The Weed Agency

[Amazon Link]

It is somewhat bad news that my book-picking algorithm's randomness brought up Jim Geraghty's new book The Weed Agency immediately after I'd read Dave Barry's hilarious Insane City. Now (don't get me wrong) Mr. Geraghty's book is funny. But Dave is a tough act to follow, humor-wise.

Mr. Geraghty's book is also kind of sad for those of us who would prefer smaller and limited government. For it is a tale of a truly worthless money-down-the-rathole federal agency, established more or less on a whim by Jimmy Carter and a Democratic Congress in the 70s, the USDA's Agency of Invasive Species. While this entity does not exist in the real world, it is emblematic of a host of others that actually do.

We follow the Agency from 1981 until roughly the present day, as it navigates the budgetary waters to survive and even thrive. Its head, Adam Humphrey, is a gifted bureaucrat, employing an array of tools to guarantee the dollars keep coming. He knows which fear/flattery/ego-stroking buttons to push: for the 80's Reaganauts, he notes (without any real evidence) that the Commies might be readying a biological attack using invading weeds and/or critters; for Al Gore in the 90's, he makes the Global Warming connection. Later in the decade, for Newt Gingrich, a whizbang web-based red-tape-cutting Federal clearinghouse for all things Weedy is proposed. And worst of all, post-9/11, Humphrey tries to market his agency as fighting the menace of terrorist crop-dusters.

When an actual crisis occurs involving an invasive Mexican weed devastating southwest agriculture, the agency is seemingly caught with its pants down: its incompetence threatens its raison d'être. But, after a symbolic resignation, this fact is cynically used to (once again) increase the funding of the agency. Gee, that sounds "ripped from the headlines", doesn't it?

Humphrey and a number of other characters inside and outside the agency are, pretty much, set-up to illustrate Geraghty's thesis and historical events. So when one of the characters quits the agency to go to work for a dot-com in the late 90s… well, we pretty much know the broad outlines of what's gonna happen there.

Recommended, of course. You can read a tome on public choice theory, and you probably should, but this is more fun, and you'll get the basic idea.

Saving Mr. Banks

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A few days back, I noted that Nebraska was "a tad sentimental". Friends, Saving Mr. Banks is more than a tad sentimental. Bring hip waders to avoid being soaked in sentiment. Bring a snorkel to avoid being drowned in sentiment. Duck and cover to avoid being nuked by sentiment.

But I liked it.

It's the based-in-fact story of how Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) brought Mary Poppins to the big screen back in the 60s, just a few years before he died. His big obstacle was getting the legal OK to do so from P.L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson), original author of the Poppins books. She objects to having her creation Disneyfied, but her agent pressures her into a trip out to California, where she's promised input into the movie creation process.

This tale is interspersed with flashbacks to P.L.'s early life in early 20th-century Australia. She adores her charismatic Irish daddy (Colin Farrell), but he's an irresponsible drunkard in poor health. Her mom is overwhelmed. Eventually, Aunt Ellie shows up to bring order to the dysfunctional chaos. (You can see the seeds of inspiration there.)

Emma Thompson is wonderful as P.L., initially full of prickly British snobbish propriety, gradually worn down by the genuinely nice Disney-American people she works with, seduced by California sunshine and optimism. She objects to everything that (eventually) made Mary Poppins magical and memorable: Dick van Dyke? Horrors! Bouncy show-biz tunes? No, no, no! Dancing animated penguins? Absolutely not! (There's a hilarious bit where P.L. initially assumes the dancing penguins will not be animated: how, she wonders, do you train them to do that?)

The movie apparently takes broad liberties with history in order to make a good story with a happy ending. Hey, that's OK. I have dim memories of Mary Poppins from when I saw it in an Omaha theatre back in 1964; I'm not sure how well this movie would work if you don't have at least a basic inkling of that movie.