Archive for February, 2009

American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

Friday, February 20th, 2009

By Jon Meacham

The Short Take:

This is the first book devoted to Andrew Jackson I have read and it was a real eye-opener. Andrew Jackson was something else — and you can take that statement any way you wish. I came away with mixed feelings about the man but a much greater appreciation for our American democracy and its ability to adapt to changing times. For that reason alone, this book is well worth reading.


If you thing Washington is a mess now, take a closer look at the 1820s and 1830s. Trust me, you’ll feel a lot better about the present. Hard as it might be to imagine, politics was even nastier then. Mud got slung aplenty and family members were not immune from the splattering.

Even more amazing was how strongly a social cold shoulder could damage an administration. The fact that many Washington ladies did not like the wife of a member of Jackson’s cabinet was enough to create a divide that impacted virtually every issue.

I greatly appreciated the fact that Meacham included ample information about Jackson’s private life during his two terms. His niece and sometimes White House hostess, Emily Donelson, plays a prominent role in his well-being, and it is clear that being surrounded by loved ones is vitally important to Jackson.

John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Martin Van Buren all play important parts duirng Jackson’s administration — both in support and in opposition to his policies. Reading excerpts from their soaring speeches makes you realize how dumbed down the rhetoric of our politicians has become.

While it’s easy from our vantage point to criticize a number of Jackson’s policies, there is much to admire as well. One thing no one can deny is that Andrew Jackson loved his country. Everything he did he fully believed was for her good and the good of the common man. I encourage you to learn more about Andrew JAckson. And Jon Meacham’s book is an excellent way to start.

A Little Plot:

Meacham’s book puts its focus squarely on Jackson’s two terms as president. He does spend take the time to sketch out his childhood and ilitary career, but to explain the forces that shaped the temperment, loyalties, strengths, and weaknesses of our seventh president.

Major focus is placed on the problems caused by the snubbing of the cabinet wife mentioned earlier, the forcible removal of native nations to the west of the Mississippi River, and the dismantling the National Bank. However, one of the most fascinating and chilling issues addressed in this book is Jackson’s stalwart protection of the Union when South Carolina threatened seccession. His tightrope walk to success is probably why his name almost always appears among the ten best presidents in American history.

A Lion Among Men

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

By Gregory Maguire

The Short Take:

This entry in Maguire’s continuing spin on the Baum Wizard of Oz books is a brilliant character study of the Lion that accompanied Dorothy on her mission to get that broomstick. If you haven’t read Wicked and Son of a Witch, don’t start here. So get ’em and read ’em so you can enjoy this one, too. Dark, tender, dangerous, magical — that’s Maguire’s take on Oz. Tormented, prideful, self-loathing, touching — that’s his cowardly Lion.


If you’re anticipating a continuation of Liir’s story from the second novel in this series, think again. Liir is barely mentioned and does not appear at all. This one is all about the Lion. And what a tale lies in store.

Brrr is his name, and from the very beginning this talking Lion has found outside circumstances shaping his life and destiny rather than his own will. His story is revealed as he attempts to interrogate the mysterious Yackle about Elphaba, the deceased so-called Witch of the East. Theirs is a battle of wits that offers new insights into mysteries presented by the two previous books while it creates some new ones for future (I bet) novels.

But what makes this novel so very good is the emotional conflict within our Lion. Forever lost, forever trying to belong, forever making just the wrong move at the wrong time — he is a fascinating character. No fairy tale kitty, he’s as complex and conflicted as any modern hero/anti-hero. You can’t help but empathize with him. But this is no downer book. Maguire use of language, humor, and minor characters leaven the book nicely.

I’ve always felt Maguire’s books were as much about things good vs. evil, free will vs. fate, and other such dichotomies as they were about taking a fresh look at Oz. I am now more convinced of that than ever.

A Little Plot:

Brrr’s life history is revealed little by little as he attmpts to interrogate the ancient maun, Yackle, in the Cloister of Saint Glinda. Meanwhile civil war rages between Oz and Munchkinland and the battle is headed their way. All the action is described through their conversations. With only a few exceptions, the entire novel takes place within the cloister walls.

Self-reared in solitude, Brrr doesn’t know how to act among Animals (the speaking variety), animals (the non-speaking types), or humans. His ineptness leads to tragic mistakes that gain him fame and shame.

As he travels the land looking for a anyplace to fit in, Brrr builds a reputation that threatens to warp his heart and mind. He seeks redemption, but instead becomes a tool for the new Emperor of Oz.

It may sound hopeless. Don’t you believe it. We’re talking about a Lion here.

Here’s a link to Maguire’s website. Worth a visit.

I Can’t Resist Robert B. Parker.

Friday, February 6th, 2009

Is it the ulta-terse writing? The incredible love match? The fascinating supporting characters? The fact that his books includes ample references to food? Why am I so addicted to the work of Robert B. Parker?

I don’t think it’s the plot lines. Don’t get me wrong — I LIKE the plots. But what I LOVE is Parker’s style of writing and his characters. And he just keeps turning those “gotta read them all” books out.

First it was the Spenser mysteries. Then along came the Jesse Stone series and the Sunny Randall books. More characters to love. More books to read. Parker also writes a lot of western-style books, but I have to draw the line somewhere. So I’m sticking with the ones where a tough and sometimes outside-the-law P.I. gets the bad guy and loves his woman (Spenser); where a flawed small town sheriff gets the bad guy and is confused by his women (Stone); and where a female P.I. with authority issues gets the bad guys and is confused about her ex (Randall).

If you decide to try Robert B. Parker’s books yourself, don’t feel like you have to read them in any order. Yes, there are some references to the past, but they won’t get in the way of enjoying what’s right in front of you at the time. After a few books you’ll discover that minor characters sometimes have a way of showing up in different series. That just adds to the fun.

For a long time I considered Parker’s work to be a guilty pleasure. No more! He probably won’t win any Pulitzers, but the last two Pulitzers I read weren’t near as enjoyable as his work. and shouldn’t you enjoy what you’re reading? Whether it’s Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, Jeffry Lent, or Robert B. Parker?

I thought you would agree.

I love Robert B. Parker. I’m always pining for his next book. And he knows not to keep fans like me waiting too long.

Here’s a link to his website.


Sunday, February 1st, 2009

by Malcolm Gladwell

The Short Take:

Gladwell’s intriguing book is stuffed with interesting information. He certainly accomplishes his mission of demonstrating that success is not the result of mere talent, intelligence, and ambition. But I’m not sure how I feel about that.


Apparently Bill Gates would be just another geeky looking guy if he’d been born a decade earlier. And if you’re a young Canadian who dreams of playing pro hockey, you better hope you were born in January or February.

Sure the reasons behind these assertions are interesting, but what is one supposed to do with all this information? Would-be parents might take note of the insight that the oldest kids in the first grade have a better shot at academic success than the youngest and plan their pregnancies accordingly. Careful birth timing can also be important to those hoping to raise star athletes.

Otherwise, it’s all very interesting, but why do I need to know this? On the plus side, the book is an intriguing and easy read, and the story about Gladwell’s own family is charming. But the basic premise of this book comes far too late for those of us who are reading it.

A Little Plot.

Of course, there is no plot. But here’s the book in a nutshell:

1. Birth timing is important for a lot of things. Too bad you’re already born.

2. Cultural and family influences on your behavior have more impact on your chances of success than I.Q. Too bad  you’re already born and raised.

3. Success comes from spending 10,000 hours or more practicing/doing/working at whatever it is you expect to succeed at. This goes for everything from playing the violin to becoming a mathematical whiz. That’s about 4 hours every single day for the next seven years. That certainly gives parents validation for nagging their kids to practice, practice, practice. But the rest of us? Too late, man.



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February 2009