Reading log: November 2010

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Books acquired: “Pudd’nhead Wilson,” “A Tramp Abroad” and “The Gilded Age,” Mark Twain; “I’ll Mature When I’m Dead,” Dave Barry.

Books read: “Life on the Mississippi,” Mark Twain; “Marvel Comics in the 1960s: An Issue-By-Issue Field Guide to a Pop Culture Phenomenon,” Pierre Comtois; “Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes,” A. Conan Doyle; “Memos From Purgatory,” Harlan Ellison.

Mmm-mmm, what a month of books all with an M in their title! That’s just how it worked out — mostly. They ranged from good to great. Or is that medium to marvelous?

One of Twain’s greatest, “Life on the Mississippi” is a paean to the vanished age of riverboats and their pilots, told through a (largely hilarious) memoir about his days as a cub pilot and then through a riverboat journey he took 21 years later, after the Civil War and the use of tugboats and railroads to ship goods had made such travel quaint. “Life” is padded at times, but it’s descriptive, informative, fond and, it goes without saying, very funny. I read this book in high school and liked it better this time.

Incidentally, the version I read this time, from Penguin, adds perhaps 10 percent to the page count by restoring bits of the original text cut from Twain’s manuscript; the additions are okay, but you might be better off with, say, the Modern Library edition without the extra verbiage.

“Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes,” the fourth of the nine books, evinces a slight slackening of invention on Doyle’s part, with fewer memorable stories than in “Adventures.” But it’s still a must-read for Holmesians, and “The Final Problem,” which inflates Holmes and his arch-nemesis to mythic status, is jaw-dropping. Marvel and DC comics, Ian Fleming and Sax Rohmer owe Doyle their livelihoods, not to mention royalties.

Speaking of which, there’s “Marvel Comics in the 1960s,” chronicling one of my personal passions (although the promised sequel about the 1970s, the era I discovered Marvel, will be even more welcome).

There are layout and repetition issues, and writer Comtois, a fretful sort, is constantly lamenting the passing of an era even before it passes. Some of his judgments seem wrong-headed too (the pedestrian Heck, Colletta, Tartaglione and “Sgt. Fury” have no bigger fan than him). But in these capsule reviews, Comtois again and again demonstrates that he gets what made Marvel great. On the all-important Kirby or Lee question, he sides with Lee, persuasively.

I closed out the month by reading “Memos From Purgatory.” This memoir about going undercover with a teen gang and the criminal justice system in which he’s trapped for 24 hours is vivid and harrowing, as Ellison almost goes out of his mind with fright (being cuffed to a man who killed a girl with a hammer didn’t help).

Everything about Manhattan’s notorious Tombs jail seems aimed at dehumanizing prisoners; Ellison observes, for instance, that only after a shower is he fingerprinted, forcing him to carry an inky reminder of his presumed guilt on his fingertips. A real departure for the fantasy writer, this is an amazing book, one that deserves to be better known.

As for how I came to own each book, “Marvel Comics” was bought this summer at Comics Factory in Pasadena, “Memoirs” was bought new in childhood (when I first read it), “Life” was bought earlier this decade at Brand Books in Glendale and “Memos” was bought at Bookfellows in Glendale perhaps five years ago (although I’ve owned the later Ace books edition since the 1980s, unread until now).

These constitute books 46 to 49 for me this year. With 50 easily within reach, my plan is to read three during December, to end the year at 52, and then perhaps get a head start on 2011.

Now, have you read any of the above? Probably not. Well, what are you reading?

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  • John Clifford

    I finished reading Dan Brown’s latest, The Lost Symbol. I’m currently about 1/2 of the way through Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express, his 1979 journal, of sorts, of his trip, all via rail, from Boston to Esquel, Argentina. An interesting travel book as he seems to dislike travel, the people he meets, and the places he visits. Lots of description of poverty, dirt, crime, fleabag hotels, etc. And the variety of trains encountered is amazing.

    [Theroux is an author I should look into sometime. -- DA]

  • Doug Evans

    A quick comment on your comment that people have “probably not” read the four books above: I bet most book nerds (always meant as a compliment from me) who are checking out a monthly book log have read Sherlock Holmes… if not the entire “Memoirs,” then at least “The Final Problem,” where Sherlock meets his apparent demise.

    As for me, I’m still working my way through The Lord of the Rings for my umpteenth time, but I took time out to read the “Hunger Games” trilogy, the first one for a book club, the next two to see what happened next. Groups of kids are forced to fight each other to the death yearly as “tributes” to the Capitol their ancestors once rebelled against. Brutal! But recommended!

  • http://www.katethornton.net Kate Thornton

    If you like Sherlock Holmes AND Marvel Comics, noted Los Angeles author Michael Mallory is an expert on both. His “Amelia Watson” stories are great (THE SECOND MRS. WATSON) and he has published several tomes about comics, most notably about Marvel Comics (MARVEL COMICS: THE CHARACTERS AND THEIR UNIVERSE) among others.

    A prolific mystery writer, he specializes in short stories and childrens’ stories. What I’m reading: Dean Koontz’s ODD THOMAS books – thrilling!