December 2007

Hail to the chiefs

By Barry H. Landau
By Peter Schifando
By Judith Dupre
By Hugh Howard
By the editors of Time
Review by
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The President's Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy by Barry H. Landau may be the most unusually focused historical study one could encounter: It deals with a very specific aspect of American political development namely, how the presidents ate. The book offers a fascinating retrospective in words and pictures of state dinners, public celebrations and the ubiquitous campaign fundraisers, stretching from George Washington to George W. Bush. Recognized as the foremost expert on presidential dining, Landau has amassed a collection of invitations, menus and memorabilia relating to presidential dinners during all 43 administrations exceeding even the Smithsonian's records, which only date to William McKinley's beginnings in 1897. The photographs here are meticulous and numerous, depicting everything from silk menus to campaign mementos. Such an array of invitations, cards and envelopes (among other items) could seem overwhelming were it not for Landau's accompanying text, which helps place the images within the social, political and historical contexts of their eras. The result is an interesting examination of how an event as simple as a meal can swell in significance when the president is at the table and how those same dinners can have repercussions, for good or ill, that affect a nation.

An intriguing book is Entertaining at the White House with Nancy Reagan, Peter Schifando and J. Jonathan Joseph's retrospective of the dinners and events hosted by the former president and first lady during their tenure in the executive mansion. The book is filled with photographs of monarchs, ministers, musicians and movie stars, as well as the elegantly arranged banquets that were created to entertain and honor them all. Entertaining at the White House also details the intricacies of protocol and diplomacy that go into planning, preparing and conducting even the simplest event, from deciding whom to invite (and whom not to), to honoring the cultural taboos of foreign dignitaries and their watching citizens back home. Surprisingly insightful, Schifando and Joseph's book is an alluring glimpse into the elegant and even risky world that combines diplomacy with dining.

Monuments: America's History in Art and Memory by Judith Dupre stands out from the other volumes here in both appearance and approach. Whereas the other books are concerned with the people, events and places of history, Monuments focuses not on the events, but on how we as a nation remember them. Duprea nd her editors have crafted an unusually striking book. The cover is made to look and feel like rough, textured stone from an ancient wall. Gaps in this wall reveal photos of monuments both familiar and obscure, inviting closer inspection the mark of any good monument.

Inside, the photos and graphical elements and even the text in places are presented in rich bronze tones, as though to echo the metal of a monument itself. Dupre's book follows a roughly chronological order, whether by a monument's historical significance or by the era of its inception, though one entry may cover a great swing of time, especially when that monument's story encompasses additions or restorations. Along the journey are side trips into details of note, or even unusual areas of recognition from a heroic dog to the almost anti-monument of a so-called potter's field, filled with the remains of the forgotten.

Although Dupre's text becomes heavy at times as she tries to define what are essentially visual and tactile experiences, when she deals with the events themselves and the process of the monuments' creation, her words are often fascinating and even moving. Reaching the end of Monuments doesn't feel like ending a journey, but the start of a desire to see for yourself what others thought should be remembered, and to discover what those remembrances evoke in you.

Memorials, of course, seldom have any real attachment to the events and people being honored, save perhaps location. Far more significant in a historical sense are the actual items and places the men and women knew, used and loved none more so than the homes in which they lived and worked. Like a parade of homes, Houses of the Founding Fathers: The Men Who Made America and the Way They Lived by Hugh Howard, with photography by Roger Straus III, leads the reader on a grand tour of the houses and estates of America's founding citizens, both men and women. Filled with beautiful, detailed photographs, Houses of the Founding Fathers provides an engaging glimpse into the daily lives and aspirations of our nation's earliest leaders. Readers who appreciate architectural details, exquisite craftsmanship and elegant design will be engrossed by the lavish images, while those with a penchant for history will be equally intrigued by the stories, individuals and events that filled these magnificent homes. For both art and history, these homes are a pleasure to visit.

Time America: An Illustrated History by the editors of Time magazine is easily the most conventional of these five books, but no less interesting for that. The text is a readable and entertaining review of America's history from the days of Columbus' arrival to the current period. You won't come to this book for remarkable insights or in-depth research (and don't be surprised by the slight inaccuracies), but that's not the point. The words merely serve to complement the pictures, an engaging and often unusual cavalcade of images from all walks of American life, from the mundane to the momentous. Some scenes will be instantly familiar, some curiously strange and some refreshingly human, but all serve as delightful windows into our nation's past, well worth the viewing.

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