Reading Log: December 2015

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Books acquired: none

Books read: “Old Cucamonga,” Paula Emick; “The Preserving Machine,” Philip K. Dick

This post is about as close as I’ve come to my idea of someday not reading anything for a month and posting a photo of a blank floor. Two books is a light month, but it’s something, though, isn’t it?

“Old Cucamonga” is the subject of my Jan. 3 column, so there’s little more to say here. As it’s all photos and captions, one or two per page, this was a good nightstand book, something that could be read easily and put down just as easily, with no plot threads to lose. I have a lot of these Images of America books at the office, most of which I haven’t read, but I should.

The Philip K. Dick book, “The Preserving Machine,” is a collection of stories, his first. There was some overlap with “The Best of Philip K. Dick,” which I read earlier in 2015, and I wanted to end the year by reading the other stories and finishing this off. Overall, this was pretty good, with several excellent stories, including the one on which “Total Recall” was based. I ended up rereading or skimming the ones I’d already read because the details had slipped away.

I did read more in December, but purposely didn’t finish anything. Three books are in progress for a theme month in January based on time.

“Old Cucamonga” was purchased at an event in November, while Dick’s came from Ralph’s Comic Corner in Ventura maybe three years ago. I also have a British paperback of “Preserving Machine,” with one less story, from Pomona’s Magic Door Books; I read that and then shifted to the U.S. edition at the end.

For the year, I read 53, my lowest total in a while. I may have lost a step this year, but then again, my impression is that I read some longer books. I’ll write my traditional column on my year’s reading this week.

In the meantime, how was your December?

Next month: time, in book rather than magazine form.

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Reading Log: November 2015

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Books acquired: “M Train,” Patti Smith; “Old Cucamonga,” Paula Emick; “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls,” David Sedaris.

Books read: “Tangled Vines,” Frances Dinkelspiel; “Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, Vol. 1,” H.P. Lovecraft and others; “I Sing the Body Electric!” Ray Bradbury.

It was a three-book month no matter how you look at it: I bought three and read three. Unfortunately, the ones I read weren’t the ones I bought, but their time will come. The three I bought were all signed by the authors, which is cool, either in advance (Smith) or in front of me (Emick, Sedaris).

“Tangled Vines,” which was sent to me by the publisher a few weeks ago, has already been the subject of a column. I focused only on the Cucamonga bits, but there’s a lot more to the book, half of which, in alternating sections, deals with a notorious winery arson of 2005. The rest delves into wine’s history in California. It’s very readable and stays away from the wine-snob attitude that can make this sort of thing an eye-roller for us plebes. It’s really just a slice of California history. Oh, and the author signed it in front of me.

The other two books I read this month are totally different. Also, their writers are dead, so these books must go unsigned. I reread a Bradbury from childhood and read the first of a two-volume horror anthology.

The latter has a story by Lovecraft and further stories by his friends and acolytes, among them August Derleth, Henry Kuttner, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, all involving in some fashion HPL’s squid-like Elder Gods. It was fun, but hit or miss. I’ll get to the second volume next year.

The Bradbury, from 1969, is from his most ecstatic period, opening with a Whitman quote and progressing through stories that often avoid fantasy entirely to qualify as mainstream fiction. To my mind it’s among his weakest books, with thin plots and overly poetic monologues by everyone involved, and by my subjective count only five of the 18 stories were up to snuff.

(My copy, from childhood, fell to pieces. But like a good Bradbury fan, I have a spare.)

In short, “Tangled Vines” was the month’s winner.

How was your November, readers? And how are you hoping to finish off your reading year? What with holiday activities, and a few friends with birthdays, even an introvert like myself may find reading time scarce. I’m hoping to finish up a couple of things and start some books for January.

Next month: I finish up a couple of things, etc.

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Reading Log: October 2015

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Books acquired: “Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California,” Frances Dinkelspiel.

Books read: “Wonder,” R.J. Palacio; “A Pail of Air,” Fritz Leiber; “The Halloween Tree,” Ray Bradbury.

Just as I predicted last time, October was another three-book month. It was a so-so month aesthetically as well: one solid book, two ehh books.

“Wonder,” a young adult novel from 2012, never quite grabbed me, although a lot of people love it, and it certainly has elements to recommend it. It’s the story of a boy with a facial deformity who has never attended public school, and what happens when he does: He’s ostracized, he makes friends, he’s bullied. It’s charming, touching and funny at times, a little unrealistic at others.

“A Pail of Air,” Fritz Leiber’s first collection of stories, from 1964, was pretty good. I read a “best of” collection earlier this year and was impressed. This had some overlap, and a couple of the stories didn’t wow me, but this was worth reading. I expect I’ll read more by him.

“The Halloween Tree” is a Bradbury young adult novel from 1972. I’d read it years ago and don’t recall thinking much of it, and that was as a young adult. A reference to it recently reminded me of it and I was surprised I hadn’t put it on my list to reread. As it was October, the time seemed right to read it again. Originally it was meant to be an animated special by Chuck Jones, but that fell through and Bradbury wrote it as a novel instead.

The story attempts to give a history of Halloween via travel to see ancient Egypt, witches and Notre Dame by a group of trick-or-treating boys led by a mysterious Mr. Moundshroud. (Nary a girl appears.) Bradbury’s prose style reaches what some might consider its height but what I think is its nadir: over-the-top lyricism in support of a very flimsy story.

On the other hand, Bradbury devoted a few pages to the Mexican Day of the Dead, with its candy skulls, cemetery visits, candles and altars, decades before the holiday became widely known. The boys think it’s great, exclaiming: “Mexican Halloween is better than our Halloween!” So there’s that.

“Wonder” was given to me by the Friends of the Claremont Library, “Pail” came from Patten Books in St. Louis in June and “Tree” was a long-ago purchase, probably late ’70s, from my hometown used bookstore.

What did you read in October? And did your month fare better than mine?

Next month: A book about wine, and more.

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Jack Smith, correspondent

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Jack Smith, the LA Times columnist who died in 1997, is still spoken of with reverence among those who recall his insightful observations, gentle humor and lively prose. I missed him in his prime but am catching up on his books. I own them all and have read half so far, spacing them out to one per year. (I also wrote his Wikipedia entry a few years back.)

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All 10 were purchased at used bookstores, and as signed copies are relatively easy to find — the man must have done a lot of bookstore events — I’ve bought only signed copies, except for his last, posthumous book, of course. Many have a short inscription to the buyer as well. The one above is so simple and witty.

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At the late, lamented Acres of Books in Long Beach, perhaps six or eight years back, I had my choice of two copies of “The Big Orange” — one that was signed traditionally, and one that had something better.

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“Jack Smith’s letters to me” reads an envelope taped inside, “and some Jack Smith columns.”

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Evidently the book belonged to one Constance Gramlich. Inside the envelope is a postcard and a letter, each addressed to her.

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The letter came first, postmarked Sept. 7, 1966. Evidently Smith had recently written about student letters for the column that Gramlich was commenting on. It’s a great little letter, and Smith, in print an inveterate flirt, does not disappoint here, either. Click on the letter for a larger view.

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Four years later, Gramlich received a handwritten, but more terse, reply from Smith, who it seems had been laid low by illness. The date is Nov. 9, 1971.

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Alas, the columns Gramlich had saved — perhaps the ones that inspired the letters? — were not in the envelope. But I treasure my very own Jack Smith correspondence.

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Reading Log: September 2015

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Books acquired: “Wonder,” R.J. Palacio; “Tangled Vines,” Frances Dinkelspiel.

Books read: “After 1903 — What?,” Robert Benchley; “The Best of Philip K. Dick,” Philip K. Dick; “The Big Orange,” Jack Smith.

September was a three-book month, which seems to be the groove I’ve fallen (autumn reference?) into of late, now that my shorter books are mostly out of the way. One of the three is among my favorites of 2015, even if it was published four decades ago.

Benchley’s book (published in 1938), the title of which is probably meant to mock the notion that civilization peaked in this or that year of the speaker’s lifetime, is his usual collection of whimsical essays. There seem to me to be fewer classics here than other books of his I’ve read, meaning more smiles than horselaughs. The pieces, which appear to have been written for newspapers rather than magazines based on references and brevity, seem less thought out than usual, but they certainly go down with the customary Benchley smoothness. Amusing more than hilarious, but amusing is good.

Dick is revered for his novels, in part because he pretty much abandoned the short form by the time he hit his stride as a novelist. But his stories are often very good, and by exploring a simple idea (or telling a sort of extended joke) they avoid the ungainliness of some of his novels. This is a solid collection of stories, with two, Imposter and Paycheck, clever enough to have inspired movies. Not a dud in the bunch. This is another of the mid-’70s Ballantine “Best of” books by SF authors discussed here previously.

And so to Jack Smith. These mid-1970s pieces explore 30 attractions around LA and Orange County, including the Farmers Market, Rose Bowl Flea Market, Watts Towers and, inevitably, Disneyland. Forty years on, most of these attractions are still around but altered, while a few, like Lion Country Safari and the Pike, are vanished, making this a record of a different time.

Smith is gentle, descriptive, witty and respectful, and these articles for Westways magazine are delightful. If you love LA and its history — i.e., you think reading a mid-1970s view of SoCal is appealing rather than pointless — you might want to track this down. This if the fifth of Smith’s 10 books that I’ve read, and tied with “Jack Smith’s L.A.” as my favorite. (The overpraised “God and Mr. Gomez” might be my least favorite.)

I bought the Benchley at Powell’s in Portland two years ago, Dick at my hometown used bookstore in Illinois in the early 1980s (and never read until now — another one crossed off the list) and Smith at Acres of Books in Long Beach maybe six years ago. More about that in a separate blog post, if I remember.

How was your September? Hit the comment button and let us know.

Next month: “Wonder,” plus probably two more.

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Column: ‘Pomona Reads!’ celebrates writing, reading

Sunday’s column starts with news of Oct. 3’s inaugural “Pomona Reads!” book festival, with events for young and old, and well-known authors in attendance. I’ll be there too with “Pomona A to Z.” Come check it out. Also in my column: an event at Mitla Cafe involves writer Gustavo (“Ask a Mexican”) Arellano; scary movies are creeping into the Ontario library; and a farewell to my optometrist, Joe Trezza.

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Reading Log: August 2015

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Books acquired: none

Books read: “A Journey to the Center of the Earth,” Jules Verne; “Why LA? Pourquoi Paris?” Diane Ratican; “Deus Irae,” Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny; and “Valis,” Philip K. Dick.

August ended with four books read. Well, technically, August ended with three books read, but I finished “Valis” at lunch on Sept. 2, so I’m counting it.

“Why LA? Pourquois Paris?” was left on my desk at work, by unknown parties; presumably it was a freebie sent to us, as it was published this year. The author is from Pasadena and has lived in Paris. She wrote chapters comparing her two favorite cities, LA and Paris, in various ways, enlivened by many pages of whimsical illustrations. Lightweight but charming. I jotted down many ideas from the Paris sections in case I visit again, as I suspect I will. The LA advice is pretty good too.

I’d read “A Journey to the Center of the Earth” as a lad but remembered not a whit of it. After reading “Around the World in 80 Days” and rereading “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” in recent years, I wanted to tackle this one too, in my childhood copy. I read it in an unusual way: a few pages in bed per night. It took me six or eight weeks this way. Normally I would never read a novel in such incremental fashion, but 1) it’s episodic, 2) the chapters are short and 3) it’s not compelling. The science is laughable — dinosaurs and an ocean-like lake under the Earth! — but the story is cute, and a little better than the other two Vernes, maybe because the narrator is likable.

“Deus Irae” and “Valis” are two latter period Dick novels, and purely by accident they made a good pairing, both being about spiritual concerns and both including, in passing, the idea of God existing in a humble brown clay pot. Also, in the first one, a character thinks he can find God by hallucinating on drugs; that idea is dismissed in one line in the second.

I couldn’t possibly describe the plot of these two books to anyone’s satisfaction, but they’re among Dick’s better books. Some say “Valis” is his masterpiece, and while it was a little static for me, it was very good.

The three novels are all purchases dating to my childhood or young adulthood. Only eight of those very old books remain on my shelves to be read. Progress.

What did you read in August, and have you read any of my four?

Next month: More progress, and almost certainly something by Robert Benchley.

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Reading Log: July 2015

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Books acquired: “Why LA? Pourquois Paris?” Diane Ratican; “The Fourth Galaxy Reader,” H.L. Gold, ed.; “Still Room for Hope,” Alisa Kaplan.

Books read: “Again, Dangerous Visions, Vols. 1 and 2,” Harlan Ellison, ed.; “Still Room for Hope,” Alisa Kaplan.

July has as odd a pairing of books as I can remember: two split volumes of a 1972 science fiction anthology, and a 2015 memoir about sexual abuse from a Christian publisher. If I’d had more time, I might have read, say, a physics textbook, a Shakespeare play and a history of the Peloponnesian War, just to round things out.

Well, there’s a reason for reading “Still Room for Hope,” in that I expect it to result in a column in the near future, so I won’t say any more about it here, other than that it is very sad, while becoming lighter as Kaplan recovers her sense of herself.

The Ellison-edited anthology of cutting-edge SF, 900 pages split between two paperbacks, follows his 1967 “Dangerous Visions,” read here last September, and which I loved. The sequel is twice as long and with half the impact, I’m afraid, although it still had a lot of strong material by Bova, Le Guin, Vonnegut, Wilhelm, Gerrold and more. There were simply more so-so stories by newcomers, many of whom didn’t go on to make a mark but seemed to have been included just in case. A third anthology, “The Last Dangerous Visions,” was promised within six months, ha ha, and many of us know how that turned out: The author list expanded alarmingly and more than 40 years later it’s still unpublished, and maybe unpublishable. Ah well.

All three books acquired this month were free; the Gold book was a gift from reader Rich P., who got it from reader Doug Evans, Kaplan’s came from the author and Ratican’s simply was left on my desk, presumably having been mailed in.

The two Ellisons that I read this month were acquired back in the early 1980s and unread until now. One was bought new somewhere in the Midwest and the other was bought used from the Book Nook in Decatur, Georgia, a store that appears to still be in business three decades later. Good for them.

How was your July? Not to be uncaring, but all I want to know about are the books you read. Save your family worries, work problems and health issues for someone else’s blog.

Next month: I journey to the center of the Earth, among other places.

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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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