Reading log: December 2010

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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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