Reading Log: June 2020

Books acquired: “The Bitter Season,” Robert M. Coates

Books read: “A Short History of the World,” J.M. Roberts; “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” Mark Twain; “The Twilight Zone Companion,” Marc Scott Zicree

Happy July! So nice to see you all, or at least imagine you, as we check in on each others’ reading lives.

I read three books last month, one of them an American classic that no doubt everyone, or almost everyone, who reads this post will have read. Yes, that staple of school reading lists, “The Twilight Zone Companion.” Er, just kidding.

“Short History of the World” (1997): Roberts packs a lot into 513 pages, from the first hominids (“History is the story of human beings, and it is the human past which concerns us”) to the fall of the Soviet Union. A remarkable summary, full of insights and broad trends, and I feel smarter for having read it, but it does require concentration; let your mind drift for a paragraph and you’ve missed 50 years of history.

“Tom Sawyer” (1876): In his first solo novel, after the co-write of “The Gilded Age,” Twain evokes his own rural American childhood of 35 years previous with humor and tenderness. I first read this on my own sometime in childhood, perhaps in high school, and recall seeing the 1973 movie adaptation upon release; rereading the novel as an adult, it was remarkable to encounter so many incidents that imprinted themselves on the American mind: not just the whitewashing of the fence but Tom gallantly taking Becky’s punishment in class, Tom attending his own funeral, Injun Joe’s leap out the courtroom window, the final encounter in the cave (which was actually less dramatic than I’d recalled).

“Twilight Zone Companion” (1992): Largely an episode guide, this isn’t a book you’re likely to sit down and read for pleasure, but it’s indeed an excellent companion if you’re watching the series. Which I did: After buying the series on Blu-ray four years ago, I’ve gradually watched all five seasons and 156 episodes, picking up speed in 2020 (gee, it’s like I’ve had extra time on my hands) and reading the book as I went along. The episode summaries are well done and Zicree’s judgments are sound; in fact, for a fan he’s surprisingly critical. (Apparently in the most recent edition he walks back some of his harsher judgments.) Interviews with many directors and actors, and old quotes from Serling, flavor the looks at each episode and season.

These were three of my oldest unread books. “Zone” was bought in 1994; it seemed like a good idea at the time, given the praise for the book. “Short History” was purchased in 1998 in an excess of enthusiasm after reading a positive review. I bought it on the same excursion as Cather’s “Collected Stories” and Thoreau’s “Walden,” which I only read in the past year, and, heh heh, Jerry Seinfeld’s “Seinlanguage,” which I read immediately. Talk about your reach exceeding your grasp. And “Sawyer” was bought used in 2002.

Leaving aside my Shakespeare omnibus from college, from which I’m reading one or more plays per year, only four remaining unread books from my backlog were acquired in the 20th century. Progress, right? I’m midway through one of them now and expect to read a second this month as well.

How are all of you doing with your reading? I’m pleased to have been able to focus enough to make it through “Short History,” and have just finished another long book for July’s Reading Log. It’s hard to focus in general anymore, and perhaps I’m focused on the wrong things, but at least my bookshelves are benefiting.

Next month: crime, punishment

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  • DebB

    I had even more downtime than usual this month, due to a hospitalization for a couple days – nothing serious, but it gave me a whole, mostly uninterrupted day with nothing to do. I read six during the month: 2 Agatha Christies, 3 Mary Stewarts and one Ngaio Marsh.

    The Marsh book was “A Man Lay Dead”, featuring Scotland Yard Inspector Alleyn. I’ve read it a couple times, but I wanted some “comfort reading” to take to the hospital with me, and enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with Alleyn.

    Amazon offered me a couple Christie stories and tricked me into thinking they were some I hadn’t read. In reality, one was a short story that I had read somewhere, sometime, and the other was a novella that eventually turned into a full-length novel that I had read. So that’s a few dollars I didn’t need to spend, but I enjoyed the stories nevertheless.

    The Stewart books were “Wildfire at Midnight”, “Rose Cottage” and “The Gabriel Hounds”. As in all her books, all three of these feature spunky young British women getting into and out of harrowing situations and finding love along the way. I’ve enjoyed them, but I think I’ve come to the end. Unfortunately I read through them so quickly that I have trouble remembering one from the other. Maybe that’s a good thing – I’ll be able to read them again before long!

    • Terri Shafer

      Sorry for your hospital “downtime,” Deb. Hope you’re feeling well now! At least you had some comforting reads with you.
      Since you enjoy Mary Stewart so much, I was wondering if you had read any Victoria Holt. I read a lot of hers many years ago. They are also in that Gothic genre: usually a governess going to some far off, misty castle, someone dies, the mystery must be solved, with some romance thrown in — but I loved them! See what you think 🙂

      • davidallen909

        “A whole, uninterrupted day with nothing to do” sounds pretty keen, even if the circumstances weren’t the best.

        My mom must have read all or most of Victoria Holt back in the ’70s. That’s a name I remember hearing a lot in our house, and seeing on the spines of library books.

  • Terri Shafer

    I like your June books, David. Of course, I enjoyed Tom Sawyer (but Huckleberry Finn was my favorite!), and I loved watching The Twilight Zone, though only as hit-and-miss re-runs, so the book sounds interesting. I once listened to a podcast about Rod Serling that was very interesting! And your “History” book sounds very ‘educational.’ Truly, I like having read books like that, but I don’t actually enjoy reading them! Ha! Of course, they’re always wonderful after they’re finished! 😉 Congratulations!
    I will recommend to you, and everyone – if you haven’t already read it – “A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson. It is very educational, interesting, and if you know anything about Bill Bryson, quite entertaining! So if you can’t make it through Roberts, try Bryson!
    AND I’m pretty sure I have a good idea of what your long read is for July! 😉

    • davidallen909

      Yes, I all but gave away the title — but you’ll get a kick out of all the other titles I hope to read. About Twain, I expect to be reading “Prince and the Pauper” (for the first time!) later this year, and probably re-reading “Huckleberry Finn” (for the first time since high school) in 2021.

      • Terri Shafer

        I absolutely loved The Prince and the Pauper (which my records show that I read in 1973!! No cute remarks from anyone Please! Like: I wasn’t born yet!!). It is a story that stuck with me and made me think that anyone high up in government or business should be made to trade places with the people in the trenches for a little while. They are the ones that actually know what’s going on!! 😉 I hope you enjoy it!

        • Rinaldo Darke

          Hey Terri – looking through your list I decided it must have been 1973 when I read “Down and Out in Paris and London” for my senior thesis at Cal Poly – so you ain’t alone here.

          • Terri Shafer

            Thank you, Rinaldo! I always knew I liked you 😉

  • Terri Shafer

    I had a pretty decent month. It was entertaining. Not too many low scores, but no 5’s either. Just several books that I enjoyed 🙂

    Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, 1986, 329 pages, 4****s
    This middle grade book was so much fun! I loved it 🙂

    Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, 1933, 213, 4****s
    This is an interesting story of a “penniless British writer — in good part autobiographical” as he goes through hard times in Paris and in London. It describes how a person in dire poverty, in the 1930’s, gets by day-to-day, with the bare minimum of food and finds a place to lay his head at night.
    It’s kind of educational, I learned a lot!

    The Geometry of Holding Hands by Alexander McCall Smith, 2020, 304 pgs 4****s
    This is #13 in the Isabel Dalhousie series (it comes out on July 28, 2020). I enjoy this series.

    The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig, 2006, 345 pages, 4****s
    So good! This was a fun and heartwarming story set in 1909-10 Montana. It starts with the Milliron father and three young sons hiring a housekeeper after the death of Mrs. Milliron. In hiring Mrs. Llewelyn, as a housekeeper coming from Minnesota, the Millirons answer an ad that states “Can’t Cook but Doesn’t Bite,” and they decide she is the woman for them!
    Of course, lots of things happen after that, such as her “brother” arrives with her. But don’t get any ideas about what you think is going to happen — it doesn’t. The things that normally would happen in a story like this don’t, it is not a formulaic story. It is the ‘unexpected’ that makes this story so compelling and endearing. It is the way that it is written that makes it so special and wonderful. In my opinion, it is written in the style and humor of Mark Twain, and I loved it!
    This story is entertaining, fun, exciting, and I highly recommend it!

    Rabbit Redux by John Updike, 1971, 440, pages, 3***s
    Yikes! This one was heavy, but I plan to read the next one in the series in August. I just need a break from it for now!

    Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen, 2007, 304 pages, 4****s
    Just a nice, easy read. It was a romance that was kind of magical and sweet.

    Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, 2018, 320 pages, 4****s
    Very good! I’m liking this author more and more as I read more of his books!

    The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, 2001, 487 pages, 4****s
    Such an amazing book with so many mysteries, twists, and turns. I was surprised several different times!
    So sad that the author passed away on June 19, 2020. We have all lost a great talent.

    Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore, 2002, 444 pgs, 3.5 ***s
    This was very interesting! And funny. But I was kind of glad when I finished.

    The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, 2005, 255 pages, 4****s
    This was an interesting story with several different narrators that made the story twist and turn. It took me about half of the book to see how they all fit together. And the rest of the book to tell if I liked it or not! But I did – in the end 🙂

    The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster, 1909, 48 pages (short story), 4****s
    I really enjoyed this one! It is set in the future where every answer is found in “the Book” and everyone lives according to “the Machine.” Until the Machine…. stops.
    I did not know that Forster ever wrote anything like this. It reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s style and subject matter. It also sounds like coming predictions of the Internet and everyone looking at their phones for answers. It really made me think!

    The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, 1958, 244 pages, 3***s
    Interesting, kind of fun, and just what you’d expect from Kerouac. I’d read “On the Road” many years ago but didn’t remember much. But I think it was much the same.

    • davidallen909

      You are up to the minute with that Carlos Ruiz Zafon novel, Terri. I’d never heard of him until reading an obituary in the past week.

      I’d always vaguely wondered what “Down and Out in Paris and London” was about, and thanks to you I now know. Orwell has become more appreciated in recent years, after a long period where all most people knew were “Animal Farm” and “!984.” “Down and Out” might be his third-best-known book. I read “Coming Up for Air” a few years ago and thought it was great.

      I haven’t read “Dharma Bums,” only “On the Road,” which I didn’t especially care for. There are those who think “Dharma” is better.

      • Terri Shafer

        Regarding the death of Zafon — this is the 2nd time that I have been reading a book and the death of the author was announced! I was reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Stories when Oliver Sacks died! It is a really weird feeling :/

        • davidallen909

          Now I almost don’t want you to read any of my future books, just in case. (But I do, of course!)

          • Terri Shafer


      • Doug Evans

        “I’d never heard of him until reading an obituary in the past week.”

        Time for me to make another polite cough and post a couple of links:

        • davidallen909

          You were into Zafon in 2016, long before any of these latecomers, eh? And you read three of his books. Impressive!

        • Terri Shafer

          Good on you, Doug! I’m impressed!! 😉

    • Hugh C. McBride

      Impressive month (as usual), Terri! I’ve read three from your list: THE SHADOW OF THE WIND (a few years ago – thought it was magnificent). LAMB (probably 15 years ago – I agree with your assessment), and THE DHARMA BUMS (in the late 80s or early 90s during a bit of a Kerouac kick – I recall really liking it).

      Also, sounds like I’m gonna need to spend some time with Rabbit at some point so I can keep sitting at the cool kids’ table here. 🙂

      • Terri Shafer

        I’m so excited to be considered one of the “cool kids!” Haha! 🙂

    • Doug Evans

      Ruiz Zafon had just published the fourth book in the “Cemetery of Forgotten Books” series this past spring… I’ve asked for it for my birthday, so it may show up in the blog here sometime soon. Books two and three aren’t quite up to the level of the first, but still fun, and an amazing concept (a cemetery of forgotten books! Who wouldn’t love that?).

      I commented on your “Rabbit Redux” comment posted back in May’s Log, so be sure to check that out!

      Congrats on another successful month!

      • Doug Evans

        Meant to add: I was very sad to hear of his death! (not least because he was only four years older than I am!)

        • Terri Shafer

          Yes, so sad and especially for one so young. — Oh my, I just looked — he was six years younger than me. He really was young
          (and now, Doug, I guess we know each other’s ages!)!

          • davidallen909

            And he was…six months younger than me.

      • Terri Shafer

        Thanks for pointing me back to last month’s posts & comments. I wondered why my post didn’t go through, but just thought maybe it was my wording that got caught in a filter. I appreciate your comments and am so glad that it is your opinion that the books get better. And now you have my interest perked up by “the baby!” I’m lined up to read the next one in August. We’ll see how that plan goes!

  • Rinaldo Darke

    Hi, David
    I have been looking at my “Tom Sawyer” thinking it has been too long.

    I read six books in June.

    “Themes and Variations” by David Sedaris 5*****
    Not really a book – it is two essays that will most likely be in his next collection. A freebie from Amazon Prime – but I am counting it anyway. Excellent of course.

    “The Buck Passes Flynn” by Gregory McDonald 4****
    Second in the series. I may have read it back in 1981 when it first came out, but when it popped up, I grabbed it. It is a fun series about a secret agent who works for the NN agency. NN stands for No Name. It is hard to talk about something that has no name. It is related the the Fletch books and you may remember the Chevy Chase movie.

    “Soulless” by Gail Carriger 3***
    First in her series of Steampunk books. Steampunk is a Victorian SF and Fantasy genre. Think H.G. Wells, clockworks, Jules Verne, and Dracula all mixed up together. Also werewolves.

    “Fade to Black (Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe Mysteries)” by Robert Goldsborough 3***
    I am enjoying these more since I realized they are not Nero Wolfe books but Archie Goodwin books. It is fun to visit even if it is not the real deal.

    “Scot and Soda” by Catriona McPherson 3***
    Second in the series and winner of the 2020 Lefty award for best humorous mystery novel. Not as good as I expected. Most of the funny is based on confusion over what things are called in Scotland vs. what they are called in California.

    “The Body Counter” by Anne Frasier 3***
    Second in the series after “The Body Reader” from last month.
    A good, gritty female cop series.

    • davidallen909

      If this were 1876 we would be speaking of Twain’s “dazzling debut novel.” Well, if you reread it, you know where to post about it.

      I have two unread David Sedaris books awaiting me on my shelves, both of them signed, about 15 years apart!

    • Terri Shafer

      I’m so jealous that you got to read David Sedaris! So, I just looked and could get it on Amazon for $1.99!! Thanks for the heads-up, Rinaldo! 🙂

      • Terri Shafer

        I just listened to Themes and Variations by David Sedaris (it was only 30 minutes long)!! I completely agree with you, Rinaldo — I also give it a solid 5*****s!!

    • Doug Evans

      I bought the first “Fletch” book a while back, thinking it’s a series I will probably enjoy. It sits there on my shelf unread, but I will get to it one day!

      I think I shared on the blog the last time you mentioned this that I bought my dad the first Robert Goldsborough “Nero Wolfe” pastiche, and the verdict was a thumbs up, though not as good as the real thing. So you and dad are on the same page!

  • Doug Evans

    I read four! Bringing my halfway-through-the-year total to 27. My Goodreads goal for 2020 is 60, so we’ll see what happens.

    “The Barbarous Coast” by Ross Macdonald (1956). Sixth in the Lew Archer private eye series. I had read somewhere before I started this series that as these books go on, they become less of a Philip Marlowe clone and more psychological in make-up, and I think we’re well into that here. This book ends with the same kind of ending as the movie “Psycho” (no spoilers here!), in which a psychiatrist steps in to tell us exactly why everyone had just done the things they did. Ah, the ‘50s and ‘60s, when pop psychology was here to save the day. Not a negative review, by the way! Still enjoying these books, and enjoying the deepening of the Lew Archer character.

    “Fair Warning” by Michael Connelly (2020). Connelly’s latest, and his third book featuring his Jack McEvoy reporter character. Connelly has a message to tell here, about the dangers of unregulated DNA collection, but to do so, he also tacks on an unconvincing serial killer plot, as if he decided that a story about science and regulations wouldn’t be enough of a sell on its own. Maybe so. Still a fun book, but I wouldn’t suggest this as the first Jack McEvoy book for someone to read, nor even the first Connelly. Stick to Bosch for that!

    “Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard” by Joseph Conrad (1904). Having read Conrad’s “Lord Jim” last month, after picking it up on impulse at Magic Door Used Books, I decided to finally buckle down and read “Nostromo,” also by Conrad, which I picked up on impulse from somewhere about twenty years ago and have had on my shelf ever since. Fun to officially get a Giant Stack of Unread Books book crossed off the list! This one had an exciting plot, about a political revolution and some stolen silver bars, couched in an awful lot of words. My take upon finishing this book is that the middle was a little slow and that the beginning and the end were also a little slow. Still! Good story, and I feel happy about finally having read it. Fun fact! The ship in “Alien” is named “Nostromo,” and the escape vessel that Sigourney Weaver uses to try to get away at the end is called the “Narcissus,” after another much more unfortunately titled Conrad work.

    “The 1987 Annual World’s Best SF” edited by Donald A. Wolheim (1987). Yet another science fiction anthology, and yet another Magic Door purchase for me. Thanks for all of the books, Magic Door Used Books! A little bit of cyberpunk, a little bit of contemporary references (Oliver North, anyone?); this book, like probably any science fiction work, is definitely of its time, but still fun and occasionally mind-expanding in the way that the best science fiction can be. (Not quite sure how these qualify as the “World’s” best, since they seem to all be written by American and British authors, but there we are). Plus, this was published in my college years, and though I don’t think I’d read any of these exact stories way back then, I couldn’t help but get a little nostalgic just reading the kinds of stories I was reading at the time.

    As for David’s books, I read Tom Sawyer as a kid, and even toured the cave in which he and Becky get lost in Hannibal, Missouri on a trip around the country that my family took in 1977. And I had that Twilight Zone Companion book! Lost it somewhere along the way, which makes me sad. I had seen each episode so many times by the time I got the book that I was able to sit down and read it cover to cover and pretty much keep up with what was going on. Memories!

    Huzzah on having only four pre-2000 books to go!

    Happy reading and stay safe, everyone!

    • davidallen909

      I like this thing that we do sometimes here which is to name the publication year. Rich P was the pioneer here on that, I believe, and Terri uses it too, which inspired me to do it consistently. I point that out only because it can be fun to see, such as in your post, that you had a 2020, a 1904 and a couple in between. New books, old books, they’re all just books and they’re all up for grabs for modern readers, if that’s your taste. No aspersions cast on those who deal exclusively with old or new. We all have our specialties.

      Oh, and I admire the way you will plow through a series, one per month at times. If I could get myself to do that I’d have finished the Fu Manchu books ages ago, and same with the Travis McGee mysteries. But then, my backlog has been such that I’ve read a little of everything as I attempt to catch up to a reasonable amount (still, er, several years off).

      Tom Sawyer’s cave! I visited Hannibal in 2002 on a trip home and saw Twain’s house, Becky’s house and the cave, and also bought my copy of Huck Finn at the bookstore downtown. Seemed like the best kind of keepsake.

      Thanks as always for contributing, Doug!

      • Doug Evans

        How big a nerd am I? A big enough nerd that I spent a half hour this past weekend going through the log until I found the comment where I first started including the publication dates, and yes, I credit Richard Pietrasz for the idea!

        My “one series book per month” is helping me knock of books in a series I would probably never read, due to feeling overwhelmed about ever getting through them, but I kind of like the way you’re reading your books one year at a time (like I did with my Dickens project). It may be taking you longer to get through each series, but you’re getting through more series than I am. (Add Jack Smith to your list!) And I remember how fun it was each year when it came time for that year’s Dickens novel. I still have one more Dickens Christmas story coming up this Christmas, so I have that to look forward to!

        • Terri Shafer

          I also want to give credit to Rich P: after reading “Heart of Darkness” and not being crazy about it, Rich recommended “King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild which explained how King Leopold II of Belgium came in and decimated the Congo, how the people of the area were treated, and the making of rubber. It was absolutely horrible! And Joseph Conrad was around during that time and upset by the goings-on. The book really helped explain Conrad’s book and story. I would never have read the Hochschild book if Rich hadn’t talked about it. I recommend it!

    • Terri Shafer

      I haven’t read any of yours this month, Doug, but you’re making me feel like I might need to get to a little more Conrad. I’ve only read Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer. I really should at least read Lord Jim. But somehow I just don’t look forward to it. I’ll look at your review again from last month and see if that inspires me 🙂

      • Doug Evans

        I’ve read both of those! In fact, I’m re-reading Heart of Darkness right now, though it’s proving to be slow going (due to my summer teaching schedule more than the book). Both Lord Jim and Nostromo are atypical, compared to the two you’ve read, though Marlow does narrate both Lord Jim and Darkness. The two books you’ve read are both set on the sea (or river, in the case of Heart of Darkness), and are far shorter… those honestly may be two pluses in their favor!

        • Terri Shafer

          That’s probably why I picked them! 😉

    • Hugh C. McBride

      “New Michael Connolly book” always causes me to perk my proverbial ears – but I’ve been leery about picking this one up. I recall thinking that the two previous Jack McEvoy novels were OK, but something about our hero tracking down a possible serial killer doesn’t appeal to me at the moment.

      I have also drifted away from Ross Macdonald, and there’s clearly no good excuse for that. Need to work him back into my reading list one of these days.

      • Doug Evans

        Well, Ross Macdonald will always be there… in fact, I’ve got them all, so you’re always welcome to borrow!… so no big hurry on that.

        And, yeah, “Fair Warning” is pretty mid-level Connelly. This is one of two books he’s going to publish this year, so along with the serial killer plot tacked onto his novel-length warning about the unregulated collection of DNA by companies like 23andMe, this may have been a rush job.

  • Hugh C. McBride

    I read two books, both by the same author, both addressing the same subject, once as fiction, once as memoir. The two books:


    Both of these books were written by Dan “Son of John” Fante.

    CHUMP CHANGE, which was published in 1998, is a harrowing fictional account of an alcoholic, suicidal would-be writer (Bruno Dante) returning from New York to Southern California to be with his father (a screeswriter who acheived some notoriety for his novel,”Ask the Wind) in his father’s final days. Fante would write three more Bruno Dante novels (MOOCH, SPITTING OFF TALL BUILDINGS, & 86’D)

    FANTE, which was published in 2011, is part memior of Dan Fante’s life, part biographry of John Fante, part exploration of the author’s relationship with his by-now-legendary father. Some of the scenes from CHUMP CHANGE appear here in their non-fictionalized (and perhaps even more harrowing) versions, while other scenes, I assume, have also been addressed in Dan Fante’s other Bruno Dante novels. The author appears to pull no punches when describing himself, but he paints a bit softer of a portait of his father than he did in CHUMP CHANGE.

    Can’t say either of these fall into the “light reading” or “picker-upper” categories – but if you’re interested in a harsh recounting of a life that was heavily influenced by alcoholism and mental illness, these are two powerful portrayals.

    • davidallen909

      Hugh, that’s an interesting pairing.

      I vaguely recall reading a Calendar section piece on Dan Fante years ago, probably about Chump Change rather than Fante given how long ago it seems. (Then again, sometimes I’ll recall something that seems like ages ago and it occurred six or seven years ago, so…maybe 2011 after all.)

      I hadn’t read Ask the Dust at that point and only knew it by reputation. Since then I’ve read that classic LA novel, and frankly I didn’t particularly care for it.

      But it’s a fairly early novel about the city, from 1947 I believe, and it has its attractions. I didn’t like Day of the Locust either so the fault is probably mine.