boys and the Doors, had no use for the Beatles. Idealistic, woolly-headed, charming.

As mentioned, Hemingway’s book dates to college, although I’ve switched editions since then. Williams’ was bought at a used bookstore in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury perhaps 15 years ago. Heinlein’s is of more recent vintage, also used, as was MacDonald’s; and Buzbee’s came from a visit to Powell’s in Portland in 2010.

Your turn: What have you been reading?

Next month: In which I’m all wet.

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  • John Clifford

    A big 3 this month. 2 fiction from Latino authors,and a non-fiction.

    My non-fiction this month was a 1977 book by Carl Sagan of Cosmos fame which was his last book and was published posthumously. Titled “Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millenium,” it covers a lot of material including global climate change, abortion, the need to expand science funding, and, most poignantly, his final thoughts as we knew that his days were running out. I picked it up because I had started watching the new Cosmos series with Neil deGrasse Tyson (a wonderful series).

    The second book is a series of short stories by 1982 Nobel prize for literature author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who had, just passed away. Knowing that there were a number of Marquez books here in our personal library, I decided it was about time that I actually picked one of them up. I read Strange Pilgrims. The stories were enthralling and had a “Twilight Zone” feel to them with surprise endings and interesting plot twists. A good book for reading on the train.

    The third book was actually the first one I read and it was “Into the Beautiful North,” by Luis Alberto Urrea. This is the book that the Pomona Together We Read committee, on which I serve, chose to be this year’s book that we will be asking all Pomonan’s to read during the months of October-November. Because I’ll be involved in planing the various events surrounding the Together We Read program, I felt it incumbent to read it early. I read it in the Kindle edition. The story follows a young girl and her friends (and some who are picked up along the way) on a journey to try and find men to return to her small Mexican town, where most of the men had migrated north to the US for work, so that they could fight the drug cartel who threatens their livelihood. After seeing a screening of “The Magnificent Seven,” starring the greatest Mexican actor of all time, Yul Brenner (you have to read the book to understand), the protagonist hatches the plan to go north and bring back 7 men to fight for the pueblo. A terrific story that should speak to the Pomona community.

    • davidallen909

      John, thanks as always for contributing. I haven’t read any Marquez and really should someday, maybe after my piles of unread books get more manageable.

    • Doug Evans

      I have that Carl Sagan book! And somewhat guiltily I’ve never read the whole thing… But inspired by this post, I’m reading it now! And I’ll second the “wonderful” comment for the new version of Cosmos! My 11-year-old daughter is into it too, which makes me happy.

  • Richard_Pietrasz

    I finished seven books in April, none two far from my usual categories, but four were non-fiction, a lot for me.

    King Solomon’s Ring, Konrad Lorenz, 1949, natural history/memoir (translated by Marjorie Kerr Wilson, 1952). These are tales of Lorenz’ experiences studying animal behavior, with some interesting thoughts on keeping pets. The author won a Nobel Prize in Medicine, partially based on the studies described.

    King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild, 1998, history. A history of the colonization of the Congo by a corporation created by Leopold II, King of Belgium with grandiose dreams of empire and wealth, and how a number of outsiders learned and revealed the real story. They essentially enslaved or killed all the natives they saw to harvest rubber and support the slavers, with a death toll of perhaps ten million.

    The Ship Who Sang, Anne McCaffrey, 1969, science fiction. This novel is a fix-up of short fiction written throughout the 1960s. The title character is a severely physically disabled, but mentally able, woman brought up from birth to be a cyborg, her body primarily an interstellar spaceship. The stories are initally crude as McCaffrey learns her craft, some of the implications are disturbing, but it works as a whole. I liked it better than her dragon stories.

    Mortal Causes, Ian Rankin, 1994, crime fiction. The sixth novel in the excellent John Rebus series, set in Edinburgh, neither best nor worst of the series.

    The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, James Bradley, 2009, history. The 1905 diplomatic mission to east Asia (by Sec. of War William Howard Taft and First Daughter Alice Roosevelt) is used as a backdrop to describe US foreign policy in east Asia in the late 19th through the Teddy Roosevelt administrations. Bradley’s thesis is that US military activities in the region directly led to the expansion of Imperial Japan and WW2 in the Pacific. The reasoning is difficult to refute, which is likely why this book is reviled by so many but praised by others. I am in the latter category, even if it is sometimes sloppy.

    Gulp: Adventures on The Alimentary Canal, Mary Roach, 2013, popular science. A fun take on a a discussion of the human gut. It is not for the squeamish, it features multiple chapters on flatus and feces. I never knew Elvis Presley died of constipation, but his case was especially severe.

    CHthon, Piers Anthony, 1967, science fiction. This is a tale of clashing social standards of human civilaztions, with the protagonist caught up as a child and later imprisoned in a truly hellish prison (a disturbing echo of the Belgian Congo). An above average but not outstanding work of SF, it still managed nominations for Hugo and Nebula awards.

    • davidallen909

      If it were me, and I’d read King Solomon’s Ring and King Leopold’s Ghost, next I’d read King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard. Then again, I don’t doubt that you’ve read it already.

      • Richard_Pietrasz

        Good idea. I thought of the connection, but my unread book list is already pretty big. I read She a long time ago, and also saw the Ursula Andress movie, but not the mines.

  • Doug Evans

    I read six!

    First up was “The Moon is Down,” a picture of which can be seen in your picture above of the Steinbeck compilation. I can now say I’ve read every book on the cover of David Allen’s The Short Novels of John Steinbeck omnibus, which is kind of an odd goal to have, but I achieved it. “The Moon is Down” is a WW II-era tale of a town that is pretty clearly meant to be in Norway defending itself against an invading army who are pretty clearly meant to be Nazis. The thing reads very much like a play with the stage directions replaced by narrative exposition, so I wasn’t surprised to find out on wikipedia that that’s what it was. Not my favorite of Steinbeck’s, but not a bad book by any means.

    “The Festival of Death” by Jonathan Morris. Another in my on-going series of Doctor Who ebooks, this one featuring the Fourth Doctor. (They’re all the same Doctor, by the way; he just keeps regenerating into a new body whenever the previous one is severely damaged. Just felt like I needed to share that.) Maybe my favorite of the Who ebooks so far, but this one did have a very high body count. Poor innocent people who unwittingly find themselves in a Doctor Who ebook.

    “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn. The “It” book all my friends were reading a couple of years ago. I’ve finally read it too. Really good! (And soon to be a movie!)

    “The Alternative Asimovs” by Isaac Asimov. A book that even Asimov himself in his introduction acknowledges didn’t need to exist… Three early drafts of stories (two novels, one short story) that were eventually published in different forms. So: interesting if you’re a huge Asimov buff and want to see how his drafts compare with the final versions. Over the past year, I’d read the two novels that are included here in embryonic form, so I enjoyed the chance to be able to compare. But this is really for completists only, if anyone can ever manage to be a completist for an author who wrote/edited over 500 books in his lifetime. (In case anyone cares: The novels are “Pebble in the Sky” and “The End of Eternity,” and the short story is “Belief,” of which both forms are included here.)

    “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Dafoe. One more to check off in my “a classic I’ve never read that I feel like I should have” reading list. Good but creaky… This is considered to be the first English novel ever written! I never knew that! Dafoe sure takes his time getting Crusoe onto the island, and then, when he gets off, there’s still more story to be told. But not as interesting a story. A modern author would probably cut to the chase a lot quicker, and realize that when Crusoe’s rescue takes place, the book’s pretty much over. But still, a very fun read, and worthy of its status as a classic!

    “Dolores Claiborne” by Stephen King. A companion piece to “Gerald’s Game” which I read the previous month. Another King book I’ve been curious about since it was first published back in the early nineties. I enjoyed it, probably even more than “Gerald’s Game”. And glad I can finally say I’ve read these two books.

    Next month! Another Steinbeck, another Doctor Who ebook, the Carl Sagan book John Clifford mentions below, a couple of book club picks (including a Hemingway, but not “Green Hills of Africa”), and maybe I’ll work my way through more of “Our Mutual Friend”! The clock is ticking on my self-imposed deadline of my birthday (July 25), and that book’s not getting any shorter!

    Happy reading, everyone!

    • Doug Evans

      Other stuff I never knew about Robinson Crusoe! (Sticking this down here just for fun.)

      Crusoe was on his way to Africa to pick up slaves for his Brazilian plantation when he was shipwrecked. Yikes.

      Dafoe originally published this anonymously, apparently hoping readers would think this really was the memoirs of an actual island castaway. (First English-language novel and all… Maybe the rules were a little looser back then.)

      Dafoe was very religious and anti-Catholic, and that means Crusoe is too. And we get to hear all about it.

      I’d known there was a famous scene where Crusoe stumbles across a human footprint, and later finds a native he names “Friday” whom he takes on as his servant. I never knew he’d been living on the island for over twenty years by that point. And the footprint isn’t Friday’s… Native peoples have been coming to the island the whole time; Crusoe had just never realized it before. Probably a good thing because the natives are all cannibals. (Crusoe converts Friday to Christianity and gets him to give up his flesh-eating ways.)

      And: Dafoe wrote a sequel called “The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe” which no one reads or remembers anymore, because seriously, he’s off the island, Dafoe! It’s not all that interesting anymore!

      • davidallen909

        I’ve read Crusoe, and wrote a column about it, about five years ago. The book was a little dry at times, and not quite what I expected. For one thing, he salvages an awful lot of stuff from the shipwreck, enough to stock a Home Depot, plus food. The footprint scene, though, still inspired a sort of vertigo, and I’m glad I read the book.

        • Doug Evans

          Hey, you’re right! (Not that I thought you were lying to me.) I googled and found the blog posts where you talk about reading Crusoe (July and August 2009), and not only that, I commented on it way back then, and mentioned that Crusoe is one of the classics I had never read! (Along with Call of the Wild, which five years later remains unread by me. Guilt.) Alas, I can’t find the column where you discuss reading Crusoe. I know I would have read it at the time but it would be all the more meaningful now. Any easy-to-find links? Does the Bulletin only link up to a certain point in the past?

          • davidallen909

            That column has slipped into the archives, no doubt. I’m not sure what the cutoff point is but it seems to be somewhat porous. This is why all my columns should be clipped or printed out by readers, carefully saved in albums and cross-indexed for future reference.

    • davidallen909

      I haven’t even read all the Steinbeck in my Steinbeck omnibus. You beat me, Doug. All I have left is Moon is Down and Tortilla Flat.