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Baker’s Dozen: 13 Presidential Biographies to Read in 2016

I hope to work on my US presidents project this year as I read some of the biographies (and autobiographies) that I picked out a few years ago for this project. Thursdays seem like a good day to update my progress on the Presidents Project, so that’s the plan.

Books to read in 2016:

1. Finish reading Ronald Reagan by H.W. Brands. I’m on page 122, and I hope to pick this book back up and finish it in January.

2. Decision Points by George W. Bush.

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

4. Truman by David McCullough. 1993 Pulitzer Prize winner.

5. Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too by Stanley Young. (Landmark history book for middle grade readers)

6. Lincoln and Douglas: The Years of Decision by Regina Z. Kelly. (Landmark)

7. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr by Anna Erskine Crouse and Russel Crouse. Another Landmark history, not about a U.S. president, but it is about two men, either of whom could have become president had they not allowed their personal feud to consume them.

8.The Story of Ulysses S. Grant by Jeanette Covert Nolan. Another juvenile biography.

9. Abe Lincoln Grows Up by Carl Sandburg.

10. Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation by Peggy Thomas. Picture book biography emphasizing Jefferson’s skills and interest as a naturalist and gentleman farmer.

11. The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon (Exceptional Social Studies Titles for Intermediate Grades) by Carla Killough McClafferty.

12. The President and Mom’s Apple Pie by Michael Garland. In this fictional picture book, set in 1909, President William Howard Taft comes to town to dedicate the new flagpole, but he gets distracted by the aroma of mom’s apple pie.

13. The President’s Stuck in the Bathtub: Poems About the Presidents by Susan Katz.

This list seems readable to me. The huge tomes are balanced by light and easy picture books. Again, I can’t wait to get started.

Christmas in South Africa, 1902

From Cowboys and Cattle Drives by Edith McCall:

“He worked there until December. Then he was asked to drive a bunch of mules to the town of Ladysmith. On the way, he saw posters for Texas Jack’s Wild West Show. Such shows had becomes popular all over the world, beginning with Buffalo Bill’s show of the 1880’s and 1890’s, for all the world loved the riding, shooting, roping American cowboy.
Will could hardly wait to go to see Texas Jack and find out if he was really from Texas and above all, a true cowboy.
‘Sure am,’ said Texas Jack. ‘And who are you?’
‘My name is Will Rogers, and I’m a cowboy from Indian Territory,’ he said.
‘Is that so? Are you pretty good at riding and roping?’
‘Just fair as a rider, but I can handle a rope pretty well,’ said Will. He showed Texas Jack a little of what he could do, including the Big Crinoline, one of the most difficult tricks.
Then came the words that started Will Rogers on his career.
‘How would you like a job in my show?'”

To read more about Will Rogers and other famous cowboys, check out Cowboys and Cattle Drives or any of the following excellent children’s books, available in my library, Meriadoc Homeschool Library, and I hope in yours:

In the Days of the Vaqueros: America’s First True Cowboys by Russell Freedman.
Cowboys of the Wild West by Russell Freedman.
Cattle Trails: Git Along Little Dogies by Kathy Pelta.
Cowhand: The Story of a Working Cowboy by Fred Gipson.
Will Rogers: Young Cowboy by Guernsey Van Riper, Jr.
Will Rogers: His Life and Times by Richard M. Ketchum.

Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson.

“There is no way to write a biography of Shostakovich without relying on hearsay and relaying the memories of people who have many private reasons to fabricate, mislead and revise.” (p.141)

So, this biography of Shostakovich, the Russian composer who immortalized the siege of Leningrad during World War II in his Seventh Symphony, is sprinkled throughout with “perhaps” and “supposedly” and “it is not clear whether” and many, many questions. I was at first a little frustrated by all the “weasel words” with which author M.T. Anderson hedges his sentences and declarations and with all of the open-ended questions with which he ends many of his paragraphs and chapters, but I began to see these uncertainties and essays at truth as (perhaps) metaphorical. After all, Anderson is writing about the events of a composer’s life, many of which are shrouded in Communist propaganda and lies or in the half-truths of people who were trying to live under Communist oppression. But he’s also writing about Shostakovich’s music, which is also vague and uncertain and shrouded, as various experts disagree about the music’s message and meaning. So there are questions, and Anderson asks the right ones while also laying out the facts when those are available in a readable narrative form.

I don’t exactly see why this book is being marketed as a young adult book, unless it’s maybe because the author has written many fiction books for children and young adults. While it’s not a scholarly, academic biography, it is certainly well researched and documented and perfectly suited for adult readers. In fact, unless a person, young or old, is particularly interested in the Soviet Union during World War II or in Shostakovich’s music or twentieth century classical music in general, I doubt this book is going to hold much appeal. Conversely, if any of those interests are there, young and old will find it fascinating. So why is it a Young Adult book? I have no idea.

The details about the siege of Leningrad, taken partly from NKVD archives and records, are harrowing and disturbing (starvation, cannibalism, frozen and unburied bodies, etc.), so it’s not a book for children. The main text of the book is 379 pages and written in a literary, almost lyrical style, so I doubt anyone younger than fifteen or sixteen is going to attempt it anyway. I thought I knew a lot about World War II, but it turns out that I knew very little, aside from the bare facts, about the siege of Leningrad, and I had never heard of Shostakovich’s Leningrad (Seventh) Symphony, not being a music aficionado or a student of classical Russian music.

I was inspired by the book to listen to the Leningrad Symphony, a undertaking in itself since the symphony in four movements is almost an hour and half long. I’ll embed the youtube version that I listened to, but I’m sure that I got more out of it after having read all the historical background in Mr. Anderson’s book. I suggest, for those of you who, like me, are not musically educated, that you read the book first and then listen to the symphony.

Good book, but disturbing. Good music, but also disturbing, especially the relentless march in the first movement.

Hidden Gold by Ella Burakowski

I find Holocaust memoirs to be somewhat variable in quality and readability. Maybe the memoirist’s memories are not that detailed or reliable. Sometimes the person who has undertaken the task of writing the stories down is just not a great writer. Sometimes the reader may be the problem: I’m not immune to the chilling effect of a jadedness produced by too many horrific World War II stories, too many atrocities, too much suffering and starvation for a person to read and assimilate.

Hidden Gold is an excellent example of a Holocaust memoir that is sharp, well-written, detailed, and narrative. I was absorbed by the story of young David Gold and his family and their survival in hiding in Poland, written by Mr. Gold’s niece and based on Mr. Gold’s memories of 1942-1944 when he was twelve to fourteen years old. “David Gold’s memories of his formative years during World War II are as vivid and compelling under his niece’s pen as if they happened yesterday.” (from the blurb on the back cover of the book)

The Gold family–David, his two older sisters, and his mother–survived in hiding on a Polish farm because they were rich, because they were smart and initially healthy, and because they were lucky, or perhaps preserved by a miracle form God. Even though the memoir is woven from David Gold’s memories, David’s older sister Shoshanna, who later became the mother of the author, emerges as the heroine of the tale. Shoshanna is the one who negotiates with outsiders on behalf of the entire family because she has blue eyes and speaks Polish without a Yiddish accent. Shoshanna is the one who encourages the family not to commit suicide when it seems that choice is the only one left to them. Unfortunately, Shoshanna Gold Barakowski died at a relatively young age in 1972, while the author was still in her teens, and the other sister, Esther, also died (of cancer) in 1984, long before Ms. Burakowski began to write this book.

I did wonder how much the author embellished or assumed as she told of the thoughts and motivations of her family members, most of whom were not available to vet the text or give their own take on events. Still, most memoirs are a mix of fact and fill in the blank, and I give the author credit for filling in, if she did, in a way that reads as authentic, coherent, and literary. I read and believed, and I was reminded that hatred and prejudice and bravery and human endurance are all a part of our shared human history as well as evident in the present day “holocausts” that continue to be perpetrated on the innocent and the unprotected.

[T]he memoir as unfiltered actuality is a myth. Fickle and unreliable memories must be reconstructed and made coherent; a story’s assembly, style, and characterization will inevitably compromise any strict retelling. Emphatically, this does not mean the work is less autobiographically or historically valid—–only that it is never pure autobiography or history, and has to be understood and embraced thus. Truth isn’t synonymous with historicity, and infidelity to the latter isn’t necessarily betrayal of the former. ~”The Holocaust’s Uneasy Relationship with Literature” by Menachem Kaiser, The Atlantic, December 2010

Noah Webster: Man of Many Words by Catherine Reef

One of my pet peeves about contemporary nonfiction books for teens and tweens is that the authors seem compelled to share all the interesting tidbits and rabbit trails from their research in sidebar boxed text or sometimes even entire pages of boxed text asides. These text boxes break up the flow of the narrative, and they annoy the heck out of me when I’m reading. I can’t resist reading them to see what I might be missing, and I’m almost always sorry that I did because I lose track the story at hand.

Catherine Reef’s biography of Noah Webster avoids the text box pitfall, and she includes all the extra material she researched on the American Revolution and the writing of the Constitution and early American life and politics in the narrative itself. I could read about the ratification of the U.S. Constitution as I read about Noah Webster’s opinions about the Constitution. And no text boxes were inserted to aggravate and sidetrack my reading. So, score one for this biography.

The narrative itself was well-written and interesting, and the illustrations were well-placed in old-fashioned frames which complemented and didn’t interrupt the story. Unfortunately, the size of the book itself, about 8″ x 10″, was awkward and made it somewhat difficult to read in bed or even in a comfortable chair. This size seems to be popular these days for nonfiction tomes, but I’m not a fan.

This biography for young adult and middle school readers is 171 pages long and gives a full picture of Noah Webster and his times and his influence on the American language, education, and government. The author mentions Webster’s conversion, as an adult, to a renewed, or perhaps new, faith in the God of his forefathers, but she does seem rather perplexed and detached about the meaning of all that religious talk on Webster’s part.

“Noah blocked himself off from the din of life by packing the walls of his study with sand. Yet there was one voice he found impossible to keep out: the one he believed belonging to God.
One morning in April 1808 , he was alone in his study. ‘A sudden impulse upon my mind arrested me,’ he said. ‘I instantly fell on my knees, confessed my sins to God, implored him pardon, and made my vows to him that . . . I would live in entire obedience to his service.’ The next day he called his family together and led them in prayer, as he would do three times a day for the rest of his life.”

One can almost hear in the background the biographer’s thoughts of “how quaint and colonial–believing that one can hear the voice of God!” I would have liked to know more about how Noah Webster’s April awakening and commitment to obey the voice of God impacted his life and changed his actions, other than prayer three times a day. The book does tell us that his new found faith caused a rift in his friendship with one Joel Barlow, an old crony who was also an atheist and a poet. Webster reneged on his promise to review Mr. Barlow’s latest poem because the poem was not in keeping with Noah Webster’s newfound Christian convictions. And late in his life, Noah Webster attempted a revision of the King James Version of the Bible, but the Webster version was not a commercial success. That’s about all we learn from this biography about Mr. Webster’s faith and his practice of that faith. Maybe that’s all there is to know.

At any rate, I find that juvenile biographies are a wonderful introduction to people and events of the past. I am inspired to read more about Noah Webster and perhaps get answers to the questions I have left after reading this biography. Ms. Reef’s bibliography lists other biographies of Mr. Webster:

The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and Creation of an American Culture by Joshua Kendall.
Noah Webster and the American Dictionary by David Micklethwait.
Noah Webster by John S. Morgan.
The Life and Times of Noah Webster, an American Patriot byy Harlow Giles Unger.
Noah Webster, Schoolmaster in America by Harry R. Warfel.

I am intrigued enough that I might want to try one of these five biographies. Any suggestions as to which one?

Called for Life by Kent and Amber Brantly

Called for Life: How Loving Our Neighbor Led Us into the Heart of the Ebola Epidemic by Kent and Amber Brantly, with David Thomas.

I’ll start out by telling what I missed in this story by Ebola survivor Kent Brantly and his wife, Amber. There’s nothing in the book about how Mr. and Mrs. Brantly came to know the Lord, nothing about their childhood, or their growth as Christ-followers, except in relation to their missionary commitment. I would have liked to have read more about each one of the couple’s initial salvation experience as a sort of a background to their experiences in Liberia. However, this book is not the book for that.

What this book does do well is tell the story of how Kent and Amber Brantly ended up in Liberia on the frontline of the fight against the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. And it tells in detail how Kent Brantly contracted Ebola himself and how he survived the virus that killed so many people in Liberia and in other West African countries. In the book, Brantly also gives God the credit for saving his life, while acknowledging that many people and circumstances came together to make it possible for him to receive expert medical care and treatment.

I was intrigued learn of the many factors that converged to make Mr. Brantley’s survival and healing possible and of the heroic actions of many missionary doctors and nurses and Liberian national doctors and healthcare workers in their team effort to combat the Ebola outbreak. It’s a good, inspiring story, and it made a good antidote to the darkness of the news story of death and destruction in Paris that dominated this past weekend’s newsfeed. I admire Kent Brantly and his fellow Ebola survivor, Nancy Writebol, even more than I did before reading this account of their faith in God and their tenacious fight against Ebola.

I recommend Called for Life. I needed some contemporary heroes to restore my hope, and I imagine you do, too.

Three More Words by Ashley Rhodes Courter

The sequel to the inspiring memoir, Three Little Words.

I think I would have enjoyed this memoir more if had read Ms. Rhodes-Courter’s first book, about her life as an abused foster child and then as an adopted child in a loving family. I found out what her “three little words” were: “I guess so”, spoken in response to the judge’s question at her adoption hearing about whether or not Ashley wanted to be adopted by her prospective parents. I never did figure out what the “three more words” were. I love you? I forgive you? I’m all grown?

Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention. While the stories in the book about Ms. Rhodes-Courter and her husband, Erick, and their adventures as foster parents were interesting, the rest of the book, about the ongoing drama with Ashley and her birth family felt a little self-indulgent, as if the author were trying to work out her psychological baggage by spilling it all in a book. Heaven knows, as a blogger, I’m not one to begrudge anyone the space and the words to write out their angst and issues, but I did feel by the end of the book as if I knew kind of more than I needed or wanted to know about Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s dysfunctional birth family.

However, the parts about the foster care system and the foster children that Ashley and her family were able to care for (and sometimes return to their own dysfunctional or abusive families) were both fascinating and heart-rending. It seems to me that no matter how many new, well-intentioned laws and rules and regulations we put into place to try to protect children and place them in safe and loving homes, it’s very difficult for bureaucrats to take care of children. Either there are too many fingers in the pie or not enough. And every one is protecting his or her own turf, has his or her own interests and opinions, wants what’s best for the child, yes, if it follows the rules and makes me look or feel good. I don’t have the answers, but I do see the problems.

And a BIG elephantine part of the “problem” involves drugs and alcohol. I don’t drink alcohol or take any drugs, and although I don’t think you’re a bad person if you have a drink once or twice a week, I do fail to see the attraction. Why wouldn’t our entire society be better off if God had never given us the “gift of wine, to make the heart merry.” (He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate– bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens human hearts, oil to make their faces shine, and bread that sustains their hearts. Psalm 104:14-15) I just don’t think I’ve missed much in not drinking alcohol, and I really think that a lot of the child neglect and abuse would be non-existent if there were no such things as intoxicating and mind-altering substances.

It’s one of those questions I’m going to ask the Lord someday in heaven. Like, why did He create cockroaches?

Anyway, good memoir, if you like that sort of book, but you’ll probably wan to read Three Little Words first.

The Flight and Adventures of Charles II by Charles Norman

This Landmark history book is not the best example of the series, nor is it bad. The narrative could have afforded to be a little more narrative, if you know what I mean. More story, fewer travelogue facts about where Charles ran to next. But it’s still a great improvement on the history books from nowadays with little boxes of facts all over the pages and no story at all. And although I searched at Amazon, I couldn’t find any books for children that told this story about Charles II and the English civil war and restoration at all.

The illustrations are delightful. The illustrator, C. Walter Hodges, won the annual Greenaway Medal for British children’s book illustration in 1964. He illustrated many, many children’s books in the mid twentieth century, including Ian Serraillier, Rosemary Sutcliff (The Eagle of the Ninth), Rhoda Power (Redcap Runs Away), and Elizabeth Goudge (The Little White Horse). Mr. Hodges also wrote books of his own and was an expert on Shakespeare, particularly Shakespeare’s theater. The book he won the Greenaway Medal for was called Shakespeare’s Theater. It’s a really lovely book, and I’m pleased to be able to say that I have a copy in my library.

To get back to Charles II, the Earl of Rochester is said to have composed an epigram about the rather frivolous king:

Here lies our sovereign lord, the King,
Whose word no man relies on;
Who never said foolish thing,
And never did a wise one.

Charles’ response: “Od’s fish! That is easily accounted for–my words are my own, my actions those of my ministers.”

He sounds just like some current day politicians I’ve heard–disclaim responsibility, and blame everything on the minor bureaucrats.

This Strange Wilderness by Nancy Plain

This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon by Nancy Plain.

I wanted to compare this biography to a few others that I would like to have in my library, but the truth is that I don’t have them. And my public library doesn’t have the following biographies of artist and ornithologist John James Audubon for children/young adults either:

Audubon by Constance Rourke. Harcourt, 1936. This book won a Newbery honor in 1937, the same year that Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer won the Newbery Award. Ms. Rourke wrote another biography, Davy Crockett, that won a Newbery Honor in 1935. I do have the latter book in my library, and it is quite engaging and readable.

John James Audubon by Margaret and John Kieran. This biography is No. 48 in the Landmark series of history books, and I would very much like to have a copy of it. John Kieran was a sportswriter, radio personality, and an avid bird watcher. He wrote this biography of Audubon with his wife, Margaret, also a journalist and an editor for the Boston Globe newspaper.

My public library does have the following books about Audubon for children:

The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon (Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12) by Jacqueline Davies and Melissa Sweet. HMH, 2004. I like Melissa Sweet, but I haven’t seen this particular book.

Audubon: Painter of Birds in the Wild Frontier by Jennifer Armstrong and Jos. A. Smith. Abrams, 2003. A picture book biography. It looks very nice with full color illustrations, some of them copied from Audubon’s paintings.

Into the Woods: John James Audubon Lives His Dream by Robert Burleigh. Another picture book that focuses on Audubon’s failure as a shop-keeper and his decision to become an artist and wilderness explorer.

So, with all those options, why do we need another biography of john James Audubon for children or young adults?

Well, the first two titles are great and most likely well-written, but they were published quite a few years back, and they probably don’t have many examples of the art for which Mr. Audubon was most famous. This Strange Wilderness has many, many full color images of Audubon’s birds and other paintings, along with text that illuminates the man and his work.

On the other hand, the three picture books that are readily available are just that, picture books, not really adequate for older readers in middle school and high school who want to find out more about John James Audubon and his legacy. At 90 pages with lots of full page and half page illustrations, this bio is anything but exhaustive; however, it’s much more informative than the picture books referenced above. Any budding ornithologist would enjoy This Strange Wilderness along with Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now, a fiction title in which Audubon’s masterpiece, The Birds of America, plays a large role. Then, of course, a real bird-lover would need his or her very own copy of The Birds of America, available from Amazon in small (about $10.00), medium (about $30.00) and large sizes (over $100.00). Or the most famous of the paintings are reproduced in Ms. Plain’s book, so most readers might be content with it.

This Strange Wilderness is only available as a paperback or an ebook, but the paperback is a quality book, with a heavy cover and bound in signatures so that the pages fold back easily to allow one to see the full reproductions of the paintings.

William Penn, Quaker Hero by Hildegarde Dolson

One of the Landmark series of non-fiction histories and biographies, William Penn, Quaker Hero is a very readable biography of a perseverant and courageous man. There’s not much in the book about what the Quakers (Society of Friends) actually believed, nor does the book really explain why they were so hated and persecuted. But it does show a man who came to his beliefs with much investigation and forethought and who clung to those beliefs with a strength and tenacity that would put most Christians in the United States during the twenty-first century to shame.

I posted this famous quotation from William Penn on my Facebook the other day when I read it in the book:

“My prison shall be my grave before I will budge a jot; for I owe my conscience to no mortal man.” William Penn, 1668

Any guesses as to what contemporary news story this declaration reminded me of?

I would probably not agree completely with Mr. Penn as to theology or ecclesiology, just as I don’t agree with Mrs. Davis and her theology or the details of her conduct in regard to issuing marriage licenses. However, I do admire them both for their courage and trust in the Lord to sustain them in following their conscience rather than the orders of an unjust government.

Getting back to Penn, he was a quite admirable man, a bit lax and inattentive about money matters, but absolutely a good and faithful husband, a conscientious governor, and a brave dissenter who rescued other Quakers from imprisonment and endured prison himself to stand for the principles of democracy, religious freedom, and trial by jury. I would be proud to have my children read about his life and come to admire him.

Ms. Dolson’s writing is complemented by the illustrations of Leonard Everett Fisher. I love Fisher’s woodcut silhouette illustrations. Such a talented artist. Whoa, I looked, and Mr. Fisher is still living (b.1924). He’s illustrated more than 250 books. “Fisher has also designed 10 United States postage stamps including 8 Bicentennial issues, 1975 Stamped Envelope Liberty Tree and the 1978 commemorative ‘Legend of Sleepy Hollow.'” (Wikipedia)