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.