Reading Log: March 2024

Books acquired: “The Collapsing Frontier,” Jonathan Lethem; “Solito: A Memoir,” Javier Zamora; “Inland Empire and San Gabriel Valley Movie Theatres,” Kelli Shapiro; “The Freaks Came Out to Write,” Tricia Romano

Books read: “Station Eleven,” Emily St. John Mandel; “Anecdotes on Mount Rubidoux and Frank A. Miller, Her Promoter,” Glenn Wenzel; “Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops: A Memoir,” Allison Hong Merrill; “Mexican American Baseball in the Inland Empire,” Richard Santillan; “The Earp Clan: The Southern California Years,” Nick Cataldo

How can this be April? I started a list of goals for the year, never went back to finish it, and already the year is one-fourth done. That’s ridiculous. Maybe I should write off 2024 and start planning for 2025.

Well, here we are. Nothing to do but make the best of what’s left of the reading year. Which, to be fair, IS nine whole months. We can get a lot done in nine months! Even if we didn’t get a lot done in three months.

In March I read one acclaimed novel and four nonfiction books, three of the latter about the Inland Empire. And all were gifts — more on that later. Let’s get started.

“Station Eleven” (2014): Intricately constructed and gracefully written, this was a modest pleasure to read. Yet very little happens, and there must have been a reason, besides a busy schedule and deliberate reading pace, that I rarely surpassed 20 pages a day. I liked it without ever quite finding it compelling. Post-pandemic, this post-plague novel carries an extra punch, of course, as in this line: “…this illness Hua was describing was going to be the divide between a before and an after, a line drawn through his life.” Yep. (Birthday gift from a friend, 2023.)

“Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops” (2021): Starts off strong, with the author, an immigrant who speaks little English, arriving home to find that her husband and in-laws had moved all his stuff out without telling her. Whoa! But much of what follows has an oddly cheerful tone or a shallow point of view. Can I trust the writer’s version of events? And as there’s no attempt to connect her story to anything bigger, like the immigrant experience, why am I reading this? (Aside from the book being a gift, I mean.) When the man-of-her-dreams ending arrives, well, good for her, but it doesn’t make for satisfying reading. (Birthday gift from a friend, 2023.)

“Anecdotes on Mount Rubidoux” (2010): We have to cut local history some slack. The people compiling it for us are almost always history buffs willing to dedicate untold hundreds of hours to a topic, while not being professional writers. This book has a lot of facts and dates about Riverside’s signature natural feature, Mount Rubidoux, and its place in town as scene of what may be America’s first sunrise Easter service, among other things. It’s a tough read, but for my purposes, useful. (Gift of the author, 2022.)

“Mexican American Baseball in the Inland Empire” (2012): This is one of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America photos-with-captions local histories, collecting private photos of teams and players from the ’30s to the ’60s, when Mexican American ball players had their own teams, leagues and stars. Rounding up the photos and information seen here, and in companion volumes about L.A., Orange County and other regions, was socially important. In book form it doesn’t make for very interesting reading, to be honest, and the snapshots are very similar and rudimentary. But the overall story of working-class people using sport as a release valve and social glue, forming community among themselves while being largely shut out of mainstream society, comes through. (Gift of a friend, 2023.)

“The Earp Clan” (2006): We all know of Wyatt Earp and his brothers’ exploits as lawmen in Tombstone, Arizona, probably through movies like “The Gunfight at the OK Corral,” “My Darling Clementine” or “Tombstone.” But that was only a couple of years of their lives. Most of them spent decades in San Bernardino County, around Redlands, Colton or San Bernardino. This book gathers up that information. With a chapter devoted to each family member, this gets rather repetitive; the wagon train that brought the Earps from Iowa is described a half-dozen times. Again, though, this was useful for me; I took notes and am thinking of how or when to write a capsule history in my column. (Gift of the author, 2023.)

Also during March, I got 40 pages into “Monogram,” a 1936 memoir by G.B. (Gladys Bronwyn) Stern before abandoning it. This was a 2021 Christmas gift from my brother, at my request. I’d seen a complimentary mention in a Robert Benchley essay (“Shattered Illusions”): “G.B. Stern, in her delightful book ‘Monogram’ (which, for my money, contains about everything that a book needs)…” Couldn’t help but be curious.

“Monogram” is not a traditional memoir and has almost no facts at all. Stern just lets her mind wander, changing subjects at will. She examines objects in her room, like a glass figurine, and sees where they take her, digression after digression. It’s a neat trick, but one I didn’t care to spend another week on. Here’s a piece about the book from The Neglected Books site, by someone who finds stuff to like, in “Monogram” and Stern’s seven other sort-of memoirs, and yet never finished any of them.

Now, about these books, and last month’s, as a whole.

After knocking out a half-dozen books in January. in February it seemed wise to concentrate on gift books, ones given to me by friends or occasionally by a writer friend or publisher. Sometimes the books are local in nature. Sometimes they are books in which I am quite interested, most obviously if I used a bookstore gift card to buy them (those are gifts of a sort); other times, I have no investment in the books at all, but a friend thought I would like them.

In February I read four such books and ended up acquiring one more. It seemed best to repeat the experiment in March, which is a good thing, because while I read five, and abandoned a sixth, another four came in. Birthday month, you know.

Out of 14 books finished so far in 2024, 10 were gifts. I still have, gulp, 23 gift books. I could spend the year reading nothing but those, and whatever fresh ones arrive. But that’s not really the direction in which I want to go. Instead, I’ll try to polish off one or two per month, on average, and maybe devote another month to ’em before year’s end. This may only keep me from falling further behind, but that’s something, right? Meanwhile, I’ll return my focus to my remaining pre-pandemic purchases.

OK, enough from me, and probably more than enough. What about you? What did you read, or abandon, in March? Sound off in the comments, please.

Next month: I hit my second Homer.

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Reading Log: February 2024

Books acquired: “Collidoscope: de la Torre Brothers,” Riverside Art Museum; “Shot in the Heart,” Mikal Gilmore; “Good-bye to All That,” Robert Graves

Books read: “Letters to My City,” Mike Sonksen; “Collidoscope: de la Torre Brothers,” Riverside Art Museum; “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Maya Angelou

For 2024’s second month, I decided to chip away at the backlog of books given to me by friends, writers or publishers. This was a good plan. But although I read three, three more arrived (one of which I managed to read the same month). So the month was a little like running in place, but at least I didn’t fall further behind, right?

Here’s what I read:

“Letters to My City” (2019; revised 2023): A winning combination of L.A. neighborhood histories (Florence-Firestone, South Central, North Long Beach and others), tributes (to Huell Howser, a beloved teacher, the 562 area code) and poetry, some of which lists streets, writers or cities by name, a la Chuck Berry, to great effect. “Who’s rockin’ the populace in the postmodern metropolis? LA authors.” Third-generation Angeleno Sonksen loves LA’s present as much as he does its past, a rare and welcome thing. As a prose writer, he’s an enthusiastic amateur, but he’s earnest and he pays close attention. I like and admire this book. (Copy sent to me in December 2023 by the author.)

“Collidoscope” (2024): This is a museum catalog for one of the opening exhibits from the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture in Riverside in 2022, with overall and detail photos of the pieces as well as some text about Einar and Jamex de la Torre, who live and work on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Their glass sculptures and lenticular art (think of 3-D baseball cards) are often silly or scatological and sometimes evoke wonder with their panoramic sweep and myriad of details. (Copy sent to me by the museum.)

“Caged Bird” (1969): Angelou’s first memoir, this tells the story of her childhood, bouncing between locales and parents/grandparents, as seen through a child’s eyes and memory, with some pieces unknown or only guessed at. Generous, warm, well-observed and the funnier and more vivid for it, and sometimes shocking. I listened to the audiobook, which is read by Angelou, effectively, although I sped it up to 1.25 because she read so deliberately. (Copy bought in September 2023 at Pasadena’s Octavia’s Bookshelf with a gift card, but primarily read via a library borrow of the audiobook.)

I can’t really recommend “Collidoscope,” unless you saw the exhibit and want a memento, but the other two books might interest you, and surely I don’t need to tell you that “Caged Bird” is a modern classic. You may well have read it yourself.

Two other gift books were in progress during February, but I didn’t get them read in time. One was finished March 2, after I wrote the bulk of this post and had uploaded the photos. But there’s no rush; it can wait for my March Reading Log. Since I expect to only get to three or four books, I’m going to make that another gift-book month. And it’s my birthday month, which will mean — more gift books!

I’m looking forward to April and May, when I can get back to some pre-pandemic books. In the meantime, what did you all read during February? Let us know in the comments.

Next month: “Station Eleven” and more.

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Reading Log: January 2024

Books acquired: “California Characters,” Charles Hillinger

Books read: “Empire of the Summer Moon,” S.C. Gwynne; “A Song for a New Day,” Sarah Pinsker; “The Quest of the Sacred Slipper,” Sax Rohmer; “Breakfast in the Ruins,” Michael Moorcock; “The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike,” Philip K. Dick; “The Big Goodbye,” Sam Wasson

Happy New Reading Year! I believe I am allowed to say that even in February given that it’s the first Reading Log of 2024. Also, it’s my blog, not to be overbearing or anything (cough).

I’m looking forward to this year. For one thing, my pre-pandemic backlog is a mere 18 books. Although some of them are gonna be bears. Five of them add up to 3,000 pages and won’t be easy to slide into the schedule without making them the month’s sole book.

After that there are another 52 books acquired from 2020 on. About one-third of these were gifts of some sort. I’ll try to knock off one or two per month, just as I did last year.

(They do pile up. Someone promised just Friday to reward me for participating in an upcoming event by giving me three books. A part of me wanted to cry. And then my birthday is in March, which will mean more books. It’s hard to catch up.)

About one-fourth of my pandemic-era books are local histories, some of which overlap with the gift books. I’ll work these in as well and may accelerate things with an entire month of them.

In other words, a certain amount of strategy will (continue to) go into my monthly choices. It’s all well and good to take the “read whatever you like” philosophy, but if I don’t want to save all my friends’ gifts to the end, or make you read about local history books for four months straight, much less have to read local history books for four months straight myself, I feel the need to draw down the backlog in a balanced way.

On to January’s reading. This was a “theme” month of sorts with titles that seem to take us from nighttime through a morning routine. Silly, yes, but it spurred me to read six books, including one by our pal PKD that I’d been trying to work into my schedule for, literally, a decade. The situation has thinned out enough that the time was now, and boy, was it satisfying. Two, by Pinsker and Gwynne, were listened to as audiobooks to speed things along.

“Empire of the Summer Moon” (2010): I’m no western history buff, so the stories of the Parkers and the end of the Comanche nation were all new to me, and unexpectedly fascinating. Gwynne’s writing and his choice of detail keep things moving. (Received as birthday gift in 2022.)

“A Song for a New Day” (2019): If nothing else, give Pinsker and her 2019 novel credit for prescience: After a disease outbreak, public gatherings are outlawed and people retreat into private spaces, order goods online and social distance in restaurants, transit and elevators. Those crazy science fiction writers! Where do they get this stuff? The story itself is pretty sharp too, alternating between an idealistic touring musician and a naive rep for a virtual-concert corporation as they try to navigate a changed world and hang onto their principles. Pinsker has toured as a musician herself, and it shows. Winner of the 2020 Nebula Award for Best SF Novel. (Bought at Portland’s Powell’s Books in 2022.)

“Quest of the Sacred Slipper” (1913): The usual Rohmer froth involving an emotional male British narrator, a bewitching exotic woman, mysterious Eastern sects and a fanatical mastermind. However, this is in the Middle East, not China, the protagonist doesn’t end up with the woman, Fu Manchu is nowhere in sight and the sacred slipper is a religious relic that even the authorities admit is better off in local hands rather than the British’s. Casually racist at times, definitely a product of its era, but a fun read. (Bought at LA Paperback Book Show in 2009.)

“Breakfast in the Ruins” (1971): Experimental, and somewhat confusing, as our white protagonist has a homosexual encounter in the present (1971) with a Nigerian, lives out 18 imagined (?) lives in the past, and gradually trades places, or races, with his partner. Even if I didn’t entirely understand it, it was never less than interesting. (Bought at Anaheim’s Book Baron in 2022, partly to fit into this month’s concept.)

“Man Whose Teeth” (1960; 1984): PKD’s mainstream fiction, most of it unpublished in his lifetime, is interesting but not entirely successful. This novel is one of the better ones, following two dysfunctional marriages and a hoax involving a possible Neanderthal skull that leads to other complications. Set in the rural Marin County of the late 1950s, the events are set in motion by an irascible real-estate man who is quick to anger and who can’t let go of a grudge. (Bought at Claremont’s Rhino Records as remainder in 2013.)

“Big Goodbye” (2020): A deep dive into the making of “Chinatown” and the milieu in which it was created. It was a surprise to learn that Polanski rewrote Towne’s script so extensively and yet accepted no credit. In a way the story behind one movie doesn’t seem worth blowing up to book length. But it’s a milestone movie, and this did make me want to see it again, as well as watch the supposedly middling sequel, “The Two Jakes.” (Received as birthday gift in 2022.)

“A Song for a New Day” was this month’s winner. “Summer Moon” was awfully good too, if a bit dense. The others were all of medium interest. It was a good month.

So I’m off to a good start for 2024. How was your January, readers? And what goals might you have for the year?

Next month: three (?) books gifted to me.

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Books read, 2023

Welcome to my annual post looking back at my year in reading! At the bottom is a list of the books I read in 2023, in chronological order. Up top is a photo of them all in one place. After this group photo, most were returned to my shelves and about one-fourth went into a “sell” box. (For comparison, here’s my 2022 list of books read.)

The year’s total was 63 books: 33 fiction, 30 nonfiction. That is, if we count Homer and Dante as fiction, but other poetry as nonfiction, which seems fair to me. A scant 10 of the 63 were written or co-written by women. This is, I think, largely a function of my backlog, which is primarily made up of pre-21st century books.

2023 was a pretty good year, one in which I kept chipping away at my fabled backlog. To use the pandemic as a diving line, and it’s an obvious marker for us all, I began the year with 58 books purchased before the pandemic and ended the year with only 18.

By the end of 2024 I fully expect to have read those remaining 18, all received from 2009 through 2019. (A few of them are quite long — hello, “Middlemarch” and “Big Book of Adventure Stories,” each nearly 1,000 pages! — so it’s no slam dunk. But at one or two per month, it’s doable.)

Finishing those will definitely be progress as that relatively modest effort will catch me up on 11 years of past purchases and bring my reading into the pandemic era (and what an era it was, eh?). Note that only one of the 18, “Middlemarch,” is by a woman.

Women are better represented in the pandemic era: I have 52 unread books acquired from 2020 through 2023 on my shelves and 21 are by women. It’ll probably take me through 2025, or slightly beyond, to read all those books and whatever else is acquired, by purchase or gift, by then.

Almost one-third of those 52 are local history books about the Inland Empire or California, by the way, some of which I will be reading in 2024. They may get their own month or two to keep them from piling up further. They were acquired for work purposes and they should be helping me out now, not later.

In 2024 I also expect to read a little of everything else: more Ballantine Best of books of various old-time SF authors, some general fiction, some nonfiction. And almost certainly I will read the final three Travis McGee mysteries. I read three in 2023, so surely I can read three in 2024. I don’t own the last one yet, not having seen a copy, but also not having needed to seek it out. eBay, here I come.

How was your own year in reading? What are your reading goals for 2024? Comment below if you like.

  1. “The High Desert: Black. Punk. Nowhere.,” James Spooner;
  2. “The Ballad of Bob Dylan,” Daniel Mark Epstein;
  3. “Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down,” Tom Dardis;
  4. “Woe is I,” Patricia O’Conner;
  5. “Baseline Road,” Orlando Davidson;
  6. “The Season to be Wary,” Rod Serling;
  7. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino;
  8. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories,” Washington Irving;
  9. “Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour,” Scott Skelton and Jim Benson;
  10. “Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery,” Robert Arthur, ed.;
  11. “A Ghost at Noon,” Alberto Moravia;
  12. “Night Gallery,” Rod Serling;
  13. “Night Gallery 2,” Rod Serling;
  14. “Klara and the Sun,” Kazuo Ishiguro;
  15. “The Adventures of Solar Pons: Regarding Sherlock Holmes #1,” August Derleth;
  16. “The Naked Sun,” Isaac Asimov;
  17. “The Dreadful Lemon Sky (Travis McGee No. 16),” John D. MacDonald;
  18. “Buster Keaton Remembered,” Eleanor Keaton and Jeffrey Vance;
  19. “Get Back,” John Harris, ed.;
  20. “An Ordinary Life: Poems,” B.H. Fairchild;
  21. “Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins,” Mark Twain;
  22. “When Teddy Came to Riverside,” Glenn Wenzel
  23. “The Best of Frederik Pohl”;
  24. “The Best of Keith Laumer”;
  25. “Slow Learner,” Thomas Pynchon;
  26. “He Kept His Day Job: Fanfare for the Common Musician,” Dan Bernstein;
  27. “Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom,” Carl Bernstein
  28. “Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World,” Mark Twain;
  29. “A Kiss Across the Ocean: Transatlantic Intimacies of British Post-Punk and U.S. Latinidad,” Richard T. Rodriguez;
  30. “The Empty Copper Sea (Travis McGee No. 17),” John D. MacDonald;
  31. “Waste Tide,” Chen Qiufan;
  32. “Looking to Get Lost,” Peter Guralnick;
  33. “Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare,” Stephen Greenblatt;
  34. “Platinum Pohl: The Collected Best Stories,” Frederik Pohl;
  35. “The Wonderful World of Robert Sheckley,” Robert Sheckley;
  36. “The Broken Bubble,” Philip K. Dick;
  37. “Myth & Mirage,” Riverside Art Museum;
  38. “The Inferno,” Dante Alighieri;
  39. “Purgatorio,” Dante Alighieri;
  40. “Paradiso,” Dante Alighieri;
  41. “Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years,” Laura Skandera Trombley;
  42. “The Imperfectionists,” Tom Rachman;
  43. “Sweet Thursday,” John Steinbeck;
  44. “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf;
  45. “Dickens and Prince,” Nick Hornby;
  46. “A People’s Guide to Orange County,” Elaine Lewinnek, Thuy Vo Dang and Gustavo Arellano;
  47. “West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire,” Kevin Waite;
  48. “Octopus’s Garden: How Railroads and Citrus Transformed Southern California,” Benjamin T. Jenkins;
  49. “Foucault in California,” Simeon Wade;
  50. “After the Dome Fire,” Ruth Nolan
  51. “The Best of Edmond Hamilton”;
  52. “The Best of Fredric Brown”;
  53. The Best of Henry Kuttner”;
  54. “The Green Ripper (Travis McGee No. 18)” John D. MacDonald;
  55. “Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angels,” Paul Pringle;
  56. “Mojave Project Reader Vol. 2,” Kim Stringfellow;
  57. “A Walker in the City,” Alfred Kazin;
  58. “The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone,” Olivia Laing
  59. “Tokyo Ueno Station,” Yu Miri;
  60. “The Fiddler in the Subway,” Gene Weingarten;
  61. “Read Me, Los Angeles: Exploring L.A.’s Book Culture,” Katie Orphan;
  62. “Humpty Dumpty in Oakland,” Philip K. Dick
  63. “The Iliad,” Homer
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Reading Log: December 2023

Books acquired: “Letters to My City,” Mike Sonksen; “San Bernardino (Images of America),” “Creating the Gate City: San Bernardino, California,” “The Earp Clan: The Southern California Years,” Nick Cataldo

Book read: “The Iliad,” Homer

Note: It’s singular “Book read,” not “Books read,” possibly for the first time since starting the Reading Log. Which I did in January 2009, saying, “If I remember, I’ll write one of these posts each month.” I have remembered.

In fact, 2023 ends 15 years of Reading Log posts. This was news to me; I only learned about it a few minutes ago when trying to determine when these posts started, then counting on my fingers. Happy anniversary to me!

I ended up with four books acquired, all of them gifts from the two authors represented. At this rate I’ll never catch up. But then again, “The Iliad” is no pamphlet.

“The Iliad” (possibly 8th century B.C.): This 15,000-line poem remains remarkable 2,700 years or so after its composition: vivid, lyrical, gory, affecting. On one level it’s not really my thing: It’s nothing but fighting, it’s often redundant and keeping track of who’s fighting on which side was too much for me. But I liked it anyway. (Bought at San Luis Obispo’s Phoenix Books in 2009.)

I bought the matching edition of “The Odyssey” at the same time and same place, both copies only lightly used, under the theory that $8 each was a good deal. Well, it was, but less so after letting them collect dust for almost 15 years. If I were buying these books now, probably I would opt for the new Emily Wilson translations, “Odyssey” in 2017 and “Iliad” just weeks ago. But swapping out these Robert Fagles translations unread would be even less cost-effective.

My hope is to get to “Odyssey” early in 2024, maybe in February; that and a Sax Rohmer potboiler, also bought in 2009, are my two oldest unread books at this point. I’ve begun reading the Rohmer novel already.

I finished “Iliad” on Christmas Eve (it did not get me in the Christmas spirit) and decided to end the reading month early. So, one book. Rather than try to squeeze in a second book the last week of the year, and being only in the early stages of both a nightstand book and an audiobook, I opted to wrap up early, get this post published and move on to my annual list of “books read” for the year. This way, I’m already in progress on my January books — plural.

(Although who’s to say? Maybe December is a new start for me and I will read only one book each month in 2024, for a grand total of one dozen. If so, they’d better be darn good books.)

Comment on your December reading now or wait until after Dec. 31, depending on your own reading schedule. You can reflect on your year here or in my upcoming Books Read, 2023 post. In the meantime, thanks as always for checking in.

Next month: Up and at ’em! Six (?) books with titles that seem to involve morning.

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Reading Log: November 2023

Books acquired: “Palm Springs Legends: Creation of a Desert Oasis,” Greg Niemann; “A Battle of Love and Glory,” Reyna Grande; “Anatomy of 55 More Songs,” Marc Myers

Books read: “Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angels,” Paul Pringle; “The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone,” Olivia Laing; “A Walker in the City,” Alfred Kazin; “Tokyo Ueno Station,” Yu Miri; “The Fiddler in the Subway,” Gene Weingarten: “Read Me, Los Angeles: Exploring L.A.’s Book Culture,” Katie Orphan; “Humpty Dumpty in Oakland,” Philip K. Dick

Happy December! I had a big November, books-wise (which is the entire point of these posts), with eight (!) books read. I listened to two as audiobooks, one was short, two were read from my nightstand and the final one was finished Dec. 5, which maybe was cheating a bit. But it fit the loose theme, which was fiction or nonfiction with titles that either included the word “city” or seemed to involve cities.

“Bad City” (2022): A story about scandals at an elite institution in LA, the nitty-gritty of how those scandals were unraveled by reporters and the bureaucratic logjams at the newspaper that kept the story on ice for months. (The investigation eventually won a Pulitzer.) It’s also a window into the slow collapse of newspapers. Overall, it’s valuable. I do question the decision to summarize the scandal at the outset, making the process of uncovering of the details less exciting (since what’s news to the reporters is now old news to us). And there’s more than a whiff of revenge narrative behind the takedowns of various LA Times editors who served as roadblocks. Also, “Bad City”? What a strange, reductive title. (Birthday gift, 2023; listened to on audio.)

“Lonely City” (2016): I hadn’t expected these “Adventures in the Art of Being Alone” to consist largely of an exploration of a half-dozen outsider artists, half of whom I’d never heard of, but one of whom I love (Hopper), and most of whom were connected to NYC. Still, the profiles of and meditations on the artists held my interest due to Laing’s deep-dive research, lucid writing, passion and empathy. (Bought in 2021 at Milwaukee’s Downtown Books; listened to on audio.)

“A Walker in the City” (1951): Very evocative of a certain time and place, the late ’20s and early ’30s in the Jewish tenements of Brownsville, a far eastern outpost of Brooklyn that to young Kazin didn’t even seem to be part of NYC. Vivid, sometimes florid remembrances of sights, smells and activities: candy shops, street games, books, Socialist meetings, hot nights on fire escapes. Lyrical, but not quite compelling. (Also, I expected more walking.) (Bought in 2015 at New York City’s Strand Books, which seemed appropriate.)

“Tokyo Uno Station” (2021): A man’s bad luck leads to homelessness, a condition that continues after his death. Spare and observant, sometimes lovely, but it didn’t grab me. NPR called this “a harsh, uncompromising look at existential despair,” which it turns out is not really my thing. (Bought in 2021 at St. Louis’ Subterranean Books.)

“The Fiddler in the Subway” (2010): Journalist Weingarten’s persona online can be aggressive and juvenile, but here, thankfully, that’s seen only in some of the introductions. These essays and feature stories, two of which won Pulitzers, are insightful, surprising, observant and sometimes devastating, whether the topic is a reunion with an elementary school crush, a chat with a non-voter, a visit to a remote Alaskan town, a search for the “armpit of America” or a sympathetic portrait of parents who accidentally forget their children in the backseat. (Bought in 2016 at St. Louis’ Patten Books.)

“Mojave Project Reader, Vol. 2” (2021): This is the second of four (to date) intelligent, well-designed compendiums about desert topics, taken from an ongoing online journal. In this case, topics include desert tortoises, the folk-art Amargosa Opera House, the town of Needles (clever title: “Needles and the Damage Done”), Joshua Tree musicians, the former mining camp of Darwin, the story of Borax and a mythical underground river of gold. (Bought in 2023 at Yucca Valley’s Acme 5 Lifestyle.)

“Read Me, Los Angeles” (2020): A breezy, diverse look at L.A. literary culture, via profiles of authors living and dead, lists of books (mysteries, fiction, nonfiction, crime, YA, etc.) set in the county, lists of bookstores, lists of must-read books in different categories, visits to places described in fiction, book quotes about L.A. and more. A good, attractive nightstand book. (Birthday gift, 2023.)

“Humpty Dumpty in Oakland” (1986): Fairly strong — in contrast to protagonist Al Miller, who is apathetic and passive. Dick manages to incorporate a lot of his classic themes, tropes and settings into this long-unpublished 1960 social-realist novel: the Bay Area, working-class losers, paranoia, a conspiracy that may or may not be real. Compared to “The Broken Bubble” (the last of these PKD novels I tried, and which was a bit sodden), this was interesting and had enough deadpan comedy to keep me engaged. (Bought in 2013 at Berkeley’s Moe’s Books.)

“Fiddler” was the best of the lot, worth reading if you like narrative nonfiction. “Read Me” would be fun for the literarily inclined of Southern California. The rest were good to so-so.

How was your penultimate month of 2023?

I don’t have high hopes for December, in part because I really wanted to include the “Oakland” book with these despite finishing it Dec. 5, after 10 days of reading. (It wasn’t a hard book, there were just a lot of interruptions.)

I’d had an idea for December, which was to read “The Black Book” by Orham Pamuk, “The Red and the Black” by Stendhal and “Free Fall in Crimson,” the 19th Travis McGee novel. Clever, eh?

But the first two are 500-plus pages, and I could tell from the first page of Pamuk’s book (which he’d signed for me after a Claremont talk) with its Turkish names that I didn’t have the patience for it. I read about 30 pages of Stendhal’s novel before concluding that I didn’t have the patience for it either. Both are books I’ve owned for a dozen or more years and at this point the main reason I had for reading either is that I owned them, not that I was particularly compelled to read them. (Note to Terri: I’m curious if you’ve read Stendhal!) In the near future I probably won’t own these any longer, which will take care of that. That’ll lighten my unread material by about 1,100 pages. (Brushes imaginary dust from his hands.)

So what will I read in December? I picked out and put back three different novels off a bookcase this morning (Dec. 7), after picking out a different one last night and putting it back this morning. There’s no telling if I’ll like the one I settled on or will choose again, but I doubt I’ll finish more than one or two in the remaining time. It’s a frazzling period of the year. Maybe after November, I’m “read out” for a bit.

Next month: I’m at a loss! But I’ll come up with something.

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Reading Log: October 2023

Books acquired: “Mexican American Baseball in the Inland Empire,” Richard Santillan, Mark Ocegueda and Terry Cannon; “No Place for a Puritan: The Literature of California’s Deserts,” Ruth Nolan, ed.; “Mojave Project Reader, Vol. 3,” Kim Stringfellow, ed.

Books read: “The Best of Edmond Hamilton”; “The Best of Fredric Brown”; “The Best of Henry Kuttner”; “The Green Ripper (Travis McGee No. 18)” John D. MacDonald

Happy November! Here’s where we look back at our October reading. Everyone fall in!

I promised I’d read “mass market paperbacks,” and so I did. They’re from a fairly narrow band: three of the four are from the same single-author anthology series of the ’70s, while the fourth is the last Travis McGee mystery of the ’70s. I’m glad I managed to read the latter just to give this Reading Log post a modicum of variety.

I love these “Ballantine Best of” books, of which there were 22. I own 15 of ’em. Officially the “Classic Library of Science Fiction,” they’re good look-backs at various science fiction writers of the ’30s to the ’60s, with many but not all of the biggest names represented, plus several nearly forgotten writers. The books collect somebody’s idea of the writer’s best stories or novellas over 350 to 400 pages, including an afterword by the author, if he or she were still living.

I’ve found them all at used bookstores, never seeking any out online, although it will probably come to that at some point, as most of the remaining seven I have yet to see copies of. For now it’s been fun to have a list of author names to quickly scan for in the SF section and to be delighted if a store has one or two.

As it is, I’ve bought them faster than I’ve read them. Before this month I’d read only six of my 15. So I resolved to find a free month and read at least two, or in this case three. In one swoop, the number I own but haven’t read dropped from nine to six. Huzzah! That said, one of them was read in stages starting in the summer and was wrapped up at the end of September. The lesson learned is that reading two of these in a month — close to 800 pages in all — is about all I’m likely to be able to accomplish again.

As for Travis McGee, you know that I’ve been slowly but doggedly reading this classic series over the past few years. I’ve now read 18 of the 21. I may get to No. 19 in December, we’ll see. The end is in sight for 2024.

Here’s the rundown for the month:

Best of Edmond Hamilton (1977): An entertaining collection that spans nearly half a century. Some of the earlier stories are either derivative or silly, like the one in which our entire solar system is moved by enormous rockets helmed by pilots, as if the planets were spaceships. But the stories are clever and fun, and by the time of “What’s It Like Out There?,” about an astronaut who like a military commander has the delicate emotional task of informing the relatives of his crewmates about their deaths, Hamilton has adapted to a modern, grimmer style. I don’t necessarily need to read more Hamilton, but I’m glad I read this one. (Bought at San Luis Obispo’s Phoenix Books in 2019.)

Best of Fredric Brown (1977): I didn’t know any of the stories aside from “Arena” and “Puppet Show,” both great (“Arena” was adapted for one of the most famous “Star Trek” episodes), but these are smoothly written tales by a storyteller who knows how to rope you in and keep you reading. Brown’s playfulness never comes off as strained. The short-short stories interspersed throughout are palate-cleansing fun. (Bought at Minneapolis’ Uncle Hugo’s SF Bookstore in July.)

Best of Henry Kuttner (1975): This has strong stories like “Mimsy Were the Borogoves,” “What You Need” and the Fritz Leiber-like “Nothing But Gingerbread Left,” the likable space opera of “The Big Night,” fun ones like “Housing Problem,” some middling stories and then dogs like “The Proud Robot.” In other words, this collection is about 100 pages too long based on the quality, but that could be more a knock against the compiler than against Kuttner. Ray Bradbury’s introduction is warm but vague; he doesn’t refer to any of the stories or mention Kuttner’s wife and frequent collaborator, C.L. Moore. For my tastes, one of the weaker Ballantine Best entries. (Bought in 2016 at St. Louis’ Patten Books.)

The Green Ripper (1979): Possibly the most violent book in the series, as Florida’s McGee goes undercover to join an apocalyptic cult in Northern California to shut it down and exact revenge for the killing of his girlfriend-who-saw-too-much. An effective and emotional change of pace for the series, with McGee as action hero. But as he says in relief after he’s able to discard his alter ego, he felt like two people. I prefer the unadulterated original. (Bought in 2011 at St. Louis’ Patten Books.)

Quality-wise, this was a decent month, with no dogs. The Fredric Brown collection was the month’s best and might appeal to a non-SF fan (but not an SF-hater). The McGee was pretty good, but probably not one to start with. Or maybe it is; it certainly seemed to anticipate the 1980s, or maybe wrap up the ’70s cult movement.

Right now I’m at 56 books read for the year, including two finished already for November, which might be a big month. While I won’t get everything read that I’d hoped to read this year, I’ll knock out a few more.

How was your October? Give us the exclusive, please. Speak directly into the comment field and don’t be nervous.

Next month: City life.

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Reading Log: September 2023

Books acquired: “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Maya Angelou; “Kindred,” “Bloodchild,” Octavia Butler; “Creating an Orange Utopia: Eliza Lovell Tibbetts and the Birth of California’s Citrus Industry,” Patricia Ortlieb and Peter Economy; “Celebrating 150 Years of Riverside,” Riverside Historical Society; “Crocker’s Folly: The Development of, and Opposition to, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway,” Steve Lech

Books read: “A People’s Guide to Orange County,” Elaine Lewinnek, Thuy Vo Dang and Gustavo Arellano; “West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire,” Kevin Waite; “Octopus’s Garden: How Railroads and Citrus Transformed Southern California,” Benjamin T. Jenkins; “Foucault in California,” Simeon Wade; “After the Dome Fire,” Ruth Nolan

Happy fall, readers! Of course the only leaves we are interested in in these monthly posts are the leaves of books. They turn, no matter the season. They don’t change color exactly, although they may become discolored, or yellowed.

What did I read in September? As promised, they were all nonfiction books about the West. There was one I needed to read for an upcoming column, and I used that as an excuse to knock off two others, a third that a friend loaned me (or gave me? I’ll have to ask) and even a related chapbook at the end of the month, for a total of five.

Here’s how it went.

“Orange County” (2022): Gathers together marginalized histories from around a county widely perceived as bland suburbia. There are lynching and police shooting sites; a former salon whose owner fought a fair housing battle; the Cambodian-owned birthplace of the pink doughnut box. My favorite entry is about the Japanese American strawberry farmers who held out against Disneyland for decades until retiring with a big payday. However, the writing is generally dry, and nobody to the right of Zack de la Rocha is likely to drive around to the mapped sites. Valuable, but more of a chore to read than I’d expected. (Bought in 2022 at the launch event, where my copy was signed by all three authors!)

“West of Slavery (2021): We think of slavery as having been confined to the geographic southeast. Waite explores how the South dreamed of slavery from sea to shining sea, and how leaders embarked on several strategies in Western states to get there, including a southern mail route and a southern railroad, both ending in California, and pro-slavery laws passed by the transplanted Southerners who dominated Western legislatures. California, a secessionist hotbed? That certainly cuts against our image of our state. (Sent by the publisher in 2021 at the author’s request.)

“Octopus’s Garden” (2023): Jenkins tells the story of the Orange Empire that held sway in Southern California, particularly in the inland counties, from 1870-1950, and explores the ways in which the citrus industry and railroads were partners in the enterprise. (The rail monopolies were branded as the Octopus, and citrus represented a garden, thus the title.) Jenkins moves significantly past the crate labels’ superficial cheer to explore the good and bad of citrus. An impressive feat of scholarship, and the writing, while dense, is relatively vigorous for an academic work. However, we await Ringo Starr’s judgment. (Sent by the publisher in 2023 at the author’s request.)

“Foucault in California” (2019): As a resident of Claremont, where much of this (but not the acid trip) takes place, and a scholar of the byways of its history, I enjoyed this unexpected sidelight about the time in 1975 when Michel Foucault visited and lectured, and incidentally ate at Sambo’s. Foucault, whom I knew nothing about, comes across as more normal than his local adherents despite being a famous French intellectual. This slim book might be of interest to his admirers, especially the transcription of his lofty Q&A with students, conducted on a level well over my head. (Received in August from a friend.)

“After the Dome Fire” (2023): A slim volume of poetry, plus photos, about the Mojave Desert by the well-known desert writer and scholar. Many have an environmental bent. As a former wildlands firefighter, as well as a mother, she brings welcome perspectives to the subject, especially as the desert landscape is often seen as more of a male domain, a place to test yourself, blah blah blah. But women like it too. (Gift of the author in June.)

Of the month’s books, “West of Slavery” is the standout, with “Octopus’s Garden” a near second. To be clear, these are scholarly books with copious endnotes on sources, extensive bibliographies and indexes. “OC” is scholarly at times. They are not casual reads. But as a semi-scholar, I’m glad to have read them and to have them on my shelves.

I’d have liked to have also read the great Carey McWilliams’ “Southern California: An Island on the Land,” which a friend gifted me three years ago, and which would have fit the theme, but there are only so many days in a month. Well, eventually I’ll get to it.

Next month’s Reading Log will have two (or three?) vintage science fiction story collections and (possibly?) a vintage mystery, so October should be slightly more mainstream but still a little arcane. Thankfully you readers bring your own eclectic tastes to bear here.

Note from the lists up top that I acquired six books in September while reading five books. Oh well. I went to a local history book fair in Riverside and used a gift certificate at Octavia’s Bookshelf in Pasadena, buying three at each.

How was your September, readers? We’re now three-fourths of the way through 2023 and I hope you’re getting to a lot of the books you intended to read this year. If you aren’t, well, you’ll get to them.

Next month: Mass market paperbacks.

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Reading Log: August 2023

Books acquired: “Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops: A Memoir,” Allison Hong Merrill

Books read: “The Inferno,” “Purgatorio,” “Paradiso,” Dante Alighieri; “Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years,” Laura Skandera Trombley; “The Imperfectionists,” Tom Rachman; “Sweet Thursday,” John Steinbeck; “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf; “Dickens and Prince,” Nick Hornby

Welcome to September, the two-thirds point for 2023. I finished what I think of as eight books for the month of August, which I’ll explain momentarily. Whether I read six (pictured) or eight (to me), all of them came from the same bookcase in my home, the one for fiction and literature.

The big kahuna was the trilogy “The Divine Comedy,” a 900-pager that is my 2023 version of last year’s big book, “Don Quixote.” To my surprise, I read the whole thing in one month, about one week per book, with a short break for other reading in between.

I’m counting “The Divine Comedy” as three books. They were all published separately and are often found/sold that way; each is nearly 300 pages. And I might have had trouble persuading myself to tackle this if it counted as only one book, while knocking it off as three books was definitely satisfying.


“The Divine Comedy” (1308-1320): Admittedly, reading this was like assigning myself homework. Due to Dante’s meticulously constructed allegories and metaphors, and his continually inventive descriptions and comparisons, you could spend your life studying this text. I am not that committed, but I read it all, including most of poet/translator John Ciardi’s footnotes, which are helpful, modest and sometimes very wry. The three canticles decline in interest from the one before (for me, at least), yet the overall effect is astonishing. It’s easy to believe while you’re reading that Dante is describing the three places from a personal visit, so vividly does he render them (heaven is mostly light), and to think that what he wrote is close to theology rather than an act of imagination. (Bought in 2011 at Rancho Cucamonga’s Borders Books during its closeout sale.)

“The Imperfectionists” (2010): A series of close-up portraits of the expatriates who work for an international English-language newspaper in Italy circa 2005, with interstitial chapters offering vignettes of the newspaper’s start, rise and fade over time. Characters make cameos in one or two stories before suddenly taking center stage. Rachman’s novel is sympathetic, heartbreaking and funny while avoiding the usual romanticism of newspaper life or of Rome. (Bought in 2015 at St. Louis’ Patten Books.)

“Mark Twain’s Other Woman” (2010): A biography, not fiction, but it’s on my fiction/literature shelves along with books by Twain himself. His last years weren’t productive, but he cemented himself as a genial white-haired and -suited public figure. His private life wasn’t as well known, but his secretary, Isabel Lyon — almost completely ignored by scholars — kept a daily record. We learn that one of Twain’s free-spirited daughters was embroiled in a near-scandal, an affair with a married man, and Lyon, who knew the details, appears to have been thrown under the proverbial bus to help hush it up and maintain Twain’s rep. A minor part of his life story, but for Twainiacs, this study is lively and interesting. (Bought in 2010 at the Rancho Cucamonga Public Library during an appearance by the author.)

“Sweet Thursday” (1954): An enjoyable trifle about the drunks, layabouts and prostitutes with hearts of gold along Cannery Row, with biologist Ed Ricketts a vehicle to express Steinbeck’s personal doldrums and romantic salvation. At various points I wondered why I was reading it, but this ramshackle, loose-limbed construction is amusing, and heartfelt in its own way. (Bought 2019 at Salinas’ National Steinbeck Center gift shop.)

“A Room of One’s Own” (1929): Nearly a century after publication, this slim book still has power as Woolf lays out, calmly and reasonably, the obstacles that had kept women from writing or from being objects of historical interest. Her book is a landmark in its own right and a benchmark to measure our own times against. The situation has improved, obviously, but it’s a little depressing how much of this hits home even now. (Bought in April at Joshua Tree’s Space Cowboy Books.)

“Dickens and Prince” (2022): A slightly daft premise, and hardcore fans of one artist or the other may find the comparison ridiculous or offensive, but Hornby makes his gimmick/conceit work. Here were two creative types who came from poverty, produced an astonishingly vast body of work despite zero training and engaged in unproductive (if earnest) battles over their rights before expiring at 58. Hornby genuinely loves them both. By pulling each figure out of his time, Hornby makes you think about him in a fresh way. And of course it’s often very funny. (Christmas gift, 2022.)

A pretty good month, in quality as well as quantity! Woolf’s and Hornby’s are the most accessible, as well as the slimmest, and “The Imperfectionists” a good modern work.

In an echo to my note about the reading count this month, August’s reading allowed me to knock seven, rather than eight, books off my unread list. Why seven?

I had pulled “The Imperfectionists” off my shelves a year-plus ago, thinking I would never read it, and attempted to sell it at three different used bookstores, none of which took it, for reasons unknown. Maybe they all had copies already? Otherwise, it was a nice-looking copy of a New York Times notable book, so what was the hangup? A few weeks ago, the author’s latest book got good reviews, and on a whim I checked to see if the LA Public Library had “Imperfectionists” as an audiobook, which it did. So I borrowed and listened to it, while bringing the book out of the sell box.

So, it counts as a book I read, since I read it, but it wasn’t on my unread books list any longer, so it didn’t come off any lists. (I also listened to the audiobook of “Sweet Thursday,” while also reading the introduction and notes from my print copy.)

By focusing on one bookcase this month, the one that had 27 unread books, the most of any of my six bookcases, I got that number down to an even 20. That sharp drop felt like an achievement. (That bookcase once had 130 unread books — oof.) It’s now second to the bookcase that has both mystery and Southern California books, with 23 unread books.

And that’s where I will focus in September, albeit only with hopes of completing three. I need to read one for work and decided to knock off a couple more that I feel guilty for not having gotten to yet.

How about your August, readers? What did you read? Realistically, probably not “The Divine Comedy.” Looking forward as always to finding out.

Next month: books about California history.

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Reading Log: July 2023

Books acquired: “The Best of Fredric Brown,” Fredric Brown; “The Best of Murray Leinster,” Murray Leinster; “The Yellow Claw,” “Brood of the Witch-Queen,” Sax Rohmer; “On the Road With Janis Joplin,” John Byrne Cooke; “Octopus’s Garden: How Railroads and Citrus Transformed Southern California,” Benjamin Jenkins

Books read: “Looking to Get Lost,” Peter Guralnick; “Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare,” Stephen Greenblatt; “Platinum Pohl: The Collected Best Stories,” Frederik Pohl; “The Wonderful World of Robert Sheckley,” Robert Sheckley; “The Broken Bubble,” Philip K. Dick; “Myth & Mirage,” Riverside Art Museum

Regards, readers! Last time I said my July reading would be “all about alliteration.” Silly, sure, but the pressure of a deadline and a theme did push me to read six books, all with alliterative titles. I finished a couple of books that were in progress and was spurred to read the Shakespeare biography, which I’d meant to do since finishing his plays at the end of 2022. Here’s how it went.

“Looking to Get Lost” (2020): These profiles of musicians (by a noted soul/roots music journalist) are often illuminating about their art or what makes them tick, with standouts including Jerry Lee Lewis and Howlin’ Wolf. Other profiles are overly reverent or elevate the artist beyond their value to the rest of us. But they’re always interesting. And I won’t soon forget Guralnick’s eyewitness account of Solomon Burke, seated across the table from him, telling someone by phone that he was being served Chateaubriand at the Plaza hotel, when he was really eating cold french fries at a Holiday Inn. (Gift, 2021.)

“Will in the World” (2004): Yes, Greenblatt is forced to lean on “may have,” “presumably,” “almost certainly” and the like, given how little is known about what Shakespeare did or what he actually thought about anything (he left no letters, interviews, journals, autobiographical writings and such). But Greenblatt marshals the known facts, of which there were more than I’d realized, and a lot of textual analysis and period scholarship to present a reasonable portrait of the man and of the nature and sources of his inspiration. (Bought at Patten’s Books, 2013.)

“Platinum Pohl” (2000): 30 stories from a nearly 50-year span and not a miss in the bunch. Pohl is a keen observer of past and present and strong at sketching believable characters. I think even non-SF readers would be impressed by many of these, notably “The Day the Martians Came,” “The Kindly Isle” and “The Meeting.” This collection beats the more limited Ballantine “Best of” by a mile. (Bought at the Paperback Collectors Show, 2008.)

“The Wonderful World of Robert Sheckley” (1979): This was my introduction to Sheckley and he surpassed my hopes. These early stories from the ’50s and ’60s are often very funny, yet they’re not antic and never strain for effects. They function as (semi-) serious science fiction told with a mordant, dry wit, whether they involve a stalemate between evenly matched sides in an interstellar war or a planet’s hallucinogenic atmosphere that draws out childhood fears. In the latter, clothes draped over a bedroom chair at night come to life. (Bought at Bookfellow in 2012.)

“The Broken Bubble” (1988): Feckless, aimless characters make terrible decisions, very indecisively. Intermittently interesting, but the humorlessness and despair is too much. From chapter 5: “Gloom hung over them; defeat was in the air, a cloud of it from all directions.” This was among PKD’s social-realist novels written in the late ’50s, rejected and only published posthumously in the 1980s. I’ve read all of PKD’s SF, but after two of these novels, I wonder if I ought to sell the others unread. Yes, you might say “The Broken Bubble” broke me. (Bought at Massolit Books in Krakow, 2018. How about that!)

“Myth & Mirage” (2017): Published as a coffee table book/museum catalogue, this explores how Riverside and environs were ground zero for the movement to turn the style of California missions into 20th century commercial and residential architecture. The most basic elements of the style (red tile roofs, arches) are now ubiquitous and almost comically divorced from their origins. (Gift of the museum in 2022.)

This was a pretty good month. Pohl was fantastic and Sheckley wasn’t far behind, with Greenblatt and Guralnick producing worthwhile books. And I knocked off four more pre-pandemic acquisitions, one being my sole remaining book from 2008. Huzzah! (My oldest remaining book is from 2007, btw.)

We’re in the dog days of summer, and if our collective reading grows sluggish for a month, it’s understandable. Share what you read in July, please, and then we’ll do what we can in August. I’m reading a very daunting book, one perched somewhere between heaven and hell, but I’m not suffering too much and I think I can finish it. Wish me godspeed.

Next month: a Twain biography and a trilogy from the 14th century.

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