Thursday, December 20, 2012
Saturday, November 3, 2012
In general, I love how Caro introduces key figures in Lyndon Johnson's life (Richard Russell, Sam Rayburn, Coke Stevenson) with chapters of their own, only to show later how Johnson ultimately either betrayed or destroyed them. LBJ is a truly fascinating character, Caro is a genuinely terrific storyteller, and together these two assholes kept me reading all summer when I should have been outside enjoying nature or meeting new friends or something. Thanks a lot, dicks. See you in 2022.
Friday, February 10, 2012
And this is one reason why! Sitting next to my viewing companion and me was my favorite sort of old guy: sort of fat, wearing shorts, long-haired, snack-bagged, and dead asleep for most of the time. His personal snack-stash was at least a full pound of loose M&M's stored in a plastic grocery bag, which-you guessed it!-spilled tragically and loudly late into the movie. I'm not sure what sort of expectations he had for his viewing experience, or who put him up to it, but I sort of hope he was involved with this dance troupe a long time ago and this movie is his only remaining connection to his old, weird dancing friends. I hope he had a good time.
Monday, January 2, 2012
My Christmastime reading program typically goes like this:
- Weigh down my luggage with a large hardcover volume of literary fiction.
- Receive as gifts two or more large hardcover volumes of popular nonfiction.
- Perch in an armchair surrounded by my well-reviewed books, signaling to all present my seriousness as a reader, and as a person.
- Read only garbage paperbacks I find in the guest room.
This year was no exception.
"The Princess Diaries" by Meg Cabot
TPD moves along at a good clip, and can be read in its entirety in the time one might spend, say, dealing with the defecatory consequences of a few large holiday meals. This is its greatest virtue. Aside from general YA badness, my main complaint was a problem common to many epistolary novels and faux journals: the protagonist inexplicably stops at the height of any action to whip out her pen and write down her thoughts, thwarting any hard-earned suspension of disbelief. The copy of TPD I read belongs to my nine-year-old niece, so I was mildly surprised by the frequency with which it included things like alcohol and the phrase “vagina lips.”
"These Happy Golden Years" by Laura Ingalls Wilder
I had never read any of the Little House books before, though I was familiar with the broad contours of the stories. THGY is pleasant enough. Laura is fifteen, and has just started as the new schoolteacher in a nearby settlement. It’s tough at first: Some of her students are older than she is, and though the school is only twelve miles from home, travel is so difficult that she must board with a closer family, the mother of which is a knife-wielding manic-depressive. Laura can only see her family every other month, until she begins to be courted by Almanzo Wilder, who comes in his sleigh each weekend to take her home. Their slow-growing affection was far more romantic than all the dances and kisses and genitals TPD had to offer. And the details of frontier life are useful if you’d like to be reminded how weak and soft you’ve become. Plus, I love the name Almanzo Wilder. He sounds like a journeyman NBA power forward. Probably was the sixth man on a Pitino-era Kentucky squad, then came into his own on a stint in the Italian league before finally getting the call from the Nuggets. I also enjoyed the use of the adjective “boughten.”
"The Sunday Philosophy Club" by Alexander McCall Smith
The cover declares “An Isabel Dalhousie Mystery.” This is a lie. A more accurate claim would be “An Isabel Dalhousie ‘Mystery’ For People Who Hate Mysteries,” or perhaps “An Isabel Dalhousie Some Things Happen, Barely.” Yes, someone dies in the opening pages, and eventually the circumstances of this death are explained, but it is less a “whodunit?” than a “hasanythingbeendun?” The book is only 247 pages, but it’s not until page 57 that someone finally suggests the death might be suspicious. Even then, it’s not until page 87 that Ms. Dalhousie begins investigating in earnest. She eventually “discovers” the person responsible for the death only because he voluntarily presents himself at her house, and the climax is so lazy and ridiculous that it manages to be both sudden and boring.
What actually fills the pages is an array of digressions, pointless asides, and rants. Ms. Dalhousie finds herself seated next to a table of young people at a restaurant; the reader gets more than a page of her reasons for disliking them. As part of her job editing a philosophical journal, Ms. Dalhousie must index an issue, a job that she herself complains is difficult and boring; the reader is nonetheless treated to a full-page account of the task. Ms. Dalhousie attends a concert, where she is simply horrified to discover the music includes a work by Stockhausen; could she not have turned her keen investigative powers to reading the program before she bought a ticket? I assume Isabel Dalhousie is meant to be perceived as a somewhat finicky middle-aged woman: intelligent, opinionated and prone to speaking her mind, no matter the consequences. In fact, she is a sour old bitch. Her main pastimes are pontificating about art, fretting about how much better everything used to be, silently judging the clothes / homes / accents of everyone she meets, and openly judging the clothes / homes / accents of everyone she meets. I exaggerate: She also drinks coffee and does crossword puzzles. Sometimes, she combines drinking coffee with being judgmental, as when she congratulates herself for her attempts to choke down a cup of instant (gasp!) coffee prepared for her by the grieving roommate of the deceased, whom she has visited uninvited. What magnanimity.
I began reading TSPC mostly because of the title, which struck me as exactly the sort of title SCH both mocked and employed in HIBAFN. (Also, because Alexander McCall Smith appears on the back cover leaning against a tuba.) At last, a real mystery: Why is the book called “The Sunday Philosophy Club” when NO SUCH CLUB EXISTS ANYWHERE IN ITS PAGES? We learn nothing about this supposed club, other than that Ms. Dalhousie disbanded it years ago. Basically everything about this book is a bait-and-switch. Even the tuba. The author’s bio says that he actually plays the bassoon.
I have a terrible premonition that I will find myself reading the sequel this time next year.
Hope everyone has a great 2012!
Thursday, December 22, 2011
Elvis met Priscilla when her military dad was sent to Germany. She was 14, but for some reason her parents let them date. Elvis had strange ideas about feminine purity - he would sleep with other girls but wouldn't want to sleep with ones he was seriously dating.
Once Elvis gets back to America his story and this book turns pretty repetitive and tragic. He was contracted to make a bunch of movies, and he seems to have been aware that these were terrible. He was ashamed of a lot of his recordings. After a few years of nutty partying, constantly on speed, he had a kind of breakdown. A new hairdresser, Larry Geller, showed up. Elvis started asking him probing spiritual questions. "There has to be a purpose... there's got to be a reason... why I was chosen to be Elvis Presley." Larry started bringing Elvis spiritual books, and Elvis started going to the Self-Realization Fellowship in Pacific Palisades.
Monday, November 28, 2011
Anyway, this is a good book, although for my taste it was maybe 200 pages too long. It's a tough trick for "authoritative" biographers: they have to cover all kinds of side journeys, occasional characters, and messy meanderings that are not "on story" in the way movies have spoiled me to expect.
I feel like what I want from this blog is for people to summarize books for me and tell me the best parts, so let me do this one for you!
Elvis' parents were real country folk. His father had done time in Louisiana's dreaded Parchman Farm prison for writing a bad check. It all seems pretty Dickensian, his boss was "making an example of him." Elvis' twin brother was born dead, and Elvis' mom told him he'd acquired the power of the dead twin.
Then the Presleys moved to Memphis and lived in public housing until they made too much money to qualify (still not much money). Even in Memphis they were seen as kinda bumpkins. Elvis was completely devoted to his mother.
In Memphis Sam Phillips was running Sun Records, trying to record "real Negro music," and the unrelated Dewey Phillips had a radio show that broadcast to a mostly black audience. Elvis listened mostly to gospel music and sometimes sang at an Assembly of God church.
As a boy Elvis used to turn on lights on Saturdays for his Orthodox Jewish neighbors.
Elvis was driving a truck for an electric company and trying to be an electrician, even though he felt he was too easily distracted to be good at wiring - he was a little afraid of blowing himself up. He was dating a girl named Dixie who was really in love with him. They were committed to remaining "pure" until marriage.
Elvis used to hang around Sun Records, and he recorded a demo of himself. Sam Phillips had him on a list of maybe promising singers. Months later he found what he thought was a good song for him. It turned out to not sound so good, but Elvis and the musicians Sam had recruited kept screwing around for hours until Elvis started singing an old blues song.
When Elvis' record of That's Alright Mama first got huge on Dewey Phillips' radio show. The first time it was played on the radio Elvis was too nervous to listen and went to the movies. Dewey Phillips kept calling his parents and demanded Elvis come down to the station. When he got out of the movies he went down there. Dewey tricked Elvis into being interviewed on air. He asked Elvis where he went to high school so everyone would know Elvis was white.
Elvis wore "crazy" clothes, like a pink shirt. But he was also incredibly sensitive. He was always afraid people were laughing at him. Sam Phillips wouldn't let him play at a bunch of rougher bars because he thought Elvis would get beaten up.
"[Roy] Orbison later said of his first encounter with Elvis: 'his energy was incredible, his instinct was just amazing... Actually it affected me exactly the same way as when I first saw that David Lynch film [Blue Velvet]. I just didn't know what to make of it. There was just no reference point in the culture to compare it.'"
One thing I took from this book was that musicians in those days died on the road like all the time. Cars caught on fire. At some point Elvis' mother made him promise not to fly anymore, so he would take the train to Hollywood and New York.
(says a bandmate of an early tour): "he would run the women, he'd run two or three of them in one night - whether or not he was actually making love to all three, I don't know, because he was kind of private in that sense and if I thought he was going to run some women in the room with him, I didn't stay. But I just think he wanted them around, it was a sense of insecurity, I guess, because I don't think he was a user. He just loved women, and I think they knew that."
By 1955 when Elvis was 20 girls would tear his clothes to pieces. "Of course the police started getting them out, and I will never forget Faron Young - this one little girl had kind of a little hump at the back, and he kicked at her, and these little boots fell out." ??? Sometime after this Elvis took Dixie to her junior prom.
Manufacturing a hit record back then could actually put a small record company out of business, because there were high upfront costs of making the record, so Sam Phillips had to sell Elvis' contract, seemingly without rancor.
"Popular music has reached its lowest depths in the 'grunt and groin' antics of one Elvis Presley," wrote the Daily News. OH REALLY!
In between having his clothes ripped off Elvis seemed to "date" relatively pure-heartedly. There's a weird account on p. 315 of Elvis and his girlfriend sort of dry-humping and tickling each other and almost doing it but then not doing it: "'we almost did it, didn't we baby?' And I said, 'We almost did.' He said, 'That was close, wasn't it?'"
Later, in Hollywood, "more experienced girls" were surprised to find that "what he liked to do was to lie in bed and watch television and eat and talk all night - the companionship seemed as important for him as the sex - and then in the early-morning hours they would make love."
This book had a good amount about what food everybody ate. Elvis liked eggs cooked rock hard and burnt bacon. At age 23 he's conducting an interview "while lunching alone in his dressing room on a bowl of gravy, a bowl of mashed potatoes, nine slices of well-done bacon, two pints of milk, a large glass of tomato juice, lettuce salad, six slices of bread, and four pats of butter."
In Hollywood he seems to have fallen in with some real lame characters and professional best friends. He stayed at the Knickerbocker Hotel until that got too nuts and he stayed at the Beverly Wilshire. His movies were shot on the Paramount lot. Sometimes he would call his mother and talk to her all day.
This book ends with Elvis getting drafted into the Army. He agreed with his weird hypnotizing carnival-guy manager Colonel Tom Parker that he should turn down all special offers and just be a regular soldier. He joined the Army and then his mother died. He was totally shattered.
After his mother died, he invited his dentist over and showed him around the recently purchased Graceland. "He said, 'the newspapers have made my house so laughable' - that was the word. He said, 'They have made it sound so laughable, I would love to have your opinion of my home.' He took us all through the house, my taste is not so marvelous, but it was very attractive, it all fit - there was a modern sculpture on the chimney over the fireplace, and I had the same sculpture in my office, it was called 'Rhythm.' Anyway, when we got back to the living room, he said, 'What do you think? and Sterling said, 'If you give me the key, I'll swap you."
I don't think I'll read volume two anytime soon because I don't want to read about the sadder things that will befall my new friend Elvis.