Reading Log: April 2018

Books acquired: “After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame,” Lynell George

Books read: “The 20th Century’s Greatest Hits,” Paul Williams; “The Fifties,” David Halberstam; “Land of 1000 Dances: Chicano Rock ‘n’ Roll from Southern California,” David Reyes and Tom Waldman

I spent the end of March and almost all of April on a single book: “The Fifties,” an overview of the decade by journalist David Halberstam. It’s 733 pages, plus notes and an index, hence the long reading time.

Halberstam makes a case for the ’50s being more interesting than they’re given credit for: a decade of consumerism and new suburbs, the expansion of leisure time, the fear of communism, the challenges to conformity (civil rights, the Beats, Kinsey, Elvis and more) and America’s awkward lurch toward superpower status. Because many of the people and events within were vaguely known to me, due to references in other reading or viewing, I found this fascinating, and as the sections tended to be just a few pages they didn’t amount to overkill. Filled with deft character sketches and colorful detail, it was surprisingly readable. But I wish I had a dollar for every time Halberstam describes someone as “shrewd.”

Off and on since March, I read “Land of 1000 Dances,” a history of Chicano rock from the L.A. barrios, starting with 1950s dance bands and continuing through Ritchie Valens, Thee Midniters, Cannibal and the Headhunters, El Chicano, Los Lobos and lesser-known bands and figures, often through original and candid interviews. Pomona gets a bunch of mentions as it was on the Chicano performance circuit that included El Monte, Paramount and East L.A. You’ll need a curiosity about the material and about rock history to read this, but I have those, and I found this rewarding.

“The 20th Century’s Greatest Hits,” which I had on my nightstand for a month or two and also managed to finish in April, is an unusual book in two ways. The high concept — an assortment of movies, music/concerts, art, writing and more are chosen to represent the peak of a century’s culture — seemed like a millennium-ending gimmick, and with idiosyncratic choices: “Two-Lane Blacktop,” “Things We Said Today” by the Beatles, “Old Path White Clouds” by Thich Nhat Hanh. I put off reading it for nearly two decades. But Williams proves to be a good guide, exploring the randomness of not only his picks but of how art comes to be, and not taking it too seriously. He even includes “Ulysses,” which he hadn’t read, to stand in for those great works we always intend to get to, but don’t. Ha ha!

Making my lapse in reading it all the more shameful, I was among the patrons who gave the author $25, I think, to finance its creation. Williams was not only a pioneering rock critic, he was a pioneer of the Kickstarter concept with this and a subsequent book. “20th Century” was then published by a legitimate publisher, but my copy is the signed, bound printout given to patrons.

“The Fifties” (published 1993) was bought at a newsroom book sale, used, for about $1 in 1999; “1000 Dances” (published 1998) was bequeathed to me by a departing newsroom colleague in 1999; Williams’ book was published in 1999. Yes, every book this month fell into my hands in 1999. I should have read these while wearing flannel.

How was your April, readers? We’re all anxious to find out.

Next month: a bit of Benchley, and more.

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  • Bob House

    Did Land of a 1000 Dances mention Manual and the Renegades? They were a staple at “important” dances at Claremont High in the early 60s. I refer you to “Hal Linker’s” thesis in these pages.

    • davidallen909

      It didn’t. Randy and the Casuals, sometimes known as Randy and the Pomona Casuals, were cited.

      Good ol’ “Hal.” Veterans of this blog will recall those epic comments, perhaps fondly, perhaps not.

      • Terri Shafer

        I love your music theme. It sounds like you had fun with it!

      • Bob House

        Na, na na na na, na na na na, na na na, na na na, na na na na.

        • davidallen909

          Supposedly, the singer of Cannibal and the Headhunters forgot the first line of that song (“Land of 1000 Dances”) in concert one night, improvised all those “na”s, the audience loved it, and that became the new opening line.

  • Terri Shafer

    I’m listing these in chronological order of when they were written, just for fun 🙂

    White Nights – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1848, 3★s (short story for GR group read)
    Enjoyable, short, sweet, but kind of sad.

    The Beautiful and Damned – F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1922, 3★s
    I didn’t love this, I’m just not a huge Fitzgerald fan. However, I’ve read five of his now so I kind of have the hang of his writing. This one is similar to his others in that they seem to be autobiographical. Many scenes feel like they could be straight out of his and Zelda’s married life. There is a lot of partying and scrounging for money. But in the end you find that money isn’t always the answer, isn’t the path to happiness.

    The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham, 1951, 4★s
    A classic sci-fi story of plants that try to take over, comets that cause blindness to the majority of the people on earth, and the rest that are just trying to survive! How exciting!

    Nine Coaches Waiting – Mary Stewart, 1958, 3★s
    I haven’t read a Gothic romance for many years, but I have enjoyed Mary Stewart in the past and decided to read this one. I did enjoy the mystery and drama of the English governess protecting her French pupil from family members that mean him harm. It was exciting, dramatic, and finally romantic, just as you would expect a Gothic romance to be. So if you’re in the mood for this kind of a quick read, this is the one for you 🙂

    One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1962, 4★s
    This is an interesting and harrowing description of the life of Russian prisoners in a Siberian concentration camp as told by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who spent eight years in one of these camps. Just amazing!

    The Virgin Suicides — Jeffrey Eugenides, 1993, 2★s
    This one has been on my list for SO long! I really didn’t care for it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it. It has so much description and background, and really — beautiful writing. But the suicides kind of take a backseat to how the neighborhood and the girls’ classmates are affected by the actions of the Lisbon girls. So it turns out not to be so much about the girls as it is about everyone else around them.
    Again, I was really glad when this book was over. But I’m glad I read it because I have heard so much about it for so long. So I’d say — try it and see what you think!

    Ordinary Grace – William Kent Krueger, 2014, 4★s
    I very much enjoyed this story of the Drum family in a small Minnesota town during the summer of 1961. It had drama and mystery and sadness and love. But the best part was the way it was written. It felt very smooth and almost comforting. You knew when bad things were going to happen but it didn’t feel tense. I never dreaded reading it, like in some books where I don’t want to pick it up to read the next part because I know it is going to be bad. The author did such a good job of making the happenings feel natural. I felt deep sympathy for this family and what they and their town went through during this particular period of time, I even cried at one point. I also enjoyed the ending which, if you really thought about it you could see where it was going and figure it out. But it felt right. I really enjoyed this one and highly recommend it!

    Tell Tale: Short Stories – Jeffrey Archer, 2017, 4★s
    Loved these short stories by Jeffrey Archer (I’m a big fan and have been since I read Kane and Abel in 1985!) that are each so clever, thought-provoking, and generally end with a twist. The end of this book is the first four chapters of his new book “Heads You Win” that comes out in November, 2018. And, of course, it ends with a cliff-hanger! I can’t wait to continue reading to see what happens next!

    Tangerine – Christine Mangan, 2018, 3★s
    I like this quite a bit. It kept me guessing. It is a psychological thriller that involves two young women who have an entangled story. The reader learns the story from “Alice” and “Lucy” telling every other chapter. However, there is also a husband and a grifter that are on the sidelines. The current story takes place in Tangier in 1956 — the back story takes place while the girls are in college a few years before.
    But — who is the troublemaker here? Alice or Lucy or the husband or the grifter? Are there two girls, or maybe only one, with everything taking place in Alice’s troubled mind?
    This story kept my mind whirling the whole time trying to figure out what was going on, who did it, and how was it going to end?! It was not perfect but held my attention very well.

    Every Note Played – Lisa Genova, 2018, 4★s
    What a sad story, but I couldn’t put it down!
    I have read all of Lisa Genova’s books and am always impressed at her special way of telling medical stories in such a personal and down-to-earth way.
    This is the story of Richard, a world-renowned concert pianist, who is diagnosed with ALS. Since he and his wife are divorced, he has no one to take care of him — until she steps in to do it. And it’s kind of a sticky situation. Along the way the reader learns the background of their heartbreaking story, and how ALS affects each of them and, of course, their daughter. In Lisa Genova’s calm way, she describes how the body reacts to ALS and the minute care that the patient requires. This book may not be for everyone, but it is certainly educational and makes readers think about what they might do if they were the victim, a family caretaker, a family member, etc.
    It certainly had an effect on my point of view of this terrible disease. I knew it was bad, but Wow! Be brave and read this one.

    • davidallen909

      1848 to 2018 — nice range, Terri. I tried reading The Beautiful and Damned but only got to page 25 or so before giving up. I hadn’t really liked This Side of Paradise much. But his short stories are more to my liking.

      • Terri Shafer

        I agree! I especially like “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

  • DebB

    I didn’t keep a list of what I read in April, but to the best of my knowledge, here goes.

    Last month I mentioned that I was re-reading the Mrs. Pargeter books on my Kindle. I finished those, perhaps 5 books in all.

    I also read a couple books from a different series by the same author – Simon Brett. Death on the Downs and The Body on the Beach are about a middle-aged divorcee who moves to the English seashore after retiring from the Home Office, and finds her well-ordered life shaken up by finding dead bodies. Well, who wouldn’t? For some reason the next several books in the series are not available on Kindle, so I left that to move on to….

    The Professor Simon Shaw series by Sarah Shaber. Shaw is a history professor in Raleigh, North Carolina, and somehow also manages to get involved in solving murders. There are 5 books in the series and I re-read them all. They’re not bad, but they’re not that exciting either. Shaw is one of those people who drink Coke like it’s water, and he’s constantly mixing it with Goody’s powders for his migraines and upset stomach. I guess I like my heroes a little less clay-footed.

    Finally I moved on to re-reading the Gideon Oliver series by Aaron Elkins. Oliver is a physical anthropologist who loves examining old bones – the older and drier the better. The books take place in a variety of locales around the world – Germany, Spain, England, Chichen Itza, Glacier Bay (Alaska), and the scenery is so richly written I feel I’ve been there. I enjoy the characters, and even enjoy trying to pronounce all the long names of the various parts of bones! I think I read a couple of these before the end of the month, and will continue the series in May.

    So it sounds like I read around a dozen or so this month!

    • davidallen909

      Like you, I feel confident that if I found even one dead body, my well-ordered life would also be shaken!

  • Doug Evans

    I read three! So I equaled David’s count this month.

    “The Crossing” by Cormac McCarthy (1994). The second in McCarthy’s “The Border” trilogy, which tripped me up at first because I thought the same characters would appear in all three stories, and I kept trying to figure out the connection to “All the Pretty Horses,” which I read in February. The trilogy idea comes in more because the books all take place near the US/Mexican border (no wall here yet), though I’ve since found out that the characters from the first two books do meet up in the third. Anyway: Meandering and sad, not as violent as McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” or “The Road,” and five stars from me on Goodreads. I was caught up in the story, I was caught up in the main character, and the more McCarthy meandered, the more I was right there with him. For a slightly contrasting take, see Richard Pietrasz’ review from last month’s log!

    “The Crossing,” which I intended to finish and comment on in March’s reading log, ended up taking me half of April to get through, so I didn’t get as many other books read as I usually do. But! I did read these two:

    “A Man Called Ove” by Frederick Backman, translated by Henning Koch (2014). Read for a book club. A best-selling phenomena in its native Sweden (also a very popular movie). A cranky old guy who has lost his wife plans to commit suicide but keeps getting interrupted by his colorful neighbors and other assorted characters. This book sounds too precious by far when you read the description, but it was saved by the deadpan writing and also by the fact that Ove’s character doesn’t change, so no lessons are learned. Well, he decides to stop trying to kill himself, so there’s that. A Hollywood remake of the film is currently in the works, starring Tom Hanks, whom I don’t really see in the role, but you do you, Hollywood. “Ove,” by the way, is pronounced “Oo-vuh,” with the accent on the “oo.”

    “Echo Burning” by Lee Child (2001). The fifth in the Jack Reacher series. Reacher and his folding toothbrush are hitchhiking in Texas and get picked up by a woman who asks him to kill her husband. Shenanigans ensue. Reacher is pretty much a movie Western hero transplanted to modern times: a mysterious gunslinger (though he doesn’t carry a gun, he always manages to find one) who strolls into town, gets involved in a fight for justice, and leaves at the end. Although it’s ridiculous that he wouldn’t be picked up and thrown in jail at the end of every novel for the body count he always leaves behind, no matter how much the dead guys (and women!) may deserve it. Anyway: how was this book? My favorite so far!
    Four stars from me on Goodreads. Also, the Jack Reacher titles never seem to make much sense or have anything to do with the story, but this one actually did: the story takes place in Echo County, Texas, and at the end of the book a building burns. Good on you, Lee Child!

    Next month: the third book of “The Border” trilogy (unless it takes me more than a month to read), the sixth Jack Reacher, a science fiction anthology from the ‘60s, and who knows what else. Maybe nothing, because that was three books right there, and that’s the amount that I read this past month. Happy reading, everyone!

    • davidallen909

      I’ve seen that “Man Called Ove” book and wondered about it, and also how to say it, so you’ve satisfied my curiosity on both counts, Doug. Also, it was kind of you to equal but not surpass me for one month at least.

    • Terri Shafer

      I have read “Ove,” Doug, and enjoyed it. You’re right, the writing helped the story, I thought. I have read all of this author’s books and mostly liked all of them. My favorite is “Britt-Marie was Here” because of the writing and the wonderful playfulness and sense of humor. You might try it 🙂

      • Doug Evans

        Thank you, Terri! My scatter-shot reading has introduced me to a lot of authors I’d like to explore more. I’ve added Backman to the list, but in the meantime, I’m still working (and doing a poor job of it) on reducing the number of unread books lying here around the house…

        • Terri Shafer

          Good luck with that! 😉

  • Richard_Pietrasz

    I finished 9 in April.

    Nonfiction:

    Fire and Ashes: On the Front Lines of American Wildfire. John N. MacLean, 2003. MacLean explored two U.S. wildfire disasters and one near disaster, and summarized with a short history of dealing with wildfires in the 20th century. This was good not great.

    Den of Thieves. James B. Stewart, 1991. This is an excellent book about the junk bond insider trading scandal in the 1980s including Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky, and a large cast of others. At over 600 pages it is not the easiest book to read, but the narrative was well done and there is a detailed character index and a timeline to help the reader keep track. I started this over two years ago, put it down a bit less than halfway through, and finally picked it up again and polished it off in a few days.

    The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float. Farley Mowat, 1969. Mowat reminds me of Bill Bryson, except he had a much better attitude which I like. In the 1960s he and a friend purchased an old schooner in southeast Newfoundland, had it fixed up, and had a series of misadventures with it. He ends up making one moderately long voyage, to Nova Scotia and then to Montreal to visit Expo 67. I have not visited Newfoundland except in a several books, but I visited many places he did on the “major” voyage, including the remains of Expo 67 in the following year, in which many of the pavilions were still open. I found this amusing in parts, and enjoyed the historical insights. Note Farley earned a reputation for “not letting the facts get in the way of the truth. In the comic strip For Better or Worse, the dog Farley is named after Mowat.

    River Town: Two Years In the Yangtze. Peter Hessler, 2001. Kessler was a Peace Corps teacher of U.S. And English lit at a teacher college in Fuling from 1996 to 1998. Kessler worked hard to learn “Chinese” (I presume Mandarin) and interacted mostly with the locals. The tale is interesting. Not only is the time now gone, much of Fuling is underwater due to the Three Rivers Gorge dam.

    Old Indian Trails. Walter McClintock, 1923. “An authentic look at the Native American life and culture by the adopted son of a Blackfoot chief.” McCormick was in his late 20s when he spent two years with the Blackfeet 1896-1898, initially as part of a U.S. cultural expedition but mostly on his own. There is a lot of good description of Blackfoot life and culture at the time, including excellent photos. The adoption was for the purpose of making him a go between between the Blackfeet and the U.S., but we do not find out if that paid off. Overall this is an excellent book, but the lengthy description of the pow wow was a bit much.

    The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin. Adam Hochschild, 1994,2003. Hochschild has written about a number of disturbing subjects, but he does a very good job with them. This is has a number of interviews of people with various types of involvement in a country that went mad, plus description of visits to Gulag sites and KGB archives.

    • Richard_Pietrasz

      Fiction:

      The Mark of Zorro. Johnston McCulley, 1919. The setting is a historically inaccurate Los Angeles and area in the first half of the 19th century. The story is pulp but fun. It was written for movies and TV when movies were short silent and TV not invented.

      The Moonstone. Willie Collins, 1868. This is one of the first major crime novels, and a very good one.

      The Bannerman Solution. John R. Maxim, 1989. Fans of shoot employees up thrillers like this according to reviews. Almost all the main characters are murderers, but many are presented as good guys and gals ( because most of their victims were bad guys), which put me off.

      • davidallen909

        Thanks for contributing, Richard; I was worried you were taking the month off. As a fan of Farley the dog, it’s nice to learn he was named for someone. (I share your mixed feelings about Bill Bryson.) I haven’t read Mark of Zorro or The Moonstone but both are in my wheelhouse.

        • Richard_Pietrasz

          Android tablet plus flaky internet connection plus old fingers mean lengthy comments take time plus risk of frustration due to lost text entry. I did not get in as fast and flaky finish (furious or frenetic do not describe it well) as I sometimes do, but I got busy with a good start to May instead; when the mood strikes, go for it.

      • Terri Shafer

        I haven’t read many of yours this time, Richard. But I did enjoy The Moonstone and I think I’d like The Mark of Zorro. I’m going to add it to my list 🙂

        • Doug Evans

          “The Moonstone” is definitely a classic I haven’t read but feel like I should. One day!