Reading log: December 2010


Books acquired: none.

Books read: “Motherless Brooklyn,” Jonathan Lethem; “The Most of S.J. Perelman,” S.J. Perelman; “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” A. Conan Doyle.

Figuring 52 books for the year was a solid number, I polished off numbers 50, 51 and 52: my second Lethem novel of the year, a fifth Sherlock Holmes classic and a collection of humor essays that I’ve been reading off and on (mostly off) for nearly 30 years.

“Motherless Brooklyn” (bought a few weeks ago at a B&N) is a literary detective novel whose narrator is afflicted with Tourette’s, causing him to bark, curse and touch things ritually at inopportune moments as he tries to trace who killed his shady but accepting employer. I worried the novel would be unreadable or show-offy — Lethem’s prose can be dense and self-referential — but thankfully this was compelling, funny and compassionate.

“Hound of the Baskervilles” (bought new circa 1979 and, shamefully, never read) is the most famous Holmes book, and deserves its reputation. The lonely countryside, the windswept moor, the Baskerville family legend involving a demonic hound that kills two heirs, make this the most atmospheric Holmes story. A long section in which Watson investigates the case solo is a welcome change of pace.

My paperback, which looked almost as new as when I bought it, was like a preserved piece of my childhood. I avoided spilling syrup on it.

“The Most of S.J. Perelman” collects the best humorous essays from 1930 to 1958 by the late New Yorker contributor and screenwriter (the Marx Brothers, “Around the World in 80 Days,” etc.). Perelman had a baroque prose style, and while it may be heresy to say so, a lot of his stuff is finely wrought but simply not funny. Although he can be hilarious, such as his travel memoir “Westward Ha!,” and this line from a self-portrait: “Before they made S.J. Perelman, they broke the mold.”

Anyway, I bought a Quality Paperback Book Club edition of “Most” around the same time I bought “Hound,” and gradually read it, with growing dismay that his prose wasn’t as funny as Groucho’s speeches. Circa 1993, I found the hardcover original and learned the paperback had been abridged. Finally, 17 years later, I finished the thing.

Nobody said reading was easy.

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  • Doug Evans

    My parents, apparently determined to turn me from an early age into a nerd with obscure interests (success, mom and dad!), gave me in high school a collection of S. J. Perelman called “That Old Gang of Mine: The Early and Essential S. J. Perelman.” I’d never heard of the guy before, but remember enjoying the book, and heck, there it is in my bookcase, so I’ve held on to it for all these years. I don’t actually remember anything that’s in the book, but after I finish typing this up I’m going to go pull it out of the shelf and see what’s in it.

    Based on your synopsis, “Motherless Brooklyn” sounds like a book I would really enjoy. I may make it a book club choice when my turn comes again… I’m so back-logged in books to read that I’ve learned one way to get to a book is to assign it to one of the two book clubs I belong to. But now I’m backlogged in books I want to pick for the book clubs. Sigh.

    I agree that “Hound” is a classic that deserves its reputation.

    As for my reading, because I like to pretend that your monthly reading blog is also my monthly reading blog: I’m still making my way through The Lord of the Rings (for my third return trip); Tolkien wrote it as one long book, but due to post-war paper shortages, the publisher had him split it into three volumes (and later three movies! Though admittedly Tolkien has little to do with that). I bring all this up because I’m on the third volume of the supposed-to-be-one book (and in fact I’m reading a one-volume edition). So does that count as two books read or two-thirds of one book?

    I also squeezed in a collection of essays by Michael Chabon on reading and fanboy-ism and whatnot called “Maps and Legends,” in which he defends genre fiction such as science fiction and mysteries and whatnot as legitimate literature. You go, Michael Chabon! He’s also a Doctor Who fan. His parents did to him what mine did to me, but they produced a Pulitzer Prize winner. Well, my parents gave it their best shot.

    This month, for my two book clubs, I’ll be reading (re-reading in the first case) “The Catcher in the Rye” as well as “Room” by Elizabeth Donoghue. The latter is apparently not a mood-lifter.

    Hey, I wrote another essay! I wish it had been this easy to get inspired back when I was in college.

    And: Yay! Comments are back!

    [Yay! My recollection is that the SJP book you mention is essays from college or from not long after, so it’s probably more “early” than it is “essential.” But it will give you an idea of what he’s like. “Maps and Legends” is on my shelf and I hope to read it this year. And if you’re asking for an official ruling, I say you’ve read two LOTR books, not 2/3 of one. I have spoken. — DA]