Category Archives: Reading

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: 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: Ink and Bone

Ink and Bone (The Great Library, #1)Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is shocking that an author has not previously written about the critical importance and value of books and libraries and made it the turning point of a novel. Thank goodness Rachel Caine did–this book is a joy!
It occupies an alternate history where the Library of Alexandria never burned but instead became the most powerful organization in the world, a storehouse of all knowledge. Even the printing press is not invented, replaced instead by the steampunkish magic of the Oculists, which allows the library total control of ALL reading material. Knowledge is power, literally, and those who hold the power of the library will go to great lengths to keep it.
I literally couldn’t put this book down. It reminds me, for a bit, of the spellbinding adrenaline I got from the Harry Potter series. But it’s also a completely different book, more brutal with readers’ feelings from the get-go. There are so many twists here and you’ll never see them coming.
Caine should be particularly proud of herself for writing a fiction novel that embraces diversity. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Muslim character in a novel before; it was refreshing and interesting. Because of the conceit that the Library is everywhere, the characters could also be from everywhere, and Caine gave them a richness comparable to attending a world market.
This book was so much fun that I’m sad I’m done with it. I put off this review because I wanted to stay in that world longer, even just in my head! But now it’s time to buy the sequel…

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Review: Nemesis Games

Nemesis Games (Expanse, #5)Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I need you to read this book, because I need more people to talk to about this book.
While the last one in The Expanse series, Cibola Burn, just didn’t quite work for me, I’m 100% on board with Nemesis Games, because hot damn.
It’s a book that wouldn’t have worked early in the series, because it’s largely about adopted family and what it’s like when they’re separated, how the relationship between people who are bonded brothers (crew of a ship) affect each other, think of each other, and change, both with and without their crewmates. So it’s a book that had to come after the reader was already deeply familiar with the characters, their relationships, and what makes them tick.
Oh, and it’s also about an intra-galactic war. And terrorism. And mysteries.
Once again, the duo making up James S.A. Corey did a masterful job weaving disparate stories together to create one beautiful, incredible, unpredictable story arc. This book had me staying up late (thank goodness for holidays!) to read just one more chapter, which became just four more chapters. I kept needing to find out what happened, only to find out maybe they made it out of that scrape but holy hell have things gotten worse!
I also really loved the way this book reveals the backstories of each character without more than a smattering of flashbacks. It’s them, dealing with the present created by their pasts. Plus it is just loaded with such on-point and hilarious one-liners from just about everyone on the crew.
I can’t say enough nice things about this book. Please read it so I can talk about it without spoiling it for you too much!

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Support Kickass Rachel Caine’s Kickstarter!

  I’m so late to the game that I nearly missed it, but one of my very favorite authors, Rachel Caine, has a Kickstarter active now for a new book in her fascinating, wonderful, brilliantly creative Weather Wardens series.

Go back it now (only one day left!!!) and then come back here to read more about why this is amazing. I’ll wait…

This Kickstarter amazes me, not only because backing it means I’ll have more personal(ish) contact with one of my writing idols, but that it exists at all.

She says in her video that publishers have told her that the Weather Warden genre, urban fantasy, won’t sell right now, and that’s at least part of why she has decided to self-publish this book. But that amazes me–mostly for sad reasons. Ms. Caine is an established, highly respected author who has written at least three immensely popular series. She’s a known brand. And the story she wants to write is part of an existing universe that has already spawned a fun three-book mini-series. And yet…a publisher wouldn’t back her?

It’s hard to know if there may be more to the story, but I fear there isn’t. Perhaps Caine just leapt at the opportunity to self-publish and thought this would be a good way to try–and considering her Kickstarter has already far exceeded its goal, it’s a worthy cause.

But it does worry me about the industry as a whole. Has there ever been any inherent stability, or is it all an illusion?

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Review: Cibola Burn

Cibola Burn (Expanse, #4)Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This fourth book is different from the rest. Then again, that has been true of all the books in this series so far, but this one might be a little more distinctive. The first, Leviathan Wakes is a murder mystery on a grand scale; Caliban’s War is about grappling with an unknowable alien enemy; Abaddon’s Gate is largely a political intrigue; and then there’s Cibola Burn…which is alternatively a man vs. man and a man vs. nature story. So it’s a little bit different.
Yet again we’re brought along with Captain Holden and his crew as he tries to not screw things up, and we’re again introduced to a new cast of characters to guide us: the well-intentioned but misguided colonist Basia; the clinical and laser-focused scientist Elvi; and the security chief, Havelock, who is most definitely a reflection of our pal Miller from book one.
The writing duo that make up Jame S.A. Corey remain outstanding, as this series knows how to ramp up the problem like none I’ve ever seen. Just when you think you’ve got one disaster big enough to ruin everything, they throw another bomb into the mix. It makes this a harrowing, exciting read, as you try to imagine how anyone could survive that.
My issue with this book is the antagonist. He’s just too mustache-twirling evil, and though he has motivations, I find it hard to believe that anyone would be so staunch in that kind of view. He ends up just being a bigger-than-realistic baddie who I hoped got put out of his misery early on–but of course, he didn’t, and I had to keep suffering through his appearances. Maybe I’m naive to think no one would be like that guy, but I really didn’t want to read about him all the time. I’m seriously disappointed he wasn’t killed by a death-slug (oh yeah, death-slugs are a thing).
The ending feels a little too pat, but then they fix that by adding a short coda from our political hero and war heroes from the prior books. Now we’re talking.
Then again, the character exposition I got for some of the crew of the Rocinante was so fabulous it might have made the whole book worthwhile…
Yet again, this book is a lot of fun and an incredible journey, even if this one wasn’t my favorite.

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Review: Pyramids

Pyramids (Discworld, #7)Pyramids by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In Djelibeybi, not much has changed…in thousands of years. But all it takes is one king with wild ideas about such nonsense as “indoor plumbing” and “mattresses”–and one seriously large pyramid–for the kingdom to get forced into the modern day.
This story jumps around a bit, but generally follows Teppic, the prince of Djelibeybi (which is totally-not-Egypt). What with the kingdom being rather in debt, someone has to earn a living, so he goes of to Ankh-Morpork to learn an honest living as an assassin. Meanwhile, his father has a bit of an existential crisis about being the god-king responsible for sunrises…without knowing how he does it every day. His realization that gravity does indeed apply to him sets Teppic on a path back home to discover his own godhood and to begin the wrestling of his country into time with the rest of the world. There is then a lot of quantum mechanics and fooling around with far-too-large pyramidal magics, and then there’s a mess that not even Dios, high priest for as long as anyone can remember, knows how to handle.
This story was a lot of fun, as all Pratchett books are, but it didn’t quite captivate me as some of his others. It was a good time filler but nothing exemplary. It jumped between main characters more often, or rather, seemed to, and so it was a little hard to follow at first. Of course, everything came together and made perfect sense in the end, right down to the silly naming of the two royal embalmers. Pratchett, as always, had a plan.

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Review: Eric

Eric (Discworld, #9)Eric by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Goodreads doesn’t aptly display the cover of this book, so let me describe it. It has “Faust” written in normal typography, crossed out with fat red marker and “Eric” written in its place. And that perfectly well sets you up for this misguided teenager’s wish-fulfillment disaster.
As always, Pratchett is insightful and hilarious. This time he takes on Homer, which not enough authors are brave enough to do. This is the line that made me love the book: “He tried to remember what little he knew of classical history, but it was just a confusion of battles, one-eyed giants and women launching thousands of ships with their faces.”
Glorious!
Anyway, this short little jaunt is about a jerky prepubescent teenager, Eric, who manages to call up the hapless/cowardly/useless wizard Rincewind, convinced Rincewind is a demon who can grant wishes. Eric makes wishes–bad ones, of course, or rather traditional ones that come to bad ends–and much to his surprise, Rincewind hurtles him toward it. Or at least, seems to.
Goethe, Homer, and Dante all get a thorough Pratchett treatment, and it’s a delight. Plus it’s only about 200 pages, so it’s a quick read. You’ll be giggling right through bedtime.
That old blind classical guy doesn’t get teased enough, I say. Pratchett to the rescue!

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Review: Neuromancer

 Neuromancer is undoubtedly an original, at what was once the cutting edge of science fiction, breeding a whole new genre known as cyberpunk, from which much of what we now take for granted was invented. I can see why it’s on many “must-read” sci-fi lists.

But I don’t much care for it.

Despite the reviews saying it’s about a hacker and a big conceptual challenge, the challenge I faced for the full first third of the book was just figuring out what the heck was going on. The main character, Case, is a washed-up drug addict and former “cowboy.” Apparently “cowboy” means “hacker,” but it took a lot of reading to really grok that. Case is pulled into a weird “team” of characters to kill an AI, which supposedly can’t be done, for reasons. I never really did figure out what motivated most of the characters to be willingly on this quest or interact with each other. A lot of imagined jargon is thrown at you from the outset, and I found it so foreign I had no context to help. And because Case is so drug-addled–particularly at the beginning–it’s immensely hard to figure out what is even real.

I really was confused when a brand-new character, a “razor girl”–woman with retractable razor blade claws–meets Case and then a scene later has sex with him. I’m all for characters being bonded and all, but they just met! And she tried to kill him! How is that attraction or flirtation? I almost gave up on the book then, but it’s a classic, so I persevered.

I got it, eventually, fell into the flow of the language and found the story, but I had already lost some of the mystique the book had held from being a first. I just didn’t love it.

However, I can absolutely see its value as literature. It is a definite pioneer of the new, of the future of technology. It tries to comprehend what eventually became the Web, and even though it is conceptually very different from today’s user experience, you can trace the gene pool.

The “matrix” looks an awful lot like Tron or Reboot and it’s an immersive alternate reality, perhaps like some movie in 1999 called, oh, I dunno, The Matrix. Dub step music almost certainly hardens at least partially to this book, as does almost any movie where a guy behind a screen can be a hero.

Neuromancer is an important book…but probably not one I’d read again.

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