Reading Log: November 2018

Books acquired: “The Orange and the Dream of California,” David Boulé

Books read: “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage,” Todd Gitlin; “Haircut and Other Stories,” Ring Lardner

November, the penultimate month. Perhaps you are racing toward some reading target; me, I’m gliding toward year’s end by finishing a certain goal.

That would be reading the last unread books from the Northern California period of my life (1986-1994), and yes, I am properly chagrined at having books this hoary on my unread list. But I’m near to no longer having them on my unread list, just as I knocked off the last (with an asterisk or two) hangover books from my Illinois period (birth-1986) a couple of years back. Progress!

Over 2018 I’ve read five from my Bay Area years, by Hawthorne, Kafka, Hammett and Dick (two); this month I read “The Sixties,” and I’m largely through the final one, which will be a December book.

Sometimes these long-held books turn out to be gems; other times the reason they hadn’t been read until now becomes obvious, i.e., that I wasn’t into them but couldn’t admit it to myself consciously. If they were all in the latter category, I might junk all my old books, but they aren’t, and there’s no obviously differentiating point to allow me to make that determination. The five mentioned above were all good to great, for instance, and I’m glad I read each of them.

And I won’t disparage “The Sixties,” a chronicle (from 1987) of the student protest movement, of which Gitlin was among the leaders. I learned a fair amount; it’s just that 440 small-type pages proved to be far more than I wanted to know about the subject, especially at this late date.

Actually, one of the tidbits that most struck me was about the 1950s and concerned the lunch counter protests against Woolworth’s, which began with four black college students in suits and ties sitting at the counter in Greensboro, N.C., all day, refusing to leave when they were ignored. The next day, they returned with 25 more students, some in ROTC uniforms; the third day with double the number; by the fifth day, with 300. Allow me to quote:

“At its luminous best, what the movement did was stamped with imagination. The sit-in, for example, was a powerful tactic because the act itself was unexceptionable. What were the Greensboro students doing, after all, but sitting at a lunch counter, trying to order a hamburger or a cup of coffee? They did not petition the authorities, who, in any case, would have paid no heed; in strict Gandhian fashion, they asserted that they had a right to sit at the counter by sitting at it, and threw the burden of disruption onto the upholders of white supremacy. Instead of saying that segregation ought to stop, they acted as if segregation no longer existed. That was the definitive movement style, squarely in the American grain, harking back to Thoreau’s idea of civil disobedience…”

Of course the 1960s stuff was often fascinating too: I learned, or was reminded, that the Kennedy brothers were inconsistent champions of civil rights and that MLK peaked at the March on Washington, both characterizations bringing these icons down to earth as human beings, and also that the student protest movement was relatively coordinated nationally.

Still, I was reading this book from Nov. 1 to 25, an awfully big chunk of time for what I got out of it. I protest!

“Haircut,” by contrast, was right up my alley. Lardner was a master of real-world speech; most of these stories are told exclusively through narration, letters or diary entries, and each reveals character, often unwittingly, and usually hilariously. The flighty teenage girl in “I Can’t Breathe” strings along three young men, all of whom believe they’re engaged to her; the would-be lovers of “Some Like Them Cold” grow close and then apart via correspondence.

Lardner, who died in 1933, isn’t read much today, although there’s a Library of America anthology from 2013 that has asserted his place in the canon.

As for these books’ provenance, Gitlin’s was bought at Green Apple Books in San Francisco in 1993, while Lardner’s, also used, came from Downtowne Books in Riverside in 2001. There is a sly joke in reading “Haircut” and “The Sixties” in the same month; and as two of my oldest unread books, they both cried out to be read anyway.

I’m up to 44 books read in 2018 and am likely to end the year at 47, being well into all three I intend to read this month.

How was your November, readers, and are we nearing, or accomplishing, any particular goals?

Next month: big names in music.

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Reading Log: October 2018

Books acquired: “Ritchie Valens: The First Latino Rocker,” Beverly Mendheim; “Our Towns,” James and Deborah Fallows

Books read: “The Doom That Came to Sarnath and Other Stories,” H.P. Lovecraft; “Echo Round His Bones,” Thomas M. Disch; “Banking on Beauty,” Adam Arenson; “O Pioneers!” Willa Cather

Did we all remember to turn back our clocks, or were we too busy reading? Anyway, welcome to another Reading Log, where the frost is on the pumpkin, or it would be if it weren’t 84 degrees outside.

Personally, I finished four books in October. I did not “fall” down on the job. Three fiction, one nonfiction. To wit:

“The Doom That Came to Sarnath” was my annual H.P. Lovecraft read. This was made up of early fantasy stories in the mode of Lord Dunsany, a couple of collaborations, a poem and a few pre-Cthulhu stories. Overall, the weakest of the eight HPL collections I’ve read. The notes by editor Lin Carter do help put it all into context.

“Echo Round His Bones” (1967) was my sort-of-annual Thomas Disch read. In this one, a military man is dispatched via matter transmitter to the Mars base to deliver the top-secret message that America’s nuclear arsenal should be released against the Russians. But the transmission process is flawed and a duplicate of everyone is created for a shadow world. The anti-war message, and anti-Vietnam War message in particular (in 1967 no less), is commendable. The explanations of the matter transmission and the “echoes” it creates are pretty much impossible to follow, and Disch’s authorial voice as narrator is intrusive. Interesting, but neither here nor there: too complicated for light entertainment and too cheerful for literary fiction.

(Incidentally, I bought a bunch of the hard-to-find Disch books five years ago at a used bookstore in Goleta and have now read four — only one of which I liked. I’m beginning to regret the whole exercise. Except that chronologically, the next one is a classic. We shall see.)

“Banking on Beauty” (2018) was the subject of a column earlier this year. It’s about the partnership of Millard Sheets and Howard Ahmanson that produced the artsy Home Savings branches around Southern California in particular. It’s well illustrated and rigorously researched. It’s a bit much for the general reader, if any there are, but the book fills a gap in midcentury modern architecture history and tells a uniquely suburban SoCal tale of art and good taste being brought to the masses via a philanthropic businessman and an artist who was happy to sign on with a corporate client.

Lastly, “O Pioneers!” (1913) is a classic by Willa Cather spanning about three decades in the settlement of a Nebraska town. Even at a slim 180 pages, her novel has an epic heroine, one who outshines her petty, small-minded brothers in business. Cather’s descriptions of the Nebraska landscape are loving and lovely and her sketches of the Swedes, Germans and Czechs who settled the prairie so far from their home are enlightening and empathetic.

So “Pioneers” was the month’s clear winner, and also the one more of you are likely to have already read or to consider reading. Although I’d bet Rich P. has read “Echo.”

But what of you all? What did you read in October?

As for how these books entered my life, “Echo” was bought at Goleta’s Paperback Alley in 2013, “Sarnath” came from DTLA’s Last Bookstore in 2017, “O Pioneers!” came from Borders (RIP) — I’d have said circa 2011, but as it doesn’t show up in a search of this blog, maybe more like 2007 — and “Banking” was contributed by Claremont Heritage (I was writing about Adam Arenson’s Heritage-related visit to town) in 2018.

My four books made this, I think, my last big month of 2018. There’s a good chance I’ll only finish four or five over the last two months of this year, including two relatively complex nonfiction volumes, my oldest unread books, that I really want to read before another year goes by. Do you have any year-end reading goals?

Next month: a hairy time.

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Column: For ‘Feral Detective,’ writer scratches at Upland, Claremont

A new novel is set here in part, and it’s by the acclaimed Jonathan Lethem, who lives in Claremont. What more inducement did I need to write about it? “The Feral Detective,” and Lethem himself, are the subject of Wednesday’s column.

You can meet him at his Nov. 7 launch party in Claremont — that is, if you’re not attending my author talk the same evening in the same town. Unfortunate timing, that.

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Reading Log: September 2018

Books acquired: “The Annotated ‘Big Sleep’,” Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson and Anthony Rizzuto, editors

Books read: “The Sheep Look Up,” John Brunner; “The Maltese Falcon (Film Classics Library),” Richard J. Anobile; “Cats, Dogs and Other Strangers at My Door,” Jack Smith; “The Perfect Horse,” Elizabeth Letts

It seems it was September, not March, that came in like a lion and went out like a lamb, based on my animalistic titles last month. My reading encompassed a science fiction novel, a collection of newspaper columns, a nonfiction World War II account and a stills-and-dialogue version of a film noir classic, all with a critter in the title.

I’d been wanting to read “The Sheep Look Up” since being struck by its summary in a display at the science fiction museum at Seattle’s Space Needle in 2006, and remembered its unsettling cover from book racks in the 1970s. So that’s the edition I acquired a year or two later (from where, I forget). At 450 pages, it was a little intimidating and I kept putting it off, but I took it with me on my overseas trip and, after reading “The Trial,” read almost half by the time I returned.

This sprawling, character-filled novel (1972) charts environmental ruin (acid rain, unbreathable air, poisoned water, a sun that never emerges) that people manage to ignore even as their quality of life erodes. Experimental, but easy to follow, with black humor and real anger at the fouling of Earth. Brunner’s alarm about pesticides and antibiotics that no longer work hasn’t quite been borne out (yet?), but “Sheep” is still scary and deserves to be more widely read.

“Cats, Dogs and Other Strangers at My Door” (1984) collects some 30 years of columns by the LA Timesman about the cats, dogs and birds that found their way to his and his wife’s Mount Washington home. I love Jack’s writing but had some trepidation about this one, as a non-pet person. As the seventh of his nine books, which I’ve been reading in order, one per year, it was this one’s turn. But no need to fear. His clear writing, sly humor and observations about the foibles of both human and pet alike made this book another semi-forgotten gem.

“The Perfect Horse” (2016) chronicles the little-known tale of the purebred horses rescued at the end of WWII by equine-loving American troops before the Russians could grab them for horsemeat. Some of them were shipped, at least briefly, to Kellogg Ranch in Pomona before being dispersed to auctions in other states. I saw Letts give a talk at Cal Poly earlier this year, bought the book to help me with the resulting column and got it signed. I read the few Pomona pages in writing the column, then put the book aside. I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the time on it, as it’s not really my thing, but thought if I were ever going to read it, it should be this year, and so I inserted it into this animal month.

Well, it was frequently quite good, with Letts playing up the drama and humanity of the men involved. But there may be too many characters, riding camps and breeds for the reader to follow for the narrative’s own good, and the story kind of trails off, as the dramatic rescue in many ways seems to be for naught. Life is often like that. Still, maybe I’d have been just as well off skipping the book after all. (Among the copious works cited in the back is my own Kellogg column from my Pomona A to Z series, although I can’t imagine it was of much help.)

As for “The Maltese Falcon” (1974), it’s one of a series done by Richard Anobile in which he presented portions of old comedies, or even full movies, as frame blowups accompanied by typeset dialogue. I have his “Casablanca” and two Marx Brothers books.

Now that we can enjoy “The Maltese Falcon” in our own home anytime we like — I’ve since watched it again on Blu-ray after finishing the book — this is an antique. But “Falcon” is such a great movie that the chance to linger over its details and chuckle in recognition of favorite moments is not to be dismissed. Also, you might learn something; in my case, despite repeated viewings, it was exactly how Captain Jacoby figured in, which had glided right past me.

I bought “Falcon” at Powell’s Books in Portland in 2016. As mentioned, “Horse” came from Cal Poly in 2018. “Cats, Dogs” and “Sheep” date to the mid-2000s, prior to the Reading Log, from used bookstores, although I’ve forgotten which ones. Smith’s, like my others by him, is signed.

How was your September, readers? Hope you read some good books, and not too many dogs. Let us know in the comments section.

Next month: a favorite author or two.

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Reading Log: August 2018

Books acquired: “The Broken Bubble,” Philip K. Dick

Books read: “The Dream Detective,” Sax Rohmer; “The Feral Detective,” Jonathan Lethem; “The Trial,” Franz Kafka

Pardon the delay, but vacation interfered in bringing you the August Reading Log before now. In fact, I’m typing this Sunday night, Sept. 9!

Needing to read the upcoming Jonathan Lethem novel (from an advance copy) for a future column or two, and with travel plans that would affect my reading time, I hit a sort of crime and punishment theme — but without reading “Crime and Punishment,” which would have taken much of my month.

“The Dream Detective” (1925): A cross between Holmes and Rohmer’s usual exotica, these are not great mysteries, as they’re generally impossible to solve, but they are surprisingly delightful. Moris Klaw is an indelible character, and each subsequent story in which he sprays himself with verbena to cool his brain, or asks his daughter Isis to fetch his “odically sterilized” pillow so he can dream at the crime scene, there is the thrill of the queerly familiar.

“The Feral Detective” (due out Nov. 6): Former journalist Phoebe Siegler travels west from NYC to find a friend, a young woman who’s gone missing and who may be looking for Leonard Cohen at Mt. Baldy. Phoebe hires detective Charles Heist and the two navigate the Inland Empire in their quest, which involves two desert-dwelling factions of lost ’60s types.

Less cerebral than usual for Lethem, this has (gasp) action, not to mention intriguing characters, post-election dislocation and a firm grasp of place. Specifically, Upland, Claremont and Mt. Baldy, and then the desert, not specified but east of Lucerne Valley, it seems. I liked it. How could I not like a novel with scenes set at Claremont’s DoubleTree? Some will find it too commercial, I’m sure. Visual and kinetic enough to make for a semi-popular movie, or an Amazon series, which probably no one said about Lethem’s “Chronic City” or “This Shape We’re In.”

“The Trial” (1925): Who arrested Joseph K. and why? And who is judging him, exactly? Readers looking for concrete answers will be disappointed, but the rest of us will revel at the ambiguity as Joseph faces a charge about which he can get no information. Tragic, yes, but “The Trial” is often so ridiculous as to be very funny. (Max Brod said Kafka used to crack up while reading sections to his friends.)

And how random is it that two of my three reads this month are from 1925? Anyway, two detectives and a trial made for an enjoyable month. I bought the Rohmer book in 2008 at a paperback collectors show and the Kafka in (gulp) 1993 from Santa Rosa’s Copperfield Books. Lethem handed me an advance copy of his in June.

How was your August, readers — presuming you remember?

Next month: animals, feral and not.

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Reading Log: July 2018

Books acquired: none

Books read: “Housekeeping,” Marilynne Robinson; “The Seven Lost Ranchos of Our Inland Valley,” Bob Smith; “As You Like It,” William Shakespeare; “Addicted to Americana,” Charles Phoenix; “Selected Tales and Sketches,” Nathaniel Hawthorne; “The Ganymede Takeover,” Philip K. Dick and Ray Nelson.

Six books read in July, although it may be difficult to tell that immediately from a glance at the photo. I read one play from the giant Shakespeare omnibus, and then there’s that funky book with spiral binding. That’s the one by Bob Smith.

Well, let’s dig in.

“Housekeeping” (1980) is a much-praised novel, a Pulitzer and National Book Award nominee. It’s about two sisters who, after their mother’s suicide, live with their eccentric aunt in a remote town in (probably) Idaho. I expected to like it, having fond memories of the Bill Forsyth movie adaptation. But not much happens, the writing often struck me as overdone and the bulk of it was strangely uninvolving. I’m not comfortable passing a negative judgment on it, so let’s just say it wasn’t to my taste.

“Seven Lost Ranchos” (2018) is a coloring book (!) of local history regarding our very own Inland Valley by history buff and illustrator Bob Smith, author of “Redefining the Inland Valley.” I’m not sure how color-able the art is, or how much the topic might appeal to young people, although it may well help them out in their California studies. For the rest of us, the modicum of text does boil down the local ranchos and adobes into manageable chunks.

“As You Like It” (1599) is one of the lesser plays, a nearly plotless rom-com that I read in college but had zero recollection of. (I found a penciled note to myself in my college-era omnibus that showed I’d read it, but by the end, nothing had jogged my memory.) But it’s enjoyable enough, Rosalind is commendably sharp-tongued and after all this is the unlikely setting for the seven ages of man/”all the world’s a stage” speech — which turns out to be delivered by a doleful sap, evidence that Bill S. didn’t take it seriously.

“Addicted to Americana” (2017) is a kind of personal, guided tour to kitschy Americana sites past and present, led by author Charles Phoenix. He is photographed visiting (and mugging with) most of the still-extant monorails, mock rocket ships, ice cream stands and streamline diners, while also telling fond and funny anecdotes about tracking them down. A must for his fans (I’m one), and of course he gets points for being an Ontario native and local booster. Optional for those who want vintage images only or dispassionate history.

“Selected Tales and Sketches” (compiled 1959) collects work from 1837 to 1850. One of the first great American authors, Hawthorne sought to document its feel and attitudes, especially those of the Puritans, in his fiction and descriptive sketches. If you can accept his allegorical style, a bit alien to our modern idea of fiction, you’ll appreciate his depth. While I’m not displeased to have read this 440-page book in its entirety, it’s more Hawthorne than is strictly necessary. And the editor’s 40-page introduction, while erudite, could have been employed against accused Salem witches as torture.

“The Ganymede Takeover” (1967) begins after a successful invasion of Earth by sentient worms from Ganymede who are in the mopping-up phase. But holding Earth may be more difficult than winning it. Key territory: Tennessee! This is one of PKD’s weaker novels and one of two co-writes of his career. This potboiler nevertheless has its moments: the woman who becomes detached from humanity, the Kingfish-like oaf who may become king of the world, the conquering worm who inherits a collection of airplane models, the sympathetic treatment of race relations. It’s sometimes purposely absurd, and you can imagine Dick and Nelson trying to one-up each other, as in the scene when one of the ruling worms, armless of course, is helped into his “finest red-orange formal sack.”

So, it was kind of a hit or miss month, with no clear standout, but with some enjoyable reads. And some of these books had been hanging around for a while: My battered copy of “Ganymede” may date to the late ’80s, and “Selected Tales” was bought at Berkeley’s Moe’s Books in 1992. Sheesh. They’re among only a handful of books of that vintage still on my shelves unread. “Housekeeping” was bought during Borders’ closeout sale in 2011, Phoenix’s was obtained during a book signing at Graber Olives and Smith traded me his book for one of mine.

Let us know how your July was, readers, and we’ll see you here again in a month. (Due to vacation, the August Reading Log may be delayed until Sept. 10 or so, by which time we may all have forgotten what we read.)

Next month: justice.

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Reading Log: June 2018

Books acquired: “Europe Through the Back Door,” Rick Steves

Books read: “Make Room! Make Room!,” Harry Harrison; “The Door Into Summer,” Robert Heinlein; “Knockin’ on Dylan’s Door,” the editors of Rolling Stone; “The Glass Key,” Dashiell Hammett; “Re-Enter Fu Manchu,” Sax Rohmer

June was a good month: I read five books, in a sequence I had sketched out four or five years ago. (If you read the titles, they almost form a little narrative of their own.) It took me getting to the 12th book in the Fu Manchu series for me to pull it off.

These five books averaged 200 pages, or a bit less, so the retirees among you might have polished them off in five or six days. Oh, to have read them in a week or so, and have had another 15 or 20 books of the same complexion ahead of me! Still, I’m happy to have read these and crossed them off my various lists.

By the way, it didn’t occur to me until putting this post together that even my lone book purchase of June fits the theme. That was unintentional. But funny.

In short: “Make Room!” (1966) is a classic dystopian novel about a miserably overcrowded NYC faced with food and water shortages. It was the basis for the movie “Soylent Green,” but does not have cannibalism as an element. It’s worth reading.

“Door Into Summer” (1957) involves a man in 1970 cryogenically frozen to wake up in the glorious world of 2000, but who also has some unfinished business in the past to resolve via time travel. It’s a little complicated, but enjoyable. The narrator even visits Riverside and Big Bear.

“Dylan’s Door” (1974) is a collection of Rolling Stone reportage about the singer-songwriter’s 1974 tour after eight years off the road. Very inessential, obviously. When this book came out, only a handful of Dylan books existed, and I used to see it in bibliographies and wonder about it. It was fun to finally stumble across a copy and to have read it.

“Glass Key” (1931) is one of Hammett’s five novels, with only “The Thin Man” still to be written. (I’ve read all but “The Dain Curse.”) “Key” is about a political fixer and his pal who is not a detective but who is shrewd enough to figure out a murder plot anyway. Unconventional but very good.

“Re-Enter” (1957) is the 12th of 14 Fu Manchu books. Yet another narrator loses his head over a mysterious woman (this happens in nearly each book), and Fu tries to double-cross the commies to help the U.S. with a kind of missile defense shield. It’s one of the lesser entries in the series.

“Make Room!” and “Glass Key” were the winners this month. As far as their purchase, it looks like all five date to the pre-blog period of the ’00s, when I was buying a lot of books and reading very few. So they’ve been waiting for me patiently.

How was your June, readers? Let us know what you read and what you thought in the comments section. I’ve already finished two books for July, but I also have to pause to study up in advance of a late-August vacation.

Next month: a little housekeeping of a lost rancho.

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