Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hello, I Must Be Going: Groucho and His Friends

1978, 1979 Penguin edition
Charlotte Chandler
Hello, I Must Be Going: Groucho and His Friends
Original price $4.95, purchase price unknown
Very worn paperback, contains a sentimental message from my aunt, for my sixteenth birthday

There are several problems with this long, rambling book.  One is that Chandler deliberately didn't edit things down, so that there are many redundancies, not just in stories being retold, often with little or no variation (Groucho's punchline about the horse who wanted his autograph being an exception), but in her relaying information repeatedly.  I understand that she was trying to show what Groucho's life was like in his 80s, but a shorter, tighter book would've been an improvement.

Also, if I liked Groucho less after reading his son's biography, I definitely like him less after reading Chandler's.  Groucho comes across as even more sexist, despite his claims that his beloved mother would've been a feminist.  That anecdote about him not wanting to date the over-the-hill 40-year-old?  Well, it turns out he said it at a dinner where all his friends' wives were older than the lady in question.  And he seems to think it was some sort of accomplishment that he and his brothers (not just Chico) "humped" as many girls as they could, once while wearing matching shirts with one girl in the dark.  (I've heard other men tell similar stories, so it might not even be true.)  He was also homophobic.  Yes, admittedly he made fun of everyone and everything, but in this book he brings in slurs against gay men (and occasionally lesbians) out of nowhere, while criticizing friends who tell ethnic jokes.

Chandler deliberately didn't take sides in the court battle between Arthur Marx and Groucho's "companion" (secretary/manager/girlfriend-without-benefits-for-the-impotent-octagenarian) Erin Fleming, but even in this book there is evidence that Fleming committed elder abuse, no matter if Chandler thinks Groucho enjoyed Fleming's temper because it made him feel "alive."  (Fleming apparently had mental health issues, and she committed suicide in 2003.)

All that said, there are moments when the book works, as when Chandler provides an eyewitness account of the "Animal Crackers riot," part of the enthusiastic reception to the movie's release.  I liked learning that (according to son Billy anyway) Harpo's favorite of their films was Duck Soup, something I've never seen elsewhere.  As the subtitle suggests, Groucho had a wide array of friends, from George Jessel to Bud Cort, and there are some nice scenes (much of the book is in dialogue, like a marathon play) showing Groucho interacting with them.

He died the year before this book came out, suspecting he wouldn't live to see it published.  Brother Gummo had died a few months before, and Zeppo was the last to go, in 1979.  Ironically, what this book offers that no other book I own does is glimpses of the two straight men in the team of comedians.  Gummo tells us his friends think that he's the funniest offstage, then he agrees with everyone else interviewed that Zeppo is.  Maybe Chandler should've written a book about Gummo and Zeppo instead.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

By Myself

1978, 1980 Ballantine edition
Lauren Bacall
By Myself
Original price $2.75, purchase price unknown
Very worn paperback

I wanted to give this book a B, but I had a couple issues with it.  One, Bacall seems too forgiving of Bogie, who put her through a lot of pain, particularly before they married.  Yes, he was deeply unhappy but she excuses his drinking and cheating (with her, on his third wife) too easily.  The other problem I have is that she rushes through the two decades after Bogart's death, and in fact the book seems to only go up to about 1974.  She updated this autobiography in 2006, but apparently added only 80 pages to cover the additional almost thirty years.  If she wants to be thought of as more than Bogie's widow, then why doesn't she discuss her movies more?  (She seems to care more about her stage roles.)  She spends very little time on her difficult marriage with Jason Robards, and towards the end she mentions an affair with a married Brit in just a couple sentences.  So the book is uneven. 

Similarly, she tells of her admiration for Adlai Stevenson, then makes no mention of his 1956 campaign.  (In fairness, she was then consumed by Bogart's last illness, but you'd think she'd at least say something.)  She says she admired JFK, but we only learn this in the section on RFK's assassination.

On the plus side, she does share her feelings and insecurities, and it's interesting to read of the various friends she had, famous and not.  (Sinatra, whom she almost married, comes across as more complex and more flawed than he does in Rosalind Russell's autobiography.)  Her closeness to her mother, uncles, and children is clear, although I felt that her older son's complaint that they didn't get enough of her attention is not entirely unjustified.

The book is 500 pages, so it may sound strange that I think it could've been improved by fleshing out the second half.  She's a good writer, but I get the sense that she just doesn't like to think about the years after she lost her beloved first husband, particularly after she lost her mother as well.  It's not easy for her to be by herself.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Official Smart Kids/ Dumb Parents Joke Book

1977, Pinnacle edition from later that year
Larry Wilde
Illustrations by Ron Wing
The Official Smart Kids/ Dumb Parents Joke Book
Bought new for $1.25
Very worn paperback with stains

Wilde collects lots of corny jokes, not even necessarily about kids or parents.  The book is "two in one," in that you flip over the "kid" side and then read the "parent" side, or vice versa.  The illustrations are kind of ugly.  I'd give the book an even lower grade but I did like the knock-knock jokes and "Little Willies" (sort of sick rhymes from the Victorian era).  I don't remember what I thought of the sexism (especially about women drivers) in my preteens, but I do know I didn't quite get the suggestive jokes.  The one that stayed with me all these years is a variation on this one:

Wilde also published ethnic joke books, such as "The Official Polish/ Italian Joke Book."  He's still around, as a motivational speaker among other professions, and his website is http://www.larrywilde.com/ if you're curious.

The Book of Lists

1977, 1978 Bantam edition
David Wallechinksy, Irving Wallace, and Amy Wallace
The Book of Lists
Original and purchase price both $2.50
Very worn paperback

The Wallace/Wallechinsky family offer over 500 pages of lists on various topics.  I didn't care about, for instance, sports so although there's some interesting information and opinion, the book does wear thin by the end.  (However, the last page is a picture of Franz Liszt, a joke I didn't get as a child.)  Many of the lists are of course dated, but I found those to therefore be the most interesting, like O. J. Simpson as the top hero in a Ladies' Home Journal poll of children and teens.  And it's funny that Liz Taylor was then two husbands short of making the most-spouses list.  The Longest-Running National TV Series list is still topped by Meet the Press though (now 63 years rather than 29).  The best of the lists are probably the "most unusual" problems ever sent to Dear Abby and Anne Landers.

This isn't my childhood copy (I seem to have read that in my preteens, even the "sex" chapter), but one I picked up in my mid 20s.  I also own the second and third books of lists, so we'll see how those compare to this one.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Alexander Botts

1977, possibly first edition, from the Curtis Publishing Company
William Hazlett Upson
Alexander Botts
Original and purchase price unknown
Worn hardcover, with my writing of some of the dates on Table of Contents

These short stories were originally published in The Saturday Evening Post, over the course of almost half a century.  Upson's style, deliberately stilted and understated to reflect Botts's personality, doesn't really change.  In fact, the stories are pretty formulaic.  Botts tries to sell someone a tractor or maybe a dozen, mishaps and misunderstandings ensue, he sometimes ends up in the hospital or jail, but everything works out OK, while his boss Henderson frets and scolds, sometimes by telegram.  And in several of the stories, businessmen are named George, perhaps in tribute to Babbitt, conscious or not.  I find this collection pleasant but not too memorable, although this time it was amusing to see a corporation called "Metallica."  (The heavy metal band formed in '81, probably not inspired by Upson.)

There are some generally topical references, from World War I to "the younger generation," and it's funny to see how Communists are presented in the 1930s and then the 1950s.  Botts and his wife "Gadget" age over the years, but he doesn't really act like an 82-year-old in the story set in '74, even though he reminisces about a vacation with an uncle in 1904.

In 1936, Warner Bros released a movie, called Earthworm Tractors after the company Botts works for.  I've never seen it, but it stars Joe E. Brown as Botts.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Earthly Possessions

1977, 1997 Vintage edition
Anne Tyler
Earthly Possessions
Original price unknown, purchase price 79 cents
Worn paperback

This is the first of the Tyler novels I own that is entirely in first person, which is part of its appeal.  Charlotte Emory tells of her strange but quiet life, as "surprise" daughter of the fattest woman in town, as agnostic wife of a preacher, as "temporary" photographer for over 15 years, and as kidnap victim.  The title refers to her wish to rid herself of all belongings, so she can finally run away, but her experiences on the run with a bank robber, and eventually his pregnant teenaged girlfriend, help her appreciate her life.  She's not exactly a sympathetic character, particularly when she tries to be indifferent to her own children, but I find her entertaining.  The book ties with The Clock Winder as Tyler's best so far.

There are echoes of earlier books, as with the wife who manages a sprawling household of relatives and strangers, and the man who likes to make miniatures, both echoing Celestial Navigation, but I felt they were better done here, and even the mismatched spouses (recalling not only Celestial but Slipping-Down) didn't bother me as much as in the past, since the focus isn't really on the marriage anyway.  What I liked least was the character of Jake, the bank robber.  When he tries to show that he's not such a bad guy, he comes across as even more of a jerk, and I can't tell whether or not this is deliberate.  I kept being annoyed when Charlotte would stop telling us her past and go back to relating the story of life on the run.

There's a line on the last page about why Charlotte tells her husband she no longer wants a vacation:  "We have been traveling for years, traveled all our lives, we are traveling still."  Her point is that life is a journey, even if you stay in the same physical place.  This contradicts the message of Celestial Navigation, where being afraid to leave the house is related to being afraid of change.  And it'll be interesting to see how this compares to the image of travel in The Accidental Tourist.  But before we get to that in 1985, I've got a couple other Tyler novels to review....

Sunday, October 21, 2012


1977, 1986 Penguin edition
Leslie Marmon Silko
Original price $3.95, purchase price unknown
Worn paperback with notes and highlighting by previous owner

This book was assigned to me in college 25 years ago, and at the time I thought it was one of the better works we read, although challenging.  So I kept it, not that I would've got much back for it at the campus bookstore, not when so heavily marked up by the last student who read it.  I may've read it once since then, but it's generally a book I avoided because I just never felt up to it.

Reading it now, I was alternately bored, repulsed, and irritated, and occasionally pleased by lovely descriptions, usually of nature.  Rather than ranting on and on, like I did with another D+, The Golden Notebook, I'll just give you a brief summary of the book:

"Tayo was an illegitimate half-breed, so his aunt hated him, especially after he failed to protect her son during World War II.  So he came home from the war and drank a lot and the Bomb was tested and he was tested by adversity, and he looked for cattle and found them, and also the love of a good woman, and the traditions of his people.  And meanwhile he and all his friends pissed and barfed and fought and joked and bragged about having sex with blondes.  Oo, look at the way the sunset hits the sandstone!  All white people are evil.  The end."

Life Is a Banquet

1977, 1979 Ace edition
Rosalind Russell and Chris Chase
Life Is a Banquet
Original price $2.50, purchase price unknown
Very worn paperback

Russell's posthumous biography is utterly delightful, still laugh-out-loud funny after I don't know how many rereads.  She comes across as not only witty but brave, warm, and self-deprecating.  If I have a quibble, it's that she doesn't discuss her specific films much, with the exception of His Girl Friday.  Oddly enough, that's one of only three of her movies I've seen, along with The Women and Auntie Mame.  (She does talk about the stage production of the latter, but not much about the screen version.) 

The title of the book of course comes from one of Mame's lines, and Russell did try to enjoy life, while still being an old-fashioned Catholic girl from Waterbury, Connecticut.  She was born a few weeks after Katherine Hepburn was born in Hartford, and like Kate had several siblings, in Rosalind's case the most colorful being her older sister, Clara, AKA "The Duchess."  Clara was quite a character, once not recognizing her ex-husband when she ran into him on the street, and Rosalind based her portrayal of Mame partly on her.

I was pleasantly surprised that Russell, although very patriotic, was against the Vietnam War, and she didn't rail against Hollywood and modern morality the way Anita Loos did.  Russell had her own beliefs, but she didn't try to tell other people how to live.  She also didn't like to dwell on the past, although she tells some great anecdotes about her family and about other celebrities.  All in all, one of the best biographies I own, and it's such a shame she died in her 60s.

I haven't seen the 2009 documentary, Life Is a Banquet, but it looks intriguing:

Friday, October 19, 2012

Bridge to Terabithia

1977, 1987 HarperTrophy edition
Katherine Paterson
Illustrated by Donna Diamond
Bridge to Terabithia
Bought new for $4.95
Worn paperback

This is similar to A Summer to Die not only because one of the young characters dies, but because it's pretty good but not my favorite work by that author.  In Paterson's case, I much prefer Jacob Have I Loved (coming up in 1980).  I will give Paterson credit for developing the character of Leslie, and her friendship with Jess, much more than Lowry did with Molly, or her relationship with her sister. 

Unfortunately, I didn't find Jess or Leslie all that interesting.  Their situations are, particularly their Narnia-inspired imaginary kingdom in the woods, but I didn't feel like I'd want to be friends with either of them.  They are good if flawed people, and I do like how they end up befriending the bully that they'd earlier got revenge on.  It's just, they're both a too serious for me.  When Jess says that he and Leslie would've mocked the sentimentality surrounding her death, I don't buy it, because they're just not that cynical, she especially.  (Yes, she mocks their teacher, but this is told rather than shown.  When I think of Leslie, I think of her belief in fantasy.)

As with Summer, this book shows the legacy of the '60s even into the late '70s.  Leslie is apparently the only girl in their small Southern town who doesn't wear dresses to school.  The music teacher is a "hippie."  And Leslie's writer parents would've hit it off with Meg's writer father.

One aspect that's suggested rather than spelled out is that Jess, as an artistic boy with four sisters, is the victim of stereotypes about masculinity.  Not only the boys at school but his own father think of him as a sissy, or worse.  Of Jess's artwork, his dad says, "What are they teaching at that damn school?  Bunch of old ladies turning my only son into some kind of a--?"  Jess knows that he's taking a risk befriending Leslie, with her short hair and blue jeans.  But he finds a kinship with her that he doesn't have with any of his sisters.

I would've liked Diamond to show some of Jess's art.  Her own is generally solid, although the picture of Jess's dad holding the grieving boy like a baby is all wrong.  It looks more like Jess holding one of his kid sisters, except that the standing figure is in shadow, like Frankenstein's monster holding the dead child in the 1930s movie.

Like Julie of the Wolves five years before, this won the Newbery.  I don't own any better children's books for '77, so I have less of an issue with this winner.

The movie adaptation of this book five years ago was well done, but it was promoted badly, as if it were a fantasy film.

The Lazlo Letters

1977, Workman Publishing edition from later that year
Don Novello
The Lazlo Letters: The Amazing Real-Life Actual Correspondence of Lazlo Toth, American
Original price $2.95, purchase price $1.95
Worn paperback

Novello, best known as SNL's Father Guido Sarducci, assumed the identity of Mr. Toth, an earnest right-wing middle-aged man who loved writing to corporations, politicians, and a few celebrities, always eager to share his sometimes misspelled and rambling thoughts.  What's amazing is that Novello got sincere responses much of the time, even into the two sequels (which I also own).  The owner of the used bookstore I bought this at about 25 years ago wrote "Funny!" under the price.  It's more smiley funny than laughy funny, and I enjoy the political exchanges (mostly about Watergate) less than the ones that ask, for instance, why McDonald's will serve jelly with an Egg McMuffin but not with a Big Mac, or why Mr. Bubble says "KEEP DRY" on the label.

It's a quick read of course, so I'd recommend it if you come across it.  Just don't expect something to match the 5-star raves on Amazon.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Big Bad Wolves: Masculinity in the American Film

1977, first edition, from Pantheon Books
Joan Mellen
Big Bad Wolves: Masculinity in the American Film
Original price $12.95, purchase price $6.95
Good condition hardcover with worn dustjacket

While I'm sympathetic to Mellen's premise, that movies need to stop glorifying violence as the ultimate expression of masculinity, unfortunately the book is deeply flawed.  The largest problem is that Mellen doesn't have a strong enough sense of film history, or even of then-recent film.  Some of these are minor errors any editor (even nine-year-old me) could've easily caught, like Raquel "Welsh" and the original Fun with Dick and Jane being listed as '76 rather than '77.  But when she insists on how Pillow Talk is both an early '60s movie and a carryover from the '50s, having come out in 1962, it really does matter that it actually came out in 1959.  (For one thing, it's the first Rock & Doris movie, and for another, that three-year difference already meant much cultural change.)  And if she can't get that the Hays Code was scarcely enforced until 1934, then much of what she covers in the chapter between the '20s and the '30s (itself called "Crossing into Hard Times," but confusingly covering '29 to '39) is invalidated.

Also, she seems impatient to get to the 1970s, and keeps bringing the movies of that decade (Dirty Harry especially) into discussions of earlier decades, so that Rocky is mentioned in the Introduction and for the '40s, and then forgotten by the time she actually gets to the '70s.  Additionally, I think she lets some male characters off the hook, just because they can express their emotions, like Valentino as a rapist.  Not to mention, why is so much space devoted to James Bond in what is supposed to be a book about American film?

With a better editor, and a clearer focus, this could've been a better book than the Rosen and Haskell books on women in film.  As it is, it does stand as a useful corrective to the idea that men in '70s media were all sensitive Woody Allen/Alan Alda/Phil Donahue types.  She does discuss Woody briefly, pointing out that while he wasn't the traditional screen male, he worshiped men like Bogie.  And yet, she says that Bogart was never just violent but had more complexity.  So even here, her point isn't exactly clear.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Summer to Die

1977, 1988 Bantam edition
Lois Lowry
Illustrated by Jenni Oliver
A Summer to Die
Original price $2.95, purchase price unknown
Very worn paperback

Lowry's first book for preteens feels a bit rushed, including as it does not only the death of the protagonist's older sister, but the birth of a first child to a casually married couple, not to mention lessons in photography, poetry, and wildflowers, all within 120 pages.  In particular I would've liked to have seen the relationship of the sisters, Meg and Molly, developed more.

It's a very 1970s book, with Molly and Meg not having worn dresses in a couple years, and the aforementioned couple being sort of hippies, who believe in natural childbirth.  (The first time that such a birth has appeared in any of the fiction I own, since poor Mira and friends in The Women's Room had to deal with the same awful hospital births as in The Group and other feminist fiction for adults.)  I remember checking this story out from the library about five years after it was published, and relating a bit to Meg because she wears glasses, has stringy hair, and generally feels plain compared to her sister.  (Not that I had a sister, let alone one who died at 16.) 

I ran across the book a couple decades later and remembered how unusual the death of a teenager had seemed in the books I read during my own teens.  The book is aimed at ages 10 and up, but it won the California Young Reader Medal in the high school category, so it's one of those books that's on the borderline between juvenile and YA.  I'd say it's for preteens who are ready to face heavy topics, although, as I said, I wish it went into them more.  Still, not a bad debut for the future Newbery-winner.  (We'll get to Number the Stars in 1989.)

The chapter headings by Oliver are mostly of objects, suggesting the every-dayness of life even during tragedy.

Majesty: Elizabeth II and the House of Windsor

1977, Avon edition from later that year
Robert Lacey
Majesty: Elizabeth II and the House of Windsor
Original price $2.25, purchase price unknown
Very worn paperback

"Elizabeth II is made to be an inspiring old Queen," begins the last chapter of this biography that was released during her Silver Jubilee, although I think Lacey would've been surprised to see her still alive and on the throne thirty-five years later.  It's ironic to read of concern over an "Edward VII situation," in which the elderly queen kept going until her successor son was almost sixty.  Elizabeth is now 86, the Prince of Wales almost 64, and she still shows no signs of abdicating.  Further irony comes from the discussion of changing attitudes towards divorce, from future aunt Wallis Simpson's second in 1937, to the beginnings of Elizabeth's sister's in 1976 (finalized the year after this book came out).  All of Elizabeth's children were single at the time of this biography, but three of the four would go on to get divorced.

Lacey's style isn't great, sometimes redundant, and sometimes too uncritical.  Some of the material is interesting, although I actually prefer the first half, before Elizabeth succeeds her father.  Not only is she more interesting in childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, but I liked reading about her colorful relatives.  One of Lacey's points is that the modern success of the British monarchy is that George V, his son George VI, and granddaughter Elizabeth were deliberately "average," albeit with common sense, while the flightier members-- Edward VIII and Princess Margaret in particular-- were threats to the stability of the British crown.  But sometimes he goes overboard in celebrating the "ordinariness" of what is still an extraordinary family. 

Overall, not the best book possible on the subject, but a good example of how some saw Her Majesty over a third-of-a-century ago.  And it does have a good if too small-fonted family tree, and many photos.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Making of "The Wizard of Oz"

1977, 1989 Delta edition
Aljean Harmetz
The Making of "The Wizard of Oz":  Movie Magic and Studio Power in the Prime of MGM-- And the Miracle of Production #1060
Bought new for $12.95
Worn paperback

Originally released the same year as The Oz Scrapbook, this covers some of the same territory of course, but with the focus on the 1939 movie.  Harmetz was able to interview many of the survivors who'd worked on the film, many of whom would die in the dozen years before this edition came out.  The content seems mostly unchanged, except she updates some of the statistics and acknowledges the passing of, among others, Jack Haley, Ray Bolger, and Margaret Hamilton.  (I'm not sure if he was the last of the cast to go, but I remember a couple years ago when Meinhardt Raabe, the Munchkin Coroner, himself became "really most sincerely dead."

Not only does Harmetz look back to Hollywood's Golden Age, but reading the book now evokes that period in the early '70s when the studios literally threw away much of their history, and Debbie Reynolds was the only movie star to bid on the Ruby Slippers at the MGM auction.  (One pair was offered for $2 million last December but didn't sell, so it's funny to read of Debbie not being able to match the winning bid of $15,000, an astounding amount in 1970.)  Such issues as overtime and risk, comparing the 1930s to four decades later, come up, as when MGM didn't seem to care about the injuries to, among others, Hamilton and Buddy Ebsen (the original Tin Man, who had an allergic reaction to the make-up).

My favorite parts are about the Wicked Witch, with Hamilton's no-nonsense attitude a hoot.  (She points out that legally the Witch should've inherited the slippers from her sister.)  It's also fun to read the sometimes overwrought earlier drafts of the script.  (For years, my ex-husband and I would deliberately misquote the line of the Tin Man's love interest, Lizzie Smithers, as "I should've stayed in bed with the Tin Man," but honestly, the real line, "Why did I ever leave the Tin Man?  Oooh, I wish I was home in bed!" isn't much better.)

As with The Oz Scrapbook, the book is generally even-handed, although I think she's too harsh on the later Baum Oz books.  To her credit though, she does see the turning of Oz into a dream as a weakening of the book's realistic fantasy.  She offers different versions of some stories, letting readers decide which interviewee is most believable.  There are many illustrations, including some in color.  The book overlaps a little with John Lahr's biography of his father, but includes some information on Bert Lahr that that book from eight years before did not.  Harmetz and the people she interviews, including songwriter Yip Harburg, seem less enthusiastic about The Wiz than Greene and Martin were.

Harburg's biography, Who Put the Rainbow in "The Wizard of Oz"?, will come along in 1993, and as the title suggests, The Wizard of Oz ended up being the greatest legacy in the careers of nearly everyone who helped make it.

The Oz Scrapbook

1977, first edition, from Random House
David L. Greene and Dick Martin
The Oz Scrapbook
Bought new for $10.00
Good condition hardcover with worn dustjacket

By the time I got this book, I was 9 and a huge Oz fan.  I even regretted that Ruth Plumly Thompson had died the previous year and I'd never get to meet her, although at that point I only knew of her books from my 52-year-old father.  I think I'd read all of Baum's fourteen Oz books, and maybe Mo and/or Zixi as well.  The 1939 movie was also a favorite.  So this book, especially all the illustrations, a few of them in color, was a delight.

Thirty-five years later, it holds up pretty well, although of course it is dated.  The Wiz (which to this day I've only seen bits and pieces of) did not, as they predicted, influence future Oz movies.  As I mentioned in my review of Tin Woodman, their opinions of the individual books affected my assessments as a child and even on the rereads for this blog.  They're even-handed, harsh when they have to be, as with the abysmal animation in NBC's Return to Oz (1964).  Martin illustrated Merry Go Round in Oz, and both men were friends with Thompson, so there are times when they seem a little too gentle about Baum's successors, or Neill's.  They don't address the racism of Baum or Thompson, although there is a brief discussion of feminism in Land of Oz.

With so many photos and drawings, the text is overshadowed at times, even for an adult reader.  Generally a solid book, still with useful information, as long as you don't mind the omission of later Oz spin-offs, such as Wicked, the novel and musical, or even the more (in)famous Return to Oz, the visually impressive but disturbing 1985 movie.

The Women's Room

1977, 1978 Jove/HBJ edition
Marilyn French
The Women's Room
Original price $2.50, purchase price unknown
Poor condition paperback

This is an improvement over Piercy's Small Changes (1973), but as I noted in my review of Cass Timberlane (1945), the view of marriage is incredibly bleak.  The relationships of the single people (straight or gay) aren't much better.  Friendship is surprisingly put on a pedestal, although the friends don't always come through for each other.  And while the book shows the necessity for feminism, the parts set in the late '60s/early '70s are sometimes just as depressing as those from the '50s.

The story is mainly that of Mira, who's also the narrator.  This is awkwardly done.  The narrator tries to see Mira from a distance, yet sometimes acts as if she's the same person and sometimes as if they're different.  It isn't explained till the end, and it would've been better if she had just said she was Mira in the beginning, and spared us scenes where "we" includes Mira and the narrator and their friends.  There are many other women's stories as subplots, and it was hard to keep track of them.

As with Small Changes, none of the men are particularly likable, although some have nice moments, and Ben is presented as sensitive and caring, although even he has a sexist side.  French does a tricky job of balancing the relationship of sex and power, which works sometimes and not others.

I appreciate her going deeper and more personal than Piercy, or McCarthy and Lessing back in the '50s.  Ironically though, I couldn't really relate to anyone, not even to the extent I identified with adolescent Martha Quest.  I'd come across a line that would go something like, "Yes, I am a man-hater.  But the men I know are awful.  And all the women are fantastic," and I'd think, "That's not my experience.  I've known horrible men, and horrible women.  And fantastic of each.  But mostly lots of folks in between."  It's not that my life has been untouched by sexism, but my life has been both more complex (seeing a greater range of human behavior), and simpler.  (No rape, pregnancy, beatings, starvation, suicide attempts, alcoholism.  Just an amicable divorce and mild job- or relationship-related stress.  OK, and my mom's death when I was three.)

I believe that this was the first of French's novels I read.  I much preferred Her Mother's Daughter.  I've got that and two or three other of her works coming up, but sadly I have to reserve the "French" label for works originally written in the French language.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Little Archie Comics Digest Annual, No. 1

1977, first edition, from Archie Comic Publications
Archie Comics
Little Archie Comics Digest Annual, No. 1
Bought new for 95 cents
Poor condition paperback

Even as a 9-year-old, I didn't like the "Little Archie" stories as much as those of him and the gang as teenagers.  (And why do all his peers call him "Little Archie"?  They're just as little as he is, except Moose and Fangs Fogarty.)  Yet, I did for the most part enjoy revisiting this collection, although part of that is because it has three stories about Betty's relationships with her teenage siblings, Chick (a boy) and Polly.  I also liked the two stories where Archie befriends aliens.  And the summer-camp story shows Betty and Veronica as brave and quick-thinking.

I don't know what to make of Super Duck.  A quick Wikipedia check shows that he was originally a Superman parody, but in the stories here he acts like a more cynical, hornier version of the suburban duck characters Donald and Daffy.  His stories don't particularly work, but they do offer a more grown-up sensibility and at least are not as bland as Little Sabrina or Li'l Jinx.  (But I will admit to having a soft spot for the latter because I always thought she was being raised by a widowed father, as I was.  Too bad she was seldom given much interesting to do.)

Despite the '77 publication date, the stories in here mostly have more of a late '50s to early '60s look, as with the mad scientist's teen sidekick combing his Kookie-like pompadour.  Since this was in some ways the golden age of Archie comics, that adds to the fun.  On the other hand, Li'l Jinx's friends Russ and Roz have huge early '70s afros, and Russ is wearing a peace sign shirt.

Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder

1976, 1977 Avon edition
Donald Zochert
Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder
Original price $2.50, purchase price unknown
Very worn paperback

At the time this book came out, the Little House TV-series had been on for a couple years, so perhaps not surprisingly the Laura on the front cover looks like Melissa Gilbert, although the rest of the family doesn't resemble the people on the show or real life.  It's the back cover that will make you do a double-take, since grown-up Laura is wearing a shirt unbuttoned to the waist, with a bodice underneath, as she and Almanzo eye each other.

As for the content of the book, Zochert does fill in a bit of the parts of Laura's life that her books didn't cover, but the last chapter spans over 70 years, and surely he could've gone into more detail on her adulthood.  I didn't see the point into discussing which neighbors lived where, especially those who appear hardly or not at all in the books.  It is interesting that Nellie Oleson is a composite of two snooty town girls (who were actually rivals).  But mostly Zochert is either rehashing the books or adding unimportant details.  Also, his style is off, not quite for children or adults, and I swear he twice on one page says that 1876 was the Centennial Year.

Still, it's a quick, light read and the eight pages of photos are good.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Slapstick, or Lonesome No More!

1976, 1989 Laurel-Leaf edition
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Slapstick, or Lonesome No More!
Original price $6.95, purchase price $3.95
Good condition paperback

On a level with the better known Slaughterhouse-Five, this is even stranger, although only marginally funnier.  (OK, I did enjoy the Kleindienst joke right after reading the Watergate books.) Again, his writing doesn't work well as either political satire or sci-fi.  Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain has the advantage over Billy Pilgrim of being the narrator, and less of a nonentity, but the book isn't any deeper.  I think I've only read it once before, and that was just because I'd heard that the movie version (Slapstick of Another Kind) had Jerry Lewis and Madeline Kahn.  (I still haven't seen it.)  As with Slaughterhouse, you won't be bored by this book, but it doesn't add up to anything other than a time-killer.

Oh, and the writing tic this time is "hi ho" rather than "so it goes."

1876: A Novel

1976, 1981 Ballantine edition
Gore Vidal
1876: A Novel
Original price $3.50, purchase price $1.75
Very worn paperback

This is as good as its predecessor, Burr.  We rejoin Charlie Schuyler about 40 years after he left America, as he returns shortly before the Centennial.  (Despite the title, one-third of the book takes place in 1875, with some significant chapters at the end set in the first few months of '77.)  The most interesting threads are the "stolen" presidential election and Charlie's widowed daughter Emma's matrimonial schemes.  Obviously, this was a post-Watergate book, but it was also ironic to read in late 2000, especially the part about the contested vote in Florida.  It's interesting that Vidal focuses on the "loser," Tilden, rather than the "winner," Hayes.  Even future-to-1877 Presidents Garfield and Arthur are more prominent.  There are also a lot of lesser-known politicians, like Conkling and Blaine, that I found hard to keep track of.  I wish that Vidal had spent more time on the pivotal months of November to March, but I suppose he was building up to it.

And meanwhile Emma neglects her fiancĂ© to "befriend" Mrs. Sanford, pretending she's uncomfortable with Mr. Sanford's interest.  She talks Mrs. Sanford into a risky pregnancy, pretending to have advice from a notorious midwife/abortionist.  After Mrs. Sanford dies bearing son Blaise (of Washington, D.C.), Emma marries Mr. Sanford.  They'll go on to have daughter Caroline, who's in Empire (coming up in 1987, but first there'll be Lincoln).

The Emma plot plays off of the election plot in that Schuyler thinks he's wise and cynical, but he in fact trusts where he shouldn't.  It's a novel of secrets and the twists, both historical and fictional, add layers to a reread.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Time of Illusion

1976, possibly first paperback edition, from Vintage Books
Jonathan Schell
The Time of Illusion
Original price $3.95, purchase price unknown
Worn paperback with torn backcover

Schell approaches "the Nixon era" from a different angle than Lukas, so that the books complement each other.  For instance, Agnew is almost absent from Lukas's book, except in the chapter named after him, while here Agnew is a key figure in the Nixon administration's crafting of image.  The title refers to the way that Nixon and his staff tried to shape reality, and resented other interpretations, by press, other politicians, and ordinary Americans.  There's much more interpretation than in Nightmare, and in fact less focus on Watergate and other scandals, or only to the degree that they contained the seeds of disillusionment.

Although not a feminist writer as such, Schell's discussion of the ways that nuclear power paradoxically made the President and his predecessors feel impotent-- and yes, there is a sexual element to that, as when Agnew called people "eunuchs" and JFK worried about the U.S. seeming soft-- that no one in my collection has addressed as yet, but which prefigures Helen Caldicott.  (The revised version of Missile Envy will be in 1986).  He also talks about the reasons why Nixon would deliberately contradict himself, for instance, sometimes posing as a war leader and other times as a man of peace, which suggests that many of the inconsistencies in I Want to Make One Thing Perfectly Clear were on purpose.

Just as Nightmare began in The New York Times Magazine, most of this book had previously appeared in The New Yorker.  He'd earlier reported on the Vietnam War, and went on to oppose the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Like Caldicott, he remains an anti-nuclear activist.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Linda's Pictures: A Collection of Photographs

1976, 1978 Ballantine edition
Linda McCartney
Linda's Pictures: A Collection of Photographs
Original price $9.95, purchase price $25.00
Worn paperback

These are McCartney's photos of rock stars (including the Beatles), other celebrities, and her family, the latter then including not only husband Paul but daughters Heather (by her first husband), Mary, and Stella.  (Only son James was born the year after this book came out.)  Some of the photos are quite good-- the one of Crosby, Stills, and Nash is probably my favorite-- but some feel like filler (like the stacked cups at the Apple studio), and I have to mark the book down a notch because I don't recognize many of the stars.  (There is a list of plates.)  Also, rather than a rambling introduction, I'd prefer captions to each photo.  Still, if you can get past the glurgy blurb on the back ("She was the beautiful, energetic American girl who charmed the Prince Charming of THE BEATLES..."), you'll find that she was a very talented amateur photographer.

Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years

1976, possibly first edition, from Viking Press
J. Anthony Lukas
Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years
Original price unknown, purchase price $9.00
Good condition hardcover with dustjacket falling apart

Lukas brings together the various strands of Watergate and other corruption in the Nixon administration.  He also has mini-profiles of key figures, including investigators in the press and government.  The book is very detailed, and at times overwhelming.  I'd like to give it a B+ because the material is sometimes fascinating, but I found the first five chapters a bit slow, though things pick up with the pre-Watergate "dirty tricks" of the 1972 campaign.

As I noted in the review of The Fireside Watergate, there is much that is ridiculous or even surreal-- Hunt's red wig that fooled no one, the compulsion to bug everyone including Nixon's brother, the Disneyworld speech, and so on-- and Lukas is adept at bringing that out.  But he also addresses larger issues of ethics, and he is at times compassionate even towards Nixon.  The book began as a series of articles in The New York Times Magazine, and I think that may be part of why it feels so unwieldy, although that's also due to the length (600+ pages).  It's not entirely Lukas's fault that the book doesn't quite feel like one cohesive, coherent whole.  He's dealing with a lot of chaos (and CHAOS, the domestic espionage program whose name is ironic to anyone who watched Get Smart), and there's only so much order that can be made of it.

I have a clear memory of being 5 or 6 and annoyed at my father watching the Watergate hearings all the time.  I thought, "It's just like the World Series.  They have this every year."  Of course, when the Iran-Contra hearings came along, I listened on the radio as much as I could.  (I was away at college, without a TV.)  I started buying books on Watergate not long after, partly because Reagan didn't get removed from office.  Reading this book now, I'm struck by all the familiar names, not necessarily involved in the scandal and some mentioned only in passing.  Among them, McGovern aide Gary Hart, Kansas Senator Bob Dole, Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale (on the Enemies List), Oregon Senator Bob Packwood (saying in part, "All of us, Mr. President, whether we're in politics or not have weaknesses....For still others, it's women"), Texas millionaire H. Ross Perot, and of course future Presidents Reagan and Bush, Sr.  Conspicuous by his absence is the Governor of Georgia, but he wasn't yet a national figure.  Being "Jimmy who?" was to his advantage. 

Of course, when Reagan defeated Carter in 1980, he hired some people who'd served Nixon, including Alexander Haig, who'd helped convince Nixon it was time to resign.  So that made this book really weird to read in the late 1980s.