Grandma Gatewood – Ben Montgomery

Inspiring story of Emma Gatewood, the first woman to to hike the  entire Appalachian Trail. She did it for the first time at age 67.  She did it two more times (one of these was in sections).  She also hiked the Oregon Trail, and did many others. When asked why she did it, she said “Because I wanted to.”. Love that.




A Mighty Forest: A New History of the German People – Steven Ozment

Fairly short history of Germany.  Complicated story.


Warren G. Harding – John Dean

Yes, that John Dean, of Watergate fame.

Dean grew up in the same Ohio small town as Harding.

Harding was a very good student, could do well without a lot of effort.  Roommate in college said he would read his textbook through while facing the wall and when finished, would throw it against the wall and say “God darn, I got you!” Then ace the test.

The woman he eventually married had illegitimate child. She was a maverick.  Author suggests she had the relationship with her child’s ne’er- do-well father as a way of rebelling against her own father.

Her father was a very successful businessman in town. He was very active in his daughter’s life, but very controlling. He forced her out of the house after she became pregnant. She moved in with a friend’s family and taught piano lessons to survive.

He also did not like Harding. Tried to drive him away. Spread rumors that he was part black.

After college, Harding got a job with a newspaper, and eventually became the owner/editor of the hometown paper. He eventually became a state senator, then a federal senator. Republican.

Very much a “people person”.  Very well-liked in the Senate.

Elected president in 1920.  His wife was first first-lady to vote for husband. Won in landslide over Cox.

Had, at best, a mediocre administration. It seems most historians rate him very low, although Dean makes the case that he did reasonably well.  Dean says he had nothing to do with the scandals (Teapot Dome), nor did he father an illegitimate child as was alleged, or commit adultery while  he was married.

Among his achievements:

  • Some excellent cabinet appointees – Hughes at State and Hoover at Commerce (and some really bad ones –> teapot dome)
  • Vocal supporter of civil rights for blacks
  • Led successful conference to reduce arms race
  • Increased tariffs
  • Created the General Accounting office (GAO)
  • Supported various pro-business acts that arguable helped pull the economy out of crisis

A series of scandals that erupted after his death in office (heart attack) stained his administration. Teapot Dome was the biggest. He also backed immigration laws that discriminated against those that would likely vote for  democrats. Reduced taxes, but mostly on the wealthy.

A more negative take:


How to Live or A Life of Montaigne – Sarah Bakewell

Pretty interesting. Original idea to break the  philosopher’s work down into maxims on how to live a life.  I  felt it got bogged down a lot towards the end, then picked up again at the very end.


Wilson – A. Scott Berg

The 28th president of the United States. Born in Staunton, Virginia, but grow up mostly in Georgia and South Carolina. Father was a Presbyterian preacher. Ancestors were Scottish.



Biography of John Fremont, intrepid explorer of the Western territories. Led several expeditions, discovered and documented the features of many new areas. Over 200 places are named after him. Senator (very briefly), military commander, territorial governor, anti-slavery advocate, author, presidential candidate. Habitually broke, poor businessman, wildly impetuous, cavalier sense of ethics.




Grit – The Power of Passion and Perseverance – Angela Duckworth

The title says it all really. Basic argument is that perseverance (i.e.  “grit”) is  the most  important factor in “success”. I would debate that her measurement of  success is too conventional.  Based on my personal experience and child-raising experience, I think her idea is valid.

Duckworth is  a  social scientist. Her thoughts are backed-up to a degree by science.


The Presidency of William Taft – Paolo Coletta

William Taft was born in Cincinnati, to a upper-middle class family (his father was Attorney General under Ulysses Grant), attended Yale(finishing second in his class),  then the Cincinnati Law School.

He was appointed to the Superior Court of Cincinnati, and subsequently was reelected five times to that  position. Later appointed the US Solicitor General. Next became a federal judge.

He became the governor of the Philippines, then Secretary  of War under Roosevelt. In 1908 he was elected President, benefiting greatly from the endorsement of Roosevelt, whose progressive policies were popular with the public.

Taft’s presidency was a mixed-bag. On the one hand, he was a man a great integrity. He tried to do what was he believed was right, often in disregard of the political consequences. To a large degree, that was also his downfall.

Taft had some successes, among them the revision of tariffs, shoring up the legal status of Roosevelt’s conservation initiatives, new railroad regulations, postal banks, parcel posts, two new states, two new amendments, establishment of the  Department of  Labor, and six new Supreme Court justices who served well.

On the other hand, Taft was not politically adroit. He managed to antagonize both the  progressives and the conservatives at various times, and ended up losing the 1912 election by a very large margin.

Roosevelt also played a large role in his problems. First, Roosevelt helped  him get elected by vigorously claiming  that he would  champion Roosevelt’s progressive policies. However, deep-down Taft was a conservative. He simply did not always agree with Roosevelt, and as a man of integrity instead of expediency, he often took actions that infuriated the progressives. Roosevelt ended-up running against Taft in 1912 for the Republican nomination, and although he lost, he  managed to make the  general election for Taft nigh-on impossible.

Taft was appointed to the Supreme Court  later in life, the job he  always wanted.

I’m not a big fan of this book. It’s part of the Presidential Series, but unlike most of the others, is not written for a reader looking for just a  quick summary.  This book goes into much greater detail than I  was looking  for and contains little biographical information.

Fun facts… The  cherry trees on the Mall were planted during Taft’s time. Taft loved to play golf. Didn’t read. Liked to dance. Was very fat. Got stuck in the White  House bathtub.








Book of John

Same basic story, perhaps a  bit  more  readable than the  others.


How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie

While Dale Carnegie’s most famous and enduring book is How to Win Friends and Influence People ( check out this excellent summary) this somewhat overlooked gem is one of his most important works.

Life inevitably brings with it problems and stress. When this book was written,Carnegie’s generation had been through the Great Depression, World War II, and the post-war boom. Nowadays in these advanced times people still go through, much like before, times of business setbacks, illness, family troubles, and many other hardships.

This book’s ultimate message is that the worry and anxiety created by all of life’s challenges can be controlled. Not only that, worry is optional. If we wish to live with happiness, and peace of mind, we must first deal with worry before we tackle our problems.


John Burroughs: An American Naturalists – Edward J. Renehan, Jr.

Biography of John Burroughs. Few have heard of him now, but Burroughs was once very well-known. “For several decades he may have been the most popular writer of any kind in the country — when he and President Theodore Roosevelt traveled across the U.S. by train in 1903, observers said the writer often drew more admirers at their whistle stops than the politician, soon to be returned to the White House.”  His fame was deserved; his work is worth checking out.


Book of Luke

Basically the same stories as the other book. I would say this book was a bit more eloquent. A bit longer.


John James Audubon – John Burroughs

A short biography of John James Audubon by John Burroughs.  Written in 1902.  I didn’t know anything  about Audubon.  He was a naturalist.  After spending many years in various businesses, mostly failing, decided to follow his talent for drawing animals. Worked out well.


Notes on Whitman – As Poet and Person – John Burroughs

The book is divided into two parts. In the first part Burroughs defends Leaves of Grass against academic, conventional-minded critics that objected to Whitman’s very unconventional style and often highly sensual themes. He also commends Whitman as a true lover and interpreter of nature, Burroughs favorite theme. The second, more interesting to the average reader section is a short biography of Whitman. It describes his early childhood life, his  time working in D.C., (including his getting fired from the Treasury Department for the crime of being the  author of Leaves of Grass), and his experience volunteering as a nurse during the Civil War, including several remarkable letters written by Whitman about his experiences. Whitman himself lended a hand in the books writing.


John Burroughs – Boy and Man – Clara Barrus

Short biography of naturalist John Burroughs, by his close friend, Dr. Clara Barrus.

Burroughs was a well-known writer during his time. Subject matter similar to Thoreau.  Work  is very readable but not nearly on the same level as Thoreau, although that is really not a fair comparison for anybody.



Lion in the White House – Aida Donald

Born in 1858 in NYC. Very wealthy family. Father stressed education. Uncle Robert Barnwell Roosevelt interested in social reform and conservation.

Sickly as a child. Father encouraged him to build up his body, which he did. Became very interested in natural science. Studied insects intensely.

Went to Harvard. Very good student.

Tried law school. Didn’t like it. Dropped out.


William McKinley

by Kevin Phillips

Born in Ohio (like Grant, Garfield, Hayes, Benjamin Harrison,Taft, and Harding) 1843.

Iron was biggest manufacturing industry in Ohio in mid-19th century. McKinley’s father and grandfather  were iron makers.

Dropped out of Allegheny College due to depression. Recovered, but his father’s business failed.

Volunteered for Civil War. Served three years.


Grover Cleveland – Henry Graff

Born in 1837. Grew up in New York state. Father was a minister. Father’s death prevented his attending college. With helped of his well-off uncle, he joined a law firm in Buffalo, and eventually passed the bar.

Book of Mark


Chester Alan Arthur: The American Presidents Series

Born in Vermont. Raised in New York. Mediocre student. Strong antislavery beliefs. Became a lawyer. 
Very much a people person, which led to much of his success. Friend of Roscoe Conkling. Assigned Commissioner of ports in NY. Important position at the time. And very lucrative. 
Panic of 1873 lead to the end of moiety system. Hayes made civil service reform the leading cause of his presidency.  Hayes replaced Arthur as part of his reform campaign. 
Arthur picked as president primarily because of his likability and his alliance with Conkling and the Stalwarts. Arthur remains loyal to Conkling during Garfield’s/Blaine’s successful scheme to appoint non-Stalwarts to cabinet positions. Led to a break between Garfield and Arthur. 
Arthur was really into modernizing the White House. Liked fine clothes, carriages etc…  He was the Jackline Kennedy of his time. 
Vetoed the Anti-Chinese Immigration Bill. Signed the second one, knowing his veto would be overturned. 
Popular book at the time. Henry George’s Progress and Poverty. 
Republicans were crushed in the elections of 1882. During the duck session when they still had a majority, Arthur decided to push Pendleton’s civil service bill. Wanted to be seen as party of reform. Passed and Arthur signed. 
Died from problems related to Bell’s Palsey; kidney disease. Was a big eater/drinker,  which probably caused the  issues.  
Remember as an “ok” president – not terrible, certainly not  great. Did  better than expected considering. 

It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It – Robert Fulghum

I read his book All I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten a long time ago. I  remembered it as rather cornball, but I did remember it, which is something. I read something about this volume recently and decided to give it a try.

This one is pretty cornball as well, and formulaic, but I can’t say didn’t enjoy parts of it. The title come from a newspaper article, an interview with a guy, who when asked how his matteress got on fire, answers that it was already on fire when he lay down on it.

A couple stories stood out to me. The one about the driver instructor who was loved by his students because he just listened to them and  tried to get to know them.  Another good one was about his time at a Zen monastery.  The head of the place reads to him this:

There is really nothing you must be.

And  there is  nothing you must do.

There is really nothing you must have.

And  there is nothing  you  must know.

There is  really nothing you must become.

However. It  helps to understand that fire burns, and  when it rains , the earth gets wet. 


There was also the story about the Hunt Saboteur Association, whose purpose was to break up fox hunting events – often humorously – thereby saving foxes from death. The interesting point was that doing good can also be fun, it doesn’t have to be grim and hard work. 


James A. Garfield – Ira Rutkow

Last president born in log cabin. Born in the Western Reserve. Close to what is now Cleveland. Great student at Williams College. Good at debate. Considered one of the best-educated presidents.
Long-time congressman from Ohio. Was a radical Republican, voted for the impeachment of Johnson. Not a Lincoln fan, felt he wasn’t aggressive enough.
Elected to Senate. Backed Blaine for presidential nomination. Disputed convention, Blaine supporters eventually threw support to Garfield. Eventually he won out over Grant.
Made Blaine Sec. of State. He preceded to attempt to control Garfield. Assignment outraged Conkling, boss of NY politics. 
He and his vice-president did not like each other. Author was aligned with Conkling, a Stalwart. 
Garfield refinanced the national debt, reducing the interest debt by 40%. Was agressive in bring Hawaii under US influence.
The “Star Route” scandal involved post office officials pocketing funds from rural routes that generated additional money do to their rural nature (they  didn’t’ really deliver the mail, just kept the money). To his credit, Garfield did not attempt to shield his campaign  manager or primary fund-raiser when their involvement was discovered.
Charles Guiteau shot Garfield at the Baltimore and Washington train depot. Garfield was headed to New England for a two-week vacation with his wife (she was already in the North East, recovering from an illness). Guiteau was a nut-job who had been pestering the Garfield administration for a position. He claimed he acted to save the  republic from Garfield. 
The doctors gave him champagne to counter liver hemorrhage. oh boy. The doctor’s fought vigorously about Garfield’s care. Dr. Bliss won out, over the objection of several more qualified doctors. 
Book provided a lot of information on the history  of medicine (written by a doctor).  Basically, there were two schools of though: Allopaths, who believed in strong remedies to produce the opposite affect of a disease, and homopaths, who basically believed the opposite. Neither really led to particularly effective treatments. The Allopaths probably did more harm.
In the 1860’s doctor Joseph Lister made the connection between sterilization techniques and positive surgical outcomes. His thoughts were well-known by the time Garfield was shot, but not well-accepted by U.S. doctors, especially older ones, such as those that treated Garfield.
Author notes that Garfield’s wound was similar to Reagan’s. He would  have recovered quickly with modern medical treatment.  

The Made Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld – Tom Folsom

Biography about Joey Gallo, mobster from NYC. Subject of the Dylan/Levy song, “Joey”.  Levy actually new Gallo personally, back in the sixties when  “mobster chic” was popular among the rich white privileged types. Morons.

Didn’t like the book at all really. Written in a hipster beat kind of way, I found the style annoying, and at times it was hard to follow. 


The Book of Matthew


Rutherford Hayes: Presidential Series by Hans Trefousse

Father died before he was born. Raised in Delaware. His mother’s brother played a major role in his life.
Became lawyer. Went to Harvard. Served in military during civil war. Became a Congressman, then Governor of Ohio three times. Supported Grant administration. Lost race for Senate. Started free library in his town. 
Elected president in 1876. However, it was a disputed election, which weakened his presidency. He also had to deal with a Democratic Congress.
He worked to move the country back to a gold standard. He pursued civil service reform. In his third year he vetoed a slew of attempts by southern congress to make it difficult to enforce the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. Had various issues with Indians. 
Very pro education, even for blacks. Thought capitalism caused labor to not get fair share. Thought taxation too low for wealthy. “A government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.” 
One of the best educated presidents. 
Promised not to run for a second term, and declined to when pressed to by his party.
Interesting tidbits:  Somoa requested annexation during his administration. Part of Paraguay is named after Hayes. Author mentions that Hayes tried to bring the parties together after his disputed election, unlike Bush, who did the opposite.