Dismissive and lukewarm

Jerry-Lewis-Max-RoseI’m repeatedly amazed when I read lukewarmly dismissive reviews of movies or books or recordings that moved me in some way.

I finally saw Max Rose, which was Jerry Lewis’s last movie, a drama about an aging jazz pianist whose wife has just died, and who has discovered a memento of hers that suggests that she had an ongoing affair during their 65-year marriage. I didn’t think it was a “classic” but I thought it was beautifully and sensitively done. I thought Jerry Lewis’s take on the aging widower was just PERFECT, and it resonated with what I loved most about the movie: a sensitive depiction of old age. Unless there’s a film subgenre I’ve been missing, this is a rare thing in popular entertainment. 

And yet… I read a few capsule reviews of the movie that just seemed to miss this altogether.

“A soggy, fragile feature… mawkish, leaden drama… a maudlin, inconsequential waste… a truly unfortunate encore (for Lewis)…”

These are the lead lines in some of the negative reviews I scanned online.

And, as so often happens when I read such reviews, my reaction was: “Did this reviewer even watch the movie?”

This was no two-star tossoff. 

Jerry Lewis with co-star Kerry Bishe in MAX ROSE.

This is telling: Max Rose is an hour and twenty minutes long. Not two hours, not three hours, not even ninety minutes. Barely 80 minutes. The filmmakers told the story and got out of there. Compactness in a movie is a rare thing lately. 

Beautiful, sensitive, understated, concise, emotional. 

If that’s not GREAT, it’s at least admirable, and certainly not deserving of the lukewarm and dismissive reviews I read.

I’m glad I finally got to see it, and Lewis must have been proud of it, and I’m glad he got to see it screened for appreciative audiences before his death.

And, yet again, I’m reminded that I should never read or put stock in reviews before I see a film. Had I seen those reviews of Max Rose, I may have never given it a chance.

And it deserves much more than “a chance.”

Wrong leg, dummy!

15135865_10210413372746064_8374957766742851957_nI’ve been reading Robert Bader’s Marx Brothers biography, Four of the Three Musketeers, serially, a chapter at a time every couple weeks or so. I’m up to chapter nine.

Bader’s focus is on the brothers’ years as vaudeville and stage performers, before they went to Hollywood and broke through as movie stars. Four of the Three Musketeers is a thick book, very dense and exhaustively researched but also beautifully written, fun and funny.

Bader addresses all the myths and contradictions in the brothers’ history and, like any good historian, when a contradiction can’t be resolved conclusively based on the evidence at hand, he leaves it at that. It’s quite possibly one of the best biographies I’ve ever read, and, along with Richard Anobile’s Marx Brothers Scrapbook, the best book I’ve read about them.

The book is packed with great stories, and one of my favorites, which I posted on Facebook a while back, was the story about 9-year-old Gummo’s vaudeville debut in an act with his uncle, Harry Shean. Harry was the brother of Al Shean, who was a successful vaudeville performer; Gummo’s older brother Julius (Groucho) had already succeeded on the stage, so perhaps someone was thinking that success runs in the family.

Gummo Marx, as a teenager

Unfortunately, Uncle Harry was nearly deaf, and Gummo had a bad stammer. So what was the act they chose to take onstage? A ventriloquist act, of course, with Gummo acting as a fake dummy, “stuffed into a hollow ventriloquist’s dummy with a papier-mâché head.”

According to Gummo, “I operated the mechanical part as well as speaking. Uncle Harry just stood there.”

As Bader writes, “A deaf ventriloquist with a stammering fake dummy wouldn’t seem to have much chance for success.” And a fake ventriloquist would get booed off the stage, so, to “prove” to the audience that the dummy was “real,” Gummo put both legs down into one pantsleg of the dummy; the other leg was stuffed with sawdust, and Uncle Harry would jab a long pin into the stuffed leg. When the dummy didn’t scream or jump, the audience would know that it was “real.” 

So one night, early in the act’s history, Uncle Harry raised the pin and jabbed it down into the dummy’s leg… except… he jabbed it into the wrong leg.

Gummo screamed and jumped from his uncle’s lap.

And that was the end of their ventriloquist act.

“Four of the Three Musketeers”

15135865_10210413372746064_8374957766742851957_nI’m two chapters into Four Of The Three Musketeers, Robert Bader’s densely detailed, fun book about the Marx Brothers’ career onstage, from their formative years up to the end, when they toured stage versions of their films to gauge audience reactions.

It’s fun to read in detail about incidents and people to which the brothers (mainly Groucho) alluded but glossed over in other books, articles and interviews.

For example, chapter two closes with an authoritative account of Groucho’s first paying touring vaudeville job, as one of the performers in the Leroy Trio, led by a cross-dressing singer named Gene Leroy. 14-year-old Groucho was left stranded in Denver, Colorado, when Leroy took off with the act’s earnings. In other accounts I’ve read (most notably in the hilarious oral history The Marx Brothers Scrapbook), Groucho had less-than-complimentary things to say about Leroy (whom he remembered alternately as Leroy, Loring, and Leroux)… perhaps understandably, given the end of the act.

What Groucho didn’t mention either in that book or in other interviews I’ve seen is that several years later, Gene Leroy made headlines in a different way. According to Bader:

On July 23, 1920, an unclaimed steamer trunk was opened at the American Express office in New York’s Grand Central Terminal. In it was the crudely dismembered and disemboweled body of Katherine Leroy Jackson, the common-law wife of Eugene Leroy. The trunk had been shipped from Detroit, Michigan on June 10 to the man identified as the woman’s lover. Leroy had left his Detroit rooming house the day after his wife was last seen, and he in turn was never seen again.

This is a fantastic book which, so far, captures the flavor of the brothers’ formative years as a show biz act. Bader goes into exhaustive detail while presenting often conflicting accounts, usually not only from the brothers themselves, but sometimes from the same brother multiple times. As you might expect, Groucho’s is the dominant, most memorable voice, but all of the siblings get their turn. It’s the perfect combination of fun, funny, and fascinating.


Left to right: Adolph (Harpo), Milton (Gummo), Leonard (Chico) and Julius (Groucho) Marx, during their stage-vaudeville days, sometime during the 1920s.

Eva reviews: “Honeybees”

8557071Honeybees by Emily Neye

The publisher says… How do honeybees make honey? Where do they build their hives? Why do they dance? Find out inside this exciting easy-to-read book.

Eva says… O.K., so this is the THIRD fact book I got about bees, and you know what? First, it was supposed to be the hardest, but it wasn’t THAT hard. And second, the other two had REAL pictures but hardly any facts, but THIS one was PAINTINGS and it had the MOST facts! Like about why they sting, and how they sting. And did you know when bees sting, they die. They don’t kill YOU, but they die, because their stingers come out. So remember that next time you get stung. It HURTS, but at least you’re not DEAD.

Honeybees insideAnd bees even sting BEARS! Because you know why? BEARS LOVE HONEY! And who makes honey? BEES! And the bears try to steal that honey all the time. And bears aren’t all that smart and they can’t warn each other, so they never learn.

And see, that’s ANOTHER good fact in this book. Is that it tells you all about how bees make honey. They go to flowers and get pollen and nectar and then they make honey in their hives, so that way they aren’t hungry when it gets cold.

Those were the exact facts I wanted from those other bee books.  So that makes this one GREAT.

You know what’s weird? I saw all these books at the library and I ALMOST got this one first, but I got the ones with real pictures in them first instead. And those ones didn’t have any facts in them at all.

So the moral of the story is: real pictures aren’t everything!

Eva’s rating: ♥♥♥♥♥ (out of five)

(Honeybees by Emily Neye, illustrated by Tom Leonard. Random House Step Into Reading. ISBN 978-0307462176)

Eva Kelly is this blog’s six-year-old resident children’s book critic. 

Click below to read more of her reviews…

on this blog, or…

on her Goodreads page, or…

Cover front finalEva Kelly’s Book Of Book Reviews 

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120+ children’s book reviews written by avid reader Eva Kelly (with help from her parents and author Max Harrick Shenk).

Click here for more information.

Eva reviews… “Raccoon On His Own”

1725932Raccoon On His Own by Jim Arnosky

The publisher says… When a baby raccoon is swept downstream in an abandoned canoe, he feels afraid. But soon he notices all kinds of things he has never seen before, and from the safety of his little boat, he begins to explore the world around him. Paralleling the exciting-and often frightening-experience of a child’s first adventure away from home, Raccoon on His Own offers little ones a glimpse of being on their own for the very first time.

Eva says… I like this guy’s books. He did that one about turkeys that was good except for not having anything about eating them in it, and also a good one about an armadillo who lost his orange and couldn’t find his house. And this one is a good one too, so he’s a good writer.

So what happens is, this baby raccoon climbs into this boat and then it starts floating away, but it wasn’t that raccoon’s fault. It was his BROTHERS. THEY went digging around in the dirt and that made the boat get loose and start floating away.

I bet that raccoon was scared when he was floating, because there were all these snakes and alligators and stuff and he had NO idea where he was going. But his family must have followed him because they met him and that means it was just an ADVENTURE.  So you know that when they got home he had a lot of stories to tell them.

But I think they need to apologize to him first.

Eva’s rating: ♥♥♥♥ (out of five)

(Raccoon On His Own by Jim Arnosky. Published by Putnam Juvenile. ISBN 978-0142500712)

Eva Kelly is this blog’s six-year-old resident children’s book critic. 

Click below to read more of her reviews…

on this blog, or…

on her Goodreads page, or…

Cover front finalEva Kelly’s Book Of Book Reviews 

is now available in print!

120+ children’s book reviews written by avid reader Eva Kelly (with help from her parents and author Max Harrick Shenk).

Click here for more information.


Eva reviews: “The Bus For Us”

20130408_041007_bus“The Bus for Us” by Suzanne Bloom

The publisher says… Tess is excited. Today is her first day of school, and her very first ride on a school bus. Waiting at the bus stop with her older friend Gus, Tess eagerly asks, “Is this the bus for us, Gus?” as each vehicle passes by. From fire engine to front loader, Suzanne Bloom introduces young readers to a variety of vehicles through a simple text and spirited illustrations.

Eva says… Boy, am I glad I don’t have to go to school on a BUS. Mama’s little sister Maggie has to take the school bus and it takes a WHOLE HALF HOUR to get to school, and she HATES it and who can blame her?

If she did HOMESCHOOL, she’d be THERE already. HAHAHA!

Maybe Mimi needs to think about that.

Anyway, it still might be fun to go on a school bus a couple times so who knows? Maybe I can try it when I’m in high school or college or something.

Oh! You know what else was good? Was that the BUS STOP sign in this book kept CHANGING. It said all these silly things like SUB POTS and BUS SPOT and all that. Every page, that sign was different!

And all the different trucks they showed were cool, so that part was O.K., too.

This one was fine, I guess. It’s another one of those stories where they try to make you feel better about something lousy that you have to do. So if you ride the school bus, you still have to do it, but maybe if you think about this book it’ll make you less depressed.

But I’ll still take HOMESCHOOL!

Eva’s rating: ♥♥♥ (out of five)

(The Bus for Us by Suzanne Bloom. Published by Boyds Mills Press. ISBN 978-1563979323)

Eva Kelly is this blog’s six-year-old resident children’s book critic. 

Click below to read more of her reviews…

on this blog, or…

on her Goodreads page, or…

Cover front finalEva Kelly’s Book Of Book Reviews 

is now available in print!

120+ children’s book reviews written by avid reader Eva Kelly (with help from her parents and author Max Harrick Shenk).

Click here for more information.



About “Meeting Dennis Wilson”

“Today marks the day that I officially add Meeting Dennis Wilson to my ‘Favorite Coming of Age Books’ list. I adore John Green and his work [and] I fell in love with this book just as easily as I fell in love with Paper Towns or An Abundance of Katherines. Meeting Dennis Wilson can easily be compared to a teenager who’s just coming of age: awkward, quirky, hilarious, and loads of fun to be around.Meeting Dennis Wilson is incredibly comical, sweet, and ultimately feel-good.”
(The Literary Connoisseur)

All seven books - best.jpg

Meeting Dennis Wilson is available in both softcover print and Kindle editions, in either seven serialized installments or as an omnibus edition gathering all seven books.

To read excerpts from Meeting Dennis Wilson, click here.

Click here for ordering information for both print and e-book editions.