First Lady memoir

Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

Becoming by Michelle Obama

3 words: engaging, personal, positive

I love books by accomplished women, and I love memoirs of life in politics. So I was really excited when a copy of Michelle Obama’s memoir showed up in my mailbox.

And while I knew I’d find the book fascinating, I was surprised by how quickly I was drawn in to the narrative — and how engaged I remained throughout the entire book.

The first thing that attracted me was that Obama’s narrative voice is very real; it’s like she’s telling you her story out loud. (I’ve heard the audiobook, which she reads herself, is pretty amazing.) Even on the page, her voice is natural and smart and funny and real.

And she begins the book with a scene from her life today — a scene so normal and insignificant that most of us have been there and thought nothing of it. She’s alone at home, and she’s making toast. And she’s reveling in the quiet and the freedom she feels in that small act — because for years, she’d been in a world where making toast while home alone was unimaginable. And her pleasure in that moment made me feel connected to her on a human level.

And I think that’s one of her key gifts — empathy (along with her brain and drive and desire to make a positive difference in the world).

So spending time with her on these pages was a pleasure.

The other aspect I found delightful is the way she describes her educational journey — from elementary through law school. And when she talks about not feeling good enough — again, that resonated. She’s honest about the struggles and the way she overcame the tough parts —  and the loving support she received from her family, friends, and mentors.

And I always love reading memoirs that give insight into the relationships within a First Family. On these pages, Barack Obama is very human but also super impressive (largely because he’s so human).

And there were moments that made me laugh, such as her commentary on an event that occurred when they were dating. She describes him driving a bright yellow Datsun that shuddered to life and had a rusted out hole in the floor. “Life with Barack would never be dull. I knew it even then. It would be some version of banana yellow and slightly hair-raising.” (p. 122)

That’s good, right?

And reading about the emphasis she placed on raising her daughters… it made me like their family all the more.

So if you like reading about the life experiences of strong, smart women who’ve made a difference — or if you like reading about First Families — this is a wonderfully engaging narrative about the unusual experience of ending up in the White House.

Give this book a whirl if you like… memoirs of iconic women, First Ladies, remarkable women in their own right, behind the scenes, memoirs of strong African American women, memoirs of life in the political sphere

Anyone else a fan of memoirs by the First Family?

JFK time travel extravaganza

Photo credit: Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston11/22/63 by Stephen Kin

11/22/63 by Stephen King

3 words: wide-ranging, wry, absorbing


Stephen King, where have you been all my life?

Actually, I know the answer to that one.

Dude’s been on the bestseller list most of the years I’ve been a reader. But I associate him with horror, and I can’t handle the horror.  

But ever since reading On Writing, my eyes have been opened.

Then my friend chose 11/22/63 for book club, so we could test whether King actually practices what he preaches.

I’m thinking he certainly does.

This book knocked my socks off.

It’s more than 800 pages long (which translates into 25 CDs of audiobook, which translates into a full month of listening at my usual pace), and I would’ve been perfectly content if it had been longer.

…cuz this book has it all goin’ on.

Rip-roaring plot: CHECK!

Likeable, relatable, memorable characters: CHECK!

Engaging narrative voice: CHECK!

A well-researched historical setting: CHECK!

Creative use of language: CHECK!

This book… it has all the things.

Here’s the quick rundown of this wonder:

Jake Epping is a high school English teacher whose buddy at a local diner shows him a wormhole into the past. His friend’s goal was to travel back in time to avert the JFK assassination, so the world could be a better place, and his dying wish is for Jake to carry out the mission. So… Jake dives back in time to 1958 and starts living a new existence in the past.

And King paints a vivid picture of that era — the good and the bad. There’s food that tastes terrific (and there are segregated restrooms) and there are kind and neighborly folk (and there are lots of people smoking).

In spite of the bad parts, Jake begins to feel at home in the late 1950s and early 1960s. And he falls in love. (That wasn’t exactly supposed to happen.)

So as he gathers intel about whether Oswald acted alone, Jake’s living a double life. And that always creates interesting dilemmas.

I’m a JFK geek (each of those four words links to a different JFK post… and that ain’t all of ’em) going way back, and I’ve read an embarrassing number of pages about his life and death. And I’m here to tell you… King got stuff right.

Dude not only researches the living daylights out of a topic, but then he’s careful about the way he sprinkles in the knowledge… like perfect seasoning.

This book… it far exceeded all my expectations.

I just wish I could read it again for the first time. Cuz: wow.

Give this book a whirl if you like… time travel; long, unfolding stories; reading about the JFK assassination; first person narrative; a mix of historical fiction, fantasy, adventure, suspense, and romance

So, kind readers… what book most knocked your socks off?

It’s Presidents Day. Let’s read.

OK, guys… it’s Presidents Day.

(photo credit: Pete Souza)

And since this day is about honoring them as a group, today I’m offering up a few books that look at multiple presidents all in one book.

And because I’m a sucker for the 20th century presidents, that’s a focus of these books.


If you like journalistic memoirs written in a humorous voice, try this one…

Thank You, Mr. President: A White House Notebook by A. Merriman Smith



If you like looking at photos and reading their behind-the-scenes stories, try this one…

The President’s Photographer: Fifty Years Inside the Oval Office by John Bredar


If you like seeing that our presidents are sometimes just like us, try this one…

Presidential Doodles: Two Centuries of Scribbles, Scratches, Squiggles and Scrawls from the Oval Office from the creators of Cabinet Magazine
What are your favorite books about U.S. presidents?

Visiting the dead presidents

Dead Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation’s Leaders by Brady Carlson
3 words: rollicking, enthusiastic, informative
Bybee, you’ve done it again. Your fantastic, enticing review of Dead Presidents sent me directly to that book, and I devoured it with complete delight.
Turns out, author Brady Carlson and I are of the same tribe. We’re the ghoulish sorts who visit cemeteries for fun. And if there’s a president buried there, we plan our vacations around the presidential grave visit. 
Yep. You’re hanging out here with one sick puppy.
And I gotta say, I think we also have a similar graveside manner: reasonably reverent, but with an eye for the peculiar.
For example, when the Dear Man and I were in Louisville, we visited the grave of Zachary Taylor. 
(Brief pause, while we reflect on the fact that while Taylor is more memorable than, say, Pierce, he sure ain’t no U.S. Grant. OK. Back to our story…)

And on the way there, we Googled Taylor and found out dude had been disinterred during our lifetime!
(This is one weird world we live in, my friends.)
Apparently (who knew?!) there have long been rumors that Taylor had been poisoned. 
(Test results say: ummmm… NO.)
Brady hits that story in this here book, and lots of other great little anecdotes that will surprise and delight.
And we mere civilians can also attend! 
Imagine a world where Grover Cleveland’s grandson rubs elbows with the grand-nephew of Harry Truman…
Pure magic, right?
For a book dealing with dead people, this thing is awfully darn fun. Carlson’s tone is ebullient, and his observations sharp and delighted. 
There are moments in this book that made me laugh out loud, such as this one:
“We take a look through the Harrison items in the back room, including something called an ophicleide, which looks like the love-child of a tuba and a bugle, played when Harrison was interred in North Bend in 1841 and brought out again at the renovation of the tomb in 1922.”  (p. 34)
(Love-child of a tuba and bugle!) 
If you’re even vaguely interested in Geek Tourism or the presidents or travel memoirs, give this book a whirl. Carlson’s a fun and knowledgeable tour guide who’ll skip the boring parts and delivery only the good stuff. 
Confession time, my friends… What’s your weirdest travel quirk? 

Reading on the 4th of July

Happy 4th of July, my fellow Americans!

For those moments when we’re not watching fireworks and picnicking and doing all the things we do, here are some Revolutionary books that fit the spirit of the day.

1776 by David McCullough
The book that contains the unforgettable scene in which George Washington goes out into the middle of a frozen river and jumps up and down to test the strength of the ice, before sending horses across. Takes my breath away every time I think of it.

George Washington: A Life by Willard Sterne Randall
Yes, this is the time I alluded to the Brady Bunch when talking about our first President.

Thomas Jefferson by R. B. Bernstein
A remarkable portrait of a wildly complex Founder. 
(Super thrilling flashback to 2010: the author commented on my blog!)

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Everyone’s talking about the musical, and this book is the source material. It’s amazing! (…says the woman who accidentally listened to the abridged audiobook version and may never let herself live it down) 

All you history readers out there… What are your favorite Revolutionary books? 

The residence of the Presidents

The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House by Kate Andersen Brower
3 words: dishy, insider, personal
Dear The Residence,
I enjoyed every guilty-pleasure minute we hung out together.
Except when I didn’t.
Here’s the thing.
I appreciate hearing the inside stories about what it’s like to work at the White House, and the dedication it requires. I’m all about the inside-baseball workplace narratives. 

And I like the fact that the many heroes of the book are the behind-the-scenes people who make sure the clocks keep ticking and the silver is sparkling and the floral arrangements are fresh and beautiful. 

Sometimes these stories make me feel like the storytelling’s gone a little too far. Do we really need to hear about various First Ladies’ worst moments of losing their temper?
I know. It’s dishy and it sells books. 

And I know. It’s part of the story of what it’s like to work at the White House. There are personalities involved. 

But then there’s this.
Upon moving into the White House, First Families are told that the residence staff will maintain the families’ privacy.

So when we hear stories, told by various residence staff members, of First Ladies and other family members saying things in private that were meant to stay in private… I feel uncomfortable. And it makes me concerned about the level of confidence that future First Families will have about their own privacy being respected.
So, dang.
And the worst part is: I’m part of the problem, because I gobbled you right up.
And I understand why your author included those anecdotes. If you’re told these tales, you’re gonna feel that you should share them to complete the story. But I still wish they weren’t there. 
So, I appreciate your shining a light on the tireless people who work at the White House. They make the work look easy (it ain’t), and much of the time they work near-miracles practically invisibly. It’s a remarkable thing. I’m grateful to learn more about their work and their devotion.
But when I recall some of the private moments that were revealed, even though they were only a tiny little part of this book… I gotta say, it makes me uncomfortable.
The Residence, I just can’t rest completely easy within your pages.
You’re a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. 

[sad sigh]

Unruly Reader

Nixon, we hardly knew ye

Reflecting pool at the Nixon Presidential Library…

for the man who was totally *not* into self-reflection

Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas
3 words: psychological, fascinating, insightful
So this was a weird one. I read a review of this book last year, thought I might like it, saw the page count (619), and thought, “Yeah, I think I’ll pass…”
Then it showed up on some “best books of the year” lists, and I felt bad for skipping it. But still not enticed.
Then one day we were in a bookstore and I picked up a copy and told the Dear Man, “Yeah, I’m feeling guilty about not reading this book…”
And as soon as I opened the book, I was hooked.
It was the typeface.
And here’s the thing: I’m not a typeface snob. I’ve always found it weird when books announce their typeface at the end of the book. But in this book’s case, man, it made a difference. (In case you’re wondering, the typeface was Sabon.)

There was also really beautiful spacing on the pages.
And a photo at the beginning of each chapter.
My friends, I read this book.
And from page xi, on which the author describes Nixon’s adoration of the movie Around the World in 80 Days and the way he’d get all enthusiastic about the scene with the elephant… I was a goner.
But the thing that most delighted me about this book is how sad it made me.
I know that sounds nuts. But stay with me, guys.
Because of my mild Watergate obsession, I’ve read me a book or two about Nixon. And many of these books have explored his psyche.
But none of them were like this.
This book delved deep into the contradictions in Nixon’s character, ambitions, and view of himself. And man, it’s nothing but fascinating.
He strove to be inspiring and positive and joyful.
And mostly he just wasn’t any of those things at all.
It kind of breaks my heart.

I have new sympathy for the man. 

This book breaks new ground, and it’s that rarest of rare things: a true original in a packed field. 

New Year, old scandal

Watergate tourist. I know: sad.

The Last of the President’s Men by Bob Woodward
3 words: fascinating, strange, bitter
My Watergate obsession rages on.
And when Bob Woodward releases anything linked to those days, I get truly a little bit scarily excited.
So this book made me bliss out (even though it made me sad to see the word “Last” in its title — Bob, don’t let the well dry up!)
It’s the story of Alexander Butterfield, the person who blew the whistle on the taping system in the Oval Office.
I’d always wondered why he spilled the beans, and this book basically answers that question. 
Dude was ticked. 
He’d given up an important position in the Air Force to work for his old buddy Haldeman in the White House, only to discover his boss’s boss had severe social anxiety and was too nervous to meet him for weeks. (We’re talking here about the President of the United States, people.)
And that’s merely the tip of the iceberg.
One of my favorite lines from the book: “The Nixon inner circle sounded like both snake pit and kindergarten.” (27)
Oh, boy.
So, yeah, some dirt is dished here. Seems like Butterfield’s still kind of holding a grudge, which could cause a person to take this book with a grain of salt, except: Woodward pre-salted it. He acknowledges Butterfield’s lingering anger and knows it’s part of the reason he consented to share long-concealed documents he removed from the White House when he left.

Fascinating stuff.

Presidential library two-fer!

3 words: thrilled, joyful, geeky

OK, so you know you’re a geek when your big trip of the year revolves around presidential libraries. 


Yes, that’s plural: we’re talking two of them! I know: it’s a bit too much to take.

The easiest place to accomplish the presidential library double header is southern California, where you can pick off both the Nixon and Reagan libraries in a single visit.
This is not for the faint of heart.
We’re talking about some seriously intense museum-going here, people.
Fortunately, I’m a seasoned presidential library goer and the Dear Man is both amiable and made of sturdy stuff.
We accepted the challenge because the goal is to collect all 13.
Here’s why you may want to go there, too.
We’ll start with Day One: The Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. 
OK, this place has it goin’ on.
First off, the setting is wicked beautiful—the prettiest presidential library
location I’ve seen. 


And second, there’s a retired Air Force One on display, and
you can walk through it.

I know.
I was all having a Hall and Oates moment, all day long*.


It was the most pleasant presidential library experience I’ve ever had. I laughed, I cried, I smiled, I became verklempt. 


And… this is going to sound blasphemous coming from a Kennedy fanatic, but… I liked Reagan’s library the best of the bunch. Somehow it evoked him more clearly as a human being. The Great Communicator’s library communicates greatly.



So you’d think that Day Two: The Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda might be disappointing after coming
down off the Reagan heights. 


And it sort of was. 

Except that Nixon’s library is located next to his birthplace, which is one of the most charming little
cottages on the planet. His dad built it from a kit in 1913, and it’s cuter
than cute.


And then there’s the Watergate gallery. Holy Toledo, guys. 

(Need I say it? More overstimulation.)

So yeah.

Totally worth the trip. 


If you’re organized about it and don’t mind overdosing on presidential history, you can actually do this thing in two consecutive days. 

And it’s amazing. 

Plus, we saw all kinds of other good non-library stuff, and the whole everything exceeded my already high expectations. 


This traveling thing is pretty stinkin’ fantastic, especially when conducted in the right company.


*incorrect; the moment lasted during the entire vacation

More doom. More gloom.

Five Days in November by Clint Hill with Lisa McCubbin
This was a positive reading
experience, guys, even though the book is sad. I picked up this book before
bedtime one night, and ended up reading way later (way later) than I’d planned.
Though, as I’ve said
before, I know this story.  
I mean, for
goodness’ sake, we all do.  

(photo courtesy of the John F. Kennedy
Presidential Library and Museum)
I’d read Clint
Hill’s other book Mrs. Kennedy and Me and loved it. So I
wondered if this book would feel redundant. But its focus is quite different.
While the first book dealt with his working relationship with Jacqueline
Kennedy, this book is all about the trip to Texas in November 1963. And it’s filled with
photos, many of which I’d never seen.
While I’ve read a
lot of books about JFK, I tend not to focus on those days in November. Other
than William Manchester’s remarkable The Death of a President, I’ve focused on the president’s life rather than his
But the way Clint
Hill’s book brings the behind-the-scenes perspective to the story makes this
book different. It feels like someone describing a death in the family. 

And it’s heartbreaking.