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A Country of Vast Designs: James Polk – by Robert Merry

A lot of shit happened during Polk’s four years in office.

A Democrat, Polk was a disciple of Andrew Jackson. He promised to serve only one-term in order to placate rivals that he knew coveted the presidency. Not a strong leader and lacking charisma, he nevertheless succeeded in bringing about all four of the main items on his agenda:

  • Lowering tariffs
  • stabling the currency 
  • acquiring the Oregon territory
  • expanding country to the Pacific

He may not have done it exactly to plan – instead starting a war with Mexico – but he did  it.

Poor guy died four months after leaving office.

 

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John Tyler, the Accidental President – by Edward Crapol

  More detail than I wanted.

Basic story – undone by slavery, of which he was a avid supporter. Achievements: Border with Maine/Canada, trade agreement with China, annexation of Texas, Tyler Doctrine in Pacific (which eventually lead to annexation of Hawaii).

Believed expanding the borders would keep nation together, and eventually would lead to the end of slavery (weird idea). First Vice President to become President, played a large role in setting precedence that VP would become Pres. for rest of term. Constitution was unclear on that point. 

He was a Whig, but big on “states rights”, like his idols Jefferson and Madison. Caused him to become very unpopular within his own party. Was not even nominated for a run at a second term.

 

 

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Scars of Sweet Paradise – The Life and Times of Janis Joplin by Alice Echols

Typical rock star on drugs story. I wish it had focused more on the music instead of her tragic life. Amazing the harm well-meaning parents can do do a child, especially if that child is susceptible to being affected by it.

 

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William Henry Harrison – by Gail Collins

The ninth president. Died after only one month in office. Ran as an Indian War hero, notably the battle of Tippecanoe. Actually did a poor job at that battle, but did better in subsequent ones. Ran as a man of the people, but actually grew up relatively rich (sound familiar?). First candidate to openly campaign for the office.

 

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Martin Van Buren – Ted Widmer

Excellent. 

Van Buren – first president for whom English was second language. poor man, yet lost re-election to a rich man who  campaigned as the  poor man (sounds familiar).  Founder of the Democratic party. Had misfortune of having a economic depression at the beginning of his  administration. Fair to say he was rather unprincipled in regard to slavery.  

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Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times by H.W. Brands

jackson_book

Loved it. I guess it helped the author to have a subject that led such an eventful, action-packed  life. The author kept a nice balance  between too much and not  enough detail.  

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John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life – by Paul C. Nagel

 

johnquincyadams

Quincy was a man conflicted between the desire for a contemplative intellectual life and the rough-and-tumble world of politics. He never reconciled the two,  and a result was often unhappy.

This book was a bit of a snooze. As a man of words not action, his life just wasn’t that interesting.

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Reading Classics for Pleasure – Michael Dirda

classicsAs every schoolboy knows, reading classic works of literature is often a bore. Dirda suggests a large selections of works know as classics that are actually fun to read. I plan to a few, see how it goes. I tried “True History” by Lucian. Although it was interesting to find that a writer from the 2nd century had much the same sensibilities as a modern writer – sarcasm, wit, blasphemy, sex – I didn’t find it especially fun to read. I’ll keep trying.

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Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit by Mary Poppendieck and Tom Poppendieck

Lean Software DevelopmentWhen Toyota was a small company, its goal was to sell inexpensive cars in Japan. Because it was small, it couldn’t use economies of scale to compete. Instead, they develop a series of techniques to eliminate waste and speed-up development time. These techniques eventually were called “Lean”, and later where incorporated in the Agile software development methodology.

The thing that really struck me about this book is it’s economy and logical style. Little fluff, very clear, well thought-out.

 

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The Google Story by David Vise

google
Interesting story of Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s invention of Google, now one of the worlds most unusual and successful companies.

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Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson

franklinFinished this excellent biography of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin is a fascinating figure in American history. His rags-to-riches story is what I found most interesting about  Franklin.  Whereas the other founding fathers had at least some advantages from birth, Franklin did not. From nothing he became a prominent author, businessman, government official, diplomat, and scientist. Not to mention being essential  to the forming of the Constitution.

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SteamPunk Anthology

steampunkBook caught my eye at the library. Thought it would be cool to learn about Steampunk. I was wrong.

 

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Sarah Vowell – Unfamilar Fishes

unfamilar_fishesLoved her book of essays, Partly Cloudy Patriot, but not so crazy about this one.

Unfamiliar Fishes is a short book about the history of Hawaii. One sentence summary: Ruled by a monarchy for many years, visited by many foreigner sailors, and then by Christian missionaries, whose ancestors gradually took over the government, which lead eventually to it being annexed by the United States. Like most history, a very sordid story.

In my opinion Vowell get’s a bit carried away with mundane details that most people, including me, won’t find all that interesting. On the other hand, it’s an unfamiliar story, I learned a lot.

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The Partly Cloudy Patriot – by Susan Vowell

partlycloudypatriotSometimes you read a book by an author and you make a real connection with his work. For example, I pretty much love everything Hunter Thompson wrote. I have nothing in common with him on a personal level. Love books but I don’t think I’d like to have spent time with  him.

Other times, you read a book and you really make a connection with the author. I felt that  way with this book. The contents – a series of short essays mostly on historical topics – is interesting, but from the stories I got the sense she’s a lot like me – a fellow weirdo.

 

 

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Alexander Hamilton: American – by Richard Brookhiser

alexander_hamilton_bioAlexander Hamilton in a few words: Amazing rags-to-riches story, from West Indies born orphan boy, to  aide George Washington, a lawyer, and perhaps the greatest Federalist of all. Weird ideas about the Constitution, a generally negative opinion of the abilities of the common man, but undoubtedly correct about the need for a strong federal government, banking system, standing army.

Like many great men, Hamilton also had great weaknesses. A crazy affair with a married  woman, an affair he continued even after  she blackmailed him. A tendency towards backstabbing to get his way. As Oliver Wolcott  said: “…on certain points, the most enlightened men are governed by the most unsound reasons.”

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American Sphinx – The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis

Just finished this biography of Thomas Jefferson. It’s one of those biographies that focus less than I’d prefer on the facts of Jefferson’s life and more on what the author thinks about Jefferson, or what the author thinks Jefferson might have thought.

Jefferson was a real weirdo, my kind of guy. Walked around singing to himself all the time. So shy he couldn’t speak in front of large groups, so instead wrote all his ideas down, which was good for history but must have been frustrating for his contemporaries. Two terms as president and almost never spoke to Congress, and not often with his own cabinet.

Bummer to learn that the “small government” and “states rights” mumbo-jumbo GOP-speak started with Jefferson. At least Jefferson held these ideas because he was afraid of a return of a monarchy, not because he wanted shut down government assistance programs.

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Founding Rivals: Madison vs. Monroe by Chris DeRose

Continuing my study of the founding fathers. The book is basically two mini-biographies of Madison and Monroe, and is especially focused on how Madison shaped the Constitution, and how Monroe almost derailed him by running against him for a seat in the House of  Representatives. Madison won, barely, and went on to write the Bill of Rights and eventually got most of it passed through Congress.

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James Monroe: The American Presidents Series: The 5th President, 1817-1825 – by Gary Hart

Finished this book yesterday. After reading David McCullough’s eight hundred pager on John Adams, it was a relief to read Hart’s reasonably concise biography of James Monroe.

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John Adams – David McCullough

john_adamsI’ve read several of McCullough’s books – The Great  Bridge,  Truman, Johnstown Flood. Always enjoyed them. I’ve been struggling a bit with this one. I don’t think it’s the book, I think I’m just tired of the subject. I just finished a biography of George Mason and another of George Washington, so the information is getting repetitive.

Few tidbits about the book……