Reading Log: November 2022

Books acquired: “A Place at the Nayarit,” Natalia Molina; “Waste Tide,” Chen Qiufan; “I Hope This Finds You Well,” Kate Baer; “The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories,” H.P. Lovecraft

Books read: “Allan Quatermain,” H. Rider Haggard; “Don Quixote,” Miguel de Cervantes; “I Hope This Finds You Well,” Kate Baer; “Cymbeline,” “The Two Noble Kinsmen,” William Shakespeare; “This is How You Lose Her,” Junot Diaz

As 2022 races to a close, here’s my penultimate Reading Log for the year. Somehow — I’ll explain how — I managed to finish not only a doorstop, but five books more. Allow me to recap.

“Quatermain” (1887): Yes, the quest for a “great white race” rumored to be in a remote part of Africa is risible, and a stretch in the middle about the customs, art and architecture of the Zu-Vendi people is recommended to insomniacs. But mostly this adventure story — a direct sequel to “King Solomon’s Mines” — trots along, and in telling it Haggard has a lot to say about loyalty, bravery, love, male friendship and aging. This is nonsense at a very high level. It’s the third and final novel in an omnibus bought in 2008 at St. Louis’ Patten’s Books. Mostly I listened to a very well done audiobook with one man adopting many British accents and creating clearly differentiated characters.

“Don Quixote” (1615): Up until this point, I considered “Moby-Dick” the greatest novel I’d read, and maybe it still is. Or is that “Don Quixote”? It’s certainly a lot funnier. A thorough delight: playful, nimble, mocking, thoughtful, metafictional, consistently hilarious. Far better than I’d dreamed. I wrote a column about reading it. I bought the Penguin translation in 2003 at B&N and, nearly two decades later, started it in mid-October 2022 before switching to the Edith Grossman translation, bought in 2011 at Borders during its closing sale. Mostly I liked the physical feel of the Grossman paperback, but it also seemed to take fewer liberties, and I liked that the footnotes were at the bottom of each page rather than at the back as in the Penguin.

“Finds You Well” (2021): Others’ words are on the left hand page, with the erasure poems (using only select words from the text on the left) on the right. Some of the originals are trollish comments or sales pitches directed to Baer. Others are supportive, and still others are misogynistic or hateful quotes taken from newspapers. Some of her erasures are cutting, others were so emotionally powerful they made me gasp or choke up, a few didn’t quite land for me. Overall, brilliant. Bought at San Francisco’s Green Apple Books on vacation earlier in the month after having clipped a positive review.

“Cymbeline” (1610): Said to be Tennyson’s favorite, but most of us will rate this in the middle of the pack. For one thing, the titular king isn’t very interesting, the play is scarcely about him and a surprising number of plot threads are only introduced in Act 3. However, Imogen is one of Shakespeare’s better women characters, and the last scene does a marvelous job of pulling all the strands together. Overall, enjoyable. Checked out from the Pomona Public Library.

“Two Noble Kinsmen” (1614): It’s believed Shakespeare wrote about half of this one, including the first and last acts, and John Fletcher the rest. Better than you might think for being part of the Shakespeare apocrypha; the scene where besties Arcite and Palamon politely help each other on with their armor before their duel has an Alphonse-and-Gaston flair, for instance, and I didn’t see the ending coming. Marginal, but not bad. Included in the copy above from the library.

“Lose Her” (2010): I listened to the audiobook. Its streetwise language and rhythms benefit from Diaz’s reading; he knows a lot about flow and punching up jokes. These linked stories can be funny, can be affecting, can disarm you, but to be honest, they are too earthy and vulgar for my taste. It’s possible that listening to the audiobook version, with Diaz’s voice in my ears, emphasized aspects that would have been easier to glide over on the page. Paperback bought at a 2017 appearance by the author at Scripps College. My copy is signed.

As you can see, of my six, two were plays that took about five days each to read, two were listened to as audiobooks and one was a poetry collection weighing in at 81 pages. As mentioned last month, I got October’s books out of the way early to get a running start on “Don Quixote,” which I wrapped up after 40 (!) straight days of reading. It would have made a month on its own and no one would have begrudged me, not least myself. Nice to knock off five more, though!

What did you read in November, everyone? And have you read, or attempted to read, “Don Quixote”? Let us know in the comments.

Do you have certain books you want to read before 2022 ends, for whatever reason? There are two or three dozen books I’d have liked to have gotten to this year, and in some cases I would never have guessed I wouldn’t get to them — while being surprised at some I did get to. I may end up with another six-book month in December and as for the thrust of what I want to accomplish, you’ll find that below.

Next month: The last three Shakespeare plays (I hope!) that I haven’t read.

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Reading Log: October 2022

Books acquired: “When Teddy Came to Riverside,” Glenn Wenzel; “Through the Doors of  the Mission Inn, Vols. 1 and 2,” Joan C. Hall

Books read: “Winner of the Slow Bicycle Race,” Paul Krassner; “M Train,” Patti Smith; “Walking L.A.,” Erin Mahoney Harris; “The Fabulous Riverboat,” Philip Jose Farmer

We’re in the home stretch of 2022, with only two months left (you heard it here first). For any books we want to finish this year, we’d better get cracking. October was, as promised, a month of books that would seem to involve traveling slowly: bicycle, train, riverboat and on foot. That’s not necessarily what they were really about, but I liked the modes of travel involved and thought I’d make a month of them.

What I did not read this month is possibly more interesting than what I did read. But I’ll come back to that. First, what I read.

“Bicycle” (1997): Has a range of material from throughout the countercultural writer’s career going back to 1958. Sometimes great, more often dated, as you’d expect from satire. I bought the book at a 2012 college appearance by Krassner, who signed it: “To David, Thanks for ghost-writing this book…” It’s a keeper for that alone. (Bought at the Claremont McKenna Athenaeum.)

“Train” (2015): An undercurrent of grief and loss runs through these diary-like excerpts of Smith’s life: travels to Japan, Berlin, Iceland and Tunisia, endless cups of coffee at her favorite cafe, the purchase on a whim of a forlorn house on Rockaway Beach. Because she’s Patti Smith, she can’t help being arty and pretentious (you’ll lose patience with her at various points), but she winningly shares her unexpected obsession with TV detective shows. (Bought at her Live Talks LA appearance at the Orpheum Theatre.)

“Walking” (2008): After completing the last walk of 38, I can say I’ve finished this book! It only took me 11 years to get around to them all. Since supplanted by an updated 2020 edition, with some new walks or revamped routes. (Bought somewhere, possibly the Hammer Museum gift shop, in 2011.)

“Riverboat” (1971): Not so fabulous, this follows “To Your Scattered Bodies Go,” which I found mildly interesting — coincidentally, I read it one year ago this month — but I’m not going to continue with this series. I like the concept, in which everyone who’s ever lived on Earth is resurrected along an enormous river, but the overarching plot involving the aliens who built Riverworld, and one dissident member seeking to help a dozen notable revived Earthlings, isn’t compelling to me. This wasn’t satisfying as an individual novel. Farmer’s inclusion of a historically accurate Sam Clemens was the only thing that kept me reading. It’s telling that I read it from my nightstand, about five pages per night, without picking up the pace toward the climax; in fact, I put it down four pages from the end, then finished it the next day. (Bought at Anaheim’s former Book Baron in 2007.)

“Walking” was the most useful, as I toted it around the L.A. area for 11 years. That and “Secret Stairs” got me through the pandemic; while I’d bought both books in 2011, I’d only done about one-third of each when the world shut down. From 2020 on, I did all the rest, finishing “Stairs” in 2021, then (slowly) turning my attention back to “Walking.”

“M Train” is the best of the lot as far as a good read, although I’m not really part of the Patti cult and can’t fully recommend it. In other words, don’t bother with any of my books this month — sigh.

More generally about this month, it was a successful attempt to finish some older books that required minimal time on my part, allowing me to spend much of the month reading something longer. “Train” was mostly listened to as a borrowed audiobook, “Bicycle” was read off my nightstand and finished a couple of days into October, “Riverboat” took its place and “Walking” only required my doing the two last walks.

Thus, a week into October, I started “The Portable Crane,” as in Stephen, starting with the usual pretentious editor’s introduction, and suddenly I lost all interest in reading the next 550 pages. Much of the contents (various short stories, “The Red Badge of Courage”) I had read in college or subsequently, and I decided I didn’t need to read them again, at least not now. I did reread “A Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” then put this book, unexpectedly, in the sell box.

What now? Well, the other long book I’d hoped to read in 2022 was “Don Quixote,” and I dove into it. It’s fantastic. As November starts, I’m halfway through its 940 pages. Either I will finish it in November or I’ll set it aside at mid-month, read something else and then finish in December. But I’m on my way.

How was your October, readers? What have you been up to? Let us know in the comments, please.

Next month: “Don Quixote” (maybe).

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Reading Log: September 2022

Books acquired: “A Kiss Across the Ocean,” Richard T. Rodriguez; “Through the Doors of the Mission Inn, Vols. 1 and 2,” Joan Hall; “When Teddy Came to Riverside,” Glenn Wenzel

Books read: “A World of Its Own: Race, Labor and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970,” Matt Garcia; “Natural Consequences: Intimate Essays for a Planet in Peril,” Char Miller; “The Joy Luck Club,” Amy Tan; “Henry VI Part 1, Part 2, Part 3,” William Shakespeare

Fall to, readers! Time to account for how we spent the final days of summer and the first days of autumn, at least from a book-ish standpoint.

I managed to finish six, thanks to extending the month an extra four days and delaying the Reading Log. An explanation awaits. To summarize the above titles, my month-plus involved a nonfiction book about the Inland Empire and San Gabriel Valley, a second nonfiction book on the environment that has a focus on Claremont, a popular modern novel and three plays about the 15th century.

“A World of Its Own” (2001): Garcia focuses on a few cities in LA’s eastern hinterlands to explore the Mexican American experience via the citrus industry, dance halls, a white-owned dinner theater with Latino performers and fumbling attempts by whites at intercultural understanding. Lots of valuable information, although the writing can be academic at times. (A gift in 2006 of the late Cande Mendoza.)

“Natural Consequences” (2022): A slim collection of 40 short essays about California wildfires, forests, drought and public lands by an environmental historian and gifted writer. A section at the end uses Claremont, the author’s home and mine, as a microcosm, touching on development in a fire zone, the delights of a city center with bakeries and coffee spots, and old contractor stamps on sidewalks. (Advance copy from the publisher.)

“Joy Luck Club” (1989): Highly enjoyable novel made up of a series of stories centered on women and their mothers and mothers and their daughters. Or did you know that already? (Free copy from the Rancho Cucamonga Public LIbrary’s Big Read in, uh, 2016. Is it too late for me to participate? But basically I listened to an audiobook version.)

“Henry VI Part 1” (circa 1590): A decent if awkward start to Shakespeare’s run of history plays. The portrayal of Joan of Arc as a tart who was in league with demons is certainly, er, different. Best, cruelest line, spoken in disdain above the corpse of a noble slain on the battlefield: “Him that thou magnifi’st with all these titles/Stinking and fly-blown lies here at our feet.” (This and next two are from my 1984 Riverside Shakespeare anthology bought as a college textbook, although I borrowed these more portable volumes from the Pomona Public Library.)

“Henry VI Part 2” (circa 1591): Reads more like the Shakespeare we know compared to Part 1. And, as I near the end of the Bard’s canon, it was a pleasure to finally encounter the famous line “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers!” The context is that it’s spoken by an anti-intellectual idiot during a half-baked insurrection. Who says Shakespeare has nothing to tell us anymore?

“Henry VI Part 3” (circa 1592): Kings are captured, kings escape; partisans switch sides; Edward throws over his fiancee; various people are stabbed. The passive Henry can barely rouse himself to defend his crown, leaving that to his son and wife, both strong characters, and friends who might wonder why they are bothering, because Henry just isn’t that into them. As our young people say, it’s a lot.

The “Henry VI” trilogy of plays are not in the first (or second) rank of Shakespeare, but they’re an interesting extended effort and his first history plays, recounting the War of the Roses. They continue into a fourth play, “Richard III,” which is better, and which I read a few years back. Anyway, I extended my reading month just to read “Part 3,” which I started Sept. 30 and wrapped up Oct. 4.

“World” had a lot of interest for me and I really should’ve read it years ago. It’s obviously for the local-history-minded. “Joy Luck” is of course a modern classic and a rare novel where the characters are almost all female.

What did you all read in September? Rake them all together like fallen leaves and tell us about them, please.

Next month: Traveling slowly.

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Reading Log: August 2022

Books acquired: “Intimacies,” Katie Kitamura; “Bibliophile,” Jane Mount; “Natural Consequences,” Char Miller; “Breakfast in the Ruins,” Michael Moorcock; “Slowly Down the Ganges,” Eric Newby; “A Song for a New Day,” Sarah Pinsker; “Killer, Come Back to Me,” Ray Bradbury; “My Name is Lucy Barton,” Elizabeth Strout; “Vintage Munro,” Alice Munro

Books read: “Star Light, Star Bright,” Alfred Bester; “Tender is the Night,” F. Scott Fitzgerald; “Intimacies,” Katie Kitamura; “Voices From the Street,” Philip K. Dick; “When the Sleeper Wakes,” H.G. Wells; “The Long Tomorrow,” Leigh Brackett

September begins the final third of 2022. But in the Reading Log we’re looking back at August, the end of the middle third. I read six books, all fiction, with the titles forming a sort of story from nighttime to wakefulness, at least to my mind. Silly, sure, but this approach got me through some of my oldest unread books, so it worked. Let me run ’em down.

“Star Light” (1978): The second of two British editions of Bester’s 1950s short SF, each story has a witty, confident intro by the author. One story and two nonfiction pieces were new to me; one of the latter is a stylish 25-page biographical sketch about his writing career. (Bought at Powell’s Books in 2019.)

“Tender” (1934): Starts slow, and you wonder what it’s about and why you should care. Having brought the novel with me on a trip, I stuck with it rather than giving up as I might have done at home, and gradually came to like and then love it. (Bought at Borders, RIP, in 2008 from a sale table at half price, only to have the book hang around unread for the next 14 years, which wasn’t much of a bargain.)

“Intimacies” (2021): A translator whose role is to remain neutral finds herself in a series of ambiguous encounters that she has trouble parsing. She begins to wonder if neutrality is for her. I found the narrator’s vague unease and discomfort, and Kitamura’s run-on but clear style, both compelling. I read this in three days, very fast by my standards, and that should count for something. (Bought this in August at Book Culture in New York City.)

“Sleeper” (1899): Great title and concept, in which a man who sleeps for 203 years, then suddenly awakens, is venerated as the hope of mankind. This has its moments, but they’re interspersed between very dull exposition about this future society. A few racist comments are a downer too. Also, Wells wasn’t much for romance in his novels: The most emotional moment is when the Sleeper and his love interest, throbbing with emotion, “clasped hands.” (Bought at Glendale’s Brand Books, RIP, in 2005.)

“Voices” (2007): One of PKD’s early mainstream novels that weren’t published in his lifetime and which if they had might have changed his trajectory away from science fiction, for which we’d be the poorer. Ah well. “Voices” has some of his later hallmarks, is rarely dull (but also rarely exciting) and offers a glimpse of life in the Bay Area of the early 1950s. The main character’s psychotic break is well-realized and disturbing. Misses PKD’s humor and imagination, though. (Bought at Berkeley’s Moe’s Books as a remainder in 2013.)

“Tomorrow” (1955): After cities are destroyed by a devastating nuclear war, America essentially turns Amish, because the anti-technologists the only ones who know how to survive without modern comforts. A boy who’s unsatisfied with that life goes off in search of the Camelot he’s heard about. Once he finds it, he’s not sure he likes it any better. Thoughtful and unexpected. (Bought at Anaheim’s Book Baron, RIP, in 2007.)

Overall, a pretty good month, with “Intimacies” one of my 2022 favorites and “Tender is the Night” and “The Long Tomorrow” both standouts as well.

With two-thirds of the year passed, I’m at 55 books, for me a blistering pace. I may slow down to read a couple of long ones, but I’d say 70 is an achievable goal, possibly 75, and either would be my second-highest total since I’ve been keeping track (my high is 82).

As always there are a few dozen books I wish I could get out of the way before the calendar gets replaced: titles that have lingered on my shelves since the ’00s, the rest of Shakespeare’s plays, gifts from friends, books I have been seriously intending to read for a half-dozen years or more and which almost certainly will be crowded out until next year (or, in some cases, later). Ah, me. But I’ll get to a few choice ones before New Year’s. (If you’re wondering, my total unread book count is down to 113, unimaginable a few years ago.)

My “books acquired” section is on the long side: nine. That’s made up of one book from New York, one from a store in Orange where I have trade credit, one from a Little Free Library, one advance copy of a soon-to-be-published book that I will be reading for work and five from Powell’s in Portland (two stores). Under the circumstances, I like to think I showed admirable restraint, given that I visited six stores. I even walked out of NYC’s The Strand and The Mysterious Bookshop without any purchases.

How was your August — besides hot, I mean — and do you have any reading goals for the last part of this year?

Next month: The natural consequences of a world of its own.

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Reading Log: July 2022

Books acquired: “Without Apology,” Jenny Brown

Books read: “Without Apology,” Jenny Brown; “The Portable Conrad,” Joseph Conrad; “Steve Gerber: Conversations,” Jason Sacks, editor; “Explore Riverside Together,” Lorna Jenkins; “Titus Andronicus,” William Shakespeare; “Kim,” Rudyard Kipling

Wasn’t I just here writing a Reading Log? July must have been a short month. It feels like it went by like that [snaps fingers]. Just kidding: Due to technical problems, June’s Reading Log was posted on June 24, and here is July’s already, knocked out early due to vacation.

Let’s get to it.

“Without Apology” (2019): A very readable look at the history of abortion (did you know it was legal in the U.S. until 1873? I didn’t) and an argument that we should aim high, demanding maximum freedom for reproductive rights, not engage in apologetic, euphemistic talk about “choice.” Stirring and enlightening. (Bought this month via Amazon after passing up a copy on display in St. Louis and regretting it.)

“Portable Conrad” (1969): I liked Conrad after reading “Heart of Darkness,” “The Secret Agent” and “Under Western Skies” in a college class but hadn’t pursued him further in all the years since. This 750-page anthology fleshes him out further via a selection of stories; a short novel, “Typhoon”; and a long novel, “Narcissus” (plus “Heart”). The 50-page intro is a bit much (I read it on Super Bowl Sunday 2021 and set the book down for more than a year), and I could have done without the letters at the close. But this survey made for compelling reading and deepened my appreciation of his work. (Bought in 2004 from Glendale’s Brand Books, RIP.)

“Steve Gerber: Conversations” (2019): Gerber remains my favorite comics writer (Marvel’s Howard the Duck, The Defenders, and other off-kilter efforts), so my interest is obvious and unabashed. That such a book exists — a compendium of interviews with a second-tier comic book writer (and first-rate talent) — is nothing short of miraculous. So was my spotting the book at a comic shop. I didn’t know of the book and have not seen a copy or heard of it since; score one for the serendipity of brick and mortar shops. The interviews can be repetitive, and it’s too bad there weren’t more (if they exist) from his 1970s heyday. But his wit, intelligence and prickliness jump off the page. Tragically, my own Comics Buyer’s Guide phone interview with Gerber from 1988 either didn’t make the cut or is lost to history. (Bought in 2019 from Portland’s Floating World Comics.)

“Explore Riverside Together” (2020): An A to Z (well, A to W) capsule guide to places around Riverside, California’s 11th largest city and the largest in the Inland Empire. Lots I didn’t know, but now I do. If I don’t, at least I have an alphabetized reference book to remind me. (Gift of the author in 2021.)

“Titus Andronicus” (1594): Shakespeare’s first attempt at a tragedy (possibly written in collaboration, some scholars say) is energetic and bloody. I can imagine Tarantino filming it. Or Monty Python. Let’s just say that the lopping off of limbs is a theme and the effect teeters between horror and gross-out comedy. Stage direction (Act 3, Scene 1): “Enter a messenger with two heads and a hand.” (Part of my 1985-bought “The Riverside Shakespeare” omnibus but read via a Pomona Public Library borrow.)

“Kim” (1901): Kim O’Hara is a wonderful shape-shifter, donning disguises, adopting accents, transcending all he encounters, bridging two worlds, and several of the supporting characters, esp. Hurree Babu, are great fun. India is rendered lovingly. But rarely did I find myself caught up by the story, and some of the Orientalism is embarrassing to read, as is how, in Kipling’s world, colonialism is a given. (Bought in 2011 at the Borders closeout sale.)

Conrad and “Without Apology” were my favorites this month; obviously I can’t recommend the Gerber book to the masses, but I liked it too.

What did you read in July, everyone? Share in the comments section, please. And aside from the comments, I’ll see you in a month. A full one.

Next month: Nighttime is the right time.

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Reading Log: June 2022

Books acquired: “The Enthusiast,” Charlie Haas

Books read: “The Silent Invaders,” Robert Silverberg; “Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Buster Keaton,” John Bengtson; “Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews,” Sam Weller; “The Caves of Steel,” Isaac Asimov; “Exhalation,” Ted Chiang; “Earth Abides,” George R. Stewart; “Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways,” Evelyn McDonnell

June’s books all have titles involving silence, quietude or sound. This takes on a different resonance (so to speak) after three-plus weeks of silence here on the ol’ blog. Technical difficulties. I was unable to get into the blog to post anything. All I got were error messages. That’s resolved, at least for now.

Let me write a somewhat hasty version of this monthly post. I actually had to go back to May’s Reading Log, posted May 31, or almost two months ago, to remind myself of where the bold type goes.

Silent Invaders (1963): A spy from one warring alien race pretends to switch sides to the enemy, before realizing he’s been blinded by his world’s propaganda and that he really IS on the wrong side. But can he turn traitor? A fun romp, probably bashed out quickly, but there’s no shame in that. (Bought this used in 2016 at St. Louis’ Patten Books, RIP.)

Silent Echoes (2000): The first of Bengtson’s remarkable books in which he identifies precise locations in a silent film comic’s work based on background details, finds historic photos or maps to make his case, and visits the sites today. A surprising number are still around today, or at least as of 2000. A neat way to link Hollywood’s reel and real history. (Bought this in 2008 at LA’s Hammer Museum gift shop.)

Listen to the Echoes (2010): Bradbury answers questions on his life and on cultural matters. These late-in-life interviews in his 80s are better than expected (and not so different from the unpublished 1976 interview included as an appendix). A tolerance for RB’s trademark enthusiasm is required. It’s a nice read for fans like myself, even if I wish Weller had challenged him more on such topics as politics, technology or the limits of nostalgia. (Bought this after the Bradbury/Weller talk in Pomona in 2010, which was among Ray’s last appearances, if not his last,. Both men signed my copy.)

Caves (1954): A well realized vision of the future and a successful try at a genre within a genre, a murder mystery in an SF setting. And the detective grows and changes over the course of the novel. Downsides: Dense wads of exposition, and the Biblical history lesson delivered by the detective to his wife about her name, Jezebel, is absurd. (Bought in 2008 from Ventura’s Ralph’s Comics Corner but listened to the audiobook.)

Exhalation (2019): Deeply thoughtful stories, many involving technology and what seem like credible advances, such as personal, 24/7 body-worn cameras, and what they might mean to individuals. “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” about a limited form of time travel, may be the most human story of the lot. Overall, exceedingly well crafted, although I would prefer more drama and tension. (Bought in 2021 at B&N, Montclair, with a birthday gift card.)

Earth Abides (1949): An airborne disease wipes out all of humanity other than isolated individuals. Stewart plays this not for drama or conflict. He’s more interested in how the remnants of civilization (waterworks, electricity, roads) slowly erode, how nature reclaims the world and what skills one thinker might best pass on to those who follow. A beautiful novel, written in 1949 and more timely than ever. (A friend gifted me his copy in 2010; in June, finally getting to it, I was 100 pages in when someone walked off with my copy ((!)). Tsk, tsk. Civilization really IS eroding. So I bought a fresh copy at B&N Montclair, days before vacation, and picked up where I left off.)

Queens of Noise (2013): Going into this, I knew next to nothing about the Runaways, the 1970s rock band that included Joan Jett and the song “Cherry Bomb.” But McDonnell made me care. A loving testament to a minor but influential all-girl band, one whose power has only grown in the decades since their breakup. (Was given this for my birthday this year.)

These books were all good, with “Earth Abides” and “Exhalation” my two favorites. Both are a little slow (some visigoths on Goodreads find “Abides” very boring), but we are not slaves to sensation here on the Reading Log, are we? (Er, are we?)

What did you read during June? Do you even remember? Well, piece it together as best you can in the comments section. History demands it.

Next month: …is right around the corner.

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Reading Log: May 2022

Books acquired: none (whew)

Books read: “Orange County, A History and Celebration,” Steve Emmons; “Manhood for Amateurs,” Michael Chabon; “The Disappointment Artist,” Jonathan Franzen; “Mojave Project Reader Vol. 1,” Kim Stringfellow; “Mecca,” Susan Straight; “Madame Bovary,” Gustave Flaubert; “King John,” William Shakespeare

I wrapped up my May reading early (more on that anon), allowing me to get this written and posted expeditiously for a change. I read seven books in May, four nonfiction, three fiction. Here’s the rundown.

“Orange County” (1988): A decent overview of the county, with lots of photos, put together by the L.A. Times. There is far more text than might be obvious, making this book kind of a slog, frankly. Devoting the first, dense chapter to “prehistoric Orange County” (archaeological sites, etc.) was almost enough to make me give up.

“Manhood” (2009): Warm, charming essays about fatherhood, childhood, geek masculinity and the need for a man version of a purse (knapsack, briefcase, messenger bag, etc.). Two days after finishing I was already forgetting a lot of it, but they were enjoyable in the moment. I listened to the audiobook, read by the author, while referring at times to my paperback.

“Disappointment” (2006): After the above, I was in the mood to transition to a similar book, but in a very different, more astringent key. In Franzen’s unsparing essays on his childhood and young adulthood, as well as his adult fixation on birding, he explores his own self-consciousness, pettiness and unsympathetic behavior in witty, self-lacerating prose. In the audio version, his sardonic narration is its own kind of perfection. I can see why some might hate this book, but I thought it was great.

“Mojave” (2021): This is the first of (so far) four books (journals?) collecting essays with photos, usually by Stringfellow, about aspects of desert existence, as found on her site, sometimes with audio or video. She visits a gem and mineral show in Trona, watches racers on El Mirage Dry Lake and checks out a ring of creosote bushes that may be 12,000 years old. The contents span Amargosa to Zzyzx.

“Mecca” (2022): This novel spans Greater Los Angeles, with portions set in Venice and Los Feliz, but it’s largely a story of people navigating race, class and language in the Inland Empire. As a resident, it’s strangely thrilling to find Riverside, San Bernardino and the Coachella Valley as settings. And it’s a reminder to non-residents that locales that aren’t trendy and are composed largely of people of color can make for good fiction too. I will say that there were too many characters to comfortably track as the disparate threads began to interweave, at least over a 10-day read. But I enjoyed the ride.

“Madame Bovary” (1857): Imagine, women can be complex characters with needs and desires who can be dissatisfied by life and limited by the options available to them! This must have been a revelation in 1857. (For too many it would be a revelation here in 2022.) Is this the first modern novel? Possibly. It was also a page-turner.

“King John” (1595?): Nearly everyone has feet of clay, not least the king who wasn’t in the line of succession and flails about trying to legitimize himself and fend off his legion of enemies. One of the lesser-known plays, this is morally ambiguous and politically astute, even if sorting out the characters, allegiances and claimants to the throne was sometimes beyond me.

“Orange County” aside, these were all worthwhile, with “Madame Bovary” the obvious winner. I felt I came to it late: One friend told me he read it in college, another said she read it in high school. Did I say friends? I meant former friends.

The Shakespeare was in my unwieldy college anthology from 1985 (but I checked out a portable version from the Pomona Public Library). The Flaubert was bought in 2003 from B&N. (To think that a few months ago I considered culling it, wondering if I’d ever read it. Tsk, tsk.) The Chabon was bought in 2011 in the Borders closing sale, eyes on the discounted price. (Had I known I wouldn’t read it for 11 years, I might have thought twice.) Franzen is from 2019 from Powell’s; Emmons from Yucca Valley’s Sagebrush Press in 2021; Stringfellow from Yucca Valley’s Acme 5 Lifestyle in 2022; and Straight from her UCR Arts talk in 2022 (and signed!).

I read “King John” late in the month and was going to squeeze in a second play by the Bard before the 31st, before deciding to go easier on myself. Did I need to read eight books this month? Why not use the last week to read ahead from a longer book?

So I picked up “The Portable Conrad.” I’d read the introduction, all 50 pages of it, on Super Bowl Sunday 2021, gulp, and never went back to the book. At 750 pages, it was a bit daunting, and not a book I’d be likely to read in one month. Resuming it during this freed-up week, I surprised myself by reading almost to page 300 in the course of five days. Good ol’ Joe Conrad. Look for this in my July (?) Reading Log. A theme month is coming in June.

How was your May in reading? You had 31 days, if you chose to use them. (Maybe you read ahead too.) Share what you read in the comments, please.

Next month: Quiet, please.

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Reading Log: April 2022

Books acquired: “Mecca,” Susan Straight

Books read: “Try to Get Lost: Essays on Travel and Place,” Joan Frank; “King Solomon’s Mines,” H. Rider Haggard; “Bob Dylan: Performing Artist Vol. 3, 1986-1990,” Paul Williams; “Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories,” H.P. Lovecraft; “Wildsam Field Guide: Joshua Tree,” Rachel Worby; “Radio Free Albemuth,” Philip K. Dick; “Lyrics 1962-2001,” Bob Dylan; “Henry V,” “Troilus and Cressida,” William Shakespeare

We’re one-fourth of the way through 2022. Well, I am, at any rate; don’t mean to speak to anyone else. If you’re still working on 2020, I won’t judge. My April reading amounted to nine books: four nonfiction, three fiction, two plays. I’ll run ’em down for you.

“Try to Get Lost” (2020): The subway cover pulled me in, as did the title, which seemed to promise that the author would urge us to ramble and explore. Instead, these essays were almost anti-travel, if they were about travel at all, and they tended toward gloom. Somewhat enjoyable regardless, but the overall impression is sourness.

“King Solomon’s Mines” (1885): Allan Quatermain is 55 and admits to being a bit of a coward, although he’s in the thick of the action as he and two compatriots, joined by a third, cross a desert in search of the fabled diamond mines of King Solomon and get embroiled in a civil war. Yes, the colonialism and indiscriminate hunting make this a sometimes-uncomfortable read, but overall it’s straightforward, thrilling entertainment, full of charming displays of stiff-upper-lip British reserve in the face of danger.

“Performing Artist Vol. 3” (2004): A deep dive into a somewhat fallow period, when Dylan decided to devote himself to the road and 100-150 concerts a year. Williams gets lost in the weeds analyzing tour swings and even individual concerts and setlists, and his enthusiasm can be embarrassing. His first Dylan book covered 13 mostly prime years in fewer pages. But for fans, this has some value; the observations are frequently insightful and this is still a little-explored phase of Dylan’s career.

“Joshua Tree” (2021): An orientation to and appreciation of the desert, with useful tips and history. While designed to be toted, this is less of a practical book of answers than one worth reading at leisure and in full.

“Albemuth” (1985): PKD was coming to grips with his recent visionary experience and figuring out how to transmute it into fiction. A first crack at what became “Valis,” and published after his death, this beats a lot of “found among his papers” novels, and it’s better than about half of his real books. As for Ferris Fremont, a proto-fascist American president modeled on Nixon and whom the Soviets refuse to criticize because he’s covertly working for them: boy.

“Witch House” (2004): One of three Penguin volumes collecting virtually everything by HPL, and fetishistically annotated, this concentrates on his dreamy, sometimes Dunsanian tales. Like its counterparts, this gets the job done. It also means taking the so-so or “interesting” with the good.

“Lyrics 1962-2001” (2004): All the lyrics from “Bob Dylan” through “Love and Theft,” including to songs left off the albums but later released. Can’t be relied upon, as lyrics here and there were revised after the fact and others rely on drafts that don’t match the recordings. Alternately poetic, witty, inspiring and gnomic, his verses are best heard, not read. Quite a body of work, though, with expressions that have entered the vernacular. Someone ought to give him a Nobel.

“Henry V” (1599): Nationalistic and with little nuance, this isn’t the Bard at his best. But it’s got some stirring speeches and a few lines that have passed into everyday use: “once more unto the breach, dear friends” and “band of brothers.” If only Bill got a royalty every time someone used that phrase.

“Troilus and Cressida” (1602): The fabled Trojan War is taken down a peg as Shakespeare kicks a little dirt on everyone involved and mocks Helen of Troy as a cheap flirt. A few too many characters, without much of a center, and to be honest I couldn’t keep the two sides straight. Yet it’s one of the Bard’s more unusual efforts, and I appreciate its cynicism toward love, war and everything else.

This was a month of three-star books, with “Performing Artist” and “Get Lost” coming in at two stars. In other words, some good reading, but nothing outstanding. “King Solomon’s Mines” was the best of the lot, with “Radio Free Albemuth” in second.

About the “Lyrics” book, an explanation may be in order. While reading Paul Williams’ two previous Dylan studies, one in the early 1990s, the other a couple of years ago, I listened again to all the albums while following along with the lyrics. This got me through everything in Dylan’s first lyrics book, “Writings and Drawings,” which ended in 1973, and then most of this one. This third and, sadly, final Williams book then got me through the rest of the lyrics. I had not considered the lyrics book as one that was unread or needed to be read, but once I got to the last page, I thought, well, why not include it? I read the whole thing. It just took me almost 30 years.

The two Shakespeare plays are in my omnibus bought in 1984, but for ease of reading/carrying I checked out individual books from the Pomona Public Library; the PKD was bought in 2002 at Pasadena’s Book Alley and constitutes the oldest unread book on my shelves; the Williams was bought in 2004 from the author and the lyrics book the same year from Borders; the Haggard is from St. Louis’ Patten Books in 2008; the Frank was bought in 2020 from Phoenix’s Changing Hands (on my last vacation before everything shut down); the HPL was bought this year from LA’s Last Bookstore; and the Joshua Tree book was purchased in March from Acme 5 Lifestyle in Yucca Valley. Is that 38 years of books? It might be.

Oh, and as you’ve noticed, my Shakespeare reading plan (TM) proceeds. I started the year with 15 plays left (of the 38); now I’m down to 10. At this rate I will finish the rest in 2022.

Note that I bought one book in April and received none, unlike March, when birthday gifts piled up. Thus, I made some progress against my backlog. I doubt I’ll have another nine-book month this year, but there’s some good reading ahead of me.

How was your April in reading? Your comments will let us all know.

Next month: Manhood for amateurs in Mecca.

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