My Presidential Reading Project :: The Book List

My Goal :: To read a biography for each President of the United States, in addition to a work of nonfiction and popular fiction corresponding to the time period of each presidential term. (Follow this link for an expanded explanation of my Presidential Reading Project.)

What follows is a running list of the books I have read thus far. The years in office for each president are included, along with links to book reviews when available.


1 – George Washington (1789-1797)
Biography :: His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis (2004)
Nonfiction :: Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick (2016)
Fiction :: Charlotte Temple by Susanna Rowson (1791/94)

2 – John Adams (1797-1801)
Biography :: John Adams by David McCullough (2002)
Nonfiction ::
Fiction :: Wieland by Charles Brockdon Brown (1798)

3 – Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)
Biography :: Thomas Jefferson by R. B. Bernstein (2003) and American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis (1997)
Nonfiction :: Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose (1996)
Fiction :: Knickerbocker’s History of New York by Washington Irving (1809)

4 – James Madison (1809-1817)
Biography :: James Madison by Garry Wills (2002)
Nonfiction :: Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis (2000)
Fiction :: Waverley by Sir Walter Scott (1814)

5 – James Monroe (1817-1825)
Biography :: James Monroe by Gary Hard (2005)
Nonfiction :: Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation by Peter L. Bernstein (2005)
Fiction :: A New England Tale by Catherine Maria Sedgwick (1822)

6 – John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)
Biography :: John Quincy Adams by Lynn Hudson Parsons (1998)
Nonfiction :: The Birth of Modern Politics: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams and the Election of 1828 by Lynn Hudson Parsons (2009)
Fiction :: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper (1826)

7 – Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)
Biography :: American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham (2008)
Nonfiction :: Henry Clay: The Essential American by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler (2010)
Fiction ::

8 – Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)
Biography :: The American Talleyrand: The Career and Contemporaries of Martin Van Buren by Holmes Alexander (1935)
Nonfiction ::
Fiction ::

My Presidential Reading Project

Me and Mr. Monroe.

Ten years ago, I was inspired to read a biography of George Washington and I so enjoyed my re-education in early American History that I decided to challenge myself to read a biography of each U.S. president in chronological order. To widen the scope of interest and have more fun, I expanded my reading challenge to include a work of both non-fiction and popular fiction corresponding to the time period of each presidential term. I dubbed it My Presidential Reading Project.

Certain presidents are easier to cover than others. It comes as no surprise that Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson have a wealth of books to choose from. Other POTUS prove a real challenge, with a scarcity of biographies in the library (outside of the children’s section) or a selection limited to a few 800-page tomes of dry historical record. Finding works of American popular fiction published during the first dozen administrations has been an enjoyable hurdle. How else would I have read the first American best seller (Charlotte Temple by Susanna Rowson, published in 1791) or the first American gothic novel (Wieland by Charles Brockdon Brown), published in 1798 when John Adams was in office?

With each presidential biography I tick off the list, I’m building on knowledge gleaned from previous books, which helps to reinforce what I’m learning (at least for a little while.) The additional non-fiction books from each era fill in areas of particular interest and provide a richer picture of the social history of each period. Sometimes these titles are sparked by something I’ve read in a biography, while others are added to my growing Presidential Reading Project list from personal recommendations, published reviews, and book store browsing over time.

iPhoneRT_2014-08-02_15-15-13_IMG_2688_©KathrynWare2014
Lincoln’s boyhood home, Knob Creek, Kentucky.

At this point in the project, having read a fifth of the way through the 44 U.S. Presidents, the old adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same” applies, as presidents and politicians from the beginning of our country’s history grapple with issues all too familiar to modern-day readers, a thought which is fascinating, dismaying, and weirdly encouraging. On the lighter side, reading best-selling fiction stretching back to 1790 has been a real hoot.

Five years ago, I added a travel component to my presidential project, incorporating visits to presidential homes, birth places, and burial sites. Without this project to spur me on, I never would have visited Lincoln’s boyhood home in Knob Creek, Kentucky (a surprisingly moving experience); Calvin Coolidge’s Homestead in Plymouth, Vermont, where he was born, raised, and sworn in as President; or Montpelier, James Madison’s home in Virginia, and the room where the Father of the Constitution spent a winter researching and formulating ideas that would develop into the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Montpelier_2012-07-23_12-14-50_DSC_0727_©KathrynWare2012 - Version 2
James Madison’s home, Montpelier.

History has always been a favorite subject of mine, so giving myself this presidentially focused, forty-something-step course in U.S. history has, over time, developed into an entertaining, engaging, and ever-evolving project. But it’s time to step it up–at the rate I’m going, I’ll need to live to 106 to complete it.

Highly Recommended: Cutting for Stone

Cutting for Stone Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is exactly why we recommend books to one another. Here, for whatever reason, is a book I doubt I ever would have read if it hadn’t been for a couple of friends (whose opinion in books I value) raving about it. A medical drama set in Ethiopia? Pass. The fact that it’s been on the best seller lists for years meant nothing to me. Thankfully, I was lent the book to read and just a few pages in I was hooked. Everything about Cutting for Stone is captivating; the prose, the characters, the story, the location, even the medical story elements, had me engaged throughout.

Cutting for Stone is the story of twin brothers Marion and Shiva, born out of wedlock to a nun and a talented surgeon working in a struggling hospital in Ethiopia. When their mother dies in childbirth and their father flees the country, the boys are adopted by a pair of doctors, colleagues of their father’s, who treat them as their own, raising them against the backdrop of family drama and political upheaval. As the twins grow up, they drift apart until a painful event severs their bond and places an ocean between them. The Stone family’s story is an engrossing tale of betrayal, forgiveness, and redemption that had me reading the conclusion with a lump in my throat. Highly recommended.

Highly Recommended: Game of Thrones

A Game of ThronesA Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (1996)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I would never have chosen to read this book–despite the raving popularity of the HBO mini-series adaptation–had it not been recommended to me by someone whose opinion I trust, and boy, am I glad I did. This first installment of the Song of Ice and Fire series was the big surprise of my reading year and easily one of my favorite books of 2011.

That this series is classified as fantasy fiction was a huge red flag; scifi and adult fantasy novels hold no appeal for me. (Young adult fantasy is another story.) However, on the strength of solid writing and fantasy elements that are suppressed for much of the story, I was able to enjoy the book as a work of period fiction, completely immersing myself in the details of the medieval setting, the complex characters, and an exciting, tangled drama of warring kingdoms.

This tome is a breathless, whirlwind of a read. By the end, when a fantastical storyline reared its head, I was so invested in the characters, I hardly minded and couldn’t wait to start the next book in the saga.

Recommended (With Reservations): Bossypants

BossypantsBossypants by Tina Fey (2011)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Usually, I’m not one for contemporary memoirs. The history buff in me prefers to wait at least a hundred years before reading about anyone, historical or celebratory. But when I saw that Tina Fey, the creator of one of my current favorite TV shows (30 Rock), had a comic memoir out, I knew I had to give it a try.

First of all, let me state for the record that I think Tina Fey is comic gold. She could write a version of the tax code and I’d probably read it from cover to cover, chuckling all the way. For the most part, Bossypants was an entertaining chucklefest but it wasn’t hilarious nor terribly compelling. It felt more like a series of amusing New Yorker pieces cobbled together as a book. Perhaps enjoying it in small bits over time would have been preferable to a straight-through reading. About three-quarters of the way in, I was starting to get antsy to wrap it up and start something new.

All this sounds like a mediocre review, but it’s more positive than that. I’d definitely recommend it to fans of Fey, and for those of us in the Chicago area, there’s a lot to enjoy during Fey’s early years at Second City. There are even shout-outs to Evanston and a hilarious bit at the YMCA.

Recommended: Wish You Were Here

Wish You Were HereWish You Were Here by Stewart O’Nan (2002)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Stewart O’Nan is one of my favorite authors. I’d read anything by him, sticking it out to the last page, no matter how difficult it was to get through. Not that Wish You Were Here was a drudgery to read; it just helps to adjust your expectation going in and understand that nothing much happens in this book. And that’s okay. This book isn’t about the destination, it’s pleasure comes in the journey and if you accept that going in, you’ll be richly rewarded.

Emily Maxwell and her two grown children, along with their families and their spinster aunt, spend a final week in the family summer home on a lake in upstate New York. The patriarch has recently died and mom, to the bafflement of her son and daughter, has sold the cottage. Moving chronologically through the week, O’Nan gives each character a distinct voice, bouncing back and forth between family members and their unique perspective on shared events. Wish You Were Here will resonate with anyone who’s vacationed with their family, as it evokes the nostalgia and inevitable messy interpersonal kinks that come with familial history in close quarters.

As each adult family member grapples and grieves with the loss of father and family home (as well as their own long-lost dreams), the author weaves a subdued yet complex interpersonal tale with such tenderness and detail that I was thinking about the Maxwells long after I finished, finding it hard to believe at times that they do not really exist.

Recommended: My Life in France

My Life in FranceMy Life in France (2005) by Julia Child

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The formidable chef’s memoir of her travels through France and awakening to the fine food and wine of her adopted country is pure pleasure to read. Wonderfully written, she recalls in delectable detail her discovery of delicious dishes and her struggle to not only learn to cook, but master the art of French cooking and translate it into one of the most influential cookbooks of all time. Her enthusiasm for life and learning leaps off each page and left this reader unexpectedly inspired and, not surprisingly, hungry.

It’s Easy to See Why Sinclair Lewis Was Disowned by His Hometown After He Published “Main Street”

Main StreetMain Street (1920) by Sinclair Lewis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At times, reading this felt positively Sisyphean; for every one page read, two would regenerate on the back end. Lewis makes his point repeatedly until you feel as trapped in Gopher Prairie as his central character, Carol Kennicott.

Lewis’ fine writing kept me slogging through the middle of this overly long book and I’m glad I finished it. It’s helpful to keep the book in the context of its time (1920) and importance (in blowing the lid off the idyllic fantasy of life in small-town America.)

Recommended: One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd

Jim Fergus  (1998)

Told as a series of journal entries, this work of fiction takes the premise that in 1875, when Cheyenne Chief Little Wolf proposed assimilating his culture with the whites by having a thousand white women “marry” into the tribe, President Grant agreed. The narrator, May Dodd, joins a trainload of women from the fringe of society (convicts, the mentally ill, spinsters, and prostitutes) traveling west to meet their fate. Fergus spins a good story, impressively conjuring up a vivid time and place as well as the mind-set of a woman thrown into a forbidding situation. An interesting “you are there” perspective on a sad chapter in this country’s Native American history.

Recommended: Started Early, Took My Dog

Feet First | 141Kate Atkinson (2010)

This most recent entry in the Jackson Brodie series is one of my favorites. Jackson’s life continues to be a fractured mess as he tracks down the biological parents of an Australian client, all the while grappling with the ambivalence about his own second-go at fatherhood. PI Brodie shares center stage with a new character, Tracy Waterhouse, a retired cop working mall security. One day on the job, Tracy makes a rash decision involving a crack addict’s five-year-old daughter, setting in motion the book’s most compelling story arc. As events play out, Jackson and Tracy are each confronted with a haunting murder in their respective pasts, told in flashback. All these threads, including an aging actress on the verge of dementia who’s closing out her career on a soap opera, are deftly woven into a page-turner concerned with motherless children and latent parental love. One of my favorite reads of 2011.