Reading Log: May 2020

Books acquired: none

Books read: “Bob Dylan in America,” Sean Wilentz; “Love is a Mix Tape,” Rob Sheffield; “100 Cassettes,” Dennis Callaci; “Wolf Hall,” Hilary Mantel

We’ve made it through nearly three months of lockdown — who knew we had it in us? — and now things are starting to open up again. Me, I’ve been opening books. How about you?

(As to the quickening pace at which things are opening up, I have mixed feelings.)

My May reading was a bit different than I’d expected going in. I finished “Bob Dylan in America” right off the bat (more on that in a moment), then cracked a 2008 purchase that struck me as a hilarious pairing, a Bradley Denton sci-fi novel titled “Buddy Holly is Alive on Ganymede.” The laughter soon died in my throat as within 15 pages or so I realized that this novel, bought because I like Buddy Holly, was kind of stupid and was barely going to be about him. (For unexplained reasons he had been transported from Iowa on Feb. 3, 1959 to a bubble on Ganymede and one Earthman in 1989 found the live transmission on his TV.) To be fair, the novel did win a John W. Campbell Award, but it wasn’t my kind of book and would have been a waste of probably 10 days or so.)

So I pivoted and went right to two books that had cassettes or tapes in their title, and then on May 31 wrapped up an audiobook (!) I’d been listening to in my car since late April. I’m glad to have finished it in May as I couldn’t very well keep it checked out an extra month so I could photograph it with my June books, and couldn’t pre-emptively photograph it with my June books as I’m not sure what they’ll be.

Anyway, let’s get to the books, shall we?

Sean Wilentz, “Bob Dylan in America” (2010): Idiosyncratic, just like Dylan, this study sticks to the Dylan time periods Wilentz finds of special interest: “Blonde on Blonde,” the Rolling Thunder Revue, “Infidels” and 1989-on. The chapter on Aaron Copland is a stretch, the one on 19th century hymnals dull, but Wilentz’ deep dives into such byways as Blind Willie McTell (the singer and the Dylan song), the true stories behind the traditional songs “Delia” and “Frankie and Albert,” and the film “Masked and Anonymous” are illuminating.

Rob Sheffield, “Love is a Mix Tape”  (2007): An ode to the forgotten pleasure of making and receiving cassettes of carefully chosen songs, or for that matter simply taping “American Top 40,” and to the fellow music fan who married the author and was taken in the blink of an eye, without even the chance for a long fade-out. Sheffield sets down details good and bad, as if to memorialize his late wife before time erases too much. Also, he’s often funny and opinionated: “…U2 sound like Jesuits trying to act cool for the youth-group retreat.”

Dennis Callaci, “100 Cassettes” (2020): Nominally a collection of 100 essays on albums that don’t exist by artists Callaci likes, this encompasses capsule artist biographies, meditations on culture and the memoir of a middle-aged collector. Since some of the prose is abstract and flows like poetry, add fiction to the list. Some pieces glanced off me, many hit home as a fellow music obsessive. Not for the general reader, but as I’m not a general reader, I liked it. (Disclosure: The writer is a personal friend.)

Hilary Mantel, “Wolf Hall” (2009): A delightful and absorbing novel, with Mantel’s years of historical research worn lightly as she convincingly follows court intrigues among a large cast, describes life in early 16th century England and creates a vivid inner life for wily bureaucrat Thomas Cromwell. He became a trusted counselor to Henry VIII, who in this volume is trying to ditch Wife No. 1 (Catherine of Aragorn) for Wife No. 2 (Anne Boleyn). For the audiobook, Simon Slater’s voice work made the characters come further to life. Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey in particular were a marvel to hear. I wouldn’t have thought I would care for a historical novel, but this was a goodie.

Now, back to “Bob.” I bought the book at Borders in Rancho Cucamonga when it closed in 2011, along with a ton of other books, many still unread. A few months later, visiting home, I saw my mom was ready to discard the audiobook version and took it myself, with permission. I started listening to it on my drive to and from Arizona in early March. This was only my second audiobook, after Calvin Trillin’s “About Alice” circa 2007, which I played on a drive to the Bay Area. I liked this one and continued playing it in my car until finishing it; along the way I dipped into the print version to read footnotes and endnotes and clarify any points that had slipped past me. I’m such a devotee. That’s why I used both versions in the photos with this post.

When I visited Rancho Cucamonga’s Biane Library in April for a column — the library is offering curbside pickup — the library director ended our interview with some magical words: “Browse all you want.” So I had the library to myself. Oh boy!

Interested in another audiobook, I paid special attention to that aisle and lighted on Martel’s book; the third in the trilogy had recently been released to great acclaim, and the first two, I’d learned from the reviews, had won Man Booker Prizes (attention Doug Evans). So I chose the first. Eighteen discs, but even sticking exclusively to playing them in my car during coronavirus, I drove enough around the area to finish them in five weeks.

I’m about to check out the second, shorter book, “Bring Up the Bodies,” also on CD at 12 discs. The third one is apparently 30 discs — oof.

As for my other books, “Mix Tape” was bought in 2013 at Booksmith in San Francisco on vacation and “Cassettes” was a gift of Dennis’ upon publication in January. The fact that it took me seven years to get to “Mix Tape,” a 225-page book, is fresh evidence of my wastrel ways in book buying.

Anyway, I liked all four books this month, with “Wolf Hall” being the standout. “Mix Tape” was very affecting and would especially be recommended to anyone who was paying attention to music in the 1980s and ’90s; each chapter begins with the track listing of a tape the couple made in that era.

How are you getting by during the crisis, reading-wise? Are you focused or are you all over the place? Let us know in the comments. We’re sympathetic sorts.

Next month: Oh, just a short history of the world, that’s all.

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  • DebB

    I managed two this month: The Victory Garden by Rhys Bowen, and The Burglar in Short Order by Lawrence Block.

    The Burglar I bought after Rinaldo Darke’s review in March. It’s a group of Block’s short stories about Bernie Rhodenbarr, one of my favorite fictional characters. Some of the stories I’d read, others were new to me. The final one was new, and involved a conversation between Bernie and Block. I enjoyed them all.

    I’ve enjoyed reading Rhys Bowen’s mystery novels over the years, but this was more of a coming of age with a little romance thrown in. It takes place in 1918 during WWI and follows an independent young woman as she parts from her cool and snooty parents, falls in love with an Australian flyer, and tries to contribute to the war effort. I also enjoyed this one, finishing it on the stroke of midnight (not really) on the 31st.

    BTW David, I also feel a little ambivalence about the speed with which things are opening up again, although since I’m pretty much a homebody anyway, it’s not affecting me as much as others. I did, however, recently enjoy my first stroll through Hobby Lobby in a very long time! And probably spent too much,,,,

    • davidallen909

      I fear we’re collectively engaging in some magical thinking that the worst is behind us, although it’s also true that we can’t keep businesses shut down indefinitely and have 40 million people unemployed.

      I like hearing that you learned about a book from Rinaldo’s comment that you’ve now read. We’re a little community here, aren’t we?

    • Terri Shafer

      I agree with you both about the “reopening.” We’re laying low, but many people in our small rural community feel safe. I think they’re getting ahead of themselves!

      Deb, I haven’t read either of yours, but I did read Evans Above by Rhys Bowen a few years ago and enjoyed it! It’s probably time I tried another one 🙂

  • Terri Shafer

    David, I’m so impressed that you read Wolf Hall! I’ve been daunted by the length and am not sure if I’m so interested in the subject matter. However, I’ve heard lots of good things, and would probably get pulled into the story if I gave it a chance 🙂

    Well, I kind of went crazy this month (I mean in my Reading!!) and don’t want to bore you with too many reviews! So I’m making a list & only short comments – you can thank me later 😉
    I kind of felt that I was reading a lot of fluff, but in the end I read: Theodore Dreiser, John Wyndham, Steinbeck, Wodehouse, H.G. Wells, Nabokov, Alcott, and Nevil Shute! Throw in my favorite author, Anne Tyler, a Mitch Albom I’ve been meaning to get to, and a nonfiction graphic novel, and I feel like I had a pretty good run this month!

    An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, 856 pgs, 4****s – Interesting, tragic. I did the audio & I didn’t get too bored for such a long book! Glad I finally got to it.
    R is for Ricochet by Sue Grafton, 363 pgs, 4****s – Kinsey Millhone is enjoyable as always.
    The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, 220 pgs, 4****s – Loved this one! The whole town is unconscious for a few hours and afterward it is found that all the women of childbearing age are pregnant!! What’s going on?! Read it 🙂
    The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck, 261 pgs, 4****s – I just love how Steinbeck makes me feel with his writing!!
    An Irish Country Love Story (#11) by Patrick Taylor, 384 pgs, 4****s – A comforting read. I enjoy this series.
    Something That May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel Mallory Ortberg, 256 pgs, 3***s – This was just OK. I didn’t enjoy the writing style, but the subject matter was interesting.
    The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse, 272 pgs, 4****s – Love Wodehouse! Always so funny!
    Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler, 192 pgs, 4****s – Love her quirky characters 🙂
    The Country of the Blind by H.G. Wells, 26 pgs, 4****s – This was a short story read in a group read for Goodreads. When a man stumbles into a remote village where everyone is blind, he finds that he is the “disabled” one. Very though-provoking!
    Drag Queen by Robert Rodi, 298 pgs, 3***s – It was fine, but a little goofy.
    Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov, 169 pgs, 3***s – Marketed as “humorous,” I guess I don’t quite get Nabokov’s humor :/
    The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson, 308 pgs, 4****s – A very compelling read about the Blue People of Kentucky and the Pack Horse Library Project during the era of the WPA (30’s & 40’s). David, I think your mom would like this one! I certainly did & learned a lot even though the book was fiction.
    The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom, 196 pgs, 3***s – Fascinating, different.
    They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera, 373 pgs, 3***s – A YA novel in which people are notified at midnight by phone that it is going to be their last day on earth. What would you do if you knew it was you last day to live? How would you spend it? Compelling.
    Transcendental Wild Oats by Louisa May Alcott, 48 pgs, 4****s – A kind of fun, tongue-in-cheek look at transcendentalism, communal living, and how people thought they were going to change the world – well, maybe…. (a short story)
    Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, 232 pgs, 4****s – A graphic novel, nonfiction, about a girl’s family life growing up and her relationship with her father.
    The Overdue Life of Amy Byler by Kelly Harms, 328 pgs, 3***s – Just a light book, an easy read about a woman trying to find herself, and trying to balance all the aspects of her life.
    Trustee From the Toolroom by Nevil Shute, 305 pgs, 5*****s – This was my favorite book of the month!
    It was simple, smart, sad, cute, adventuresome, sweet, calm, exciting, and, in the end, very satisfying!!
    A short summary from Goodreads: “This novel tells the story of a man who leads an ordinary, uneventful life, until overnight he becomes the trustee of his 10-year-old niece, and is involved in the search for some missing money.”
    This was Nevil Shute’s last book before his death in 1960 (age 61). It is a wonderful culmination of an author’s and an aeronautical engineer’s life.
    You must read this one!

    AND, note to Doug, I’m reading Rabbit Redux. I’m liking it so far!

    • davidallen909

      You read a lot, and I haven’t read any of yours; in fact, when I saw Wells’ name, I thought I had a fighting chance, but nope. And I’m surprised myself that I haven’t read Fun Home, but I haven’t.

      Who knew Nevil Shute wrote anything besides On the Beach? Not me. But you did.

      I started Bring Up the Bodies on audiobook this morning on an errand and a couple of minutes in I thought, Do I really want to listen to this, and then to Book 3? Twenty minutes later, I was parked back home in my driveway, ignition off, listening to an extra minute to wrap up a scene. So apparently I do.

      • Doug Evans

        “Who knew Nevil Shute wrote anything besides On the Beach?” Ahem! 😉

        And, hey, I’ve read “Wolf Hall”! Here’s where I talk about it, back in June 2015:

        …and here’s where I talk about the sequel “Bring Up the Bodies” the very next month (I don’t talk about the plot at all, but I shared that it was my favorite of the eight books I’d read that month):

        I’ve been looking forward to the third book in the series, but it’s been so long since I read the first two that I’ve wondered if I should try a re-read of those before starting the third, kind of the way two years ago I reread the “Game of Thrones” books in anticipation of the publication of the sixth volume (turns out I needed have hurried). Fortunately, I found this article that brings us up to speed on what’s happened so far in Thomas Cromwell land (obviously, don’t read this if you’re busy reading the first two books!)

        I think I both read and listened to the first two Hilary Mantel books, so, David, I salute you for having tackled it in audio form!

    • Doug Evans

      Wow, good month, Terri! I share in my reply to David right below this about my reading of “Wolf Hall”… I really enjoyed it, and I recommend it. I read “The Wayward Bus” way back in Nov. ’14, and according to what I wrote, I liked the start but felt the story lost its way by the end (and then I made a joke about the novel itself being like a wayward bus… check it out!):

      Yay, Rabbit! “Rabbit Redux” was actually my least favorite of the four… there are some awfully talky stretches in the middle… but I still enjoyed it. And here’s a joke about the title: “Redux” was a pretty obscure word when Updike chose it for the title, but as a result of this book, the word came back into style. So much so that in “Rabbit at Rest,” Rabbit himself reads a newspaper headline that says “Circus Redux,” and has this reaction: “He hates that word, you see it everywhere, and he doesn’t know how to pronounce it. Like arbitrageur and perestroika.” It’s your own fault, Rabbit!

      • Terri Shafer

        Haha! I’m glad Redux was your least favorite. That makes me look forward to Book 3 a little more 🙂

  • Rinaldo Darke

    Hi David
    I finished only three in May. I spent half my reading time getting half-way through a book not half worth the effort. It is totally Kindleleted now. I read:

    ABOVE THE BAY OF ANGELS by Rhys Bowen 4****
    This is her new book about a cook who joins Queen Victoria’s kitchen staff through deceit. It is an enjoyable book with a fun look inside the famous family.

    THE DOG WHO CAME TO STAY by Hal Borland 4****
    In this memoir, Hal Borland and his wife move into an old Connecticut farmhouse. On the first snow day two dogs show up and get named Pat and Mike. Pat stays.
    It is a fine outdoorsy book about a guy and his dog.

    DIVING INTO THE WRECK by Kristine Kathryn Rusch 3***
    This is the second month in a row I had a book on wreck diving.
    This one is not in Florida – this is Outer Space. It was okay, but I will not be reading any more of this series.

    Hey Terri,
    I read Rabbit Redux when it first came out in 1971, and do not remember a thing about it. But Code of the Woosters I remember as the absolute sweet spot of the Bertie Wooster and Jeeves books.

    • Terri Shafer

      Rinaldo, I’m interested that you read Rabbit Redux in 1971. That would be so different than reading it 50 years later! It is amazing, since it is set in 1969, how much of it sounds like it is happening right now! Now, I have to finish the series, since Doug already did that! It is a little rough around the edges, but I’ll have to say that it is a compelling read 🙂
      Yes, Jeeves and Wooster are absolutely wonderful! If you ever need a laugh, you can count on them.
      And I see that you and Deb both read Rhys Bowen. I’m going to have to add one of hers into my reading very soon!

    • davidallen909

      It’s useful on occasion to start a book, realize it’s not working and drop it. It’s a reminder to ourselves that, oh yeah, I don’t actually *have* to read this. Usually if I’m going to stop a book, I figure it out by page 50, if not sooner. If I get halfway through and don’t care for it, I would keep going out of obligation. The Two Towers is the only example I recall of a book I stopped at the halfway point, and I actually meant to go back to it.

    • Doug Evans

      I’ve read and enjoyed all the Rabbit books, as I’ve been talking about here on the blog, but I am somewhat ashamed to say I’ve never read a Wodehouse book. Both Douglas Adams and Isaac Asimov sung his praises, as well as everyone I’ve ever know who’s read him, so I feel like this is a gap in my lifetime of reading. I did enjoy the Jeeves and Wooster series on PBS from way back in the day!

      • davidallen909

        I should have mentioned: I haven’t read any Wodehouse either. Something I’d probably like, and perhaps something I will get to one day…

        • Terri Shafer

          Doug and David! Stop reading this Book Blog right now and go find a “Jeeves and Wooster” book to read!! You must! And I thought you guys were well-read. Haha!
          It will also be good for your funny bone and lighten your attitude on life! 😉

  • Doug Evans

    I read four!
    “Find a Victim” by Ross Macdonald (1954). The fifth in the Lew Archer private eye series. Since I’m halfway through the sixth as I type this, I can’t exactly remember what happened in the fifth, but I do know that I really enjoyed it. Goodreads tells me that Hugh read this back in 2011 and gave it four stars, which is what I gave it. Well, that proves that this one earned it.

    “Rabbit Remembered“ by John Updike (2000). A novella that meets up with the characters from the Rabbit series 10 years after the end of the previous book. Given the title, I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that Rabbit isn’t around for this one, which in one sense negates the reason for this book’s existence, but it is nice to see how everyone else is faring without Rabbit around to be his lovable but slightly chaotic self. (Some might say “chaotic but slightly lovable”. This guy would have been awfully hard to live with.) Sadly, Updike died in 2009, so we never got a “Rabbit Reflected” or whatever. If Updike were still alive today (he’d have been 88… could have happened!), it would have been interesting to get the characters’ takes on America 2020, but maybe they’re just as happy they’re not around to see it. Anyway: this novella is the final book about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom and the people that knew him, and I will repeat what I wrote last month: I’m very glad to have read these books, and I’m thankful to Terri for getting me started!

    “Lord Jim” by Joseph Conrad (1900). An impulse purchase at Magic Door Used Books from just before the shut-down. A psychological novel about a guy who dreams of being a hero, proves himself a coward in a moment of crisis, and moves to a village in Africa to get away from people who know him, and then finds himself “lord” of the surrounding area, which you’d think might have ended his problems but which doesn’t. Conrad spends a lot of time having his characters speculate why other characters do what they do, and the reading can be a little slow as a result. But I very much enjoyed this book. And: it was narrated by Marlow! Marlow narrates several of Conrad’s novels and stories, including “Heart of Darkness,” which I read in college. And he’s a possible inspiration for the name of Raymond Chandler’s private eye Philip Marlowe (or so I thought; Wikipedia doesn’t mention that.) Good to see old Marlow again!

    And here’s why I read this book! When I was a kid, I was reading one of my many collections of Peanuts comic strips and came across a strip in which Snoopy is holding a “This is National Dog Week” sign. Lucy starts berating him by asking what dogs have ever done to deserve their own week, ignoring that fact that she’s talking to a dog who can stand on his hind feet and paint signs: “Did a dog discover America? Did a dog write ‘Lord Jim’? Did a dog compose the ‘1812 Overture’? (In my memory, Snoopy ended the discussion by giving her a kiss on the nose; turns out he “ROWR!”s at her, and she says, “Have a good week!”) (Memory refreshed courtesy Google!) This was the first time I’d ever heard of “Lord Jim,” and from that time on, whenever I ran across the title of the book, I would think, “Oh, yeah, that’s the book that Lucy brought up to make Snoopy feel bad. I have to read that someday.” And now, in 2020, I have! This has been a very bad year so far, but at least I can say that I’ve finally read “Lord Jim.” Lucy would be proud!

    “The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction: Third Series” edited by Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas (1954). A Magic Door purchase, bought at the same time as “Lord Jim” above. This was a super fun collection of stories published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, some by authors I’d heard of, others by names new to me. I read a sci-fi anthology last month and (hopefully) will get to another this month… I have been collecting (and not finding time to read) science fiction anthologies for some time now, so maybe in these Coronavirus times I can start to make a dent in them.

    I feel as though since I’m spending all day sitting at home, I should be reading more books in a month than just four or five, but I also am feeling a little whelmed (not overwhelmed, exactly, but whelmed) by the changes in our lifestyle that the Coronavirus has brought upon us, so maybe I should just be happy that I made it through four. (Also, “Lord Jim” was a really long book!) Next month, look for the next Lew Archer novel, another Conrad book that’s been sitting on my shelf for a while, hopefully a sci-fi collection, and who knows what all? Happy reading, everyone!

    • Doug Evans
    • Hugh C. McBride

      Yes, Ross Macdonald! I read a handful of his novels a few years back when I was trying to educate myself at the virtual feet of the masters of the hardboiled detective novel. Definitely need to return to his catalog one of these days.

      I may have mentioned this in a previous comment (so, apologies for the repetition if I am, indeed, repeating myself) but I read the first Rabbit book in the early 1990s. Another series I need to return to.

      (Doug Evans gets inspired to read by Lucy Van Pelt. I get inspired by Doug Evans. Seems about right.)

      And I hear ya re: being whelmed into reading less, Doug. When I get around to posting my May update, you’ll see that it was once again a three-book month. I have not been finding solace or refuge in the written word the way I once did. Hope that is not a permanent development.

      • davidallen909

        I hear that Lucy Van Pelt got inspired to read by Hugh McBride, thus completing the circle.

    • davidallen909

      “…ignoring that fact that she’s talking to a dog who can stand on his hind feet and paint signs” — YES.

      I have not read any of your books, Doug, and I’m a little surprised to have to say that about Lord Jim, as I went through a brief Conrad period, not only reading Heart of Darkness as a teen (Marlow!) but in college reading The Secret Agent and Under Western Skies. But I managed to skip his most famous novel. One day, perhaps.

      Anyway, I can appreciate your sense of satisfaction at reading a book you’d meant to read someday.

  • Hugh C. McBride

    Looks like I’m once again the caboose on the David Allen Reading Log train …

    I read three books in May, all part of detective/PI series. Two debuts, and one series-ender.

    BROKEN PLACES (Tracy Clark): The first in the Cass Raines series, which focuses on a former Chicago cop who leaves the force after being shot in the line of duty (due to a colleague’s screw-up) & becomes a private investigator. This case involves the murder of a priest who had served as a father figure (no pun intended) to our hero while she was growing up. Cass Raines shows potential as an intriguing character to lead a series.

    MISSING, PRESUMED (Susie Steiner): This is the initial entry in the Manon Bradsaw series. Our hero is a detective sergeant in Cambridgeshire, England. The case involves the disappearance of a young woman who, the initial evidence suggest, was kidnapped. The procedural aspects of the narrative are offset with glimpses into DS Bradshaw’s personal life. Another series that shows promise.

    POLICE AT THE STATION AND THEY DON’T LOOK FRIENDLY (Adrian McKinty) – In addition to having the best title of the month, this novel is also the 6th and apparently final entry in the Sean Duffy series. Our favorite Catholic detective in 1980s Northern Ireland finds himself targeted by Internal Affairs and a local paramilitary, all while adapting to life as a new father. A satisfying finale to a highly recommended series.

    • davidallen909

      Hugh, someone has to take the caboose seat on the Reading Log train (do we travel to Reading, Pennsylvania?), and you acquit yourself well. You could also look at your belated appearance as socially distancing from the earlier commenters, for which we thank you. Also, “Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly” is, I think, the best title in this entire thread!