Books acquired: none
Books read: “The Complete Humorous Sketches and Tales of Mark Twain,” Charles Neider, ed.; “We Can Build You,” Philip K. Dick; “The Baker Street Letters,” Michael Robertson; “The Treasurer’s Report, or Other Aspects of Community Singing,” Robert Benchley
Regards, readers! May was a four-book month for me. (I wonder if there’s a shorthand for that, like: “May was a four-booker.”) These were all books I’d had for a while, and one of them I’d been reading, off and on, for eight years. Yikes!
That would be the Twain “Sketches” collection, all 700-plus pages of it, which a search of past Reading Logs reveals in my “acquired” list from April 2010. (That month was a four-booker too, I see.) I bought the book at Borders, finding the cover and concept appealing, and knowing I’d read a handful of the pieces thanks to an overlap with a couple of Twain short-story collections made me think the book would be a relative breeze. After all, I’d already started it in a sense.
I read a little here, a little there, and as large sections were culled from his travel memoirs, I would halt until I’d read the original text — why spoil the full books? Probably one-fifth of “A Tramp Abroad,” which editor Neider has championed, appears here, and getting to “Tramp” took a few years. Anyway, I finally polished off the last 150 pages in May.
I love Twain, but this was really too much, showing that completism has its drawbacks. Some of the pieces are just too dated or marginal; even Twain had cut a few of them from later reprints of his books. I was relieved to have finished it.
As for “We Can Build You,” the idea of setting an ostensible science fiction novel at an electronic organ factory in Boise, Idaho, is pretty hilarious, and in keeping with PKD’s down to earth, unheroic novels. The factory is creating a robot, a simulacra of (why not?) Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln’s secretary of state. Lincoln himself soon follows. The Lincoln fan in me was surprised and delighted.
But as with PKD’s “Clans of the Alphane Moon,” a promising situation (comedy) is allowed to fall away, in this case to focus on the narrator’s psychotic break due to his obsession with an uncaring woman. I’m not sure another PKD novel goes off the rails quite like this one does. But it’s never dull.
In “The Baker Street Letters,” two brothers whose law office is at 221B Baker Street, London, solve a mystery sparked by a girl’s letter to Sherlock Holmes, who despite being fictional, and more than a century removed from today, is still getting mail from would-be clients daily near the 21st century. It’s a cute premise for a story that has almost nothing to do with Holmes, and which largely takes place in contemporary Los Angeles. It’s an enjoyable trifle and the first in a series.
It’s worth adding, perhaps, that I read “Letters” after a brief attempt to read a sort-of “cozy mystery,” as they’re called, called “Granddad, There’s a Head on the Beach,” set in Thailand. I read the first 30 pages, narrated in too cute a tone — scattered, silly — for my tastes and gave it up. By comparison, “Letters” was straightforward and focused. I don’t know that it’s a great series, but there are a few more, and I might pick up the next one sometime.
Every year I read a Robert Benchley book. This year’s was “The Treasurer’s Report,” whose title essay is a written version of a performance he did as part of a Broadway revue and also memorialized in a short film. It’s cute on the page, but not the highlight of the book, which is above average Benchley. While sometimes the humor or topics have dated, the majority of the essays remain witty and delightfully silly. The next to last one, about trying to puzzle out how little ships are put into bottles, had me laughing aloud, and it wasn’t the only one.
Still, if you haven’t read Benchley, let me suggest “The Benchley Roundup,” a best-of that has most of the prime material — but not all of it, as the ships-in-bottles piece isn’t there. But it’s all the Benchley most people will need.
When and from where did these books enter my life? Twain I already told you. “Build You” is probably from the early 1990s, but its precise origins are lost in the mists of time. “Baker Street” (and the discarded “Granddad”) came from the now-defunct Big Sleep Books, a mystery specialist, in St. Louis in May 2013. As I bought only two books at Big Sleep, both the same day, I have now taken care of that. (Except that, ugh, the majority the nine books I bought that month are still unread.) The Benchley was bought used somewhere in the mid-2000s.
So that’s my May. How was yours, readers? Let us know in the comments.
Next month: doors and rooms.