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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Reading Log: September 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The ghost of Acres of Books

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

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

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

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