Jacki: Andrew Jackson

American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, by Jon Meacham

Ok, let me just say right off that I kind of love Andrew Jackson.  I knew very little about him before starting this book, but as I read it I found myself bringing him up in conversation and going on and on.  It’s like a history-crush or something. Weird, right?

Here’s what I love:  He was just this rough and tumble guy… kind of a mess really.  His family all died when he was really young and he was raised poor. He didn’t go to college and wasn’t exactly a scholar. He had bullets lodged in his body and he was really good at fighting.  He had a hot temper and loved a good argument.

He was also madly in love with his wife and his country.  He had a code of ethics that he carried close to his heart and he let that guide him in nearly every decision in his life.

A lot of the presidents before Jackson kind of favored the individual states, but Jackson was really the first president to see the country as this cohesive group.  The decisions that he made as president were made with that in mind.  He didn’t favor any state or any state’s laws.  His end goal was to have this country that functioned as a unit, so that is what he went for.  When other countries threatened any part of that unit, he took action.  I love that.

I thought that this biography was kind of great.  Unlike most of the bios I’ve read, it was almost exclusively about Andrew Jackson’s time in office.  Because his family, including his wife, had already passed away at  that point, there really wasn’t a whole lot about them.  I thought that this would bother me, but honestly it didn’t.

While there was a lot of focus on the drama in his cabinet and the different political issues of the day, I felt like at its heart this book was about the man of Andrew Jackson and how he responded to situations and how we can still see his fingerprints in our current government. I walked away with a huge amount of respect for Andrew Jackson.  I kind of want to hug him.

Like John Adams, this book was written almost like a novel.  It wasn’t a chore to read it at all and I really found myself getting into it.  It was written for readers more so than historians or academics which I appreciated.

One of the things that has kind of caught me off guard while reading these bios is that every single president knew that slavery was, at some point, going to be an issue.  It’s not like one day it just creeped up on the country.  Every president up until this point has had to deal with it in one way or the other and they all have just pushed it aside hoping that someone else would take care of it.  Andrew Jackson did the exact same thing.  I guess I didn’t know much about the history of the civil war, but I really had no idea that it had been brewing for the entire history of the U.S.  Crazy.

Even if you are not participating in the Presidential Challenge, I recommend this wholeheartedly.

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Jennie: John Adams

John Adams, by David McCullough

After watching the HBO miniseries adapted from this book, I knew I had to read it. The miniseries was so well-done and informative on the life of a President I knew only slightly. I knew John Adams was instrumental in the Revolution, but I wasn’t aware how involved he truly was, nor how he impacted our relations with numerous European countries. I enjoyed learning more about our country’s founding and those involved. Almost more than the history, I became enchanted with the marriage of John and Abigail. Even though they spent much of their marriage apart, only connecting through handwritten letters, there love and friendship remained strong. At numerous times, they would go years without seeing each other, only receiving letters and those letters would be months behind. I can only imagine how hard it would be keeping a marriage strong through that, year after year. The Adams’ were true friends and bounced their thoughts and ideas, political and otherwise, off each other. I find that inspiring and romantic. John Adams was an interesting man, with political opinions that evolved over time, but in many aspects he was ahead of the times. He despised slavery and both were disheartened to find slave labor upon their move into the in-progress White House. They both valued education for both the wealthy and the poor. John Adams thought that education for all was the key to a successful society.

In all, I found this book to be an excellent account of historical events and of a detailed look into the Adams’ family and life. David McCullough writes with such fluency that I almost forgot this was non-fiction, but rather a novel. It wasn’t boring or overwhelmed with facts and names to the point of being unreadable like many non-fiction biographies can become.

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Julie: Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson’s Demons: Portrait of a Restless Mind, by Michael Knox Beran

The last book I read for the challenge, John Adams, included a lot of history on Thomas Jefferson as well.  Unfortunately, Jefferson doesn’t come off as a very nice person in the John Adams story.  So, after hearing that Jackie had felt like the biography that she read of Jefferson was also a pretty negative portrait of the man, I decided to try something different.  I really wanted to read a book that would give me Jefferson’s side of the story, since from what I’d read in John Adams, he seemed like a real jerk.  That’s what led me to choose Jefferson’s Demons by Michael Knox Beran.  I was also intrigued because the subtitle of the book (Portrait of a Restless Mind) and it’s cover copy indicate that the book has a psychological focus, exploring Jefferson’s bouts with depression and his family history of mental illness.
I have to say Reader Friends, there is a reason this book took me over two months to read.  After reading over 700 pages on John Adams, I felt like I was giving myself a little breat with 280-something pages on Jefferson.  Oh no.  It took me twice as long to read and here is why: it was so very very boring.
Ugh.  The author tries really hard to make this academic and literary by including “big” words and fancy terms when others would work just as well.  The word “ennui” is used about 8 bazillion times throughout the book.  It’s also a pet peeve of mine for an author to write as if he’s using a thesaurus.
In just  one example, Beran describes “sanguinary violence” when he very well could have said “bloody violence” or just “violence”.  When you’re describing the French Revolution, we can pretty much assume that it was bloody.  Forcing readers to a dictionary doesn’t make an author seem smarter, it just aggravates the reader.  And look, I’m not advocating that readers never have vocabulary challenges.  But my problem is with authors who use those words repeatedly and unnecessarily.  If your big word is the best word for the passage, then use it and I’ll gladly look its meaning up in a dictionary.  But don’t write as though you’re using a thesaurus to find all of your adjectives.
No problems with the research itself, everything is documented appropriately, it’s just written in a stuffy manner.
Entertainment Value:
None.  This book actually probably would have been best used as a back up for having forgotten my Ambien, because I couldn’t make it through more than 5 or 10 pages without passing out.  Through the first 100 pages, Jefferson actually doesn’t do very much at all.  He goes to Europe, a part I was particularly anxious to hear about from his point of view, but instead of seeing his political interactions in France, particularly with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, we get 100 pages of Jefferson taking a road trip to look at architecture and taste wines.  Actually, we get more like 95 pages about the architecture and wines of the day and 5 pages of Jefferson doing anything at all.  That’s an exaggeration, but not by far.  I will grant the author that it is interesting to note how the architectural styles of the period, particularly the ruins being uncovered, influenced Jefferson’s decisions in building his home, but that can be said in a sentence.
What really really bothered me is that we get no sense of Jefferson’s “demons” at all.  We see some vague references to a family history of mental illness, we see Jefferson being melancholy at times, but the descriptions of his depression and how they impacted him politically are really barely present at all.  Overall, I learned more about Thomas Jefferson as a person and as a president from reading a biography of John Adams and I learned it in a much more entertaining way.  I was also really disappointed that I still know nothing about Jefferson’s motivations for some of the more slimy things he did.
In short, I do not recommend giving this one a try, unless maybe you’re dealing with some terrible insomnia.  I know there has got to be a better Jefferson biography out there, but for now I’m moving on to James Madison.

Jennie: George Washington

Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow

At 817 pages of actual text this book is a monster and took me over a month to finish. Even so, I really enjoyed the journey through Washington’s life. I found it hard to sit down and write a full review of this book because 1) it is so enormous that I am not sure I could even cover all of the points I really found fascinating and 2) the vastness of information in this book is too overwhelming to contain in one tiny review. So, I am bulleting this review to help get my point across.

1. George Washington was a far more complex person that I ever thought. He kept his mind on Mount Vernon even during the Revolutionary War and while he was President. I found it tragic that he never really enjoyed his fruits at Mount Vernon for all of this greatness in the political field until he was far too old to really enjoy the land.

2. Martha and George’s marriage wasn’t romance and love but more of a respectful friendship. This isn’t too outside of the times but it made me ache for them.

3. I was surprised to find that slavery was a hot topic beginning with the Revolution. I had a thought this was further into the country’s history but George Washington himself spent much thought and conversation on the topic of slavery, both politically and on Mount Vernon.

4. There is a reason this won a Pulitzer Prize.

5. Disparity and disrespect between political parties began in Washington’s Presidency, basically with the start of the country. In some ways, this enlightened my own thinking regarding how polarized politics is now. When people say they hope our politicians can create a middle road – I wonder if there ever was one in the first place. Are we looking to find something that just isn’t possible?

6. Given the incomprehensible task of creating a new government, down to the details of what to call the new leader and if there should be government bonds, I still find it awe-inspiring that this trial and error gave way to our great country.

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