Reading Log: April 2019

Books acquired: “The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style,” Nelson George

Books read: “Dreams and Schemes,” Steve Lopez; “The Simulacra,” “Lies Inc./The Unteleported Man,” Philip K. Dick; “Only Apparently Real,” Paul Williams; “The Colour of Memory,” Geoff Dyer; “The Orange and the Dream of California,” David Boulé

April is the cruelest month, they say. For me it was dreamy, at least based on the titles of the books I read. Or if not dreamy, then unreal or not to be trusted.

I read six, even though you’ll see seven books pictured above. Explanation to come.

“Dreams and Schemes” (2010) collects the best of the LA Times columnist’s first decade on the beat. I’d read all these in my daily paper but was happy to read them again. Lopez has a lively voice that keeps his paragraphs moving. His topics shift too, from politics to slices of life to human interest. In an early one, he hires a day laborer to fill his passenger seat so he can take the carpool lane across the county. Several of the later ones are about the city’s marginalized, including a half-dozen about the homeless musician who went on to inspire his book (and movie) “The Soloist.” In the concluding column, they’re invited to the White House.

“The Simulacra” (1964) is one of several Philip K. Dick (and -related) books this month. He was a master at questioning reality, after all. As with many of his novels, the plot is almost impossible to describe, being overstuffed with ideas. It’s set in a near-future America in which the government is a fraud and the president is an android, married to an eternal first lady who’s been in office 76 years. We also follow the last legal psychiatrist in America, a psychokinetic pianist who thinks his body odor is lethal and a jug band duo who specialize in classical tunes. I’d rate this second-tier PKD.

“Lies Inc.” (2004)/”The Unteleported Man” (1984): This is a special case. Dick wrote a novella-length version in the 1960s, wrote an expansion to turn it into a novel that wasn’t published and started to revise it for publication prior to his death. That’s the 1984 version. Then a few missing pages turned up, misfiled among his papers, and that became “Lies Inc.,” which places his expansion material where he apparently desired it, which was 3/4 of the way through part 1 rather than at the end, scrambling the time sequence and making the effect more experimental. I read “Lies Inc.,” assuming it would be definitive, and decided it is now my least favorite PKD. Then I skimmed “Unteleported Man” over an hour to see what was different. Well, it made a little more sense and had a more chipper ending. I preferred that version, even if it’s still not a very good book.

What’s it about? Millions of emigrants are making a one-way trip to another world’s promised paradise. But is that world all it’s said to be, or is this an interstellar version of the final solution? There are parallels with “The Man in High Castle,” but overall this is one of his potboilers like “Vulcan’s Hammer” or “Dr. Futurity.”

Anyway, I’m putting a slash between the titles and counting this as one book, completing my penance for stretching a point with my Harlan Ellison reading last month. You’re welcome.

“Only Apparently Real” (1985): I liked it, but it’s for fans only, a modest attempt at biography and analysis. It’s made up largely of Q&As with Dick conducted by a friend who was later executor of his literary estate. An awful lot of the conversations concern a then-recent break-in at his home, about which Dick characteristically spun a great many conspiracy theories, which are entertaining to a point, and then tiresome.

“The Orange and the Dream of California” (2014): Photos and memorabilia from the days when citrus was king and marketing oranges was a way to market California and a fantasy lifestyle of gentleman farmers, snow-topped mountains and perfect weather. The text sketches the history and underlines the ironies and dissonances.

“The Colour of Memory” (1989): A warm, funny debut novel that follows a group of friends, all smart, around age 20 and underemployed by choice in late 1980s England. They hang out, drink beer, listen to “Sketches of Spain” and try to avoid getting burgled. There’s no plot, but plot is overrated, right? Often very funny, it’s also lyrical and elegiac for a time and circumstance the narrator understands needs to be remembered before it fades.

“Colour” is the literary winner this month, followed by “Dreams and Schemes.”

You might find it interesting to know that I read Lopez’ book at a pace of one column per night from mid-January to mid-April, and likewise read Boule and Williams from my nightstand too, a little per night in recent weeks. “Simulacra,” “Lies Inc.” and “Colour” were my only daytime books.

I bought Dyer at Powell’s in 2016 (it’s the last of my purchases from that trip); Lopez from Vromans in Pasadena in 2012; “The Simulacra” I know not when or where, but many years ago; Williams at Glendale’s defunct Brand Books in 2008, “Unteleported” from Next Chapter Books in Canoga Park in 2009, “Lies Inc” the same year (appropriately enough) from somewhere forgotten. Boulé sent me his book last November after I wrote about his donation of memorabilia to the Claremont Colleges Library.

How was your April, readers? I hope any cruelty was confined to the pages.

Next month: Shakespeare and lesser lights.

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  • DebB

    I only read a couple this month – so much going on! Early in the month, I watched a rerun of an old game show, and one of the contestants said he had just published his 16th novel. I got curious and checked him out, and ended up reading the first two books in his Lewis Cole series.

    His name is Brendan DuBois, and while he didn’t win on the show I watched, it turns out he was at some point a single-day champ on Jeopardy! The two books are titled Dead Sand and Black Tide. They were written in the 80s, when the main character had no cell phone, and needed to use his dial-up modem to connect his Apple computer.

    The books are kind of a mix of mystery and spy thriller. The main character – Lewis Cole – worked for the DoD until a terrible accident forced the government to agree to support him (quite comfortably) for the rest of his life in exchange for his silence.

    Now he lives in a small town on the coast of New Hampshire, where his friends include the local reporter, the only detective on the local police force, and a freelance hitman. He spends his time solving various mysteries that come his way, and generally do-gooding – anonymously.

    So far I’ve enjoyed the series, and will probably read more as I have time. One nice thing about them is that the Kindle versions are only $3 (for the older ones, at least). A downside is the horrible editing. Even the author admits that he cringed when he went back through the older books to convert them to e-books. And reviewers say this gets much better as time goes on. So I guess I’ll keep reading them!

    • davidallen909

      Aw, “his friends include the local reporter.” But also include “a freelance hitman.” Which I guess is better than “the local hitman.” Interesting about the author being a Jeopardy! contestant, and a successful one at that!

    • Terri Shafer

      Cool! You can learn some pretty interesting things on Jeopardy!

  • davidallen909

    I’m imagining seeing this cheerful blurb on the next Lee Child book: “Live your best life, Jack Reacher!” — Doug Evans, the David Allen Blog

  • Megan Gearhart

    I read one, not counting all the picture books. “We Still Live in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson, a remarkably old edition from the Pomona Public Library. It was fantastic, lyrical and engrossing. I had “spoiled” the novel’s end thanks to Wikipedia but I liked the story so much it didn’t matter. Now I am on to her memoir “Raising Demons” about life in rural Vermont with four small children.

    • Terri Shafer

      I loved that one and have been a Shirley Jackson fan since we read “The Lottery” in 8th grade! Hope you enjoy “Raising Demons”!

      • davidallen909

        I’ve read a book of Jackson’s stories and it was about my favorite book of the year.

  • Terri Shafer

    Doug, I may have to give ‘Evelyn Hardcastle’ a try! The premise sounds so interesting. I’ll keep your 2-3 star rating in mind and see if I agree 😉

    • Doug Evans

      Let me know what you think! A suggestion: I both listened to it on audio and read it as an ebook on Kindle (shout-out to Amazon’s “Whispersync,” which keeps track of your place no matter what device you’re reading/listening to), and I found it hard to remember whose body the main guy was inhabiting at any particular point and what he was up to. It didn’t help that the audiobook narrator had a flat, dull voice that didn’t change all that much even when the narrator was in a different body. But reading it as a physical book, complete with a map in the front that I didn’t get to see, probably makes it easier to keep track of the whole thing, and thus probably makes the puzzle aspect of the story easier to follow. So I’d recommend reading this book as an actual book instead of all the newfangled fancy stuff I was doing!

  • Terri Shafer

    April was not cruel to me at all this year! I had a very good reading month 🙂

    Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay
    I had heard of this story for so long that I was glad to read it. It is mysterious and thought-provoking. And it really makes the reader wonder if this really happened or not — Fact or fiction? I don’t think we’ll ever know!! Read it and see what you think 😉

    Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg (Re-read for Book Club)
    I originally read this book 27 years ago, but I had forgotten so much of it that I enjoyed it as much or more this second time around! I love Fannie Flagg’s voice as an author. She is always so entertaining and really brings the characters to life. This one was a lot of fun — again!

    The Lifted Veil by George Eliot
    Such a mysterious and sorry tale of a man who can see into his own future — you’ll never wish to know your own future again! 😉 I thought this was a little different for Eliot, and I enjoyed it.

    A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
    I read this because it was summarized as “Laced with cynicism and truth; a satire; and murderously urbane.” Yes, it was all that! I’m not sure I’d recommend it but I kind of liked it 🙂

    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Unknown
    A Goodreads group read — Very interesting — a little “SciFi-esque.”

    Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling
    Our “One Book, One Community” read for 2019 A YA novel — lots of good lesson for kids — and actually for all of us! “Be more accepting, tolerant, and supportive of one another!”

    Foundation by Isaac Asimov
    I read this for a Goodreads group read and enjoyed it . I had never read any of his and now I think I might read “I, Robot.” Any opinions on that one?

    It by Stephen King
    Well — I finally finished IT!! I read 10 pages/day since January 1st (I never missed a day!) and finished on April 19th! It was a different way to read it, but 1100 pages was so daunting to me that I thought I’d never start it. So that was the plan I settled on and IT worked for me!! I really enjoyed it! I can’t read too many Stephen Kings in a row because he’s so wordy, his writing style is a little repetitive per book, and they’re all Soooo long (a little like Dickens!)!! But I’m glad I read it! 🙂

    Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
    A must-read for the “well-read” person, so I finally got to this one!! Man, was that guy crazy! It was pretty interesting though.

    Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer. Just for kicks — a YA novel where the main character is kind of a teenage James Bond. Exciting and fun!

    The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
    This one had been on my list for so long. Unfortunately, I don’t think I gave it quite enough attention, so didn’t quite understand/enjoy it as much as I (maybe) could have. (also, not my favorite genre)

    Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Another one that has been on my list for so long, and, boy, it was quite a ride! I especially enjoyed the first half that told of the family’s history and how they arrived in America in the early 1900’s. But the medical part in the last 25% of the book was kind of wild — TMI!! Overall, I enjoyed it though. This is my 3rd book by this author.

    The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials #2) by Philip Pullman
    I’m reading this series with a friend. It’s been pretty good and now we can’t wait to finish Book #3 in May to see where the story is going and how it’s going to end!!

    Rikki-Tikki-Tavi by Rudyard Kipling. Another one just for fun!

    Now, on to my May reading list! 😉

    • davidallen909

      Fourteen books? Kind of an off month for you, Terri. Just kidding!

      Did you know there are movies of A Handful of Dust and Picnic at Hanging Rock? I haven’t seen the latter, other than on the shelves at B&N in the Criterion section, sometimes in a box with the book. The former I saw in the theater in the 1980s. I don’t remember anything about the plot at all, only that Alec Guinness is in it and there’s a twist ending.

      Your question about Asimov will certainly prompt a reply from our resident Asimov nut, Doug Evans, and maybe sci-fi maven Rich P. Doug may suggest you finish the Foundation Trilogy. If that’s not of interest, and frankly I haven’t read any of them, I, Robot is indeed the famous Asimov book. I’ve read it as a boy and then again a few years ago, where it seemed very YA. But it’s charming as it explores variations on the author’s Three Laws of Robotics. You would find it a refreshingly upbeat look at technology. Robots really *are* our friends.

      Oh, and I love your 10-pages-per-day approach to It, and that you stuck to it! It’s hard to believe you are daunted by the length of any book, Terri, given some of the doorstops you’ve read, but you made it work for you.

      • Terri Shafer

        No, I didn’t know about the movies! Thanks, I’ll look for them 🙂
        And thanks for the Asimov info, I am also looking forward to seeing what Doug and Rich have to say!
        Not sure I’m into reading the whole Foundation trilogy though!
        Yes, I sometimes have to trick myself into reading certain books because I don’t want to spend all my time on just one book for months on end. So the 10 pages/day allowed me to read and stay excited about the story, but also be able to read other books at the same time. You know — gotta’ have several going a the same time!! 😉

        • Doug Evans

          I really like Asimov, as David mentions above, and I’d recommend “I, Robot” as a follow-up. After that, if you feel like you’re done, then you can be done, guilt-free! You’ll have read read his two most famous science-fiction works. I’ve often thought that Asimov is a great writer to read when you’re in junior high school: his ideas are amazing to kids of that age (well, nerdy kids of that age), and his flaws are not nearly as evident. If I’d first encountered him as an adult, I don’t know if I would have become as big a fan as I am. So: glad to know that you came across him later in life, and still enjoyed the book!

          • Doug Evans

            Another note! The “Foundation” book you read is famous, even at the time he published it, for featuring almost no women characters. I think there’s one woman in the book at all, with no speaking lines, who is only interested in dresses or jewelry or something? This is because Asimov himself had no experience interacting with women at the time, aside from his own mother and sister. He realized this was a flaw, and started featuring a lot more women in his works, including an amazing fourteen-year old kid named Arkady in “Second Foundation,” the third book in the series, who is tough and smarter than just about anyone else in the book.

      • Doug Evans

        10 pages per day is more or less how I got through my reread of the “Game of Thrones” series! Loved the books, but they were taking up so much reading time that I eventually restricted myself to a chapter every couple of days, thus allowing me to read other books as well. That way they didn’t seem like such an imposition, and I was able to enjoy them without feeling resentful that they were taking time away from other books. The problems us readers have!

        • Terri Shafer

          My thoughts exactly! I would hate to “resent” a book for taking up ALL of my reading time! 😉