Reading Log: June 2018

Books acquired: “Europe Through the Back Door,” Rick Steves

Books read: “Make Room! Make Room!,” Harry Harrison; “The Door Into Summer,” Robert Heinlein; “Knockin’ on Dylan’s Door,” the editors of Rolling Stone; “The Glass Key,” Dashiell Hammett; “Re-Enter Fu Manchu,” Sax Rohmer

June was a good month: I read five books, in a sequence I had sketched out four or five years ago. (If you read the titles, they almost form a little narrative of their own.) It took me getting to the 12th book in the Fu Manchu series for me to pull it off.

These five books averaged 200 pages, or a bit less, so the retirees among you might have polished them off in five or six days. Oh, to have read them in a week or so, and have had another 15 or 20 books of the same complexion ahead of me! Still, I’m happy to have read these and crossed them off my various lists.

By the way, it didn’t occur to me until putting this post together that even my lone book purchase of June fits the theme. That was unintentional. But funny.

In short: “Make Room!” (1966) is a classic dystopian novel about a miserably overcrowded NYC faced with food and water shortages. It was the basis for the movie “Soylent Green,” but does not have cannibalism as an element. It’s worth reading.

“Door Into Summer” (1957) involves a man in 1970 cryogenically frozen to wake up in the glorious world of 2000, but who also has some unfinished business in the past to resolve via time travel. It’s a little complicated, but enjoyable. The narrator even visits Riverside and Big Bear.

“Dylan’s Door” (1974) is a collection of Rolling Stone reportage about the singer-songwriter’s 1974 tour after eight years off the road. Very inessential, obviously. When this book came out, only a handful of Dylan books existed, and I used to see it in bibliographies and wonder about it. It was fun to finally stumble across a copy and to have read it.

“Glass Key” (1931) is one of Hammett’s five novels, with only “The Thin Man” still to be written. (I’ve read all but “The Dain Curse.”) “Key” is about a political fixer and his pal who is not a detective but who is shrewd enough to figure out a murder plot anyway. Unconventional but very good.

“Re-Enter” (1957) is the 12th of 14 Fu Manchu books. Yet another narrator loses his head over a mysterious woman (this happens in nearly each book), and Fu tries to double-cross the commies to help the U.S. with a kind of missile defense shield. It’s one of the lesser entries in the series.

“Make Room!” and “Glass Key” were the winners this month. As far as their purchase, it looks like all five date to the pre-blog period of the ’00s, when I was buying a lot of books and reading very few. So they’ve been waiting for me patiently.

How was your June, readers? Let us know what you read and what you thought in the comments section. I’ve already finished two books for July, but I also have to pause to study up in advance of a late-August vacation.

Next month: a little housekeeping of a lost rancho.

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Reading Log: May 2018

Books acquired: none

Books read: “The Complete Humorous Sketches and Tales of Mark Twain,” Charles Neider, ed.; “We Can Build You,” Philip K. Dick; “The Baker Street Letters,” Michael Robertson; “The Treasurer’s Report, or Other Aspects of Community Singing,” Robert Benchley

Regards, readers! May was a four-book month for me. (I wonder if there’s a shorthand for that, like: “May was a four-booker.”) These were all books I’d had for a while, and one of them I’d been reading, off and on, for eight years. Yikes!

That would be the Twain “Sketches” collection, all 700-plus pages of it, which a search of past Reading Logs reveals in my “acquired” list from April 2010. (That month was a four-booker too, I see.) I bought the book at Borders, finding the cover and concept appealing, and knowing I’d read a handful of the pieces thanks to an overlap with a couple of Twain short-story collections made me think the book would be a relative breeze. After all, I’d already started it in a sense.

I read a little here, a little there, and as large sections were culled from his travel memoirs, I would halt until I’d read the original text — why spoil the full books? Probably one-fifth of “A Tramp Abroad,” which editor Neider has championed, appears here, and getting to “Tramp” took a few years. Anyway, I finally polished off the last 150 pages in May.

I love Twain, but this was really too much, showing that completism has its drawbacks. Some of the pieces are just too dated or marginal; even Twain had cut a few of them from later reprints of his books. I was relieved to have finished it.

As for “We Can Build You,” the idea of setting an ostensible science fiction novel at an electronic organ factory in Boise, Idaho, is pretty hilarious, and in keeping with PKD’s down to earth, unheroic novels. The factory is creating a robot, a simulacra of (why not?) Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln’s secretary of state. Lincoln himself soon follows. The Lincoln fan in me was surprised and delighted.

But as with PKD’s “Clans of the Alphane Moon,” a promising situation (comedy) is allowed to fall away, in this case to focus on the narrator’s psychotic break due to his obsession with an uncaring woman. I’m not sure another PKD novel goes off the rails quite like this one does. But it’s never dull.

In “The Baker Street Letters,” two brothers whose law office is at 221B Baker Street, London, solve a mystery sparked by a girl’s letter to Sherlock Holmes, who despite being fictional, and more than a century removed from today, is still getting mail from would-be clients daily near the 21st century. It’s a cute premise for a story that has almost nothing to do with Holmes, and which largely takes place in contemporary Los Angeles. It’s an enjoyable trifle and the first in a series.

It’s worth adding, perhaps, that I read “Letters” after a brief attempt to read a sort-of “cozy mystery,” as they’re called, called “Granddad, There’s a Head on the Beach,” set in Thailand. I read the first 30 pages, narrated in too cute a tone — scattered, silly — for my tastes and gave it up. By comparison, “Letters” was straightforward and focused. I don’t know that it’s a great series, but there are a few more, and I might pick up the next one sometime.

Every year I read a Robert Benchley book. This year’s was “The Treasurer’s Report,” whose title essay is a written version of a performance he did as part of a Broadway revue and also memorialized in a short film. It’s cute on the page, but not the highlight of the book, which is above average Benchley. While sometimes the humor or topics have dated, the majority of the essays remain witty and delightfully silly. The next to last one, about trying to puzzle out how little ships are put into bottles, had me laughing aloud, and it wasn’t the only one.

Still, if you haven’t read Benchley, let me suggest “The Benchley Roundup,” a best-of that has most of the prime material — but not all of it, as the ships-in-bottles piece isn’t there. But it’s all the Benchley most people will need.

When and from where did these books enter my life? Twain I already told you. “Build You” is probably from the early 1990s, but its precise origins are lost in the mists of time. “Baker Street” (and the discarded “Granddad”) came from the now-defunct Big Sleep Books, a mystery specialist, in St. Louis in May 2013. As I bought only two books at Big Sleep, both the same day, I have now taken care of that. (Except that, ugh, the majority the nine books I bought that month are still unread.) The Benchley was bought used somewhere in the mid-2000s.

So that’s my May. How was yours, readers? Let us know in the comments.

Next month: doors and rooms.

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Reading Log: April 2018

Books acquired: “After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame,” Lynell George

Books read: “The 20th Century’s Greatest Hits,” Paul Williams; “The Fifties,” David Halberstam; “Land of 1000 Dances: Chicano Rock ‘n’ Roll from Southern California,” David Reyes and Tom Waldman

I spent the end of March and almost all of April on a single book: “The Fifties,” an overview of the decade by journalist David Halberstam. It’s 733 pages, plus notes and an index, hence the long reading time.

Halberstam makes a case for the ’50s being more interesting than they’re given credit for: a decade of consumerism and new suburbs, the expansion of leisure time, the fear of communism, the challenges to conformity (civil rights, the Beats, Kinsey, Elvis and more) and America’s awkward lurch toward superpower status. Because many of the people and events within were vaguely known to me, due to references in other reading or viewing, I found this fascinating, and as the sections tended to be just a few pages they didn’t amount to overkill. Filled with deft character sketches and colorful detail, it was surprisingly readable. But I wish I had a dollar for every time Halberstam describes someone as “shrewd.”

Off and on since March, I read “Land of 1000 Dances,” a history of Chicano rock from the L.A. barrios, starting with 1950s dance bands and continuing through Ritchie Valens, Thee Midniters, Cannibal and the Headhunters, El Chicano, Los Lobos and lesser-known bands and figures, often through original and candid interviews. Pomona gets a bunch of mentions as it was on the Chicano performance circuit that included El Monte, Paramount and East L.A. You’ll need a curiosity about the material and about rock history to read this, but I have those, and I found this rewarding.

“The 20th Century’s Greatest Hits,” which I had on my nightstand for a month or two and also managed to finish in April, is an unusual book in two ways. The high concept — an assortment of movies, music/concerts, art, writing and more are chosen to represent the peak of a century’s culture — seemed like a millennium-ending gimmick, and with idiosyncratic choices: “Two-Lane Blacktop,” “Things We Said Today” by the Beatles, “Old Path White Clouds” by Thich Nhat Hanh. I put off reading it for nearly two decades. But Williams proves to be a good guide, exploring the randomness of not only his picks but of how art comes to be, and not taking it too seriously. He even includes “Ulysses,” which he hadn’t read, to stand in for those great works we always intend to get to, but don’t. Ha ha!

Making my lapse in reading it all the more shameful, I was among the patrons who gave the author $25, I think, to finance its creation. Williams was not only a pioneering rock critic, he was a pioneer of the Kickstarter concept with this and a subsequent book. “20th Century” was then published by a legitimate publisher, but my copy is the signed, bound printout given to patrons.

“The Fifties” (published 1993) was bought at a newsroom book sale, used, for about $1 in 1999; “1000 Dances” (published 1998) was bequeathed to me by a departing newsroom colleague in 1999; Williams’ book was published in 1999. Yes, every book this month fell into my hands in 1999. I should have read these while wearing flannel.

How was your April, readers? We’re all anxious to find out.

Next month: a bit of Benchley, and more.

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Reading Log: March 2018

Books acquired: “Not Dead Yet,” Phil Collins

Books read: “The Harlan Ellison Hornbook,” “Edgeworks Vol. 3,” Harlan Ellison; “Tricky Business,” Dave Barry; “Hollywood Station,” Joseph Wambaugh; “How to Find Old Los Angeles,” Kim Cooper

March saw me continue my focus on reading books I’ve meant to read for years, plus one short one that was easily dispensed with.

“The Harlan Ellison Hornbook” (1990) collects general interest, usually autobiographical columns the writer best known for science fiction wrote for LA alt-weeklies in 1972-3, after his Glass Teat TV columns for the same venues. These are minor entries in his oeuvre. The one about how he hates Christmas is a welcome jolt, though. The added essays at the back, including one defending the positive impacts of the 1960s, were more substantive. I bought this used sometime in the ’00s.

“Edgeworks, Vol. 3” (1996) collects “Hornbook” and an unproduced script, “Harlan Ellison’s Movie,” from the same era. It’s about a young idealist who inherits a bank and sets out to change the world. It has its moments, but it’s ultimately as heavy-handed and self-indulgent as a project titled “Harlan Ellison’s Movie” would suggest. I bought this omnibus when it came out, nearly 22 years ago. It was part of a series aiming to collect all his work but which ended at Vol. 4. I still have Vol. 1 to read.

“How to Find Old LA” (2016) is a slim, illustrated guidebook with a good mix of better- and lesser-known spots — diners, steakhouses, bars and more that retain the feel of the old days — organized by area and with handy capsule descriptions. Many of the listings were unknown to me, so as I read I kept a running list of places I’d like to check out. I bought this at Distant Lands travel store in Pasadena in 2016.

“Tricky Business” (2002) was the humorist’s second crime novel. It’s a breezy caper with a dozen-plus characters, in which things work out pretty much as you’d hope: good things happen to good people, bad things to bad people. The fun is in getting there. As a Dave Barry fan, it’s interesting to see how he adapts his writing style to fiction. There’s gunplay, and romance, and an amateur rock band, and also literature’s best mass puking scene. That said, I suspect I’m going to forget it pretty quickly. I bought this at Vroman’s upon publication and Barry signed it to me. It’s the last Dave Barry book I own that I hadn’t read.

“Hollywood Station” (2006) was Wambaugh’s return to the LAPD as subject after almost 30 years away. The novel brings him into the era of post-Rodney King federal oversight, cell phones, woman cops, ethnic food and hair gel. You may think there are too many characters and not enough plot, but the scenes of day to day life on the beat are vivid, Wambaugh’s characters seem real and he succeeds in humanizing his cops and sending up the bureaucracy. It’s definitely sunnier than “The Choirboys,” the only other Wambaugh I’ve read.

I got this directly from Wambaugh during a December 2006 interview at Vroman’s that focused on his childhood here and, as I was reading “Choirboys” at the time, I set this aside to read at a later date. A much later date, as it turned out.

Yeah, it’s a little embarrassing that it took me 11 years and some change to get to this book, and 15-plus years to get to Barry’s, and even longer to get to one of the Ellison books, but that’s how it goes sometimes. It’s not like I wasn’t reading other books. On the bright side, it’s satisfying to have these read, and I would recommend Wambaugh’s book with few reservations, Barry’s with more reservations and Cooper’s if you’re into that kind of thing.

I managed to finish these all by the 21st, with “Hornbook” having largely been read in January and February, and spent the last part of March reading chunks of three other books. Then I got a running start on an 800-pager, which I was going to read in stages during 2018 but which is enjoyable enough that I’m going to keep reading. If I can average 20 pages a day in April, which I believe I can, I can finish it.

How was your March, readers? Let us know, please.

Next month: one or two (or three?) looks back at the 20th century.

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Reading Log: February 2018

Books acquired: “A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures,” Ben Bradlee; “We’ll Always Have Casablanca,” Noah Isenberg; “Banking on Beauty: Millard Sheets and Midcentury Commercial Architecture in California,” Adam Arenson

Books read: “The Left Hand of Darkness,” Ursula K. Le Guin; “Gather, Darkness!” Fritz Leiber; “Lest Darkness Fall,” L. Sprague de Camp; “A Scanner Darkly,” Philip K. Dick

February was a dark month on the ol’ Reading Log, and not just because of Punxsatawney Phil, who predicted six more weeks of winter. (I don’t know how Pennsylvania is faring, but more winter has proved true for Southern California.) No, it was also a dark month because all four books had “dark” in the title.

Man, I had meant to read these precise books the past six years or so but didn’t get around to it, a testament to my deep backlog of unread books. “Lest Darkness Fall,” inspired by “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” has been waiting since I read Twain’s classic in April 2011.

(Incidentally, a couple of years ago I mentioned the title of Twain’s novel to a bookish friend in his mid-30s and he had never heard of it, nor could he wrap his mind around the title: “A what? Say that again. ‘A Connecticut’ what?” He broke up laughing. Huh.)

Anyway, this was a strong month. All four books were very good to excellent.

Le Guin’s 1969 novel has become a classic. (I owned it as a teen, sold it without ever attempting it in one of my frequent book purges, and bought it again a decade ago.) An emissary of a confederation of planets lands on one whose leaders either don’t believe him or see no reason to join up. The visitor slowly realizes how little he understands and how his prejudices are getting in the way of his own acceptance of these other-worlders, whose genders alter every month. A beautifully written, strangely enveloping novel.

Leiber’s 1950 novel is said to be his first good one. I admit I bought this ’60s copy because it was so well-preserved. A holy war between priests and witches isn’t what it seems on either side. Full of strong and slightly mysterious characters and visual writing. I read his “Best of Fritz Leiber” and “A Pail of Air” story collections in 2015 and became an admirer.

In de Camp’s 1941 novel, a scholar of the ancient world is hurled from the 20th century back to 6th century Italy, where he introduces innovations like the telegraph and “predicts” future events, and thus tries single-handedly to prevent the Dark Ages from falling. An early alternate-history novel, this owes a lot to Twain, but de Camp uses less satire, more plain humor and a deep knowledge of his subject. A lot of fun, and at 208 pages it gallops along quite unlike a lot of stately SF novels.

(By the way, Lyon Sprague de Camp once said he saw little need to write under an assumed name because his given name sounded more like a pseudonym than most pseudonyms.)

Finally, Dick’s 1977 novel, which was adapted for a 2006 film by Richard Linklater. I saw that movie and stuck my ticket stub inside the front cover of my unread copy. Nearly 12 years later, I finally read the book and used the stub as my bookmark.

In near-future Southern California, the drug Substance D is burning out the brains of the addicted, which is almost everyone, including those assigned to entrap them. One undercover agent is so undercover, he’s tasked with spying on himself, and that’s only one twist in this classic of paranoia, government surveillance and the dark side of the ’60s. Both absurdist and tragic, this late-period novel is one of PKD’s best and most personal.

These “dark” books made for an unusually strong month, as I said, one that leaves me lighter of spirit. It felt good to get all of these out of the way after intending so long to read them. Ditto with the “shadow”-titled books of January.

I can no longer remember where or when I bought these, other than de Camp coming from Brand Books in Glendale and Le Guin from Ralph’s Comic Corner in Ventura, and all of them falling into my hands in the first decade of this century.

That’s enough from me. How was your February, readers? Post away below.

Next month: a hornbook, a guidebook, and regular books too.

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Reading Log: January 2018

Books acquired: none

Books read: “Pale Gray for Guilt,” John D. MacDonald; “The Shadow of Fu Manchu,” Sax Rohmer; “Glimpses,” Lewis Shiner; “Beginning to See the Light,” Ellen Willis

Greetings, aesthetes! (It sounds better than “nerds,” doesn’t it?) Welcome to this blog’s first Reading Log of 2018.

I started the year off with a quartet of books I’d been planning but failing to read for a few years, all with a kind of shadowy, half-seen tint to the titles. Like life, but unlike old movies, it was not a black and white month.

First up was my first Travis McGee mystery since 2014. Sheesh, I liked the idea of reading at least one per year, but the seroes got away from me. But here was Book 9 (of 21) waiting for me. McGee calls himself a salvage expert: He goes after things of value that are considered irretrievable, and claims half if successful. Then he returns to his boat-bum lifestyle in Florida, taking his retirement in installments, as he puts it, until the next case comes along.

“Pale Gray” involves real estate speculation and stock market scams, which get a bit complex. On the other hand, because the case concerns a dead friend, McGee is an avenging angel. He also suffers in various ways for his otherwise-envious lifestyle, making this entry more emotional and vulnerable than usual. First published in 1968, the attitudes in “Guilt” like the others can be a little dated. But MacDonald sure can write. In fact, there’s a fine maxim in it: “In any emotional conflict, the thing you find hardest to do is the thing you should do.” Chew on that.

Next up was the 11th (of 14) books in the Fu Manchu series, which I’ve been reading intermittently since roughly the Civil War, or so it seems sometimes. This one was published in 1948, 35 years after the first (and 11 years before the last), and by this point Fu Manchu and his nemesis, Sir Denis Nayland Smith, are practically old friends.

The plot involves a device under development that could disintegrate metal, which of course would include most weaponry, and thus is of great interest to America’s enemies. In attempting to foil the communists from seizing this mighty “transmuter,” the devil doctor is practically the savior of mankind. Oh, Fu, we hardly knew ye.

“Glimpses,” from 1993, won the World Fantasy Award, but it’s basically “High Fidelity” with a dose of magic realism. A rock ‘n’ roll friend recommended this years ago, it was duly placed on my want list and, years later, a bookstore browse finally turned up a copy — autographed, no less.

The late-30s protagonist of this novel set in the late ’80s tried to belatedly grow up while also engaging in wish fulfillment by hallucinating great lost albums by the Beach Boys, Doors and Hendrix into reality (or not). Recommended for music nerds — sorry, aesthetes. I’m one and I was enthralled.

Lastly, “Beginning to See the Light,” from 1992, is a collection of ’66-’79 essays on rock music, current events, women’s rights and Jewishness by Ellen Willis, one of the first rock music critics. She went on to write on other topics, as can be seen above, and became newly appreciated when much of her work was reissued after her 2006 death.

Some of these essays are dated, of course, but they reflect their times and offer a perspective on the ’60s, often from the vantage point of the ’70s, by someone who was there and lamented how others came to dismiss the era. Many of the essays are still relevant, sometimes depressingly so. (Peace in the Middle East, for one, seemed quite possible four decades ago.) Willis’ prose is dense but clearly reasoned and stated; she argues her positions well. Favorite essay title: “Abortion: Is a Woman a Person?,” wherein she tackles various anti-abortion arguments and (in my view) demolishes them. See above for her continuing relevance. The book left me wanting to read more by her.

As for where these books came from, MacDonald was bought in 2011 at North Hollywood’s Iliad Books and Willis in 2013 from Glendale’s Brand Books (RIP). The other two were probably bought in the mid-2000s, prior to the blog, the Rohmer possibly from eBay and “Glimpses” from Glendale’s Book Fellows (also RIP).

It was satisfying finally getting to these books. The good feeling should continue for a while, as February’s books are also going to be ones I’ve meant to read for quite some time (six years, in one case), and that theme may continue into mid-year, unless something comes up that needs to be read for work or I’m otherwise derailed.

How is your new year starting, and what did you read in January? Post away.

Next month: Hello, darkness, my old friend.

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Books read, 2017

I made my way through 45 books in 2017. As always, it’s never enough — but I was glad to have read most of these, with only a couple of clunkers. They’re listed below in the order in which I read them, as pulled from my monthly Reading Log posts on this blog.

  1. “Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters,” Anne K. Mellor
  2. “A Tramp Abroad,” Mark Twain
  3. “Wanted Man: In Search of Bob Dylan,” John Bauldie, ed.
  4. “A Working Man’s Apocrypha,” William Luvaas
  5. “The Variable Man,” Philip K. Dick
  6. “The Invisible Man,” H.G. Wells
  7. “Behold the Man,” Michael Moorcock
  8. “The Female Man,” Joanna Russ
  9. “Funny in Farsi,” Firoozeh Dumas
  10. “Wolf in White Van,” John Darnielle
  11. “Reading Comics,” Douglas Wolk
  12. “Bloodhounds on Broadway and Other Stories,” Damon Runyon
  13. “Reporters: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman,” Will Fowler
  14. “The World of Jimmy Breslin,” Jimmy Breslin
  15. “You Know Me Al,” Ring Lardner
  16. “The Island of Fu Manchu,” Sax Rohmer
  17. “Treasure Island,” Robert Louis Stevenson
  18. “Treasure Island!!!,” Sara Levine
  19. “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” H.G. Wells
  20. “On Chesil Beach,” Ian McEwan
  21. “The Slide,” Kyle Beachy
  22. “Galactic Pot-Healer,” Philip K. Dick
  23. “Jose Clemente Orozco: Prometheus,” Pomona College Museum of Art, eds.
  24. “Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything,” Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
  25. “Julius Caesar,” William Shakespeare
  26. “Antony and Cleopatra,” William Shakespeare
  27. “From Bill, With Love,” Bill McClellan
  28. “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” Michael Chabon
  29. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip,” Robert Landau
  30. “Slaughterhouse-Five,” Kurt Vonnegut
  31. “The Transmigration of Timothy Archer,” Philip K. Dick
  32. “Prometheus 2017: Four Artists From Mexico Revisit Orozco,” Rebecca McGrew and Terri Geis, eds.
  33. “How to Win a Pullet Surprise: The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Our Language,” Jack Smith
  34. “The Puppet Masters,” Robert Heinlein
  35. “The Toynbee Convector,” Ray Bradbury
  36. “One Hundred and Two H-Bombs,” Thomas M. Disch
  37. “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” H.P. Lovecraft
  38. “Love Conquers All,” Robert Benchley
  39. “Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D. Vance
  40. “It Can’t Happen Here,” Sinclair Lewis
  41. “The Woody Allen Companion,” Stephen Spignesi
  42. “True Stories of Claremont, CA,” Hal Durian
  43. “Readings,” Michael Dirda
  44. “Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen
  45. “Happiness is Warm Color in the Shade: a Biography of Artist Milford Zornes,” Hal Baker

As usual I read more fiction than nonfiction, a couple of recent books, a few things for work and a lot of older books, both in when they were published or in when I acquired them. Any year in which you read two Shakespeare plays is going to be a pretty good year. How was your own year in reading?

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Column: Jack Smith didn’t win a Pulitzer, only a ‘Pullet Surprise’

A short tribute to the late Times columnist Jack Smith and his book “How to Win a Pullet Surprise” begins Sunday’s column, followed by a bunch of Culture Corner items and a Valley Vignette.

The Smith item, by the way, wasn’t especially premeditated; I cranked it out one afternoon a couple of weeks ago in some spare time and set it aside for when I needed something to fill space. It came in handy to lead off a column at the end of this busy week, and besides, it’s past time my admiration for Smith’s work was expressed at some length in print — not that it’s a secret to regular readers of this blog.

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Reading Log: August 2017

Books acquired: “Slaughterhouse-Five,” Kurt Vonnegut

Books read: “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” Michael Chabon; “Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip,” Robert Landau; “Slaughterhouse-Five,” Kurt Vonnegut

I used August and an overseas trip to finally tackle “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” which I’ve owned since 2001 but which, at 639 pages, I was too intimidated by to start. The vacation didn’t really provide more reading time than usual, since I was also absorbed in reading pages from my guidebook, but it was good to finally be reading it: It won a Pulitzer and is about the early days of comic books, which are one of my hobbies.

Two young Jewish cousins create an escape artist character, making millions for their publisher and thousands for themselves, a common occurrence back then. Escape becomes a metaphor in the book; the artist’s family is still in Prague on the eve of World War II and he tries to liberate them, much as he himself escaped. Having scenes set in Prague, a city I was to visit, was an unexpected bonus. I liked the novel and found myself absorbed — even if it was a bit long.

Incidentally, I bought my copy at the San Diego Comic Con in 2001, when Chabon was the guest of honor. I wasn’t planning to buy the hardcover, but one morning I was browsing the near-empty Comic Relief vendor space when I realized owner Rory Root was speaking to fellow Berkeleyite Chabon. A big stack of “K&C” was between us. I got Root’s attention and said impishly, “If I buy the book, will Mr. Chabon sign it?” Root looked at Chabon and he smiled and said sure. He complimented the graphic novel I had in my hands, Raymond Briggs’ “Ethel and Ernest,” saying his wife had liked it. He said this was his first comic convention and he was enjoying it.

Later he would give a well-attended talk while wearing a T-shirt with the logo Miskatonic University, a sly nod to H.P. Lovecraft, which I somehow knew even though I hadn’t read any Lovecraft yet, having apparently absorbed just enough of the mythology through Marvel comics or other sources. My friends and probably hundreds more formed an enormous line to meet him and get his signature. Me, I’d gotten mine before his hand got tired.

I felt too much pressure to keep this copy in nice shape, even if it was the 8th or 9th printing. Eventually I bought a beat-up paperback, possibly at Berkeley’s Shakespeare and Co., but even that sat on my shelf a few years. It did help to have a copy that could be toted around Europe with impunity. I suppose now I can sell it, while keeping the signed version.

It took me just over three weeks to read it, and it might have been the only book I read all month. It was, actually. But I finished Robert Landau’s book, which had been on my nightstand, Sept. 1, and Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Sept. 3, just in time for this Reading Log.

Taken when he was living in the neighborhood, Landau’s documentary photos of rock promotional billboards from about 1968-1982 now seem charming and magical. It’s an ode to a bygone era of ego stroking, big hair, heavy sounds, important (or “important”) albums, hand-painted billboards, Tower Records, rock DJs and a very local approach to marketing. I bought it last month from the author himself.

Absurdist and heartbreaking, the writing and structure of “Slaughterhouse-Five” appear so casual that they’re always on the verge of collapsing, but never do, and that’s part of the book’s brilliance. Still, 106 uses of “So it goes” seems a bit much. I bought this at Berlin’s Dussmann store a few days after a Vonnegut tour of Dresden, the setting of much of the novel, and hope to write a column about it shortly.

How was your August, readers? Any amazing adventures, or were you cavalier?

Next month: my annual Jack Smith book, probably, and more.

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Reading Log: May 2017

Books acquired: “Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z,” Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar, editors.

Books read: “The Island of Fu Manchu,” Sax Rohmer; “Treasure Island,” Robert Louis Stevenson; “Treasure Island!!!,” Sara Levine; “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” H.G. Wells; “On Chesil Beach,” Ian McEwan.

In May, it was time to take a trip to the islands. (Cue the Surfaris song.) All my books had “island” in their title except for one that had “beach.” Cowabunga.

The Fu Manchu is No. 10 in the series of 14, and the first I’d read in two or three years. The island in question had voodoo, not to mention a villainous lair in a dead volcano, and was not only a precursor to Bond but to “Atlas Shrugged,” in a way, as great scientists are kidnapped and turned into zombie slaves by Fu. Great literature it ain’t, but it was fun.

I’d never read “Treasure Island,” although the rudiments of the plot and names (Squire Trelawney, the apple barrel, etc.) were familiar, perhaps from an animated version I saw decades ago (although I can’t find evidence online of its existence). Published in 1883, it’s still a gripping read.

“Treasure Island!!!” is a 2011 lark about a young woman who becomes obsessed with the Stevenson book and decides to use it as a guide to life. “When had I ever done a foolish, over-bold act?” she frets. I thought I would love it, and at first I did, but then the narrator’s cluelessness and the story’s superficiality made me glad to be done with it. Despite Alice Sebold’s praise, and the New York Times’, it was ultimately disappointing. But certainly funny in spots.

“On Chesil Beach” was of a different order entirely, a 2007 novel about a couple’s wedding night in 1962 England, and how the couple who thought themselves perfectly matched discovered how little they understood each other. A poignant look at the dawn of the ’60s, before the sexual revolution occurred. Nick Hornby had recommended this in his Believer column.

Lastly, “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” another classic, from 1896, that I’d never read despite having a general idea what it was about from other media that it inspired. For the uninitiated, a scientist tampers with nature by grafting together various animals and altering their brains to make them semi-human. Wells had quite the imagination, and he knew how to tell a compelling story.

These books came into my hands in the past decade-plus. “Treasure Island!!!” was bought in 2012 at Subterranean Books in St. Louis, and “On Chesil Beach” was bought last September at Powell’s Books in Portland. Can’t recall where I got the Fu Manchu, possibly the Book House in St. Louis, and Stevenson’s may have come from Brand Books in Glendale. My Kobo e-reader was bought at Borders (RIP) about eight years ago; it came loaded with 100 classics and I read one now and then.

Have you read any of my choices, readers? (I’m sure someone has read “Treasure Island” or “Dr. Moreau,” or both.) How was your May? And were island breezes involved?

Next month: I let things slide.

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