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One of the more insidious ways to fritter away your life on the internet is to play Jeopardy online, competing against random strangers for (relatively) small amounts of money. There are few things more satisfying than starting out your day by shutting out perky cincinnatipatti, even though you immediately plow your winnings back into playing more online games. Of course, if you want to stand a fighting chance in the whole online Jeopardy caper, youll need to buckle down and face a harsh reality. That U.S. Presidents category comes up with disturbing regularity and eventually you realise that it cant be ignored. You need somehow to get up to speed on the 42 presidents pronto, assimilating the various tidbits of common knowledge that cincinnatipatti and her ilk had their entire high school years to soak up. What to do?Well, to get the basic information down, you could do worse than acquire a copy of To the Best of My Ability (The American Presidents) . Its published by DK, a company I had previously associated with travel guide books. The DK travel books are typically pretty decent - they all follow a common template, are written at an intermediate level of detail, and incorporate lots of pretty pictures. TtBoMA can be thought of as a kind of high-level guided tour of the U.S. presidency. Following a brief introduction by general editor James McPherson, the book is divided into two parts. The first section, running about 300 pages, comprises 42 essays, one per president from Washington to George W. Bush, written by the nations finest historians. The remaining 150 pages are given over to brief accounts of the electoral campaigns and results for each presidential selection (written by Richard M. Pious) and - one of the books major strengths - the full text of every inaugural address through 2001. My edition of TtBoMA was published in 2004. The book jacket promises engaging thoughtful analyses; a handsomely illustrated volume that brims with fresh anecdotes, stylish prose, and sharp analysis - a treasure! Treasure is pushing it, but the essays are pretty decent for the most part. With only 7 pages per essay, and all of those handsome illustrations clamoring for space, in-depth analysis is not really an option, so most of the contributors focus primarily on the main events of each presidency, providing context and explaining consequences as well as the prescribed chapter length allowed. Given the constraints, TtBoMA was much better than I expected. There are unavoidable structural limitations - some presidencies were more eventful than others, and some presidents were more complex. For example, even the combined contributions of both Harrisons are nowhere near as interesting as those of Lincoln or FDR. Omitting some of the handsome illustrations in favor of additional text would have been a welcome improvement in many cases, as would relaxation of the allocation of equal length to each contribution. Devoting equal space to the month-long tenure of William Henry Harrison and to the Lincoln presidency hardly seems sensible. But these are minor criticisms. To the Best of My Ability was an interesting, engaging read, and served its purpose nicely. If it werent for the odious baseball and football categories, Id be mopping the floor with the other online Jeopardy contestants.Regrettably, the book has been of little help in boosting my performance in online Trivial Pursuit, a game whose questions are just a bit too ... trivial ... to be dealt with in a serious book. I can, however, share the following nuggets of presidential trivia:number of left-handed presidents : 3number of presidents with facial hair : 10number of presidents assassinated while in office : 4number of presidents who died in office from causes other than assassination : 4fattest president : William Howard Taft, who gained 50 pounds in a two-year period, ballooning to a zenith of 355 pounds. Famously, he had to have a super-large bathtub installed in the White Houseshortest president : James Madison, who stood barely 5 4 tall and weighed only 100 pounds(perhaps) the most handsome president : Franklin Piercethe only bachelor president : James Buchanan3 creepy presidents : Harding, Coolidge, Nixonpresidents who fathered bastard children : Jefferson, Cleveland, Hardingnumber of presidents who were only children : 0

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