Books acquired: “Southern California: An Island on the Land,” Carey McWilliams
Books read: “Just Kids,” Patti Smith; “Younger Than That Now: The Collected Interviews With Bob Dylan,” James Ellison, ed.; “About Aging,” Josephine Smith; “A Good Life,” Ben Bradlee; “Larger Than Life: The Playboy Interviews,” Stephen Randall, ed.; “Not Dead Yet,” Phil Collins; “Eternally Yours,” Jack Smith
Well, readers, here we are at last, a full three weeks into December. How did we stand the suspense? Blog trouble, as explained in a recent post, is now cleared up, or cleared up for now. I’m looking at what I read in November and some books seem like they were read a long time ago. Somewhat true in some cases, as three or four were largely read in September and October and finished the first few days of November. Heck, I’ve already read four books in December by now.
Anyway, the titles as you can see form a sort of cradle-to-grave pattern, for no reason other than fun — and to motivate myself to squeeze in some unread books from my shelves that I might not have gotten to if I hadn’t needed to finish them for this post.
“Just Kids” (2010): An account of Smith’s bond with Robert Mapplethorpe and being poor, free and bohemian in NYC, where they lived at the Chelsea Hotel with Harry Smith as a neighbor, saw the Velvet Underground at Max’s Kansas City and befriended Sam Shepard, Candy Darling and Jim Carroll. If those names mean nothing to you, maybe skip this. Direct, fond, but sometimes pretentious: If you took a drink every time she cites Genet, Baudelaire, Blake or Rimbaud, you’d end up blotto.
“Younger Than That Now” (2004): These career-ranging Dylan interviews are usually interesting, occasionally illuminating, sometimes confounding, just as often exasperating. The 1965 interview with Laurie Henshaw is hilariously hostile. The 1976 interview with TV Guide is surprisingly warm, as he and Neil Hickey share beers on the beach. This is kind of a junior companion to the Rolling Stone Essential Interviews book, a bit half-assed in selection and typography (no editor/compiler even gets a credit, other than online) but worthwhile for fans.
“About Aging” (1995): In her 80s and 90s, after careers as a social worker and nurse, Smith began writing a column for the local weekly in Claremont. Informal and direct, often about her life, sometimes about local matters or concerns as a senior, they’re uncommonly stylish. Twice she won first-place columnist awards in a state contest. A friend gave me this book; bemused, I didn’t think I would read it, and when years later I started it, a few pages in I didn’t expect to finish. But I kept reading, and I liked it.
“A Good Life” (1995/2017): I listened to the audiobook version while reading footnotes, etc., in my print copy. A well-told memoir with few flourishes, and read by Arthur Morey with a gusto that reflects Bradlee’s directness, confidence and enthusiasm. (It was easy to forget it wasn’t Bradlee’s voice.) At 500 pages, and 20 hours for the audiobook, it’s arguably about 10% too long. Still, his accounts of having polio, serving in WWII, being a foreign correspondent and knowing JFK were unexpected, and then come the expected: the Pentagon Papers, Watergate and Janet Cooke.
“Larger Than Life” (2006): The usual lengthy, probing interviews, this time with icons of the ’60s and ’70s. The John Wayne interview is notorious. Howard Cosell is sharp, Bette Davis is candid, Frank Sinatra is philosophical. Marlon Brando, once he drops his guard, is clear-eyed, smart and funny. Muhammad Ali is full of himself and Bob Dylan gives one of his better interviews. The rest are OK.
“Not Dead Yet” (2016): Heard on audiobook, read by Collins himself, with dips into my print copy. A generally cheerful memoir, well told and witty, from someone about whom I had very little interest. Thankfully he doesn’t take himself too seriously and it’s fun to hear him read. Best parts for this non-fan were about his pre-fame years and about the disaster that was Live Aid. From his 40s onward Collins thoroughly messes up his life and, while he’s unsparing, this happy-go-lucky guy can’t really explain why he became a suicidal philanderer. Perhaps he and his persona were living “Separate Lives.”
“Eternally Yours” (1996): This was the LA Times columnist’s 10th and last collection, compiled by his wife and sons from his last years’ output. Some involve his health (stroke, heart attack, wheelchair), but his sense of humor remained nimble even if he didn’t. There was something brave about his continuing to write even in his physical decline. A few columns from the 1970s and ’80s are sprinkled in, all welcome to this fan. This is the only one of his books I own that isn’t signed, for obvious reasons.
All of November’s books were enjoyable to a similar degree, although some are clearly geared to my tastes. Patti Smith’s book is the standout and won the National Book Award for nonfiction.
When and where did these books fall into my hands? “Kids” was a gift in 2011, “Younger” was a purchase at Borders Montclair in the mid-’00s, “Aging” was a gift from Magic Door Books in Pomona in the mid-’00s (owner Dwain Kaiser thought I should own this book by a fellow local columnist), “A Good Life” in print was a gift in 2018, with an audio copy downloaded from the LA County Library in October, “Larger Than Life” was a gift in 2016, “Not Dead” was a gift in 2018 and “Eternally Yours” was a purchase somewhere, used, in the mid-’00s. Whew! A lot of older unread books here, and five gifts from nice people. (That only scratches the surface of the unread gift books on my shelves, I’m afraid. More scratching ahead.)
How was your November reading — if you even remember? Apologies again about that. The December Reading Log will be here before you know it (I hope?), followed by the traditional 2020 recap with all my books listed and photographed.
Next month: books on books.