Reading Log: January 2017

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Books acquired: none

Books read: “Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters,” Anne K. Mellor; “A Tramp Abroad,” Mark Twain

Happy New Year, readers! A fresh year, a fresh start. What will this year hold for our reading lives? Books and plenty of ’em, let’s hope, with good ones outnumbering the duds, likewise.

January saw me finish two books. Not an auspicious start, perhaps, but one has to start somehow. And as these books were rather dense, maybe it qualifies as an auspicious start after all. One was a biography and analysis of Mary Shelley’s life and work, the other an 1880 travel memoir by America’s arguably greatest writer.

You’ll recall that last year I read “Frankenstein” and “The Last Man,” not to mention Muriel Spark’s biography of Shelley. Putting a bow on my mild obsession, Mellor’s book (bought earlier in the year at Iliad in North Hollywood) was begun in December and finished the first few days of January.

The UCLA prof approaches her subject from a feminist perspective, and she’ll make you think of “Frankenstein” in a fresh way, both textually (disaster occurs when a man tries to have a baby without a woman — mull that a moment) and biographically (when Victor Frankenstein flees from his newborn creation, is Shelley criticizing her husband’s poor parenting skills?). Good analysis of the underrated “The Last Man” too. For scholarship, quite readable, but it’s docked for use of the words “teleological,” “semiotics” and “phenomenological.”

Twain’s fourth of five travel memoirs has been a sort of white whale for me, to invoke another great American author. I was reading a Twain a year through 2011. I planned to read “A Tramp Abroad” in 2012 and then 2013. In my review of my 2013 reading at the start of 2014, this is what I wrote: “How did I not read any Mark Twain for two straight years?! Definitely I’ll read ‘A Tramp Abroad’ this year. Of course, last year in this space I said I’d be starting it ‘any day now.’ I won’t make that promise, but I will read it.”

Heh. What with one thing or another, it kept getting put off. But last year I read his “Autobiography,” and early in January I started “A Tramp Abroad.” Let me note that I read an abridged version in high school, one prepared by Charles Neider, a respected Twain scholar, who said the full book was padded with digressions and dull appendices. But as a grownup, and more of a Twainiac, I wanted to read the full book (bought from Amazon back when I thought I’d be reading it momentarily).

“Tramp” does have its ho-hum passages, and overall Twain’s journey through Germany and Switzerland doesn’t have quite the zing or variety as “Innocents Abroad,” “Roughing It” or “Life on the Mississippi.” So, big deal, it’s a 4-star book, not a 5-star book. “Tramp” is wry, smart, sly, insightful, descriptive and hilarious. You owe it to yourself to read Chapter 13, in which Twain stumbles around his hotel room in the dark rather than risk awaking his travel companion. It is so relatable, one of those pieces of writing that bridges the gulf of years, and if you don’t laugh aloud, you have a funny bone of stone. Visit your local library or download the book just for that chapter.

All that said, Neider’s compressed version of “Tramp” would suit most readers. But I’m happy to have read the full version. It felt very good getting this one out of the way at last, and ditto with the Shelley holdover.

February will see me pick up the pace a bit, I think. For 2017, I may hit 40 again, my total from last year, and many of the books I expect to read are ones that have been waiting for me the past couple of years as my reading choices skewed to my oldest books. I’m really looking forward to this reading year. It feels like I’m back on track.

How was your January, and what do you expect from 2017 as a reader?

Next month: Four or five books, man — with “man” in their titles.

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  • Doug Evans

    I read seven!

    “Burning Man” by Alan Russell (2012). The first of a series about a police officer and his police dog, burned in an arson fire, who come back to the force to join a special units squad and fight crime, which is what police officers do anyway, but these are special crimes. I can’t remember exactly what the crime was but it was still a fun book. Written by the same guy who wrote “St. Nick” that I read in December. The More You Know!™

    “The Invisible Man” by H.G. Wells (1897). A classic that I read in junior high that I wanted to revisit (just like “Jekyll and Hyde,” that I reread in November). Just like Jekyll and Hyde, my memory was that there was not a lot of action in the book, and that’s true, more or less, but there was a bit more than there was in Hyde and the whole story was fun. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of the “Invisible Man” movies except for the one where he meets Abbot and Costello, but it was fun after finishing the book to go on Wikipedia read about how the various films (and Bugs Bunny cartoons) adapted the basic plot to their needs.

    “Before the Golden Age: Book 3” collected with commentary by Isaac Asimov (1974). The third and last volume of Asimov’s collection of the 1930s-era science fiction stories that inspired him as a young kid (and then young adult). Just like the previous two books, these stories are sometimes clunky but always charming, and it was interesting to see, as the years went on, how the stories became more sophisticated. Up next, “The Early Asimov,” which picks up the autobiographical story from here and shows us how Asimov’s own early writing developed. So look for that next month!

    “The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper” by Phaedra Patrick (2016) Read for a book club. A grieving widower finds a charm bracelet his late wife owned that he never knew existed, and tracks down the story of each charm one by one to learn more about his wife and ultimately about himself. Sounds horrible but it was actually pretty good. One point for the book club!

    “The Gathering” by Anne Enright (2006). So in December I read “The Sea,” the Man Booker Prize winning book by John Banville that told the first-person account of an Irish man grieving the loss of his wife, and I didn’t like it. I wanted to take my copy of “Before the Golden Age” and shove it up the exhaust port of the Man Booker Prize people and say, “This is what an entertaining book looks like!” So naturally I stumble across and buy “The Gathering,” a Man Booker Prize winning novel that tells the first-person account of an Irish women grieving the loss of her brother. I don’t know why I went back for the same kind of book, except that I was just in Ireland in December, and maybe wanted to read more about it, and “The Gathering,” unlike “The Sea,” was set in Dublin, where I visited. And maybe I wanted to give the Man Booker Prize people one more chance. Anyway: I really didn’t enjoy this book, and I was wondering what was wrong with myself for spending time reading it, until: chapter 16, in which absolutely nothing changed in the book but something changed in me (don’t know what) and I really grew to like the book. So! I won’t go on about it, but I ended up enjoying this book a lot and I’m glad I took the chance to read it. Man Booker Prize people: you’re all right by me.

    “Dubliners 100: Fifteen New Stories Inspired by the Original” edited by Thomas Morris (2014). Alternate title: “Dubliners 2: Electric Boogaloo” (not really the alternate title). I bought this book at The Winding Stair Bookshop in Dublin, and it’s just what it says: a follow-up to Joyce’s Dubliners (which I read in December), in which fifteen new authors write new stories based, loosely, on the stories in Dubliners. The stories have the same titles and each story starts with the first sentence of the corresponding Joyce story as an epigraph.
    Anyway: fun! Liked the stories, like the idea, and glad I got this as a souvenir of my trip. I also got a mug with the original orange cover of the Penguin edition of “Great Expectations”! And a pair of gloves, because Ireland is cold in December, but the book and the mug were purchased in the same bookstore, which I why I mention them.

    “The Smartest Man in Ireland” by Mollie Hunter (1963). And to finish it all off: a very slight book I’ve had but haven’t read since the 1990s, given as a gift. A young adult book about a clever guy (but maybe not the smartest in Ireland) who outwits Irish fairies and fairy queens and the like. No leprechauns, though. When I got this book, I never knew I’d be going to Ireland; now that I’ve been, it seemed like a good time to read this book.

    I enjoyed reading about your two books, David, and I still plan to get to Twain myself one day. Enjoy your vacation, happy reading, everyone, and see you all here next month!

    • davidallen909

      You’re very forgiving of the Man Booker Prize folks! Their exhaust ports thank you. Curiously enough, The Invisible Man is in my stack of possibilities for this month. I’ll do my best to get to it so we can compare notes.

  • Doug Evans

    Also: Don’t know if you’ve seen this, David, but Slate is running a whole bunch of articles on Frankenstein (I’m not sure why, exactly… 200th anniversary, maybe?). Here’s a link to one of them, which has links to the others:

    http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2017/01/why_frankenstein_is_still_relevant_almost_200_years_after_it_was_published.html

    And, from the same site: an article on why academic jargon (such as the “teleological,” “semiotics,” and “phenomenological” vocabulary you quoted above) is more important that ever in the age of Trump. I have no idea if the author, who is a bit of a provocateur, is being serious or not, and actually I didn’t read the article, because it’s a dumb premise and she’s wrong. But if you like, here it is!

    http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2017/01/we_need_academic_jargon_more_than_ever_under_trump.html

    • davidallen909

      Looks like Slate wanted to get a year’s jump on the Frankenstein bicentennial (Frankentennial?); it was published in 1818. That was a decent primer on the book’s relevance and substance.

  • Richard_Pietrasz

    I finished five in January, not a big total but it included. some good books.

    Nonfiction:

    Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier. Jeffrey Lockwood, 2000.

    Cheyenne Autumn: An American Epic. Mari Sandoz, 1953.

    Fly By Wire: The Geese, the Glide, and the Miracle on the Hudson. William Langeweische, 2009.

    Smogtown: The Lung Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles. Chip Jacobs, William Kelley, 2008.

    Fiction:

    Bluesman. Ande Dubus III, 1993.

    I enjoyed Locust the best. Lockwood is a real bug man who put serious research into the issue. Now I know the difference between a locust and a grasshopper. Locusts are grasshoppers that behave like locusts.

    Cheyenne Autumn is the most important work.. It was well done but the story is heartbreaking.

    Fly By Wire, about the airliner that ditched in the Hudson after losing its engines, was somewhat lightweight but not bad and still good entertainment for my taste. It seems to have been written by the Airbus PR staff.

    Smogtown, which covers more than the city of LA and has references to Pomona, Claremont, , and Fontana, begins in the 1940s and goes as far as the modern distribution center. Written by local journalists it lacks technical depth but I liked it anyway.

    Bluesman is the Dubus debut novel. It was a decent story but the inexperience is clear. I grew up close by in time and geography and got many of the references to that scene.

    All the authors were new to me at book length so I will not feel guilty about padding February with some familiar genre stuff.

    • davidallen909

      I hear you: Start a year strong, such as by expanding your boundaries, staking out some fresh territory, and you’re entitled to glide a bit. Getting to that Twain book and wrapping up a scholarly tome was like giving myself some elbow room.

  • John Clifford

    Also 2 in January.

    The newest Bosh detective story which was quite good and I loved the LA/Pasadena/San Fernando locales. And good mysteries to boot.

    The other of my Christmas gifts from the Lovely Mrs. C was Tangled Vines, which tells the story of an arson fire which destroyed millions of dollars of wine including the author’s family’s vintage wine from Rancho Cucamonga Winery. This goes deeply into the history of wine in LA (Vignes planted the first vineyard along the LA River), to the bay area and includes the entire history of the John Rains murder and the plight of his widow Dona Merced. Murder, arson, history, lying, cheating, and stealing, a very enjoyable read.

    • davidallen909

      I hear you: “murder, arson, history, lying, cheating and stealing” — what’s not to like? I read Tangled Vines in late 2015 and wrote a column about it to boot. Very well done.