Reading Log: May 2017

Books acquired: “Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z,” Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar, editors.

Books read: “The Island of Fu Manchu,” Sax Rohmer; “Treasure Island,” Robert Louis Stevenson; “Treasure Island!!!,” Sara Levine; “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” H.G. Wells; “On Chesil Beach,” Ian McEwan.

In May, it was time to take a trip to the islands. (Cue the Surfaris song.) All my books had “island” in their title except for one that had “beach.” Cowabunga.

The Fu Manchu is No. 10 in the series of 14, and the first I’d read in two or three years. The island in question had voodoo, not to mention a villainous lair in a dead volcano, and was not only a precursor to Bond but to “Atlas Shrugged,” in a way, as great scientists are kidnapped and turned into zombie slaves by Fu. Great literature it ain’t, but it was fun.

I’d never read “Treasure Island,” although the rudiments of the plot and names (Squire Trelawney, the apple barrel, etc.) were familiar, perhaps from an animated version I saw decades ago (although I can’t find evidence online of its existence). Published in 1883, it’s still a gripping read.

“Treasure Island!!!” is a 2011 lark about a young woman who becomes obsessed with the Stevenson book and decides to use it as a guide to life. “When had I ever done a foolish, over-bold act?” she frets. I thought I would love it, and at first I did, but then the narrator’s cluelessness and the story’s superficiality made me glad to be done with it. Despite Alice Sebold’s praise, and the New York Times’, it was ultimately disappointing. But certainly funny in spots.

“On Chesil Beach” was of a different order entirely, a 2007 novel about a couple’s wedding night in 1962 England, and how the couple who thought themselves perfectly matched discovered how little they understood each other. A poignant look at the dawn of the ’60s, before the sexual revolution occurred. Nick Hornby had recommended this in his Believer column.

Lastly, “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” another classic, from 1896, that I’d never read despite having a general idea what it was about from other media that it inspired. For the uninitiated, a scientist tampers with nature by grafting together various animals and altering their brains to make them semi-human. Wells had quite the imagination, and he knew how to tell a compelling story.

These books came into my hands in the past decade-plus. “Treasure Island!!!” was bought in 2012 at Subterranean Books in St. Louis, and “On Chesil Beach” was bought last September at Powell’s Books in Portland. Can’t recall where I got the Fu Manchu, possibly the Book House in St. Louis, and Stevenson’s may have come from Brand Books in Glendale. My Kobo e-reader was bought at Borders (RIP) about eight years ago; it came loaded with 100 classics and I read one now and then.

Have you read any of my choices, readers? (I’m sure someone has read “Treasure Island” or “Dr. Moreau,” or both.) How was your May? And were island breezes involved?

Next month: I let things slide.

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  • Richard_Pietrasz

    Island breezes were involved in three of the books I finished in May, plus segments I read in my current bathroom book I expect to finish this month. I find your teaser about slide reading next month intriguing; since next month is July, you have a few weeks to find enough books to back up your premise.

    I do not do theme of the month often, but I sort of did one in May: zero fiction. I finished 11 nonfiction books, starting with a short bathroom book, finishing with an author prominent for her fiction.

    Whatever Happened to Tanganyiki: The Place Names That History Left Behind. Harry Campbell, 2007.

    Assembling California. John McPhee, 1992.

    A Death in Belmont. Sebastian Junger, 2006.

    The California Current: A Pacific Ecosystem and its Fliers, Divers, and Swimmers. Stan Ulanski, 2016.

    Under the Tuscan Sun. Frances Mayes, 1996.

    Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival. Dean King, 2004.

    Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Atul Gawande, 2014.

    Rocket Boys: A Memoir. Homer Hickam, 1998.

    Keep the Family Baggage Out of the Family Business: Avoiding the Seven Deadly Sins That Destroy Family Businesses. Quentin Fleming, 2000.

    Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and his Quest for the Origins of Behavior. Jonathan Weiner, 1999.

    Life Among the Savages. Shirley Jackson, 1953.

    Comments will follow.

    • Richard_Pietrasz

      Tanganyika: I remember this and many of the other place names in this book when they were current, or from postage stamps. Tuva is not included, the name is still an acceptable spelling in English.

      Assembling California is a literal title. California is an assemblage of tectonic flotsam tossed up over the last several billion years. I have read several McPhee books before and they were good enough I keep picking up others and reading them. This is the last of a series in which he crossed USA on a cross section near I-80. In the first four, McPhee was led by Kenneth Deffeyes, a Princeton geologist most known for his support of the Hubbard’s peak oil hypothesis. (I suppose I should find the first four.) Roughly at the Nevada border Deffeyes gave up because California was such a mess it could only be explained by a local expert. This turned out to be Eldridge Moores, UC Davis, graduate of some little old school in Pasadena featured in my book of the month. California is not just the land of fruits and nuts, it is a total mess. I think I belong here.

      A Death in Belmont. Sebastian Junger, 2006. This is about a murder and subsequent criminal prosecution and conviction related to the infamous Boston Strangler murders in the 1960s. I was in my later elementary years then, read the The Globe (and Time and Life) regularly, and remember what a big deal this was at the time. This is a very good story about how the criminal justice system probably got it wrong.

      California Current. The Californa Current is part of the great nortern Pacific gyre, and this book is mostly about large wildlife off the coast of California and states north. I considerateva good introduction to the subject, and obviously my most current book of the year (2016).

      Under the Tuscan Sun. Frances Mayes, 1996. A Californian university couple has enough money to buy and hire renovation of a fix up country estate in Italy, fly out and visit it several times a year, and hire maintenance in between. Those who enjoy reading the Sunday sections of major newspapers known as Lifestyle or Travel or whatnot or magazines of similar ilk made this a NYTimes best sellar. For me, OK to read but even if I can pick up the sequel for another 54 cents, I will not.

      Skeletons is a book for fans of the Essex story, the one that inspired Moby Dick. A trade ship sails from Connecticut in 1815, wrecks off the west coast of the Sahara, and the survivors end up as slaves to nomads in the Sahara who are barely surviving themselves. Books like this, several of Nathaniel Philbrick’s, and others are much better than those of the Horatio Hornblower or Master and Commander series.

      Being Mortal is a bit about medicine and more about total end of life care. Most nursing homes are somewhat high end jails, and the assisted living movement got mostly bought out by corporations and many of those places are nursing homes. If I needed a reminder of my favorite scenes from Franzen’s The Corrections, this was it. (Gawande came out to California about a year ago to give my daughter and me and other family members, one of them near end of life, a speech about this at a little old school in Pasadena.)

    • davidallen909

      Thanks for getting us started this month, Richard. Don’t read (ha?) too much into my “let things slide” comment — it’s wordplay based on the title of the novel I’m reading, as well as the possibility that I may finish only two or three books.

  • John Baugh

    I have read “Treasure Island” and really enjoyed it. I have never read “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” by H.G. Wells but I did see “The Simpsons” episode inspired by it.

    • davidallen909

      Ha! Thanks, John.

  • Doug Evans

    I read Treasure Island (the original Stevenson version) years ago and really enjoyed it. Never have read Dr. Moreau, though I remember teenage me being really excited when he figured out that the bizarre Oingo Boingo song “No Spill Blood” was based on the book (and, according to Wikipedia, the 1932 movie). Also, 48-year-old me has had “No Spill Blood” playing in his brain for the last few days since first reading this blog post.

    I read four last month!

    “Apple Tree Yard” by Louise Doughty (2013). This was given to me by friends whom we visited in Ireland back in December. Apparently this is a pretty big deal over there in Great Britain but I don’t know if it’s made much of a splash over here. This is one of those suspense novels along the lines of “Gone Girl” or “The Girl on the Train.” Entertaining, but I don’t think I’ll be back for the sequel, which Doughty is currently working on.

    “Tijuana Straits” by Kem Nunn (2013). Another good one by Nunn, who wrote “Pomona Queen” which I read the previous month. This one takes place down there by the border, which is kind of rough place to be, if the book is any indication.

    “My Year of Running Dangerously” (2015) by Tom Foreman. Given to me by a buddy in my running club. Foreman, a reporter for CNN, was challenged by his college-aged daughter to train for a marathon with her, which then leads to his running crazy-long ultra-marathon races, all within the space of a year. Since I run marathons and have a daughter who also runs, though not marathons yet, I was caught up in the story. Also, as a marathoner, I have the right to say this: man, those ultra-marathoners are nuts.

    “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood (1986). I bought this book at a bookstore in Santa Barbara a year and a half ago and finally made time to read it. Meanwhile, Showtime is airing a miniseries based on the book, and Trump is our President, both things which I didn’t know about a year and a half ago but which couldn’t help but color my reading of the book. Anyway: really good, though dated in its portrayal of both 1970s and ‘80s feminists and in the rigid Moral Majority types who are in control of the country (renamed “Gilead”) in the novel’s dystopian view of the future. I haven’t seen the miniseries but I’ll bet it’s updated how both of those types of people are depicted.

    And… “The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II” by Denise Kiernan. Chosen for a book club. Started this one, couldn’t finish it for whatever reason (and thus am not counting it in my monthly total), bluffed my way through the book club meeting. I don’t often do that so here I am confessing on David Allen’s Reading Log to soothe my conscience-wracked soul.

    Happy vacation, David, happy reading, everyone, and see you all in a month!

    • Doug Evans

      Totally meant to add: love seeing the Kobo in your pictures up there! Hey, Kobo! You are not forgotten!

      • davidallen909

        I’m especially partial to the spine-side view, just because it’s silly, but I like seeing the “cover” displayed alongside the other covers.

        This is actually the second book I read on my Kobo this year, it’s just that the first one, A Tramp Abroad, I own physically and I used that for the photos. But the version I downloaded had the original illustrations, which is why I read it that way.

        Thanks for contributing as always, Doug!