Presidential Histories

What better way to spend a three-day weekend than with a book (or three or four or more)? In keeping with the theme of Presidents' Day, chunksters like Ron Chernow's Grant (clocking in at 1,100 pages) might be a bit much to tackle in a short time, but not all presidential histories are so daunting.

Starting with the first president of the United States (because who doesn't like a good chronological order to things?), consider Valiant Ambition (Penguin, paperback). In this engaging history, Nathaniel Philbrick (In the Heart of the Sea) explores the relationship between George Washington, the United States' most revered president, and its most reviled traitor, Benedict Arnold. Philbrick approaches both subjects--whose stories have been retold often enough to become near-mythological--with a nuanced, respectful consideration that highlights the complexities of both their personalities and the roles they played in the American Revolution.

Candice Millard's Destiny of the Republic (Anchor, paperback) is equally engaging, though Millard focuses on an entirely different period in U.S. history. The history opens with James Garfield's unfortunate run-in with Charles Giteau, a disgraced lawyer who believed he had been told by God to murder the 20th president. Millard uses this pivotal moment to explore trends in science and medicine in the 1880s, as well as political traditions surrounding Garfield's unexpected win.

Garfield's, of course, was not the first--or last--presidential assassination, as Sarah Vowell explores in her part-memoir, part-history, Assassination Vacation (Simon & Schuster, paperback). Here, she documents her delightfully strange habit of planning vacations to visit the sites of presidential assassinations and other moments of political violence, which she then uses as a lens to explore the role of political violence in shaping U.S. history. Vowell approaches all of this with her characteristic dark sense of humor, which adds moments of lightness to an otherwise bleak subject. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

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