An engrossing portrait of an emblematic Victorian.

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The Double Life of Laurence Oliphant


A rollicking biography of a classic 19th-century figure, featuring imperial adventure, high diplomacy, literary fame, and an eccentric cult focused on bizarrely sublimated sexuality.

Casey recounts the impossibly full life of Oliphant, a Scottish aristocrat born in 1829 during an era when his privileged caste ran the world. The son of the chief justice of Britain’s Ceylon colony, Oliphant gained fame with bestselling travelogues of Nepal, Russia, and Canada and worked as a foreign correspondent and British diplomat (sometimes both) in global hot spots: he stormed Chinese cities during the Opium Wars, parried sword attacks by anti-Western samurai in Tokyo, toured the corpse-strewn battlefields of the Franco-Prussian War, and witnessed the bloody destruction of the Paris Commune. Eventually, jaded by his life as a member of Parliament, satirical novelist, and London rake, he sought redemption with American spiritualist Thomas Lake Harris and his Brethren of the New Life group, which ran utopian communes in New York and California. Much of Casey’s book offers an entertaining account of Harris’ strange doctrines. Converts did manual labor cleaning stables and scrubbing laundry; the faithful “de-magnetized” each other of “lust currents” by counterintuitively having communal nude scrub-downs. They also practiced deep-breathing exercises that induced mystical visions; during these, disciples would join in orgasmic union with their opposite-sex “other half” in the celestial realm. (Earthly sex, however, was frowned upon: Harris separated families and forbade Oliphant and his wife, Alice, to have sex, explaining that they were not each other’s true celestial soulmates.) Breaking with Harris, but not all his teachings, after Harris announced the second coming and proclaimed himself king of the world, Oliphant went on to help establish Zionist colonies in Palestine. Casey relates this colorful saga with well-paced narrative aplomb, setting it against the cultural ferment of the 19th century. His version of Oliphant is as an appealing character, part dashing man of the world and part idealistic seeker, possessed of both ardent religiosity and droll humor. He and his associates emerge as embodiments of a time of boundless horizons and breathtaking ambitions, of spiritual yearning that chafed against expectations of mundane happiness and fulfillment, and of a hunger for charismatic figures who lent a cosmic glamour to technological and political upheavals of the era. The result is an energetic page-turner, a shrewd character study, and a rich social history.

An engrossing portrait of an emblematic Victorian.

Pub Date: Dec. 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-61-868796-8

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Post Hill Press

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2015

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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