Grant is one of the most underrated heroes of American history. He is usually remembered as a drunk, a butcher, or an incompetent, who had one of the most corrupt presidential administrations ever. There's a grain of truth in some of these — Grant did have a drinking problem earlier in his life; his final push to end the Civil War resulted in appalling casualties; and many of the men he picked for his administration betrayed his trust. (No evidence about the incompetence, except with money: he was a brilliant general and a wonderful writer.)
But Grant remains a hero: personally honest, a devoted husband and father, a courageous soldier, a brilliant strategist, and totally committed to Lincoln's vision for ending the war. H. W. Brands demonstrates his remarkable virtues in chapter after fast-moving chapter. Even his presidency gets more positive attention than usual: among other things, he broke the power of the Ku Klux Klan in the postwar south.
And of course there's the inspiring story of his battle with bankruptcy and cancer and his struggle to complete his memoirs before succumbing to the final assault. Their subsequent publication (by Mark Twain) ensured the prosperity of his family for many years after his death.
H. W. Brands tells the story as much as possible in the words of the participants. Every biographer of Grant will quote from the same letters and journals and memoirs; but usually these are snippets interspersed with summary and interpretation. Brands is more generous in his quotations, presenting whole paragraphs and even groups of paragraphs. The result is an exceptionally vivid account. Brands has captured him in motion.
Stephen Hoye narrates briskly and with a lot more passion than is usual in nonfiction. It's an audiobook I plan to return to again and again.
Charles Bracelen Flood is one of my favorite writers of popular history. This is his second book involving Grant (the first one was "Grant and Sherman"); if anything, it's an even more dramatic story than how Grant (and Sherman) won the Civil War. Grant was sitting on top of the world, near-millionaire status, when everything collapsed in 1884: fortune gone and then his health - it gradually became apparent that he was dying from throat cancer. To provide for his family after his death, he turned to writing, and in the process created a highly regarded military memoir, one that's still in print and still getting glowing reviews. (The memoirs themselves are available elsewhere on Audible in an excellent reading by Robin Field.)
Flood gives a detailed account of Grant's last year in this sometimes wryly funny, sometimes deeply moving book. He has a wonderful eye for the characteristic detail, the perfect quote, the illuminating anecdote. It gives a brutally realistic picture of the progress of Grant's disease - something I understand is not to everyone's taste, but for me it was an essential aspect of the story.
Fans of Mark Twain will be pleased by the role he plays in the story. Twain was starting his own publishing firm (one that published "Huckleberry Finn" around the same time), and he offered Grant more generous terms than he was likely to get anywhere else. After Grant's death, Twain's company paid Julia Grant nearly half a million dollars in royalties. (It was Twain's praise of Grant and Grant's writing that first put me onto Grant many years ago.)
Unfortunately, I have to admit that Michael Prichard would not have been my first choice as reader for this particular book. It's an intense, personal story, and Prichard's style is much more "public": he seems to belong to the "narrators should be neutral" school of thought. He gets the story across, but I don't hear a lot of warmth in his voice.
If that doesn't bother you, give this one a try. The story itself is a great story and a story of true greatness. It's begging to be made into a movie.
Nancy Goldstone has written a compelling history of Joan of Arc and the final days of the Hundred Years War. It suffers slightly from the "Secret" billing: the major secret is that Yolande of Aragon, Charles VII's mother-in-law, was a supporter of Joan (which was not so secret) and may have cleared the way for Joan's first appearance at Charles's court (which is a reasonable inference, made more convincing here by the "coincidental" juxposition of certain letters, meetings and decisions). Secret or not, the book DOES provide a detailed look at the political infighting that characterized the French court, and sets each of the participants, including Joan, in a credible historical context. It provides one of the clearest explanations I've read of the tangled Anglo-French dynastic issues.
Goldstone tries to maintain a balanced perspective. In one instance, I think she goes too far in explaining away Yolande's behavior: in describing the absence of any French support for Joan after her capture, she says, the trial was such a breach of protocol that no one could have expected it (lame); and she notes that Yolande had her hands full with other problems, including the fact that her own son Rene had been captured by Burgundy (understandable but still ungrateful).
Sandra Burr does an excellent job narrating the book. I did find, in the copy I downloaded, one technical glitch. This is likely to be fixed (such issues often are in Audible's downloads), but I'll mention it just in case it isn't. Part of Chapter 17, from the second audio file, has been dropped into the first file, between chapters 4 and 5. The same content is repeated in the right place, so it's a question of being momentarily confused rather than having to mentally unscramble the story.
I will definitely be listening to other books by Goldstone. Among other things, she pulls off the difficult balancing act of demystifying Joan without in any way devaluing her achievement.
First, I am not pro-Castro. However, having spend some time in his Cuba I was interested in what this head of state had to say. I wanted to get a glimpse of Castro the man. "Fidel Castro: My Life" has gotten me about as close to the man as I could get.
Ignacio Ramonet has spent over 100 hours interviewing Castro. Those thoughts are contained here. The book follows a Q&A format which is helpful. The prose is polished and well read by two readers. One reads the questions and the second plays the part of Castro.
Whatever your attitude toward the Revolution, this book is very interesting. The stories, even from Castro's perspective, are engaging and informative.
The book has a rather lengthy introduction. If you are pro-Revolution, you will be rewarded. If you are anti-Castro, you might not continue the book. I was a little put off, but greatly rewarded for continuing on and opening my mind to the narrative. The introduction is also helpful and should not be skipped because Ramonet details his interview and writing methodology.
Listen to the book if you believe it is fiction. Listen if you believe in Castro.