Book bits

A review of a book about courageous leaders, three books about games, a new addition to the 'Twilight' saga, and reader picks.

Presidential Courage

Author: Michael Beschloss

Despite being mired in guerrilla wars with Islamist extremists in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States remains the most powerful nation on earth. But America is what it is today, Michael Beschloss asserts, largely because of the intrepid self-confidence of a select group of presidents. In Presidential Courage: How Brave Leaders Changed America 1789-1989, Beschloss weaves together the stories of nine presidents into a single narrative with remarkable verve.

The book begins with first George Washington and then John Adams struggling through difficult diplomatic battles with Britain and France. Next comes Andrew Jackson, who becomes entangled in a ferocious showdown with Philadelphia banking magnate Nicolas Biddle over his threat to veto the charter of the Bank of the United States.

Abraham Lincoln is lauded for his Emancipation Proclamation and for his determination to hold the Union together during the bloody Civil War.

Theodore Roosevelt is showcased for his legal action against a giant monopoly, Northern Securities Company, despite boycott threats by wealthy supporters who resented his business regulatory zeal.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt gallantly orders a military draft for isolationist America and proves the country ready when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor in World War II.

Harry Truman, concerned by the potential influence of the Soviet Union on displaced Jews, unilaterally recognizes the new Jewish state of Israel despite objections by the State Department.

At the urging of his brother and attorney general Robert F. Kennedy, John F. Kennedy fully engages in the risky battle to pass the Civil Rights Bill. It passes the year after his assassination.

Ronald Reagan, Beschloss's final profile, appears out of place at first. He confronted no wars or civil unrest. But Beschloss credits Reagan's efforts to open a dialogue with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev after a lifetime of railing against communism. It was proof, Beschloss argues, of level-headed leadership.

"In Presidential Courage" is an informative page turner – a laudable feat considering the difficulties of containing two centuries of American history in a single volume. Extensive research allows Beschloss to employ the voices of the presidents themselves – as well as those in their inner circles – as they tell their own stories.

3 books about games

Modern bridge was invented in 1925 and quickly achieved wild popularity. Today, there are about 25 million bridge players in the US. Edward MacPherson, an author and journalist, offers a breezy history of the game and its players in The Backwash Squeeze and Other Improbable Feats: A Newcomer's Journey into the World of Bridge. MacPherson – who learns to play bridge as he works on the book – meets with amateurs and professionals in this account of bridge and the world in which it thrives.

In 1770, a clever engineer named Wolfgang von Kempelen introduced to the imperial court in Vienna what seemed to be an amazing chessplaying automaton known as the Mechanical Turk. In truth, the Turk was a fraud and in his absorbing novel The Chess Machine Robert Löhr tries to imagine the story of the expert chess player who was hidden inside the Turk. Löhr manages to create a satisfying and neatly imagined tale of romance and intrigue.

It's How You Play the Game features lessons from the world of sports. Athletes, actors, CEOs, and politicians from Terry Bradshaw to Bob Dole share their moments of athletic triumph and defeat in this collection of stories by sports reporter Brian Kilmeade, who seeks to present the moments on the field that turned these notables into better people.

– Marjorie Kehe

On the Heels of 'Harry'

Eclipse, Stephenie Meyer's third young adult book about a teenager with a "vegetarian vampire" boyfriend seems poised to become a global phenomenon. Although nowhere close to the 11.5 million copies that "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows" sold in the first 10 days of its release, the reported sales of "Eclipse" of almost 250,000 copies in the first week of release were enough to cause a stir throughout the publishing world. Little, Brown is now printing 100,000 additional copies on top of the 1 million already in print. Meyers is a 30-something Mormon housewife from Arizona who includes some religious themes in her writing. The first two books in the Twilight Saga series are "Twilight" and "New Moon." A fourth book, titled "Breaking Dawn" is scheduled for release in 2008.– M.K.

Readers' picks

While the title first grabbed my attention - A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka – the quirky characters and family dynamics are keeping me glued to this book. Only 20 pages to go. Oh no! – Lorna Lippes, Buffalo, N.Y.

If you enjoy tales of the Arctic wilderness, I highly recommend Above the Falls by John Harris, a quasi-fictional murder mystery involving real persons.

– Howell Martyn, Ellington, Conn.

I just finished Lords of the Loom: The Cotton Whigs and the Coming of the Civil War by Thomas H. O'Connor, a fascinating look at the efforts – sometimes extraordinary – of Massachusetts textile manufacturers to avoid war and also to prevent slavery states from joining the United States. The author has done a remarkable job bringing characters and events to life; at some points this history reads like a page-turning novel. – Cindy Bates, Roslindale, Mass.

The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher by Debby Applegate gives a personal account of the man and the times as America transitioned from a belief in a god of hate to one of love.– Thomas Hackworth, Ojai, Calif.

I just finished A Thousand Splendid Suns right after reading "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini and wish there was another! What powerful books! I feel so close to Afganistan now. – Ann Regan, Valencia, Calif.

I'm reading Cinderella Man by Jeremy Schaap. Schaap recounts the early boxing careers of both James J. Braddock and Max Baer. Schaap writes with strength and precision, and the information is interesting and at times inspiring. A great read from a solid author.– Caleb Holt, Stockton, Calif.

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