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 sweet-and-sour set of pieces on loss, absurdity, and places they intersect.


Sedaris remains stubbornly irreverent even in the face of pandemic lockdowns and social upheaval.

In his previous collection of original essays, Calypso (2018), the author was unusually downbeat, fixated on aging and the deaths of his mother and sister. There’s bad news in this book, too—most notably, the death of his problematic and seemingly indestructible father at 96—but Sedaris generally carries himself more lightly. On a trip to a gun range, he’s puzzled by boxer shorts with a holster feature, which he wishes were called “gunderpants.” He plays along with nursing-home staffers who, hearing a funnyman named David is on the premises, think he’s Dave Chappelle. He’s bemused by his sister Amy’s landing a new apartment to escape her territorial pet rabbit. On tour, he collects sheaves of off-color jokes and tales of sexual self-gratification gone wrong. His relationship with his partner, Hugh, remains contentious, but it’s mellowing. (“After thirty years, sleeping is the new having sex.”) Even more serious stuff rolls off him. Of Covid-19, he writes that “more than eight hundred thousand people have died to date, and I didn’t get to choose a one of them.” The author’s support of Black Lives Matter is tempered by his interest in the earnest conscientiousness of organizers ensuring everyone is fed and hydrated. (He refers to one such person as a “snacktivist.”) Such impolitic material, though, puts serious essays in sharper, more powerful relief. He recalls fending off the flirtations of a 12-year-old boy in France, frustrated by the language barrier and other factors that kept him from supporting a young gay man. His father’s death unlocks a crushing piece about dad’s inappropriate, sexualizing treatment of his children. For years—chronicled in many books—Sedaris labored to elude his father’s criticism. Even in death, though, it proves hard to escape or laugh off.

A sweet-and-sour set of pieces on loss, absurdity, and places they intersect.

Pub Date: May 31, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-316-39245-7

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: March 11, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2022

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