Reading Log: May 2020

Books acquired: none

Books read: “Bob Dylan in America,” Sean Wilentz; “Love is a Mix Tape,” Rob Sheffield; “100 Cassettes,” Dennis Callaci; “Wolf Hall,” Hilary Mantel

We’ve made it through nearly three months of lockdown — who knew we had it in us? — and now things are starting to open up again. Me, I’ve been opening books. How about you?

(As to the quickening pace at which things are opening up, I have mixed feelings.)

My May reading was a bit different than I’d expected going in. I finished “Bob Dylan in America” right off the bat (more on that in a moment), then cracked a 2008 purchase that struck me as a hilarious pairing, a Bradley Denton sci-fi novel titled “Buddy Holly is Alive on Ganymede.” The laughter soon died in my throat as within 15 pages or so I realized that this novel, bought because I like Buddy Holly, was kind of stupid and was barely going to be about him. (For unexplained reasons he had been transported from Iowa on Feb. 3, 1959 to a bubble on Ganymede and one Earthman in 1989 found the live transmission on his TV.) To be fair, the novel did win a John W. Campbell Award, but it wasn’t my kind of book and would have been a waste of probably 10 days or so.)

So I pivoted and went right to two books that had cassettes or tapes in their title, and then on May 31 wrapped up an audiobook (!) I’d been listening to in my car since late April. I’m glad to have finished it in May as I couldn’t very well keep it checked out an extra month so I could photograph it with my June books, and couldn’t pre-emptively photograph it with my June books as I’m not sure what they’ll be.

Anyway, let’s get to the books, shall we?

Sean Wilentz, “Bob Dylan in America” (2010): Idiosyncratic, just like Dylan, this study sticks to the Dylan time periods Wilentz finds of special interest: “Blonde on Blonde,” the Rolling Thunder Revue, “Infidels” and 1989-on. The chapter on Aaron Copland is a stretch, the one on 19th century hymnals dull, but Wilentz’ deep dives into such byways as Blind Willie McTell (the singer and the Dylan song), the true stories behind the traditional songs “Delia” and “Frankie and Albert,” and the film “Masked and Anonymous” are illuminating.

Rob Sheffield, “Love is a Mix Tape”  (2007): An ode to the forgotten pleasure of making and receiving cassettes of carefully chosen songs, or for that matter simply taping “American Top 40,” and to the fellow music fan who married the author and was taken in the blink of an eye, without even the chance for a long fade-out. Sheffield sets down details good and bad, as if to memorialize his late wife before time erases too much. Also, he’s often funny and opinionated: “…U2 sound like Jesuits trying to act cool for the youth-group retreat.”

Dennis Callaci, “100 Cassettes” (2020): Nominally a collection of 100 essays on albums that don’t exist by artists Callaci likes, this encompasses capsule artist biographies, meditations on culture and the memoir of a middle-aged collector. Since some of the prose is abstract and flows like poetry, add fiction to the list. Some pieces glanced off me, many hit home as a fellow music obsessive. Not for the general reader, but as I’m not a general reader, I liked it. (Disclosure: The writer is a personal friend.)

Hilary Mantel, “Wolf Hall” (2009): A delightful and absorbing novel, with Mantel’s years of historical research worn lightly as she convincingly follows court intrigues among a large cast, describes life in early 16th century England and creates a vivid inner life for wily bureaucrat Thomas Cromwell. He became a trusted counselor to Henry VIII, who in this volume is trying to ditch Wife No. 1 (Catherine of Aragorn) for Wife No. 2 (Anne Boleyn). For the audiobook, Simon Slater’s voice work made the characters come further to life. Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey in particular were a marvel to hear. I wouldn’t have thought I would care for a historical novel, but this was a goodie.

Now, back to “Bob.” I bought the book at Borders in Rancho Cucamonga when it closed in 2011, along with a ton of other books, many still unread. A few months later, visiting home, I saw my mom was ready to discard the audiobook version and took it myself, with permission. I started listening to it on my drive to and from Arizona in early March. This was only my second audiobook, after Calvin Trillin’s “About Alice” circa 2007, which I played on a drive to the Bay Area. I liked this one and continued playing it in my car until finishing it; along the way I dipped into the print version to read footnotes and endnotes and clarify any points that had slipped past me. I’m such a devotee. That’s why I used both versions in the photos with this post.

When I visited Rancho Cucamonga’s Biane Library in April for a column — the library is offering curbside pickup — the library director ended our interview with some magical words: “Browse all you want.” So I had the library to myself. Oh boy!

Interested in another audiobook, I paid special attention to that aisle and lighted on Martel’s book; the third in the trilogy had recently been released to great acclaim, and the first two, I’d learned from the reviews, had won Man Booker Prizes (attention Doug Evans). So I chose the first. Eighteen discs, but even sticking exclusively to playing them in my car during coronavirus, I drove enough around the area to finish them in five weeks.

I’m about to check out the second, shorter book, “Bring Up the Bodies,” also on CD at 12 discs. The third one is apparently 30 discs — oof.

As for my other books, “Mix Tape” was bought in 2013 at Booksmith in San Francisco on vacation and “Cassettes” was a gift of Dennis’ upon publication in January. The fact that it took me seven years to get to “Mix Tape,” a 225-page book, is fresh evidence of my wastrel ways in book buying.

Anyway, I liked all four books this month, with “Wolf Hall” being the standout. “Mix Tape” was very affecting and would especially be recommended to anyone who was paying attention to music in the 1980s and ’90s; each chapter begins with the track listing of a tape the couple made in that era.

How are you getting by during the crisis, reading-wise? Are you focused or are you all over the place? Let us know in the comments. We’re sympathetic sorts.

Next month: Oh, just a short history of the world, that’s all.

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Reading Log: April 2020

Books acquired: none

Books read: “Ecology of Fear,” Mike Davis; “Wrath of Fu Manchu,” Sax Rohmer; “That’s Amore,” Diana Sholley; “Hail, Hail Euphoria!,” Roy Blount Jr.; “The Ecstasy of Influence,” Jonathan Lethem

Was April better than March? It was for me; it seemed to fly by compared to endless March. Your mileage may vary, that is if you’re still driving anywhere. Personally I bought one tank of gas the entire month.

I don’t know why April seemed to move faster. In these parts, it rained eight out of nine straight days (Day 8, the non-rainy day, was overcast). After all that sameness, though, the sun came out and within days the temperature rose from a high of 55 to a high of 95. Maybe our spirits rose with it.

Kind of a rollercoaster month, weather-wise, not even including our ups and downs emotionally during our first full month of coronavirus restrictions. It’s coincidental to the lockdown, but my reading month encompassed titles with a range of emotions: fear, wrath, love, glee and pleasure. Let’s run through them.

“Fear,” 1998: Davis’ chapter on the perennial fires in Malibu, and the overkill efforts to protect an enclave that probably shouldn’t exist, has only gained strength since this book’s publication. Most of the rest of this disaster-themed analysis (encroaching wildlife, riots, lack of green space, and apocalyptic fiction and movies) is pretty good, if gleefully negative. It’s still hard to trust his Tornado Alley chapter, though.

“Wrath,” 1975: Collecting four Fu Manchu stories and eight other stories, most with a supernatural angle, some set in Rohmer’s beloved Egypt, this is far from prime Rohmer. Still, as a fan, I liked it anyway. Only “The Mystery of the Fabulous Lamp” was a dud, and it was a mere nine pages.

“Amore,” 2008: Many of these ’00s columns from the Daily Bulletin focus on Sholley’s nonagenarian immigrant grandmother and how the family’s life revolved around her. Others are more about Sholley’s life as a mother and wife. At the time I admit I took these columns for granted, or found the grasping, overbearing, broken-English grandmother grating. Now I found the columns amusing, modest and charming. But I’m glad it’s Sholley’s family and not mine.

“Euphoria,” 2010: Disappointing. Blount’s ramble through “Duck Soup” was remarkably padded, unstructured and, dare I say it, even dull. That said, he appreciates the Marxes’ greatest movie and delights in watching it in a theater full of kids who think it’s a riot. Also, referring to the suicidal Woody Allen movie character who sees “Duck Soup” and finds reason to live, Blount asks the devastating question: “Can we imagine the reverse case, of any Marx brother finding a reason to live in ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’?”

“Ecstasy,” 2011: This “autobiographical collage” assembles essays, introductions and reportage on books, movies, comics, music and other subjects close to Lethem’s heart. Together they offer a portrait of his inner life and influences. (Disclosure: He’s a friend.) Subjects of some of my favorites were Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Philip K. Dick, Marvel Comics and Lethem’s bookstore-clerk days, with his 30-page profile of James Brown a standout. On the other hand, some of the literary pieces almost made me give up on the whole enterprise. Some reviewers on Goodreads found the James Brown piece boring. The beauty here is that my slog might be your cup of tea, and vice versa.

I didn’t really love any of these books, although I loved big chunks of “Ecstasy of Influence” and found the usual guilty pleasure in Rohmer. I have just one unread Fu Manchu book left, by the way.

“Ecology” was bought upon publication at Skylight Books in L.A. at a talk and signing by Davis, where we met; days later, I interviewed him at his home about his background in Fontana and he inscribed my book. At the time I hadn’t even read “City of Quartz,” read subsequently, and I never was sure that I wanted to read “Ecology,” but I’m pleased, if a little sheepish, to have belatedly done so.

“Wrath” was bought somewhere, perhaps eBay, in the mid-’00s; “Ecstasy” came from Vromans in Pasadena in 2012; “Euphoria” was bought at Magic Door Books in Pomona in 2017, where it had been traded in (unread) by Doug Evans (you didn’t miss much, Doug); and “Amore” was given to me in 2018 by a departing work colleague; I remain abashed that I didn’t buy one directly from Sholley a decade earlier.

So, April got a range of books out of the way from various strata of my shelves. How was your April? I remain curious if the pandemic is having an effect on your reading time or habits. (In this morning’s Times, Mary McNamara says she’s reread all her mysteries, “much of Dickens” including “Bleak House,” and more besides, maybe 100 books from the looks of it. Good lord.) I’m reading a little more than before. I’ve begun an ambitious history book that I’ve put off reading for two decades and may finish in, who knows, June or July, and a long audiobook, same. As I’m listening to the latter in my car, I may need to drive more.

Next month: One month, two themes. May is a mixtape.

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Reading Log: March 2020

Books acquired: “Trying to Get Lost: Essays on Travel and Place,” Joan Frank; “Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019,” Carmen Maria Machado, guest editor; “American Dirt,” Jeanine Cummins (a gift, I hasten to add)

Books read: “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Vol. 1, 1929-1964,” Robert Silverberg, editor; “The Fourth Galaxy Reader,” H.L. Gold, editor; “Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019,” Carmen Maria Machado, guest editor

Welcome, readers! Here we are for the ol’ Reading Log during a completely typical time, so let’s get right to it and —

OK, let’s stop there. First, apologies for the delay in getting this post written and published. I ran out of time to do it the weekend of April 5-6, and didn’t have a chance to get started on it until late in the afternoon Wednesday. But better late than never, i.e. Restaurant of the Week, right?

Needless to say these are strange and uncertain times. We’ll be proud one day to say we lived through them — presuming we do live through them. Be vigilant. But also be aware. Pay attention. We’ve never gone through anything like this, and we must remember what it was like, and savor the moments so that we can remember them, and tell people about them one day.

As bookish sorts, we are perfectly poised for a period that calls for us to stay indoors and occupy ourselves. We have, in fact, trained our whole lives for this. Let us not fail ourselves in this dark hour.

The back half of March was when stay-at-home orders started to take effect, and that may have affected all our reading for the better. We’ll learn in the comments section.

Personally, since I’m still on the job, I haven’t had much more free time than usual. It’s weirdly disappointing. And while I may have read a bit more overall, I wasn’t toting a book with me to lunch, since I wasn’t going to lunch, since restaurants were closed. I did take a book if I ordered takeout and had to wait, but it was hard to get in more than a page or two before my order was ready, darn the luck. And forget about getting a hot drink and sitting outside: It’s been cold and raining much of the past month.

Ah, me. Anyway, onward to March’s books. I had a science fiction short-story thing going on, with three anthologies of stories by various writers. (I used my SF bookcase for the photo up top, where my books felt right at home.)

“SF Hall of Fame”: I had been reading this off and on since October, and in fact that’s one pitfall of doing these monthly posts. Faced with 650 pages of short stories, I’m not going to be able to read it straight through in a month, and rather than leave a post blank some month, I nibbled away at this book a week or two at the end of some months until I was far enough along that the first half of March could be spent finishing it.

As the name suggests, it’s a collection of great stories from the classic era, chosen by leading SF writers of the 1960s who knew the field and its history. I like science fiction, as must be obvious by now from past Reading Logs, but I’m not well-read in the field, and thus almost all these stories were new to me. Nearly all of them made an impression. A consistently good to great anthology. The two subsequent volumes collect novellas from the same period.

“Fourth Galaxy Reader”: This 1960 anthology gathers stories from Galaxy magazine. They’re all decent or better, with stories by some well-remembered writers (Avram Davidson, Frederick Pohl, Fritz Leiber) and some who are largely forgotten (Stephen Barr, J.T. McIntosh, Margaret St. Claire). Largely fun, breezy stories.

“Best American SF 2019”: I’d seen this last fall and was intrigued, but I held off buying it while I had that “Hall of Fame” book unread. It seemed only fair. Having finished it, though, I rushed out to pick this up, curious what modern SF looks and reads like. I hadn’t really read any 21st century SF.

I was impressed by the range of voices, tones and themes, and by how many stories were written by women or marginalized people (or both). Fair warning, these stories are on the literary side, with nary a rocket ship in sight. Fittingly, some contributors seem to be living in the future themselves: In their bios, two use they/their pronouns, and one says of herself: “Ada is bisexual, genderfluid, polyamorous and mentally ill.”

I bought “Hall of Fame” at Borders Montclair in 2008, full of promise, then put it on the shelf, where it made me feel guilty for the next 11 years. “Galaxy” was a gift from reader Rich Pietrasz, who had gotten it from reader Doug Evans. Rich passed it along to me in 2015 and I can finally say I’ve read it. Thanks, Rich. And “Best American” was bought at the Barnes & Noble in Rancho Cucamonga on March 16, a few days before retail stores were ordered closed. Whew! I really wanted to have this in my “books acquired” and “books read” lists the same month. That’s happened only a handful of times.

What did you all read in March? Are you finding more time to read, the same or less? And do you have any reading goals for the pandemic? I wish I could say I was going to tackle “Middlemarch” or something, but that’s not how April is looking. On the other hand, I have finished a book already and am in the midst of two others…

Next month: an emotional rollercoaster (and how appropriate is that, right?).

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Reading Log: February 2020

Books acquired: “American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race,” Douglas Brinkley; “A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts,” Andrew Chaikin

Books read: “The Golden Man,” Philip K. Dick; “The Golden Scorpion,” Sax Rohmer; “The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today,” Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner

In February I read a collection of science fiction short stories, a pulp novel and a literary classic. As you can see from the titles above, I was golden. This month even the “books acquired” section is themed, but that was the doing of the friend who gave both of them to me, one as a belated Christmas present and the other as an early birthday present.

“The Golden Man” (1980): This collection of Philip K. Dick stories brought together pieces that hadn’t made any of his earlier collections, and it’s strong despite being a book of leftovers. The most delightful story is “The King of the Elves,” about an old man who meets some elves, becomes their king, doesn’t quite believe the whole thing but soon finds himself leading them into battle against a troll army. Heh. There are also stories of a homicidal pinball machine, a new religion based around a black box, a model train set’s small town that alters the real town it’s based on, and an America in which unwanted children are rounded up by a sort of dogcatcher and taken to the pound to be adopted or gassed. Dick is better known for his novels, and for good reason, but most of his stories are at least clever and often enough inventive. The cover, unfortunately, is ridiculous, basically a naked guy jumping through what looks like (but isn’t) an enormous bag of popcorn.

“The Golden Scorpion” (1919): As with Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels, there is a beautiful multiethnic woman serving the bad guy against her will and an Englishman who loses his head over her even though his job is to track down the bad guy, and at the end despite enormous obstacles, etc., etc. Oh, and also a bunch of devil doctor stuff involving beakers and spiders, an opium den that is more than it seems and the de rigeur secret escape route via the wharves. A fun page-turner for those with antiquarian tastes (blogger raises hand).

“The Gilded Age” (1873): Twain is best remembered for his boyhood evocations, historical fiction and travel nonfiction, but it turns out he and his neighbor Charles Dudley Warner co-invented the Washington novel. Up to this point, Twain had written a travel book and some regional tall tales and become a popular lecturer, but he hadn’t tried any extended fiction. In an utterly contemporary story, he and Warner satirize the Reconstruction-era speculation economy, send up a wildly corrupt D.C. and give an era its name. The results can be tentative, and the chapters written by each man don’t always mesh comfortably. But “Gilded Age” is still worthwhile, the bloviating Col. Sellers is marvelous and naturally it’s fascinating to see Twain first turn his gifts toward fiction.

For the record, I bought “Scorpion” in 2001 at one of the old LA Comic and Science Fiction shows at the Shrine Expo Hall (those were the days), “Man” in 2009 at the annual LA Paperback Show and “Age” in 2010 at the Borders in Chino (RIP). So I cleared away some of my older unread books this time around. (What else is new?)

What did you read in February? You had 29 days, and I hope you used them well.

Next month: a science fiction doorstop of a book.

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Reading Log: January 2020

Books acquired: “100 Cassettes,” Dennis Callaci

Books read: “Walden and Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau; “Europe Through the Back Door,” Rick Steves

Welcome to 2020! Please leave your jetpacks by the door, take off your Velcro slippers and feel free to grab a refreshing dehydrated beverage from the robot bar.

Do we have any reading goals for 2020? I want to read the last four or five books on my shelves that date, unread, to the 20th century. That will considerably raise the floor on my unread backlog to a more reasonable date of purchase. Any other predictions or plans are almost certain not to come true, simply because I’m likely to get through about one-sixth of my remaining unread books in 2020 and any guesses as to which titles or series will probably be wrong. I’ve been hoping to get back to the Travis McGee series for two or three years. Maybe this year, maybe next. Ditto with reading the last two Fu Manchu pot boilers. My shelves have a lot of competing priorities.

However, I did want to start 2020 with something meaty, and I also wanted to return to an old tradition. When I read “Moby-Dick” in the first weeks of 2009, I did most of that at a Coffee Bean during evenings. It’s a fond memory of leisurely reading this ambitious novel in a public place on a cold night, a hot beverage in front of me.

So in January, I toted “Walden” to the same Coffee Bean on a couple of nights. Frankly there were a lot of distractions. A seeming transient would play music videos on his phone with no ear jack that could be heard throughout the store. An upscale-looking couple stroked each other like they were on the sofa at home. Meanwhile I’m trying to read 19th century prose.

But it was a worthy attempt on my part, one I hope to repeat on occasion. Speaking of Thoreau:

“Walden” (1854): Was Thoreau the first millennial? He gave up meat, lived in a tiny house, owned few physical goods, worked in the gig economy (occasional carpentry or substitute teaching), had a favorable opinion of tattooing and says at age 30 he “had yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.” Then again, he was against coffee and didn’t think he should have to pay taxes, so never mind.

I bought this in 1998 at the Rancho Cucamonga Barnes & Noble, on a night when I was feeling literary: Willa Cather’s “Collected Stories,” finally read last year, came from this same night, as did another heavy book I hope to get to this year.

One attraction was that this edition had Thoreau’s famous “Civil Disobedience” essay. I read that at the end of 2019, along with the introductions, etc., so I could start the year with “Walden.” I may have done this in the wrong order, as “Civil” struck me as a virtual tea-party screed, with Thoreau thinking the government was doing nothing that he liked and that he didn’t want to help support it, then wondering why they went to the trouble of jailing him. He has some pithy lines, but the piece rubbed me the wrong way. “Walden,” however, was pretty good, and perhaps if I’d read it first, “Civil” would have seemed more in keeping with it. It’s got a lot of good nature writing, and he seems like he’d have been a quirky but friendly enough neighbor, and it’s studded with great lines, as well as (who knew?) sly humor.

“Europe Through the Back Door” (2017): Rick Steves is the author and personality whose guidebooks to Europe are a staple of bookstore travel sections. I’ve used his Germany and Poland books and profited from his advice. This is an overview book about European travel, with advice on packing, money, illness abroad and sightseeing strategies. I admit, I was hoping this would be more of a manifesto. Instead, there’s an awful lot of referrals to various Rick Steves apps, audio tours, travel tours, etc., and his individual guidebooks probably do about as good a job in advising you about the basics.

Still, this is a useful, practical overview of traveling to, in and around Europe. Reading his enthusiastic pitches for individual European countries in the back portion of the book, you want to book a flight to at least half of them. I bought this at the Chino Hills Barnes and Noble in 2018. I started it before a trip, set it aside for more than a year and then had it on my nightstand for a few weeks in late 2019-early 2020. It’s possible his recent “Travel as a Political Act” book is more of the philosophy-of-travel book I hoped this one was, but next time I see it I will examine it carefully to find out.

So, a small start for 2020, but satisfying. It’s possible I will read a little less this year, as I want to take time to watch the occasional movie (unwatched DVDs are stacking up like books) and also need to work on my own next book. But I liked that I got to these two books to start the year, one around for two decades, the other recent but half-read.

How was your January, readers? And what goals, if any, do you have for the year? Leave a comment below, then retrieve your jetpack from my robo-butler and we’ll see you soon!

Next month: All that glitters.

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Books read, 2019

In 2019 your ‘umble blogger read 46 books. That’s about my usual pace. Can you believe I’ve been writing these year-end reading posts since 2010? That’s a solid decade. Here’s the list from 2018.

Below are all the titles I read in 2019. Feel free to comment with your thoughts on your own reading in 2019 or, if you have the right combination of ambition and leisure time, to list all your books from the year.

  1. “Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records,” Amanda Petrusich
  2. “Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles,” Jonathan Gold
  3. “After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame,” Lynell George
  4. “Train,” Tom Zoellner
  5. “The Lost Art of Walking,” Geoff Nicholson
  6. “Over the Hills,” David Lamb
  7. “Beyond This Horizon,” Robert A. Heinlein
  8. “Edgeworks Vol. 1,” Harlan Ellison
  9. “Edgeworks Vol. 2,” Harlan Ellison
  10. “An Edge in My Voice,” Harlan Ellison
  11. “The Blood of the Lamb,” Peter De Vries
  12. “A Pleasure to Burn,” Ray Bradbury
  13. “Dreams and Schemes,” Steve Lopez
  14. “The Simulacra,” Philip K. Dick
  15. “Lies Inc.,” Philip K. Dick
  16. “The Unteleported Man,” Philip K. Dick
  17. “Only Apparently Real,” Paul Williams
  18. “The Colour of Memory,” Geoff Dyer
  19. “The Orange and the Dream of California,” David Boulé
  20. “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” William Shakespeare
  21. “Timon of Athens,” William Shakespeare
  22. “Pericles,” William Shakespeare
  23. “Shakespeare: The World as Stage,” Bill Bryson
  24. “Collected Stories,” Willa Cather
  25. “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” Robert M. Pirsig
  26. “California Dreamin’ Along Route 66,” Joe Sonderman
  27. “On the Road With Bob Dylan,” Larry “Ratso” Sloman
  28. “The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style,” Nelson George
  29. “What to Eat,” Marion Nestle
  30. “American Fried,” Calvin Trillin
  31. “Alice, Let’s Eat,” Calvin Trillin
  32. “Third Helpings,” Calvin Trillin
  33. “The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan,” Kevin Dettmar, editor
  34. “Counter-Clock World,” Philip K. Dick
  35. “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” Walter M. Miller Jr.
  36. “Can and Can’tankerous,” Harlan Ellison
  37. “Alive in La La Land,” Jack Smith
  38. “How the World Was: A California Childhood,” Emmanuel Guibert
  39. “Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters, 1542 to 2018,” David Kipen, editor
  40. “Panorama: A Picture History of Southern California,” W.W. Robinson
  41. “The Library Book,” Susan Orlean
  42. “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies,” Reyner Banham
  43. “The Best of Stanley G. Weinbaum,” Stanley Weinbaum
  44. “Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd,” John Bengtson
  45. “J.D. Salinger: A Biography,” Paul Alexander
  46. “2020 Vision”: Jerry Pournelle, editor
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Reading Log: December 2019

Books acquired: “Anthony Bourdain: The Last Interview,” Melville House, editor; “Wild LA: Explore the Amazing Nature In and Around Los Angeles,” LA Natural History Museum, editor

Books read: “Salinger: A Biography,” Paul Alexander; “2020 Vision,” Jerry Pournelle, editor

Happy New Year, readers! Before it feels too late to do so, let’s look back at December, in which we all had to squeeze reading in among holiday get-togethers and such. Leave us alone, people! We have seven chapters left!

Generally my Decembers are fairly leisurely as far as reading goes; perhaps yours are too. True to form, my year ended with two books read in December. The first was a fairly blah biography of J.D. Salinger, which I’d started a few weeks earlier, set aside and then ploughed through the last part of November, finishing a couple of days into December.

Having some slack time, I read a couple of stories from a 650-page science fiction anthology, at which I’ll probably continue to nibble away in the coming months (I’m up to p. 200), before putting that down to read the entirety of a 192-page science fiction anthology that was timely. That I finished Dec. 27. Since then I’ve read 100 pages of a 350-page anthology of a single science-fiction author and set that aside, hopefully to finish in February, to instead start a literary classic that I expect will be one of two or three books I’ll finish in January.

So, it’s been a fun few weeks, with my reading a bit less pressured than some months. Books of short stories can have that effect. You build up a certain momentum within them, yet the books don’t cry out to be finished immediately as with a novel.

Anyway, on to this month’s books.

“Salinger: A Biography”: Alexander gathered up the basic facts, interviewed a bunch of people and drew from Ian Hamilton’s unpublished but archived research. But the writing is clunky and some of his conclusions are bizarre: Salinger, whose writing is often a laugh riot, doesn’t have a keen sense of humor? Teddy kills his sister instead of the reverse? Salinger courted stalkers to fuel book sales? His preference for young adult women goes back to…when he was a young adult man? Do tell. Also, the cover is hideous. (It’s since been supplanted by one that’s a bit more professional.)

“2020 Vision”: The limits of SF’s ability to forecast the future are certainly clear in this 1974 book of stories set in 2020. Almost nothing has come to pass. But who cares? This is still a fun collection of SF originals. I actively enjoyed about half, with A.E. van Vogt and Norman Spinrad’s stories my favorites, and Dian Girard’s, about a future in which women’s ideal weight is enforced, was a welcome blast of feminism. I devoted my New Year’s Day column to this book. I read the book for my column more than for this blog, but it served a dual purpose.

I bought “Salinger” in 2002 at the Barnes and Noble in Old Town Pasadena (RIP) from a sale table and “2020” in 2007 at Book Baron in Anaheim (RIP) during a half-off closing sale. Two bargains! Although the books seem a little less like bargains after having sat around unread for more than a decade.

How was your December, readers? Feel free to just stick to December in your comments, as my annual year-end books post and column will follow in the next week, and we can reflect on our reading years there.

Next month: a Thoreau look at January.

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Reading Log: November 2019

Books acquired: none

Books read: “The Best of Stanley G. Weinbaum,” Stanley Weinbaum; “Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd,” John Bengtson

Happy December! Are you finding time to read despite the holidays? (Or because of the holidays? We don’t judge at the Reading Log.) As you can see above, I got in two books in November. One is in the landscape format and was too long to fit on my usual shelves for a photo showing its spine, so I had to improvise by placing it atop some large books, with the other book, a mass market paperback, on top. My two editions of the Science Fiction Encyclopedia and three film guides are no doubt excited to get some screen time.

“Best of Stanley G. Weinbaum” (1974): This is a collection of 12 of the 21 stories penned in the 1930s by Stanley Weinbaum, often considered the first great science fiction writer. He died of cancer less than two years into his writing career. His story “A Martian Odyssey” is a classic, in part because he created a truly alien race, but one I’d never read until now. Faced with an otherwise unfamiliar table of contents, I had feared that Weinbaum would be a one-trick pony. So it was a delightful surprise to find every story here enjoyable. Also, to find that “Odyssey” had a sequel, and that characters in some other stories recurred too. This is dialogue-driven, essentially cheerful SF, one where the male hero usually gets the “girl,” but a lot of fun to read. This book is the first Ballantine Best of, a series that grew to 21 volumes collecting short stories by many classic SF writers.

“Silent Visions” (2011): A remarkable feat of detective work, this matches up background images shot on location in Harold Lloyd’s silent films against vintage and modern photos of the same streetscapes. There’s usually some clue in the background — a street sign, a business name or a notable building — that allows Bengtson to determine the location. Neat, eh? One surprise is that in LA, for all its teardown reputation, a majority of the buildings remain at least semi-intact after 80 or 90 years. Another is that we’re not 100% sure how Lloyd filmed the “Safety Last!” clock stunt. That’s the one where Lloyd appears to hang off a clock face several stories above downtown L.A. Here’s a link to a snippet of the film to refresh your memory. (Let me add that Bengtson’s educated guesses sound correct. It involved building a fake two-story facade on a downtown rooftop and shooting from angles that preserve the illusion.) With multiple photos per page, the book’s page layout can be a challenge to follow, and I admit I considered giving up at times. But patient people who dote on LA and/or NYC history and silent films will be delighted.

And that’s about it. I finished these two in mid-month, upon which I read bits of three other books, but nothing I completed by the end of November. I thought about delaying the Reading Log for a week to enable me to finish a third book…but the thing is, I may end up reading only two books in December, so why rob from Peter to pay Paul?

Both my books this month were purchased within the last decade, which isn’t something I can say very often. Weinbaum was bought used in 2011 from Whittier’s Half Price Books and Bengtson followed in 2012 via (hiss) Amazon.

How was your November, readers, and do you have any reading plans for the last month of the year?

Next month: a literary biography, if you want to know the truth (that’s a hint as to the subject).

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Reading Log: October 2019

Books acquired: none

Books read: “Alive in La La Land,” Jack Smith; “How the World Was: A California Childhood,” Emmanuel Guibert; “Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters, 1542 to 2018,” David Kipen, editor; “Panorama: A Picture History of Southern California,” W.W. Robinson; “The Library Book,” Susan Orlean; “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies,” Reyner Banham

I know a bit about California history, perhaps more than the man on the street, yet I’m not scholar of the subject. I haven’t read Kevin Starr or Carey McWilliams or any number of other writers (see, I can’t even think of them) (although at least I know the names Starr and McWilliams).

But in October, I caught up a bit. I’d been reading Kipen’s book a bit every day since March (!) and Smith’s off and on since May or so. When I realized I might finish them the same month, I decided to make an LA month out of it.

“Alive in La La Land” (1989): Smith’s ninth and penultimate collection of columns was the last published in his lifetime. The most startling, and affecting, are the pieces about his collapse at home, triple bypass surgery and recovery. The remainder is the usual gentle, lightly humorous stuff. But as a man of 70, give or take, with heart trouble, he wasn’t getting out much, making this his least interesting book. You’d barely know he was living through the 1980s based on his reference points to classic movies and World War II-era pop. But he does cite Cyndi Lauper.

“Dear Los Angeles” (2018): Letters, diary entries and more from or about L.A., many by famous people, some by the obscure, arranged by date. Feb. 20, for example, has contributions dated 1861, 1928, 1934 and 1960. Some people find the organization confusing and would prefer strict chronology, but I don’t even understand what that book would look like, and anyway, that’s like taking the fizz out of soda. A fun, enlightening kaleidoscope of a book. I read this day by day starting in March, while going back to January to catch up and later skipping ahead to November and December so I wouldn’t spend the entire year on it.

“The Library Book” (2018): A paean to the LA Central Library, which survived a disastrous fire in 1986 whose cause was never definitively proven, and to libraries in general in a changing world. There are intriguing branches into the future of libraries, LA Central’s history and unexpected collections (maps, sheet music), and the story of the hapless dreamer and habitual liar who may or may not have set the fire. That a tremendous amount of research was done is evident, but each detail appears carefully chosen.

“Panorama” (1953): Charming overview history of Southern California, with all the omissions and boosterism you’d expect of a book published in 1953 by the white staff of a title insurance behemoth, but laden with 19th and early 20th century photos, drawings and lithographs. Many are surprising, as in, “there’s a photo of that from 1857??”

“Four Ecologies” (1971): “This sense of possibilities still ahead is part of the basic life-style of Los Angeles,” concludes Banham, perhaps the first outsider to have positive, and original, things to say about L.A. Were the Brit here in 2019 he might find less to like about the freeways he extolled and more to like about the downtown he dismissed. But he understood L.A., predicted the future desirability of Venice and was open-minded enough to see Ray Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles” as a perfect SoCal allegory.

“How the World Was” (2014): I may never have listed a graphic novel here, even though I read ’em, because I put them in a separate mental category. But I’m making an exception for this, since it fits our theme. A French illustrator renders an oral history by his friend Alan Cope, who was born in the 1920s and grew up mostly in Alhambra. Cope relates descriptions and incidents from his childhood and about his family. It’s closely observed, low-key and ordinary, but in the best way possible, and set in a California that is almost unrecognizable.

I’d say “How the World Was” and “The Library Book” are the real winners this month. “Dear Los Angeles” and “Architecture of Four Ecologies” are certainly worth reading, if a bit more for the devotee. “Panorama” is vintage fun. “La La Land” has its merits, but you’d be better off with literally any of Smith’s other books.

Where did I get these books? Orlean and Kipen’s came to me as birthday gifts this year. “World” was bought at Powell’s in Portland in August. “Panorama” was a gift in 2017 from reader Roger Recupero from his own collection. “Ecologies” was bought at L.A.’s Last Bookstore in 2012. And Smith’s book was bought somewhere now forgotten in the mid-’00s.

What did you read in October? And have you read much L.A./SoCal history, and if so, what books would you recommend?

Next month: silent films and science fiction.

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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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