Full disclosure — I know Brady Carlson and his family, he thanks me and a colleague in charge of interlibrary loans and the rest of the library staff in his acknowledgements, and his publicist sent me a copy of Dead Presidents: An American Adventure Into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation’s Leaders. Regardless of these facts, I feel I can fairly review the book, because as a reviewer and a librarian, I’m patently opposed to people reading bad books.
And this is not one of those. Brady is a kick ass writer, which you can see for yourself by checking out his pieces on NHPR, a few of which have made the national NPR broadcast lately. Or by reading Dead Presidents, which I highly recommend. His tone reminds me a little bit of A.J. Jacobs — informative and funny, but in a very humane rather than biting or snarky way.
The thing I love most about Dead Presidents is how much Brady is into his subject. I knew this — for awhile several years ago we attended a meet-up of local media makers, and even when this project was in its formative stage, I had a sense that he was going to create something cool, because he has been interested in the presidents since childhood. In fact, in his introduction he notes that a book — Mr. President by George Sullivan — and a teacher who allowed him to conduct an “impromptu lesson” on presidential trivia in fifth grade were keys to his lifelong interest. I am a big fan of people pursuing what they love, and as a fellow member of the book tribe, I love this origin story.
(Aside: this is why cookie cutter curriculums are inferior. Imagine if Brady’s teacher was hamstrung teaching to the test or to “core competencies,” and couldn’t accommodate his budding interest?)
That genuine enthusiasm makes a topic that let’s face it, most of us probably don’t think sounds super exciting — dead presidents — come, dare I say it, alive. I couldn’t resist. Seriously though, the stories of places famous (like Grant’s tomb) and obscure (Grant’s cottage, where the former president finished his well known memoirs) are equally fascinating in Brady’s book. Did you know, for instance, that Grant was nearly moved from New York to Illinois, because the tomb site in Manhattan was so poorly cared for? Or for that matter, that several presidents’ remains have in fact been moved, sometimes a good distance?
Two of my favorite stories: in Plymouth, Vermont, you can see — and sample — one of the oldest cheesemaking operations in the U.S., where artisanal cheese is made just as it was when Calvin Coolidge’s father co-founded the place in the 1890’s. President Coolidge is buried nearby, in “the hilltop cemetery where his family had been buried for four generations.”
And there is a gathering of presidential descendants: “the Marshfield, Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival and Presidential Family Reunion and Missouri Walk of Fame Celebration.” One of the people Brady meets there is George Cleveland, a grandson of Grover Cleveland who lives only about an hour from here. In his travels, Brady had seen photos of George in various other sites related to presidential history, like on the wall of the Founding Fathers Pub in Buffalo, where the proprietor was unable to stump Brady on presidential trivia (he didn’t know Brady taught his fifth grade class this stuff, after all).
The thread that ties all of the stories together is Brady’s admiration for the presidents — even those who didn’t do such a great job in office — and his illuminating, thoughtful insights into their work habits, interests, values, and post-presidential pursuits, as well as their deaths, burials, and legacies. I especially loved the way he debunked the popular opinion of Taft as “the Fat President” and his commentary on how our culture’s views of obesity influenced public opinion of Taft unfairly. It’s the way Brady combines the weird and the wonderful that makes Dead Presidents both entertaining and truly interesting.