What I Read in January 2019

I finished 6 books in January. Compared to last January, it’s a little better, as I read 6 books in January 2018. But compared to my monthly average for 2018–12 to 15 books per month–it seems disappointing. My main form on self-education and entertainment is reading. This is why I don’t watch much television, see movies, or play video games.

Except, this month, I did start playing a video game. As a mentioned in an earlier post, after reading Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Jason Schreier, I was fascinated by the concept behind the Witcher 3 game. I bought the complete edition for Xbox, and in the last two weeks of January, poured about 30 hours of my time into the game–30 hours that would have gone toward reading.

My Audible listening time, October – January

My reading has been down, generally, since October, but December was more of an exception because we were on vacation for nearly 3 weeks. January’s decline (I had barely 70 hours of audiobook listening time) was due entirely to Witcher 3. I’m hoping to get back on track in February. Here’s what I read in January.

The Renaissance by Will Durant (#849)

The Renaissance

I first learned of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization series reading Isaac Asimov’s autobiography in the mid-1990s. The 11 volumes seemed daunting then, but it wasn’t until I read the first volume that I fell in love with Durant’s style of writing. Since then, I have been slowly making my way through each volume. I completed the longest volume, The Age of Faith, last year.

Volume 5, The Renaissance, covers the Italian renaissance in Durant’s unique and fascinating voice. He is the only writer for whom I can tolerate descriptions of sculpture and pottery because he is so clearly excited about his subject.

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made by Jason Schreier (#850)

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels

This was the book that led me to Witcher 3 and is therefore directly responsible for me getting through 6 books in January in stead of 10 or 12. But this was a good book. Video games are difficult to make, and stories occasionally appear about the conditions under which developers work. Schreier interviewed staff at 10 gaming companies and studios in an effort to answer if these conditions were the exception or the rule. It would seem they are the latter. This is a great look at the inside world of video game development. But be careful: it may lead you to hours of unplanned time in front of the Xbox.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (#851)


This book kept popping up in various lists and a friend of mine was reading it so I decided to give it a try as well. I read most of the book on an airplane to Los Angeles and it was an interesting read. It covers a lot of ground that has been covered in more detail in other books I’ve read.

For me, the most interesting part of the book was the observation Harari makes about the ever-increasing pace of life, as passage of which I wrote about earlier this month.

Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (#852)

Soul of an Octopus

This book may have been an Audible Daily Deal, I can’t recall exactly. But it’s whimsical title caught my eye, and I actually enjoyed the book. Sy Montgomery has a delightful writing style, and her enjoyment in exploring the octopuses comes through clearly.

Essays of E.B. White by E.B. White (#853)

Essays of E. B. White

There are some books that act upon me as the sun acts upon Superman: the books recharge me, and especially my creative energies. Stephen King’s 11/22/63 is an example of a novel that does this for me. Essays of E.B. White is collection of nonfiction essays that does the same for me. I read this book last January, and re-read it last month as a way of re-charging those creative batteries. Of the 31 essays in the book there are quite a few standouts:

  • “Home-Coming” about driving into Maine after being away for a time.
  • “The Eye of Edna” which goes to show that the media hysteria surrounding weather events is nothing new.
  • “Here Is New York” which is E. B. White’s classic panegyric to New York City.
  • “Farewell, My Lovely” which is a combination love-letter and Dear John letter to the Model-T Ford.
  • “Once More to the Lake” is about returning to a childhood spot in Maine with White’s own son.
  • “The Sea and the Winds that Blow” shows White’s passion for sailing and the sea, and the occasional need to be alone.
  • “The Railroad” is a eulogy to the once mighty mode of transportation.

The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre (#854)

The Spy and the Traitor

This book had been sitting in my to-read pile for a while. What a book! It is the story of Oleg Gordievsky, a Russian spy secretly working for the British as a double-agent. The first two thirds of the book builds up Oleg’s story, and provides a fascinating picture of how spy craft really works.

The last third of the book is a James Bond-like race out of Moscow as we follow Gordievsky on his harrowing escape from Soviet Russia. This was a true nail-biter, and despite being tired, I kept reading late into the night to find out what would happen next.

I’m hoping to be more productive on the reading front in February. It’s a short month, so I will be happy if I can get 10 books read in February. Among the books I plan to read this month are:

  • Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls
  • The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created by Jane Leavy
  • Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams by Michael D’Antonio
  • Octavia Gone: An Alex Benedict Novel by Jack McDevitt (this doesn’t come out until May but Jack has kindly sent me an ARC and I can’t wait to read it.)
  • Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert P. Bix
  • Growing Up by Russell Baker
  • Arkwright by Allen Steele

This list is, of course, subject to the Butterfly Effect of Reading.

Cleaning House

I just realized that I forgot to post today. Normally I’d have something writing-related posted, but I’ve been busy with work and with cleaning up stuff around the house, particularly my office, which just went through its biggest purge in a few years. I’ll try to make up for this with a post tomorrow.

Currently reading Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls, and this is also my 4th day of trying to read one magazine piece each day. So far, so good.

An Article A Day…

I sometimes look at reading the way I look at eating. There are meals (novels, nonfiction books), and snacks (articles, essays, short stories). I enjoy snacks (short form reading) as much as the meals. I subscribe to a bunch of magazines and always look forward to reading through the articles in them each month–but rarely manage to do so. This week, I was staring at a pile of these magazines that have accumulated on my desk, wondering if it would ever be possible to get through them.

Like a person trying to eat better, I’ve tried a number of strategies over the years to digest these magazines: pick one day a week to do nothing but magazines reading; or one weekend a month. Read magazines while waiting for other things (standing in lines, sitting in waiting rooms, etc.) None of those have worked.

It occurred to me that I have been approaching the problem the wrong way. One of the things that I enjoy about short form writing is its brevity. You can read something interesting in small bite, rather than a mouthful. With books, I never want to stop reading, which can get tiring. With short pieces, I can read an entire piece in a short period of time and have a sense of satisfaction and enjoyment all rolled up in one. But I have been approaching this snack reading as if it was a complete meal: carve out time to get through an entire issue of Scientific American, or Harper’s in a single sitting. That isn’t the point of this type of reading.

Yesterday, I began a new strategy: read one article every day. I look at this as a snack between meals. The task seems much less daunting that way, and accomplishes nearly the same as it would if I was able to carve out the time I needed to read all of the magazines I get each month.

I did a little math to verify this. I subscribe to Scientific American, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Harper’s, Time, Atlantic Monthly, Outside, Wired, and Down East Magazine. Nine altogether. There are 4-5 feature articles per magazine on average, which makes for a total of about 36 – 45 articles per month or 430 – 540 articles per year. I don’t read every article in every issue of every magazine. But at one article per day, I’d manage to read 365 articles per year, which allows me to read between 68-85% of all of the feature articles I get in a given year. Far more than I’ve managed so far.

I started this yesterday. While at my son’s basketball practice, I read “The Bible Hunters” by Robert Draper in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic. (Very interesting, actually, you should check it out.) Of course, I have to have some way of keeping track of this, and so I started a brand new Field Notes notebook just for jotting down what article I read each day. I chose one of the Lunacy edition notebooks–because maybe my idea is a little loony. After finishing the article I marked it as #1 in the notebook. I think there is just enough room to fit a year’s worth of entries in a single notebook.

This is one of those ideas that I’m excited to try, but only time will tell if it works in practice. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, I’m off to read article #2. The hard part now is choosing which article read next.

Things I Want

We are, on occasion, inundated with catalogs: American Girl, Lego, Disney. The kids flip through these with lusty eyes, each repeatedly calling out the things they want. “I want this? Can we get it?” Over and over. When I was a kid, Saturday morning cartoons provided a visual catalog of goodies and I can remember doing much of the same, begging, pleading, and negotiated for an Incredible Hulk action figure or a Batman Utility Belt.

It’s funny how the things I want have changed over time. I was thinking about this and attempted to make a list of things that I want today to see how my desires have changed over the last four decades. Here are six of them.

I want a classic barometer that I can refer to for changes in the weather. I have three different weather apps on my phone, none of which agree with one another, nor with what I can see outside my window on a typical day.

I want a small nearby restaurant that sells nothing but homemade pie and coffee. I don’t drink coffee but I eat pie, or would if there was a small restaurant nearby serving the homemade variety. Apple would be fine. Pecan would be particularly nice.

I was going to say that I want a good pair of binoculars but I realized I already had one. What I want is something natural to observe using those binoculars. The stars are out since I live in a area where light pollution outdoes all other forms of pollution combined. Birds might work, but we live in such a dense area that any attempt at poking around with binoculars might raise suspicions in the neighbors.

I want to visit E. B. White’s grave in Brooklin, Maine. This summer we plan on resuming our annual summer trip to Maine (postponed these past two years for other activities). We usually stay in Castine which is less than an hour’s drive from Brooklin, making such a visit a real possibility.

I want some wood to split. These days I hate the idea of going to a gym to get into (and stay in) shape. I want a practical purpose for exercise. Splitting wood seems just the ticket for this. It has the added bonus of allowing me something to clear my head, to say nothing of providing fuel for the fireplace to keep the house warm in winter.

I want an old-fashioned address book. Each year, come the holiday season, it seems that my Contacts are always missing information. I diligently update them each season, and yet, information still goes missing. Perhaps there is a leak somewhere and the information seeps through a crack in the foundation. Good old fashioned address books don’t have this problem.

Abridge, Too Far

When I was in high school, Cliffs Notes were available (for those who could afford them) to get summaries of the key elements of a variety of popular books. I know how students used Cliffs Notes, but I have always been uncertain as to the intention behind their creation. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I like to think they were created as a memory aid for those who have already read a book, a guide to help someone better understand what they were reading–not a replacement for the book itself.

When I began listening to audiobooks, I quickly learned that I had to be careful in selecting a book. Some titles appeared twice, once in their full form, and once as an abridgment. Abridgments are abominations that I still, to this day, can’t understand. With Cliff Notes, I can at least reason that they supplement the book. What purpose do abridgments serve? What’s more, I can’t understand how an author would knowingly allow their books to be abridged.

Most writers I know fight tooth and claw to keep each word of their prose pristine. Editors recommend cutting a word here and a word there, and we do it only with the greatest reluctance. I work mostly in short fiction and cutting is often the most painful part of the process. I can only imagine how much more challenging it is with a novel or nonfiction book. Given such a reluctance to cut, I just can’t understand how abridgments exist. Is it money? Are the same writers who make cuts to their work only reluctantly willing to hack up the same work for a little extra cash?

We can debate whether reading a book or listening to the complete audiobook results in the same thing. I’ve argued for years that the text is the same in both cases so someone who reads the paperback version of, say, Essays of E. B White and someone who listens to the complete audiobook version will be able to talk about the book on an equal footing. This is not true for an abridgment, however. An abridgment is not the same text as the original. Pieces are missing, and who’s to say if those pieces would be important to any given reader. Is it fair to say that if you’ve read the abridged version of, say Dark Sun by Richard Rhodes, you can claim to have read Dark Sun? As in the old baseball record books, I think such a claim requires an asterisk.

Essays of E.B. White

I’ve been thinking about abridgments lately because of an ad that keeps popping up on Facebook. It’s for a service called Blinkist. The service claims it allows you to “fit reading into your life.” It does this by providing short (15 minute or so) key takeaways of popular nonfiction books. I took a look at some titles in the History category. Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, a book I recently finished, is summarized in 19 minutes of audio. The actual unabridged audiobook is over 15 hours long. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which I read last year is summarized in 19 minutes. Actual unabridged audiobook length: 41 hours 32 minutes. This, to me, is abridge too far.

First, reading (or listening to) a summary of key takeaways is not the same thing as reading the book. For one thing, the takeaways are the opinion of the person summarizing the book. My takeaways might differ if I read the book. For another, you are missing the context behind the takeaways. When I read, I often relate the thing I am reading now to something I read earlier. I draw interesting insights from these kinds of relationships.

Second, reading a summary of key takeaways eliminates the voice of the author. Part of the pleasure of reading is the voices that come through. This is as true for nonfiction as it is for fiction. Part of the reason I so enjoy Will Durant’s Story of Civilization series of books is Durant’s voice. Ditto for writers like E. B. White, John McPhee, Simon Winchester, David McCullough, and on and on. Fifteen minutes of bullet points can’t replace that.

Blinkist boasts a community of 7 million users as part of a “reading revolution.” I have no qualms with this statement. Far fewer than 7 million people can carry out a revolution. My worry is that the revolt, in this case, is against reading. These millions are not consuming the works, they are instead like vultures, tearing away at the liver and intestines of a book that has already been gutted by profiteers playing on people’s desire to feel well-read without doing the actual work of reading.

Witcher 3: The Jack Reacher of Video Games

I’m not a big gamer, but there are certain types of games that I like. I enjoy games like the Ultima series. A few years ago, shortly after we got an Xbox, I played Skyrim, and thought it was pretty fantastic. Generally thought, time spent playing video games is not time reading or writing, so I keep it to a minimum.

A few weeks ago, I read Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made by Jason Schreier. The book discussed the development of 10 games. Among them was Witcher 3 made by a Polish video game company. The discussion of the development intrigued me, as did the game itself, which is based on a novel by a Polish writer.

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Jason Schreier

A few weeks passed and then, this weekend, I decided to get the game. I began playing it and I really enjoy so far. I’ve spent far too much time playing it (Friday night, I stayed up until nearly 1 am Saturday morning playing) but I think that says a lot about the story. In the days since, I’ve been thinking about what it is I like so much about the main character, Geralt. He seemed somehow familiar. He has a somber, quiet way, more ready to fight than talk. I liked him a lot.

I made the connection Saturday night. I’ve been reading a fascinating books called Reacher Said Nothing by Andy Martin. I’ve never come across a book quite like this one. Martin followed Lee Child around while he wrote the 20th Jack Reacher book, Make Me. The book is part biography, part craft, and a big part behind-the-scenes of how a bestselling author goes from idea to publication. Think of it as the “making of” portion on the DVD for a movie. I’ve read all 23 Jack Reacher books and so I’ve found this book particularly fascinating. And it was while reading this book that I realized that the reason I liked Geralt so much is that he comes across as a kind of video game fantasy world version of Jack Reacher.

Reacher Said Nothing by Andy Martin

Indeed, when I play the game, I find myself playing as if I was Reacher. What would Reacher do in this particular situation or that? How would Reacher answer this question? Would he help? Fight? Reacher’s rules even help out: hit first, hit hard. Always move forward. It’s made for an interesting gaming experience for me.

I’m not that far into the game. My method for playing is to start slowly, doing all of the little side quests in order to better learn how to play and to build experience. But I am impressed by the game play, by the depth of the story line, the characters, and by the feel of that particular imagined world.

R.I.P. Uncle Murray

While in L.A. I learned of the passing of my Uncle Murray. He was the youngest of my grandfather’s five brothers. At 93, he outlived them all, and by more than a decade.

Me and Uncle Murray in 2013

He was the last of that particular generation. All of the brothers are gone now, as are their spouses. It was that thought, last Tuesday night, that made me particularly sad. I thought back to a photo I’d seen once, all of them together at some celebration, dressed up, seated around a large table, laughing. In that photo it seemed impossible there would ever be a day when all the people in the photo were gone.

My grandfather and three of his brothers, Max (who they called “Pat”), Willie (who they called “Bill”), and Murray, owned and ran a service station on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx for more than 30 years. Murray was the baby of the bunch. He was also the jokester and prankster, well known for his, let’s say, biting sense of humor. When I was a kid and would visit the gas station, it was Uncle Murray who would always put us on the car lift and engage the hydraulics, lifting us up to what seemed to be head-dizzying heights.

Four of the brothers served in the military (the all referred to it as “the Service”) during the Second World War. Uncle Max served in the Navy in the Pacific. The others were in the Army. My grandfather told me a “small world” story about how, through the magic of military bureaucratic coincidence, he and my Uncle Murray ended up at the same place at the same time somewhere on the west coast (I think it was an airport). It was an unexpected, and welcome reunion. There’s a picture of it somewhere, a sepia thing, both men in uniform looking impossibly young.

Uncle Murray retired to Florida where he kept all kinds of fish, and became a horologist. He had a small shop filled to the brim with clocks of all kinds. One of those clocks hung on the wall of my grandparents house, and to this day, I don’t understand how the hourly chirping of the cuckoo didn’t drive everyone insane. Another hangs in my parent’s house, a gift for their 25th anniversary.

Uncle Murray was, in my memory, always cheerful, always ready with a joke. The last time I saw him was just over a year ago, at a big gathering down in Florida. He was cheerful and smiling, then, too. His passing represents the end of an era in the family. The living history of that generation is gone now, and all that’s left are the memories, which evolve and alter with time.

Breakthrough at the Writers Group

It is easy to write about writing when the writing is going well. Words are flowing and there is often the desire to share the joy I experience as a writer when that is happening. When the writing is not going well, it’s not as easy to write about. When the writing is not going well, I become the way I do when I am sick with the cold or flu. I want to be alone, I don’t want to talk about it, and I want the world to fade away until I’m all better. Talking about it just makes it worse. Writing about it is even harder because I am aware that I am deliberately avoiding what I should be writing by tackling something else.

I have been in this position, unable to write stories well, for a long time now. Late last year, I decided to start attending my writers group again. I joined the group back in 2010 just as I was starting to sell stories to some of the bigger science fiction magazines. I stopped going sometime before my youngest daughter (now almost 2-1/2) was born. There just wasn’t time. But time has freed up a bit and I could return if I wanted. I told myself I’d go into it as if I was a newbie to writing, and just absorb as much as I could. Maybe it would jar something loose, and I’d have a breakthrough.

Let me take just a moment to say what a great group I belong to. The group doesn’t focus on any one kind of writing. Last night we critiqued a chapter of a mainstream fiction novel, as well as a personal essay. But the group has a core of attendees that I have known for a long time now, and whose opinions about writing I’ve come to trust.

The group has produced quite a few exceptional writers. Back when I started, Michael J. Sullivan was a member, and has since gone on to superstardom in the fantasy genre. The first piece I ever read by Joanna Castle Miller was absolutely incredible. Joanna went on to Hollywood, and a that first play of hers that I read way back when, “Ash,” has recently completed production as a film. There are talented children’s writers, established journalists and novelists like Thierry Sagnier, screenplay writers. Those are just a few. It is a talented group.

I sat there last night for the first time in years, listening to writers give thoughtful critiques of their peers’ work. It stirred something in me. I’d been struggling for so long that I almost felt as if I forgot how to tell a story. At one point in a discussion of the personal essay we were critiquing, someone suggested expanding on a particular section because it was interesting. Expanding was tough in the group because we usually limit submissions to ten pages. That was when it hit me! I pulled out my Field Notes notebook and scribbled the following:

For the story “[Redacted]” — can I do the whole thing in 10 pages?

I’ve had this idea for a story and for well over two years, I’ve struggled just to get it started. It seemed like a big story to me and I wasn’t sure how to tell it. All at once, however, I decided that maybe it didn’t need to be a big story. Maybe I could do it in 10 pages?

At home, after the group, I headed into the shower. For some reason, it’s in the shower when my story ideas usually crystalize. I’ll stand there under the spray, hair white with shampoo, and I don’t even have to try–I hear the words I need to type. That’s exactly what happened last night. At first, I was sort of stunned. I just stood there listening to them. Then I realized that I needed to write them down. I dashed out of the shower, still damp, and into my office. I opened a new document, closed my eyes and, somewhat nervously, listened.

The words were still there, and I began to write. Before I stopped, I had half the story written. I knew how the other half would go, and how the story would end. What’s more, I liked what I was writing. Attempting to keep it short made it move quickly, and built up tension just as fast. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was on the verge of finishing a story, and a pretty good one at that.

I expect I’ll finish the story tonight. Then I’ll give it a few days before I read it and start the second draft. Once that second draft is done, I’ll submit it to the writer’s group for critique, the first story I’ve submitted to that group in probably four years.

I love the feeling I get when I write the last words of a story. Usually, I type those words, and then jump of from my chair and pace a circle around my office. I’m too excited to sit. I’m looking forward to that feeling once again.

The lesson here, for me if for no one else, is that when the writing isn’t going well, introduce a constraint. In this case, I told myself that I had to write the story in 10 pages or less. That seems to shake things loose. I’ve always written better under some kind of constraint and yet I rarely remember that. In college, I often waiting until a few hours before a paper was due to write it. Imperial data showed that the closer to the deadline, the better the grade I received on average. I was once again working with constraints. I’m hopeful this breakthrough will prove useful on other stories I’d like to write. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Right now, I just want to enjoy that feeling I had last night getting the story down on the page, and bring it home tonight.

Revving the Treadmill of Life

A while back, I wrote a post on letters vs. email in which I considered the pleasures of the former and frustrations of the latter in our current high-paced, highly digital environment. Recently, a friend of mine wrote an excellent post on his blog that was in something of a similar vain: “Navigating the Digital / Analog Divide in Life and Work.” It is a thoughtful post, well worth reading.

On the plane home from Los Angeles, I finished reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. I was reviewing my notes from that book and came across this passage which I highlighted that encapsulated my thoughts in my “Letters vs. Email” post, as well as some of what Ken has to say in his post:

Previously it took a lot of work to write a letter, address and stamp an envelope, and take it to the mailbox. It took days or weeks, maybe even months, to get a reply. Nowadays I can dash off an email, send it halfway around the globe, and (if my addressee is online) receive a reply a minute later. I’ve saved all that trouble and time, but do I live a more relaxed life?

Sadly, not. Back in the snail-mail era, people usually only wrote letters when they had something important to relate. Rather than writing the first thing that came into their heads, they considered carefully what they wanted to say and how to phrase it. They expected to receive a similarly considered answer. Most people wrote and received no more than a handful of letters a month and seldom felt compelled to reply immediately. Today I receive dozens of emails each day, all from people who expect a prompt reply. We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated. (Emphasis mine.)

Sapiens, p. 105-6, Kindle edition.

It is this unintentional revving of the treadmill that has me rebalancing my digital/analog activities. The problem with this is that it alters only part of the equation. I may be slowing things down on my end, but things are not slowing down outside my little bubble. While on vacation I sent out some postcards. I received delighted email replies from the recipients on the day they received them.

I think I am sensitive to this change because it has paralleled my career. The first email I ever sent was when I started with my company right out of college. All through college, I wrote letters, and it was only during the summer after graduating that I began communicated with friends through AOL (“you’ve got mail!”) In the quarter century that I’ve been with my company, I’ve seen an every increasing volume of email, where any one email these days holds less valuable content than one from 25 years ago.

Communication outside work has paralleled this. I continued to write letters after graduating from college, but stopped around 2000, when my sole remaining correspondent (my grandfather) became too sick to write anymore. Now, everything is via email, and even that is being supplanted by even faster and more realtime forms of communication like instant messaging, which further reduces the art in communication down to something like the hand signals that soldiers use to communicate with one another in silence.

I’d love to slow down that treadmill, but at this point, it seems out of control and I hardly know where to begin.

5 Books I’m Looking Forward to in 2019

Last week was a very busy one in L.A. and it threw me off my game. I had almost no time to read, and by the time I could read, I was too worn out. I hate when this happens because it takes a while to get my momentum back and find something that really sparks my interest and gets me back on track. I’m in the middle of that now, and when this happens, I often looks at the various lists of books I maintain. This morning, I was thinking about books I’m looking forward to reading in 2019.

I no longer read much science fiction, but Jack McDevitt is one of the writers I still read. He was always very kind to me as a fellow writer. He is a modern day Clifford D. Simak in that everyone I know has only good things to say about Jack. He writes two series, and I especially enjoy his Alex Benedict series. In may, the 8th installment comes out: Octavia Gone and I am really looking forward to it.

Octavia Gone by Jack McDevitt

We live a few hours away from Hershey, Pennsylvania and have visited the town, and toured the Hershey museum there a couple of times. The tour in particular has piqued my interest in Milton Hershey. I recently learned of a biography of Hershey released this month called Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams by Michael D’Antonio.

Hershey by Michael D'Antonio

One of the longest, most fascinating books I’ve read is Gotham by Edwin G. Burroughs and Mike Wallace. It is the history of New York City from its earliest settled days until 1898. Last year, Mike Wallace released a sequel, Greater Gotham, which is nearly as long, but instead of covering centuries, covers a mere 22 years, taking New York City history up through 1920, the year my Grandpa was born. Greater Gotham was released late last year, but the audiobook version comes out later this month. I’m really looking forward to that book.

Greater Gotham by Mike Wallace

Last year I read a book by Tom Clavin called Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West. I enjoyed it, and was immediately interested in a new book Clavin has coming in February: Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfigher.

Wild Bill by Tom Clavin

This July will be the 50th anniversary Apollo 11 and the first humans to walk on the moon. In April, Douglas Brinkley has a new book that I am really looking forward to: American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race. I can never get enough of this story, and I’ve read just about every book I could find on Apollo, and so I was excited to see another one coming out soon.

American Moonshot by Douglas Brinkley

There are quite a few long books on my list for this year as well. I’d like to finish reading Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization, and I am considering dedicating the month of February to getting through the complete History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But the five books I’ve listed above are ones that I am particularly looking forward to in 2019.

Have any books that you’re looking forward to? Let me know about them in the comments.

Heading Home

I’d intended to have a full post today, but I find I am exhausted from my trip to L.A. and the post will have to wait. I’m presently at L.A.X. waiting to board my flight home and hoping it gets in before the snow starts falling.

I’ll have a new post up as soon as I’ve had a chance to rest and settle in back at home. In the meantime, have a great weekend.

Ghosts of Santa Monica Past

I’m in Santa Monica, California for work this week. This is the town where, twenty-five years ago this October, I started my first day at the company that I am still with today. Back then, I lived in Studio City and commuted into the office, leaving my house at 5:10 am and arriving in Santa Monica 25 minutes later. Traffic was light before 5:30. Now I come out maybe once a year. This time it’s a somber, eerie reunion.

My old office building no longer exists. What I think of as the “new” building (now probably close to 15 years old) is a little southeast of where the old building used to be. All week I’ve been seeing ghosts of that old building. I can see if from my hotel window. It appears almost like a mirage, overlaying the park and palm trees.

A view from my hotel window
A view from my hotel window.

Santa Monica has changed so much that it seems like a completely different city, save perhaps the famous sign at the entrance to the pier. A metro train stops nearby. Colorado between Fourth and Ocean looks like something out of a science fiction movie. Scooters are everywhere. They are like great metallic grasshoppers, some sitting idle, others flitting suddenly this way or that.

If I look hard, though, I see the ghosts of Santa Monica past. Looking out my window through the trees, I see the windows of my old office on the fourth floor, and facing north. The window is open slightly, and I can just barely make out the silhouette of a younger version of me looking back. The new Santa Monica Place fades into the more dilapidated structure that it once was. I can see a group of young people passing through the food court of that old mall, and emerging into sunlight on the other side. They walk down Third Street to the international food court seeking lunch in the distant past.

On the other side of the hotel, just across Colorado, the McDonald’s on the ground floor of what looks like an ornate and expensive apartment building fades into the old McDonalds that it used to be, complete with parking lot and drive-thru. I used to walk from my office down Ocean to Colorado early in the morning just as the sky was growing light, and seek out that McDonald’s. I’d stroll pass Il Fornio, whose ghostly visage I can still make out in the windows of Del Frisco’s Grill, which now occupies its space. Next the Philly cheesesteak place, now a Subway sandwich shop.

The Sears building is still there, although for how long is anyone’s guess. Chez Jay has survived, thank goodness, peanut shells and all. I had dinner there last night, and sitting at the back table, watched as a man at the bar proposed. She said yes, and everyone cheered. Pico between Main Street and Fourth hasn’t changed too much. The bowling alley is still there. So is the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. These are the survivors, but they are few, and the ghosts close in on them.

Change is good, but I can’t help seeing the ghosts, they’ve been out in force this week, and as different as things look, as I retrace my steps across an old route, the familiar begins to emerge, fuzzy at first, then clear, like a stereogram whose image suddenly jumps out from what seems a bunch of random dots, the past overlapping the present.

And for some reason that I can’t quite articulate, perhaps age, nostalgia, or distance, I prefer the ghosts of Santa Monica past.

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