A place for FF's to write and read brief reviews of books and films for the benefit of other FF's.

A place for FF's to write and read brief reviews of books and films for the benefit of other FF's.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Hyde Park on Hudson

Shoulda been called Handjobs on Hudson! On account of the romance.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Years of Lyndon Johnson, by Robert A. Caro

From May through October, I read more than 3,000 pages by Robert Caro, all on the subject of Lyndon B. Johnson.  (Yes, that is a boast.  Among the many lessons I learned from LBJ is the importance of shamelessly trumpeting one's accomplishments, no matter how insignificant.)  All four volumes in the series are incredible, each in its own way.  But when you get right down to the nut-cutting (one of the many wonderful turns of phrase found in these pages), what you want is rankings.

1. The Passage of Power (2012)
This volume covers the 1960 election, Johnson's years as Vice-President, and (spoiler alert) his first several months as President.  It completely rules.  Particular highlights include the descriptions of Johnson at Washington parties during the Kennedy years, when he became a figure of ridicule (nicknamed, by a bunch of Harvard assholes, "Rufus T. Cornpone"); the account of Johnson's procrastination, fueled by an all-consuming fear of losing, during the run-up to the 1960 presidential race; and of course the Kennedy assassination, and Johnson's immediate transformation into a kind of superhero (or possibly the most evil supervillain in American history).

2. Means of Ascent (1990)
This volume covers Johnson's naval service during World War II, the buildup of his massive fortune, and the 1948 Senate race.  It's also amazing.  The war section mainly describes how Johnson and one of his aides drove up and down the California coast, partying at night clubs.  (He did fly in one actual mission, which sounds legitimately scary.  For that he got a Silver Star.)  Then comes a fascinating explanation of how Johnson became a millionaire just by exploiting his influence as a congressman.  But my favorite part is the 1948 Senate race, which Johnson (who campaigned by flying all over Texas in a custom helicopter) indisputably stole, through rampant voter fraud, from Coke Stevenson, a self-educated lawyer, judge, and former Texas governor who comes off as the absolute best dude ever.

3. Master of the Senate (2002)
Honestly, I can't believe this volume is only in third place.  It's awesome.  Caro starts with a 100-page history of the Senate that establishes how dysfunctional it is.  From then on, it chronicles Johnson's unbelievably fast climb to Majority Leader, a position that no one else even really seemed to understand.  Caro portrays the 1950s southern democrats as a bunch of racist pricks who were nonetheless much smarter than the northern liberals in terms of planning and executing legislative and procedural strategy.  LBJ, meanwhile, outsmarts the southerners by essentially tricking them, through a complicated long con, into voting for a Civil Rights bill.  There is also a section about Johnson's penis, which he calls "Jumbo" and frequently shows to horrified subordinates.

4. The Path to Power (1982)
This volume may be ranked last, but it's still really great.  It covers Johnson's youth in the Texas Hill Country, his time at Southwest Texas State Teachers College, and his rise to national power as a New Deal congressman.  Most interesting to me is the account of Johnson's relationship with his political patron, Herman Brown, the founder of Brown & Root, which eventually became a subsidiary of Halliburton, which etc. etc.  Also great is the story of Johnson's long, secret affair with the wife of one of his other financial backers.  And how he immediately turns against the New Deal as soon as FDR dies.  My only complaint, really, is that Caro's account of how insanely boring and awful the Hill Country was tends at times to be just a bit too evocative.

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


Pina is a 3D movie about Pina Bausch, a German choreographer and her troupe of pan-ethnic cultist dancers who spearheaded a movement of braless dance in flowy dresses. The movie's by Wim Wenders, and if you're looking for any information on Pina's life, or how her gang of multicultural writhers got together, or where they performed, or how they managed to communicate because every single one spoke a different language, or even in what decade, I suggest you direct your attention to Wikipedia rather than this movie. Pina's not about telling a story or giving information. It is about celebrating Pina's unique dance vision. I guess the point is that dancing is a language, which, OK. One of the phrases in this dance language is a move where one dancer shovels dirt on another while she is on the ground. I don't know much of anything about modern dance, but I think I get that one. People getting married: I think you can find a lot of inspiration for first dances in this one, so get to your multiplex. For everyone else: I don't know if I recommend the movie but I'm happy I saw it.

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

Christmas Roundup - The Princess Diaries, These Happy Golden Years, The Sunday Philosophy Club

My Christmastime reading program typically goes like this:

  1. Weigh down my luggage with a large hardcover volume of literary fiction.
  2. Receive as gifts two or more large hardcover volumes of popular nonfiction.
  3. Perch in an armchair surrounded by my well-reviewed books, signaling to all present my seriousness as a reader, and as a person.
  4. 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

Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick

Elvis seems like he was basically a twelve year old all his life. He was really into fireworks, guns, karate (a LOT of this book is about karate), slot cars, policemen, cowboys, horses. He was constantly buying cars for people. One day he bought fourteen cars for people, including one for a random woman he met on the car lot. When he got a camera, he "quickly figured out the possibilities. Sometimes he used Priscilla alone, sometimes in Priscilla’s absence he got girls to wrestle for him wearing only white bras and panties, and occasionally he included Priscilla, too, in an expanded scenario." He had no idea what anything cost and spent money like crazy on weird jewelry he designed.

He had to be surrounded by people constantly, and assorted people he met around Memphis came onto his payroll and spent years as his professional pals. At one point one of them drew up a list of duties for everyone:
“it was up to Marty to “call Mrs. Pepper for Movie Times (As Early As Possible); Transact Business and Correspondence with the Colonel’s office for Elvis,” and maintain a purchase order system for all charges in Elvis’ name. Alan Fortas got the assignment to, “along with Marty, be responsible for Organization both in good and bad situations,” maintain Elvis’ scrapbook, and “be in den with Elvis as much as possible.”

The scene at Graceland was pretty nuts: "In the short time that the Lackers had been living at Graceland, Elvis’ uncle Johnny Smith had threatened Marty’s wife and come at Marty himself with a knife, while Clettes Presley (Vester’s wife, and Johnny and Gladys’ sister), who drank as heavily as her brother, had made it clear that she had little use for him, too. Marty didn’t think much of Elvis’ retarded uncle, Tracy, who went around saying, “I got my nerves in the dirt” and made noises “like he was getting ready to explode”

At the end of the last book Elvis was 23 and his mother had died, just after he went into the Army. He was already about as famous as anybody, but he was considered kind of a joke by New York critics. After the funeral he was sent to Germany, where he lived off-base in a weird household with his dad and a German secretary and some friends. His dad took up with the still-married wife of a fellow soldier of Elvis' - the fellow soldier was drunk all the time and didn't seem to notice. This twisted situation made Elvis angry, he had loved his mother dearly and this seemed too soon. If there's a turning point in this book that set Elvis on the desperate and sad path that would pretty much be the rest of his life, I guess it's this.

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.

But mostly he just kept doing crazy amounts of speed and massively powerful prescription painkillers given to him by "Dr. Nick." There was a brief period in '68 where he kinda pulled it together and had a huge TV special, and he played to huge crowds in Vegas, but he's kind of a mess throughout this book.

Elvis had a weird thing about not liking ladies who'd had babies. He sort of turned on Priscilla after she had a baby (although he was cheating on her pretty thoroughly before, too). There's a sad story of a woman who got pregnant by Elvis, tried to tell him, and then heard him say something about how once someone was a mother they were sacred and shouldn't be interested in sex. She went and got an abortion alone.

The absolute low point might have been the day he flew to Washington, more or less on a whim, had a crazy letter he'd written on the plane delivered to the White House, where he brought a gun to his impromptu meeting with Nixon. In their meeting Elvis talked about how he felt the Beatles were really behind a lot of anti-American feeling. Then he gave Nixon a hug and took off.

Three years later some beauty pageant winner was sleeping in his bed when he died while sitting on the toilet. That day he'd thrown a raquetball racket at somebody, played Willie Nelson's "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" on the piano, and been delivered a packet of "Seconal, Placidyl, Valmid, Tuinal, Demerol, and an assortment of other depressants and placebos which generally allowed Elvis to get several hours of sleep at a time." Also he'd taken a bunch of codeine to which he was mildly allergic.

Anyway, this is a really sad book. I pretty much skimmed it. It seemed like a lot of the tragedies of Elvis' life were a lot like those in Michael Jackson's life. I guess it's pretty impossible to get super-famous when you're a teenager and not completely implode. Elvis seemed to have a vague sense inside himself that he'd missed his potential, somehow. One of the band guys he played with in the first book said that he felt that Elvis was a kind of idiot savant - he knew hundreds of songs, but was strange and sensitive and certainly had no idea how to handle being as famous as he was. Maybe nobody does!

He's really likable all through Last Train to Memphis, I'll prefer to remember him that way!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Last Train To Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick

Peter Guralnick went to my high school. He came back to talk once. The only thing I remember is that he said going to college had been for him "a dumb idea." That notion was completely opposite to the whole point of my high school, it was quite jarring, I couldn't even really understand what he meant.

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.