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.
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.
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.
Jean Edward Smith (Eisenhower in War and Peace, FDR and Chief Justice Hughes, Traitor to His class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt) also published an outstanding biography titled FDR in 2008. I must disclose that I am a fan of Smith’s biographies and have completed almost all of them. This biography is longer than some will tolerate, but well worth the effort. It fully details the split between FDR and ER, the President’s relationship with his children, his handling of the War, his approach to the Depression, and the holding of Japanese US citizens. The most interesting passage for me covered his friendship with Churchill and Lend Lease. Anyone who didn’t live through this American era or in the shadow of FDR, will be more than rewarded for learning about this time in our history. Wade into the book, swim through some pages, and see if you don’t agree. Certainly, Jean Edward Smith has a knack for bringing history in general to the general reader through biography. The narration of Marc Cashman is excellent