The Ghost of Dibble Hollow by May Nickerson Wallace (1965) This a Scholastic Book Service paperback, though not one I read when young. I often buy these SBS books when I see them because they have a great look to them, and are often worth reading. This one was surprising as it's a pretty mature story, and also about an actual ghost, but not a scary one, and while it is a mystery, it's more about social issues. A family moves to a summer home and the young boy, Pug, learns about a long-time, ongoing feud, and with the help of the ghost of a boy (a relative) who died tragically young, he sets out to try to make things right. There is a point, a little past halfway, when things start heating up, when Pug goes to town and confronts one of the old-timers (a respected rich guy) on his greed and insensitive policy (too complicated to really go into it here). It's a great scene and actually gave me chills. The rest of the book is then very satisfying—and even though it wraps things up a little too neatly to really feel like reality—I had to remember that it's still a kids' book, not a 1970s movie—and I bet this was a favorite of some people when growing up.
Books I've Finished Reading
The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket (1999) This is the first book of the series (of 13, naturally) called A Series of Unfortunate Events, written by Daniel Handler under the pen-name of Lemony Snicket. I think it was pretty popular, and I think of this a a contemporary children's book series, but I guess 1999 already puts it at a generation-ago old. I have started work on a children's book series (we'll see how it goes) so I'm reading a lot of kids' stuff for research, but I truly love reading kids' books. After reading this first volume, the question is, will I continue, and the answer is no. I did enjoy it; it was no chore, and is a slim volume, but I also felt that it was pretty tedious. It's the story of some newly orphaned children who are pretty absurdly mistreated. I quickly tired of the repetitions, the humor involving language, for the most part. I don't think kids find humor involving repetition any more funny than adults do. And though I'm sure the misfortunes of the children, as subsequent volumes keep raising the bar, promise to be imaginative and skirt the level of what you'd even want a kid exposed to, I'm feeling—as an old guy with limited time and unlimited books—that I pretty much get the picture with this first volume. Fans of this series are welcome to tell me that I'm wrong.
The Missing Chums by Franklin W. Dixon (1928) This is the 4th volume of The Hardy Boy Mystery Stories and starts with Chet and Biff going on an outing in Biff's new boat. The Hardys and Tony, in their boats, see them off across the bay until a huge storm arrives out of nowhere and the Hardys and Tony barely make it back. It's one of the best descriptions of a boat caught in a storm I've read (and it happens a lot in these books)! Chet and Biff are lost at sea. It's pretty harrowing. This is also the volume that introduces Aunt Gertrude, who comes to visit—accompanied by a cat!—“a lazy yellow cat by the name of Lavinia”—which is the only time I remember the mention of her cat. A letter comes from some criminals addressed to Fenton Hardy (who is out of town, as he often is) and Aunt Gertrude has a premonition that it's something sinister because, she says: “I dreamed about haystacks last night. Haystacks! Whenever I dream about haystacks it means band news.” This book probably has the best Aunt Gertrude parts of any Hardy Boys book. It's also one of my favorite premises: some criminals, out to get Fenton Hardy, have a plan to kidnap Frank and Joe, but they kidnap Chet and Biff mistakenly. It's almost comic. I pretty much stole that whole plot for a part of my forthcoming novel, The Doughnuts.
Land of 1000 Diners – A Guide to Greater Cleveland's Greasy Spoons, Family Restaurants, and Diners (2015) Another subtitle: (52 diners in 52 weeks by one crazed girl). Although I know the name of the author, her name is not published (or is well hidden), so I'm respecting her anonymity. This was given to me by my friend, Jeff Curtis, and might technically be considered a “zine” (self-published, stapled) but as it's not a periodical— it's a one-time thing, I'm calling it a book. Also, it's more useful and beloved than most of my thousands of books. Also, maybe hard to find—but if you looked around Cleveland's used book and zine stores, you might find a copy. I'm guessing 2015 as the publication date, because the year in question—when she decided to visit and write about one diner per week—was 2014. That's the year after I last lived in the Cleveland area. It sounds like a fun project, which I'm sure it was, but try it sometime, something like that—it's a lot harder to do—both the searching out new places and the writing—than you can imagine. There are also some ranking lists, an interview—but mostly it's reviews, ordered by geography—and besides being an incredible guide to locating diners in the Cleveland area, you also get a lot of the personality and greasy spoon philosophy of the author. Because I cannot resist, and have spent a little time in the area, I'm going to list the places written about that I have personally visited: Big Egg, Dianna's Deli, Coffee Pot, Shore Restaurant, The Place To Be, George's Kitchen, Borderline Cafe, John's Diner, Shay's, The Whip, Midway Oh-Boy, My Friends, Diner on Clifton. Which is only a handful, and would leave me with a whole lot of exploring to do if I still lived there. I would love if she decided to do a revised edition, someday, but sometimes these kinds of projects are a once in a lifetime thing, during a magical year.
Generation of Swine by Hunter S. Thompson (1988) Subtitled: Gonzo Papers, Volume 2: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80's. I felt compelled to read some soothing words from the unmistakable voice of Hunter S. Thompson after last year's presidential election, thinking it would maybe help, or at least put things in perspective. This book is made up of SF Examiner columns, and is mostly about politics, Reagan, the Iran-Contra Affair, Oliver North, etc., leading up to the 1988 election. It does kind of put things in perspective, but I don't know if it cheered me up as much as made me feel more hopeless. I guess the one thing you could take from remembering that time period is that things don't change that much, they just run in cycles, and if anything we just keep raising the bar on greed and stupidity. Personally, in order keep getting up day after day, I have to believe that human beings are slowly, if not always surely, advancing in terms of humanity, at least, but that's often a hard position to support when you look at the whole world, and very deep into any society. But then, what I think, anyway, matters little, except maybe to me. My favorite parts of this book, and any of Thompson's writing, is when he talks less about politics and more about some crazy adventure he's been pulled into, with well-drawn portraits of bizarre individuals that you know, from experience, are only slightly exaggerated. I always liked the title, too, “Generation of Swine”—I'm not sure when that generation ends, exactly, and if he came up with a name for the even more heinous successor.
The Mysterious Half Cat by Margaret Sutton (1936) This is Volume No. 9 of the Judy Bolton Mystery Stories. Thinking about trying out some other, old series books, I picked up this one, with the intriguing title. A little research told me that it's one of the few series books written all (I mean, the entire series) by a single author (as opposed to ghostwriters). There are some huge Judy Bolton fans out there, and they even hold a conference. Anyway, I started reading to see if I liked the style, and did immediately, so I decided I might try to read them in order, but by then I was so caught up in this very odd story that I couldn't put it down. Now I'm wondering if this book might be an anomaly, or they're all this good—regardless, I'm going to read more. It has a different feel than Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. I won't go on about the story, but here is an excerpt, to get an idea of the writing style: from chapter XII—“An Appointment At Midnight”—when the kids go out late at night on an investigation. “The night was perfect for hiking. A breeze that sounded weirdly through the trees blew Judy's hair about her face and gave her an exhilarating sense of being free to do exactly as she pleased. She leaned against the gate and drank in the night.” If that doesn't make you want to get out and explore the world, you'd better investigate your own pulse!
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1996) Too much is made of how long and difficult this book is; there are longer novels out there, and much more difficult ones. But for a legitimately slow and unfocused reader like myself, it was a challenge to get through, and I won't even admit, here, how many years it took me. But I've finished it, and I feel the journey was worthwhile. There are points where you want to risk hurting your back and throw the book across the room, say, “Enough already with the tennis,” etc., but overall it's an immensely entertaining, sometimes shocking, and intensely sad story. Part of the pure joy of this book is being fully immersed in DFW-land, which is, I guess—like certain cuisines and lifestyle choices—either you have a taste for it or you don't. It is, of course, a much different book going into it knowing that David Foster Wallace committed suicide, as much of it deals with depression, addiction, and suicide. As for it being set in the very near future, now is a fascinating time to read it, being that we are essentially living in the time he predicted, in the novel. In essence, he gets a lot very, very right, spookily so, but if he was here with us now I'd imagine he'd admit that even his most bizarre and disturbing imaginative predictions don't exceed the world we are presently living in.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884) For some reason, this is often considered a book for kids, and while I'm all for kids reading “above their level,” it would be helpful to have an adult along with this one, if for no other reason than to put some of the history and language in context, in regards to race and slavery, and discuss some of the ironic complexities and the examination of societal hypocrisy. But also, even if you've read it when very young, like I did, doesn't mean you won't find an entirely different book when reading it later in life. It took me this long to re-read it, but I'm glad I did, because I now feel it's one of my favorite books of all time, if not favorite. There is a good reason it's considered one of the greatest American novels. It's hard to briefly, if at all, explain why good writing is just good writing, and if I could do that, I'd just sit down and do it (explain it and write like that). Anyway, on one hand, the adventures depicted are vivid, exciting, and hilarious, and on another, there is harsh social commentary and biting satire throughout. That this novel, first published in 1884 feels like it could have been written this year says a lot both about the far ahead of its time quality of the writing, and also, sadly, that as a society, we have advanced far too little.
The Secret of the Old Mill by Franklin W. Dixon (1927) This is the third of the Hardy Boys mystery stories, most significant in it's the volume in which they get a small motorboat, the Sleuth, which they will use in many books to follow. On their very first outing they misjudge the weather and get caught in a storm (something that would happen nearly every time they take their boat out in subsequent books). Also, they give a guy a lift, who turns out to be involved with the mystery at hand, and he ends up holding them at gunpoint, until he gets seasick and they disarm him. When they get back to Bayport it turns out he's someone the authorities are after, including their dad, Fenton Hardy, who confronts the guy: “They tell me you were 'shoving the queer' down in Barmet Village this morning.” Of course, the Hardys know from their dad that “shoving the queer” refers to passing counterfeit money, which is the criminal subject of this volume—which starts out by the Hardys being taken in by a counterfeiter. Later their mother sells an nice rug from their house to a “dark and swarthy” foreigner for $800!—cash, which turns out to be counterfeit. Also of note is another odd chapter which is totally from the point of view of Con Riley, who is kind of a lazy, dimwitted cop. The Hardys and their friends, especially Chet, are always tormenting him. They butter him up and he totally falls for it, then Chet gets him to “guard a package” for him, which he does, but falls asleep, and the package contains an alarm clock which goes off and freaks out the poor guy. The chapter has nothing to do with the book except that it's a funny aside, and further illustrates how useless the police are in these early books.
Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders (2013) I used to read a lot of short stories, and then I got to a point where I just didn't want to read short fiction anymore—almost none—and I'm not sure why. Maybe it was because I used to write short fiction, then stopped, and just became more interested in longer forms. I had heard a lot about George Saunders, as a very highly regarded fiction writer, but I hadn't read anything by him before this book. The stories were all published in various magazines, mostly The New Yorker. I used to subscribe to The New Yorker—initially because of the stories—then I realized I read everything but the stories. It seems like, as with poetry, stories are kind of hit or miss; either they connect with you or they don't. I suppose novels are like that, too, but I don't continue with a novel that's not connecting with me. The first few stories in this book I liked okay, but they didn't do much for me—then I got to “Escape from Spiderhead” which pretty much floored me. I remember telling someone that it was the best thing I ever read “about love”—I don't remember why now, but I'll return to it some day. I did like all ten of these stories okay, but that one, and then “The Semplica Girl Diaries” were stories that I felt compelled to tell other people about and encourage them to read, which is pretty much the highest compliment.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (1963) I had not read any of James Baldwin's books in their entirety at the time I saw the documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2016) in which I found him fascinating, so now I want to read more. I'm not going to do a good job of summarizing this book, or that movie, here, so I'm just going to wholeheartedly recommend both to anyone unfamiliar with them. This book is short, it's in your library, and it reads like a soothing voice from a friend whose intelligence you know you'll never match, and that makes him a most beloved friend. It's comprised of two essays, written in the form of letters, and it makes me think how the loss of actual letter writing in my life has not been good for my soul (not to mention the loss of so many individuals who I used to write letters to). Facing the mainstream embrace of hatred, racism, sexism, and fear in my born into USA home, as of late, I've found myself on one hand numbing myself with drugs (not the drugs you're thinking of, those who don't know me, but drugs nonetheless), and on the other, searching for new friends, mentors, leaders, intellectually and spiritually, living and dead, in person and in work they left behind. With this book, which I feel I will be compelled to reread soon, too, and other work as well, I will continue to look to James Baldwin.
The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene (1930) This is the first of the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, and it introduces the girl detective and her world as she attempts to find the missing will of a recently deceased man in order to help the rightful heirs. As with the Hardy Boys “author” F.W. Dixon, Carolyn Keene is a pseudonym, and 23 early Nancy Drew books were written by Mildred Wirt Benson. Also, as with the Hardy Boys, the early books went under a wholesale revision process, starting in the late 1950s, in order to update them for a new audience. I haven't read enough of the original text vs. revised text Nancy Drew books (as I have with the Hardy Boys) to have an opinion about which I prefer, though based on this one, I perceive the earlier incarnation of Nancy, like the Hardys, as bolder and more anti-authoritarian than her revised version. Adults, particularly the social climbing antagonists and small town police, are portrayed as buffoons. You hear about the offensive racial stereotypes in the older books, and until this one, I'd really encountered much besides the derision, somewhat, of the servant class, but there is an entire chapter here with a comically portrayed “negro” watchman who had been lulled away from his post by the criminals and alcohol. Nancy scolds the man, but then shows some compassion, too—though is clearly disapproving. Much of this story is fairly dull, with Nancy mulling over possibilities and the mystery mentally, but when there is action, as with Nancy's run-in with some hardened criminals, it puts her in real danger and is quite harrowing.
Nine Lies by Randy Russell (2013) This is a book I wrote (published only at Kindle store)—so I know it's a little weird to have it on my book list, but I wanted to try to read it with an open mind after some time had passed (I finished it in 2012 or so). I am happy to say I liked it a lot. I work really slow sometimes, and other times really slow—and that was the case here. There are 10 stories and some I started as far back as around 1990. Over the years I did a lot of revision and finally worked them into something I like. The stories all work together in a way, so even though they are stand-alone pieces, I feel like they work together to make something that is closer to a novel than a collection. The themes are: love, mortality, work, addiction—all the usuals—and it's 100 percent fiction (for the most part). In a way I'm happy to say I am not the same person as the person who write this; I feel personally close to it, but I also feel that I've moved on.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (1970) This novel focuses on some African-American kids and their families in Lorain, Ohio—I guess the time period is post-Depression. This is near where I grew up, as well as my parents, who were kids around the time of this story—so I was interested to get the feeling of that, having heard accounts of that time period from them. This story involves incest and cruelty and racism and extreme poverty, and is told from multiple points of view. The writing is so good it is consistently a pleasure, despite some very sad and depressing subject matter. This got me thinking about the incidences of racism in my school, growing up, and even more about people's hardships and kids' cruelty, much of which I witnessed. And it got me thinking more about something I've been thinking about a lot lately, how I have been conscious of and critical of racism, unfairness, bullying, and cruelty though much of my life, while not really feeling anything about it. Why is that?—I suppose it has to do with falling on the easy side of luck and privilege—and it doesn't make me feel so good to only be realizing this now, as an old man. Anyway, as upsetting and sad as some of the events in this book are, it is powerful art and a pleasure to get enveloped in.
The House on the Cliff by Franklin W. Dixon (1927) This was the second volume of the Hardy Boys series, and the story some consider to be the best—and it is a pretty good one, about “dope smugglers” (opium, from the Orient) led by the vicious and goofily named Snackley—who murdered old Felix Polucca in order to use his house—which sits atop a cliff on Barmet Bay, with a secret passage down to a hidden cove below—as the HQ for smuggling operations. At one point the Hardys and their dad, Fenton, are captured and things look grim; the criminals are planning on handing them over to cohort and Chinese smuggler Li Chang to take them on his ship back to China. “But we don't want to go to China!” Joe laments, to which Frank reminds him that most likely Li Chang will just toss them overboard once they're on the high seas. It's actually quite chilling, even knowing there are still hundreds of volumes to follow this one. The ending of this book is full of action, but for me, kind of boring. My favorite parts of Hardy Boys books are the odd adventures and weird, sometimes digressive sub-plots and details, which are more frequent in somewhat later volumes.
The Mad Scientists' Club by Bertrand R. Brinley (1965) This book collects some stories that appeared in Boys' Life magazine, along with a few more, into a paperback book offered through Scholastic Book Services, through which we would regularly get to order and buy books while in grade school—always a high point for me. The illustrations, by Charles Geer, are a big part of the book—romantic, messy, expressive line drawings. The club is a group of six boys who like to invent things, which leads them to some nutty adventures; among them: a fake sea monster, a dinosaur egg, a flying man, a hot air balloon, and a haunted house. This was one of my absolute favorite books as a kid. There is one illustration (for a story where they're trying to recover money hidden in an old cannon) where they're out at night in this local park—and there is a statue of a soldier there—and every time I see an old statue in a park—like one near where I live, illuminated by a street light at night—I get the strong memory of this illustration... and this story... and this book. A spell had been cast that has never subsided.
The Last Tycoon (1941) F. Scott Fitzgerald's last novel, about a Hollywood producer, was unfinished at the time of his death. It always seems tragic that there is a book, or other work, unfinished at the time of he author's death, but on the other hand, isn't it more tragic that a person is not working on something at the time of their death? I guess it depends on the person, their relationship to their work, maybe their age (Fitzgerald was on 44). The writing in this book feels like that of a young, vibrant person, for sure, and also very contemporary and immediate—though at the same time, kind of cold—not totally letting me in the door—maybe that's because I knew it was unfinished? There are cultural references that date it, of course, but the feeling of the writing is that of right now. I have no idea why that is (just good writing?) but it's worth trying to figure out. This makes me think I should read The Great Gatsby again. I read so many books over, which I love doing (did someone say “reading is rereading?”) but still, there is so much I haven't read, I feel kind of weird about it. Some people never read a book twice, and some people read some books over and over throughout their life. I can't remember when it was I read Gatsby, but it was long ago, and I need to read it again.
Every so often I should offer an explanation (inquiring minds want to know!) about books I've started reading and abandoned. It's not something I feel at all bad about—and sometimes intend to go back to the book—but since they were on my reading list, I feel like mentioning them. The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory (2015) by John Seabrook is promising, but just too vast and detailed for me to want to read all of right now (I'm not good at “skimming” or reading parts of books). The same is true for Ten Restaurants That Changed America (2016) by Paul Freedman, which is a massive history of these ten restaurants (the book is the size and weight of a cinder block). It would (will eventually?) take me a year to get through. It's an especially great resource if you're interested in one of the restaurants profiled—I may pick it up again just for the Howard Johnson's section. I was reading At the Earth's Core (1914) by Edgar Rice Burroughs for possible inspiration for my novel, Frisland (in progress) but it was just way too bizarre. I'm not going to go into details, but believe me—or maybe read it!
Double Trouble for Rupert by Ethelyn M. Parkinson (1958) This is an early collection of stories by my favorite kid's book author, Ethelyn M. Parkinson—apparently stories she published in the 1950s, 11 of them, collected in this paperback, published by Scholastic Books Services. I'm sure I got my first copy when we had those book buying days in grade school, where we'd get a catalog and select the books that looked interesting, order them, and then get money from parents to pay for them. It was exciting and one of the early things that made me love reading. Pretty much every story here has to do with some type of childhood anxiety that's resolved by the end of the story. Rupert Piper is a regular sixth grade kid, curious, mischievous, figuring things out. He's got some like-minded chums, and is at odds with his teachers and the girls in his class. For the most part, not as interesting and weird as later Rupert Piper volumes (more stories, and some short novels), but this book is pretty easy to find, plus it has really good illustrations by Mary Stevens, including a pretty classic cover of Rupert relaxing, eating a huge sandwich.
The Lost Art of Reading by David L. Ulin (2010) is subtitled: “Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time.” I'm not sure what led me to this book, but right away I got into it; it felt like talking to a friend about books and reading—something I wish happened more often, since it's my favorite thing to think and talk about. It's essentially an extended essay about where literature is in this time of increasingly fragmented ways of engaging (well, c. 2010, or so, which isn't really so different than 2017). He talks about ebooks and reading on the screen vs. reading actual books—just his observations, how he feels these things evolving. Mostly, though, for me, the book is a kind of inspirational mediation on how important reading and literature is to him—a “quiet revolution”—as well as some other people he quotes from—and it's often very much in line with how I feel, and it gives me hope in a very deep way.