All posts filed under: Biography & Autobiography

The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge (Calvin Coolidge)

I read this book after reading Amity Shlaes’s “Coolidge,” in part because Shlaes more than once refers to the “Autobiography.” While it is not an analytical work, rather a straightforward exposition by Coolidge of the facts of his life, it is an excellent complement to Shlaes’s longer (and also excellent) work. And as with that work, the “Autobiography” shows an America that is dead and gone, but one that contained within itself multitudes of virtues.

Defying Hitler: A Memoir (Sebastian Haffner)

“Defying Hitler” is one of those relatively few books (available widely in English at least) that are contemporaneous memoirs of events relating to the Third Reich. Any book, memoir or not, written after the war necessarily suffers from hindsight perception, so contemporaneous material is particularly interesting. (The classic modern example is Victor Klemperer’s diaries, which cover the war and pre-war period.) “Defying Hitler” was written in 1939, covering events in 1933, and was only published after the author’s death in 1999. The title of the book is a misnomer, because Haffner didn’t defy Hitler at all (which is his point).

Coolidge (Amity Shlaes)

My conclusion, after reading this book, is that Calvin Coolidge is grossly under-rated. Actually, that’s not quite right, because to be under-rated, you first have to be known. As far as I can tell, nearly nobody in America today knows much if anything about Coolidge. I certainly didn’t before reading this book. Yet not only is Coolidge a fascinating character study, his political life and his Presidency hold important lessons for today.

Thomas Jefferson: Author of America (Christopher Hitchens)

Typical incisive Hitchens, but marred by his anti-religious obsessions and biases, along with some strange lapses (mis-defining “entail”; mis-using “usufruct”; and others). Also way too much focus on slavery for a book less than 200 pages–it could better have been subtitled not “Author Of America” but “His Views And Actions On Slavery; And Some Other Matters.

Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero (Michael Korda)

This is a slight book, but it does not claim to be more. As a basic introduction to the life of Ulysses Grant, once the most famous person in the world and now essentially forgotten, it is very good. I am not qualified to judge the accuracy of the details, of which some other reviewers have complained. But it provides a clear and compelling outline of the man, in his roles as general, President and husband, and serves the important purpose of re-introducing him to modern Americans.

Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire (James Romm)

Who knew how exciting the events of the fourth century BC could be? Most of us have a dim idea of Alexander the Great—conqueror of Greece and points East, all the way to India. But it’s a pretty dim idea. And most of us have very little idea of what happened in the classical world after Alexander and before Julius Caesar. Perhaps we’re vaguely aware that the Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty was started by one of Alexander’s lieutenants, who took that part of Alexander’s empire, and that the famous Cleopatra wasn’t Egyptian in the least. But mostly our awareness is a blank page. This book fills in a small part of that page.

Infantry Attacks (Erwin Rommel)

Most people have heard of Erwin Rommel, at least in passing. But most people probably associate his name with only two events: World War Two tank battles in North Africa, and Rommel’s forced suicide by Hitler because of his ancillary association with Stauffenberg’s attempt to assassinate Hitler. And most people probably have a general sense that Rommel was not so bad a guy, relative to the Nazi regime as a whole (as low a bar as that may be). This book contradicts none of that, but provides a broader sense both of who Rommel was, and also provides a different perspective on World War One than we commonly have.

Sir Walter Raleigh (Raleigh Trevelyan)

This book not only illuminates Sir Walter Raleigh’s life, but also illuminates his times in a way that brings real benefit to the reader. The author, Raleigh Trevelyan (who died in 2014), does an excellent job of making Raleigh’s story compelling, maintaining focus on his protagonist while bringing in enough of the historical and political background to put Walter Raleigh in the context of his times. (Although if you don’t like poetry, you may not like frequent quotations of Raleigh’s poetry—but those also illuminate the points at hand, and so are well worth paying attention to.)

The Road To Mecca (Muhammad Asad)

This is a fascinating book—half travelogue and half conversion memoir.  Muhammad Asad was born a Jew, Leopold Weiss, in the Austro-Hungarian empire (in what is now Ukraine, the city of Lvov). He was prominent both in interactions with the West in the 20th Century, for example as Pakistani ambassador to the UN, and in theological work, including translation and exegesis of the Q’uran. Asad is regarded, and should be even more regarded in these days of Al Qaeda and ISIS, as a voice for a revitalized, mainstream (he would accurately reject the term “moderate”) Islam. But long before that, he was just a Westerner adrift and looking for spiritual answers.