All posts filed under: Biography & Autobiography

The Saboteur: The Aristocrat Who Became France’s Most Daring Anti-Nazi Commando (Paul Kix)

This is the story of a man—Robert de La Rouchefoucauld, scion of one of the oldest noble families in France, who lived from 1923 to 2012.  He led a life in full; the focus of this book is his three years fighting against the Germans in France, as a résistant.  It is a tale of bravery and derring-do, and it is gripping.  But even more, it is terribly sad, because reading about this past makes us realize how masculinity and duty as exemplified by La Rouchefoucauld are no longer celebrated, but rather denigrated, to the detriment of all of us.

Napoleon: A Life (Andrew Roberts)

For some time now, I have been claiming that what we are likely to get, and probably need, whether we like it or not, is a Man of Destiny.  The original man called that was, of course, Napoleon Bonaparte.  Neither my claim nor Napoleon is popular nowadays.  We have gotten used to hearing that individual men don’t matter—that history is instead, take your pick, a matter of struggle for economic advantage, or of the opinions and actions of the masses, or of blind and random fate, or of group politics of one type or another.  This book, Andrew Roberts’s generally positive take on Napoleon, shows the falsehood of those claims, and proves that what matters is men.  Not men in general, but a tiny subset of men who make, and have always made, the world what it is, and what it will be, good and bad.

All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (Henry Mayer)

William Lloyd Garrison is one of those nineteenth-century American figures about whom most people know a little, realizing they are important to American history, but whom few can discuss with expertise.  Into that same category I’d put men like Henry Clay, John Fremont, perhaps even Stephen Douglas, and quite a few others.  Garrison is probably more neglected than those figures.  But this book is an excellent corrective, not only showing the importance of Garrison for his time, but showing us how his principles apply today in a similarly fraught moral climate, and offering lessons in how society’s powerful approach, or fail to approach, moral issues, then and now.

American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll (Bradley J. Birzer)

Charles Carroll, once famous as the only Catholic signatory of the Declaration of Independence and the last signatory to die, is no longer much in the public consciousness.  If asked to name a signatory, most people would say “John Hancock,” since he wrote his name in big letters.  Thomas Jefferson would also come to mind; perhaps also John Adams, Samuel Adams and Ben Franklin, especially for those who watched the John Adams miniseries on HBO a few years back.  Not that long ago, though, Charles Carroll would also have sprung to mind, and Bradley Birzer’s goal is to, if not restore Carroll, at least clear away some of the dust that has covered his memory.

Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror (Victor Sebestyen)

When we think of the Soviet Union, we mostly think of it as a fully realized totalitarian state.  We think of Stalin, of World War II and of the Cold War.  Lenin is a shadowy figure to most of us, usually lumped in with the chaos that preceded and surrounded the Russian Revolution.  As a result, biographies of Stalin and histories of the Cold War are a dime a dozen, but there are few objective biographies of Lenin.  Lenin, though, was the true author of Soviet totalitarianism, and, more importantly, he, and he alone, was the indispensable man to the creation of Communism as a realized state, even if he did not live to see it.  His life, therefore, is important, in that it illuminates history, and also in that it provides, in some ways, an instruction book for those seeking change today.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (Edmund Morris)

This is a forty-year-old biography that is as fresh today as it was in the 1970s.  The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is the best-known of modern biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, although it only covers his life up to his accession to the Presidency, in 1901.  It wholly warrants its reputation—the writing is clear and compelling, the facts are relevant and interesting, and the author, Edmund Morris, treats the man through the lens of his time, not with any jarring ideological overlay imported from today.  The reader feels like he is practically living in the time, and that is a hard trick to pull off, especially for eight hundred pages.

The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World (Charles C. Mann)

This book addresses what is, as far as the material comforts of the modern age, the central question of our time—can mankind have it all?  The author, Charles Mann, does not answer that question, though I think his answer would be, if forced, “probably yes.”  What Mann offers, rather than canned answers, is a refreshingly and relentlessly non-ideological work, comparing two philosophies of human development, embodied in the lives of two men of the twentieth century.  The first, Norman Borlaug, engineered the saving of hundreds of millions of lives and won a Nobel Prize.  The second, William Vogt, prophesied a global doom whose arrival date has been continuously postponed for fifty years, and then shot himself, whereupon he was forgotten until this book.

Augustus: First Emperor of Rome (Adrian Goldsworthy)

This review will combine something very old with something very new.  The very old, of course, is the title character, the Emperor Augustus, and his times.  The very new is a continuation of my thoughts on reaction as a modern political movement.  You will see how these things fit together, and in fact are much the same thing, for today, more than ever, everything old is new again.  And I will begin to distinguish “conservatives” from “reactionaries,” as I recently promised I would.

Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet’s Life (Scott Donaldson)

I have zero creative talent.  The pinnacle of my own ability to draw is stick figures, and not good ones.  I cannot sing or play an instrument.  I cannot write fiction.  I do not understand iambic pentameter.  Thus, I tend not to express any opinion about poetry, and I certainly don’t write any.  But I have always liked the poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson, which when I was young was still included in older anthologies of poetry.  Whether they were directed at children or not I cannot say, but I read some of his poetry at around five years old, and it has stuck with me.  I doubt very much if children, or adults, are exposed to him today, even though a hundred years ago he was the nation’s most famous poet.  This biography, written ten years ago, is an excellent corrective to today’s ignorance.

Flash of Genius (John Seabrook)

This title story of this book tells of Bob Kearns, tinkering inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper, whose patented invention was stolen by Ford and other big automakers.  The story was originally a 1993 New Yorker article, but was republished in this book as a tie-in to the 2008 Greg Kinnear movie of the same name. That’s just one story in this fascinating collection, though, which covers topics ranging from Nevada gold mining to the Antikythera Mechanism.  The book is quite good—not earthshattering, but interesting, and certainly capable of giving the reader interesting discussion topics so he can avoid politics at the next cocktail party he has to attend.