Reading Log: October 2020

Books acquired: “Joan Baez: The Last Leaf,” Elizabeth Thomson

Books read: “Leaves of Grass,” Walt Whitman; “The Wind in the Willows,” Kenneth Grahame; “American Dirt,” Jeanine Cummins; “A Handful of Dust,” Evelyn Waugh; “Joan Baez: The Last Leaf,” Elizabeth Thomson

I promised my October reading would constitute “some earthy reading,” and as you can see by the titles above, that was no fib. Grass, dirt, dust, leaves, willows — everything but weeds and flowers.

I started “Leaves of Grass” back in May or June, reading four or so pages every night. The notion of reading “American Dirt” the same month I would finish “Grass” struck me, and “A Handful of Dust” as well. I had time for “Willows,” yet another long-lived unread book on my shelves. Just as the month was ending, the Joan Baez biography arrived in the mail from the publisher (a column is planned), and it was a delight to realize the title would fit the theme. I dove in and delayed the Reading Log a few days so I could finish the book, which I did on Nov. 5. And here we are.

My capsule thoughts on each:

“Leaves of Grass” (1892): Whitman’s poetry, clear, direct and democratic, exemplifies America as well as anything else you can name. His original, 1855 Leaves of Grass is concise; this sprawling deathbed edition, a compendium of every poem he wrote, is more than most of us need, although his Civil War and Lincoln poems, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry and a few more are essential. For 700-plus pages of poetry, though, this goes down easily, and I’m glad I read it.

“The Wind in the Willows” (1908): A gentle story of four English “chaps” who happen to be animals. The long, scholarly introduction and the copious asterisks in the text leading to endnotes tend to make the book more portentous than it really is. (You know you’re in deep water when even some of the chapter titles have asterisks.)

“American Dirt” (2020): A friend gave me this as a birthday gift, which was unfortunate given the controversy over cultural appropriation, exploitation and such. “I heard it’s good,” he said blandly. I could well have accepted the novel with tongs and personal protective gear, as if it were radium. I took off the dust jacket when I toted the book around last month in a bid to attract less attention, pro or con. But you know, I liked the book for what it was rather than for what the over-enthusiastic blurbs claimed, like the “Grapes of Wrath” comparison. It’s a little potboiler-y for that. But Cummins gives us a sense of the danger migrants go through, and there’s value in that.

“A Handful of Dust” (1934): A novel of bleakness and disillusionment, as well as scathing wit. I liked the movie adaptation and, three decades later, I liked the book too, about a marriage that falls apart for no good reason. The only other Waugh I’ve read is The Loved One, which was too absurd and sneering for my tastes. Dust, by contrast, reminds me of Paul Bowles’ austere The Sheltering Sky.

“Joan Baez: The Last Leaf” (2020): A noble attempt to give Joan Baez, nearing 80, her due, via a biography and discography; as Thomson notes, Baez’s career and life are far less documented than her compatriot Bob Dylan’s. Sexism no doubt plays a part, although the difference in talent and cultural influence is inescapable. I came away impressed by the extent of Baez’s activism, extending to Bernie Sanders and George Floyd. The text is sympathetic, but sometimes enthusiastic, and possibly protective; there’s almost nothing about Baez’s personal life of the past 50 years.

“Leaves of Grass” is the clear winner this month, with “Dust” and “Willows” next.

I mentioned how “Leaf” and “Dirt” arrived, both in 2020. “Leaves” was acquired, well, I can’t determine when; I read the short, 1855 version in 2013, and may already have owned this longer version, but at this point I can’t recall. I probably bought this longer one at Borders. “Dust” was bought used somewhere, possibly Glendale’s Brand Books, in the mid-’00s, and “Willows” was purchased in 2011 at a steep discount at Borders’ closing sale. I still have nearly a dozen unread books from that sale of nearly a decade ago, making the “savings” seem rather hollow. But buying them made me feel better, and I’ll get through them eventually.

How was your October, readers? Did the first month of fall treat you well, at least in your reading lives? Let us know in the comments.

Next month: the life cycle in book titles.

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Reading Log: September 2020

Books acquired: “In the Country of Women,” Susan Straight; “Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick,” Lawrence Sutin

Books read: “In the Country of Women,” Susan Straight; “Juliet, Naked,” Nick Hornby; “She,” H. Rider Haggard

Welcome to fall! We’re in the home stretch of 2020, three-fourths of the way through what’s described as the most tumultuous year since 1968, and the way things are going, let’s hope we all make it.

At least the Reading Log soldiers on. What could be more vital, after all, than sharing what books we read?

I’ll start. Hey, it’s my blog. I read three books in September, all about women, although just one was written by a woman.

“In the Country of Women” (2019): Women don’t have Homeric odysseys in literature, Straight writes, but she sets out to tell a version of an epic involving the women in her family going back generations, who traveled from the Deep South, Canada and Europe, not always at their choosing, to end up in Southern California. A memoir that’s more about others than about herself, and addressed as much to her daughters as to us. We should all be so lucky as to have a gifted writer research our family tree.

“Juliet, Naked” (2009): A reclusive musician releases the demo versions of his classic breakup album of 20 years earlier, and its merits spark a fight between a couple whose relationship is in stasis: He’s an obsessive fan who thinks it’s brilliant, she’s not and says it’s a bunch of malarkey. The musician, it turns out, agrees with her. Not especially dramatic, and about 2/3 of the way through the story foundered for a bit, but thankfully it ends on an unexpected note. It’s heartening how a writer known for his lad books (“High Fidelity,” “Fever Pitch,” “About a Boy”) has turned his attention in recent years to writing from women’s perspective, and done so successfully (this male would say). He even casts a dim eye on the lad’s concerns, and reminds us that normal people are allowed to like music on normal, non-obsessive terms. We lads can always stand to hear that again.

“She” (1887): I knew little more than that the tribal ruler in question was addressed as “she-who-must-be-obeyed,” a phrase later employed by certain British men to describe their possibly battle-ax wives. My expectation here was that our adventurers would encounter a fearsome tribal chieftess who might only be brought to heel by a brutal hero. That proved very wrong. Ayesha is among the most beguiling characters of adventure fiction, and unlike almost all the rest of them, needless to say, she’s a woman. (And what a woman.) Sure, a bit fusty, given its Victorian origins, but imaginative and thrilling.

“She” would be my favorite of the month, although I could recommend all three.

I bought the Haggard omnibus in 2008 at St. Louis’ Patten Books (RIP); I will count each novel of the three contained within as its own novel (I mean, why not?) and hope to get to “King Solomon’s Mines” within the next year. “Juliet, Naked” was bought in 2011 at Borders Montclair (RIP). “In the Country of Women” was bought this month at the Barnes & Noble in Montclair; the chain was promoting the book in September, giving it its own display table. I don’t tend to read books that have their own display table and enjoyed the novelty.

I’ve already finished a book in October, one started back in May (!), so that’s a relief; two or three more will follow.

What did you read in September, folks? Let us know in the comments, as usual.

Next month: some earthy reading, dig?

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Reading Log: August 2020

Books acquired: “Rod Serling’s Night Gallery,” Scott Skelton and Jim Benson; “Liner Notes,” Loudon Wainwright III

Books read: “Extra Innings: Fred Claire’s Journey to City of Hope and Finding a World Championship Team,” Tim Madigan; “Sonnets and Narrative Poems,” “The Comedy of Errors,” “Love’s Labor’s Lost,” “Henry VIII,” William Shakespeare; “The Mirror & the Light,” Hilary Mantel

Happy September! (I hope!) My reading for August was a bit more high-toned than usual. As I slowly make my way through Shakespeare’s oeuvre, I’ve gone from reading one play per year to two, and then last year to three, plus a book about him. This year I read three plays and all his poems. I now think of this as my annual Shakespeare Month.

But I also read one related book, a novel set in 16th century England, and one totally unrelated book, a nonfiction book about baseball and a life-threatening illness. After interviewing Fred Claire, he had his publisher send me the brand-new book about him, and I saw no reason not to read it immediately. It wasn’t Shakespeare, but it was all right.

“Extra Innings” (2020): Former Dodger executive Claire’s series of treatments for cancer and its complications, and his near-miraculous recovery at City of Hope medical center (he was the only patient to survive a clinical trial), is the heart of this story, but there’s some Dodgers history in here too for the fans, particularly about the 1988 World Series-winning team that Claire built. The doctors, however, are the “world championship team” of the subtitle. An honest, sobering look at cancer’s toll.

“The Sonnets and Narrative Poems” (1593-1609): The sonnets are endlessly inventive, if sometimes obscure, especially to modern ears. The narrative poems are very different from each other. “The Rape of Lucrece” and “The Phoenix and Turtle” are the standouts, the others landing on the formal, dull side. Shakespeare’s plays are the rightful focus of our interest, but his poems are a legacy in themselves.

“The Comedy of Errors” (1594): Silly, highly enjoyable farce about mistaken identity and human doubles. This is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, and — if I may be so bold — the lad seems to have a bright future ahead of him. (Or maybe not; see next summary.)

“Love’s Labor’s Lost” (1594-5): This one is so firmly rooted in Elizabethan times that some of the dialogue is baffling even to experts, so what are the rest of us to do? Women do get the upper hand, which is commendable, but most of what I got out of this play was from the introduction. Of course it’s Shakespeare and has lasted more than four centuries and all that. But this was a chore to read.

“Henry VIII” (1612-13): Shakespeare’s last history play, and perhaps not entirely his at that, this is more a collection of scenes than a story and more an ensemble piece than a focused study of Henry, or any of the other players for that matter. Katherine and Wolsey get off some good speeches, though, adding interest to one of Shakespeare’s more pedestrian outings.

“The Mirror & the Light” (2020): I listened to this on audiobook, just like the first two in the Cromwell trilogy. Er, a bit long: 30 discs!?! The wrap-up is of a piece with the first two books: penetrating, detailed, fascinating, moving and often bitingly funny. But it does seem padded. Ben Miles is the best of the narrators, capturing Cromwell’s working-class tones. Cromwell was talented enough to rise to Henry VIII’s chief adviser, but he was a blacksmith’s son.

A little background: Since spring I’d been watching Patrick Stewart’s sonnet a day videos on Twitter, reading the sonnet twice and then following along as he read it; he took a break and I started following another account, the Jermyn Street Theatre, from where Stewart left off; then Stewart took up again and I was following both. JST wrapped up a couple of weeks ago; Stewart has about a month to go. Figuring I might as well knock off all of Shakespeare’s verse, I checked out a book of his sonnets plus his handful of poems and read those. So, his non-stage writing is now handled.

Among the plays, I chose “Comedy” and “Love’s” because I had more comedies unread than tragedies, histories or romances, and “Henry” because it tied in with Mantel’s work. Three plays was about right for Shakespeare Month; one of the books has “King John” but I was short on time and kind of Bard-ed out.

Now I have 15 Shakespeare plays left (out of 38) to read. Progress!

Because my 1980s college-textbook “Riverside Shakespeare” omnibus is unwieldy to lug around, I relied on local libraries (Ontario, Pomona, Rancho Cucamonga) for portable editions, and got “Mirror” from the Ontario library. That was a $60 value over buying all 30 discs — thanks, Ontario! And as stated, “Extra Innings” was a freebie.

Now it’s your turn. We’re eight months through this most unusual year. What did you read in August, and how is your reading year going? I’m at 33 books, slightly ahead of the usual pace, and with some ambitious books among my total. But what else is there to do in 2020 but read (and follow baseball)?

Next month: The country of women.

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Reading Log: July 2020

Books acquired: “Extra Innings,” Tim Madigan

Books read: “Death in Venice,” Thomas Mann; “Bring Up the Bodies,” Hilary Mantel; “Written in My Soul,” Bill Flanagan; “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said,” Philip K. Dick; “Crime and Punishment,” Fyodor Dostoevsky; “The Prisoner,” “Camp Concentration,” Thomas M. Disch

We’ve entered the dog days of August, so put your cat clothes on as we discuss whatever we read in July. In my case, I finished seven books, the titles of which form almost the outlines of a narrative of death, exhumation, spirits, police and the correctional arm. Crime and punishment, you might say. I kind of wish I hadn’t read Kafka’s “The Trial” a year ago or that would have slotted right in.

In point of fact, none of these books have very much to do with each other. They comprise, in order, a book of literary short stories, a novel of historical fiction, a collection of interviews with singer-songwriters, a science fiction novel, a classic Russian novel, a TV tie-in novel and another science fiction novel.

Now, let’s hustle to the scene of the crime:

“Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories” (1903): These eight stories (ranging from 28 to 75 pages) are all at least interesting, and very good in the case of the unsettling title novella. Mann’s carefully wrought prose reminds me of Henry James, a writer who’s easier to admire than warm to, and the almost dialogue-free prose requires concentration. While some stories are borderline pretentious, there’s also “A Man and his Dog,” about just that, and as detailed a character portrait of a canine as you’re likely to find outside of Jack London.

“Bring Up the Bodies” (2012): The Cromwell saga continues, and Thomas More, whose death ended the first book, casts a moral shadow over this one, as Cromwell begins to slide into villain territory. This saga won’t end well. But the middle book is as gripping as the first, and shorter besides. As an audiobook, Simon Vance’s reading is fine but to me doesn’t have the range of Simon Slater’s work on Book 1.

“Written in My Soul: Rock’s Great Songwriters Talk About Creating Their Music” (1986): Thoughtful Q&As with singer-songwriters out of the rock (not pop or soul) tradition. Overwhelmingly male and white, true, and some of the choices (Mark Knopfler, Rickie Lee Jones, Lowell George) haven’t stood the test of time. But Flanagan gets illuminating answers from people as disparate as Carl Perkins, Elvis Costello and Joni Mitchell, and Dylan gives one of his better interviews.

“Crime and Punishment” (1866): It’s vile, it’s nonsense, I spit on it! Just kidding; those are Russian idioms that pop up frequently. I was surprised how compelling, odd and moving this intimidatingly hefty novel is. The murders take place early on and we know who did it and why. Why is there another 400 pages? Just ask police detective Porfiry Petrovich, an antecedent of Lt. Columbo, who likes to pretend to be mixed up.

“Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said” (1974): In a near-future police state America, popular TV entertainer Jason Taverner is attacked, goes to the hospital and wakes up in a shabby hotel room, soon realizing his identity cards are missing and no one has ever heard of him. The eventual explanation for what happened isn’t entirely satisfying, and the attack was a MacGuffin. But this is one of PKD’s better novels, layered and compelling. The policeman’s tears are important too.

“The Prisoner” (1969): A paperback original based on the cult TV series, this was a lark for a writer of Disch’s ambition. (It’s said he needed the quick payment.) The result is a slightly arty TV novelization, or an almost mainstream Disch novel. Fifty years on, it remains the Disch book most likely to be found at a used bookstore. The story is enjoyable, starting at the beginning of Number Six’s imprisonment (or does it?) and wrapping up in a satisfying way that reveals the identity of Number One (possibly?). Elusive and playful.

“Camp Concentration” (1967): Written as journal entries, this is about a plush prison for unwitting patients in a military experiment that boosts their intelligence (hence the title pun) but ultimately kills them. Supposedly they’re there to come up with better ways to kill the enemy, but mostly they put on plays, quote poetry and practice alchemy. Is this a great novel? Er, maybe? Erudite, mannered, Disch just leaves me cold.

Best of the month was “Crime and Punishment,” with “Bring Up the Bodies” and “Written in My Soul” both close seconds in their own disparate ways. The others were enjoyable, with “Camp Concentration” the one I didn’t care much for.

That’s a small story in itself. Confronted by nine titles by Disch in the science fiction section of an excellent used bookstore in Goleta, Paperback Alley, in 2013, I bought eight of them on faith, knowing Disch’s reputation and knowing his books are hard to find. By this point I’ve read five of the eight and candidly didn’t much like any of them. Gong! I’m keeping an unread best-of story collection but am ditching the other two (and one bought elsewhere). He’s just not the writer for me.

Where’d this month’s books originate? Mann was bought circa 1982 in Illinois somewhere, “Tears” may date to the late 1980s (but I can’t remember), “Soul” from Amoeba Music in 2002, “Crime” from Vroman’s in 2006, “Prisoner” and “Camp” from Paperback Alley in 2013, and “Bodies” was checked out from the Rancho Cucamonga Public Library in June.

How was your July, readers? Let us know in the comments. To skip this month’s comments would be…a crime.

Next month: Shakespeare, plus baseball.

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Reading Log: June 2020

Books acquired: “The Bitter Season,” Robert M. Coates

Books read: “A Short History of the World,” J.M. Roberts; “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” Mark Twain; “The Twilight Zone Companion,” Marc Scott Zicree

Happy July! So nice to see you all, or at least imagine you, as we check in on each others’ reading lives.

I read three books last month, one of them an American classic that no doubt everyone, or almost everyone, who reads this post will have read. Yes, that staple of school reading lists, “The Twilight Zone Companion.” Er, just kidding.

“Short History of the World” (1997): Roberts packs a lot into 513 pages, from the first hominids (“History is the story of human beings, and it is the human past which concerns us”) to the fall of the Soviet Union. A remarkable summary, full of insights and broad trends, and I feel smarter for having read it, but it does require concentration; let your mind drift for a paragraph and you’ve missed 50 years of history.

“Tom Sawyer” (1876): In his first solo novel, after the co-write of “The Gilded Age,” Twain evokes his own rural American childhood of 35 years previous with humor and tenderness. I first read this on my own sometime in childhood, perhaps in high school, and recall seeing the 1973 movie adaptation upon release; rereading the novel as an adult, it was remarkable to encounter so many incidents that imprinted themselves on the American mind: not just the whitewashing of the fence but Tom gallantly taking Becky’s punishment in class, Tom attending his own funeral, Injun Joe’s leap out the courtroom window, the final encounter in the cave (which was actually less dramatic than I’d recalled).

“Twilight Zone Companion” (1992): Largely an episode guide, this isn’t a book you’re likely to sit down and read for pleasure, but it’s indeed an excellent companion if you’re watching the series. Which I did: After buying the series on Blu-ray four years ago, I’ve gradually watched all five seasons and 156 episodes, picking up speed in 2020 (gee, it’s like I’ve had extra time on my hands) and reading the book as I went along. The episode summaries are well done and Zicree’s judgments are sound; in fact, for a fan he’s surprisingly critical. (Apparently in the most recent edition he walks back some of his harsher judgments.) Interviews with many directors and actors, and old quotes from Serling, flavor the looks at each episode and season.

These were three of my oldest unread books. “Zone” was bought in 1994; it seemed like a good idea at the time, given the praise for the book. “Short History” was purchased in 1998 in an excess of enthusiasm after reading a positive review. I bought it on the same excursion as Cather’s “Collected Stories” and Thoreau’s “Walden,” which I only read in the past year, and, heh heh, Jerry Seinfeld’s “Seinlanguage,” which I read immediately. Talk about your reach exceeding your grasp. And “Sawyer” was bought used in 2002.

Leaving aside my Shakespeare omnibus from college, from which I’m reading one or more plays per year, only four remaining unread books from my backlog were acquired in the 20th century. Progress, right? I’m midway through one of them now and expect to read a second this month as well.

How are all of you doing with your reading? I’m pleased to have been able to focus enough to make it through “Short History,” and have just finished another long book for July’s Reading Log. It’s hard to focus in general anymore, and perhaps I’m focused on the wrong things, but at least my bookshelves are benefiting.

Next month: crime, punishment

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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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