What I’m Reading (No. 102): POTUS (and FLOTUS) #11 + Best of the Year

I sure hope everyone had a very merry Christmas and got some good reading in. With young kids, reading was a little hard to come by for me (which meant we were having great fun), but some solo travel late last week allowed for good reading.

First up was finishing a good biography about James K. Polk. I was also so intrigued by his wife, Sarah Polk, that I read a short (but potent) biography of her as well.

Also, of course, is my end-of-year favorites list. I know I just did a big list a couple weeks ago, but this one is quite different. Here, I’m giving my 10 favorite reads of the year — those that not only stuck with me and expanded my worldview but those that were just the most fun and entertaining too.

Let’s do this.

Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter Borneman (2008, 359 pages)

”In politics, serendipity should never be discounted. But then again, neither should persistence, hard work, and unyielding determination. The stars may have aligned for James K. Polk in 1844, but that he was there at all to take advantage of them was due to his own personal resilience and character.”

My last few POTUS reads have been a bit boring to say the least. Even Robert Remini’s elegantly written biography of Andrew Jackson was a bit dry. Thankfully, Borneman came along with an engaging, narrative-driven book about POTUS #11: James K. Polk.

He was a dark horse candidate (perhaps the first in American history, actually) in 1844 and won a close election. Before taking office, he promised to serve just a single term, and he faithfully held to that promise (for perhaps the last time in American history).

Polk made four campaign pledges, and accomplished all of them. Most famously, he doubled the size of the US, acquiring Texas (with help from his predecessor), the Oregon Territory (which included Washington), and California (which included Arizona and most of New Mexico).

In the midst of his great successes, though, he led the nation into the Mexican-American War using less-than-wholesome reasoning. He accomplished much, at least based on what he promised, but he got us into a needless war which was, in many ways, a precursor to the Civil War.

Borneman navigates this tension pretty well and crafts a compelling narrative about Polk’s place in the Civil War era and the broader reach of American presidential history. Good reading for any fan of history.

Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk by Amy Greenberg (2019, 281 pages)

“Sarah was no ordinary wife.”

For all the positives of Borneman’s book, he didn’t quite write enough about the utterly fascinating Sarah Polk. The couple was childless, which in 19th century America meant a large bit of freedom from the sometimes enslaving duties of child-rearing and house-keeping. In any list of influential First Ladies, Sarah is always near the top. She was intensely interested in politics and served a number of unique roles for James, including advisor, communications director, and more. Sarah pushed him, gave him advice, and networked on his behalf.

In this absorbing book, historian Amy Greenberg chronicles Sarah’s life, which included 40+ years as a widow — James died shortly after his single term ended.

While Sarah’s life is immensely interesting (including, for me, her involvement in the Civil War), the real strength of the book is Greenberg’s take on women in American politics in the 19th century. While they were often hidden from public view, women were rather influential in Washington DC and beyond, and Sarah Polk was the exemplar of that influence.

Greenberg gives great context, but is also witty, sometimes sarcastic and ironic, and just so honest and even opinionated. I always appreciate that in a historian. She doesn’t dance around the weaknesses or hypocrisies of either of the Polks.

Another great book for anyone interested in US history and especially the role of women in politics. I’m looking forward to reading Greenberg’s other books too.

My Top 10 Favorite Reads of 2019 (Regardless of Publish Date)

On Desperate Ground by Hampton Sides. Of anyone writing history books today, Sides is near the top. This book served to introduce me to the Korean War in gripping fashion.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. I’ve said before I’m a Dickens man. My first reading of the classic Oliver Twist did not disappoint. It’s one of his shortest works, making it the most accessible.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. My first read of this book as a father, and it stuck with me far more than the first time I read it. Super fast read; super powerful read.

Tiger Woods by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian. Such a human story. Unfathomable rise, mind-blowing fall from grace, surprising rise again. These journalists get the in-depth backstory that will surely complicate your feelings about Woods.

The Path to Power by Robert Caro. The first entry of Caro’s epic LBJ series. Truly unlike any other biography I’ve read. It starts with the history of the Texas landscape. You read that right.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Thomas’s mega YA hit is as good as advertised. I’m just gonna say it: this is an important read for white people.

Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11 by Mitchell Zuckoff. As important a book as came out in 2019 and didn’t get much attention. Insanely high Amazon reviews too, which isn’t everything, but can be rather telling.

Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne. My first of Gwynne’s books, and certainly not my last. A history of a Native American tribe, but also a region and a growing nation. So so good.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. Such a heartwarming read, which feels especially needed as we head into the 2020 election season.

The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. Haven’t written about this yet here in the newsletter, but I’ve been going through the complete Holmes and it’s been just great. Super readable and terribly fun. I’m a couple novels and a couple collection of short stories into it. Two more novels and three or four more story collections to wrap it up — I’ll write about it then.

That’s all for me this year! I’d love to hear about your favorite reads of the year. Let me know. I’m terribly thankful for your attention, readership, and inbox space. May 2020 start on a splendid foot for you!