Book Logs: 2020

The year Two Thousand and Twenty was a strange one – and not just because of the worldwide pandemic. Annus bizarro, I’ve been calling it. I had an odd reading year, one that may have changed the rules for me going forward.

It started off fairly regularly. I began the year, as I always do, with some Elvis Reading to go with Elvis Week, the celebration of the anniversary of Presley’s birth that kicks every year off. I had no new King book to read so I just spent the week re-reading some books on him and continuing to get through my Elvis Atlas, a book that looks at Presley through the places he lived and worked and how the legacies of these places impacted him. Then I was free as of January 9th to get started on a long winter book.

I’ve mentioned before that I like to try to read the longest book I own that I haven’t yet read in the winter as it seems like a good time to dive in to an extensive fiction work to fill the chilly nights. This year not only was the book lengthy but it was set during the winter. Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo takes place in snowy upstate New York; the only niggling issue is it also takes place over the American Thanksgiving and Christmas but that was OK. I had ordered the book online one night the previous winter after watching the film version, one of my favourite winter movies, with Paul Newman, Jessica Tandy, Melanie Griffith and Bruce Willis. The book had some dry spots but was enjoyable enough that I wrote it up.

The second book I read was also a winter read. The Rebel League is a fascinating look at the World Hockey Association, a professional ice hockey league that rose up in the 1970’s to challenge the dominance of the National Hockey League and some of that league’s sketchy business practices. This book was excellent but hard to share with anyone as finding an audience to care about such a book is no easy task. I followed this up with a western – another genre I’m drawn to at the dawn of each new year – and took True Grit by Charles Portis off my shelf. An enjoyable and brief read.

Then I watched a doc on Johnny Cash that got me wanting to read the Robert Hilburn bio I own. But the lengthy book wouldn’t fit my schedule so I settled for the 94-page The New Johnny Cash book I found in a “share-a-book” box at the trailer park my folks stay at in the summer. It briefly discusses Johnny’s faith and his work in this area in the Seventies. Another quick read was Bill O’Reilly’s Old School, a book that looks at the current state of traditional values.

Then I contracted with my boss at Norwood Media to write an article on Bobby Darin for The Doo-Wop Express. At the same time, I decided to crack open Roman Candle, a Bobby bio I had owned for some time. The articles on Bobby and this book explain how much I got from this experience. I was reading this book on holiday in Florida when the world shut down. And here’s where my “reading wheels” started to come off, as well as the world’s.

Through May, when I’m into film noir, I read Chandler’s The Big Sleep. While I enjoyed it, I found it almost as disjointed as the film and this made me wonder; we all love Raymond Chandler and his work but I would need it explained to me how this novel’s continuity and “flow” issues do not represent a failure of sorts on the author’s part. After this, I embarked on a massive biography of Sinatra, The Life by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan. I hadn’t read a Frank bio in a long time so it was good to be back – even if this one painted its subject in such an unfavourable light. This book made for a penetrating review that generated much debate.

The wheels came fully off and I began to head for the ditch with my tenth book of the year, another from the noir family, Jack Webb’s celebrated book on the LAPD, The Badge. I hoped to be compelled by tales of the Black Dahlia and other California crimes but instead got a book that reads as if it were written by Sgt. Joe Friday. Very procedural, this book that literally stuck to “just the facts, ma’am”. The rout was completed with the next two books I picked up.

I love the film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) and when I discovered that it was based on the series of novels by Patrick O’Brian I got excited and began to collect the series at garage sales and thrift stores. I had read the first book and enjoyed it so this year I thought I would read the second – Post Captain – during the summer as that seemed a good time to read of adventure on the high seas. Also, I like a big book in the summer for the same reasons I like one in the winter; seems like a long, lazy time to luxuriate languidly in a lengthy…book. Anyways, I really struggled with Post Captain; it does not initially take place at sea and, though it was written in 1972, O’Brian utilizes some old English. 100-plus pages in, I found no salt air, no seafaring, no action so I actually abandoned it which I hate to do and almost never do. But I packed it in and picked up what I thought would be, based on its setting, a “hot weather” book, one I had owned for awhile called Bhowani Junction, which was made into the Ava Gardner film. A novel about the withdrawal of the British from India, my eyes glazed over on this one, too, but I hung in there. “I hung in there”. So, yeah, I’m hating this book but I’m continuing to read it, wondering what madness had taken hold of me if I am taking what should be an enjoyable hobby and making it drudgery. Then, my man, Koop Kooper came to the rescue.

I began at this point to pivot and get into some books that I thought I might read expressly with an eye to reviewing them on my monthly Words With Wellsy segment on Koop’s Cocktail Nation radio show and even maybe RE-READ some other books, also for review. Re-reading is something I’ve never really done, always preferring to discover new books. But there is something to be said for reading a book a second time especially if you haven’t read it for years. This lead me to a pleasing streak of books and articles on these books that included the James Bond book Colonel Sun by Robert Markham, Wolfman Jack’s autobiography, Bill Reed’s reference book on records of the past and my ninth reading of my co-favourite book, Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Thrown in was a first for me; I was given a book to review and share for my readers. I was happy to do so and enjoyed Our Man in Vegas by Gary Rabuzzi. The year wrapped as it always does with Christmas With Ed Sullivan and A Christmas Carol.

I happened to glance back at Book Logs: 2019 and noticed that I considered it also a “challenging if not disappointing year for reading” and this serves as the final encouragement for me to release myself from some “reading rules” for 2021. I think I will re-read some books, some for the double purpose of writing them up and presenting them on Koop’s show, and I will feel more free to simply read what I want when I want. Looking back on this year, I can say I am happy that, out of these 19 books (by the way, I read 21 in 2019), I added to SoulRide‘s catalogue by reviewing 8 of them. All I can do is go into 2021 with a positive attitude towards the books I read – and towards life, itself. I hope for the same for all of you.


I’ve given the books I read in 2020 a rating – 1 to 5 stars – which reflects the overall experience with the book

Nobody’s Fool – Richard Russo ***

The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association – Ed Willes ****

True Grit – Charles Portis ***

The New Johnny Cash – Charles Paul Conn **

Old School: Life in the Sane Lane – Bill O’Reilly and Bruce Feirstein ***

Roman Candle: The Life of Bobby Darin – David Evanier ****

The Open Boat and Other Stories – Stephen Crane **

The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler **

Sinatra: The Life – Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan ****

The Badge – Jack Webb **

Bhowani Junction – John Masters **

Colonel Sun – Robert Markham ***

Have Mercy!: Confessions of the Original Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal – Wolfman Jack with Byron Laursen****

The Last Musical Hurrah: Jazz and Pop Singing and the Onslaught of Rock – Bill Reed ****

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz – Mordecai Richler *****

Our Man in Vegas – Gary Rabuzzi ****

Enter the Saint – Leslie Charteris ***

Christmas with Ed Sullivan – edited by Ed Sullivan *****

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens *****

4 comments

  1. I was pleased to see your reference to Patrick O’Brian and Master and Commander. I loved the film as well, and actually came to the books in a very unlikely way, having read Keith Richards’ autobiography in which he professed his love of the series. So I’d like to offer some words of encouragement in the hope that you might return to the Aubrey and Maturin adventures for another try.

    First of all, they are a struggle at first because, as you recognised, they are written as they would have been, had they been written in the early 19th century. (O’Brian was a fan of Jane Austen). Honestly, it took me several attempts over a long period to actually come to terms with his writing style. My suggestion is to actually start with Desolation Island, and/or Mauritius Command, but probably the former. Lots of action and big personalities. Once you get acclimatised to the style and get to know the characters a little better, you’ll possibly be able to come back to Post Captain with a new appreciation. But if not, those two books alone will stay with you – especially a long and brutal chase to the south and a battle to save the ship in Antarctic waters, in Desolation Island.

    Another aspect of O’Brian’s storytelling which is not initially apparent, is the humour resulting from mishaps and frailties in human behaviour. I think one of my favourite moments was when Killick, the Captain’s ill tempered steward, accidentally poured boiling jam pudding into the lap of an officer at an important dinner. There are a number of little moments like that, which add a human dimension to the adventures. (It is well worth getting to know Stephen Maturin, who I think is one of the most complex and interesting fictional characters ever. It was impossible for Paul Bettany to really get to grips with his complexities within one film.)

    So if you have time, I would really recommend persisting, because once you’re hooked, that’s it.

    • Wow. Funny because right over there sits Keith’s autobio waiting for the mood to strike me. Good to know there is much action in O’Brian’s series as this was my assumption. Hard for me, I guess, the read any series out of sequence but these are the tweaks that may have to be made for me to get the most out of reading. I’m glad now that I didn’t get rid of my other O’Brian books. I even held on to Post Captain, actually. You’ve encouraged me to give them another chance. It’s a case of knowing something is “good” but of failing to “latch”. The series may help me to break some of the reading “rules” I spoke of; I may go back in with renewed hope! Avast! I may have to “hold fast”!

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