About David Allen

A journalist for more than 30 years, David Allen has been chronicling the Inland Valley for the Daily Bulletin since 1997 and blogging since 2007. He is the author of three books of columns: "Pomona A to Z," "Getting Started" and "On Track." E-mail David here.

Reading Log: November 2021

Books acquired: “It Calls You Back,” Luis Rodriguez; “Fun With Your New Head,” Thomas M. Disch; “Inter State,” Jose Vadi

Books read: “All of the Marvels,” Douglas Wolk; “Benchley — Or Else!” Robert Benchley; “Is This Anything?” Jerry Seinfeld; “Men and Cartoons,” Jonathan Lethem; “Synthetic Men of Mars” (John Carter No. 9), “Tarzan and the Ant Men” (Tarzan No. 10), Edgar Rice Burroughs; “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls,” David Sedaris; “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore,” Robin Sloan; “The Essential Groucho,” Stefan Kanfer, ed.

Here we are in December, looking back at November, as 2021 heads into the home stretch. If we have any books we desperately want to get to or to wrap up, better snap to it.

I did my part in November, as you can see: nine books. They encompass five books of nonfiction and four of fiction (unless it turns out “Tarzan and the Ant Men” is a true-life account). Let’s run ’em down.

“Marvels” (2021): Subtitled “A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told,” Wolk’s book is the result of his reading 17,000 Marvel comics, which he doesn’t recommend, and thinking deeply about them, which he does. He covers the basics in a way friendly to new or lapsed comics readers. Yet his observations, insights and reader tips had this lifelong Marvel fan jotting notes, nodding in affirmation or grunting in surprise. His section on the Shang-Chi series of the 1970s-’80s as an unsung gem was especially welcome. That he likes modern and classic Marvel both is to his credit. As Stan Lee might have enthused: “Face it, True Believer, this one has it all.”

“Benchley” (1947): Published after his death, this is a mixed bag of good stuff and dregs, some of which read as if written on a deadline with little inspiration. Still, even lesser Benchley has its pleasures. One gem is about how he likes reading mystery novels but that he’s always lost at the end during the dense monologue by the detective of how the crime was pulled off.

“Anything?” (2020): This compilation of Seinfeld’s stand-up bits is arranged by decade going back to the 1980s, and hearing him read them — I listened to the audiobook while referring at times to the hardcover — gives a semblance of hearing them live. His delivery is less friendly than on his show, and some of the ’00s jokes come across as semi-hostile. Overall, it’s funny-to-hilarious, of course, and this book is better than his early “Seinlanguage.” The short autobiographical introductions per decade might make us wish for a full memoir — although I won’t hold my breath.

“Cartoons” (2005): The most straightforward story, “Vivian Relf,” was the most affecting. The others, from near-realism to comic absurdity, had their pleasures, but the overall impact on me was slight. As an example of how times change, when the first story, “The Vision,” was published, Lethem had to explain within the story who the obscure Marvel character was, and now, after “Avengers” movies and the “WandaVision” TV series, he’s recognized by millions.

“Synthetic Men” (1939): In his ERB bio, Richard Lupoff called this one “thoroughly bad,” which made me go in expecting the worst. Well, OK, it’s somewhat formulaic, and Ras Thavas (from Book 6) is back, as is his brain transferral surgeries. A fast-growing mass of vat-created protoplasm that threatens to overwhelm Barsoom, though, that’s new. If this one is no gem, it’s no embarrassment either.

“Ant Men” (1924): Tarzan runs into two warring cities of people 18 inches tall, arrogantly thinks he can take on an entire army single-handedly, gets captured, wakes up and finds himself 18 inches tall (although for the longest time he can’t figure it out and thinks everyone else has grown). A fun outing, somewhat different, but disappointing compared to Lupoff’s rave, in his ERB bio, that this was the best entry since the first. The Ape-Man series continues for 14 more novels, by the way, but I plan to stop here.

“Owls” (2013): There’s a more a generous spirit underlying most of the autobiographical pieces than before: more sympathy and reflectiveness, less mean-spiritedness and snark. It’s (dare I say it) a sign of growth. The one about the hygiene and food in China is, as they say, problematic, and the six fictional essays using other voices as narrator are hit or miss. On this one too I listened to the audiobook of a volume I own, and Sedaris reads it himself, a plus.

“Mr. Penumbra” (2012): A clever story involving modes of communication old and new: email, letters, cassettes, a Walkman, cell phones, the internet, lead type and, most crucially, books and e-readers. The plot involving a 500-year-old secret society in robes gets into a less self-serious version of Dan Brown territory, and the big reveal is slightly incomprehensible. But the likable narration helps a lot. I listened to the audio version of this as well.

“Groucho” (2004): A worthy attempt to collect and preserve some of Groucho’s writings and quiz-show quips. The section of freelance pieces is too long, since most were only middling, and weighed down what was otherwise a great pleasure of letters and script excerpts. Still, a neat idea, one that salvages a lot of out-of-print or uncollected material.

Overview: Not a dog in the bunch, although the Benchley was pretty iffy. “Marvels” is my favorite, trailed by “Owls,” and then everything else. By listening to audiobooks downloaded from a library, I managed to squeeze in three extra books this month, largely while driving. What great times we live in, eh?

These books fell into my life over a course of 17 years: Wolk came from his publisher and Seinfeld as a birthday gift from a friend, both in 2021; Sedaris was bought at his 2015 appearance at Scripps College and signed by the author; Sloan was bought on a road trip in 2013 from Half Moon Bay’s Bay Books; both ERBs came from the Black Ace Paperback Show, Tarzan in 2012 and Mars in 2011; Benchley was bought at Pasadena’s estimable Book Alley in 2011, while Lethem came the same year via North Hollywood’s Iliad Books; and Groucho was picked up at Berkeley’s Moe’s Books in, gulp, 2004.

As is usually the case here, the pitfalls of my past book-buying habits are revealed for all the world (or at least a half-dozen of you) to see. In no rational world should the ERB books have sat on my shelf unread for a decade; same with the Lethem book, which even at my pokey pace took only about five days to read. My excuse, of course, is that I’ve read hundreds of other books this past decade, many far older than these. I wish I hadn’t been so profligate in years past in padding out my shelves, as if a book shortage were on the horizon and I needed to stock up. Ah, me.

How was your November, readers? Let us all hear about it in the comments, please. Onward to our December reading!

Next month: 2021 ends, as does the John Carter series.

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Column: Peace Walk statues prefigured social justice trend

Riverside has a series of six statues on the downtown pedestrian mall that were all produced via grassroots efforts from 1995 to 2013 and form a loose series known variously as the Peace Walk or the Civil Rights Walk. They may be unique in the nation outside Washington, D.C., yet they’re not as well-known as they should be. There’s no signage, for one thing. I visit them, alongside the mayor who was there when they were installed and the current mayor who’d like to highlight them. The result is my Sunday column.

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Column: Adele fans may lose their mind over San Bernardino lyric

A bonus track by Adele on her new album contains the memorable line “I lost my mind in San Bernardino.” The Inland Empire thanks her. (She’s doing fine, obviously. Also, it’s an excellent song.) I also bring up the San Bernardino mention in a song two years ago by The Boss and note a couple of literary references to the IE in my pre-Thanksgiving column.

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Mark Twain in Monrovia (and Berkeley)

There’s a Mark Twain statue in Monrovia: It’s in Library Park outside the Public Library and provides a handy half a bench, which you can share with the great author and humorist. I was happy to do it, as he’s among my favorite writers.

The plaque says the sculpture is by artist Gary Price, was installed in 2003 and bears this quote attributed to Twain: “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”

I saw it most recently in September after a farewell lunch with my friend and colleague Penny Rosenberg, who was moving out of state. She took the photo.

This piece is not precisely unique. Walking through a portion of Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley in October, I was surprised to see an almost identical bench. I posed for a photo here too, shot by my friend Frances Dinkelspiel. I’m reading “The Essential Groucho,” which I happened to be carrying.

Bancroft is a good place for a Twain bench: The library has Twain’s papers, including the original manuscript for “Finn.”

They are not the same bench, as I see upon examining the photos. Twain is reading “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in each, but the book is open at Berkeley and closed in Monrovia. Monrovia’s sculpture is darker, either by design or by exposure to the elements. He’s angled a bit differently in each as well. I don’t know the artist for Berkeley’s; if there’s a plaque, I didn’t notice it.

His legs are crossed the same in each — as are mine, in homage.

If I find out there are more benches for Twain, maybe I will sit on them too.

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Column: Heat finally melted resolve against air conditioning

My lack of air conditioning at home is moderately well known among longtime readers. Over the summer, I couldn’t take it anymore and got two portable units for my rental. I write about this milestone in my Wednesday column.

I’d been meaning to address this since July, when this took place, but what with one thing or another, it didn’t get done. Last weekend’s surprise heat wave seemed to offer one last excuse this calendar year, and I was able to find the notes I’d made the afternoon of the installation on the back of an envelope. Voila, a column.

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