Reading Log: November 2021

Books acquired: “It Calls You Back,” Luis Rodriguez; “Fun With Your New Head,” Thomas M. Disch; “Inter State,” Jose Vadi

Books read: “All of the Marvels,” Douglas Wolk; “Benchley — Or Else!” Robert Benchley; “Is This Anything?” Jerry Seinfeld; “Men and Cartoons,” Jonathan Lethem; “Synthetic Men of Mars” (John Carter No. 9), “Tarzan and the Ant Men” (Tarzan No. 10), Edgar Rice Burroughs; “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls,” David Sedaris; “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore,” Robin Sloan; “The Essential Groucho,” Stefan Kanfer, ed.

Here we are in December, looking back at November, as 2021 heads into the home stretch. If we have any books we desperately want to get to or to wrap up, better snap to it.

I did my part in November, as you can see: nine books. They encompass five books of nonfiction and four of fiction (unless it turns out “Tarzan and the Ant Men” is a true-life account). Let’s run ’em down.

“Marvels” (2021): Subtitled “A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told,” Wolk’s book is the result of his reading 17,000 Marvel comics, which he doesn’t recommend, and thinking deeply about them, which he does. He covers the basics in a way friendly to new or lapsed comics readers. Yet his observations, insights and reader tips had this lifelong Marvel fan jotting notes, nodding in affirmation or grunting in surprise. His section on the Shang-Chi series of the 1970s-’80s as an unsung gem was especially welcome. That he likes modern and classic Marvel both is to his credit. As Stan Lee might have enthused: “Face it, True Believer, this one has it all.”

“Benchley” (1947): Published after his death, this is a mixed bag of good stuff and dregs, some of which read as if written on a deadline with little inspiration. Still, even lesser Benchley has its pleasures. One gem is about how he likes reading mystery novels but that he’s always lost at the end during the dense monologue by the detective of how the crime was pulled off.

“Anything?” (2020): This compilation of Seinfeld’s stand-up bits is arranged by decade going back to the 1980s, and hearing him read them — I listened to the audiobook while referring at times to the hardcover — gives a semblance of hearing them live. His delivery is less friendly than on his show, and some of the ’00s jokes come across as semi-hostile. Overall, it’s funny-to-hilarious, of course, and this book is better than his early “Seinlanguage.” The short autobiographical introductions per decade might make us wish for a full memoir — although I won’t hold my breath.

“Cartoons” (2005): The most straightforward story, “Vivian Relf,” was the most affecting. The others, from near-realism to comic absurdity, had their pleasures, but the overall impact on me was slight. As an example of how times change, when the first story, “The Vision,” was published, Lethem had to explain within the story who the obscure Marvel character was, and now, after “Avengers” movies and the “WandaVision” TV series, he’s recognized by millions.

“Synthetic Men” (1939): In his ERB bio, Richard Lupoff called this one “thoroughly bad,” which made me go in expecting the worst. Well, OK, it’s somewhat formulaic, and Ras Thavas (from Book 6) is back, as is his brain transferral surgeries. A fast-growing mass of vat-created protoplasm that threatens to overwhelm Barsoom, though, that’s new. If this one is no gem, it’s no embarrassment either.

“Ant Men” (1924): Tarzan runs into two warring cities of people 18 inches tall, arrogantly thinks he can take on an entire army single-handedly, gets captured, wakes up and finds himself 18 inches tall (although for the longest time he can’t figure it out and thinks everyone else has grown). A fun outing, somewhat different, but disappointing compared to Lupoff’s rave, in his ERB bio, that this was the best entry since the first. The Ape-Man series continues for 14 more novels, by the way, but I plan to stop here.

“Owls” (2013): There’s a more a generous spirit underlying most of the autobiographical pieces than before: more sympathy and reflectiveness, less mean-spiritedness and snark. It’s (dare I say it) a sign of growth. The one about the hygiene and food in China is, as they say, problematic, and the six fictional essays using other voices as narrator are hit or miss. On this one too I listened to the audiobook of a volume I own, and Sedaris reads it himself, a plus.

“Mr. Penumbra” (2012): A clever story involving modes of communication old and new: email, letters, cassettes, a Walkman, cell phones, the internet, lead type and, most crucially, books and e-readers. The plot involving a 500-year-old secret society in robes gets into a less self-serious version of Dan Brown territory, and the big reveal is slightly incomprehensible. But the likable narration helps a lot. I listened to the audio version of this as well.

“Groucho” (2004): A worthy attempt to collect and preserve some of Groucho’s writings and quiz-show quips. The section of freelance pieces is too long, since most were only middling, and weighed down what was otherwise a great pleasure of letters and script excerpts. Still, a neat idea, one that salvages a lot of out-of-print or uncollected material.

Overview: Not a dog in the bunch, although the Benchley was pretty iffy. “Marvels” is my favorite, trailed by “Owls,” and then everything else. By listening to audiobooks downloaded from a library, I managed to squeeze in three extra books this month, largely while driving. What great times we live in, eh?

These books fell into my life over a course of 17 years: Wolk came from his publisher and Seinfeld as a birthday gift from a friend, both in 2021; Sedaris was bought at his 2015 appearance at Scripps College and signed by the author; Sloan was bought on a road trip in 2013 from Half Moon Bay’s Bay Books; both ERBs came from the Black Ace Paperback Show, Tarzan in 2012 and Mars in 2011; Benchley was bought at Pasadena’s estimable Book Alley in 2011, while Lethem came the same year via North Hollywood’s Iliad Books; and Groucho was picked up at Berkeley’s Moe’s Books in, gulp, 2004.

As is usually the case here, the pitfalls of my past book-buying habits are revealed for all the world (or at least a half-dozen of you) to see. In no rational world should the ERB books have sat on my shelf unread for a decade; same with the Lethem book, which even at my pokey pace took only about five days to read. My excuse, of course, is that I’ve read hundreds of other books this past decade, many far older than these. I wish I hadn’t been so profligate in years past in padding out my shelves, as if a book shortage were on the horizon and I needed to stock up. Ah, me.

How was your November, readers? Let us all hear about it in the comments, please. Onward to our December reading!

Next month: 2021 ends, as does the John Carter series.

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Reading Log: October 2021

Books acquired: “They Climbed the Mountain,” Glenn Wenzel; “Historic Mission Inn,” Barbara Moore, ed.; “Suite Alice of Riverside, Tahoe and Laguna,” Barbara Ann Burns; “Let’s Explore Riverside Together,” Lorna Jenkins; “More Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” Susan Straight and Douglas McCulloh; “All of the Marvels,” Douglas Wolk; “The Best of John W. Campbell,” Lester del Rey, ed.; “All the Year Round,” Robert M. Coates; “Fun With Your New Head,” Thomas M. Disch; “Everything Now,” Rosecrans Baldwin

Books read: “Tarzan and the Golden Lion (Tarzan No. 9),” Edgar Rice Burroughs; “The Record Store Book,” Mike Spitz and Rebecca Villaneda; “A Man on the Moon,” Andrew Chaikin; “More Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” Susan Straight and Douglas McCulloh; “Always Running,” Luis Rodriguez; “To Your Scattered Bodies Go,” Philip Jose Farmer; “Photos of People at the March on Washington, August 18, 1963,” TM and D.D. Givens

Happy November! I had a seven-book October, which isn’t bad, even if one of the books was so short it was read over lunch. Also, I ended up through one means or another acquiring more books than I read, and with only one overlap between the two categories. Well, that’s how it goes. Let’s dig in.

“Tarzan No. 9” (1923): ERB was a master of jumping among two or three sets of characters and locales, slowly drawing them together for suspense and maximum impact. A fun entry in the series that includes a Tarzan impostor who fools everyone and complicates everything. In “Brady Bunch” terms, he’s like Cousin Oliver, but evil!

“Record Store” (2015): For fans of record stores, this is a loving, analog tribute, with photos (shot on film) and text about 50 Greater LA shops of the early 2010s. Some are pre-CD stores that have hung on through multiple changes in format while others are part of the vinyl resurgence. The majority are still in business as of 2021. The observations of the shop owners get repetitive (breaking: vinyl sounds “warmer” than CDs!) but they’re all small business folks doing what they love, and that never goes out of style.

“Moon” (1994): On the one hand, this is a titanic work of research, involving not just interviews with every Apollo astronaut (except one who died early) but sifting through Mission Control tapes, transcripts of debriefings, etc. It’s admirable on many levels. And Chaikin does evoke the wonder of the moon missions. But just as the public lost interest in the later missions, mine faded toward the end of Chaikin’s book as the alleged wonder involved the finer points of (yawn) geology.

“Dreamers” (2021): Writer Susan Straight and photographer Douglas McCulloh teamed up for essays and B&W photos of people and places on the largely black and brown eastside of the city of Riverside, as well as collecting appropriate personal photos to further illuminate the history they’re documenting. The book accompanies an exhibit at the Riverside Art Museum, now on view. Of local interest.

“Running” (1993): This memoir about Rodriguez’s teenage years struggling in school, living in poverty and having run-ins with the law is illuminating about L.A. in the late ’60s-early ’70s. In his view, as he tried to persuade his own teenaged son not to follow his old path, the struggle hadn’t changed all that much by the early ’90s.

“Scattered Bodies” (1971): Everyone who ever lived, all 36 billion of us from prehumans to the 20th century, is resurrected in the prime of their life along a river that stretches thousands of miles. The 19th century adventurer/scholar Richard Francis Burton, the protagonist, wonders why and how. An expansive, promising concept, if not totally satisfying since it’s the start of the Riverworld series. I’ll keep reading.

“March on Washington” (2021): A son compiles his late father’s photos of the scene at the 1963 march and a grandson designs and publishes it. The backstory is kind of interesting: The eldest Givens was a white aerospace engineer who knew almost nothing about the civil rights movement, wandered through with his camera and then seemingly never spoke of it again, with the photos a surprise to his children. The photos give a sense of what the day must have been like, but this is a personal project and a very slight book. (It’s the one I finished over lunch. I debated whether to include it here before deciding, hey, it’s between two covers, it’s a book — c’mon.)

All these books were good, or at least good enough, but none really stand above the pack as one I would recommend to you all. Closest is “Scattered Bodies,” which won a Hugo as best SF novel, and it doesn’t hurt this series’ prospects that the follow-up’s lead character is Mark Twain, piloting a riverboat along the endless river. “A Man on the Moon” is the most ambitious and worth reading if you’re fascinated by the Apollo program.

“Photos” was a gift of the publisher (who is also my publisher), “More Dreamers” was a gift of its publisher and “Moon” was a friend’s gift in 2020; and “Always Running” was bought this fall used at North Hollywood’s Iliad Books. (The latter and “Dreamers” were also the subject of recent columns of mine.)

The other three were purchased some time ago: “Record Store” from Claremont’s Rhino Records in 2015 (yes, I bought it when it came out, then shelved it for six years — sigh), “Tarzan” in 2012 from the Black Ace Paperback Show and “Scattered” in 2007 from Anaheim’s late Book Baron.

This makes 59 books read in 2021. With two months left, I ought to hit 70. But I know I won’t read all the books before year’s end that I wish I could get to.

How was your October, readers? If you have any reading goals, is this a race against time? (This is what passes for action and drama on the Reading Log.)

Next month: men and cartoons.

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Reading Log: September 2021

Books acquired: “Always Running,” Luis Rodriguez; “Girlz ‘n the Hood,” Mary Hill-Wagner

Books read: “The Turquoise Lament (Travis McGee #15),” John D. MacDonald; “Surviving in a Ruthless World: Bob Dylan’s Voyage to ‘Infidels,'” Terry Gans; “The Swords of Mars (John Carter #8),” Edgar Rice Burroughs; “Kidnapped,” Robert Louis Stevenson; “Girlz ‘n the Hood,” Mary Hill-Wagner; “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians,” Mark Twain

Here we are in fall. Where did the year go? Although as with 2020, in some respects 2021 can’t pass quickly enough — unless we have reading goals to meet.

I made it through six books in September, four of them fiction — one of them an undisputed classic that you may well have read.

“Turquoise” (1973): More even-keeled (pardon the boat joke) than #14, which was all over the place. Also, at one point (pp. 184-5) MacDonald via McGee prompts his audience to write the real-life board of directors of a Borden phosphate and fertilizer plant in Florida demanding they stop poisoning the air, and good for him. I wonder how many letters they got?

“Surviving” (2020): Well-intentioned amateur scholarship regarding the 1982 Dylan album “Infidels,” from the songwriting to the recording sessions, including songs scratched, sometimes bewilderingly, from the final album. For the committed, the chapters on the evolution of the long-unreleased songs “Blind Willie McTell” and “Foot of Pride” are of interest, but otherwise, this trawl through the BD Archives for material on the “Infidels” period is basically an assemblage of notes and facts. And it really needed an editor.

“Swords” (1935): John Carter finally gets to star again in his own series for the first time since Book 3, and the series is the better for it. In fact this might be the most enjoyable entry since Book 3. But I miss his four-armed green buddy Tars Tarkas.

“Kidnapped” (1886): The Jacobite vs. Whig dynamic is hard to parse without a grounding in Scotland history. But the friendship between David Balfour and Alan Breck is easier to understand, and the writing is often vivid and insightful. More complex than “Treasure Island,” but admittedly less fun. I own the book but borrowed an audio version; the narrator had a Scottish accent, adding an aurally authentic element.

“Girlz ‘n the Hood” (2021): Subtitled “A Memoir of Mama in South Central Los Angeles,” this tells the author’s story of growing up with a single mother among 10 siblings during the 1970s and ’80s in varying levels of poverty. Comic stories abound, and some shocking or head-shaking ones too. (Actually, there’s some overlap.) The author lives in Montclair and I read this one before interviewing her for a column. Not bad.

“Huck and Tom” (1989): Twain got 50 pages into a (shocking, anti-Indian) sequel to “Finn” meant to strip away myths about the Old West that he abandoned after realizing he’d painted himself into a corner. An attempt at a light “Finn” sequel, a mystery, was pages from the likely end before Twain dropped it too. A few slight Hannibal pieces round out this collection. Interesting, but, organized as it is around two unfinished novels, hardly satisfying.

I’d rate all these at 3 stars out of 5, except the Dylan book at 2 stars. There wasn’t a clear winner, in other words, although “Kidnapped” and “Swords” were my favorites.

Acquisition of these books ranged in time over 17 years: “Girlz” and “Surviving” came into my hands this year, the first from the author, the second a birthday gift from a friend; “Turquoise” was bought at Goleta’s Paperback Alley in 2019; “Swords” was bought at St. Louis’ Book House in 2011; and the other two were bought at Berkeley’s Moe’s Books in separate visits, “Kidnapped” in 2009 and “Huck” in 2004.

I’m pleased to have knocked them all off my unread list and to have both continued the Mars series and resumed the McGee series. And I read six books, a pace I hope to maintain for the next three months. That would put me at an even 70 books for the year. Goals!

How was your September, readers? Also, have any of you read “Kidnapped” — I have to think one or two of you have — and if so, what did you think, if you remember?

Next month: The return of Tarzan.

 

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Reading Log: August 2021

Books acquired: none

Books read: “We’ll Always Have Paris,” Noah Isenberg; “American Moonshot,” Douglas Brinkley; “Secret Stairs,” Charles Fleming; “A Fighting Man of Mars” (John Carter #7), Edgar Rice Burroughs; “Writing Los Angeles,” David Ulin, editor; “Preserving Los Angeles,” Ken Bernstein; “Becoming Los Angeles,” “Holy Land,” D.J. Waldie; “The Life and Times of Los Angeles,” Marshall Berges

In the eighth month of 2021, I cut loose with nine books, surprising myself. It helped that I listened to three of them on audiobook (despite owning copies). That sure speeded things up. They make for a tall stack, especially with a couple of fat hardcovers in the mix.

Eight of the nine are nonfiction, another surprise, since I was concentrating on fiction this year. Well, 7 1/2 — “Writing LA” is a mix of fiction and non. Let’s go to my capsule summaries.

“Casablanca” (2017): Isenberg surveys the film from multiple angles: its genesis, its production, its impact and its afterlife. Even as a fan of the film, I learned a few things, such as how many of the plot points and lines of dialogue were lifted from the unproduced play it was based on, and how many actors and bit players were refugees themselves. That said, this book isn’t the place to go for, say, a feminist critique; that some don’t like “Casablanca” is barely acknowledged.

“Writing” (2002): This is a nearly 900-page anthology of essays, stories and excerpts going back to Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1883 interview with an aging Californio and ending with David Thomson’s 1997 ode to Mulholland Drive. Included by editor David Ulin are the big names you’d expect (Chandler, Fitzgerald, Didion) and many you wouldn’t. The result presents the region from multiple angles, and serves as a nose-thumb to anyone who thinks we’re too lightweight for literature. If you’re interested in LA, this is the most useful doorstop you’ll ever own.

“Stairs” (2010): 42 urban walks involving public stairways, mostly in Silver Lake, Echo Park, Los Feliz and Hollywood. How do you rate a walking guide? Since I’ve completed every walk, over the course of 10 meandering years, all by carrying the book, this has to be the single most immersive reading experience I’ve ever had. So by my lights, it’s the “Moby-Dick” of urban walking guides.

“Fighting Man of Mars” (1930): An enjoyable entry in the series, with a romance involving a hero who knows nothing of love or the fairer sex, but learns eventually after cluelessly, but charmingly, wondering why his heart is beating faster around the woman he considers his friend. Oh, Hadron of Hastor, you lovable lunkhead! And in a way this book is quite modern: It could just as easily have been titled A Fighting Woman of Mars thanks to the athleticism, bravery and swordplay of Tavia, a bold creation for 1929/30.

“Moonshot” (2019): As part of the Apollo 11-17 generation, I’ve always felt positively about the space program but never appreciated just how much commitment had been required to fulfill JFK’s crazy-expensive 1961 promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Or how JFK came to make the promise to begin with. Or how ex-Nazi rocketmen and Soviet space aspirations pushed us forward, or how much LBJ backed the space program (and got Mission Control built in his home state of Texas). Brinkley pulls all those threads together into a useful, readable account, published in time for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11.

“Preserving” (2021): LA’s reputation is ahistorical and concerned more with the future than the past, but Preserving Los Angeles shows the other side, which is the wealth of buildings, neighborhoods and features that have withstood time and real estate cycles to remain nearly intact or find a new use. Bernstein even constructs a guide for exporting LA’s approach elsewhere. It doesn’t make for a lively or lyrical read, but it’s worthwhile if you love LA, and the photo documentation is valuable.

“Becoming” (2020): “Becoming might be the definition of Los Angeles,” Waldie writes. These reflective essays, or “footloose thoughts,” explore such topics as 19th century would-be boomtowns, Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, TV personalities Huell Howser and Tom Hatten, our months without sunshine (May and June), a woman who specializes in selling buttons and the examples of nature encountered on Waldie’s suburban walks. Unassuming, thoughtful.

“The Times” (1984): A breezy look at the LA Times past and present (as of 1984), this includes the paper’s notorious anti-labor position and a few other zingers but is largely a glossy, semi-official account. (Not for nothing is Berges’ previous book “Corporations and the Quality of Life.”) Still, it’s an easy, enjoyable read if the topic is of interest, and if you love newspapers it’s a little poignant, since in 1984 the Times was probably at its peak, with 1 million circulation, 500 pages on Sundays and 850 editorial employees. No one could have guessed the erosion to come.

“Holy Land” (1996): I read this personal and social history of Lakewood, the instant LA suburb, in 2013 and was bemused by its brevity and its 300-plus chapters in under 200 pages. It’s now on audiobook, I borrowed it from the library, and this time through I was delighted. The short chapters, some of which might begin and end while you’re waiting at a stoplight or even while making a left turn, have spareness, poetry and wit that struck me when read aloud. It was probably me, not him, but now I like it.

The standouts of August were “Moonshot,” “Writing” and “Holy Land.” Also, I wrote a column about “Writing,” “Becoming” and “Preserving,” a trio I dubbed “Gerund LA.” Ditto about “Secret Stairs.” Consider them Reading Log bonus features.

When and where did I acquire these books? “Holy” was a library borrow in 2021, “Becoming” was a gift of the author in 2021, “Preserving” was a friend’s gift in 2021, and “Stairs” (third edition) was bought in 2021 at Skylight Books in Los Feliz, with the first edition bought there in 2011. “Moonshot” was a friend’s gift in 2020, “Casablanca” the same friend’s gift in 2018. “Mars” was purchased at the Black Ace Paperback Show in 2011. “Writing” was bought at Moe’s in Berkeley in 2007, the same year I got “Times” at Book Baron in Anaheim. Those two had to age a while on my shelves, obviously.

We’re now two-thirds of the way through 2021, readers. If your year in books is drifting, there’s still time to course-correct. I’m not sure how the rest of my year will go, but I’m likely to settle back more into the five-or-six-a-month range. It was satisfying to finally push through “Writing” after getting to around page 250 via stints here and there through the year; I picked it up again in late July and, as the month turned, decided to just plow ahead and finish. Felt good to get such a large collection in the “read” category.

Next month: The return of Travis McGee.

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Reading Log: July 2021

Books acquired: “Becoming Los Angeles,” D.J. Waldie

Books read: “The Master Mind of Mars,” Edgar Rice Burroughs; “Marooned on Mars,” Lester del Rey; “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” Robert A. Heinlein; “The Brothers of Baker Street,” Michael Robertson; “San Bernardino, Singing,” Nikia Chaney, editor

Regards, readers! If you’ll slowly scan the five featured titles above, you’ll see something similarly sibilant in them all: alliteration.

The sixth book in ERB’s John Carter series was on tap, and with three M’s in its title, it seemed to pair well with two other science fiction books that also had a multitude of M’s. From there I chose another two books with awesomely alliterative titles to round out the month, and also meet my 2021 baseline of five books per month.

“Master Mind of Mars” (1927): John Carter barely appears in this one, making way for a second Earthman, Ulysses Paxton, who also finds himself mysteriously transported to the Red Planet. Simple and straightforward, without frills or side plots, and with a charming romance, this sixth Mars book is the third to end with a wedding. They don’t write ’em like this anymore.

“Marooned on Mars” (1952): A teenager in our Moon colony is chosen for the first mission to Mars but gets scratched at the last minute. So he takes a risk, sneaks aboard and is discovered almost immediately. Disaster? Nope. Rarely has a stowaway been greeted as warmly as he is, but then, he’d been subtly encouraged to slip aboard the rocket due to The Unfairness of It All, so it all makes sense. With the theme being a test of a young man’s resourcefulness once they run into the title snag, this novel — which today would be YA and then was called a juvenile — is a cheerful, nostalgic read.

“Man Who Sold the Moon” (1950): The first two stories are enjoyable enough. My interest flagged early in the title novella, about a can-do tycoon with the usual RAH line of clever patter, and I almost gave up. But soon I got caught up in it. The short sequel that closes the book, “Requiem,” is uncommonly gentle and moving, like the precursor of one of Bradbury’s regretful dreamers, except with the Moon rather than Mars as his object of fascination.

“Brothers of Baker Street” (2011): A series of Black Cab crimes is taking place around London and the lawyer brothers who practice at 221B Baker St. (in the pre-cell phone 1990s) get enmeshed in solving them. It’s been three years since I read the first book in the series and, despite a few references to it here, I could barely remember a thing. Will I remember any of this one three years hence? Probably not, but its light humor goes down easily enough. Simon Vance’s reading on the audio version catches the tone.

“San Bernardino, Singing” (2020): Personal perspectives on San Bernardino and environs by people young, old and in between about the grand, troubled, poverty-stricken Southern California city, expressed through poems, prose and photos. Lots of local places — the Brandin’ Iron and the original McDonald’s, not to mention the burritos at Rosa Maria’s — get nods, as does crime, poverty and the 2015 terror attack. Certainly of interest if you have a connection to the city.

July was a rare month in which I liked but also didn’t love every single book; none is particularly recommended, but none is to be avoided either. I suppose the del Rey and Heinlein have a slight edge on the rest in my memory.

“Singing” was sent in June at my request by the publisher, the nonprofit Inlandia Institute; “Brothers” came from Powell’s in Portland in 2019; “Marooned” came from the closing sale of Bookfellows in Glendale in 2016 (“You always find the best stuff,” the kind co-owner told me when I put it on the counter); “Master Mind” was purchased at the Black Ace Paperback Show in Mission Hills in 2011, where I got most of the Mars series in one swoop; and “Sold the Moon” came from Brand Books in Glendale in 2008.

As is almost always the case, it felt good to knock off some long-unread books. But, less usually, a couple of relatively recent ones too. August is likely to have a similar mix.

How was your July, readers? Pardon the slight delay in getting this Reading Log written and posted. Blame a month that ended abruptly in the middle of a weekend, and then a busy week. Candidly, I wrapped up the above reading around the 19th, resuming my reading of a fat anthology rather than squeeze in a sixth and seventh book, and had kind of moved on from these books without actually writing the Log.

But this month, like the last, has 31 days, giving you plenty of time to comment — as well as to read more.

Next month: Los Angeles, Casablanca, the Moon and Mars.

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Reading Log: June 2021

Books acquired: “Tokyo Ueno Station,”  Yu Miri; “Intimations,” Zadie Smith; “The Lonely City,” Olivia Laing

Books read: “The Game-Players of Titan,” Philip K. Dick; “Planet of the Apes: The Original Topps Trading Card Series,” Gary Gerani, ed.; “The Chessmen of Mars,” Edgar Rice Burroughs; “The Squares of the City,” John Brunner; “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” Baroness Orczy; “The Scarlet Letter,” Nathaniel Hawthorne; “The Scarlet Ruse,” John D. MacDonald

Starting the summer off with a bang, I read seven books in June, and they slot into not one but two themes: games and the color scarlet. It’s two, two, two themes in one. Now how much would you pay to read this blog? Don’t worry, it’s still free.

Here are my capsule summaries:

“Apes/Topps Cards” (2017): On the one paw this book couldn’t have been improved, since it’s got every card from the 1968 movie, the 1974 TV series and the (ehh) 2001 reboot, and the commentary is understated and helpful. But on the other paw, it’s a collection of trading cards, so how essential is it, even if you love POTA? Splitting the difference, I give this book 3 bananas.

“Game-Players” (1963): As is often the case with PKD, the story is all over the place; for a while it’s a murder mystery in which the suspects have had their memories wiped, so they honestly don’t know if they did it, before that’s abandoned. The eventual hook: With the stakes the ownership of Earth, how could you play a game of Bluff against a team of alien mind-readers? The solution isn’t bad. Confusing, but never less than entertaining. Mid-tier PKD.

“Chessmen” (1922): More propulsive than Book 4 of the John Carter series and with a vivid character in Ghek, plus a romance, newfound friends and other ERB staples, all welcome. John Carter and Dejah Thoris only make cameos, but it’s a compliment to ERB that they’re not missed.

“Squares” (1965): Set in an ultramodern, exquisitely planned South American city and inspired by Brasilia, this nominally science fiction novel ought to be of interest to fans of urban planning and chess. (Basically, the narrator, a traffic consultant, discovers he’s a pawn — literally.) It can be hard keeping the two political factions straight and the chess conceit doesn’t quite work. The story still kept me engaged.

“Scarlet Pimpernel” (1905): A clear antecedent to Batman (rich fop acts useless to divert attention from his secret identity), Doc Savage and the Shadow (both with their team of loyal operatives). High entertainment with a large helping of romance, like a Jane Austen novel crossed with a pulp adventure.

“Scarlet Letter” (1850): Richly metaphorical, emotional, daring, proto-feminist. Loved it in high school, loved it again 40 years later. Your results may vary.

“Scarlet Ruse” (1971): I like the McGee series, and there’s nothing really wrong with this one. No. 14 starts on an unusual note, with McGee’s houseboat seemingly bound for eviction from the marina, and with an unusually eggheaded plot involving high-grade stamp collecting. OK, that’s different. The violence at the end reverts to formula and leaves McGee a wreck. Maybe it’s appropriate that a mystery about stamps ends with McGee taking a licking? This didn’t push the envelope as much as I’d have wished and, like an old stamp, left a sour taste.

The clear winner in June was Hawthorne. Pimpernel is worthwhile. Everything else is for aficionados only.

These seven books came into my life over a 16-year span: Hawthorne in 2003 from Barnes & Noble, Dick in 2004 from eBay (as if I were in a hurry to read it!), Brunner in 2008 from Magic Door Books, ERB in 2011 from the Black Ace Paperback Show, Orczy in 2012 from the Book House in St. Louis, MacDonald in 2019 from Paperback Alley in Goleta, and Apes in 2019 as a birthday gift from Mr. Doug Evans.

How was your June in reading? We’re at the halfway point for 2021. Surprising myself, I find I’ve logged 33 books. I’m not likely to hit 66 and don’t really want to hit 66; I should ease off the pedal and accomplish something else with a portion of my spare time. But it’s certainly satisfying to have knocked down so many old books. Let us know how your year is progressing in the comments, please.

Next month: A lot of alliteration.

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Reading Log: May 2021

Books acquired: “Preserving Los Angeles: How Historic Places Can Transform America’s Cities,” Ken Bernstein; “Klara and the Sun,” Kazuo Ishiguro

Books read: “The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories,” H.P. Lovecraft; “Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery,” Scott Kelly; “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Mark Twain; “A Long Way Down,” Nick Hornby; “Thuvia, Maid of Mars (John Carter No. 4),” Edgar Rice Burroughs; “My Middle Name is Color,” Dee Marcellus Cole

Happy June! Increasingly happy June, in fact. But we’re here mostly to talk about our May in reading. After I finished five books in January, five in February, five in March and, rather anticlimactically, five in April, in May I read six. As usual, some were largely read the previous month, but May is when I wrapped ’em up.

I read books by four favorite fiction writers and memoirs by an astronaut and an artist. Here are my capsules, and I don’t mean space:

“The Thing on the Doorstep” (2001): A few minor stories, a couple of major ones and two short novels, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and At the Mountains of Madness, both of which have their moments of tedium besides their moments of delight. It’s the usual mixed bag since most HPL books are designed for completists, as is this Penguin edition, one of three. The annotations by S.T. Joshi can be a bit much, treating HPL as if he were James Joyce, but they do establish how grounded much of his writing was in the real-life history and milieu of New England. But I can’t recommend it.

“Endurance” (2017): Any Apollo kids jaded by today’s more modest space missions, like me, will wake up after Kelly’s account of his year (!) on the International Space Station. Kelly is an engaging, candid and dryly humorous storyteller. At times the background of his pre-NASA career drags, but overall this is pretty great, with surprising details. Like how stuff can get lost on the ISS literally for years. Or how his brother sent him up a gorilla suit. I own the print edition but checked out the audio version from the library: It’s read by the author, who gets the tone right, as well he should.

“Huck Finn” (1885): Huck and Tom traveling down the Mississippi on a log raft remains one of the iconic images in American literature. The novel itself is loose and baggy, and the King and the Duke sequence goes on too long. But Huck’s moral awakening is all the more powerful because he doesn’t realize that’s what it is, and as Toni Morrison points out, Twain handles the racial matters as deftly as the times would allow. Great American Novel? Probably not. But it’s up there.

“Thuvia” (1916): Moving on from the original John Carter of Mars trilogy, ERB puts two minor characters center stage, to good effect. The legions of warriors conjured up from nowhere is an inventive touch. While less mythic than the trilogy, this one is modestly likable, slim and quick-moving, with a satisfying finish.

“A Long Way Down” (2005): A grim premise, verging on tasteless: Four strangers meet on a high London rooftop on New Year’s Eve, intending to jump but talking each other out of it. (Four Characters in Search of a Final Exit?) Out of this disorienting start, Hornby pulls off something mildly entertaining, if still problematic and perhaps beyond his talents at that point. I own the print edition but checked out a library’s audio version; Hornby’s conversational tone translates well to being read aloud. The three actors are very good, especially Kate Reading’s voicing of Maureen.

“Color” (2020): An Upland artist well known in the Pomona Arts Colony, Cole self-published this memoir. Almost one-third recounts her memories of her 1930s and ’40s childhood in the Plains States, including time on an Indian reservation, and in Northern California. Not professionally written by any means, and more of a memory bag of incidents and details than it is a story, it nevertheless provides a window into a rural life most of us can scarcely imagine.

“Huck Finn” is the obvious winner this month, and probably would be in any random month in which it was read. “Endurance” is worthwhile too, if less crucial.

Here’s when and where the books came into my life: “Color” was a gift this spring from Cole, a casual friend and column subject; “Endurance” was a gift in 2019; “Doorstep” was bought at Santa Barbara’s Chaucer’s Books in 2019; “Thuvia” was bought used at LA’s Black Ace Paperback Show in 2012; “Long Way Down” was bought at Montclair’s Borders in 2006; and “Huck Finn” was bought way back in 2002 at Big River Discount Books in the most fitting town imaginable: Hannibal, Missouri.

You may notice that I skipped John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series in May after reading one of them for four straight months. The title of the next book, “The Scarlet Ruse,” is in keeping with two other unread books of mine with that color in the title, so I decided to put it off a month and use “Ruse” as an excuse to knock off the other two. Extra credit to anyone who can guess both correctly. Not reading a McGee gave me time to finish Cole’s book and to read another small chunk of the “Writing LA” anthology.

How was your May? Reply in the comments with your mini-reviews of your own reading, or any thoughts on mine, please. And as they used to say on “Hill Street Blues”: “Be careful out there.”

Next month: Three (I hope) studies in scarlet, plus more.

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Reading Log: April 2021

Books acquired: “West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire,” Kevin Waite; “Is This Anything?” Jerry Seinfeld; “Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing,” Peter Guralnick

Books read: “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” David Sedaris; “Becoming Ray Bradbury,” Jonathan R. Eller; “Our Towns: A 10,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America,” James Fallows and Deborah Fallows; “Tarzan the Terrible” (Tarzan No. 8), Edgar Rice Burroughs; “A Tan and Sandy Silence” (Travis McGee No. 13), John D. MacDonald

Happy May, book mavens! We’ve made it through four months of 2021 and things are looking up. I’ve had both my vaccinations, with full effect a week away, and of late have resumed sitting indoors at coffeehouses and restaurants when weather drives me indoors. Like Sunday afternoon, as I write this, when it’s 61 degrees and overcast. It’s nice to have an indoor option again besides my house.

I read five books in April, just as I did in January, February and March, illustrating the steady-state theory of book completion. My five include my monthly Burroughs and MacDonald novels and nonfiction books about cities, a favorite author and an amusing fellow’s life. You may well have read the latter yourself.

“Me Talk Pretty” (2000): The first half is largely about his American life up until middle age, the second about finding true love, moving to France and attempting to adapt and learn the language. Thankfully, that still leaves room for how he flunked a Mensa test, his father’s inability to throw away food and a bowel movement that won’t flush. I listened to the audiobook for most of this, but the print version has a few essays not on audio, and the audio has a couple of extra bits that aren’t in print. Listening to Sedaris read his own work was a treat.

“Becoming Ray Bradbury” (2011): This is a biography focused on his life and writing, but mostly about his writing, through 1953. For admirers only, and as one, I have mixed feelings. At many points I thought, I do not need to know which books Ray bought in 1943, or about what he gushed in a letter to Henry Kuttner in 1944. That said, I finished it, I do have a better understanding of his progression as a writer through “Fahrenheit 451,” and the completist in me may well read the next two books, which cover the rest of his life and career. But not right now.

“Our Towns” (2018): With the federal government gridlocked and aiming low, this journalist couple, traveling by small plane and powered by curiosity (and craft brews), visit small cities and towns that are where the vanguard of change is occurring. There may be a few too many municipalities featured and the details get repetitive. But this is an earnest, optimistic rejoinder to those who think the only examples of reinvention are in major coastal cities. Also, for us locals, the chapters on Riverside, San Bernardino and Redlands are a draw. I listened to the audiobook because the husband and wife authors read it, charmingly.

“Tarzan the Terrible” (1921): A continuation/wrap-up of “Tarzan the Untamed,” this eighth novel has adventure, strange races, the hunt for the missing Jane and a ride on the back of a dinosaur. Also, many confusingly similar names. Not as strong as “Untamed,” but fun. This isn’t his fault, but the back cover gives away the identity of a figure ERB carefully left unnamed until four pages from the end. I would have screamed the cry of the maddened bull ape but didn’t want to alarm the neighbors.

“Tan and Sandy” (1971): Travis McGee, who’s seemed to be on the sunny side of 30 up to this point, begins wondering here in Book 13 if he’s losing his edge. MacDonald still had his, fortunately: We’re 1/3 of the way in before it’s even clear there’s a mystery to solve. It’s a good one, and McGee is put to the test. Also, regarding his penchant for “saving” women with a broken wing, therapy that involves bedding them, McGee calls himself on his own BS, a welcome surprise.

Sedaris is the winner this month, with the McGee a close second.

When did these books fall into my clutching hands? Sedaris was bought in, gulp, 2002 at the Claremont McKenna Athenaeum after a talk by the author and it’s signed to me — after I told him I write three columns per week, he wrote: “To David, I feel for you.” Tarzan was bought in 2011 at St. Louis’ Book House. Bradbury was a gift in 2012. “Our Towns” came free with a conference in Ontario in 2018 that I attended purely to hear the authors, who signed my book, Redlands native Jim writing “From a fellow Inland Empire writer.” McGee was bought in 2019 at Goleta’s Paperback Alley.

Note that two of these were “read” largely via audio, one in late March/early April and the other in mid-April. Listening to books in my car has been a neat way to squeeze in one or two extra books, and also to knock off, in this month’s case, two books I wasn’t sure when I’d get to in print; instead, they could be put in the “read” category with little effort on my part. I like it.

As for Burroughs and MacDonald, whose books I’ve been reading this year at a one-a-month pace, it was touch-and-go in April. Mired in the Tarzan novel for nine days, I decided to jettison my regimen during May; then I zipped through the McGee in five days and reconsidered. Lots of excitement and cliffhangers here in the Reading Log, eh? For May I’m likely to read both authors, even though they take up half of each month. I may have to put one or the other on hold at some point or I’ll never read the 900-page “Writing LA” anthology, or much of anything else. But I’ll keep going for now.

What about you all? How was your April of reading, not to mention your April of life? Update us in the comments, please. Behind every Reading Log comment is a person who cares.

Next month: A return to Barsoom and a visit to the International Space Station.

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Reading Log: March 2021

Books acquired: “Exhalation,” Ted Chiang; “The Future of Another Timeline,” Annalee Newitz; “Surviving in a Ruthless World: Bob Dylan’s Voyage to ‘Infidels,'” Terry Gans; “Three Witnesses,” Rex Stout; “Orange County: A History and Celebration,” Steve Emmons; “Being Mortal,” Atul Gawande

Books read: “Inlandia: A Literary Journey Through California’s Inland Empire,” Gayle Wattawa, ed.; “Desert Oracle, Vol. 1,” Ken Layne; “The Lady in the Lake,” Raymond Chandler; “The Long Lavender Look,” John D. MacDonald; “Tarzan Untamed,” Edgar Rice  Burroughs

We’ve made it this far, one-third of the way into 2021, a full year plus some change through the strangest collective period of our lives. How are you holding up? Do you have at least one vaccination yet, if you’d care to share?

Personally I’m in a more positive frame of mind than I’ve been in a long time. It seems almost unimaginable that such formerly routine but recently outlawed activities as seeing a movie or eating in a restaurant are now possible again — although I’m doing little of the latter and have no immediate intention of doing the former. The ability to browse in a bookstore is thrill enough for now.

I read five books in January, five books in February and, now, five books in March, a pleasing number to be hitting. If I keep this up the whole year, that would be 60 books, the most in several years. Well, we’ll see. One month at a time. A bit discouragingly, I ended up acquiring six books in March, one more than I read; those included two purchases with a birthday gift card, two purchases while on a short vacation and two birthday gifts. Understandable, I think. But with a yawning backlog still ahead of me, I’ll try to refrain from irrational exuberance in April.

Keeping to my stated goal, in March I again read one by ERB (Edgar Rice Burroughs) and one Travis McGee mystery by John D. MacDonald, as well as two examples of Inland Empire regional writing and a classic hardboiled mystery.

“Inlandia” (2006): A model of the form for regional writing, with examples famous, forgotten, obscure and original. Didion, Steinbeck and Chandler are here, and so are poets, essayists, short story writers and others, representing various cultures who’ve called the area home. This anthology deepened my understanding of the two-county area and provides breadcrumbs we can follow. (After the two chapters excerpted from “The Lady in the Lake,” I bought a copy; see below.)

“Desert Oracle” (2020): Drawn from the small journal of the same name, these true (or semi-true) stories of lights in the sky, ghost towns, eccentrics, lost hikers, monsters, hibernating birds and rumored presidential summits with aliens is a real desert trip. Geared toward readers who delight in history, lore and esoterica. Layne’s prose is dry, wry and conversational. There may be one or two too many UFO stories.

“Lady in the Lake” (1943): Philip Marlowe leaves the mean streets of LA on a missing-woman case that takes him to a lakeside mountain cabin (in real life, our Lake Arrowhead or Big Bear). Suddenly he’s also investigating the formerly-missing-now-found corpse of a different woman. Are the two cases connected, you ask? Hey, is the pope Catholic, and does Raymond Chandler write beautiful sentences? All of that is true.

“Long Lavender Look” (1970): In this 12th entry in the series, McGee is back in Florida but out of his element as he and his pal Meyer are briefly jailed on suspicion of murder. He’s his own client for a change as he has to clear his name and avenge Meyer’s beating at the hands of a drugged-up cop. Also, you get gems like this about a hardware store: “Old men were browsing through the hand tools and cupboard latches, spray cans and wallboard just as, in the world of long ago, they had prowled the candy store to find out how best to spend the hoarded dime.”

“Tarzan the Untamed” (1919): This seventh entry in the series (and the first I’ve read in seven years) starts with a bang, as the Greystoke compound is attacked while Tarzan is away and his wife killed, setting him off on a grim mission of vengeance that continues into the next novel. It’s the prose equivalent of a reboot. The action rarely lets up and various strands of the plot come together satisfyingly. When ERB finished writing, he should have beaten his chest and issued a victory yell.

This was a good month: I’d give everything four stars (out of five) except three stars for Desert Oracle, still a respectable rating.

Back in 2006 I got a pre-publication copy of “Inlandia,” which I paged through but never read, picking up this final copy at Magic Door Used Books in, probably, the late ’00s. Satisfying to finally read it, and it’s already been useful to my expanded column territory. I think I read it at the right time. “Tarzan” dates to the late ’00s as well from St. Louis’ Book House. “Lavender” came from North Hollywood’s Iliad Bookshop in 2012. “Oracle” and “Lake” were bought new earlier this year at Los Feliz’s Skylight Books. For me, a fast turnaround.

I’ve surprised myself by sticking to my ERB/McGee plan, at least through the first quarter of the year. (Nice to be able to mix things up a bit with ERB, as I have a few Tarzans as well as all the John Carter of Mars series to read.) While on one hand they’re consuming half of each reading month, and thus cramping my freedom, they’ve been a bedrock for each month and reading them is getting me through a logjam of titles on their respective bookshelves. And there’s been time for unrelated books, including “Inlandia,” which I’d been reading on and off for a few months before powering through the last half in March.

In fact, completing that 450-pager makes me want to tackle a few other literary anthologies on my shelves this year, including the nearly 900-page “Writing LA.” It’d be simpler to just devote an entire month to it, but more likely I’ll nibble away at it over much of the year.

How was your March, readers, and your first quarter of 2021? Are you sticking to your reading goals, if any, falling short or straying? Let us known in the comments, please.

Next month: Me blog pretty next time.

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Reading Log: February 2021

Books acquired: “The Best of Cordwainer Smith,” J.J. Pierce, editor; “Star Trek Log One,” “Star Trek Log Two,” Alan Dean Foster; “Secret Stairs” (2020 revised edition), Charles Fleming

Books read: “The Gods of Mars” (John Carter #2), “Warlord of Mars” (John Carter #3), Edgar Rice Burroughs; “Dress Her in Indigo” (Travis McGee #11), John D. MacDonald; “Anthony Bourdain: The Last Interview,” Melville House, publisher; “Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews,” Jonathan Cott, editor

Five books in January, five books in February — I like how smoothly 2021 is shaping up, although I’ll like it better once I get a dose or two of vaccine.

I bought four books in February, three of them at 510 Books, open one weekend per month in a warehouse space in Pomona, and which I just learned about last month. The next sale is March 5-7 at 748 E. Bonita Ave., immediately west of Towne Avenue. I picked up one of the Ballantine Best of series of sci-fi books, which I collect, and the first two adaptations of the “Star Trek” animated series, which I watched/read/owned as a lad. (Grand total for three books: $3.) While I’m unlikely to read those two again, it’s fun to own them, plus they’re signed by the author to Dwain Kaiser, the late owner of Magic Door Books in Pomona — which has been bought by, bringing things full circle, 510 Books. It’ll reopen later this year, the owner told me.

The other book, “Secret Stairs,” a guide to L.A. walks, was bought Saturday at Stories Books in Echo Park after finishing…a secret stairs walk from the first edition. I’ve been relying on that 2010 book all along but decided to spring for the update. At least one of my four (!) remaining walks is very different due to changing conditions.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the books I read. I continued with the two authors I hope to focus on in 2021, with time for other stuff too.

“Dylan” (2006): This rounds up most of the better interviews Dylan’s given, with an emphasis on his Rolling Stone cover-story chats. While it’s nice as a fan to have so many of these between two covers, Dylan is such a wary subject that 400-plus pages is a bit much even for a devotee. Sometimes confounding, often evasive or gnomic, frequently funny or sly, now and then profound or poetic, rarely revealing factually. But usually interesting.

“Gods” (1913): John Carter returns to Mars (somehow), makes with the swordplay, laughs at danger and topples phony deities — all in a day’s work. He also learns he has a son, about 30 pages after we figure it out. An exciting entry in the series (some say it’s the best), better paced than the first novel, and ending on a cliffhanger, as Carter wins his way to Dejah Thoris only to lose her — temporarily, I trust.

“Warlord” (1913): “The Gods of Mars” ends on a cliffhanger, so I found myself charging into this third entry in the series, much like John Carter with his battle-lust and slashing sword, to see how the trilogy wraps up. This and “Gods” are essentially one novel split into two parts. Carter is continually out of the frying pan and into the fire, scampering over much of Barsoom in his desperate quest to rescue his wife, bodies stacking up in his wake. Tremendously exciting and fun. This ends the trilogy, but Burroughs didn’t let that stop him from writing more.

“Bourdain” (2019): To use a food metaphor, these seven interviews, some of them transcripts of TV chats, are an aperitif, or maybe only a condiment. Yet they do give us an idea — a taste? — of what engaged him, how he viewed the world, the value of travel as fatal to prejudice (per Twain) and the principle of being a good guest when abroad, one who was there to learn from his hosts, not correct them even on matters of fact.

“Indigo” (1969): McGee and Meyer leave Florida for Oaxaca, Mexico, to track the last days of a young American woman among the dregs of hippie expatriates. It’s the second novel in the series to take place in Mexico, and MacDonald employs the setting sympathetically. McGee uses his wits, but also his fists, and Meyer his knack for getting people to open up. MacDonald’s skill is vivid writing, and it’s on display on every page.

The two ERB books were my favorites this month, with McGee right behind them. I can’t exactly recommend them like I’d recommend a standalone novel or penetrating work of social science, of course.

Where and when did I pick them up? “Dylan” was bought at Borders in 2009, “Indigo” in 2010 at Book Rack in La Verne and the two Mars books in 2011 at the annual Black Ace paperback show, with “Bourdain” a Christmas gift in 2019. And yes, it’s dismaying that, for example, I spent three bucks on a mystery at a used paperback shop and didn’t read it for, gulp, 12 years. But it’s read now.

More generally, I’m feeling on track with this McGee/ERB thing, having read one per month of the former and three in two months of the latter. Resuming these series/authors after a long layoff, I wasn’t sure I could even read them two straight months, as that’s not usually how I read, but I’m liking ’em fine and will return for more in March. But first, this very week I should be wrapping up a nonfiction book and a classic mystery novel. Can I finish five books again in March? It’s possible.

How about you, readers? What’d you read in February — and if you’d care to say, have you got a vaccine yet, or at least impending hopes to get one?

Next month: the jungle, the desert, a lake and McGee.

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