A President’s Day Reading Special (No Trump in Sight)

Today is President’s Day in the States, which was instituted to jointly celebrate the February birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and is more about feting historical presidents than the current one (thank goodness). I’ve recently read four books that shed light on some American presidents: a brand-new novel, two memoirs, and a zany travel book.

 

White Houses by Amy Bloom (2018)

April 1945: Franklin D. Roosevelt is dead. His widow Eleanor goes to New York City to spend a long weekend with her lover, former White House reporter Lorena Hickok. Lorena, our feisty narrator, recalls her abusive upbringing in South Dakota, her early days as a reporter, and the flirtation that arose when she interviewed Eleanor about her governor husband’s presidential campaign. The open secret of FDR’s affair with his secretary, Missy LeHand, is contrasted with Eleanor and Lorena’s relationship – and with the situation of Eleanor’s cousin Parker Fiske, a closeted homosexual. Lorena’s voice is enjoyable, but I felt I gained no particular insight into Eleanor or Franklin Roosevelt. Bloom aims to reconcile Eleanor’s frumpy image with her passionate secret self, but for me that never fully happened. The most interesting scenes are from Lorena’s time working for a circus freak show on her way to Chicago (presumably completely made up). While Bloom had access to letters that passed between Lorena and Eleanor, she emphasizes that this is a work of fiction.

My rating:

 

[Neat little connection: As First Lady, Hillary Clinton felt a kinship with Eleanor Roosevelt, and visited her portrait in the Oval Office to have imaginary chats and buck up her courage. These are described in a chapter of Living History entitled “Conversations with Eleanor.”]

 

Living History: Memoirs by Hillary Rodham Clinton (2003)

I may be showing my political colors with this choice. However, in my defense, I have also read memoirs by Laura Bush and Sarah Palin, both of which, like this, are rumored to have been ghostwritten. (In her acknowledgments Clinton mentions Lissa Muscatine as “Responsible for many of the words in my speeches as First Lady and in this book”.) The first few chapters, about Clinton’s early years and college days, are rather plodding, but once she meets Bill at Yale Law School in 1971 things pick up, and I found the whole informative and diverting. I hadn’t realized that Clinton was an accomplished lawyer in her own right, focusing on women’s and children’s rights and family law. She was also a researcher on the Nixon impeachment case – an experience that, ironically, came in handy three decades later.

Clinton is honest and self-deprecating about her image issues. She was a whole new breed of First Lady, chairing the committee for Bill’s health care bill and making state visits. Her Beijing speech is still a touchstone for international feminism. Inevitably, a good chunk of the book is devoted to the investigations that plagued the Clinton administration. The eight years of Bill’s presidency are very much the focus; the book ends with them saying a final farewell to the White House. By this point, though, Clinton had been elected a New York senator, so she left for a new mission. I picked up a secondhand copy of Hard Choices the other week and look forward to learning more about her time as a senator and then Secretary of State.

My rating:

 

[Neat little connection: Roland Mesnier and his sweet creations get two mentions in Living History: the giant carrot cake he made for Chelsea’s sixteenth birthday; and the book-shaped cake for her graduation.]

 

All the Presidents’ Pastries: Twenty-Five Years in the White House, A Memoir by Roland Mesnier with Christian Malard [trans. from French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie] (2007)

Roland Mesnier was the White House pastry chef for 25 years. After training in France and Germany, he worked at the Savoy in London and then as head pastry chef at the Princess Hotel, Bermuda – all by age 20. His specialty was intricate sugar sculptures, for which he won international competitions. He also worked in Paris and Virginia before hearing that Rosalynn Carter was looking for a White House pastry chef. Fast-tracked to U.S. citizenship, he made elaborate desserts for presidential family occasions and state dinners. The latter were always based on research into a particular country’s culture, products, taste and traditions. These impressive constructions included molded sorbets, petits fours and marzipan figures, and were often feats of logistics and timing. The memoir is undoubtedly more interesting for what it tells about the First Families (Nancy Reagan was a hard taskmistress; Barbara Bush was his personal #1) than for its author’s life. An appendix includes 15 fairly simple (i.e., replicable at home!) recipes from his 2004 cookbook Dessert University, such as pecan bourbon pie and baked apple soufflé.

(I must also marvel at the journey that this particular book has been on. It is signed by the English translator and inscribed to her mother: “Mum, with all love, Louise – 8 May 2007”. This hardback copy somehow made it all the way to the £1 bargain shelves outside the upper level of the castle in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, where my husband snatched it up last spring.)

My rating:

 

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell (2005)

U.S. history has never been so much fun! There’s nothing Sarah Vowell loves more than a presidential plaque, monument, home or grave, and her enthusiasm is infectious. Over half of this book is about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination; the rest goes to those of James Garfield and William McKinley (attempts on T. Roosevelt and Reagan get a brief mention, but she pretty much avoids JFK – presumably because that would fill a book of its own). If all you remember about these last two assassins is that one was a disgruntled civil servant and the other was an anarchist with a funny name, let Vowell enlighten you with her mixture of travel and trivia. She follows John Wilkes Booth’s escape route from the nation’s capital, traces Charles Guiteau back to upstate New York’s Oneida community, and sympathizes with Leon Czolgosz’s hard early life. The book came out in 2005, and what with Vowell’s outrage over the Dubya administration, it does feel a little dated. But if the rest of her books are this nerdy-cool, I’ll be reading them all.

My rating:

 

What’s on your presidential reading list?

15 thoughts on “A President’s Day Reading Special (No Trump in Sight)

    1. The Vowell is such fun! A really easy and enjoyable read. I happened to find it in a charity shop over here, but I don’t think her work is really known in the UK. I’ll be on the lookout for her other books secondhand on my next trip to America.

      Yes, I’d heard about that story! I’m looking forward to the new Sittenfeld as well. (I share her fascination with Laura Bush, and American Wife is one of my all-time favourites.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Vowell appeals to me, but I’ve not gotten to one of her books yet.
        Also, I love American Wife too. And, well, all of her books, each in its own way.
        I don’t have any presidential reading in mind, and I suppose the most recent book I’ve read, which would fit, is George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo…

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Oh no – I have White Houses on hold at the library – sorry to hear it was just so-so! I’ll temper my expectations…

    And the Sarah Vowell does sound fun.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, there are also some very enthusiastic 5-star reviews for White Houses on Goodreads, so some readers clearly felt they did gain insight into E. Roosevelt and her relationships. I think I would have preferred a biography in this case. Maybe it also depends on whether you’ve read and liked Amy Bloom before? I hadn’t read any of her work before.

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    1. That’s fair enough. I’m not sure I’d ever pick up a biography of a Prime Minister…though maybe I should! It’s not quite the same, but one of my bibliotherapy prescriptions was for Maggie & Me by Damian Barr.

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  2. I’m currently ploughing through Ta-Nehisi Coates’ ‘We were eight years in power’ which brings together several articles he wrote over the years for The Atlantic that, ultimately (but only in the final few pages) attempt to comprehend how the fudge we’ve ended up with Trump in the White House. It’s a bit of a slog and slightly overwritten in parts (it just reminds me of university reading) but in MHO it is well worth a look if you haven’t read it already. Really, really fascinating. It focuses on several aspects of the African American experience, linking it back to slavery and forward to Obama…it’s really shocking stuff. Well worth a read if you can see past his incredibly (understandably) subjective points of view.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve been completely distracted by the fantasy of having my own pastry chef… Yes, I think that book would be my pick of the lot. I’ve heard good things about Vowell’s books, too. This post makes President’s Day seem fun. 🙂

    In Nova Scotia we have Heritage Day (Feb. 19), and I’ve been doing some reading about Mona Parsons, the woman chosen to be highlighted this year. So far, very good. I’ll be sure to write about it!

    Liked by 2 people

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