Reading Log: September 2018

Books acquired: “The Annotated ‘Big Sleep’,” Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson and Anthony Rizzuto, editors

Books read: “The Sheep Look Up,” John Brunner; “The Maltese Falcon (Film Classics Library),” Richard J. Anobile; “Cats, Dogs and Other Strangers at My Door,” Jack Smith; “The Perfect Horse,” Elizabeth Letts

It seems it was September, not March, that came in like a lion and went out like a lamb, based on my animalistic titles last month. My reading encompassed a science fiction novel, a collection of newspaper columns, a nonfiction World War II account and a stills-and-dialogue version of a film noir classic, all with a critter in the title.

I’d been wanting to read “The Sheep Look Up” since being struck by its summary in a display at the science fiction museum at Seattle’s Space Needle in 2006, and remembered its unsettling cover from book racks in the 1970s. So that’s the edition I acquired a year or two later (from where, I forget). At 450 pages, it was a little intimidating and I kept putting it off, but I took it with me on my overseas trip and, after reading “The Trial,” read almost half by the time I returned.

This sprawling, character-filled novel (1972) charts environmental ruin (acid rain, unbreathable air, poisoned water, a sun that never emerges) that people manage to ignore even as their quality of life erodes. Experimental, but easy to follow, with black humor and real anger at the fouling of Earth. Brunner’s alarm about pesticides and antibiotics that no longer work hasn’t quite been borne out (yet?), but “Sheep” is still scary and deserves to be more widely read.

“Cats, Dogs and Other Strangers at My Door” (1984) collects some 30 years of columns by the LA Timesman about the cats, dogs and birds that found their way to his and his wife’s Mount Washington home. I love Jack’s writing but had some trepidation about this one, as a non-pet person. As the seventh of his nine books, which I’ve been reading in order, one per year, it was this one’s turn. But no need to fear. His clear writing, sly humor and observations about the foibles of both human and pet alike made this book another semi-forgotten gem.

“The Perfect Horse” (2016) chronicles the little-known tale of the purebred horses rescued at the end of WWII by equine-loving American troops before the Russians could grab them for horsemeat. Some of them were shipped, at least briefly, to Kellogg Ranch in Pomona before being dispersed to auctions in other states. I saw Letts give a talk at Cal Poly earlier this year, bought the book to help me with the resulting column and got it signed. I read the few Pomona pages in writing the column, then put the book aside. I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the time on it, as it’s not really my thing, but thought if I were ever going to read it, it should be this year, and so I inserted it into this animal month.

Well, it was frequently quite good, with Letts playing up the drama and humanity of the men involved. But there may be too many characters, riding camps and breeds for the reader to follow for the narrative’s own good, and the story kind of trails off, as the dramatic rescue in many ways seems to be for naught. Life is often like that. Still, maybe I’d have been just as well off skipping the book after all. (Among the copious works cited in the back is my own Kellogg column from my Pomona A to Z series, although I can’t imagine it was of much help.)

As for “The Maltese Falcon” (1974), it’s one of a series done by Richard Anobile in which he presented portions of old comedies, or even full movies, as frame blowups accompanied by typeset dialogue. I have his “Casablanca” and two Marx Brothers books.

Now that we can enjoy “The Maltese Falcon” in our own home anytime we like — I’ve since watched it again on Blu-ray after finishing the book — this is an antique. But “Falcon” is such a great movie that the chance to linger over its details and chuckle in recognition of favorite moments is not to be dismissed. Also, you might learn something; in my case, despite repeated viewings, it was exactly how Captain Jacoby figured in, which had glided right past me.

I bought “Falcon” at Powell’s Books in Portland in 2016. As mentioned, “Horse” came from Cal Poly in 2018. “Cats, Dogs” and “Sheep” date to the mid-2000s, prior to the Reading Log, from used bookstores, although I’ve forgotten which ones. Smith’s, like my others by him, is signed.

How was your September, readers? Hope you read some good books, and not too many dogs. Let us know in the comments section.

Next month: a favorite author or two.

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  • Terri Shafer

    David, I am sorry to say that the only one of yours that I’ve even heard of title or author is “The Maltese Falcon” (which I read a few years ago). I guess I’d better get out more!
    Glad you enjoyed them, though 🙂

    • davidallen909

      That’s OK, Terri, I haven’t read any of yours either! Although I’ve heard of most of the authors.

    • Doug Evans

      If you get a chance, Terri, check out some of Jack Smith’s books. I used to read his column in the L.A. Times and dream about being a newspaper columnist myself. The closest I got to that was becoming friends with David. “God and Mr. Gomez” is maybe the most popular book Jack Smith wrote, but they’re all good. Well, at least the ones I’ve read, but I think David would back me up on that claim!

      • Terri Shafer

        Thanks, Doug! I will definitely look into Jack Smith. If you and David recommend him and there is a “sly sense of humor” involved, I’m in!! 😉

        • Richard_Pietrasz

          Make that three recommendations. I read many of Smith’s columns in newsprint plus two or three books.

  • Terri Shafer

    Well, I got to several last month, some fairly light, others heavier, but overall I enjoyed them quite a bit:

    The Living Room by Graham Greene, 1954, 4★s
    I listened to this play and really enjoyed it even though it was sad. It was classic Greene whose writing I am enjoying more and more.

    Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate, 2017, 4★s
    This is a sad story of a family of poor children who are taken from their parents and sold to families who are willing to pay the price asked by the orphanage for the children that they desired. And although it is fiction, this story is based on the true story of a Memphis-based adoption agency that kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country for 30 years. Just tragic!

    The book is told from the perspective of one of the children, then jumps to the present day where a woman gets hints of some secrets that her grandmother is hiding. After some investigation, this young woman finds out the details of her grandmother’s early childhood that she has never told anyone.
    It is a story that is told well, very well-written, but still so sad, especially when you take into account all the children that suffered, and even died, under this system that no one tried to stop.

    Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, 1981, 3★s (or maybe only 2!)
    Interesting, sometimes funny, really long, also — Magical Realism, of which I’m not a fan.
    I read it for a reading challenge, and I’m glad I read it. But I’m not a good judge for you to go by on this one. I don’t want to discourage anyone because I know many people love it. So I say “Try it!” and judge for yourself 🙂

    The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen by Rudolf Erich Raspe, 1785, 3★s
    Five or six short stories. Really funny, but really extreme! Very Adventurous!

    The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West, 1918, 4★s
    Wow! Not what I expected!
    In 1916, England, a soldier comes back from the war with amnesia. He is missing 15 years. I don’t want to give anything else away, but it’s really sad. I liked it a lot though, and it’s very short (only 112 pages). I listened on LibriVox. The reader, Elizabeth Klett, was excellent!!

    Told After Supper by Jerome K. Jerome, 1891, 4★s
    Ghost stories told on Christmas Eve. Very funny, just what you’d expect from Jerome K. Jerome!

    The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford, 1960, 4★s
    I very much enjoyed this children’s book about two dogs and a cat and their journey. They are staying at a friend’s home while their owner is out of the country for a couple of months. And they decide that they want to go home — which turns out to be several hundred miles away! And what an adventure it turns out to be!! Good story, exciting, dramatic in places, and sweet 🙂

    Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan, 2013, 3★s
    I had had this book on my TBR list for about three years and then suddenly the movie came out! I sometimes don’t like to read books or see “book-based movies” because of all the hype. But since this was already on my list, I decided to go ahead and read it, but maybe skip the movie.

    Well, as it turns out the book was pretty good, not great, just kind of fluff. But sometimes you might just be in a “fluffy” mood! So this is a pretty good one for that 🙂 It was a sweet love story that kept my attention. But the overwhelming theme was over-the-top wealth, ostentation, and flamboyant displays of unbelievable amounts of money, along with many spoiled and entitled people of all ages, from 10 to 90! And it was really uncomfortable! That just goes against everything I believe, which, thank goodness, is how some of the main characters also felt. I guess that might have been the point of the book after all.

    So, in the end, after liking but not loving the book, I have decided to watch the movie because I think it will be visually unbelievable, because of all the money these people want to show off. And, as crazy as it seems, I think I’m going to read the second book “China Rich Girlfriend”! Only because the ending of Crazy Rich Asians leaves you hanging a little bit, and I want to see exactly what happens with Rachel and Nick! I may not get to it right away, but I think I’m going to do it. Surprises all around! 😉

    The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, 1940, 3★s
    I liked this one but may have enjoyed The Heart of the Matter a little more. His books are never what you’d call happy, but I’m still trying to read several of his (10 and counting!). I’ll probably try to go for Our Man in Havana and Brighton Rock next.

    Light in August by William Faulkner, 1932, 4★s
    I loved this for the beauty of the writing. And because I was so pleased and surprised to enjoy reading Faulkner whom I thought I disliked (from past reads “As I Lay Dying” and “The Sound and the Fury”)! I think I’ll try another one of his at some point 🙂

    The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798, 4★s
    I needed this 18th century read for a challenge on Goodreads and noticed that it was not on any of the booklists that I had formerly read it so, here goes:
    I read this the first time in 6th grade (Mrs. Boley’s class)!! As I remember, the class enjoyed it, even though, as I read it now, I can’t believe 6th graders would even really understand it. But quotes like “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink” and “I bit my arm and sucked the blood” are ones that I still remember from almost 50 years ago!! So I guess that kind of speaks for itself 😉

    • Richard_Pietrasz

      I read The Power and the Glory recently enough that I am sure you have seen my comments. Of writers who write of Christian stuff, I give many Catholics credit for thinking and questioning as opposed to blind faith. Blind Faith was an excellent but short duration band of almost a half century ago; blind faith propagated genocide and slavery.

      I previously did not know the Munchausen tales were still around, just that the syndrome was.

  • Doug Evans

    I read three last month!

    “A Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin (1996). Having finally watched all seven seasons (so far) of HBO’s Game of Thrones series, I decided to reread the books, which I initially read five years ago (thanks to the David Allen Reading Log for confirming the dates for me!). I really enjoyed the books the first time through, but it’s amazing how much more I’m getting out of them on the reread, thanks not only to having read them before but also to having watched the series. Character names introduced in book one that meant nothing to me my first time through but become important in, say, book three, are jumping out all over the place (I’m looking at you, Walder Frey!). Also, being able to put faces to names by picturing the actors on the TV show is proving immensely helpful in keeping everybody straight. So I recommend this strategy to everyone: read the Game of Thrones books first (technically: read the “A Song of Ice and Fire” books; “A Game of Thrones” is the title of the first book), then watch the TV series, then read the books again. Also, give yourself a couple of years to do all of that, because these things are pretty big.

    “Nothing to Lose” by Lee Child (2008). The 12th book in the Jack Reacher series. Reacher stumbles his way across two neighboring towns in Colorado, one named Hope and one Despair, and discovers a crazed evangelist and a domestic terrorist threat. These plots always sound a little silly when I type them out and maybe they’re a little silly when you’re reading them, but, heck, I’m still having fun reading these. The 24th book comes out at the end of this month, by the way, so I’m officially halfway through.

    “A Column of Fire” by Ken Follett (2017). The third in Follett’s “Pillars of the Earth” series, about a cathedral built in the fictional city of Kingsbridge, England, and the people who live and work there. Each book takes place roughly two hundred years after the one before. The first book detailed the building of the cathedral, and you might not think that would be all that fascinating, but Follett made it work; the second, “World Without End,” dealt with an addition to the cathedral and the growing pains Kingsbridge is suffering partly as a result of having a big cathedral in the middle of it. This third one tells the story of the Protestant Reformation started by Henry VIII and continued by his daughter Queen Elizabeth: what do you do with a big ol’ cathedral in the middle of your town when Catholicism has been outlawed? Aside from that background, all three books follow the same formula: two star-crossed lovers are kept by circumstances beyond their control while a powerful leader in the town wreaks havoc under the cloak of his religious authority. This third book was fun and features a few scenes set in Seville, Spain, where my father-in-law lives, and which has a beautiful cathedral of its own, so I had fun reading those sections. However: this was probably the least successful of the three books so far, in part because so much of it is not set in Kingsbridge itself. Aside from Seville (yay!), there are sections set in Scotland during the exile of Mary, Queen of Scots; Paris during the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre; and London, where Guy Fawkes is planning to blow up the British Parliament. All this is historically accurate (and educational… I’d never heard of the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre, and it’s pretty horrible), but in expanding the scope of the book past our beloved Kingsbridge, Follett possibly loses his grasp on the characters and their daily dramas which make these books come alive for us.

    Of David’s books: I believe I’ve read a few short stories by John Brunner, and I’ve read some of Jack Smith’s books, though not in as systematic a way as David is reading them. Smith’s great, though. Am I remembering correctly, David, that when you went to look his name up on Wikipedia, there was no entry for him, so you created one?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Smith_(columnist)

    Happy reading, and see you all next month, everyone!

    • davidallen909

      That is correct, Doug, re Jack Smith’s Wikipedia entry, which I created. That said, it’s been vastly improved in the years since by his family (presumably) by adding photos, more facts and footnotes. I was honored to have got the ball rolling.

      Smith may figure in an upcoming column/item culled from “Cats, Dogs…”

      You “only” read three books, but two of them were whoppers!

    • Terri Shafer

      I have read the first two Ken Follett books (I’ve read 13 of his in the last 37 years!!) and after reading your review I am really looking forward to A Column of Fire. I love all the historical references and also that they are set in a variety of countries! I will move it up on the list — but do all the books in that series HAVE to be 1000 pages?!!! 😉

    • Richard_Pietrasz

      I first read George RR Martin a long time before The Song of Ice and Fire went to press. I had had enough of sword and sorcery after Lord of the Rings, Saberhagen’s Swords series, Lieber’s Fafrd and Mauser (spelled?), Pern Dragons, Paolini dragons, etc. Small genre in scope, but a huge number of volumes and words.

      I gave in after years off and read Game of Thrones anyway. Too many words for the opening chapters of what seemed to be a good novel; I could read the best half of Dickens output for less effort was my estimate. The best part of GOT was reaching the back cover so I could say that was it.

      I have been putting Pillars of the Earth off for years. I hear it is real good, but whether it is age or modern attention span or buried in the great unread pile, it is still unrad to me. There are the Undead in zombie fiction, and the more numerous and ever increasing Unread on shelves and in piles in and even outside my house.

  • DebB

    I started this month by finishing J. A. Jance’s Shoot Don’t Shoot, the third in her Joanna Brady series. Newly elected sheriff of her town, but with no police experience, Brady goes to a police academy for a short-term course. While she’s there, there are a couple murders that she is instrumental in helping to solve. I followed this with the 4th book, Dead to Rights, in which a man’s murder seems to have been in retribution for his drunk-driving killing of a man’s wife. Not all is what it seems, however, and Joanna Brady finds the truth (of course!).

    I followed these by downloading another free mystery for my Kindle, Starboard Secrets by Hope Callaghan. This is a story of a woman whose husband has left her for another, so she decides to become an assistant cruise director on a large cruise ship. Why they would hire a 50-something woman with no experience is never explained, but when a murder takes place on board she is instrumental in solving it. This leads her into several new friendships, including with the captain and his dog, and while it was pretty fluffy and light I enjoyed it enough to read the next two – Portside Peril and Lethal Lobster. By then I was a little fed up with the errors, story lines and fluff, and gave it up.

    I then paid another visit to the Book Rack and picked up two Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey books, Whose Body? and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. It’s difficult to find these older books, and I enjoyed them both very much.

    Finally I went back to the list of free Kindle books and found something of a treasure. The initial story about the author was that she wrote mysteries in the 1920s and 30s as a hobby, never published. Her family discovered the books after her death and published them. Turns out Clara Benson is a contemporary author who wanted to write not historical fiction but books that would seem to have actually been written in that time period.

    So I read the first (free) book, The Murder at Sissingham Hall and enjoyed it very much. It’s told in first person by a man who returns to England after a long absence, stays at Sissingham Hall where a murder occurs, and helps solve it along with one of the other guests, Angela Marchmont.

    The rest of the books are told in third person and feature Mrs. Marchmont as a (somewhat reluctant) amateur detective, alongside her friend Inspector Jameson. Through The Mystery at Underwood House and The Treasure at Poldarrow Point we learn more about Angela, who was born in England, lived in America for awhile, served in British intelligence in WWI, has a long-absent husband somewhere, and is independently wealthy. These stories are not great literature, but I’m enjoying them very much!

    • Terri Shafer

      Deb, I haven’t read any of yours, but you sure seem to be enjoying yourself! That counts for a lot 🙂

    • davidallen909

      Somehow the phrase “alongside her friend Inspector Jameson” gave me a warm feeling. That’s an interesting idea, trying to write novels set in the past.

      Btw, I always thought I should try a Sayers novel, when I was in my mystery phase as a teen, but after going through Agatha Christie I think I lost my motivation to take on another British female mystery novelist. Isn’t it great that Book Rack, a used paperback store of the old school, is still around in 2018?

    • Richard_Pietrasz

      I read Sayers’ Busman’s Holiday and Lord Peter Views the Body, both quite good, and recently procured Nine Tailors.

      I read one Jance but do not remember what title.

      Project Gutenberg is great for free older ebooks.

  • Richard_Pietrasz

    Last to the party is better than not being there at all.

    I finished nine this September, only two nonfiction.

    Nonfiction:

    The Blind Watchmaker. Richard Dawkins, 1986. This is a defense of the natiral selection and evolution theory, ahainst the faith based concept of creationism. For me, this is preaching to the choir, but this was never a main field of study for me. Dawkins is (or at least was as time happens) a pro in the field, and I enjoyed learning some details and perspective.

    1434: The Year A Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance. Gavin Menzies, 2008. Menzies is an amateur historian who fell in love with his hypotheses and subsequently selected which documents to believe and which to ignore. There is some interesting stuff here, but his conclusions are overblown and some of his claims seem to come from FantasyLand.

    Fiction:

    The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Kevin J. 2003. This is a novelization of a movie based on comic books based on fantastic pulp fiction of a century or too ago, and sometimes less than that. Who needs to invent characters when you can take them from classic works of the past? The result is mediocre but mildly amusing, for some anyway.

    If He Hollers Let Him Go. Chester Himes, 1945. There has come to be an appreciation for the African American contribution to US literature, and there are a lot of good books that fit that category. This is overlooked by most. I think it does not fit in the bottom half of the top 100 US novels of the 20th century because it fits in the top half. Walter Mosley fans will find this not only inflenced but saturated his LA crime novels.

    Millenium. John Varley, 1983. Airliner crashes in our times plus time travel and a future distopia. I liked the contemporary plane crash stuff, but the SF future stuff was not so much miswritten but ignored. Varley was capable of much better, and did so elsewhere.

    Robinson Crusoe. Daniel Defoe, 1719. What can I write bit that I finally read the book after knowing the synopsis for 55 years or so? Read it.

    Ready Player One. Ernest Cline, 2013. This a fantasy for the video game and 1980s nostalgia crowds. I am familiar enough with both I was entertained. I finished it within 24 or 30 hours, and when done I felt like I ate a big bag of potato chips in the same time period, except in my brain and not my gut.

    7 Days to Death (originally Gideon’s Week). JJ Maric, 1956. This is remarkably similar to another Scotland Yard procedural I read not too long ago, an Inspector West novel by John Creasey. Thanks to the Internet, the reason is obvious: Maric is one of the many pseudonyms Crrasey used among his approximately 600 books (more than one month!). This was decent but not better than that. I usually get my fill of most serial authors before I get to completeness, largely because they produce more more books than interesting ideas. I am there with Creasey, which does not mean I might not do a time waster with him some years down the line.

    Brave New World. Aldous Huxley, 1932. I was not shocked, but awakened, when I first read this a bit over a half century ago. (I remember associating it with a campground near Syracuse NY on the way to Grandma’s; there are a number of books I remember with travels and places.) This was definitely worth the re-read. One of the privileges of age is that classics read decades ago are a lot more fresh than stale.

    • Richard_Pietrasz

      I am still overdue on June and August. Double digit totals on both, I can at least claim I spemt much of the time reading rather than commenting. I am posting now due to overdosing in early October.

      • davidallen909

        Your comments are welcome and accepted gratefully no matter when they arrive, Richard.

    • davidallen909

      I read Crusoe a few years ago for the first time and was struck to the point that I wrote a column about it. Nice to see another convert. (It’s rare enough that I get to a “childhood” classic before you, or anyone, that it was heartening to see that you’d finally got to one I’d read first.)

      The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie was weak; the original graphic novel is far superior and recommended, although you may not find it your thing. Alan Moore knows his Victorian-era British heroic characters, both well-known and obscure, and grouping them into a Justice League/Avengers-type of supergroup was a clever idea.

      • Richard_Pietrasz

        Not all the Victorian and earlier references were Brits. Nemo and the Phantom were French along with a detective (was it Maigrait); Sawyer, Ishmael and the Rue Morgue come from Melville and Poe in USA, and I am sure there is more.

        • davidallen909

          You’re right in part, although Tom Sawyer was added for the movie to make it more accessible to Americans (one of its many flaws).

  • Richard_Pietrasz

    Of David’s books, I think I read The Sheep Look Up a bit more than 4 decades ago, but I am not certain. I am certain I read Squares of the City, inspired by Brasilia. For a big sheep SF novel, I read and recommend Norstrillia by Cordwainer Smith, and also a companion Ballantine SF reprint series Best of Cordwainer Smith.

    I likely read a few of Jack Smith’s animal columns in the LAT. And the original Hammett Maltese Falcon of course, the novel at least twice and the movie at least once.

    The story of the Lippizaner horses is well known to people in USA a few years older than David. Disney did a movie about it in 1963. For those who did not see it like me, the Walt Disney Show was a must see every week, and as remember it featured clips promoting all Disney films. I visited a Lippizaner farm and watchedthe show north of Chicago in 2007 (memory time tag I35 twin citiesbridge collapse; I cannot remember what books I was reading but my nephew’s elder but very young child called me Tito Book (Uncle Book)).

    • davidallen909

      Tito Book!!

      Re the Disney movie, it gets only a mention in “The Perfect Horse,” but several commenters on Goodreads brought it up and said the author gave it short shrift.

      I own Squares of the City (unread) and would hope to someday buy/read The Best of Cordwainer Smith, as I collect those Ballantine SF best-ofs. Of the 21, I own 7 and have read only 3, which is why I’m holding off on pursuing the rest.