Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Author Interview: Brady Carlson Talks about his book Dead Presidents

One of my very favorite reads so far in 2016 was Brady Carlson's Dead Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation's Leaders, released by W. W. Norton & Company on February 1. It has all of my favorite elements: engaging narrative style, oodles of presidential trivia, and a touch of lighthearted humor. Plus, a passing mention of ShowBiz Pizza Place which I have literally not thought of for 30 years; those animatronic animals singing golden oldies--anyone else remember that?

Sorry about the digression, but it just goes to show you, you never know what you'll find in a book about history. I think that's what makes history so engaging and so worth both holding onto and sharing with others. I think Brady feels the same way, and his enthusiasm for his subject is infectious.  

Recently I interviewed Brady about his book, presidential history, and what's next for him. I think you'll enjoy his insights.

* * *

We have to start off with a generic question that I’d ask pretty much everyone I meet if I could: What do you like to read about? What are your favorite books?
What a great question! These days most of what I read is for kids, as I have three—I just finished reading Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet to my five year old, and the younger two are enjoying pretty much every picture book we put in front of them. For myself I read about history, of course, or music—I just finished Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl. I also really like cookbooks—Jacques Pepin’s Heart & Soul in the Kitchen is really fun. 
I really want to read the new one from Annette Gordon Reed, Most Blessed of the Patriarchs, about Thomas Jefferson. Which is probably a surprise to no one at all! 

Specifically, what are some of your favorite books about presidents or American history?
I have sentimental favorites that hooked me as a kid on the stories of presidents, both dead and alive. I read and re-read a book called Mr. President by George Sullivan, which was a fun and informative guide to the whole set (it’s still updated and printed today), and a book called The Day Lincoln Was Shot by Jim Bishop introduced me to the weird world behind the assassination. I read it until it fell apart. 
There are lots of great books about presidents for readers of all ages—Robert Remini’s biography of Andrew Jackson is fantastic, and Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic has rightly won praise from all corners for reintroducing us to James A. Garfield. 

Tell us a little about what inspired you to write Dead Presidents and about the research, writing, and publishing of the book.
I’ve always found the presidents interesting and had long hoped to visit all their graves just for fun. In 2012, while I was covering the presidential primary for my day job, I decided to get serious about the idea and started planning out how I might do the trips, how much it would cost, and those kinds of things. The more I looked at the sites and the stories behind them, I realized there was a bigger theme, about how and why we build these sites and monuments in the ways we do. 
At first I figured I would just write about the trips for my website, but by chance I ended up hearing from a literary agent, who connected me with W.W. Norton, and what was a vague idea four years ago is a book today!  

What fascinates you about presidential history?
I think what caught my interest as a kid was how important they were—after all, it’s The Most Important Job In The World—but today I think I’m fascinated by the unique place they hold in culture. Yes, presidents are powerful, but we also expect them to go on late night talk shows and tell jokes, or host concerts at the White House, or console families after tragedies. We pore over the trivia of their lives and careers, and put them on bobbleheads and t-shirts...and in a time where we don’t have a lot of things in common as a society, we all have that same list of presidents. 

Which president or president’s history do you find most interesting?
This may sound weird but I get interested in different presidents at different times. While I was writing the book I got really interested in William Howard Taft—who’s always chalked up to being “the fat president” but is really a fascinating guy—and Andrew Johnson, who is tucked away in eastern Tennessee, a beautiful area, and is a difficult but interesting figure. These days I’m trying to learn more about John Quincy Adams, who gets his start in life in the midst of the American Revolution and dies while fighting slavery, not too long before the Civil War. What a story. 

What is your favorite story from the book?
My favorite stories are usually about how the lesser-remembered presidents often end up with the largest tombs, and that as time goes by those spots pick up new functions beyond honoring the presidents. William McKinley’s tomb in Canton, Ohio, for example, is at the top of a hill, so the steps leading up to the tomb are used by joggers and walkers. He’s contributing to public health more than a century after his death!  

What was your favorite presidential gravesite visited?
My personal favorite is Calvin Coolidge’s in Vermont—it’s a rural cemetery in the midst of these gorgeous New England mountains, just a beautiful spot. And the nearby state historic site has a working cheese shop founded in part by Coolidge’s dad. Great cheese, great views. 

And now for some questions about history in general. We talk a lot about a president’s “legacy.” What do you think makes a successful president and determines a strong legacy?
A combination of genuine success, good timing, good luck and/or good marketing. The journalist/politician Clare Boothe Luce once noted, correctly, that over time Americans boil down each president into one sentence. Some presidents’ sentences are simply that they were president—they’re barely remembered at all. Others are remembered for a piece of trivia or a milestone—that they died in an unusual way, or were the first or last president to do or not do something. A lucky few are remembered for what they did or what they changed. Some work very hard to make sure they’re seen well by history; others seem to care very little about their place in history books. In short, it varies, but there’s always a process at work to create those sentences by which we remember them. And that’s one of my favorite questions to ask: how did each president end up being remembered in his particular way? 

How do we get young people interested in history?
We’ve seen just in the last few years how even the dead presidents have come up in national politics, like when President Obama announced Mount McKinley would finally be renamed Denali. If we can teach kids to ask that next question—why was a mountain in Alaska ever named for McKinley? who never set foot there?—maybe you start to uncover an interesting and revealing story. 
I’m convinced anyone who’s interested in people will be interested in history, because that’s really what history is about—us.  

What’s next? Have you given any more thought to my unsubtle suggestion of a follow-up book? You know, a Dead First Ladies?
The top two suggestions I’ve had for a next book have been dead vice presidents and dead first ladies! It looks like Kate Andersen Brower, who wrote The Residence, may have beaten me to the punch on first ladies. But I have a few ideas that are just as vague now as the one that turned into this book was four years ago. Who knows where one of them might lead? 

Thanks, Brady, for the book and the interview. Also, for the reading recommendations! I hope you'll come back when your next book comes out.  


Monday, April 25, 2016

What I'm reading this week (4/25/16)

I promised to let you know how my month of reading library books went, and I have to say it was a smashing success. A couple of the books (A Man Called Ove, and 99 Poems) even ended up on my Books to Buy list. The others, I'm glad to have read, and I'm happy to have saved a bit of money.

Last week I finished:

The Soul of an Octopus was promising, but I had a hard time staying interested. As enthusiastic and knowledgeable as Montgomery was, I just couldn't get excited for octopuses. Still, to anyone who likes to read about animals and nature, it's a winner.

Harriet the Spy had me all the way until the end, and then it sort of fizzled out. There were moments where it was heartbreaking--kids being mean to other kids brings up unpleasant feelings from the past--but the ending didn't satisfy me. Although the main characters made up, and one lesson was learned (when you're mean--even if you're just being honest--apologize), Harriet ends up writing her mean things for the school paper. Honest observations, fine, but calling people stupid seems pointless. She's not called out on it. I'm a little puzzled over the authors choice here.

Have you seen Seven Brief Lessons on Physics all over too? I stumbled upon it months ago while perusing Amazon's Coming Soon listings and thought the library should own a copy. Then I decided that, being married to a former physics student, I could read 80 pages of physics to have something to talk about. Is it understandable to the average reader? Yes. Is it engaging? Yes. Are the lessons brief? Yes, perhaps too brief. I found many of the lessons over before I really learned them. Perhaps I'll need to read it second time.

Last week I began:

Ms. Marvel 2: Generation Why is as much fun as the first. Being the reality dork that I am, though, I enjoy the real-life parts more than the superhero parts.


I also started Rob Lowe's Stories I Only Tell My Friends. This was swapped for Presence, which I meant to read this month but lost interest in. I really wanted to end the month with something fun and a little less demanding. I'm enjoying the book so far. Man, this guy was blessed with meeting the right (and famous) people. Wow. If you like name-dropping, this is your books

I'm almost finished with:

I've really enjoyed my "re-read" of Kathleen Flinn's The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry. I remember very few of the specifics of the book from my earlier reading, so it was like experiencing it anew. If you're interested in cooking memoirs, Flinn if your gal. If you want the inside scoop on Le Cordon Bleu, this is your book.

When all of these books are done, I'll be moving on to my May reading list, to be posted soon.

Also, this week I'll be posting my interview with Brady Carlson, author of one of my favorite reads of the year so far, Dead Presidents. Please come back for that!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

What I've added to my TBR

I'm going through that long, long list of book titles I squirreled away for when I had time to check them out, and I'm finding some treasures. Also, I perused the "coming soon" books on Amazon, and I'm finding a lot to be excited about. Here's what I've added in the last couple of weeks...

I read a review of Black Rabbit Hall on someone's blog, and it intrigued me. I will forever want to read Rebecca for the first time again, and I'm hoping this one has a similar feeling.

After enjoying A Man Called Ove more than most everything I've read so far this year, I've added Backman's other books to my TBR. Britt-Marie Was Here will be out in May.


One of my favorite reading experiences was Clint Hill's Mrs. Kennedy and Me. I have his second book at home, waiting to be read, and now a third is coming out May 3. Five Presidents is about his days as Secret Service in five administrations.

Years (and years) ago, I discovered Catherine Newman's parenting essays on some parenting site that is likely long gone. I fell in love with her writing and her kids, Ben and Birdy. Her first book, Waiting for Birdy was a collection of some of those essays, and now she has a new book out, Catastrophic Happiness. Now, Newman and I are very different people, but I enjoy her writing so much, I've ordered a copy of the book.

I am seeing Lab Girl all over the place lately, and I'm intrigued. It's a memoir of a woman in the natural sciences.

I love Benny Williams' decorating books, and a new one, A House by the Sea, is due out in September.


I have yet to read 50 Paintings You Should Know for my Fill a Knowledge Gap reading challenge, but I've already added two more books from the series to my TBR: Impressionism and 50 Modern Artists You Should Know.


A friend once recommended Rob Lowe's autobiographies to me, and just recently I was watching American Pickers (love that show) when Mike Wolfe said he was reading Love Life, and it made him cry. If it makes Mike Wolfe, Mr. Rusty Gold, cry, AND it's recommended by a friend, I'm all in.

I've also been kind of interested in Drew Barrymore's autobio, Wildflower, since it came out. I think it would be fun on audio.

Poetry, poetry, and more poetry. Lately, I discovered David Orr's Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry and The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong. Orr is the poetry columnist of the New York Times Book Review. My poetry preference is modern, and I've always thought Frost's "The Road Not Taken" made no sense and was therefore being misinterpreted. So I'm excited to read both of these short books.

I've read nothing by John Updike but a smattering of poems. Maybe some day I'll get to his novels, but for now I'd like to explore his poetry more in-depth.  

I discovered The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place on a friend's Goodreads list. (Hi Amy!) A passel of girls find the headmistress poisoned and try to disguise the murder. It's a Victorian murder farce for teens, and everything about that description sounds good to me!

It's no secret that I'm a Clementine fan, and now that the Clementine series has ended (though I'm only on book three), Sara Pennypacker is starting another series about a boy called Waylon. What's not to love?


Monday, April 18, 2016

What I'm reading this week (4/18/16)

 Last week I finished:

Never have I been more happy to be wrong than when reading A Man Called Ove. I wasn't sure I was going to like it based on the snippet I read online, but right around page 50 I admitted to myself that I loved this book as much as everyone else. There's something a little irresistible about curmudgeonly old men, for one thing. But in addition, the writing is good, it's well-plotted, and the author doesn't fall into many of the traps most writers would when dealing with a man like Ove. I was so happy that Ove didn't do an about-face at the end--a lesser author would have written that in. Backman let's Ove be Ove throughout. I was a teensy bit disappointed in the ending, but I was expecting it.

I also finally finished my reading of the Bible. I'm not sure when I began reading it (2013?), but I took off the better part of a year when I got bogged down in the early old testament. I read the old testament first, then the new, because I really had only been planning to read the gospels, but then kept going. I plan to write a complete post about this soon, but suffice it to say, I'm glad I finally finished it, and I'm not sure I'll do it again any time soon. :)

I found Dana Gioia's 99 Poems better than most poetry collections. There were sections of the book that I didn't enjoy much at all, but I also ran into old friends and made some new ones. This is a book of poetry I'd consider buying for my collection. He writes in form some, and I'd often find myself reading iambic pentameter and thinking, "this is so familiar." Iambic pentameter is sort of like a lullaby to me.

The Story of Diva and Flea was a sweet story of a scaredy-pup and a street cat who become friends in Paris and show each other things the other has never experienced. It's a sweet children's book which I recommend. The illustrations are very nice, too.

Last week I began:

Actually, I started The Soul of an Octopus during my March readcation, but I'm finally getting back to it. If you haven't read anything by Sy Montgomery, you're missing out. She's passionate about animals and that passion is contagious. While I have very little interest in octopuses (it's not "octopi" I learned), she's so enthusiastic that I'm fascinated too.

My audiobook:

I didn't realize just how unappetizing listening to a memoir about fileting and cooking fish would be first thing in the morning until this week. Same for blood sauce, lamb, calamari, and even minestrone. Still very much enjoying the book, but there are some things I may not do again, and cooking memoirs at 5:40am might be one of them.  

This week I continue reading:

Harriet the Spy. My goodness am I enjoying this book. It's very well written, which shouldn't surprise me since it is a classic, but it seems more intelligent than most middle-grade fiction I've read. I've been reading a chapter each night before bed, and I can't wait for the next night. So glad I picked this one up.

Monday, April 11, 2016

What I'm reading this week (4/11/16)

Operation "Read Only Library Books" is in full swing, but it did strike me last week that it may not have been a good idea for one reason. I generally buy my books and only check out books that I am not sure I'll enjoy enough to keep after reading. In my life, library books are noncommittal books. And reading a whole month's worth of noncommittal books might be kind of ho-hum. On the other hand, these are all books I'm interested in, so maybe I'll find a gem. I'll let you know what happens.

Last week I finished:

Everyone is reading (or has read) H Is for Hawk, and I'm glad I did, too. I'm of two minds. On the one hand, the author is dealing with the grief of losing her father, so it resonates with my life at present. Also, I'm fascinated by birds, so there is that. On the other hand, Macdonald doesn't do a great job explaining falconry, the nature of a hawk, etc., which seems a huge oversight. Perhaps UK readers all know about hawks? Also, much of the book is used in telling the plot of another book, T.H. White's The Goshawk, which bored me to tears. On the third hand, it's well-written and engaging (the non-White-book parts) and has a strong emotional pull. I mean, you're training a vicious bird to do your bidding all the while knowing one wrong move might make you hawk lunch; knowing there is trust between you, but not love; knowing the wild nature has never been trained out of a hawk. It raises fascinating questions. Bottom line is that you should give it a try. I think it's worthwhile.

Last week I began:

At one point last week I was down to reading only two books, and I panicked. To think I used to think I'd never read more than one at a time! So I quickly remedied the situation by beginning two books. I started Dana Gioia's 99 Poems, which I'm really enjoying. It's funny, of all the poetry books I've read this year, I think I've known poems in all of them. Same for this one. It's nice to turn the page and see a favorite or familiar poem there--like turning on the radio when they're playing a song you used to love.

I also started Harriet the Spy, which I'd been really excited to read for a long time, then, for some reason, not excited at all. But so far so good. I like Harriet and her exacting ways and eagle eye, which will likely get her into a whole heap of trouble.

My new audiobook:

I decided I needed another re-read, so I chose The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry on audio. Kathleen Flinn is one of my favorite authors, I love all three of her cooking/memoir books, but this is the first. The narrator of the audio is very good, which is no small feat with all the French words--plus Asian and British accents. Very well done. I adore this book.

This week I'll be reading:

I'm told by all corners that there's nothing not to love about A Man Called Ove. (Incidentally, I've heard that his name is pronounced "Oova," but I come from Norwegian stock where "Ove" is pronounced "O-vee". Anyone know for sure?) I read the first few pages online, and I wasn't impressed by the writing, but hopefully the characters pull me in. It's one of those books I'm anxious to read because everyone else is loving it, but I don't have terribly high expectations of this on a personal level.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

What I've added to my TBR list lately

Well, it's (trying to be) springtime, and that always gives me a case of reading ennui. I want to try new genres, subjects, authors. And basically, I want to read all the books at the same time. I've been adding things to my reading list left and right. Here's a sampling... 
Not yet released:

I fell head over heals for Kate Andersen Brower's The Residence last fall, and I'm thrilled to find out she has a new book coming out in April: First Women.

Another Flavia du Luce is due out this September: Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd. I'm only on the second in the series, though.

Also due out in September is the new cookbook by Jenny Rosenstrach, How to Celebrate Everything. I was disappointed with her last one, Dinner: The Playbook, but I loved her first one, Dinner: A Love Story. I'm hoping this one is as good as the first.


I sort of missed Grandma Gatewood's Walk when it was released, but it sounds like something I'd like to read. It's about a grandmother who walks the Appalachian Trail (more than once) and brings much-needed attention to it. (Bill Bryson owes A Walk in the Woods to Grandma Gatewood.)

Another bird book for my stack: The Rarest Bird in the World.

Levittown is an older book about the Pennsylvania suburb built by the Levitts that excluded black families until 1957 when a Jewish family arranged for a black family to buy the house next door.


Firefly Hollow looks like a great read about friendship and adventure.

I've always wanted to read The Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter, and this slip-cased edition is beautiful.

I added Counting by 7s because I was so loving Holly Goldberg Sloan's Appleblossom the Possum this month.

Do you know about these books? I just ran across one the other day, and now I want to read them all! They're about a small team of creatures (a frog, and mouse, and something else) who build things. There are four books in this Technical Tales series; they build a car, a plane, a motorcycle (due out April 1), and a house (due out Sept. 1). I love learning how things are built and how things work. I think I'll love these.

Graphic (Decorating & Comic):

I'm always looking for good decorating books, and I've fallen in love with Living with What You Love from 2010. I was looking for ways to display my antique photo collection, and I stumbled upon this. Then, when I added it to my book list, I realized it was already on it. Three times.

I enjoyed the first Ms. Marvel comic, No Normal, so much that I want to read the second, Generation Why.


I feel silly, but I'd never heard of Jane Austen's unfinished novel, Sandition, but I'm game to try it. It's been finished by "Another Lady."

I've also added Betty Smith's Maggie-Now in an effort to read more 30+-year-old fiction.

Same with Agatha Christie's Dumb Witness. A mystery involving a dog? Yes, please.


I'd always meant to read David Lehman's collections of poem-a-day poems, written in 2000 and 2002. I've added the first, The Daily Mirror, to my list.

And I've wanted to try a book of poetry by Elizabeth Alexander, so I've added her Crave Radiance to my poetry list.

What have you added to your reading list this spring?