Reading Log: August 2023

Books acquired: “Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops: A Memoir,” Allison Hong Merrill

Books read: “The Inferno,” “Purgatorio,” “Paradiso,” Dante Alighieri; “Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years,” Laura Skandera Trombley; “The Imperfectionists,” Tom Rachman; “Sweet Thursday,” John Steinbeck; “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf; “Dickens and Prince,” Nick Hornby

Welcome to September, the two-thirds point for 2023. I finished what I think of as eight books for the month of August, which I’ll explain momentarily. Whether I read six (pictured) or eight (to me), all of them came from the same bookcase in my home, the one for fiction and literature.

The big kahuna was the trilogy “The Divine Comedy,” a 900-pager that is my 2023 version of last year’s big book, “Don Quixote.” To my surprise, I read the whole thing in one month, about one week per book, with a short break for other reading in between.

I’m counting “The Divine Comedy” as three books. They were all published separately and are often found/sold that way; each is nearly 300 pages. And I might have had trouble persuading myself to tackle this if it counted as only one book, while knocking it off as three books was definitely satisfying.


“The Divine Comedy” (1308-1320): Admittedly, reading this was like assigning myself homework. Due to Dante’s meticulously constructed allegories and metaphors, and his continually inventive descriptions and comparisons, you could spend your life studying this text. I am not that committed, but I read it all, including most of poet/translator John Ciardi’s footnotes, which are helpful, modest and sometimes very wry. The three canticles decline in interest from the one before (for me, at least), yet the overall effect is astonishing. It’s easy to believe while you’re reading that Dante is describing the three places from a personal visit, so vividly does he render them (heaven is mostly light), and to think that what he wrote is close to theology rather than an act of imagination. (Bought in 2011 at Rancho Cucamonga’s Borders Books during its closeout sale.)

“The Imperfectionists” (2010): A series of close-up portraits of the expatriates who work for an international English-language newspaper in Italy circa 2005, with interstitial chapters offering vignettes of the newspaper’s start, rise and fade over time. Characters make cameos in one or two stories before suddenly taking center stage. Rachman’s novel is sympathetic, heartbreaking and funny while avoiding the usual romanticism of newspaper life or of Rome. (Bought in 2015 at St. Louis’ Patten Books.)

“Mark Twain’s Other Woman” (2010): A biography, not fiction, but it’s on my fiction/literature shelves along with books by Twain himself. His last years weren’t productive, but he cemented himself as a genial white-haired and -suited public figure. His private life wasn’t as well known, but his secretary, Isabel Lyon — almost completely ignored by scholars — kept a daily record. We learn that one of Twain’s free-spirited daughters was embroiled in a near-scandal, an affair with a married man, and Lyon, who knew the details, appears to have been thrown under the proverbial bus to help hush it up and maintain Twain’s rep. A minor part of his life story, but for Twainiacs, this study is lively and interesting. (Bought in 2010 at the Rancho Cucamonga Public Library during an appearance by the author.)

“Sweet Thursday” (1954): An enjoyable trifle about the drunks, layabouts and prostitutes with hearts of gold along Cannery Row, with biologist Ed Ricketts a vehicle to express Steinbeck’s personal doldrums and romantic salvation. At various points I wondered why I was reading it, but this ramshackle, loose-limbed construction is amusing, and heartfelt in its own way. (Bought 2019 at Salinas’ National Steinbeck Center gift shop.)

“A Room of One’s Own” (1929): Nearly a century after publication, this slim book still has power as Woolf lays out, calmly and reasonably, the obstacles that had kept women from writing or from being objects of historical interest. Her book is a landmark in its own right and a benchmark to measure our own times against. The situation has improved, obviously, but it’s a little depressing how much of this hits home even now. (Bought in April at Joshua Tree’s Space Cowboy Books.)

“Dickens and Prince” (2022): A slightly daft premise, and hardcore fans of one artist or the other may find the comparison ridiculous or offensive, but Hornby makes his gimmick/conceit work. Here were two creative types who came from poverty, produced an astonishingly vast body of work despite zero training and engaged in unproductive (if earnest) battles over their rights before expiring at 58. Hornby genuinely loves them both. By pulling each figure out of his time, Hornby makes you think about him in a fresh way. And of course it’s often very funny. (Christmas gift, 2022.)

A pretty good month, in quality as well as quantity! Woolf’s and Hornby’s are the most accessible, as well as the slimmest, and “The Imperfectionists” a good modern work.

In an echo to my note about the reading count this month, August’s reading allowed me to knock seven, rather than eight, books off my unread list. Why seven?

I had pulled “The Imperfectionists” off my shelves a year-plus ago, thinking I would never read it, and attempted to sell it at three different used bookstores, none of which took it, for reasons unknown. Maybe they all had copies already? Otherwise, it was a nice-looking copy of a New York Times notable book, so what was the hangup? A few weeks ago, the author’s latest book got good reviews, and on a whim I checked to see if the LA Public Library had “Imperfectionists” as an audiobook, which it did. So I borrowed and listened to it, while bringing the book out of the sell box.

So, it counts as a book I read, since I read it, but it wasn’t on my unread books list any longer, so it didn’t come off any lists. (I also listened to the audiobook of “Sweet Thursday,” while also reading the introduction and notes from my print copy.)

By focusing on one bookcase this month, the one that had 27 unread books, the most of any of my six bookcases, I got that number down to an even 20. That sharp drop felt like an achievement. (That bookcase once had 130 unread books — oof.) It’s now second to the bookcase that has both mystery and Southern California books, with 23 unread books.

And that’s where I will focus in September, albeit only with hopes of completing three. I need to read one for work and decided to knock off a couple more that I feel guilty for not having gotten to yet.

How about your August, readers? What did you read? Realistically, probably not “The Divine Comedy.” Looking forward as always to finding out.

Next month: books about California history.

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Reading Log: July 2023

Books acquired: “The Best of Fredric Brown,” Fredric Brown; “The Best of Murray Leinster,” Murray Leinster; “The Yellow Claw,” “Brood of the Witch-Queen,” Sax Rohmer; “On the Road With Janis Joplin,” John Byrne Cooke; “Octopus’s Garden: How Railroads and Citrus Transformed Southern California,” Benjamin Jenkins

Books read: “Looking to Get Lost,” Peter Guralnick; “Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare,” Stephen Greenblatt; “Platinum Pohl: The Collected Best Stories,” Frederik Pohl; “The Wonderful World of Robert Sheckley,” Robert Sheckley; “The Broken Bubble,” Philip K. Dick; “Myth & Mirage,” Riverside Art Museum

Regards, readers! Last time I said my July reading would be “all about alliteration.” Silly, sure, but the pressure of a deadline and a theme did push me to read six books, all with alliterative titles. I finished a couple of books that were in progress and was spurred to read the Shakespeare biography, which I’d meant to do since finishing his plays at the end of 2022. Here’s how it went.

“Looking to Get Lost” (2020): These profiles of musicians (by a noted soul/roots music journalist) are often illuminating about their art or what makes them tick, with standouts including Jerry Lee Lewis and Howlin’ Wolf. Other profiles are overly reverent or elevate the artist beyond their value to the rest of us. But they’re always interesting. And I won’t soon forget Guralnick’s eyewitness account of Solomon Burke, seated across the table from him, telling someone by phone that he was being served Chateaubriand at the Plaza hotel, when he was really eating cold french fries at a Holiday Inn. (Gift, 2021.)

“Will in the World” (2004): Yes, Greenblatt is forced to lean on “may have,” “presumably,” “almost certainly” and the like, given how little is known about what Shakespeare did or what he actually thought about anything (he left no letters, interviews, journals, autobiographical writings and such). But Greenblatt marshals the known facts, of which there were more than I’d realized, and a lot of textual analysis and period scholarship to present a reasonable portrait of the man and of the nature and sources of his inspiration. (Bought at Patten’s Books, 2013.)

“Platinum Pohl” (2000): 30 stories from a nearly 50-year span and not a miss in the bunch. Pohl is a keen observer of past and present and strong at sketching believable characters. I think even non-SF readers would be impressed by many of these, notably “The Day the Martians Came,” “The Kindly Isle” and “The Meeting.” This collection beats the more limited Ballantine “Best of” by a mile. (Bought at the Paperback Collectors Show, 2008.)

“The Wonderful World of Robert Sheckley” (1979): This was my introduction to Sheckley and he surpassed my hopes. These early stories from the ’50s and ’60s are often very funny, yet they’re not antic and never strain for effects. They function as (semi-) serious science fiction told with a mordant, dry wit, whether they involve a stalemate between evenly matched sides in an interstellar war or a planet’s hallucinogenic atmosphere that draws out childhood fears. In the latter, clothes draped over a bedroom chair at night come to life. (Bought at Bookfellow in 2012.)

“The Broken Bubble” (1988): Feckless, aimless characters make terrible decisions, very indecisively. Intermittently interesting, but the humorlessness and despair is too much. From chapter 5: “Gloom hung over them; defeat was in the air, a cloud of it from all directions.” This was among PKD’s social-realist novels written in the late ’50s, rejected and only published posthumously in the 1980s. I’ve read all of PKD’s SF, but after two of these novels, I wonder if I ought to sell the others unread. Yes, you might say “The Broken Bubble” broke me. (Bought at Massolit Books in Krakow, 2018. How about that!)

“Myth & Mirage” (2017): Published as a coffee table book/museum catalogue, this explores how Riverside and environs were ground zero for the movement to turn the style of California missions into 20th century commercial and residential architecture. The most basic elements of the style (red tile roofs, arches) are now ubiquitous and almost comically divorced from their origins. (Gift of the museum in 2022.)

This was a pretty good month. Pohl was fantastic and Sheckley wasn’t far behind, with Greenblatt and Guralnick producing worthwhile books. And I knocked off four more pre-pandemic acquisitions, one being my sole remaining book from 2008. Huzzah! (My oldest remaining book is from 2007, btw.)

We’re in the dog days of summer, and if our collective reading grows sluggish for a month, it’s understandable. Share what you read in July, please, and then we’ll do what we can in August. I’m reading a very daunting book, one perched somewhere between heaven and hell, but I’m not suffering too much and I think I can finish it. Wish me godspeed.

Next month: a Twain biography and a trilogy from the 14th century.

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Reading Log: June 2023

Books acquired: “On Juneteenth,” Annette Gordon-Reed

Books read: “Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World,” Mark Twain; “A Kiss Across the Ocean: Transatlantic Intimacies of British Post-Punk and U.S. Latinidad,” Richard T. Rodriguez; “The Empty Copper Sea,” John D. MacDonald; “Waste Tide,” Chen Qiufan

Is anyone traveling by sea this month? Me neither. But my reading in June was of unread books on my shelves whose titles seemed to relate to water. Two were fiction (mystery, science fiction), two nonfiction (travel, music and culture). Let’s dive in, shall we?

“Equator” (1897): If only Twain had cut, say, 300 of the 700 pages, “Equator” would be better regarded. It’s hard to recommend. Yet this travelogue has its moments. Twain (in 1897) has welcome opinions on women’s suffrage, colonialism, aborigines and acceptance of others’ religious beliefs, praises India as perhaps the most fascinating land he’s ever visited and mocks how bad most white skin looks compared to black skin. He also offers lively descriptive passages and seemingly effortless humor as he writes about his 13-month trip around the world. Unfortunately, he also offers innumerable quotes from other works, probably to pad things out, making some of this very dull. Bought in 2010 from Glendale’s Bookfellows, RIP.

“Ocean” (2022): Rodriguez digs below the glossy nostalgia of Totally ’80s weekends to understand and explain the cross-cultural currents between a few British post-punk bands and Latino fans (and gay fans) like himself in the U.S. It wasn’t a one-way exchange either. While somewhat academic and scholarly (the author is, after all, an academic and scholar at UC Riverside) for casual reading, he does offer a very personal perspective in each chapter. His meeting with Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes to Hollywood is a high point. Rodriguez gave me an insight into a music and culture that I knew little about. My copy was a gift of the author in 2022 when I interviewed him.

“Copper Sea” (1978): Travis McGee on aging: “Those birthday years that end in a zero are loaded. A time of re-evaluation. Where the hell have I been and what have I been doing and how much is left for me, and what will I do with the rest of my short turn around the track? I had one of those zero years coning up, not too many birthdays from now.” That’s properly ambiguous. Late 40s? And this McGee mystery, No. 17 out of 21, is a solid outing, proving there’s life in the old boy yet, as he takes on a missing person case. It kept me guessing until the end. Bought at North Hollywood’s Iliad Books in 2012.

“Waste Tide” (2013; translation 2019): I thought I’d like a novel about pollution, e-waste, recycling and an underclass forced to clean up after our mess, set in China and taking place in a near-future SF environment, but I was wrong. This was only fitfully involving. In fact, it was kind of boring from the start and never got better. I only bothered finishing it to have a fourth water book. Better title: “Waste Time.” Bought at San Francisco’s Borderlands in 2022.

“Empty Copper Sea” was my favorite this month, and it was great to knock off another McGee, with only four to go. Finishing all four is possible, but it’s more likely that I’ll get to two more this year and wrap up the series in 2024. Also, note that these books above were acquired in 2022 (two), 2012 and 2010. My backlog of pre-pandemic books continues to diminish.

We’re now halfway through 2023. How is your reading going? I’ve hit 31 books, a faster pace than expected. Maybe I’ll end the year at 60. I thought I’d be reading less and spending more time doing other things, but not so far. And as usual, my loose reading plan for the year hasn’t been followed slavishly. But I’ve read some good books.

Let us know what you read last month and if you have any thoughts on your year to date, please. And have a bitchin’ summer.

Next month: All about alliteration!

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Reading Log: May 2023

Books acquired: “Tales of an Inland Empire Girl,” Juanita Mantz

Books read: “The Best of Frederik Pohl”; “The Best of Keith Laumer”; “Slow Learner,” Thomas Pynchon; “He Kept His Day Job: Fanfare for the Common Musician,” Dan Bernstein; “Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom,” Carl Bernstein

Welcome, readers, to my monthly post about the books I read the previous month. In May I finished five: three story collections and two memoirs by retired journalists with the same surname. Who says I don’t seek out variety?

“Best of Frederik Pohl” (1975): As many of these involve satirical warnings about advertising, public relations, politics and consumerism, these stories from 1954-1967 can still seem refreshing, their skepticism of future trends warranted. And “Day Million,” about sexual identity and practices of the distant future, is astonishingly prescient. These may not all be Pohl’s best, but they’re good to excellent. (However, the math essay “How to Count on Your Fingers” is baffling, as is its inclusion here.) (Bought in 2007 at Glendale’s BookFellows, RIP.)

“Best of Keith Laumer” (1976): These nine stories, published from 1961 to 1970, are sometimes elegiac, sometimes satiric. Laumer imagines a dormant war machine in a town square that springs to life, humans who transplant their consciousness at will into idealized forms stored in their closets and aliens bent on destroying Earth as part of a big-budget interstellar film epic. In a story from ’62, “Cocoon,” humans spend their days looking at a screen and lose all motor function. Where do SF writers get this crazy stuff? (Bought in 2007 at Anaheim’s Book Baron, RIP.)

“Slow Learner” (1984): This rounds up the famously private Pynchon’s college-era short stories and prefaces them with a modest, funny, self-critical introduction whose very existence is remarkable. It’s as if Salinger put 20 pages of autobiography at the head of “Nine Stories.” I’m not sure these stories are quite as bad as Pynchon makes them out to be. But other than “The Secret Integration,” they’re not very good either. (Bought in 2011 at North Hollywood’s Iliad Bookshop, very much still with us.)

“Chasing History” (2022): Rather than reflect on his glory days, Bernstein winningly focuses on the start of his career: learning the ropes at the Washington Star as a 16-year-old copy boy and progressing to taking dictation from reporters in the field and now and then getting his own byline. With assistance from a bunch of his old colleagues, he pieces together a vivid, detailed account of 1960-65 D.C., the Kennedy years, the civil rights era and the workings of a top-flight newsroom. It was worth documenting, although I can see how some would lose patience for 350 pages of it. (Received as a gift in 2023.)

“He Kept His Day Job” (2023): A slim, engaging memoir by a retired Riverside Press-Enterprise columnist, this focuses not on newspapers but on his sideline of music-making, starting with reluctant childhood music lessons through high school band, the Stanford Marching Band and various jazz and brass ensembles the trombonist has participated in since. The thesis is that some people regret having abandoned an instrument and Bernstein is here to offer encouragement. If you play, and especially if you play in a community band of some sort, this might be for you. Written as it is by a man who knew how to compress his thoughts and keep readers engaged, the stories never bog down. (Bought in 2023 from the author.)

Not a bad month. The Pohl collection was my favorite of the five. The Pynchon was kind of a dud. After the introduction threw so much shade on what was to come, I figured, correctly, that the book might have peaked right there and considered whether I should just scratch it off my to-be-read list. But at a modest 193 pages, it seemed like I might as well knock it off and claim credit for it. Not sure that was the right decision, but the world now knows that I read it, and perhaps that’s worth something.

Speaking of Pohl, I have a second story collection of his, “Platinum Pohl,” that is a true career best-of, from 1949 to 1996. There is very little overlap between the two. I actually began reading them both simultaneously, tackling the stories in order of publication year, bouncing between the two as needed. After finishing “Best of,” which ends in 1967, that means I’m about one-third of the way through “Platinum,” with 1968 through 1996 still ahead of me. It’s such a long book, some 500 trade paperback, small-ish print pages, that turning to it now is much less daunting than if I were starting it from scratch. Sometimes as readers we must trick ourselves, right? Look for that book here in July, probably.

Note that two of my books this month were acquired in 2007 and another in 2011, besides two from 2023. The backlog clearance continues.

How was your May, readers? What have you been reading? And has your reading strategy ever involved tricking yourself in some fashion into making a daunting book seem less daunting?

Next month: Across the ocean, across the sea.

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Reading Log: April 2023

Books acquired: “The Companions,” Katie M. Flynn; “The Hyacinth Girl: T.S. Eliot’s Hidden Muse,” Lyndall Gordon; “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf; “Mojave Project Reader Vol. 2,” Kim Stringfellow

Books read: “Buster Keaton Remembered,” Eleanor Keaton and Jeffrey Vance; “Get Back,” John Harris, ed.; “An Ordinary Life: Poems,” B.H. Fairchild; “Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins,” Mark Twain; “When Teddy Came to Riverside,” Glenn Wenzel

In the course of a month, one with only 30 days by the way, we’ve gone from being one-fourth of the way through 2023 to being one-third through. Where will the madness end? Stop the world of 2023, I want to get off! Not really. I mean, let’s not panic. May won’t appreciably change the equation, and it’s got a full 31 days. We’re still early in 2023. Just not as early as we were.

Sorry, it’s hard not to obsess about the calendar when you write a monthly Reading Log like this. Speaking of which: April saw me read five books: four nonfiction, one of them a book of poems whose reading coincided with National Poetry Month, and one a novel, or really, a short novel paired with a novella of the novel’s first draft. Here’s the lowdown.

“Keaton” (2001): A handsome book loaded with movie stills, behind the scenes photos, promotional images and personal snapshots as well as a biography that’s to the point but insightful and a thorough listing of every movie role and TV appearance. There are more ambitious Buster bios, certainly, that offer more context and other perspectives, but this one is useful and a pleasure. (Bought in 2017 at Riverside’s Renaissance Bookshop.)

“Get Back” (2021): A transcription of the dialogue in a movie, with some nice large-scale photos as well as tiny still frames. It’s OK, and worthwhile if you are super into this, but it feels like a cash-in, and an oddly timed and far less fun update of the Richard Anobile ’70s dialogue-and-stills books from the pre-video era. I guess it took the Beatles 50 years to hit all platforms with their ill-starred Get Back project. (Received as a birthday gift in 2022.)

“Ordinary Life” (2023): I have to like a poet who chooses Edward Hopper paintings for his book jackets. (He did the same for “Usher,” his last book.) Fairchild, an acquaintance of mine around Claremont, has been a winner of the William Carlos Williams Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and a finalist for the National Book Award. He makes poetry out of unexpected moments: browsing at the local record store, say, or his childhood fandom for a baseball player after learning from the player’s baseball card that they share a birthday. And he can tell a story that ends with a joke or a tug at the heart. (Bought in 2023 at Montclair’s Barnes & Noble.)

“Pudd’nhead” (1894): In what might be Twain’s last great novel, two characters are 31/32nds white but, being 1/32nd Black, would be considered Black in the eyes of 19th century law. The Black mother, who can pass for white, switches her baby with her master’s to give her son a better chance at life. The two boys become completely different in character because of external circumstances, with the one raised as white being lazy and immoral and the one considered Black being strong and selfless. Typically with Twain, even for a short novel “Pudd’nhead” is a bit aimless, but it’s still a brilliant send-up of hypocritical attitudes around race and miscegenation. “Twins” is silly fun, aided by Twain’s introduction in which he admits frankly that he is not a natural-born novelist and that this was his false-start version of “Pudd’nhead,” when he thought he was writing about two Siamese twins. (Bought in 2010 at Montclair’s Borders Books.)

“Teddy” (2022): This slim (80 pages) book assembles all the facts from an important moment of Riverside history, the May 7-8, 1903 visit of President Theodore Roosevelt. He stayed at the Mission Inn, which had opened just four months earlier. This does a good job of putting us there via text and photos. (Bought in 2022 from the author.)

This was a decent month for me, with “Pudd’nhead,” “Keaton” and “Ordinary” all being above average, “Keaton” of course being best for aficionados. “Keaton” and “Get Back” were I believe my two largest unread books by dimension. I put them on my nightstand, one after the other, and they occupied most of its real estate. I certainly wasn’t going to lug them around on the train or anything.

Looking back at my totals up top, I read five books while acquiring four, thus reducing my backlog by a total of one book. At this rate, I’ll be caught up in, uh, 91 months. Well, it’s progress nonetheless, and as you saw, I knocked off a book from 2010 and another from 2017. May ought to see me finish three short-story collections now in progress, all acquired in the late 2000s, as well as one or two (or three) recent acquisitions.

How was your May, book mavens? Let us know in the comments.

Next month: the Pohl position.

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Reading Log: March 2023

Books acquired: “The Naked Sun,” Isaac Asimov; “Read Me, Los Angeles,” Katie Orphan; “The Best of C.L. Moore”; “Two by Two,” Eve Babitz; “Puttering About in a Small Land,” Philip K. Dick; “Station Eleven,” Emily St. John Mandel; “Discovering Griffith Park,” Casey Schreiner; “An Ordinary Life,” B.H. Fairchild; “He Kept His Day Job: Fanfare for the Common Musician,” Dan Bernstein

Books read: “Night Gallery,” “Night Gallery 2,” Rod Serling; “Klara and the Sun,” Kazuo Ishiguro; “The Adventures of Solar Pons: Regarding Sherlock Holmes #1,” August Derleth; “The Naked Sun,” Isaac Asimov; “The Dreadful Lemon Sky,” John D. MacDonald

Here we are, looking back from the vantage point of April at the end of the first quarter of 2023. Literarily, not fiscally. I’ve been plowing through books, if not always the ones I expected to be reading, at a brisker pace than planned: 18 so far, including one already finished for April’s log.

And in March, a bunch were added to the to-be-read side of the ledger, typical for a birthday month, when friends either gave me books or gave me gift cards to buy books with.

My reading for the month totaled six books: two adapting TV shows into prose, two mysteries, a science fiction novel that doubles as a mystery and a novel with science fiction elements. And as you can see, the sequence of titles is a small joke, as night becomes (an overly bright) day.

Let’s take a look.

“Night Gallery” (1971): Nicely done adaptations by Serling of five of his “Night Gallery” scripts, including the elegiac “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar,” one of his masterpieces, about a middle-aged widower whose past is preventing him from moving on. Also includes “Does the Name Grimsby Do Anything to You?” from an unproduced NG script, a sort of bonus for devotees. Its twist is implausible but fun. (Bought and first read in mid-1970s.)

“Night Gallery 2” (1972): Another five adaptations by Serling of his own scripts for “The Night Gallery,” with “The Messiah on Mott Street,” about an old man in his tenement at Christmastime who needs a miracle, being among his lifetime best. Of special interest is “Suggestion,” which Serling completely overhauled from the TV version, changing the setting from a prison yard to a cocktail party (!). Caveat emptor: a very short book with noticeably large print to boost it to 152 pp. (Bought and first read in mid-1970s.)

“Klara and the Sun” (2021): A female robot known as an AF (Artificial Friend) is bought for a little girl in a future that’s otherwise much like our present, except that people tend more toward isolation. It’s telling that the most-used word in the book seems to be “kind” or “kindness.” Sweet and upbeat, this is a trifle, but it held my interest. Impressive, in a weird way, to be a Booker Prize nominee as well as a selection of the “Good Morning America” Book Club. (Received in 2021 as gift.)

“Solar Pons #1” (1945): Highly entertaining additions to the Holmes canon in the form of Solar Pons and his chronicler, Dr. Lionel Parker. Very little separates these from Holmes stories, and while they are not as memorable as Conan Doyle at his best, I was surprised how much fun they were and how much they caught the atmosphere and tropes of the originals. (Bought in 2013 at St. Louis’ Dunaway Books.)

“Naked Sun” (1958): The second of Asimov’s series pairing human Elijah Baley and robot R. Daneel Olivaw is better than the first, in part because the cloying wife is absent within the first few pages. This is a genuine mystery, one that might qualify as a locked-room mystery at that, and it also has a lot of humor given Baley’s agoraphobia combined with a planet populated by people deathly afraid of contact. It’s too bad the series paused here, with only a short story and a latter-day novel to follow. (Bought in 2023 off eBay.)

“Dreadful Lemon Sky” (1974): A complicated mystery (possibly overly complicated) helps make this one of the better entries in the series. As always there’s the pleasure of boat-bum philosopher McGee dropping observations on modern life, the ruination of Florida and proper stereo sound: “I have never felt any urge to stand in the middle of a group of musicians. They belong over there, damn it, and I belong over here, listening to what they are doing over there.” (Bought in 20212 at North Hollywood’s Iliad Books.)

This was a better month than some I’ve had. I liked every book, more or less, with “Klara” being the only so-so selection.

Regarding the two “Night Gallery” books, I bought and read these as a lad circa 1974, when I doubt I’d seen any of the episodes. The show might have aired past my bedtime, or maybe it was deemed too intense for me at 8 and 9, I don’t remember. The books were my stand-in for the actual show and I kept my copies all these years. After watching the complete series on DVD, a goal I recently completed, this seemed like the only time in my life when it would pay to reread the adaptations, so I did. And I’m glad, do you hear me, glad.

Moving along…it was also great to return to the Travis McGee series after a layoff of more than a year. Only five to go!

What did you read in March? Please tell us. We’re all of us nosy that way.

Next month: a collection of poetry (it’s National Poetry Month).

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Column: Lease signed for new Cellar Door Books location

Cellar Door, the indie bookstore in Riverside, is moving in mid-May to a new location. You’ll recall the drama over the cancellation of its lease at its current home. I have the details, because you would expect no less. Also, readers wish me well on my recent birthday, an arts event is plugged and a planned Disney housing development in Riverside County is tweaked, all in my Friday column.

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Reading Log: February 2023

Books acquired: none

Books read: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino; “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories,” Washington Irving; “Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour,” Scott Skelton and Jim Benson; “Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery,” Robert Arthur, ed.; “A Ghost at Noon,” Alberto Moravia

I teased this month as “Night time is the right time,” and as you’ll see, all five books — two novels, two story collections and one TV series history — have titles that seem to involve ghosts, haunts or bedtime stories. Most were — whew! — read during broad daylight.

“Once Upon a Time” (2021): Loose and baggy, this prose version is different from the movie in various ways: willing to explore byways of character and setting, to emphasize character over action and to share Hollywood insider chatter of the era. It’s often uproariously funny. But as Tarantino devotes page after page to the intricate concept of the “Lancer” TV pilot as if the characters were real people, you’ll wish an editor had yelled “cut!” (Birthday gift in 2022, but I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Jennifer Jason Leigh, while referring to the book.)

“Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1819): “Sleepy Hollow” is almost an American myth and “Rip Van Winkle” isn’t far behind. The only other entry here that would qualify as a short story is “The Spectre Bridegroom.” The rest of this collection is made up of essays about Irving’s rambles around London. If he’d rambled around New England instead, he might have contributed more to our national literature. Charming and witty to a point, but only an English major like myself would attempt to read this, and I’d rather have read Hawthorne. (Bought in 2011 at Borders’ closeout sale.)

“Night Gallery” (1999): A lovingly compiled episode guide to and history of the oft-maligned anthology that will always live in the shadow of “Twilight Zone.” I read this word for word while watching the series (both took me more than two years), and the detailed summaries and reactions to each episode were useful. They might be maddening if read in isolation. In other words, probably not a book you’re going to tote with you on a solo lunch. Worth noting that this is longer than Zicree’s tidy TZ book despite NG having far fewer episodes, and that last year it was supplanted by an updated version twice as long as this. (Bought from Amazon in 2020.)

“Ghostly Gallery” (1962): I may have checked this out from the library as a lad, or did I merely admire its cover? I don’t think I read it, but it’s familiar, at any rate. Charming presentation and interesting selection of stories geared to what is now the YA market. Coming to this as an adult, I found the stories to be hit or miss, and thus overall a disappointment. There are very slight emendations, like removing references to liquor bottles from Henry Kuttner’s “Housing Problem,” a classic that is one of the book’s high points. (Bought from the Upland Friends of the Library bookstore in 2018.)

“Ghost at Noon” (1954): “What makes a woman stop loving her husband?” asks the cover copy of my 1956 paperback. How about if he is self-absorbed, prone to anger, demanding, whiny, self-justifying, obtuse and quick to assume the worst about her thoughts and feelings rather than ask what they are? I ended up with as much contempt for this guy as his wife has. I can’t tell if this is what Moravia intended or not, but either way this scrutiny of a failing marriage is often unpleasant reading. Jean-Luc Godard filmed it as “Contempt.” (Bought from Portland’s Powell’s Books in 2019.)

This is another of those months that come along too often: ones with no standout book. I’m kind of a tough critic, but also one who chooses idiosyncratic books and, sometimes, pays the price. (Don’t cry for me, Reading Log.)

To be fair, “A Ghost at Noon” was a novel that I’d read something positive about and had high hopes for, but was disappointed by. As I purged my shelves a year ago, I considered reading only the two famous Washington Irving stories and then selling the book, but I decided to keep it and to read the whole thing. I don’t know that I would characterize that as a mistake exactly, unless it turns out I have only weeks to live, in which case, yeah.

Anyway, the only book I could recommend, with reservations, to a general reader is Tarantino’s, which I hadn’t even wanted to read. Go figure. I liked “Night Gallery” and liked the book, let me add, but it’s only for diehards.

How was your February, readers? We’ll anxiously await your comments.

Next month: Let the sun shine in.

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Reading Log: January 2023

Books acquired: “Bad City,” Paul Pringle; “Chasing History,” Carl Bernstein

Books read: “The High Desert: Black. Punk. Nowhere.,” James Spooner; “The Ballad of Bob Dylan,” Daniel Mark Epstein; “Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down,” Tom Dardis; “Woe is I,” Patricia O’Conner; “Baseline Road,” Orlando Davidson; “The Season to be Wary,” Rod Serling

Happy New Year from the Reading Log! Here I’ll track my reading (and book acquisitions) for 2023, a month at a time, as I’ve been doing for more than a decade now. And where you are always encouraged to do the same via the comments function.

In January I read two biographies, a grammar book, a graphic novel, a detective novel and a collection of novellas. Let’s dive in.

“Baseline Road” (2023): This noir novel is set in Claremont, California, and environs in 1972, when a San Bernardino County sheriff’s investigator (male) and a Claremont Police detective (female), both best friends, team up to solve a post-Kent State bombing at the Claremont Colleges from two years earlier. It’s certainly of local interest due to the number of proper nouns (streets, restaurants) and it’s a skillfully told mystery besides. Not as dark and poetic as Kem Nunn’s “Pomona Queen,” the obvious local antecedent, but Davidson, a Claremont Colleges alumnus of that era, creates a couple of likable leads and keeps things moving. (Advance copy provided by the publisher.)

“Ballad of Bob Dylan” (2011): Having read a shelf full of Bob books, I nearly skipped this quirkily structured bio, and the first part, about a concert from 1963 that the author attended as a teen, is so hyper-detailed I almost gave up. Thank goodness I didn’t, because this may be the most illuminating Dylan biography of all, full of sympathy, wit and insights. There’s a new, credible version of the ’66 motorcycle accident, the sweet story of Dylan’s lifelong friendship with Larry Keegan, and surprises about his ’90s road band. Dylan comes across here as more human than he does anywhere else. (Pro tip for the audio version: If you speed it up to 1.25, Bronson Pinchot talks at a normal pace.) (Birthday gift in 2015.)

“Keaton” (1979): Serviceable, relatively compact biography of Buster Keaton that touches most of the bases and interviews people in his circle — Keaton died in 1966 — still around in the ’70s. Keaton was a more obscure figure in 1979 than he’s become since, and he’s often today more highly regarded than Chaplin. This bio is curiously scant on Buster’s ’50s-’60s comeback, with no mention of his Twilight Zone episode, now the only role the average person might know him from. Speculates with some persuasiveness about how the rough treatment from his father onstage as a boy in their vaudeville act may have made Buster curiously passive the rest of his life, and how the alcoholism that wrecked his career was not understood as a disease in Buster’s day. (Bought in 2009 at Santa Cruz’s Logos Books used for $3.)

“Woe is I” (1996): Brisk, cleverly written guide to grammar. The advice is sensible in nearly all cases. But O’Conner’s faith in “his” as an all-purpose pronoun, preferable to “his and her” and definitely to “their” — “Anyone entering must show his ticket” — was dated even upon publication in 1996 and is worse today. One takeaway from reading all these rules, almost all of which I had internalized as a native-born speaker and careful writer, is how daunting English must be to learn as a newcomer. (Bought in 2013 at St. Louis’ Patten Books.)

“High Desert” (2022): A chronicle of a time and place as a misfit teen, who is a Black punk fan, searches for his tribe in a mostly white desert town and on a visit to NYC. One thing I liked about this was how honest Spooner is in his recollections: how he was uncommunicative with his well-meaning mom, ghosted a friend who needed him, and knew almost nothing about anything. And there’s a refreshingly playful spirit amid the teen angst and subcultural explorations. (Bought in 2022 at Skylight Books in Los Feliz.)

“Season to be Wary” (1967): This collection of three novellas was published between “Twilight Zone” and “Night Gallery” and showed that Serling could translate his ideas into prose effectively. He later adapted two of these, “The Escape Route” and “Eyes,” for the terrific Night Gallery pilot. The other, “Color Scheme,” is about a racist in the South who gets his comeuppance and was, Serling said, considered too hot for TV. It still packs a punch. I bought this circa 1981 at, possibly, the Bargain Bookshelf in Decatur, Georgia, based on the store stamp inside, while visiting my grandfather and read it almost immediately. Having watched “The Night Gallery” on DVD the past couple of years in dribs and drabs, I felt like reading this again. So I did.

This was a hodge-podge of a month, and in other circumstances I would not have elected to read so much nonfiction, but that’s how it worked out. February should balance things out.

While how this year will go in reading will unfold over the next 11 months, my answer is different at the start of February than it would have been at the start of January. I was planning to try to read a bit less this year (!), shooting for, say, 52 books rather than last year’s 80, to allow time for other pursuits. But here I was knocking off six books in January. February should bring four or five. There’s just a lot of books on deck that I’d have liked to have gotten through last year, if last year had had, you know, 16 to 18 months. So, maybe I’ll aim for 60 books.

I expect to read many of my oldest books, ones bought from 2007 to 2013 or so, including a few heavyweight literary works; some purchases from the last couple of years; some gifts from friends that have shamefully languished unread; at least two of my four remaining Mark Twain books; a couple of the Ballantine Best Of science fiction anthologies; and some if not all of my remaining half-dozen Travis McGee mysteries.

How about you? What did you read in January, and what sort of reading goals do you have for 2023?

Next month: Nighttime is the right time.

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