Reading Log: January 2020

Books acquired: “100 Cassettes,” Dennis Callaci

Books read: “Walden and Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau; “Europe Through the Back Door,” Rick Steves

Welcome to 2020! Please leave your jetpacks by the door, take off your Velcro slippers and feel free to grab a refreshing dehydrated beverage from the robot bar.

Do we have any reading goals for 2020? I want to read the last four or five books on my shelves that date, unread, to the 20th century. That will considerably raise the floor on my unread backlog to a more reasonable date of purchase. Any other predictions or plans are almost certain not to come true, simply because I’m likely to get through about one-sixth of my remaining unread books in 2020 and any guesses as to which titles or series will probably be wrong. I’ve been hoping to get back to the Travis McGee series for two or three years. Maybe this year, maybe next. Ditto with reading the last two Fu Manchu pot boilers. My shelves have a lot of competing priorities.

However, I did want to start 2020 with something meaty, and I also wanted to return to an old tradition. When I read “Moby-Dick” in the first weeks of 2009, I did most of that at a Coffee Bean during evenings. It’s a fond memory of leisurely reading this ambitious novel in a public place on a cold night, a hot beverage in front of me.

So in January, I toted “Walden” to the same Coffee Bean on a couple of nights. Frankly there were a lot of distractions. A seeming transient would play music videos on his phone with no ear jack that could be heard throughout the store. An upscale-looking couple stroked each other like they were on the sofa at home. Meanwhile I’m trying to read 19th century prose.

But it was a worthy attempt on my part, one I hope to repeat on occasion. Speaking of Thoreau:

“Walden” (1854): Was Thoreau the first millennial? He gave up meat, lived in a tiny house, owned few physical goods, worked in the gig economy (occasional carpentry or substitute teaching), had a favorable opinion of tattooing and says at age 30 he “had yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.” Then again, he was against coffee and didn’t think he should have to pay taxes, so never mind.

I bought this in 1998 at the Rancho Cucamonga Barnes & Noble, on a night when I was feeling literary: Willa Cather’s “Collected Stories,” finally read last year, came from this same night, as did another heavy book I hope to get to this year.

One attraction was that this edition had Thoreau’s famous “Civil Disobedience” essay. I read that at the end of 2019, along with the introductions, etc., so I could start the year with “Walden.” I may have done this in the wrong order, as “Civil” struck me as a virtual tea-party screed, with Thoreau thinking the government was doing nothing that he liked and that he didn’t want to help support it, then wondering why they went to the trouble of jailing him. He has some pithy lines, but the piece rubbed me the wrong way. “Walden,” however, was pretty good, and perhaps if I’d read it first, “Civil” would have seemed more in keeping with it. It’s got a lot of good nature writing, and he seems like he’d have been a quirky but friendly enough neighbor, and it’s studded with great lines, as well as (who knew?) sly humor.

“Europe Through the Back Door” (2017): Rick Steves is the author and personality whose guidebooks to Europe are a staple of bookstore travel sections. I’ve used his Germany and Poland books and profited from his advice. This is an overview book about European travel, with advice on packing, money, illness abroad and sightseeing strategies. I admit, I was hoping this would be more of a manifesto. Instead, there’s an awful lot of referrals to various Rick Steves apps, audio tours, travel tours, etc., and his individual guidebooks probably do about as good a job in advising you about the basics.

Still, this is a useful, practical overview of traveling to, in and around Europe. Reading his enthusiastic pitches for individual European countries in the back portion of the book, you want to book a flight to at least half of them. I bought this at the Chino Hills Barnes and Noble in 2018. I started it before a trip, set it aside for more than a year and then had it on my nightstand for a few weeks in late 2019-early 2020. It’s possible his recent “Travel as a Political Act” book is more of the philosophy-of-travel book I hoped this one was, but next time I see it I will examine it carefully to find out.

So, a small start for 2020, but satisfying. It’s possible I will read a little less this year, as I want to take time to watch the occasional movie (unwatched DVDs are stacking up like books) and also need to work on my own next book. But I liked that I got to these two books to start the year, one around for two decades, the other recent but half-read.

How was your January, readers? And what goals, if any, do you have for the year? Leave a comment below, then retrieve your jetpack from my robo-butler and we’ll see you soon!

Next month: All that glitters.

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  • Rinaldo Darke

    Hi, David
    I read ten books this month.
    I am moving my copy of Walden to the front shelf.

    A Small Town: A Novel of Crime 5 stars
    by Thomas Perry
    The new book by an old favorite.
    Two years ago a dozen selected prisoners led a prison break. As they escaped they left the doors open and unleashed another thousand criminals on the local town. The assistant sheriff vowed that if the FBI couldn’t find the leaders within 2 years, she would. And she does.

    Shatterday 4 stars
    by Harlan Ellison
    He had more creativity in his little finger than …
    There is plenty of 5 star stuff in here, but they can’t all be 5’s.

    Triumphant (Genesis Fleet #3) 4 stars
    by Jack Campbell
    Good Space Opera that is good fun reading if you like that stuff.

    Look Alive Twenty-Five 4 Stars
    by Janet Evanovich
    Re-read via Audiobook – read by Lorelei King
    King is an excellent reader and Evanovich writes these really fun books about Stephanie Plum, New Jersey Bounty Hunter, who is not really good at it, but is persistent.

    Magic for Liars 4 stars
    by Sarah Gailey
    A good fantasy story about a private eye (who has no magic) and is investigating a murder at the Mage high school where her sister teaches. Harry Potterish in that the Muggles do not know about magic.

    Generally Speaking: All 33 columns 4 stars
    by Lawrence Block
    A collection of Linn’s Stamp News columns by am Edgar Award Grandmaster. Block collects stamps, as does one of his characters – Keller the Hit Man. He is always worth reading.

    Theodore Boone: The Activist 3 stars
    by John Grisham
    Audiobook read by Richard Thomas.
    Theo is a 13 year old wannabe lawyer with parents who are both in that profession. This the fourth in the series. In this book he helps
    gets rally the school kids to fight an eminent domain attempt.

    The Roman Hat Mystery 3 stars
    by Ellery Queen
    The first Ellery Queen book, from 1929.
    Good but dated. And despite the fair-play promise, he cheats.

    Secret Inland Empire: A Guide to the 3 stars
    Weird Wonderful and Obscure
    by Larry Burns
    Fun facts about San Bernardino/Riverside counties in 90 two-page spreads. Did you know Baseline was the base line for the surveying of almost all of Southern California?

    Dark Pattern 3 stars
    by Andrew Mayne
    Fourth in the series about Theo Cray, a computational biologist who turned his computer program on shark attack patterns into a serial killer tracker.

    I have already forgotten the name of the one I threw in the trash.

    • davidallen909

      Out of sight, out of mind, eh, Rinaldo? You’ve already read more books than I’ll collectively read through April, so you’re off to the races.

      I think I read “Roman Hat Mystery” as a teen, around the time of the TV series; never could warm up to the two or three Ellery Queen novels I read, enjoyable as the show was. I read and liked “Shatterday” a few years back and regretted having to miss Larry Burns’ Pomona appearance last Friday morning at Pilgrim Church, but I had a column due…

    • Terri Shafer

      Good month, Rinaldo! I read Hardcore Twenty-Four last month, so now I need to get going on #25. I think those are funny books!

      I definitely think you should read Walden. I had put it off for so long, it felt daunting to me. But it turned out to be pretty interesting!

    • Doug Evans

      I read Shatterday years ago, and really liked it. For some reason I have a memory of reading it on an airplane, though where I was going and when are lost to the winds of time. Those Janet Evanovich “Stephanie Plum” books sound like fun!

  • Terri Shafer

    I had a big month! It turns out that my reading plan of “no plan” for 2020 means that I am running rampant with no direction, but I did read a lot!
    My book totals come to about 3700 pages but I also read about 1000 pages that I can’t count because I didn’t finish the books in February!! (clue: I’m reading 15 pages/day of “A Suitable Boy” by Vikram Seth = 1400 pages!!!) And I had computer problems (was actually without it for two weeks!) so I didn’t keep up with reviews. So I will just be brief and give each a star rating 🙂

    The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien ★★★★ Enjoyed it and am listening to The Two Towers now.

    The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie ★★★ Very good, typical but satisfying Christie 🙂

    The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid ★★★★ I am really enjoying this author (have you read “Daisy Jones and the Six”? SO good!)

    Parker: Selected Stories by Dorothy Parker ★★★★ Loved listening to Elaine Stritch read these stories!

    Walden by Henry David Thoreau ★★★★ Has anyone heard of this one? Ha! David, I just couldn’t let you get ahead of me on this one! I enjoyed it more that I thought I would 🙂

    Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear ★★★★ Very good!

    Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson ★★★ Wow! What a trip!!! Once I filtered through the language it was pretty funny… but I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone 😉

    Benediction (Plainsong #3) by Kent Haruf ★★★★★ I loved this one (3rd & last in the series). This writer does such a beautiful job!

    The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien ★★★★ I finally got to this one — I had started it twice before. I don’t know why I quit it before because I really enjoyed it this time! I plan to read the two following books when I can!

    The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware ★★★★ Read for Book Club, this one is a play on “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James. I liked it pretty well.

    A Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh ★★★★ This one was kind of crazy. A word of advice: don’t read it if you want to rest or relax! Ha!

    This Gun for Hire by Graham Greene ★★★★ Very good!

    After You, My Dear Alfonse by Shirley Jackson ★★★★ This is just a 3-page short story but it packs a punch! I love Jackson’s writing!

    Dark Matter by Blake Crouch ★★★★ Wow! This one was really a wild ride! Very exciting and took my brain to places it had never been before! It’s not ‘time-travel’ but movement between ‘multiverses’ – really cool!!

    Sanditon by Jane Austen ★★★ This was Austen’s last novel and was unfinished due to her death. It is being broadcast right now as a mini-series on PBS, and since Austen only got 90 pages written before she died, I wanted to compare. Boy, they are having to add a lot to the show to get eight episodes out of it!!

    Happy reading to everyone in February!!

    • davidallen909

      “Walden”…no, that doesn’t sound familiar, but I’m glad you liked it, whatever it is.

      Doug will be thrilled to see that you’re reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

      Elaine Stritch reading Dorothy Parker sounds like a blast, an acid voice reading acid prose.

      I read a book of Shirley Jackson stories (“The Lottery and Other Stories”) a few years ago and found them astonishing. I haven’t gone back to find more by her, but one day.

    • Doug Evans

      Yay, “The Fellowship of the Ring”! Coincidentally, here is a conversation between Stephen Colbert and comedian Patton Oswalt from just a couple of days ago, in which Oswalt asks what to read his ten-year-old daughter next, now that they’ve finished the Harry Potter books, and Colbert suggests “The Lord of the Rings” without even bothering to read “The Hobbit”. (Colbert is wrong, by the way: if you’re reading Tolkien to your kid, start with “The Hobbit”.)

      • Terri Shafer

        Yeah, I’m about a third of the way through “The Two Towers” now and will try to finish the third book in March. LotR is a pretty big one to mark off my list!
        And I watched the Colbert video — I say: read “The Hobbit” first, especially to a ten-year-old, as an easy introduction 🙂

  • DebB

    Well, compared to Terri and Rinaldo I’m really a slacker! But I did read one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, so maybe that counts extra? Anyway, I read two:

    Mydworth Mysteries – A Shot in the Dark by Matthew Costello and Neil Richards. A “cozy” mystery novella about an aristocratic couple in Britain solving crimes shortly after WWI. The husband is British, the wife American. One author is British, the other American. Not great literature, but I enjoyed it as a diversion.

    Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens. This was a Christmas gift, and I really loved it. It’s a little bit murder mystery, a little bit coming of age story, a little bit life history. It centers on a woman who is abandoned as a child in the marshes of North Carolina. Kya learns to fend for herself, eventually growing up, being tried for murder, marrying and dying in the marsh.

    The chapters alternate between the current murder investigation and the girl’s past, and eventually come together in her arrest. Then it moves through her trial and finally into her old age, and it has a bit of a surprise ending.

    I loved this book and highly recommend it to anyone.

    • Terri Shafer

      Deb, don’t worry about quantity, as long as you read something you really enjoyed, and it sounds like you did! I am so glad to hear you say how much you liked “Crawdads.” I have been putting it off because of all the hype (and I had seen some questionable reviews). But now I think I’m ready to read it, and am even looking forward to it!
      Thanks! 🙂

      • davidallen909

        What Terri said! Even one book in a year could be great, if it’s the right book. Right?

    • Doug Evans

      I read Crawdad about six months ago! Really enjoyed it as well, though the main character was a little unbelievable (she was able to live on her own starting from the age of six?). The author has had quite a life of her own: I posted this article here on the blog, back when I talked about the book, giving a gossipy back story to the author’s life (and also giving away the ending of the book, so reader beware!).

      • DebB

        Thanks for posting that link, Doug – the article was really interesting! Made me take a new look at the book and at Kya.

  • Doug Evans

    I read three!

    “The Moving Target” by Ross Macdonald (1949)

    I shared (in a late-posted comment) back on David’s year-end roundup reading log that, having finished my two-year-long one-a-month Jack Reacher series read, I’ve decided to move on to Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer private eye series. Macdonald is considered part of the Big Three of hard-boiled private eye authors, after Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and since I’ve read (most of) those guys’ works, it’s always bugged me about myself that I haven’t read Macdonald. I actually read “The Moving Target” back in June 2018, but I decided for my chronological read I’d start over at the beginning. Having read it a year and a half ago didn’t help me figure out the ending any easier (I never know what’s going on in these books. I love them anyway!).

    “The Stars My Destination” (1956) by Alfred Bester

    It’s the classic science fiction novel by Alfred Bester! Considered by many to be the greatest science fiction novel ever, at least according to the blurb that is all over the front and back covers and inside material. I read this years ago… maybe thirty?… and remembered nothing about it except that I liked it. I have decided, upon my reread, that it is really good, but the evolution of the main character, the revenge-haunted Gully Foyle, is a little unbelievable. David, by the way, read this back in May 2015, and at the time I said I had read it before but one day hoped to reread it. I just did!

    “Rabbit Redux” by John Updike (1971)

    Rabbit is back! This book is set (and written) ten years after the events of “Rabbit, Run,” which I read last month. I shared in last month’s blog that I was inspired to read the Rabbit series by Terri’s review from November, but I’ve always been curious about the books, partly because of their status as American classics and also because I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of an author creating a character and then checking in on him every ten years. Rabbit is a bit of a passive dolt in these books, and as a result is not too likeable a character, but he’s also not inherently bad, so you kind of keep reading just to see what’s going to happen to him next. Updike seems to have realized that these books were tracking this country as it was going through the end of the ’50s, through the turbulent ’60s, and on into the ’70s, so there are lots (and lots) of dialogue scenes in this book in which characters sit around and discuss America. A little of those go a long way. So: I didn’t enjoy this as much as the first one, but the next two books in the series both won the Pulitzer Prize, so I have that to look forward to!

    Interesting tidbit! Speaking of Americana: the beginning of this book takes place on the weekend of the moon landing and the Ted Kennedy Chappaquiddick scandal, which I never realized before happened on the same weekend.

    As for David’s books: my wife and I used Rick Steves’ book on Seville, Spain, the last time we went there to visit my wife’s family. Helpful (and very readable), but it also helps having family who actually live in the city you are visiting.

    Next month: the third Rabbit book, the second Lew Archer novel, and maybe I’ll finally bring a close to one of the two science fiction short story anthologies I’ve been working on for a long time.

    Happy reading, everyone!

    • Terri Shafer

      A good month, Doug! I have a couple of Hammett and Chandler books on my list. I’m sure I can’t keep up with you, but like to keep my reading education “well-rounded”!
      So, to do that I guess I must add “The Stars My Destiny” to my list also! If some people think it’s the greatest sci-fi novel ever, then I must check it out 😉
      And, you are going great by keeping up with “Rabbit”! I plan to continue reading, but you know how other books just kind of “jump” in front of others — some of my books seem to push and shove each other to get to the front of my line!! Gets a little crazy sometimes 😉

      • davidallen909

        I’m terrible at reading a series consistently, for the same reasons Terri cites. Kudos to you, Doug, for your consistency and focus!

        I recall liking Stars as well as The Demolished Man, Bester’s other masterpiece, but I barely remember either book. Maybe it’s like how Citizen Kane can be a letdown after the buildup? Bester is such a great stylist compared to other science fiction of his day that it’s easy to see why his novels made such an impression.

    • Rinaldo Darke

      I remember “Rabbit, Run” from when I read it almost 50 years ago. It was good. I know I followed up when “Redux” came out, but I have no memory of it except that I liked it. The Ross Macdonald books are all good, and the local aspect just adds more goodness.

      • Doug Evans

        I’m really enjoying Ross Macdonald! I’m kind of reading the Rabbit books while thinking, “Where are the exploding spaceships?” Having said that: they are certainly well written. Updike can turn a descriptive phrase, and the characters, though fictional, are all living, breathing people, even if I might be a little uncomfortable if I actually had to hang around them (they aren’t shy about sharing their opinions of minorities, for example).

  • Hugh C. McBride

    I read six books in January, which leaves me with 44 to go to hit my annual goal of 50. Here’s how I spend my reading time last month:

    THE RUIN (Dervla McTiernan) – First book in a series, focused on Irish detective Cormac Reilly. Twenty years ago, rookie cop Reilly arrived at a house to find a mother dead and two young children alone. Fast forward two decades, and the boy who was saved from that house is dead of an apparent suicide. By things are far from what they first appear to be. Solid start to this series.

    ASK AGAIN, YES (Mary Beth Keane) – Two young NYPD cops are nextdoor neighbors in a small town outside the city. One day, an act of shocking violence occurs between the neighbors, which reverberates through the families for decades. A solid read.

    THE SCHOLAR (Dervla McTiernan) – Book 2 in the Cormac Reilly series. This novel places Reilly’s girlfriend, Emma, at the center of an investigation into the death of a mysterious woman with an as-yet undetermined connection to the heir apparent of Ireland’s premier pharmaceutical corporation. An excellent sophomore effort. Book 3 is due out in March. I look forward to it.

    ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS (Ocean Vuong) – Written as a letter from a son to his mother, this quasi-autobiographical novel is a powerful meditation on issues such as the immigrant experience, race, class, gender roles, familial love, the resonance of trauma, and the power of forgiveness.

    I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK: ONE WOMAN’S OBSESSIVE QUEST FOR THE GOLDEN STATE KILLER (Michelle McNamara) – Detailed account of Ms. McNamara’s thorough research into the identity of the man she christened The Golden State Killer.

    WHERE THINGS COME BACK (John Corey Whaley) – Seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter navigates an array of challenges during the summer before his senior years of high school, including the disappearance of his 15-year-old brother. This was a complex novel that didn’t quite live up to its promise, but was an intriguing read nonetheless.

    • davidallen909

      You slipped in a highly acclaimed recent novel, Hugh, amid the crime fiction and crime nonfiction. You’re like a Reading Log ninja.

    • Terri Shafer

      Six is a good month, Hugh! I have not read any of yours, but I have read “Fever” by Mary Beth Keane (about ‘Typhoid Mary’) and enjoyed it. I had heard of “Ask Again, Yes” so am glad to hear that you liked it.