Reading Log: October 2019

Books acquired: none

Books read: “Alive in La La Land,” Jack Smith; “How the World Was: A California Childhood,” Emmanuel Guibert; “Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters, 1542 to 2018,” David Kipen, editor; “Panorama: A Picture History of Southern California,” W.W. Robinson; “The Library Book,” Susan Orlean; “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies,” Reyner Banham

I know a bit about California history, perhaps more than the man on the street, yet I’m not scholar of the subject. I haven’t read Kevin Starr or Carey McWilliams or any number of other writers (see, I can’t even think of them) (although at least I know the names Starr and McWilliams).

But in October, I caught up a bit. I’d been reading Kipen’s book a bit every day since March (!) and Smith’s off and on since May or so. When I realized I might finish them the same month, I decided to make an LA month out of it.

“Alive in La La Land” (1989): Smith’s ninth and penultimate collection of columns was the last published in his lifetime. The most startling, and affecting, are the pieces about his collapse at home, triple bypass surgery and recovery. The remainder is the usual gentle, lightly humorous stuff. But as a man of 70, give or take, with heart trouble, he wasn’t getting out much, making this his least interesting book. You’d barely know he was living through the 1980s based on his reference points to classic movies and World War II-era pop. But he does cite Cyndi Lauper.

“Dear Los Angeles” (2018): Letters, diary entries and more from or about L.A., many by famous people, some by the obscure, arranged by date. Feb. 20, for example, has contributions dated 1861, 1928, 1934 and 1960. Some people find the organization confusing and would prefer strict chronology, but I don’t even understand what that book would look like, and anyway, that’s like taking the fizz out of soda. A fun, enlightening kaleidoscope of a book. I read this day by day starting in March, while going back to January to catch up and later skipping ahead to November and December so I wouldn’t spend the entire year on it.

“The Library Book” (2018): A paean to the LA Central Library, which survived a disastrous fire in 1986 whose cause was never definitively proven, and to libraries in general in a changing world. There are intriguing branches into the future of libraries, LA Central’s history and unexpected collections (maps, sheet music), and the story of the hapless dreamer and habitual liar who may or may not have set the fire. That a tremendous amount of research was done is evident, but each detail appears carefully chosen.

“Panorama” (1953): Charming overview history of Southern California, with all the omissions and boosterism you’d expect of a book published in 1953 by the white staff of a title insurance behemoth, but laden with 19th and early 20th century photos, drawings and lithographs. Many are surprising, as in, “there’s a photo of that from 1857??”

“Four Ecologies” (1971): “This sense of possibilities still ahead is part of the basic life-style of Los Angeles,” concludes Banham, perhaps the first outsider to have positive, and original, things to say about L.A. Were the Brit here in 2019 he might find less to like about the freeways he extolled and more to like about the downtown he dismissed. But he understood L.A., predicted the future desirability of Venice and was open-minded enough to see Ray Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles” as a perfect SoCal allegory.

“How the World Was” (2014): I may never have listed a graphic novel here, even though I read ’em, because I put them in a separate mental category. But I’m making an exception for this, since it fits our theme. A French illustrator renders an oral history by his friend Alan Cope, who was born in the 1920s and grew up mostly in Alhambra. Cope relates descriptions and incidents from his childhood and about his family. It’s closely observed, low-key and ordinary, but in the best way possible, and set in a California that is almost unrecognizable.

I’d say “How the World Was” and “The Library Book” are the real winners this month. “Dear Los Angeles” and “Architecture of Four Ecologies” are certainly worth reading, if a bit more for the devotee. “Panorama” is vintage fun. “La La Land” has its merits, but you’d be better off with literally any of Smith’s other books.

Where did I get these books? Orlean and Kipen’s came to me as birthday gifts this year. “World” was bought at Powell’s in Portland in August. “Panorama” was a gift in 2017 from reader Roger Recupero from his own collection. “Ecologies” was bought at L.A.’s Last Bookstore in 2012. And Smith’s book was bought somewhere now forgotten in the mid-’00s.

What did you read in October? And have you read much L.A./SoCal history, and if so, what books would you recommend?

Next month: silent films and science fiction.

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  • Terri Shafer

    Wow! Six books this month, David! You’re keeping up! 😉
    I recently read “The Library Book” and really enjoyed all the information Orlean gave. Very interesting!

    Well, here’s what I read last month. I had some pretty good ones!

    OSCAR AND LUCINDA by Peter Carey, 1988, 515 pages, 3***s
    I’m not sure what to say about this one. It was on my list for so long, and I’m glad that I finally got to it! I listened to the audio book read by Steven Crossley, and, for me, he made the book. I loved the beginning and the way it was written. I’ll say I enjoyed at least the first half very much. But…the second half kind of lost me, and by the end I was thinking “…what?”
    So I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it. It had lots of good parts, descriptions, and characters. But the story was a little lacking for me. The last half or quarter (IMO) just went off on a weird tangent that I didn’t understand or particularly enjoy. Anyway, I’d recommend that you try it yourself and see what you think! 🙂

    GOOD OMENS by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, 1990, 491 pages, 4****s
    I loved this one! So much fun! And the writing is wonderful 🙂

    MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER by Oyinkan Braithwaite, 2018, 226 pages, 4****s
    I feel funny saying that I enjoyed this book about a woman whose sister tends to kill the men that she dates, and it’s her job, duty as a protective & loving sister, to clean up after her, which means “disposing of the bodies.” It is a strange premise, but a compelling story. Very well written and a quick read.

    THE DOLLHOUSE by Diona Davis, 2016, 289 pages, 3***s
    I read this one for book club. This author writes her books centered around buildings in New York City and their history. I have read “The Address” about the Dakota, and she has also written books about the Chelsea Hotel and the Grand Central Terminal. The Dollhouse is set around the Barbizon Hotel for Women, which was set up to be a safe place for women of the fifties and sixties to live while working in “the big city.” Of course, the stories are fiction and include a little bit of drama, mystery, and some romance thrown in. I feel like they are a little light weight — I’d like personally like more history, but that’s probably just not this author’s style of writing. These books are interesting enough though.

    THE VALLEY OF FEAR by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1914, 166 pages, 4****s
    Guess what — he solved the mystery! Good old Sherlock never disappoints 😉

    THE GRAMMARIANS by Cathleen Schine, 2019, 272 pages, 3.5***’s
    I enjoyed this story of identical twin sisters who were obsessed with the world of words and grammar. I like the writing style, the character descriptions, the setting. However….I felt that it might have been a little short (I hesitate to say weak) on story. It could possibly have had a little more “punch/oomph” of some sort. Also, I wouldn’t have minded a little more of the words and grammar part, although there was a decent amount of that.
    I don’t mean to talk this one down. You see I gave it four stars! So I recommend that you give it a try — I just might have wished for a little bit more…. 🙂

    THE MARS ROOM by Rachel Kushner, 2018, 336 pages, 4****s
    This was a thought provoking book about a woman in prison, serving two consecutive life sentences. Prison is her life now. But the book is quite unusual. I think a person would need to read this book because they enjoyed the writing rather than looking forward to a story with a beginning and an ending. There are a lot of interesting things to learn about prison life, and a lot of sad things to learn about how some kids grow up in horrible situations, and they end up being very sad and damaged adults. I think that might be what this story was about.
    I did enjoy reading this book, and I think it will stay with me for a long time, but….I’m not sure what else to say…I’m still thinking…

    LOVING by Henry Green, 1945, 248 pages, 3***s
    This one was very similar to the Upstairs Downstairs/Downton Abbey stories, but this one came first! Green did a good job, but it is very English, so much so that there were some things and wording I didn’t understand. But I’m glad I read it because I think he was probably the one who started this trend!

    THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY by Edith Wharton, 1913, 370 pages, 4****s
    I very much enjoyed this story of Undine Spragg who, in 1867, wants more. The reader goes along for the ride as Undine tries to work her way up the social ladder thinking each new step will make her happier. And guess what — well… you know the answer 😉
    And if you’re familiar at all with Edith Wharton, you know there’s always a little twist in the end, and this one was in the very last sentence! I’m glad I finally got to this one.

    THE CONFESSION CLUB by Elizabeth Berg, comes out 11-19-19, 304 pages, 4****s
    I’d like to thank NetGalley, Elizabeth Berg, and Random House for the advanced reader’s copy in exchange for my unbiased review.
    As this book represents Elizabeth Berg’s third book set in Mason, Missouri, I find myself looking forward to each visit to this cozy little town, catching up with old friends, and meeting new ones along the way. In this one, there are reminiscences of Arthur and Lucille (The Story of Arthur Truluv); updates on Iris, Maddy and Nola, Monica and Tiny (Night of Miracles); and introductions to the members of the Confession Club.
    Confession Club, originally a Third Sunday Supper Club meeting of a group of friends who had taken baking classes with Iris, switched to meeting twice a month, and then weekly as their friendships grew. As they talked, they began to share more and more details of their lives until they each started to “confess” things in their lives that they were afraid to tell anyone else — good or bad. Each confession is as unique, and entertaining, as the last!
    The meetings of Confession Club are interspersed throughout the chapters of the book as the reader learns about what Iris has been baking and also about her new love. Maddy and Nola are back in town as Maddy tries to make some changes in her life. And it’s fun to get to know Nola as she grows up — she is now seven years old, and quite a character!
    This is a sweet, funny, sometimes sad, but always endearing, story of people that you feel like you’ve always known — and can’t wait to get together with again soon — hoping that Iris will bring along some of her famous baked goods! Enjoy!

    SUGGESTED READING by Dave Connis, 2019, 385 pages
    This is a YA novel about a private school banning several books from their school library and how one of the students starts a secret underground library and checks these books out to the students from her locker. I really enjoyed it because I like books so much. And because I have read all the banned books that they named and quoted! Yay!

    • Hugh C. McBride

      Impressive list, as always, Terri! SUGGESTED READING, THE DOLLHOUSE, and MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER on my are all on my “gotta read these one of these days” list. Hopefully one of these months they’ll show up in my report here, too!

      • Terri Shafer

        Yes, Hugh, I hope you get to those sometime. I think you’ll find they are each interesting in their own ways!

    • davidallen909

      11 books! My six isn’t “keeping up” with you, Terri! Nice to see you’ve also read and enjoyed The Library Book. I’ve read Valley of Fear, part of my long-concluded effort to read all the Holmes stories and novels.

      Yay for books, banned and not!

      • Doug Evans

        “Yay for books, banned and not!” Double yay from me!

    • Doug Evans

      Sounds like a fun month! Of all of those books, the only one I’ve read is “The Valley of Fear”, read long ago by a teenaged me and then again a few years ago on a Holmes re-read I completed (before I started commenting on this blog, alas).

      If you and I average out our book counts from last month, we each read six! (Probably cheating on my part.)

      • Terri Shafer

        I love your idea of “averaging” our books! That’s great — For You!!! Haha! 😉

  • Rinaldo Darke

    HI, David
    I read “The Library Book” back in June along with the LATimes book club. It was, as you say, a real winner.

    October’s Best
    “Under Enemy Colors” and
    “A Battle Won” by Sean Thomas Russell
    Iron Men and Wooden Ships historical sea novels in the manner of Horatio Hornblower. These were very well done – 4 stars

    “Bloody Genius” by John Sandford
    Twelfth in the Virgil Flowers series about a Minnesota cop – 4 stars

    “Broken Glass” by Alexander Hartung
    A German “rogue cop” story newly translated and published here in the U.S. – also 4 stars.

    “The Pot Thief Who Studied Edward Abbey”
    by Michael J. Orenduff
    about an Albuquerque pot-hunter and -maker who became a pot thief when Congress decided the ancient artifacts should all stay buried. Also an amateur sleuth when one of his students at the University of New Mexico is murdered. 4 stars.

    • davidallen909

      Hey, Rinaldo! Thanks for joining us again. And glad to hear you too liked The Library Book.

  • Doug Evans

    I read one!

    “Night Fire” by Michael Connelly (2019). The latest in Connelly’s Bosch and Ballard series, featuring his two main series characters, both of whom work for the LAPD, teaming up and fighting crime. Fun stuff. I read this while also catching up on the Amazon series “Bosch”, so it was a bit of a trip reading one version of Bosch (older, retired, Vietnam vet) while watching another (younger, still on the force, Gulf War vet). Adding to the trippiness was the fact that actor Titus Welliver plays Bosch in the series and narrates the audiobooks (and, in the case of “Night Fire”, is the guy the book is dedicated to). Nice work if you can get it!

    That’s all I made it through last month, and since I only read one in September, I’m not having a great second half of the year. But I’ve already finished one for November, and I’ve made a good start on two others (not even counting the Ring Lardner collection that the ghosts of my grandparents would like me to get back to), so maybe I’ll do better this month and next.

    As for David’s books: I’m always happy to see Jack Smith show up here, and I’d really like to read “The Library Book” and “Dear Los Angeles”, though that last one sounds a little intimidating length-wise.

    Happy reading, everyone!

    • davidallen909

      I like how you always use an exclamation mark after your opening declaration of the number of books you read, Doug, and how you continue to do so, undaunted, even if you read only one.

      But! As you are wont to say yourself, to buck me up if I had a down reading month, even one book in a month is more than most Americans read that month, or even in a given year. Also, the punctuation shows that you were never bragging before about 4 or 6 or 8 or whatever, but merely excited to be reading. And you still are!

      You read a current book, for which you get extra (imaginary) points, and you’ve already read one, a week into November. Good show!

    • Terri Shafer

      Doug, just keep reading! You’re doing great! I’m sure you’ll get to all those other books sometime. And you can always keep working at getting those extra “imaginary” points of David’s! 😉

  • Hugh C. McBride

    I read six books in November, which brought my 2019 total to 61. Three of last month’s reads were stellar, the other three, not so much.

    RECURSION (Blake Crouch) – Fueled by a desire to help her mother, who is struggling with dementia, a scientist works on a device that will harvest & preserve memories. She receives funding from a mysterious Elon Musk-esque bazillionaire, who begins to make some strange demands. Things get weird. Then they get dangerous. Then they get really weird & really dangerous. A fantastic read.

    THE BOOK OF SPECULATION (Erika Swyler) – A young man, descended from circus folk, discovers that women in his family have a history of drowning on the same day. Will his sister, who has left home to join a traveling carnival, be next? Interesting concept, so-so execution.

    TWO BOYS KISSING (David Levithan) – As the title characters attempt to set the world record for longest sustained kiss, other teens grapple with first dates, coming out to parents, and being accidentally outed. The story is hauntingly narrated by a chorus of gay men who were lost in the AIDS crisis. A powerful, mesmerizing book.

    JUST MERCY: A STORY OF JUSTICE AND REDEMPTION (Bryan Stevenson) – I don’t have the words to adequately express how impressive & inspiring & hopeful it is to read about the tremendous work that Bryan Stevenson & his colleagues at the Equal Justice Initiative have done (and continue to do) on behalf of those who have been wronged by the U.S. justice system. I also don’t have the words to fully capture how sad & frustrating & enraging it is to think about how many people have been (and continue to be) wrongfully imprisoned & otherwise mistreated by this system. JUST MERCY has absolutely earned a premier position in the category of “Incredible Books I Wish Never Needed to Be Written.”

    DOXOLOGY (Nell Zink) – An obscure singer achieves surprising fame, then dies of a heroin overdose on Sept. 11, 2001. Decades later, the people who were closest to him attempt to come to grips with how they were (and still are) impacted by his life. Goodreads says DOXOLOGY is “At once an elegiac takedown of today’s political climate and a touching invocation of humanity’s goodness, [offering] daring revelations about America’s past and possible future that could only come from Nell Zink, one of the sharpest novelists of our time.” I must’ve missed those parts. This one didn’t do much for me.

    TIN MAN (Sarah Winman) – A young man has a brief but intense affair with another young man. Later, he marries a woman, and the three become great friends, until one of them disappears for a few years. Eventually, two of these people die, and the survivor is left to contemplate his life. This one had potential, but I think the result fell far short of what could have been.

    • davidallen909

      Wait, “Tin Man” by Winman? More writers should come up with titles that rhyme with their names. Although Levithan might find that difficult.

      Thanks for joining us again and congratulations on six books. Three excellent ones out of six isn’t bad.

    • Terri Shafer

      Good month, Hugh! I read Abandon by Blake Crouch but I think I’d also like to read Dark Matter and Recursion whenever I can get to them. They sound exciting!
      I’d also like to read something by David Levithan. I think I’d like some of the things he writes.

  • https://www.instagram.com/libraryneenja Nikki Villalobos

    I only read four in October. The Chain by Adrian McKinty, On Writing by Stephen King, Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie, and Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein.

    And actually, that’s probably also how I’d order them if I were to rank favorite to least favorite. The Agatha Christie book was short stories, and I just don’t go in for those, but I’ve decided to read all the Poirot books, so I had to read it.

    Starship Troopers didn’t do anything for me, it was technically good, but I didn’t care about anything going on.

    King’s book is wonderful on several levels, while also being practical. I grabbed it on my quest to read all of his books.

    The Chain followed a predictable sort of formula for the mystery/thriller genre, but I adored it anyways. It made me really consider how far I’d go to save/protect my kid.

    As for the L.A./SoCal history, I really loved The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles by Gary Krist and, though it’s a little more specific, The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, and Scandal at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont by Shawn Levy.

    • davidallen909

      Nikki, welcome to the Reading Log! Based on your eclectic choices and determination to read all of this author or all of that character, you fit right in already. Thanks for commenting!

      I like Heinlein but haven’t read Starship Troopers (and may never); I probably read the Poirot when I worked my way through virtually all of Christie as a beardless youth.

    • Terri Shafer

      Hey Nikki — I’ve read several of Stephen King’s books but not On Writing yet. I’ve heard good things & I think I’ll try to get to it soon. Also, I’m an Agatha Christie fan too! 🙂