Reading Log: January 2017

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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.

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Books read, 2016

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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.

  1. “Slogging Toward the Millennium,” Bill McClellan
  2. “The Hour After Westerly,” Robert M. Coates
  3. “Long After Midnight,” Ray Bradbury
  4. “The Day After Tomorrow,” Robert A. Heinlein
  5. “Twelfth Night,” William Shakespeare
  6. “Now Wait for Last Year,” Philip K. Dick
  7. “Early Bird,” Rodney Rothman
  8. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction 30th Anniversary Issue
  9. “Frankenstein,” Mary Shelley
  10. “The Last Man,” Mary Shelley
  11. “The Last of the Best,” Jim Murray
  12. “The Last Laugh,” S.J. Perelman
  13. “The Penultimate Truth,” Philip K. Dick
  14. “Heart Like a Starfish,” Allen Callaci
  15. “Empire,” Lewis DeSoto
  16. “The Autobiography of Mark Twain,” Charles Neider, ed.
  17. “Stalking the Feature Story,” William Ruehlmann
  18. “Forgotten Bookmarks,” Michael Popek
  19. “The Complete Stories,” Flannery O’Connor
  20. “Howards End,” E.M. Forster
  21. “Then We Came to the End,” Joshua Ferris
  22. “Howards End is on the Landing,” Susan Hill
  23. “Sixpence House,” Paul Collins
  24. “Mary Shelley: A Biography,” Muriel Spark
  25. “John Carter of Mars” (No. 11), Edgar Rice Burroughs
  26. “The Divine Invasion,” Philip K. Dick
  27. “Tortilla Flat,” John Steinbeck
  28. “Ask a Mexican!” Gustavo Arellano
  29. “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America,” Gustavo Arellano
  30. “Eat Mexico,” Lesley Tellez
  31. “Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, Vol. 2,” H.P. Lovecraft, et al
  32. “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” Victor and Jacob Maymudes
  33. “Spend All Your Kisses, Mr. Smith,” Jack Smith
  34. “Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan,” Howard Sounes
  35. “Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina,” David Hajdu
  36. “Positively Main Street: An Unorthodox View of Bob Dylan,” Toby Thompson
  37. “Gentlemen of the Road,” Michael Chabon
  38. “The Wishbones,” Tom Perrotta
  39. “The Puppies of Terra,” Thomas M. Disch
  40. “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?

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Reading Log: December 2016

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Books acquired: “How to Find Old Los Angeles,” Kim Cooper with Dick Blackburn

Books read: “The Wishbones,” Tom Perrotta, “The Puppies of Terra,” Thomas M. Disch, “Of All Things!” Robert Benchley

Happy holidays! I read three books in December, enough to get me to 40 for the year, a modest goal that had seemed out of reach for most of the year. Then I stopped. (But I did other bookish things, which I’ll explain.)

December’s reading consisted of a 1997 mainstream novel, a 1966 science fiction novella and a 1921 collection of comic essays.

Fans of “High Fidelity” will especially love “The Wishbones,” another look at a rock fan, in this case an early-30s guitarist in a wedding band who’s having trouble accepting adult responsibilities. Does he really want to marry his high school sweetheart, whom he’s been dating for 15 years off and on, and live in the suburbs? I liked it, and it’s funny, but it lacked some of Nick Hornby’s verve and depth and I suspect will prove easier to forget.

“Mankind Under the Leash” was the original, and better, title of Disch’s “The Puppies of Terra,” in which benevolent invaders have domesticated humans as pets, except for the dingoes who remain wild. Told in the first person by a human pet named White Fang with a mock-David Copperfield tone, this is cute at times, but exceedingly slight. In short, kind of a dog.

“Of All Things!,” Benchley’s first collection, has its moments, starting with the dedication to the inventor of the Bessemer steel converter and continuing through the preface, which merely reproduces the Declaration of Independence, but most of what follows is lesser Benchley, light but rarely outright funny. He hadn’t hit his stride and there’s no use pretending. He did, however, make a crack about the world being divided into two types of people, and I had to wonder if that was already a thing or if he might have invented a line still used today.

I had these books largely wrapped up by mid-month and could have squeezed in another one or two, but instead tackled an overdue project, which was to take a close look at a few books that didn’t seem worth reading cover to cover.

Each got an hour or two of my time. Among them were Pete Townsend’s memoir, “Who I Am”; a fannish Beach Boys essay collection, “Back to the Beach”; and a biography of the band The Replacements, “Trouble Boys.” I like all three acts, but not enough to read 300 to 400 pages about them. One book, “American Silent Film,” looked like it might be of enough interest to read in full, so I put it back. In all, I disposed of 10 books in 11 days.

From there, I started a book that I had wanted to read this fall and now hope to finish in January.

As for where these books came from, “Wishbones” was gifted from a friend who was moving away around 1999, “Puppies” was bought at Patten’s Books in St. Louis in June and “Things!” must have been bought in the ’00s, but I don’t remember the circumstances.

How was your December, readers? If you’re still reading, feel free to come back Jan. 1. I thought I’d get this post out of the way so I can move on to my annual column and blog post on what I read for the year.

Next month: a book I had wanted to read this fall and, I hope, one I’ve meant to read for seven years.

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Reading Log: November 2016

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Books acquired: none

Books read: “Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan,” Howard Sounes; “Positively Fourth 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.

I hit the road in November, reading books with “highway,” “street” (twice) and “road” in the titles. (In real life I didn’t stray far.) Three are biographical studies about Bob Dylan, the much-traveled singer-songwriter, each with titles spun off his songs, while the fourth is a novel.

Let me say from the outset that I’m a major Bob-head who owns all the albums and has read many of the books. I also own a bunch I haven’t read. The Nobel announcement prompted me to read one in October, and that created the momentum that made me want to keep reading. The Sounes bio, published in 2001, has been on my shelves most of that time, and it’s likely the definitive Bob-ography. So if I had an urge, finally, to read it, and others, it was an urge worth pursuing.

It’s light on chin-stroking and guesswork and heavy on facts about his life, including the revelations that he’d married a second time and had a sixth child, and also that he owns a coffeehouse in Santa Monica. Go elsewhere for insights about the music, but come here for a last roundup of childhood friends, Village folkies and ex-lovers. Intriguingly, family members contributed on the sly.

The Hajdu book came out the same year. I went in knowing little about Mimi and Richard Farina, and skeptical they merited equal attention with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, but this thoroughly researched book (with an interview-by-fax with Richard’s pal Thomas Pynchon!) brings the lesser-known Farinas to life. It also scrubs some gloss off the Dylan legend, offering the novel theory that he didn’t really find himself until ’64 and his fourth album.

Circa 1969, Thompson had the novel idea of visiting Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota to interview people who knew him as a boy before he began obscuring his past. The hard information herein could probably be condensed to one chapter, so the book is more about Thompson and his pilgrimage, and the novelty of learning, say, “this is where Bob got hot dogs with the gang.” It’s naive, lame and self-absorbed — and a little embarrassing as he and Dylan’s high school girlfriend get chummy — but kind of fun anyway.

To get another “road” book in, and one that’s not about His Bobness, I read Chabon’s 2007 novel “Gentlemen of the Road,” a modern, literary attempt at a swords-and-sandals-type adventure novel. I’d say it was a way of leavening this month’s Reading Log, but since Chabon’s working title was “Jews With Swords,” maybe unleavening would be more accurate.

Anyway, and to my dismay, the giddiness of the opening chapters faded for me into a story that I was anxious to have end. Sincerely done, but I don’t think it lives up to its pulp influences.

The Chabon book was bought at Borders; the others were purchased used between 2002 and 2010, although I’ve forgotten the details. At least they’re from this century. They also constitute books 34, 35, 36 and 37 of 2016.

If you’ve read any of mine, chime in, but otherwise, share what you read in November.

Next month: books 38, 39 and 40.

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Reading Log: October 2016

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Books acquired: none

Books read: “Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos Volume 2,” H.P. Lovecraft et al; “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” Victor and Jacob Maymudes; “Spend All Your Kisses, Mr. Smith,” Jack Smith.

Happy November, as we transition between scary holidays, Halloween and Election Day. For my monthly book report, I can report three books read: one horror (from 1973), one rock memoir (from 2014) and one newspaper columnist collection (from 1978).

The first is short stories based around Lovecraft’s mythos about elder gods who predate humanity and who may one day awaken from their slumber. Today we would call this a tribute book, because there’s one HPL story and then the rest are by later authors in his style.

The opening trio of linked stories — Robert Bloch’s tribute/send-up of HPL, followed by HPL’s he-has-a-sense-of-humor-after-all rejoinder, and then Bloch’s fond response after HPL’s death — is deservedly classic. It’s a mixed bag from there: I liked Bloch’s other contribution, Brian Lumley’s first (of two) and Colin Wilson’s, didn’t think much of J. Ramsey Campbell’s or James Wade’s. Unnecessary, but not bad for a tribute volume.

The memoir, by Dylan’s road manager of the early years, who rejoined him two decades later until a falling out, is occasionally insightful into Dylan’s life and character and the grind of touring. Based on taped memories, turned into a book after his death and padded out by his son with some extraneous comments, it’s inessential, but better than expected, or feared.

The book by the late L.A. Times columnist is a patch-up of various columns on a personal theme, as his two sons meet women (one from France, the other from Italy), marry and have children, and Smith adjusts. Essentially a book about middle age, it’s light on its feet, a gentle chronicle of life’s little moments, with deft and at times lovely writing, if not especially deep.

One favorite line: “I’ve heard it said that men first begin to realize their youth is over when policemen begin to look like college boys. That’s true. But there’s a much more alarming sign, and that’s when a man’s doctors begin to die.”

I’d give the edge to Smith this month, with the other two being for fans only.  These three bring me to 33 books read this year. All three were acquired in the past decade, although I can’t remember where, other than the Dylan book being a birthday present (last year) and Lovecraft being purchased in 2011.

My last Reading Log promised “a little horror, a little history,” for anyone keeping track, because I had planned to read a California history book on Isaias Hellman and a second Mary Shelley study. The Hellman book was too daunting and after Dylan’s Nobel announcement I thought I’d move up my plan to read “Another Side.”

Doing so rekindled my interest in reading about him, as he’s my favorite musician and I have a dozen unread books about him. I’ll get back to Hellman and Shelley at a later date.

How was your month in reading? I hope it wasn’t frightful.

Next month: more Dylan.

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Reading Log: September 2016

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Books acquired: “Funny in Farsi,” Firoozeh Dumas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winner of the month was “Taco USA.”

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

Next month: a little horror, a little history.

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Odd man out

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

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Reading Log: August 2016

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Books acquired: none

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How was your August, readers?

Next month: I go all Mexican on you.


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Reading Log: July 2016

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Books acquired: none

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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