Sunday, November 27, 2005

Action Heroes Jackson, Roosevelt; Sleepy Descartes: New Bios

Nov. 23 (Bloomberg) --In an 1806 duel, Andrew Jackson let
rival Charles Dickinson shoot him in the chest from just 24 feet
away. It was a calculated risk.

Jackson knew Dickinson was the better marksman and reasoned
it was ``wiser to take the blow, recover one's balance and
return a careful shot,'' writes H.W. Brands in his vivid new
biography of the seventh U.S. president: ``Andrew Jackson: His
Life and Times'' (Doubleday, 621 pages, $35). Jackson was right:
He survived the wound and shot Dickinson dead. His resilience,
both physical and political, earned him the nickname ``Old
Hickory.'' A hickory branch, writes Brands, is ``thin but
impossible to break.''
Born to Ulster-Scots immigrants in South Carolina, Jackson
later moved to Tennessee, where he worked as a lawyer while
moonlighting as a land speculator, horse breeder and slave
trader. He was elected to the U.S. Senate at age 30, but quit to
take over the Tennessee militia and fight Indians.

There's far more to Jackson's legacy than his granite-
jawed, swoop-haired visage on the $20 bill. All his life,
Jackson battled ``birth and breeding as requisites for personal

Eventually, Jackson's astounding one-sided victory against
the British at the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812
made him a hero of the people, who in turn elected him to two
terms as president, from 1829-1837.

Echoing previous Jackson biographers such as Arthur
Schlesinger Jr., Brands remembers Jackson primarily as the
founder of the Democratic Party, the man who broke down
patrician barriers to politics. He was the first president to
shake 10,000 hands at his inauguration -- a feat seemingly every
president since him has felt the need to match or surpass.

Teddy Roosevelt

Where Brands has delivered a presidential biography full of
action, Candice Millard has written an action-adventure story
starring a president.

In ``The River of Doubt'' (Doubleday, 416 pages, $26), the
former National Geographic editor recounts an amazing episode
from the life of Teddy Roosevelt -- his exploration of a remote
section of the Amazon River in Brazil after he lost his run for
a third term in 1912.

Roosevelt was accompanied by his son Kermit, Colonel
Candido Rondon and a coterie of guides, porters and scientists,
some from the Museum of Natural History in New York.

Hungry Cannibals

The trip was ill-conceived. The group's dugout canoes were
heavy and couldn't handle the massive rapids and waterfalls they
encountered along the river. The food they'd expected to forage
and hunt was virtually nonexistent, and the water was filled
with giant killer catfish. Then, indigenous cannibals began
tracking the group, eyeing the plump, 220-pound Roosevelt.

By the end of the trip, even a hungry man-eater would have
recoiled at the prospect of a presidential platter. Roosevelt,
sick with malaria and an infected leg, was injecting quinine
directly into his belly. Millard recounts the moment when
Roosevelt offered to commit suicide with a lethal dose of
morphine so that his companions could more easily make it out of
the jungle.

Millard's riveting tale of exotic adventure adds a new
dimension of vulnerability to the myth of TR's uber-manliness.
It's the ideal book to read by the comfort of a roaring fire
while digesting an enormous Thanksgiving feast.


Unlike Jackson or Roosevelt, Rene Descartes (1596-1650)
didn't like to get out of bed, where he spent a good deal of
time cogitating (I sleep, therefore I think). The philosopher's
eccentric habits are the subject of ``Descartes' Secret
Notebook'' (Broadway, 288 pages, $24.95) by Amir Aczel.

Aczel, author of the bestselling ``Fermat's Last Theorem,''
frames his latest book as an investigation into the decoding of
one of Descartes's notebooks discovered by the German
mathematician Gottfried Leibniz in 1676. The real question is
why Descartes kept his work secret at all.

The son of French nobility and a Catholic who spent much of
his life living in Protestant Netherlands, Descartes may have
been a member of the Rosicrucians, a shadowy fraternity of
scholars who toyed with mysticism and alchemy. He may have
resorted to code in fear of the Inquisition.

Math Primer

Aczel does an adequate job of explaining Descartes's
mathematical and philosophical breakthroughs in the context of
his era, but the book too often reads like a dull math primer.
In a confounding, if intriguing final chapter, Aczel tries
to connect Descartes's formula for Platonic solids and the work
of contemporary cosmologist Jeffrey Weeks.

Weeks created a new model of the geometry of the universe,
one that allows travel through space as if it were a two-
dimensional plane. Think of the video game ``Asteroids,'' in
which a spaceship leaving the right edge of the screen reappears
on the left. It's a fascinating notion, but one that requires
another book to support it, not just seven pages.