Reading Log: May 2018

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.

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  • DebB

    During May I completed Aaron Elkins’ Gideon Oliver series, begun in April. Oliver is a forensic anthropologist who “just happens” to get involved in solving murders by examining bones. In one, for example, he examines a 30-year-old body and learns she had “ballet dancer’s foot”, proving her to be a missing woman who had been a dancer.

    I had just finished designing a booklet for the Huna Tribal House in Glacier Bay, Alaska, when I read “Icy Clutches”, in which Gideon and his wife pay a visit to that area and someone finds an old skeleton. I got curious, pulled up Google maps and explored the area by satellite and street view, finding not only the lodge where they stayed but the area where the body was found. It made the book much more real.

    So I started doing that with all the books and found that by using the street view I could see real places in the fictional books – pubs, restaurants, libraries, police stations, hotels, etc. I was really sorry to complete the series, because of the richness of Elkins’ writing – not only the scenery but the science that he manages to make clear enough even for me!

    Re your comment about the cozy mystery you read. Technically I think a series is considered “cozy” when it doesn’t have graphic sex or violence. Some authors are able to inject bits of comedy into more serious books and do it well, like in the Oliver series. Others are like comedies with just a little fun mystery tossed in. Not my style.

    There are 18 books in this series, and I read more than half of them this month, but I’m not really sure exactly how many.

  • Rinaldo Darke

    You probably did not get far enough to discover that Jimm Juree, narrator of “Grandad” is a newspaper reporter. She is definitely scattered, but I would say quirky rather than silly. “Grandad” was disappointing, but “Killed at the Whim of a Hat” was good.

    • davidallen909

      Her newspaper career, mentioned in the back-cover summary, was an inducement to buy the book! If you found the novel disappointing, then I won’t worry about having missed much.

  • davidallen909

    I suppose by that definition almost any classic mystery (Christie especially) would be considered cozy. And why not? There is something comforting in tidy resolutions to seemingly bloodless murders.

    Not quite the same as your scenery research, but have you ever heard of or seen the old Dell Mapbacks? The back cover would be an illustration of the town or mansion or whatnot where the mystery took place.

  • Terri Shafer

    This month I’ve put my books in order of page numbers — from least to most, since I read less books, but more pages!

    The Ninth Hour – Alice McDermott, 2016, 2★s, 247 pages
    I read this for book club and I just didn’t like it much at all. I had read Charming Billy by the same author and didn’t like it much either. I just don’t care for the author’s style. She’s kind of hard to follow and the story kind of meanders, and there’s not even that much of a story there. I probably won’t read her again.

    Out of Africa – Isak Dinesen, 1937, 1★s, 401 pages
    My 1 Star rating does not mean that this is a bad book. It just means that I didn’t like it.
    It was well written and gave great descriptions of living in Africa. But it was not what I was expecting at all. There was really no story, just paragraphs and chapters describing the farm, the native people, the animals, some people who came to visit, etc., etc.
    Anyway… just know what you’re getting into with this one, and be in the mood for it before you begin 🙂

    The Constellation of Vital Phenomena – Anthony Marra, 2013, 4★s, 416 pages
    I’ll say I enjoyed this book, with only a little hesitation because of the content and setting. It had a lot of twists & turns and went back & forth in time, but by the end everything came together and explained itself pretty well. It was not a happy story, set in Chechnya, from 1996-2006, with Russians invading and several torture scenes. However….it has a pretty good ending 😉

    Dead Souls – Nikolai Gogol, 1842, 2★s, 512 pages
    This one was just OK. But I get to mark it off my list!!
    It was kind of interesting, and had the feel of other Russian novels that I have read. But I didn’t like it as much as Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov. I wanted to get a Gogol under my belt since I had only read his short stories. So I’m glad that I read it 🙂

    Dune – Frank Herbert, 1965, 3★s, 604 pages
    I’m glad I finally read this, even though this isn’t my favorite genre. It was written well, and I can see why people would be drawn to this series 🙂
    Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray, 1848, 4★s, 912 pages
    I loved this book! Yes, it was long, but I paced myself (read over two months) and found that I wanted to read more than my daily allotment! Being written in the 1840’s, it is written in the language of the era, and I really enjoy that. Also, the author often talks to the reader which I find appealing.
    I won’t go into the story since you can find a review/summary anywhere. However, I will say that Becky Sharp is a piece of work and really keeps this story hoppin’!
    P.S. I listened to the LibriVox audio version, read by Helen Taylor, who may be one of the best readers I’ve ever heard! And I’ve heard a lot! I highly recommend this version if you choose to do audio (35 hours!).

    • davidallen909

      Terri, I can see why you’d want to go in ascending order on the page numbers. 912 for Vanity Fair!! I’m impressed you got through that, even over two months, as well as fitting in several more books. You even got a Gogol under your belt.

  • Terri Shafer

    David, I have not read any of your books this month, but have read some of the authors. I’ve read Dick and, of course, Twain, whom I love! But I think you’re right, enough is enough 🙂
    I think I definitely need to read some of Benchley — I’ve only read “Jaws” — oh, yeah, wrong Benchley. haha 😉
    So I’ll put “The Benchley Roundup” on my list! Thanks for the recommendation.

  • Terri Shafer

    David, I haven’t read any of your books this month, but I have read some of your authors. I have read Dick and, of course, Twain, whom I love. But you’re right, enough is enough 🙂
    I have not read Benchley — I’ve only read “Jaws” — oh yeah, wrong Benchley — haha 😉
    I will definitely put “The Benchley Roundup” on my list. Thanks for the recommendation!

  • Terri Shafer

    David, I haven’t read any of your books this month, but I have read some of your authors. I have read Dick and, of course, Twain, whom I love. But you’re right, enough is enough 🙂
    I have not read Benchley — I’ve only read “Jaws” — oh yeah, wrong Benchley — haha 😉
    I will definitely put “The Benchley Roundup” on my list. Thanks for the recommendation!

    • davidallen909

      Peter B. was Robert B.’s grandson, but other than that, I don’t see much relation, ha ha.

  • Doug Evans

    I’m here! Finally chiming in. I read six this past month… three more than the month before. Go, me!

    “The Hugo Winners, Volume 1” edited by Isaac Asimov (1962). An impulse purchase for me at a small bookstore in Henderson, Nevada. At this point in time, 1962, Asimov had yet to win a Hugo, the science fiction literary world’s version of the Oscar (or maybe the Man Booker Prize). (Hugos themselves were only seven years old at this point.) Anyway, this made Asimov an ideal choice to be an unbiased editor of this first collection of Hugo winners, and he does so in fine form, putting on a Bob Hope-at-the-Academy-Awards persona of having to give the little rocket-ship-shaped statuettes away to everyone else while taking none home for himself. (Asimov has since won nine Hugos, four of them posthumously.) The stories, including Clarke’s “The Star” and Daniel Key’s “Flowers for Algernon,” were almost all great; Asimov’s intros were funny. Good impulse purchase, me!

    “Down the River Unto the Sea” by Walter Mosley (2018). I’ve always liked Mosley, of “Easy Rawlins” fame, but haven’t read a lot of him. In this one, a former NYPD cop, retired in disgrace after being framed, opens a private detective agency and does some detecting. Good book, but similar in many ways to his Easy Rawlins stories, up to and including an amoral sidekick who luckily likes our hero even while doing amoral things to other people.

    “Exit West” (2017) by Moshin Hamid. Chaffey College’s (where I teach!) One Book, One Campus pick for the upcoming school year. Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize! Whoo-hoo! Two teenagers in an unspecified Middle Eastern country descending into civil war fall in love. Meanwhile: doors magically open up all over the world, allowing you to walk through a door in one country and walk out the other side in a different country. The countries you are walking into aren’t always happy to have massive numbers of immigrants suddenly appearing. Don’t think about the doors too much! The point of the book is the clash of cultures that we are currently experiencing, exaggerated here to make a point. However: as a science fiction fan, I couldn’t help but think about the doors. I mean: those are nuts, right? You’d think the People of Earth would spend a lot more time being astonished by those than they do. Sometimes I feel like “literary” books are stealing our tropes while saying, “Isn’t this amazing?” while us sci-fi fans are saying, “Yeah, and it was pretty amazing when I read ‘The Forgotten Door’ by Alexander Key back in the 1970’s, too.”

    “Without Fail” (2002) by Lee Child. Jack Reacher and his travel toothbrush are hired by the former lover of Reacher’s late brother (see book one in the series!) to protect the Vice President-elect of the United States. He does so! Sorry for spoiling the ending.

    “Cities of the Plain” by Cormac McCarthy (1998). The third in McCarthy’s “Border” trilogy. In this one, the characters from the first two books meet up and cross the border several times. This was a bit more cliched than the first two… There’s a prostitute with a heart of gold who never gets to be a real character, more an idealized saintly prostitute for one of the characters (from the first book in the series) to fall in love with and try to rescue, necessitating a guy (from the second book) to try to come to his rescue. You may not read this one so much for the plot, but McCarthy is an amazing writer who makes it worth it. I like how every single side character they meet in these books is a philosopher who drones on for pages about whatever they want to talk about. Not action-packed, maybe, but McCarthy makes it work.

    “Bugging Out” (2014) by Noah Mann. This is the first book in a series written by a friend of mine! It’s a post-apocalyptic world, thanks to a plant-disease called “The Blight,” and our hero is a survivalist doing his best to get by. This type of book is called a “Prepper,” because it features heroes who have prepped for the end-times. The More You Know™. Our protagonist doesn’t spend a whole lot of time feeling sorry for himself or thinking about everyone he’s ever known who has presumably died, but it’s not that kind of book. Anyway: it might be because I know the author, but I was intrigued enough by this one to want to read further books in the series. Look for more Bugging Out books coming soon!

    • davidallen909

      Doug, it’s never too late to comment on a Reading Log (as you’ve proved once or twice before). It wouldn’t be a Reading Log without you.

      I was at a B&N the other day, noticed half of a bookcase devoted to Lee Child and thought of you.

      You make a good point about “Exit West” — albeit not one I could have made, since I’m not well-read enough in the field — and I suspect in that case and many others, had the novel or story been submitted to, say, the editor of F&SF, the author might have gotten back a rejection slip saying “This has been done many times before. Read more and try again.”

  • Richard_Pietrasz

    Doug Evans may have suspected he was not finally chiming in, but penultimately in terms of recent regulars. I finished 14, padded a bit by short books, four under 200 pages. But with 3 over 700 this is perhaps my longest month ever, over 5200 pages counting endnotes, bibliographies, and indexes, which I at least peruse, use, and count. These include 8 nonfiction and 6 fiction; listed in comments.

    • Richard_Pietrasz

      Redefining the Inland Valley: Illustrated History and Driving Tours. Bob Smith, 1999. Smith defined the IV as the valley portions of the Santa Ana river drainage upstream of the gap South of the Chino Hills and North of the Santa Ana Mountains. For those into physical geography, like me, this is a pretty good definition except I would include the upper slopes, and the IV name was inspired by a local newspaper. This is not great, not bad, but definitely a worthy addition to a bookshelf of local lore.

      The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. Timothy Egan, 2006. This is what the Plies (autocorrect for refugees from Oklahoma) featured in the Grapes of Wrath fled. I now have a greater appreciation for Dust Pneumony Blues by Woody Guthry. This is not my favorite book of the month, but is likely the most important.

      The Great Black Way: LA in the 1940s and the Lost African American Renaissance. Fans of Walter Mosley novels and LA history buffs have some awareness of the significance of Central Avenue in Los Angeles as a community. This tells the story, from early beginnings, the flowering of a culture along the likes of Harlem in the peak of the jazz era, and its dissipation as the black community had the opportunity to suburbanize. Another important book.

      What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. Randall Munroe, 2014. For a certain type of geek, this is geek heaven. Definitely my favorite book of the month, as I am one who does some of these thought problems on my own. It was a weird experience to find in the list of references a paper I hunted up on microfilm almost 40 years ago.

      Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. Fans ( autocorrect strikes again, look up her name) Sobel, 1995. This describes a very important development in maritime navigation technology. The problem was not a science problem but an engineering one. The story had been written up many times before. What Sobel did was remove most of the technical content and package it for mass consumption, which she did very successfully.

      Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders. Joshua Fuer st al, 2006. Many of these places are not that obscure, at least to readers of National Geographic and/or various travel writings, and many of them are nothing close to wonders. I have been to a few of these myself over the years.

      • davidallen909

        You had an excellent month, and we here at the Reading Log doff our hats to you.

        I’ve read three of yours, another record: Their Eyes, Fu Manchu and of course The Fifties, as you note.

        I also found the Fu entry (published in the U.S. as The Insidious Fu Manchu) gripping, with lots of death traps and narrow escapes, but the occasional racism would kick me right out of the story. That element fades as the series progresses, thankfully, and Fu fairly quickly is no longer representing the Asiatic races but acting more as an international mastermind.

    • Richard_Pietrasz

      Now to fiction:

      Midaq Alley. Naguib Mahfouz, 1947. This is a novel of life in Cairo in a low middle class neighborhood during WW2. Perhaps this is the best known novel of this N obel winner. I am somewhat surprised he got away with publishing it in Egypt, due to adult topics, and it did take a few years. The culture is different, but I find this compared well with my last novel of the month.

      The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu. Dad (autocorrect version of a musical instrument played by Charlie Parker and John Coltrane) Rohmer, 1913. Classic pulp fiction, emphasizing yellow peril and the helplessness of women. If one suspends disbelief and political correctness, this is a fun piece of pulp but nothing more. I read some commentary on the series, some of which pointed out that it may be a very subtle satire of European imperialism, and that Fu Manchu is actually an anti-Imperialist hero. If so, the satire was sufficiently subtle to sell well.

      Great Short Stories of the World. Reader’s Digest Association, collected 1974 written previous 100 years. This is a good collection. Some O (substitute a common one letter word) have read before, most not, and some are not that good, and a few are abridged, a specialty of RD.

      A Man For All Seasons. Robert Bolt, 1960. For most of my life, my impression is that this was a great moral classic play. Between the play and Bolt’s intro, I conclude Bolt either is clueless or propagandizing. The setting is the split between England under Henry VIII and the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. As I see it, there is a hierarchy of king, state, and country, and a parallel one of pope,church, and religion. There are strong connections within each trio, but all are distinct although strongly related entities. Sir Thomas More, as presented in the play, and Bolt in his intro, largely ignore these distinctions, and that at its heart, this was not nearly so much a moral issue as a power struggle between the two monarchs.

      The Lies of Locke Lamora. Scott Lynch 2006. This a popular fantasy aimed at the naive “Young Adult” market, and highly praised by others who write for that market. It is entertaining with suspension of disbelief, but glorifies a lot of rotten behavior while not sufficiently over the top for kids to realize it is satire. At least I hope it is satire.

      Their Eyes Were Watching God. Zora Meals (look up non-autocorrect spelling) Hurston, 1937. In some ways similar to Midaq Alley, this is a story of ordinary people and ordinary events. After many years, both novels have a n excellent reputation. I do not know why, but I do agree they deserve it. Most of us are mostly ordinary.