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.
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.
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.
I promised a column on Jimmy Breslin a month ago, and Sunday’s is it, shoehorned in on a holiday weekend.
Books acquired: none
Books read: “Bloodhounds on Broadway and Other Stories,” Damon Runyon; “Reporters: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman,” Will Fowler; “The World of Jimmy Breslin,” Jimmy Breslin; “You Know Me Al,” Ring Lardner
I spent my reading time in April on old-time books by or about journalists. A convergence of factors was at work.
I’d been hoping to read Fowler’s book because there’s a long chapter on Jim Murray, one of whose collections I read last year. But then Breslin died in March, and his book, on my shelf for eight years, demanded to be read. The Runyon and Lardner books were among my oldest unread books, and while they’re not journalism exactly, both men were journalists, and Breslin once wrote a biography of Runyon. So it all made sense, in my mind at least, and thus was a month of reading born.
It’s also possible that my 20th anniversary at the Bulletin, and subsequent 30th anniversary in newspapers, played a role as well. In any event, this proved to be one of my best all-around months for the ol’ Reading Log, as I liked each book, some quite a bit.
The Runyon book collects 20 of his Broadway stories. He has such a distinctive writing style — present tense, no contractions, narrated by someone who is trying to be precise and elevated (an Adam Gopnik New Yorker article lays this out delightfully) — that his work is almost immediately recognizable as his, and that almost any sentence is funny.
The stories themselves are generally upbeat and end happily, or at least neatly, so this isn’t great literature in the approved sense. But Runyon is worth reading as a stylist, if nothing else.
Fowler’s memoir of working for various LA papers in the ’40s and ’50s is recommended to journalists and devotees of that period of LA’s history, but no one else; the writing and copy editing are often dreadful. Flawed as it is, his book is really eye-opening about the sort of access reporters had to crime scenes, the hospitals and the morgue, and how newsrooms operated. Fowler was first on the scene of the Black Dahlia murder scene, and that’s an interesting, if gruesome, chapter.
(There’s a Pomona anecdote in the book that will make my column sometime.)
Lardner’s book, from 1916, is written as a series of letters from a neophyte, and dense, pitcher to his hometown friend, Al, about the game, his relations with management and his personal life. They’re full of charming misspellings and self-delusion. It would be wrong to call the result hilarious, but amusing, sad and infuriating, yes. Jack Keefe, the pitcher in question, will take no advice from anyone and will never admit a mistake, blaming every loss on his teammates. He might be presidential timber.
Lastly, Breslin’s book, published in 1967, comprises the best of his New York Herald Tribune columns from ’63-’67, with some fond and hagiographic commentary by his editors. I found this book remarkable. Three columns about JFK’s assassination rise to the top, including the understated one about the gravedigger, the piece for which Breslin is best remembered. (Instead of following the pack to the funeral, he’s the only one getting the gravedigger’s perspective.)
But then there’s also his reporting from Harlem, and a series from the march on Montgomery, and from Vietnam, all amazing, detailed and seething with quiet anger. Two on the dying Winston Churchill also are powerful. Some of the ones from Breslin’s own cranky perspective, like on how he hates his neighbors, kind of put me off, but overall, I finished this book wanting more. (It appears he might only have one other collection of columns, amid his myriad of novels and single-topic nonfiction, but perhaps a Jimmy Breslin Reader, or somesuch, will be in the offing now that he’s gone.)
I may write a column on Breslin, if space permits, but if not, this will stand, and you blog readers will have the exclusive (to keep the journalistic theme going). I won’t make a blanket recommendation of “The World of Jimmy Breslin,” but you might like it; certainly you ought to read the gravedigger column, which can be found online here; “A Death in Emergency Room One,” his account of Kennedy’s death, is equally gripping and can be read here.
I’ve had the Runyon and Lardner books since the late 1980s, and boy is it nice having them out of the way; Fowler’s was bought at Anaheim’s Book Baron during its closing sale in 2007, and Breslin’s was picked up at St. Louis’ Dunaway Books in 2009.
How was your April? Was it the cruelest month? I hope not.
Next month: a vacation to the islands
Books acquired: “The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” H.P. Lovecraft; “Seinfeldia,” Jennifer Keishin Armstrong; “Hail, Hail Euphoria!” Roy Blount Jr.; “It Can’t Happen Here,” Sinclair Lewis
Books read: “Funny in Farsi,” Firoozeh Dumas; “Wolf in White Van,” John Darnielle; “Reading Comics,” Douglas Wolk
As I’m back at my desk Monday from a few days off and need to get this done, let me get right to my March book report. Three books this month, none with any relation to each other.
“Funny in Farsi” was the On the Same Page community read choice for Claremont. Constructed as short essays, this 2003 memoir of coming to America from Iran as a girl before the Iranian revolution is episodic, witty and warm-hearted. Dumas plays up the comedy of her family’s struggle with language and customs, and emphasizes what unites us rather than what divides us. Likable, and sometimes very funny, but for my tastes too glib.
“Wolf in White Van” is an acclaimed 2014 novel, nominated for a National Book Award, by a native of Claremont, John Darnielle, the singer-songwriter behind the band The Mountain Goats. A character study of a young man who became consumed by his fantasy life but managed to make something positive out of it, this is closely observed, skillfully told and unusual in invoking nerd totems of a certain era: Conan, August Derleth, Hit Parader. Also, it’s set in Montclair! I hope to write further about it.
“Reading Comics,” from 2007, is a series of essay of comics criticism. By now, the acceptance of comics and graphic novels as acceptable and even hip reading matter appears almost complete, making Wolk’s review of some of his favorites, partway into the revolution, less useful and his arguments in their favor almost quaint. Comics are art? Yes, we know. “Fun Home” just played at the Ahmanson. But most of his choices remain sound, some are pleasingly idiosyncratic and he has interesting things to say about them all.
How about that: all my books are from the 21st century. No other month’s Reading Log can make that claim. (Unless Doug Evans produces a link to contradict me, I think I’m on firm ground here.) Next month will be far different, but let me revel in my modernity for now.
What have you all been reading? Did your March go out like a lamb or a lion? Let us know in the comments section.
Next month: 20th century books about newspapers.
Books acquired: “Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen; “Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D. Vance.
Books read: “Wanted Man: In Search of Bob Dylan,” John Bauldie, ed.; “A Working Man’s Apocrypha,” William Luvaas; “The Variable Man,” Philip K. Dick; “The Invisible Man,” H.G. Wells; “Behold the Man,” Michael Moorcock; “The Female Man,” Joanna Russ.
Hey, man. Notice a theme to all the titles above, man? Yeah, they all have the word “man.” [shrug]
Struck by how many unread books I own with the word “man” in the title somewhere, fore or aft, I read many, but not even half, in February. In the order presented above, there was a 1990 book of essays and interviews about aspects of the Nobelist’s life and work, a 2007 short story collection, five long science fiction stories from the mid-1950s by one of my favorite authors, an 1897 classic that spawned various movies and parodies, a 1970 British New Wave science fiction novel and a 1975 feminist science fiction novel.
The Dylan book was for fans only, but quite enjoyable. The story collection was average. This isn’t the author’s fault, but the review that prompted me to buy it said many stories were set in the Inland Empire. Well, about four of them were set in Palm Springs and environs, but that wasn’t what I was hoping for. The PKD book was quite good, with “Minority Report” among the stories.
Wells’ novel had plenty of surprises, which I wouldn’t have expected to be able to say at this point. Did you know the protagonist was an albino, and thus halfway to invisibility from the get-go? Would you have guessed that he’s prone to sneezing, being a guy who’s walking around in the outdoors with no clothes? It was a fun mix of humor and horror.
Moorcock’s novel, about a time traveler who wants to meet Jesus, isn’t for the doctrinaire, but I found it powerful even if the ending is pretty obvious, one might even say inevitable, from page 2. Lastly, Russ’ novel has its flaws, such as being nearly plotless, but it’s a great example of what science fiction can do, in this case the incorporation of autobiography and social commentary on women’s status in society in the 1960s and early ’70s, even in a story that has aliens. Even if the story was hard to follow at times, I found the writing and subject matter refreshing and eye-opening. Some of the concerns about women’s place have dated, but my sense is that most have not, sadly.
Where did these books come from? The Dylan was bought in (ulp) 1995 in Victorville, the PKD at the San Diego Comic Con in 2005, the Luvaas from Amazon in 2007, the Wells from Book Rack in La Verne in 2010, the Moorcock sometime in the ’00s and the Russ in 2011 in Whittier. (I owned the Moorcock in my Illinois period, sold it unread before moving, and then bought the same edition a second time a decade or so ago. It was a particular pleasure to read it.)
With six books in February, making up for a mere two in January, I’m at an average of four books per month, a bit more respectable.
How was your February, readers?
Next month: “Funny in Farsi” and more to be determined.
A cat wandered into Magic Door Books last summer. At first she was merely a meow coming from the walls; she turned out to be living behind a bookcase. After emerging, she’s now a fixture at the store. Cats and bookstores, if you didn’t know, are a thing. I tell the story in Wednesday’s column.
Books acquired: none
Books read: “Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters,” Anne K. Mellor; “A Tramp Abroad,” Mark Twain
Happy New Year, readers! A fresh year, a fresh start. What will this year hold for our reading lives? Books and plenty of ’em, let’s hope, with good ones outnumbering the duds, likewise.
January saw me finish two books. Not an auspicious start, perhaps, but one has to start somehow. And as these books were rather dense, maybe it qualifies as an auspicious start after all. One was a biography and analysis of Mary Shelley’s life and work, the other an 1880 travel memoir by America’s arguably greatest writer.
You’ll recall that last year I read “Frankenstein” and “The Last Man,” not to mention Muriel Spark’s biography of Shelley. Putting a bow on my mild obsession, Mellor’s book (bought earlier in the year at Iliad in North Hollywood) was begun in December and finished the first few days of January.
The UCLA prof approaches her subject from a feminist perspective, and she’ll make you think of “Frankenstein” in a fresh way, both textually (disaster occurs when a man tries to have a baby without a woman — mull that a moment) and biographically (when Victor Frankenstein flees from his newborn creation, is Shelley criticizing her husband’s poor parenting skills?). Good analysis of the underrated “The Last Man” too. For scholarship, quite readable, but it’s docked for use of the words “teleological,” “semiotics” and “phenomenological.”
Twain’s fourth of five travel memoirs has been a sort of white whale for me, to invoke another great American author. I was reading a Twain a year through 2011. I planned to read “A Tramp Abroad” in 2012 and then 2013. In my review of my 2013 reading at the start of 2014, this is what I wrote: “How did I not read any Mark Twain for two straight years?! Definitely I’ll read ‘A Tramp Abroad’ this year. Of course, last year in this space I said I’d be starting it ‘any day now.’ I won’t make that promise, but I will read it.”
Heh. What with one thing or another, it kept getting put off. But last year I read his “Autobiography,” and early in January I started “A Tramp Abroad.” Let me note that I read an abridged version in high school, one prepared by Charles Neider, a respected Twain scholar, who said the full book was padded with digressions and dull appendices. But as a grownup, and more of a Twainiac, I wanted to read the full book (bought from Amazon back when I thought I’d be reading it momentarily).
“Tramp” does have its ho-hum passages, and overall Twain’s journey through Germany and Switzerland doesn’t have quite the zing or variety as “Innocents Abroad,” “Roughing It” or “Life on the Mississippi.” So, big deal, it’s a 4-star book, not a 5-star book. “Tramp” is wry, smart, sly, insightful, descriptive and hilarious. You owe it to yourself to read Chapter 13, in which Twain stumbles around his hotel room in the dark rather than risk awaking his travel companion. It is so relatable, one of those pieces of writing that bridges the gulf of years, and if you don’t laugh aloud, you have a funny bone of stone. Visit your local library or download the book just for that chapter.
All that said, Neider’s compressed version of “Tramp” would suit most readers. But I’m happy to have read the full version. It felt very good getting this one out of the way at last, and ditto with the Shelley holdover.
February will see me pick up the pace a bit, I think. For 2017, I may hit 40 again, my total from last year, and many of the books I expect to read are ones that have been waiting for me the past couple of years as my reading choices skewed to my oldest books. I’m really looking forward to this reading year. It feels like I’m back on track.
How was your January, and what do you expect from 2017 as a reader?
Next month: Four or five books, man — with “man” in their titles.
In an annual ritual, but a delightful one I hope, I rounded up all the books I read this year (minus one that’s out on loan and one that’s a play in a giant Shakespeare omnibus), put them in the middle of my floor and took their photo.
My total of 40 for 2016 is precisely half of 2012, the year I read 80 books and my best year to date. But that year I had a lot of short books to read, and also unlike this year, I wasn’t spending an hour or two per week working on my own book. I realized, too, that I took far fewer Metrolink trips this year, an act that gave me enforced reading time.
Still, there’s nothing wrong with 40 books. Wednesday’s column tries to make sense of the year. Below is a list of every book in chronological order.
- “Slogging Toward the Millennium,” Bill McClellan
- “The Hour After Westerly,” Robert M. Coates
- “Long After Midnight,” Ray Bradbury
- “The Day After Tomorrow,” Robert A. Heinlein
- “Twelfth Night,” William Shakespeare
- “Now Wait for Last Year,” Philip K. Dick
- “Early Bird,” Rodney Rothman
- The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction 30th Anniversary Issue
- “Frankenstein,” Mary Shelley
- “The Last Man,” Mary Shelley
- “The Last of the Best,” Jim Murray
- “The Last Laugh,” S.J. Perelman
- “The Penultimate Truth,” Philip K. Dick
- “Heart Like a Starfish,” Allen Callaci
- “Empire,” Lewis DeSoto
- “The Autobiography of Mark Twain,” Charles Neider, ed.
- “Stalking the Feature Story,” William Ruehlmann
- “Forgotten Bookmarks,” Michael Popek
- “The Complete Stories,” Flannery O’Connor
- “Howards End,” E.M. Forster
- “Then We Came to the End,” Joshua Ferris
- “Howards End is on the Landing,” Susan Hill
- “Sixpence House,” Paul Collins
- “Mary Shelley: A Biography,” Muriel Spark
- “John Carter of Mars” (No. 11), Edgar Rice Burroughs
- “The Divine Invasion,” Philip K. Dick
- “Tortilla Flat,” John Steinbeck
- “Ask a Mexican!” Gustavo Arellano
- “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America,” Gustavo Arellano
- “Eat Mexico,” Lesley Tellez
- “Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, Vol. 2,” H.P. Lovecraft, et al
- “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” Victor and Jacob Maymudes
- “Spend All Your Kisses, Mr. Smith,” Jack Smith
- “Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan,” Howard Sounes
- “Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina,” David Hajdu
- “Positively Main Street: An Unorthodox View of Bob Dylan,” Toby Thompson
- “Gentlemen of the Road,” Michael Chabon
- “The Wishbones,” Tom Perrotta
- “The Puppies of Terra,” Thomas M. Disch
- “Of All Things!” Robert Benchley
Of course I didn’t get to everything I’d have liked, not by a long shot, but many of these I’d been wanting to read for a long time. How was your year in reading?