For 50 years Tony Hendra thought that an eccentric Benedictine monk on the Isle of Wight was his personal confidant, whom he could run to frequently in hours of need, or rather less frequently during successful coke-snorting days in LA and NY. Only when Father Joe dies does Tony discover that the funny little monk had also been providing guidance to hundreds of other people, including Princess Di and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
That's the coda of the book. The early part is thrilling, somewhat sordid autobiography about a 14-year-old's seduction by a woman in her 20s, and his subsequent retreat at a monastery where he becomes fascinated by the omniscient Father Joe.
I cannot complain about Nasaw's writing: he is generous and understanding. I liked Joe Kennedy going in, and he didn't suffer much on the way. Nasaw disposes of the "bootlegger" lie handily; it is too bad he had to bother with that at all. A little more on the Hollywood years would have been appreciated here, but there is only so much you can squeeze into a fat biography.
My reservations are mainly about the narration, which does not seem to have suffered any decent editor's fine hand. The narrator does not know what he is talking about sometimes, continually pronouncing the Astors' Cliveden House as Clyve-den (it's 'Clivdin'); he also repeatedly mispronounces the name Cadogan (as in the Irish surname, the peer and the multiple placenames in London) as Ca-dough-gin when it is of course Ca-duggin. He turns Noroton, Connecticut into Norritin (rather than 'Nor-O-tin'). And so on. These are not minor quibbles. If one is going to speak of the 'Cliveden Set' many times, one should at least know how to pronounce it.
I had to listen to this two or three times with half an ear before I appreciated Keegan's cunning arrangement of the story. It is not a straight narrative, does not compete directly with the 119-course meals of Shelby Foote and Bruce Catton. It does not arrange the story in a linear timeline like a choo-choo train (THIS happened and then THIS happened...). No, it's done in the style of a digressive essay, like a long book review. Keegan spends most of the first half dilating upon the topics that most interest him: 19th Century American culture in general, Southern civilization vs Northern, the variances in technological development, the astounding spottiness of topographical knowledge (basically, maps that were poor or nonexistent), the prosperity and ease of the old-stock middle class, and in general how strange and novel American civilization appeared to those from the Old World.
Perhaps only an English military historian could handle this with the detachment that Keegan shows. This is not to say he shows no biases at all; he definitely faults the South for being technologically deficient and maybe culturally backward; and he thinks the world of Abraham Lincoln. But this is just a function of using a book-review idiom, in which one accepts the conventional outlook overall, while reserving creative insight for one's one narrow and favorite specialties. Thus when discussing strategy in the many theaters of war, Keegan comes back again and again to his own pet methodologies, analyzing the problems of managing a war over a vast terrain that no one comprehended very well, and comparing the topographical problems of waging battles in Tidewater Virginia versus the campaigns in the trans-Appalachian West. Again and again it's mainly an issue of good maps and efficient geopolitical outlook, much as in the First World War.
The performance is pretty good. The mispronunciations of place names (mainly "Po-to-mack" for Potomac) is amusing and forgivable, given the British actor during the narration.
The three-volume history is skewed very much toward the opening year(s), and it is here that Catton excels. He gives a deep survey of the year or two leading up to the secession crisis, something usually passed over or summarized into cliché.
After this, the book is a pleasant enough history for the most part, but it lacks the detail and narrative creativity that I liked so much in Shelby Foote's novelistic history.
Catton spends altogether too much of the series on digressive essays that are no more or less than anti-Confederate propaganda. He is particularly obsessed with the problem of negro slavery, and how it was the central issue of the war. As to justifications for the Confederacy, Catton does not seem to think there were any. The secessionists were vain and deluded fools, while the Federals' defects were minor and routine.
Catton's point of view is identical to the pulpy propaganda that the Union League and the Loyal League cranked out from 1862 to 1865 (and beyond). One wants to say to Catton, Oh grow up!
This book is only a hair less entertaining than "Wolf of the Deep," the story of Raphael Semmes (RAYF-yel SEMZ) and the CSS Alabama. Although no one could be more fascinating than Semmes, the story of the CSS Shenandoah is at least marginally more interesting than that of the Alabama. The Shenandoah was the ship expressly commissioned to sail to the Arctic (AR-tik) Circle in order to sink the Yankee whalers, though in so doing it also circumnavigated the globe, something accomplished by no other Confederate or Union vessel during the Civil War.
The Shenandoah kept raiding Union vessels until it learned the war was well over. It arrived back in Liverpool in November 1865, the last CSN vessel to strike its colors. We are fortunate to have the diary of the young executive officer William Conway Whittle as a primary source for this history. This gives the story a day-by-day reality and dramatic tension that redeems what is otherwise a long, dreary, and desperate tale.
(I give pronunciations above because so many of these Audible presenters don't know how to pronounce things.)
I do not know how anyone could not love this book, or the figure of Commander Raphael Semmes, the South's greatest naval hero. The biography neatly balances the details of Semmes's curious and poignant personal life, against the vast sweep of the two-year odyssey of the commerce raider CSS Alabama.
The book admirably avoids partisanship when it comes to the War Between the States...at least till the last few chapters, when Fox briefly goes off on a quasi-Marxist rant against the Confederacy, damning Semmes for having "racist" [sic] beliefs. This sudden disgression seems forced and artificial. I'm just guessing here, but it appears this change of voice was imposed by the publishing house. Fox's editor must have been getting a little uneasy about putting out a popular history wherein the hero is a Confederate Navy commander who sinks 100 Yankee ships, while the villains are all Yankee politicians, diplomats, or (in the notable case of Clarence Yonge) money-grubbing turncoats in their employ. So Mr. Fox paid his lip-service to Political Correctness, and in due course the book was published by HarperCollins of New York and London, rather than the Dixieland Vanity Press of Holly Springs, Mississippi.
Fox seems to be the first biographer to uncover the details of Semmes's unfaithful wife and her illegitimate child Anna, conceived while Semmes was off fighting the Mexican War, and delivered shortly after he returned. Semmes behaved as a true Christian gentleman in this crisis; a veritable St Joseph. Although the child was sent away to Eden Hall for some years, she was never disavowed, and is always listed as the fifth of their six children. (Fox offers a bizarre interpretation of Semmes's forbearance and charity, explaining it away as a product of Catholic leniency toward sinfulness.)
For this Audible edition, I have only one complaint about the performance. The reader does not know how to pronounce "Raphael." Here in America, and the English-speaking world in general, the archangelic name is usually "RAY-feeyul." But the narrator consistently says "ROFF-ay-el," making it weirdly exotic, as though Semmes were some sort of Mexican or Levantine. Can it be he's never heard the name before?
Most of this has nothing to do with the Medieval World, which here in the West has always meant the world of European Christendom. Perhaps succumbing to an anti-western polyglot agenda, Susan Wise Bauer has served up a strange mix of Chinese, and Indian, and Patagonian, and God knows what else, along with slivers of European history. She has very little favorable to say about the Western Christian world; her outlook is very clear.
The only things missing in this book are an in-depth treatment of the burning of Washington DC, the "rockets' red glare" in Baltimore harbor, the shelling of Stonington, CT, and the Battle of New Orleans. But most of these things were minor sideshows to the real war, and of course New Orleans happened after the war had officially ended.
Otherwise I can't praise this enough as a compelling and informative history. Its thesis is that the American Revolution did not really end in 1781 or 1783; that certain British interests saw the USA as a temporary aberration, and sought to exploit its disorganization and economic slump during the 1780s-90s.
The real origins of the War of 1812 were not the usual background causes we are told about--impressment of seamen, trade with France--but rather the British government's basic failure to comply with its undertakings in the Treaty of Paris (they did not actually give up the western and Great Lakes forts they were supposed to evacuate) and their persistent harassment of American settlers on the western frontier. Added to this was the British attempt to siphon off thousands of Americans into Upper Canada by offering 200 free acres to anyone who wanted it.
This is where most of the early 19th century Ontario settlers came from, by the way: they were Americans from New England and Upstate New York who took the free-land offer. They were not Brits and they were not exiled Tories. (Very few Revolutionary War Tories went to Canada in any event; Tories had mainly gone to the Acadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, which were not part of Canada.)
Most of the War of 1812 was about the Americans' attempt to take over Upper Canada, or Ontario, which then as now thrust itself like an arm into the north-central USA. The Americans had a very good case. Most of the inhabitants were actually Americans, the British had no clear claim on the land, and in fact the only real interest the British had in the region was to use it as a staging area for taking America back.
So what happened? Why was Ontario not taken? The answer is that the American forces were poorly prepared and slightly provisioned, no match for the seasoned Redcoats at Detroit and York and Niagara. That's really all it was. But this loss paid off big dividends in the development of the American forces. The new academy at West Point was quickly transformed into a serious institution of military training after 1812, as a direct result of the woeful experiences during the war.
Although the War of 1812 is often referred to as "America's Second War for Independence." this audiobook will not give you any clue as to why that was so, or even why the war was necessary. The background of the story does not get beyond the commonplace explanations you got in grade school: impressment of seamen, some vague border disputes. You would not know, listening to this, that the British kept up an active campaign of harassment and atrocities (partly via Red Indians) against Americans for three decades after the Revolutionary War.
The rolling periods and circumlocutions of the writing give this biography an old-fashioned narrative flow that is difficult to follow. It is like hearing a reading of Thomas Carlyle on the French Revolution. The enthusiasm of the writer comes through, and devotées of the matter will have no trouble paying attention; but if you don't know the basic story already, this biography of Napoleon will be hard going.
I'm sorry that Audible does not have a better, short biography available. The one by Vincent Cronin would be very suitable and accessible for the casual listener.
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