Reading Log: September 2018

Books acquired: “The Annotated ‘Big Sleep’,” Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson and Anthony Rizzuto, editors

Books read: “The Sheep Look Up,” John Brunner; “The Maltese Falcon (Film Classics Library),” Richard J. Anobile; “Cats, Dogs and Other Strangers at My Door,” Jack Smith; “The Perfect Horse,” Elizabeth Letts

It seems it was September, not March, that came in like a lion and went out like a lamb, based on my animalistic titles last month. My reading encompassed a science fiction novel, a collection of newspaper columns, a nonfiction World War II account and a stills-and-dialogue version of a film noir classic, all with a critter in the title.

I’d been wanting to read “The Sheep Look Up” since being struck by its summary in a display at the science fiction museum at Seattle’s Space Needle in 2006, and remembered its unsettling cover from book racks in the 1970s. So that’s the edition I acquired a year or two later (from where, I forget). At 450 pages, it was a little intimidating and I kept putting it off, but I took it with me on my overseas trip and, after reading “The Trial,” read almost half by the time I returned.

This sprawling, character-filled novel (1972) charts environmental ruin (acid rain, unbreathable air, poisoned water, a sun that never emerges) that people manage to ignore even as their quality of life erodes. Experimental, but easy to follow, with black humor and real anger at the fouling of Earth. Brunner’s alarm about pesticides and antibiotics that no longer work hasn’t quite been borne out (yet?), but “Sheep” is still scary and deserves to be more widely read.

“Cats, Dogs and Other Strangers at My Door” (1984) collects some 30 years of columns by the LA Timesman about the cats, dogs and birds that found their way to his and his wife’s Mount Washington home. I love Jack’s writing but had some trepidation about this one, as a non-pet person. As the seventh of his nine books, which I’ve been reading in order, one per year, it was this one’s turn. But no need to fear. His clear writing, sly humor and observations about the foibles of both human and pet alike made this book another semi-forgotten gem.

“The Perfect Horse” (2016) chronicles the little-known tale of the purebred horses rescued at the end of WWII by equine-loving American troops before the Russians could grab them for horsemeat. Some of them were shipped, at least briefly, to Kellogg Ranch in Pomona before being dispersed to auctions in other states. I saw Letts give a talk at Cal Poly earlier this year, bought the book to help me with the resulting column and got it signed. I read the few Pomona pages in writing the column, then put the book aside. I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the time on it, as it’s not really my thing, but thought if I were ever going to read it, it should be this year, and so I inserted it into this animal month.

Well, it was frequently quite good, with Letts playing up the drama and humanity of the men involved. But there may be too many characters, riding camps and breeds for the reader to follow for the narrative’s own good, and the story kind of trails off, as the dramatic rescue in many ways seems to be for naught. Life is often like that. Still, maybe I’d have been just as well off skipping the book after all. (Among the copious works cited in the back is my own Kellogg column from my Pomona A to Z series, although I can’t imagine it was of much help.)

As for “The Maltese Falcon” (1974), it’s one of a series done by Richard Anobile in which he presented portions of old comedies, or even full movies, as frame blowups accompanied by typeset dialogue. I have his “Casablanca” and two Marx Brothers books.

Now that we can enjoy “The Maltese Falcon” in our own home anytime we like — I’ve since watched it again on Blu-ray after finishing the book — this is an antique. But “Falcon” is such a great movie that the chance to linger over its details and chuckle in recognition of favorite moments is not to be dismissed. Also, you might learn something; in my case, despite repeated viewings, it was exactly how Captain Jacoby figured in, which had glided right past me.

I bought “Falcon” at Powell’s Books in Portland in 2016. As mentioned, “Horse” came from Cal Poly in 2018. “Cats, Dogs” and “Sheep” date to the mid-2000s, prior to the Reading Log, from used bookstores, although I’ve forgotten which ones. Smith’s, like my others by him, is signed.

How was your September, readers? Hope you read some good books, and not too many dogs. Let us know in the comments section.

Next month: a favorite author or two.

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Reading Log: August 2018

Books acquired: “The Broken Bubble,” Philip K. Dick

Books read: “The Dream Detective,” Sax Rohmer; “The Feral Detective,” Jonathan Lethem; “The Trial,” Franz Kafka

Pardon the delay, but vacation interfered in bringing you the August Reading Log before now. In fact, I’m typing this Sunday night, Sept. 9!

Needing to read the upcoming Jonathan Lethem novel (from an advance copy) for a future column or two, and with travel plans that would affect my reading time, I hit a sort of crime and punishment theme — but without reading “Crime and Punishment,” which would have taken much of my month.

“The Dream Detective” (1925): A cross between Holmes and Rohmer’s usual exotica, these are not great mysteries, as they’re generally impossible to solve, but they are surprisingly delightful. Moris Klaw is an indelible character, and each subsequent story in which he sprays himself with verbena to cool his brain, or asks his daughter Isis to fetch his “odically sterilized” pillow so he can dream at the crime scene, there is the thrill of the queerly familiar.

“The Feral Detective” (due out Nov. 6): Former journalist Phoebe Siegler travels west from NYC to find a friend, a young woman who’s gone missing and who may be looking for Leonard Cohen at Mt. Baldy. Phoebe hires detective Charles Heist and the two navigate the Inland Empire in their quest, which involves two desert-dwelling factions of lost ’60s types.

Less cerebral than usual for Lethem, this has (gasp) action, not to mention intriguing characters, post-election dislocation and a firm grasp of place. Specifically, Upland, Claremont and Mt. Baldy, and then the desert, not specified but east of Lucerne Valley, it seems. I liked it. How could I not like a novel with scenes set at Claremont’s DoubleTree? Some will find it too commercial, I’m sure. Visual and kinetic enough to make for a semi-popular movie, or an Amazon series, which probably no one said about Lethem’s “Chronic City” or “This Shape We’re In.”

“The Trial” (1925): Who arrested Joseph K. and why? And who is judging him, exactly? Readers looking for concrete answers will be disappointed, but the rest of us will revel at the ambiguity as Joseph faces a charge about which he can get no information. Tragic, yes, but “The Trial” is often so ridiculous as to be very funny. (Max Brod said Kafka used to crack up while reading sections to his friends.)

And how random is it that two of my three reads this month are from 1925? Anyway, two detectives and a trial made for an enjoyable month. I bought the Rohmer book in 2008 at a paperback collectors show and the Kafka in (gulp) 1992 from Santa Rosa’s Copperfield Books. Lethem handed me an advance copy of his in June.

How was your August, readers — presuming you remember?

Next month: animals, feral and not.

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Reading Log: July 2018

Books acquired: none

Books read: “Housekeeping,” Marilynne Robinson; “The Seven Lost Ranchos of Our Inland Valley,” Bob Smith; “As You Like It,” William Shakespeare; “Addicted to Americana,” Charles Phoenix; “Selected Tales and Sketches,” Nathaniel Hawthorne; “The Ganymede Takeover,” Philip K. Dick and Ray Nelson.

Six books read in July, although it may be difficult to tell that immediately from a glance at the photo. I read one play from the giant Shakespeare omnibus, and then there’s that funky book with spiral binding. That’s the one by Bob Smith.

Well, let’s dig in.

“Housekeeping” (1980) is a much-praised novel, a Pulitzer and National Book Award nominee. It’s about two sisters who, after their mother’s suicide, live with their eccentric aunt in a remote town in (probably) Idaho. I expected to like it, having fond memories of the Bill Forsyth movie adaptation. But not much happens, the writing often struck me as overdone and the bulk of it was strangely uninvolving. I’m not comfortable passing a negative judgment on it, so let’s just say it wasn’t to my taste.

“Seven Lost Ranchos” (2018) is a coloring book (!) of local history regarding our very own Inland Valley by history buff and illustrator Bob Smith, author of “Redefining the Inland Valley.” I’m not sure how color-able the art is, or how much the topic might appeal to young people, although it may well help them out in their California studies. For the rest of us, the modicum of text does boil down the local ranchos and adobes into manageable chunks.

“As You Like It” (1599) is one of the lesser plays, a nearly plotless rom-com that I read in college but had zero recollection of. (I found a penciled note to myself in my college-era omnibus that showed I’d read it, but by the end, nothing had jogged my memory.) But it’s enjoyable enough, Rosalind is commendably sharp-tongued and after all this is the unlikely setting for the seven ages of man/”all the world’s a stage” speech — which turns out to be delivered by a doleful sap, evidence that Bill S. didn’t take it seriously.

“Addicted to Americana” (2017) is a kind of personal, guided tour to kitschy Americana sites past and present, led by author Charles Phoenix. He is photographed visiting (and mugging with) most of the still-extant monorails, mock rocket ships, ice cream stands and streamline diners, while also telling fond and funny anecdotes about tracking them down. A must for his fans (I’m one), and of course he gets points for being an Ontario native and local booster. Optional for those who want vintage images only or dispassionate history.

“Selected Tales and Sketches” (compiled 1959) collects work from 1837 to 1850. One of the first great American authors, Hawthorne sought to document its feel and attitudes, especially those of the Puritans, in his fiction and descriptive sketches. If you can accept his allegorical style, a bit alien to our modern idea of fiction, you’ll appreciate his depth. While I’m not displeased to have read this 440-page book in its entirety, it’s more Hawthorne than is strictly necessary. And the editor’s 40-page introduction, while erudite, could have been employed against accused Salem witches as torture.

“The Ganymede Takeover” (1967) begins after a successful invasion of Earth by sentient worms from Ganymede who are in the mopping-up phase. But holding Earth may be more difficult than winning it. Key territory: Tennessee! This is one of PKD’s weaker novels and one of two co-writes of his career. This potboiler nevertheless has its moments: the woman who becomes detached from humanity, the Kingfish-like oaf who may become king of the world, the conquering worm who inherits a collection of airplane models, the sympathetic treatment of race relations. It’s sometimes purposely absurd, and you can imagine Dick and Nelson trying to one-up each other, as in the scene when one of the ruling worms, armless of course, is helped into his “finest red-orange formal sack.”

So, it was kind of a hit or miss month, with no clear standout, but with some enjoyable reads. And some of these books had been hanging around for a while: My battered copy of “Ganymede” may date to the late ’80s, and “Selected Tales” was bought at Berkeley’s Moe’s Books in 1992. Sheesh. They’re among only a handful of books of that vintage still on my shelves unread. “Housekeeping” was bought during Borders’ closeout sale in 2011, Phoenix’s was obtained during a book signing at Graber Olives and Smith traded me his book for one of mine.

Let us know how your July was, readers, and we’ll see you here again in a month. (Due to vacation, the August Reading Log may be delayed until Sept. 10 or so, by which time we may all have forgotten what we read.)

Next month: justice.

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Reading Log: June 2018

Books acquired: “Europe Through the Back Door,” Rick Steves

Books read: “Make Room! Make Room!,” Harry Harrison; “The Door Into Summer,” Robert Heinlein; “Knockin’ on Dylan’s Door,” the editors of Rolling Stone; “The Glass Key,” Dashiell Hammett; “Re-Enter Fu Manchu,” Sax Rohmer

June was a good month: I read five books, in a sequence I had sketched out four or five years ago. (If you read the titles, they almost form a little narrative of their own.) It took me getting to the 12th book in the Fu Manchu series for me to pull it off.

These five books averaged 200 pages, or a bit less, so the retirees among you might have polished them off in five or six days. Oh, to have read them in a week or so, and have had another 15 or 20 books of the same complexion ahead of me! Still, I’m happy to have read these and crossed them off my various lists.

By the way, it didn’t occur to me until putting this post together that even my lone book purchase of June fits the theme. That was unintentional. But funny.

In short: “Make Room!” (1966) is a classic dystopian novel about a miserably overcrowded NYC faced with food and water shortages. It was the basis for the movie “Soylent Green,” but does not have cannibalism as an element. It’s worth reading.

“Door Into Summer” (1957) involves a man in 1970 cryogenically frozen to wake up in the glorious world of 2000, but who also has some unfinished business in the past to resolve via time travel. It’s a little complicated, but enjoyable. The narrator even visits Riverside and Big Bear.

“Dylan’s Door” (1974) is a collection of Rolling Stone reportage about the singer-songwriter’s 1974 tour after eight years off the road. Very inessential, obviously. When this book came out, only a handful of Dylan books existed, and I used to see it in bibliographies and wonder about it. It was fun to finally stumble across a copy and to have read it.

“Glass Key” (1931) is one of Hammett’s five novels, with only “The Thin Man” still to be written. (I’ve read all but “The Dain Curse.”) “Key” is about a political fixer and his pal who is not a detective but who is shrewd enough to figure out a murder plot anyway. Unconventional but very good.

“Re-Enter” (1957) is the 12th of 14 Fu Manchu books. Yet another narrator loses his head over a mysterious woman (this happens in nearly each book), and Fu tries to double-cross the commies to help the U.S. with a kind of missile defense shield. It’s one of the lesser entries in the series.

“Make Room!” and “Glass Key” were the winners this month. As far as their purchase, it looks like all five date to the pre-blog period of the ’00s, when I was buying a lot of books and reading very few. So they’ve been waiting for me patiently.

How was your June, readers? Let us know what you read and what you thought in the comments section. I’ve already finished two books for July, but I also have to pause to study up in advance of a late-August vacation.

Next month: a little housekeeping of a lost rancho.

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Reading Log: May 2018

Books acquired: none

Books read: “The Complete Humorous Sketches and Tales of Mark Twain,” Charles Neider, ed.; “We Can Build You,” Philip K. Dick; “The Baker Street Letters,” Michael Robertson; “The Treasurer’s Report, or Other Aspects of Community Singing,” Robert Benchley

Regards, readers! May was a four-book month for me. (I wonder if there’s a shorthand for that, like: “May was a four-booker.”) These were all books I’d had for a while, and one of them I’d been reading, off and on, for eight years. Yikes!

That would be the Twain “Sketches” collection, all 700-plus pages of it, which a search of past Reading Logs reveals in my “acquired” list from April 2010. (That month was a four-booker too, I see.) I bought the book at Borders, finding the cover and concept appealing, and knowing I’d read a handful of the pieces thanks to an overlap with a couple of Twain short-story collections made me think the book would be a relative breeze. After all, I’d already started it in a sense.

I read a little here, a little there, and as large sections were culled from his travel memoirs, I would halt until I’d read the original text — why spoil the full books? Probably one-fifth of “A Tramp Abroad,” which editor Neider has championed, appears here, and getting to “Tramp” took a few years. Anyway, I finally polished off the last 150 pages in May.

I love Twain, but this was really too much, showing that completism has its drawbacks. Some of the pieces are just too dated or marginal; even Twain had cut a few of them from later reprints of his books. I was relieved to have finished it.

As for “We Can Build You,” the idea of setting an ostensible science fiction novel at an electronic organ factory in Boise, Idaho, is pretty hilarious, and in keeping with PKD’s down to earth, unheroic novels. The factory is creating a robot, a simulacra of (why not?) Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln’s secretary of state. Lincoln himself soon follows. The Lincoln fan in me was surprised and delighted.

But as with PKD’s “Clans of the Alphane Moon,” a promising situation (comedy) is allowed to fall away, in this case to focus on the narrator’s psychotic break due to his obsession with an uncaring woman. I’m not sure another PKD novel goes off the rails quite like this one does. But it’s never dull.

In “The Baker Street Letters,” two brothers whose law office is at 221B Baker Street, London, solve a mystery sparked by a girl’s letter to Sherlock Holmes, who despite being fictional, and more than a century removed from today, is still getting mail from would-be clients daily near the 21st century. It’s a cute premise for a story that has almost nothing to do with Holmes, and which largely takes place in contemporary Los Angeles. It’s an enjoyable trifle and the first in a series.

It’s worth adding, perhaps, that I read “Letters” after a brief attempt to read a sort-of “cozy mystery,” as they’re called, called “Granddad, There’s a Head on the Beach,” set in Thailand. I read the first 30 pages, narrated in too cute a tone — scattered, silly — for my tastes and gave it up. By comparison, “Letters” was straightforward and focused. I don’t know that it’s a great series, but there are a few more, and I might pick up the next one sometime.

Every year I read a Robert Benchley book. This year’s was “The Treasurer’s Report,” whose title essay is a written version of a performance he did as part of a Broadway revue and also memorialized in a short film. It’s cute on the page, but not the highlight of the book, which is above average Benchley. While sometimes the humor or topics have dated, the majority of the essays remain witty and delightfully silly. The next to last one, about trying to puzzle out how little ships are put into bottles, had me laughing aloud, and it wasn’t the only one.

Still, if you haven’t read Benchley, let me suggest “The Benchley Roundup,” a best-of that has most of the prime material — but not all of it, as the ships-in-bottles piece isn’t there. But it’s all the Benchley most people will need.

When and from where did these books enter my life? Twain I already told you. “Build You” is probably from the early 1990s, but its precise origins are lost in the mists of time. “Baker Street” (and the discarded “Granddad”) came from the now-defunct Big Sleep Books, a mystery specialist, in St. Louis in May 2013. As I bought only two books at Big Sleep, both the same day, I have now taken care of that. (Except that, ugh, the majority the nine books I bought that month are still unread.) The Benchley was bought used somewhere in the mid-2000s.

So that’s my May. How was yours, readers? Let us know in the comments.

Next month: doors and rooms.

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Reading Log: April 2018

Books acquired: “After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame,” Lynell George

Books read: “The 20th Century’s Greatest Hits,” Paul Williams; “The Fifties,” David Halberstam; “Land of 1000 Dances: Chicano Rock ‘n’ Roll from Southern California,” David Reyes and Tom Waldman

I spent the end of March and almost all of April on a single book: “The Fifties,” an overview of the decade by journalist David Halberstam. It’s 733 pages, plus notes and an index, hence the long reading time.

Halberstam makes a case for the ’50s being more interesting than they’re given credit for: a decade of consumerism and new suburbs, the expansion of leisure time, the fear of communism, the challenges to conformity (civil rights, the Beats, Kinsey, Elvis and more) and America’s awkward lurch toward superpower status. Because many of the people and events within were vaguely known to me, due to references in other reading or viewing, I found this fascinating, and as the sections tended to be just a few pages they didn’t amount to overkill. Filled with deft character sketches and colorful detail, it was surprisingly readable. But I wish I had a dollar for every time Halberstam describes someone as “shrewd.”

Off and on since March, I read “Land of 1000 Dances,” a history of Chicano rock from the L.A. barrios, starting with 1950s dance bands and continuing through Ritchie Valens, Thee Midniters, Cannibal and the Headhunters, El Chicano, Los Lobos and lesser-known bands and figures, often through original and candid interviews. Pomona gets a bunch of mentions as it was on the Chicano performance circuit that included El Monte, Paramount and East L.A. You’ll need a curiosity about the material and about rock history to read this, but I have those, and I found this rewarding.

“The 20th Century’s Greatest Hits,” which I had on my nightstand for a month or two and also managed to finish in April, is an unusual book in two ways. The high concept — an assortment of movies, music/concerts, art, writing and more are chosen to represent the peak of a century’s culture — seemed like a millennium-ending gimmick, and with idiosyncratic choices: “Two-Lane Blacktop,” “Things We Said Today” by the Beatles, “Old Path White Clouds” by Thich Nhat Hanh. I put off reading it for nearly two decades. But Williams proves to be a good guide, exploring the randomness of not only his picks but of how art comes to be, and not taking it too seriously. He even includes “Ulysses,” which he hadn’t read, to stand in for those great works we always intend to get to, but don’t. Ha ha!

Making my lapse in reading it all the more shameful, I was among the patrons who gave the author $25, I think, to finance its creation. Williams was not only a pioneering rock critic, he was a pioneer of the Kickstarter concept with this and a subsequent book. “20th Century” was then published by a legitimate publisher, but my copy is the signed, bound printout given to patrons.

“The Fifties” (published 1993) was bought at a newsroom book sale, used, for about $1 in 1999; “1000 Dances” (published 1998) was bequeathed to me by a departing newsroom colleague in 1999; Williams’ book was published in 1999. Yes, every book this month fell into my hands in 1999. I should have read these while wearing flannel.

How was your April, readers? We’re all anxious to find out.

Next month: a bit of Benchley, and more.

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