The old quip, "this is a great book for those who like this kind of book," fits here, in that this autobiography may be rather overwhelming for those who are not already predisposed to admire Mark Twain. There is a great deal of dry historiography about the compiling of this project - the first of three projected volumes - and, frankly, it bogs down. Additionally, the text is far from chronological, and so it tends to be scattered and quite uneven. It includes a variety of fits and starts as Twain himself was ambivalent about the project. Some of the text was carefully written expressly to compose part of an anticipated autobiography, but even that was punctuated by one or two decade-long pauses. Much of the later text was transcribed from free-flowing dictation, as the author decided that a "true" autobiography ought to be based on spontaneous "streams of consciousness," assuming that what the subject recited would not be published until long after his death; preferably 100 years after. However, any reader who sufficiently appreciates the ideas, character and talents of Mark Twain, or simply has sufficient interest to stay with the book, will be richly rewarded. There are passages, quips and stories found throughout this volume that are every bit as insightful and entertaining as those that are better known and have long been lauded in his other works. Grover Gardner is the consummate narrator, whose inflections are so perfect that one is totally unaware of him, hearing only the author himself. The volume is highly recommended.
Albert Jay Nock never sought fame, and so he would not be bothered by the fact that most Americans have never read or heard of him. His mission, he believed, was to write for "the remnant," which he imagined to be a core of independent thinkers who seek only truth and will remain unknown. When society eventually crumbles, according to Nock, these are the people who will see that it is rebuilt on higher and sounder principles. There is something exhilarating about reading a book of such candor written by an engaging author with such a perspective. There is no debate about what people believe or any reference to what may be politically feasible or even acceptable for discussion. Nock's perspectives, which seem increasingly unassailable as the book unfolds, are simply there for consideration. He is not opposed to society's laws, but he opposes the State, which he defines as out-of-control government. The distinction is clear and he never trims his views of the State as the very enemy of civil society and its laws. His examples and illustrations are remarkably convincing for some; remarkably thought-provoking for all. This little book deserves the attention of all who appreciate fine prose - and wish their minds broadened.
Dee Brown has written some other quality books, but he would deserve a reputation as one of the more readable historians on America's 19th century even if he had never written another word. A true classic, the perspective of which was long overdue when it appeared, this book was as moving for me this year - expertly narrated by Grover Gardner - as it was years ago when I first read it for myself. The shameful treatment of native-American tribes by officials of the federal government at the highest levels, and by the military, should be impossible for any decent person to defend - if considered from the native side. No one has ever presented that side as well as Brown. His research is wide-ranging and his writing is effective. This book is a true paradigm-shifter. No one with an interest in U.S. history should fail to read or hear it.
Some biographers of Mencken never completely warm up to his candid and belittling prose, and it shows. However, Marion Rodgers first grew to know him through his tender letters to his future wife, Sara. Discovered in storage at Goucher College, they became her first book on Mencken. Intimately knowing that tender side, she was able to write a more credible and entertaining biography. The situation is sort of like having a current friend meet a friend you knew closely years ago. You want them also to be friends but your current friend finds your older friend to be self-absorbed, crude and unappealing. You say to your newer friend, "Yes, perhaps on the surface, but if you only knew my old friend better, you would recognize that he (or she) is a dear and caring person inside." With some of the Mencken biographers, I have had a desire to say something just like that. With Ms. Rodgers, one knows that, while she is willing to accept and criticize him for all of his many faults, she also knows his softer side and, hence, was able to write an unusually balanced and nuanced biography. It is the best and I have read them all. Well narrated as well.
The story of the Magna Charta itself is engrossing and well done. That is the first part of the book and it is great. The latter part, in which the author attempts to show additional steps of the same type as a continuation of the trend begun by the Magna Charta, is a confused and ill-informed failure: a serious disappointment to any student of political history. The narration was excellent throughout.
Having studied the Great War, I felt that the author of A World Undone tried a little too hard to stay out of the endless controversies over culpability. It was if he were determined to see that his version would be appreciated by, and fair to, all sides. I think he achieved that, and, to give him his due, there were very few things with which I disagreed, although my view is slightly different in certain areas. I certainly appreciated his occasional 'background' essays on topics that help familiarize readers with aspects of significance. I don't know that this is a great book, but it's a good one...and the narration by Robin Sachs is tremendous.
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