Reading Log: June 2019

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

Book read: “Collected Stories,” Willa Cather

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next month: on the road.

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Reading Log: May 2019

Books acquired: none

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next month: the usual mishmash.

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Reading Log: April 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next month: Shakespeare and lesser lights.

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Reading Log: March 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next month: dreams and unreality.

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Reading Log: February 2019

Books acquired: none

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next month: edgy fare.

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Reading Log: January 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next month: modes of transit.

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Reading Log: December 2018

Books acquired: “The Portable Hawthorne,” Malcolm Cowley, ed.; “The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan,” Kevin Dettmar, ed.

Books read: “Ritchie Valens, the First Latino Rocker,” Beverly Mendheim; “Janis,” David Dalton; “Bob Dylan: Performing Artist, the Middle Years, 1974-1986,” Paul Williams

Happy December! I finished my reading early, pre-Christmas actually, and so here I am in the same month rather than a few days into the next.

I finished a trio of books, all of them with a rock musician’s name in the title. I read the Dylan because it is the oldest unread book on my shelves, and the last from my years living in the Bay Area. I have a half-dozen unread books of Dylaniana still and, see above, just bought another. Janis Joplin is another favorite. Valens is to be the subject of a future column.

It’s a shame that three decades after publication, “Ritchie Valens” (1987) evidently remains the only biography of the pioneering singer and guitarist, only 17 when he died in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, and with a career that lasted all of eight months.

To her credit, Mendheim (who as a teen saw Valens perform live in NYC) spoke to the relevant people and gathered copious source material. But she’s not expert enough to have made a real narrative out of it. Worthwhile for admirers, though. The conflicting memories of members of the Silhouettes, a local band in which Valens was a member, is both frustrating and hilarious; they can’t agree on much of anything.

I don’t know that I would have liked Janis Joplin had I known her, as she was so needy and outrageous (and faux-outrageous), but I find her fascinating to listen to and read about. She was a real trailblazer who suffered for being a woman and for being ahead of her time. The best bio is likely “Scars of Sweet Paradise” by Alice Echols, which I read a few years ago, pre-blog.

“Janis” (1971) is a ramshackle biography-cum-scrapbook published a year after her death, composed of relaxed interviews with Joplin from 1970, various Rolling Stone articles, a hefty photo section, sheet music for some of her best-known songs and a flexi-disc of talking. (The disc is still attached to the book and I think it’s more valuable to me preserved intact compared to the likely meager rewards of tearing it out and listening to it.) So as books go it’s a curio, but as a fan I enjoyed this more than I’d expected.

I read Paul Williams’ “Bob Dylan: Performing Artist, the Early Years, 1960-1973” in 1993, three years after publication, and let me tell you, I read it, listening to the records and following along with the lyrics, and also playing whatever unreleased tapes or records I happened to own. It took months. It was rewarding, but still. When I bought the sequel, I wanted to do the same thing, but after a suitable break.

Well, a quarter-century later (gulp), and trying to raise the floor of my unread books backlog by clearing out the stragglers from the late ’80s and early ’90s, I finally read “Performing Artist II” (1992). And it took months. This period starts with the 1974 comeback tour and “Blood on the Tracks” and ends with a 1986 tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the dismal “Knocked Out Loaded.”

The late Williams’ judgments are very useful if you’re willing to do a deep dive into the material. His thesis is that Dylan is a performer who can be as rewarding in concert as on record. Williams is a careful listener, but he can be overly generous, his devotion to the legendarily self-indulgent and unwatchable four-hour movie “Renaldo and Clara” is inexplicable and his takes on concert tours/tapes are a service to history if not always to readers who don’t have access to the material. Still, he was among the best Dylan commentators.

(There’s a final volume, from 2004, covering only 1986-1990, which I suspect will prove the least of the three and get bogged down in Never Ending Tour concert examinations. I hope to read that in 2019: There’s only four albums, one of them live, in that period.)

Look for my annual column in a few days about the books I read in the year past. I’ll also post the list of titles on this blog, which will be the best spot for you to comment on your own year in reading if you choose.

As for when and where the books above were acquired, the Dylan was bought in 1993 at Rasputin’s Music in Berkeley, the Joplin from Book Alley in Pasadena in 2002 and the Valens in October (talk about a leap forward in time) via Amazon Marketplace. It’s a former (I hope!) library copy.

Next month: “Counter Intelligence” and more.

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Reading Log: November 2018

Books acquired: “The Orange and the Dream of California,” David Boulé

Books read: “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage,” Todd Gitlin; “Haircut and Other Stories,” Ring Lardner

November, the penultimate month. Perhaps you are racing toward some reading target; me, I’m gliding toward year’s end by finishing a certain goal.

That would be reading the last unread books from the Northern California period of my life (1986-1994), and yes, I am properly chagrined at having books this hoary on my unread list. But I’m near to no longer having them on my unread list, just as I knocked off the last (with an asterisk or two) hangover books from my Illinois period (birth-1986) a couple of years back. Progress!

Over 2018 I’ve read five from my Bay Area years, by Hawthorne, Kafka, Hammett and Dick (two); this month I read “The Sixties,” and I’m largely through the final one, which will be a December book.

Sometimes these long-held books turn out to be gems; other times the reason they hadn’t been read until now becomes obvious, i.e., that I wasn’t into them but couldn’t admit it to myself consciously. If they were all in the latter category, I might junk all my old books, but they aren’t, and there’s no obviously differentiating point to allow me to make that determination. The five mentioned above were all good to great, for instance, and I’m glad I read each of them.

And I won’t disparage “The Sixties,” a chronicle (from 1987) of the student protest movement, of which Gitlin was among the leaders. I learned a fair amount; it’s just that 440 small-type pages proved to be far more than I wanted to know about the subject, especially at this late date.

Actually, one of the tidbits that most struck me was about the 1950s and concerned the lunch counter protests against Woolworth’s, which began with four black college students in suits and ties sitting at the counter in Greensboro, N.C., all day, refusing to leave when they were ignored. The next day, they returned with 25 more students, some in ROTC uniforms; the third day with double the number; by the fifth day, with 300. Allow me to quote:

“At its luminous best, what the movement did was stamped with imagination. The sit-in, for example, was a powerful tactic because the act itself was unexceptionable. What were the Greensboro students doing, after all, but sitting at a lunch counter, trying to order a hamburger or a cup of coffee? They did not petition the authorities, who, in any case, would have paid no heed; in strict Gandhian fashion, they asserted that they had a right to sit at the counter by sitting at it, and threw the burden of disruption onto the upholders of white supremacy. Instead of saying that segregation ought to stop, they acted as if segregation no longer existed. That was the definitive movement style, squarely in the American grain, harking back to Thoreau’s idea of civil disobedience…”

Of course the 1960s stuff was often fascinating too: I learned, or was reminded, that the Kennedy brothers were inconsistent champions of civil rights and that MLK peaked at the March on Washington, both characterizations bringing these icons down to earth as human beings, and also that the student protest movement was relatively coordinated nationally.

Still, I was reading this book from Nov. 1 to 25, an awfully big chunk of time for what I got out of it. I protest!

“Haircut,” by contrast, was right up my alley. Lardner was a master of real-world speech; most of these stories are told exclusively through narration, letters or diary entries, and each reveals character, often unwittingly, and usually hilariously. The flighty teenage girl in “I Can’t Breathe” strings along three young men, all of whom believe they’re engaged to her; the would-be lovers of “Some Like Them Cold” grow close and then apart via correspondence.

Lardner, who died in 1933, isn’t read much today, although there’s a Library of America anthology from 2013 that has asserted his place in the canon.

As for these books’ provenance, Gitlin’s was bought at Green Apple Books in San Francisco in 1993, while Lardner’s, also used, came from Downtowne Books in Riverside in 2001. There is a sly joke in reading “Haircut” and “The Sixties” in the same month; and as two of my oldest unread books, they both cried out to be read anyway.

I’m up to 44 books read in 2018 and am likely to end the year at 47, being well into all three I intend to read this month.

How was your November, readers, and are we nearing, or accomplishing, any particular goals?

Next month: big names in music.

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Reading Log: October 2018

Books acquired: “Ritchie Valens: The First Latino Rocker,” Beverly Mendheim; “Our Towns,” James and Deborah Fallows

Books read: “The Doom That Came to Sarnath and Other Stories,” H.P. Lovecraft; “Echo Round His Bones,” Thomas M. Disch; “Banking on Beauty,” Adam Arenson; “O Pioneers!” Willa Cather

Did we all remember to turn back our clocks, or were we too busy reading? Anyway, welcome to another Reading Log, where the frost is on the pumpkin, or it would be if it weren’t 84 degrees outside.

Personally, I finished four books in October. I did not “fall” down on the job. Three fiction, one nonfiction. To wit:

“The Doom That Came to Sarnath” was my annual H.P. Lovecraft read. This was made up of early fantasy stories in the mode of Lord Dunsany, a couple of collaborations, a poem and a few pre-Cthulhu stories. Overall, the weakest of the eight HPL collections I’ve read. The notes by editor Lin Carter do help put it all into context.

“Echo Round His Bones” (1967) was my sort-of-annual Thomas Disch read. In this one, a military man is dispatched via matter transmitter to the Mars base to deliver the top-secret message that America’s nuclear arsenal should be released against the Russians. But the transmission process is flawed and a duplicate of everyone is created for a shadow world. The anti-war message, and anti-Vietnam War message in particular (in 1967 no less), is commendable. The explanations of the matter transmission and the “echoes” it creates are pretty much impossible to follow, and Disch’s authorial voice as narrator is intrusive. Interesting, but neither here nor there: too complicated for light entertainment and too cheerful for literary fiction.

(Incidentally, I bought a bunch of the hard-to-find Disch books five years ago at a used bookstore in Goleta and have now read four — only one of which I liked. I’m beginning to regret the whole exercise. Except that chronologically, the next one is a classic. We shall see.)

“Banking on Beauty” (2018) was the subject of a column earlier this year. It’s about the partnership of Millard Sheets and Howard Ahmanson that produced the artsy Home Savings branches around Southern California in particular. It’s well illustrated and rigorously researched. It’s a bit much for the general reader, if any there are, but the book fills a gap in midcentury modern architecture history and tells a uniquely suburban SoCal tale of art and good taste being brought to the masses via a philanthropic businessman and an artist who was happy to sign on with a corporate client.

Lastly, “O Pioneers!” (1913) is a classic by Willa Cather spanning about three decades in the settlement of a Nebraska town. Even at a slim 180 pages, her novel has an epic heroine, one who outshines her petty, small-minded brothers in business. Cather’s descriptions of the Nebraska landscape are loving and lovely and her sketches of the Swedes, Germans and Czechs who settled the prairie so far from their home are enlightening and empathetic.

So “Pioneers” was the month’s clear winner, and also the one more of you are likely to have already read or to consider reading. Although I’d bet Rich P. has read “Echo.”

But what of you all? What did you read in October?

As for how these books entered my life, “Echo” was bought at Goleta’s Paperback Alley in 2013, “Sarnath” came from DTLA’s Last Bookstore in 2017, “O Pioneers!” came from Borders (RIP) — I’d have said circa 2011, but as it doesn’t show up in a search of this blog, maybe more like 2007 — and “Banking” was contributed by Claremont Heritage (I was writing about Adam Arenson’s Heritage-related visit to town) in 2018.

My four books made this, I think, my last big month of 2018. There’s a good chance I’ll only finish four or five over the last two months of this year, including two relatively complex nonfiction volumes, my oldest unread books, that I really want to read before another year goes by. Do you have any year-end reading goals?

Next month: a hairy time.

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Reading Log: September 2018

Books acquired: “The Annotated ‘Big Sleep’,” Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson and Anthony Rizzuto, editors

Books read: “The Sheep Look Up,” John Brunner; “The Maltese Falcon (Film Classics Library),” Richard J. Anobile; “Cats, Dogs and Other Strangers at My Door,” Jack Smith; “The Perfect Horse,” Elizabeth Letts

It seems it was September, not March, that came in like a lion and went out like a lamb, based on my animalistic titles last month. My reading encompassed a science fiction novel, a collection of newspaper columns, a nonfiction World War II account and a stills-and-dialogue version of a film noir classic, all with a critter in the title.

I’d been wanting to read “The Sheep Look Up” since being struck by its summary in a display at the science fiction museum at Seattle’s Space Needle in 2006, and remembered its unsettling cover from book racks in the 1970s. So that’s the edition I acquired a year or two later (from where, I forget). At 450 pages, it was a little intimidating and I kept putting it off, but I took it with me on my overseas trip and, after reading “The Trial,” read almost half by the time I returned.

This sprawling, character-filled novel (1972) charts environmental ruin (acid rain, unbreathable air, poisoned water, a sun that never emerges) that people manage to ignore even as their quality of life erodes. Experimental, but easy to follow, with black humor and real anger at the fouling of Earth. Brunner’s alarm about pesticides and antibiotics that no longer work hasn’t quite been borne out (yet?), but “Sheep” is still scary and deserves to be more widely read.

“Cats, Dogs and Other Strangers at My Door” (1984) collects some 30 years of columns by the LA Timesman about the cats, dogs and birds that found their way to his and his wife’s Mount Washington home. I love Jack’s writing but had some trepidation about this one, as a non-pet person. As the seventh of his nine books, which I’ve been reading in order, one per year, it was this one’s turn. But no need to fear. His clear writing, sly humor and observations about the foibles of both human and pet alike made this book another semi-forgotten gem.

“The Perfect Horse” (2016) chronicles the little-known tale of the purebred horses rescued at the end of WWII by equine-loving American troops before the Russians could grab them for horsemeat. Some of them were shipped, at least briefly, to Kellogg Ranch in Pomona before being dispersed to auctions in other states. I saw Letts give a talk at Cal Poly earlier this year, bought the book to help me with the resulting column and got it signed. I read the few Pomona pages in writing the column, then put the book aside. I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the time on it, as it’s not really my thing, but thought if I were ever going to read it, it should be this year, and so I inserted it into this animal month.

Well, it was frequently quite good, with Letts playing up the drama and humanity of the men involved. But there may be too many characters, riding camps and breeds for the reader to follow for the narrative’s own good, and the story kind of trails off, as the dramatic rescue in many ways seems to be for naught. Life is often like that. Still, maybe I’d have been just as well off skipping the book after all. (Among the copious works cited in the back is my own Kellogg column from my Pomona A to Z series, although I can’t imagine it was of much help.)

As for “The Maltese Falcon” (1974), it’s one of a series done by Richard Anobile in which he presented portions of old comedies, or even full movies, as frame blowups accompanied by typeset dialogue. I have his “Casablanca” and two Marx Brothers books.

Now that we can enjoy “The Maltese Falcon” in our own home anytime we like — I’ve since watched it again on Blu-ray after finishing the book — this is an antique. But “Falcon” is such a great movie that the chance to linger over its details and chuckle in recognition of favorite moments is not to be dismissed. Also, you might learn something; in my case, despite repeated viewings, it was exactly how Captain Jacoby figured in, which had glided right past me.

I bought “Falcon” at Powell’s Books in Portland in 2016. As mentioned, “Horse” came from Cal Poly in 2018. “Cats, Dogs” and “Sheep” date to the mid-2000s, prior to the Reading Log, from used bookstores, although I’ve forgotten which ones. Smith’s, like my others by him, is signed.

How was your September, readers? Hope you read some good books, and not too many dogs. Let us know in the comments section.

Next month: a favorite author or two.

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