All posts filed under: Biography & Autobiography

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.

Born to Run (Bruce Springsteen)

I’ve always liked Bruce Springsteen, but never knew much about him beyond what could be read in the news.  His autobiography, Born to Run, tells everything a reasonable reader could want.  It’s not a tell-all, certainly—while Springsteen honestly relates his life, including quite a bit of self-criticism, he says explicitly he has not told the reader everything.  Still, the reader learns a lot, and for someone like me not sentient in the 1970s, in particular, the book draws a vivid picture of a particular unique time.

Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency (Joshua Green)

From when he won the Republican nomination, until Election Night, I told anyone who would listen that Trump would win, and win handily.  I am a Trump supporter, and voted for Trump.  I am also a big fan of Steve Bannon.  Joshua Green is none of the above—yet he has written a compelling, and insightful book, even-handed in every way, that is very much worth reading.

Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits, and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World (Noel Malcolm)

When I think about Albania, which is not often, I usually think about Communist dictator Enver Hoxha and the hundreds of thousands of reinforced concrete pillboxes he scattered around Albania, preparing for the imminent assault of the imperialists.  Other than that, if I’m in a historical mood, I think about Skanderbeg, the Sixteenth Century freedom fighter against the conquering Ottomans.  If I’m thinking about the modern era, maybe I think about Mother Teresa, or on a less exalted level, Jim Belushi.  I don’t, or didn’t, think about Venice, or Lepanto, or Jesuits, or any of the very interesting, and even exciting, places, people, and happenings Noel Malcolm covers.  This book, however, has changed my perspective.

Augustine: Conversions to Confessions (Robin Lane Fox)

Most of us, or so I like to think in order to feel better about myself, steer away from actually reading St. Augustine.  We know that he is an intellectual giant and one of the handful of core, key thinkers of Christianity, but everything he has to say seem so dense, and wasn’t he the mean proto-Calvinist who thought unbaptized infants go straight to Hell?  Not to mention that, after all, it was all so long ago and far away.  Like a lot of people, I own several works by Augustine, but mostly to show my erudition, not for, you know, actual reading.  But after completing Robin Lane Fox’s Augustine: Conversions to Confessions, I think I’m inspired, or at least impelled, to sit down, concentrate, and read some of Augustine’s works.  Assuming the feeling doesn’t pass, I think that’s exactly what I’ll do.

The Life and Prayers of Saint Joan of Arc (Wyatt North)

This book is pure hagiography.  While I suppose hagiography has its uses, mostly to gull and overawe the under-educated, I dislike hagiography.  But at least it can be good hagiography; it can be great literature by towering men of intellect, or if not that, at least it can interest and inform the reader. Not this book, though, which is unrelievedly bad on every level, and whose only virtue is extreme brevity.