Reading Log: July 2014


Books acquired: none.

Books read: “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time,” Jeff Speck; “The Portable Poe,” Philip Van Doren Stern, ed.; “What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East,” Bernard Lewis; “The Gateway Arch: A Biography,” Tracy Campbell.

A random month of titles, and like last month more nonfiction than is typical for me. I read a book on how pedestrian (and cyclist) life tends to make towns and cities more pleasant and livable, a fat book of Edgar Allan Poe pieces, a scholarly attempt to explain Middle Eastern history and a sociological, political and architectural look at St. Louis.

“Walkable City”: A chatty exploration, published in 2012, of what makes a downtown work: two-way (and narrow) streets, fewer and more expensive parking spaces, senses of scale and place, bicyclists, pedestrians, lively storefronts, places worth walking to, working neighborhoods as opposed to isolated landmarks (LA’s Disney Hall is criticized), trees, transit and, in a small surprise, awnings.

“Portable Poe”: It’s tough to find a uniformly excellent Poe anthology: Either they’re missing a few great stories, or there are too many weak ones, or they don’t include any of his poetry. What decent Poe book wouldn’t have “The Raven”? Many of them. This one, published in 1945 and totaling, ulp, 666 pages, offers a wide-ranging overview of his every writing mode, except maybe we don’t want an overview if that means we have to wade through his dull, dated essays and articles. Useful in its way, with a good selection of stories and poems both, but more Poe than you probably want.

“What Went Wrong?”: I had hoped for a clear, concise summary of centuries of Middle East history, which admittedly is a lot to expect. Published in 2002, “What Went Wrong” was okay, informative if dry, but for this neophyte, Lewis was so scholarly and history-minded, he didn’t really answer the provocative question in the title. What went wrong? (Subsequently I learned that Lewis favored the invasion of Iraq and may not have been the best person for an even-handed history.)

“Gateway Arch”: Deeply researched but very readable exploration of one of America’s most instantly recognizable monuments, which also happens to be a piece of modernist sculpture. Campbell’s book, published in 2013, explores the three-decade effort to remake the St. Louis riverfront (40 square blocks were leveled), the wrongheaded thinking that separated a tourist attraction from downtown, why once-great St. Louis has faltered — and yet why the Arch is still astonishing.

Not counting three books received as gifts, I’ve bought only three books in 2014 and have read two of them, both this month: “Walkable,” bought in Austin, and “Gateway,” bought in St. Louis. (The third, already underway, will be read in August.)

“Poe” came from a vacation last year, where it was bought at Moe’s in Berkeley, and “Wrong” was purchased at the B&N in Rancho Cucamonga back in 2002 or so, when getting to know more about the Middle East was on our minds. I got bogged down in the (very long) introduction, realized this might not be the book for me and set it aside before recently resurrecting it, for good or bad.

I’ve read the Poe intermittently since last fall (there was overlap with other Poe I read in the interim too), started “Walkable” in March before putting it aside for later and began “Wrong” in May, so this was in part a month of wrapping up a few books in progress. How was your month? Is summer proving to be a good season for reading, or a poor one?

 Next month: many slim books.


Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Email
  • Carl Knecht

    Can I make a recommendation? I know you typically read things that aren’t necessarily new, but Andy Weir’s “The Martian” is a fantastic read with a good amount of suspense that I think you’d appreciate. It’s a combination on Robinson Crusoe and MacGyver in a science fiction setting. Great read!

    • davidallen909

      Even if I don’t read it, maybe someone else on the blog will. Thanks for chiming in, Carl.

  • John Clifford

    Got through two this month, both non-fiction (why is it that fiction is so much easier to read?).

    “Thinking”, edited by John Brockman of, is a compilation of transcribed talks by scientists in the forefront of looking at descision-making, problem solving and prediction and how the human mind goes about these tasks. This is a follow a continuation of some of my recent reading on how the mind works. While it was a good read and informative, some of the pieces, being transcriptions were a little hard as people talking go off on tangents and sometimes don’t come back to their original thread.

    “The World Until Yesterday” by Jared Diamond, who was also the author of “Collapse” and “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” looks at primitive societies who have only just made contact with the rest of the world and how they do things. Hunter-gatherer societies in Africa, Australia, and elsewhere, and primitive agrarian societes, especially in New Guinea, are compared to each other and to the WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic) societies (us). He looks at specific activities such as war, child rearing, how elders are treated, responses to environmental dangers, religion, and diets. While he does draw some conclusions about things that he thinks are better in primitive societies, he doesn’t get too preachy until he gets to the diet area where he goes on a little too much about western predilections for salt and sugar.

    Interestingly the acronym WEIRD was used in both books, so there is a connective thread.

    • davidallen909

      So you had a WEIRD month, eh, John? Both your books are intriguing, especially the second.

      As for your opening question, narratives DO go faster, maybe because with nonfiction, you really have to bear down to absorb the facts, and reread sentences/paragraphs when you realize you’re drifting. That happens a lot less often with a story. Although, with nonfiction, we might be better served by just going with the flow and looking at the big picture, as most of the details are soon forgotten anyway. There’s just that compulsion to concentrate and take them all in.

      • John Clifford

        Yes, definitely a WEIRD month.

  • Doug Evans

    I would have expected a book on Middle Eastern history to be at least the size of that Poe book.

    I read seven last month!

    “East of Eden” by Steinbeck. Really good! Also really long; this took me a couple of months to get through. This may be my favorite Steinbeck out of all his works I’ve read over the past year and a half (all of his famous ones and a few others besides). This one is based on Cain and Abel! There are two sets of brothers, the names in each set start with C and A, one of the brothers in the first set tries to kill the other and later receives a mark on his face, and on and on. In case all that wasn’t clear, halfway through the book the characters sit down and read the Cain and Abel story from the Bible and talk about it. So it’s kind of obvious. Having said that, I really enjoyed it. Critics at the time (according to wikipedia) were lukewarm on this book, saying the symbolism is a bit too much and the characters can drone on and on at parts, and I can see that. But wikipedia says the book is now considered one of Steinbeck’s classics, and I completely agree with that.

    “This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral–Plus Plenty of Valet Parking!–In America’s Gilded Capital” by Mike Leibovich. Read for a book club. This book is advertised as a nonfiction look at the incestuous relationship between lobbyists and politicians in Washington, D.C. Instead, it’s a look at how the author, a New York Times Magazine reporter, is friends with all of those people and gets to go to parties with them. Lots of name dropping about people I’ve never heard of and don’t care about. Universally disliked by all the members of the book club. One star out of five. Suck it, Leibovich. (I really didn’t like this book.)

    “Doctor Who: Remembrance of the Daleks” by Ben Aaronovitch. The latest of the Doctor Who eBooks I got way back for Christmas. This one is a novelization of an episode of the series. In the intro, the author tells how he was trying hard to not have this read like a script that someone put words around to make into a book. He didn’t entirely succeed, in my opinion. (For those who are interested…. Shout-out to John Clifford!… this features the Eighth Doctor.)

    “A Samba for Sherlock” by Jo Soares. An impulse buy from Magic Door Used Books! A Holmes pastiche, originally written in Portuguese, in which Sherlock is called to Brazil to find a missing Stradivarius violin and gets pulled into a case involving a serial killer. Sounds good; turns out, in the author’s hands, this Holmes is an idiot (at one point, he misses catching the killer because he has to use a chamber pot in a museum due to intestinal issues… Scatological humor, yo!) who ends up not catching the criminal at the end. I realized about a quarter of the way through that the author was playing this for laughs. Trouble was, it wasn’t funny (that chamber pot scene is not my sense of humor). The mystery played straight could have been good… (spoilers for the end coming here!) The killer, who gets away, travels to England at the end and becomes Jack the Ripper. That could have been handled intriguingly. It wasn’t. I like my Holmes played straight, it turns out.

    “The Call of the Wild and Three Other Klondike Stories” by Jack London. A classic I had never read (like Robinson Crusoe from a few months back); really good and deserving of its status. (For the record, the three others stories included in this edition were “To Build a Fire,” “Love of Life,” and “To the Man on the Trail,” the last of which I’d never heard of before but was also entertaining.)

    “One Shot” (A Jack Reacher novel) by Lee Child. Chosen for a book club by another member, but by coincidence, I’d just started reading this series in June. There’s not much to these books but they’re fun to read. This one was the basis for the Tom Cruise “Jack Reacher” movie of a few years back.

    “I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay” by Isaac Asimov and Harlan Ellison. Bought this last week at a used book store in San Clemente. I’d read it before but it’s been a while, and I always like to support used book stores. Ellison’s take on a movie version of Asimov’s classic collection of short stories. I may not be as enamored of Ellison’s version as he is in his own introduction, but it was entertaining, and light years better than the actual “I, Robot” movie they made ten years ago. Suck it, people that made the “I, Robot” movie.

    Also! I made some headway (yay!) in my reading of “Our Mutual Friend” (which has turned into a multi-year reading project), started the fifth Game of Thrones book “A Dance with Dragons,” and I’m listening to “Doctor Zhivago” on CD as I drive to my various part-time teaching gigs. Look at me with the big books! So I probably won’t get through another seven books in one month anytime soon, but it was fun.

    And I gotta say that that “Martian” book Carl Knecht mentions sounds really intriguing.

    Happy reading, everyone!

    • davidallen909

      I’m not sure which line in your comment I liked more, “universally disliked by all the members of the book club” or “Suck it, Liebovich.” Also in the running: “I may not be as enamored of Ellison’s version as he is in his own introduction.” Ha!

      I read the screenplay too a couple of years ago and thought it was okay, although it might have been great on the screen (I’m not a fan of reading screenplays). It was a worthy attempt to make only vaguely-related stories into one big story. Didn’t see the actual movie.

      I also read Call of the Wild maybe three years ago for a Pomona Big Read and liked it. A story told from the point of view of a dog, and it managed not to be dopey or sentimental.

      Thanks as always for your detailed comments, Doug!

      • Doug Evans

        Oh yeah! Found your blog posts where you talk about both… January 2012 and August 2009 respectively… In fact, all props to you: you are directly responsible for my reading Call of the Wild! This past spring, when I read Robinson Crusoe, you shared how you had already read Crusoe and posted about it, and in looking up that blog post, I saw Call of the Wild (you read both the same month) and decided to read that one too, as both were classics I’d never read and felt guilty about. In the intervening months between then and last month, I forgot where the inspiration came from. Glad to give you credit, and I agree with your assessment, both above and what you wrote in 2009!

        I remember your reading Asimov’s I, Robot and commenting on that, specifically that (paraphrasing you wildly here) you found Asimov interesting but a little dry, as he was more concerned with creating little logic puzzles than in believable character interaction. I’d forgotten that you read Ellison’s screenplay the same month. (You were reading books with the personal pronoun “I” in the title that month.) Referring to your comment from 2012: I’m with you on not enjoying reading screenplays… Granted, they’re not meant to be read like novels, but it’s hard to read page after page of “CU on Dr Calvin’s face… She’s shocked… And we DISSOLVE TO: Scene 42: OUTER SPACE TELEPORTATION PLATFORM (same as scene 31)…” Additionally, if I were the executive who commissioned the screenplay (whom Harlan cites by name and calls “stupider than an artichoke…” Wonder why the movie never got made?), I would have had some serious questions about the plot, too. If I could handle having a conversation with Ellison calling me stupider than an artichoke.

  • Richard_Pietrasz

    I read 12 in July, although that includes two novels bound as triples, but originally published as stand alone books. Four are nonfiction, five SF, and three fiction. Three of the four NF authors are new to me, and also three of eight fiction, so although I did not stray much from my favorite categories, at least I had some novelty.


    West With the Night, Beryl Markham, 1942, memoir. Markham was a female pilot in the 1930s who grew up near Nairobi. THis pairs well with Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, not only are times and locales very similar, the books share a character, and the authors slept with at least two of the same men, according to wiki.

    Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money that Made the Metropolitan Museum, Michael Gross, 2009. This is a history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, emphasizing the roles of the major people involved. It is full of the famous, and not so famous, 1% of the 1%, who contributed to the museum. The scandalous part is no surprise to those who have followed stories of the Getty and its treasures of questionable provenance. I recommend this only to those with real interest, because it is a lot of material on the same subject.

    Born on a Blue Day, Daniel Tammet, 2006. Memoir. Tammet is a savant with Asperger’s syndrome. This is his story of growing up with a significant mental handicap that is accompanied by amazing (and useful) abilities. This is highly recommended by many, including me.

    The Third Chimpanzee, Jared Diamond, 1992. This is the first of his popular science books, on the subject of how humans, who do not stand out as genetically far apart from the rest of the animal world, ended up so different in dominating the earth.

    Science Fiction:

    Brain Child, George Turner, 1991. This is a tale of a genetic engineering experiment for human intelligence that worked out strangely. It is pretty good, a gamble (I hadn’t heard of it or its author) that paid off.

    The Rowan, Anne McCaffrey, 1990. This is the initial book in a series about telepaths. It is competent space opera.

    Tower of Glass, Robert Silverberg, 1970. This is one of Silverberg’s major works of the period, and quite good. It qualifies as serious literary fiction, and would be labeled as such if Silverberg was not thought of as a SF writer.
    Brain Child, George Turner, 1991.

    Phule’s Company, Robert Asprin, 1990. This is lightweight comedy, and totally exaggerated, but actually contains some decent observations on leadership of people.

    The Stainless Steel Rat, Harry Harrison, 1961. This is fun and lightweight reading, with a To Catch a Thief theme.

    Crime Fiction:

    The Vanished Man, Jeffery Deaver, 2003, crime fiction. Lincoln Rhyme is a quadriplegic detective, working with a junior able bodied partner. The villain is a stage magician. I rate this is an average best seller.

    The Sixth Commandment, Lawrence Sanders, 1978. Oddly enough, the underlying mystery actually happened in

    The Shape Shifter, Tony Hillerman, 2006.

    As for what others read, I previously read a bunch of Poe, East of Eden, and the Call of the Wild, plus the original I, Robot (and saw the movie, too). I have similar opinions.

    • davidallen909

      You had a good month. I own Tower of Glass and it’ll show up on this blog sooner or later. I read Stainless Steel Rat as a teenager and got a kick out of it. I read the second and maybe the third in the series and thought they really dropped off.