This book is a fascinating and pleasurable listen. Christopher Hitchens calls it hagiography, but Manchester fairly acknowledges and discusses the various criticisms of Churchill, providing ample evidence for those who choose to disagree with his interpretation. There are certainly many things to dislike about this charismatic and dynamic figure—from his sense of entitlement to his rather distasteful bigotry—but The Last Lion does a marvelous job providing the reader with real insight into Churchill’s character and career. Frederick Davidson is a first-rate story-teller who does not overdo the Churchillian growl, pronounces German and French like a native, offers a wide-range of speaking voices (his young Churchill has just the right tinge of spoiled brat), and often had me laughing with his ability to express the author’s subtle irony. It is a great pity that Manchester never finished his grand designs for this biography.
This book has a straight-forward and historically supportable thesis: men like war. They enjoy the whole show: the uniforms, the marching, the music, the killing, the games. Martin van Creveld does a fine job exploring many of these areas, often surprising the reader with some fascinating historical detail. He moves around the world seeking evidence, and is often very convincing, except for his strange apologia for the Serbs in the 1990s—how odd that the words “ethnic cleansing” do not appear in that discussion. But van Creveld tilts at a straw woman: feminists. He is convinced that women, who apparently desire to enter the military in great numbers pose a danger not just to the culture of war but to national security itself. Women must remain content with their traditional relation to the military as cheerleaders, breeders of soldiers, and prizes; they will utterly destroy the ability of any country to defend itself if allowed to serve. He is like a boy insisting that no girls are allowed in the tree-fort. I am not making it up; so important is it to van Creveld that women be kept out of the military, that he devotes the last chapter of his book to what he sees as the greatest threat to military preparedness: women. It is little wonder that women continue to show little interest in such a hostile field as military history.
This is a truly dull book. The author appears to be so excited to be using John Q. Adams’ manuscript diary that he has written more of a biography of the diary than of the man. The book sinks under the weight of trivia, as the author makes no effort to establish the significance of Adams’ daily activities and thoughts. Rather than analysis of the writings and actions of Adams, we get endless detail on what Adams ate, how much he paid for furniture, his opinion on flannel underwear, his hemorrhoids [seriously]. The author admits that Adams’ repetitious self-doubt can get tedious, and then goes ahead and quotes these passages over and over. The villain of this book is Abigail Adams, portrayed here as an early American “Mommie Dearest.” Nagel mentions books and essays by Adams, but does not quote from them, let alone unpack their significance. He states that Adams was a superb translator, but does not bother to give a single example of this skill. Here is a book on one of the finest intellects in early 19th-century America, and the reader will come away with the impression that Adams was shallow, self-involved, selfish, and rather annoying. It is little wonder that the narrator of this audio book often sounds bored.
Really, that one word is sufficient to describe this completely unbelievable series of ridiculous coincidences. And by the way, it does for the Chinese what Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun did for the Japanese—demonize them.
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