Reading Log: October 2017

Books acquired: “True Stories of Claremont, CA,” Hal Durian; “Buster Keaton Remembered,” Eleanor Keaton and Jeffrey Vance

Books read: “The Puppet Masters,” Robert Heinlein; “The Toynbee Convector,” Ray Bradbury; “One Hundred and Two H-Bombs,” Thomas M. Disch; “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” H.P. Lovecraft; “Love Conquers All,” Robert Benchley

Greetings, readers. We’re well into fall and the end of 2017 is in sight, which is something of a relief. But that also means that if we have reading goals, time is running out on achieving them.

Of the (now) 266 unread books on my shelves, some authors are represented multiple times. I try to read at least one per year by many of them to gradually whittle down the backlog. While progress may not be as great as wished for, I looked at my row of Robert Benchley books recently and realized that after one per year for seven years, I’ve now read almost all of them.

October’s choices were made up entirely of give-or-take perennials.

From Heinlein’s classic period, his 1951 novel “The Puppet Masters” is about an alien invasion by big slugs who control individuals by (ugh) attaching themselves to humans’ spines. It’s clever, propulsive and genuinely creepy. Also, the government-mandated nudity angle was funny. Hey, how else are you going to know if your neighbor, or your congressman, is controlled by a slug nestled between their shoulder blades if you can’t see them in the buff?

Bradbury’s 1984 story collection is the last of his regular books that I hadn’t read or reread; a few years ago I picked up shortly after this point to read his copious number of late-period books that I’d never had the heart to read (most did indeed turn out to be disappointing), then started over at the beginning to reread his classic ones.

“The Toynbee Convector” is a terrible title, a tipoff of what’s to come. Of the 23 stories, only five (Trapdoor, The Love Affair, A Touch of Petulance, West of October and At Midnight, in the Month of June) have the old snap. Some of them are old but never collected, I believe.

Most of the rest are sad, aimless or eye-rollers. Unpleasantly, several semi-autobiographical stories are about an adulterer, and nine (I started keeping track, it was such a thing) involve a grown man weeping. There is some lovely writing, of course, such as about the Family, a Bradbury staple: “Some were young and others had been around since the Sphinx first sank its stone paws deep in tidal sands.” Still, as a fan, I warn you: Do not start with “The Toynbee Collector.”

I bought a bunch of Disch’s out of print books four years ago when I encountered them at a used bookstore in Goleta. Here’s the third one, an early collection of stories. Some are shaggy dog shorts, surprisingly silly for a writer who would attain Disch’s stature. The whimsical “Dangerous Flags” is a hoot. Many of the other stories are fair to good. To my mind only “The Return of the Medusae,” weighing in at a mere two pages, has a breath of mystery to it.

Lovecraft is another favorite; I read the five books by him I had, one per year, and in March bought two more to keep me going. The title novella is a 141-page dream adventure starring Randolph Carter, with no dialogue until the end and no chapter breaks; it’s appropriately strange and lovely, but conversely hard to get invested in. The remaining five stories also involve dream worlds. Worthwhile if, like me, you’re doing a deeper dive into HPL.

The essays in Benchley’s second book, from 1922, already mark him as a very funny stylist and observer of life, whether he’s writing about neighbors offering unsolicited advice as he tries to garden, contradictory exhortations from the stands during baseball games and the mental gymnastics required to translate Roman numerals. (The title, like ones to follow, gives no hint of its contents.)

“Love Conquers All” has the added bonus of a long section of his literary pieces, many of them very loose reviews of books nobody else would review, such as a train timetable, “Bricklaying in Modern Practice” and “The Effective Speaking Voice.”

I bought that one in 2001 at Pasadena’s Book Alley, the Bradbury in 1991 at Santa Rosa’s Treehorn Books, Disch in 2013 at Goleta’s Paperback Alley, Lovecraft at LA’s Last Bookstore and Heinlein sometime in the 2000s.

How was your October, reading-wise? Please let us know in the comments.

Next month: new, different authors.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Email

Column: Jack Smith didn’t win a Pulitzer, only a ‘Pullet Surprise’

A short tribute to the late Times columnist Jack Smith and his book “How to Win a Pullet Surprise” begins Sunday’s column, followed by a bunch of Culture Corner items and a Valley Vignette.

The Smith item, by the way, wasn’t especially premeditated; I cranked it out one afternoon a couple of weeks ago in some spare time and set it aside for when I needed something to fill space. It came in handy to lead off a column at the end of this busy week, and besides, it’s past time my admiration for Smith’s work was expressed at some length in print — not that it’s a secret to regular readers of this blog.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Email

Reading Log: September 2017

Books acquired: “This is How You Lose Her,” Junot Diaz; “True Stories of Claremont, CA,” Hal Durian

Books read: “The Transmigration of Timothy Archer,” Philip K. Dick; “Prometheus 2017: Four Artists From Mexico Revisit Orozco,” Rebecca McGrew and Terri Geis, eds.; “How to Win a Pullet Surprise: The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Our Language,” Jack Smith

I’ve kind of settled into a three-a-month groove, it seems. In September I read my annual Jack Smith book, my annual Philip K. Dick Valis trilogy novel (the third and last) and a catalog for a museum show at Pomona College.

The latter I read for work, pretty obviously, and while I didn’t have to finish it, I did, so I could add it to the ol’ Reading Log. It’s got a plethora of images of Jose Clemente Orozco’s mural “Prometheus” as well as readable-to-academic text about it and him, and about the four contemporary artists whose work is part of the Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA show here.

Smith’s 1982 book collects his LA Times columns on language usage. He’s no Edwin Newman or William Safire, as he admits, but he writes about spoonerisms, famous last words (many of which he doesn’t believe), student errors (see title) and more with his usual grace and wit. Worth seeking out.

Dick’s novel, his last completed work, isn’t science fiction and technically isn’t part of the Valis trilogy (his in-progress next novel would have finished off the trilogy), but that doesn’t really matter. It’s a fictionalized look at Bishop Pike, investigating religious, ethical and moral concerns and, why not, the death of the 1960s. (It opens in 1980 with the death of John Lennon, then backtracks to circa 1971.) I liked it.

Three-quarters of 2017 has passed. I’ve read 33 books so far, with hopes of another nine or 10 by year’s end. How was your September, readers, and your year to date?

Next month: one or two more “annual” writers are read.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Email

The ghost of Acres of Books

In Long Beach recently, I passed by the sad husk of what was once one of Southern California’s great used bookstores. Acres of Books operated on this site from 1960 to 2008 but was even older, relocating to Long Beach in 1934 after its founding in Cincinnati in 1927.

Bertrand Smith was the founder; he died in 1965 at age 96. (Dwain Kaiser, the late owner of Magic Door Books in Pomona, had known “the old man,” as he affectionately called Smith.)

I shopped in the musty, crowded old store a few times in its last decade or so. My copy of Jack Smith’s “The Big Orange,” with its author signature and personal correspondence with the book’s original owner, was bought here. Ray Bradbury was a famous customer and pleaded with Long Beach to save the store, to no avail. Ironically, City Hall was buying the property with the intent to demolish the bookstore to start an arts district. With the recession and then the end of redevelopment financing, the plans came to naught, but the building and its quaint signage remains.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Email

Reading Log: August 2017

Books acquired: “Slaughterhouse-Five,” Kurt Vonnegut

Books read: “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” Michael Chabon; “Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip,” Robert Landau; “Slaughterhouse-Five,” Kurt Vonnegut

I used August and an overseas trip to finally tackle “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” which I’ve owned since 2001 but which, at 639 pages, I was too intimidated by to start. The vacation didn’t really provide more reading time than usual, since I was also absorbed in reading pages from my guidebook, but it was good to finally be reading it: It won a Pulitzer and is about the early days of comic books, which are one of my hobbies.

Two young Jewish cousins create an escape artist character, making millions for their publisher and thousands for themselves, a common occurrence back then. Escape becomes a metaphor in the book; the artist’s family is still in Prague on the eve of World War II and he tries to liberate them, much as he himself escaped. Having scenes set in Prague, a city I was to visit, was an unexpected bonus. I liked the novel and found myself absorbed — even if it was a bit long.

Incidentally, I bought my copy at the San Diego Comic Con in 2001, when Chabon was the guest of honor. I wasn’t planning to buy the hardcover, but one morning I was browsing the near-empty Comic Relief vendor space when I realized owner Rory Root was speaking to fellow Berkeleyite Chabon. A big stack of “K&C” was between us. I got Root’s attention and said impishly, “If I buy the book, will Mr. Chabon sign it?” Root looked at Chabon and he smiled and said sure. He complimented the graphic novel I had in my hands, Raymond Briggs’ “Ethel and Ernest,” saying his wife had liked it. He said this was his first comic convention and he was enjoying it.

Later he would give a well-attended talk while wearing a T-shirt with the logo Miskatonic University, a sly nod to H.P. Lovecraft, which I somehow knew even though I hadn’t read any Lovecraft yet, having apparently absorbed just enough of the mythology through Marvel comics or other sources. My friends and probably hundreds more formed an enormous line to meet him and get his signature. Me, I’d gotten mine before his hand got tired.

I felt too much pressure to keep this copy in nice shape, even if it was the 8th or 9th printing. Eventually I bought a beat-up paperback, possibly at Berkeley’s Shakespeare and Co., but even that sat on my shelf a few years. It did help to have a copy that could be toted around Europe with impunity. I suppose now I can sell it, while keeping the signed version.

It took me just over three weeks to read it, and it might have been the only book I read all month. It was, actually. But I finished Robert Landau’s book, which had been on my nightstand, Sept. 1, and Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Sept. 3, just in time for this Reading Log.

Taken when he was living in the neighborhood, Landau’s documentary photos of rock promotional billboards from about 1968-1982 now seem charming and magical. It’s an ode to a bygone era of ego stroking, big hair, heavy sounds, important (or “important”) albums, hand-painted billboards, Tower Records, rock DJs and a very local approach to marketing. I bought it last month from the author himself.

Absurdist and heartbreaking, the writing and structure of “Slaughterhouse-Five” appear so casual that they’re always on the verge of collapsing, but never do, and that’s part of the book’s brilliance. Still, 106 uses of “So it goes” seems a bit much. I bought this at Berlin’s Dussmann store a few days after a Vonnegut tour of Dresden, the setting of much of the novel, and hope to write a column about it shortly.

How was your August, readers? Any amazing adventures, or were you cavalier?

Next month: my annual Jack Smith book, probably, and more.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Email

Reading Log: July 2017

Books acquired: “The Newspaper in Art,” Garry Apgar, Shaun Higgins, Colleen Striegel; “The Green Eyes of Bast,” Sax Rohmer

Books read: “Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything,” Jennifer Keishin Armstrong; “Julius Caesar,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” William Shakespeare; “From Bill, With Love,” Bill McClellan

Let’s be clear: I did not read the “Riverside Shakespeare” omnibus pictured above, although I did lug it around much of the month to read two of the plays therein. “Are you reading the encyclopedia?” a restaurant server asked me humorously. No: an encyclopedia would be lighter.

I read two plays I hadn’t read in decades. First, “Julius Caesar.” After the controversy over the NYC version with a Trump-like Caesar, a refresher course seemed in order for a play I read for the first and last time in high school. Caesar dies at the hands of his would-be friends, only one of whom has pure motives, and from there, things don’t go as the conspirators had hoped. It’s an uh-oh-now-what cautionary tale about deposing a leader. Complex and endlessly quotable, this repays rereading. Consider my viewpoint unimpeachable.

After enjoying that one, and while still in Shakespeare mode, I decided to tackle a second, “Antony and Cleopatra,” a sequel of sorts. It turned out I had read this one in college (a few underlines in the introduction were the giveaway) and had completely forgotten I’d done so, although elements of the play seemed familiar once I was reading it. Marc Antony, post-eulogy for his late emperor, takes up a life of dissipation with the queen of Egypt before returning to battle. Cleopatra is among Shakespeare’s more complex female characters — at least, that’s what it says in the introduction I dutifully marked up — and this play may be underrated.

As for the “Seinfeld” study, I started it with high hopes and yada yada yada, it was average. Some good stories from the writers, though; it’s amazing how many plots, even the outlandish ones, came directly from personal experience.

In “From Bill, With Love,” the bard of St. Louis returns with a collection of his Post-Dispatch columns spanning two decades. The first half is love stories about local people, the second half a scattering of favorite pieces: features, gripes, personal takes and laments for his dying industry (and mine, too). Sly, heartfelt and sweet.

I picked up my Shakespeare in college (Follett Bookstore, University of Illinois, 1985), McClellan at St. Louis’ Subterranean Books in 2016 and “Seinfeldia” as a birthday gift this year.

The first half of August I’ll be traveling, which may give me more time to read or may give me less, depending on how preoccupied I am with the details of my journey and whether I spend my in-flight time reading, watching movies or sleeping. I’m taking a couple of intimidatingly long novels with me and hoping for the best all around.

How was your July? Were you shading your face with a book while lounging by a pool, or using a book to fan yourself with?

Next month: Escapism.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Email

Column: Bookstore’s reopening binds community after tragedy

Just as I was trying to figure out what to say about the death of Dwain Kaiser, the bookstore owner in downtown Pomona who was shot to death July 3, along comes a more positive angle. The store reopened Saturday thanks to his wife, her children and volunteers, and the hope is to keep it open until the books can be sold, which may take months. “He didn’t want his books dumped. He wanted them to go to somebody,” JoAnn Kaiser said. Full story is in Wednesday’s column.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Email

Reading Log: June 2017

Books acquired: “Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip,” Robert Landau

Books read: “The Slide,” Kyle Beachy; “Galactic Pot-Healer,” Philip K. Dick; “Jose Clemente Orozco: Prometheus,” Pomona College Museum of Art, eds.

Summertime, and the readin’ is easy … and not up to snuff. My prediction last month that I would let things slide in June proved accurate. That was in part a nod to the only book I knew I would finish, “The Slide,” but also to the likelihood that it would be a light month. (Explanation later in this post.)

“The Slide” is a 2009 novel set in St. Louis; I bought it in St. Louis in 2013 at Subterranean Books, attracted by the prospect of a rare novel in the city I visit annually. Not attracted enough to read it immediately, I’m afraid, but that’s how things go in the Reading Log. Anyway, I resolved to read it before and during my St. Louis visit this year, and did so. It’s about a newly minted college graduate who returns to the Gateway City for the summer to figure out his next move and his relationship with his college girlfriend, who has gone off to Europe. The novel was well-reviewed, and I liked it too. (It will be the subject of a column item in the near future due to an unexpected local-to-us angle.)

“Galactic Pot-Healer” has been on my shelves for a couple of decades, I suspect, and at 144 pages, it may have been the shortest book still unread. It’s another one I’d been hoping to get to the past few years. The title is about ceramics, not plants: The lead character fixes broken pottery, but work is scarce and he’s giving up hope until being recruited by a mysterious being from another planet to labor on an enormous project. Often absurd, in a good way, this is also about entropy, decay and the importance of finding a purpose in life. If not in the top rank of PKD’s oeuvre, it’s comfortably in the second tier, and worth reading if you’re doing a deeper dive.

After finishing “Pot-Healer,” I had another week left in June and decided to squeeze in “Prometheus,” a museum catalog from Pomona College, published in 2001 and given to me last year by the museum. The Orozco mural in question, in Frary Dining Hall since 1930, is a famous piece, and a Getty Pacific Standard Time initiative is built around it starting this fall. So it was read for research purposes, and much note-taking ensued. Look for more in a column or two later this summer.

In August I’ll be traveling and part of June was spent reading up on that as well as making other preparations; the same will be true in July, I’m sure. But I was glad to get three books out of the way, especially the one that was almost like an assignment, and we’ll see what July brings.

We’re at the halfway point of the year, by the way. How is your year going (I’m at 23 books), and how was your June?

Next month: A month about nothing, and more.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Email

Reading Log: May 2017

Books acquired: “Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z,” Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar, editors.

Books read: “The Island of Fu Manchu,” Sax Rohmer; “Treasure Island,” Robert Louis Stevenson; “Treasure Island!!!,” Sara Levine; “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” H.G. Wells; “On Chesil Beach,” Ian McEwan.

In May, it was time to take a trip to the islands. (Cue the Surfaris song.) All my books had “island” in their title except for one that had “beach.” Cowabunga.

The Fu Manchu is No. 10 in the series of 14, and the first I’d read in two or three years. The island in question had voodoo, not to mention a villainous lair in a dead volcano, and was not only a precursor to Bond but to “Atlas Shrugged,” in a way, as great scientists are kidnapped and turned into zombie slaves by Fu. Great literature it ain’t, but it was fun.

I’d never read “Treasure Island,” although the rudiments of the plot and names (Squire Trelawney, the apple barrel, etc.) were familiar, perhaps from an animated version I saw decades ago (although I can’t find evidence online of its existence). Published in 1883, it’s still a gripping read.

“Treasure Island!!!” is a 2011 lark about a young woman who becomes obsessed with the Stevenson book and decides to use it as a guide to life. “When had I ever done a foolish, over-bold act?” she frets. I thought I would love it, and at first I did, but then the narrator’s cluelessness and the story’s superficiality made me glad to be done with it. Despite Alice Sebold’s praise, and the New York Times’, it was ultimately disappointing. But certainly funny in spots.

“On Chesil Beach” was of a different order entirely, a 2007 novel about a couple’s wedding night in 1962 England, and how the couple who thought themselves perfectly matched discovered how little they understood each other. A poignant look at the dawn of the ’60s, before the sexual revolution occurred. Nick Hornby had recommended this in his Believer column.

Lastly, “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” another classic, from 1896, that I’d never read despite having a general idea what it was about from other media that it inspired. For the uninitiated, a scientist tampers with nature by grafting together various animals and altering their brains to make them semi-human. Wells had quite the imagination, and he knew how to tell a compelling story.

These books came into my hands in the past decade-plus. “Treasure Island!!!” was bought in 2012 at Subterranean Books in St. Louis, and “On Chesil Beach” was bought last September at Powell’s Books in Portland. Can’t recall where I got the Fu Manchu, possibly the Book House in St. Louis, and Stevenson’s may have come from Brand Books in Glendale. My Kobo e-reader was bought at Borders (RIP) about eight years ago; it came loaded with 100 classics and I read one now and then.

Have you read any of my choices, readers? (I’m sure someone has read “Treasure Island” or “Dr. Moreau,” or both.) How was your May? And were island breezes involved?

Next month: I let things slide.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Email