Friday, October 07, 2011

Skimpy Reviews

To the books below:  Sorry for my skimpy words.  It's not you, it's me.  Blame my fragmented mind.  Blame my new and sudden three-hour class on Mondays, "History of the English Language".  Ordinarily, my mind hums along in book review mode, but not anymore. Now it takes any opportunity to go skittering off to and wondering about skimpy (possible 19th century combination of scant and scrimp) and what it means and its derivation.  Ditto skitter (possibly Norwegian skutla, "to glide rapidly").  Ditto ditto (from the Italian detto, meaning said).  Sigh.  You see what I'm up against.  It's like the girl who has a dream about a girl who has a dream about a girl who...(dream: Old High German troum).  No!  Enough! (enough: Old English genog).

Little Men - Louisa May Alcott.
 I must have read an abridged version when I was a child -- one that had had most of the treacle siphoned out.  A veritable tag team of baby talk and sermonizing.  Sometimes they almost collide in mid-air.  I did notice something interesting, though:  a couple of times when the kids at Plumfield ran to Jo with one of their "little" problems,  the author made a point of saying that Jo was busy with something else (like writing) or she was trying to take a few minutes for herself.  It was sort of like muttering under her breath in a quick aside.  Alcott was really out to get Jo.  First, she wouldn't let her marry Laurie then she put Jo in a life that would have given Louisa herself hives.  I don't really like this book or the characters anymore except for one -- Dan, the ruffian orphan who shows up at Plumfield unexpectedly.  He is the sole proof from Little Men that Alcott had the stuff in spades when it came to creating characters.  I'm glad he's in Jo's Boys and I wish he could have had a novel to himself.  With the modern trend of authors riffing on classics, he's got a good chance.

Puzzle for the Secret Seven - Enid Blyton.
I finally made my acquaintance with a Blyton book, but I seem to have spoiled things for myself by watching Enid, a movie about Blyton that came out a few years ago and stars Helena Bonham Carter in a less-than-sympathetic performance as the prolific children's author.  That movie totally colored my reading experience.  Help is on the way, though.  My friends Val and Paul read the Famous Five and the Secret Seven as children and now again as adults.  They're in the middle of an email discussion about their 'double vision' which they've agreed to let me share with everyone here.  I can't wait.

Sarah's Key - Tatiana de Rosnay.
An American journalist living in Paris is covering the 60th anniversary of the Vel' d'Hiv, which was a roundup of mostly Jewish children by the French police.  As she learns more about their fate, she also discovers that one of the families is linked to her husband's family.  The 1942 story line is so vivid and horrific that the 2002 events seem bland and uninteresting and the characters cardboard-ish by comparison.  Whatever its flaws, the novel is far superior to the 2010 movie version starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Aidan Quinn, which is breathtakingly bad.

Before I Go to Sleep - S.J. Watson.
Christine, a middle-aged woman living in London, really got whacked with the amnesia stick.  Not only does she have no memory of her past, she has no ability to create new memories.  Everything she learns from one day to the next gets erased when she goes to sleep for the night. Author Watson in his debut novel brings it and brings it and brings it.  Wow.  A first-rate thriller.

The Jump-Off Creek - Molly Gloss.
A short but brilliant novel about Lydia Sanderson, a strong-willed woman who pulls up stakes in Pennsylvania when her husband dies and sets out to homestead in 1890s Oregon.  One of the best novels ever about the hardscrabble experience of pioneers.  I can't praise it highly enough.

Please Don't Shoot My Dog - Jackie Cooper.
 Despite the title, which refers to director Norman Taurog's solution for a pint-sized actor who wouldn't cry, Cooper seems curiously remote from his days as a child star.  His story gains more focus during his teens, his time in WWII and his determination to make the transition from childhood and Hollywood to an adult actor on Broadway.  He got lucky and broke into TV in its infancy.  Since much of TV was live in the early days, this was perfect for theater-trained actors.  Shortly after that, he got into the business end of show business and became vice-president of program development at Screen Gems which produced many popular shows like BewitchedThe Flying Nun, and The Partridge Family among others.

 In this autobiography, Cooper has plenty of gossipy and racy (and kind of creepy...thinking about the Joan Crawford one here) anecdotes about some of the people he knew in the movies and in television, but sometimes he comes off as defensive or occasionally, just plain dense.  These tendencies are thrown into even sharper focus because he and his ghostwriter made the decision to allow people from Cooper's life tell their side of the story in short paragraphs interspersed throughout the book.  The effect is more tiresome than illuminating, and it all feels like hack writing.  A better title might have been Please Don't Shoot My Dog of a Book.


fantsmacle said...

You're teaching the history of language? That sounds like that would be a fun class to teach. I'm assuming it is a graduate class and the students complain a lot. Right?

Jeane said...

I always thought I was the odd one out for not loving Little Women, and I never even gave Little Men a try. Sounds like that was a good choice for me! (Incidentally, I love the movie, though. One of the very few stories where that's the case).

Bybee said...

No, it's an undergrad class. I got it the third week in. An older Korean prof was teaching it and for some reason, he couldn't continue. I'm really interested in it, but it's definitely work. No textbook -- the prof was just getting articles off of Wikipedia.

I like the movie Little Women, too. I like all the versions, except the 1949 one. Too fluffy and Hollywoodish.

Unruly Reader said...

These "skimpy" reviews pack a punch. And I have sympathy for you, trying to teach how the English language got so weird. I often thank my lucky stars I got born into it and didn't have to try to learn it later. Such a weird and wonderful Franken-language.

Care said...

These are terrific.
I agree with your thoughts on Sarah's Key, except I haven't seen the movie. Yet. I really want to find out if it's truly that bad!

Tami said...

My brain does the same thing, and I'm not even teaching a class.

I totally agree with your thoughts on Before I Go to Sleep. First rate!

Kathleen said...

I couldn't agree more about Sarah's Key. I haven't seen the movie yet but it sounds like one I can skip!