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

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

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

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Reading Log: June 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reading Log: May 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next month: Yet more SF, by more authors.

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Reading Log: April 2015

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Books acquired: none.

Books read: “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” “R is for Rocket,” “S is for Space,” “The Vintage Bradbury,” Ray Bradbury; “My Ideal Bookshelf,” Thessaly La Force and Jane Mount.

Greetings, readers! Welcome to the latest installment of my ongoing chronicle of stuff I’ve been reading — and your own ongoing chronicle, if you’re a regular commenter.

April saw me reading four — count ’em, four — books by my main man Ray Bradbury, as well as one unique art book.

As careful readers may recall, a few years back I read all the late period Bradbury, much of which was subpar, frankly; this led me to revisit his early classic work, which I hadn’t read since boyhood. That’s been a happier experience.

This time I read his 1962 novel “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” which proved a pleasant surprise. I had only vague memories of the book and of the lackluster movie version, but the writing is poetic and matters of age are explored in intriguing fashion. The plot concerns two best friends, a father who feels old before his time, a creepy carnival and a merry-go-round that erases years from your age, a year for every turn, but at a price. This is arguably Bradbury’s last fully realized work, with the possible exception of “From the Dust Returned” in 2001.

“R is for Rocket” and “S is for Space” are mid-1960s collections aimed at the young adult market, such as it was back then. They’re grab-bags but worth seeking out for fans, as a few of the stories are otherwise unavailable. “The Vintage Bradbury” is a 1965 best-of that has most of his classic stories, aside from “A Sound of Thunder” — is it possible what’s now his best-known story wasn’t so well-regarded then? — with only a few weaker selections that betray his mainstream aspirations. But the ones that verge on horror (like “The Small Assassin,” about a mother convinced her baby wants to kill her), have a gleefully nasty edge. “Vintage” is fairly easy to find used and is worth the effort. It will suffice until he gets a Library of America collection.

At this point I’ve re-read Bradbury’s work through the mid-’60s, with only three or four books to go after this before I’m back to where I started.

“My Ideal Bookshelf” is a fun book about books. A variety of creative types — writers, artists, chefs, fashion designers, graphic designers, musicians and more — were asked to compile a shelf of books that they particularly like or that define them in some way. An artist painted such a shelf with the real spines of the books, facing a page in which the person is interviewed about their choices or reading life.

I’m using it as an autograph book and, since its 2012 publication, have collected five contributor signatures, from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Kim Gordon, Pico Iyer, Jonathan Lethem and Francine Prose. More to come (I hope)!

That book was purchased at Vroman’s in Pasadena; the others all date to my childhood.

What were you reading in April? Probably a greater variety of authors or subjects than my choices.

Next month: More sf, but not by Bradbury.

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Reading Log: March 2015

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Books acquired: “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely,” “Citizen,” Claudia Rankine; “Girl in a Band,” Kim Gordon; “The Ballad of Bob Dylan,” Daniel Mark Epstein.

Books read: “Vulcan’s Hammer,” “The Cosmic Puppets,” “Dr. Futurity,” “The Man Who Japed,” Philip K. Dick; “Early Ontario,” Ontario Library Staff; “More Baths Less Talking,” Nick Hornby; “The Incredible Double,” Owen Hill; “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil,” George Saunders; “The Dark Side of the Earth,” Alfred Bester; “No Room for Man,” Gordon Dickson; “Pulling a Train,” “Getting in the Wind,” Harlan Ellison; “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely,” “Citizen,” Claudia Rankine; “Three Early Stories,” J.D. Salinger; “A Small Place,” Jamaica Kincaid; “The Genocides,” Thomas Disch.

March was a big month — for small books. Once again I saved up short books to read all in one month. I got to 17. This included a couple that were read almost entirely in late February and, heh-heh, finished off in March. It was all about volume.

Represented in the stack is poetry (Rankine), SF (Disch, Bester, Dickson, Dick), book criticism (Hornby), mysteries (Hill), literary fiction (Saunders, Salinger), local history (Ontario Library), pulp fiction (Ellison, and dig the two covers below that form a single image!) and geographical essay (Kincaid).

This is too many to run through in detail, obviously. I’ll say that the best would be “Citizen” and “A Small Place,” both of which are brilliant. Bester’s stories weren’t far behind. The Philip K. Dicks were minor but enjoyable and I love Hornby’s essays. The two I didn’t care for were the Saunders (everyone says he’s great but that this one, which I bought off a remainder table, is rubbish, so I’ll give him another chance) and Dickson’s, a classic that didn’t do anything for me. The others were kind of in the middle.

It was satisfying to blow through so many books, a little better than one every two days, not that they were finished that regularly. Got through some that had hung around for a long time — “Vulcan’s Hammer,” among Dick’s worst, had been on my shelves unread since the early 1980s — and two that I bought in March, at Skylight Books in Los Feliz, and quickly folded into my month of reading.

What have you been reading and have you read any of the above?

Next month: More old books, but far fewer of them.

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Column: U.S. Grant’s ‘Personal Memoirs’ made for good reading, generally

Wednesday’s column, promised last week in my Reading Log post, is about General Grant’s autobiography. It’s also kind of about procrastination, obligation and guilt, as the book was assigned for a college class in 1986 but never read until now. And maybe it’s a little bit about favorite teachers.

By the way, for space reasons, I cut a couple of stories despite loving them both. This picks up after the paragraph about some of his asides involving his early schooling and his proposal of marriage:

He tells a funny story on himself at age 8. Following his father’s strict instructions, the future president offers a price for a neighbor’s horse: “Papa says I may offer you $20 for the colt, but if you won’t take that, I am to offer $22.50, and if you won’t take that, to offer $25.”

Politically, Grant asserts that changing circumstances a century after the U.S. Constitution mean that one shouldn’t rely too much on the framers’ intent.

“The instantaneous transmission of messages around the world by means of electricity,” Grant writes concerning the telegraph, “would probably at that day have been attributed to witchcraft or a league with the Devil.”

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Reading Log: February 2015

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Books acquired: “Funny Girl,” Nick Hornby.

Books read: “The Glass Teat,” Harlan Ellison; “Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant,” U.S. Grant.

February was a light month in some ways, only two books, but they totaled 900 pages. Also, February was light on days, with only 28. It all makes sense when you think about it.

My two books both date to my Illinois days but were never read until now.

Ellison’s “The Glass Teat” is a collection, the first of two, of columns he wrote from 1968 to 1971 for an underground weekly, the Los Angeles Free Press. He nominally critiqued TV, a medium for which he wrote. But they range far afield to talk about the tenor of the times. The results are very dated, dispatches from a moment in which society seemed on the brink and in which the Establishment seemed to be winning, but they’re of sociological interest for that reason. Also, he writes a lot about the Smothers Brothers.

Why I never read “The Glass Teat” or its sequel is just one of those things. I’ll get to the second book, “The Other Glass Teat,” in a few weeks.

I won’t say much about Grant’s “Personal Memoirs,” as I’ll have a column in the near future about them. Suffice it to say I was supposed to read the book for a college class but didn’t, and yet kept it all these years because I felt like I really should read it sometime. Now I have.

Have any of you read it? He’s a good writer, a sort of proto-Hemingway as far as direct, unadorned prose, although you have to be interested in the Civil War to slog through his descriptions of four years of battles and troop movements. I liked it, but I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone.

What did you read in February, if 28 days gave you time to finish anything?

Next month: lots of short books.

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Column: Writer’s awakening began in Rancho Cucamonga

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Above, Kenneth Calhoun talks during his reading Jan. 30 at Barnes and Noble in Rancho Cucamonga. Watch a one-minute video of his reading here.

There aren’t many published novelists who hail from the Inland Valley, but Kenneth Calhoun is one. The native of Upland and Rancho Cucamonga last year saw his debut novel, “Black Moon,” published by Hogarth, an imprint of Crown, to generally positive notices. We’ve corresponded a little since then — we had a mutual friend, the late musician John Harrelson — and met up last Friday for a breakfast conversation during his visit from Boston; that night I attended his hometown reading at Rancho’s B&N.

Wednesday’s column is about Calhoun and his book. There’s a hyperlink in the column to one of his stories, “Nightblooming.”

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Reading Log: January 2015

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Books acquired: “Black Moon,” Kenneth Calhoun; “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” Victor Maymudes with Jacob Maymudes.

Books read: “Black Moon,” Kenneth Calhoun; “Clans of the Alphane Moon,” Philip K. Dick; “The Moon is Down,” John Steinbeck; “The First Men in the Moon,” H.G. Wells.

Happy 2015! Hope your reading year got off to a good start and that whatever goals you set for yourself will be met. My primary goal this year is to read the last stubborn 31 books from my Illinois days, a number that includes a few rereads of Ray Bradbury classics but mostly are books I somehow never got around to reading despite owning them for three decades.

I set off with the idea that I would read these books exclusively either for a couple of months or until finished. To demonstrate my seriousness, I set aside two more recent books that I was midway through when 2014 turned into 2015 and picked up two Illinois books, one for daytime, the other for my nightstand. I followed along on this track until Kenneth Calhoun sent me a copy of “Black Moon” in advance of his Jan. 30 reading at Rancho Cucamonga’s Barnes and Noble.

This was on Jan. 9, and as I decided to write about him, I reluctantly put aside U.S. Grant’s “Personal Memoirs” on p. 80 to veer off on a new track. Couldn’t very well tell him: “I’m afraid I really can’t read your book until August because I promised myself I would read my childhood purchases first.”

“Black Moon” is a dystopian novel about an epidemic of insomnia that claims almost everyone in the populace; the few who aren’t affected fear for their lives, as the sleep-deprived turn violent at the sight of someone who can sleep. It’s a thriller of sorts, although it’s mostly an interior story rather than science fiction, with a lot of ambiguity.

Having read “Black Moon,” I decided to pursue a theme of books with “moon” in the title, as I had another four that I had always thought of clustering.

First I read Philip K. Dick’s “Clans of the Alphane Moon,” which is one of my Illinois books — talk about killing two birds — and is about a moon to which Earth’s crazies had been banished. And now Earth wants the moon back. Dick works through various personal issues about divorce, mental health and the meaning of success while also telling an interesting, and often hilarious, SF story. (After getting kicked out of the house by his wife, the lead character takes up residence in a crummy apartment complex where his neighbors are mostly aliens, including a yellow blob from Ganymede.)

From there I read John Steinbeck’s “The Moon is Down,” from a Steinbeck anthology of short novels. It’s from 1942 and concerns the invasion of an unnamed European village by an unnamed army, and how quiet resistance gums up the invader’s plans. I’d been wanting to read this since visiting the Steinbeck Museum a few years ago. Apparently it was somewhat controversial by making the invaders seem like human beings, and also inspirational to oppressed Europeans. One of my favorite Steinbeck books.

I started John Myers Myers’ “The Moon’s Fire-Eating Daughter,” billed as a sequel to “Silverlock,” although it’s really just in the same mold. It was too clever for its own good, in my view, and after a dozen puzzling pages I gave up and put it in the sell pile.

Lastly, I read H.G. Wells’ “The First Men in the Moon,” partly out of curiosity about the co-star Henry Cavor and his anti-gravity invention Cavorite, which figures into the comic book The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. That’s how Cavor and the narrator get to the moon, by blocking gravity and thus hurtling their capsule into space. Once there, they find a race of beings who live underground in an elaborate civilization. So, no one is going to laud Wells’ predictive powers, and this isn’t as good as “War of the Worlds” or “The Time Machine,” but it was enjoyable.

January, thus, had four moons, with a fifth in only a tiny crescent. “The Moon is Down” would be my favorite, closely followed by “Alphane” and “Black.”

Now, I’m back reading U.S. Grant and wondering if I can read the remaining 500 pages in 28 days. A book on my nightstand will be finished in mid-February, meaning at least one book will appear in this space next month.

How about you folks? What have you been reading?

Next month: at least one book.

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