‘Have you read the 200 best American novels?’

To answer the above question: No. No, I haven’t. The list, which can be read here, is from PBS’ News Hour’s Art Beat blog, combines two other lists and covers American novels from 1791 to 1986. Evidently nothing of interest has been published the past 28 years, which is a shame.

I initially thought I’d read 29 but now think my total is really 27, because on second thought I don’t believe I read “Ethan Frome” at all, and may not have finished the college assignment “The House of Mirth.”

I’m tempted to read “Reveries of a Bachelor” (1850) based purely on the title.

This list is about as useful as any other classic books list, i.e., not that much. But if you bookish types would like to take a peep at it and offer your thoughts, or your total, please do. John Clifford will be smug after learning he read one of the 200 just last month.

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Reading Log: August 2014


Books acquired: none.

Books read: “The Leisure Architecture of Wayne McAllister,” Chris Nichols; “L.A. in the ’30s,” David Gebhard and Harriette von Breton; “On Reading,” Andre Kertesz; “The Bronze Rule,” Mary Sisney; “Shakespeare Wrote for Money,” Nick Hornby; “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “Through the Looking-Glass,” Lewis Carroll; “Gullible’s Travels, Etc.,” Ring Lardner; “The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories,” Ernest Hemingway; “The Chandler Apartments,” Owen Hill; “Urban Tumbleweed,” Harryette Mullen.

Remember when I read 22 very short books in one month (March 2013)? I’d been wanting to repeat the experiment during another staycation but that kept getting delayed, as enticing column topics or commitments kept presenting themselves. Finally, I took off a week in mid-August.

What with one thing or another, such as modest travel that week, and moviegoing, I was unable to knock off a book a day, and in fact became mired in some books for day after day. But I read 11, counting a combo volume of the two “Alice” books as two, and that’s double my usual total. Felt good to get some relatively easy books out of the way too.

In the order presented above, I read two books on vintage L.A. architecture, a book of L.A. poems composed in rambles around town, a mystery involving a Berkeley bookhunter-sleuth, a memoir by a retired Cal Poly Pomona English prof, photos taken over 50 years of people reading in public, more of Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns (the model for these blog posts), the “Alice” books, humorous stories from the 1910s and 1920s, and some random stories by Hemingway.

I won’t discuss all these books but will say I liked them all to one degree or another, and that my favorites were Hornby, Hill, Mullen, the first Carroll (some think “Looking-Glass” is better, but it struck me as markedly inferior, if still of interest) and Lardner. The latter consists of five stories about a lower middle-class couple in NYC with pretensions of social-climbing; the narrator is the husband, whose colloquialisms, misstatements and dry wit are hilarious. Highly recommended.

As for when I acquired these books, the Lardner is the oldest, likely going back 20 or 25 years. And it’s possibly my favorite of the month. The others are all five years old or less, and usually from the last year. I’ll also point out that Mullen’s was only published last year and Sisney’s this year. Shockingly modern. Also, that two of my books were by women named Harriet, only with complex spellings. I guess that was a minor theme this month.

What were you reading in August, and have you happened to read any of mine before? The “Alice” books and “Kilimanjaro” have surely been read by some of you.

Next month: I’ve read a month of “I” titles; here’s a month of “eye” titles.


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Reading Log: July 2014


Books acquired: none.

Books read: “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time,” Jeff Speck; “The Portable Poe,” Philip Van Doren Stern, ed.; “What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East,” Bernard Lewis; “The Gateway Arch: A Biography,” Tracy Campbell.

A random month of titles, and like last month more nonfiction than is typical for me. I read a book on how pedestrian (and cyclist) life tends to make towns and cities more pleasant and livable, a fat book of Edgar Allan Poe pieces, a scholarly attempt to explain Middle Eastern history and a sociological, political and architectural look at St. Louis.

“Walkable City”: A chatty exploration, published in 2012, of what makes a downtown work: two-way (and narrow) streets, fewer and more expensive parking spaces, senses of scale and place, bicyclists, pedestrians, lively storefronts, places worth walking to, working neighborhoods as opposed to isolated landmarks (LA’s Disney Hall is criticized), trees, transit and, in a small surprise, awnings.

“Portable Poe”: It’s tough to find a uniformly excellent Poe anthology: Either they’re missing a few great stories, or there are too many weak ones, or they don’t include any of his poetry. What decent Poe book wouldn’t have “The Raven”? Many of them. This one, published in 1945 and totaling, ulp, 666 pages, offers a wide-ranging overview of his every writing mode, except maybe we don’t want an overview if that means we have to wade through his dull, dated essays and articles. Useful in its way, with a good selection of stories and poems both, but more Poe than you probably want.

“What Went Wrong?”: I had hoped for a clear, concise summary of centuries of Middle East history, which admittedly is a lot to expect. Published in 2002, “What Went Wrong” was okay, informative if dry, but for this neophyte, Lewis was so scholarly and history-minded, he didn’t really answer the provocative question in the title. What went wrong? (Subsequently I learned that Lewis favored the invasion of Iraq and may not have been the best person for an even-handed history.)

“Gateway Arch”: Deeply researched but very readable exploration of one of America’s most instantly recognizable monuments, which also happens to be a piece of modernist sculpture. Campbell’s book, published in 2013, explores the three-decade effort to remake the St. Louis riverfront (40 square blocks were leveled), the wrongheaded thinking that separated a tourist attraction from downtown, why once-great St. Louis has faltered — and yet why the Arch is still astonishing.

Not counting three books received as gifts, I’ve bought only three books in 2014 and have read two of them, both this month: “Walkable,” bought in Austin, and “Gateway,” bought in St. Louis. (The third, already underway, will be read in August.)

“Poe” came from a vacation last year, where it was bought at Moe’s in Berkeley, and “Wrong” was purchased at the B&N in Rancho Cucamonga back in 2002 or so, when getting to know more about the Middle East was on our minds. I got bogged down in the (very long) introduction, realized this might not be the book for me and set it aside before recently resurrecting it, for good or bad.

I’ve read the Poe intermittently since last fall (there was overlap with other Poe I read in the interim too), started “Walkable” in March before putting it aside for later and began “Wrong” in May, so this was in part a month of wrapping up a few books in progress. How was your month? Is summer proving to be a good season for reading, or a poor one?

 Next month: many slim books.


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Bye-bye, Brand Bookshop


Brand Bookshop is one of my favorites, both for what it is and where it is. It’s a great used bookstore, open since 1985, with personality and a deep selection of 100,000 books. And it’s located on Brand Boulevard in Glendale, the downtown drag, with shops and restaurants all around and, across the street, the grand 1925 Art Deco Alex Theatre and a second used bookstore, Book Fellows. Best block in SoCal? Well, it’s not, but it’s in the running.

Brand, alas, is closing next month. Owner Jerome Joseph, who’s in his 80s, suffered a fall last year and can no longer run the business, according to a sad story in the Glendale News-Press, and his son, Noriaki Nakano, who’s 66, is ready to retire.

The store, at 231 N. Brand, never really made the transition to the Internet age, and up until a year or two ago still contacted customers (like me) by postcard to announce sales. I only visited once a year or so, but I usually bought something and sometimes sold something.

Joseph was a bookstore owner of the old school. He knew his stock well and had a quick wit and a sharp tongue. He referred to employees, even his son, in gentlemanly fashion as Mr. or Ms.

“Mr. Nakano!” he would call out. “Do we have” — and he would name a title. “We do, Mr. Joseph,” his son might say.

A small touch, but the store sold handmade bookmarks made from laminated foreign postage stamps. I think they sold for $1 from a basket in front of the register; Joseph once gave me one with my purchase. It’s lovely (see picture at bottom) and I still use it.

One that got away: a vintage slipcased set of the then-three “Dune” novels by Frank Herbert was on the paperback SF shelves about three years ago for $15, or maybe $12. I saw it, thought about it, walked away. Ten minutes later, having persuaded myself, I walked back to claim it and it was already gone.

One example of the store’s personality: the copious number of categories. The LA Times says a master list was available at the counter and bore “1,500 highly curated categories,” citing a few: Papacy & Vatican, ESP, General Military Aviation, Sea Adventures, Gold Rush and Shrubbery. The ones I loved were in the sociology area, side by side on the same shelf: Hoboes and Elitism and the Rich (see below).

Passing by on the 101 on June 5, I stopped at Brand for old times’ sake. Books are 50 percent off the marked price. Shelves were starting to empty, although they still had tens of thousands, and to slip into alphabetical disarray.

I didn’t buy anything as I’m on a book diet, but I’m glad to have stopped in to say goodbye to paths I have trod many times: graphic novels to classics to science fiction to mystery to fiction and then through the doorway to the store’s far side: books on books, humor, music and California. In retrospect I wish I’d bought a second bookmark.

Bookfellows (238 N. Brand) is arguably superior, at least for genre reading, and I’ll still visit it on days when the Alex (216 N. Brand) screens a classic I want to see, but I’ll miss having that other store, Brand Bookshop, the third leg of a great cultural triangle.




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Column: ‘Pomona A to Z’ now in convenient book form

Sunday’s column has my first mention in print (i.e., not on my blog) of my upcoming book, “Pomona A to Z,” and details about the launch party this Friday. And there’s an awesome photo.

I had originally figured I would write a whole column about my book, but modesty got the best of me. Instead, the column continues with four Ontario items and five Culture Corner items, as well as a plug for this blog.

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Farewell to a reader’s friend


This pillow chair, useful for reading in bed, was one of those cheap objects that prove incredibly useful and durable. My parents bought it for me for Christmas when I was about 15 and I used it ever since — until earlier this year, when I decided the poor thing had supported me, or at least my back and my reading habits, long enough.

Mine was purchased by mail order (probably Sears), and in the intervening years I never saw another one until relatively recently, when I found them at Target. Wow, they still make these things! They’re known alternately as chair pillows, pillow chairs, bed rests and reading pillows.

I resisted parting with mine, though, even after sending it through a giant washing machine at a laundromat, which got it clean but also worsened splits in the fabric. Bits of orange foam kept popping out. This thing had stuck with me and I was sticking with it. And, on 90-degree summer nights, to it.

After a couple of years of this, I finally decided to buy a new one.

I did, for a mere $10, at the Target in Pomona, and wondered why I hadn’t done this earlier. The old one went into the trash with little regret. I guess I needed to wait until the time felt right. I like the new one too. It’s a comfortable way to sit up in bed without messing with pillows.

Above is the tattered old one with what I think was the last book I read with it: Neil Young’s “Waging Heavy Peace.” Farewell, old friend, and thanks for the support.

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Reading Log: June 2014


Books acquired: none.

Books read: “All the President’s Men,” “The Final Days,” Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein; “President Fu Manchu,” Sax Rohmer.

“Doonesbury” repeats this spring reminded me that Nixon resigned 40 years ago this August, and that made me think this would be a good summer to read the two Watergate books on my shelves. So I did.

I really liked “President’s Men,” which was published in early 1974. Told in the second person, it follows the two reporters as they chase leads, hit brick walls, knock on doors, meet a source in a parking garage and occasionally flub a story. These were two intrepid guys, and they were far more dedicated than I am, or any reporter I’ve ever known. Another thing I learned: Woodward was a registered Republican. Rather than trying to bring down a president, he and Bernstein were both shocked and disturbed that the trail of Watergate led as high as it did.

With that finished, did I want to read the 500-page “Final Days,” an inside look at the last months of Nixon’s presidency? I thought I’d read it a while and see. Well, I thought it was fascinating, and there was no question of not finishing it. In this one, private meetings and conversations are quoted as if they’re unfolding in front of us, reconstructed either by interviews with the participants or with people they shared their version of events with. It’s a neat trick that allows for privacy-invading scenes like Nixon forcing Kissinger to pray with him, and if asked Kissinger could plead that he wasn’t one of the direct sources.

Normally I’d say these sort of books aren’t my thing, but the subject was one that has always held an interest for me because Watergate occurred on the edge of my consciousness, being 9 and 10 at the time, and I was glad to finally know more about it. (I’m likely to write a column about it in August.)

Obviously I read “President Fu Manchu” the same month as something of a joke. But it legitimately was the next book in the series; I’d left off with book 7 a couple of years ago and I was overdue for book 8. In this one, the only volume set in America, the evil genius (and here I’m referring to Fu Manchu, not Richard Nixon) is pulling the strings of a populist candidate for president who would institute a dictatorship. Online sources say the 1936 novel pulls from real events involving Huey Long and Father Coughlin. So that’s neat, although the novel is otherwise the least distinguished so far.

One weird side-note: Fu has a lair reachable by a river tunnel under New York’s Chinatown, and the hidden entrance is referred to as his “water-gate.” You can’t make this stuff up.

I don’t recall where I got any of these three books, although I’ve had “Final Days” for maybe 10 years, picked up “President’s” maybe five years ago, and “President Fu” around the same time, all used.

What were you reading in June? Speak a little louder, I’m not sure my secret taping system is picking you up.


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Reading Log: May 2014


Books acquired: “The Gateway Arch: A Biography,” Tracy Campbell; “A Farewell to Arms,” Ernest Hemingway.

Books read: “Gently Down the Stream,” Bill McClellan; “The Farther Shore,” Robert M. Coates; “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” Jules Verne; “Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys: How Deep is the Ocean?” Paul Williams; “Coming Up for Air,” George Orwell.

Ahoy, readers, it’s time for another post about our reading habits of the past month, which in my case all involved water-based titles.

(I came up with a bunch of such “theme” groupings three or four years ago, fresh from having typed up the title of every unread book on my shelves for a master list, and with connections echoing in my brain. I get to them as I can. Turns out there are only 12 months in a year. Who knew?)

“Stream” is a collection by a St. Louis columnist; “Shore” is a 1950s out-of-print novel about a bachelor who really should not marry, but does, with unfortunate results (telegraphed in the first sentence or I wouldn’t bring it up); “Leagues” is, of course, the famous novel about a submarine voyage led by a captain without a country; “Ocean” is a compilation of essays and interviews about the surf group; and “Air” is a novel about a middle-class Englishman who, with prewar jitters, is seized by the notion of escaping the city to his childhood village.

“Shore” came to me in an unusual way that may illustrate the happenstance way we sometimes read. I’d read two short stories by Coates in anthologies edited by my boy Ray Bradbury, loved them, especially “The Hour After Westerly,” which would have made a good “Twilight Zone,” and wanted more. He published two books of stories, it turns out, as well as several novels and a memoir; he was the New Yorker’s art critic for a time. I couldn’t readily find any of his books at used bookstores (yes, yes, no doubt I could find them online, but I wasn’t frantic for them, I just put them on my want list as something to hunt for on book expeditions). The first thing I found was “Shore,” at a St. Louis store maybe four years ago, and decided to buy it — it was only $4 — even though it was a novel. Last year, at Powell’s in Portland, I found one of his story collections and bought it. I almost put “Shore” into my “sell” box, but opened it up and saw the first page involves a guy eating in a diner. So I read it. And it was pretty good.

“Air” was my favorite of the month, though. The narrator at first seems like a dope, a guy strangers tend to call “Fatty” who sells insurance and finds his children a nuisance and his wife a bore, but his mordant sense of humor and realistic view of things set a tone unlike any book I can remember reading. The whole thing was kind of extraordinary. I was led to this book in another odd way, by an extended mention in one of the “33 1/3″ books on the Kinks album “Village Green Preservation Society.” Any book similar to one of my favorite albums was likely to be worth seeking out, and it was.

“Leagues” was both fascinating and tedious, as anyone who remembers reading it can tell you. I’d read it as a boy but had meant to reread it ever since “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” comics made Nemo seem like an amazing creation. Not surprisingly, much of that is only implied in the original. I’ve owned this copy since elementary school. The others came into my hands more recently: 20 years ago in the case of the Beach Boys’ book, the past five years for the rest.

I should mention, too, that I began and abandoned one book this month: “The Sea” by John Banville. (You can see part of the cover in the photo above.) It was too literary for me. I could have finished it had I chose, but I cut my losses about 40 pages in. A part of me thought I should read it, as the hype proclaims that it won the Man Booker Prize. Then I thought, well, am I making a survey of Man Booker Prize winners? I’ve got a lot of books around the house I want to read more than this. So into the “sell” box it will go.

That’s all from me. How was your May? Let us know what books you’ve been paging through, finishing or abandoning.

Next month: Watergate. Wait, would that have fit in during May?


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Reading Log: April 2014


Books acquired: “Urban Tumbleweed,” Harryette Mullen.

Books read: “The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop,” Lewis Buzbee; “The Red Pony,” John Steinbeck; “Darker Than Amber,” John D. MacDonald; “The Green Hills of Africa,” Ernest Hemingway; “The Green Hills of Earth,” Robert A. Heinlein; “Outlaw Blues,” Paul Williams.

Six books read in April, each with a color in the title. What a reading rainbow, to quote a phrase. I’d plotted out potential titles three or four years ago, which made finally reading them all the more satisfying as well as something of a relief. Also, some of the books go back quite a ways.

I was supposed to read Hemingway’s “Green Hills” back in college for a Hemingway class but didn’t make it. Years ago I abandoned the other unread one on the syllabus, “Death in the Afternoon,” out of disinterest in hundreds of pages of nonfiction on bullfighting, but I did always hope to read this one, about a safari. The first chapter is where Hemingway’s famous comment about all American literature springing from “Huckleberry Finn” comes from.

Well, I learned that hunting is hard work: Even when Hemingway kills an animal, he might have to track it for hours and then never find it. Not without interest, especially some of the nature descriptions and the byplay with his father-in-law. He undercuts his own myth. But he also reinforces it, and despite the rigors he’s privileged and oblivious. A little boring, a little sad. This wasn’t for me.

I hadn’t read a Heinlein in two years so this seemed like a good month to read his “Green Hills,” a collection of short stories from the 1940s. I liked it. Most have a cheerful optimism about space flight, human relations and the promise of the 20th century that, while dated, scratches a certain itch. The final, and longest, story, “The Logic of Empire,” is an anti-slavery allegory and a worthwhile early attempt at melding politics and SF.

“The Red Pony” I’d read as a teen, but I read it again as part of a Steinbeck omnibus of short novels that I bought in 2009. All I’d remembered was the birth scene. I liked it this time, and even found it reminiscent of Bradbury’s (later) “Dandelion Wine,” particularly the section about the old man who’s a little like a time machine.

Buzbee’s “Yellow” is a memoir about his days as a bookseller and publisher’s rep in the Bay Area, as well as about his lifelong love of bookstores and books. He sprinkles in a history of books and bookselling. Unexciting, but a gentle, reflective tome for those who like bookstores and the sense they impart of being alone among others.

“Amber” is the seventh Travis McGee mystery novel. As with Heinlein, it had been a couple of years since I’d read one, and I’m glad to have finally cleared whatever mental block had kept me from progressing. That said, this one had its unsavory aspects, so that even though I like the series, this may not be among the better entries.

Lastly, “Outlaw Blues” is a collection of writings circa 1967-68 by the man who may qualify as the first rock critic. Offers a look at how a segment of hippie rock intellectuals viewed the scene, when each release seemed to be advancing the youth movement: Loved the Byrds, Dylan, Jefferson Airplane, Beach Boys and the Doors, had no use for the Beatles. Idealistic, woolly-headed, charming.

As mentioned, Hemingway’s book dates to college, although I’ve switched editions since then. Williams’ was bought at a used bookstore in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury perhaps 15 years ago. Heinlein’s is of more recent vintage, also used, as was MacDonald’s; and Buzbee’s came from a visit to Powell’s in Portland in 2010.

Your turn: What have you been reading?

Next month: In which I’m all wet.


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Reading Log: March 2014


Books acquired: “Who I Am,” Pete Townshend; “Walkable City,” Jeff Speck.

Books read: “Silverlock,” John Myers Myers; “Tales From the ‘White Hart,'” Arthur C. Clarke; “The Woman in Black,” Susan Hill.

Only a three-book month here. Is that better or worse than a three dog night? Regardless, all three of my reads last month had significance for me.

“Silverlock” I’ve owned since the early 1980s but never got around to reading. For one thing, it’s 500 pages; for another, the hype that helped sell it — separate introductions by SF heavyweights Poul Anderson, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle — also inhibited actually reading the thing. “You’ll get drunk on ‘Silverlock,'” “an odyssey of the human spirit,” etc., etc. I could never bring myself to read it, yet I could never bring myself to sell it either.

Now that I’m back to taking my bookshelves seriously, I read it, and you know, “Silverlock” was darned good, a picaresque adventure in the Commonwealth of Letters in which nearly every character is taken from literature or legend: Don Quixote, Paul Bunyan, Robin Hood, Leatherstocking, the Green Knight, and dozens more. Great fun, and recommended if you’re well read, or if like me you can fake it.

That book consumed nearly four weeks. I managed to squeeze in two short books on vacation, a collection of scientific shaggy dog stories by Clarke, told by a tall-tale spinner in a London pub, and Hill’s Gothic horror novel, set in England, from 1992. I liked both of those. (The latter was made into a slightly creepy, slightly silly movie in 2012.)

They meant a little more to me because in London two years ago I’d stumbled across a White Hart pub in the vicinity of the one Clarke frequented; research shows that this one is modern and Clarke’s hangout was really named the White Horse, but no matter, I wanted to read the book ever since. Hill’s book I bought during that trip at Foyle’s; I used the receipt as my bookmark. Happy sigh.

Clarke’s book was bought used at a Bookmaster in Arizona some six years ago, and “Silverlock” came from a used bookstore of my youth, the Double R Book Nook in Olney, Ill.

All three books have a color in their title, and I have so many more of these that April looks likely to have more “color books.” I’m wrapping up a yellow and have started a green, with a red, a blue and an amber in the wings, and a white, a black, a gold, another blue and another green probably out of reach unless April has 60 days.

Of my two acquisitions this month, the first was a birthday gift and the second was bought at BookPeople in Austin, my first book purchase of 2014. I’m trying to cut down.

What have you been reading? And has anyone read, or even heard of, “Silverlock”? It’s kind of a cult classic, hence the hard-sell introductions in my 1980 edition, but deserves to be better known.

Next month: a riot of color.


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