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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Reading Log: August 2019

Books acquired: none

Books read: “What to Eat,” Marion Nestle; “American Fried,” “Alice, Let’s Eat,” “Third Helpings,” Calvin Trillin

Happy September, readers! Welcome to our monthly books chat, here at the end of beach reading season. We don’t seem like a beach-reading-season crowd, but ehh, it seemed like something to say.

All the books I read in August had to do with food. How many books, though? It depends on how you count.

You’ll see four named above and only three in the photos. That’s because “The Tummy Trilogy” is, as the name suggests, three, three, three books in one. But when I bought it, I already owned one of the books individually, unread.

You could say accurately that I read two: “What to Eat” and “The Tummy Trilogy.” On my personal list of unread books, I listed all three “Trilogy” titles individually. So I’m saying, also accurately I believe, that I read four. To bolster my case, I switched from the “Tummy” paperback to the “Alice, Let’s Eat” hardcover at the appropriate time before returning to “Tummy” for the third book.

Book lovers will be arguing about this for years, I predict. (Note: Not really.)

Now, let’s dig in.

“What to Eat” (2006): Fair and sensible advice by America’s best-known nutritionist based largely on what you’ll find aisle by aisle in your supermarket. Marion Nestle advocates for food with fewer ingredients, less added sugar and fewer chemicals; thus, in the scheme of things, Coke is better than no-cal versions, butter better than margarine. While I learned a lot in reading this, it’s also true that of the probably 10,000 facts in these 500-plus pages, I’ve retained about a dozen. But they may serve me in good stead.

“The Tummy Trilogy” (1994): “I’m a specialist; I just eat,” Trillin says of why he doesn’t cook. This collects his three books about food — published in 1974, 1978 and 1984 — all of which I found equally enjoyable. The New Yorker writer travels far and near to investigate catfish, crawfish, country ham, pan-fried chicken and other regional favorites, often with commentary from his wife and daughters, with frequent laudatory mentions of his native Kansas City. This is as much domestic comedy as it is food writing. His youngest’s finicky tastes inspired the last piece, “Just Try It.”

Where did I buy these three, er, four (or is it five?) books? “Tummy” came from Changing Hands Books in Tempe, Arizona, in 2009, “What to Eat” from Borders in Montclair in 2008 and “Alice” from I’m not sure where circa 2007.

Will you let us know what you read in August in the comments? Provide your own count of your total, please. I’m worn out.

Next month: a few cc’s worth of titles.

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Reading Log: July 2019

Books acquired: “Star Light, Star Bright,” Alfred Bester; “The Best of,” “Tunnel Through Time,” Lester del Rey; “The Discomfort Zone,” Jonathan Franzen; “The Best of,” Raymond Z. Gallun; “Twenty Days With Julian & Little Bunny by Papa,” Nathaniel Hawthorne (!); “The Essential Hemingway,” Ernest Hemingway; “The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper,” John D. MacDonald; “A Ghost at Noon,” Albert Moravia; “The Brothers of Baker Street,” Michael Robertson

Books read: “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” Robert M. Pirsig; “California Dreamin’ Along Route 66,” Joe Sonderman; “On the Road With Bob Dylan,” Larry “Ratso” Sloman; “The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style,” Nelson George

Regards, readers! The above mass of “books acquired” can be explained rather simply: I took a vacation at Powell’s City of Books, conveniently located within the city of Portland, which is served by an airport. I bought seven books at Powell’s and its main branch, plus four graphic novels, and in Seattle, my next stop,I  picked up another three from visits to five bookstores.

That overshadows the “books read” list, but if you’ll take a second look, you’ll see I finished four books, all nonfiction and all with transportation as a sort of theme, at least in their titles.

Let’s run through them, starting with “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (1974). Have you read this? A reader, who was a motorcycle buff, gave me a copy in late 1997 and wrote in it: “Some alternative reading for the holidays. Perhaps you’ll find ‘some humor’ in it.” Exactly why he put quotes around “some humor” wasn’t clear. Anyway, some 22 holiday seasons later, I packed it in my bag for my San Diego trip and got started on it there.

The experience got off to an auspicious start. At breakfast one morning when I was only around page 25, a fellow diner, probably in his early 60s, saw the cover and told me how much the book had meant to him over the years. He planned to read it again, for the third or fourth time, in an attempt to understand it better.

Outside the restaurant, a man who may have been homeless walked past me dragging a large piece of cardboard. He too looked to be in his early 60s. He saw the cover in my hand and said with a knowing smile, “That’s a classic.”

Alas, over the next three weeks no one remarked upon the book. And it’s a very weird one. I did not find much humor in it.

“We do need a return to individual integrity, self-reliance and old-fashioned gumption” (p. 323) is an unusual message in a book hailed as a countercultural classic. I liked the motorcycle journey and father-son stuff, found the “metaphysics of quality” lectures baffling and rolled my eyes at the philosophy class drama. Your (motorcycle) mileage may vary. It’s a polarizing book, with people either loving it or hating it, and for those who love it, my congratulations.

“California Dreamin’ Along Route 66” (2019) was sent to me by the publisher, Arcadia Books. It’s a nice (B&W) collection of postcards, Caltrans images and recent photos of surviving buildings with capsule histories beneath. One favorite: When a truck slammed into a Victorville diner in 1962, “the cook prepared the driver a sandwich and then shut down the place for repairs.” Downside: The rigid formatting of these Arcadia books can get numbing.

“On the Road With Bob Dylan” (1978) is a book I resisted reading since buying a copy circa 1980, not able to persuade myself to read nearly 500 pages about the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, even if the headliner was my favorite artist. Recently I decided to read it after realizing I couldn’t part with a book I’d owned so much of my life. But since my copy was in near-perfect shape, but wouldn’t be if I read it, I sprung for a beat-up, trade paperback reissue found for $6.

Just as expected, the tour account is self-indulgent, although self-mockingly so. But it was a fun read, and Ratso deserves props for insinuating himself into the tour to the point he was able to quote Dylan’s wife, mother and the headliner himself. Minor note: This “revised edition” didn’t fix typos from the original. Poor Eric Andersen, still remembered here as Anderson.

“The Hippest Trip in America” (2014) traces how “Soul Train” began and how it evolved. I watched the show in its 1970s heyday, marveling at the glimpses of black life. My hometown apparently had no black people at all. While the book has fun anecdotes, a dozen or so dancer profiles is too many, and the shortage of photos is a drawback. That many of the interviews came from a then-current VH1 documentary rather than from original reporting is disappointing. So the book is a bit superficial, coming off as more of a prose tie-in to the movie than a standalone product.

So, my favorite book is the one on Dylan, but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend any of them, especially for people not already interested in the topics. The only one I disliked, though, was “Zen.”

As noted, “Zen” and “Route 66” arrived as gifts, nearly 22 years apart. “On the Road” was originally bought at, probably, a B. Dalton in 1980; the edition I read came from LA’s Last Bookstore a few weeks ago. And “Hippest Trip” was bought used at Claremont’s Rhino Records a few weeks ago as well.

How was your July, readers? Did you read books or simply maintain motorcycles or go California dreamin’? Let us know in the comments.

Next month: books about food.

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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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