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.
Wow. Just wow. A pure delight from beginning to end: one of the most enjoyable audiobooks I've ever listened to. I'm a Beatles fanatic, and that probably helps; but I'd venture to say that this book has the potential to grab even people who don't know or don't care much about them. Mark Lewisohn writes with great insight and narrative skill about the struggles of the Beatles to gain recognition and professional success at a time when no one else - NO one - was doing the kind of music they were doing, in the way they were doing it. They're poster children for the "10,000 hours" take on career development. They paid their dues.
Lewisohn gives particularly full attention to Pete Best, Brian Epstein, and George Martin. I've read several books on the Beatles and biographies of individual band members, and I still heard surprising new information about these people, and everybody else connected with the band, on practically every "page."
It's not hagiography. John Lennon, as much as I love him, is clearly a world-class jerk, and the others all have less positive aspects. Their terrible treatment of Pete Best and their wild life on the Reeperbahn are presented in unsparing detail. But running through the book is a strong sense of their devotion to music, the clarity of their vision, and their genius: genius being defined as an infinite capacity for taking pains.
Clive Mantle does a terrific job with the narration. He does the "voices" as if it were a work of fiction. I know that's not to everyone's taste, but to me, the key is whether it's done well or not. Mantle nails the Liverpool accent and even captures the unique cadence of each Beatle; and he nails the posh "standard" accents of Epstein and Martin as well.
Lewisohn spent 10 years writing this. I hope that includes the research for the other two volumes. This one stops at the end of 1962, just before "Please Please Me" was released. I don't want to wait another 10 years for the next part. I'm not ready to let these guys go yet.
I said this before, for the first volume of this book, and I'll say it again: this is an incredible act of generosity on everyone's part: the editors, the researchers, Twain himself, and especially (in the case of the audiobook) Grover Gardner. Gardner is one of the best Twain readers around - you won't go wrong with any of his performances of a Twain book - and listening to this is like sitting back, legs propped up, and hearing a garrulous old friend talk about his life. All that's missing are the cigar and the glass of brandy. (You'll have to supply those yourself, if you're so inclined.)
This volume has quite a bit to say about God, none of it particularly complimentary. It's no secret that there was no love lost between Mark Twain and God, or at least God as he conceived him to be: Twain's God has a lot of suffering to answer for, suffering that in Twain's opinion could easily have been avoided by a snap of the finger.
The second volume also has quite a bit to say about cats (Sour Mash was one of his favorites) and about his daughter Susy's biography of him, from which he quotes extensively. Other topics that grab Twain's attention, over the course of several months of dictation, are copyright law (he favored copyright "in perpetuity"); how the government used military pensions to buy the votes of the pensioners; phrenology and the mind cure (he had no truck with the former, but seems to believe, or want to believe, in the latter); and his admiration for London cabmen, who had to acquire a knowledge of the city that rivalled Twain's own knowledge of the nooks and crannies of the Mississippi River.
There are villains aplenty. One of the chief villains is Twain's fellow writer Bret Harte, who was (in Twain's opinion) a liar, a sponger, and a cheat: a man who abandoned his wife and children to genteel poverty when he left for Europe, a man whose default mode was sneering. (One night over a game of billiards, he went too far and sneered at Twain's beloved wife Livy. Twain set him straight, unloading a train of vituperation that had been years in the making.) "The sense of shame," Twain says, "was left out of Harte's constitution."
There are also a few heroes. One was Livy; another was Helen Keller, who met with Twain several times and whom he considered a friend; another was Keller's teacher Annie Sullivan. Henry Rogers, a robber baron to some, was a personal hero to Twain: by careful financial management, Rogers was able to help Twain out of bankruptcy and pay back "a hundred cents on the dollar," satisfying Twain's sense of honor - and more to the point, Livy's.
There's at least one complete short story embedded in these reflections: "Was it Heaven? or Hell?" I'd read that story many years ago, but I never realized - nor did Twain realize at the time he wrote it - that a similar scenario would play out in his own life shortly after the story was published. Livy and Jean both became deathly ill, and following the accepted medical practice of the day, neither was told about the other; so the unfortunate Clara was left with the task of making up stories of Jean's exploits to tell her mother, occasionally tripping over inconsistencies. (Jean, of course, was only a few bedrooms away, in a delirium of fever.)
This volume, like the one that preceded it, is a thing of joy and beauty for any lover of Mark Twain's. I hope all the participants remain healthy and able to see this magnificent project through its third and final volume, and that Grover Gardner will be able to narrate it, and that I will be around to hear it.