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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Reading Log: April 2017

Books acquired: none

Books read: “Bloodhounds on Broadway and Other Stories,” Damon Runyon; “Reporters: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman,” Will Fowler; “The World of Jimmy Breslin,” Jimmy Breslin; “You Know Me Al,” Ring Lardner

I spent my reading time in April on old-time books by or about journalists. A convergence of factors was at work.

I’d been hoping to read Fowler’s book because there’s a long chapter on Jim Murray, one of whose collections I read last year. But then Breslin died in March, and his book, on my shelf for eight years, demanded to be read. The Runyon and Lardner books were among my oldest unread books, and while they’re not journalism exactly, both men were journalists, and Breslin once wrote a biography of Runyon. So it all made sense, in my mind at least, and thus was a month of reading born.

It’s also possible that my 20th anniversary at the Bulletin, and subsequent 30th anniversary in newspapers, played a role as well. In any event, this proved to be one of my best all-around months for the ol’ Reading Log, as I liked each book, some quite a bit.

The Runyon book collects 20 of his Broadway stories. He has such a distinctive writing style — present tense, no contractions, narrated by someone who is trying to be precise and elevated (an Adam Gopnik New Yorker article lays this out delightfully) — that his work is almost immediately recognizable as his, and that almost any sentence is funny.

The stories themselves are generally upbeat and end happily, or at least neatly, so this isn’t great literature in the approved sense. But Runyon is worth reading as a stylist, if nothing else.

Fowler’s memoir of working for various LA papers in the ’40s and ’50s is recommended to journalists and devotees of that period of LA’s history, but no one else; the writing and copy editing are often dreadful. Flawed as it is, his book is really eye-opening about the sort of access reporters had to crime scenes, the hospitals and the morgue, and how newsrooms operated. Fowler was first on the scene of the Black Dahlia murder scene, and that’s an interesting, if gruesome, chapter.

(There’s a Pomona anecdote in the book that will make my column sometime.)

Lardner’s book, from 1916, is written as a series of letters from a neophyte, and dense, pitcher to his hometown friend, Al, about the game, his relations with management and his personal life. They’re full of charming misspellings and self-delusion. It would be wrong to call the result hilarious, but amusing, sad and infuriating, yes. Jack Keefe, the pitcher in question, will take no advice from anyone and will never admit a mistake, blaming every loss on his teammates. He might be presidential timber.

Lastly, Breslin’s book, published in 1967, comprises the best of his New York Herald Tribune columns from ’63-’67, with some fond and hagiographic commentary by his editors. I found this book remarkable. Three columns about JFK’s assassination rise to the top, including the understated one about the gravedigger, the piece for which Breslin is best remembered. (Instead of following the pack to the funeral, he’s the only one getting the gravedigger’s perspective.)

But then there’s also his reporting from Harlem, and a series from the march on Montgomery, and from Vietnam, all amazing, detailed and seething with quiet anger. Two on the dying Winston Churchill also are powerful. Some of the ones from Breslin’s own cranky perspective, like on how he hates his neighbors, kind of put me off, but overall, I finished this book wanting more. (It appears he might only have one other collection of columns, amid his myriad of novels and single-topic nonfiction, but perhaps a Jimmy Breslin Reader, or somesuch, will be in the offing now that he’s gone.)

I may write a column on Breslin, if space permits, but if not, this will stand, and you blog readers will have the exclusive (to keep the journalistic theme going). I won’t make a blanket recommendation of “The World of Jimmy Breslin,” but you might like it; certainly you ought to read the gravedigger column, which can be found online here; “A Death in Emergency Room One,” his account of Kennedy’s death, is equally gripping and can be read here.

I’ve had the Runyon and Lardner books since the late 1980s, and boy is it nice having them out of the way; Fowler’s was bought at Anaheim’s Book Baron during its closing sale in 2007, and Breslin’s was picked up at St. Louis’ Dunaway Books in 2009.

How was your April? Was it the cruelest month? I hope not.

Next month: a vacation to the islands

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Reading Log: March 2017

Books acquired: “The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” H.P. Lovecraft; “Seinfeldia,” Jennifer Keishin Armstrong; “Hail, Hail Euphoria!” Roy Blount Jr.; “It Can’t Happen Here,” Sinclair Lewis

Books read: “Funny in Farsi,” Firoozeh Dumas; “Wolf in White Van,” John Darnielle; “Reading Comics,” Douglas Wolk

As I’m back at my desk Monday from a few days off and need to get this done, let me get right to my March book report. Three books this month, none with any relation to each other.

“Funny in Farsi” was the On the Same Page community read choice for Claremont. Constructed as short essays, this 2003 memoir of coming to America from Iran as a girl before the Iranian revolution is episodic, witty and warm-hearted. Dumas plays up the comedy of her family’s struggle with language and customs, and emphasizes what unites us rather than what divides us. Likable, and sometimes very funny, but for my tastes too glib.

“Wolf in White Van” is an acclaimed 2014 novel, nominated for a National Book Award, by a native of Claremont, John Darnielle, the singer-songwriter behind the band The Mountain Goats. A character study of a young man who became consumed by his fantasy life but managed to make something positive out of it, this is closely observed, skillfully told and unusual in invoking nerd totems of a certain era: Conan, August Derleth, Hit Parader. Also, it’s set in Montclair! I hope to write further about it.

“Reading Comics,” from 2007, is a series of essay of comics criticism. By now, the acceptance of comics and graphic novels as acceptable and even hip reading matter appears almost complete, making Wolk’s review of some of his favorites, partway into the revolution, less useful and his arguments in their favor almost quaint. Comics are art? Yes, we know. “Fun Home” just played at the Ahmanson. But most of his choices remain sound, some are pleasingly idiosyncratic and he has interesting things to say about them all.

How about that: all my books are from the 21st century. No other month’s Reading Log can make that claim. (Unless Doug Evans produces a link to contradict me, I think I’m on firm ground here.) Next month will be far different, but let me revel in my modernity for now.

What have you all been reading? Did your March go out like a lamb or a lion? Let us know in the comments section.

Next month: 20th century books about newspapers.

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Reading Log: February 2017

Books acquired: “Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen; “Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D. Vance.

Books read: “Wanted Man: In Search of Bob Dylan,” John Bauldie, ed.; “A Working Man’s Apocrypha,” William Luvaas; “The Variable Man,” Philip K. Dick; “The Invisible Man,” H.G. Wells; “Behold the Man,” Michael Moorcock; “The Female Man,” Joanna Russ.

Hey, man. Notice a theme to all the titles above, man? Yeah, they all have the word “man.” [shrug]

Struck by how many unread books I own with the word “man” in the title somewhere, fore or aft, I read many, but not even half, in February. In the order presented above, there was a 1990 book of essays and interviews about aspects of the Nobelist’s life and work, a 2007 short story collection, five long science fiction stories from the mid-1950s by one of my favorite authors, an 1897 classic that spawned various movies and parodies, a 1970 British New Wave science fiction novel and a 1975 feminist science fiction novel.

The Dylan book was for fans only, but quite enjoyable. The story collection was average. This isn’t the author’s fault, but the review that prompted me to buy it said many stories were set in the Inland Empire. Well, about four of them were set in Palm Springs and environs, but that wasn’t what I was hoping for. The PKD book was quite good, with “Minority Report” among the stories.

Wells’ novel had plenty of surprises, which I wouldn’t have expected to be able to say at this point. Did you know the protagonist was an albino, and thus halfway to invisibility from the get-go? Would you have guessed that he’s prone to sneezing, being a guy who’s walking around in the outdoors with no clothes? It was a fun mix of humor and horror.

Moorcock’s novel, about a time traveler who wants to meet Jesus, isn’t for the doctrinaire, but I found it powerful even if the ending is pretty obvious, one might even say inevitable, from page 2. Lastly, Russ’ novel has its flaws, such as being nearly plotless, but it’s a great example of what science fiction can do, in this case the incorporation of autobiography and social commentary on women’s status in society in the 1960s and early ’70s, even in a story that has aliens. Even if the story was hard to follow at times, I found the writing and subject matter refreshing and eye-opening. Some of the concerns about women’s place have dated, but my sense is that most have not, sadly.

Where did these books come from? The Dylan was bought in (ulp) 1995 in Victorville, the PKD at the San Diego Comic Con in 2005, the Luvaas from Amazon in 2007, the Wells from Book Rack in La Verne in 2010, the Moorcock sometime in the ’00s and the Russ in 2011 in Whittier. (I owned the Moorcock in my Illinois period, sold it unread before moving, and then bought the same edition a second time a decade or so ago. It was a particular pleasure to read it.)

With six books in February, making up for a mere two in January, I’m at an average of four books per month, a bit more respectable.

How was your February, readers?

Next month: “Funny in Farsi” and more to be determined.

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Reading Log: January 2017


Books acquired: none

Books read: “Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters,” Anne K. Mellor; “A Tramp Abroad,” Mark Twain

Happy New Year, readers! A fresh year, a fresh start. What will this year hold for our reading lives? Books and plenty of ’em, let’s hope, with good ones outnumbering the duds, likewise.

January saw me finish two books. Not an auspicious start, perhaps, but one has to start somehow. And as these books were rather dense, maybe it qualifies as an auspicious start after all. One was a biography and analysis of Mary Shelley’s life and work, the other an 1880 travel memoir by America’s arguably greatest writer.

You’ll recall that last year I read “Frankenstein” and “The Last Man,” not to mention Muriel Spark’s biography of Shelley. Putting a bow on my mild obsession, Mellor’s book (bought earlier in the year at Iliad in North Hollywood) was begun in December and finished the first few days of January.

The UCLA prof approaches her subject from a feminist perspective, and she’ll make you think of “Frankenstein” in a fresh way, both textually (disaster occurs when a man tries to have a baby without a woman — mull that a moment) and biographically (when Victor Frankenstein flees from his newborn creation, is Shelley criticizing her husband’s poor parenting skills?). Good analysis of the underrated “The Last Man” too. For scholarship, quite readable, but it’s docked for use of the words “teleological,” “semiotics” and “phenomenological.”

Twain’s fourth of five travel memoirs has been a sort of white whale for me, to invoke another great American author. I was reading a Twain a year through 2011. I planned to read “A Tramp Abroad” in 2012 and then 2013. In my review of my 2013 reading at the start of 2014, this is what I wrote: “How did I not read any Mark Twain for two straight years?! Definitely I’ll read ‘A Tramp Abroad’ this year. Of course, last year in this space I said I’d be starting it ‘any day now.’ I won’t make that promise, but I will read it.”

Heh. What with one thing or another, it kept getting put off. But last year I read his “Autobiography,” and early in January I started “A Tramp Abroad.” Let me note that I read an abridged version in high school, one prepared by Charles Neider, a respected Twain scholar, who said the full book was padded with digressions and dull appendices. But as a grownup, and more of a Twainiac, I wanted to read the full book (bought from Amazon back when I thought I’d be reading it momentarily).

“Tramp” does have its ho-hum passages, and overall Twain’s journey through Germany and Switzerland doesn’t have quite the zing or variety as “Innocents Abroad,” “Roughing It” or “Life on the Mississippi.” So, big deal, it’s a 4-star book, not a 5-star book. “Tramp” is wry, smart, sly, insightful, descriptive and hilarious. You owe it to yourself to read Chapter 13, in which Twain stumbles around his hotel room in the dark rather than risk awaking his travel companion. It is so relatable, one of those pieces of writing that bridges the gulf of years, and if you don’t laugh aloud, you have a funny bone of stone. Visit your local library or download the book just for that chapter.

All that said, Neider’s compressed version of “Tramp” would suit most readers. But I’m happy to have read the full version. It felt very good getting this one out of the way at last, and ditto with the Shelley holdover.

February will see me pick up the pace a bit, I think. For 2017, I may hit 40 again, my total from last year, and many of the books I expect to read are ones that have been waiting for me the past couple of years as my reading choices skewed to my oldest books. I’m really looking forward to this reading year. It feels like I’m back on track.

How was your January, and what do you expect from 2017 as a reader?

Next month: Four or five books, man — with “man” in their titles.


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