Dead President Fact Sheet

After reading the excellent “Dead Presidents,” I realized, because it was written thematically rather than sequentially, that I was a bit muddled on my presidential trivia facts. So I went back through the book, like a crazy person, gave myself homework, and made a list.

Here’s a bunch of trivia about the presidents you probably didn’t know. You’re welcome.

  • George Washington- a tomb was built for him in the Capitol rotunda, but he isn’t buried in it
  • John Adams- died on July 4 and was kinda terrible father
  • Thomas Jefferson- “the Sage of Monticello”; didn’t include his presidency on his obelisk’s list of personal achievements
  • James Madison- his grave went unmarked for two decades after he had to sell his land to pay off his stepson’s gambling debt
  • James Monroe- ran unopposed for reelection, the only president (besides Washington) to do so
  • John Quincy Adams- died in the House of Representatives of a heart attack/very vocal “NO” vote
  • Andrew Jackson- “Old Hickory”; his pet parrot cursed loud and long at his funeral and had to be removed
  • Martin Van Buren- known as “The Little Magician”
  • William Henry Harrison- died after 1 month in office, so soon his family hadn’t even made it up to Washington yet
  • John Tyler- known as “His Accidency.” He had to hire the first presidential bodyguards.
  • James K. Polk- micromanaged his Cabinet and the whole presidency
  • Zachary Taylor- was thought to have been poisoned, was disinterred in the 1990s…nope, not poisoned.
  • Millard Fillmore- official White House biography calls him an “uninspiring man”
  • Franklin Pierce- Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote his campaign biography; his son died in the days before he took office, leading his wife to believe Franklin had somehow caused God’s wrath to be directed at them
  • James Buchanan- he adopted his niece, Harried Lane, after her parents died; as he was unmarried, she served as first lady
  • Abraham Lincoln- “the Great Emancipator”; was taken on the “Great American Death Tour” after he died; the impromptu stage built for his funeral has been used in every state funeral since
  • Andrew Johnson- first impeached president, but he wasn’t removed! He hired the first presidential doctor.
  • Ulysses S. Grant- Mark Twain bought the publishing rights to his memoir
  • Rutherford B. Hayes- “Rud”; created the first presidential center to protect/display his papers and artifacts; his election was known as the “ugliest, most contentious election ever”
  • James A. Garfield- killed by an assassin–with an assist from his terrible doctors
  • Chester Arthur-“Dude President”; first act as president was to cry in a bedroom
  • Grover Cleveland- big supporter of Hawaiian independence
  • Benjamin Harrison- grandson of William H. Harrison but didn’t like talking about it; gave us the tradition of the White House Christmas tree; also he married his niece, which is pretty icky
  • William McKinley- Mt. McKinley (in Alaska) was named after the president by an opportunistic prospector who was trying to lobby for the gold standard; the name was reverted to the original Diwali this year
  • Theodore Roosevelt- his daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth was considered one of America’s greatest political wits and she was a pretty rowdy teenager, too
  • William Howard Taft- that bathtub story? It’s not true! ….But he did stress-eat and develop sleep apnea while in the White House
  • Woodrow Wilson- buried at the Washington National Cathedral with Helen Keller and a few other notables
  • Warren G. Harding- had the first presidential celebrity pet, his dog “Laddie Boy”
  • Calvin Coolidge- “Silent Cal”; a fan of artisinal cheese; his dad swore him into office at 2 in the morning, upon which they went back to bed
  • Herbert Hoover- invented a sport called “Hoover-Ball”
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt- first to plan his presidential library while in office, including a paper mache sphinx head of himself (you’d have to read it, it’s too hard to explain)
  • Harry S Truman- gave personal tours of his presidential library
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower- “Ike”; a toymaker friend created a set of presidential toys/collectibles to celebrate Ike’s presidency
  • John F. Kennedy- his eternal flame was jerry-rigged together the day before; Jackie is personally responsible for the “Camelot” mythos
  • Lyndon B. Johnson- robot LBJ tells jokes in the presidential library, which was intentionally built as a “vigorous, male building”
  • Richard Nixon- titled his comeback plan post-Watergate “Wizard” and was eventually seen as an expert in foreign policy
  • Gerald Ford- said “I am a Ford, not a Lincoln”
  • Jimmy Carter- n/a
  • Ronald Reagan- “The Great Communicator”; shot by an assassin but lived because he had good doctors; the “Legacy Project” is a concerted effort to get something named after Reagan in every county of the U.S.
  • George H.W. Bush- n/a
  • Bill Clinton- still very much alive, but the book noted that his cat, Socks, has his ashes at Clinton’s library
  • George W. Bush – n/a
  • Barack Obama- n/a

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Review: Dead Presidents

Dead Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation's LeadersDead Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation’s Leaders by Brady Carlson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Maybe it’s just because I’ve been listening to the “Hamilton” soundtrack too much, or that this year’s election cycle has continuously been called “unprecedented,” but “Dead Presidents” seems like the perfect book for 2016.

It is:
– a historical view on how each of our presidents was memorialized after his death
– an excellent source of perspective on politics in general
– hilarious
– thoughtful introspection on what it means to be American
– essential to all trivia fiends (you’ll have so much weird presidential knowledge!)

Die-hard history buffs might be a little frustrated by the format–rather than following presidents sequentially, they are grouped by themes related to their deaths–and I admit I definitely lost track of who was who a few times, but there’s a ordered list at the front you can always refer back to if you’ve gotten Calvin Coolidge confused with The Great Communicator.

Carlson’s book has great heart, and it’s clear he is really enamored of the subject. He provides excellent historical commentary (did you know the bathtub story about Pres. Taft is probably pure fiction?!) but layers it well with side notes and a generous understanding that most people would never think to undertake such a quest as visiting the tomb of every president. He knows it’s a little crazy, and he’s just tickled that you were interested enough to read his book.

As a Dallas native, this book brings an extra perspective. The chapter on Kennedy’s death surprises you by mostly glossing over the “controversy” regarding the number of shooters, and generally assumes you’re sick of conspiracy theories. Instead it focuses largely on how the city of Dallas has reacted to the legacy of being the city that killed Kennedy. It’s really interesting to see an outsider’s perspective.

This book is fantastic. I’ve already recommended it to no less than four people, and I think you should give it a shot, too.

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Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It has been years since I have been so utterly challenged by a book. Junot Diaz breaks almost every conventional rule of literature—the story is nonlinear; characters are not major historical players despite being set in a historical moment of great change; mixes vulgarities with nerdy references in a way guaranteed to exclude most highbrow readers; jumps around in narration; makes frequent reference to a book most people probably hasn’t read, even if they should (In the Time of the Butterflies); avoids most dialogue punctuation—and yet transcends most books. Read this book to have your mind blown in the best possible way.

I had four years of Spanish in high school and it wasn’t enough, because they don’t teach words like “toto,” “puta,” and “culo” in high school (“pussy,” “whore,” and “ass.” You’ll need them in this book)—though Diaz presents a compelling reason to include them in the next lesson. I’ve never made such frequent use of Google translate as I did with this book, and many times there were words even there that couldn’t be looked up, that only brought up annotations for this very book.

But even if you don’t stop to look up all the words you don’t know, Diaz beautifully and elegantly communicates the feeling of being each character, of dealing with their struggles and their particular viewpoint. It’s rare that you can see inside a whole family in this way, each against each other and yet tied together as one unit, each struggling with their own challenges yet determined to be a united front against the world.

The title of this book and the blurb makes it seem like this is the story of one character—Oscar “Wao”—but that’s misleading. I’m not even sure, except for the end, that Oscar can be said to be the main character. No, this is a story about a family, individually and together, and about the legacy of immigration–both blessing and curse–that has impacted them all. It is a powerful and moving tale–even if it does stretch the limits of your translator.

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Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If Ready Player One were a lasagna, it would be a little bit of meat, a thin layer of noodles, and a lot of cheese. Of course, some people really like cheesy lasagna, and some people haven’t eaten lasagna in a really long time and don’t remember what it’s supposed to be like so they like the first one they try. And that’s okay.
But that doesn’t mean this sci-fi lasagna is “world’s best.”
Anyway, Ready Player One has a clever concept: people in a future in which all the world is enthralled by an immersive alternate reality experience are challenged to complete a virtual-reality 1980’s-themed quest to get a lot of money. One kid with not much going for him discovers the first major clue–and learns about friendship and the meaning of life while tackling the quest.
It sounds kinda like a Lifetime movie. And really, that’s not that far off. Ready Player One’s biggest problem is being in love with references, references to the 1980s (in the U.S.), pop culture, D&D, and most of all, video games. So many references that it sometimes seems like the plot has been redirected just to fit in one more. It’s kinda like that guy from the office who just can’t let the joke alone already–everyone just finds a reason to get lunch somewhere else when he’s around.
I was really excited about this book. It was a sci-fi dystopia! There were video games! It was a best seller! But it turns out it’s mostly a fan-fiction combo of Tron and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There are lots of good ideas, but they’re underdeveloped (in favor of more references–gag), and it seems like we spend most of our time in the virtual reality of Oasis not because that’s where the story leads us but because author Ernest Cline didn’t think through all of what his futuristic world looks like. It’s also frustrating that the audience is left out of solving most of the puzzles because of information that is just never revealed to the reader (I mean, how do we know that there is a museum on a planet called Archaid?) and yet the major plot points might as well be written in neon for how obvious they are and how much they telegraph. Especially frustrating is the quite literal deux ex machina just when the protagonist gets in a tight spot. I mean, come on.
As a fan of science fiction dystopias, I was also frustrated that Cline didn’t quite think through the ramifications of his future. I mean, seriously, when the whole world is spending most of their time, in some form or another, in a virtual reality, why on earth would a guy who does that very thing be derided as a basement-dweller who never left his mom’s house? (Answer: he wouldn’t! That’s projecting current stereotypes into an imaginary 50-years in the future. The culture would have changed!) And why would anything in a virtual reality require as de rigour real-time travel? Spawn points are already a thing in our video games. Ain’t got time for that!
If you know what you’re getting—a whole lot of clever/cutesy references to the 1980s wrapped in a light dusting of futurism—Ready Player One is a fun read. Just make sure you know what kind of cheese you like on your pasta.

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Review: The Two Towers

The Two Towers (The Lord of the Rings, #2)The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

J.R.R. Tolkien has a well-deserved place in lists of most beautiful prose, and Two Towers offers a strong recommendation on its own. It’s beautifully constructed (if a bit different from modern novel styles), and is enchanting. It has a way of sweeping the reader up and into a grandiose world of the mind—it’s really, really magical.

But it’s also slow in parts. All those lingering descriptions are great for a lazy afternoon but terrible if you’re waiting in line at the bank and just snatching a few sentences at a time. It’s mostly my fault it took me a month and a half to read, but the long, languishing paragraphs aren’t a lot of help in the speed department. So approach with time to linger.

This book is divided into two separate stories, and unlike the Peter Jackson movie, the stories are utterly separate, without switching back and forth. Though the Fellowship of the Ring ended with Frodo and Sam paddling off alone, you start out The Two Towers with the remainder of the fellowship, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. They’re off on a race to find the two kidnapped hobbits, Merry and Pippin, and it’s an exciting action-packed adventure.

But then that storyline resolves half of the way through the book, with the remainder dedicated to the dreary, exhausting toil of Sam and Frodo (and sometimes Smeagol). It’s really rough to get through those parts sometimes, honestly, because it’s just such a death march. A well-written, beautifully rendered death march, but exhausting to try to drag yourself through.

(BTW, Sam is definitely the most heroic and honorable character in this series. He does not get enough credit.)

The book is wonderful. I want to go back and pick out all my favorite lines and treasure them. But I’m also grateful that I’m done with the book for now, and ready to move on to other things. Read when you have time.

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Review: InterWorld

InterWorld (InterWorld, #1)InterWorld by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“What if Neil Gaiman wrote a sequel to A Wrinkle in Time—what would that look like?”

“InterWorld” is the answer. Well, kind of.

InterWorld seems like a modern spiritual cousin of “A Wrinkle in Time,” except it’s less tightly organized and more definitively a young adult book.

InterWorld follows a boy (Joey Harken) as he discovers he has a special power—he can walk between worlds, parallel worlds, that are similar but not exactly the same as the Earth he knows. And that there are people who want to kill him, and all those like him, for their own nefarious purposes. Joey stumbles into a camp full of all the alternates of himself—the people descended from birds, the robotically enhanced humanoids, the girl Joeys (*gasp*!)—and has to be trained to use his powers to fight back against those who would destroy everything.

But this is a half-Gaiman book, so it’s not light on the tragedy. It’s handled in a very appropriate way, but it could be jarring to those who expect a kids’ book to be nothing but happiness and sunshine.

The story is a little jumpy and it’s hard to get attached to any of the characters besides Joey, but InterWorld has a lot of charm. It would be great for an emerging nerd in middle school, someone who could potentially get more into sci-fi later but is still a developing reader. Someone who feels a little bit like a misfit.

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Review: The Fellowship of the Ring

The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings, #1)The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book a long, long while ago, and it was time to read it again. But this time, I’ve seen and loved the films, and that has undoubtedly affected my reading.

If anything, it enhanced it. I swear I could hear the theme music playing as I read, could hear that tremble in Gandalf’s voice when he talks about Moria. The movies aren’t an exact copy of the book, so both seem fresh, but the movie is so respectfully done that I found it enhanced my reading of the book.

And this book. This book. Wow. I found myself kind of indifferent to The Hobbit upon a reread, but this one is an international treasure for a reason. The descriptions are powerful and vivid, and I frequently felt I was on the journey with Frodo and the Fellowship as I stepped out each morning for a daily walk. Where The Hobbit fumbles a bit, The Fellowship of the Ring soars. It touches upon something truly magical and makes you want nothing more than to dive down further into it, to meet Tom Bombadil and Goldberry and Legolas and precious Samwise.

Few books can transport you like The Fellowship can. I’m grateful I found it just as enchanting on a reread as it has always been.

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