Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr by John Lahr

Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert LahrNotes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr by John Lahr

My rating: ★★☆☆☆

I was quite excited to read Notes on a Cowardly Lion, but unfortunately I found myself somewhat disappointed.

Most people know Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion from the famous film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. In that role, his character is–as the name implies–not the most ferocious or intimidating of beasts. He’s hilarious, really, and so I think I must have been expecting to see that reflected in this retelling of Lahr’s life. But the vast majority of what I read was far from hilarious.

When deciding whether or not to read this book, I advise caution. If you’re a fan of early Hollywood and are willing to see its stars with all their human flaws, this is the perfect book to help you explore Bert Lahr’s life. Written by his son, it recounts his entire showbusiness career and much of his family life. And it certainly isn’t shy about the shortcomings of its subject; Bert Lahr is presented with surprisingly little bias, considering who the author is. That’s certainly admirable.

Unfortunately, it backfired on me. I, regrettably, am not one of those aforementioned Hollywood fans. I prefer to keep my creators–my actors and actresses, my musicians, my authors–a mystery; I’ve found that in my case, becoming aware of their flaws detracts from my enjoyment of their works. Notes on a Cowardly Lion reinforced this for me like nothing else has; by the time I was finished the book, I’d developed a strong dislike for Bert Lahr as a person… which is certainly hard to reconcile with my favorable opinion of Bert Lahr as the Coward Lion.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy Notes on a Cowardly Lion. It truly is a fascinating book, offering priceless glimpses into a world I knew nothing about–vaudeville, Broadway during the first half of the 20th century, early Hollywood. I adored the chapter about The Wizard of Oz. I delighted in the peripheral name-dropping of some of my favorite early celebrities.

If you’re the kind of person willing to embrace artists as people with all their flaws, I definitely recommend Notes on a Cowardly Lion to you. If you’re not, you might be better served with a non-biographical look at Bert Lahr’s world.

A copy of this book was provided free via Netgalley for the purpose of review.


Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald

Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good PeopleBlindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald

My rating: ★★★★☆

Blindspot is an interesting glimpse into an uncomfortable subject. As per the subtitle, Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald seek to expose, explore, and explain so-called “hidden biases”; that is, the biases unknowingly harbored by those individuals who consider themselves unprejudiced or even advocate against prejudice in its varied forms.

When many Americans, at least, think of prejudice, they think of the three “big” ones: racial discrimination, misogyny, and homophobia. What people often overlook are the prejudices that get less coverage, so to speak, or are perceived as somehow less harmful or more justified. These would include religious or philosophical discrimination, xenophobia, age discrimination, misandry, transphobia, etcetera.

As Blindspot explains, no matter how hard we try to fight against our culture’s stereotypes and prejudices, most of us harbor some level of unintentional, unconscious bias.

Take me for instance. Using the tests supplied in the book, each meant to explore a person’s unconscious associations about race and “goodness”, race and nationality, gender and career, etcetera, I found that my results on the race/ethnicity test imply that I subconsciously favor Asians and Hispanics to “whites” and Africans/”blacks”. The gender and career test implies that, like most Americans, I associate men with science and women with liberal arts. Most distressing to me, however, was that my results seemed to show that I associate “white” with “American” and “Native American” with “foreign”.

But, of course, Blindspot doesn’t dare leave its readers with merely that. The authors seek to explore and explain these prejudices they’ve exposed, discussing the discrimination hinted by such widespread unconscious stereotyping and to what extent it is actively or passively harmful. All in all, it’s a really fascinating discussion, and it’s a great place for anyone interested in reading about discrimination and prejudice to start.

I definitely recommend Blindspot, and I’m looking forward to reading more on the subject.

A copy of this book was provided free via Edelweiss for the purpose of review.


Beach House (Point Horror, #22) by R.L. Stine

Beach House (Point Horror, #22)Beach House by R.L. Stine

My rating: ★★☆☆☆

R.L. Stine YA books disturb me. No, not for the reason you’re thinking. They’re not “scary”. At best, they’re mildly entertaining. At worst, they’re ludicrously moronic. I find a significant number of R.L. Stine books disturbing because half of his teenage female protagonists are in obviously abusive relationships.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s an eighties thing. But it seems like at least half his books, including this one, feature a main female character, high-school age, who is in a steady relationship with a boy she is terrified of. The girls specifically state being frightened by their boyfriends’ raging tempers, possessive jealousy, threats and displays of violence.

And then, almost invariably, the next sentence will say that it makes them feel special.

Huh? Your abusive piece of shit boyfriend makes you feel special when he screams at the top of his lungs, breaks your things, and threatens you because you spoke to another male? You need your heads examined, R.L. Stine protagonists. Does R.L. Stine land have no healthy egos? No healthy relationships? No therapists? No parents who care if their daughters abused? Nothing? Wow. I feel horrible for you, fictional late eighties/early nineties women. Like whoa.

For added fun, he doesn’t seem to know how sharks work. Buddy and Maria swim within a few feet of a recently-moved-in school of sharks, and the sharks show no interest in their presence. “They won’t attack until they smell blood,” Buddy explains.

lolwut? No. Just no. First of all, most shark species don’t live in schools, and none of the three most dangerous species do. Tiger sharks, perhaps the most dangerous (being considered the “garbage cans” of the sea) feed in schools, however, so I suppose I’ll ignore the fact Beach House implies that an entire school of man-eating sharks moves to a beach with heavy human traffic just for lulz. I’ll just assume an entire ecosystem of fish spawned off this beach a few days prior to the story, which is the only explanation I can think of for a ton of sharks deciding to show up and stick around.

But even that’s a minor problem when we get to, “They won’t attack until they smell blood.” What universe do you live in? Most shark attacks on humans aren’t about food/hunting/blood. They’re the result of a torpedo with fangs spotting a weird, gangly, too-scrawny-to-make-a-good-meal animal–one it may or may not ever have seen before–thrashing around like a dying fish. And, well, here’s the thing… sharks don’t have hands. They can’t grab your ankle and go, “Hey, what are you?” They grab you with your teeth and go, “Mind if I find out if you’re yummy?” It’s just too bad that by the time they’ve realized you’re not yummy, whatever limb they grabbed is probably mangled, severed, or swallowed.

So, yeah. These two idiot teenagers swim out into the middle of the ocean right on top of a school of apparent man-eaters, and not a single shark takes an exploratory bite. These two morons are pretty damn lucky already. And then Buddy pulls out his knife. “They won’t attack until they smell blood,” happens, and he enacts his brilliant plan to murder the girl who bullied him: slash her to bits atop a school of sharks. I assume he then calmly swam out of the cloud of blood and ravenous frenzy it apparently spawned while the sharks conveniently devoured only the already-dying girl while leaving him completely alone? You guys might just be the weirdest sharks ever.

But I suppose I have to be fair. This had the typical R.L. Stine YA bullshitwith some extra time-travel bullshit just for flavor, but it wasn’t horrible. I seem to recall enjoying it when I read it in middle school, so I suppose it’s fair to say that middle- or elementary-school children should enjoy this one.


Champion Rose by Laura E. Williams

Champion RoseChampion Rose by Laura E. Williams

My rating: ★★☆☆☆

The first few books of this series were quite childish, more so than is warranted given their 7+ age recommendation. As the series progressed, however, the authors got their act together and realized that you don’t need to write down to children, and I certainly appreciated that. (It made revisiting this childhood memory far less painful than I worried it might be.)

Unfortunately, L.E. Wiliams must not yet have realized that lesson when she wrote this installment. There’s a lot of “tell” instead of “show” and a lot of stereotyped and over-exaggeratedly “childish” comments and worries. It’s not unforgivable by any means, but it definitely has a somewhat condescending sense toward its intended demographic that seriously grates the nerves of its peripheral audience.

If this was her first installment in the series, I’ll forgive it completely; the other authors went through the same trial-and-error method with their writing styles for the series. But as far as determining the order of the post-Trapped books… so many of these were released in such a short time period that the publication dates aren’t particularly helpful (and many of them are either missing or guesswork in the first place), and there’s not a lot of information available on this series, so I’m rather out of luck with trying to find out if this is actually Rose’s first appearance as a main character. I’ll be reading a few more of her installments when I get the chance, and I definitely hope to see Williams’ voice improve; otherwise, I have to say I’ll be disappointed.


Everneath (Everneath, #1) by Brodi Ashton

Everneath by Brodi Ashton

My rating: ★☆☆☆☆

I’ve been halfway through this book for so long now that I think it’s finally time to admit that I’m never going to finish it.

I don’t like the characters and I’m bored by the plot, so I don’t see any reason to sink another two or three hours of my life into forcing myself to finish it.

I’d hoped to enjoy this one, but alas. DNF!


The Berenstain Bears’ Mad, Mad, Mad Toy Craze by Stan and Jan Berenstain

The Berenstain Bears' Mad, Mad, Mad Toy CrazeThe Berenstain Bears’ Mad, Mad, Mad Toy Craze by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain

My rating: ★☆☆☆☆

Apparently, one of the Berenstains really had a problem with Beanie Babies. Normally, Berenstain Bears books have a moral; in a Berenstain Bears book referencing Beanie Babies, one would expect a “don’t get caught up in fads” moral. And that’s here… if you squint really, really hard.

Perhaps that’s what they wanted readers to take away from the story, but after finishing it, I stared at the page in disbelief for a moment, then checked the publishing date. Apparently back in 1999, the Berenstains hated Beanie Babies so freakin’ much that they felt the need to write a whole book about it. If they were going for a fad moral, they missed their mark by a long short. There is not a single reference to the existence of other fads in this book. As a matter of fact, I just double-checked, and the word fad isn’t even in the book. So the moral one would expect is already out the window, and in it’s place, one is left with nothing to take away from this besides, “Wow, the Berenstains sure do hate Beanie Babies.”

The reasoning they offer as to why Beanie Babies-oh, excuse me, “Beary Bubbies”-are ridiculous is ridiculous itself. “You can’t play dolly with them,” the book says. “You can’t play choo-choo with them…You couldn’t play baseball with them…” Um, duh? They’re not dolls, they’re not trains, and they’re definitely not baseballs. They’re stuffed animals. If you can’t find a game to play with your stuffed animals (I always did), you can at least cuddle them or something. And for the record, Mr. and Mrs. Berenstain, I can’t play “dolly”, “choo-choo”, or baseball with your book, either.

“All you could do was look at them.” Or you could use your imagination. Because your target audience and your characters are young children.

“The only thing you could really do with them is brag about how many you had….And no matter how many you had, there was always somebody who had more.” Because, obviously, that’s what toys are for.

See, that’s a moral they could have squeezed out of that if they weren’t so wrapped up in their incredibly odd anti-Beanie Baby rage. See, there are two perfectly valid reasons to own Beanie Babies: you either play with them or you collect them.

Moral Option A: Buy toys (and possessions in general) that you have an interest in, not toys that other people have an interest in. And certainly not toys you think can make you a quick profit (which is Papa Bear’s interest in Beary Bubbies).

Moral Option B: Don’t make toys (and possessions in general) a contest. Get what you want, get what you need, and leave everything else the hell alone.

But neither of these ideas is explored in the story; they’re there, but you have to squint if you want to spot them, and so the target audience isn’t likely to notice any kind of lesson. So when one gets to the line, “And no matter how many you had, there was always somebody who had more.” and turn the page, one expects to have at least a brief comment about why toys need to be valued as toys and not a contest. But nope. Instead we get:

PAPA BEAR: Now what do you suppose that was all about?
BROTHER BEAR: I really don’t know.

So, really, the book had the same reaction to its plot that I did.