Thursday, November 30, 2017

Book Review: My Search for Warren Harding

Avid readers will know that I have a wee bit of an obsession with Warren G. Harding. I mean, how can one not, right? (Right?)


Every now and then I see reference to a novel called My Search for Warren Harding by Robert Plunket. I was intrigued enough to put it on my Amazon wishlist at some point, but never motivated enough to buy it. Then a few weeks ago, someone on Twitter asked for funny book recommendations. Someone responded that Assassination Vacation and My Search for Warren Harding were the funniest books they'd ever read.

Now, avid readers will also know that I have a wee bit of an obsession with Assassination Vacation, so having someone equate the two was the shove I needed....almost. I didn't buy it right away, but a few days later, I was stuck at the Atlanta airport for five hours and had run out of things to do, so I went ahead and purchased the Kindle version.

The novel is written from the point of view of Elliot, a graduate student in the 1980s who is trying to get his hands on love letters from Harding that are in the possession of his now-elderly mistress, living in Hollywood. He hatches a plan to rent the woman's pool house and uses various schemes to try to obtain the letters. The premise itself is fairly amusing, even if some of the plot points are rather unrealistic.

Most of the characters are fictitious, although there are some cameo appearances from real people, historical and contemporary ("contemporary" in this case meaning "early 1980s," when the book was written).

The former mistress, Rebekah Kinney, is largely a characterization of Nan Britton, Harding's actual young lover with whom we now know he had a child. In this novel, Kinney (like Britton) had been a young woman from Harding's hometown, they had had an affair and a child, and she had written a tell-all book (called The Price of Love, as opposed to the actual The President's Daughter).  But Rebekah Kinney led a more glamorous life than Nan Britton, hobnobbing with Hollywood celebrities and dabbling in acting herself. As this book opens, she now lives a largely solitary life in a rundown Hollywood mansion.

The existence of a trove of love letters is more reminiscent of Carrie Phillips, Harding's other well-known mistress. Her letters were the basis of the nonfiction book The Harding Affair, and were recently released by the Library of Congress. Nan Britton, on the other hand, held onto only a couple correspondences from Harding, none of which were intimate in nature, which is part of the reason she had a hard time establishing her story as truth.

Okay, so, grad student plots to obtain Warren G. Harding's love letters from a Nan Britton-Carrie Phillips mashup. So far, so good. The first couple chapters were amusing. Not laugh-out-loud funny, or even chuckle-worthy, but interesting enough.

Things start to take a turn when the main character meets Kinney's Mexican housekeeper. Queue the negative ethnic stereotypes. It was cringey, but I reminded myself this was written a long time ago ("a long time ago" meaning "in the early 1980s," which really isn't that long ago at all, but I tried to keep things in "historical" perspective.)

Then comes the chapter where the Elliot's friend brings a gay guy to dinner. Throughout the entire chapter (and the rest of the book), this man is referred to as "the faggot."

Remember when Donald Trump made fun of the disabled journalist and we all thought it couldn't possibly get any worse, and then it continued to? That's basically what this book was like.

The rest of the book basically turns into one giant fat joke about Rebekah Kinney's 20-something granddaughter, Jonica. An example: "Now the inevitable question: how fat was she? I would guess that she tipped the scales at around two hundred pounds. She was fat. She was what you mean by a fat person. She was so fat you wondered how she found pants in that size." Okay, so that paints a picture, and if that had been it, maybe it would have been bearable. But that wasn't it.

The comments like that go on throughout the book. Without exaggeration, probably a good 30% of the book is just a discussion of this character's weight. Also, some major plot points hinge on it. And I guess it's supposed to be funny, but it isn't. I don't just say that because it's insensitive or politically incorrect. I mean that even setting that aside, it just isn't funny.

Besides repeatedly explaining in great detail Jonica's appearance, Elliot also verbally, physically, and emotionally abuses her in an attempt to get his hands on the letters.

Oh, and keep in mind, interspersed with the fat jokes are plenty more comments about Mexicans, Blacks, Jews, and "Orientals," plus additional references to "the faggot."

At one point I decided I just couldn't take it anymore. The book was so despicable---it sounded like something that would have been written by an alt-right internet troll sitting in his mom's basement, if such people knew anything about Warren G. Harding---I just couldn't go on. But I'm also kind of anal about finishing books I start, and I felt a duty to review it here, which I couldn't do if I didn't read the whole thing. Plus I figured I had to be almost done. I checked: 42%. Ugh.

I forged on, though.

Our protagonist doesn't get any less fact, he only grows moreso. Another problem is that, with the possible exception of Jonica, all the characters are unlikable, and even Jonica is sympathetic only because everyone else is so awful to her, not because of any particular redeeming qualities of her own.

Then I got to the end of the book, which I will admit was spectacular. I don't want to spoil things too much in case, for some reason, you decide to read it, but it basically involves a heavy dose of schadenfreude. It felt so good. That's when I realized that we were, indeed, supposed to hate Elliot. (At least I sincerely hope that was the point.)

Now, there were some funny parts. The overall absurdity is pretty amusing. There are some good lines, like when Jonica (who doesn't know her grandfather was a president) says he was "somehow mixed up in oil." The footnotes contain recipes. The acknowledgements become funny once you've reached a certain part of the book and realize who some people are. And like I said, the ending is immensely satisfying in the sense that you might give an evil laugh.

Yet the marvelous ending really isn't enough to justify how painful the rest of the book is. Even if the novel's intent is to make fun of academia, or to serve as a commentary on L.A. culture, or to be an ironic statement about terrible people, or...whatever else, it's not worth wading through the unpleasant, depressing horror needed to get to the ultimate satisfaction. In this case, the end wasn't enough to justify the means.

I'll just stick with Assassination Vacation.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Presidentress Gift Guide 2017

'Tis that season again! To help you find the perfect gift for the slightly-off presidential history nut in your life, I've compiled a list of some of my favorite things.

Some of these items contain Amazon affiliate links. Shopping through them doesn't add any cost for you, but it does mean that I earn a pittance so I can keep bringing you high-quality Sean Spicer fan fiction. The non-Amazon links provide me no benefit other than sharing in the feeling of happiness you'll get from knowing you've selected a perfect gift. (It should also be noted that I have not received any compensation from any of the entities mentioned here.)

Presidential Ugly Christmas Sweaters

You guys... Seriously...I don't think I've ever been this excited about a presidential Christmas item: President-themed ugly Christmas sweater-shirts.

Do I need to repeat that?

President. Themed. Ugly. Christmas. Sweater. Shirts.

Election College has a podcast that I haven't listened to yet (but you bet I will!) and they've also created this line of shirts.

Sure, there are some people you might expect: Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama, Teddy Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan.

But there's also James Garfield, Abigail Adams, and...get ready for this...Eleanor Roosevelt.

Collect them all!

Candles...and a Book!

Back for the third year in a row is JD and Kate Industries/Hottest Heads of State. Last year I told you about their amazing president- and president-adjacent-scented candles. Now they've added some new ones, including Rutherford B. Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan.

Look at those jelly beans! If you like eating wax, they look almost good enough to eat!

I have a few of their candles already and will inevitably buy more, even though I don't burn candles. Just sniffing them and reading the hilarious labels (don't read them while the candles are lit) is enough for me. I've been bugging them to create a smoke-, whiskey-, and waffle-scented Warren G. Harding candle, but for some reason they feel it wouldn't sell well. If you're so inclined, drop them a note to let them know how much you want one, too.

JD and Kate also have an upcoming book: Hottest Heads of State: Volume One: The American Presidents. It won't be out until the end of January, but if you get it as a gift for someone, the anticipation will make it that much more rewarding when it finally arrives. The book is sort-of a mashup of presidential trivia and Teen Beat magazine. You'll learn presidential pick-up lines and can take a quiz to find out which president has a crush on you. Plus there's a Dwight Eisenhower mask! I can't wait!


Also making a return appearance in my gift guide is Veeptopus, the sublime union of octopuses and vice presidents we never knew we needed. Veeptopus has a lovely new hardcover book featuring all of the vice presidents with octopuses on (or emerging from) their heads. I bought one as part of a Kickstarter campaign, and I can honestly say it is the finest volume of cephalopod artwork I own. And you can own one, too.

To whet your appetite for octopus, Veeptopus has created a quiz to help you determine which Vice President you are. I'm Henry Wallace.

A Probably Not-Good Movie

The other day when I decided to find out how much the entire season of The Brady Bunch is (spoiler: $34.99), I discovered there's a movie called The Brady Bunch in the White House. The description confuses me:

"In The Brady Bunch in the White House," the Brady Bunch are moving to Washington when Mike Brady gets elected President of the United States. When he returns a $67 million lottery ticket to its rightful owner, he is invited to the White House to meet the president and finds himself being sworn in as Chief Executive of the United States. Now effectively acknowledged as the first family, the Brady clan manages to save the government from a devastating scandal.

At first I thought it meant that they were moving to Washington because Mike was elected president, but then I think he wasn't elected at all? He just accidentally got sworn in?

Frankly, it sounds terrible, but it might just be so terrible it's great. And for only $7.77, we can't afford not to find out. I'll have a full review soon, but buy it now if you need to mix up your holiday movie routine a little.


If you want to support some non-profits, one option is to buy this year's Christmas ornament from the White House Historical Association. The 2017 ornament commemorates Franklin Roosevelt. The shape is meant to be reminiscent of a table-top radio, and the back features his beloved dog Fala sitting next to a Christmas tree.

Do Some Actual Good

You could also make a tax-deductible donation to One America Appeal, the joint effort created by the five living former presidents to aid in hurricane relief efforts. There's still a lot of work to be done.

Go forth: Shop, donate, and have a joyous holiday season!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Cooking with the Presidents: Mount Vernon Pumpkin Pie

A couple weeks ago, the Mount Vernon Facebook page posted a tutorial for making 18th Century Pumpkin Pie:

What intrigued me right away was the use of rosewater. Rosewater was a common flavoring before vanilla became a thing, and you might remember it from such posts as Dolley Madison Cake and Shaker Apple Pie. Now, I'll admit I was a bit skeptical. I don't even put vanilla in pumpkin pie, so putting rosewater in it seemed especially unusual. But it's probably historically accurate, and I'm always up for a presidential baking challenge, so game on!

Besides rosewater, the other unusual thing about this pie is the lack of eggs. You might notice a bowl of eggs sitting there, as did several people who commented on Facebook that the Mount Vernon cook forgot to add them. But apparently the eggs are for the crust (go figure) not the pie, and apparently the pie sets up just fine without them.

Now, this recipe calls for the use of an actual pumpkin. Mr. Presidentressor asked why I didn't just use one of the many cans of pumpkin puree we stockpiled last fall when the country was supposedly on the verge of a pumpkin shortage that never materialized, but I explained that I needed to be as authentic as possible in making this recipe.

And then I got historically inauthentic. This recipe wants you to cut, peel, and chunk the pumpkin, and then boil it. Peeling a raw pumpkin seems like a great way to lose a finger, so I decided to use my Instant Pot instead. Sorry, but it was way easier and quicker. I added a cup of water to the pot, put in the trivet, set the pumpkin in whole (sideways---the stem made it too tall otherwise), and cooked it on Manual for 10 minutes. When it was done, I let it sit for about 20 minutes, then took it out and easily sliced it open with a knife. The seeds practically fell out in one clump, and I was able to peel the pulp away from the skin with just my fingers and a spoon. Then I used my immersion blender to puree the pumpkin.

But look, the end result was the same, so I'm not going to apologize.

Per the recipe, I added to the pumpkin puree 1 tbsp of rosewater. Then I needed to add the spices "to taste." I decided upon 1 tsp of cinnamon and 1/2 tsp each of ginger and nutmeg. I skipped the mace because I don't have any (and if I'm being honest, I've never understood the difference between nutmeg and mace anyway). I was tempted to add some cloves because it felt like I should, but I also didn't want to deviate too much from the recipe, so no cloves.

Then I mixed in 1/4 cup of molasses, then a pint of heavy cream, which seemed like a lot, but I trust the Mount Vernon people.

Then I poured it all into my crust. (A word on the crust: I did not make the crust that accompanies this pie on the Mount Vernon Facebook page. Making pie crust is already my most despised culinary task---despite my undying love of pie---and theirs seemed like too much work, even though it probably wasn't. The fact that I made crust at all is an accomplishment.)

Thanks to the molasses, at this point it looked and smelled more like a gingerbread pie than a pumpkin pie, but I'm not sure that's anything to complain about.

Into the 350-degree oven it went for 45 minutes.

After 45 minutes, it still looked very jiggly, so I gave it another 15. After that it still looked pretty jiggly, but reasonably so, so I took it out and let it cool at room temperature for a couple hours, then in the fridge for a couple more.

I was impressed that the pie did set up, although it was very soft.

Mr. Presidentressor and I wound up being the only ones to eat the pie. (The kids opted for cupcakes instead. Sometimes their intuition is good.)

This pie is...different. The molasses was pretty overpowering, so it didn't even really taste like gingerbread---just molasses. There was absolutely no pumpkin flavor whatsoever, and also no rosewater flavor, which is probably for the best. It was also, as I mentioned, very soft and mushy, and sort of grainy. Whipped cream helped, and I'll admit that it sort of grew on me as I continued eating.

Even so, I probably won't make this again unless I need to bring a George Washington-themed dish to a party, but it was worth a try. I can definitely see how this would have been a big hit back in the 18th century, but today I'd probably take a cupcake instead. On the plus side, my crust was excellent!