Reading Log: September 2019

Books acquired: “A Tan and Sandy Silence,” “The Scarlet Ruse,” “The Turquoise Lament,” John D. MacDonald; “Sweet Thursday,” John Steinbeck; “The Best of Edmond H. Hamilton,” Edmond H. Hamilton (duh); “The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Stories,” H.P. Lovecraft

Books read: “The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan,” Kevin Dettmar, ed.; “Counter-Clock World,” Philip K. Dick; “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” Walter M. Miller, Jr.; “Can and Can’tankerous,” Harlan Ellison

It’s not really c-c-c-cold, but I may as well pretend it is, the better to introduce my reading for September, all of them with titles that employ at least one C.

It came about like this: I wanted to read “Cambridge Companion,” and in fact had been slowly reading it on my nightstand all summer, while also desiring to get to “Counter-Clock,” one of the oldest unread books in my collection. (Not exactly unread, as I’d read and discarded an earlier copy in the early 1980s, but I’d been wanting to read it again as an adult who now loves Philip K. Dick.)

“Can and Can’tankerous,” a recent acquisition, fit the theme, and out of nowhere I realized so would “Canticle for Leibowitz,” which I’d owned for a decade and had had no plan to read. So, with a cackle, I added that C-book to the stack.

With that accounting, let’s get to the books.

“Cambridge Companion” (2009): Targeted to the college curriculum, this collection of essays about Bob Dylan is by design academic. For the rest of us, it’s definitely for the committed Bobhead. The first half’s thematic essays are often turgid, although Alan Light’s on Dylan as performer stands out. The back half, with commentary on eight albums, is much stronger, with Carrie Brownstein on “Blood on the Tracks” and Jonathan Lethem on “Infidels” (the reason I bought the book) being particularly good. Editor Dettmar is a Pomona College prof of my acquaintance, btw.

“Counter-Clock World” (1967): In the near future, time has begun running backward, which means the dead are returning to life in reverse chronological order. They include a black nationalist spiritual leader (think: MLK) whose return might upset society. There are serious concerns here about what exists beyond the grave, as well as a lot of hilarity about saying “goodbye” upon meeting, smoking cigarette butts back into full cigarettes, muttering “food” as a curse, wanting to eat in privacy and babies crawling back into the womb. Perhaps also a sign of the topsy-turvy world, the most powerful government agency is the library, which has commandos. Not in PKD’s first tier, but impressive and a personal favorite.

“Canticle” (1959): The conceit of a grocery list treated as holy relic makes for a compelling back-cover come-on, but the novel takes the matter of faith after a nuclear holocaust much more deeply and seriously. Thoughtful and well-written, this has flashes of humor, an ethical underpinning and a despair over the ability and willingness of mankind to destroy the planet.

“Can and Can’tankerous” (2016): A decent final book by Ellison collecting his 21st century output. I’d say two-thirds of the stories are entertaining, one-third weak. (I could have done without the Sarsaparilla Alphabet’s 26 brief, unrelated vignettes) I don’t know if Ellison was self-publishing for monetary or control reasons or because nobody wanted to work with him, but either way, it’s a little sad that a writer of his stature self-released this oddly sized, print-on-demand book. All that said, it’s an envoi to a long, remarkable career.

Have any of you read “Canticle”? I know Doug Evans has, and surely the absent Rich P. has as well. It’s the best book this month, although “Counter” was my favorite.

These books came into my hands as follows. “Counter-Clock” was bought by mail in 1994 from the legendary, and now defunct, The Other Change of Hobbit store in Berkeley. “Leibowitz” was bought at the likewise legendary-and-defunct Shakespeare & Co. in Berkeley in 2009. “Cambridge” was bought used in December 2018 from North Hollywood’s legendary, still in business Iliad Bookstore. “Can” was a Christmas gift, arriving this January via Amazon, an obscure online retailer with which a few of you may, perhaps, have dealt.

In other words, they arrived over the course of a quarter-century and were dispatched all in the same month. C-c-c-crazy!

Next month: books about Los Angeles.

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Reading Log: August 2019

Books acquired: none

Books read: “What to Eat,” Marion Nestle; “American Fried,” “Alice, Let’s Eat,” “Third Helpings,” Calvin Trillin

Happy September, readers! Welcome to our monthly books chat, here at the end of beach reading season. We don’t seem like a beach-reading-season crowd, but ehh, it seemed like something to say.

All the books I read in August had to do with food. How many books, though? It depends on how you count.

You’ll see four named above and only three in the photos. That’s because “The Tummy Trilogy” is, as the name suggests, three, three, three books in one. But when I bought it, I already owned one of the books individually, unread.

You could say accurately that I read two: “What to Eat” and “The Tummy Trilogy.” On my personal list of unread books, I listed all three “Trilogy” titles individually. So I’m saying, also accurately I believe, that I read four. To bolster my case, I switched from the “Tummy” paperback to the “Alice, Let’s Eat” hardcover at the appropriate time before returning to “Tummy” for the third book.

Book lovers will be arguing about this for years, I predict. (Note: Not really.)

Now, let’s dig in.

“What to Eat” (2006): Fair and sensible advice by America’s best-known nutritionist based largely on what you’ll find aisle by aisle in your supermarket. Marion Nestle advocates for food with fewer ingredients, less added sugar and fewer chemicals; thus, in the scheme of things, Coke is better than no-cal versions, butter better than margarine. While I learned a lot in reading this, it’s also true that of the probably 10,000 facts in these 500-plus pages, I’ve retained about a dozen. But they may serve me in good stead.

“The Tummy Trilogy” (1994): “I’m a specialist; I just eat,” Trillin says of why he doesn’t cook. This collects his three books about food — published in 1974, 1978 and 1984 — all of which I found equally enjoyable. The New Yorker writer travels far and near to investigate catfish, crawfish, country ham, pan-fried chicken and other regional favorites, often with commentary from his wife and daughters, with frequent laudatory mentions of his native Kansas City. This is as much domestic comedy as it is food writing. His youngest’s finicky tastes inspired the last piece, “Just Try It.”

Where did I buy these three, er, four (or is it five?) books? “Tummy” came from Changing Hands Books in Tempe, Arizona, in 2009, “What to Eat” from Borders in Montclair in 2008 and “Alice” from I’m not sure where circa 2007.

Will you let us know what you read in August in the comments? Provide your own count of your total, please. I’m worn out.

Next month: a few cc’s worth of titles.

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Reading Log: July 2019

Books acquired: “Star Light, Star Bright,” Alfred Bester; “The Best of,” “Tunnel Through Time,” Lester del Rey; “The Discomfort Zone,” Jonathan Franzen; “The Best of,” Raymond Z. Gallun; “Twenty Days With Julian & Little Bunny by Papa,” Nathaniel Hawthorne (!); “The Essential Hemingway,” Ernest Hemingway; “The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper,” John D. MacDonald; “A Ghost at Noon,” Albert Moravia; “The Brothers of Baker Street,” Michael Robertson

Books read: “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” Robert M. Pirsig; “California Dreamin’ Along Route 66,” Joe Sonderman; “On the Road With Bob Dylan,” Larry “Ratso” Sloman; “The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style,” Nelson George

Regards, readers! The above mass of “books acquired” can be explained rather simply: I took a vacation at Powell’s City of Books, conveniently located within the city of Portland, which is served by an airport. I bought seven books at Powell’s and its main branch, plus four graphic novels, and in Seattle, my next stop,I  picked up another three from visits to five bookstores.

That overshadows the “books read” list, but if you’ll take a second look, you’ll see I finished four books, all nonfiction and all with transportation as a sort of theme, at least in their titles.

Let’s run through them, starting with “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (1974). Have you read this? A reader, who was a motorcycle buff, gave me a copy in late 1997 and wrote in it: “Some alternative reading for the holidays. Perhaps you’ll find ‘some humor’ in it.” Exactly why he put quotes around “some humor” wasn’t clear. Anyway, some 22 holiday seasons later, I packed it in my bag for my San Diego trip and got started on it there.

The experience got off to an auspicious start. At breakfast one morning when I was only around page 25, a fellow diner, probably in his early 60s, saw the cover and told me how much the book had meant to him over the years. He planned to read it again, for the third or fourth time, in an attempt to understand it better.

Outside the restaurant, a man who may have been homeless walked past me dragging a large piece of cardboard. He too looked to be in his early 60s. He saw the cover in my hand and said with a knowing smile, “That’s a classic.”

Alas, over the next three weeks no one remarked upon the book. And it’s a very weird one. I did not find much humor in it.

“We do need a return to individual integrity, self-reliance and old-fashioned gumption” (p. 323) is an unusual message in a book hailed as a countercultural classic. I liked the motorcycle journey and father-son stuff, found the “metaphysics of quality” lectures baffling and rolled my eyes at the philosophy class drama. Your (motorcycle) mileage may vary. It’s a polarizing book, with people either loving it or hating it, and for those who love it, my congratulations.

“California Dreamin’ Along Route 66” (2019) was sent to me by the publisher, Arcadia Books. It’s a nice (B&W) collection of postcards, Caltrans images and recent photos of surviving buildings with capsule histories beneath. One favorite: When a truck slammed into a Victorville diner in 1962, “the cook prepared the driver a sandwich and then shut down the place for repairs.” Downside: The rigid formatting of these Arcadia books can get numbing.

“On the Road With Bob Dylan” (1978) is a book I resisted reading since buying a copy circa 1980, not able to persuade myself to read nearly 500 pages about the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, even if the headliner was my favorite artist. Recently I decided to read it after realizing I couldn’t part with a book I’d owned so much of my life. But since my copy was in near-perfect shape, but wouldn’t be if I read it, I sprung for a beat-up, trade paperback reissue found for $6.

Just as expected, the tour account is self-indulgent, although self-mockingly so. But it was a fun read, and Ratso deserves props for insinuating himself into the tour to the point he was able to quote Dylan’s wife, mother and the headliner himself. Minor note: This “revised edition” didn’t fix typos from the original. Poor Eric Andersen, still remembered here as Anderson.

“The Hippest Trip in America” (2014) traces how “Soul Train” began and how it evolved. I watched the show in its 1970s heyday, marveling at the glimpses of black life. My hometown apparently had no black people at all. While the book has fun anecdotes, a dozen or so dancer profiles is too many, and the shortage of photos is a drawback. That many of the interviews came from a then-current VH1 documentary rather than from original reporting is disappointing. So the book is a bit superficial, coming off as more of a prose tie-in to the movie than a standalone product.

So, my favorite book is the one on Dylan, but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend any of them, especially for people not already interested in the topics. The only one I disliked, though, was “Zen.”

As noted, “Zen” and “Route 66” arrived as gifts, nearly 22 years apart. “On the Road” was originally bought at, probably, a B. Dalton in 1980; the edition I read came from LA’s Last Bookstore a few weeks ago. And “Hippest Trip” was bought used at Claremont’s Rhino Records a few weeks ago as well.

How was your July, readers? Did you read books or simply maintain motorcycles or go California dreamin’? Let us know in the comments.

Next month: books about food.

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Reading Log: June 2019

Books acquired: “American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith,” Daniel Okrent, ed.

Book read: “Collected Stories,” Willa Cather

Usually it’s “Books read,” plural, but not in June, where I finished only one. It’s pictured by its lonesome, fore and aft in this post. Well, it beats my occasional joke here that one day, if I don’t finish a book, I’ll present a photo of a blank spot on my floor and another on a bookshelf.

I started this 512-page collection of 19 stories by Willa Cather during my vacation home in late May and read it fairly continuously through June. I considered setting it aside to read one or two shorter books but decided to just plow ahead. By June 28 I had one 12-page story left. But as I was leaving that morning for San Diego, I didn’t want to pack a book that (as I was taking the train) I would finish by Baldwin Park and then have to lug around all weekend.

So, I read that last story the first chance I had: July 1. Technically, then, I really didn’t finish a book in June. But I’m counting this one anyway.

I had read two Cather stories in college: “Paul’s Case” and “Neighbor Rosicky,” both of which I admired. “Rosicky” is particularly warm. They made me want to read more by her. Other than the slim “My Mortal Enemy,” about which I can recall nothing, I didn’t read any more Cather until “O Pioneers!” last October.

I bought “Collected Stories” in 1998 at the Rancho Cucamonga B&N in a burst of enthusiasm along with three other books: “Walden,” “A Short History of the World” and, incongruously, Jerry Seinfeld’s “Seinlanguage.” I read the latter almost immediately. It’s telling that, two decades later, the others remain unread. Obviously I liked the idea of reading these heavier books, but it’s the lightweight, barely-a-book that I read. Until now.

Last year I actually culled “Collected Stories” from my shelves and put it in a “sell” box, but then I sheepishly retrieved it after enjoying “O Pioneers!” “Collected” was among the oldest unread books on my shelves and I decided to face up to it at last.

As with any complete collection, this has its ups and down. Excellent: “Coming, Aphrodite!”, “A Gold Slipper,” “Paul’s Case,” “‘A Death in the Desert,'” “Neighbor Rosicky,” “Old Mrs. Harris,” “Tom Outland’s Story.” I liked several more. But some, especially the earliest pieces, too influenced by Henry James, weigh things down. “The Old Beauty” and “The Diamond Mine” are among the stories centered on a person the other characters find more fascinating than we are likely to. On the other hand, having so many stories focused on women makes an impression.

So, I’d give it 3 stars out of 5. I liked it, but I didn’t really need a complete Cather set. On the other hand, it was the best book I read in June! By the end of 2020, I would hope to have read “Walden” and “A Short History of the World.”

Incidentally, I have five books going on my nightstand, all of which I made progress on and which will pop up on the Reading Log in the coming months as I finish them. So it’s not like I only read Cather during June. Brief pause while I pull my tattered shreds of dignity more tightly around myself.

How was your June, readers? More productive than mine, I’m sure. Let us know in the comments field.

Next month: on the road.

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Reading Log: May 2019

Books acquired: none

Books read: “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” “Timon of Athens,” “Pericles,” William Shakespeare; “Shakespeare: The World as Stage,” Bill Bryson

As you can see above, I took the Reading Log on the road. I was reading the Bard all month, and after passing the Shakespeare bench outside Rancho Cucamonga’s Lewis Family Playhouse and Biane Public Library recently, I thought to return with my books and take the photo there. The things I do for you people! The photo at the end is on the same bench, not that it’s obvious.

I’ve been reading one or two Shakespeare plays per year the past few years, which makes him one my “annual authors” among such disparate company as Robert Benchley, H.P. Lovecraft, Jack Smith and Robert A. Heinlein. He certainly elevates the list, as he would with any such grouping.

I decided to read two plays this year, as I did last year, realizing I would never finish all his plays if I didn’t pick up the pace a bit. Rather than lug my college omnibus around once again, I went to the Pomona Public Library and checked out portable editions of the two plays I’d resolved to read: “Pericles” and “Merry Wives of Windsor.” Each edition I chose has two plays. “Wives” was paired with “Taming of the Shrew,” which I’ve read; “Pericles” was paired with “Timon of Athens,” which I believed I hadn’t. So, what the heck, instead of reading two Shakespeare plays, I read three. I was enjoying myself; once immersed in the language, the plays are easier to read, so one leads to two and two to three.

“Merry Wives” was familiar because I’d seen the LA Opera production of “Falstaff” a few years ago, and Verdi based it on “Merry Wives.” Much like Greg Brady, Falstaff tries to woo two women at once (both of them married) and suffers the consequences. It’s funny, and with a warm ending.

“Timon,” I realized a few pages in, was vaguely familiar for another reason: I’d read it in college. But as I didn’t remember much about it, I kept reading. It’s lesser Shakespeare, written with a collaborator (likely Thomas Middleton) and with a fairly one-dimensional lead character. But despite its flaws, it’s Shakespeare, so it can’t help but have some great lines.

As for “Pericles,” believed to have been written with a different collaborator (probably George Wilkins), there’s some question whether Shakespeare wrote the first two acts, or whether he perhaps only lightly revised them while doing heavy lifting on the last three acts. Anyway, this gets better as it goes along. Not great Shakespeare, but come on, it’s still enjoyable and worth reading.

Lastly, Bryson’s 200-page Shakespeare study seemed a good way to round out the month. (I considered reading something purposely different, like one of the Tarzan novels, as a joke, but that seemed willfully offensive. Let the Bard be.) Besides, I’d owned “The World as Stage” for a while — I bought it in 2011 on the cheap as Borders was closing — and was waiting to read it until I felt sufficiently interested. This was the time.

Best known as a witty travel writer, although he’s also written on other topics, like the English language, Bryson here provides a good general view of what we know about Shakespeare (very little, really) and his times while gently sending up some of the surmises others have made on flimsy or no evidence. He can be eloquent on the wonder that audiences must have felt upon hearing Hamlet’s soliloquy for the first time, or sitting through “Macbeth” wondering what would happen. And he is skeptical of many rosy claims, such as that Shakespeare famously leaving his “second-best bed” to his wife was a tribute of affection rather than an insult.

I began the month having read 16 of the plays (really 17, though I didn’t know it) and ended it having read 19, or precisely half of the 38 total that survive. That’s a nice feeling, and I look forward to next year’s reading, as even one play will mean I will have read the bare majority. I hope to read them all, of course. And then there’s the sonnets and a few poems, likewise.

How have you done regarding Shakespeare’s plays: some, many, all, none? And what did you read in May? Let us know, please, in the comments. And don’t be intimidated, though it’s hard to imagine you are; my June reading will return to the usual mishmash.

Next month: the usual mishmash.

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Reading Log: April 2019

Books acquired: “The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style,” Nelson George

Books read: “Dreams and Schemes,” Steve Lopez; “The Simulacra,” “Lies Inc./The Unteleported Man,” Philip K. Dick; “Only Apparently Real,” Paul Williams; “The Colour of Memory,” Geoff Dyer; “The Orange and the Dream of California,” David Boulé

April is the cruelest month, they say. For me it was dreamy, at least based on the titles of the books I read. Or if not dreamy, then unreal or not to be trusted.

I read six, even though you’ll see seven books pictured above. Explanation to come.

“Dreams and Schemes” (2010) collects the best of the LA Times columnist’s first decade on the beat. I’d read all these in my daily paper but was happy to read them again. Lopez has a lively voice that keeps his paragraphs moving. His topics shift too, from politics to slices of life to human interest. In an early one, he hires a day laborer to fill his passenger seat so he can take the carpool lane across the county. Several of the later ones are about the city’s marginalized, including a half-dozen about the homeless musician who went on to inspire his book (and movie) “The Soloist.” In the concluding column, they’re invited to the White House.

“The Simulacra” (1964) is one of several Philip K. Dick (and -related) books this month. He was a master at questioning reality, after all. As with many of his novels, the plot is almost impossible to describe, being overstuffed with ideas. It’s set in a near-future America in which the government is a fraud and the president is an android, married to an eternal first lady who’s been in office 76 years. We also follow the last legal psychiatrist in America, a psychokinetic pianist who thinks his body odor is lethal and a jug band duo who specialize in classical tunes. I’d rate this second-tier PKD.

“Lies Inc.” (2004)/”The Unteleported Man” (1984): This is a special case. Dick wrote a novella-length version in the 1960s, wrote an expansion to turn it into a novel that wasn’t published and started to revise it for publication prior to his death. That’s the 1984 version. Then a few missing pages turned up, misfiled among his papers, and that became “Lies Inc.,” which places his expansion material where he apparently desired it, which was 3/4 of the way through part 1 rather than at the end, scrambling the time sequence and making the effect more experimental. I read “Lies Inc.,” assuming it would be definitive, and decided it is now my least favorite PKD. Then I skimmed “Unteleported Man” over an hour to see what was different. Well, it made a little more sense and had a more chipper ending. I preferred that version, even if it’s still not a very good book.

What’s it about? Millions of emigrants are making a one-way trip to another world’s promised paradise. But is that world all it’s said to be, or is this an interstellar version of the final solution? There are parallels with “The Man in High Castle,” but overall this is one of his potboilers like “Vulcan’s Hammer” or “Dr. Futurity.”

Anyway, I’m putting a slash between the titles and counting this as one book, completing my penance for stretching a point with my Harlan Ellison reading last month. You’re welcome.

“Only Apparently Real” (1985): I liked it, but it’s for fans only, a modest attempt at biography and analysis. It’s made up largely of Q&As with Dick conducted by a friend who was later executor of his literary estate. An awful lot of the conversations concern a then-recent break-in at his home, about which Dick characteristically spun a great many conspiracy theories, which are entertaining to a point, and then tiresome.

“The Orange and the Dream of California” (2014): Photos and memorabilia from the days when citrus was king and marketing oranges was a way to market California and a fantasy lifestyle of gentleman farmers, snow-topped mountains and perfect weather. The text sketches the history and underlines the ironies and dissonances.

“The Colour of Memory” (1989): A warm, funny debut novel that follows a group of friends, all smart, around age 20 and underemployed by choice in late 1980s England. They hang out, drink beer, listen to “Sketches of Spain” and try to avoid getting burgled. There’s no plot, but plot is overrated, right? Often very funny, it’s also lyrical and elegiac for a time and circumstance the narrator understands needs to be remembered before it fades.

“Colour” is the literary winner this month, followed by “Dreams and Schemes.”

You might find it interesting to know that I read Lopez’ book at a pace of one column per night from mid-January to mid-April, and likewise read Boule and Williams from my nightstand too, a little per night in recent weeks. “Simulacra,” “Lies Inc.” and “Colour” were my only daytime books.

I bought Dyer at Powell’s in 2016 (it’s the last of my purchases from that trip); Lopez from Vromans in Pasadena in 2012; “The Simulacra” I know not when or where, but many years ago; Williams at Glendale’s defunct Brand Books in 2008, “Unteleported” from Next Chapter Books in Canoga Park in 2009, “Lies Inc” the same year (appropriately enough) from somewhere forgotten. Boulé sent me his book last November after I wrote about his donation of memorabilia to the Claremont Colleges Library.

How was your April, readers? I hope any cruelty was confined to the pages.

Next month: Shakespeare and lesser lights.

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Reading Log: March 2019

Books acquired: “Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters, 1542 to 2018,” David Kipen, ed.; “Endurance: My Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery,” Scott Kelly; “The Library Book,” Susan Orlean

Books read: “Edgeworks Vol. 1,” “Edgeworks Vol. 2,” “An Edge in My Voice,” Harlan Ellison; “The Blood of the Lamb,” Peter De Vries; “A Pleasure to Burn,” Ray Bradbury

As promised, March was a month of edginess, at least as far as book titles was concerned. three with “edge,” one with “blood,” one with “burn.” Your gentle columnist and blogger must have mayhem on his mind.

But it wasn’t as bad as all that. They’re just titles!

I kind of cheated with the “Edgeworks” books, by the way (speaking of edginess). Each collects two Ellison books. In the case of Vol. 1, I hadn’t read “An Edge in My Voice” and hadn’t read a portion of “Over the Edge,” which Ellison revised with a few uncollected stories for this volume. Introductions were also new. So I counted it. But I also counted my separate volume of “Voice” because I actually read the book that way. And then, for real cheating, I counted Vol. 2, which collects two books I’d read separately earlier this decade, because I realized I hadn’t read the new introduction (20-some pages).

Ehh, what are you going to do. I just wanted it on the record that I’d read them and this is the handiest way to do so. I should probably count them as 1 1/2 books rather than 3. Make a note of it at home. Anyway:

“Edgeworks Vol. 1” (1996): First in a projected 20 volumes that became 4 volumes, another aborted series that aimed to present the complete Ellison and stopped even sooner than Pyramid/Ace did. Behind a somewhat generic cover lie two very different books with “edge” in their titles, one collecting fiction and the other nonfiction. The fiction side swaps in some otherwise-unreprinted stories, and there’s a new, long introduction. Completists will want this, but otherwise, collecting these volumes seems unnecessary. That goes for “Vol. 2” (1996) as well: It’s got the early rock ‘n’ roll novel “Spider Kiss” and the ’80s story collection “Stalking the Nightmare,” which has a Stephen King foreword.

“An Edge in My Voice” (1985): Akin to Henry Rollins’ long 21st century run as an LA Weekly columnist, Ellison’s yearlong stint for the alt-weekly in the early 1980s brought a recognizable name with a sometimes angry, profane style. For good or bad, Ellison was less focused, churning out columns that often ran 2,000 to 5,000 words on whatever topic(s) occurred to him. Nearly 40 years on, most of them are still fun to read, and he won a PEN Award for them.

I’d been reading “Voice” from my nightstand, a column per night, since late January, wrapping up in late March.

“The Blood of the Lamb” (1961): De Vries was a purveyor of lightly comic novels, many excellent, but “The Blood of the Lamb” wrestles with life, death, fatherhood, medical science, the capriciousness of fate and man’s relationship with God (if any). Yet the tragedy is balanced as on a knife’s edge with De Vries’ trademark humor. A tour de force. I can’t imagine what readers at the time thought; it’s as if “Weird” Al Yankovic released “Blood on the Tracks.”

“A Pleasure to Burn” (2010): Collects published and unpublished Bradbury stories from the early 1950s that carry social comment, especially about a conformist culture, like “The Pedestrian,” and book burnings, primarily through two novella versions of the story that evolved into “Fahrenheit 451.” Both are similar to each other but different enough from the novel (no immersive TV, no “green bullet” audio capsule, less Mechanical Hound), for example) to be worth reading for devotees. Frankly, I didn’t think I’d be able to finish this 300-pager as I started it around March 22. But a Metrolink weeknight trip, with an hour wait at Union Station for my train home, gave me the opportunity to read 90 pages, and then I finished March 28. Huh. Bradbury isn’t too demanding, it must be said. I even had time to get a good start on a book for April.

Also, I skim-read “Fahrenheit 451” over the weekend to refamiliarize myself with it and better understand the changes for the finished product. It’s a great book, no question, but in some ways I liked the earlier versions better; there’s less gasbaggery from the fire chief (Bradbury’s skills do not include realistic dialogue), and the addition of Faber coaching Montag from afar via the earpiece seems awkward and manipulative. Give me half a book, or at least 3/8, for this one. Hey, my score is improving.

“Lamb” was the clear winner this month. And not because March came in like a lion and went out like a (wait for it) lamb.

Let’s see, I got the “Edgeworks” volumes via mail order upon publication in 1996. (I’ve already read Vol. 3 and never bought Vol. 4, which had no new material other than an introduction, I don’t believe.) “Voice” was bought in 2012 at Stories in Echo Park. “Lamb” came from Pasadena’s late Cliff’s Books circa 2004, after I read an excellent New Yorker profile of De Vries. And “Burn” was acquired from Glendale’s late Book Fellows in 2011.

As usual, I’m pleased to have knocked a few older books off my to-read list. Much more to come.

How was your March, readers? Please let us know in the comments. Feel free to cheat if you wish. I’m afraid I’ve set a bad example for you all.

Next month: dreams and unreality.

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Reading Log: February 2019

Books acquired: none

Books read: “Train,” Tom Zoellner; “The Lost Art of Walking,” Geoff Nicholson; “Over the Hills,” David Lamb; “Beyond This Horizon,” Robert A. Heinlein

Hey, didn’t I just write one of these a couple of weeks ago? I did. Of course, February is a short month, and also, with me on my sickbed the first half of the month, writing January’s log was delayed. Anyway, here we are just four mornings into March.

February saw me complete four books, possibly assisted by my couch time, although the first one, “Train,” begun in late January, wasn’t wrapped up until Feb. 10, not the most promising start. Anyway, the three primary books all have a sort of theme, which is travel by means other than driving. The fourth, my first fiction of 2019, has a title that fit the theme.

Train (2014): Subtitle: “Riding the rails that created the modern world, from the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief.” Zoellner rides the rails around the world and across the United States, returning with fare heartier than anything Amtrak serves, a stew of traveler stories, history and current events. (India’s goo and lack of automation are equally unbelievable.) He’ll make you understand how people were initially thunderstruck by and even frightened of a conveyance that traveled at an ungodly 20 mph.

Lost Art of Walking (2008): Subtitle: “The history, science, philosophy and literature of pedestrianism.” Like most rambles with friends, Nicholson’s book doesn’t stick to the path, takes a lot of digressions and lightly touches on various conversational subjects with humor and without getting too deep. I was expecting something more, say, a section on walking in literature. But as a collection of anecdotes and musings, it was an easy read and Nicholson is a witty, entertaining guide.

Over the Hills (1996): Subtitle: “A midlife escape across America by bicycle.” It was a pleasure reading about a middle-aged, unpretentious guy who ate plain American food, drank milkshakes and smoked as he biked solo across the country. (Although as he later died of esophageal cancer, perhaps he should’ve cut out the smokes.) Nothing bad happens to him on his journey besides flat tires and anxiety, so, Melville-like, he slips in chapters about the history of bicycling. Lamb’s writing is simple and graceful and he views non-coastal America with great affection.

Beyond This Horizon (1948): Subtitle: none, thankfully. There’s a little too much going on in this early Heinlein novel (duels! government finance! revolution! the meaning of life! football??), and the explanations of genetics bog things down. Still, it has its moments, and its confidence, ideas and good cheer point toward the fun, focused novels RAH would produce in the ’40s and ’50s.

“Over the Hills” was the winner this month, with “Train” a close second.

The three primary books came from Powell’s in Portland in 2016. I picked up the Heinlein in 2008, location forgotten.

How was your February, folks? Besides cold and wet, I mean.

Next month: edgy fare.

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Reading Log: January 2019

Books acquired: “Can and Can’tankerous,” Harlan Ellison

Books read: “Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records,” Amanda Petrusich; “Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles,” Jonathan Gold; “After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame,” Lynell George

Belated January, readers. I can’t say I’m particularly excited to share my reading from January, for a couple of reasons. I finished the last book on Jan. 13, which seems like forever ago, and a bout with pneumonia, from which I’m still suffering as I type this, has not only separated this Reading Log further from my actual reading but sapped me of the usual enthusiasm.

Well, we must muddle on, mustn’t we? So here are summaries of my three January books, none of which have any relation to any other, other than their all being nonfiction. Huh, and December was all nonfiction too, wasn’t it? What is happening to me?

Do Not Sell (2014): Why does a tiny subset of collectors focus on obscure music in an outdated form, 78 rpm records? It’s probably half about the content and half about fetishizing the past, Amanda Petrusich concludes after her deep dive (which includes an actual scuba excursion into a river in search of 78s). Still, she decides they’ve done the world a favor by rescuing blues, jazz, country, gospel and other music that would otherwise have been forgotten. Her exploration of this subculture is carefully observed, affectionate and, naturally, very funny.

Counter Intelligence (2000): Jonathan Gold’s only book to date, collecting some 290 reviews from the ’90s. I could never figure out how or why to read it. But then he died, I pulled it off the shelf and read one or two reviews nightly for roughly seven months, and that was perfect. Outdated, sure, but many spots are still in business, and the reviews are enlightening about different cuisines. Sometimes, they’re mic-drop hilarious: “I’m all for stately homes, but if hungry people had political clout, Hong Kong Low Deli is the kind of thing the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission might be dedicated to preserving instead of a bunch of old buildings that don’t even have restaurants in them.”

After/Image (2018): This collection of essays, reportage, memoir and photographs never cohered for me. Whoever wrote the back cover and inside flap seemed to struggle as well to sum up what the book was about. Lynell George, a journalist formerly of the LA Times, has thought a lot about L.A., but possibly too much; she seems offended that over four or five decades, L.A.’s built environment has changed and newcomers want to write their own stories. (Also, there must be an average of one copy-editing mistake per page, mostly involving oddly placed, punctuation. And yes, that comma was intentional and an example of what I mean.)

That’s that for the summaries, and I suppose I did all right at that. “Do Not Sell” came used from Powell’s Books in Portland in 2016, “Intelligence” was bought used at Glendale’s old Brand Books circa 2006 and “After/Image” was a birthday gift last year. It was the thought that counted.

What did you read in January, readers? Also, as this is the first Reading Log of the year, anyone want to share reading goals for 2019?

Mine include reading the last four books from my last Powell’s visit (before visiting again); keeping up with my annual authors Smith, Heinlein and Benchley; and reading my oldest unread books, from the mid-’90s. And yes, I know that sounds ridiculous. I’d like to be finishing off the remainder of my 20th century books, but there are just a few too many. Ah, life.

Next month: modes of transit.

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Books read, 2018

In 2018 I read 47 books. My reading tends to be of older books, many of which have languished on my shelves unread for years. My total is never enough, but it’s something. (One friend suggested I stand next to my pile, but really, it rises only a little above my knee. My stack and I would both feel diminished by the comparison.)

Here’s the full list in the order I finished ’em, as drawn from my monthly Reading Log posts on this blog. (I’ve done this annual list a few years now; here’s 2017’s.)

  1. Pale Gray for Guilt,” John D. MacDonald
  2. “The Shadow of Fu Manchu,” Sax Rohmer
  3. “Glimpses,” Lewis Shiner
  4. “Beginning to See the Light,” Ellen Willis
  5. “The Left Hand of Darkness,” Ursula K. Le Guin
  6. “Gather, Darkness!” Fritz Leiber
  7. “Lest Darkness Fall,” L. Sprague de Camp
  8. “A Scanner Darkly,” Philip K. Dick
  9. “The Harlan Ellison Hornbook,” Harlan Ellison (duh)
  10. “Edgeworks Vol. 3,” Harlan Ellison (and RIP)
  11. “Tricky Business,” Dave Barry
  12. “Hollywood Station,” Joseph Wambaugh
  13. “How to Find Old Los Angeles,” Kim Cooper
  14. “The 20th Century’s Greatest Hits,” Paul Williams
  15. “The Fifties,” David Halberstam
  16. “Land of 1000 Dances: Chicano Rock ‘n’ Roll from Southern California,” David Reyes and Tom Waldman
  17. “The Complete Humorous Sketches and Tales of Mark Twain,” Charles Neider, ed.
  18. “We Can Build You,” Philip K. Dick
  19. “The Baker Street Letters,” Michael Robertson
  20. “The Treasurer’s Report, or Other Aspects of Community Singing,” Robert Benchley
  21. “Make Room! Make Room!,” Harry Harrison
  22. “The Door Into Summer,” Robert Heinlein
  23. “Knockin’ on Dylan’s Door,” the editors of Rolling Stone
  24. “The Glass Key,” Dashiell Hammett
  25. “Re-Enter Fu Manchu,” Sax Rohmer
  26. “Housekeeping,” Marilynne Robinson
  27. “The Seven Lost Ranchos of Our Inland Valley,” Bob Smith
  28. “As You Like It,” William Shakespeare
  29. “Addicted to Americana,” Charles Phoenix
  30. “Selected Tales and Sketches,” Nathaniel Hawthorne
  31. “The Ganymede Takeover,” Philip K. Dick and Ray Nelson
  32. “The Dream Detective,” Sax Rohmer
  33. “The Feral Detective,” Jonathan Lethem
  34. “The Trial,” Franz Kafka
  35. “The Sheep Look Up,” John Brunner
  36. “The Maltese Falcon (Film Classics Library),” Richard J. Anobile
  37. “Cats, Dogs and Other Strangers at My Door,” Jack Smith
  38. “The Perfect Horse,” Elizabeth Letts
  39. “The Doom That Came to Sarnath and Other Stories,” H.P. Lovecraft
  40. “Echo Round His Bones,” Thomas M. Disch
  41. “Banking on Beauty,” Adam Arenson
  42. “O Pioneers!” Willa Cather
  43. “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage,” Todd Gitlin
  44. “Haircut and Other Stories,” Ring Lardner
  45. “Ritchie Valens, the First Latino Rocker,” Beverly Mendheim
  46. “Janis,” David Dalton
  47. “Bob Dylan: Performing Artist, the Middle Years, 1974-1986,” Paul Williams

I reflect on my year in reading in Wednesday’s column. You can reflect on yours, or mine for that matter, in the comments below.

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