Reading Log: October 2015


Books acquired: “Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California,” Frances Dinkelspiel.

Books read: “Wonder,” R.J. Palacio; “A Pail of Air,” Fritz Leiber; “The Halloween Tree,” Ray Bradbury.

Just as I predicted last time, October was another three-book month. It was a so-so month aesthetically as well: one solid book, two ehh books.

“Wonder,” a young adult novel from 2012, never quite grabbed me, although a lot of people love it, and it certainly has elements to recommend it. It’s the story of a boy with a facial deformity who has never attended public school, and what happens when he does: He’s ostracized, he makes friends, he’s bullied. It’s charming, touching and funny at times, a little unrealistic at others.

“A Pail of Air,” Fritz Leiber’s first collection of stories, from 1964, was pretty good. I read a “best of” collection earlier this year and was impressed. This had some overlap, and a couple of the stories didn’t wow me, but this was worth reading. I expect I’ll read more by him.

“The Halloween Tree” is a Bradbury young adult novel from 1972. I’d read it years ago and don’t recall thinking much of it, and that was as a young adult. A reference to it recently reminded me of it and I was surprised I hadn’t put it on my list to reread. As it was October, the time seemed right to read it again. Originally it was meant to be an animated special by Chuck Jones, but that fell through and Bradbury wrote it as a novel instead.

The story attempts to give a history of Halloween via travel to see ancient Egypt, witches and Notre Dame by a group of trick-or-treating boys led by a mysterious Mr. Moundshroud. (Nary a girl appears.) Bradbury’s prose style reaches what some might consider its height but what I think is its nadir: over-the-top lyricism in support of a very flimsy story.

On the other hand, Bradbury devoted a few pages to the Mexican Day of the Dead, with its candy skulls, cemetery visits, candles and altars, decades before the holiday became widely known. The boys think it’s great, exclaiming: “Mexican Halloween is better than our Halloween!” So there’s that.

“Wonder” was given to me by the Friends of the Claremont Library, “Pail” came from Patten Books in St. Louis in June and “Tree” was a long-ago purchase, probably late ’70s, from my hometown used bookstore.

What did you read in October? And did your month fare better than mine?

Next month: A book about wine, and more.


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Jack Smith, correspondent


Jack Smith, the LA Times columnist who died in 1997, is still spoken of with reverence among those who recall his insightful observations, gentle humor and lively prose. I missed him in his prime but am catching up on his books. I own them all and have read half so far, spacing them out to one per year. (I also wrote his Wikipedia entry a few years back.)


All 10 were purchased at used bookstores, and as signed copies are relatively easy to find — the man must have done a lot of bookstore events — I’ve bought only signed copies, except for his last, posthumous book, of course. Many have a short inscription to the buyer as well. The one above is so simple and witty.


At the late, lamented Acres of Books in Long Beach, perhaps six or eight years back, I had my choice of two copies of “The Big Orange” — one that was signed traditionally, and one that had something better.


“Jack Smith’s letters to me” reads an envelope taped inside, “and some Jack Smith columns.”


Evidently the book belonged to one Constance Gramlich. Inside the envelope is a postcard and a letter, each addressed to her.


The letter came first, postmarked Sept. 7, 1966. Evidently Smith had recently written about student letters for the column that Gramlich was commenting on. It’s a great little letter, and Smith, in print an inveterate flirt, does not disappoint here, either. Click on the letter for a larger view.


Four years later, Gramlich received a handwritten, but more terse, reply from Smith, who it seems had been laid low by illness. The date is Nov. 9, 1971.


Alas, the columns Gramlich had saved — perhaps the ones that inspired the letters? — were not in the envelope. But I treasure my very own Jack Smith correspondence.

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Reading Log: September 2015


Books acquired: “Wonder,” R.J. Palacio; “Tangled Vines,” Frances Dinkelspiel.

Books read: “After 1903 — What?,” Robert Benchley; “The Best of Philip K. Dick,” Philip K. Dick; “The Big Orange,” Jack Smith.

September was a three-book month, which seems to be the groove I’ve fallen (autumn reference?) into of late, now that my shorter books are mostly out of the way. One of the three is among my favorites of 2015, even if it was published four decades ago.

Benchley’s book (published in 1938), the title of which is probably meant to mock the notion that civilization peaked in this or that year of the speaker’s lifetime, is his usual collection of whimsical essays. There seem to me to be fewer classics here than other books of his I’ve read, meaning more smiles than horselaughs. The pieces, which appear to have been written for newspapers rather than magazines based on references and brevity, seem less thought out than usual, but they certainly go down with the customary Benchley smoothness. Amusing more than hilarious, but amusing is good.

Dick is revered for his novels, in part because he pretty much abandoned the short form by the time he hit his stride as a novelist. But his stories are often very good, and by exploring a simple idea (or telling a sort of extended joke) they avoid the ungainliness of some of his novels. This is a solid collection of stories, with two, Imposter and Paycheck, clever enough to have inspired movies. Not a dud in the bunch. This is another of the mid-’70s Ballantine “Best of” books by SF authors discussed here previously.

And so to Jack Smith. These mid-1970s pieces explore 30 attractions around LA and Orange County, including the Farmers Market, Rose Bowl Flea Market, Watts Towers and, inevitably, Disneyland. Forty years on, most of these attractions are still around but altered, while a few, like Lion Country Safari and the Pike, are vanished, making this a record of a different time.

Smith is gentle, descriptive, witty and respectful, and these articles for Westways magazine are delightful. If you love LA and its history — i.e., you think reading a mid-1970s view of SoCal is appealing rather than pointless — you might want to track this down. This if the fifth of Smith’s 10 books that I’ve read, and tied with “Jack Smith’s L.A.” as my favorite. (The overpraised “God and Mr. Gomez” might be my least favorite.)

I bought the Benchley at Powell’s in Portland two years ago, Dick at my hometown used bookstore in Illinois in the early 1980s (and never read until now — another one crossed off the list) and Smith at Acres of Books in Long Beach maybe six years ago. More about that in a separate blog post, if I remember.

How was your September? Hit the comment button and let us know.

Next month: “Wonder,” plus probably two more.


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Column: ‘Pomona Reads!’ celebrates writing, reading

Sunday’s column starts with news of Oct. 3’s inaugural “Pomona Reads!” book festival, with events for young and old, and well-known authors in attendance. I’ll be there too with “Pomona A to Z.” Come check it out. Also in my column: an event at Mitla Cafe involves writer Gustavo (“Ask a Mexican”) Arellano; scary movies are creeping into the Ontario library; and a farewell to my optometrist, Joe Trezza.

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Reading Log: August 2015


Books acquired: none

Books read: “A Journey to the Center of the Earth,” Jules Verne; “Why LA? Pourquoi Paris?” Diane Ratican; “Deus Irae,” Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny; and “Valis,” Philip K. Dick.

August ended with four books read. Well, technically, August ended with three books read, but I finished “Valis” at lunch on Sept. 2, so I’m counting it.

“Why LA? Pourquois Paris?” was left on my desk at work, by unknown parties; presumably it was a freebie sent to us, as it was published this year. The author is from Pasadena and has lived in Paris. She wrote chapters comparing her two favorite cities, LA and Paris, in various ways, enlivened by many pages of whimsical illustrations. Lightweight but charming. I jotted down many ideas from the Paris sections in case I visit again, as I suspect I will. The LA advice is pretty good too.

I’d read “A Journey to the Center of the Earth” as a lad but remembered not a whit of it. After reading “Around the World in 80 Days” and rereading “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” in recent years, I wanted to tackle this one too, in my childhood copy. I read it in an unusual way: a few pages in bed per night. It took me six or eight weeks this way. Normally I would never read a novel in such incremental fashion, but 1) it’s episodic, 2) the chapters are short and 3) it’s not compelling. The science is laughable — dinosaurs and an ocean-like lake under the Earth! — but the story is cute, and a little better than the other two Vernes, maybe because the narrator is likable.

“Deus Irae” and “Valis” are two latter period Dick novels, and purely by accident they made a good pairing, both being about spiritual concerns and both including, in passing, the idea of God existing in a humble brown clay pot. Also, in the first one, a character thinks he can find God by hallucinating on drugs; that idea is dismissed in one line in the second.

I couldn’t possibly describe the plot of these two books to anyone’s satisfaction, but they’re among Dick’s better books. Some say “Valis” is his masterpiece, and while it was a little static for me, it was very good.

The three novels are all purchases dating to my childhood or young adulthood. Only eight of those very old books remain on my shelves to be read. Progress.

What did you read in August, and have you read any of my four?

Next month: More progress, and almost certainly something by Robert Benchley.


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Reading Log: July 2015


Books acquired: “Why LA? Pourquois Paris?” Diane Ratican; “The Fourth Galaxy Reader,” H.L. Gold, ed.; “Still Room for Hope,” Alisa Kaplan.

Books read: “Again, Dangerous Visions, Vols. 1 and 2,” Harlan Ellison, ed.; “Still Room for Hope,” Alisa Kaplan.

July has as odd a pairing of books as I can remember: two split volumes of a 1972 science fiction anthology, and a 2015 memoir about sexual abuse from a Christian publisher. If I’d had more time, I might have read, say, a physics textbook, a Shakespeare play and a history of the Peloponnesian War, just to round things out.

Well, there’s a reason for reading “Still Room for Hope,” in that I expect it to result in a column in the near future, so I won’t say any more about it here, other than that it is very sad, while becoming lighter as Kaplan recovers her sense of herself.

The Ellison-edited anthology of cutting-edge SF, 900 pages split between two paperbacks, follows his 1967 “Dangerous Visions,” read here last September, and which I loved. The sequel is twice as long and with half the impact, I’m afraid, although it still had a lot of strong material by Bova, Le Guin, Vonnegut, Wilhelm, Gerrold and more. There were simply more so-so stories by newcomers, many of whom didn’t go on to make a mark but seemed to have been included just in case. A third anthology, “The Last Dangerous Visions,” was promised within six months, ha ha, and many of us know how that turned out: The author list expanded alarmingly and more than 40 years later it’s still unpublished, and maybe unpublishable. Ah well.

All three books acquired this month were free; the Gold book was a gift from reader Rich P., who got it from reader Doug Evans, Kaplan’s came from the author and Ratican’s simply was left on my desk, presumably having been mailed in.

The two Ellisons that I read this month were acquired back in the early 1980s and unread until now. One was bought new somewhere in the Midwest and the other was bought used from the Book Nook in Decatur, Georgia, a store that appears to still be in business three decades later. Good for them.

How was your July? Not to be uncaring, but all I want to know about are the books you read. Save your family worries, work problems and health issues for someone else’s blog.

Next month: I journey to the center of the Earth, among other places.


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Column: Go set a time to read ‘Mockingbird’ in public

Sunday’s column is about the “Go Set a Watchman” novel by Harper Lee, a sequel of sorts to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The new book is out Tuesday; the old one will be read aloud in a daylong event Monday at Barnes and Noble stores. If you can get to the Rancho Cucamonga store at 9 a.m., you can set, er, sit and watch me read the first chapter.

Or some of it, at least. I sat down Saturday at the Pomona Public Library to refamiliarize myself with that chapter. In the edition I picked up, it was 15 pages. I got a little tired of reading it silently and am not sure I’ll have the voice to read that much aloud. Also, the second and third pages, about the history of Maycomb, are kind of dull, and I could imagine eyes glazing over. But the chapter ends great, and I’ll see if I can get through the whole thing.

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Reading Log: June 2015


Books acquired: “Open City,” Teju Cole; “The Imperfectionists,” Tom Rachman; “A Pail of Air,” Fritz Leiber; “Slogging Toward the Millennium,” Bill McClellan; “A Walker in the City,” Alfred Kazin; “Eat Mexico,” Lesley Tellez.

Books read: “The Best of Fritz Leiber,” Fritz Leiber; “The Other Glass Teat,” Harlan Ellison; “The Point Man,” Steve Englehart.

June was not a shining month for me, book-wise, in a couple of ways: It was a rare month in which I bought more books than I read (I really try to avoid that), and I read only three books, not the usual four or more.

On the other hand, those three total nearly 1,100 pages, and two of them have languished unread since the early 1980s, so this wasn’t such a bad month. And to have bought only five books on a vacation in which I visited four bookstores demonstrates remarkable restraint, at least in my eyes. The sixth book is by a friend and was a must-buy.

Overall, then, it wasn’t such a bad month. The books weren’t bad either. I want to single out the Leiber collection, which based on the store stamp came from Ventura’s Book Rack, I would say about five or six years ago, although it may really have been bought at Ralph’s Comic Corner in the same city. I hadn’t read anything by Leiber, a respected fantasy writer, but I’m glad I read this. Most of the stories are distinctive and a few were remarkable, such as “The Man Who Never Grew Young.” It’s one of those pieces of writing where when you realize what he’s doing your mouth falls open. I bought another out-of-print Leiber collection on vacation just to have one around.

Ellison’s book is the second of two that collect his LA Free Press columns on TV from the late ’60s and early ’70s; as before, his essays are more about youth culture, politics and the times than about TV. But this does serialize a script he wrote for “The Young Lawyers,” as well as present two blistering, over-the-top columns after the episode was filmed and aired in a manner not to his liking. The copy I read is from the ’70s, purchased in the past decade, but I have an ’80s edition that I got when it was published, making “The Other Glass Teat” one of the older unread books on my shelves.

I got 150 pages into a 450-page third book that there was no way I was going to finish in June. Rather than finish only two books this month, I set that aside (look for it next month) to read the 350-page, but breezier, novel by Englehart, a well-known Marvel Comics scripter of the 1970s. I bought it used a couple of years after its 1981 publication but never felt compelled to read it. It’s about a San Francisco disc jockey who gets embroiled in mystical doings, which Englehart ends up explaining at more detailed length that was probably good for his plot. “The Point Man” is still commonly found in used bookstores, and he’s since written one or two sequels.

We’re halfway through 2015 and I’ve managed to stick, more or less, to my reading plan for the year. I’ve read 35 books, but as 17 of those were read in one month (March), and with some large books ahead of me, I’m not going to get much past 50 this year. My next six months are likely to involve more old science fiction, with a smattering of fiction and nonfiction (my annual Jack Smith book still lies ahead). How was your month, and are you reading what you hoped to be reading?

Next month: That book I started in June (assuming I finish it), and more.


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Reading Log: May 2015


Books acquired: “The Record Store Book,” Mike Spitz and Rebecca Villaneda.

Books read: “Martian Time-Slip,” “The Zap Gun,” “Our Friends From Frolix 8,” Philip K. Dick; “The Stars My Destination,” Alfred Bester.

Greetings, fellow readers. Following my April Reading Log, in which I concentrated solely on Ray Bradbury, May saw me concentrating on another classic SF writer, Philip K. Dick, but with a diversion to a third classic SF writer, Alfred Bester. Who says I don’t mix up my book choices?

Dick is becoming one of my favorite writers, and I can understand those who think he’s one of the 20th century’s greatest. His heroes tend to be conflicted middle-class losers, more like the mechanic who works on the rocket ship than the hero who pilots it. “Martian Time-Slip” is about the failing conquest of a parched Mars, but also about autism; “The Zap Gun” is a spoof of the Cold War involving competing weapons designers; and “Frolix 8” takes place in a society divided between telepaths and geniuses, in which the planet’s savior may be a gelatinous, space-faring 20-ton blob.

These are terrible summaries, but Dick is hard to summarize. His outsized imagination, paranoia and freewheeling plotting are for a cult audience, but I’m proud to be part of it. “Time-Slip” was the best of the three.

Bester’s “The Stars My Destination,” from 1956, is sometimes described as SF’s greatest novel, making it all the more surprising that two SF fans who saw me reading it said they’d never heard of it, or him. Maybe it, and Bester, aren’t as well known as I’d thought. Well, it may not be the greatest, but it’s awfully good, and any novel that takes a William Blake quatrain (“Tiger, tiger, burning bright…”) as its starting point clearly has a lot on its mind. It’s a revenge story, an exciting one, and well-told.

I imagine Richard Pietrasz has read it, and maybe a few more of you. Also, do let us know what you’ve been reading. Balance has to come from somewhere and my choices aren’t providing it.

All four of these books have been in my collection, unread, since the early 1980s; that shrinking number of older books has been my focus in 2015 and will continue to be through year’s end, when I hope to have finally read them all. We can only hope.

Next month: Yet more SF, by more authors.


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