Books acquired: “Mecca,” Susan Straight
Books read: “Try to Get Lost: Essays on Travel and Place,” Joan Frank; “King Solomon’s Mines,” H. Rider Haggard; “Bob Dylan: Performing Artist Vol. 3, 1986-1990,” Paul Williams; “Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories,” H.P. Lovecraft; “Wildsam Field Guide: Joshua Tree,” Rachel Worby; “Radio Free Albemuth,” Philip K. Dick; “Lyrics 1962-2001,” Bob Dylan; “Henry V,” “Troilus and Cressida,” William Shakespeare
We’re one-fourth of the way through 2022. Well, I am, at any rate; don’t mean to speak to anyone else. If you’re still working on 2020, I won’t judge. My April reading amounted to nine books: four nonfiction, three fiction, two plays. I’ll run ’em down for you.
“Try to Get Lost” (2020): The subway cover pulled me in, as did the title, which seemed to promise that the author would urge us to ramble and explore. Instead, these essays were almost anti-travel, if they were about travel at all, and they tended toward gloom. Somewhat enjoyable regardless, but the overall impression is sourness.
“King Solomon’s Mines” (1885): Allan Quatermain is 55 and admits to being a bit of a coward, although he’s in the thick of the action as he and two compatriots, joined by a third, cross a desert in search of the fabled diamond mines of King Solomon and get embroiled in a civil war. Yes, the colonialism and indiscriminate hunting make this a sometimes-uncomfortable read, but overall it’s straightforward, thrilling entertainment, full of charming displays of stiff-upper-lip British reserve in the face of danger.
“Performing Artist Vol. 3” (2004): A deep dive into a somewhat fallow period, when Dylan decided to devote himself to the road and 100-150 concerts a year. Williams gets lost in the weeds analyzing tour swings and even individual concerts and setlists, and his enthusiasm can be embarrassing. His first Dylan book covered 13 mostly prime years in fewer pages. But for fans, this has some value; the observations are frequently insightful and this is still a little-explored phase of Dylan’s career.
“Joshua Tree” (2021): An orientation to and appreciation of the desert, with useful tips and history. While designed to be toted, this is less of a practical book of answers than one worth reading at leisure and in full.
“Albemuth” (1985): PKD was coming to grips with his recent visionary experience and figuring out how to transmute it into fiction. A first crack at what became “Valis,” and published after his death, this beats a lot of “found among his papers” novels, and it’s better than about half of his real books. As for Ferris Fremont, a proto-fascist American president modeled on Nixon and whom the Soviets refuse to criticize because he’s covertly working for them: boy.
“Witch House” (2004): One of three Penguin volumes collecting virtually everything by HPL, and fetishistically annotated, this concentrates on his dreamy, sometimes Dunsanian tales. Like its counterparts, this gets the job done. It also means taking the so-so or “interesting” with the good.
“Lyrics 1962-2001” (2004): All the lyrics from “Bob Dylan” through “Love and Theft,” including to songs left off the albums but later released. Can’t be relied upon, as lyrics here and there were revised after the fact and others rely on drafts that don’t match the recordings. Alternately poetic, witty, inspiring and gnomic, his verses are best heard, not read. Quite a body of work, though, with expressions that have entered the vernacular. Someone ought to give him a Nobel.
“Henry V” (1599): Nationalistic and with little nuance, this isn’t the Bard at his best. But it’s got some stirring speeches and a few lines that have passed into everyday use: “once more unto the breach, dear friends” and “band of brothers.” If only Bill got a royalty every time someone used that phrase.
“Troilus and Cressida” (1602): The fabled Trojan War is taken down a peg as Shakespeare kicks a little dirt on everyone involved and mocks Helen of Troy as a cheap flirt. A few too many characters, without much of a center, and to be honest I couldn’t keep the two sides straight. Yet it’s one of the Bard’s more unusual efforts, and I appreciate its cynicism toward love, war and everything else.
This was a month of three-star books, with “Performing Artist” and “Get Lost” coming in at two stars. In other words, some good reading, but nothing outstanding. “King Solomon’s Mines” was the best of the lot, with “Radio Free Albemuth” in second.
About the “Lyrics” book, an explanation may be in order. While reading Paul Williams’ two previous Dylan studies, one in the early 1990s, the other a couple of years ago, I listened again to all the albums while following along with the lyrics. This got me through everything in Dylan’s first lyrics book, “Writings and Drawings,” which ended in 1973, and then most of this one. This third and, sadly, final Williams book then got me through the rest of the lyrics. I had not considered the lyrics book as one that was unread or needed to be read, but once I got to the last page, I thought, well, why not include it? I read the whole thing. It just took me almost 30 years.
The two Shakespeare plays are in my omnibus bought in 1984, but for ease of reading/carrying I checked out individual books from the Pomona Public Library; the PKD was bought in 2002 at Pasadena’s Book Alley and constitutes the oldest unread book on my shelves; the Williams was bought in 2004 from the author and the lyrics book the same year from Borders; the Haggard is from St. Louis’ Patten Books in 2008; the Frank was bought in 2020 from Phoenix’s Changing Hands (on my last vacation before everything shut down); the HPL was bought this year from LA’s Last Bookstore; and the Joshua Tree book was purchased in March from Acme 5 Lifestyle in Yucca Valley. Is that 38 years of books? It might be.
Oh, and as you’ve noticed, my Shakespeare reading plan (TM) proceeds. I started the year with 15 plays left (of the 38); now I’m down to 10. At this rate I will finish the rest in 2022.
Note that I bought one book in April and received none, unlike March, when birthday gifts piled up. Thus, I made some progress against my backlog. I doubt I’ll have another nine-book month this year, but there’s some good reading ahead of me.
How was your April in reading? Your comments will let us all know.
Next month: Manhood for amateurs in Mecca.