An outstanding dual biography.



The veteran historian maintains his high standards in this study of two of 19th-century America’s most significant figures.

Although still controversial, John Brown (1800-1859) needs no rehabilitation. Brands, the chair of the history department at the University of Texas, reminds readers that Brown was not only an abolitionist (an extremist position for the time); he considered Blacks equal to Whites, an extraordinary belief shared by few contemporaries. He was also deeply religious, obsessed with freeing the slaves—even by violence, which seemed the only way—and charismatic enough to convince many establishment abolitionists to finance his campaigns. With his sons, he traveled to Kansas to participate in the nasty 1850s conflict between free-state and pro-slavery settlers, where he severely damaged his reputation with the 1856 Pottawatomie massacre, during which his band dragged five pro-slavery men from their beds and murdered them. Brands delivers a gripping account of his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry but succeeds no more than colleagues in explaining its utter incompetence. Capturing the nearly undefended armory was simple; clumsy efforts to provoke a slave rebellion failed, and Brown dithered when escape was easy. Severely injured during his capture, he was tried and hanged. The author rocks no boats by affirming that the raid galvanized the nation and set it on course to civil war. Wisely avoiding another standard biography of Lincoln, Brands confines himself to a sharp portrait of a fiercely ambitious Illinois politician yearning for electoral office. Like nearly all Republicans at the time, he opposed expanding slavery and, like most, promised not to interfere with it in existing states because the Constitution, a sacred document, protected it. Lincoln considered slavery wrong, but winning elections depended on White voters, so his arguments stressed slavery’s harm to White interests. Opposition Democrats accused Republicans of believing that Blacks were equal to Whites. In defending himself and his party, Lincoln’s statements about race went beyond what, from other historical figures—presidents included—has led to toppled statues.

An outstanding dual biography.

Pub Date: Oct. 6, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-385-54400-9

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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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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A conversational, pleasurable look into McConaughey’s life and thought.

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All right, all right, all right: The affable, laconic actor delivers a combination of memoir and self-help book.

“This is an approach book,” writes McConaughey, adding that it contains “philosophies that can be objectively understood, and if you choose, subjectively adopted, by either changing your reality, or changing how you see it. This is a playbook, based on adventures in my life.” Some of those philosophies come in the form of apothegms: “When you can design your own weather, blow in the breeze”; “Simplify, focus, conserve to liberate.” Others come in the form of sometimes rambling stories that never take the shortest route from point A to point B, as when he recounts a dream-spurred, challenging visit to the Malian musician Ali Farka Touré, who offered a significant lesson in how disagreement can be expressed politely and without rancor. Fans of McConaughey will enjoy his memories—which line up squarely with other accounts in Melissa Maerz’s recent oral history, Alright, Alright, Alright—of his debut in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, to which he contributed not just that signature phrase, but also a kind of too-cool-for-school hipness that dissolves a bit upon realizing that he’s an older guy on the prowl for teenage girls. McConaughey’s prep to settle into the role of Wooderson involved inhabiting the mind of a dude who digs cars, rock ’n’ roll, and “chicks,” and he ran with it, reminding readers that the film originally had only three scripted scenes for his character. The lesson: “Do one thing well, then another. Once, then once more.” It’s clear that the author is a thoughtful man, even an intellectual of sorts, though without the earnestness of Ethan Hawke or James Franco. Though some of the sentiments are greeting card–ish, this book is entertaining and full of good lessons.

A conversational, pleasurable look into McConaughey’s life and thought.

Pub Date: Oct. 20, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-593-13913-4

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Oct. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2020

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