Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Book Review: Dead Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation's Leaders by Brady Carlson

Several months ago, Kristen, AKA Booknaround, recommended this book to me and I was shocked I hadn't even heard of it. It's weird when a book is 100% in my wheelhouse and yet somehow flew under my radar, even though I consider myself pretty clued in to the book world. But a book about history trivia based around the deaths of all of the presidents? Yes, please!

If you love presidential or American trivia even half as much as I do, this book is for you. Not chronological, but more grouped according to themes (including one chapter on the boring presidents), he keeps the info and the stories moving along, not trying to wring fascinating that just isn't there out of boring stories for the sake of even-handedness, but also not dwelling too long on the more interesting ones. The sense of balance was dead on. I never felt any president got the short shrift, or was yammered on about too long. I did find it really interesting that William Henry Harrison, who famously died after giving a horrendously long inaugural speech in the cold without a coat, was doing that in order to prove people who'd accused him of being too old (he was the oldest person elected president at that time) or too dumb (his speech was mostly about ancient Greece and Rome and the foundations of democracy as a concept) to be president. It's nice to understand there was a reason behind that foolish decision, even if it did totally backfire by resulting in him only being president for one month and spending that entirely ill in bed.

Some of the memorials and tombstones also have cool stories, and don't always fit the stature of the president's term in office, or his reputation. History has been kinder to some presidents than others. And the realization that some presidents who were revered in their own century but are pretty well forgotten today, means that many of the presidents who are towering figures today will also fade with time, is sobering. Which presidents will be remembered as the great ones, and the awful ones, in another hundred years? Will anyone at that point understand why John Kennedy has a perpetual flame at his tomb (although really, it goes out all the time and has been outright replaced more than once)? Or will he turn out to be a Millard Fillmore or Martin Van Buren in the very long term?

While the book on the surface is a fun, light story of the author's travels to pay his respects to all the presidents, underneath there are thoughtful ruminations on the nature of the role of president, in his time and in history. But if you just want light trivia, you're by no means beaten about the head with the more philosophical ideas. It can be enjoyed on either level.

I checked this book out of the library.

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