Reading Log: April 2020

Books acquired: none

Books read: “Ecology of Fear,” Mike Davis; “Wrath of Fu Manchu,” Sax Rohmer; “That’s Amore,” Diana Sholley; “Hail, Hail Euphoria!,” Roy Blount Jr.; “The Ecstasy of Influence,” Jonathan Lethem

Was April better than March? It was for me; it seemed to fly by compared to endless March. Your mileage may vary, that is if you’re still driving anywhere. Personally I bought one tank of gas the entire month.

I don’t know why April seemed to move faster. In these parts, it rained eight out of nine straight days (Day 8, the non-rainy day, was overcast). After all that sameness, though, the sun came out and within days the temperature rose from a high of 55 to a high of 95. Maybe our spirits rose with it.

Kind of a rollercoaster month, weather-wise, not even including our ups and downs emotionally during our first full month of coronavirus restrictions. It’s coincidental to the lockdown, but my reading month encompassed titles with a range of emotions: fear, wrath, love, glee and pleasure. Let’s run through them.

“Fear,” 1998: Davis’ chapter on the perennial fires in Malibu, and the overkill efforts to protect an enclave that probably shouldn’t exist, has only gained strength since this book’s publication. Most of the rest of this disaster-themed analysis (encroaching wildlife, riots, lack of green space, and apocalyptic fiction and movies) is pretty good, if gleefully negative. It’s still hard to trust his Tornado Alley chapter, though.

“Wrath,” 1975: Collecting four Fu Manchu stories and eight other stories, most with a supernatural angle, some set in Rohmer’s beloved Egypt, this is far from prime Rohmer. Still, as a fan, I liked it anyway. Only “The Mystery of the Fabulous Lamp” was a dud, and it was a mere nine pages.

“Amore,” 2008: Many of these ’00s columns from the Daily Bulletin focus on Sholley’s nonagenarian immigrant grandmother and how the family’s life revolved around her. Others are more about Sholley’s life as a mother and wife. At the time I admit I took these columns for granted, or found the grasping, overbearing, broken-English grandmother grating. Now I found the columns amusing, modest and charming. But I’m glad it’s Sholley’s family and not mine.

“Euphoria,” 2010: Disappointing. Blount’s ramble through “Duck Soup” was remarkably padded, unstructured and, dare I say it, even dull. That said, he appreciates the Marxes’ greatest movie and delights in watching it in a theater full of kids who think it’s a riot. Also, referring to the suicidal Woody Allen movie character who sees “Duck Soup” and finds reason to live, Blount asks the devastating question: “Can we imagine the reverse case, of any Marx brother finding a reason to live in ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’?”

“Ecstasy,” 2011: This “autobiographical collage” assembles essays, introductions and reportage on books, movies, comics, music and other subjects close to Lethem’s heart. Together they offer a portrait of his inner life and influences. (Disclosure: He’s a friend.) Subjects of some of my favorites were Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Philip K. Dick, Marvel Comics and Lethem’s bookstore-clerk days, with his 30-page profile of James Brown a standout. On the other hand, some of the literary pieces almost made me give up on the whole enterprise. Some reviewers on Goodreads found the James Brown piece boring. The beauty here is that my slog might be your cup of tea, and vice versa.

I didn’t really love any of these books, although I loved big chunks of “Ecstasy of Influence” and found the usual guilty pleasure in Rohmer. I have just one unread Fu Manchu book left, by the way.

“Ecology” was bought upon publication at Skylight Books in L.A. at a talk and signing by Davis, where we met; days later, I interviewed him at his home about his background in Fontana and he inscribed my book. At the time I hadn’t even read “City of Quartz,” read subsequently, and I never was sure that I wanted to read “Ecology,” but I’m pleased, if a little sheepish, to have belatedly done so.

“Wrath” was bought somewhere, perhaps eBay, in the mid-’00s; “Ecstasy” came from Vromans in Pasadena in 2012; “Euphoria” was bought at Magic Door Books in Pomona in 2017, where it had been traded in (unread) by Doug Evans (you didn’t miss much, Doug); and “Amore” was given to me in 2018 by a departing work colleague; I remain abashed that I didn’t buy one directly from Sholley a decade earlier.

So, April got a range of books out of the way from various strata of my shelves. How was your April? I remain curious if the pandemic is having an effect on your reading time or habits. (In this morning’s Times, Mary McNamara says she’s reread all her mysteries, “much of Dickens” including “Bleak House,” and more besides, maybe 100 books from the looks of it. Good lord.) I’m reading a little more than before. I’ve begun an ambitious history book that I’ve put off reading for two decades and may finish in, who knows, June or July, and a long audiobook, same. As I’m listening to the latter in my car, I may need to drive more.

Next month: One month, two themes. May is a mixtape.

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  • DebB

    Between working from home and sewing masks, I only managed to read two this month: Mary Stewart’s “This Rough Magic”, and “The Wizard of Oz”.

    I love the publisher’s subtitles for Mary Stewart’s books. Last month it was “keep you on the edge of your seat.” This book said it was a “completely unputdownable adventure.” It was actually pretty good, if formulaic – the usual independent young British woman travels to France, meets a handsome but brooding stranger, murder and mayhem ensue. I still enjoyed it, especially the friendly dolphin!

    “Oz” was offered free for my Kindle, so I decided to read it out of curiosity, to see how different it was from the movie. Coincidentally, only a week after I’d read it the movie was on TV, so I watched it to compare (OK, really because I love it). There are a lot of differences, although the movie does a pretty good job of turning the book into live action.

    Dorothy and friends visit more lands in the book, and there are four witches – one for each compass direction. The ruby slippers are actually silver, and the flying monkeys are portrayed as enslaved to the witch by a magic hat. Dorothy gets the hat, not knowing it’s power, and it’s the hat more than the slippers that the witch tries to get back.

    The writing is fairly simple, since it’s written for children, but I enjoyed it, maybe mostly as a matter of history or curiosity.

    • davidallen909

      “Unputdownable” — ugh!

      I owned a beautiful paperback of “Oz” as a child with the original illustrations, something I’d forgotten until seeing a copy at a used bookstore a few years ago. I think I read it but am not sure if I liked it. It was different from the movie, which was an annual CBS presentation around Halloween and not to be missed.

    • Terri Shafer

      Another good month with Mary Stewart! Yay!
      And I read The Wizard of Oz years ago (but not as child). I remember liking it but forgot those differences between the book and the movie. Thanks for the reminder 🙂

    • Doug Evans

      I read all the Oz books as a kid, checking them out one by one from the Whittier Public Library. I remember to this day how sad I was when I got to the end of the last one. It was like saying goodbye to a friend.

  • Terri Shafer

    I haven’t read (or even heard of!) any of yours this month, David. But I read several that I really enjoyed! I had two 5-star reads!!

    Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout, 2019, 289 pages, 4****s
    I always enjoy spending a little time with Olive, although it isn’t always pleasant! I just like how the author tells the stories of Olive and her neighbors. There’s not really any plot, but the people are so real. I enjoy Strout’s writing a lot!

    Eugenie Grandet by Honore de Balzac, 1833, 200 pages, 4****s
    I liked this one quite a bit, even though it wasn’t a happy book. It still was a compelling read.

    Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, 2011, 335 pages, 3***s
    As this was Towles’ first novel, it was written beautifully, and I enjoyed the language and the many references to other novels. However, the story did not hold up for me.
    Of course, I was comparing it to “A Gentleman in Moscow” which was absolutely amazing!! 5 stars, for sure!
    I did see similarities in the writing. But I put this down to “first time novel” and not having found his groove yet.
    Read “A Gentleman in Moscow” instead of this one!! 🙂

    Nothing Ventured by Jeffrey Archer, 2019, 320 pages, 4****s
    Jeffrey Archer is always such a good storyteller! Fun, exciting, and fast-moving! Can’t wait to read the second book in this 2-book series 🙂

    Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie, 1937, 214 pages, 4****s
    This was a good one! Of course, typical storyline. But with Christie you always know what you are going to get, and so that’s satisfying 🙂
    Also, as I did this one on audiobook, I really enjoyed listening to David Suchet read an Hercule Poirot mystery, as he so often plays this character on PBS performances!

    The 7 ½ Death of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton, 2019, 458 pages, (4.5 *s rounded up to) 5*****s!!
    Doug, I know you didn’t care for this one so much but –It was amazing!! The story was so surprising and it was written so intricately that the author’s brain must have been going round in circles for quite awhile to get everything to work out in the end! It was quite a puzzle, and I can’t say that I’ve ever read anything like it before. You. Should. Read. It.!!!

    Mercy House by Alena Dillon, 2020, 384 pages, 4****s
    I loved this very real (fiction) story of Sister Evelyn and her mission to help abused women in Bedford-Stuyvesant (Brooklyn, NY). There was happiness and sadness (even tears for me!). I loved how this tough nun worked to help those in need, and also worked to learn to forgive herself for some of the questionable decisions that she had to make. I highly recommend it!
    (Warning: This is set in a tough neighborhood, so there are some graphic descriptions and strong language. Just so you know. )

    The Return of the King (LOTR #3) by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1955, 404 pages, 4****s
    Yes! I can now say that I’ve read The Lord of the Rings!
    “I’ve read The Lord of the Rings!” said Terri 😉

    The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison, 2012, 278 pages, 4****s
    I got this book free several years ago on Kindle and decided to pick it up for some reason this month – and I loved it!
    It was about a down-and-out caregiver to a 19-year-old boy, Trevor, with MD. Of course, the reader gets to know the caregiver and why he is in this sad place in his life, and also Trevor and what some of his hopes and dreams are. And – there’s a road trip! It’s fun and sad and warm and tearjerking and satisfying, and I loved the way it was written. I’m going to read another one by this author!

    Stuart Little by E.B. White, 1945, 131 pages, 4****s (almost worth 5 stars!)
    This was a wonderful book! And so funny! I don’t know why I didn’t read it as a child, but I can’t imagine children understanding the humor. David, if you haven’t read this one for awhile (or ever), you should – just for the humor in the writing. It’s hilarious! I read several different parts to Dave because I thought it was so funny!

    I’d Rather Be Reading by Anne Bogel, 2018, 156 pages, 4-5*****s
    I just loved this book! It’s all about reading books!! Why wouldn’t I love it?! As she described different things about readers I kept feeling like “I’m not the only one!” It was really fun 🙂

    • davidallen909

      I don’t know in how many venues you’ll be able to proudly proclaim “I’ve read ‘The Lord of the Rings’!” but it’s great you have this one!

      As a lad I did read “Stuart Little” and “Charlotte’s Web,” both likely checked out from the library, with those delightful illustrations. Reading them again hadn’t occurred to me, but White is such a great stylist that I’m sure you’re right that I would appreciate their wit more as an adult.

      Didn’t Balzac write 100 novels in his Human Comedy series? Man, what an overachiever. I haven’t read even one and I think you’ve now read two, or maybe more. Only two or three get talked about much.

      Maybe I should let you pick my books; you had a better month than me.

      • Terri Shafer

        I don’t know how many Balzac wrote — I’ve read Eugenie Grandet and Pere Goriot (20 yrs ago) and plan to read Cousin Bette, but after that I’m probably done.
        And, No, I don’t think you’ll want me to be choosing your books any time soon. I’m going for quite a bit of “fluff” right now!! 🙂

    • Doug Evans

      So I read Agatha Christie, and so did you, and you read the “7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle” which follows the template I mentioned in my comment above set by Christie’s “Mysterious Affair at Styles” of a mysterious death (or 7 1/2 of them) at an old English Manor. So in a sense we were on the same wavelength! Yeah, I couldn’t get into “Evelyn,” though I wanted to… but I’m glad you enjoyed it, and I’m glad I could be the one to introduce you to it.

      • Doug Evans

        It took me several re-reads to fully appreciate “The Return of the King.” I missed the rough-around-the-edges Strider of the first book, and not so much the talky, slightly standoffish Aragorn he is in this one. Plus I always want more Hobbits, and the first book has more Hobbits. But over time, I came to appreciate the ending and how Tolkien was able to bring everyone’s story to a close (way to spoil the ending with your title, Tolkien). And the scene on Mount Doom with Frodo! Sometimes I’ll go back just to re-read that scene.

  • Rinaldo Darke

    Hi David,
    The Wayback machine took me to 1968 and the first time I saw “Duck Soup.” What a great movie!
    I read six books in April, all of them good.

    MASKED PREY by John Sandford 5*****
    The new Lucas Davenport cop novel. An entirely professional job with everything you could want. Lucas is now with the U.S. Marshals and is called in when a new website seems to be targeting the children of politicians and calling for action.

    FAKE TRUTH by Lee Goldberg 4****
    Also very well done, by one of the writers on the “Monk” TV series.
    A lot of fun and a lot of “suspension of disbelief” needed. The hero is a screenwriter who works with the CIA and whose scenarios somehow tie into and predict the plans of enemies.

    THE GIRL BENEATH THE SEA by Andrew Mayne 4****
    I have been enjoying Mayne’s go-go action books. This one is about a diver in Florida whose family is full of treasure hunters and smugglers. She teams up with the cop who put her uncle in prison to try and find a 1/2 billion dollar treasure – in lost drug smuggling money.

    ORDER TO KILL by Kyle Mills 4****
    Audiobook on CD narrated by George Guidall.
    Mills was working with Vince Flynn on this Mitch Rapp spy series when Flynn passed away, and he has continued with them. Guidall is an excellent narrator and worth looking for.

    FATED by Benedict Jacka 4****
    The first book in a fantasy series about a wizard living in London, actually four overlapping London’s with differing magical potentials, including ours “Grey London” with hardly any at all.

    SMOKE BITTEN by Patricia Briggs 4****
    Another fantasy set in the Spokane, WA area with werewolves (the good guys) and vampires and and witches and such stuff.

    • davidallen909

      You’re experiencing action vicariously around the world while sheltering at home!

      I first saw Duck Soup around 1980-2 on TV and have seen it at least a half-dozen times since, a couple of times with an audience. (I envy you having had it in your life a dozen years longer than me.) Monkey Business was my favorite Marxian entertainment for a while but eventually Duck Soup supplanted it. Hail, hail Freedonia!

    • Doug Evans

      The first and only time I’ve seen “Duck Soup” was on my parents’ living room TV sometime in the ’80s… Fun movie, but not the greatest venue. I’d like to see it again in a theater with a live audience. If we ever get to see movies in theaters with live audiences again.

  • Doug Evans

    I’m here! Chiming in after a week and a half (and a little gentle prompting by David).

    “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” by Agatha Christie (1920). Christie’s first novel and the first book to feature her famous detective Hercule Poirot. This one set the template for a million books to follow, featuring fairly bloodless deaths in old English manor houses. This was a lot of fun. I think I’ve read maybe four Agatha Christie books total, and since she wrote 66, plus 14 collections of short stories (thank, Wikipedia!), I have plenty to choose from when I want more.

    “The Ivory Grin” by Ross Macdonald (1952). The fifth in the “Lew Archer” private eye series. Good stuff, but dark! I had read, before I started this series, that the Lew Archer character starts out as an almost carbon copy of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe tough-guy private eye, but features less fisticuffs and more psychological depth as the books go on, and this book might be where that shift starts. “The Ivory Grin” is a skull, by the way. These titles are making a lot more sense than the Jack Reacher ones ever did.

    “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummings (2020). Look at me, bringing controversy to the David Allen Reading Log! This is the book published with a lot of fanfare and the Oprah Book Club seal of honor, only to face immediate backlash because the author is a white woman writing a story about Latinx people (let May 13, 2020, be forever known as the day that I actually used the word “Latinx.”) I tried to be respectful of the critiques leveled against the writing and publication of this book, but I have to say: I really enjoyed it. The plot: a middle-class Mexican bookstore owner whose husband is an investigative journalist is, along with her son, the only survivor of a Mexican Cartel mass shooting directed against her husband’s family. (The bullets start flying in the first sentence, so no real spoilers there.) She and her son have to join the flow of migrants fleeing north on their way to the United States. Trouble ensues. I don’t know how realistically this book depicts the life of an average Mexican woman, or the plight of migrants, so I can’t respond to the criticisms. I can say: the writing, for all this was promoted as a literary book, wasn’t much above the level of a Jack Reacher novel, and the plot was maybe a little over-the-top (again, leaving aside the critiques leveled at the book), but looked at as an “airport book,” the kind you buy in an airport and read on the plane because you gotta keep turning the pages to see what happens next, this book was a success. Maybe it should have been marketed that way.

    “Rabbit at Rest” by John Updike (1990). It’s the last Rabbit book! (Except for a novella written ten years after this one). And, somewhat surprisingly for the fourth book in a series: it’s my favorite! This book, as well as the one before it, won the Pulitzer Prize, so I guess I’m not alone in that opinion. Partly my enjoyment stemmed from the fact that I was around and aware and halfway through college when this book is set (1988-9), so I got all of the contemporary references and could keep saying, “I remember that!” Also, this book had fun echoes back to the very first: in that book (“Rabbit, Run”), Rabbit embarks on a spur-of-the-moment drive south (the “Run” of the title) to escape his life and responsibilities, but has second thoughts, so turns around and comes back (though he doesn’t move back with his family right away). Here, thirty years later, he takes off on the same trip for the same reason and keeps going all the way to Florida. Go, Rabbit! (I don’t actually approve of this kind of behavior.) And: the very first scene of the first book features Rabbit coming across a group of kids playing basketball and joining them for a game; the last scene of this book features Rabbit doing the very same, though he’s thirty years older and about 100 pounds heavier. Anyway: I enjoyed the heck out of these; I recommend anyone reading them to read them in order (a person, for example, doing a reading of all Pulitzer Prize winners will probably come across books three and four in this series and think, “Why am I reading about this jerk?”; and I thank Terri for giving me the spark to start reading these in the first place!

    Look for the novella in next month’s Reading Log, BTW!

    “SF: The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy” edited by Judith Merril, introduction by Orson Welles (1956). A Magic Door Used Books purchase. Thanks, Magic Door! A fun collection, the first in a series (apparently it didn’t occur to them to put the year in the title until the second book), featuring stories of a more literary bent than the average reader may have expected from a sci-fi collection in the mid-fifties. Also, an absolutely wacky intro from Orson Welles, of all people. I guess he did do that “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast years earlier, but from reading his introduction, I’m not convinced he read any of the stories in the book. He does tell us that science fiction doesn’t work when stretched out into a novel, so we should stick to reading short stories, so: way to take a stand, Orson?

    I love the emotional theme in David’s reading last month, and hey, it’s my “Hail, Hail, Euphoria!” book! I’m glad somebody read it, even if it wasn’t all that great. Happy reading and stay well, everyone!

    • Doug Evans

      BTW, if Mary McNamara had just read “Bleak House,” that would have been impressive (and a good choice!). But… that plus maybe 99 other books? That does kind of put my five books to shame.

      • davidallen909

        Your contributions here were worth the wait. For one thing, I like how you brought up Jack Reacher twice. (I don’t know all the titles, but the one that sticks is “Make Me,” about as blunt and childish as a book for grown-ups can get.)

        Honestly, though, your take on “American Dirt” makes a lot of sense. I hope to get to the book, which a friend gifted me for my birthday, before year’s end, and I will read it with your “airport book” philosophy in mind.

        I’m amused that Terri’s blah review of the first “Rabbit” book is what got you to read them all and love them, and that your blah review of “Evelyn Hardcastle” resulted in Terri reading it and loving it. (And in Hugh reading it and giving it a blah review.) I wonder what that means? Perhaps it shows the power of a good summary, the spur of seeing what books others are reading (good or bad) and a sense of open-mindedness.

    • Terri Shafer

      Hey Doug! Glad to hear from you — looks like you were having trouble tearing yourself away from a good book!

      Yes, funny that we both read Christie during the same time! And I felt pretty good about finishing LOTR mostly because I said I’d never read it! But I loved the movies, and I think they helped me because I had visuals in my head.

      Thanks for the props for recommending “Rabbit.” I definitely have to get back to the series. Especially since you said the best ones are yet to come for me 🙂

      Sorry we didn’t agree on “Evelyn” but sometimes when someone gives a negative review, that spurs me on to read the book to see if I agree. Unfortunately, I usually do agree — but this time I got lucky and disagreed! haha! 😉

  • Hugh C. McBride

    I started to write my monthly reading update the day this post was published. Then I got busy with something else, and thought, “I’ll finish it up tomorrow.” Fast forward a coupla weeks, and here we are …

    Since I’m so woefully late, I’ll keep this brief. I read three books last month, from three detective series set in three separate countries:

    HAVANA BLUE (Leonardo Padura, translated by Peter Bush) – This Cuban noir novel is the first of a trilogy. Our hero is Mario Conde, a police in the titular city. I thought it was good, not great.

    RAIN DOGS (Adrian McKinty) – Entry #5 in the six-book Detective Sean Duffy series from Ireland. A four-star outing.

    LOST HILLS (Lee Goldberg) – This is the first book in the Detective Eve Ronin series, which is set in Los Angeles. (Book #2 is scheduled for publication in 2021). A solid start – I’ll be back for the next entry.

    • davidallen909

      To quote a Bond movie title, tomorrow never dies, so however long it takes to comment is however long it takes. I was meaning to send you a gentle reminder as I did with Doug but was going to do that “tomorrow.” Thanks for chiming in!

      • Hugh C. McBride

        Thanks so much for your understanding, David (and bonus thanks for working 007 into your reply). For what it’s worth, it was your gentle reminder to Mr. Evans that prompted me to chime in at all this month – I thought I’d definitely missed my window, but when I saw Doug’s reply, I thought perhaps it wasn’t too late to add my contribution, meager though it was for this month.

        Through the years, reading has traditionally been a refuge for me in times of elevated stress – but that doesn’t seem to be working in our current pandemic life. I started a few more challenging novels last month & this, but I find that I struggle to engage with any narratives outside the procedural/whodunit genre. Good to see that the other contributors here have been able to maintain their pace – as always, y’all are inspirations. 🙂

        • Terri Shafer

          Hey Hugh! Glad you “chimed” in!
          I also find that this strange time has changed my reading habits a little bit.
          I usually like to read several books at a time, but I find that I’m liking to read one at a time right now. Go figure!
          Glad you’re still reading 🙂