Jennie: Truman

Truman by David McCullough

NINE HUNDRED NINETY TWO pages of pure AWESOMENESS. (Yes, even after reading that many pages of eloquent and informational prose, I still use the word awesomeness.) This might be my favorite biography outside of John Adams (also written by McCullough)…on second thought, I think it’s a tie between them.

I was born, raised, and still live in/near Kansas City, so reading this was fascinating on two fronts. The expected presidential front and the learning about my city’s past and growth. McCullough writes non-fiction stories like they are fiction, taking the reader on a trip through the past with interesting tidbits and factual information woven together. I will read anything he writes. I have many of his other books on my shelves waiting to be read. His grocery list, sign me up.

Truman himself was a fascinating character, and yes I’m probably totally biased when I say that. (What can I say, it’s the Missouri girl in me.) I loved reading about his time growing up in Missouri and his relationship with his wife. But also, coming off the huge FDR biography I finished last month, reading about the days in which Truman took over in such chaos was literally heart pounding reading. Not to mention the war times Truman say, as a soldier and a President. I mean, talks with Churchill and Stalin?! Korean skirmishes? The atomic bomb?

I’ve been to Truman’s Presidential library as an adult, but didn’t get to see most of it because I was there to hear Clinton and Carter speak about volunteerism (of which, made me almost sign up for Greenpeace, but that’s a whole other story). It’s on my short bucket list to have one of our next dates (romantic, isn’t it?!) to be visiting it properly.

In short, read this book. Yes it’s gigantic but it ABSOLUTELY worth the time. Just get the e-book maybe, the hardback almost broke my wrists.

Jennie: FDR

FDR by Jean Edward Smith

I had somehow bought two FDR biographies, and REALLY wanted to pick the other one because it was about 400 pages shorter, but Jacki pretty much insisted that I read this one, so I did. (I’m pretty sure she might have threatened our friendship if I picked the other one…)

I owe Jacki a lot for forcing me to read this one. The other biography might have been swell for all I know, but this one is FANTASTIC. I read SO many parts out loud to Brett (sometimes interrupting his own reading, whoops!) because I was truly fascinated. The aspects of polio and his marriage to Eleanor and his relationship with Churchill. I was engrossed THE ENTIRE 600+ pages.

I found the Churchill and Stalin conversations and photos included to be just…amazingly informative and awesome. I reread sections to myself multiple times, just in awe at how these three men, all with their own goals and countries and personalities, trying to bring peace back to the World. Just awesome stuff right there.

I feel like this biography ranks up there with John Adams by David McCullough and Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. These are the type of biographies that should be widely read, not just by historical fans and those of us doing the challenge.

Jennie: Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover (The American Presidents #31) by William E. Leuchtenburg

This was a really short biography, and it left me wanting to know more about Herbert Hoover, but it also felt like it gave me a good overview into the 31st President. The facts included in this biography about the Great Depression were mind boggling. I kept interrupting my husband to keep reading little tidbits to him. It was appalling, and yet fascinating. I kept reading on almost begging Hoover to step in, to open his eyes to the disaster and the famine. To see that his idea of society stepping in to help wasn’t going to happen; this situation had grown far too big for that.

I find Herbert Hoover an interesting person, if only because he was so much an interior person. He wasn’t overtly emotional or even personable, which makes me want to know more about his inner workings. I think once this challenge is over, Hoover is one of the handful of presidents I plan to read more on.

This was a well-written biography, and if you’re looking to get an intro into the Great Depression and/or Hoover’s time in the White House, I highly recommend starting with this one.

Jennie: Warren G. Harding

Warren G. Harding (The American Presidents #29) by John W. Dean

I squeaked this one in last month, literally finishing just before bed on the last day of September. I was a slacker in ordering it and then it took forever to get delivered, but I was on a mission and complete it I did!

I really didn’t know much about Harding going into this book. I had never heard about the drama of his presidency, but when I realized there was an extramarital affair, I was intrigued. But, most of what I found interesting in this book was how Harding got started, not really driving into politics but casually entering the stage. I loved the pieces about his pre-president job in the newspaper business.

His death was handled surprisingly different than Wilson’s stroke in the previous presidency, and this I found fascinating. The world before media alerts on our phones and emails and rapid-fire text messages.

Ultimately, I finished this short book feeling much more informed about Harding, which was exactly what I’d hoped for!

Jennie: Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson: A Biography by John Milton Cooper Jr.

What better way to celebrate a holiday than a presidential review! Wait, you mean that isn’t your idea of a relaxing day off? Who am I kidding…you guys are WSR fans, of course you get it! :) (Also, you get that as a mom of littles I never really get a day off, right?!)

Anyway, this biography was huge, almost 600 pages of small text, but it was packed with information about things I never knew before. FDR is one of those presidents I’ve heard a lot about over the years, but as I flipped the pages in this book I discovered I had plenty to learn. From his opinions on women’s rights despite is own progressive daughters (one had a decent singing career!) to dating while in the White House (hello, Andrew Shepard!)

I found the chapters on WWI absolutely enthralling, I couldn’t imagine being in his shoes but the text brought me there and into Wilson’s head. Fascinating and horrifying at the same time! I lost a little respect for Wilson over civil rights, but gained some respect over WWI. His second wife and his political friends hiding the truth over his stroke was slightly awe-inspiring but also disgusting. Obviously, in this day of mass media and immediate coverage something like that couldn’t happen nowadays, but just the thought of the president not in a capacity to lead and the chain of command not occurring the way it’s supposed to…it just blew my mind.

This wasn’t my favorite biography so far in the challenge, but it’s pretty up there!

Jennie: William Howard Taft

William Howard Taft: In the Public Service by David Henry Burton

There aren’t many Taft biographies around, at least printed recently enough to not charge over $50 for. Although, there is one coming out later this year that I really wanted, but didn’t want to hold up my progress in the challenge.

This book was quite short, but it read dry for me which made even the thin number of pages feel long at times. However, I loved the pages about Taft’s time on the Supreme Court. I read those sections with great interest, as I did the portions discussing Taft and Teddy Roosevelt’s on-again-off-again friendship. I love me a good Adams/Jefferson drama, and Taft and TR didn’t disappoint.

I didn’t know much about Taft before reading this book, and feel slightly more informed now, though I’d love to read more about his personal life, especially more on his court days and his days overseas. This felt like a good introductory-type biography for me.

Jacki: Barack Obama

Dreams from My Father, by Barak Obama

Here is what I loved about this book: I loved that it was written way before he even entered politics- the first edition was published in 1994. The other two autobiographies I’ve read (Clinton and W) were obviously written with the idea in mind that this was going to become historical record and when they looked back on their childhood, it was always with a sense of “this is the set of decisions that lead me to this huge place of power” which is fine, but I loved that since Obama’s was written long before that was on his mind, it is wonderfully unencumbered by politics and is transparent in a way that the other two just weren’t. I liked that.

I also think that, without a doubt, Obama is a fantastic writer. I thought that the stories were entertaining, the point was clear and it was all wrapped up in a nice little package. I genuinely enjoyed reading it and filling in gaps in my knowledge.

Here’s what was less than great for me: The middle really drug for me. I understand that his community focus in Chicago was huge in his life but reading about it was just dull. I loved the beginning and the end but felt like the middle was just a little blah.

And I’m looking forward to reading a more definitive biography after his presidency is over. This one is hyper-focused on Obama coming of age and finding out what race means to him, a man with a Kenyan father and American mother. Which was wildly interesting, but left me wanting more.

So, in short, I loved that this was incomplete but wanted it to be more complete. Admit it, you’re going to miss my reviews 😉


And with that, I’m done with the Presidential Challenge! I’m looking forward to going back and reading some historical biographies of people that kept creeping into my Presidential Challenge bios, but as far as presidents, I’m done… at least for the next couple of years!

Jacki: George W. Bush

Decision Points, by George W Bush

You guys. I don’t even know how to write this review. I feel like it confuses my brain to even try to talk about it. Because here’s the thing: I think it was well written. I genuinely enjoyed reading it and could hear it in W’s Texas twang the whole time. I thought that it was a transparent look at some really hard decisions.

But those decisions…. they were just so awful. Even hearing him talk about them years later I feel like I cannot even wrap my head around saying, “Yeah, go ahead and torture that dude.” and then talking about not using stem cells because they are life. That is backwards, right?! Gah. It made steam come out of my ears on the regular.

I really did learn so much about some of these issues and saw them from a completely different perspective. I knew that Katrina relief was FUBAR but didn’t know exactly how it went down- this is one decision making process that I feel like I genuinely judged Bush too hard for and reading this was clarifying.

I went into this thinking I was going to hate it because during Bush’s presidency was when I really started paying more attention to politics and don’t generally agree with much that he did, but was surprised about how much I enjoyed his voice and writing style. I liked that instead of being a straight chronology, it was set up in chapters about each big decision. I thought that this gave him more space to really flesh out each issue and go into detail on why he made the decisions he did. I respected that there were decisions that he made that he regretted later and some that he still stands by one hundred percent.

I am looking forward to a more definitive biography of him to come out, when we have a little more perspective on his time in office, but for now this was a great choice and I would highly recommend it.

Jennie: Teddy Roosevelt

Bully!: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt: Illustrated with More Than 250 Vintage Political Cartoons by Rick Marschall

When I ran across this book during a Half Price Books trip, I immediately knew I had to buy it. I was months from reaching TR in the Presidential Challenge, but I’ve learned to buy these biographies ahead of time when they’re on sale or look interesting.

The unique addition of political cartoons from the time made this biography a must buy, and in that aspect I wasn’t disappointed at all. The pages are thick, so the cartoons are beautifully presented and fascinating. Each chapter of text included a section of cartoons relating to the chapter.

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As for the text, I learned more than a few things about TR, but I was slightly annoyed by the obvious pro-TR leanings of the author. Not to mention a reference to today’s tea party movement. That aside, I think the creative pages made this a biography I would recommend, as long as you keep in mind the other part.