Reading Log: April 2017

Books acquired: none

Books read: “Bloodhounds on Broadway and Other Stories,” Damon Runyon; “Reporters: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman,” Will Fowler; “The World of Jimmy Breslin,” Jimmy Breslin; “You Know Me Al,” Ring Lardner

I spent my reading time in April on old-time books by or about journalists. A convergence of factors was at work.

I’d been hoping to read Fowler’s book because there’s a long chapter on Jim Murray, one of whose collections I read last year. But then Breslin died in March, and his book, on my shelf for eight years, demanded to be read. The Runyon and Lardner books were among my oldest unread books, and while they’re not journalism exactly, both men were journalists, and Breslin once wrote a biography of Runyon. So it all made sense, in my mind at least, and thus was a month of reading born.

It’s also possible that my 20th anniversary at the Bulletin, and subsequent 30th anniversary in newspapers, played a role as well. In any event, this proved to be one of my best all-around months for the ol’ Reading Log, as I liked each book, some quite a bit.

The Runyon book collects 20 of his Broadway stories. He has such a distinctive writing style — present tense, no contractions, narrated by someone who is trying to be precise and elevated (an Adam Gopnik New Yorker article lays this out delightfully) — that his work is almost immediately recognizable as his, and that almost any sentence is funny.

The stories themselves are generally upbeat and end happily, or at least neatly, so this isn’t great literature in the approved sense. But Runyon is worth reading as a stylist, if nothing else.

Fowler’s memoir of working for various LA papers in the ’40s and ’50s is recommended to journalists and devotees of that period of LA’s history, but no one else; the writing and copy editing are often dreadful. Flawed as it is, his book is really eye-opening about the sort of access reporters had to crime scenes, the hospitals and the morgue, and how newsrooms operated. Fowler was first on the scene of the Black Dahlia murder scene, and that’s an interesting, if gruesome, chapter.

(There’s a Pomona anecdote in the book that will make my column sometime.)

Lardner’s book, from 1916, is written as a series of letters from a neophyte, and dense, pitcher to his hometown friend, Al, about the game, his relations with management and his personal life. They’re full of charming misspellings and self-delusion. It would be wrong to call the result hilarious, but amusing, sad and infuriating, yes. Jack Keefe, the pitcher in question, will take no advice from anyone and will never admit a mistake, blaming every loss on his teammates. He might be presidential timber.

Lastly, Breslin’s book, published in 1967, comprises the best of his New York Herald Tribune columns from ’63-’67, with some fond and hagiographic commentary by his editors. I found this book remarkable. Three columns about JFK’s assassination rise to the top, including the understated one about the gravedigger, the piece for which Breslin is best remembered. (Instead of following the pack to the funeral, he’s the only one getting the gravedigger’s perspective.)

But then there’s also his reporting from Harlem, and a series from the march on Montgomery, and from Vietnam, all amazing, detailed and seething with quiet anger. Two on the dying Winston Churchill also are powerful. Some of the ones from Breslin’s own cranky perspective, like on how he hates his neighbors, kind of put me off, but overall, I finished this book wanting more. (It appears he might only have one other collection of columns, amid his myriad of novels and single-topic nonfiction, but perhaps a Jimmy Breslin Reader, or somesuch, will be in the offing now that he’s gone.)

I may write a column on Breslin, if space permits, but if not, this will stand, and you blog readers will have the exclusive (to keep the journalistic theme going). I won’t make a blanket recommendation of “The World of Jimmy Breslin,” but you might like it; certainly you ought to read the gravedigger column, which can be found online here; “A Death in Emergency Room One,” his account of Kennedy’s death, is equally gripping and can be read here.

I’ve had the Runyon and Lardner books since the late 1980s, and boy is it nice having them out of the way; Fowler’s was bought at Anaheim’s Book Baron during its closing sale in 2007, and Breslin’s was picked up at St. Louis’ Dunaway Books in 2009.

How was your April? Was it the cruelest month? I hope not.

Next month: a vacation to the islands

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  • Richard_Pietrasz

    I finished 8 in April.

    Nonfiction:

    The Rise of an American Architecture. Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Albert Fein, Winston Wiseman, Vincent Scully, Edgar Kaufmann Jr., 1970.

    The Fragile Species. Lewis Thomas, 1992.

    Panati’s Browser’s Book of Beginnings. Charles Panati, 1984.

    Big Sid’s Vincati: a Father, a Son, and the Motorcycle of a Lifetime. Matthew Biberman, 2009.

    Fiction:

    The Girl on the Train. Paula Hawkins, 2015.

    The Complaints. Ian Rankin, 2009.

    White Fang. Jack London, 1906.

    Space Viking. H. Beam Piper, 1962.

    Rise was published as a companion to an exhibition helt the the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. It works surprisingly well as a stand alone book, evn though it comprises four lengthy essays plus intros to the various exhibit parts. A large paperback, at MMA prices it was originally $1.95.

    Thomas is best remembered for The Lives of a Cell and The Medusa and the Snail, essay collections on life sciences by an MD. Here he addressed the future of H. Sapiens and he is not very optimistic. The essays are pretty good.

    Beginnings is about the origins of natural phenonema and human invention. It is a decent bathroom book but he clearly got some stuff mixed up here and there.

    Vincati is a memoir of a middle aged son and his aging father attemping to build a hybrid motorcycle. It works fairly well as a philosophic memoir.

    Girl on Train was not worth my effort. The Complaints was typical of Rankin’s Edinburgh CID crime novels, but without Rebus and cohorts. Not the best Rankin but more than adequate. White Fang was a classic adventure story for boys and men who want to revisit those days, and I enjoyed my time with it. Space Viking began as decent space opera and degenerated into a self parody of endorsement for the right of the powerful to exploit the weak by use of violence. I read the digitized version of the Analog serialization available on Project Gutenberg.

    I have not read any of David’s but I have read a couple of shorts each by Lardner and Runyan plus The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight and shorter pieces by Breslin. I liked all of those.

    • davidallen909

      I haven’t read any of yours, so we’re overlap-free. Seeing Girl on the Train on your list made me curious what you would think, and your capsule dismissal of the bestseller was great.

      Also, while I haven’t read White Fang (but have read Call of the Wild), your observation that it’s “for boys and men who want to revisit those days” was nicely put. I expect to have a similar book in my next Reading Log.

    • Doug Evans

      I read “Girl on the Train” two years ago and enjoyed it, but it’s pretty slight. My comment here on the blog was, “A fun read,” which is a pretty weak-sauce recommendation. I read “White Fang” three years ago (I would never remember those dates, by the way, without Google and this here blog) and really liked it, especially as a complement to “Call of the Wild.” I’ve never read “Space Viking” but it sounds right up my alley! According to Wikipedia, it’s inspired several sequels, written by other authors. Those are never really as good as the originals, but obviously the book made an impact on a lot of people.

  • Doug Evans

    I read 9! Bringing my total for the year to 26 which is a marathon of books. I just wanted to say that.

    “Motherless Brooklyn” (1999) and “More Alive and Less Lonely” (2017) by Jonathan Lethem. I think I first heard about Lethem through David’s columns/blog/interviews with the guy and I’ve been meaning to read him for a while. “Brooklyn” has been in my Giant Stack of Unread Books for several years, and I’m glad to have finally read it. While reading it, I learned about “More Alive…”, which is a collection of essays and introductions and whatnot written over the years and just published in book form, including one on “Dombey and Son” by Charles Dickens and another on “Moby-Dick.” Look for “Fortress of Solitude” to show up in another Reading Log post soon!

    And through reading “More Alive…” I learned about:

    “The Deadly Percheron” John Franklin Bardin (1946). A “noir” type book by an author I’d never heard of, but Lethem preached his praises, and I got a copy. Fun stuff, involving amnesia and murder, though way too ludicrous a plot to ever be a thing that could actually happen. A percheron is a draft horse, by the way. The More You Know!™

    “The Collapsing Empire” by John Scalzi (2017). Science fiction/space opera action and adventure! Scalzi’s plots are fun, but he has quirks which are a little annoying to me (his characters are far too sarcastic for their own good), and it may be a while before I read another by him. Plus, this book is the start of a series, which you don’t find out until the cliffhanger on the last page. Nothing wrong with that, but there’s nothing on the cover to indicate that that’s the case, and I was a little put out that I had reached the end of the book but not the end of the story.

    “Pomona Queen” by Kem Nunn (1992) Another book I learned about through David’s column and have been meaning to read for ten years or more. Good stuff! Hey, it’s set right here in the Inland Empire! I have “Tijuana Straits,” also by Nunn, so that will hopefully be featured here in the blog sometime soon as well.

    “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” by Jack Finney (1955). A classic I read a long time ago and have been meaning to reread. Different ending than in the movies!

    “The Funny Men” by Steve Allen (1956). I found this at a friend’s parents’ house and they let me take it home as thanks for helping them move. Steve Allen writes essays about seventeen of the funniest men appearing on television at the time in a book destined to be out of date six months after it was published, due to the ever-changing nature of TV, and here I am reading it 61 years later. Interesting to read Allen’s take on comedians I’m mostly familiar with due to my fixation with old time radio. Most insightful comment: he shares how comedy routines from 25 years earlier (which would have been the ’30s) no longer strike audiences as funny; 61 years later, the same can be said for most of the then-current routines quoted in the book. Most unfortunate prediction: he assures us that Martin and Lewis would always be a duo because neither of their characters would work without the other. Martin and Lewis broke up in July of 1956. Only comedian I’d never heard of: Sam Levenson. Stand up and take a bow, Sam! Only guy mentioned in the book who’s still alive: Jerry Lewis! Hey, lady!

    “Down to a Soundless Sea” by Thomas Steinbeck (2002). A collection of short stories written by the guy who’s the son of the other guy named Steinbeck that we’ve all heard of. Good stuff, a bit more sentimental, maybe, then his dad’s stories, but J. Steinbeck could get pretty sentimental himself, so maybe not. Thomas has since written two novels, so may someday I’ll get to those.

    And…

    “Getting Started” by David Allen (2017). This was a good one! And I write that knowing that the author is the guy who’s hosting this blog! I got this (signed by David!) back in January and deliberately read it in increments so as to savor the columns. Fun to come across columns I’d read before (including one on the end of “Peanuts” that my brain spent 20 years attributing to another Daily Bulletin columnist… glad to get that corrected), fun to see David’s evolving style, fun to relive life back in the late ’90s and early aughts, when the worst President the electoral college ever elected was maybe not the worst President the electoral college would ever elect. If you are reading this blog post and haven’t bought this book: go buy this book!!

    • Doug Evans

      Cutting my comment in two because it’s already long enough as it is…

      As for David’s books, I’m familiar with Damon Runyon through the old time radio series “Damon Runyon Theater” in which his stories are adapted into half hour plots. The main character is named “Broadway,” which I believe is not actually a character in any of Runyon’s stories, but is a way to tie the stories together for an ongoing series. I wonder if they got the name of the character from the title of the book you read.

      And: my grandparents gave me “The Portable Ring Lardner” as a gift many years ago because they thought I would enjoy him. Sadly, and guiltily, I never took the time to read it. Grandma and grandpa have passed on, but inspired by David’s post, I took the book down from the shelf and plan to make my way through it this year. I can no longer tell grandma and grandpa my take on the book, but I can share here on the blog! The first book in the “Portable” collection is “You Know Me Al,” so I’ll start with that one. Haven’t decided if I’ll treat it as a separate book here on the blog or wait until I read the complete “Portable” and count that as one. The troubles we book nerds face!

      See you here next month, everyone!

      • davidallen909

        Is that a full 200-ish pages of You Know Me Al? Might just be an excerpt. Lardner published that collection in 1916 but kept writing more “letters” for Saturday Evening Post for another decade until he got tired of it. I’m rereading a few of those later Al letters in another Lardner book, Some Champions, that I read 30 years ago. (Not going to finish the book, but thought I might as well read the 40 pages of Al letters.)

        • Doug Evans

          I think it’s the whole thing! The cover proclaims: “Two Complete Books” and lists them as “You Know Me Al” and “The Big Town,” along with “Stories, Plays, Parodies, Essays, Commentaries, Newspaper Columns.” “Al,” on the inside, is 188 pages of small print (minus 20 pages of an introduction by Gilbert Seldes). I suppose it may be an abridgment, but if so, they were selling it under false labeling! I’ve decided, by the way, that I’m going to count the whole book as one book… in other words, I don’t get credit for reading it until I’ve read the whole thing, stories, plays, parodies, and all. It’s the least I can do to honor my grandparents!

    • davidallen909

      Uncharacteristically, I’ve read four of your nine, including, obviously, the last one, plus Motherless, Snatchers and Queen. Neat that you also dug up Bardin, of whom I’d never heard, but also read of-the-moment writer John Scalzi. Good show, Doug, good show.

      Steve Allen’s observation about radio routines of the ’30s no longer seeming funny in the ’50s, and your extrapolation that it applies to the humor of the ’50s, is an interesting one, and it’s true that humor can date very quickly.

      For instance, I’ve tried to read a page or two of Peter Finley Dunne, the turn of the century humorist who played off Irish dialect, and while one might get into the rhythm of his prose after a while, it feels like whatever adherents he still had late in the 20th c. have died off by now. The prose is as difficult as Finnegan’s Wake.

      • Doug Evans

        I’d never heard of Dunne, but he has quite a write-up over there at Wikipedia. I’m always happy to learn something new, especially about a guy who once upon a time made lots of people laugh. His stuff may not stand the test of time, but you really enjoyed Runyon and you got a kick out of Lardner, so some types of humor somehow do make it through. I should have added above that some old-time comedians do make me laugh… Jack Benny and Fibber McGee and Molly can make me laugh out loud in my car. And even the guys I don’t laugh at are always interesting to me. If I spent as much time thinking about sports as I do thinking about 60-years-past comedians, I would have more to talk about with strangers when I go into a bar, so it’s probably good that I don’t really ever go into bars.

        • davidallen909

          I agree about OTR, and then there’s Twain, Benchley, Buster Keaton… I don’t see a common thread in terms of what humor lasts and what dates, but certainly comedy about human nature, which doesn’t change much, has a chance of remaining true.