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.
[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.
[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.)
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.
What’s on your presidential reading list?
For much much of the summer I was sunk deep into several very good but not particularly page-turning works of nonfiction from my shelves. I spent months reading some of them, which is very unusual for me and often a sign that I’m not enjoying something, but this time that wasn’t the case. One of these nonfiction reads – the Fermor – ended up being among my favorite books of the year so far. Below I give quick write-ups of what I’ve finished lately and recall how these books came to be in my collection.
Lincoln: A Foreigner’s Quest by Jan Morris: Like grape jelly, the obsession with Abraham Lincoln was something about American life that world traveler Jan Morris could never understand. Here she sets out to discover the melange of history and myth that composes the 16th president. She succeeds in giving not only the salient facts of Lincoln’s life but also a fair assessment of his character, in a lighthearted and accessible book that has neither the heft nor the heavygoing tone of a standard biography. Her discussion of his rhetorical style is especially good, and in a few passages she imagines the reader into scenes. Here’s one of the best pithy observations: “Academic historians cannot allow themselves such flip idiomatic judgments, but to an outsider like me that seems about the truth of it. He was a nice man. He could be scheming, irritable, disingenuous, but he was never pompous or overbearing.” [Remainder copy bought for $3.99 at Wonder Book and Video, Frederick, Maryland.]
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan: I made the mistake of reading this a decade after its publication, which means I already knew most of its facts about industrialized farming and the insidiousness of processed foods. I found Part I to be overly detailed and one-note, constantly harping on about corn. The book gets better as it goes on, though, with Pollan doing field research at Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia to compare large-scale organic agriculture with more sustainable grassroots operations. Pollan’s assessment of the ethics of eating meat is not quite as thorough as Jonathan Safran Foer’s (in Eating Animals), but he does a good job of showing all sides of the issue. This would make an excellent, comprehensive introduction to where food comes from for people who have never given it much thought. But then again, the people who need it most would never pick up a dense 400+-page book by a liberal journalist. [Bought in one of the Hay-on-Wye shops for £2.]
The Naming of the Shrew by John Wright: Wright is known in the UK as TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s go-to expert on foraging, especially fungi. His enthusiasm for the arcane details of Latin naming comes through clearly in this thorough history of taxonomy. At first I thought it would be a groaningly pun-filled book of arbitrarily arranged trivia, but by Chapter 2 Wright won me over. You’ll learn all about Carl Linnaeus and the taxonomists who preceded and followed him; rules for species naming and the meaning of common Latin prefixes and suffixes; the wildly divergent sources of names, from discoverers’ names to mythology; and the endless complications of a field where species are always being lumped, split, or re-evaluated. One of my favorite facts was that aloe vera and the boa constrictor are among the few species whose English names are the same as their Latin ones. [A birthday gift from my brother-in-law last year.]
A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor: A true masterwork of travel writing. Over the course of three years, starting when he was just 18, Fermor walked from Holland to Constantinople. I was particularly eager to read this because he passes through a lot of places I went on my travels this past summer, including Germany, Austria and Bratislava. This first of three volumes covers up until his entry into Hungary. His descriptions of the landscape and the people he interacted with are as fresh as if they happened yesterday, and yet he was reconstructing this journey nearly 40 years after the fact. Although he was basically traveling rough, he managed to wangle invitations into castles and aristocrats’ homes. This gives him a broad base of observation such that you feel you’re getting a complete picture of European life in the early 1930s. It’s a precious glimpse of pre-war history, but Fermor doesn’t use too heavy a hand when recalling signs of rising Nazism. Lastly, this is simply damn fine writing:
Beer, caraway seed, beeswax, coffee, pine-logs and melting snow combined with the smoke of thick, short cigars in a benign aroma across which every so often the ghost of sauerkraut would float.
The Romanesque nave was packed and an anthem of great choral splendour rose from the gothic choir stalls, while the cauliflowering incense followed the plainsong across the slopes of the sunbeams.
When no buildings were in sight, I was back in the Dark Ages. But the moment a farmhouse or a village impinged, I was in the world of Peter Brueghel.
[Bought for £1 from a secondhand bookstore in Henley-on-Thames.]
The House by the Sea by May Sarton: This is the sixth of Sarton’s journals I’ve read. It covers 1975–6, when she was 63–4 and in her second year in Maine. Her health is not yet a worry, at least as compared to later journals, but there is a faint sense of diminished abilities and an awareness of death’s approach. Poetry has run dry for her, but in the course of writing this journal she publishes a series of biographical reflections and prepares to begin a new novel. Tamas the dog and Bramble the cat are faithful companions. Her former lover, Judy, suffers from dementia and visits with her are mostly painful reminders of what has been lost. These journals are not the place to turn if you want momentous events. Rather, read them for deep insight into a writer’s psyche, meditations on the benefits of solitude, and affirmation of the quiet joys of gardening and an ocean view. [Bought from a library book sale in America for 50 cents.]