Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann David Wyss

About a month ago I thought, "You know what book I could read to my kids that they would love? The Swiss Family Robinson, that's what! Plus, since it's in the public domain, it'll be super cheap!" Yes, I consider things like that. And that's why I have no friends.

The problem with old-timey books, though, is that they've often been edited and translated a billion different times in a billion different ways, so who's to say what actually constitutes reading The Swiss Family Robinson? I especially hate the children's editions or even the abridged adult editions that don't bother to tell you that they're not the complete text. At the bookstore I looked at two different versions of The Swiss Family Robinson; one started with "Already the tempest had continued six days," while the other began, "When the family awoke the storm still raged." Those are quite different sentences. Did the original German contain the word "sechs" or didn't it? How much of what is offered as the work of Johann Wyss is really his book and how much is the "work" of a copyhouse underling who knows some German?

Anyway, I got a copy of the book from the local library and started reading it to my kids. More than any other old-timey book we've read together, this one was completely inaccessible to them because of vocabulary. After a chapter or two I gave them leave, and I finished the book on my own.

For being a classic, there's a lot about this book to not like. Firstly, the title is horrible. It seems like the family name is Robinson, which isn't a Swiss name at all. The idea is that they are a Swiss family in the role of Robinson Crusoe. There has to be a better way to convey that. And don't tell me, "Well, it's been 200 years and they can't change the title now." They feel free to change everything else about this book with no warning; why not change the title while they're at it? Secondly, I was surprised by how often the family's response to seeing a new animal is to try to kill it. They start their stay by killing some attacking jackals, and who can't support that? But later they kill buffalo, kangaroo, lion, tiger, crocodile, boar, shark, and a thousand different types of small birds. Thirdly, it got a little tiresome how every chapter ended with, "And then we said our prayers and had a good night's sleep," and how the father happened to know a little something about every possible trade. Wheelwright needed? No problem, I happened to pass the time in my youth tinkering with the tools of the trade. I understand that without the plot device many of the chapters would read, "Then my family thought of something else we'd like to have, but since I didn't know how to make it, we just ate some more fish," but still. Couldn't one of the books they took from the shipwreck have been an instruction manual for various trades? Fourthly, with the preeminent image in most people's minds being the treehouse, they actually only live in it for about one year of the 10 they spend deserted. They spend most of their time in a salt cave. Not quite as romantic.

Speaking of romance, at the end of the book they discover a shipwrecked girl in her late teens. With four boys over the age of 18, you might figure there'd be some interest in the girl, but instead she's adopted by the family as a sister. Because, hey, you can find a hot European babe any time you want to around those parts. The place is lousy with them. To use a Wodehousism, you can't heave a brick without hitting one.

Lastly, either Wyss did a poor job making sure he's identified all his characters or the phantom copyeditor of a public domain novel has struck again, for there are many times that the narrator refers to an animal by name as if that name had been introduced previously. As much as I'd like to say, "I read The Swiss Family Robinson," who knows if I did or not?

Rating: 3 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Freddy the Detective, by Walter R. Brooks

Back when we thought we were rich and we were spending money like the US Treasury (zing!), I belonged to several mail-order book clubs. For those of you who have never experienced book club membership, it's a convenience provided by book publishers when you want to waste your money like a loyal American, but your American fat-assedness makes you too lazy to actually go anywhere. In that case, they mail a catalog to you and you can spend your money without endangering your hard-fought sedentary lifestyle. Redneck fat-asses have Lillian Vernon, pack-rat fat-asses have Oriental Trading Company, and faux-intellectual fat-asses have mail order book clubs.

In one of my mailers I found a review of Freddy the Detective, which was billed as wholesome family reading from Days Gone By. We had one child at the time, and I made a note of the title and author for when she would be old enough to read. When I decided to get out of the book club, I wanted to cash out the club points I'd amassed, so we became the proud owners of Freddy the Detective. At the time all I knew was that the mailer editor had been paid to tell me that it was a good book and he'd managed not to tip his hand in his product description. Since then, I've learned a little more about Walter Brooks and his Freddy the Pig series. Brooks lived in New York, has been dead for over 50 years, and maintained a bit of a cottage industry producing Freddy books, reaching 26 in all.

Our kids enjoyed this book. There were plenty of silly parts that made them laugh out loud. Freddy is a pig who knows how to read, and after some recent exposure to Sherlock Holmes stories, decides to become a detective. He has several small cases throughout the book, while one larger case, involving rats who've come to live in the barn, spans the story. My daughter was especially interested in a bit of backstory relating how Freddy and his friends had gone on a journey north and come home with two orphan children. When we finished this book and I asked them if they liked it enough to read more, she said she would want to read the one that dealt with the expedition. Later that week I went to the library and checked out Freddy Goes to the North Pole, which she has been reading on her own since then. She just reported, however, that she's "sort of given up on it," because, "the Freddy books are better for you to read than for me." I take that to mean that the reading level is probably for kids 10 and above.

Rating: 5.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Case of the Invisible Dog, by E.W. Hildick

When I was in third and fourth grades, I loved McGurk mysteries. My fourth grade teacher, so appreciative of their ability to keep me quiet, gave me her personal copy of The Case of the Invisible Dog. Now that my daughter likes mysteries, I thought this might be a good series for her to read.

Jack McGurk runs a neighborhood detective agency with three other kids: Joey is in charge of forensics, Willy is in charge of smelling, and Wanda is in charge of, well, being a girl, I guess. According to Snakes in Suits, McGurk is a sociopath, in that he uses the people around him for his own benefit, often telling them conflicting stories that are what they want to hear. (Although that book counsels against using it to diagnose others, I figure I'm okay because McGurk is a fictional character.) A neighborhood kid whose feelings have been hurt by being left out of the organization, exhibits all the traits of a budding comic book villain, creating an invisible dog to get even with McGurk and his yes-men. In the end McGurk figures out the truth about the invisible dog and invites the super villain to join them.

Reading this book as an adult, it's hard to say what it was I liked about McGurk. The fact is McGurk is a jerk. The narrator, Joey, is a good guy, and is pretty smart, but he discounts his own abilities because Hildick decided that McGurk should be the genius who solves all the mysteries. The rest of McGurk's organization is only there to tell McGurk how smart he is when he figures out the mystery, which he only does because Hildick gives him the answer. I once worked at a company with an owner like McGurk, who got everyone around him to think his insufferability was just a manifestation of his genius. Really he was just a dick.

I had better memories of McGurk than the material actually supports. If my daughter wants to read more books from this series on her own, that will be fine, but I doubt I'll read another with her.

Rating: 3.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Adventures of Sally, by P.G. Wodehouse

This Wodehouse book was unlike any other I've read. Like Mike and Psmith, the tone was more serious, with the comedy taking a back seat to the story, but while Mike and Psmith has the lightheartedness that comes from schoolboys whose only concern is cricket, The Adventures of Sally is about a lighthearted girl who nearly has that crushed out of her by life. Not typical Wodehouse fare, though I did say "nearly."

Sally Nicholas is an American girl working at a fancy nightclub, where rich men come to dance with ladies. She lives at a boarding house and is engaged to a man who has written a play and is trying to get it produced. A distant relative dies and leaves her a small sum of money; not enough to make her very rich, but enough that she doesn't have to worry about money for a while. She takes a vacation to France where she meets a British man named Lancelot, but who everyone save his stuffed-shirt relatives calls Ginger. She learns that Ginger recently angered the stuffed-shirts who pay the bills and now must make his own way in the world. Sally returns to America and is soon followed by Ginger and his cousin, who also has met Sally and is captivated by her. Sally's fiancé's play is in trouble because his financial backer is trying to use it as a star vehicle for a chorus girl he loves. Sally offers to back the play with what remains of her inheritance. The plays a success, which changes the fortunes of everyone involved.

In many respects, I liked this book a lot. Instead of targeting farce and coming up with a story that helps with the comedy, this time it is the story that is the focus, with the comedy playing a supporting role. The way in which Wodehouse wrote Ginger's cousin's proposal to Sally and her refusal was skillful and unique. Also, Sally is written in such a way as to seem quite like the perfect girl, and although she'd be about 115 if she were alive today, she'd cause a serious strain to my marriage were I to meet her on the street.

Rating: 6 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.