Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The quirkiest book

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, humor, lists

Hrmm. I tagged this review as "nonfiction", but the book is neither fiction nor nonfiction. Oh, there is a little nonfiction in there, but… Well! Let's just see, shall we?

Greg Proops podcasts "The Smartest Man in the World." His new book is The Smartest Book in the World: A Lexicon of Literacy, a Rancorous Reportage, a Concise Curriculum of Cool. I listened to portions of several of the podcasts. They tend to ramble on for an hour or two. Perhaps they include lists of cool stuff, but I didn't run across any. The book's chapters are mainly annotated lists, although "annotated" hasn't nearly enough octane. Seeing how the entries in the chapters titled "The Prooptionary I" and so forth include bits from Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary, the inspiration for the author's style is manifest.

I came close to setting the book aside by the end of the second chapter. That chapter was a list of what to expect, in eleven categories. A couple of portions were sleaze-fests. The third chapter, "Movies I", which reviews Casablanca, Lifeboat, The Grand Illusion, Out of the Past, Gilda, All About Eve, and the Big Sleep, encouraged me to read on. The spate of cussin' and sleazy innuendo early on mars the book, but it seems, from the content of the podcasts, that it is de rigueur for them to go no more than three sentences without dropping at least one F-bomb, S-bomb, or C-bomb. That is not quite to the level of Blue comedians such as Redd Foxx, but I find it sufficiently unpleasant that I was glad the book descended into such realms only rarely.

It seems like half the chapters are various fantasy baseball teams. We're talking wild fantasy here: the tamest team is composed of All-Stars, from Casey Stengel and Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth to Sandy Koufax and Barry Bonds. Later on we find a team of "controversial" ballplayers such as Muggsy McGraw, Pete Rose and Steve Garvey. There is one of British Monarchs; a sample: putting Ethelred the Unready on Second Base, Proops writes, "Ethelred's full name says it all. He tried killing the Vikings, then bribing the Vikings. Bad planning and versatile? Certainly flexible. He can go in the hole and turn two." And of Elizabeth II as Pitcher, "After a million years in the show, Elizabeth has staying power and the crazy fastball." He has teams of Women in History, of Dictators, and on a slightly more serious note, his All-Time Negro League Team, in which he mentions Satchel Paige for the zillionth time (yeah, he idolizes Paige), and also other genuine greats such as Buck Leonard, Smoky Joe Williams, and Monte Irvin. Then we find a couple of chapters on baseball history, which are actually heavy on the history and lighter on the dark humor. This guy does love baseball.

There are at least five chapters on Movies, one on Drugs, six on Music, and scattered one-offs such as Vodka-flavored Vodka. Where the best old-time Vaudevilleans such as Red Skelton were masters of the gentle dig and broad humor of a clever mold, Proops makes rather sharper digs, and he has a heavier touch. I guess I halfway warmed to his kind of humor, at least of the written variety. I don't plan to partake of any more of his podcasts. Those who like 'em probably really love 'em. I prefer a humorist who treads on higher ground.

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