Reading Log: February 2018

Books acquired: “A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures,” Ben Bradlee; “We’ll Always Have Casablanca,” Noah Isenberg; “Banking on Beauty: Millard Sheets and Midcentury Commercial Architecture in California,” Adam Arenson

Books read: “The Left Hand of Darkness,” Ursula K. Le Guin; “Gather, Darkness!” Fritz Leiber; “Lest Darkness Fall,” L. Sprague de Camp; “A Scanner Darkly,” Philip K. Dick

February was a dark month on the ol’ Reading Log, and not just because of Punxsatawney Phil, who predicted six more weeks of winter. (I don’t know how Pennsylvania is faring, but more winter has proved true for Southern California.) No, it was also a dark month because all four books had “dark” in the title.

Man, I had meant to read these precise books the past six years or so but didn’t get around to it, a testament to my deep backlog of unread books. “Lest Darkness Fall,” inspired by “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” has been waiting since I read Twain’s classic in April 2011.

(Incidentally, a couple of years ago I mentioned the title of Twain’s novel to a bookish friend in his mid-30s and he had never heard of it, nor could he wrap his mind around the title: “A what? Say that again. ‘A Connecticut’ what?” He broke up laughing. Huh.)

Anyway, this was a strong month. All four books were very good to excellent.

Le Guin’s 1969 novel has become a classic. (I owned it as a teen, sold it without ever attempting it in one of my frequent book purges, and bought it again a decade ago.) An emissary of a confederation of planets lands on one whose leaders either don’t believe him or see no reason to join up. The visitor slowly realizes how little he understands and how his prejudices are getting in the way of his own acceptance of these other-worlders, whose genders alter every month. A beautifully written, strangely enveloping novel.

Leiber’s 1950 novel is said to be his first good one. I admit I bought this ’60s copy because it was so well-preserved. A holy war between priests and witches isn’t what it seems on either side. Full of strong and slightly mysterious characters and visual writing. I read his “Best of Fritz Leiber” and “A Pail of Air” story collections in 2015 and became an admirer.

In de Camp’s 1941 novel, a scholar of the ancient world is hurled from the 20th century back to 6th century Italy, where he introduces innovations like the telegraph and “predicts” future events, and thus tries single-handedly to prevent the Dark Ages from falling. An early alternate-history novel, this owes a lot to Twain, but de Camp uses less satire, more plain humor and a deep knowledge of his subject. A lot of fun, and at 208 pages it gallops along quite unlike a lot of stately SF novels.

(By the way, Lyon Sprague de Camp once said he saw little need to write under an assumed name because his given name sounded more like a pseudonym than most pseudonyms.)

Finally, Dick’s 1977 novel, which was adapted for a 2006 film by Richard Linklater. I saw that movie and stuck my ticket stub inside the front cover of my unread copy. Nearly 12 years later, I finally read the book and used the stub as my bookmark.

In near-future Southern California, the drug Substance D is burning out the brains of the addicted, which is almost everyone, including those assigned to entrap them. One undercover agent is so undercover, he’s tasked with spying on himself, and that’s only one twist in this classic of paranoia, government surveillance and the dark side of the ’60s. Both absurdist and tragic, this late-period novel is one of PKD’s best and most personal.

These “dark” books made for an unusually strong month, as I said, one that leaves me lighter of spirit. It felt good to get all of these out of the way after intending so long to read them. Ditto with the “shadow”-titled books of January.

I can no longer remember where or when I bought these, other than de Camp coming from Brand Books in Glendale and Le Guin from Ralph’s Comic Corner in Ventura, and all of them falling into my hands in the first decade of this century.

That’s enough from me. How was your February, readers? Post away below.

Next month: a hornbook, a guidebook, and regular books too.

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  • DebB

    I had a very eclectic month of reading, as you’ll see.

    I started with The Husband’s Secret, by Liane Moriarty. In December I read another of her books, and in the comments on your blog Terri Shafer recommended this one. I’m so glad I followed her suggestion – this was quite good! It follows several families who aren’t aware how they are linked by a tragedy many years earlier. It deals with the consequences of learning something that you can never unlearn about a past that will eventually come back to haunt you. I’ve enjoyed both Moriarty’s books and will definitely read more.

    Then I moved on in my quest to re-read all my sue Grafton books. This month I read E is for Evidence and F is for Fugitive. Both good, gripping, hard to put down.

    Then I read So Many Steps to Death, by Agatha Christie. I was on my way to a doctor’s appointment and wanted a paperback for the waiting room, so this was a random grab off my shelf. It’s one of her non-series books that takes place during the Cold War. Leading scientists from the “free world” are seemingly disappearing behind the Iron Curtain, but it turns out a shadowy super-rich power-player is behind it all.

    Watching multiple versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in December, it occurred to me that I should read it and see what the original story is like. When I was a little girl my mom had a script-version from when she’d played one of the ghosts in college! On the Barnes & Noble $5 classics table I found a book containing A Christmas Carol, The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth – three of his yearly Christmas stories.

    It turns out that the best-known on-screen versions of A Christmas Carol follow the story pretty closely, word-for-word in many places. Being so familiar, it was easy and enjoyable to read. Not so much with the Chimes. I finished this story and wondered what I’d just read. I had better luck with The Cricket, finding this easier to read and understand, and I enjoyed the story. I do remember, in the process of reading all three, once in awhile thinking that there were references to current practices that I was missing, but tried not to let that affect me.

    Finally, I was in an odd mood one Saturday afternoon, couldn’t find anything on TV or in my movie collection I wanted to watch, couldn’t decide what to read. I was looking through my bookshelf and came across a 1945 illustrated edition of Heidi, by Johanna Spyri. I couldn’t remember how long I’ve had it or if I’d ever read it, so I took it to the sofa and got started. And really enjoyed it! It’s quite long for a children’s book, but a little youthful for a young adult (maybe just right for an old lady in an odd mood!).

    I’d seen the Shirley Temple movie, of course, and like most movies I found that it’s not much like the book. The book follows Heidi from the age of 5 when she’s dumped on her alpine grandfather through the next few years, although she doesn’t seem to age much. Heidi spends most of her days frolicking in the mountains with the goats, is always cheerful, everyone loves her, she solves everyone’s problems and makes everyone happy! At least Shirley Temple got the upbeat character right!

    • davidallen909

      Doug Evans will likely “Chime” in on your Dickens Christmas reading. Nice to see you keep up on your Grafton project, and also to pick up on a commenter’s recommendation. Your “Heidi” find puts me in mind of “Howard’s End is on the Landing,” in which the writer takes a close look at her bookshelves and rediscovers books she’d forgotten she had.

      • DebB

        In putting Heidi back on the shelf, I made another “find” that may have been my mom’s schoolbook in the 1930’s! More about that in a future reading log…

    • Terri Shafer

      Deb, I’m glad you enjoyed The Husband’s Secret! I have enjoyed Moriarty’s books and plan to read more.
      You had a good month! I also enjoyed The Cricket on the Hearth (which I only read a couple of months ago!) and I loved reading Heidi years ago. I should probably read it again, I’m sure it would still appeal to me 🙂

    • Doug Evans

      “The Chimes” in on my list for next year’s Christmas book! I read “A Christmas Carol” a few years back and found that it really holds up, despite all of us being familiar with the story and the various adaptations of it over the years. I read “Cricket on the Hearth” just this past December and shared in a comment with Terri that it was maybe a touch too sentimental for me, but I love the way Dickens writes, and it was still a fun story.

  • Doug Evans

    I read seven!

    “The Subtle Knife” by Philip Pullman (1997). The second of Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. Maybe suffers a bit from second-book-in-a-fantasy-trilogy-itus, in which a second book in a trilogy is never as much as fun as the first, which sets up the universe, nor as exciting as the third, which resolves everything in a world-changing climax, but this was still fun.

    “Claudius the God and his Wife Messalina” by Robert Graves (1935). The sequel to “I, Claudius,” which I read back in October. “I, Claudius: From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius, Born 10 B.C., Murdered and Deified A.D. 54,” I pretty much knew the end of the story, but it was still fun seeing how we get there. All props to Robert Graves for taking what we know about the historical Claudius and his adulterous and murderous family and breathing life into them. I’m glad I read these but I’m almost more glad that now I can look at both of the books sitting there on my shelf, where they’ve been waiting for almost two decades, and feel a sense of satisfaction rather than guilt.

    “Dodgers” by Bill Beverly (2016). An impulse check-out from the library. A group of young gang members (as in aged 10-13) are sent from L.A to Wisconsin to kill a key witness in an upcoming trial. Along the way, things get messed up, chaos results, lessons are learned or maybe not. It’s kind of a quest/noir novel set in modern times. The “Dodgers” from the title refers to the L.A. Dodgers shirts the group wears to try to look like tourists, and also metaphorically in that they’re trying to dodge the obstacles that life keeps throwing their way (as, to be clear, they’re on their way to kill somebody, so it’s not that we the readers are opposed to the obstacles). Anyway! I liked it and a quick check on Amazon shows that this book is winning all kinds of prizes so it’s not just me. Also it hasn’t won the Man Booker Prize yet, but maybe next year.

    “All the Pretty Horses” by Cormac McCarthy (1992). Purchased this at a used bookstore in Arcata, CA. Look at last month’s Reading Log for more about the bookstore! This is the first of a trilogy I’ve meant to read for a while. McCarthy can be awfully bleak in his writing, so I’m glad that this one wasn’t as dour as all that. Two friends from Texas head south to Mexico because why not? Adventures and romance ensue. Things don’t always end well, but not as badly as they ended in “The Road” or “Blood Meridian” by the same author. Really liked it! I’ll be back for more! Look for “The Crossing,” the second in the trilogy, in next month’s blog.

    “The Wanted” by Robert Crais (2017). The latest (the 17th, Wikipedia tells me) in Crais’ Elvis Cole detective series. This book checks off two of my to-read types: books in a series and dad books (books my dad likes to read). Fun book, but by this point in the series, pretty formulaic. Interesting (maybe?) side note: The books at the start of this series (begun back in the late ’80s!) were actual mysteries that Cole had to solve; the later ones are much more in the action/thriller vein, in that we know who the bad guys are from the start (right from the prologue), and we’re just watching Cole and his buddies figure it out and put a stop to them, usually by putting a bullet through them. (Didn’t Sam Spade used to just call the police?) This change in style can be seen in the titles of the books themselves: The first three book titles are catchy and mysterious: “The Monkey’s Raincoat,” “Stalking the Angel,” “Lullaby Town;” the most recent three are much more bland Hollywood-action-thriller-esque: “Taken,” “The Promise,” “The Wanted.” I kinda prefer the earlier books (my dad too!) but I’m 17 books into this series and I ain’t going to quit now.

    “Norse Mythology” by Neil Gaiman (2017). Neil Gaiman, of the Sandman comics fame and a whole lot more, fell in love with Thor and Loki and all back in the Jack Kirby Marvel Comics days, got interested in the original myths behind the comics, and years later decided to write a book about them. This is that book! The stories are exciting and Gaiman obviously loves his subject. His characters are occasionally a little too modern in their speech… using sarcasm with each other, ironically commenting on what’s going on around them (as if the Norse gods were all Millennials) (kidding, Millennials!) (not really kidding), but Gaiman is a great writer and this book was a lot of fun. Mission accomplished, Neil Gaiman!

    “Tripwire” by Lee Child (1999). Hey, it’s Jack Reacher! The third book in the series. Reacher (apparently, people have always called him “Reacher,” not “Jack,” even in kindergarten; I find that kind of hard to believe) and his travel toothbrush are digging swimming pools in Florida when a guy shows up asking questions about him. That guy ends up dead for reasons I honestly never quite figured out and Reacher and toothbrush travel to New York to see what’s going on. People get killed! The whole plot makes about as much sense as what I just typed, but you don’t read these for the plot. The book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger: Reacher has a girlfriend and a home in New York. Since I know that in later books he has neither (still just traveling around with his toothbrush), I’ll be curious to see what happens to both girlfriend and house. Probably… nothing good.

    That was my month! Next month: The final Philip Pullman book, the second “Pretty Horses” book, another Jack Reacher, a book club book, and on and on. Until then: happy reading, everyone!

    • davidallen909

      I envy your seven, and can empathize with your satisfaction at looking at your shelf and glorying in the sight of two long-unread books that are now in the “read” category. I haven’t read any of yours, but I’ve read many of Gaiman’s comics, and the introduction to a book I just finished is by Crais.

    • Terri Shafer

      Doug, I haven’t read many of yours. I have read All the Pretty Horses, and also Neil Gaiman is a favorite of mine. I’m trying to get to the Pullman series, but haven’t been able to get around to it yet!

  • Doug Evans

    Love the “Darkness” theme; love that they’re all sci-fi. I haven’t read any of them, but I’ve been meaning to read “Left Hand of Darkness” for maybe thirty years, ever since I tried and failed to get into it in college (even then, I knew that it was probably me, and not the book). Maybe this will be the year I finally do it, inspired by both David and the recent loss of Ms. Le Guin.

  • davidallen909

    I’m hoping to get to Time Out of Joint this year or next and will be especially interested in what you have to say about the MacDonald, which I think is one of his SF books before he turned to crime fiction.

    • Richard_Pietrasz

      I noticed Time Out of Joint in your spines photo.

      MacDonald had already written some crime fiction prior to his SF. The Travis McGee novels came later. I read a number of those, and several others not in that series.

  • Terri Shafer

    My February books seemed to fit into two categories: Old & New! But I liked most of them pretty well either way 🙂

    Much Ado About Nothing – William Shakespeare, 1598, 4★s (out of 5)
    Swiss Family Robinson – Johann David Wyss, 1812, 4★s
    Xingu – Edith Wharton, 1916 (short story), 5★s
    This Side of Paradise – F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1920, 3★s
    The Snows of Kilimanjaro – Ernest Hemingway, 1936 (short story), 3★s
    Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury, 1953 (re-read), 4★s

    The Girl You Left Behind – Jojo Moyes, 2012, 4★s
    Amy Falls Down – Jincy Willett, 2013, 4★s
    Notorious RBG – Irin Carmon, 2015, 5★s
    Uncommon Type – Tom Hanks, 2017, 4★s
    The Story of Arthur Truluv – Elizabeth Berg, 2017, 4★s
    Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward, 2017, 3★s
    The Music Shop – Rachel Joyce, 2018, 4★s
    Red Clocks – Leni Zumas, 2018, 4★s

    • davidallen909

      I like your new (not old) star system! Fahrenheit 451 is a favorite and I’ve enjoyed Much Ado as well, plus the movie version.

      • Terri Shafer

        I watched the 1993 version of the movie before reading and it helped me to understand the story so much better. And it was such a joyous, funny, and also dramatic story that it was wonderful to watch (lots of good actors in it too! I highly recommend it!)!

        • davidallen909

          I think I saw that one but had forgotten it; I was thinking of the modern-dress version from 2012. I liked it so much I followed up by reading the play!

  • Richard_Pietrasz

    Chivalry was not that much about chivalry, but instead a sampler of European history photo essays written by scholars for the lay reader, with a bit of contemporary update thrown in. Ranging from the latter days of the Roman empire to the Hanseatic league, the Church of Rome had more pages than any other topic; it is almost impossible to avoid at that era and area. It was interesting, but not outstanding.

    Outliers was my third by Gladwell. It is an interesting set of connecting essays; he brings up some good stuff but his hypotheses I sometimes find unsupported, although they are good food for thought.

    Bridger was annoying. It was likely the only decent bio at one time, but the writing style and propaganda were directed toward the grades 5/6 boys crowd. Bridger was one of the mountain men key to the white takeover of the US west.

    Hanging Judge is a set of essays by critic Stanley Crouch, perhaps most famous for his commentary in the Ken Burns documentary films Jazz. The best stuff was on the divergence of the Civil Rights movement after it won legislative victories but failed to dent the KKK sympathisers. I found the quality mixed.

    White Rock was my book of the month. The author was a young Brit whose life was going nowhere special who decided to do the Indiana Jones thing. He was not a trained , he was looking for adventure as an explorer, and as it turns out that fits the description of most explorers. Thomson had some success, ended up learning much about his subject, and ended up with a career in documentary films.

  • Richard_Pietrasz

    Ballroom was an interesting attempt. Surprisingly, the plot was the strongest element, the storytelling the weakest. It takes time to be a good writer, at least for most, and 6 years into it MacDonald was not there yet, at least for this book. Then again, a lot of SF at this time was .

    • Terri Shafer

      Richard, the only one of yours that I have read is The Wasteland, and I felt just like you. At least I can say that I read it!

  • Richard_Pietrasz

    Books read by others this month I have read previously:

    The Left Hand of Darkness
    Lest Darkness Fall
    Much Ado About Nothing
    The Snows of Kilimanjaro
    Fahrenheit 451 – also twice
    All the Pretty Horses
    A Christmas Carol
    E is for Evidence
    F is for Fugitive

    I am not certain I read both those Graftons, they blur after so many books and years.

    My opinions on these books do not vary much from those of yours.