Ask a normal person what their first impressions are when you say “Genghis Khan,” and chances are you’ll hear words like “savage,” “barbaric,” and “ruthless.” If the person is a bit of a know-it-all and smart aleck, you’ll also hear “And he has a huge number of descendants thanks to his ‘conquests.'” This book attempts to provide another lens through which to view Genghis Khan–as someone who was charismatic (climbing his way from the bottom strata of Mongolian society to the leader of all Mongol tribes), innovative (he pioneered and adapted many tactics and weapons that are still used today), and tolerant (his views on religion were modern, a true feat in medieval times). The book is more a narrative of the accomplishments of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire than it is a true biography of the person (whose written record is somewhat sparse). But it turns on its head many preconceptions about the Mongol Empire. If, at times, the author seems to tread lightly about some of Genghis Khan’s more brutal acts of conquest, the book provides a refreshing and different viewpoint through which to view the acts and impact of one of the most impressive conquerors of all time.
Marie-Madeleine Fourcade was the the leader of a intelligence gathering group, the Alliance, in France during World War II that was instrumental in providing the Allies with key intelligence, including plans of Germany’s rocket program and coastal defenses in preparation for D-Day. The author explains the relative anonymity of her accomplishments as representative of the social mores and expectations of women, especially in France (although certainly true of the time as a whole). The account of Marie-Madeleine’s life is fascinating–her victories and success are impressive and her failures heartbreaking. The toll of lives lost working for the Alliance network was high (the Nazis executed dozens of Alliance members when it became clear they were going to lose the war), and time and again, networks had to be rebuilt after the Nazis swept in and destroyed them. This book is a fascinating glimpse into the difference one woman can make, against all odds, against the prejudices of her time, and against a brutal enemy that took no quarter. I highly recommend it!
“A Woman of No Importance” is about the life of Virginia Hall, who despite being a woman, an American, and disabled (a prosthetic leg), managed to outwit and outlast the Nazis and organize, arm, and train pockets of the Resistance throughout France during the German occupation. (Oh, and fled over the Pyrenees when the Nazis finally figured out who she was.) She then returned to France to aid the Resistance to prepare for the Allied invasion in Normandy. Upon her return back to the United States, she joined up with the OSS and then the CIA, only to encounter deep-seated discrimination due to her gender. Virginia Hall was a woman of immense force of personality, charm, and sense of purpose. She survived unimaginable hardships and loss and built a life for herself on her own terms. This is a well-written biography about a fascinating woman and her importance in the Allied victory in World War II.
This book is the inspiration for the Broadway musical (and cultural) smash “Hamilton” (and, in fact, the author receives royalties from the musical). I have mixed feelings about this biography and mixed feelings about the subject. Alexander Hamilton was clearly a brilliant man, excellent administrator, and masterful as the first Secretary of the Treasury. He was also vain, overly sensitive, and an irresponsible husband and father. The author has done some excellent research on the less well-known aspects of Hamilton’s life, specifically, the circumstances of his birth and upbringing on St. Croix. But he also falls into the biographer’s pitfall: falling in love with his subject. The portrayal of Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds is enough to make a reader cringe (Maria Reynolds must have been in love with Alexander–never mind the minor detail that she and her husband blackmailed him over it). And the portrayals of Hamilton’s political enemies–Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and, of course, Aaron Burr–are far from objective.
That being said, this is a solid biography of a complex, complicated, and insecure man who was instrumental in the formation of the United States. In addition, one of the most endearing characteristics of the author is the credit he gives and his portrayal of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton as a partner in Hamilton’s accomplishments and someone who ensures that his legacy lives on after Hamilton’s death.
In illuminating a relatively unknown Founding Father, the author does an excellent job of bringing Hamilton to life and showcasing his considerable accomplishments. Alexander Hamilton is the quintessential American story–a poor immigrant succeeding based on his abilities and work ethic. It is a story well worth learning.
The Achilles’ heel of biographers are those who fall in love with their subject and fail to be objective about the subject’s failings (an excellent example of this is David McCullough’s biography of John Adams).
In general, the author of this biography does his best to be as even-handed as he can, although a pro-Eisenhower bias is still evident. The book is a comprehensive look at Eisenhower’s life and at how surprisingly private and closed he was (the mischievous grin he flashed papered over many omissions, evidently). The author makes the point that Eisenhower’s main strength in his rise in the army was political, not strategic, but that this particular strength was exactly what was needed in the supreme commander of the Allied army. (As proof of his political skills, Eisenhower actually got along well with de Gaulle, amazingly enough.)
The author also doesn’t mince many words about Eisenhower’s wartime affair with Kay Summersby and minces even fewer words about why and how Eisenhower ended the relationship. That being said, there was remarkably little said about how Eisenhower’s family and Eisenhower himself whitewashed the episode and did their best to bury the evidence.
The most compelling chapters were the ones about Eisenhower’s rise in the Army and World War II. While the chapters on the Eisenhower Administration were also quite interesting (I especially enjoyed the chapter on the Suez Canal), the events are obviously less interesting. I also thought the author minimized Eisenhower’s mistakes in the Middle East to the point where you almost believed that the Iranian coup that put the Shah in power was exclusively the fault of Kermit Roosevelt and John Foster Dulles, despite the fact that Eisenhower signed off on it.
Overall, however, this was an excellent and comprehensive biography. If you know very little about Eisenhower, the breadth and depth of the book make it a good place to start. And if you know quite a bit about Eisenhower, the additional primary sources and the reasonably even-handed treatment of Eisenhower make this book a good additional resource.
I also happen to agree with the author’s ultimate conclusion. In the end, no one knew Ike very well, and that was exactly the way he wanted it.
William Manchester wrote the first two volumes of his planned Winston Churchill biography (The Last Lion: Visions of Glory and The Last Lion: Alone) before suffering several strokes that resulted in his inability to continue writing. This third volume was written by Paul Reid based on Manchester’s notes and research and covers Churchill’s life starting with his return from political exile during World War II to his death.
In some ways, Paul Reid had an impossible task. William Manchester was a lyrical writer, a master of prose, who managed the near impossible feat of making non-fiction as much of a pleasure and as easy to read as fiction. Fans of the first two volumes were eagerly awaiting the final volume, which cover the events of World War II that made Churchill’s reputation.
While this final volume is not as beautifully written as the first two, the exhaustive research and the compelling world events make this volume almost as readable as its predecessors. While I may have some quibbles with the author’s interpretation of events (I think, for example, that he is unnecessarily harsh in his characterization of Clementine, Winston’s wife), the judgments are always based on factual evidence, and reasonable minds can differ over interpretation.
For some reason, Americans have always held Winston Churchill in higher esteem than the British. This biography does not flinch away from some of Churchill’s less endearing characteristics nor does it plunge into hero worship. It manages to walk the fine line of recognizing the subject’s faults while also acknowledging the debt that is owed to him.
I highly recommend this trilogy for anyone who wants to learn more about Winston Churchill and his role during a pivotal time in world history.