The wind goes out of Beran’s sails after Lincoln’s assassination, but he handles well the intriguing biographical histories...

FORGE OF EMPIRES

THREE REVOLUTIONARY STATESMEN AND THE WORLD THEY MADE, 1861–1871

A sprightly work of scholarship by journalist-historian Beran (Jefferson’s Demons: Portraits of a Restless Mind, 2003) cuts suspensefully among decisive moments in the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Otto von Bismarck and Russian Tsar Alexander II as they revolutionized their respective countries.

Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and united a bitterly divided United States; Bismarck wrestled the German states from Hapsburg control and created a modern militaristic Prussian stronghold; Alexander gambled on reform by freeing the serfs and ushering in a rule of law. The three leaders essentially fashioned their countries into “machines of freedom,” the consequences of which still reverberate today. In alternating segments moving chronologically from 1861 to 1871 and after, Beran sets his vivid historical characters against increasingly dire backdrops. In Russia, the people were growing restive under a decaying autocracy, and Alexander, influenced by the British Enlightenment, wisely eschewed the traditional course of coercion followed by his forebears in favor of an uneasy brand of liberalism. Beran provides portraits of Turgenev and Tolstoy to flesh out these revolutionary ideas, which ultimately failed and led to the tsar’s assassination. In Germany, Bismarck, acting as minister-president for the ineffectual King Wilhelm on the motto “blood and iron,” broke with Berlin’s Parliament and challenged Austrian authority, using the music of Wagner and the poetry of militant nationalism to whip up popular support for his furious campaign of annexation. Most American readers will find the Lincoln sections the most riveting, as Beran re-enacts the agonizing decisions of the president as he tenaciously held to executive power in spite of Southern treachery, standing by dilatory General George McClellan just long enough to gain one decisive victory and stave off foreign intervention. The author also skillfully interweaves selections from Mary Chesnut’s diary and Walt Whitman’s work.

The wind goes out of Beran’s sails after Lincoln’s assassination, but he handles well the intriguing biographical histories of three legendary leaders.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-7432-7069-4

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Free Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2007

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Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.

TOMBSTONE

THE EARP BROTHERS, DOC HOLLIDAY, AND THE VENDETTA RIDE FROM HELL

Rootin’-tootin’ history of the dry-gulchers, horn-swogglers, and outright killers who populated the Wild West’s wildest city in the late 19th century.

The stories of Wyatt Earp and company, the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and Geronimo and the Apache Wars are all well known. Clavin, who has written books on Dodge City and Wild Bill Hickok, delivers a solid narrative that usefully links significant events—making allies of white enemies, for instance, in facing down the Apache threat, rustling from Mexico, and other ethnically charged circumstances. The author is a touch revisionist, in the modern fashion, in noting that the Earps and Clantons weren’t as bloodthirsty as popular culture has made them out to be. For example, Wyatt and Bat Masterson “took the ‘peace’ in peace officer literally and knew that the way to tame the notorious town was not to outkill the bad guys but to intimidate them, sometimes with the help of a gun barrel to the skull.” Indeed, while some of the Clantons and some of the Earps died violently, most—Wyatt, Bat, Doc Holliday—died of cancer and other ailments, if only a few of old age. Clavin complicates the story by reminding readers that the Earps weren’t really the law in Tombstone and sometimes fell on the other side of the line and that the ordinary citizens of Tombstone and other famed Western venues valued order and peace and weren’t particularly keen on gunfighters and their mischief. Still, updating the old notion that the Earp myth is the American Iliad, the author is at his best when he delineates those fraught spasms of violence. “It is never a good sign for law-abiding citizens,” he writes at one high point, “to see Johnny Ringo rush into town, both him and his horse all in a lather.” Indeed not, even if Ringo wound up killing himself and law-abiding Tombstone faded into obscurity when the silver played out.

Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-21458-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics,...

HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE

A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.

Following the last presidential election, Levitsky (Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America, 2003, etc.) and Ziblatt (Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, 2017, etc.), both professors of government at Harvard, wrote an op-ed column titled, “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” The answer here is a resounding yes, though, as in that column, the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. “Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn’t cause it,” they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.” The authors fault the Republican establishment for failing to stand up to Trump, even if that meant electing his opponent, and they seem almost wistfully nostalgic for the days when power brokers in smoke-filled rooms kept candidacies restricted to a club whose members knew how to play by the rules. Those supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders might take as much issue with their prescriptions as Trump followers will. However, the comparisons they draw to how democratic populism paved the way toward tyranny in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere are chilling. Among the warning signs they highlight are the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as well as Trump’s demonization of political opponents, minorities, and the media. As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that “a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits,” though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles.

The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6293-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

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