Reading Log: March 2018

Books acquired: “Not Dead Yet,” Phil Collins

Books read: “The Harlan Ellison Hornbook,” “Edgeworks Vol. 3,” Harlan Ellison; “Tricky Business,” Dave Barry; “Hollywood Station,” Joseph Wambaugh; “How to Find Old Los Angeles,” Kim Cooper

March saw me continue my focus on reading books I’ve meant to read for years, plus one short one that was easily dispensed with.

“The Harlan Ellison Hornbook” (1990) collects general interest, usually autobiographical columns the writer best known for science fiction wrote for LA alt-weeklies in 1972-3, after his Glass Teat TV columns for the same venues. These are minor entries in his oeuvre. The one about how he hates Christmas is a welcome jolt, though. The added essays at the back, including one defending the positive impacts of the 1960s, were more substantive. I bought this used sometime in the ’00s.

“Edgeworks, Vol. 3” (1996) collects “Hornbook” and an unproduced script, “Harlan Ellison’s Movie,” from the same era. It’s about a young idealist who inherits a bank and sets out to change the world. It has its moments, but it’s ultimately as heavy-handed and self-indulgent as a project titled “Harlan Ellison’s Movie” would suggest. I bought this omnibus when it came out, nearly 22 years ago. It was part of a series aiming to collect all his work but which ended at Vol. 4. I still have Vol. 1 to read.

“How to Find Old LA” (2016) is a slim, illustrated guidebook with a good mix of better- and lesser-known spots — diners, steakhouses, bars and more that retain the feel of the old days — organized by area and with handy capsule descriptions. Many of the listings were unknown to me, so as I read I kept a running list of places I’d like to check out. I bought this at Distant Lands travel store in Pasadena in 2016.

“Tricky Business” (2002) was the humorist’s second crime novel. It’s a breezy caper with a dozen-plus characters, in which things work out pretty much as you’d hope: good things happen to good people, bad things to bad people. The fun is in getting there. As a Dave Barry fan, it’s interesting to see how he adapts his writing style to fiction. There’s gunplay, and romance, and an amateur rock band, and also literature’s best mass puking scene. That said, I suspect I’m going to forget it pretty quickly. I bought this at Vroman’s upon publication and Barry signed it to me. It’s the last Dave Barry book I own that I hadn’t read.

“Hollywood Station” (2006) was Wambaugh’s return to the LAPD as subject after almost 30 years away. The novel brings him into the era of post-Rodney King federal oversight, cell phones, woman cops, ethnic food and hair gel. You may think there are too many characters and not enough plot, but the scenes of day to day life on the beat are vivid, Wambaugh’s characters seem real and he succeeds in humanizing his cops and sending up the bureaucracy. It’s definitely sunnier than “The Choirboys,” the only other Wambaugh I’ve read.

I got this directly from Wambaugh during a December 2006 interview at Vroman’s that focused on his childhood here and, as I was reading “Choirboys” at the time, I set this aside to read at a later date. A much later date, as it turned out.

Yeah, it’s a little embarrassing that it took me 11 years and some change to get to this book, and 15-plus years to get to Barry’s, and even longer to get to one of the Ellison books, but that’s how it goes sometimes. It’s not like I wasn’t reading other books. On the bright side, it’s satisfying to have these read, and I would recommend Wambaugh’s book with few reservations, Barry’s with more reservations and Cooper’s if you’re into that kind of thing.

I managed to finish these all by the 21st, with “Hornbook” having largely been read in January and February, and spent the last part of March reading chunks of three other books. Then I got a running start on an 800-pager, which I was going to read in stages during 2018 but which is enjoyable enough that I’m going to keep reading. If I can average 20 pages a day in April, which I believe I can, I can finish it.

How was your March, readers? Let us know, please.

Next month: one or two (or three?) looks back at the 20th century.

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Reading Log: February 2018

Books acquired: “A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures,” Ben Bradlee; “We’ll Always Have Casablanca,” Noah Isenberg; “Banking on Beauty: Millard Sheets and Midcentury Commercial Architecture in California,” Adam Arenson

Books read: “The Left Hand of Darkness,” Ursula K. Le Guin; “Gather, Darkness!” Fritz Leiber; “Lest Darkness Fall,” L. Sprague de Camp; “A Scanner Darkly,” Philip K. Dick

February was a dark month on the ol’ Reading Log, and not just because of Punxsatawney Phil, who predicted six more weeks of winter. (I don’t know how Pennsylvania is faring, but more winter has proved true for Southern California.) No, it was also a dark month because all four books had “dark” in the title.

Man, I had meant to read these precise books the past six years or so but didn’t get around to it, a testament to my deep backlog of unread books. “Lest Darkness Fall,” inspired by “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” has been waiting since I read Twain’s classic in April 2011.

(Incidentally, a couple of years ago I mentioned the title of Twain’s novel to a bookish friend in his mid-30s and he had never heard of it, nor could he wrap his mind around the title: “A what? Say that again. ‘A Connecticut’ what?” He broke up laughing. Huh.)

Anyway, this was a strong month. All four books were very good to excellent.

Le Guin’s 1969 novel has become a classic. (I owned it as a teen, sold it without ever attempting it in one of my frequent book purges, and bought it again a decade ago.) An emissary of a confederation of planets lands on one whose leaders either don’t believe him or see no reason to join up. The visitor slowly realizes how little he understands and how his prejudices are getting in the way of his own acceptance of these other-worlders, whose genders alter every month. A beautifully written, strangely enveloping novel.

Leiber’s 1950 novel is said to be his first good one. I admit I bought this ’60s copy because it was so well-preserved. A holy war between priests and witches isn’t what it seems on either side. Full of strong and slightly mysterious characters and visual writing. I read his “Best of Fritz Leiber” and “A Pail of Air” story collections in 2015 and became an admirer.

In de Camp’s 1941 novel, a scholar of the ancient world is hurled from the 20th century back to 6th century Italy, where he introduces innovations like the telegraph and “predicts” future events, and thus tries single-handedly to prevent the Dark Ages from falling. An early alternate-history novel, this owes a lot to Twain, but de Camp uses less satire, more plain humor and a deep knowledge of his subject. A lot of fun, and at 208 pages it gallops along quite unlike a lot of stately SF novels.

(By the way, Lyon Sprague de Camp once said he saw little need to write under an assumed name because his given name sounded more like a pseudonym than most pseudonyms.)

Finally, Dick’s 1977 novel, which was adapted for a 2006 film by Richard Linklater. I saw that movie and stuck my ticket stub inside the front cover of my unread copy. Nearly 12 years later, I finally read the book and used the stub as my bookmark.

In near-future Southern California, the drug Substance D is burning out the brains of the addicted, which is almost everyone, including those assigned to entrap them. One undercover agent is so undercover, he’s tasked with spying on himself, and that’s only one twist in this classic of paranoia, government surveillance and the dark side of the ’60s. Both absurdist and tragic, this late-period novel is one of PKD’s best and most personal.

These “dark” books made for an unusually strong month, as I said, one that leaves me lighter of spirit. It felt good to get all of these out of the way after intending so long to read them. Ditto with the “shadow”-titled books of January.

I can no longer remember where or when I bought these, other than de Camp coming from Brand Books in Glendale and Le Guin from Ralph’s Comic Corner in Ventura, and all of them falling into my hands in the first decade of this century.

That’s enough from me. How was your February, readers? Post away below.

Next month: a hornbook, a guidebook, and regular books too.

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Reading Log: January 2018

Books acquired: none

Books read: “Pale Gray for Guilt,” John D. MacDonald; “The Shadow of Fu Manchu,” Sax Rohmer; “Glimpses,” Lewis Shiner; “Beginning to See the Light,” Ellen Willis

Greetings, aesthetes! (It sounds better than “nerds,” doesn’t it?) Welcome to this blog’s first Reading Log of 2018.

I started the year off with a quartet of books I’d been planning but failing to read for a few years, all with a kind of shadowy, half-seen tint to the titles. Like life, but unlike old movies, it was not a black and white month.

First up was my first Travis McGee mystery since 2014. Sheesh, I liked the idea of reading at least one per year, but the seroes got away from me. But here was Book 9 (of 21) waiting for me. McGee calls himself a salvage expert: He goes after things of value that are considered irretrievable, and claims half if successful. Then he returns to his boat-bum lifestyle in Florida, taking his retirement in installments, as he puts it, until the next case comes along.

“Pale Gray” involves real estate speculation and stock market scams, which get a bit complex. On the other hand, because the case concerns a dead friend, McGee is an avenging angel. He also suffers in various ways for his otherwise-envious lifestyle, making this entry more emotional and vulnerable than usual. First published in 1968, the attitudes in “Guilt” like the others can be a little dated. But MacDonald sure can write. In fact, there’s a fine maxim in it: “In any emotional conflict, the thing you find hardest to do is the thing you should do.” Chew on that.

Next up was the 11th (of 14) books in the Fu Manchu series, which I’ve been reading intermittently since roughly the Civil War, or so it seems sometimes. This one was published in 1948, 35 years after the first (and 11 years before the last), and by this point Fu Manchu and his nemesis, Sir Denis Nayland Smith, are practically old friends.

The plot involves a device under development that could disintegrate metal, which of course would include most weaponry, and thus is of great interest to America’s enemies. In attempting to foil the communists from seizing this mighty “transmuter,” the devil doctor is practically the savior of mankind. Oh, Fu, we hardly knew ye.

“Glimpses,” from 1993, won the World Fantasy Award, but it’s basically “High Fidelity” with a dose of magic realism. A rock ‘n’ roll friend recommended this years ago, it was duly placed on my want list and, years later, a bookstore browse finally turned up a copy — autographed, no less.

The late-30s protagonist of this novel set in the late ’80s tried to belatedly grow up while also engaging in wish fulfillment by hallucinating great lost albums by the Beach Boys, Doors and Hendrix into reality (or not). Recommended for music nerds — sorry, aesthetes. I’m one and I was enthralled.

Lastly, “Beginning to See the Light,” from 1992, is a collection of ’66-’79 essays on rock music, current events, women’s rights and Jewishness by Ellen Willis, one of the first rock music critics. She went on to write on other topics, as can be seen above, and became newly appreciated when much of her work was reissued after her 2006 death.

Some of these essays are dated, of course, but they reflect their times and offer a perspective on the ’60s, often from the vantage point of the ’70s, by someone who was there and lamented how others came to dismiss the era. Many of the essays are still relevant, sometimes depressingly so. (Peace in the Middle East, for one, seemed quite possible four decades ago.) Willis’ prose is dense but clearly reasoned and stated; she argues her positions well. Favorite essay title: “Abortion: Is a Woman a Person?,” wherein she tackles various anti-abortion arguments and (in my view) demolishes them. See above for her continuing relevance. The book left me wanting to read more by her.

As for where these books came from, MacDonald was bought in 2011 at North Hollywood’s Iliad Books and Willis in 2013 from Glendale’s Brand Books (RIP). The other two were probably bought in the mid-2000s, prior to the blog, the Rohmer possibly from eBay and “Glimpses” from Glendale’s Book Fellows (also RIP).

It was satisfying finally getting to these books. The good feeling should continue for a while, as February’s books are also going to be ones I’ve meant to read for quite some time (six years, in one case), and that theme may continue into mid-year, unless something comes up that needs to be read for work or I’m otherwise derailed.

How is your new year starting, and what did you read in January? Post away.

Next month: Hello, darkness, my old friend.

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Books read, 2017

I made my way through 45 books in 2017. As always, it’s never enough — but I was glad to have read most of these, with only a couple of clunkers. They’re listed below in the order in which I read them, as pulled from my monthly Reading Log posts on this blog.

  1. “Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters,” Anne K. Mellor
  2. “A Tramp Abroad,” Mark Twain
  3. “Wanted Man: In Search of Bob Dylan,” John Bauldie, ed.
  4. “A Working Man’s Apocrypha,” William Luvaas
  5. “The Variable Man,” Philip K. Dick
  6. “The Invisible Man,” H.G. Wells
  7. “Behold the Man,” Michael Moorcock
  8. “The Female Man,” Joanna Russ
  9. “Funny in Farsi,” Firoozeh Dumas
  10. “Wolf in White Van,” John Darnielle
  11. “Reading Comics,” Douglas Wolk
  12. “Bloodhounds on Broadway and Other Stories,” Damon Runyon
  13. “Reporters: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman,” Will Fowler
  14. “The World of Jimmy Breslin,” Jimmy Breslin
  15. “You Know Me Al,” Ring Lardner
  16. “The Island of Fu Manchu,” Sax Rohmer
  17. “Treasure Island,” Robert Louis Stevenson
  18. “Treasure Island!!!,” Sara Levine
  19. “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” H.G. Wells
  20. “On Chesil Beach,” Ian McEwan
  21. “The Slide,” Kyle Beachy
  22. “Galactic Pot-Healer,” Philip K. Dick
  23. “Jose Clemente Orozco: Prometheus,” Pomona College Museum of Art, eds.
  24. “Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything,” Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
  25. “Julius Caesar,” William Shakespeare
  26. “Antony and Cleopatra,” William Shakespeare
  27. “From Bill, With Love,” Bill McClellan
  28. “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” Michael Chabon
  29. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip,” Robert Landau
  30. “Slaughterhouse-Five,” Kurt Vonnegut
  31. “The Transmigration of Timothy Archer,” Philip K. Dick
  32. “Prometheus 2017: Four Artists From Mexico Revisit Orozco,” Rebecca McGrew and Terri Geis, eds.
  33. “How to Win a Pullet Surprise: The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Our Language,” Jack Smith
  34. “The Puppet Masters,” Robert Heinlein
  35. “The Toynbee Convector,” Ray Bradbury
  36. “One Hundred and Two H-Bombs,” Thomas M. Disch
  37. “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” H.P. Lovecraft
  38. “Love Conquers All,” Robert Benchley
  39. “Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D. Vance
  40. “It Can’t Happen Here,” Sinclair Lewis
  41. “The Woody Allen Companion,” Stephen Spignesi
  42. “True Stories of Claremont, CA,” Hal Durian
  43. “Readings,” Michael Dirda
  44. “Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen
  45. “Happiness is Warm Color in the Shade: a Biography of Artist Milford Zornes,” Hal Baker

As usual I read more fiction than nonfiction, a couple of recent books, a few things for work and a lot of older books, both in when they were published or in when I acquired them. Any year in which you read two Shakespeare plays is going to be a pretty good year. How was your own year in reading?

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Reading Log: December 2017

Books acquired: none

Books read: “The Woody Allen Companion,” Stephen Spignesi; “True Stories of Claremont, CA,” Hal Durian; “Readings,” Michael Dirda; “Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen; “Happiness is Warm Color in the Shade: a Biography of Artist Milford Zornes,” Hal Baker

December sent me off in style with five books read. I didn’t read them all stem to stern that month, but they were all finished in December. It was a fine way to end the year.

The month’s deepest read was Springsteen’s acclaimed memoir, and the longest too at 510 pages. A leisurely, detailed look at his childhood and formative years, stardom and middle age, Springsteen alternately builds up his mythology and tears it down. He’s unsparing as he lays bare his failings and the mental problems that he inherited from his troubled father, and unstinting in his generosity to the love of his life. Pure Springsteen, his 2016 memoir is ruminative, moving, powerful, incantatory and jokey. No wonder he’s the Boss.

Dirda’s book, published in 2000, is a collection of his Washington Post book columns, for which he has won a Pulitzer. He’s better read than the rest of us, but he’s so matter-of-fact about his reading that I found myself jotting down titles of interest rather than cursing him — although now and then I did roll my eyes. While occasionally precious, he’s funny too, such as his essay about how little he can remember about the books he loves. Winningly, his vision of good reading embraces “The Hound of the Baskervilles” as much as “Hamlet.”

The 1992 book about Woody Allen was a gift from a friend circa 1993, and it never occurred to me to sit down to read the collection of trivia, movie synopses and the like, from his early TV work through his stand-up, films, essays and plays. But it’s the only book on its shelf that is unread, and I might have simply sold it if not for the nice inscription. So I put it by my bedside and, over a few months, read it cover to cover. Current only through 1992’s “Shadows and Fog,” this has the benefit of predating the last 25 years of his movies, few of which have enhanced his reputation and many of which have been crummy. Definitely for the confirmed Woodmaniac, if any remain.

Two of my selections this month were local in nature and published in 2017.

The Zornes biography, written by his son-in-law, is a warm recollection of the local watercolorist who died in 2008 at age 101. Frankly, the writing and copy-editing are not professional, but if you’re interested in Zornes, this has a lot to recommend it, including insights, stories and a lot of quotes and facts from the man himself, who was interviewed on tape during a long road trip. And of course the pages are enlivened by many reproductions of paintings and sketches, plus photos.

Durian, a retired teacher and history columnist, has lived in Claremont more than 50 years. His book is made up of short essays on various people, places, incidents and facets of life around town, including a few local controversies. It’s a nice effort. I don’t know that he’s quite captured Claremont in all its glory and contradictions, but he’s not overly reverent and I learned a few things I didn’t know. It’s a limited edition of a mere 100 copies. I attended one of his talks and he gave me one.

The Zornes book was checked out from the Pomona Public Library, long may it wave; the Springsteen was a gift; and the Dirda was bought in 2013 from Magic Door Books in Pomona.

All told, I made it through 45 books in 2017, which isn’t bad, even if it’s about 1/10 of what I’d have liked to have read.

How was your December, readers?

I’ll be posting a list of my year’s books soon and a column is likely to follow.

Next month: shadows and light.

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Reading Log: November 2017

Books acquired: “The Perfect Horse,” Elizabeth Letts; “Addicted to Americana,” Charles Phoenix

Books read: “Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D. Vance; “It Can’t Happen Here,” Sinclair Lewis

I only managed to finish two books in November, one of them on the 30th. Both were birthday gifts from March.

First up was “Hillbilly Elegy,” a 2016 memoir by a Yalie about his Appalachian upbringing and troubled childhood in particular and the challenges of underclass white America in general. So there’s some welcome sociology mixed in. Vance’s book was published before the election and never mentions it, but it was published at a good time to become part of the post-election conversation on disaffected whites.

Consider it a window into the problems of poor, white America, written by a man who grew up poor and still hasn’t entirely shaken its legacy. I didn’t find the mix of his personal story and the bits of research entirely satisfying. But “Elegy” does give a welcome insight into the hopelessness felt by many in this country.

“It Can’t Happen Here” is about an election, the one in 1936. The novel was written in 1935 and posits a phony man of the people who is actually a strongman with his own private militia. After his election, he starts tossing people into labor camps and his enemies, including the press, into concentration camps. The novel gained currency since its 2005 republication and especially the past couple of years, for reasons that should be obvious, even if the comparisons are overblown.

Not a masterpiece of story construction or dialogue, but maybe a masterpiece of ideas. Lewis seems to have been taking aim primarily at Huey Long, but the fear that a seemingly unpolished cornpone fascist would appeal to enough rubes to become president is probably eternal.

I’m a little sheepish that I only got through two books all month, totaling about 550 pages, but then again, that’s about 20 pages a day (I think I started the first one a few days into the month), so by normal-person standards that’s okay, I guess.

I’ve got three books going on my nightstand, all of which I should be finishing in December, and likely one further book to round out my month and year. My annual list of my year’s reading, with an accompanying column, will appear in late December or early January.

How was your November, readers? We’re anxious to know.

Next month: The Boss.

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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.

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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.

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