Reading Log: September 2016


Books acquired: “Funny in Farsi,” Firoozeh Dumas

Books read: “Tortilla Flat,” John Steinbeck; “Eat Mexico,” Lesley Tellez; “Ask a Mexican,” “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America,” Gustavo Arellano

Regards, readers! September saw me finish four books, all of them with a similar theme, as the titles above make clear: our friends in or from Mexico. It was a south of the border September.

Steinbeck’s novel, one of his first, takes place in Monterey, Calif., among the paisanos. It’s a gentle farce set after World War I and about a returning vet and his friends, cast in a mock-heroic Round Table mold that contrasts with their basically useless lives.

Some find it charming. There is some nice writing here, and humor, and I warmed to it, but it’s basically the unstructured story of a bunch of useless, conniving winos, friends who’ll buy a jug of wine as a gift but then drink it on the way home. Steinbeck’s later “Cannery Row” is in similar knockabout mode, but I remember liking it more.

“Eat Mexico” has a local tie, as author Tellez is a Rancho Cucamonga native. It’s a cookbook with recipes for casual Mexican dishes she learned while living in Mexico City. How does one read a cookbook? Well, there was enough explanatory text about markets, street vendors and more that I found plenty to read, as well as lovely photos to look at. I can’t really judge the recipes other than to observe that her from-scratch approach means effort of varying degrees. If you’re interested in Mexican cooking, you might take a look and see if you think you’re up to it.

This brings us to not one but two books by Arellano, a journalist, OC Weekly editor and commentator. (His other book, “Orange County,” was read in 2012.) He’s best known for his syndicated column, “Ask a Mexican,” early examples of which are collected in the 2007 book of the same name. It’s a sort of advice column in which readers submit questions, often inane or offensive, about cultural mores: Why do Mexicans swim with their clothes on, why do Mexican women bleach their hair, why don’t they assimilate faster, that sort of thing.

Snappy answers to stupid questions, as Mad’s Al Jaffee would put it, but also enlightening answers to penetrating questions. Arellano can be profane and snarky in classic alt-weekly fashion, which some won’t appreciate. But his scholarship and common sense turn many criticisms on their head, placing Mexican immigration and assimilation squarely within the American tradition of Irish, Polish, German and others now deemed acceptable. (No one objects to Irish flags in St. Patrick’s Day parades, he notes, while Mexican pride is viewed suspiciously.)

“Taco USA,” from 2012, is a history of Mexican food in America: where it came from and how it’s adapted. As sophisticated SoCal residents, we may think we know Mexican food, but Arellano has turned up all sorts of hidden history, such as the tamale men who operated from carts a century ago even on the East Coast. Then there’s the hiding-in-plain-sight modern origin stories for Taco Bell, frozen margaritas and El Torito, which made foreign foodstuffs safe for plain folks. His nonjudgmental approach to “authenticity” and adaptation is refreshing, just like an agua fresca.

I think Arellano gave me “Taco USA” when I interviewed him in (gulp) 2012 over combo platters at Ramon’s Cactus Patch — er, it’s been a busy four years, Gustavo! — and I bought “Ask a Mexican” from him shortly after that at an event in Upland. (It’s nice to be caught up on his books, at least until his next one.)

Meanwhile, I bought Tellez’ book from her last year during an event at the Rancho Cucamonga Barnes & Noble that also resulted in a column. Steinbeck’s not around to sell me his book, alas, but I did the next best thing, buying the “Short Novels” omnibus in 2009 at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. I read the omnibus’ five other novels here and there and saved the first, and worst I’m afraid, for last. Nice to have the thing polished off at last.

Winner of the month was “Taco USA.”

Some of you have no doubt read “Tortilla Flat,” and you can tell me about that. But what did you read during September? After all this Mexican food, we’re not hungry to know, but we’ll loosen our belt and listen in due time.

Next month: a little horror, a little history.


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Odd man out


Acclaimed writers Jonathan Lethem, center, and Nicholson Baker are photographed after Wednesday’s conversation at Scripps College. The man at left has not been identified. Photo by Jackie Legazcue of Scripps.

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Reading Log: August 2016


Books acquired: none

Books read: “Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books,” Paul Collins; “Mary Shelley: A Biography,” Muriel Spark; “John Carter of Mars,” Edgar Rice Burroughs; “The Divine Invasion,” Philip K. Dick.

The dog days of summer were a good time for me as a reader, yielding my first four-book month since March. I read a book about books, a literary biography with criticism, an entry in a classic science fiction-adventure series and a modern-ish science fiction novel.

In “Sixpence House,” an American bibliophile relocates temporarily with wife and toddler to Hay-on-Wye, the small Welsh town with 1,500 people and 40 antiquarian bookstores, where he observes UK life, thinks about books and quotes amusingly from rare ones. Slight, perhaps — some find it twee and annoying, or un-American because he’s (gasp) critical of things like our health care system — but to my taste this was witty and gentle. If you think you would like it, you probably would.

After reading “Frankenstein” and (especially) “The Last Man,” I wanted to know more about Mary Shelley. “Mary Shelley: A Biography” helped. The daughter of a famous feminist (who died days after giving birth) and a famous philosopher, she ran off with the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, had five children with him (four of whom died, not atypical for the era) and soldiered on after Shelley’s death. Hers is one of the great literary stories of the 19th century, even if she’s often relegated to the role of Shelley’s wife rather than a great writer in her own regard.

Spark’s writing, alas, was neither here nor there, a fascinating life was made less so, and in the conclusion, the points she said she’d made hadn’t made any impression on me. Oops. You might be better off with her Wikipedia page, although I have a second Shelley tome awaiting me, one that seems more feminist and provocative.

“John Carter of Mars” is, surprisingly given the title, the last in the John Carter of Mars series. I own but haven’t read the previous 10, but saw no reason to stick to the order in this case, as No. 11 is composed of two novellas and required no previous knowledge. The better one was meant as the first part of a novel that was never written. The other was said to have been ghost-written by a Burroughs son. This slim book is an addendum to the whole series and sends it off with a whimper. Nice to have it out of the way. On the other hand, what boy, or former boy, can resist a story titled “The Skeleton Men of Jupiter”?

Lastly, “The Divine Invasion” is the middle part of Dick’s Valis trilogy but is so loosely related that one doesn’t have to have read the first, “Valis.” God has been exiled to a far world by Belial. He chooses two emigrants to be a new Mary and Joseph to carry his son to Earth to redeem it in hopes this time it will take. A serious (mostly), audacious, quasi-mystical disquisition on God, Satan, good and evil, this is one of PKD’s finest, most realized novels, and to my mind a step up from “Valis.”

Where’d I pick up these books? The Collins and Burroughs books were the last of my unread Powell’s Books purchases from 2013 (the former from the Burnside location, the latter from the main store). I wanted to read them before my next trip to Portland, occurring within days! The Spark bio came from the Iliad in North Hollywood earlier this year. The Dick novel was bought off eBay a few years ago.

How was your August, readers?

Next month: I go all Mexican on you.


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Reading Log: July 2016


Books acquired: none

Books read: “Howards End,” E.M. Forster; “Howards End is on the Landing,” Susan Hill; “Then We Came to the End,” Joshua Ferris

Are the end times here? They were for me in July, when my three books all had the word “end” in them. Two, in fact, had “Howards End” in them. How meta.

I’m an admirer of Forster’s work, having enjoyed “A Passage to India” in college and “A Room With a View” three years back.

“Howards End” is his best known. In short, three families from different social classes intersect in ways both comic and tragic. It’s an examination of the difference money and privilege, both financial and male, can make, and an ode to a pastoral England that seemed to be disappearing. If you don’t mind reading a book from 1910, this is a good one.

I bought it (at DTLA’s Last Bookstore, in 2013) shortly after buying Hill’s book (at Powell’s, in Portland), which I had seen that spring at the St. Louis Public Library and made a note to look for. It’s a book about books, as Hill, a literary celebrity in England (she wrote “The Woman in Black”), goes looking for her copy of “Howards End,” can’t find it, but in her search realizes she has a lot of books she’d forgotten about, or had never read. (She might be a distant cousin of this blog.)

She spends a year taking a fresh look at her collection, rereading old favorites and thinking of the associations they called up, sometimes because she knew the author. So there’s name-dropping, and some readers lose patience with this 2009 memoir for that reason, which is understandable. I liked it anyway.

And now we come to “Then We Came to the End,” a debut novel from 2007 about office life, a ripe but scarcely explored fictional subject, and written in the first person plural (“we”). That proves a witty way of reflecting the collective unconscious of a company’s employees. A Chicago advertising agency circa 2000 begins downsizing, leading to angst and desperation. The ensemble cast slowly reveals themselves to us as distinct individuals, the observations ring true and the hi jinx are balanced by heartache.  And time and again, like when Tom Mota hides a piece of sushi in enemy Joe Pope’s office until it becomes rank as a corpse at a homicide scene, it’s laugh-out-loud funny.

I bought “…the End” at Powell’s in 2013 too. Oddly, my three books this month were bought in either September or October of 2013. I couldn’t resist reading “Howards End” the same month as “Howards End is on the Landing.” Another connection: Hill, as a mental exercise, winnows her collection to 40 keepers, listed at the end, while Ferris, in an appendix, lists around 50 of his favorites. There’s no overlap. I love lists like these, even if they’re slightly depressing — I’ve read six of Hill’s 40, and even fewer of Ferris’ 48.

In another tie, one book cited by Hill, “The Diary of Francis Kilvert,” of whom I’d never heard, is mentioned in a book I started over the weekend. “Ah, Kilvert’s ‘Diary,’ of course,” I could say to myself sagely.

And thus we’ve come to the end, ha ha, of another blog post. How was your July, readers? Did it end well?

Next month: a book that mentions Francis Kilvert, and more.


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Bookfellows writes ‘The End’ to its store


It was bad enough when Brand Bookshop closed in July 2014, but now its across-the-street neighbor on Glendale’s Brand Boulevard, Bookfellows, is closing at the end of this month.

Bookfellows was likewise a used bookstore, a bit more clean and orderly than Brand, specializing in fiction, especially genre fiction. Its science fiction selection in particular was the stuff of legend, with shelf after shelf of mass market paperbacks from the ’60s to the ’80s, arranged alphabetically. Ray Bradbury logged more than 20 in-store appearances, and it was easy to see why he would like the place.

The store had sections for certain prized characters, such as Sherlock Holmes, not just the books but Holmesiana such as pastiches and studies, and for classic fantasists like ERB, Lord Dunsany, Talbot Mundy, Clark Ashton Smith and the like. In many ways, this was my favorite bookstore around L.A., and the fact that it was near Brand Books and in the same block as the Alex Theatre added to the allure.

Well, the Internet has eroded the brick-and-mortar book business, making the store, open since 1999, increasingly untenable. The owners, Malcolm and Christine Bell, sell on the web too and decided to focus on that. (It’s known online as Mystery and Imagination Bookshop.) Good for them, but too bad for those of us who love wandering the stacks, carrying want lists but willing to be surprised.

I made a pilgrimage there from Claremont July 2, the day after getting back from vacation, to see Bookfellows one last time. Everything was 70 percent off. Much of the best stock was gone by this point, but if I were in more of a book-buying frame of mind (and didn’t already have a few unread books from the store) there would still have been finds.

Most of August Derleth’s Solar Pons mysteries were there, in multiple copies, and six or eight of S.S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance mysteries, which I’d never seen. A short spinner case had nothing but Agatha Christie books. Thee were short shelves of P.G. Wodehouse and Ross Macdonald.

Ultimately, I bought Lester del Rey’s “Marooned on Mars,” a ’60s paperback, as a memento to the glory that was. The store is due to close July 30. The LA Times wrote a nice feature on them.



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Reading Log: June 2016


Books acquired: “Preston Falls,” David Gates; “From Bill, With Love,” Bill McClellan; “The Fiddler on the Subway,” Gene Weingarten; “The Silent Invaders,” Robert Silverberg; “The Best of Henry Kuttner,” Henry Kuttner; “The Puppies of Terra,” Thomas M. Disch; “Marooned on Mars,” Lester del Rey.

Books read: “Forgotten Bookmarks,” Michael Popek; “The Complete Stories,” Flannery O’Connor.

Greetings, bookish ones! We’re halfway through 2016, a year that (among many other things) has seen me read 19 books, my slowest pace since I started these blog posts in January 2009 (a mini-essay that included the offhand promise, “If I remember, I’ll write one of these posts each month”).

In my defense, if one must defend one’s reading pace, a few of these books have been long, including one of this month’s. Too, though, I’ve taken fewer Metrolink trips, which would reliably provide time to read 50 or 100 pages, and my coffeehouse visits, rather than give me reading time, have given me laptop/wifi time.

So I’m on pace for a mere 38 books. That’s 38 more than most Americans are likely to read this year, but not up to my usual standards. I have a pretty good idea what else I’m likely to read this year, give or take, and while I might put on a burst of speed and get to 40, at this point 35 or 36 seems more likely.

Well, let’s get to what I did read. All of June, the last week or so of May and the first day of July was spent reading the 550-page “Complete Stories” by Flannery O’Connor. She’s the author of the story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” read by many, including me, in school. Generations of students have quietly and humorously rendered the title as “A Hard Man is Good to Find.” But it’s a great story. In a college class, we read at least two of these 31 stories.

This book has haunted my shelves ever since, awaiting the day when I would read the whole thing. That day finally came — over a period of about six weeks. Actually, I intended only to reread those two stories and abandon the book, but then I read another, and another, and gave in, committing to the whole thing.

O’Connor, who died in 1964, was a Southern writer who wrote about the South in mid-century. Her stories can be funny and horrifying, sometimes at the same time, and most have a devastating impact. Some find her stories too cruel, her characters too idiotic, and it’s true too that her concerns, often race and class, as well as morality and duty, are repetitive. I ate these up. O’Connor should be as well known as Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and she’s more consistent than either. Highly recommended.

“Forgotten Bookmarks” was compiled by a bookhound who photographs unusual items left in books acquired by his family’s used bookstore. He has an enjoyable blog. I expected to enjoy this book more than I did; the problem, I think, is that too many of the items are curiosities like letters left in 19th century books. There just wasn’t much fizz here.

That book was a gift from earlier this year, while O’Connor’s dates to my college days, probably 1985. There’s a sticker on the back from the University of Illinois campus bookstore, although I’m pretty sure I bought it at the campus used bookstore, Acres of Books, now long gone. Aside from my Shakespeare omnibus, from which I read a play now and then, “Stories” was the oldest unread book in my possession. My goal the past couple of years was to finish all my “Illinois” books by June 2016, 30 years after my move to California, and I almost made it. Onward to California books!

You’ll note I bought seven books in June, the result of visits to six bookstores, most of them while on vacation. I’ll post soon about the lone non-vacation store.

How was your June, readers, and how is your year shaping up at this halfway mark?

Next month: the end times (in a manner of speaking).


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Reading Log, May 2016


Books acquired: none

Books read: “The Autobiography of Mark Twain,” Charles Neider, ed.; “Stalking the Feature Story,” William Ruehlmann.

First off, sorry for the slight delay this month in writing and posting this; the holiday put me behind, as did a brief illness. Hope you haven’t forgotten what you read in May.

It was another two-book month for me, both of them nonfiction. One is a handbook from 1979 on reporting; the other is the 1959 edition of Twain’s autobiography.

“Stalking” wasn’t bad despite being pre-Internet. I don’t know that I learned a lot from it at this stage in my career, but the story examples were worth reading and the admonition to pay close attention to details, no matter how minor, is worth heeding. (See what I did there?) I bought the book in Portland in 2010 at Cameron’s, one of the “other” used bookstores in the town dominated by Powell’s. In part, it was a pity purchase, but it did seem potentially useful.

Twain’s book was bought circa 1985 at my college bookstore, I think for pleasure rather than a class. All I’d ever read from it is the last chapter, to which I must have been directed somewhere along the way; it’s about the death of one of his daughters and was written just months before his own death.

There are multiple editions of the mass of writing and dictation known as the Autobiography, all compiled after Twain’s death in 1910. Neider’s was the third and was considered definitive, I think, until the whole thing was published in three volumes the past few years, to great acclaim, in part due to the sections suppressed earlier. I suspect many who bought the books, which collectively run about 2,500 pages with notes, never bothered reading much of them. They certainly intimidate me.

Neider’s 500-page edition seems like a sensible version in which the material is organized chronologically and, at least as he tells it, material which is nothing more than newspaper clippings with Twain’s commentary was left out. He laments that several days’ dictations on the subject of religion weren’t available at Twain’s surviving daughter’s request.

What’s left is somewhat unsatisfying as autobiographies go, as Twain didn’t write about a lot of stuff you’d wish he’d write about, such as writing “Huck Finn,” or famous people he met (other than Bret Harte and Robert Louis Stevenson). Instead, he writes at length about his childhood, which was fun to read, and about his family. There’s also an extended section about General Grant, whose memoirs Twain published.

Twain is not one to let the facts get in the way of a good story, but with stories this good, who cares? This was a highly enjoyable book, often hilarious, and surprisingly often will move you to tears, especially regarding the deaths of his wife and two of his daughters, sections in which his grief, still fresh as he wrote, spans the years to strike home. Flawed as the book is, he comes across as a three-dimensional figure, sometimes bumbling and foolish, unable to understand business matters or things that are clear to his young daughter, and of course witty and perceptive.

I started reading my original copy, the brittle cover of which began to loosen about 60 pages in; at that point, rather than destroy it, I checked out a more modern, easier to read version from the Rancho Cucamonga Public Library. That’s what’s in the photo.

Those were my two books. How was your May — if you recall?

Next month: ehh, probably two more books, one of which is 550 pages.


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Reading Log: April 2016


Books acquired: “Empire,” Lewis DeSoto.

Books read: “Heart Like a Starfish,” Allen Callaci; “Empire,” Lewis DeSoto.

Only two books this month, neither one very long, but there are two unusual aspects for me: 1) both are local and 2) both were published in 2016. Who says I can’t mix it up?

“Heart Like a Starfish” is a memoir about a librarian/rocker’s heart transplant (at age 47) and his recovery (coming along excellently). It’s no Lifetime movie tie-in: Callaci, who lives in Claremont, purposely jumbles the timeline and he works in plenty of references to his passions, which include Springsteen and Star Wars. He’s a friend, one about whom I’ll be writing in my column, and this is published by my own publisher. But it’s pretty good.

“Empire” is a photo book about the Inland Empire by native son DeSoto, a professional photographer and artist, and published in collaboration with Riverside’s Inlandia Institute. The photos emphasize nature, desert and the less-lovely aspects of the Empire: dead grapevines, river washes, an auto scrapyard, the Salton Sea. I can imagine many people flipping through it and thinking, “What the hell?”

But I could appreciate his viewpoint, his single-frame photos and his panoramas, and his essays are arguably as strong or stronger than the images, as the longtime Napa resident recalls his San Bernardino boyhood. He writes of grid streets, stucco boxes, smog, asthma, mountains, canyons, the electrical feeling before the Santa Anas blow and the vineyards and orchards that were replaced by big-box stores, warehouses and parking lots.

“No place I have experienced,” he writes in the introduction, “offers the full range of elements that compel and inspire — the vast public works, the neighborhoods both grand and beat down, the air fragrant with citrus and acrid from smog and industry. Cool pine breezes waft off the snow, and hot blasts of wind are scented with creosote. It is the Empire. It is everything.”

Many photographers, by the way, can barely spell, so to have one in DeSoto who writes better than me is, frankly, discouraging. I may have to quit and go into retail.

Or maybe just sit home and read. As this two-slim-book month attests, my reading life is in a kind of lull. I’m 100 pages into a 500-page book, and 160 pages into a 300-page book, with hopes of finishing both this month. (Both are from the 20th century and have nothing to do with this area, putting me back on familiar ground, in a weird way.) Over the weekend I read a total of about 10 pages, in between CD and Blu-ray booklets, newspapers and comic books, all of which are reading but none of which count. Matters improved Monday, when I read 40 pages. Maybe I’m back on track.

How about you folks? How was your April, and did you read anything good? Or at least more than 10 pages over the weekend?

Next month: two books, if I get off the dime.


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Happy 100th, Beverly Cleary


Children’s author Beverly Cleary, writer of more than 30 books, many starring Ramona and Beezus Quimby and their friends, turns 100 today.

She was born Beverly Bunn in McMinnville, Oregon, on April 12, 1916. When her family moved to Portland, a school librarian encouraged her to write. She attended Chaffey Junior College, on the Chaffey High campus in Ontario, during the Depression, from 1934 to 1936, because tuition was free. She boarded the first year at 328 Princeton St. and her sophomore year worked at the Ontario Public Library.

That was the end of her time here, but she memorialized that time, and more of her early life, in her 1995 memoir, “My Own Two Feet.”

The Washington Post interviewed Cleary in mid-March and she sounds sharp and in good spirits. She spends her days reading the newspaper and books. Today she plans to have carrot cake in a low-key event at her retirement home in Carmel.

Her publisher promotes April 12 as Drop Everything and Read Day, although this year they’re making an entire month out of it.

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