Friday, August 31, 2012

Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World

1973, 1974 Scholastic edition
Alan Fennell
Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World
Original price unknown, bought used for 75 cents
Very worn paperback with split spine

Digby was one of the many so-bad-they're-good children's movies that Southern Californian TV stations played frequently in the late 1970s and early '80s.  (Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and the Pippi films were also shown at least twice a year.)  The Digby book is reasonably faithful to the movie, but it lacks three things: the hilariously cheap special effects, the lilting but bouncy theme song, and a cast that includes Spike Milligan pretending to be German and a relatively young Jim Dale, years before he became the Harry Potter audiobook narrator for Americans.  (Stephen Fry is better, but that's a topic for another blog.)  What we're left with is a very cliched story about a dog that accidentally drinks Project X and becomes 30 feet tall.  It does include photos from the movie (including the incredibly fake-looking giant cucumber), so this gets a C+ rather than a C.

Very Special People

1973, 1976 Bantam edition
Frederick Drimmer
Very Special People: The Struggles, Loves and Triumphs of Human Oddities
Probably bought new for $1.95
Very worn paperback with split spine

In Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!, the title character, who is a young "fat lady," likes to read about bizarre people, like the Elephant Man.  She would enjoy this book, although Drimmer emphasizes the humanity within those that were sometimes called "freaks" and "monsters."  From those of unusual size (weight and/or height) to those born with more or less than normal (Siamese twins, people with extra or fewer limbs, or more hair, etc.) to those harder to classify ("hermaphrodites" and, yes, John Merrick), he describes many unusual lives, in a page or maybe a chapter.  (Two chapters for Tom Thumb and his bride Lavinia.)  In fact, that's one of the weaknesses of the book, that Drimmer tries to cover too much.  Some of the people he mentions deserve whole books in themselves, and Drimmer in fact wrote a 1985 book called The Elephant Man.  I also would've liked it if the 32 pages of photos were in the order that the figures appear in the book.

This edition seems to have been updated a bit, since Drimmer includes the additional information a reader sent about the surprising lives and deaths of the two bearded wives of a showman named Lent, with one wife's mummy still on display in 1975. The book is aimed at a junior high level or above (VL7, IL 7-adult), with a fairly simple vocabulary for an adult book but with some mature content.  As a preteen (or younger) I found it not too challenging a read, even if I didn't know what a "vulva" or an "anus" was in the section on conjoined twins.  Speaking of such twins, Drimmer discusses how Mark Twain gave a satiric twist to the lives of two famous 19th-century sets in Those Extraordinary Twins.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Any Old Way You Choose It

1973, probably first paperback edition, from Penguin
Robert Christgau
Any Old Way You Choose It: Rock and Other Pop Music, 1967-1973
Original and purchase price unknown
Worn paperback

As with Richard Schickel's movie reviews, there's a lot in here I'm probably never going to experience, such as Joy of Cooking and Bill Graham.  However, Christgau has a more interesting style, sometimes funny, sometimes thoughtful, occasionally both.  As the subtitle indicates, the reviews and short essays cover the late '60s and the early '70s, and I think this is the first book in the project to address how the '70s seem to be different than the previous decade.  Some of Christgau's guesses are wrong, but that's understandable. 

If I had to pick one sentence to represent the book, it would be "After the show I talked briefly to Country Joe [McDonald]-- he corrected my pronunciation of 'macho,' a task ordinarily performed by women-- and then drove in to hear Stevie Wonder at the Bitter End."  Christgau is a white man who loves soul music in a non-condescending way, and he supports feminism.  Yet he's not overbearingly p.c., he just seems concerned with fairness. 

And he's still out there, reviewing away at age 70, in magazines as of old, but also at .  (I looked up Katy Perry because that was the first "contemporary" singer I could think of.)

Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo

1973, undated Simon and Schuster edition
Joe Adamson
Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo: A Celebration of the Marx Brothers (alternate subtitle A History of the Marx Brothers and a Satire on the Rest of the World)
Original price $10.00, purchase price unknown
Hardcover with stains and broken spine but no way am I getting rid of it

The last A- I read was from 1934, so long ago that the Marx Brothers were transitioning from Paramount to MGM.  In fact, I almost made this the first A, but the section on the two Thalberg movies went on too long.  Adamson has written an appreciation of the Marxes that is as funny as they are, no small feat.  I got this book as a teenager, and it not only shaped my evaluation of the movies (roughly a rise to Duck Soup and a gradual fall for the next eight), but I picked up a couple of his writing tics.  One is the heavy use of self-interruption, particularly parentheses.  The other is sometimes tortured wordplay.  (He states at one point that a pun isn't funny; it's the audacity of telling a pun that's funny.)

I think Adamson was the first to get the Marxes' birth years right, and you know he's writing in the 1970s because he mentions the astrological signs.  (Chico was a "restless Aries.")  He also sorted out what he calls "Antiquity," their vaudeville roots on through to the first two movies, both based on successful stageplays.  He discusses the contradictory stories in various earlier books, including Arthur Marx's books on Groucho, as well as the anecdotes of the people he interviewed.  I'm especially pleased that he spoke with the screenwriters.  In particular, erudite S. J. Perelman (Monkey Business, Horse Feathers) would be dead six years later, and Harry Ruby (music for Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup, as well as close friendship with Groucho) would be gone the February after this book came out. 

Chico died in 1961 (of the eulogy, "He did not have an evil or a mischievous thought in his soul," Adamson comments, "It must have seemed like a nice thing to say"), Harpo in 1964 (Adamson says his soul can't be resting, "at peace, of course, always.  But at rest, never"), but Groucho was still around and even read this book in manuscript.  As the title implies, Adamson acknowledges Zeppo, and Gummo, but they're understandably not a huge part of the book.  Funniest is "(Figure 1) Nausea Rating," which assesses the appeal or lack of the various male romantic leads that clutter the movies, with The Big Store's Tony Martin "just about tops," while in last place is "Zeppo Marx (you remember)." 

The third chapter is about what Adamson considers the three "real" Marx Bros movies, the very movies that other books to that point "brush one subordinate clause."  He goes into detail about how these movies were made and what resulted.  (He spends at least as much time on Night at the Opera and Day at the Races in the fourth chapter, but like I said, I don't care as much.)  Somehow he can explain the logic of illogicality, without killing the humor, like how when Harpo literally cuts the cards with an axe in Horse Feathers, the players are annoyed, not scared.  The extras in Monkey Business become "the faceless they," and Groucho is having an existential crisis in Duck Soup (where he isn't actually anywhere, so maybe he and Chico never meet), and Adamson pulls this all off, don't ask me how.

He not tells what works, he tells what doesn't work, particularly in chapter six, "Joy Becomes Laughter."  (The short fifth chapter, "Intermission," explains why Room Service doesn't meet the Webster's definition of a Marx Brothers movie.)  He not only points out why the last five movies aren't very funny, but how Groucho, Harpo, and Chico have been character-assassinated by then.  Not that he's wowed by their first movie either.  (He thinks Animal Crackers is "approximately five times the better film.")  Whether I'm reading about The Cocoanuts [sic] or watching the movie, I still burst into giggles for the jail-break scene:

"The limit is reached when Chico completely forgets his lines....Chico is trying to tell Bob Adams that Polly Potter is going to get married if he doesn't hurry up and break out of jail.  When Bob Adams asks him who is going to get married to her, all Chico can say is 'Polly' again.  Finally, Oscar Shaw, who is doing his best to play Bob Adams, realizes that Chico is never going to get the line right and blurts out, 'Do you mean that Polly is going to marry Harvey Yates?'  (Chico has said nothing to give him that impression.)  'Yeah,' says Chico.  'That's right.'"

Before I had this book, I would watch the Marx Bros movies and not really notice anything except what was obviously funny.  After that, I became a more observant viewer, and sure enough, that scene became hilarious for the wrong reasons.  (Chico even says, "Polly.  Engaged to Polly.")

And for some reason, maybe better quote selections, I could "hear" the Marxes' inflections on the lines better than I could with Anobile's book.  Not that Adamson neglects Harpo.  He salutes Harpo's magical ability to bring anything (like a candle lit at both ends) out of his ratty old raincoat and to exaggerate normal emotions to a cartoonish level.  Adamson offers a blank page to "represent ghostly, unreal silence" for the mirror scene in Duck Soup, a Tristam-Shandy-ish touch, but then he actually does analyze this dialogueless classic scene.  (I just wish he hadn't omitted what I think of as the "ta-da moment," where Harpo cheats and doesn't spin.)  He says, "The mirror scene is everything it should be.  It is more, in fact, than it seems it could ever in the world be able to be.  We even feel a sense of outrage that it should be allowed to be all that, without anybody stopping it."

And that's how I feel about this book, which I could quote till the cows come home.  Or I could quote the cows till you come home.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Clock Winder

1972, 1992 Ivy Books edition
Anne Tyler
The Clock Winder
Probably purchased new, for $5.99
Worn paperback with lower corners torn off

Tyler continues to improve in this, her fourth novel.  The setting is now mostly Baltimore, although there is a section in which the title character, Elizabeth "the handyman," goes home to North Carolina.  She feels overwhelmed by the problems of the eccentric Emerson family, particularly when Timothy Emerson commits suicide right in front of her.  But the family, matriarch Mrs. Emerson especially, can't live without her, and she decides she needs them to need her.  Some of the issues from the earlier books, like unappealing brothers interfering with the main romance, and a feeling that some of the characters are underdeveloped, are still a problem, but less so.  Even that main romance, between Elizabeth and Matthew Emerson, is a vast improvement over anything in the first three books, although the story does show more reasons why they should be apart than why they should be together.

Most importantly, the dry, gentle Anne Tyler style has finally appeared, now that she's in her 30s, so that this is the first of her books that's recognizably hers.  Before, she showed the flaws of her characters, but she didn't give us reasons to like them.  Here, everyone is essentially likable, even when they're irritating. 

I keep wanting to say something about the way she portrays blacks, because I feel like it's stereotypical, in the first two books in particular, but the white characters were so cardboard, it didn't seem like an important criticism.  Here, as in Slipping-Down Life, the only black characters we see are servants (including the previous handyman, who "waters the roses" on the first page).  Alvareen the cook misspells words in her letters to Elizabeth, but she's not stupid, probably just not well-educated.  I don't think Anne Tyler is racist exactly, but she's not un-racist either.  (Sort of like some of the male writers I've been reading, who are neither feminist nor anti-feminist.)  As a white woman, I'm not the best judge, but it is something I think about.  We're not talking obvious Silver Princess of Oz level racism, or even that in some of the Little House series.  It's just a maybe-ish racism.  And I'll come back to this, for Breathing Lessons (1988) at least.

Oh, and only 40 years left of this project!  We just got through a long, crazy decade, and it's only going to get longer and crazier in the decade ahead.

Just a French Major from the Bronx

1972, possibly first edition, from Popular Library
G. B. Trudeau
Just a French Major from the Bronx
Original price 95 cents, purchase price 75 cents
Slightly worn paperback

Very early look at Mike Doonesbury and friends, although not the earliest, as these are from the first syndicated newspaper strips rather than The Yale Daily News.  This means that there's no nudity, and the drug humor has been toned down.  There's of course quite a bit of political humor, including Mike meeting Nixon (not shown) and Humphrey (illustrated).  There's also a higher proportion of black characters than later, most prominently radical Calvin and Mike's ghetto teen tutee Rufus.  Female characters are only in a strip or two each, no Joanie or Boopsie yet.  The title comes from a hockey game Mike plays.  Overall, a mildly amusing slice of its time, the still-very-'60s early 1970s.  I'll say more when we get to the lengthier collections.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Second Sight: Notes on Some Movies, 1965-1970

1972, first edition, from Simon and Schuster
Richard Schickel
Second Sight: Notes on Some Movies, 1965-1970
Original price unknown, $8.95
Good condition hardcover

In 1989 Movietime had a great half-hour discussion program on current pop culture, called Word of Mouth, and one of the regulars was Richard Schickel.  I liked him on there, and I enjoyed his 1968 book The Disney Version.  But I think this is only the second time I've read this collection of his film reviews.  Although he's a good writer, there are two problems here.  One, most of the movies he criticizes I'll probably never see.  And the ones I have seen, like M*A*S*H and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, I don't really care what he thinks of, since I disagree with his attitudes towards, among other things, violence and what he calls "faggery."  I haven't seen every movie Rex Reed reviewed in the overlapping period, but his style was so fun anyway, I didn't mind.  The most interesting aspect to this book is Schickel's review of his reviews, the follow-ups he does one to five years later, sometimes disagreeing with himself, but I'm still not going to see those movies anyway, so I can't judge if the reassessments are merited.

This is probably the best of the books I'm getting rid of, but since it's of no use to me, it seems silly to cart it around through any more moves.

Freaky Friday

1972, 1977 Perennial Library (Harper & Row) movie tie-in edition
Mary Rodgers
Freaky Friday
Probably bought new, for $1.25
Worn paperback

It's hard for me to be brief about this book because I read it so much as a kid.  That this copy isn't in worse shape is due to my owning an earlier edition, with the wonderful Edward Gorey cover.  I had to get this edition though because the 1976 movie version was one of my favorites from Disney.  Yes, they changed Annabel's and her mother's hair from brown to blonde, but it was otherwise perfectly cast, from Patsy Kelly as boozy Mrs. Schmauss to John Astin as Annabel's father, Mr. Andrews, and to this day I most identify Barbara Harris with the movie.  (Jodie Foster had a string of wise-ass teenager roles already.) 

They also changed it from New York City to the California suburbs.  The setting does matter in the book, because one of the issues between Annabel and her mother is how dangerous it is for Annabel to go places on her own, and when Annabel's mind is in her mother's body, and she's not quite sure whose mind is in her own body, she gets really scared about her body's safety.  What if she's injured and her mother understandably wants to switch bodies back?

And what if her mother doesn't want to switch back?  There's a weird undercurrent because, although Annabel's parents sleep in separate beds, her father will probably want to have sex, especially when Annabel wants to go see a dirty flick like Brucey & Betsy.  In the 2003 movie version, which changed a lot including names, the parents are divorced but Tess the mom is engaged.  In both movies (and the 1995 Shelley Long TV-movie, which I've never seen), outside forces cause the switch, while in the book, it's all Mom's doing.  In 1976, mother and daughter simultaneously wish aloud to swap, while in '95 it's "a pair of magical amulets" (?!), and in '03 it's a set of fortune cookies.  That version adds racist stereotypes, which some casual viewers blame on the "dated" book!

Yeah, OK, the book is dated, but not in that way.  If anything, Rodgers and/or Annabel go out of their way to show how liberal they are.  One of the reasons Annabel fires Mrs. Schmauss is because the latter is racist.  (But the thing about the "colored pencil" is funny!)  When Annabel imagines scenarios for her crush Boris to realize she's "the beautiful kidnapper" (too long to explain), she pictures herself on the phone with different guys, including "a black friend of mine called-- let's see...called--uh--Gordon."  Sounds like she's been watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Sesame Street, and sounds like she's trying too hard.

Annabel is also into Women's Lib, and calls both her father and her six-year-old brother Ben (nicknamed "Ape Face") male chauvinist pigs.  She has her own assumptions about gender roles though, and is surprised that Boris can cook.

Getting back to the switch, Mrs. Andrews does it to show Annabel how hard adulthood, in this case the life of an urban housewife, is.  She herself learns a bit about how hard it is to be 13, but unlike in the movies we get only a glimpse of her side of the switch, and she ditches school, so it's not a typical day anyway.  (The captions to the movie stills in this edition try to get around this contradiction, and then imply that Annabel enjoys smoking while in her mother's body, which isn't true in either book or movie.)  While the idea of a "typical mom" who has secret magic powers is intriguing, I think in this case the movies were right to split things equal time.  That's what Rodgers herself does in Summer Switch, where Annabel's father and brother swap for a longer time.  (I've read it once, and it wasn't as good as the original, or the middle book, A Billion for Boris, 1974.)

Just as Sheila Levine is Dead... is in the form of a suicide note, this New York novel turns out to be a special project for the English class that Annabel is flunking.  After going to a parent-teacher conference, Annabel realizes what an underachiever she is, so she spends the whole weekend after the freaky Friday writing "a long paper," with Morris (Boris's real name) typing it up.  She even includes the grade she got on it, although maybe we're meant to think she added the last page later.  And she circles back to the classic beginning, "You are not going to believe me...When I woke up this morning, I found I'd turned into my mother."

I could go on and on about this book, but I'll try to limit myself to just a few more observations.  I feel like I read it before I could read it, in the sense that there's a lot of weird phrasing that I just didn't get, like when Annabel imagines a headline of "INSANE MOTHER OF TWO STABS FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD BABYSITTER WITH BALL-POINT PEN," and for a long time I thought "stabs" was supposed to be a noun.  The imaginary book titles with Swedish brothers Spunk and Zip are still laugh-out-loud.  Rodgers will sometimes throw in a "zonk" or some other cartoonish sound effect, for emphasis.  I don't know if this is her trying to sound adolescent or hip, or if it's just her own offbeat phraseology.  Annabel is very verbal, and that appealed to me as a kid, even when I didn't quite get it.

I went back and forth on whether this is children's or YA, just like I couldn't decide between B or B+ for awhile.  Part of the problem is that Annabel is both a kid (still with a dollhouse and a canopy bed) and a young adolescent who goes to parties with kissing games.  While it obviously can be read by preteens, I'm going to go with a young YA (junior high), because it does mention drugs and rape, and it's aimed at roughly the same age group as Why Not Join the Giraffes? (1968).  Dinky Hocker is more of a high-school YA I think, because it's darker.

As for B or B+, that is hard.  I will always feel great affection for this book, because it was so much a part of my childhood, even if in the late '70s a line like "Our generation cares about the environment" already sounded so dated, not just because ecology was less of an issue than in the early '70s (strange but true) but because of Annabel's earnestness/self-righteousness.  Yet I have to think about how Freaky Friday looks to me as an adult, especially as part of this project.  What the 37 B+s (so far) all have in common is "Wow!" moments.  I was certainly entertained this time through but I wasn't wowed.

Yet there are good moments, like when Annabel and Ape Face learn that you can hate someone and love them at the same time.  My feelings about this book aren't that extreme.  I don't love this book, but I could write about it for hours.  Knowing that A Billion for Boris isn't too far off, I'm holding back my thoughts on such subjects as Annabel's relationship with Boris, the friendship of each with Ape Face, and continuity.  OK, real quick.  No matter whose mind is in your body, you can't be five feet tall and then five feet three a few hours later!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York

1972, 1977 Bantam edition
Gail Parent
Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York
Original price $1.95, purchase price unknown
Very worn paperback

A comedic novel as a suicide note?  Well, it's the 1970s.  Sheila explains how from infancy onward she was led to believe that she should get married, but the 1960s came along and spoiled everything.  One gripe is that there are too many gay men, although the main gay man she's interested in is incredibly lazy and self-centered, so he wouldn't be much of a catch if he were straight.  She's also pursued by a lesbian, who ironically treats her better than any of the men do. 

As the title says, Sheila lives in New York City, where apparently few of the men want to get married.  She could move somewhere more traditional, but she thinks this would upset her very Jewish mother.  (Sheila is basically a stranger to her father and younger sister.)  Or she could find a new goal, since her pursuit of a husband is ruining her life.  She dates a thoroughly unappealing man named Norman for 7 years (!) just because he's the closest to a potential husband.  It's implied that she should marry a Jewish man, but she'll settle for a handsome goy.

Meanwhile she has apartments, jobs, and friends that she doesn't like.  (Linda is tolerated because she's too picky to get married.)  Sheila complains about everything, including the many men she sleeps with in the hopes that one of them will propose.

So what's to like?  Well, the book is sometimes funny, especially her attempts to plan her own funeral.  (Funnier if you've read The Loved One and The American Way of Death.)  It's also a portrait of a generation of women who came slightly before the Baby Boom (Sheila is born in '41 or '42) and got caught between the messages of their childhood and the reality of their adulthood.  As an overweight, self-deprecating Jew, she's a bit like TV's Rhoda Morgenstern, and I can only hope that as the '70s progressed she, like Rhoda, developed more confidence and happiness.  The book sort of ends on a happier note, as she decides, "I don't want to die.  I want to date!"

The Descent of Woman

1972, 1973 Bantam edition
Elaine Morgan
The Descent of Woman
Original price unknown, purchase price $1.65
Worn paperback

This is a lively, thought-provoking but deeply flawed look at evolution.  Morgan is trying to rebut what she calls the "Tarzanist" view of "the descent of man," as explained by Desmond Morris and the amusingly named Lionel Tiger.  The most intriguing part of her book is a premise she admits that she borrowed from Sir Alister Hardy, that we were once "aquatic apes," primates that waded into the water during the hottest part of the Pliocene era.  That's why we've got less hair and more fat than most land mammals, and why we resemble sea mammals more than you'd expect.

One of the similarities is that the vagina shifted towards the front and so face-to-face sex, a rarity among land mammals, came into being.  And here's where we find the deepest flaw in her theory.  She argues that Ancient Man, in his frustration at no longer being able to get in doggy-style (his penis not yet having grown long enough), forced his way in the front.  For an unspecified amount of time (millennia I guess, but she doesn't say how many), the human race was reproduced solely through rape.  You don't have to be Todd Akin to find this insane.  As Morgan tells it, Man flung Woman on her back and, since she was in estrus, he got on top of her, despite her frightened protests.  This despite the fact that Morgan elsewhere says that Man isn't as aggressive as the Tarzanists claim. 

Couldn't her editor or best friends have pointed out to Morgan that there were other possibilities?  What about Ancient Woman climbing on Ancient Man?  Or face-to-face standing sex?  And why does she think that foreplay came along centuries or millennia later, rather than immediately?  If hominids were out in the water (about four feet deep), couldn't they observe the nonviolent face-to-face coitus of their friends the whales and dolphins, and thought Hm, let's try that on land?

The odd thing is, Morgan might describe herself as a feminist, although she disagrees with radical feminists on such issues as marriage and children.  She seems to think that men never have and never will take on any child-rearing, which just isn't so, and wasn't even true 40 years ago.  Her view of men is similar to Elizabeth Gould Davis's, that men are big, clumsy, dumb, kind of ugly, lustful beasts, although as the wife of one and the mother of three she seems to have an affection for them, unlike Davis.  "You big lug" as opposed to "you beast!"

Her view of women is much more negative than Davis's image of them as goddesses on Earth.  Ancient Woman is in this book a sweet, affectionate, creative, hard-working dear but sort of passive and almost as thick as her man.  Sometimes Morgan forgets Woman's role in evolution (even as a passive object acted upon by Man and weather), most startlingly in the chapter "Speech," which she sees, like a Tarzanist, as starting among male hunters.  This despite the fact that women are generally regarded as more verbal than men.  That may be a stereotype, but she doesn't even address the idea.  As it does with The First Sex, The Great Cosmic Mother uses the evidence to greater effect, and convincingly argues that gatherers have more need to communicate verbally than hunters.  (For one thing, plants aren't going to run off if they hear you.)

For those keep tracking, Morgan is Welsh (and does have a wonderfully Celtic name that would thrill Markale), while Greer is Australian turned British, and Millett is and Davis (the only one yet deceased) was American.  I don't know if that affects these women's perspectives, but Morgan does talk about how the U.S. seemed to lead the way in feminism and other changes.  Monica Sjöö and Barbara Mor, whose GCM I'm getting impatient to read, were Swedish and American respectively.  (Mor might still be alive.)

As for the best part of this book, the theory of the aquatic ape, it's been generally dismissed.  So I guess you can read this book as a very dated early attempt to give a more balanced view of evolution, and you can try to ignore the flaws.  Oh, and English Lit majors can have fun spotting the references to Dickens, Austen, and Stella Gibbons.  (Two uncredited references to seeing something nasty in the woodshed!)

Friday, August 24, 2012

Women of the Celts

1972, 1986 Inner Traditions International edition
Jean Markale
Translated by A. Mygind, C. Hauch, and P. Henry
Women of the Celts
Probably bought newish, for $12.95
Good condition paperback

I think I've only read this book once before, and I can see why.  Although I like the idea of the book, examining Celtic mythology to see what we can apply to modern life, it's surprisingly dull.  There were moments when I was drawn in, but this is the first book in awhile that I found myself putting off reading.  If you read it, do so for the myths, not for the interpretations.

Ironically, it wasn't till I looked it up online that I found out that Markale was a man (Jean being a masculine name in France, as I knew but forgot), so now I'm seeing it in a different light.  Not that it makes it any better or worse a book, but it does make me look at his observations on women's sexuality and feminism differently.  And I'd thought it was weird that a woman wrote, "Until now, only poets have really understood woman.  This is probably because woman, like poetry, is a continuous creation....What mystery surrounds this strange character!" 

Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!

1972, 1981 Laurel-Leaf edition
M. E. Kerr
Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!
Probably bought new, for $1.95
Paperback with water damage and possibly mold

Very much a period piece, but still "relevant" as they would've said back then, this tells of four teens who don't fit in, except maybe with each other.  The main character Tucker likes cats and libraries, so he sees himself as not a typical 15-year-old guy.  (I assume it's coincidence that he's another New Yorker named Tucker, although his personality is very different from Selden's mouse.)  His father loses his job and develops a psychosomatic allergy to the cat, Nader (yes, after Ralph, although I think it's also a pun on "Nadir").  Tucker gives the cat away to Susan, a sarcastic, overweight girl whose nickname is ironically Dinky.  Her mentally ill cousin Natalia moves in, so Tucker meets her and falls for her.  Meanwhile, Tucker befriends overweight, right-wing intellectual P. John.  When Natalia says she'll go to a dance with Tucker if he can find a date for Dinky, a double-date ensues, but it doesn't turn out the way anyone expects. 

The title is in a way a spoiler, since it's what Dinky spray-paints all over the neighborhood the night her mother gets an award for her work in the community, particularly helping drug addicts.  But the book isn't about Dinky's addiction to food so much as it's about the need to communicate with those you love, whether boyfriends and girlfriends, or parents and children.  Dinky's mother is both a good person and the most unpleasant character in the book.  She's self-righteous, and she interferes in the relationships of her daughter and her niece because she assumes the worst.  Meanwhile, Tucker and Natalia have trouble talking until he comes up with the Balloon Game.

There's also the thread of children not understanding their parents, as when Tucker realizes that his mother wants a real career, not just writing for confession magazines.  (The excerpts from her stories are hilarious.)  Even Uncle "Jingle" Bell turns out to be more complicated than he seems.

The generation gap is important to the story but not unbridgeable.  I found it interesting that the dance has a '50s theme, and Tucker is uncomfortable with how sentimental the songs are.  He prefers the already "classic" Beatles songs, with their uncertainty, like "Something."

This became an ABC Afterschool Special in 1979, starring Wendie Jo Sperber, soon to be on Bosom Buddies.  If I saw it at the time, it would've been before I got this copy.  I wonder if it had that same sort of alienating feeling that this book has, a feeling that keeps me from rating it higher.  But, yes, I'll have to buy another copy someday.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

More Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions

1972, 1979 Warner edition
Al Jaffee
MAD's Al Jaffee Spews Out More Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions
Possibly bought new for $1.50
Nonetheless, paperback in decent condition, although writing inside (see below)

I think these were funnier when I was a kid.  This time, I smiled but didn't laugh.  In some cases, Jaffee provides blank balloons for you to come up with your own answers, and I filled out a few of these long ago.  Like when the old lady asks the last of several children walking into a building labeled "PUBLIC SCHOOL" if it's his school, I wrote, "No, it's a midget convention."  If Jaffee can't be funnier than an 11-year-old, it's not saying much.

Overall, the book isn't very topical, but there is a picture of a very ugly woman, the only female member of a gang of crooks, and she has a tattoo on her arm of the feminist fist.  In the background, there's a pin-up on the wall of "Miss Gunmoll," maybe to show the contrast of fantasy to reality?  Oh, Mr. Jaffee, I've got a couple questions for you about this....


1972, 2003 Phoenix edition
Michael Grant
Original price $19.95, purchase price $3.00
Slightly worn paperback

While a vast improvement over Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, this still doesn't quite capture the Egyptian queen.  Grant's tone is a little too dry at first, although he can dish dirt, as when he talks about the propaganda battle waged by Octavian.  I would've liked to have seen more about both Cleopatra's personality and her domestic politics.  (There's plenty on her foreign policy.)  Also, you can't just say of your biographical subject that she had "no moral feeling" without supporting it.  Yes, she had members of her own family killed, but people seldom say Henry VIII had no moral feeling.  What made Cleopatra worse than other ruthless rulers? 

The maps and family trees are reasonably clear, and Grant does his best to distinguish between all the similarly named people.  (For instance, Cleopatra's older sister was Cleopatra VI.)  The artwork, from contemporary coins to centuries-later paintings, shows the way images of Cleopatra VII changed over time.  She was actually rather plain-looking with a hooked nose, but artists of the Renaissance and later liked to portray her as a lovely, semi-nude brunette, usually with the fatal snake.  Tiepolo's very 18th-century presentation of Antony meeting (clothed) Cleopatra is priceless in its anachronisms.

Julie of the Wolves

1972, undated but "celebrating the 25th anniversary," from HarperTrophy
Jean Craighead George
Illustrated by John Schoenherr
Julie of the Wolves
Bought newish for $4.95
Slightly worn paperback

This book reminds me of Island of the Blue Dolphins in that it's about a "native" teenager surviving in the wildnerness with the help of animal friends and, like IoBD, it won the Newbery.  However, Julie/Miyax is a less interesting character and I definitely never had a moment, as a child or an adult, of wishing I could live her life, as I've sometimes wanted to trade places with Karana.  The book is told in three parts, with the middle part a set of flashbacks to Julie's first thirteen years, ending with her fleeing her young, possibly mentally retarded husband who attempts to rape her.  Along with the abusive relationship of her husband's parents, this is disturbing and surprising content for a book aimed at "10up" as the back cover says.  I understand why it's there, to show why Miyax must escape, but I think I would've actually preferred that the story be told in order if George wanted to get that dark.

I didn't care all that much for Julie's life among the wolves either, since it was just as much about dominance as her Eskimo life and what she sees of white "civilization."  And I know I shouldn't have laughed, but equating San Francisco-- of all places and at such a time!-- with violence is funny to me.  I wanted to tell Miyax, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.

So what's good about the book?  I did like seeing Miyax's attempts to communicate with the wolves, and some of the descriptions of nature are nice.  Schoenherr's few illustrations are slightly better than the text in conveying mood.  But this can't have been the best children's book of the year.  (Not that I'd expect Freaky Friday to win of course.)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Hedda and Louella

1972, 1973 Warner edition
George Eells
Hedda and Louella
Original price $1.75, purchase price unknown
Very worn paperback with stains

Eells's "dual biography" of the sometimes duelling gossip columnists mostly alternates chapters on each woman, although he does address their feud and friendship.  Both lived very long lives, Hedda dying at about 80 in '66, and Louella hanging on into her early 90s, going at the end of the year this book was originally published.  In the early 1970s, "when many actors now consider marriage passé, when nude scenes are commonplace, when the star system is in disrepute," the two writers were definitely of another era, but there were still people who feared to talk about them.  On the other hand, Fabian couldn't even remember which one thought of herself as one of his biggest supporters.

Louella Parsons was stouter and more sentimental, although she could be cruel.  Hedda Hopper actually reminds me of Jennie Churchill, in that she looked eternally young and beautiful, and she could cry about her loneliness and then go to a swinging party.  (A similar anecdote appears in Jennie II.)  Hopper hid her kindnesses, but she was definitely vindictive, especially towards suspected Communists.  Parsons took pride in her errors and called one of her autobiographies The Gay Illiterate.  Hopper's last book accused Michael Wilding of being gay in the more modern sense, so he sued her for libel.

Eells does an OK job of pulling it all together, but at times keeping track of the in(s)anity of both women seems to overwhelm him.  The former Elda Furry went through a few name changes before settling on Hedda Hopper.  She was tired of DeWolf Hopper calling her by the names of his four previous wives-- Edna, Ida, Ella, and Nella.  Eells's footnote:  "So Hedda is also a two-syllable name ending in a?  Well, whoever accused the volatile Miss Hopper of being either logical or consistent?"

MADvertising, or Up Madison Ave.

1972, two copies, one undated from Signet, the other 1979 from Warner
Written by Dick DeBartolo
Illustrated by Bob Clarke
MADvertising, or Up Madison Ave. 
Original prices $1.25 and $1.50, purchase prices unknown and 35 cents respectively
Both very worn paperbacks but the latter is falling apart

The better (although probably earlier) copy belonged to my then-future-ex-brother-in-law, who must've got it in junior high, because he wrote his classroom numbers, along with his name.  The front covers are different but the content seems to be the same, even the two-page spread for "Freak Out Flights," the hippie airline.  I find Clarke's artwork a little bland (even when he's drawing sexy girls), and DeBartolo's writing is sharper in A MAD Look at Old Movies.  Probably the best insight is how film critics' words are often taken out of context, e.g. "What could have been a very funny film...."  So in that spirit, this is neither the best nor the worst MAD book I've ever read.

Virginia Woolf: A Biography

1972, undated Harcourt Brace Jovanovich edition, with both volumes in one binding
Quentin Bell
Virginia Woolf: A Biography
Original price unknown, purchase price $3.95
Very worn paperback

Bell writes of his aunt with surprising fairness and honesty.  He also presents a balanced view of his mother, father, and Virginia's widower, all of whom lived into the 1960s.  As odd as it may sound, the book's weakness is its subject, particularly the sections on her writing.  I much preferred the side "characters," including her various aunts, although there is a great moment when Leonard defends an old drunk woman from the police, forgetting that he's dressed as the Carpenter for a Lewis Carroll costume party, and Virginia is the March Hare.  As I noted in my review of Orlando, I generally find Virginia Woolf too arty and serious, although Bell does show her more whimsical side, particularly in the first volume.  I probably would prefer a book that was on the Bloomsburyites in general, rather than her specifically, or maybe focusing on Vanessa, whom I think lived the more interesting life. 

Reedited to add, I completely forgot to address Virginia's sexual orientation!  When I first read the book, I was surprised to find that far from being a flaming dyke, Virginia had a love for women, and sometimes men, that was mostly asexual and more of the heart.  She was molested by her half-brother when she was in her teens, and perhaps for that reason disliked the idea of sex.  She loved her devoted, understanding husband, but she was frigid with him.  Even with Vita Sackville-West, it was mostly an "emotional" affair.  Still funny though that the topic completely slipped my mind, since I had brought it up in my Orlando post.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Getting Even

1972, post-1974 Warner edition
Woody Allen
Getting Even
Original price $1.75, purchase price $1.50
Very worn paperback with stains and water damage

A humor collection, mostly reprinted from The New Yorker, this holds up pretty well, with its blend of intellectualism and silliness.  My favorites are "Spring Bulletin," with imaginary but almost plausible adult education courses; "Hassidic Tales," with dubious lessons; and "A Twenties Memory," where Fitzgerald based a protagonist on the rememberer, while some of their friends thought he based his life on Fitzgerald's protagonist, "and I finally wound up getting sued by a fictional character."  Oddly enough, Allen's story of the invention of the sandwich uses the real birth and death years of the Earl, although the rest is pure whimsy.  And, no, I don't know what the title means.

The books advertised in the back include Without Feathers, which is why this edition couldn't have come out before 1975.

Sappho Was a Right-On Woman

1972, 1978 Day Books edition
Sidney Abbott & Barbara Love
Sappho Was a Right-On Woman: A Liberated View of Lesbianism
Original price unknown, purchase price $1.50
Very worn paperback

Very much a product of this time, this offers an early look at Lesbian (always capitalized by the authors) life in an era of Women's Liberation and Gay Liberation.  Although sexism in the latter movement gets some attention, much more of the book addresses the homophobia of Betty Friedan and others, although Lesbians gained allies that included straight feminists Caroline Bird and Susan Brownmiller.  I was also pleasantly surprised to see that George McGovern offered his support of gay rights, I think the first mainstream presidential candidate to do so.  Kate Millett's harsh treatment by Time because of her bisexuality is discussed in particular.  (But what idiot left the final T off her name on the back cover quote?  Tsk, tsk, Day Books.)

This book was published three years after Stonewall, and the two parts, called "What It Was Like" and "Living the Future," deliberately play up the transition from a time when if a Lesbian was lucky she could at best meet her peers in a Mafia-run gay bar (not an option to rural, suburban, or closeted women), compared to the founding of all sorts of social and/or political groups for queer women. 

The authors are relatively accepting of bisexual women, and even say that they wish that bi women would offer their perspectives more often.  There were then no out bi women in N.O.W. for instance.  Biphobia existed from both sides, as it does today.  Trans issues don't come up at all, an omission that's perhaps understandable but makes the book more dated, particularly in its discussion of Lesbian challenges to sex-stereotyping.

I think in the discussion of reasons why some Lesbians remain closeted, the book is least dated.  There is definitely more acceptance four decades later-- from society, family, friends, coworkers and employers, and selves-- but obviously homophobia is still a legitimate threat.  When the authors say that Lesbians are seldom the victims of violence, are they naïve or was gay-bashing of women as well as men less wide-spread than now?  Perhaps such crimes were less frequently reported, or the sexuality of the victims was not mentioned.

The First Four Years

1971, 4th printing but also 1971, from Harper & Row
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Illustrated by Garth Williams
The First Four Years
Original price unknown, purchase price $1.35
Very worn paperback

As Rose Wilder's friend and heir Roger Lea MacBride explains in the introduction, Laura probably abandoned this manuscript after Almanzo's death in 1949.  Laura died in 1957, and Rose herself died in 1968, so if it's true, as some contend, that she revised and edited her mother's books, it doesn't seem like either woman did much to put this book into the style of the earlier Little House series. 

It's easily the shortest of Wilder's books, although it covers such a long span, the three years that Laura gave Almanzo to prove he could be a successful farmer, plus a year of grace.  Those four years are rough ones, including debt, diphtheria, ice storms, a son who dies at three weeks old, and a house fire.  Yet there are good times, too, especially with horses of course, since that's one interest the young couple* share, and a bright, active little daughter, Rose.  Like Anne's House of Dreams, this is more of a YA novel than a children's book, but while that's the best in the Green Gables series, this is one of the weakest of its series.  (Ironically, Little House on the Prairie got the other B-.)  Too bad neither Laura nor Rose put it through a few more drafts.

There are fewer illustrations than usual, most of them in the second half.  Maybe the bleaker subject matter was less inspiring to Williams.  He does a good job with the couple and their child, and the view of sad Rose watching her father comfort her mother as their house burns down is moving.  Surprisingly, the weakest illustration is of sheep, an animal that Williams has drawn well before, as in Charlotte's Web

*One sign of the lack of revision is that the real-life age difference of ten years is preserved here.

Nobody Is Perfick

1971, undated but later edition, from Scholastic
Bernard Waber
Nobody Is Perfick
Original price 95 cents, purchase price unknown
Very worn paperback with stains

Waber is best known for his Lyle the crocodile books but he does a nice job with the young humans in the little unrelated stories that make up this book.  At least a couple of the stories seem to be urban, possibly New York, judging from the front stoops, but the settings are less important than the way the children see themselves and each other.  I think the two female-best-friend stories, "My Diary" and "Ten Best," resonated with me most as a kid, both because Waber captures how little girls sometimes are with each other, and because I've always been the type to keep a diary and make lists.  "That Was Some Dream.  Ha!  Ha!  Ha!" shows two little boys but they could be girls, or adults, or crocodiles, in the universality of a pair laughing hysterically, even when one of them doesn't know why.  (My guess is the purple cows in the dream were wearing striped pajamas.)

There are a few reasons I'm not rating this higher.  One, the artwork is just serviceable, with nothing really standing out.  Two, the book isn't that funny, although it's sometimes insightful.  And three, as with Richard Scarry and the alphabet, I'd like something tying all this together.

A Child's Garden of Graffiti

1971, possibly first edition, from Random House
Compiled by Thomas W. Tickell
A Child's Garden of Graffiti
Original and purchase price unknown
Worn hardcover

Don't let the title fool you, as it did me when I bought it in my early teens.  With lines like "Rape is impolite" and "The burn-the-bra movement is an awful letdown," this is not meant for children.  Even the section on nursery rhymes tells us, "The Little Old Lady who lived in the shoe recommends the Pill," "Jack Spratt was a wife-swapper," and "Mother Goose loves to be."

The various "graffiti" look like four or five different fonts in red or black superimposed onto pictures of walls, traffic signs, a bench, and a fire hydrant.  I don't know if these were actual messages Tickell "compiled" or if he came up with them himself.  The book does offer a snapshot of its time, with references to Spiro Agnew, Elizabeth Taylor, and Allen Ginsberg, among others, although there's little or no drug humor.  It's mostly corny-hip sex jokes, like things the Laugh-In writers couldn't get on the air.  Possibly the quickest read of any of my books so far.

This takes me to 400 posts.  As of The Singing Sands (1952), the stats stood as follows:

1 F
3 F+s
2 D-s
5 D's
9 D+s
11 C-s
17 C's
48 C+s
92 B-s
76 B's
30 B+s
6 A-s

Again, fortunately nothing new for the lowest ranks, but The Golden Notebook is the first new D+ since The Wonder City of Oz.  (And I know which of the two I'd much rather reread.)  There are 4 more each of C-s and C's.  C+s climb to 73 and both B-s and B's make it to three digits, 126 and 101 respectively.  There are 7 new B+s but I haven't seen an A- since Right Ho, Jeeves (1934).  Hopefully that will change as we get deeper into the 1970s.

Richard Scarry's ABC Word Book

1971, possibly first edition, from Random House
Richard Scarry
Richard Scarry's ABC Word Book
Original (and purchase?) price unknown
Very worn hardcover with stains and scribbles

This was a fifth birthday present from my uncle and cousins.  I doubt I learned much about the alphabet from it, although I think I used to copy the letters on the end papers.  (I'm not sure what font it is but it's sort of like Times New Roman.)  With usually a two-page spread per letter, Scarry offers little vignettes, with the spotlighted letter in red.  The thing is, there's not much help with pronunciation, or explanations of why E, for instance, makes so many different sounds and in this case can even be silent.  Complicating the issue, CH, SH, and TH get attention as well, although "Christmas," with its K-sound is all in black. 

Unlike What Do People Do All Day?, there's not really anything tying this all together, other than the alphabet.  Some characters recur, such as the Red-Baron-like Rudolf the fox pilot, but there's no common thread and no sense of completion when you get to Z.  (The earlier book ended with a big meal for all the workers.)  There are amusing details of course, like the chimpanzee driving a tin lizzie (for Z, although if you guessed I, I don't blame you).  And of course we see a high number of comical accidents, both vehicular and household.  (Geez, somebody buy these animals a smoke alarm or a kitchen timer, before something else burns on the stove.)  Not a bad picture book but far from Scarry's best.

Blaming the Victim

1971, 1972 Vintage Books edition
William Ryan
Blaming the Victim
Original price $1.95, purchase price unknown
Worn paperback with split spine

Ryan actually popularized the title phrase, although it has since been broadened to include an array of "victims."  Here he's talking about the way that the poor, particularly Negroes (still the term he prefers, although "blacks" and "Afro-Americans" were being used by some at that point), were blamed for their problems.  His common sense is refreshing, as he repeatedly but necessarily says that the main problem of the poor is, not their family structure or table manners or other personal flaws, but their lack of money.  Although Ryan and others debunked the concept of "culture of poverty," it still pops up, so in a way this book sadly is not that dated.  Indeed, first reading it in the late '80s, I was struck by how Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat and a "liberal" but hardly a progressive, was still spouting the same nonsense that Ryan quotes here.

The most dated aspect of the book is the conclusion, with its various suggested solutions.  For instance, charter schools don't exactly help the problem of substandard schools.  But overall, Ryan's bitter wit, combined with his hope for positive change, and his down-to-earth logic provide a breath of fresh air.  Ryan was a white professor and activist, who-- with his wife and children-- lived for a time in "bad neighborhoods," and seems to have had a great deal of empathy with poor people of all races.  The best chapter is on slumlords, including the description of a coloring book that teaches children and parents the dangers of lead paint.  Meanwhile, the landlords who used the deadly paint weren't being punished legally or otherwise.  In fact, the next chapter has Mrs. Ryan confronting the redevelopment administrator of New Haven, who admits, "There are law violations and there are law violations."

Despite the split spine, I think this book can stand up to another reading or two, and I'm not ready to give it up anyway.  For the first time, I have to divide a year on the bookcase and put this book one shelf down, because I have so many more books from the 1960s than earlier decades.  Yes, we're technically now into the 1970s, but this book shows that the various political movements of the 1960s were far from over.  It is funny though that my 1963 to '71 bookshelf goes from a book on Mrs. Grundy to a closeted gay media critic complaining about how sexual movies and to a lesser degree television had become.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Big Screen, Little Screen

1971, first edition, from MacMillan
Rex Reed
Big Screen, Little Screen
Original and purchase price both $7.95
Hardcover with stains and worn dust-jacket

Not only is this a first edition, but the original "cash register validation" and sales slip from Pickwick Bookshops of the Del Amo Fashion Fair, dated the day after my fourth birthday, have been tucked inside all these years.  The Pickwick chain of California was bought by B. Dalton in 1976, and it looks like the Del Amo Fashion Fair has changed from "Fair" to "Center."  More poignant than this though is the mention of "Roger Ebert, the bright, sassy young film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times."  Ebert is only 3 1/3 years younger than Reed, although the latter's memories of 1940s movies, as well as his dislike of most rock & roll, makes him seem much older.

The greatest mind-melt though comes from how Reed is disgusted by all the homosexuality in the movies of the time.  Perhaps it was much more prominent than before (his reviews here cover 1966-70), but he seems to notice it in every other movie.  And I kept thinking But, Rex, you're gay!  At least I assumed so, and had assumed so for about 30 years.  I finally had to Google him, and yes he's out and gay, nowadays.  Forty, forty-five years ago, not so much.  Yet, while he loathed Warhol among others, he does offer positive reviews for The Killing of Sister George and The Boys in the Band.  Perhaps it's more that he doesn't like movies that cheapen sex, gay or straight.

Out or not, Reed is delightfully bitchy and catty about everyone from Otto Preminger to Doris Day.  In some ways, I enjoyed his TV reviews more than the ones for films, simply because I'd seen more of the shows than the movies, but the "big screen" section is bigger than the "little screen."  At the end of the television section, he puts in a plug for "a wonderfully imaginative, hilarious, and highly recommended new book," none other than Seven Glorious Days, Seven Fun-Filled Nights.  Reed shares Sopkin's New York sophistication and a similar sense of humor, so that I thought until this project that the question "Do psychedelic teenagers still pet?" came from Sopkin rather than Reed.

Covering a time period just before my memories start, this book calls forth a sort of pre-nostalgia for me.  There are too many ironic moments to list, but to choose one more, how about the girl in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter who "is played by a creamy, dreamy-eyed girl from Shelbyville, Tennessee"?  After that movie, Sondra Locke got nominations for the Oscar and Golden Globe, but didn't play any other notable role till 1976's The Outlaw Josey Wales

Reed talks briefly about the chaos in the making of Myra Breckinridge, in which he's the male identity, Myron, of the title character, played by Raquel Welch.  He chose the film as the worst of 1970, tying with Catch-22.  And next on the list?  Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, written by that sassy young critic from the Sun-Times.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Jennie, Volume II: The Dramatic Years

1971, 1972 Signet edition
Ralph G. Martin
Jennie, Volume II: The Life of Lady Randolph Churchill, The Dramatic Years, 1895-1921
Original price $1.75, purchase price unknown
Very worn paperback

I do feel like I know Jennie better after reading this volume, partly because so much of it is quotes from her letters to and from her sons.  Unfortunately, Martin spends more time on the closing years of the Victorian era than on the 20 years that follow.  I would've liked to read more about Jennie as, well, not old, since she apparently she was eternally youthful, but, well, a grandmother.  She bought an early car, dabbled in amateur films, became sympathetic to women's suffrage, and had two marriages to men who were Winston's age or a bit younger.  Of course, the last part of the 19th century was also busy for Jennie, organising a hospital ship for the Boer War and founding a literary magazine.

Martin went on to write Charles & Diana, "the love story of our generation":
You'd think he'd have learned from the lives of Jennie and Randolph Spencer-Churchill (he a distant relation of Lady Diana Spencer) that love stories don't always end happily.  But in fairness, that quote is from the interviewer, and in 1985 many people thought the Prince and Princess of Wales were happy.  Still ironic though.

I Want to Make One Thing Perfectly Clear

1971, 1972 Ballantine edition
Compiled by Amram M. Ducovny
Illustrations by Peter Green
I Want to Make One Thing Perfectly Clear: The Illuminations of Richard M. Nixon
Original price $1.00, purchase price 50 cents
Falling apart paperback with stains

This is better than The Begatting of a President because, one, it has direct quotes from Nixon, and two, Green's illustrations are actually pretty good.  The most interesting thing about it is how Nixon would contradict himself years, months, weeks, days, or in the case of a television interview, a minute later.  It does get to be a bit one-note after awhile, and I can't help wishing the book had come out a year or two later, so as to include Watergate. 

If Ducovny's name looks familiar, it's because his son is actor David, who put the H back into their last name after Amram took it out to avoid mispronunciation.  Amram died in 2003, only two years after publishing his first novel, Coney.  I haven't read it, but this book shows he was good at compiling at least.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The First Sex

1971, 1973 Penguin edition
Elizabeth Gould Davis
The First Sex
Original price unknown, purchase price $3.75
Very worn paperback

While Davis offers a great deal of evidence that women have been undervalued in the past 2000 years, her vision of the matriarchal past is flawed by contradictions and a disdain for men that makes her closer to a man-hating feminist than anyone else I've read so far.  To sum up her premise, ancient societies were peaceful and egalitarian, although women ruled because of their superiority, keeping men in line and possibly enslaving them, through the fear men had of them, although men respected and honored women, and the men were very gentle, except that they had rabid lusts that the women had to contain, although women are more sexual than men, except that men are more lustful, until women "asked for it" (her phrase) by preferring violent meat-eaters, since herbivores have smaller penises than carnivores (among men?  among all animals?  what about horses?), although men's bodies are sensually unappealing, and therefore--

Davis's research is used to greater effect in The Great Cosmic Mother by Monica Sjöö and Barbara Mor (which I'm placing under 1987, although it was revised a couple times).  They point out the possible racism of Davis's obsession with the blue-eyed, red-golden-haired Celts.  (I think of red and golden as two different colors.  Did Davis mean strawberry blonde?)  Their book has its own inconsistencies but it is over all an improvement over this one.  Still, Davis does know how to keep you reading on, and her thinking is, if as muddled as Greer's, at least more wide-sweeping.  Not every book could encompass the Magna Carta and deodorant commercials.

Oh, and yet another definition of "sexual revolution" for those keeping track.  Here it means the revolt of men against women.  Davis hopes for a counter-revolution, with the dawning of the age of Aquarius.  Uh, yeah, good luck with that.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

"Just Wait Till You Have Children of Your Own!"

1971, first edition, from Doubleday
Erma Bombeck and Bil Keane
"Just Wait Till You Have Children of Your Own!"
Original price unknown, purchase price $4.00
Hardcover with worn dust-jacket

At the time this book came out, Bombeck had published only one previous humor collection, At Wit's End, which I don't think I've ever read.  Her children were an 18-year-old girl and two boys, 16 and 13.  Keane had been publishing Family Circus since 1960 and had five children, some of them obviously adolescents by then, although the four in the strip remain fixed in time.  Keane and Bombeck were close friends, and he was one of her pallbearers in 1996.  The book opens with Bombeck in a letter and Keane in a one-panel (although not circular) cartoon agreeing that that day is not a good one to start a humorous and affectionate book on teenagers.

This is very much a book of its time, or rather of a few years earlier, with the same immediately dated feel of The Brady Bunch, minus the campiness unfortunately.  It is admittedly a bit surreal to see taller versions of Billy, Dolly, Jeffy, PJ, and their friends, still with tiny semi-circle noses, wearing mod and hippie clothes.  The most dated illustration comes early on, with the son whose messy room includes albums by Iron Butterfly and the Smothers Brothers, and posters that say "Aquarius," "Love," and "Carnaby Street."  This wasn't yet a completely passé vision of adolescence, but it does look more like '68 (or '67) than '71.

As for Bombeck's writing, there are references to the Woodstock album, long hair, and sex education, but it's not all that different from the glimpses of her kids in her books from the later '70s.  I can't say that it's all that hilarious though.  I grew up reading Bombeck, and it's one of my regrets that I had to toss out If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? before even starting this project, because it was in horrible condition.  Even in my preteens, I identified with her housewifely wit.  This book though is more interesting than funny to me these days, even though I'm now middle-aged (but probably permanently childless).  I'm not even sure if I own any other Bombeck book besides this one-- a quick glance at my shelves shows none-- but if I do it'll be interesting to compare with this unique item.

Why a Duck?

1971, possibly first edition, from Darien House
Richard J. Anobile
Why a Duck?: Visual and Verbal Gems from the Marx Brothers Movies
Original price $7.95, purchase price $5.00
Hardcover with torn dust-jacket and split spine

This book was a 1989 gift from the same aunt who bought me the Claudine collection.  She wrote, "May the Marx Bros' irreverence to civilized human idiocy, which is really a reverence for life, always give you at least a chuckle."  That's more insightful than the preface by Richard F. Shepard, which gets the names and dates of several of their movies wrong.  (A Day at the Circus?  Come on!)  Groucho's introduction is mildly amusing.  He says in part, "When the Sexual Revolution began, I tried to enlist.  But all I got was a series of humiliating rejections.  That was from the men.  From the women came nothing but hysterical laughter."  He doesn't have all that much to say about the movies, or even the book, although the dust-jacket does show the then 80-year-old Groucho, beret and all, reading a copy of Why a Duck.

Anobile's introductory "notes" mostly address how the book came to be, and how he made the decisions on what to include and what not.  There are nine of the thirteen movies represented, with Animal Crackers an unfortunate omission due to legal complications.  As with the movies themselves, the wit of Horse Feathers and Duck Soup come off the best.  The dust-jacket says that the book "lets you enjoy nine great comic films in the comfort of your own home."  Remember, we're still at least a decade away from the average fan being able to watch movies on VHS.  Anobile's selection of "frame blow-ups" (not the same as production stills) is well chosen, if not exact matches for the dialogue.  (Sometimes there will be several pictures and only a few lines, while other times it's the reverse.)

If I can't rate the book higher, I think it's partly that the book is a bit flat without the actors' voices, Groucho's in particular.  Also, it's arguable whether much of the dialogue from the post-Day at the Races movies is funny.  (The hardest I ever laughed at Go West was one time when I thought, due to poor direction, that the horses were talking.)  If you're a Marx fan and you happen upon a copy of this, particularly if it's got the Al Hirschfeld caricatures on the front, it's probably worth buying, but I wouldn't recommend you go out of your way to get it.

See No Evil: Life Inside a Hollywood Censor

1970, 1971 Pocket Books edition
Jack Vizzard
See No Evil: Life Inside a Hollywood Censor
Original price unknown, purchase price $1.50
Falling apart paperback

Vizzard tells of how as a young man in 1943 he left a monastery, before he took his final vows, in order to enforce the Production Code.  He became more worldly as a result, while still trying to hold on to his values in a changing world.  He also tells of how the Code fell apart, gradually at first and then quickly in the mid-1960s, with such challenges as Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf, Alfie, and Blow-Up.  At the time of writing, the G, M (soon to be replaced by GP and then PG), R, and X ratings of my childhood had come in.  (PG-13 arrived in 1984, by which time I was almost old enough for R-movies on my own.)

Vizzard does a good job of covering the vivid personalities, including foul-mouthed-to-make-his-points Joe Breen, the head of the Production Office, and there are many funny anecdotes.  He disagrees with the idea that violence is worse than sex in movies, seeing them both as excesses.  (He also seems to condone McCarthyism, or at least see left-wing writers as a genuine menace in movies, particularly in the 1940s and '50s.)  But he does point out the inconsistencies that directors, writers, producers, critics, and of course censors were forced into by the inconsistencies of the larger culture.

Even if you don't agree with his conclusions, it's a thought-provoking, entertaining read.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Sexual Politics

1970, possibly first edition, from Doubleday
Kate Millett
Sexual Politics
Original price unknown, purchase price $8.50
Hardcover in good condition

Millett is at her best in skewering sexist writers from Freud to Norman Mailer.  With the former, I laughed out loud at her take on penis envy, particularly when she says of his view that a woman can only reach fulfillment by bearing babies, which are penis-substitutes, "were she to deliver an entire orphanage of progeny, they would only be so many dildoes."  I find it harder to be amused by Mailer, partly because he was more violent than Freud (in real life as well as his writing, since he stabbed his wife), and partly because he's closer to a contemporary for me, having died as recently as 2007.  Partly because of Sexual Politics, I've never read his writing, nor the equally misogynist Henry Miller, so it is possible that Millett is taking quotes out of context, but considering the hate that oozes out of the passages (to use appropriate phrasing), it's hard to imagine what context could redeem their stories of men brutalizing and humiliating women.  D. H. Lawrence comes off well in comparison, although he, too, published rape fantasies.  I think she lets Genet off too easily, but again, I haven't read him.  And I do appreciate that, probably because of her (then unstated) bisexuality, she has none of Greer's homophobia.

While I appreciate Millett's analysis, it's unpleasant to read about writers whom I definitely don't ever want to read.  Also, I have to mark Millett down for taking on too much in her attempts to cover history.  She dismisses even the possibility of ancient matriarchal culture (although there was evidence accessible at that time, as we shall see with Davis's The First Sex, coming up soon), and closer to her present she clumsily handles "the sexual revolution" and "the counterrrevolution."

At this point, I should discuss the definition of "sexual" in the title and throughout the book.  "Sex" means both genitalia and intercourse, with "sexual politics" meaning that attitudes towards "sex" affect and reflect larger politics.  If Mailer sees anal sex as an expression of death and vaginal sex an expression of life (although he describes them as equally violent), this affects how he sees women, male homosexuals, power, and war, although with machismo it's hard to say which came first.  (The cock and the sperm rather than the chicken and the egg?)  Lawrence was opposed to feminism, and he saw sex as a way to put woman back in her place.

In my discussion of The Egoist, I said that Millett unfairly compares the last section to Jane Austen, and was too soon to compare it to Three's Company.  Therefore, it's time to quote my favorite sitcom:

JACK:  Whatever happened to the sexual revolution?
CHRISSY:  Your side lost.

The sexual revolution was seen by the mainstream as being about promiscuity, but Millett sees it as being about a revolution in sex roles and the role of sex.  She places it as 1830 to 1930, dates that might surprise other readers as they did me over 20 years ago.  While she does show how feminism grew in the Victorian period, she doesn't actually say much about it in the early 20th century.  If you're going to give an era a beginning and an end, you need to discuss the whole time.  She's in too much of a hurry to move on to the reactionary period of the 1930s, particularly as expressed in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  This is her choice, but then why not show more of what was going on in her own country?  Or at least someplace not ruled by a dictator.  Susan J. Douglas does a much better job of portraying the 1940s and 1950s in the U.S. in 1994's Where the Girls Are, even though her book is "only" about women's relationship with pop culture. 

Millett clearly knows literature, sometimes mentioning novels in passing that are relatively obscure as well as such classics as Dickens and Ibsen.  The book would be strengthened if she hadn't tried to also take on the history that produced the writers she's examined, or if she went into the history more completely.

Still, this book was definitely one of those that influenced me as a young feminist.  Her sense of humor in particular, even about authors she admires, is itself admirable.  And Greer is wrong that Millett wrote about Mailer et. al. because she thought they were cretins.  Millett's argument is that they used their artistry for propaganda, and thus became lesser as artists.  For me, when a writer has pretentions, I'm going to dislike him/her more if I don't like the message.  Three's Company doesn't offend me because it never pretends to be more than well-done crap.  Similarly, there's icky sex in Here's Your O.R.G.Y., but none of it horrifies me like when Lawrence's, Mailer's, and Miller's "heroes" act as if they're using their phalluses to not only punish but instruct their victims/disciples.

Douglas's book tells how Millett was attacked in the press, and reproduces the very unflattering portrait Time put on its front cover.  It seems odd looking back four decades later, because Sexual Politics really isn't that out there compared to other feminist works, including Greer's.  Millett discusses some of the backlash she faced, including from other feminists, in Flying, which we'll get to in 1974.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Female Eunuch

1970, 1972 Bantam edition
Germaine Greer
The Female Eunuch
Original price $1.95, purchase price $1.35
Very worn paperback

With thinking as muddled in its own way as Lederer in The Fear of Women, this "pioneering, feminist" work has never been a favorite of mine but only on this, the second or third reading, have I realized why.  There is constant dissonance between how Greer perceives the world, including herself, and how it comes across in the text.  For instance, I can shake my head at quotes from Freud and the unfortunately named Karen Horney on women's minds and bodies, and then a paragraph later shake my head at Greer's take.  Greer thinks she's celebrating women's sexuality, but then she says that concern for the clitoral orgasm over the vaginal orgasm* will lead to women wanting to "score" like men stereotypically do. 

She thinks that men using sheaths (condoms) is regrettable, as is family planning in general, since no one should say they can only afford two children, when that's actually a perfectly reasonable decision.  She criticises birth control more specifically in 1984's Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility, which I haven't read beyond quotes in Backlash (coming up in 1991), but it's worth noting that she here seems to have never heard of Margaret Sanger, or any other socialist feminist, since she acts as if the first wave was all genteel ladies in hats and bustles, and "edgier" feminism was an offshoot of '60s left-wing politics.

Often throughout the book I found myself thinking, But that's not what I've observed.  True, I'm almost three decades younger than Greer and have spent most of my life on the West Coast of the U.S., rather than Australia and Britain, so I've seen little of, for instance, wives resenting their husbands going down to the pub to be with their mates.  (If anything, pubs I've gone to and have seen in British movies and television have been for both sexes and sometimes all ages.)  But Greer makes sweeping statements that are based on selective anecdotes.  Her conclusions even within the book are contradictory.  For example, she tells of her horribly abusive mother, and then many pages later claims that wife- or girlfriend-beating is rare and can be avoided if the man just understands that the woman won't put up with it.  If it's that simple, why didn't her father put a stop to her mother hitting their son?

Lederer gets a C rather than a C- because of the wonderful illustrations.  Greer gets a similar promotion because she has a sense of humour, especially in the section on romance novels and comics.  Ironically, she takes those on face value, when anyone who knows much about comic books knows that they're much more complex than they seem (I can't speak to romance novels, not having read enough), while believing that the "insane hyperbole" of Norman Mailer proves he can't be serious.  "The context and the understatement [sic, this is right after she's said "insane hyperbole," so which is it, understatement or overstatement?] ought to give the game away, although feminists like Kate Millett persist in assuming that Mailer is a cretin." 

Millett had published an article in New American Review the previous year, called "Sexual Politics: Miller, Mailer and Genet."  She expanded this into Sexual Politics, which is coming up next.  You only have to read a few pages of Millett to see that she doesn't regard any of those authors (or D. H. Lawrence, whom she also analyzes) as stupid, and in fact says that her point is not that they are inept writers.  Greer is not a cretin either, but she is sloppy and illogical, and her greatest blind spot is she thinks she's the voice of reason.** 

Oddly enough, what Eunuch most reminded me of was Right Turns by Michael Medved, where his very unique life experiences lead him to conclusions that he assumes most people would draw but which don't make sense even for him.  "My parents are non-practicing Jews, and they don't like my wife because she's not Jewish, so after my divorce I think I'll become more religious, and in a conservative way."  And so on, but as I don't own the book, I won't be reviewing it.

Oh, and welcome to the 1970s.  We'll be here a long, crazy while.

*This isn't the place to go into detail on that very dated controversy, but briefly it was a matter in the '60s and '70s of orgasms with a penis inside the vagina vs. orgasms produced by stimulation of the clitoris, as if these are mutually exclusive.  Because I once had an orgasm produced only by the beauty of a forest, I find the whole subject ridiculous.  Greer is right that sexuality is complex, but valuing one way of "getting off" over another is hardly an attitude she's free from.

**Lest I be accused of similar faults, let me state here that this blog is only my take on my book collection, with personal observations on the world mixed in where appropriate.  These are not meticulously thought out book reviews, and I don't expect anyone to agree with me, on the books or the world.  You should be reading the posts to be entertained, and if disagreeing with me is part of your entertainment, that's part of what the Internet is for.  If something I say resonates with you, that's wonderful for you, but I probably will never know.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children's Crusade

1969, undated Delta edition (4th printing)
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death
Original price unknown, purchase price $1.95
Very worn paperback with broken spine

This book isn't as frustrating as Catch-22, but then it's also not as clever or as deep.  It doesn't particularly work as an anti-war novel, since the message is that everything is going to happen anyway, and it doesn't particularly work as a sci-fi novel, although I do like the idea of the seven sexes of the planet Tralfamadore.  It doesn't even work as a character study since Billy has no personality except passivity.  (Maybe we should introduce him to Martha Quest.)  He becomes unstuck in time, but it doesn't really matter since he's not in one time long enough to do much of anything, even if he were a more active character.

I found some of Vonnegut's writing tics to be annoying, not just all the "so it goes'es" (which Linda Ellerbee uses to greater effect in And So It Goes, coming up in 1987) but also his use of Billy Pilgrim's full name.  So why not a lower grade?  Well, it wasn't boring and the time-hopping kept things moving along, even if they weren't really going much of anywhere.  The book seemed a lot more profound, and funnier, to me when I first read it in my teens, but then so did Catch-22.

The 1960s come to an end, with more posts than for the entire 1800s, although we seem to be returning to Victorianly unwieldy titles.  And so it goes.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Slipping-Down Life

1969, 1971 Bantam edition
Anne Tyler
A Slipping-Down Life
Original price 95 cents, purchase price 50 cents
Very worn paperback

Tyler's third novel tells of Evie, an overweight 17-year-old girl who carves the last name of a local rock singer into her own forehead (or had it carved by another girl, if we're to believe the final revelation), and then later marries him.  He has just about no redeeming features, but the marriage doesn't break up until, within 24 hours, her father dies and her husband cheats on her.  She's three months pregnant but he doesn't want to move out of their tar-paper shack into her father's house.  She's got a part-time job at a library and her life will probably stop slipping down.

Tyler still hasn't found herself as a writer, but this is an improvement over her mid-'60s books.  The setting is still the North Carolina of her youth, but a less isolated town than in If Morning and Tin Can Tree.  The characters are about as good as in the former, but the plot is better.  There are more topical references than in the earlier stories, because of the music plot, although the Monkees were already passe by '69, so the setting may be '66 to '68 instead of the then current year.

This novel was made into a Lili Taylor movie, which I just heard of a few minutes ago.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Tucker's Countryside

1969, 1989 Yearling edition
George Selden
Illustrated by Garth Williams
Tucker's Countryside
Original price $4.50, purchase price unknown
Worn hardcover with orange food stains

While there are still moments I enjoy in this book, I find that it doesn't hold up as well as its predecessor.  I'd remembered it as having more plot than Cricket but in fact much of the book is waiting around for Tucker to come up with a plan to save the Old Meadow where Chester and many other creatures live, and where 12-year-old Ellen and the little kids play.  Chester has almost no role in this book, other than to disapprove of Tucker's "benign deception" of faking the town founder's homestead.  Even Harry is offpage for part of the story, after Ellen temporarily makes him her pet.  The new animal characters, including an overly reminiscing turtle and a posh pheasant are OK but not as memorable as they could be.  I did like the Milne-like touch of the "various and sundry" fieldmice and rabbits being called the "various and sundries."

Williams's illustrations, particularly of Harry, are good if not his best.  I will say that, other than Fern in Charlotte's Web, Ellen is perhaps his best drawn human.  (And, yes, better than the Ingalls girls.)  The book has an enviromentalist message (and a picket line "manned" by kindergarteners), without being heavy-handed, and Williams of course does well by the nature pictures, so different from the urban scene of Cricket.

All in all, worth reading if you've read the first book, but missing some of the original magic.

The Begatting of a President

1969, 1970 Ballantine edition
Myron Roberts, Lincoln Haynes, and Sasha Gilien
Drawings by Sandy Huffaker
The Begatting of a President
Original price "$1.00, slightly higher west of the Jordan," purchase price 25 cents
Worn paperback

With pseudo-leather covers, this is a tale of Nixon's resurrection after "ye shall not have Nixon to smite around anymore" and his 1968 election, told in quasi-Biblical language.  It's more interesting than funny, with such Republican candidates as "Romney the Rambler" (father of guess who) and "Ronald, he of the late, late show, whose hair, like his heart, was dyed black"; and such Democrats as "Bobby, son of Joseph and brother of John," and "the Hump."  While there is quite a bit on Nixon, it's LBJ who literally and figuratively hovers over the landscape, a devil and god in one.  You may need brain bleach after looking at Huffaker's (admittedly not detailed) drawings of not only a butt-naked Hubert Humphrey, but a couple and their 2.2 children all wearing fig leaves and Johnson's face.

The book became a record, narrated by Orson Welles.  It's easy to find recordings of it online if you're curious.

Jennie: The Romantic Years, 1854-1895

1969, 1970 Signet edition
Ralph G. Martin
Jennie: The Life of Lady Randolph Churchill, The Romantic Years, 1854-1895
Original price $1.50, purchase price unknown
Very worn and waterlogged paperback

The first of two volumes (the latter published in 1971), this covers the life of Winston Churchill's mother through the death of her first husband, Randolph, whose success in politics was mostly her doing, while his failures were mostly his own.  Their marriage was an unhappy one, partly due, Martin contends, to Randolph's syphilis.  A quick Internet search shows that there's not complete agreement on the causes of his death, but Martin believes that Randolph contracted the disease during his university days and it led to poor health, impotence and/or homosexuality, and eventually insanity and death.

In any case, although it was initially a love match, with Winston born about seven months later, the Churchills grew apart and Jennie had several affairs, including with the Prince of Wales.  Perhaps it's Martin's style, but I didn't realize till the end that one lover in particular, Karl Kinsky, was the great love of her life.  As with the Ingrid Bergman biography, I felt distanced from the subject.  Not that I wanted to know the nitty-gritty details, but I never felt like I got much insight into what Jennie was thinking or feeling.  The Queen Victoria biography is much more personal, although some of the events are even more distant from the time of writing than in this case.

The best parts of the book are actually about the fashions and fads of the time, and about side characters, like Randolph's brother Blandford, later the Duke of Marlborough, who wrote him a fifteen-stanza elegy discouraging him from marrying Jennie.  Lady Churchill was beautiful, brave, and clever, but I don't really feel like I know her much better after reading this book.  We'll see how I feel after Volume II.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Here's Your O.R.G.Y.

1969, possibly first edition, from Berkley Medallion
Ted Mark
Here's Your O.R.G.Y.
Original price 75 cents, bought used for unknown
Worn paperback

One of a series of 15 books that ran from 1965 to 1981, this is a James Bond parody that includes the cocky (in all senses) Steve Victor, the founder of the title group, Organization for the Rational Guidance of Youth, which does hands-(and more)-on sex research; his more-Jewish-than-actual-Jews mother; a search for five willing women of various nationalities and types to join a harem; punny names like "Di Arrea, the Brazilian toilet manufacturer" and his lesbian "pimp" Nina Procura ; sort of current events, including the Tet Offensive and the '68 Chicago Convention; and jokes about abortion and incestuous necrophilia. 

As part of his recruitment for the harem, Steve seduces various candidates, and a few other women.  Meanwhile, his mama wants to lance the boil on his bottom, which she does in the last chapter, while he's having sex!!  He also has sex in the sand with an Israeli soldier (female of course, Steve doesn't swing the other way, Baby), interrupted by a camel shitting on them!!  Not all of the sex is that disgusting, but it is often weird. 

My ex-husband and I bought this book when we were about 17 and thought it was ridiculous.  We also speculated that it was written by two (or more) people, because Steve Victor and Ted Mark are all first names.  The book is copyright by Ted Gottfried, who it turns out is one person that later wrote textbooks for children on controversial subjects, including pornography.  There is a schizophrenic nature to the book.  To take the Convention sequence as an example, part of it is about trying to get a busty, natural blonde hippie for the harem, but it's also a social document that describes what it was like to be on the spot, including getting tear-gassed.  And there's a sympathetic portrayal of Dick Gregory and his very pregnant wife Lillian.  So one minute it's realism, and then the next Steve is going down on a hippie girl in her sleeping bag (as part of the process of verifying her blondeness) but losing her to Cass Nova, who's simultaneously blowing in her ear.

There are six teams of plumbing magnates and their recruiters, trying to track down not only the hippie girl and the sabra soldier Naomi Ben Shik-Zah, but an unhappily married French skin-diving aristocrat, a red-headed Danish virgin, and a Pygmy princess.  (Steve's princess has "a Ph.D. in psychology from Oxford University, yet!")  The other American team has Cass Nova working for right-winger Larry Rustwater.  (Gee, I wonder who that could be a parody of?)

Is this a good book?  Of course not.  Is it entertaining?  Yeah, in its own twisted way, it is.  It's bound to offend just about anyone and I certainly wouldn't recommend it to all my friends, but a few might dig it.  I can't see going looking for the rest of the series, except for maybe the previous book, "Come Be My O.R.G.Y., if you're intrigued enough to spring six bits for a complete telling of the entralling details."  It apparently contains a time machine.  Click here for more details:

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Four-Gated City

1969, 1991 Plume edition
Doris Lessing
The Four-Gated City
Bought new for $9.95
Very worn paperback

I remembered this book as better than it is, probably because I forgot most of it.  Set from Martha's 1949 arrival in England ("five years after the war," Lessing says in another of her maths mistakes) to sometime around 1967, with an appendix of letters and journal entries covering up to 2000, it could well have been split into two volumes.  Indeed, it's the longest of the Children of Violence books, although like the others it has a four-part-with-four-chapters-each division.

Martha gets a "temporary" job as secretary to an upper-class writer with a mentally ill wife and a small son.  This being Martha, she stays for almost twenty years, becoming the writer's mistress and den mother to the extended family who visit and sometimes live in the house.  If this were a less depressing writer than Lessing, say Atwood or Vonnegut, there would be an element of farce here, even midst the tragedy, but of course the family suffers everything from suicide to government and press harassment to mutation.  Not that Lessing is completely humour-free, but she does offer a bleak vision of the then recent past, present, and future.

By the end of the novel, it's turned from a social document to what the character named Jimmy calls "space fiction."  Along the way, we learn that the mentally ill may actually be mind-readers and hence our hope for the future!  And the best method to be known as both a Communist and a reactionary is to be a writer whose politics never change yet are usually out of sync with the zeitgeist.

For several novels, it's bothered me that Lessing has so many characters whose names start with "Ma."  But maybe they're supposed to be different sides of one person.  Certainly, Martha's lover/employer/friend Mark is as passive as she is.  Ironically, the next generation has no serious goals or ambitions but they seem to do more with their lives.

Mark's wife Lynda is not only the "madwoman in the basement," she also has a "Yellow Wallpaper" phase where she goes around and around her room, touching the walls.  Lynda grew on me, as she does on Martha, even while I wished Mark would divorce her and get on with his life.  (He does eventually divorce, to marry Rita, Maisie's daughter, but he never gets over Lynda.)

What I liked best about the book was actually the fiction within the novel, particularly Mark's story about the four-gated city and his book about his "Tory hostess mother," which sounds charmingly Mitfordesque.

Overall, it's a big, messy book, with too many characters and too many issues.  Yet I'd put it on a level with Martha Quest.  I found it both a tough read and an intriguing one.  And there is closure of sorts, even if it's things like Martha's mother showing up, still a nag but a less racist one, and then dying offpage as her husband did.  At one point, there's a flashback to Mr. Quest's last illness, when he tried to convey how strange laughter is, and later Martha thinks that aliens would wonder why we laugh, and conclude that it's because humans can't deal with complexity.  In this case, I don't laugh but instead sigh and know I probably won't return to this series again for another 20 or 25 years, when I'll read it as an old woman, and probably shake my head at Martha's middle-aged naïveté.