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PLEASE DON'T EAT THE DAISIES, by Jean Kerr, Doubleday, 192 pp., $3.50. Illustrated.
GET AWAY FROM ME WITH THOSE CHRISTMAS GIFTS, by Sylvia Wright, McGraw-Hill, 247 pp., $3.95. Illustrated.
PARKINSON'S LAW, by C. Northcote Parkinson, Houghton Mifflin Co., 113 pp., $3.00. Illustrated.
"Business is brisk," a saleswoman in the Coop announced. "Everybody is buying books for Christmas presents."
Not just any book will do, however. It must be seasonal in the same way a Christmas tie must be red and green. Cheerfulness, whimsy, and Good Will to All Men must drip from the cover and ooze from between the pages.
Jean Kerr, wife of drama critic Walter Kerr, has written what must be the season's most popular new book, Please Don't Eat The Daisies. It is written in a light, off-hand manner. The saleswoman claimed it was "simply delightful."
This is to be expected, for Mrs. Kerr has written about her family, which is one of those Unusual Families. None of the Kerrs, except the husband (and husbands never count), are normal people. This of course means that everything they do is amusing and clever. After the first few chapters, however, the Kerrs' abnormalities become dull and predictable.
The Kerr children are nevertheless cute in their own way. Christopher, the oldest, is a "slightly used eight-year-old" who is adept at sophistry. "Don't kick the table leg with your foot," Mother warns. "I'm not kicking, I'm tapping," Child replies, and Mother is again foiled.
Colin, age four, "has a lightness of touch and a dexterity that will certainly put him on top of the heap if he ever takes up safe-cracking." His twin, Johnny, is a victim of the chaos and disorder which exist to be-wilder the precise mind. "Indeed," Mother reports, "if one of the beans on his plate is slightly longer than the others he can scarcely bear to eat it." The youngest child is fortunately only seventeen months old and only gurgles and smiles. His parents nevertheless have great hopes that he will grow up to be as eccentric as the rest of the family.
Mrs. Kerr is a clever writer, more talented at writing parodies than describing a contrived and exaggerated family situation. After fifty pages of the Kerr family, her humor becomes strained and uninteresting.
Her double parody of dramatic readings and Mickey Spillane utilizes an obvious talent for exaggeration. "I passed this kid sucking a lollipop. Don Brown dead, and him sucking a lollipop. I rammed it down his throat. I hate injustice."
Unfortunately, Mrs. Kerr does not write enough parodies. If she did, her book would have been more amusing.
Sylvia Wright's book has a misleading title. Get Away From Me With Those Christmas Gifts is not about the Joys of Christmas; it is a book of social criticism disguised under a title calculated to con the unsuspecting Christmas shopper.
"In order to develop," Miss Wright believes, "a soul needs some privacy in which it can try itself on to see how it looks." For Miss Wright, who deserves to be left alone, there is no privacy, only Organization and its evils: Conformity, Regulation, Stupidity. "I would like to have one tiny foible," she explains. "I would like to save string, be scared of the telephone, let my heels run over, not wear gloves. Sometime I would like to make a little scene."
She tries to develop this idea humorously but fails, because she never makes up her mind whether she is going to be an intellectual or a humorist. Being one obviously does not preclude being the other, but Miss Wright is neither intelligently humorous nor humorously intelligent. She is Gertrude Stein reciting a comic monologue, which is absurd but not funny.
Miss Wright is, however, a competent story-teller. Her fantasies, "The Death of Lady Mondegreen" and "The Quest of Lady Mondegreen," are imaginative and sophisticated. While inferior to Thurber's fairy tales, they are silly enough to be charming.
C. Northcote Parkinson, Raffles Professor of History at the University of Malaya, is an eminent authority on the science of administration. Parkinson's Law is a learned and sometimes mathematical study of the sociology of bureaucracy and bureaucrats.
The absence of footnotes in this book is misleading, however. This is not a book for the layman. Familiarity with Michel's Iron Law of Oligarchy is essential if one is to negotiate the complexities of Parkinson's cogent argumentation and meaningful insights.
Parkinson's Law asserts "...that the number of the officials and the quantity of the work are not related to each other at all." For example, while the number of ships and officers in the British Navy was cut by 67 per cent and 31 per cent respectively, the number of dockvard workers and clerks and Admiralty bureaucrats increased 40 per cent and 78 per cent. Why? Like gravity, it was inevitable.
The Law of Triviality, even more sinister in its complexity, describes another absurdity of Organization. This law states that "the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum (of money) involved." It is, for example, easier to pass an appropriation for $10,000,000 than for $57.62. The conclusion is obvious: Think Big.
Parkinson's Law is the best of these three books. It is original, subtle, and genial. Professor Parkinson's humor is neither outrageous nor mundane. And unlike Kerr and Wright, he does not write for the Saturday Evening Post audience or the suburban literati.
But this is Christmas time, and it really doesn't matter. Of the lot, Parkinson is the only competent humorist, but nobody cares about this when purchasing a book to give to Aunt Sally. These books are all in some way "funny," and that is all that counts come Christmas.
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