Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Review: "How to Fight Presidents," Daniel O'Brien
Author: Daniel O'Brien
Pages: paperback, 255 pages
Publisher: Three Rivers Press
Release: January 21, 2014
I preface this book by saying that I'm an American historian and AHA member who has been obsessed with presidents since I was four, studied with two Pulitzer Prize-winning "presidentialists" in college, and has read literally hundreds and hundreds of books on the subject. Presidents are my thing. Just love me some presidents. And I especially love funny books about them -- if they're genuinely funny, and smart, and sharp, and bring something new to the genre.
How to Fight Presidents: Defending Yourself Against the Badasses Who Ran This Country skyrocketed to the top of my list before I'd made it to the Civil War. Daniel O'Brien has found the perfect way to use humor to introduce new readers to the world of U.S. presidents, reward seasoned readers with loads of little in-jokes you'll quickly catch and appreciate if you know the topic, and approach the topic from an angle that's truly inventive and delightful. Anyone can go through the list of presidents and write one chapter on the "secret life" of each, but to do that and tell us how to best attack them in hand-to-hand combat? Haven't seen that done before. (By the way, the fighting tips only take up a paragraph or two of each chapter and actually provide great psychological analysis of each president, so don't be scared off if you're not big on duels.)
O'Brien is a comedy writer who absolutely knows his stuff. He's smart about which anecdotes to include and how to use them to his benefit. His style is distinctive but never wears on you. I genuinely laughed out loud at many of his wittiest (and most foul-mouthed) lines. By employing a more informal writing style and not being afraid to let a few bombs fly, he actually does a great job of capturing the presidents as they were/are -- normal guys who speak and act like the rest of us when no one's there to take minutes or pictures. He achieves the perfect tone and feel: you know from the start that it's a factual book, but you don't have to wear a jacket. It's the way a lot of history should be written, frankly, if only we were brave enough.
The illustrations are incredible and deserve a review of their own. Once again, there are little references tucked in that big fans will adore. I would actually love to own prints of a few.
The moment I closed the book for the last time, I hopped on-line ordered two copies to send to friends who also love presidential humor. I've never done that after reading a review copy of anything. (Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books.) I'll end up buying a couple more for gifts in the future. Honestly, if you're a presidential humor fan, you have no choice but to get a copy of How to Fight Presidents. Do it or I'll fight you.