Reading Log: November 2017

Books acquired: “The Perfect Horse,” Elizabeth Letts; “Addicted to Americana,” Charles Phoenix

Books read: “Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D. Vance; “It Can’t Happen Here,” Sinclair Lewis

I only managed to finish two books in November, one of them on the 30th. Both were birthday gifts from March.

First up was “Hillbilly Elegy,” a 2016 memoir by a Yalie about his Appalachian upbringing and troubled childhood in particular and the challenges of underclass white America in general. So there’s some welcome sociology mixed in. Vance’s book was published before the election and never mentions it, but it was published at a good time to become part of the post-election conversation on disaffected whites.

Consider it a window into the problems of poor, white America, written by a man who grew up poor and still hasn’t entirely shaken its legacy. I didn’t find the mix of his personal story and the bits of research entirely satisfying. But “Elegy” does give a welcome insight into the hopelessness felt by many in this country.

“It Can’t Happen Here” is about an election, the one in 1936. The novel was written in 1935 and posits a phony man of the people who is actually a strongman with his own private militia. After his election, he starts tossing people into labor camps and his enemies, including the press, into concentration camps. The novel gained currency since its 2005 republication and especially the past couple of years, for reasons that should be obvious, even if the comparisons are overblown.

Not a masterpiece of story construction or dialogue, but maybe a masterpiece of ideas. Lewis seems to have been taking aim primarily at Huey Long, but the fear that a seemingly unpolished cornpone fascist would appeal to enough rubes to become president is probably eternal.

I’m a little sheepish that I only got through two books all month, totaling about 550 pages, but then again, that’s about 20 pages a day (I think I started the first one a few days into the month), so by normal-person standards that’s okay, I guess.

I’ve got three books going on my nightstand, all of which I should be finishing in December, and likely one further book to round out my month and year. My annual list of my year’s reading, with an accompanying column, will appear in late December or early January.

How was your November, readers? We’re anxious to know.

Next month: The Boss.

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  • Richard_Pietrasz

    Nine finished in November, which usually leads thepack, until Terri Shafer joined us. Go Terri!


    Kabloona. Gontran de Poncis, 1941. This is clearly book of the month, and a strong candidate for book of the year, despite the author’s initial white supremacy bias. An anthropologist studying native people only partially influenced by modern, he narrates an entirely different lifestyle and culture, based on survival on King William Island, north of the Arctic Circle and the American mainland. I cannot describe this properly without just quoting it verbatim from start to finish.

    Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges IntoCalifornia

    • Richard_Pietrasz

      The Bathroom Reader was well suited for its purpose, both amusing and informing.

      • davidallen909

        Your two nonfiction choices seemed to be on the opposite ends of the literary spectrum — and I think it’s great you were honest and included them both. You’ve got range!

    • Terri Shafer

      Hahaha! I’m not trying to beat anyone, I just like to read. But thanks for the “shout out.” 😉

  • Richard_Pietrasz

    Mixed Fiction Literary Criticism:

    Lost Stories. Dashiell Hammett, Vince Emery, Joe Gores. 1922-1934, 1941, 2005. Most of this book is a bio and homage by Emery. The Hammett stories here were not previously reprinted, and it would be fair to say these are the dregs of published Hammett. Some interesting stuff, the only stinker is an illustrated radio play attributed to DH but likely written by someone else. Good dregs are a combination of a good writer and a good wastebasket/editor, in my opinion.

  • Richard_Pietrasz


    The Power and the Glory. Graham Green, 1940. A less than the best Roman Catholic priest confronts a southern Mexico anti-church government and has a major test of faith. Some think this was his greatest novel. I think it it is less than that, but at least noteworthy for those into the religious self conflict thing. Green gets the directions of north and south reversed, and NS movement dominates at least half this novel.

    Complete Short Fiction. Oscar Wilde, 1888-1894. Wilde wrote a handful of plays, some well known, a classic and excellent short novel, and several very short books of short stories and a few strays. At the best these are clever and worth being in anthologies, but most are satiric fairy tales.

    From Sleepy Lagoon to the Corner of the Cats. Steve Sporleder, 2011. This is about a Mexican immigrant to USA family caught up in a major racial incident in the early 1940s, and then moved north to an aggy town in what is now Silicon Valley. The story and book were good, but marred by mangling the Sleepy Lagoon story into this. (Look up Carey McWilliams on this, book logged here a couple of years ago, or wiki.)

    Pattern Recognition. William Gibson, 2003. Not science fiction, this is a take off onthe corporate branding culure. I found it a lesser effort.

    Riders of the Purple Sage. Zane Grey, 1912. This is one of the few iconic great classics of the genre. For all its many faults (superman characters, amazing gun fire, romantic characters), there are compensations. The church-state-community conflict is treated well, and when it comes down to it, the classic western scenes are there.

    The Taming of the Shrew. William Shakespeare, 1593. If it was that easy, I would be a far happier man, and my daughter would have had a far better childhood.

    • davidallen909

      A comics artist I like, P. Craig Russell, has illustrated a few volumes of Wilde’s fairy tales, which was the first I knew of their existence. I haven’t read any of your books this month, not even the Shakespeare play, I don’t think.

    • Terri Shafer

      Richard, I am glad to see that you read The Power and the Glory. It’s on my immediate list. I really like Graham Greene, and I’m also trying to get to The Heart of the Matter soon!

  • DebB

    Sort of book-related: last night’s episode of Jeopardy! included a category about literature featuring clues given by local on-air news people in different cities. One of the local ABC anchorwomen was giving clues from the Last Bookstore in LA. I’ve never been there, but it looks like a pretty cool place!

    • davidallen909

      It is.

  • Terri Shafer

    David, both of your books are on my upcoming lists! I love Sinclair Lewis and this one sounds very apropos in this current political climate. Although, Hillbilly Elegy also seems to fit right in! So I’m excited to get to both of those.
    Also, don’t apologize for only reading two books! My standard used to be two books a month and if I every got over 25 for the year I was really excited (mostly because nobody else I knew read at all!)! Just enjoy what you’re reading now 🙂
    I’ll send my “report” tomorrow, don’t have it all together yet 😉

    • davidallen909

      It’s true, two is more than some of my friends read in a year. But I always wish I were reading more.

  • Terri Shafer

    I did read some interesting ones this month, some better than others:

    Gulliver’s Travels- Jonathan Swift, 1726
    I just didn’t like this at all! I had started it several years ago and didn’t like it then, and I still don’t!
    But at least I get to mark it off the list 😉

    The Book of Joy – Bishop Desmond Tutu, The Dalai Lama, 2016
    This is a wonderful book of a recent interview of the Dalai Lama XIV and Bishop Desmond Tutu. It is exciting to hear the two of them talk with each other about love and forgiveness of others and of ourselves. They also tease each other and often laugh, even though they have each suffered much in their lives. They discuss how to be joyful in life no matter what a person has been through. That makes it sound so simple, which, of course, it is not. But they discuss these difficulties of life and the act of living together peacefully, accepting others as human beings who are just the same as we are. They even give some exercises and tips on prayer and meditation at the end of the book to help the reader learn to have a more peaceful and joyful attitude in life. I loved their joyfulness. I think everyone should read this book. Maybe we’d learn to get along better together!

    The Death of Ivan Ilych- Leo Tolstoy, 1886
    A man contemplates his own death. Interesting — and not very long.

    The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym- Edgar Allen Poe, 1838
    David, thanks for recommending this one to me! I enjoyed this 1838 adventure tale of mutiny, shipwreck, and exploration. It felt to me like it could have been written by Herman Melville or Jules Verne, but Poe wrote his first — by several years! Verne wrote a sequel to this tale (“An Antarctic Mystery”) in 1897. And I’ve read that H.P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” (1931) was partially inspired by this tale also. Try it out, it’s not too long, and see what you think!

    Nine Stories- J.D. Salinger, 1953
    Nine short stories by J.D. Salinger. They were fine, I’m just not a big fan.

    The Hoosier Schoolmaster- Edward Eggleston, 1871
    This is an adorable story written in the dialect of country folk in the mid-1800’s in southern Indiana. It’s the tale of the young, local schoolmaster and the entanglement he incurs with the people of the community. It is really cute and often very funny. If you’re looking for something light and entertaining, I highly recommend this one!

    Cakes and Ale- Somerset Maugham, 1930
    I love Somerset Maugham and recommend him highly! This is the story of a man who is asked to tell of his childhood memories of a man who later becomes a famous author. The public wants to remember wonderful things about this man after his death, however, what the main character has to tell is not what people would not like to know. It was pretty interesting and I liked it a lot.

    Charming Billy- Alice McDermott, 1998
    I read this to satisfy a challenge category. I know it is an award winner, but I wasn’t personally impressed :/

    The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 – Hendrik Groen, 2014
    This is a wonderful book that is real and funny and sad all at the same time.
    It is Hendrik Groen’s diary of his life in an assisted living home in Amsterdam. The year is 2013.
    He tells what it is like living there, the ups and downs, the silly things that happen, and the sad part of living in a place where most people go to die.
    But as he and a few friends band together, they do things to make their lives more worthwhile, and begin to care for each other through the good and the bad situations that take place.
    In the description of the book, Mr. Groen says “Not a single sentence in this book is a lie, but not every word is the truth.” So that kind of says it all! I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it!

    The Revolving Door of Life- Alexander McCall Smith, 2015
    This is just the next installment (#10) in the lives on the characters who live in Edinburgh, some of them on Scotland Street. It’s always fun to see what they are up to, especially Bertie — he sure has his ups and downs! I really enjoy this author and this series 🙂

    Goodbye, Vitamin – Rachel Khong, 2017
    This is a touching story of a 30-year-old woman who elects to stay home for one year and help take care of her father who has the beginning, and worsening, symptoms of Alzheimer’s. It is told in first person in the form of a diary, so goes from January through December telling different things that happen within the family (the mother and brother are also part of the story) during this year and the progression of her father’s illness. It is sad, but thankfully, not depressing. It has some kind of funny parts, although it is not a comedic book in any way; and some of it is even uplifting. But, overall, it feels like what a real family might go through with real problems and situations that must be dealt with the best they can be. I liked the author’s style, and I’m glad I read this book.

    Everything, Everything – Nicola Yoon, 2015
    A sweet story of an 18-year-old girl with a disease that has kept her in the house, germ-free, all her life. Until she meets the new boy next door and falls in love.
    It’s sweet, fairly predictable overall, lots of teen-aged angst, and a little mystery which helps to bring a surprise ending. But it is a YA novel, so it’s exactly what you expect when you start reading.
    I personally think the author had to maneuver the story a bit to get it to end the way she wanted, but that’s just me. I really did enjoy it though 🙂

    The Hundred Dresses – Eleanor Estes, 1944
    This 4th grade level book is a good lesson on teaching children about not making fun of others. Although it was originally published in 1944, it still stands well today and is still needed for young and old alike.
    **If Richard gets to count the “Bathroom Reader” I get to count a children’s book! 😉

    Gathering Blue – Lois Lowry, 2000
    I really enjoyed this Book #2 of The Giver series. It has a little mystery, drama, and sweetness all put together in this one book. And it has enough of a secret at the end that it leaves the reader wanting to get to the next book (Messenger) to see what happens! Can’t wait!

    • davidallen909

      Until reading that Poe a year or two back, I’d had no idea he’d ever written a novel. (I’m the one who mentioned that HPL was inspired by it, btw.)

      I like the Salinger book quite a bit, especially “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” but he’s not for every taste. You make the Maugham sound worthwhile. I’ve yet to read him.

      • Terri Shafer

        Yes! You were the one who talked about Lovecraft’s inspiration — I forgot that, & thanks for that info! It made a difference as I read it.
        I did like ” A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and I hoped more of the stories would be like that. Too many of them reminded me of Holden Caulfield who I just couldn’t tolerate!

    • Doug Evans

      I have a copy of “Gulliver’s Travels” given to me and my two siblings back in 1977 by my grandpa. He signed the inside. Sadly, I’ve never read the book, though I have long wanted to. (Which makes it the oldest book in my Giant Stack of Unread Books, I just realized.) I took a trip to Dublin last year around this time and visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where Swift was the Dean for several years. I felt all the more guilty that I haven’t read the book. Maybe 2018 will be the year I finally knock it off the list! I’ll be curious to see if I get more out of it than you did.

      • Terri Shafer

        I definitely think you should read it. I think it was probably a little deeper than I was willing to get into. He made some political points (I think!) especially towards the end, but by then I was just ready for it be over. BUT please read it with an open mind, I don’t want to affect your pleasure with this book. And I love that your grandfather gave it to you. That makes it special!

  • Doug Evans

    I’m here! I read 6 this past month, two from my Giant Stack of Unread Books, and four published this year, which isn’t helping cut down the Giant Stack but what the hey.

    From the Giant Stack:

    “Earth Abides” by George R. Stewart (1949). Classic post-apocalyptic novel. Most of humanity is wiped out in a plague; the survivors do their thing. Good, perhaps not entirely realistic (canned food, water, and electricity, for example, seem to last a lot longer than I think they probably would) and not nearly as bleak as “The Road” or “Station Eleven” or many of the other more recent post-apocalyptic novels I’ve read and discussed here on this blog. I’ve owned this classic for a while and have made a few false starts in it over the years, so glad to finally move it to the “Read” stack. (“Read” in past tense, not the imperative.) Recommended!

    “Skipping Christmas” by John Grisham (2001). I don’t even remember how we got this one, but it’s in our box of Christmas books that spend most of the year up in our attic, so this year when I pulled it out I decided to finally read it. Upper-middle class family decides to skip celebrating Christmas, to the consternation of their neighbors, and instead save their money for a cruise, until Christmas Day when their daughter announces that she’s making a surprise return home from a Peace Corps trip to Peru, and now they have to celebrate Christmas after all. Mildly entertaining, though it’s hard to care about the self-made problems of wealthy people. This book was made into an apparently not-good film, “Christmas with the Kranks,” which I haven’t seen and never will.

    The four books published this year! All of which I read on my Kindle, having checked them out in ebook form from the library:

    “The Rooster Bar” by John Grisham (2017). Grisham’s second book published this year. I read “Camino Island” back in September. In this one, three law students, drowning in debt, decide to drop out of law school and go straight to practicing law, which is of course illegal. The Rooster Bar of the title is both the name of a bar where one of the students works and also where the three drop-outs set up their illicit law firm, so “bar” in the title has two meanings. Took me a while to get that. Anyway, entertaining book, and my dad liked this one better than “Camino Island,” though I enjoyed them both, so there’s that.

    “The Book of Dust, Volume One: La Belle Sauvage” by Philip Pullman (2017). The start of a new trilogy by Pullman, author of the “Golden Compass” fantasy trilogy, of which this is a prequel, though Pullman calls it an “equal.” Whatever. Anyway, Pullman is a great writer and I was carried along by this story, though I’m a big believer that most prequels don’t need to be written. I’ll be curious to see where this goes next. I read the “Golden Compass” books twenty years ago and only vaguely remember what happened in them, so it may be time for a reread.

    “Artemis” by Andy Weir (2017). A heist story set in the near-distant future on the moon. This is the newest from the author of “The Martian,” a good book made into a really good film. “Artemis” was fun enough, though it’s getting savaged by critics and by a friend of mine who first turned me on to “The Martian.” Well, I liked it. A critique of this book that many have shared online is that Weir made the main character a female Muslim who doesn’t sound anything like a female Muslim but instead like a white male nerd, which is what Weir is. I’m not qualified to speak on things like this, but it is curious to think about whether Weir should get credit for trying to increase the diversity of science fiction protagonists, or blame for overstepping his bounds.

    ”Two Kinds of Truth” by Michael Connelly (2017). Connelly’s latest, featuring his series hero Harry Bosch, still plugging away after twenty books. I have been reading these for two decades and I still enjoy them. You go, Michael Connelly! Incidentally, this is also Connelly’s second book published this year, just like Grisham. Look at these guys, publishing two different books just months apart. Something in the air in 2017, I guess.

    Happy holidays, everyone, and see you back here in a month for David’s year-end round-up!

    • Terri Shafer

      Nice list!
      “Earth Abides” sounds interesting. I haven’t heard of it, however, I do think “The Road” and “Station Eleven” were similar (and have you read “The Stand”?), so they start to all feel the same. I like that this one was written in 1949 though.

      I also just finished “Artemis” and I really liked it! It was very far-fetched, of course, and the action was a little extreme. But I thought it was fun! I was not quite as impressed with it as I was “The Martian” but I still think it would make a good movie. And what I liked best about both books was the author’s sense of humor! I’d read it for that alone 🙂

    • davidallen909

      As I’ve mentioned to you, Doug, I own my own unread copy of Earth Abides, gifted by a friend who’d read it. I’ll get to it eventually… Thanks as always for contributing!