American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House
Jon Meacham (2008)
Coming in at number seven on my U.S. Presidential Reading Project is Andrew Jackson, who served two terms from 1829-1837. I admit that prior to reading this biography, the only knowledge I retained about Old Hickory was the Battle of New Orleans (a Jackson-lead defeat over invading British forces in the waning days of the War of 1812) and the famous town square that bears his name in the French Quarter. Overshadowing all else, is the Jackson administration’s most infamous legacy, the Indian Removal Act (1830), which led to a sad chapter in U.S. history known as The Trail of Tears.
Andrew Jackson’s story is quintessentially American, from his humble beginnings to great military fame and personal fortune; marriage and shrewd business dealings made him our second wealthiest President. Jackson’s presidency marked many firsts: His road to the White House helped form the Democratic Party (and introduced the divisive two-party system we know today); the fierce campaign between Jackson and John Quincy Adams introduced the American populace to its first down-and-dirty, mudslinging presidential campaign; his election marked the end of the Washington establishment; he wielded the power of the presidential veto with more frequency than any of his predecessors; and he was the first sitting President to have an assassination attempt made on his life.
Time and again, as I carry out my historical exercise of reading presidential biographies in chronological order, I’m reminded how often history repeats itself. Jackson, this millionaire man of the people, was not above using public sentiment to gain political advantage and he was the first to apply widespread patronage in his appointments. Scandal plagued Jackson throughout his tenure, with far-reaching political repercussions. On the eve of his inauguration, his beloved wife Rachel died, and Jackson blamed her death on accusations of bigamy used as campaign fodder. His first term as President was rife with gossip and rumors of immoral behavior by the wife of his Secretary of War (whipped up by Jackson’s own VP, John C. Calhoun!)
Modern readers will recognize much of our own current political system in Jackson’s troubled presidency. With distant rumblings of the coming Civil War, as issues of federal vs. state’s rights percolated, Andrew Jackson, a man of fierce honor and national pride, fought for the people while displacing thousands of Native Americans from their lands. Just one of Old Hickory’s many contradictions. *American Lion* shows to what extent the character of the man residing in the Oval Office informs the Presidency and the course of history.
The Clothes They Stood Up In & The Lady in the Van
Alan Bennett (2002)
I recently learned that the second story in this double feature has been adapted into a film starring Maggie Smith. Based on that, and my love of Bennett’s wonderful book The Uncommon Reader, I guess my expectations were too high. I found each story only mildly amusing.
Island of the Blue Dolphins
Scott O’Dell (1960)
A Native American girl lives for years as the only inhabitant on a small dolphin-shaped island off the coast of California. Based on the true story of Juana Maria, the last of her Channel Island tribe, who survived alone for nearly two decades before she was discovered in 1853. O’Dell imagines how the girl came to be stranded and how she survived, found food, built shelter, and defended herself against a pack of wild dogs, forever looking to the horizon for her people to return.
I loved Island of the Blue Dolphins when first introduced to it in elementary school and revisiting it now, I was entranced all over again. This was the book that sparked my love of island fiction, a genre that continues to capture my imagination to this day.
(Past island book reviews include The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman, Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, and San Miguel by T.C. Boyle, also set on a remote Channel Island.)
A Blaze of Glory
Jeff Shaara (2012)
My historical road trip last summer took me to the Civil War battlefield in Shiloh, Tennessee. I brought along this book to illuminate events and further my understanding of what was (up to that point) the bloodiest day in U.S. history. As always, author Jeff Shaara has conjured up comprehensive, stirring, and intimate battlefield fiction with dialog and description that paints a vivid picture of events as they unfolded. Gripping and very readable, A Blaze of Glory is accessible for even the most novice of history buffs, but probably not for everyone.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Maria Semple (2012)
A delight, hilarious and engaging from start to wonderful finish. Bernadette Fox, a once-famous L.A. architect and now agoraphobic stay-at-home mom, struggles not to lose it every day in the Microsoftlandia suburb of Seattle where she lives with her husband and teenage daughter, Bee. To some, Bernadette is a wacko, an annoyance, a strange bird and to others she’s downright unhinged, but to Bee, she’s a true independent and the unhappy teenager’s biggest ally. So, when Bernadette disappears shortly before a family vacation to Antarctica, Bee takes it upon herself to solve the mystery of her missing mother.
Cleverly told through documents and email, Bee reconstructs her mother’s complicated history and the days surrounding her disappearance. Appealing (if not always likable) characters set in a unique premise that had me briskly flipping pages and enjoying myself all the way to the end.
Hilary Mantel (2009)
Well, I tried. I really, really wanted to like this book and by all indications, I should have but Thomas Cromwell and his crew continually failed to engaging me. Perhaps my expectations were too high, perhaps I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind. Mostly, I felt as if I was constantly missing the point, reading with little appreciation for who or what was going on. I stuck it out to the half-way point, but just can’t go on.
The Secrets of Mary Bowser
Lois Leveen (2012)
After her education in the North, a freed slave woman named Mary Bowser returns to the capital of the Confederacy to pose as a slave to her former mistress, a member of a prominent Richmond family who is secretly working as a Union spy. Based on a true story, this little-known episode of Civil War history is vibrantly brought to life, told from Mary’s perspective as she sacrifices her own freedom, ekes out an existence in a city crumbling under siege, and serves for a time in the Confederate White House, spying on Jefferson Davis during the darkest days of the conflict. Author Leveen weaves an intriguing personal narrative with history to create a moving witness tale to the fall of Richmond and the dramatic end of the Civil War.