Monday, July 27, 2009

Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery

When I pick a new book to read to my daughter, she often fights me for the first several chapters. She hates reading about conflict, and since that's the central premise of literature, she's hard pressed to find anything beyond a picture book that doesn't make her uncomfortable. When she reads on her own, she just skips the parts that make her nervous, but when I read I won't skip and she spends lots of time burying her head under pillows, plugging her ears, and muttering to herself, "Okay, okay, okay."

We had just finished the book we were reading together and I suggested Anne of Green Gables as our next one. She wanted to know what it was about, so I read the back of the book to her. When she realized that there might be conflict associated with being an unwanted orphan, she refused to listen. Since my best parenting skill is my steadfast refusal to do what my kids want, I made her listen to the first chapter. By the end of it, she was a great fan of Anne Shirley and wanted to hear the rest of the story.

It was a hard book to read to a kid because of the vocabulary. The problem is, if we wait until she's in high school and knows what words like "queer" and "presently" and "rapturously" mean, she won't be interested in the story anymore. This especially sucks because she ended up loving the book so much and wants to read the other 12 books about Anne that Montgomery wrote. With Ivy and Bean she could move on and read the books on her own, but with Anne, if she's reading the other books it's because I'm reading them to her. Sure, I enjoyed the book more than I thought I would, but asking an adult man to read the entire Anne Shirley cannon is a bit much, I think.

I was surprised that the story moved so quickly. Laura Ingalls Wilder took eight books to get from her childhood to her marriage, and with 13 books in the Anne series, I figured L.M. Montgomery would do the same. However, this one book covers the entire time from Anne coming to Green Gables to her graduating from school and getting a teaching position. I wonder if Lucy Maud used up all the good stuff in the first book and the subsequent ones will have a major drop in quality.

One aspect of the story that has been useful to us is how Anne and Diana tell themselves stories about the Haunted Wood and get themselves too scared to go there anymore. They get in trouble for it and are ashamed. Since both of our older kids are "too scared" to be on a floor of the house without at least one other awake person on the same floor, we now have plenty of chances to say, "Remember about Anne and the Haunted Wood?"

Rating: 5.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Laughing Gas, by P.G. Wodehouse

Before my Vacation From HellTM I had a presentiment of its awfulness, so the day before we left I got two P.G. Wodehouse books from the library to see me through. One was Mike and Psmith, the first of the Psmith books, and the other was Laughing Gas. I knew I had to get it when even the back cover made me laugh out loud. That's not even something Wodehouse wrote, but a synopsis penned by a publishing house underling. If the material is funny enough that it can pass through such as filter and still elicit a laugh, it's got to be, as a Wodehouse character would say, ripping stuff.

And the material definitely is ripping stuff. Wodehouse spent a great deal of his career in show business, beginning in the theatre before making his move across the Atlantic to the theater. According to a biography of him I read a few years ago, Wodehouse by Robert McCrum, he was quite successful in both places, writing the book for many musicals I never heard of but which McCrum assures me were well-received in their day. Even back then, Hollywood was in the habit of stealing everything they could from the stage, so Wodehouse was hired as a studio writer and moved west. Neither side was satisfied with the deal and it wasn't too long before he was back in New York. But because of this long involvement with the stage, and especially the disappointment of the movie industry, Wodehouse writes excellent actor characters, and movie actors best of all.

Reginald John Peter “Reggie” Swithin, third Earl of Havershot, is in his late 20s and has a face like a gorilla. As titular head of the family, it befalls him to travel to Hollywood and rescue an alcoholic cousin, Egremont “Eggy” Mannering, from an engagement the family is sure to be undesirable, seeing how it is probably with an actress. On the train west from Chicago, Reggie meets a screen starlet, April June, with whom he promptly falls in love as she charms the pants off of him, obviously (to everyone save Reggie) trying to become the wife of an earl. Reaching California, Reggie learns that Eggy isn't engaged to an actress, but to a press secretary, Ann Bannister, who Reggie met once on holiday in France and to whom he was briefly engaged until he accidentally put a cigar out on the back of her neck (moving in for a kiss while forgetting he was smoking). Ann is the press secretary for April June's current co-star, a child actor named Joey Cooley, subtitled the Idol of American Motherhood.

Reggie and Joey meet at the dentist office the next day, and while both are under gas for tooth extractions, their souls are switched. Joey is ecstatic to find out that Reggie had a boxing Blue from Oxford, for he's been keeping a notebook of all the actors, directors, agents, and writers in Hollywood that he wants to “poke in the snoot” when he's big enough. He sets off on a terrorizing rampage of Hollywood, punching all and sundry in the nose, while Reggie is stuck in the highly-regimented life of a valuable child actor. Nearly a prisoner in the house of a studio executive, Reggie is constantly shocked when every domestic he meets is really an aspiring actor wanting to audition. The English butler and the Filipino manservant are both just Americans in character, awaiting the moment to open up a monologue before the studio chief. The driver makes Reggie sit through a recitation of “Gunga Din.” Eventually he's kidnapped as a publicity stunt for April June to rescue him, and his kidnappers pitch a story idea to him.

Like all Wodehouse books, everything ends up all right in the end. Eggy is scared off the drink and becomes engaged to a woman he meets. Reggie and Joey switch bodies back, and Reggie ends up engaged to Ann while Joey gets run out of Hollywood and gets to go home to Chillicothe, Ohio. There was so much comic material in the premise, however, that it seemed a waste to have most of the action take place in the executive's house. I kept looking forward to the scene where Reggie-cum-Joey goes to the studio lot to work on his picture, but it never came. I guess the 260-280 page length of the standard Wodehouse novel put the cabosh on that. All told, though, another fine work by Wodehouse, and some of the best stage-based characters of his I've read yet.

Rating: 5.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Mike and Psmith, by P.G. Wodehouse

I've decided that, for reasons of mental health, I should always be reading a P.G. Wodehouse book. Lucky for me, he wrote about a dozen gross of them. Although I am currently in the middle of The Adventures of Sally, when at the library last I decided to bring Mike and Psmith with me on vacation, as it was thinner and it seemed more likely I'd have time to read it.

This book was originally the second half of a much longer book. The first half was about Mike at a public school (which in England means a private school) named Wrykyn, and the second half was about how his father withdrew him from Wrykyn and sent him to Sedleigh, where he meets Rupert Psmith ("the P is silent, as in pshrimp").

I had two recurring thoughts while reading this book: 1. "A book about Mike without Psmith would probably be fairly dull," and 2. "Man, am I glad I read Cricket Explained by Robert Eastaway last year." Mike plays cricket (that is, in fact, why his father removed him from Wrykyn), and the game factors pretty heavily into the plot. Not that the book would be unintelligible otherwise, but there would be a fair amount of the cricket humor that would be lost. There are two different test matches described in the book, and the suspense and relief would be missing from the appropriate spots.

Like any Wodehouse book, this was a joy to read. Seeing as I was stuck on the worst vacation in my life (so far), this book was heavily appreciated. Having read Jeeves and Wooster stories and books, I could see how Psmith fills the same role as Jeeves, but with a bit more recklessness, seeing as Psmith is still a boy. Although the action is happening to Mike, Psmith is the more imposing character, and I believe Wodehouse would agree, since he went on to write three more books about Psmith.

These schoolboy stories were among the first Wodehouse published (in fact, the material in this book was first published 100 years ago), and so the intricately-tangled plot of a later Wodehouse novel is not present. Still, although it is not as impossible to see how Mike will get out of the soup, as it were, it is a pleasure to find out exactly how Psmith goes about accomplishing it.

Rating: 6.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Veeck as in Wreck, by Bill Veeck

I had heard of Bill Veeck before, mainly because of the time he sent a midget named Eddie Gaedel to bat for the Saint Louis Browns, but also because he was the owner of the Cleveland Indians when Larry Doby became the first black player in the American League. When I was writing my baseball discrimination paper I looked to see if there was anything in the school library about Veeck and was delighted to find he'd written an autobiography.

As an occasional reader of autobiographies, I've found that some don't age well. Who really cares anymore what Charles Nelson Reilly thought about Brett Somers? (Okay, I admit I would probably read a CNR autobiography, but still.) There was some of that in this book, like when Veeck writes everything he hates about Del Webb, who evidently owned the Yankees once. However, even these parts are interesting because the things that Veeck hated about Webb had to do with the then-current state of baseball, and so they are still relevant reading to someone interested in the history of the game.

More than this, though, the book is full of humorous stories of how Veeck tried to provide entertainment to the fans. In addition to pinch-hitting Gaedel (who drew a walk on four pitches and then was lifted for a pinch runner), Veeck was known for giving away undesirable door prizes, like 24 hens or 100 pounds of butter. He was the last of the non-rich owners, the guys who were just executives who put together investor groups and managed the concern's affairs.

Some of the people he hated, I'd already read about from my other baseball books this summer. Branch Rickey is present in some books as a moral crusader, and Walter O'Malley as an evil man out to destroy Brooklyn. Veeck writes that Rickey was one of the few owners who ever broke an agreement with him, and Veeck disliked O'Malley more for the way he profited from the creation of the Angels than for moving his franchise. In fact, Veeck had been trying to move a team to Los Angeles for at least 10 years before O'Malley succeeded. Veeck has nothing bad to say about Commissioner Landis, but castigates Happy Chandler and Ford Frick more than I've ever read before. He disliked Rogers Hornsby, also, and Veeck is directly responsible for the hour I spent at work this week reading about Rogers Hornsby and Ty Cobb on the Internet.

This book took a long time to get through; the pages were densely typeset and the chapter breaks are just a few lines, so there aren't any "short" pages. However, I enjoyed the entire book. A fan of baseball as it used to be played, and anyone who wants additional insight into some of the game's lingering problems, like racism, free agency, expansion, and the demise of the minor leagues, would enjoy this book.

Rating: 6 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.