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ARC Review–A Dreadful Fairy Book by Jon Etter

Pre-order A Dreadful Fairy Book by Jon Etter

3/5*

Publication–November 6, 2018

I received this ARC from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My oldest daughter, Elanor, is in fifth grade and loves fantasy, so I read A Dreadful Fairy Book with her in mind. Is this something she would like? Is this something I would like her to read/would like to read aloud with her? Is it something I would recommend my school library stock? The answer to all of these questions is complex and why I had to drop my rating from a 4/5 to a 3/5.

A Dreadful Fairy Book uses the same sort of overarching theme of ominous narration employed in the Series of Unfortunate Events books, wherein a narrator pops up throughout the story to add commentary and to caution you to turn back because it’s not a happy story. It opens with a forward from Quentin Q. Quacksworth, our narrator, telling you that this will be a dreadful fairy book, and that the reader should turn back just as Lemony Snicket does. This is used throughout the book, and if your child likes that sort of device, they will enjoy that.

Shade, the main character of the book is one most children will relate to–she feels too different from everyone else in her village. In this story it’s because she’s a reader like her parents, and the village looks down on this literacy, even though it’s saved them many times (no you can’t turn the water pink which will kill all the fishes and make the water poison because it would look pretty). In fact, the book opens with Shade in a fury because the village had bought some “harmless” fireworks and accidentally burned down Shade’s house. So Shade tells them she’s leaving, and she takes the only book to survive the conflagration to go seek a new home with as many books as possible.

Along her way, Shade encounters all sorts of fairy creatures–a bridge troll who doesn’t like to get dirty, an Anthony of the Wisp who doesn’t want to lead people to their doom, as well as some with more menacing creatures. Shade acquires some allies–Ginch, a talkative Brownie who cheats at cards, and The Professor, a silent pixie whose pockets carry an improbable number of items. A witch gives them directions to a library on the Marble Cliffs, which becomes a quest for Shade. Ginch and The Professor end up joining her on the quest after some villagers with torches start to chase them.

The issues that parents may have with the book are the faux swearing that happens with high frequency and the verbal dialects given to the characters lean heavily on ethnic stereotypes. I don’t particularly care about the former, but the latter is a big problem for me.

What do I mean by the ethnic stereotype dialects?

“It’s-a the sad story, mine: the woeful tale of the Rigolleto Ginch, the devoted servant in-a the big, big manse of Fuseli Cavatappi, the Basta of Pasta, who was-a brought-a low…” and “Ey, paisan! You know-a the moth girl” among thousands of others from Ginch.

“Vy boss vant kinders?”

“‘Course it’s good youse mooks!” the little man replied in a deep raspy voice.

“‘Course oi can see ye,” she snorted. “Drank a glass o’ milk backwards after refusin’ to do me chore first thing on Sain Bartleby the Unwillin’s Day when oi were ten.”

“Oui, mon petit chou,” the gargoyle said as they entered, pointing at the map with his free hand, “but ze middle of ze land–“

Ginch is the only main character with a dialect (the Professor is either silent or stutters when speaking), but it’s a near constant stream. He doesn’t speak without word-a-ing something. It gets grating fast. As does the fact that Shade is almost the only person who speaks properly–it feels like Etter was throwing pins at a map of Europe and then assigning stereotypes. How will an Italian/Italian American child feel reading a book where their ethnicity is used as a punchline?

This bothered me enough that I took the rating from 4 stars to 3. Dialects aren’t bad (although using ones with blinding red flags are), but they need only be used sparingly because otherwise they become irritating.

So how do I feel about those questions I kept in mind while reading this. I don’t think it’s surprising that “No, I don’t really want my daughter reading this,” and “No, I won’t be recommending this book to my school library,” and “No, I won’t recommend this book to parents of other similarly aged children,” are where I come down.

 

 

Book Review: Dark Witch (Cousins O’Dwyer #1) by Nora Roberts

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 10.16.42 PMDark Witch by Nora Roberts (Cousins O’Dwyer Trilogy #1)

4/5 stars

Nora Roberts has written over 200 books.  I have read at least 100 of those.  I suspect that if I were to sit down with a list and start checking off titles, it’s closer to 150 or more.  One of my closest friends, Brandy, introduced me to Roberts in 1996 with the Dream Trilogy (still a favorite today, if a bit dated).  I immediately devoured as much of her back catalog as I could get my hands on, and read every new release and out of stock re-release for the next 10 or so years.

I’m still a huge fan of her “in death” series written as JD Robb, and read those the day/week they are released.  However, over the past five to eight years, I’ve hit a wall with Roberts.  Her work is still solid…it’s just that as a fan of her work for almost (gulp) two decades it’s also predictable.

While I’m not gasping in shock over a plot twist, Roberts does still pull off an enjoyable read.

While Roberts typically opens a paranormal with a glimpse into the mythology she’s weaving, Dark Witch breaks that with an extended view (2 chapters) into the origins of the Dark Witch and why we’re now dealing with a trio rather than a single descendant of Sorcha.  Part of this is because she’s setting up a fairly  complex backstory between Sorcha (and her descendents) and Cabhan (and his), but it also makes for a nice change of pace.

We then flip forward to modern day Ireland, where Iona-our token American-has arrived in Ireland.  One of the unique twists on this series is that while Iona is new to her powers, she’s known the family legends her entire life.  There is no shocking reveal.  More refreshing is that the entire town knows–there’s no need for subterfuge amongst the magick working characters and the non magickal characters (to use Robert’s preferred spelling).  Because there isn’t, it’s also not a major plot point either way and therefore is easily dispensed with.

Iona is welcomed into the family by her cousins Branna and Connor.  She secures a job at a local stable headed by her assigned love interest Boyle.  The stable is owned by Branna’s (obvious) former lover Fin.  Connor’s (obvious) eventual love interest Meara also works there.

While the who’s going to end up with who is obvious, I enjoyed the path of seeing how Iona and Boyle would end up together, what would push them apart and so forth. I get the feeling that Roberts might well have pushed the resolution of the couple back into the second book, but couldn’t because of genre conventions and that the next book won’t be telling the Iona/Boyle story.  Without going into spoilers, I will say that the wrap of the I/B relationship was rushed and bit dissatisfying.

There is no hint at the Connor/Meara relationship in this book, but without reading it, I can tell you that in book 2 there will be a reveal that at least one of them has pined for the other and the other will be shocked by it.  I will be less interested in this relationship than the other two.  This is a pattern of her trilogies and I know what I’m in for.

Most interesting by far, and why she’s also saving it for book 3 (note, I haven’t actually read the flap copy or anything relating to the other two books, I just know the Roberts pattern) is the Branna/Fin relationship.  They are the former lovers who have broken it off.  That reason is that just as I/C/B are Sorcha’s descendents, Fin is Cabhan’s descendent–something he didn’t find out until after they were a couple.  He has chosen to align himself with the O’Dwyer cousins, but he and Branna are not buddies, and they’re not over one another.  His choice to align with the good side rather than the bad feels like a new (or newer) plot point for her, and one I appreciated.

The pacing of the book is fairly solid.  I didn’t get distracted by other books in my reading queue.  However, I didn’t feel the need to stay up half the night to finish it, either.  Apart from the rushed ending with regards to the I/B romantic relationship, I was happy with the backstory we’ve gotten in this books, the growing friendship/familial relationships that grew in this books and where the plot will go over the next two books.  I’m not running out to read book #2 before I read anything else, and there’s no rush–book #3 isn’t out until Nov 2014–but I’ll buy it and keep it on my kindle as my next “palate cleanser” book.

If you’re an established Roberts fan, you’ll find it fairly standard Roberts paranormal fare.  Worth noting–as with anytime Roberts feels compelled to write “spells” you will sigh at the often bad rhymes.  It’s not her strong point.

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The bigger question is what does this book/trilogy have to offer someone new to the genre/new to Roberts?

Do you like paranormals?  Do you enjoy witches and magick being thrown about not just in a fantasy/historical setting but in modern day Ireland?  If not, move along.

The reasons that I like Roberts as a Romance novelist are that she writes good characters.  She doesn’t write one dimensional stock characters (although read enough work and you do see patterns).  Her women are complex, and they are active participants in the story and in their love life.  Iona goes over Boyle, rather than wait for him to come a knocking and notice her.  Obviously this is a romance book, but the relationship between I/B is A plot rather than the entirety of the plot.  The paranormal side isn’t just filler–it’s a genuinely interesting story on its own.

Roberts takes the time to research to the point where she can write convincing jewel thieves (Honest Illusions among others), cattle ranchers (Montana Sky), homicide police officers (In Death series of 30+ books and others) or a horse riding instructor (as in this book).  I appreciate that Roberts doesn’t phone it in.

The sex scenes are okay.  I’m not the best barometer because as an erotica author, I tend to read (and write) far more explicit scenes.  That said, they’re not boring or trite either.

I don’t know that this is the first Roberts book I’d hand a new reader of hers, but that’s about personal bias rather than the quality of this book versus another. For the record, my favorites include the Dream Trilogy, The McKade Brothers, The Quinn Brothers, The MacGregor Family, and the In Death series.  Individual title recommendations are Honest Illusions and Sweet Revenge (incidentally both feature jewel thieves).

Book Review: Cast Member Confidential by Chris Mitchell

Screen Shot 2014-04-15 at 9.51.36 PMCast Member Confidential: A Disneyfied Memoir by Chris Mitchell

Rating 3/5 stars for the casual reader

1/5 for those Disney fans who don’t want to sully the brand

5/5 for those who enjoy the peek behind the mask

Last week when I reviewed Spinning Disney’s World, I promised that we’d get to the memoir with sex on property, hijinks and a very different view of life under The Mouse from Ridgeway’s rarefied PR office.  This is a memoir that will give you that peek. There are a few others, but this was the most enjoyable.

Just as the reader has to keep in mind that Ridgeway was intent on keeping both the man and the brand Snow White (sorry, I had to), it is worth noting that Mitchell defines himself as anti-establishment.  At times he tries a bit too hard to convince us of that fact.  To his credit, Mitchell seems far more aware of his bias than Ridgeway, and he does make fairly self aware statements throughout the book to that effect.

One of the things that made Spinning Disney’s World such a tough review was the lack of a narrative.  Mitchell does us the favor of both giving us a sequential narrative, and one with a central theme.  After his mother’s cancer diagnosis (and his parent’s attempt to hide it from him–he finds out from his older brother) he effectively decides to run away to Disney and hide in the magic, playing Peter Pan/Lost Boy in the Magic Kingdom.

Nobody has every died at Disney World (again, no page #’s, so I’ll cite percentages throughout the review–2%)

Mitchell uses this piece of Disney lore as a framing device at both the opening and close of the book.  At the start of the book, he’s told that bit of lore by Nick Elliot–Former X Games Champion turned skateboarding monkey on the Tarzan float in a WDW parade.  (I’ll address that bit of lore at the end of the review)

The narrative shifts to Mitchell’s personal life a short time later–within a very short period of time he is fired from his job, his girlfriend dumps him for a friend, and his brother tells him that their mother has cancer but that he can’t tell her that he knows.  Mitchell’s reaction to all of this is to run away to Disney World to put his professional sports photography skills to use….as one of those guys taking pictures of families with Disney Characters.

“Your job will be to work with the characters.  You’ll take pictures of Minnie and Mickey and Winne the Pooh and Tigger and anybody else our beloved guests wish to meet.  And you’ll try to capture a moment on their faces that doesn’t look like desperate misery, and then you’ll sell the photos back to them at a very reasonable price” (said to Mitchell by his Boss Orville 7%)

Mitchell begins his time at Disney trying to find “The Magic.”  He submits to a haircut approved by “The Disney Look” employee handbook.  He removes piercings.  He shaves.  He tucks in his uniform shirt, and leaves the chain wallet and sunglasses at home (or at least in his employee locker).  He learns to identify Cast Members by their uniforms (photographers like himself wear Khaki uniforms in the Animal Kingdom, for example).  He learns the “Seven Guest Service Guidelines,” such as “(4) If you sense that a guest is a having a less-than-Magical moment, provide immediate recovery any way you can.”

The Never Never Land that Mitchell was seeking when he ran away to Disney does seem to exist.  Or, at least, it is possible to exist in a Disney bubble.  Rather than debate the 2000 election, Cast Members were arguing  passionately over whether Maria in “The Sound of Music” or Mary in “Mary Poppins” was Julie Andrew’s greatest role. (22%)

However, he still doesn’t get off to the best start.  He likes to make snarky comments, only to realize too late that (at this point in the book) the people he’s making them to, and the context in which he’s making them get an icy reception.  You shouldn’t really crack jokes about Mickey getting “a call from his Hollywood agent who just cast him in a movie with Jessica Rabbit” to someone who uses phrases like “oh my ears and whiskers” as part of their everyday conversation.(10%)  Don’t tell a woman who took a job as Pocahontas after finding out she can’t have kids as a way to be a special part of kid’s lives  that “Children are idiots.” (11%)  Even when you just saw someone kick Mickey as hard as they can, you don’t ask that person if they’re okay by their “real” name (21%)

Eventually though, he begins to integrate, then gets a bit too comfortable.  Backsliding begins with snacking on property (38%).  Temptation comes knocking when he begins to do “out of character” photography–Goofy blowing a smoke ring (39%), Mickey picking Minnie’s Nose (39%), Chip and Dale in a 69 (42%) until Mickey Flashing Tit gets the girl in question fired–the tit in question has a very individual tattoo.(73%) .  He has sex on property with a girl who plays Chip on a bunch of boxes of Disney t-shirts backstage at Epcot (41%).

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 12.34.18 AMA sample of “out of character” photography (found via google/reddit)

Mitchell’s world is populated by characters as colorful as any dreamed up by Disney, although they are hardly what Walt had in mind.

  • Brady is a character actor–Mike Wazowski, Pooh and Roger Rabbit.  Offstage, he’s a bit of a sociopath.  Eventually Brady will rope Mitchell into kidnapping a dog (30%) and taking “medication” to Cuba (81%).  But first, Brady will give Mitchell his first peek into the dark side of working for Disney–an after hours party at an apartment complexes (referred to as ‘the Disney ghetto”) owned by Disney where cast members live.  The party as described by Mitchell is one party Alice in Wonderland esque drug fantasy and one part orgy drenched in alcohol.  (15%)  Brady also becomes Mitchell’s tour guide and translator in the backstage rules and workings of the parks.
  • Johnny works in PR.  A NASCAR and beer enthusiast, Mitchell answers an ad on a cast member bulletin board to become his roommate. (22%)  He’s also a chickenhawk–an older gay man who loves a different younger man every week. (38%)  By the end of the book, he’s trying to become the next Lou Pearlman by creating his own gay-themed Boy band called “Boy Banned” (86%).
  • When Mitchell first meets Calico (50%) she is playing Ariel.  Orville (his boss) tries to warn Mitchell off of her, but he doesn’t listen.  At first there’s no discernable reason why.  She seems like a sweet vegetarian who cries over her Wish kids and wants to be a wedding planner.  Then she starts speaking in a British accent, eating meat and missing dates when she’s cast as Cruella DeVille. (80%)  She lies to Mitchell, claiming she’s been diagnosed with cancer.  He overcompensates, doing for her what his mom won’t let him do as he’s not even supposed to know about his mother’s diagnosis. This all culminates in Mitchell catching her cheating on him with another cast member, telling her sexual partner “You’re a miserable, naughty little puppy!” in her fake British acent.  (93%)

Rather than evoke “true patriot” or “great man” Walt Disney narrative used by Ridgeway, Mitchell says that Walt was–

A product of Midwest values and Industrial Revolution savvy, he learned how to make money the old-fashioned way: from children. (24%)

If you are looking for behind the scenes dirt, there’s plenty dished

  • I used to think that characters were immune to the smells of the outisde world, but, in fact, it was exactly the opposite.  Any scent that drifted into the head stayed i the head: cigarette smoke, perfume, garlic breath.  Passing gas inside a costume was to be avoided at all costs.  The stench was trapped inside the body untilt he character bent down to hug a child, then blew out the only opening in the suit–the mouth.  Within a week, I’d lost count of the number of times I heard a child turn to his parents and say, ‘Eew, Pluto has doggie breath!'” (25%)
  • Cast Members sitting around coming up with Disney themed porn titles (34%)
  • Sex on Property (mentioned starting at 40% and then throughout the book from there)  I used to work at the Boston Tea Party Ship and Museum in Boston in the late 90’s and it seemed that everyone hooked up somewhere on property at least once.  I never had sex on property–but I did know every inch of space that the cameras didn’t see.  Do I think a ton of 20 something Disney employees are going to hook up on property?  Abso-fucking-lutely–pun intended.

Just as Mitchell begins his memoir with the rumor that no one has ever died on property, at the 91% mark, he sees an older employee’s heart give out.  He’s reprimanded for ruining people’s “magical experience” on property because kids saw Mitchell administer CPR.  He gets into a massive fight with his manager and quits/is fired.  After attending the funeral of his fellow cast member, Mitchell is having brunch with  two fellow employees and the following conversation happens.

“….I found this amazing, magical place where nobody ever dies, like the Bermuda Triangle, only in a good way, and I actually started to believe that I could settle down here.  I honestly thought I had it in me to be a lifer.” (Mitchell)

Marco looked at me, puzzled.  “What are you talking about?  People die at Disney World all the time.”

I shook my head.  “There’s never been a death at Disney World.  Even Walter.  The paper reported he died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.”

Marco and Orville exchanged a look.  Orville took a deep breath before he spoke.  “Nobody’s ever been pronounced dead on Disney property because that’s Disney’s policy.  If somebody passes away at one of the parks, the body gets loaded into the alpha unit and pronounced dead in transit.”….”Hey, don’t look so sad.  I didn’t mean to upset you.”

In reality, I wasn’t at all that surprised.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, I think I knew that was the case the whole time. What really threw me was my apparently innate talent to deceive myself into believing the most absurd fantasies: that I could escape reality in an amusement park, that I could continue to live a life unexamined. …. I ran away from my mom when she needed my support the most.  I was a shallow, self-centered bastard. (95%)

Mitchell drives back to California, shedding his Disney self as he goes–changing his ring tone, re-inserting his labret piercing, and so forth.  He finds out his mom is now in remission.  The book fades to black with the family watching, and him falling asleep to Disney’s Peter Pan. (100%)

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 12.48.48 AM

Makes for a cohesive, tight, and convenient narrative, doesn’t it?  Boy loses girl and job, finds out Mom is sick, and runs away to Disney World.  Boy loses job and girl friend,  runs back to CA, and mom is well.  The “no one dies on property” rumor is ash is just one more piece of Disney misdirection to bookend the narrative.  All very slick.  Too slick for me, as a critical reader, to take at face value.

Let’s start with that whole “no on ever dies on property” rumor.  According to snopes, it is false.  But does that mean that situations like the one described don’t happen?  Probably not–it wouldn’t shock me that in general the policy is to have the person declared DOA at the hospital, but it isn’t true that it never happens.

Like Ridgeway, Mitchell takes his artistic license too far at times in a way that calls everything into question.  Do I buy that the greeter died on property but got a DOA at the hospital–maybe.  Do I buy that Calico was a bit method?  Sure.  The extent to which Mitchell describes, though?  Especially given the perfection of the timing for everything to fall apart at the precisely correct moment?  Smacks of artistic license.  It’s all a bit too perfectly timed in an After School Special  “Very Important Lesson” kind of way.

Exactly how much exaggeration is going on?  How much of an axe does Mitchell have to grind?  Hard to know.

Both of the Disney books are skewed.  Mitchell is the E True Hollywood Story to Ridgeway’s Travel Channel documentary, so to speak.  When put head to head, which you’ll like better is up for grabs depending on what kind of mood you’re in.

Book Review: Spinning Disney’s World by Charles Ridgeway

This week I’m going to explore two very different books about the same subject–working for Disney.  Today we’ll discuss a memoir from a former PR executive who was with Disney from the early days of Disneyland through the preparations for Hong Kong Disney.  Later this week I’ll review a memoir by a former cast member who will paint a very different picture of what it’s like to work for The Mouse.

Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 9.52.14 AM

Spinning Disney’s World: Memories of a Magic Kingdom Press Agent by Charles Ridgeway

Rating 4/5 for Disney fans

When reading a memoir like this, it’s important to remember the author’s bias and adjust your expectations accordingly.  Ridgeway is a former press agent for Disney, thus it’s unrealistic to go into the book expecting dirt.  However, if you begin the book imagining that your uncle is going to sit down and spin you folksy stories about the past, then you’ll enjoy the next 23 chapters.

Ridgeway doesn’t tell his story sequentially–it often feels like he’s just writing his stream of consciousness.  One minute he’s talking about Nixon dedicating the monorail, then he talks about why he dislikes the term “amusement park,” he goes forward in time to talk about trash collection strategies, then we are given this tidbit–

Because at ground level the store fronts along Main Street U.S.A. took a daily beating from guests – little nicks and scratches – while the upper level stayed in good shape for a couple of years at least, the painters had a set of colors for the lower half that matched the upper half after it had faded for a year. (12%–sorry, my kindle edition doesn’t give me page numbers, so I’ll note the percentage point where I found the quote)

Then we’re back to trash collection followed by crowd control techniques.

It may sound like a jumbled mess, but it actually works quite well.  Ridgeway genuinely loves his subject material and it shows. Even when he talks about things like how changes in media (the invention of satellites, the internet, etc) have changed how PR works at Disney he’s as enthusiastic as a kid at Christmas, which makes what might otherwise be boring seem like an interesting tidbit of knowledge.

Ridgeway was part of the company when Timex, who made the Disney themed kid watches for Disneyland, turned the company down cold at the idea of making Disney watches for adults.  Timex didn’t think they would be able to sell any, and refused.  They allowed the company to approach other watchmakers.  When Hamilton agreed to make them, and to sell them for what was an absurdly high price of 60 USD….they were sold out before they got to Disneyland.  Ridgeway notes he couldn’t manage to purchase one until the fifth shipment! (21%)

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 12.19.53 AMcurrent watch on sale–not the one he mentions.

One of the pitfalls of life as a Disney press agent was managing expectations.  The opening of Disneyworld was one such example…

One paper predicted twenty-five thousand people for opening day.  We had figured about ten thousand, but were not making any predictions publicly.  We had scheduled it in what is traditonally the lightest vacation month of the year, on a Friday, the lightest day of the week.  But we were really only guessing.

Another paper said fifty thousand, another one hundred thousand.  Finally, Cocoa Today, being used to estimating crowds for the launches at Cape Canaveral, predicted two hundred thousand people.  To make it worse, a veteran Reuters correspondent at the Cape picked up the story and moved it on her wire.  Somehow a zero got added in transmission and all over Europe they read were were expecting two million people for the opening.

At the close of the day, Jack Lindquist and Disney President Donn Tatum were on hand on the balcony at the Polynesian atrium for a press conference to sum up the opening.  Attendance, they reported was about ten thousand.  (I think they counted a few of those cast members who were sailing around the lagoon in Sun Fish sailboats to make the place look alive.)

“That is what we expected,” they said.  But no one there believed them.  The New York Times among others reported, “Disappointing opening.” (44-45%)

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 12.34.34 AM
My favorite parts of the books were the back stories to iconic Disneyana like the famous “What’s next?” commercial.  Ridgeway recounts the genesis, crediting Michael Eisner’s wife, Jane.

(During dinner with pilots who had just gained fame for setting a record for navigating the world without stopping)

In casual conversation, Jane asked, “Now that you have been around the world, what are you going to do next.”

Jokingly the pilot replied, “We’re going to Disneyland.”  And there it was!

“What a great idea for a Disney commercial,” was Jane’s automatic reaction.

…. (this was 2 weeks before superbowl 21)…

The NFL agreed immediately to support the idea of having the hero of the game participate.  Appearance fees were arranged with likely candidates from the New York Giants and the Denver Broncos.  NFL films agreed to supply game footage within an hour of the end of the game in the Rose Bowl.

Some might have been content to tape a commercial to run a week or a month later-not Michael.  He wanted it on air the next day.

…..

With an ENG camera crew in tow, she (Maureen O’Donnell) stood posed on the sidelines, barely waiting until the final whistle to dash onto the field, elbowing her way through fans and interview-hungry tv newsmen to grab New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms by the jersey.

Edited in later, the booming voice of an announcer shouts over the screaming uproar of a just-finished championship game ‘Phil Simms, now that you have won the Super Bowl, waht are you going to do next?’  Phil had just two lines to record.

“I’m going to Disney World!” and “I’m going to Disneyland!”

One was for the East Coast and one was for the West Coast. (86%)

2009 Superbowl winner ad

Uncle Charlie has stories about what it was like to work for Walt Disney (all of which burnish Disney’s halo).

Never a backslapper, Walt didn’t run around praising people for good work.  He expected it.  But one nod of approval or a smile from Walt was enough to keep his creative people enthused for days. (20%)

Those press lunches were where I really got to know Walt’s personality.  He was always at his best with the press.  We posed the group for pictures.  Walt, as usual, stood on tiptoes so he would look a little taller in comparison to tall people like the Fort Lauderdale editor, Fred Pettijohn.  (30%)

When it opened, Disneyland still had several unfinished attraction.  Asked when it would be finished, Walt replied, “Disneyland will never be completed.  It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” (98%)

In truth, Walt Disney was a fairly complex individual.  It is inconvenient to think of such a beloved American icon as a racist, for example…

Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 10.42.57 PM

In her article “Fact-Checking the Age-Old Rumors of Walt Disney’s Dark Side,” Angela Dobbins says (among others)

The charge: Walt Disney was racist.
The evidence: These charges stem primarily from the use of racial stereotypes in Disney movies from the 40s: Dumbo‘s black crows; Fantasia’s black servant centaurette; and Song of the South, a movie so offensive that the Disney company will no longer let it be seen in public. Then there is Walt Disney’s own behavior: Gabler cites a meeting in which Disney referred to the Snow White dwarves as a “nigger pile” and another in which he used the term “pickaninny.” The book notes that Disney anticipated the Song of the South controversy and attempted to make it less racist with a rewrite and meeting with the NAACP. The meeting never happened, and the movie was released anyway. There was also some controversy about the company’s unwillingness to hire minorities at Disneyland.
Believability: Those are certainly not flattering facts, but they are facts.  (source)

One might argue that those are all period pieces, to which I’d respond that the modern era record isn’t fantastic, either.  The first princess of color was Pocahontas (1995), followed by Mulan (1998) and Tiana (2009)–a total of three protagonists of color.  All of these token princesses remain problematic when viewed through the lens of a historical/gender/race scholar.

It is also undeniable that the image Disney strives to recreate is that of a largely Rockwellian America–Middle/Upper Middle Class, White, Straight, Christian and Nuclear families.  Disneyland is, i many ways, the embodiment of that–Cast Member regulations are incredibly strict, and require that you look as straight laced and clean cut as possible (we’ll get to things like drunken cast member parties and sex on property tomorrow).  It should be unsurprising to a modern reader, then, to learn that Disney was a Republican (25%).

Ridgeway avoids these topics directly, but he does admit that

At the gate, Marketing Director Jack Lindquist looked over the crowd waiting at the fourteen turnstiles and picked the one that would turn for “First Visitor.”  His family would receive a guided tour, a night in the hotel and other favors, although that was not announced in advance.  By “pure coincidence” Jack picked the one where a family of five handsome blonde guests awaited, man, wife, and three beautiful children.

Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 10.32.27 AMWilliam Windsor Jr and family, the first visitors to Disneyland.  source

The man whose name is synonymous with wholesome family fare also “remained to the far right on the political spectrum, suspicious of foreigners, and unwilling to hire Jews or blacks in his company,” writes Stefan Kanfer in “Serious Business: The Art and Commerce of Animation in America from Betty Boop to Toy Story.” “More than once he announced his preference for animals over people, and called his time ‘the century of the Communist cutthroat, the fag and the whore.'”

Although in the 1930s Walt is said to have stood by an animator arrested on a charge of homosexuality, compassion vanished when the company’s public image was at stake. In 1963, Tommy Kirk — a child actor in such live-action Disney films as “Old Yeller,” “The Shaggy Dog” and “Swiss Family Robinson” — had his contract suspended “because of growing awareness of his homosexual orientation,” says Griffin, whose book relates the story based upon Kirk’s published comments. “Supposedly [Kirk] got too frisky with a boyfriend at a public pool in Los Angeles, and the other boy’s mother found out about it and went to Disney,” he says. “They called Tommy in and fired him.”

source

But who is the real Walt Disney?  The racist homophobe?  Or the “true patriot”(25%)  Ridgeway describes?  Before Ridgeway’s book, I hadn’t known that the Disney brothers almost went out of business during the WW2 era because they’d spent their time and effort making “training films” and “morale boosters” for the US military. (50%)  One of Walt’s biggest commitments was the Hall of Presidents, which still continues to add an animatronic figure with each new Commander in Chief.

Ridgeway’s best stories are the ones where he is telling his own story, rather than playing press agent for Walt Disney.  There’s enough unbiased detail in the book to convince me that Disney considered himself a patriot and that he genuinely wanted the company and the parks to do things in the service of America without the following anecdote about “America on Parade” in 1975

Among the invitees were Brady Black and his wife.  Brady, then editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer, had been interested in Disney parks for a long time.  They brought their draft-age son along.  I knew they had been worried about the young man as had many of my friends with their sons.  He had been against the war and even threatened to burn his draft card.

The four of us watched the whole parade.  I wasn’t close enough to hear, but I saw her son lean over and speak into his mother’s ear.  A few minutes later she told me, with tears in her eyes, what he had said.

“Mom, this country isn’t so bad after all.

“I never thought he would say anything like that,” Mrs. Black said. (50%)

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These moments detract from Ridgeway’s story.  They take us out of his tales and remind us that he is a PR agent, and thus a master of the fine art of spin (it’s even in the title!).  These moments throw the rest of the content into question.  I would have preferred a more balanced perspective on Disney the man, or less mention of Disney the man and more of his stories about day to day life as a press agent.

Like I noted at the start–if you go into the novel with realistic expectations, it is an entertaining read for Disney fans.  Just read critically.