Reading Log: December 2018

Books acquired: “The Portable Hawthorne,” Malcolm Cowley, ed.; “The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan,” Kevin Dettmar, ed.

Books read: “Ritchie Valens, the First Latino Rocker,” Beverly Mendheim; “Janis,” David Dalton; “Bob Dylan: Performing Artist, the Middle Years, 1974-1986,” Paul Williams

Happy December! I finished my reading early, pre-Christmas actually, and so here I am in the same month rather than a few days into the next.

I finished a trio of books, all of them with a rock musician’s name in the title. I read the Dylan because it is the oldest unread book on my shelves, and the last from my years living in the Bay Area. I have a half-dozen unread books of Dylaniana still and, see above, just bought another. Janis Joplin is another favorite. Valens is to be the subject of a future column.

It’s a shame that three decades after publication, “Ritchie Valens” (1987) evidently remains the only biography of the pioneering singer and guitarist, only 17 when he died in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, and with a career that lasted all of eight months.

To her credit, Mendheim (who as a teen saw Valens perform live in NYC) spoke to the relevant people and gathered copious source material. But she’s not expert enough to have made a real narrative out of it. Worthwhile for admirers, though. The conflicting memories of members of the Silhouettes, a local band in which Valens was a member, is both frustrating and hilarious; they can’t agree on much of anything.

I don’t know that I would have liked Janis Joplin had I known her, as she was so needy and outrageous (and faux-outrageous), but I find her fascinating to listen to and read about. She was a real trailblazer who suffered for being a woman and for being ahead of her time. The best bio is likely “Scars of Sweet Paradise” by Alice Echols, which I read a few years ago, pre-blog.

“Janis” (1971) is a ramshackle biography-cum-scrapbook published a year after her death, composed of relaxed interviews with Joplin from 1970, various Rolling Stone articles, a hefty photo section, sheet music for some of her best-known songs and a flexi-disc of talking. (The disc is still attached to the book and I think it’s more valuable to me preserved intact compared to the likely meager rewards of tearing it out and listening to it.) So as books go it’s a curio, but as a fan I enjoyed this more than I’d expected.

I read Paul Williams’ “Bob Dylan: Performing Artist, the Early Years, 1960-1973” in 1993, three years after publication, and let me tell you, I read it, listening to the records and following along with the lyrics, and also playing whatever unreleased tapes or records I happened to own. It took months. It was rewarding, but still. When I bought the sequel, I wanted to do the same thing, but after a suitable break.

Well, a quarter-century later (gulp), and trying to raise the floor of my unread books backlog by clearing out the stragglers from the late ’80s and early ’90s, I finally read “Performing Artist II” (1992). And it took months. This period starts with the 1974 comeback tour and “Blood on the Tracks” and ends with a 1986 tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the dismal “Knocked Out Loaded.”

The late Williams’ judgments are very useful if you’re willing to do a deep dive into the material. His thesis is that Dylan is a performer who can be as rewarding in concert as on record. Williams is a careful listener, but he can be overly generous, his devotion to the legendarily self-indulgent and unwatchable four-hour movie “Renaldo and Clara” is inexplicable and his takes on concert tours/tapes are a service to history if not always to readers who don’t have access to the material. Still, he was among the best Dylan commentators.

(There’s a final volume, from 2004, covering only 1986-1990, which I suspect will prove the least of the three and get bogged down in Never Ending Tour concert examinations. I hope to read that in 2019: There’s only four albums, one of them live, in that period.)

Look for my annual column in a few days about the books I read in the year past. I’ll also post the list of titles on this blog, which will be the best spot for you to comment on your own year in reading if you choose.

As for when and where the books above were acquired, the Dylan was bought in 1993 at Rasputin’s Music in Berkeley, the Joplin from Book Alley in Pasadena in 2002 and the Valens in October (talk about a leap forward in time) via Amazon Marketplace. It’s a former (I hope!) library copy.

Next month: “Counter Intelligence” and more.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Email
  • Richard_Pietrasz

    I finished nine in December, four nonfiction.


    The Teammates. David Halberstam, 2003. Four of the Red Sox of the 1950s had good to great careers as ballplayers, and kept up their friendship throughout the rest of their lives. Primarily of interest to history of baseball fans.

    The Most Scenic Drives in America: 120 Spectacular Road Trips. Readers Digest Association, 1997. Excellent job at what it set out to do, with maps and great photos for each trip. This was my bathroom book for over a year, because the articles were long for a normal sitdown for most of us. My personal highlight was finding out where I walked into a tunnel into a mountain and then took an elevator to the top.

    A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. Ismael Beah, 2007. Beah became a refugee of the Sierra Leone civil war in the 1990s at age twelve, and essentially drafted into the army at age 13. People who want to understand war, or vote in US federal elections, should read this plus supplementary material showing this happens to at least one side in most wars.

    The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. This is a great feel-good story, but marred somewhat by jingoism.

    • Doug Evans

      I read the Boys in the Boat a few years back. I’ve never been a sports fan, so reading about sporting events has never done much for me, but I did enjoy learning about the lives of these guys way back in the ’30s. For the record, my dad really enjoyed this one!

      Did your five fiction books somehow end up in blog purgatory again?

      • Richard_Pietrasz

        I entered the fiction this morning, and of now it is in moderation. Hugh McBride also got that treatment, but David replied to it and there was a placeholder to click and show the comment.

        • davidallen909

          Hugh’s comment was on the blog, was replied to and then vanished into moderation. I think it’s back. Your “war ____” comment tripped you up.

    • Richard_Pietrasz

      Fiction (entry delayed due to other events intervening, one of them polishing off a book I wanted on my 2018 list but di not get there):

      White Jazz. James Ellroy, 1992. Set in 1958, this is by far the darkest cop novel I have read. I saw LA Confidential on the tube, so I sort of knew what to expect, but this goes way beyond what I remember of that.

      Julie of the Wolves. Jean Craighead George, 1972. A 13 Inuit girl shuffled around in jumbled family circumstances decides to escape the most recent one by attempting to go overland from Point Barrow to where she hopes to meet people she knew would help her, hundreds of miles to the southwest. She survives with skills she learned from her father from ages 5 to 9, including enough knowledge to communicate and ally with a wolfpack. Girl power to the extreme, but more than a little far fetched, but likely a more than decent introduction to the clash of Inuit and Anglo culture in Alaska.

      Something Wicked This Way Comes. Ray Bradbury, 1962. A reread of decades ago, classic horror from the guy who grew up in Waukegan.

      King Solomon’s Mines. H. Rider Haggard, 1885. Classic imperial war porn, part of the inspiration for Indiana Jones, set in Africa. OK adventure at best even if one can suspend ethical judgment.

      O Pioneers! Willa Cather, 1913. Not bad, but she got better later.

      • davidallen909

        Which Cathers do you find more impressive, Richard? I’ve only read O Pioneers, plus a couple of her stories in college (Neighbor Rosicky and Paul’s Case), both of which impressed me. I have her Collected Stories on tap for 2019…I hope.

        I always mean to read King Solomon’s Mines, She and Allan Quatermain, in part for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen connection. (A retired AQ is one of the leads.) And I’ve read, and rereard, Something Wicked, of course. In some ways it’s Bradbury’s last great work.

        • Richard_Pietrasz

          My Antonia was more impressive to me. Part of that is likely it was my first book length intro to her work. Not bad does not mean mediocre to me, or average ; for the Brits it is a compliment, although here in USA it is often used as an encouraging remark by me and others.

          I read She many years ago, after seeing Ursula Andress in the role. I enjoyed it then. As far as the League goes, I was surprised to find out how extensive that subgenre is. There are people who compile all the character references and identify the sources, which add up to a large number of books.

          • davidallen909

            After I read, or give up on, the Collected Stories, My Antonia is likely my next Cather. I’m encouraged to hear that it’s that good.

      • Terri Shafer

        I’ve read Boys in the Boat, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and O Pioneers! (which I seemed to like more than you did!). But I’d also like to read Julie of the Wolves (I like George as an author), and I’d like to read some Haggard. I think I’ll move him up on my list!

  • Doug Evans

    I read just two! Bringing my year-end total to…

    Well, I’ll wait for the year-end round-up to talk about that.

    In the meantime, I read:

    “The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In”, by Charles Dickens (1844)


    “Worth Dying For” (Jack Reacher #15), by Lee Child (2010).

    I’m making my way through Dickens’ major Christmas stories, one a year. This isn’t as exciting as when I read all of the Dickens novels, one after the other, for 15 (well, 17) years, but it’s still fun. Having read “A Christmas Carol” and “The Cricket on the Hearth” in previous years, this year I tackled “The Chimes”. Kind of a curious story: a nice, poor guy, who seems to think that poor people (like himself) are to blame for their troubles, gets a vision courtesy some bells and goblins and learns that sometimes the circumstances that the poor find themselves in are out of their control. But since this character was already nice (not to mention poor), it’s hard to see how this changed anything. Not like Scrooge, whose change of heart at the end actively served to make other people’s lives better. Anyway, a fun story, and super popular in Dickens’ day (according to the internet), but it’s easy to see how “A Christmas Carol” has lasted longer in our cultural imagination.

    “Worth Dying For” is the 15th Jack Reacher book, as I wrote above, and in my opinion, one of the best. Not bad for #15! The cast of characters is small, the plot easy to follow, and Reacher endearingly over-the-top in his violent solution to taking care of the bad guys. And just walks away at the end, like he does. Someday some police officer or something is going to pull him over as he’s hitchhiking and say, “You know those eleven bodies back in that town back there? You know anything about that?” But they’re always fun, and like I said, this was one of my favorites. Worth noting, maybe: this follows almost as a direct sequel to the one before, which they rarely do. The end of #14, “61 Hours,” leaves us hanging as to whether Reacher survived a giant underground explosion or not. “Worth Dying For” lets us know he survived (of course), but he spends this book in a certain amount of pain and not always able to use his muscles to their full capacity thanks to the explosion. Hurrah for continuity!

    Looking forward as always to the year-end round-up! Happy 2019, everybody!

    • DebB

      I read The Chimes last year, and I remember thinking that maybe it had more relevance in its day. Like you, I can see how Christmas Carol has lasted longer.

      • davidallen909

        Hurrah for…two books! Actually, hurrah for any books! I enjoyed your summaries and commentaries on both.

      • Doug Evans

        Yep… I needed the Wikipedia entry to help me grok what Dickens was doing in “The Chimes”. “The Christmas Carol”, needing no Wikipedia entry to be understood, was probably always destined to be the perennial classic that it is.

    • Terri Shafer

      We don’t care if you read only two books! You read books! And reported honestly — we’re proud of you. But next month… 😉

      • Doug Evans

        Thanks, Terri! I’ll have a higher count in January…. but at the expense of the last two Game of Thrones books, which I’m reading, but slowly. It’s all good! It’s lot like George R.R. Martin is in any hurry to get the new books out, so I can take my time rereading the old ones.

  • Hugh C. McBride

    Been meaning to re-join this discussion for quite some time now, & I guess that time is now upon us. Hopefully starting with Dec. 2018 will make this feel less like a New Year’s resolution (and more like something that won’t fade out by mid-January).

    I had a pretty solid December, reading-wise. I finished six books, which brought me close, but not close enough, to my 2018 goal of 50 books (I ended up at 48 for the year):

    DEPTH OF WINTER (Craig Johnson) – This is the 14th novel in Johnson’s Walt Longmire series. Unlike Mr. Evans’s experience with Jack Reacher #15, I found this to be one of the weaker entries in this series (tho, on a positive note, I thought the book that preceded it was one of the strongest). This catches me up to all the Longmire novels, but hopefully there will be more to come.

    THE AGE OF MIRACLES (Karen Thompson Walker) – This is a quasi-sci-fi novel, told from the perspective of a girl in middle school. The sci-fi-ish element is that the Earth’s rotation begins to slow, causing (as one might expect) a host of environmental problems. With this as backdrop, our narrator navigates the treacherous world of middle school & tries to deal with a possibly splintering family. I found it to be highly engaging novel.

    TRULY DEVIOUS (Maureen Johnson) – The first in what promises to be a trilogy, set at a highly selective boarding school that was the site of an infamous crime decades ago. Our hero, a new student, attempts to solve the historical crime as well as a new one while also finding her place among an assortment of precocious fellow students. Looking forward to book 2, which is set to be released in early 2019.

    SIX YEARS (Harlan Coben) – Six years after his summer fling dumps him to marry an old boyfriend (a wedding that our narrator attended), our narrator discovers that the marriage may never have happened at all. Intriguing premise, and the novel is engaging for the first half or so, but gets bogged down in plot holes, coincidences, & implausibilities as it heads for the finish line.

    PLUGGED (Eoin Colfer) – Book 1 in a new noir series featuring an Irish former soldier/current casino doorman who tries to solve the murder of one friend, the possible murder of another, & the attempted murder of a cop, all while dodging a vicious mob boss. An underground hair plug operation also factors into the plot. I’m strongly looking forward to book 2 in this series.

    ELEANOR & PARK (Rainbow Rowell) – Magnificent novel about being a high school misfit, falling in love, and dealing with obstacles large & small along the way. Loved every page of this one.

    I started 2019 with THE WRONG SIDE OF GOODBYE, Michael Connelly’s 19th Harry Bosch novel. Hope to have a full report on that one, plus a few others, in 30 days or so!

    • davidallen909

      We’re now counting on it, Hugh! Don’t let us down! And thanks for rejoining us here. Your six-book month, which was also a two-Johnson month (authors Craig and Maureen), put you ahead of me for the year by a single book. But more on my year in reading soon…

    • Terri Shafer

      I have only read Eleanor & Park of yours, Hugh. But several others look very good! Welcome back 🙂

      • Hugh C. McBride

        Thank you, Terri! It’s good to be back 🙂

    • Doug Evans

      Hey, it’s Hugh! Welcome back to the blog, Hugh! If you promise to keep posting monthly, I’ll promise to not keep waiting 14 days to comment on people’s posts. Of your books above, I read Eleanor and Park (Chaffey College’s Book of the Year a couple of years ago) and liked it. And I read and enjoyed “The Wrong Side of Goodbye.” And! I see on Goodreads that you finished and gave a lowly two-star review to Jonathan Lethem’s “The Feral Detective.” That’s on my list to hopefully get through before the end of the month. I’m curious what my opinion will be, and how it will compare to yours and how both of ours will compare to David’s, who as I recall had a pretty favorable reaction.

      • Hugh C. McBride

        Your comments are always worth waiting for, Doug! Yeah, I had high hopes for THE FERAL DETECTIVE, but it didn’t do it for me. I need to go back & re-read David’s assessment of this book (though your recollection indicates I’m getting off track re: my “Be More Like David Allen” goal for 2019). I look forward to having the chance to discuss this book with you both at some point 14 days in the future or later.

        • davidallen909

          I should go back and reread my own assessment, but I believe I liked Feral D. without finding it life-changing, and also thought it had potential for a decent movie.

  • Terri Shafer

    I got quite a bit of reading done for December. But several of them HAD to be finished by December 31st at midnight, so you know how that goes… 😉

    SHIRLEY by Charlotte Bronte, 1849, 3★s, Read as a Goodreads group read. It was OK, not one of my favorites of the era.

    ZULEIKA DOBSON by Max Beerbohm, 1911, 3★s, This one was a little weird, but interesting….

    A BELL FOR ADANO by John Hersey, 1944, 4★s, I loved this one! I’m liking Hersey more and more!

    THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS by Ursula K. Le Guin, 1969, 4★s, I read this as a Goodreads group read and am really glad I did. I had not read Le Guin before and was very interested in some of the concepts introduced.

    EVENTIDE (Plainsong, Book #2) by Kent Haruf, 2004, 5★s, I love this author’s writing (He taught at SIU Carbondale, IL but recently passed away.)! I will be reading Book #3 very soon!

    THE TOUR by Jean Grainger, 2013, 4★s, Read for Book Club. It was light and entertaining 🙂

    NINE PERFECT STRANGERS by Liane Moriarty, 2018, 3★s, I have enjoyed this author’s other books but this one was just Okay.

    A DREAM OF STEAM by James W. Barry, 2018, 4★s, This author saw on Goodreads that I had recently read and enjoyed The African Queen, so he asked if I would read his recently-written first novel for an honest review. He sent me a copy, and I loved it! It was very historically accurate, a well-written, well-told story with a little drama and romance added in. I was pleasantly surprised 🙂

    Children’s books:
    UNDER THE LILACS by Louis May Alcott, 1878, 4★s,
    Enjoyed a lot!

    ONION JOHN by Joseph Krumgold, 1959, 3★s, This was an award winner but I wasn’t crazy about it.

    SIDEWAYS STORIES FROM THE WAYSIDE SCHOOL by Louis Sachar, 1978, 3★s, Very Funny!

    I enjoyed all these Short Stories quite a bit and was interested in the authors!
    THE NECKLACE by Guy de Maupassant, 1884, 4★s
    THE DOUBLE-BARRELLED DETECTIVE STORY by Mark Twain, 1902, 3★s, Fine but not his best.
    CHESS STORY by Stefan Zweig, 1941, 4★s
    NO EXIT by Jean-Paul Sartre, 1944, 4★s
    SEA PRAYER by Khaled Hosseini, 2018, 4★s

    • davidallen909

      Thanks for joining us, Terri. Of yours, I read the LeGuin in 2018 and had the same reaction as you. I’ve read that Twain short story and can’t remember anything about it. That’s how it goes sometimes.

  • Terri Shafer

    David, I haven’t read any of yours this month, but I like the music theme 🙂