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.
This is a wonderful, totally absorbing biography of Edwin and John Wilkes Booth. Nora Titone has an almost magical ability to create a sense of place and time as she follows the Booth brothers from their family farm to New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. It really is about both brothers, and the look at 19th-century American theater fully justifies the dual focus: how is it possible that Edwin Booth (and their father Junius Brutus Booth -- not to mention their resourceful mother!) has been overlooked for so long? There is plenty of time as well in this generous narrative to develop a number of figures peripheral to the main story, like Julia Ward Howe and her husband "Chev" (short for "Chevalier"); John Brown; and a number of theatrical colleagues and managers.
John B. Lloyd provides a clear, well-paced reading. My only regret is that Titone leaves the description of the actual conspiracy to kill Lincoln to others; but reading this makes it clear what direction John Wilkes Booth was headed in, and why. I loved it. I would recommend it to anyone interested in Lincoln, the Civil War, the American theater, or the 19th century in general.
I haven't seen the movie "Parkland" yet. It may or may not be any good. But I'm grateful that it led to the publisher finally releasing an unabridged version of this masterful account of the Kennedy assasination.
The history of the book is interesting in itself. Vincent Bugliosi originally published a 1500 page book about the assasination, a book that took him some 20 years to write and which included this enthralling narrative as the first part. (The book would have been even longer, but the publishers decided to put the voluminous notes on an accompanying CD.) The other parts of the book described the various investigations into the assassination, official and unofficial, and it dissected the various conspiracy theories in excruciating detail. Later, the opening narrative was released as a standalone book, which was then adapted into the movie. That standalone section is what we have here.
Bugliosi sticks scrupulously to observable, documented fact in this account. For example, at the moment of the assassination, he doesn't tell us what Oswald was doing. What he tells us is what two of the eyewitneeses saw (a man firing from the sixth floor window in the School Book Depository). Later he describes the lineups where they identified Oswald as the man. Readers can draw their own conclusions.
Of course there's no question where Bugliosi stands. With a few adjustments, he supports the Warren Commission findings pretty much straight down the line. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that he supports the conclusions of the Dallas police department, especially Will Fritz's homicide squad: they methodically and painstakingly built the case against Oswald in the two days following the assassination. Of particular interest in the narrative are the reconstructions of the interrogations of Oswald. Step by step, the detectives work through his denials; they never got him to confess, but it's hard to read this account without admiring their work.
I know that by saying that, I'm opening myself up to ridicule by those who remain convinced that Kennedy was murdered by a vast conspiracy. Been there, done that. I've read many of the books published on both sides of the issue, and over the years I've come to the conclusion that when it comes to misrepresentation, credulity, and disingenuously taking things out of context, there's plenty of blame to go around. I've gradually surrendered my own conspiracy theories - partly because of the vigorous arguments put forward by Bugliosi in the parent volume to this book.
I also love Oliver Stone's "JFK." It's a great movie, one of the best I've ever seen. But "JFK" is art; "Parkland" - at least the book - is history.
A note about the narration. George Newbern does an excellent job. He gives distinctive voices to the different people involved, usually by suggestion rather than outright mimicry - a series of impressionistic portraits rather than impressions. One voice in particular deserves comment: Newbern nails Oswald. It's not just the twang, not just the inflection; it's the arrogance, the evasiveness, the buried fear, the sense of a deeply damaged man. I haven't heard Newbern before, but I definitely want to hear him again.