Reading Log: January 2018

Books acquired: none

Books read: “Pale Gray for Guilt,” John D. MacDonald; “The Shadow of Fu Manchu,” Sax Rohmer; “Glimpses,” Lewis Shiner; “Beginning to See the Light,” Ellen Willis

Greetings, aesthetes! (It sounds better than “nerds,” doesn’t it?) Welcome to this blog’s first Reading Log of 2018.

I started the year off with a quartet of books I’d been planning but failing to read for a few years, all with a kind of shadowy, half-seen tint to the titles. Like life, but unlike old movies, it was not a black and white month.

First up was my first Travis McGee mystery since 2014. Sheesh, I liked the idea of reading at least one per year, but the seroes got away from me. But here was Book 9 (of 21) waiting for me. McGee calls himself a salvage expert: He goes after things of value that are considered irretrievable, and claims half if successful. Then he returns to his boat-bum lifestyle in Florida, taking his retirement in installments, as he puts it, until the next case comes along.

“Pale Gray” involves real estate speculation and stock market scams, which get a bit complex. On the other hand, because the case concerns a dead friend, McGee is an avenging angel. He also suffers in various ways for his otherwise-envious lifestyle, making this entry more emotional and vulnerable than usual. First published in 1968, the attitudes in “Guilt” like the others can be a little dated. But MacDonald sure can write. In fact, there’s a fine maxim in it: “In any emotional conflict, the thing you find hardest to do is the thing you should do.” Chew on that.

Next up was the 11th (of 14) books in the Fu Manchu series, which I’ve been reading intermittently since roughly the Civil War, or so it seems sometimes. This one was published in 1948, 35 years after the first (and 11 years before the last), and by this point Fu Manchu and his nemesis, Sir Denis Nayland Smith, are practically old friends.

The plot involves a device under development that could disintegrate metal, which of course would include most weaponry, and thus is of great interest to America’s enemies. In attempting to foil the communists from seizing this mighty “transmuter,” the devil doctor is practically the savior of mankind. Oh, Fu, we hardly knew ye.

“Glimpses,” from 1993, won the World Fantasy Award, but it’s basically “High Fidelity” with a dose of magic realism. A rock ‘n’ roll friend recommended this years ago, it was duly placed on my want list and, years later, a bookstore browse finally turned up a copy — autographed, no less.

The late-30s protagonist of this novel set in the late ’80s tried to belatedly grow up while also engaging in wish fulfillment by hallucinating great lost albums by the Beach Boys, Doors and Hendrix into reality (or not). Recommended for music nerds — sorry, aesthetes. I’m one and I was enthralled.

Lastly, “Beginning to See the Light,” from 1992, is a collection of ’66-’79 essays on rock music, current events, women’s rights and Jewishness by Ellen Willis, one of the first rock music critics. She went on to write on other topics, as can be seen above, and became newly appreciated when much of her work was reissued after her 2006 death.

Some of these essays are dated, of course, but they reflect their times and offer a perspective on the ’60s, often from the vantage point of the ’70s, by someone who was there and lamented how others came to dismiss the era. Many of the essays are still relevant, sometimes depressingly so. (Peace in the Middle East, for one, seemed quite possible four decades ago.) Willis’ prose is dense but clearly reasoned and stated; she argues her positions well. Favorite essay title: “Abortion: Is a Woman a Person?,” wherein she tackles various anti-abortion arguments and (in my view) demolishes them. See above for her continuing relevance. The book left me wanting to read more by her.

As for where these books came from, MacDonald was bought in 2011 at North Hollywood’s Iliad Books and Willis in 2013 from Glendale’s Brand Books (RIP). The other two were probably bought in the mid-2000s, prior to the blog, the Rohmer possibly from eBay and “Glimpses” from Glendale’s Book Fellows (also RIP).

It was satisfying finally getting to these books. The good feeling should continue for a while, as February’s books are also going to be ones I’ve meant to read for quite some time (six years, in one case), and that theme may continue into mid-year, unless something comes up that needs to be read for work or I’m otherwise derailed.

How is your new year starting, and what did you read in January? Post away.

Next month: Hello, darkness, my old friend.

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  • DebB

    I think I mentioned last month that after Sue Grafton’s death I decided to go back and read her alphabet books, most of which I haven’t touched since the 1990s. This month I read the first four.

    A is for Alibi is, of course, the first. This is the book that has a couple scenes in Claremont, one involving the people you mentioned in your column about soup dinners not too long ago. A second scene involves a lunch with a Claremont college student.

    The next three are B is for Burglar, C is for Corpse and D is for Deadbeat. I’d forgotten how cynical and sometimes negative main character Kinsey Millhone can be, and I’d forgotten the language she sometimes uses. The stories are good, filled with action, the kind of books that keep you reading late into the night.

    But they’re also a little hard-core, -“tough as nails” as Millhone is sometimes described – and a steady diet of Grafton can be depressing (to me). This month I took a break to read something else before moving on to E is for Evidence.

    • davidallen909

      B is for Break, eh? Coming back to a series after a long time away, and reading them in a more compressed period, can throw some of their flaws into high relief.

    • Doug Evans

      Sue Grafton’s books are also set in the fictional town of Santa Teresa, based on Santa Barbara, which I mention above in my comment on Ross Macdonald. I’ve never read her, but (based on your description) she sounds like someone I would enjoy!

    • Terri Shafer

      That’s quite a project, Deb! I hope you enjoy it, but you probably will need some breaks between books. I have read a few of these and enjoyed them a lot. I may read a few more, if I can get to them. I remember liking the era that it was set in, when there were no cell phones, and Kinsey always typed her information on index cards. You don’t get much of that any more. Enjoy!

  • Doug Evans

    I read seven! Several of which, to be clear, were started in 2017, but were finished last month. So they count.

    “The Golden Compass” by Philip Pullman (1995). In December, I read Pullman’s just-published “The Book of Dust,”, a prequel (or “equal” as Pullman likes to say) to the “His Dark Materials” trilogy, of which “The Golden Compass” is the first book. I read the trilogy back in the early 2000s but don’t remember much about them. “The Book of Dust,” which I really enjoyed, prompted me to do a reread. These are fantasy books in the young adult vein, but definitely stuff adults can latch onto in here. Good stuff, and I’m glad I’m doing the reread. These books were considered classics in the genre from the moment they were published, and upon my first read, they were drowning just a little under the weight of their expectations, which kept me at a bit of a distance. This time around, I’m just able to enjoy the story. I just finished “The Subtle Knife,” the next book in the trilogy, so look for that in next month’s reading log!

    “Star Wars: The Legends of Luke Skywalker” by Ken Liu (2017). I was inspired by “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (I’m one of the many who loved the film, as opposed to the many who loathed it) to see what Star Wars books are being written now, and found this one, written by Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award winning author Ken Liu, whose collection “The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories” I read back in November 2016. Hey, they’re getting award-winning science fiction authors to write Star Wars books! This was a mostly fun collection of what Luke may have been up to between the end of “Return of the Jedi” and the beginning of “The Last Jedi.” I say “may have” because, just like the title says, these are legends… the framing story has other characters in the galaxy share stories, Canterbury Tales style, about a hero they either met or heard other people tell stories about who may or may not have been Luke. A fun idea; the stories themselves are hit and miss, but the good ones make up for the weaker ones.

    “Bodyguard and Four Other Short Science Fiction Novels from Galaxy” ed. by H.L. Gold (1962). An impulse buy from a used bookstore up in Arcata, California, where my wife’s sister lives and which we visited over the winter break. These were fun stories from the pages of Galaxy Magazine, definitely of their time but all with clever ideas, written by Christopher Grimm, Clifford D. Simak, F.L. Wallace, Daniel F. Galouye, and Frederick Pohl. Wikipedia tells me that Christopher Grimm is actually a pseudonym for editor H.L. Gold, and that Frederick Pohl, who wrote the introduction as well as the final story, probably also edited the book, as Gold was in poor health and soon after this had to completely relinquish his magazine editing chores to Pohl (though he lived to 1996!). Grimm’s (Gold’s) story, “Bodyguard,” is maybe the most modern of the stories, featuring a future in which, for a price, you can swap your consciousness into someone’s body, so criminals are always staying one step ahead of the police by jumping into someone else’s body. It was possibly the best story, but they were all good.

    • Doug Evans


      “The Three Roads” by Ross Macdonald (1948). (No relation to John D. MacDonald!) Also purchased at that same used bookstore in Arcata. Last month I decided, on impulse, to collect and then read the Lew Archer private eye series by Ross Macdonald. This book was written before he started that series (and, in fact, was originally published under his real name, Kenneth Millar), but it seemed a good place to start anyway. This is a psychological story of a sailor, returned from WWII, in a sanitarium, suffering from amnesia, trying to figure out who murdered his wife (it’s not too hard to figure out). Lots of references to Freud and I don’t think anyone still writes book where characters suffer from amnesia (do they?), but still a fun read. Also: set in La Jolla and Los Angeles! Always fun to see a local angle in the books I read. (The Lew Archer books are set in Santa Teresa, a stand-in for Santa Barbara, so I’m looking forward to that as well.)

      “The Midnight Line” (2017) and “Die Trying” (1998) by Lee Child. I mentioned in the year-end reading round-up that I decided (also on impulse) to read the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child, one a month until I finish. I actually started the series a few years back, read the first and fourth, made it halfway through the second (“Die Trying”), got a little bored with the story (the two main characters spend the first half of the book stuck in the back of a truck in which they’ve been kidnapped, which gave the story a feeling of nothing happening) and quit. (If I’d kept reading: the characters get out in the next chapter.) But “The Midnight Line,” the newest Reacher book, got a strong review in the Times, and I decided to try again. I liked them! So now I’ve read the first two books, the fourth, and the most recent. Kind of a random order, but the series doesn’t really require a chronological read, so I’ll be all right. Just like Jack Reacher: I’ll make my own rules, wandering from book to book, carrying only my toothbrush. (It’s true! Jack Reacher only carries a toothbrush with him as he makes his way from town to town across the USA.)

      “Beneath a Scarlet Sky” by Mark Sullivan (2017). Read for a book club. A true story of a 19-year-old Italian, Pino Lella, in WWII who first leads Jews up and over the Alps to Switzerland and safety, and then becomes a driver for a mysterious Nazi general as well as a spy for the Allies (Pino, not the general). It’s a true story (Pino’s still alive!) but published as fiction because the author decided that he had to invent too much material to make a nonfiction book. He interviewed Pino extensively, but memories are shaky 70 years later, and too much documentation from that time is missing. Writing a true story as fiction is an interesting choice, and I’m not entirely sure that it worked for me. I spent many portions of the book thinking, “Come on, did this really happen?” and it turns out, based on author interviews on the internet, that a lot of it didn’t. Plus Sullivan, though completely invested in his subject, is not much of a stylist. The characters are always “grinning” or “breaking into a grin…” 42 times! (Thanks, Kindle search function.) Do we grin all that much? Also, there’s this line, when Pino sees his mother for the first time after months away: “Pino was flooded with memories that propelled him across the room to his mother.” What does that even look like? But that’s me: people on the internet, as well as several people in the book club, loved this book.

      As for David’s books: I’ve read a few of the Travis McGee books and they’re great. I’d like to do a complete read of those as well, maybe after I knock Jack Reacher and Lew Archer out of the way. I like the idea of the Fu Manchu books as well… I love the idea of pulp books still being read and enjoyed in this day and age.

      Happy reading, everyone!

    • Richard_Pietrasz

      Star Trek had two Hugo winners, James Blish won his before writing ST books, and David Gerrold won his after writing “The Trouble With Tribbles” and perhaps other episodes. So it should not be a surprise SW got its turn.

  • davidallen909

    Amnesia, the condition that spawned thousands of plots across all media!

    Jack Reacher should endorse a certain brand of toothbrush: Reach.

    I’ve never read any of the Ross Macdonald mysteries, although I’ve certainly seen hundreds of the (Bantam?) paperbacks that were popular in the ’60s and ’70s, or seen the movie adaptation or two (with Paul Newman, as I recall). I’ll enjoy reading what you think of them, if you keep going.

    The flood of memories that propel (or wash?) a character across the room does present an unusual visual image…

    • Richard_Pietrasz

      Add to amnesia the long sleep of Rip van Winkle and so many others. It is difficult to defeat an opening plot device that puts the reader in the same predicament as the protaganist. I suppose it might be our bourne identity to experience such plots.

  • Terri Shafer

    Doug, good month! I have not read any of yours but I have the Pullman trilogy high on my list. I’ll watch for your reviews and see how you feel about the re-reading of this series!

  • Terri Shafer

    David, I have not read any of yours or even heard of them! But I was intrigued by “Glimpes.” I loved “High Fidelity” and read one recently called “The Music Shop” by Rachel Joyce that has lots of music references. Good for music lovers!

  • Terri Shafer

    Well, here goes! I read 12, which included 4 classics and 3 non-fiction. The others were to kind of blow off steam from some that I feel like I Have To Read! 😉

    Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years — David Litt, 2017
    This book was so good! David Litt is funny and insightful as he tells of his speech writing years working for President Obama. It made me feel happy and…really sad. Still, I enjoyed this a lot!

    The Secret History – Donna Tartt, 1992
    Didn’t like it at all.
    It was pretty well-written and held my attention. It was kind of suspenseful and made me want to read on to see what was going to happen. But nothing really happened…after 523 pages….
    Yes, these five college students attending a Vermont university, do kill their good friend — the narrator lets the reader know this on the first page — then you have to read 522 more pages of description!!
    I was just so disappointed. I’d heard so much about it and seen it on almost every list. I probably won’t read Donna Tartt again. Ugh!

    The Deal of a Lifetime – Fredrik Backman, 2017
    This is kind of a strange and mysterious short story about a man making a deal about his life. I didn’t love it but I like Fredrik Backman so such. I think he was going for something pretty deep to make people think about their lives, and are they happy with them. It is definitely worth the time to read (only 96 pages) or a listen (only 48 minutes). It will make you think.

    Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak, 1957
    I really liked it and am glad I can say that I read “Doctor Zhivago.” It did help me to watch the movie to keep the characters and scenes straight. It was a good book to read in the middle of winter!

    Tricky Twenty-Two – Janet Evanovich, 2015
    Guilty Pleasure: Always cute! Stephanie and Lula are just such funny characters, along with the whole cast of friends and family. I know I’ve read the same story 22 times (this is Book #22 in the series!), but I always know what to expect, and I always get what I want out of it. If I need a quick, easy, light read with a laugh, this is what I go to. And Morelli and Ranger don’t hurt anything! 😉

    Letters from Yellowstone – Diane Smith, 1999
    I really enjoyed this story set in 1898 of a group of scientists who go to Yellowstone to collect flora and fauna specimens and information to be cataloged for science. However, A.E. Bartram, who is accepted as a participant in this expedition, turns out to be – a woman! Um, uh, well, no one said…. uh, well, what should we do…. um well….
    Anyway, after they get over Alexandria being a woman, she turns out to be a very diligent and conscientious member of the team. And then the author goes on with the story of different obstacles they must all overcome, events that happen, and the conclusion which has a dramatic climax and a pretty nice ending.
    However, the whole story is told only through correspondence, from the members of the team, to their employers and family members. This makes the read a little more interesting.
    I liked that it was kind of light and fun, but it did tell quite a bit about Yellowstone, the scenery, and the items that they collected. It felt beautiful, but still held my attention very well.
    I recommended this one to your mother, David!

    Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking – Malcolm Gladwell, 2005
    I very much enjoyed learning from this book about studies that have been done on how we think and make decisions. It might sound boring but Malcolm Gladwell does a good job of adding in interesting examples and stories, like the Pepsi challenge and different products that we as consumers have embraced or rejected, how we read facial expressions, and how we make instantaneous decisions. It really made me think!

    Pudd’nhead Wilson – Mark Twain, 1893
    Mark Twain is always enjoyable! This story of two switched babies is intriguing, and Pudd’nhead Wilson saves the day. But…as much as I liked this one, it wasn’t my favorite. It didn’t have the magic of Huckleberry Finn for me. I’m glad I read it, but it doesn’t come with a high recommendation from me…just medium 🙂

    A Passage to India – E.M. Forster, 1924
    This was in interesting story set in the 1920’s where two British women visit India and one of them accuses an Indian man of sexual assault (kind of apropos of today!). Then it goes into how the situation affects all involved. I liked it and would recommend it.

    Billy Budd – Herman Melville, 1924
    I am glad I read this book and to know the story. But, even though I’ve read some of Melville before, the writing seemed really hard to follow. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood to put the effort into this style of writing, but I really had to concentrate and have quiet to understand what was going on. I found myself thinking “I speak English! Why can’t I understand this?!” At least it was short!
    Anyway, it’s a sad story. I really felt sorry for Billy Budd and for the captain of the ship.
    I give this one a medium recommendation.

    Hillbilly Elegy – J.D. Vance, 2016
    This amazing story told by J.D. Vance about his own life and upbringing in a hillbilly family in Kentucky and Ohio is truly eye-opening. It is so educational to all of us to learn of others’ thinking, beliefs, and where they come from. Many of these things are not right or wrong, they are just different: backgrounds, neighborhoods, family life, expectations, and we all come from different places. I think it would make us all more empathetic to learn more about each other, then maybe we could help & understand each other better.
    As a Yale educated lawyer, J.D. Vance, being raised in the hillbilly lifestyle, explains what he feels are the good and bad issues of this lifestyle and thinking that are affecting America today.
    As I said before: eye-opening! Everyone should read this one!

    Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng, 2017
    I really liked it! I’m not going into the details of the story (there are lots of reviews for this one). It is a very intricate, entangled story of one main family, and a couple of others intertwined with them. The author does a very good job of telling the main story, but then also letting the reader know the background of each person, and how they got to where they are, so that you understand where everyone is coming from and why they are acting the way they are (I know — run-on sentence…oh well).
    I liked it enough that I am looking forward to reading another one by this author. I also think this would make a very good movie 🙂

  • Richard_Pietrasz

    I finished 11 in January.


    My Silent War: The Autobiography of a Spy. Kim Philby, 1968/2002.

    Storm Watchers: The Turbulent History of Weather Prediction From Franklin’s Kite to El Nino. John D. Cox, 2002.

    Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. Erik Larson, 2015.

    Ain’t Gonna Study War No More: The Story of America’s Peace Seekers. Milton Meltzer, 1985/2002.

    Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Grand Canyon. Kevin Fedarko, 2013.


    The Crucible. Arthur Miller, 1963.

    The Lightning Thief. Rick Riordan, 2005.

    Tales to Send Chills Down Your Spine. Alfred Hitchcock ( ed.), 1979 (originally 1956-1973).

    Tarzan of the Apes. Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1912.

    The Windup Girl. Paolo Bacigalupi, 2009.

    The Double Comfort Safari Club. Alexander McCall Smith, 2010.

  • Richard_Pietrasz

    I have read 9 books listed by others this month. These are Pale Grey, Zhivago, Budd, Pudd’nhead, Passage, and A to D by Grafton. Despite the many Ross MacDonalds I have read, I have not read one of Doug’s.

    There is a very direct lineage from Dashiell Hammett to Raymond Chandler to Ross MacDonald. Sara Paretsky fits well with Sue Grafton. Carl Hiasson is a worthy successor to John D MacDonald, but with some absurdly humorous situations and characters. I categorize Ross Thomas as an underated master. So, some of you have some unread territory you would likely enjoy.

    I wonder why my read book list is in moderation this time?

    • DebB

      I think Marcia Muller fits very well into your list, also. In fact, I’d say I prefer her to either Grafton or Paretsky. Rather than living the same story over and over, her characters grow and change and move through life being affected by the city and society around them. Muller and her husband are actually in the acknowledgements of A is for Alibi.

      • Richard_Pietrasz

        Muller has been praised by a plethora of peer pros. My reading of her is limited, the novella The Broken Men and one or two shorter stories, but that is enough to lead me to agree with you and them.

    • davidallen909

      It’s been rescued.

  • Terri Shafer

    I’ve only read Dead Wake and The Crucible from your list, Richard. But the others look interesting. Your subject matter made for an exciting month!

    • Richard_Pietrasz

      I am not sure exciting is the best description when I do most of my reading while comfortably esconsed behind closed doors in a safe place. I do enjoy the variety and my adventure stories among this. I have noticed you have read quite a number of books that fit in the My Antonia Willa Cather category; I do so in a much more limited way, but let us embrace our differences and READ ON!

  • Richard_Pietrasz

    Silent War is must reading for those interested in the Cold War spy v spy era, as Philby was one of the most notorious double agents. I found Philby’s story somewhat dull, and the best parts were the Graham Greene foreward from the original edition, in which one Cold War British spy has a nuanced view of his friend who turned out to be on the opposing side, and the 2002 intro by Phillip Knightely, author of the excellent book on war correspondence, The First Casualty. A John LeCarre blurb on the back cover has a much different viewpoint. In the coincidence department, one of the the stories in Bad Trips I read last year mentions Greene being on a plane to Moscow, perhaps on a visit to Philby.

  • Richard_Pietrasz

    Fiction comments follow.

    The Crucible is still relevant, and highly disturbing, more than 300 years later. In my case, I lived in Salem for a year and a half, and the alleged witch events happened nearby in Danvers, which is where I was when the news the Thresher (submarine) was lost; our town had sub families, I think not ditectly connected.

    Lightning Thief is definitely far below the best of Young Adult fantasy, despite its popularity. Harry Potter is worth the hype, but not this.

    The Hitchcock collection was very good, almost all straight crime fiction, many with a Hitchcockian twist. Decades ago, in high school, I read one of his more supernatural collections, and that was quite good too.

    Tarzan was the best comic book novel I have read since John Carter of Mars. What a ride! Despite its white supremecist imperial colonialist male chauvinist roots, it acknowledges the evil in the Congo of Leopold 2. The Peshtigo fire is even pulled into this story.

    Windup Girl is a distopia tour de force, aimed at Monsanto and the rest of big ag. It is a dirty novel about a dirty subject, and deserving of the big SF awards it pulled in.

    Double Comfort fits the bill of oh how cute fantasy crime fiction. It is pleasant to read, but I am confidant in writing that most of Botswana at best loosely remembles reality.

    • davidallen909

      I’d forgotten about The Crucible, which I read for a class somewhere along the line.

      One or two of those big Hitchcock omnibus horror collections were cited in Michael Dirda’s Readings and brought back memories of checking them out from the library as a lad.

      And I reread Tarzan a few years ago and really enjoyed it. The sequel is also worth reading because it wraps up the essence of the story — even if the villain manages to return for one or two more books.

    • Terri Shafer

      Oh, I didn’t see your whole fiction list, Richard. I have Read Lightning Thief (just OK), Tarzan (the first 2 books – loved them!), and Double Comfort (very cozy). I ended up enjoying all three and agree with your comments 🙂