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Friday’s Reading Diary (With a Little Bookscouting, Too)

by  in Comic News Comment
Friday’s Reading Diary (With a Little Bookscouting, Too)

Danielle does it, our other Greg does it, and (for just this week) I’m doing it too. But I have an ulterior motive.

Because it’s happening again. We’ve been installed in our new apartment less than three weeks, not even unpacked really, and already it is accumulating books and comics and loose paper at an alarming rate. Clearly, we are compulsive bibliophiles.

Once upon a time, the pile of to-be-read books on the nightstand consisted of the current book and maybe a newer one on deck beneath it. No more. There’s never been less than a dozen there for the last couple of years, and sometimes there are as many as twenty until I get tired of tripping over them and shelve them without reading them.

So I resolved that I would really make an effort to read what’s in the pile and not acquire any new books until I had done so. As you will see, the latter part of this resolution didn’t even last through the first day, but on the other hand, I am getting more of the books and comics read now.

I thought it might be amusing to document this process for a week, and also give Project “Actually Read These Books We Keep Getting” a bit of a kick-start.

*

Sunday: It started innocently enough. Julie and I were supposed to go to Carla’s housewarming; she and Phenix had finally gotten installed into their new apartment at Sand Point, and Carla was very excited about being able to have guests over at last. We were rather flattered to be on the list.

When we got there, though, the party turned out to be a little bit of a bust. It ended up being just us, Carla’s boyfriend Doug, and of course Carla and Phenix themselves. One of Carla’s neighbors from down the hall, Shiloh, stopped in for a few minutes with her little girl, but that was it for the invited guests. “But so many people RSVP’d yes,” Carla said plaintively, shaking her head at the four cases of soda Doug had brought.

Shiloh mentioned that it was the weekend of the big book sale that Friends of the Seattle Library puts on twice a year, in an old hangar at what used to be the Sand Point naval base…. about two blocks away.

I stiffened. An entire airplane hangar full of used books about two blocks away. Immediately I wanted to go check it out. No, I told myself sternly. This is a social occasion, you don’t need to duck out of it to go browse a bunch of old…

“Hey, we should go check out the books,” Doug said. “I think this is it for the party.” Everyone agreed.

And off we went. Oh well. At least it hadn’t been my suggestion, I told myself virtuously. I was trying to be good.

The sale had been going on since Friday night’s members-only preview, so it was pretty well picked over. It must have been quite a stampede Saturday morning, considering all the signs we saw saying things like FORM ONE LINE! and STAY BEHIND THE BARRICADE UNTIL THE DOORS ARE OPEN! The bookscouts and collectors must have been trampling each other.

Nevertheless, it was still full of stuff. Mostly library discards, a few donated items, things like that. By the time we arrived Sunday afternoon, everything was half-off, which (considering that most items started at a dollar) meant they were practically giving books away.

Without even working at it– I wasn’t seriously looking, just kind of browsing — I suddenly had a bunch of hardcover books in my hand.

Journey Into Fear by Eric Ambler and The 39 Steps by John Buchan….

Both because of the indirect connection to James Bond. Ian Fleming was a great admirer of Eric Ambler’s and actually inserted shout-outs to him in the Bond books once or twice, and John Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay is often cited as a Bond prototype. I’d been meaning to get to these for years and here they were in hardcover for fifty cents each.

A couple of westerns, Appaloosa by Robert Parker (the Spenser guy, yeah) and an anthology, Great Stories of the American West II

I’m always up for a good western and the jacket flap copy on these was enticing, especially the anthology, which promised a sampling from the dime-novel days of Bret Harte to current folks like Elmore Leonard. And did I say nice hardcover for fifty cents?

Anyway, it kind of went like that. Everyone found at least a couple that were too good to pass up, even Julie — who’s usually content just to enable my habit– and four-year-old Phenix, who can’t really read yet. But he saw a Little Golden Book featuring Disney’s Sword In The Stone and was immediately hooked.

“What’s this one?” he wanted to know.

“It’s a story about King Arthur and Merlin the magician, when Arthur was just a boy,” I told him.

“Can I have it?”

“Ask your mother,” I said automatically. Then I added, “….But it’s only a dime. I bet Julie and I could cover it if your mom is short.” I can’t help myself. I approve of kids voluntarily seeking out books and think this should be encouraged.

(Turned out a four-year-old-boy had beat the bookscouts. I discovered while looking for a picture that this particular Little Golden Book retails for about ten bucks to a collector, and Phenix had found a copy in much better shape than the one from the auction photo above. It was donated, so no library stamps or anything like that. Nice little score.)

And Doug came out of the back room wheeling crates of books on a borrowed cart. He’d found an unbroken set of Britannica classics for forty dollars. Usually the set (intact) goes for about a hundred and fifty from dealers.

Not my thing, but Doug was as gleeful as a kid at Christmas.

There were comics, even, but those had been ravaged. All that was left were a few copies of Brigade — if I was ever fool enough to want to, I could probably put together an entire set of every iteration of Brigade for about two dollars, just from thrift shops — and some battered manga digests.

But we still came home with half a dozen books and most of them were for me. At least we didn’t need a cart, I told myself, but I still felt foolish when I looked at the (already huge) pile of to-read books sitting by the nightstand.

Thus was born the Get The Damn Books Read project. I decided I was going to really by God make time to READ all these things, and just for the hell of it, I’d document it for this column. Here’s how it all shook out.

I added the books from the sale I mentioned above to the pile– the titles I already talked about, and a Laurie King mystery, Folly, I hadn’t read. So that evening, filled with new purpose, I made it a point to settle in and read. I finished Jack Kirby’s The Losers and a Zane Grey Western, The Ranger. (This last was actually from the pulp magazine we’d found last year at the beach.)

The Losers was every bit as terrific as I’d thought it would be. This is generally regarded as one of Kirby’s lesser works, compared to, say, the Fourth World stuff; but I’d point out that probably some of the most powerful influences on Kirby’s entire career — maybe even the most powerful — were his experiences during the World War II years, and he brings all of that to these comics. It’s down-to-earth in a way none of his other work ever was.

The Zane Grey was a bit of a disappointment as far as the lead novelette went, but the backup short stories were a hoot. And hey, it’s a real pulp magazine from the 1940’s, something I get a huge kick out of actually owning.

Total score for Sunday: acquired five, finished two. So the pile was still three volumes taller at the end of the day. Still, it was a start.

*

Monday: I had a little free time in the afternoon before class, and Julie wanted to drive down to the Department of Licensing to get our ID updated with our new address. “It’s got to be less busy than it would be on a Saturday,” she reasoned.

It certainly was. It was, in fact, closed.

Julie looked disconsolate. “Nothing’s going right today.”

She was already having a bad morning, having just been turned down for a government job she’d been through several interviews and two exams auditioning for, and so I said, “Hey, we have time, let’s stop at St. Vincent’s.”

Retail therapy always makes my wife feel better, and it’s not like browsing thrift shops is expensive. (I am fortunate that Julie’s preferred retail establishments are all vintage outlets as opposed to, say, Macy’s.)

However, St. Vincent’s does have a book section, and I succumbed. So that was two more hardcovers to add to the pile.

I already had a battered paperback edition of Eyes of the Dragon, but this was a nice hardcover, and the Saberhagen novel, Dancing Bears, looked interesting. I was already a fan of his Dracula books, and for a one-off I’d risk a dollar.

Two more for the nightstand. But the expedition did cheer Julie up somewhat, which was justification enough.

Since finishing The Losers, I’d embarked on the Showcase edition of The Doom Patrol, which was every bit as awesome as I’d remembered.

Whenever anyone brings up the Doom Patrol here on the blog, the discussion invariably turns to Grant Morrison, as though he invented them or something. But after rereading the stories in this Showcase edition, I can tell you that Arnold Drake certainly was holding his own with ‘mad ideas.’  Yeah, these were definitely written for a younger audience, and they’re much more limited in scope than what Morrison did later… but I think if you sat down with this book and followed it with the trade collection of Crawling From The Wreckage you’d find it a pretty smooth transition. Morrison’s Doom Patrol, at least in the beginning, was very consciously set in the same tradition of what Arnold Drake was doing with these early stories, you can see that same defiant-outcast, beat-poet sensibility. At any rate, this Showcase volume is a lot of fun and you should check it out.

I didn’t finish it– I think it works better in smaller chunks, four or five stories at a sitting. So that makes Monday’s score: acquired two more, finished… none. I can already see where this is trending.

*

Tuesday:  We had a commitment to host another Family Promise overnighter at a local church, and I also had an evening class to teach at the art studio. So I figured Julie’d be doing a movie night, and by the time I got everything wrapped up and made it over there to join her, it’d be time to start getting everyone safely to bed and the building locked down. Not a lot of reading time.

Nevertheless, I threw the Doom Patrol and another book into my bag at the last minute.

Turned out that was a good call. No one showed for the studio class (I admit to being secretly relieved) and when I arrived at the church to join my wife, she informed me that no one had showed up there either. One of the homeless families we were supposed to be hosting was in transit from Tacoma, not expected before nine-thirty or ten PM… and no one knew where the other family was.

So I settled in with the book I’d grabbed from the top of the pile.

I used to own every Star Trek licensed novel ever published. I got the habit in 7th grade, back when the only Trek prose fiction out there was James Blish adapting the live-action episodes and Alan Dean Foster adapting the animated ones.

Then Bantam started doing originals and I liked those, and they were easy enough to keep up with. Then Vonda MacIntyre did The Entropy Effect to kick off Pocket Books’ acquisition of the license, and shortly after that Wrath of Khan was released in theatres… and Star Trek turned into a licensed-paperback juggernaut. I finally gave up trying to keep up somewhere in the early 2000’s, because it was becoming impossible. When Julie and I moved last time — not the one a couple of weeks back, the one before that — I decided that it was every bit as stupid to keep a bunch of Star Trek paperbacks I never reread as it was to keep buying comics titles I no longer enjoyed. So I gutted the collection, keeping only the ones I really liked.

Peter David’s New Frontier books, though, made the cut easily. I enjoy those enormously, both the prose and comics versions.

Peter David writes them all, and it’s interesting to me that the series is all of a piece, the stories form one unbroken continuity whether they are in prose or comics. (I think the only other guy to try that is Greg Rucka on Queen and Country.)

I hadn’t been keeping up, so I was delighted to find one I hadn’t read — After The Fall turned up in a nice hardcover edition on one of our thrift-shopping expeditions.

I was pretty much through it by the time the family arrived from Tacoma at eleven o’clock that night, it was impossible to put down. I don’t know how compelling non-Trekkies would find it, but I loved it and was bitterly upset to discover it ended on a cliffhanger. (I did a quick online search after we got home, found the sequel, Missing in Action, had already appeared in hardcover, and ordered one of those.)

It had been remaindered for a penny so I was only out the shipping. It hasn’t arrived yet, but in fairness I should count that as a purchase, nevertheless. So Tuesday’s score is — acquired one, and finished one. Call it a wash.

*

Wednesday: New comics day. I bought and read Supergirl, Detective, and the latest Trinity.

I won’t do full-on reviews, but I will say quickly that I enjoyed Supergirl the most out of the three… yes, even more than the conclusion to the Neil Gaiman Batman two-parter in Detective. I have serious reservations about the whole New Krypton thing but I have to admit that the stories coming out of it so far are good enough and interesting enough that I’m on board, and so far Supergirl is the best of the lot. I really, really like what Sterling Gates has been doing here, and I appreciate Jamal Igle drawing Supergirl more like an actual teenage girl and less like a siliconed-out stripper.

I liked the Batman story well enough, don’t get me wrong, but it lost some points with me by giving in to the tendency DC books seem to have lately of commenting on themselves as comics and folklore and icons and legends and etc. It’s all getting a little too meta for me. Now, when Neil Gaiman does that, he does it better than anyone else in the business — but still, it felt a little tired. I was hoping he wasn’t going to go there. Especially since I was wanting something a little more street-level and reality-based, I thought that would have been an interesting change of pace for a Neil Gaiman comic.

Trinity I continue to enjoy but it feels like it’s padded the last couple of weeks. I know there are people who’ve been saying that since week four, but I enjoyed the sidekick quest and the world building and so on. However, arrogant cosmic Batman-Superman-Wonder Woman have just kind of been flying around for a couple of weeks now without really getting anywhere, and it’s time to move it along. Thankfully it appears that happens next week.

I also read some more Doom Patrol, and I pulled a new book off the nightstand pile — Double or Die by Charlie Higson.

It’s the third in the Young Bond series and I found it every bit as engaging as the first two. Ironically — considering these are done for a younger audience, theoretically — I think Higson is one of the best writers to try doing Bond pastiche since Kingley Amis back in 1969, and certainly much better at it than John Gardner or Raymond Benson or even Sebastian Faulk. He really seems to get it, he hits all the right notes for a Bond thriller, and still makes it all feel fresh and new.

So Wednesday’s score is another wash — bought three comics, finished three comics. And put a dent in reading a couple of others.

Incidentally, I haven’t talked about money, but just for the record, these book purchases have totaled less than five dollars per day — until today. Buying three new comics cost roughly double that, almost ten dollars with tax. It would have been more if I didn’t get a subscriber discount from my retailer.

I didn’t feel cheated, exactly, but I did notice. I think the only reason I didn’t feel completely ripped off is because I’ve become habituated to the high price over the last ten years; but I’m certain that if I was a potential new reader coming into the shop cold, that same price would have stopped me in my tracks. $2.99 is a ridiculously high price point for anyone but hardcore fans. This is not news to anybody, but it really jumped out at me since I’m tracking things more carefully this week.

*

Thursday: Suffice it to say that this was a really bad day. Bad news just kind of kept coming at us.  Work stuff, money stuff, family stuff. Never was I so glad to have a houseful of escapist literature.

I holed up in the evening with my Young Bond book and it did take me away for a while. I actually was able to put our various troubles aside and surrender to the story.

The trouble was, I finished it and still wasn’t sleepy. So I pulled the next one off the stack.

His publisher keeps trying to sell Kyle Mills as the next Tom Clancy, or somesuch. But the truth of the matter is that I think Mills is a hell of a lot better than Clancy. He has the pulp sensibility of John D. MacDonald or Donald Hamilton, in that he has a sense of humor and knows how to keep it moving, but he also has a knack for constructing plausibly deranged supervillain conspiracy plots in the vein of Robert Ludlum or Ian Fleming. It’s a compelling package.

Storming Heaven is the story of tough FBI agent Mark Beamon trying to find a kidnapped girl and slowly discovering that she has been captured by a powerful new-age offshoot sort of Christian church so they can martyr her as their new messiah, and they are politically influential enough that when Agent Beamon starts to get close, they start taking his life apart. It’s completely nuts but Mills makes it scarily plausible, and it was just what I needed to take my mind off all the crappy things that happened that day. I got through the first hundred pages or so before fatigue finally caught up with me and I called it a night.

Thursday’s score — no new acquisitions, but finished one more on the pile.

Friday: This was a little better than Thursday, but I spent it much the same way as Thursday, which is to say making a lot of phone calls to people I didn’t feel like talking to and writing emails I really didn’t feel like writing. Putting one foot in front of the other. That evening I read more of the Doom Patrol and another hundred pages or so of Storming Heaven.

The day wasn’t completely depressing. Julie got a job offer that was considerably better than the one she’d been turned down for at the beginning of the week. (More money, too — once she gets going she’ll be able to buy and sell me. I look forward to being a kept man.)

We didn’t do any shopping, but one new book arrived in the mail; a Three Investigators hardcover I’d snapped up for cheap a few weeks ago.

It was ex-library and still had all sorts of stamps and stickers, so it hadn’t been offered for the usual exorbitant dealer’s price: I snagged it for just two dollars. The Mystery of the Singing Serpent is my favorite of the non-Robert Arthur entries in the series and I’ve been looking for it for years. It’s easily the best of Mary Carey’s contributions to the Three Investigators books. I’d forgotten ordering it, so seeing it show up in the mail was somewhat cheering.

Friday’s score, then, would be one acquisition, but I didn’t finish reading anything.

*

Saturday: Julie was determined that, by heaven, we would get down to the Department of Licensing and we would get our ID’s updated with our new address, no matter how long we had to wait. So I brought books.

Turned out to be a good call, because we were waiting there almost three and a half hours. Saturday’s not a good day to go to the DoL if you’re in a hurry. I finished Storming Heaven and was at last able to embark on one of the book-sale purchases from last Sunday, Journey Into Fear by Eric Ambler. It was interesting in that it was much slower-paced than I’d been expecting, almost introspective. But at the same time, you can really see the influence Ambler had on Ian Fleming’s prose style if you are looking for it. It was good stuff, a decent enough story, but hard to get into at first; it’s kind of a slow-burning suspense story. My mind started to wander and I found myself wishing I had another fast-moving pulpy Kyle Mills book instead.

Still, the Ambler was the first book of the week that I didn’t completely love, which meant I’d made it all the way to Saturday without being disappointed in a book. That’s pretty good.

Saturday’s score — finished another one, and no new acquisitions.

*

Sunday: Julie looked at me and said, “We need a road trip.”

“Where?”

“Anywhere. Just to get out for a while.”

She had a point. Even though we couldn’t spare the time or the money for any kind of a real overnight trip, just getting out of the apartment for a few hours would be restorative. Anything was better than sitting around trying not to be depressed, flinching every time the phone rang.

So we hit the road. “Where to?” I asked.

Julie said, “By the water.” I pointed us north, thinking we’d go as far as Bellingham and back.

But Julie realized that north from Seattle in the spring means tulips are blooming in La Conner. So that’s where we ended up going.

I didn’t actually care about tulips, but Julie wanted to see them and take some pictures.

Me, I was just happy to be on the open road. This is something my wife and I always enjoy, in fact it’s what most of our dates consisted of, early on: driving down back roads without a particular direction or destination, just ambling trough the countryside and stopping wherever we felt like it. It’s still our preferred vacation, when we get to actually take one.

There were so many garage sales in Everett that we finally succumbed to one, mostly because following the signs directing us to it gave us an excuse to drive up to the top of the bluff. The view was spectacular.

Sadly, the garage sale was not. The one item of interest this fellow had was a pile of old newspapers from the 1940’s, in amazingly well-preserved condition. I couldn’t resist paging through the Sunday comics sections.

They were extraordinary. I’ve read many laments for what today’s Sunday funnies look like compared to what they were in their glory days, but I’d really never seen the difference myself before. Certainly not up close in an actual newspaper of the time, like this was. It was a smorgasbord of greatness. Hal Foster on early Prince Valiant, Alex Raymond on Flash Gordon, Lee Falk’s Phantom, and even Charles Flanders on The Lone Ranger was pretty damn impressive.

But the format itself was what had my jaw hanging open in astonishment and wonder. Each strip got either a half-page or three-quarters of one, and the pages themselves were probably three or four inches wider and taller than today’s papers are. It’s no wonder the strip artists of today complain about feeling cramped.

“You should ask him what he wants for them,” Julie said. My wife, the enabler.

I shook my head regretfully. “Nah… where would we put them? Anyway, it’s not like I’d read them more than once. Maybe mention them in the column. But otherwise they’d just be underfoot and we’d never be able to bring ourselves to throw them away.”

(And as you can see, they got a column mention anyway.)

My resolve, alas, wavered and finally broke at the two thrift stores we found a little further up the road.

I like Stephen King and though I normally wouldn’t bother with a bound screenplay like Storm of the Century, I was interested in the background behind-the-scenes material covered in King’s introduction, and also in seeing the original, uncensored version of the screenplay itself. Besides, it was a pristine first-edition hardcover for a dollar.

The Dean Koontz omnibus was also a mint-condition hardcover, and even though collectors snoot Book Club omnibus volumes such as this, I really like them. Probably for the same reason I like Essential and Showcase collections of comics. I’m all about the bulk. Anyway, I enjoy Dean Koontz books well enough, he’s got that pulp-writer ethic of “always keep it moving” that I can never resist.

I also got The Sacred Cut by David Hewson.

This one was just because I liked the cover, and the jacket copy sounded interestingly lurid. (If, perhaps, a bit close to Da Vinci Code territory — serial murders in the Vatican, weird conspiracy, etc.) Again, for a dollar hardcover I’ll take a chance.

We got home fairly late, but I still was able to finish the Eric Ambler before turning in. So Sunday’s score was– acquired three, finished one.

*

Wow. Scrolling up, I see this went a lot longer than I thought it was going to. If you’ve made it this far, bless you for your forbearance.

I don’t know that there are any profound conclusions to draw from all this. I bought more than I read, which I knew already, though I did read more than I thought I would get through at the start of the week. The total amount of money spent was about twenty-three dollars including tax, which is not really that bad.

Except that comics cost way too damn much these days. Again, this is not news to anyone reading this, but it does look really ugly when you lay it all out in black-and-white. Just adding up the acquisitions from last week, an expenditure of about thirteen dollars gained us twelve hardcover books, and all but three of them in like-new condition with dustjackets intact. On the other hand, the remaining ten dollars of that week’s total netted… three standard-format monthly comics. And that was discounted. So if we’re going to cut reading expenses around here, it’s pretty obvious where we should start.

Of course, we can’t just fill the place up with books indefinitely, as much as we would probably like to. So the other half of the equation is going to be… what to get rid of?

And again, as we slowly unpack in our new apartment and I put the library/office back together, it looks like the obvious place to start paring down is the longboxes full of comics. But I’ll have more to say about that end of it…

…next week. See you then.

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