Reading Log: May 2014

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Books acquired: “The Gateway Arch: A Biography,” Tracy Campbell; “A Farewell to Arms,” Ernest Hemingway.

Books read: “Gently Down the Stream,” Bill McClellan; “The Farther Shore,” Robert M. Coates; “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” Jules Verne; “Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys: How Deep is the Ocean?” Paul Williams; “Coming Up for Air,” George Orwell.

Ahoy, readers, it’s time for another post about our reading habits of the past month, which in my case all involved water-based titles.

(I came up with a bunch of such “theme” groupings three or four years ago, fresh from having typed up the title of every unread book on my shelves for a master list, and with connections echoing in my brain. I get to them as I can. Turns out there are only 12 months in a year. Who knew?)

“Stream” is a collection by a St. Louis columnist; “Shore” is a 1950s out-of-print novel about a bachelor who really should not marry, but does, with unfortunate results (telegraphed in the first sentence or I wouldn’t bring it up); “Leagues” is, of course, the famous novel about a submarine voyage led by a captain without a country; “Ocean” is a compilation of essays and interviews about the surf group; and “Air” is a novel about a middle-class Englishman who, with prewar jitters, is seized by the notion of escaping the city to his childhood village.

“Shore” came to me in an unusual way that may illustrate the happenstance way we sometimes read. I’d read two short stories by Coates in anthologies edited by my boy Ray Bradbury, loved them, especially “The Hour After Westerly,” which would have made a good “Twilight Zone,” and wanted more. He published two books of stories, it turns out, as well as several novels and a memoir; he was the New Yorker’s art critic for a time. I couldn’t readily find any of his books at used bookstores (yes, yes, no doubt I could find them online, but I wasn’t frantic for them, I just put them on my want list as something to hunt for on book expeditions). The first thing I found was “Shore,” at a St. Louis store maybe four years ago, and decided to buy it — it was only $4 — even though it was a novel. Last year, at Powell’s in Portland, I found one of his story collections and bought it. I almost put “Shore” into my “sell” box, but opened it up and saw the first page involves a guy eating in a diner. So I read it. And it was pretty good.

“Air” was my favorite of the month, though. The narrator at first seems like a dope, a guy strangers tend to call “Fatty” who sells insurance and finds his children a nuisance and his wife a bore, but his mordant sense of humor and realistic view of things set a tone unlike any book I can remember reading. The whole thing was kind of extraordinary. I was led to this book in another odd way, by an extended mention in one of the “33 1/3″ books on the Kinks album “Village Green Preservation Society.” Any book similar to one of my favorite albums was likely to be worth seeking out, and it was.

“Leagues” was both fascinating and tedious, as anyone who remembers reading it can tell you. I’d read it as a boy but had meant to reread it ever since “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” comics made Nemo seem like an amazing creation. Not surprisingly, much of that is only implied in the original. I’ve owned this copy since elementary school. The others came into my hands more recently: 20 years ago in the case of the Beach Boys’ book, the past five years for the rest.

I should mention, too, that I began and abandoned one book this month: “The Sea” by John Banville. (You can see part of the cover in the photo above.) It was too literary for me. I could have finished it had I chose, but I cut my losses about 40 pages in. A part of me thought I should read it, as the hype proclaims that it won the Man Booker Prize. Then I thought, well, am I making a survey of Man Booker Prize winners? I’ve got a lot of books around the house I want to read more than this. So into the “sell” box it will go.

That’s all from me. How was your May? Let us know what books you’ve been paging through, finishing or abandoning.

Next month: Watergate. Wait, would that have fit in during May?

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  • R.E. Nunez

    Try this one Dave, The Electric Kool – Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolf, About Ken Kesey’s ( One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest) life with the Merry Pranksters in 1968. And Dave after reading this, the world won’t be the same again. It was a good book then, and a good book today.

    • davidallen909

      I expect I’ll get to that someday. I have read Cuckoo’s Nest.

    • Richard_Pietrasz

      It was a good book when I read it in the 70s or 80s. Tom Wolfe wrote a bunch of right stuff.

      He can keep his white suits.

  • Doug Evans

    I read 8! Pretty sure that’s a record for me, either here on the blog or just in my life. I don’t know if I’ll get be getting anywhere near that number anytime soon.

    “In Dubious Battle”, by good ol’ Steinbeck. (I hope his estate appreciates that I’ve been reading all of these books by him.) One of his earliest novels. Communists attempt to organize apple pickers in California; tragedy results. Sort of an early stab at what Steinbeck would tackle to greater effect in “The Grapes of Wrath.” (Quote from a one-star review on Amazon: “Plain and simple, this is a textbook of evil.” For the record, I liked it better than that.)

    “Billions and Billions” by Carl Sagan. Inspired by John Clifford’s comment from last month, I pulled this book from my “unfinished” pile and finally read it. Really liked it; really sad Sagan is no longer with us. According to an inscription on the title page, this was a birthday present from my parents back in 1997. Finally I can tell them I finished it!

    “The Eagle Has Landed” by Jack Higgins. World War II espionage stuff. I call these “Dad books” because they’re the kinds of books dad likes to read. Dad had good taste.

    “A Moveable Feast” by Hemingway. Read for a book club. Hemingway writes about his early writing life in Paris. Took me over half the book to get into it, but once I did, I liked it. Mixed reviews from the club: those who like Hemingway, or Paris, enjoyed the book; those who didn’t, didn’t.

    “Me Before You” by Jojo Moyes. Another book club pick. Kind of a tear jerker about a quadrapalegic former lawyer and the lower-class woman hired to take care of him and the relationship they develop. Euthanasia comes up as a topic. Provoked quite a discussion at the book club.

    “Doctor Who: Fear of the Dark” by Trevor Baxendale. The Fifth Doctor has adventures. These books have been almost all a heck of a lot darker than the TV show that inspired them. It’s as though the authors have all said, “Hey, I’m writing a book, not an episode of a children’s TV show; I can make dark things happen, and cover it all in buckets of gore!” Which would maybe be something if author after author hadn’t had the same thought.

    “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green. Hey, this is going to be a movie! Tomorrow! Or today, depending on when you’re reading this. Teenagers fighting cancer fall in love. I read half of this on my iPad on a car ride back from Vegas, which was a minor miracle because I get car sick just thinking about reading in the car. Apparently I can read in the car on an iPad! Yay!

    “Bone Deep” by Randy Wayne White. Another in the “Doc Ford” series of books that I like. Twenty plus books in, these are getting kind of formulaic, but they’re still fun. Apparently these are being turned into a TV series but I haven’t heard anything about that for a while.

    Eight books last month! (Had to say it again.)

    I’ve read “20,000 Leagues”! I agree with your assessment. I’m intrigued by your descriptions of both “Coming Up for Air” and “The Farthest Shore” so that I’m going to keep an eye out for them.

    Happy reading, everyone!

    • Doug Evans

      Meant to ask: what inspired your purchase of “A Farewell to Arms”? I know you read “The Green Hills of Africa” two months ago, and as I said above, I just read “A Moveable Feast.” Everything’s coming up Hemingway! I’ve read “Arms” twice and liked it… Curious to hear your take if and when you get to it!

      • davidallen909

        And you may recall that I read “Feast” a year or two ago. I liked it.

        “Arms” was a gift, in a 2012 hardcover edition that has multiple discarded endings. I read the novel in college and at some point I’ll read it again.

        Congrats on reading eight books and for taking inspiration from John’s comment. Should you thank your parents for finally reading a book after 17 years? I run into that myself and wonder if I should bring it up or if the recipient would have assumed I enjoyed the gift years ago and feel insulted.

        • Doug Evans

          Oh, yeah, you read A Moveable Feast! I just googled the blog from last year and there it is and there’s my comment as well, in which I state that one day I hope to read it myself. Cross another book off the list!

          I remember Hemingway’s quote about the end of A Farewell to Arms… a reporter asked him why he rewrote the ending 48 times (more or less), and he said, “Getting the words right.” So I figure your edition must have 47 or so previous endings. You’ll have to let us know if you think he chose the best one.

          I agree about the potential awkwardness of thanking a gift-giver for a book years after I got it… But from experience, I know my parents chuckle when I let them know I’ve finally finished a book (17 years later, in this case!).

        • Richard_Pietrasz

          If you admit it 17 years later, they are likely to think you actually read the book and aren’t just being polite.

    • Richard_Pietrasz

      I read Moveable Feast, and a Steinbeck much like the one you described, so it was likely but not necessarily the same. Good books, but not great.

      I liked Sagan’s stuff, too, and enjoyed his reaction to criticism of Billions.

  • Richard_Pietrasz

    Congrats to Doug Evans; 8 beats me this month and every one, or almost always, since I (and the rest of us ) were much younger. I do have 6, my usual for 2014 so far, except for my 7 last month. We may have a competition going, along with DA.

    I have a theme this month, pretty much accidentally, except when I misplaced book 5 with 4 or 5 days to go, I substituted with two books who ended up fitting my theme. My theme is major prize winners, some for the book I read, some for their total work. (That book 5 should appear next month, I found and finished it.)

    City Primeval, Elmore Leonard, 1980. Run of the mill for him, good book,. (Average EL is above most, not necessarily better than some of my favorites.) He ended up with a Grand Master Edgar Award, tops in the field,and also a National Book Award Medal for Distinguished Contribution.

    The Stranger, Albert Camus, 1942. This was truly a weird and disturbing book. As far as I know, it won no major prizes, but only 15 years later, augmented by a small number of lesser works, Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature. This was the number one reason.

    The Bridge Over San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder, 1927. Pulitzer Prize, it was worth it.

    The Strange Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon, 2000. Pulitzer Prize. DA , I have observed your picture including this book in the background, for months, but not including the last one. I observed my (paperback copy with the same cover) for months also, but I did pull it down and read it, which I don’t think you have. It is right down your alley, ten pin strike or strike three, your choice; I think I beat you to it.

    The Path Between the Seas, David McCollugh, 1977, National Book Award (History). In my only comment on content in this post, I have I difficult time reconciling this with the DM biography of Truman, published in 1992.

    Double Star, Robert Heinlein, 1956. This was the first of RH’s 4 Hugos for novels, at a time when the Hugo was young, and a contributor to his Nebula for Career work.

    • davidallen909

      You were reading major prize winners, I was setting aside a Man Booker Prize winner!

      I read The Stranger in a college French class and don’t remember much about it other than it being alienating and depressing. I’ve had my eye on The Plague as some of it is quoted in a movie of a couple of years back, My Weekends With Marguerite. And I read Double Star two years ago.

      As for Kavalier and Clay, I have a sort of mental block about reading it, largely due to its length (600-plus pages). Chabon signed my hardcover. Later I bought a beat-up paperback because I don’t want to risk mussing my signed copy, but even that move hasn’t nudged me into reading it. One day.

      • Richard_Pietrasz

        K&C is long, and it screwed up my reading month for a while, because it is longer than my attention span for fiction. Somehow, the same length did not interrupt me with Path Between the Seas.

        K&C were comic book creators, how can you resist? Just plan it for two months, or whatever, and do what I do, time share between multiple books. That works for me.

  • John Clifford

    Sorry I’m so late in joining in. Looks like a lot of good stuff was read in May. I was down to only 2. Gasa-Gasa Girl by Naomi Hirahara was the second in a series about Alta Dena Japanese gardener Mas Arai, who gets involved in solving murders. In this episode, he travels to New York to help his daughter with some problem she’s having only to get embroiled in the murder of a wealthy Japanese businessman who is trying to preserve the estate where he grew up and to restore it’s Japanese garden. Having been immersed in Japanese/American culture from last year’s Pomona Together We Read programs, it was a comfortable read.

    The second one I read probably doesn’t count. I devoured Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants 2014. Yes, it was free with my LA Times subscription, but it was still 100 pages. I was fascinated by some of the chefs that are doing interesting things in LA, and gratified that I had eaten in at least a few of them (Nickel Diner, Border Grill, Musso & Frank, Patina–Still gotta get to Langers, maybe this week).

    One of the reasons I’m late checking in is that we went to the wine country for a few days respite and while we were in Healdsburg, stopped at Copperfield’s book store and purchased several upcoming entries.

    • davidallen909

      You’re allowed to be late to the Reading Log if you’re purchasing books. I’ve heard of the Mas Arai books from Steve Harvey (the columnist), and maybe from you, if you posted here about the first one.

      I skimmed my 101 Restaurants booklet and marked the ones I’ve visited, which wasn’t a lot, maybe 15 or 20. You’ll like Langer’s.