Reading Log: April 2021

Books acquired: “West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire,” Kevin Waite; “Is This Anything?” Jerry Seinfeld; “Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing,” Peter Guralnick

Books read: “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” David Sedaris; “Becoming Ray Bradbury,” Jonathan R. Eller; “Our Towns: A 10,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America,” James Fallows and Deborah Fallows; “Tarzan the Terrible” (Tarzan No. 8), Edgar Rice Burroughs; “A Tan and Sandy Silence” (Travis McGee No. 13), John D. MacDonald

Happy May, book mavens! We’ve made it through four months of 2021 and things are looking up. I’ve had both my vaccinations, with full effect a week away, and of late have resumed sitting indoors at coffeehouses and restaurants when weather drives me indoors. Like Sunday afternoon, as I write this, when it’s 61 degrees and overcast. It’s nice to have an indoor option again besides my house.

I read five books in April, just as I did in January, February and March, illustrating the steady-state theory of book completion. My five include my monthly Burroughs and MacDonald novels and nonfiction books about cities, a favorite author and an amusing fellow’s life. You may well have read the latter yourself.

“Me Talk Pretty” (2000): The first half is largely about his American life up until middle age, the second about finding true love, moving to France and attempting to adapt and learn the language. Thankfully, that still leaves room for how he flunked a Mensa test, his father’s inability to throw away food and a bowel movement that won’t flush. I listened to the audiobook for most of this, but the print version has a few essays not on audio, and the audio has a couple of extra bits that aren’t in print. Listening to Sedaris read his own work was a treat.

“Becoming Ray Bradbury” (2011): This is a biography focused on his life and writing, but mostly about his writing, through 1953. For admirers only, and as one, I have mixed feelings. At many points I thought, I do not need to know which books Ray bought in 1943, or about what he gushed in a letter to Henry Kuttner in 1944. That said, I finished it, I do have a better understanding of his progression as a writer through “Fahrenheit 451,” and the completist in me may well read the next two books, which cover the rest of his life and career. But not right now.

“Our Towns” (2018): With the federal government gridlocked and aiming low, this journalist couple, traveling by small plane and powered by curiosity (and craft brews), visit small cities and towns that are where the vanguard of change is occurring. There may be a few too many municipalities featured and the details get repetitive. But this is an earnest, optimistic rejoinder to those who think the only examples of reinvention are in major coastal cities. Also, for us locals, the chapters on Riverside, San Bernardino and Redlands are a draw. I listened to the audiobook because the husband and wife authors read it, charmingly.

“Tarzan the Terrible” (1921): A continuation/wrap-up of “Tarzan the Untamed,” this eighth novel has adventure, strange races, the hunt for the missing Jane and a ride on the back of a dinosaur. Also, many confusingly similar names. Not as strong as “Untamed,” but fun. This isn’t his fault, but the back cover gives away the identity of a figure ERB carefully left unnamed until four pages from the end. I would have screamed the cry of the maddened bull ape but didn’t want to alarm the neighbors.

“Tan and Sandy” (1971): Travis McGee, who’s seemed to be on the sunny side of 30 up to this point, begins wondering here in Book 13 if he’s losing his edge. MacDonald still had his, fortunately: We’re 1/3 of the way in before it’s even clear there’s a mystery to solve. It’s a good one, and McGee is put to the test. Also, regarding his penchant for “saving” women with a broken wing, therapy that involves bedding them, McGee calls himself on his own BS, a welcome surprise.

Sedaris is the winner this month, with the McGee a close second.

When did these books fall into my clutching hands? Sedaris was bought in, gulp, 2002 at the Claremont McKenna Athenaeum after a talk by the author and it’s signed to me — after I told him I write three columns per week, he wrote: “To David, I feel for you.” Tarzan was bought in 2011 at St. Louis’ Book House. Bradbury was a gift in 2012. “Our Towns” came free with a conference in Ontario in 2018 that I attended purely to hear the authors, who signed my book, Redlands native Jim writing “From a fellow Inland Empire writer.” McGee was bought in 2019 at Goleta’s Paperback Alley.

Note that two of these were “read” largely via audio, one in late March/early April and the other in mid-April. Listening to books in my car has been a neat way to squeeze in one or two extra books, and also to knock off, in this month’s case, two books I wasn’t sure when I’d get to in print; instead, they could be put in the “read” category with little effort on my part. I like it.

As for Burroughs and MacDonald, whose books I’ve been reading this year at a one-a-month pace, it was touch-and-go in April. Mired in the Tarzan novel for nine days, I decided to jettison my regimen during May; then I zipped through the McGee in five days and reconsidered. Lots of excitement and cliffhangers here in the Reading Log, eh? For May I’m likely to read both authors, even though they take up half of each month. I may have to put one or the other on hold at some point or I’ll never read the 900-page “Writing LA” anthology, or much of anything else. But I’ll keep going for now.

What about you all? How was your April of reading, not to mention your April of life? Update us in the comments, please. Behind every Reading Log comment is a person who cares.

Next month: A return to Barsoom and a visit to the International Space Station.

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Reading Log: March 2021

Books acquired: “Exhalation,” Ted Chiang; “The Future of Another Timeline,” Annalee Newitz; “Surviving in a Ruthless World: Bob Dylan’s Voyage to ‘Infidels,'” Terry Gans; “Three Witnesses,” Rex Stout; “Orange County: A History and Celebration,” Steve Emmons; “Being Mortal,” Atul Gawande

Books read: “Inlandia: A Literary Journey Through California’s Inland Empire,” Gayle Wattawa, ed.; “Desert Oracle, Vol. 1,” Ken Layne; “The Lady in the Lake,” Raymond Chandler; “The Long Lavender Look,” John D. MacDonald; “Tarzan Untamed,” Edgar Rice  Burroughs

We’ve made it this far, one-third of the way into 2021, a full year plus some change through the strangest collective period of our lives. How are you holding up? Do you have at least one vaccination yet, if you’d care to share?

Personally I’m in a more positive frame of mind than I’ve been in a long time. It seems almost unimaginable that such formerly routine but recently outlawed activities as seeing a movie or eating in a restaurant are now possible again — although I’m doing little of the latter and have no immediate intention of doing the former. The ability to browse in a bookstore is thrill enough for now.

I read five books in January, five books in February and, now, five books in March, a pleasing number to be hitting. If I keep this up the whole year, that would be 60 books, the most in several years. Well, we’ll see. One month at a time. A bit discouragingly, I ended up acquiring six books in March, one more than I read; those included two purchases with a birthday gift card, two purchases while on a short vacation and two birthday gifts. Understandable, I think. But with a yawning backlog still ahead of me, I’ll try to refrain from irrational exuberance in April.

Keeping to my stated goal, in March I again read one by ERB (Edgar Rice Burroughs) and one Travis McGee mystery by John D. MacDonald, as well as two examples of Inland Empire regional writing and a classic hardboiled mystery.

“Inlandia” (2006): A model of the form for regional writing, with examples famous, forgotten, obscure and original. Didion, Steinbeck and Chandler are here, and so are poets, essayists, short story writers and others, representing various cultures who’ve called the area home. This anthology deepened my understanding of the two-county area and provides breadcrumbs we can follow. (After the two chapters excerpted from “The Lady in the Lake,” I bought a copy; see below.)

“Desert Oracle” (2020): Drawn from the small journal of the same name, these true (or semi-true) stories of lights in the sky, ghost towns, eccentrics, lost hikers, monsters, hibernating birds and rumored presidential summits with aliens is a real desert trip. Geared toward readers who delight in history, lore and esoterica. Layne’s prose is dry, wry and conversational. There may be one or two too many UFO stories.

“Lady in the Lake” (1943): Philip Marlowe leaves the mean streets of LA on a missing-woman case that takes him to a lakeside mountain cabin (in real life, our Lake Arrowhead or Big Bear). Suddenly he’s also investigating the formerly-missing-now-found corpse of a different woman. Are the two cases connected, you ask? Hey, is the pope Catholic, and does Raymond Chandler write beautiful sentences? All of that is true.

“Long Lavender Look” (1970): In this 12th entry in the series, McGee is back in Florida but out of his element as he and his pal Meyer are briefly jailed on suspicion of murder. He’s his own client for a change as he has to clear his name and avenge Meyer’s beating at the hands of a drugged-up cop. Also, you get gems like this about a hardware store: “Old men were browsing through the hand tools and cupboard latches, spray cans and wallboard just as, in the world of long ago, they had prowled the candy store to find out how best to spend the hoarded dime.”

“Tarzan the Untamed” (1919): This seventh entry in the series (and the first I’ve read in seven years) starts with a bang, as the Greystoke compound is attacked while Tarzan is away and his wife killed, setting him off on a grim mission of vengeance that continues into the next novel. It’s the prose equivalent of a reboot. The action rarely lets up and various strands of the plot come together satisfyingly. When ERB finished writing, he should have beaten his chest and issued a victory yell.

This was a good month: I’d give everything four stars (out of five) except three stars for Desert Oracle, still a respectable rating.

Back in 2006 I got a pre-publication copy of “Inlandia,” which I paged through but never read, picking up this final copy at Magic Door Used Books in, probably, the late ’00s. Satisfying to finally read it, and it’s already been useful to my expanded column territory. I think I read it at the right time. “Tarzan” dates to the late ’00s as well from St. Louis’ Book House. “Lavender” came from North Hollywood’s Iliad Bookshop in 2012. “Oracle” and “Lake” were bought new earlier this year at Los Feliz’s Skylight Books. For me, a fast turnaround.

I’ve surprised myself by sticking to my ERB/McGee plan, at least through the first quarter of the year. (Nice to be able to mix things up a bit with ERB, as I have a few Tarzans as well as all the John Carter of Mars series to read.) While on one hand they’re consuming half of each reading month, and thus cramping my freedom, they’ve been a bedrock for each month and reading them is getting me through a logjam of titles on their respective bookshelves. And there’s been time for unrelated books, including “Inlandia,” which I’d been reading on and off for a few months before powering through the last half in March.

In fact, completing that 450-pager makes me want to tackle a few other literary anthologies on my shelves this year, including the nearly 900-page “Writing LA.” It’d be simpler to just devote an entire month to it, but more likely I’ll nibble away at it over much of the year.

How was your March, readers, and your first quarter of 2021? Are you sticking to your reading goals, if any, falling short or straying? Let us known in the comments, please.

Next month: Me blog pretty next time.

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Reading Log: February 2021

Books acquired: “The Best of Cordwainer Smith,” J.J. Pierce, editor; “Star Trek Log One,” “Star Trek Log Two,” Alan Dean Foster; “Secret Stairs” (2020 revised edition), Charles Fleming

Books read: “The Gods of Mars” (John Carter #2), “Warlord of Mars” (John Carter #3), Edgar Rice Burroughs; “Dress Her in Indigo” (Travis McGee #11), John D. MacDonald; “Anthony Bourdain: The Last Interview,” Melville House, publisher; “Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews,” Jonathan Cott, editor

Five books in January, five books in February — I like how smoothly 2021 is shaping up, although I’ll like it better once I get a dose or two of vaccine.

I bought four books in February, three of them at 510 Books, open one weekend per month in a warehouse space in Pomona, and which I just learned about last month. The next sale is March 5-7 at 748 E. Bonita Ave., immediately west of Towne Avenue. I picked up one of the Ballantine Best of series of sci-fi books, which I collect, and the first two adaptations of the “Star Trek” animated series, which I watched/read/owned as a lad. (Grand total for three books: $3.) While I’m unlikely to read those two again, it’s fun to own them, plus they’re signed by the author to Dwain Kaiser, the late owner of Magic Door Books in Pomona — which has been bought by, bringing things full circle, 510 Books. It’ll reopen later this year, the owner told me.

The other book, “Secret Stairs,” a guide to L.A. walks, was bought Saturday at Stories Books in Echo Park after finishing…a secret stairs walk from the first edition. I’ve been relying on that 2010 book all along but decided to spring for the update. At least one of my four (!) remaining walks is very different due to changing conditions.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the books I read. I continued with the two authors I hope to focus on in 2021, with time for other stuff too.

“Dylan” (2006): This rounds up most of the better interviews Dylan’s given, with an emphasis on his Rolling Stone cover-story chats. While it’s nice as a fan to have so many of these between two covers, Dylan is such a wary subject that 400-plus pages is a bit much even for a devotee. Sometimes confounding, often evasive or gnomic, frequently funny or sly, now and then profound or poetic, rarely revealing factually. But usually interesting.

“Gods” (1913): John Carter returns to Mars (somehow), makes with the swordplay, laughs at danger and topples phony deities — all in a day’s work. He also learns he has a son, about 30 pages after we figure it out. An exciting entry in the series (some say it’s the best), better paced than the first novel, and ending on a cliffhanger, as Carter wins his way to Dejah Thoris only to lose her — temporarily, I trust.

“Warlord” (1913): “The Gods of Mars” ends on a cliffhanger, so I found myself charging into this third entry in the series, much like John Carter with his battle-lust and slashing sword, to see how the trilogy wraps up. This and “Gods” are essentially one novel split into two parts. Carter is continually out of the frying pan and into the fire, scampering over much of Barsoom in his desperate quest to rescue his wife, bodies stacking up in his wake. Tremendously exciting and fun. This ends the trilogy, but Burroughs didn’t let that stop him from writing more.

“Bourdain” (2019): To use a food metaphor, these seven interviews, some of them transcripts of TV chats, are an aperitif, or maybe only a condiment. Yet they do give us an idea — a taste? — of what engaged him, how he viewed the world, the value of travel as fatal to prejudice (per Twain) and the principle of being a good guest when abroad, one who was there to learn from his hosts, not correct them even on matters of fact.

“Indigo” (1969): McGee and Meyer leave Florida for Oaxaca, Mexico, to track the last days of a young American woman among the dregs of hippie expatriates. It’s the second novel in the series to take place in Mexico, and MacDonald employs the setting sympathetically. McGee uses his wits, but also his fists, and Meyer his knack for getting people to open up. MacDonald’s skill is vivid writing, and it’s on display on every page.

The two ERB books were my favorites this month, with McGee right behind them. I can’t exactly recommend them like I’d recommend a standalone novel or penetrating work of social science, of course.

Where and when did I pick them up? “Dylan” was bought at Borders in 2009, “Indigo” in 2010 at Book Rack in La Verne and the two Mars books in 2011 at the annual Black Ace paperback show, with “Bourdain” a Christmas gift in 2019. And yes, it’s dismaying that, for example, I spent three bucks on a mystery at a used paperback shop and didn’t read it for, gulp, 12 years. But it’s read now.

More generally, I’m feeling on track with this McGee/ERB thing, having read one per month of the former and three in two months of the latter. Resuming these series/authors after a long layoff, I wasn’t sure I could even read them two straight months, as that’s not usually how I read, but I’m liking ’em fine and will return for more in March. But first, this very week I should be wrapping up a nonfiction book and a classic mystery novel. Can I finish five books again in March? It’s possible.

How about you, readers? What’d you read in February — and if you’d care to say, have you got a vaccine yet, or at least impending hopes to get one?

Next month: the jungle, the desert, a lake and McGee.

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Reading Log: January 2021

Books acquired: “The Bookman’s Wake,” John Dunning; “Highway 99: a literary journey through California’s Great Central Valley,” Stan Yogi, ed.; “Desert Oracle, Vol. 1,” Ken Layne; “East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte,” Romeo Guzman, ed.

Books read: “King Kull,” Robert E. Howard and Lin Carter; “The Prince and the Pauper,” Mark Twain; “Emperor Fu Manchu (Fu Manchu #13),” Sax Rohmer; “A Princess of Mars (John Carter #1),” Edgar Rice Burroughs; “The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (Travis McGee #10),” John D. MacDonald

Welcome to 2021’s first Reading Log! If you’re joining us late, I post each month about what books I read the previous month, as well as which ones I acquired. There is rarely overlap. The backlog of unread books is strong with this one.

(I began the year with, gulp, 225 unread books, a total that dropped only one by month’s end, based on reading five but acquiring four. Still, 225 is far better than the mortifying 555 of a decade ago…)

Some months I make a little game out of things by choosing books whose titles seem related. In a neat trick, I managed to do that in January — four books have royalty in their titles, while the fifth is almost a joke about that — while also advancing some reading goals.

One goal: resume reading Edgar Rice Burroughs after more than four years away. Another: resume reading John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series after three years away. A third: read the final Fu Manchu novel, 10 years to the month after starting them. A fourth: keep on reading Mark Twain’s fiction, in this case his third novel (after “The Gilded Age” and “Tom Sawyer,” both read in 2020). And a fifth: knock off my last five unread books from 2002. More on all that after the summaries.

“King Kull” (1967): I hadn’t read any REH since boyhood, some four decades ago, and I wondered what I’d think of him now, and of Kull, always a distant second in the comics to Conan. Kull was like that in the pulps too, apparently, but these stories have energy, atmosphere and philosophy of sorts about power, with some Lovecraftian touches in the descriptions. Perhaps these were closer to REH’s heart.

“Prince and the Pauper” (1881): A fabulous concept, in which nearly identical boys change clothes and thus stations in life, with a moral lesson in good behavior and our essential equality. Twain, who loved a meandering narrative, may never have plotted a story this tightly or ingeniously before or after. He must’ve known he’d discovered gold.

“Emperor Fu Manchu” (1959): The final Fu Manchu novel is set in China, which I think is new. The rest of the formula remains intact, including chaste romance between a giddy secret agent and a bewitching woman of the East. The showdown between Fu and Sir Denis is memorable, with the latter admitting that the two arch-foes share a goal of eradicating communism (!). Enjoyable pulp trash, if less inventive than the earlier entries.

“A Princess of Mars” (1912): ERB got off to a great start in 1912, creating Tarzan and his other great, if less well-known, series character, John Carter, a Virginian who becomes warlord of Mars. This “science romance” fired the imagination of Ray Bradbury and many others. Sure, John Carter’s mysterious transport to Mars, er, Barsoom remains confounding — something about passing out in a vapor-ridden cave, floating out of his body and whizzing to Mars — but who cares? This melding of swordplay, adventure, science fiction and romance is still highly enjoyable more than a century later.

“The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper” (1968): “No black is going to grieve about some nice sweet dedicated unprejudiced liberal being yanked out of his Buick and beaten to death, because there have been a great many nice humble ingratiating hardworking blacks beaten to death too.” MacDonald wrote that in 1968 (this was published Dec. 1 that year) and it rings just as true post-George Floyd. The McGee books, about a boat-bum private eye/”salvage consultant” in Florida who has a way with the ladies, are pretty consistent, I think, but “Brown” strikes me as one of the better entries, with prescient lines like the above elevating the whole thing.

“Prince” was the best of the bunch, and why shouldn’t it be? I got a kick out of every book this month, which isn’t always the case. “Wrapper” is slightly ahead of the pack.

So, 2021. I’ve let the McGee and ERB novels languish, until those two authors are the ones I own the most unread books by (leaving aside the 15 of 38 Shakespeare plays unread): 14 ERBs, 12 McGees. Inspired by Reading Log stalwart Doug Evans, who’s been reading a Ross Macdonald mystery each month, and did the same earlier with the Jack Reacher series, I’m going to see if I can’t read an ERB and a McGee each month. OK, probably not each month. But for at least half the months this year. (Repetition may set in and require breaks.)

I hope to also read two or three more Twains, a literary anthology or two, more long-lived books from my shelves including the remaining four from 2002, at least four Shakespeare plays and a few gifts that have piled up, to my shame. Who knows, this whole plan, such as it is, may fade by March, but I’m already close to finishing an ERB for February. Also, after 2020 saw me read only one more fiction book than nonfiction, I’m hoping that will be more like 2/3-1/3 in favor of fiction this year.

Where and when did I acquire these books? Not in January 2021, that’s for sure. “Prince” was bought at Book Treasures in Long Beach in 1996, about which I have zero recollection. My college Shakespeare omnibus aside, this was the last unread book on my shelves purchased in the 20th century. That’s progress.

“Kull” came from a vendor at the San Diego Comic Con in 2002; “Emperor” was bought in the ’00s, I think off eBay; “Princess” and most of the other Mars books by ERB were bought at the annual Black Ace Paperback Show in 2011; and “Wrapper” is comparatively recent, from Powell’s Books in 2019.

This was a satisfying month with all five choices representing long-awaited books finally read and a full three series resumed (with one finished).

How was your January, readers? Do you have any reading goals for 2021 that you’d care to share, at the risk of being held to them? Let us know in the comments, please.

Next: another ERB, interviews with two cultural figures and more.

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Books read, 2020

In an annual, much-loved ritual (by me, at least), I gather up all the books I read the past year — all the ones still in my possession, that is, which leaves out audiobooks and others borrowed from local libraries — for a photo and a roll call of sorts. (Here’s the 2019 post.) It’s a fun exercise for me and, with them all off my shelves, lets me also shift the ones I no longer want to a sell pile. It should probably be all or almost all of them, but usually it’s more like one-fourth.

You’re encouraged to comment on your own reading for 2020, such as number read, nonfiction vs. fiction, trends in your reading and such. I’m always a bit surprised at the amount of nonfiction this self-defined fiction guy reads; this year it was a bare win for fiction, 27 compared to 26 nonfiction. Almost all my books were published some or many years ago; my only 2019-20 reads were Callaci, Straight, Best SF, Madigan, Mantel and Cummins, with one 2021 book thanks to an advance copy.

1. “Walden and Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau

2. “Europe Through the Back Door,” Rick Steves

3. “The Golden Man,” Philip K. Dick

4. “The Golden Scorpion,” Sax Rohmer

5. “The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today,” Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner

6. “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Vol. 1, 1929-1964,” Robert Silverberg, editor

7. “The Fourth Galaxy Reader,” H.L. Gold, editor

8. “Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019,” Carmen Maria Machado, guest editor

9. “Ecology of Fear,” Mike Davis

10. “Wrath of Fu Manchu,” Sax Rohmer

11. “That’s Amore,” Diana Sholley

12. “Hail, Hail Euphoria!,” Roy Blount Jr.

13. “The Ecstasy of Influence,” Jonathan Lethem

14. “Bob Dylan in America,” Sean Wilentz

15. “Love is a Mix Tape,” Rob Sheffield

16. “100 Cassettes,” Dennis Callaci

17. “Wolf Hall,” Hilary Mantel

18. A Short History of the World,” J.M. Roberts

19. “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” Mark Twain

20. “The Twilight Zone Companion,” Marc Scott Zicree

21. “Death in Venice,” Thomas Mann

22. “Bring Up the Bodies,” Hilary Mantel

23. “Written in My Soul,” Bill Flanagan

24. “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said,” Philip K. Dick

25. “Crime and Punishment,” Fyodor Dostoevsky

26. “The Prisoner,” Thomas M. Disch

27. “Camp Concentration,” Thomas M. Disch

28. “Extra Innings: Fred Claire’s Journey to City of Hope and Finding a World Championship Team,” Tim Madigan

29. “Sonnets and Narrative Poems,” William Shakespeare

30. “The Comedy of Errors,” William Shakespeare

31. “Love’s Labor’s Lost,” William Shakespeare

32. “Henry VIII,” William Shakespeare

33. “The Mirror & the Light,” Hilary Mantel

34. “In the Country of Women,” Susan Straight

35. “Juliet, Naked,” Nick Hornby

36. “She,” H. Rider Haggard

37. “Leaves of Grass,” Walt Whitman

38. “The Wind in the Willows,” Kenneth Grahame

39. “American Dirt,” Jeanine Cummins

40. “A Handful of Dust,” Evelyn Waugh

41. “Joan Baez: The Last Leaf,” Elizabeth Thomson

42. “Just Kids,” Patti Smith

43. “Younger Than That Now: Collected Interviews With Bob Dylan,” James Ellison, ed.

44. “About Aging,” Josephine Smith

45. “A Good Life,” Ben Bradlee

46. “Larger Than Life: The Playboy Interviews,” Stephen Randall, ed.

47. “Not Dead Yet,” Phil Collins

48. “Eternally Yours,” Jack Smith

49. “Books: A Memoir,” Larry McMurtry

50. “A Passion for Books,” Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan, editors

51. “My Bookstore,” Reginald Rice, editor

52. “Booked to Die,” John Dunning

53. “Always a Song,” Ellen Harper

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Reading Log: December 2020

Books acquired: “Always a Song,” Ellen Harper

Books read: “Books: A Memoir,” Larry McMurtry; “A Passion for Books,” Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan, editors; “My Bookstore,” Reginald Rice, editor; “Booked to Die,” John Dunning; “Always a Song,” Ellen Harper

Hot on the heels of my November Reading Log, posted only two weeks ago, here’s December’s. If 2020 proved nothing else, it’s that time is elastic.

November’s RL was delayed due to blog difficulties, you may recall; December’s is on time or a bit early because I also need to put together my annual list with photo of all my 2020 reading. That’ll be up within a day or two. If you have comments to make about your entire year of reading, that’d be a fine place for it.

My December was devoted to books on books. That is, except for a late-arriving book about music, which I wanted to get read and which serves as a contrapuntal harmony to the rest.

“Books” (2008): A chatty account of McMurtry’s introduction to books as a child, his love of books and his side career as a book scout and book seller. Short chapters (some less than a full page), loosely written, repetitive at times (he explains on four occasions that referring to a deceased person as “late” is “Botswanian”). It can read at times like a commercial for his Texas bookstore. But it’s casually engaging and often amusing.

“A Passion for Books” (1999): Some delightful pieces here, especially John Michell’s about history’s famous bibliomaniacs, and the interspersed New Yorker cartoons were a nice break. By the end, though, this was more about collecting and caring for first editions than about having a passion for reading. Not the fault of the book, but it wasn’t what I was hoping for.

“My Bookstore” (2012): 84 writers pen short essays on their favorite indie bookstore, representing about 35 states and stores both nationally famous (Powell’s, The Strand) and obscure except to those who love them. Put together in 2012, this shop-local tome was meant as a bulwark against Amazon and ebooks. Repetitive (read a half-dozen of these essays and you’ve read them all), but enjoyable if you love bookstores. Since this is the Reading Log, I would imagine that’s all of us. (An updated version with a few added stores, and no subtractions, was published in 2017.)

“Booked to Die” (2001): A police detective who’s good with his fists (too good, in fact) and collects Faulkner in first editions quits the force and opens a used bookstore. But he also needs to take care of some unfinished business involving the murder of a book scout. This mystery set in the world of bookmen — the first in a series starring Cliff Janeway — was pressed into my hands by a good bookman, which is only right. I learned a lot about the book trade while being swept up in a compelling story. But then, I like books.

“Always a Song” (2021): A calm, clear-eyed look back at the folk movement from someone on its periphery as a retailer (Claremont’s Folk Music Center), friend, family member and occasional musician, who went from being a red diaper baby to getting an invitation to the White House. Valuable as a female perspective, besides being well-observed, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious. Note: Book was a gift of the author. Expect a column later in January.

I started one other book, “Great Books” by David Denby. Halfway through the introduction, I decided this was not a book I wanted to read. (I’d owned it about 15 years and had always been intrigued by the premise of the author returning to college for a couple of Western Civ/Great Books courses. Ah, well. I did read his chapter on “Heart of Darkness.”) A few days later, Harper gave me an advance copy of “Always a Song,” which will be published in late January, and as luck would have it, I was free to start it immediately.

The most purely enjoyable book of the month was “Booked to Die,” with “Always a Song” rewarding as well for anyone with an interest in folk music. The others were too hit or miss.

“Song” aside, these were, as is often the case, rather long-lived in my unread books collection. (Will I never run out?) “Bookstore” is from 2012, a gift from my mom; “Booked to Die” is from 2010, a gift from the late Dwain Kaiser; “Books” is from 2008, a gift from reader (in both senses of the term) Jim Strodtbeck (he marked a page with a very funny anecdote regarding “Moby-Dick,” about which I had written recently; and “Passion” is a year or two older, a purchase (imagine that) from Bookfellows in Glendale. So, five books, four of them gifts. There’s more where those came from.

How was your December, readers? Let us know in the comments.

Next month: royalty.

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Reading Log: November 2020

Books acquired: “Southern California: An Island on the Land,” Carey McWilliams

Books read: “Just Kids,” Patti Smith; “Younger Than That Now: The Collected Interviews With Bob Dylan,” James Ellison, ed.; “About Aging,” Josephine Smith; “A Good Life,” Ben Bradlee; “Larger Than Life: The Playboy Interviews,” Stephen Randall, ed.; “Not Dead Yet,” Phil Collins; “Eternally Yours,” Jack Smith

Well, readers, here we are at last, a full three weeks into December. How did we stand the suspense? Blog trouble, as explained in a recent post, is now cleared up, or cleared up for now. I’m looking at what I read in November and some books seem like they were read a long time ago. Somewhat true in some cases, as three or four were largely read in September and October and finished the first few days of November. Heck, I’ve already read four books in December by now.

Anyway, the titles as you can see form a sort of cradle-to-grave pattern, for no reason other than fun — and to motivate myself to squeeze in some unread books from my shelves that I might not have gotten to if I hadn’t needed to finish them for this post.

“Just Kids” (2010): An account of Smith’s bond with Robert Mapplethorpe and being poor, free and bohemian in NYC, where they lived at the Chelsea Hotel with Harry Smith as a neighbor, saw the Velvet Underground at Max’s Kansas City and befriended Sam Shepard, Candy Darling and Jim Carroll. If those names mean nothing to you, maybe skip this. Direct, fond, but sometimes pretentious: If you took a drink every time she cites Genet, Baudelaire, Blake or Rimbaud, you’d end up blotto.

“Younger Than That Now” (2004): These career-ranging Dylan interviews are usually interesting, occasionally illuminating, sometimes confounding, just as often exasperating. The 1965 interview with Laurie Henshaw is hilariously hostile. The 1976 interview with TV Guide is surprisingly warm, as he and Neil Hickey share beers on the beach. This is kind of a junior companion to the Rolling Stone Essential Interviews book, a bit half-assed in selection and typography (no editor/compiler even gets a credit, other than online) but worthwhile for fans.

“About Aging” (1995): In her 80s and 90s, after careers as a social worker and nurse, Smith began writing a column for the local weekly in Claremont. Informal and direct, often about her life, sometimes about local matters or concerns as a senior, they’re uncommonly stylish. Twice she won first-place columnist awards in a state contest. A friend gave me this book; bemused, I didn’t think I would read it, and when years later I started it, a few pages in I didn’t expect to finish. But I kept reading, and I liked it.

“A Good Life” (1995/2017): I listened to the audiobook version while reading footnotes, etc., in my print copy. A well-told memoir with few flourishes, and read by Arthur Morey with a gusto that reflects Bradlee’s directness, confidence and enthusiasm. (It was easy to forget it wasn’t Bradlee’s voice.) At 500 pages, and 20 hours for the audiobook, it’s arguably about 10% too long. Still, his accounts of having polio, serving in WWII, being a foreign correspondent and knowing JFK were unexpected, and then come the expected: the Pentagon Papers, Watergate and Janet Cooke.

“Larger Than Life” (2006): The usual lengthy, probing interviews, this time with icons of the ’60s and ’70s. The John Wayne interview is notorious. Howard Cosell is sharp, Bette Davis is candid, Frank Sinatra is philosophical. Marlon Brando, once he drops his guard, is clear-eyed, smart and funny. Muhammad Ali is full of himself and Bob Dylan gives one of his better interviews. The rest are OK.

“Not Dead Yet” (2016): Heard on audiobook, read by Collins himself, with dips into my print copy. A generally cheerful memoir, well told and witty, from someone about whom I had very little interest. Thankfully he doesn’t take himself too seriously and it’s fun to hear him read. Best parts for this non-fan were about his pre-fame years and about the disaster that was Live Aid. From his 40s onward Collins thoroughly messes up his life and, while he’s unsparing, this happy-go-lucky guy can’t really explain why he became a suicidal philanderer. Perhaps he and his persona were living “Separate Lives.”

“Eternally Yours” (1996): This was the LA Times columnist’s 10th and last collection, compiled by his wife and sons from his last years’ output. Some involve his health (stroke, heart attack, wheelchair), but his sense of humor remained nimble even if he didn’t. There was something brave about his continuing to write even in his physical decline. A few columns from the 1970s and ’80s are sprinkled in, all welcome to this fan. This is the only one of his books I own that isn’t signed, for obvious reasons.

All of November’s books were enjoyable to a similar degree, although some are clearly geared to my tastes. Patti Smith’s book is the standout and won the National Book Award for nonfiction.

When and where did these books fall into my hands? “Kids” was a gift in 2011, “Younger” was a purchase at Borders Montclair in 2006, “Aging” from Magic Door Books in Pomona in 2006 (owner Dwain Kaiser thought I should own this book by a fellow local columnist), “A Good Life” in print was a gift in 2018, with an audio copy downloaded from the LA County Library in October, “Larger Than Life” was a gift in 2016, “Not Dead” was a gift in 2018 and “Eternally Yours” was a purchase at Magic Door in 2006. Whew! A lot of older unread books here, and five gifts from nice people. (That only scratches the surface of the unread gift books on my shelves, I’m afraid. More scratching ahead.)

How was your November reading — if you even remember? Apologies again about that.  The December Reading Log will be here before you know it (I hope?), followed by the traditional 2020 recap with all my books listed and photographed.

Next month: books on books.

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Reading Log: October 2020

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

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

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

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

My capsule thoughts on each:

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mentioned how “Leaf” and “Dirt” arrived, both in 2020. “Leaves” was acquired at Borders in Montclair in 2004. (I read the short, 1855 version in 2013, and already have owned this longer version.) “Dust” was bought used somewhere, possibly Glendale’s Brand Books, in the mid-’00s, and “Willows” was purchased in 2011 at a steep discount at Borders’ closing sale. I still have nearly a dozen unread books from that sale of nearly a decade ago, making the “savings” seem rather hollow. But buying them made me feel better, and I’ll get through them eventually.

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

Next month: the life cycle in book titles.

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Reading Log: September 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next month: some earthy reading, dig?

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Reading Log: August 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next month: The country of women.

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