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!