Los Angeles Times

Woulda, shoulda

Books to con­quer — and the ones that got away.

- Celebrity Inventors · Celebrities · California · Carlucci Weyant · Boston · Glendale · Pasadena · East Coast · Othello · Los Angeles · San Francisco · United States of America · Moby · William Shakespeare · LeBron James · Herman Melville · Lake Arrowhead, CA · James Joyce · Leimert Park

Su­san Straight

Ilove the clas­sic mys­ter­ies of Cal­i­for­nia. I’m al­ways telling peo­ple to read Wal­ter Mosley, Don Winslow and Ross Mac­don­ald. So how come un­til last month, I’d never even opened a James M. Cain novel?

I’d looked at “The Post­man Al­ways Rings Twice,” but the cover, with the half­naked blonde, made Cain seem cheesy, Hol­ly­wood and prob­a­bly filled with the worst cliches. And “Mil­dred Pierce” — the name sounded as dull and Mid­west­ern as a some­one else’s great aunt.

Then Michael Tolkin, mak­ing a guest ap­pear­ance in the class I teach, looked at me like I was crazy when I said I hadn’t read Cain. “ ‘Mil­dred Pierce,’” he said, “is one of the best Amer­i­can nov­els. Pe­riod.”

So I walked di­rectly to the li­brary and checked out a Vintage pa­per­back, noir-ish cover. I read the first pages sitting on the ce­ment steps out­side and could barely put the book down to drive home.

I read it the next morn­ing on a plane to Bos­ton, at 6 a.m., riv­eted by the Glen­dale “grass widow,” alone in a sub­ur­ban tract house be­cause her hus­band went bust in the De­pres­sion, riv­eted by how fa­mil­iar it was. The econ­omy ru­ins Bert Pierce, and Mil­dred makes pies.

Iwas elec­tri­fied by a book I never planned to read. In Bos­ton, in a small room with win­dows white from ice and glit­ter­ing snow, I read un­til 2 a.m. with a child’s ex­hil­a­ra­tion. All I thought of was Hol­ly­wood din­ers, Pasadena swells, de­cay­ing man­sions, a bru­tal win­ter storm ex­actly like the ones we had this year, and Mil­dred’s in­se­cu­ri­ties.

She gets picked up at her waitress job by a rich guy who drives her to Lake Ar­row­head, and all she can think of is that her hair smells like ba­con grease. She hides soap, dives ca­su­ally into the lake and scrubs her hair while hold­ing her breath.

How could Cain, a man from the East Coast, know Cal­i­for­nia, and women, like that? How could I have let that other cover steer me away? Must have been a blonde thing.

Su­san Straight’s lat­est novel is “Take One Can­dle Light a Room.”

David Kipen

Last week at my book­shop/ li­brary, I lent out a copy of James Joyce’s “A Por­trait of the Artist as a Young Man” to a neigh­bor­hood kid. I con­grat­u­lated him on his choice. But what do I know? I’ve never read the blessed thing.

Don’t get me wrong. I re­vere Joyce. Love “Dublin­ers”; wrote a piece or two years back about “Ulysses” (which may be how I wound up mod­er­at­ing a Times Fes­ti­val of Books panel on “The Ex­per­i­men­tal Epic” Satur­day morn­ing). I even love the first four pages of “Fin­negans Wake,” and cher­ish my rain check for the rest. But some­how I just never got around to “Por­trait,” and it feels weirdly lib­er­at­ing here to con­fess it in pub­lic.

There are cer­tain works that folks are per­fectly en­ti­tled to feel mor­ti­fied about skip­ping, such as “Huck­le­berry Finn” or “Othello” or, for Cal­i­for­ni­ans, “The Big Sleep” or “Vineland.” But I’ve lived quite com­fort­ably with the shame of putting off “Por­trait” — un­til now. It so hap­pens I’m ac­tu­ally co-or­ga­niz­ing the North Amer­i­can James Joyce Con­fer­ence and Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val in June. Might be a good idea to dip into “Por­trait” be­fore then, don’t you think?

This brings up the sin­gle great­est im­ped­i­ment to de­ferred­plea­sure read­ing: no dead­lines. In school, or for re­view­ing pur­poses, books usu­ally come with de­fined dropdeads. Get the thing read by Fri­day, or else.

Plea­sure read­ing is dif­fer­ent. A book with­out a dead­line can cast re­proach­ful looks at you from the shelf for years. Li­brary due dates light a fee­ble fire un­der some of us, but le­nient re­newal poli­cies and small­ish fines gen­er­ally add more guilt than ur­gency.

Luck­ily, tech­nol­ogy may have the an­swer: ex­pi­ra­tion dates. Pub­lish­ers are al­ready in­flict­ing them on li­braries for e-books. How much harder could it be to im­pose a readby

date on in­di­vid­ual pur­chasers too? Read­ing should be a cher­ished method of pro­cras­ti­na­tion, not a ca­su­alty of it.

By the way, when that kid brings back “Por­trait” next month, I’m think­ing it’s time for me to curl up with it at last. Once that’s out of the way, I can fi­nally face my fel­low Joyceans in June with head held high.

Un­less, alas, one of them com­pares it to “Othello.” Shhh.

David Kipen, founder of Li­bros Sch­mi­bros in Boyle Heights, is the au­thor of in­tro­duc­tions to the newly reis­sued WPA guides to Los An­ge­les and San Fran­cisco.

Erin Aubry Ka­plan

Harold Cruse’s “The Cri­sis of the Ne­gro In­tel­lec­tual” was one of those man­i­festos that I knew I should read. If you were black, con­scious, came of age af­ter 1967, had any kind of pub­lic plat­form and, of course, were mid­dle class, the fa­mously dense analy­ses of “Cri­sis” were a must.

But I got lazy. It seemed to be enough that I was fa­mil­iar with the ti­tle, with its im­plicit cri­tique of the black bour­geoisie. I could bring Cruse up at cock­tail par­ties and press con­fer­ences and im­press, even in­tim­i­date, peo­ple. Of course I was com­mit­ting just the sort of sin of in­tel­lec­tual and racial shal­low­ness that Cruse warned against in his book, set­tling for the ap­pear­ance of know­ing rather than ac­tu­ally know­ing. I did have real cu­rios­ity, but I didn’t fol­low through on it. Not a great thing for a jour­nal­ist to ad­mit.

But I also be­lieve now that I needed to ma­ture be­fore I read the book. A cou­ple of months ago, sitting in a restau­rant on Degnan Boule­vard in Leimert Park, a thought came into my head: I need to buy “The Cri­sis of the Ne­gro In­tel­lec­tual.” It wasn’t a rev­e­la­tion or an epiphany. It was noth­ing cos­mic. But it was

very clear to me that it was

time.

So af­ter I was done eat­ing, I walked down the block to Eso Won Books, bought the book (it was the store’s last copy) and started read­ing that night. Need­less to say, Cruse’s pas­sion and in­sights about the state of black folks in Amer­ica in the ’60s grabbed me by the throat in 2011; the fact it all res­onates so loudly right now is both re­liev­ing and alarm­ing. I’m not fin­ished, but get­ting started was the event. Erin Aubry Ka­plan’s col­lected es­says will be pub­lished in Oc­to­ber.

Amy Wi­lentz

When I sat down with “Moby-Dick” a few months ago, I was un­der the im­pres­sion that I had read it be­fore, in col­lege. Of course I’d read the book about which my pro­fes­sor lec­tured for two weeks, wear­ing a neck­tie dec­o­rated with spout­ing whales. I was rather self-sat­is­fied about it. Smug, even. What a good book it was, though daunt­ing, I seemed to re­call. Now, I was ready to re­fresh my mem­ory.

But by Page 10, I knew I’d never read “Moby-Dick.” The novel — if you can call such an idio­syn­cratic book by any generic name — hit me like a storm out of nowhere. It con­tained a wild del­uge of thoughts and ideas and sem­piter­nal im­ages. I fell down into its pit and was shaken to — to what? My bones? My very soul? Yeah, that’s it, my soul.

Some­times, it read like Shake­speare, some­times Joyce, some­times the King James Bi­ble (Parts I and II). It was an­cient and mod­ern at the same time, a mad ride pi­loted by a mad­man (and I don’t mean Ahab but Her­man Melville), dur­ing which I felt the rock­ing of the ship, watched the rope and the har­poons rip through the air, heard Ahab’s ivory peg leg on the deck and smelled the boil­ing blub­ber.

But it was the nar­ra­tor’s shock­ing im­agery and change­able voice, harsh then mel­liflu­ous, daz­zled and daz­zling, an­gry and gen­tle, learned yet cu­ri­ous, that I loved and ad­mired. That, and the for­giv­ingly short chap­ters, so many of which end with a richly de­served ex­cla­ma­tion point!

I re­al­ized later that I thought I’d read “Moby-Dick” be­cause, one, I re­mem­bered my pro­fes­sor’s tie, and two, bits of the book have seeped into the pop­u­lar cul­ture. Most peo­ple think they know Ahab: an ob­ses­sive nut. They might com­pare a guy look­ing for the right spare part for his car to Ahab (how wrong they would be!). They knowMoby Dick too: He’s a big whale. There’s a guy called Ish­mael.

That’s what I knew too, but now I know all about whal­ing and also about ev­ery­thing in the world, be­cause that’s re­ally the sub­ject of “Moby-Dick.” Among other things.

Amy Wi­lentz is at work on a book about Haiti af­ter the earth­quake.

David L.Ulin

I’ve never been moved by Saul Bel­low — es­pe­cially not by his 1953 pi­caresque “The Ad­ven­tures of Augie March.” I know, I know — it’s one of the great Amer­i­can nov­els of the 20th cen­tury, but I just can’t seem to pierce it, can’t es­cape the sense that it’s a book writ­ten with the head and not the heart. That’s my Bel­low prob­lem in a nut­shell; other than “Seize the Day,” an in­can­des­cent can­dle of a novel, I’ve never felt a fire in him, an ur­gency that makes me turn the page.

With “Augie March,” how­ever, it’s par­tic­u­larly frus­trat­ing, not least be­cause it starts so well. The open­ing lines are, ad­mit­tedly, a rev­e­la­tion: “I am an Amer­i­can, Chicago born,” the book be­gins, a ground­break­ing state­ment for a mid-cen­tury Jewish writer, with its prom­ise that the im­mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence no longer need de­fine us, that we have de­fi­antly, def­i­nitely ar­rived.

What hap­pens af­ter­ward? I’d like to tell you, but I’ve never been able to stick with the novel long enough to find out. Each time I try to read it — and over the years I have tried three, four, five times — I get bogged down in the setup, in Augie’s end­less, ram­bling mono­logue, all those words go­ing nowhere, clut­ter­ing up the page. He’s dull, that’s my prob­lem, and there’s some­thing about him that I don’t quite be­lieve.

The last time I picked up the book, I bailed out af­ter the sec­ond chap­ter, un­able to find a point of en­try, to im­merse my­self in Augie’s life.

And yet, I still eye “Augie March” pe­ri­od­i­cally, won­der if I’m miss­ing out. It sits on a shelf in my liv­ing room along with the rest of Bel­low, flash­ing its cold eyes at me, mak­ing me feel a lit­tle guilty, as if I am, in part, to blame.

Will I ever try to read it again? So many peo­ple I re­spect think so highly of it that I feel as if I should. The truth, though, is that I don’t want to; great or not, this book is not for me.

David L. Ulin is book critic of

The Times.

 ?? Justin Ren­te­ria For The Times ??
Justin Ren­te­ria For The Times

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