Reading Log: December 2019

Books acquired: “Anthony Bourdain: The Last Interview,” Melville House, editor; “Wild LA: Explore the Amazing Nature In and Around Los Angeles,” LA Natural History Museum, editor

Books read: “Salinger: A Biography,” Paul Alexander; “2020 Vision,” Jerry Pournelle, editor

Happy New Year, readers! Before it feels too late to do so, let’s look back at December, in which we all had to squeeze reading in among holiday get-togethers and such. Leave us alone, people! We have seven chapters left!

Generally my Decembers are fairly leisurely as far as reading goes; perhaps yours are too. True to form, my year ended with two books read in December. The first was a fairly blah biography of J.D. Salinger, which I’d started a few weeks earlier, set aside and then ploughed through the last part of November, finishing a couple of days into December.

Having some slack time, I read a couple of stories from a 650-page science fiction anthology, at which I’ll probably continue to nibble away in the coming months (I’m up to p. 200), before putting that down to read the entirety of a 192-page science fiction anthology that was timely. That I finished Dec. 27. Since then I’ve read 100 pages of a 350-page anthology of a single science-fiction author and set that aside, hopefully to finish in February, to instead start a literary classic that I expect will be one of two or three books I’ll finish in January.

So, it’s been a fun few weeks, with my reading a bit less pressured than some months. Books of short stories can have that effect. You build up a certain momentum within them, yet the books don’t cry out to be finished immediately as with a novel.

Anyway, on to this month’s books.

“Salinger: A Biography”: Alexander gathered up the basic facts, interviewed a bunch of people and drew from Ian Hamilton’s unpublished but archived research. But the writing is clunky and some of his conclusions are bizarre: Salinger, whose writing is often a laugh riot, doesn’t have a keen sense of humor? Teddy kills his sister instead of the reverse? Salinger courted stalkers to fuel book sales? His preference for young adult women goes back to…when he was a young adult man? Do tell. Also, the cover is hideous. (It’s since been supplanted by one that’s a bit more professional.)

“2020 Vision”: The limits of SF’s ability to forecast the future are certainly clear in this 1974 book of stories set in 2020. Almost nothing has come to pass. But who cares? This is still a fun collection of SF originals. I actively enjoyed about half, with A.E. van Vogt and Norman Spinrad’s stories my favorites, and Dian Girard’s, about a future in which women’s ideal weight is enforced, was a welcome blast of feminism. I devoted my New Year’s Day column to this book. I read the book for my column more than for this blog, but it served a dual purpose.

I bought “Salinger” in 2002 at Borders Books in Montclair (RIP) from a sale table and “2020” in 2007 at Book Baron in Anaheim (RIP) during a half-off closing sale. Two bargains! Although the books seem a little less like bargains after having sat around unread for more than a decade.

How was your December, readers? Feel free to just stick to December in your comments, as my annual year-end books post and column will follow in the next week, and we can reflect on our reading years there.

Next month: a Thoreau look at January.

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  • DebB

    Well, I managed to read one this month, and it took me most of the month to do so! It was “Desert Dead”, the third in the Mac ‘n’ Ivy series by Lorena McCourtney. Mac and Ivy’s friend finds a dead body in a desert movie town, the body disappears before anyone else sees it, and M’n’I head out to help the friend solve the mystery. Not great literature, but an enjoyable read. Helped me make the transition from memorial service for a friend to Christmas with the family.

    Has anyone been noticing a trend toward abrupt endings, both in books and movies? I sometimes feel like the story just stops, rather than ends, if that makes any sense. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it disconcerting, like I have no time to transition out of the story world back into my own world. This book ended like that. The mystery did get solved, but the moment it did the book ended. I kept looking for an epilogue or something.

    • Terri Shafer

      Yes, Deb. I just read one that went into lots of detail and then in the last 3 pages the whole story got wrapped up and that was the end! Like you, I need a little more transition into an ending :/

    • Doug Evans

      I have noticed the abrupt ending effect, particularly in the Jack Reacher books I was reading, in which, after hundreds of pages of set-up, Reacher kills everyone (well, the bad guys) in a couple of pages and then in the last paragraph hops on a bus and disappears. But that’s totally in character for Reacher, so it works for the books. And, hey, it never did the Lone Ranger any harm!

    • davidallen909

      You’re doubtless right, Deb, although I can’t cite any examples.

  • Hugh C. McBride

    I read seven books in December, which brough my grand total for 2019 to a surprising 73. It was a solid month of reading to end the year – no duds, a few welcome surprises, one that’s something of a modern-day classic:

    LAND OF WOLVES (Craig Johnson) – This is the 15th entry in Johnson’s “Walt Longmire” series, and it’s a solid return to form following the previous book, which unfortunately (to me, at least) took our hero deep into Mexico to battle a group of kidnappers and killers. Nice to have Walt back in Absaroka County.

    WHO KILLED THE FONZ? (James Boice) – If you ever wondered “I wonder what would happen if they revisited Happy Days as a mid-80s noir-ish TV special?” then this is the novel for you. I never actually wondered that myself, yet I kinda love that this book exists.

    NEVER LOOK BACK (Alison Gaylin) – This is an engaging mystery with a strong 909 connection. A true-crime podcaster sets out to explore the aftermath of a series of 1970s murders committed by two teenagers who were dubbed “The Inland Empire Killers.” The teens supposedly died in a fire shortly after their killing spree – but evidence surfaces that one of them may still be alive …

    THE NIGHT FIRE (Michael Connelly) – This is the entry #3 in the “Harry Bosch & Renee Ballard” sub-series, and I remained impressed by Michael Connelly’s ability to remain true to the essence of his most famous character while allowing him to quasi-realistically age. Harry may not be eternal, but the Extended Bosch Universe seems to be in tremendous shape.

    MARLENA (Julie Buntin) – After her parents’ divorce, teenage Cat moves to rural Michigan with her mother & brother. She falls in with our title character, who lives in a ramshackle somewhat-converted barn with her younger brother & her meth-cooking father. The narrative alternates between present-day adult Cat & her experiences as a teen. A solid read.

    CHERRY (Nico Walker) – This is a novel about a soldier who returns from Iraq, struggles with depression & PTSD, develops a heroin addiction, and ends up robbing banks to support his habit. It was written by a soldier who returned from Iraq, struggled with depression & PTSD, developed a heroin addiction, and ended up robbing banks to support his habit. Nico Walker has been in prison since 2012 for the aforementioned robberies & is scheduled to be released in November 2020. This was a harrowing, gripping read.

    THE GOOD DETECTIVE (John McMahon) – A drunk detective who was trying to help an exotic dancer escape her abusive boyfriend may have killed the prime suspect in an arson/murder case. He doesn’t think he did – but he can’t remember a lot about that night. Now he’s part of the team that’s investigating the case. The second book in this series is due to be published in March 2020. I look forward to reading it.

    THE COMPLETE PERSEPOLIS (Marjane Satrapi) – Finally got around to reading this highly regarded graphic-novel-as-memoir that documents Marjane Satrapi’s youth & adolescence in Iran & Europe during the late 1970s & early 1980s. It was as spectacular as I’d been led to believe it would be.

    • davidallen909

      Hugh, seven books last month and 73 for the year are both impressive. (In other words, they beat mine by a mile.)

      I note your 909-ish book with interest and can say that I’ve read the two Persepolis books individually. Also, I met Satrapi at the Claremont Colleges a few years ago after a talk she gave.

      Are you aware there’s an animated version of the books that Satrapi was heavily involved with? I can’t actually recall now whether I saw it or am just remembering the art from the comics.

    • Terri Shafer

      Hugh, I haven’t read any of yours, but you had a good month!

    • Doug Evans

      Those all look fun (especially the Fonz one) and Persepolis is one that I’ve meant to read for a long time. It could be the story of one of my good friends with whom I teach, though her family came to the USA, not Europe; not to mention the story of many of my ESL students.

  • Rinaldo Darke

    I read nine books in December. The top three were all non-fiction, so fiction was second best.

    DADITUDE by Chris Erskine 5 stars
    A collection of some of his more recent LATimes columns.
    I am sure I have read almost all of these before, but I was happy to read them again.

    TALKING TO STRANGERS by Malcolm Gladwell 5 stars
    A book about communication and especially miscommunication.
    It is still bouncing around in my head – like all of his books.

    POWER BALL: Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game
    by Rob Neyer 5 stars
    A detailed analysis of modern baseball told during a pitch by pitch relating of an Oakland A’s v. Houston Astros game.

    VANGUARD and ASCENDANT by Jack Campbell 4 stars
    These are books 1 & 2 in the Genesis Fleet SF series. Good space opera – Iron Men and Space Ships – just for fun.

    A CLOSED AND COMMON ORBIT by Becky Chambers 4 stars
    Hugo Award nominee – another good SF book

    LOST HILLS by Lee Goldberg 4 stars
    Goldberg has many TV credits and was the main writer for “Monk.”
    This is a very good female cop novel for fans of Connelly’s Renee Ballard books.

    DON’T LOOK FOR ME by Loren D. Estleman 4 stars
    The 23rd book in the long-running Amos Walker, PI series set in Detroit. Good tough-guy private eye stuff.

    THE TWO-BEAR MAMBO by Joe Lansdale 3 stars
    Third in the Hap and Leonard series, Not so good as 1 & 2.

    • Terri Shafer

      I’m so glad you gave Talking To Strangers 5 stars! I have only read one of Malcolm Gladwell’s (Blink) and really enjoyed it. I want to read more of his this year. I may have to start with this one 🙂

    • Doug Evans

      One of the dangers of David’s Reading Log is that I always find books mentioned that sound really intriguing, when I should be tackling the Giant Stack of Unread Books I already own, and your list is no exception, particularly in the science fiction and mystery genres. Congrats on a strong month!

    • davidallen909

      You closed the year on a strong note! I generally read Erskine’s columns. Something about his style gets on my nerves, to be honest, even as other things about his style make me laugh. I can’t explain it.

  • Terri Shafer

    I read eleven in December — but who’s counting? 😉

    I finished up with E.M. Forster, Graham Greene, Sinclair Lewis, Jules Verne, and Ernest Hemingway! But with all that I had to add in some fluff! And I decided that in 2020, I’m not going to do as much planning (no GR challenges — so far!). I don’t want my reading to feel like homework this year. I’m going to catch up on some series that I am behind on and read some best sellers and things that friends recommend. That being said, I will still be reading some classics, but just not on a “have to” basis. So that’s my reading “plan” for 2020 — but — I love planning and reading structure, so we’ll see how that goes!
    You know “best laid plans…” 😉

    WHERE ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD by E.M. Forster, 1905, 148 pages, 3***s
    This was not a long one, but pretty interesting. However, very tragic, as an English family tries to control their family members and it doesn’t work out very well :/

    BRIGHTON ROCK by Graham Greene, 1938, 269 pages, 3***s
    This satisfied one of my Goodreads challenges. I like Graham Greene and am kind of collecting his books (I just started “This Gun for Hire”!). I think this one is considered one of his ‘entertainment’ reads, and I’ll say that it did hold my interest more that some of the other ones 🙂

    DODSWORTH by Sinclair Lewis, 1929, 384 pages, 4****
    I’m a big Sinclair Lewis fan, but this wasn’t my favorite. Glad I read it though 🙂
    A man and his wife decide to tour Europe to educate themselves and become more “cultured.” Spoiler-alert: it does not affect them and their marriage in a positive way :/

    THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND by Jules Verne, 1865, 732 pages, 5*****s
    I loved this book! I’ve read several other Jules Verne books but this one really struck me. Did I say I LOVED it?! 😉

    Five men are stranded on a deserted island and must start from scratch to build, plan, and live, in the middle of nowhere, with only what is available on this island. And, yes, Verne mentions Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson which had been written before this book. But it is noted that these men are stranded with absolutely no supplies, tools, etc. from their previous lives and must start from absolutely nothing. Yes!! I know it’s fiction! But what I really enjoyed was the fact that it was written in 1865, and seeing what Verne as an author at that time knew about math, science, chemistry, etc. All this knowledge he extends to his characters. I know it was only 150 years ago, but I was just so impressed with the process of how they went about settling in to this life. Also, there is some drama, excitement, and mystery to hold an adventurous reader’s attention.

    One thing that might also have added to my enjoyment of this book is that I listened to it on LibriVox. The reader was Mark F. Smith and he is amazing!! This book was 22 hours long, and I didn’t want it to end! It was that good for me 🙂

    FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS by Ernest Hemingway, 1940, 495 pages, 3***s
    I didn’t love it, but I finally read it and I’m glad I did! It satisfied two of my Goodreads challenges! And I finished it by midnight on December 31st! No pressure 😉

    THE POISONWOOD BIBLE by Barbara Kingsolver, 1998, 546 pages, 4****s
    What can I say about this one?! It’s been on my list for so many years, and I’m glad I finally read it, but — wow! — there’s a lot to it. Basically, a family goes to Africa as missionaries in the 1960’s. You get their story (told mostly through the four daughters, and a little from the mother), and how what happens in Africa affects the rest of all of their lives. It is not a happy read but it is powerful.

    MURDER FOR CHRISTMAS by Francis Duncan, 1949, 240 pages, 3***s
    For book club: just a fun murder mystery “who-dun-it”; very Agatha Christie-esque. But nice discussion within our group.

    THE SILENT PATIENT by Alex Michaelides, 2019, 323 pages, 4****s
    Wow! Exciting! I couldn’t put it down! And a fun twist at the end. I recommend this one for a quick, exhilarating read 🙂

    HARDCORE TWENTY-FOUR by Janet Evanovich, 2017, 320 pages, 4****s
    So funny — as always! I just love Janet Evanovich’s sense of humor! Always good for a light, fun read 🙂

    THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER by Barbara Robinson, 1972, 128 pages, 4****s
    I teacher friend was telling me about this book and watching the movie with her students. I had never read this children’s book — so I did! It was really fun.

    THE UNTEACHABLES by Gordon Korman, 2019, 288 pages, 4****s
    I enjoyed this YA novel of a group of seven middle school students, deemed “Unteachable” by the administration, that are assigned a teacher who, because of a bad rap at the beginning of his teaching career, is too depressed to care about teaching them. However, as time goes by and he does a couple of unusual things that show the students that he really does care about them (which even surprises himself!), and the students do some things that show the teacher that they also care about him, the reader gets to go along for the ride as each of the students, as well as the teacher, learns to love each other and themselves. Very touching, but very funny also!
    (Sorry for the run-on sentences, David! Just couldn’t help myself!)

    • Doug Evans

      Good month, Terri! I’ve read both “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Poisonwood Bible” and really enjoyed them both, though I recall “For Whom” taking a while to get through. I’ve got two collections of Hemingway short stories on my shelf, and when I finish the two science fiction short story collections I’m currently reading, I plan to tackle those. Though I never seem to follow through on any of the promises I make on this blog, so we’ll see!

    • davidallen909

      The Unteachables! Funny title. They should all bring Lunchables to class.

      So your reading plan for 2020 is to not have a plan? I like it. We should all be having fun with our reading, but I’m with you, it’s easy to get caught up in stuff we convince ourselves we need to read.

      For Whom was my favorite Hemingway novel other than Old Man and the Sea, but I prefer his stories.

    • Hugh C. McBride

      I’ve read For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Poisonwood Bible, and The Silent Patient. Three solid reads! I’m also pretty sure I lived parts of The Unteachables 🙂

      • Terri Shafer

        Oh, so you’re one of those, huh?! Haha!
        It was a fun book, though 🙂

  • Doug Evans

    I read five last month! Bringing my year-end total to a respectable, if not great, 52.

    “The History of the Hobbit” by John D. Rateliff (and J.R.R. Tolkien) (2007, updated 2011). I read this off and on over the course of several months. It’s an annotated collection of the drafts Tolkien prepared while writing “The Hobbit,” which means this book is actually about three “The Hobbits”’ worth of book. Fun, but needless to say, for hard-core fans and obsessive book nerds only.

    “The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust Volume 2)” by Philip Pullman (2019). The second volume in the sequel trilogy to Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” series. Our hero Lyra, a 12-year-old girl in the first trilogy, is all grown up in this one, and off to the Middle East to find out the secret behind the mysterious element Dust. Prequels and sequels often feel completely unnecessary (hello, Rise of Skywalker), but Pullman has created an engaging world with lots more in it to explore.

    “Your House Will Pay” by Steph Cha (2019). It’s Steph Cha! I first learned about Cha by reading one of David’s columns. Cha has written three books in her Juniper Song private eye series. This, her fourth book, is a stand-alone, set in the time of the Rodney King riots and the present day, and is inspired by the 1991 real-life shooting of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by convenience store owner Soon Ja Du. I enjoyed all three Juniper Song books, which were pretty much Raymond Chandler homages with a modern twist (the main protagonist is a Korean American woman who idolizes Chandler’s Philip Marlowe character), but in this one, by tackling race issues and without the need to force herself into a mystery format, Cha has come into her own.

    “The Battle of Life” by Charles Dickens (1846). My annual December read of Dickens’ Christmas books. He wrote five, of which this is four, and it’s the least of the bunch. Christmas is mentioned only in passing, no ghosts appear, and the story is a treacly tale of true love that may have been convincing in 1846 but now is just an eye-roller. There’s a reason we remember “A Christmas Carol” and not “The Battle of Life.” Better luck next year, Dickens!

    “Rabbit, Run” by John Updike (1960). Hey, it’s Rabbit, Run! Terri read this in November, and that inspired me to pick it up (well, purchase it, and then pick it up) and read it myself. To quote from Terri’s review: “This is really a strange book about a young man with no maturity, no sense of responsibility, and absolutely no guilt for how he treats his wife, women in general, his children…shall I go on?!” Nailed it! But Updike’s writing (as Terri says in her review) makes this a page-turner, even as Rabbit runs (hey, that’s the title) rampant through his life and causes chaos in his wake. I’ve known about these books for years and have always wanted to read them, partly because I’m intrigued by the idea of an author creating a character and then following him through the decades. With that in mind, I’m a quarter of the way through the sequel, “Rabbit Redux,” set ten years later. To answer Terri’s comment from her review, wondering “if he ever grows up!!”… um, not so much. But the writing is still good!

    I’ve also been working on a couple of science fiction short story collections myself, one of which I’m sharing in common with David; and I read “The Big Town,” a complete novel that’s part of my Portable Ring Lardner collection from my grandparents, but I ain’t counting it until I finish the whole collection, as part of my penance for not reading this book when they were alive. (My grandparents, from the great beyond: “For Pete’s sake, already! Count it, don’t count it, we don’t care!”)

    Next month! The Rabbit sequel, a Ross Macdonald book, and we’ll see what all else. In the meantime, looking forward to the year-end round-up!

    • davidallen909

      52: a book per week! That’s a good number. And nice to be reminded that you are still finding books by your boy Chuck Dickens to read, with one more to go in 2020.

      • Doug Evans

        Thanks! I didn’t pick up on the one book per week thing till you mentioned it. Not bad! Yeah, I’m going to be a little sad when I finish the final Dickens Christmas book (but I hope it’s better than “The Battle of Life”!).

    • Terri Shafer

      Oh good! You tried Rabbit, Run! — See, I told you! It’s really different, but somehow it’s still very readable. I’m going to have to get into Rabbit Redux and see what I think. But I might just wait for your review first 😉
      (Thanks for the props in your review, BTW)

      • Doug Evans

        Yes! Definitely readable, and that’s what kept me going. I finished Rabbit Redux, so look for that in January’s Reading Log, but here’s a sneak peek: for a guy who’s just kind of passively making his way through the decades, man, that Rabbit sure screws up a lot of people’s lives.

    • Hugh C. McBride

      Love Steph Cha’s Juniper Song series. I just placed a hold on Your House Will Pay – Libby tells me I’m in for a 6ish-week wait, so maybe I’ll be able to add my $.02-worth on that book in my February update. I think I read “Rabbit, Run” back in the 1990s – but I may need to revisit that one just so’s I can join in on the discussion here, too. If a book gets a nod from Doug & Terri, then I think I need to check it out.

      • Doug Evans

        If I had bought a physical copy of “House Will Pay,” I’d give it to you… Alas, my version is electronic, so it only exists in bits and bytes (and is subject to Amazon’s “we’ll-just-take-this-back-now” whim, which probably won’t happen, because why would they do that, and since I probably won’t reread it, it wouldn’t be that bad a thing, but it is weird to think that I don’t actually “own” a copy of a book I paid for). Anyway! That sentence started out as “Sorry I can’t give you my copy!” and ended up as “Wow, what a weird science-fiction universe we’re living in!” so: here we are. Good book, though!

        Link to what I’m babbling about:

        https://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/18/technology/companies/18amazon.html

  • Terri Shafer

    David, what does this mean?!
    Next month: a Thoreau look at January.
    Are you going to get to Walden before me?
    I’d better get on the ball!

    • davidallen909

      I’m two-thirds of the way through! Aiming to finish next weekend.

      • Terri Shafer

        Aarrghh!!