Reading Log: November 2014

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Books acquired: none.

Books read: “Weird Heroes 2,” Byron Preiss, ed.; “The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes,” Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr; “Jungle Tales of Tarzan,” Edgar Rice Burroughs; “The Drums of Fu Manchu,” Sax Rohmer; “Mockingjay,” Suzanne Collins; “The Prisoner of Zenda,” Anthony Hope.

Repeating a theme from October 2012, I read a volume of “Weird Heroes,” then built a month around other heroic literature. As you can see above, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Fu Manchu, Katniss Everdeen and Rudolf Rassendyll are represented.

“Weird Heroes” was a series of 1970s paperbacks with stories by SF and comics writers, and illustrations by comics artists, about heroes in a pulp magazine vein. As with the first, this second book is better in concept than in reality, but it was a noble effort.

“Exploits of Sherlock Holmes” is an oddity, the first (and for many years, the only) authorized Holmes pastiche, dating to the 1950s and penned in part by one of A. Conan Doyle’s sons. Holmes purists seem to turn up their nose at this, and the book has rarely been in print, but to this non-expert, they seem to capture the flavor of the originals.

“Jungle Tales of Tarzan” is the sixth book in the 24-book series; this one is short stories set in the milieu of the first novel, in the period when Tarzan had yet to meet Jane or any other white people and thought of himself as a hairless ape. The stories of his life with the apes have their charms, although much of the potential for “teen Tarzan” stories is unexplored, and the casual racism is a drag.

“Drums of Fu Manchu” is the ninth in the 14-book series — I’m doing better with the one that with Tarzan — and an enjoyable entry, in which the evil mastermind employs a drug that makes his victims, shortly before their death, think they hear drumming. (For the record, the next book is not “The Guitars of Fu Manchu.” Although that would be awesome.)

“Mockingjay” is, of course, the third and final book in the Hunger Games trilogy. I wanted to read it prior to the movie’s release. It’s largely satisfying, but with some problems. Katniss spends a lot of time hurt, drugged and/or depressed. It’s more realistic, I suppose, that the 16-year-old isn’t leading the revolution single-handedly, but this may be mopier than strictly necessary.

Finally, “The Prisoner of Zenda” is the 1894 classic about a lookalike for the new king of Ruritania who is enlisted to impersonate him when he’s kidnapped by the king’s brother. Tremendously exciting, thoroughly delightful and my favorite of the month by far.

Overall this was a fun month of old-fashioned (mostly) pulp fiction. I have one other “Weird Heroes” book and thus this month may be repeated at some point.

These books were acquired anywhere between 30-plus years ago and last month. “Weird” and “Exploits” date to my teen years and (sigh) were never read until now; “Fu,” “Tarzan” and “Zenda” were bought five or so years ago; and “Mockingjay” was purchased in October.

What have you been reading, and have you read any of the ones above? Are you hoping to get to, or wrap up, any books by year’s end?

Next month: Getting to, and wrapping up, a few books by year’s end. 

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Lydia Davis at Scripps

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Short story writer and translator Lydia Davis won a MacArthur fellowship in 2003 and a Man Booker Prize in 2009. She’s considered one of the finest literary writers working today. The resident of New York state spoke Thursday afternoon at Scripps College, in something of a coup for Claremont. (Of course, we expect no less from the Claremont Colleges.) I left work early to attend. Nearly 100 people were in attendance, mostly students with some faculty and a few regular folks like me.

Most of Davis’ stories are quite short, many only a couple of pages, some so minimalist they’re only a sentence or two long. They’re probably unlike anything else you’ll ever read.

She read for 40 minutes, and by my count she read 27 of her stories in that time, all from her latest collection, “Can’t and Won’t,” which has 122 (I think) stories in its 304 pages. Here’s a review from the New York Times.

Her stories are often drily hilarious, and Davis’ deadpan delivery in her reading made them even funnier. A few are written as letters of complaint to various companies. This mode began with a letter she wrote but never sent to a funeral home “objecting to the word ‘cremains,’” she told us. She never mailed it but instead made it a story.

Another letter of complaint was to a frozen peas manufacturer, in which she wondered why its packaging made its peas look less appealing than they actually are rather than the reverse. “That one I did send,” Davis explained. “I got an answer but it wasn’t satisfactory”; the company sent her a coupon for a subsidiary’s peas.

After the reading, I approached Davis for a signature on my copy of Proust’s “Swann’s Way,” which she translated in 2003 for Viking. In a spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit I haven’t read it — I bought it at a Borders during the closeout sale — but now I’ve got extra incentive. I certainly won’t part with it.

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Reading Log: October 2014

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Books acquired: none

Books read: “The Machineries of Joy,” Ray Bradbury; “Chips Off the Old Benchley” and “No Poems, Or Around the World Backwards and Sideways,” Robert Benchley; “The Tomb and Other Tales,” H.P. Lovecraft; “God and Mr. Gomez,” Jack Smith.

Welcome back, bookworms! (“Thank you, Mr. Allen.”) Time to share what we read in October. I’ll start: Five books, all from favorite authors.

I’ve read a book per year by H.P. Lovecraft for four years now, one by Jack Smith per year for three and the same for Robert Benchley for a couple of years, I think. And Ray Bradbury is, of course, one of my absolute favorites, one whose oeuvre I’ve been rereading; it’d been a year or two since I read anything by him.

“Machineries,” from 1964, is where Bradbury started softening, a process that only picked up momentum from here, alas. Still, it’s got some sharp stories amid the gauziness.

I read Benchley’s “Chips,” a posthumous collection of humorous essays that had been published but uncollected, over a few weeks; it was disappointing. Dusting off my Benchley books, I noticed that “No Poems” had a note inside of the 13 essays I hadn’t read in the slightly shorter British edition that I’d had previously. Why hadn’t I gone ahead and read them when I bought the book three or four years ago? No idea, but I went ahead and read them, completing a second Benchley book this month. The extras weren’t so hot, but the book as a whole is much better than “Chips,” with a lot of prime material.

Lovecraft’s “Tomb” had a lot of marginal material too, as it’s plumped out with some teenage stories and later fragments. But the bulk of the collection is in the Lovecraft mode of atmospheric, slightly purple horror.

Lastly, 1974′s “God and Mr. Gomez” by Smith, the late L.A. Times columnist, is his most famous, telling the story of his and his wife’s decision to commission a Baja vacation home from a man named Romulo Gomez, who is quite the character. People love this book, the only one most people know; my guess is that’s because it hangs together as a book better than collections of random or related columns, and because building a getaway in a foreign country appeals to dreamers. I liked it, but didn’t love it.

As for the origins of these books in my life, “Machineries” dates to childhood, “Chips” may go back 20 years and “No Poems,” “The Tomb” and “Gomez” are relatively recent, probably within the past five or six years. I think “Gomez” came from Bookfellows in Glendale (It’s signed, by the way), “The Tomb” from downtown LA’s Last Bookstore in 2011 and “Machineries” from the long-gone Double R Book Nook in Olney, Ill.

So that was my October. I wanted to read a Dave Barry book, or finish another Poe collection, but that’s okay. I kept pace with four authors and that was satisfying. I have more books by each to read and will steadily make my way through them.

What have you been reading?

By the way, the photo below is extra-boring because the Benchleys don’t have dust jackets; that’s “Chips” on the upper left and “No Poems” at upper right.

Next month: another month of weird heroes.

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Reading Log: September 2014

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Books acquired: “Three Early Stories,” J.D. Salinger; “Mockingjay,” Suzanne Collins

Books read: “Dangerous Visions,” Harlan Ellison, ed.; “Mind Fields,” Harlan Ellison and Jack Yerka; “Eye in the Sky,” Philip K. Dick; “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Zora Neale Hurston; “One Fearful Yellow Eye,” John D. MacDonald

Four or five years back, fresh from making a list of the title of every unread book on my shelves, I brainstormed potential theme months where titles played off each other. It was one way of grappling with, or coping with, a frankly overwhelming number of books, around 550 at the time.

Quite a few of those groupings have been used since then, or rendered obsolete as titles have been peeled away, but September brought one of those themes: sight. Some of these books are relatively recent to me, but two have been on my shelves for decades, and reading them was satisfying indeed.

“Dangerous Visions” is the landmark science fiction anthology of all-original stories that were considered envelope-pushing in 1967, generally too literary or adult to be marketable, and hardly a rocketship among them. I bought my copy around 1982 and was too daunted by its 500-plus pages to read it. But now I have, and I’m glad, do you hear? Seriously, it deserves every accolade it’s received, and even in 2014 made for great reading. A handful of the stories didn’t do much for me, but there’s not a clunker in the bunch, and many are brilliant.

“Eye in the Sky” has been on my shelves just as long, and maybe a year or two longer. Dick’s third published novel, I believe, this was the first that read like the Philip K. Dick we know and love, a crazy plot about a group of strangers injured in a science accident who learn that they haven’t really regained consciousness after all but instead are living in realities controlled by each of them in turn. Marvelous and hilarious.

“Their Eyes” is a more recent purchase. Written in 1937, it was among the first novels to star an African-American woman, and she’s quite a creation, strong and independent. This was a strong month.

“Mind Fields,” alas, was disappointing, late-period Ellison in which he wrote stories to accompany Yerka’s already finished paintings. Cute idea, and inventive, but none of the stories would stand alone. Bought this a couple of years ago.

“Yellow Eye” was a good Travis McGee mystery, eighth in the series, and despite a faintly ridiculous plot, it has all the hallmarks, such as McGee’s asides. This time he muses on modern art, credit cards, the Playboy philosophy and Chicago. He’s down on all of them. I read some of the McGees in the early ’80s, but not this one; it’s a relatively recent purchase.

So, five books, of which three were vastly entertaining and a fourth was a fun read. Not a bad month at all. And I’m down to 441 unread books — more than I’d like, but having restricted my book-buying this year, the number is dropping fast.

(A side-note: For anyone familiar with “Dangerous Visions,” I’ll mention that I actually read the trade paperback, 35th anniversary edition for ease of handling — I hated to mess up my nearly mint original pocket paperback — and that sometime next year I intend to get to the sequel, “Again, Dangerous Visions,” which is considerably longer.)

If you read anything in September, or have ever read any of these books, won’t you comment below?

Next month: Some old, annual favorites.

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Column: Books as community glue in Claremont, Pomona and RC

Wednesday’s column is about community reads going on in Claremont (Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451″), Pomona (Luis Alberto Urrea’s “Into the Beautiful North”) and Rancho Cucamonga (Edgar Allan Poe’s “Great Tales and Poems”).

And as the column notes, I’m speaking at Pomona’s library at 2 p.m. Saturday and introducing a film at Claremont’s library at 2 p.m. Oct. 12 (and selling “Pomona A to Z” both places). Try to attend!

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‘Have you read the 200 best American novels?’

To answer the above question: No. No, I haven’t. The list, which can be read here, is from PBS’ News Hour’s Art Beat blog, combines two other lists and covers American novels from 1791 to 1986. Evidently nothing of interest has been published the past 28 years, which is a shame.

I initially thought I’d read 29 but now think my total is really 27, because on second thought I don’t believe I read “Ethan Frome” at all, and may not have finished the college assignment “The House of Mirth.”

I’m tempted to read “Reveries of a Bachelor” (1850) based purely on the title.

This list is about as useful as any other classic books list, i.e., not that much. But if you bookish types would like to take a peep at it and offer your thoughts, or your total, please do. John Clifford will be smug after learning he read one of the 200 just last month.

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Reading Log: August 2014

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Books acquired: none.

Books read: “The Leisure Architecture of Wayne McAllister,” Chris Nichols; “L.A. in the ’30s,” David Gebhard and Harriette von Breton; “On Reading,” Andre Kertesz; “The Bronze Rule,” Mary Sisney; “Shakespeare Wrote for Money,” Nick Hornby; “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “Through the Looking-Glass,” Lewis Carroll; “Gullible’s Travels, Etc.,” Ring Lardner; “The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories,” Ernest Hemingway; “The Chandler Apartments,” Owen Hill; “Urban Tumbleweed,” Harryette Mullen.

Remember when I read 22 very short books in one month (March 2013)? I’d been wanting to repeat the experiment during another staycation but that kept getting delayed, as enticing column topics or commitments kept presenting themselves. Finally, I took off a week in mid-August.

What with one thing or another, such as modest travel that week, and moviegoing, I was unable to knock off a book a day, and in fact became mired in some books for day after day. But I read 11, counting a combo volume of the two “Alice” books as two, and that’s double my usual total. Felt good to get some relatively easy books out of the way too.

In the order presented above, I read two books on vintage L.A. architecture, a book of L.A. poems composed in rambles around town, a mystery involving a Berkeley bookhunter-sleuth, a memoir by a retired Cal Poly Pomona English prof, photos taken over 50 years of people reading in public, more of Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns (the model for these blog posts), the “Alice” books, humorous stories from the 1910s and 1920s, and some random stories by Hemingway.

I won’t discuss all these books but will say I liked them all to one degree or another, and that my favorites were Hornby, Hill, Mullen, the first Carroll (some think “Looking-Glass” is better, but it struck me as markedly inferior, if still of interest) and Lardner. The latter consists of five stories about a lower middle-class couple in NYC with pretensions of social-climbing; the narrator is the husband, whose colloquialisms, misstatements and dry wit are hilarious. Highly recommended.

As for when I acquired these books, the Lardner is the oldest, likely going back 20 or 25 years. And it’s possibly my favorite of the month. The others are all five years old or less, and usually from the last year. I’ll also point out that Mullen’s was only published last year and Sisney’s this year. Shockingly modern. Also, that two of my books were by women named Harriet, only with complex spellings. I guess that was a minor theme this month.

What were you reading in August, and have you happened to read any of mine before? The “Alice” books and “Kilimanjaro” have surely been read by some of you.

Next month: I’ve read a month of “I” titles; here’s a month of “eye” titles.

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Reading Log: July 2014

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Books acquired: none.

Books read: “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time,” Jeff Speck; “The Portable Poe,” Philip Van Doren Stern, ed.; “What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East,” Bernard Lewis; “The Gateway Arch: A Biography,” Tracy Campbell.

A random month of titles, and like last month more nonfiction than is typical for me. I read a book on how pedestrian (and cyclist) life tends to make towns and cities more pleasant and livable, a fat book of Edgar Allan Poe pieces, a scholarly attempt to explain Middle Eastern history and a sociological, political and architectural look at St. Louis.

“Walkable City”: A chatty exploration, published in 2012, of what makes a downtown work: two-way (and narrow) streets, fewer and more expensive parking spaces, senses of scale and place, bicyclists, pedestrians, lively storefronts, places worth walking to, working neighborhoods as opposed to isolated landmarks (LA’s Disney Hall is criticized), trees, transit and, in a small surprise, awnings.

“Portable Poe”: It’s tough to find a uniformly excellent Poe anthology: Either they’re missing a few great stories, or there are too many weak ones, or they don’t include any of his poetry. What decent Poe book wouldn’t have “The Raven”? Many of them. This one, published in 1945 and totaling, ulp, 666 pages, offers a wide-ranging overview of his every writing mode, except maybe we don’t want an overview if that means we have to wade through his dull, dated essays and articles. Useful in its way, with a good selection of stories and poems both, but more Poe than you probably want.

“What Went Wrong?”: I had hoped for a clear, concise summary of centuries of Middle East history, which admittedly is a lot to expect. Published in 2002, “What Went Wrong” was okay, informative if dry, but for this neophyte, Lewis was so scholarly and history-minded, he didn’t really answer the provocative question in the title. What went wrong? (Subsequently I learned that Lewis favored the invasion of Iraq and may not have been the best person for an even-handed history.)

“Gateway Arch”: Deeply researched but very readable exploration of one of America’s most instantly recognizable monuments, which also happens to be a piece of modernist sculpture. Campbell’s book, published in 2013, explores the three-decade effort to remake the St. Louis riverfront (40 square blocks were leveled), the wrongheaded thinking that separated a tourist attraction from downtown, why once-great St. Louis has faltered — and yet why the Arch is still astonishing.

Not counting three books received as gifts, I’ve bought only three books in 2014 and have read two of them, both this month: “Walkable,” bought in Austin, and “Gateway,” bought in St. Louis. (The third, already underway, will be read in August.)

“Poe” came from a vacation last year, where it was bought at Moe’s in Berkeley, and “Wrong” was purchased at the B&N in Rancho Cucamonga back in 2002 or so, when getting to know more about the Middle East was on our minds. I got bogged down in the (very long) introduction, realized this might not be the book for me and set it aside before recently resurrecting it, for good or bad.

I’ve read the Poe intermittently since last fall (there was overlap with other Poe I read in the interim too), started “Walkable” in March before putting it aside for later and began “Wrong” in May, so this was in part a month of wrapping up a few books in progress. How was your month? Is summer proving to be a good season for reading, or a poor one?

 Next month: many slim books.

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Bye-bye, Brand Bookshop

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Brand Bookshop is one of my favorites, both for what it is and where it is. It’s a great used bookstore, open since 1985, with personality and a deep selection of 100,000 books. And it’s located on Brand Boulevard in Glendale, the downtown drag, with shops and restaurants all around and, across the street, the grand 1925 Art Deco Alex Theatre and a second used bookstore, Book Fellows. Best block in SoCal? Well, it’s not, but it’s in the running.

Brand, alas, is closing next month. Owner Jerome Joseph, who’s in his 80s, suffered a fall last year and can no longer run the business, according to a sad story in the Glendale News-Press, and his son, Noriaki Nakano, who’s 66, is ready to retire.

The store, at 231 N. Brand, never really made the transition to the Internet age, and up until a year or two ago still contacted customers (like me) by postcard to announce sales. I only visited once a year or so, but I usually bought something and sometimes sold something.

Joseph was a bookstore owner of the old school. He knew his stock well and had a quick wit and a sharp tongue. He referred to employees, even his son, in gentlemanly fashion as Mr. or Ms.

“Mr. Nakano!” he would call out. “Do we have” — and he would name a title. “We do, Mr. Joseph,” his son might say.

A small touch, but the store sold handmade bookmarks made from laminated foreign postage stamps. I think they sold for $1 from a basket in front of the register; Joseph once gave me one with my purchase. It’s lovely (see picture at bottom) and I still use it.

One that got away: a vintage slipcased set of the then-three “Dune” novels by Frank Herbert was on the paperback SF shelves about three years ago for $15, or maybe $12. I saw it, thought about it, walked away. Ten minutes later, having persuaded myself, I walked back to claim it and it was already gone.

One example of the store’s personality: the copious number of categories. The LA Times says a master list was available at the counter and bore “1,500 highly curated categories,” citing a few: Papacy & Vatican, ESP, General Military Aviation, Sea Adventures, Gold Rush and Shrubbery. The ones I loved were in the sociology area, side by side on the same shelf: Hoboes and Elitism and the Rich (see below).

Passing by on the 101 on June 5, I stopped at Brand for old times’ sake. Books are 50 percent off the marked price. Shelves were starting to empty, although they still had tens of thousands, and to slip into alphabetical disarray.

I didn’t buy anything as I’m on a book diet, but I’m glad to have stopped in to say goodbye to paths I have trod many times: graphic novels to classics to science fiction to mystery to fiction and then through the doorway to the store’s far side: books on books, humor, music and California. In retrospect I wish I’d bought a second bookmark.

Bookfellows (238 N. Brand) is arguably superior, at least for genre reading, and I’ll still visit it on days when the Alex (216 N. Brand) screens a classic I want to see, but I’ll miss having that other store, Brand Bookshop, the third leg of a great cultural triangle.

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Column: ‘Pomona A to Z’ now in convenient book form

Sunday’s column has my first mention in print (i.e., not on my blog) of my upcoming book, “Pomona A to Z,” and details about the launch party this Friday. And there’s an awesome photo.

I had originally figured I would write a whole column about my book, but modesty got the best of me. Instead, the column continues with four Ontario items and five Culture Corner items, as well as a plug for this blog.

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