Reading Log: August 2017

Books acquired: “Slaughterhouse-Five,” Kurt Vonnegut

Books read: “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” Michael Chabon; “Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip,” Robert Landau; “Slaughterhouse-Five,” Kurt Vonnegut

I used August and an overseas trip to finally tackle “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” which I’ve owned since 2001 but which, at 639 pages, I was too intimidated by to start. The vacation didn’t really provide more reading time than usual, since I was also absorbed in reading pages from my guidebook, but it was good to finally be reading it: It won a Pulitzer and is about the early days of comic books, which are one of my hobbies.

Two young Jewish cousins create an escape artist character, making millions for their publisher and thousands for themselves, a common occurrence back then. Escape becomes a metaphor in the book; the artist’s family is still in Prague on the eve of World War II and he tries to liberate them, much as he himself escaped. Having scenes set in Prague, a city I was to visit, was an unexpected bonus. I liked the novel and found myself absorbed — even if it was a bit long.

Incidentally, I bought my copy at the San Diego Comic Con in 2001, when Chabon was the guest of honor. I wasn’t planning to buy the hardcover, but one morning I was browsing the near-empty Comic Relief vendor space when I realized owner Rory Root was speaking to fellow Berkeleyite Chabon. A big stack of “K&C” was between us. I got Root’s attention and said impishly, “If I buy the book, will Mr. Chabon sign it?” Root looked at Chabon and he smiled and said sure. He complimented the graphic novel I had in my hands, Raymond Briggs’ “Ethel and Ernest,” saying his wife had liked it. He said this was his first comic convention and he was enjoying it.

Later he would give a well-attended talk while wearing a T-shirt with the logo Miskatonic University, a sly nod to H.P. Lovecraft, which I somehow knew even though I hadn’t read any Lovecraft yet, having apparently absorbed just enough of the mythology through Marvel comics or other sources. My friends and probably hundreds more formed an enormous line to meet him and get his signature. Me, I’d gotten mine before his hand got tired.

I felt too much pressure to keep this copy in nice shape, even if it was the 8th or 9th printing. Eventually I bought a beat-up paperback, possibly at Berkeley’s Shakespeare and Co., but even that sat on my shelf a few years. It did help to have a copy that could be toted around Europe with impunity. I suppose now I can sell it, while keeping the signed version.

It took me just over three weeks to read it, and it might have been the only book I read all month. It was, actually. But I finished Robert Landau’s book, which had been on my nightstand, Sept. 1, and Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Sept. 3, just in time for this Reading Log.

Taken when he was living in the neighborhood, Landau’s documentary photos of rock promotional billboards from about 1968-1982 now seem charming and magical. It’s an ode to a bygone era of ego stroking, big hair, heavy sounds, important (or “important”) albums, hand-painted billboards, Tower Records, rock DJs and a very local approach to marketing. I bought it last month from the author himself.

Absurdist and heartbreaking, the writing and structure of “Slaughterhouse-Five” appear so casual that they’re always on the verge of collapsing, but never do, and that’s part of the book’s brilliance. Still, 106 uses of “So it goes” seems a bit much. I bought this at Berlin’s Dussmann store a few days after a Vonnegut tour of Dresden, the setting of much of the novel, and hope to write a column about it shortly.

How was your August, readers? Any amazing adventures, or were you cavalier?

Next month: my annual Jack Smith book, probably, and more.

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  • DebB

    I’m so glad you extended the reading month to the 2nd and 3rd, because I finished my one and only book on Saturday! It was Gulliver’s Travels, one of the $5 classics I got at Barnes & Noble in July. I think I must have seen the cartoon movie, but never read the book. I knew it was a satire, so I thought I might enjoy it.

    I have mixed feelings about it. It is almost all told as a narrative, little to no conversation, and Gulliver can get pretty long-winded. The style of the day can be difficult to get through, and even with footnotes and endnotes I know a lot of the satire was lost on me. The Introduction might have helped, but it’s soooooooo long and I was just there for the story, you know?

    Having said that, there are places where I found it almost laugh out loud funny. In most of the lands Gulliver visits he learns the language and then has long discussions with the king/leader about government. His descriptions of the England of his day to a land of horses who don’t even have a word in their language meaning “lying” were interesting, if a bit too much at times.

    I found the focus to be much more on this type of interaction with the natives rather than the actions taking place. Not that those were left out, they just were secondary to his efforts to satirize England, her society and government.

    So I’d give it a thumb slightly up – worth reading for classics sake, but kind of a long slog for me.

    • davidallen909

      On what probably qualifies as a similar note, a few years back I found Voltaire’s “Candide” too dated to be very funny, other than the ever-optimistic Mr. Pangloss. Apparently “Candide” is a lacerating satire. And my copy was likewise a B&N Classic!

      That’s a great deal they’ve been running, only $5 a book, including some real heavyweights.

  • Richard_Pietrasz

    I finished eight for the month, three of them non-fiction.

    A Reporter’s Life. Walter Cronkite, 1996. This is a memoir, not a serious autobiography, and somewhat hazy on dates and facts, but enjoyable anyway. What struck me was the number of truly hilarious anecdotes.

    Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior. Phil Jackson, 1995/1996. This memoir covers Jackson’s career, primarily as a coach in the bush leagues and through part of his time with the Chicago Bulls. There is some good stuff here, and short, and even coaches of kids teams can learn something about team management.

    Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves. Adam Hochschild, 2005. This was excellent, one of the best of the year for me. It tells the story of slaves achieving freedom in the UK and the political movement that freed them, a process that took half a century. The political tactics and strategies were new at the time, well known now, and I found this very appropriate for understanding the world now.

    • davidallen909

      You usually have a good range of books and just these three nonfiction choices sound interesting. But what about the five fiction reads?

      • Richard_Pietrasz

        Check your hold comment folder or wherever comments go when not posted immediately. Disqus lists it as pending, but I can rewrite it if you cannot find it. I am using a tablet, which is not the best for editing and saving.

        • davidallen909

          Oh, I see. Gee, there was another person’s comment too, from last month, relating to an old post. It’s now approved too.

  • davidallen909

    House on Mango Street didn’t do much for me either, about 15 years ago, but it was pleasant reading. I haven’t read any of the rest, although I always feel like I should read Murakami.

    Here’s a spoonerism regarding Carson McCullers that’s in the Jack Smith book I’m reading: “The Salad of the Bad Cafe.”

  • Doug Evans

    I read three! One more than last month, in which I read two.

    “The Zahir” by Paulo Coelho, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa (2005). Read for a book club. This was a really bad book. Coelho, who wrote “The Alchemist,” which also did nothing for me but I realize was meaningful for a lot of people, writes in this one about a middle-aged millionaire best-selling author who became famous for writing “The Alchemist”… in other words, he’s writing a not-very-thinly-veiled fictionalized version of himself… who has a good marriage except for the fact that he constantly cheats on his wife, but that’s OK because what are you doing to do. Anyway, in chapter one, his wife leaves him and he spends the rest of the book trying to figure out why she left and where she is. Hint: she left BECAUSE YOU’RE CHEATING ON HER but since this is Coelho’s book and he’s the protagonist, that’s not the reason at all. The moral of the book is that he has to find himself and then he’s able to find her, making carpets in Katmandu. She’s a war journalist, by the way, but sure, go to Katmandu to make carpets while your husband finds himself. The two years he’s looking for her, by the way, he gets another girlfriend, who knows he’s married and knows he’s going to go back to his wife as soon as he finds her but is OK with that because he’s Paulo Coelho. Just like his wife is OK with his constant cheating because he’s Paulo Coelho. So I got to spend $14.99 and 336 pages reading about this guy’s mid-life crisis fantasies. I WANT MY MONTH OF AUGUST BACK.

    Anyway: this was a really bad book.

    “The Peripheral” by William Gibson (2014). Gibson, the guy who coined the phrase “cyberspace” and wrote “Neuromancer” way back when, which I really enjoyed, writes another sci-fi novel which was fun but not genre-changing the way “Neuromancer” was. Well, probably nothing could be. Fun concept here: the story features two sets of characters in alternating chapters, one plot taking place about 30 years from now and the other taking place about 70 years after that. So they’re both in the future but not at the same time. The future-future people have figured out a way to communicate with the future people. A character from the future time (30 years in our future) witnesses a murder in the future-future time (70 years in her future) and people from the future-future manipulate events in the future time to try to kill the witness, while others try to save her. Does it make sense when you read the book? It does! Gibson is a skillful writer. I, obviously, am not. Anyway: like I said, a fun concept, well-written, washed the taste of the other abomination out of my brain.

    “Beneath the Sands of Egypt: Adventures of an Unconventional Archaeologist” by Donald P. Ryan (2010). A real-life archaeologist (who grew up in Covina!) uncovers tombs in Egypt and works with Thor Heyerdahl of Kon-Tiki fame. Entertaining, but the writing is a little clunky. Ryan is no Carl Sagan (my go-to guy for a scientist who writes like a poet). Fun fact! I found this book in a used bookstore in Big Bear and picked it up specifically because Richard Pietrasz always reads non-fiction and I never do. Another fun fact! Ryan spends half a page complaining about always being compared to Indiana Jones in newspaper and magazine articles and the like, claiming that Jones was a pretty horrible representation of what an archaeologist actually does. And the back of the book goes ahead and calls Ryan “a real-life ‘Indiana Jones’.” Huzzah!

    I’ve read two of David’s books! I read “Slaughterhouse 5” back when I was a teen, was blown away, and tried to visit the Slaughterhouse on a trip to Dresden while backpacking through Europe with my brother back in 1992, but the lady at the train station info booth had no idea what I was talking about and we didn’t get to see it. I’m glad that things have changed. And I read “Kavalier and Clay” shortly after it came out and liked it, but thought it could have been a bit shorter.

    Happy reading, everyone!

    • davidallen909

      That’s great about the back cover of the archaeologist’s book. He must have thrown his own book against a wall. Sorry about Coelho’s book, but at least you got an entertaining blog comment out of it, which isn’t as good as my getting a newspaper column out of a bad experience, but it’s nothing to sneeze at.

      I kind of want my month of August back too, but only so I can be on vacation again!