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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Books read, 2014

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To accompany Wednesday’s column on my reading for the year, I’ve compiled all 68 books I finished last year into the list below.

Numerically speaking, I’ve done better, I’ve done worse. Since I began reading intensively again, I read 75 in 2013, 80 in 2012, 60 in 2011, 52 in 2010 and 58 in 2009. That was five years and 325 books, which now that I see it makes me wish I’d hit 75 last year just to even it out at 400. Well, 393 in six years isn’t shabby.

The photo doesn’t have every book from last year: a few were borrowed and a couple are already in my “sell” pile and weren’t worth the bother of finding. But it’s got most of them.

Below you’ll see some authors represented two or three times, even four in one case. Looking back, I’m satisfied, although I didn’t get to everything I wanted to read. Early in the year, I set three goals: one Shakespeare play, the “Dangerous Visions” SF anthology and “The Three Musketeers.” I accomplished the middle one. Also, in my post last year, I wrote of Twain: “Definitely I’ll read ‘A Tramp Abroad’ this year.” You, er, won’t find that one listed. Well, I’ll definitely TRY to read it this year.

Here’s the list, from January through December.

1. “Alone Against Tomorrow,” Harlan Ellison

2. “Deathbird Stories,” Harlan Ellison

3. “Shatterday,” Harlan Ellison

4. “18 Best Stories,” Edgar Allan Poe

5. “The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales,” Edgar Allan Poe

6. “Obsolete: An Encyclopedia of Once-Common Things Passing Us By,” Anna Jane Grossman

7. “Betsy-Tacy,” Maud Hart Lovelace

8. “Betsy In Spite of Herself,” Maud Hart Lovelace

9. “Orange Blossoms Everywhere,” Mary Thiessen

10. “Ubik,” Philip K. Dick

11. “Ubik: The Screenplay,” Philip K. Dick

12. “Waging Heavy Peace,” Neil Young

13. “The Swerve,” Stephen Greenblatt

14. “Stranger Passing,” Joel Sternfeld

15. “Silverlock,” John Myers Myers

16. “Tales From the ‘White Hart,’” Arthur C. Clarke

17. “The Woman in Black,” Susan Hill

18. “The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop,” Lewis Buzbee

19. “The Red Pony,” John Steinbeck

20. “Darker Than Amber,” John D. MacDonald

21. “The Green Hills of Africa,” Ernest Hemingway

22. “The Green Hills of Earth,” Robert A. Heinlein

23. “Outlaw Blues,” Paul Williams

24. “Gently Down the Stream,” Bill McClellan

25. “The Farther Shore,” Robert M. Coates

26. “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” Jules Verne

27. “Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys: How Deep is the Ocean?” Paul Williams

28. “Coming Up for Air,” George Orwell

29. “All the President’s Men,” Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

30. “The Final Days,” Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

31. “President Fu Manchu,” Sax Rohmer

32. “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time,” Jeff Speck

33. “The Portable Poe,” Philip Van Doren Stern, ed.

34. “What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East,” Bernard Lewis

35. “The Gateway Arch: A Biography,” Tracy Campbell

36. “The Leisure Architecture of Wayne McAllister,” Chris Nichols

37. “L.A. in the ’30s,” David Gebhard and Harriette von Breton

38. “On Reading,” Andre Kertesz

39. “The Bronze Rule,” Mary Sisney

40. “Shakespeare Wrote for Money,” Nick Hornby

41. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” Lewis Carroll

42. “Through the Looking-Glass,” Lewis Carroll

43. “Gullible’s Travels, Etc.,” Ring Lardner

44. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories,” Ernest Hemingway

45. “The Chandler Apartments,” Owen Hill

46. “Urban Tumbleweed,” Harryette Mullen

47. “Dangerous Visions,” Harlan Ellison, ed.

48. “Mind Fields,” Harlan Ellison and Jack Yerka

49. “Eye in the Sky,” Philip K. Dick

50. “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Zora Neale Hurston

51. “One Fearful Yellow Eye,” John D. MacDonald

52. “The Machineries of Joy,” Ray Bradbury

53. “Chips Off the Old Benchley,” Robert Benchley

54. “No Poems, Or Around the World Backwards and Sideways,” Robert Benchley

55. “The Tomb and Other Tales,” H.P. Lovecraft

56. “God and Mr. Gomez,” Jack Smith

57. “Weird Heroes 2,” Byron Preiss, ed.

58. “The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes,” Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr

59. “Jungle Tales of Tarzan,” Edgar Rice Burroughs

60. “The Drums of Fu Manchu,” Sax Rohmer

61. “Mockingjay,” Suzanne Collins

62. “The Prisoner of Zenda,” Anthony Hope

63. “The Crack in Space,” Philip K. Dick

64. “Tales of Mystery and Imagination,” Edgar Allan Poe

65. “Great Tales and Poems,” Edgar Allan Poe

66. “The Essential Ellison,” Harlan Ellison

67. “Dave Barry’s History of the Millennium (So Far),” Dave Barry

68. “The Martian Chronicles,” Ray Bradbury

 

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Reading Log: December 2014

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Books acquired: none.

Books read: “The Crack in Space,” Philip K. Dick; “Tales of Mystery and Imagination” and “Great Tales and Poems,” Edgar Allan Poe; “The Essential Ellison,” Harlan Ellison; “Dave Barry’s History of the Millennium (So Far),” Dave Barry; “The Martian Chronicles,” Ray Bradbury.

Ringing out the old year, December saw me reading, or finishing off, six books. The stack looks more impressive than it is, as I’ll explain.

To run through these in brief, the two best of the month were “The Crack in Space” and “The Martian Chronicles.” The former, from 1966, takes place in 2080 and involves an overpopulated Earth, an interdimensional rift that promises an off-world place to ship the overflow, and a man who may become the first black president. It’s not one of Dick’s best, but it’s still pretty great. The latter, from 1950, in my opinion is Bradbury’s greatest, a lyrical allegory about western expansion. This is at least my third time through it. Possibly my favorite book.

The Dave Barry book collects some of his hilarious year-in-review pieces. Of the two Poes, “Mystery and Imagination” has all his best stories but, alas, many of his curiosities that have little interest for modern readers. The other one, “Great Tales,” hits most of the highlights of both stories and poems. The Harlan Ellison anthology is for admirers only (I’m one), weighing in at 1,250 pages and more than 3 pounds (says Amazon). You might convert the unconverted with 250 pages of prime Ellison, but only a fan would pick up an overstuffed collection like this. Also, where is his “City on the Edge of Forever” teleplay? I know, in a separate book, but most would consider it essential Ellison.

I’d read a lot of Poe the past year, and a lot of Ellison in recent years, so there was a lot of overlap with books already read, and much of the remaining material had been read over the course of 2014. I made a push to finish them before 2015.

The Bradbury and Dick books date to my childhood, while the others were acquired relatively recently. “Mystery” was bought at North Hollywood’s Iliad Bookshop, “Great Tales” came from Rancho Cucamonga’s fall Big Read, Barry from Amazon and Ellison from Montclair’s Borders (sigh).

In 2014, I read 68 books, not a bad total. (And, crucially, I acquired less than a dozen.) This was the sixth year in a row in which I read 50 or more books, after years of sluggish reading. I expect to write a column soon on my year in reading and to post a list of all the titles and authors. Until then, leave a comment on your December, your experience with any of the above books and your whole year if you like.

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Library garage

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On a hike earlier this year in the Hollywood hills, I was impressed by, and envied, one homeowner’s clever garage door mural depicting shelf after shelf of books. Note the (real) newspaper in the driveway!

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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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