In the Shadow of the Dreamchild, by Karoline Leach

March 16, 2014 at 14:59 (Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , )

DreamchildLife will always be hard for the biographer. There really is nobody famous who has not already been biographied to death, and the lives of interesting people without fame are never going to appeal to publishers. The biographer’s task, then, has been reduced to that of essayist, and his lot is to find some aspect of a celebrated life that can be challenged, psychoanalysed, enhanced, or otherwise marketed to compete with another dozen definitive biographies on the (probably long-deceased and unlikely to grow litigious) subject.

It is tempting therefore to recommend this book chiefly on the merits of Leach’s startling and provoking conclusions: her fearless heresies that threaten to tear down the temple of Carrollian orthodoxy and instantly demolish a hundred years of scholarship. In short, something truly original; the sole selling point and crucial lie of almost every biography in print.

“The changed, newly depressive, freshly discursive diary voice that Dodgson presents on the other side of the four ‘lost’ years tells its own story. The alteration is profound. Aside from the sense of sin and depression, there is a new edgy cynicism in his work.”

-In the Shadow of the Dreamchild

It cannot be ignored that there is something rare and precious in a ubiquitous boast that happens once to be unashamedly true, and part of the charm in Leach’s book is that she does not rely only upon new interpretations or weighing certain evidence differently, but on new facts and new documents that have simply been ignored by her peers. That she comes out with new conclusions is therefore wholly unsurprising, and makes this book indispensable reading for scholars of Carroll, and indisputably the first stop for any casual reader looking to discover more about his or her favourite author.

This aspect of the book–the new reading of Charles Dodgson and his life–no matter how heterodox and bold it might be, is only one part of this biography’s success.  After all, it has already been remarked that this book’s bold success is, of course, only what every modern biography claims to contain. Biographies in general ought to find a particular balance that they hold in common with well-written histories. Whether the story of a particular man or the story of a particular war; whether the life of a woman or the life of an empire, the genres are remarkably similar.

A biography must be written with a definite glimpse of the author. It should not merely be the sifted recrudescence of the subject’s acts and papers, but should be like a comfortable fireside talk with a fellow who has known the subject intimately, and with a few drinks will begin to reminisce warmly and vividly. Interpretation and conclusion are welcome as peripheries and abhorrent as a driving force. When a biographer begins to say things like “he must have…” or even worse, “he thought…” then he begins to enter dangerous waters.

Here is where Leach performs magnificently. She includes only enough analysis of Carroll’s works and writings as are immediately germane, instead reconstructing an elaborate storyline of the man’s life. Like any intimate friend might have, she has certain very strong opinions of what Carroll was and what Carroll did, but she impresses these thoughts on the reader by a careful tailoring of her narrative, not by a tedious pseudo-intellectual essay.

At the end of any biography, the reader is going to have to come to a decision, whether he will agree with what has been nothing more nor less than a carefully structured essay to persuade him to see a person (or event) in a certain light. It is plain that regardless of her evident skills as an essayist and her dilligence as a researcher, Leach will not persuade all of her readers. But it is extremely unlikely that anybody who takes the time to join her on a winding path through the life of one of the nineteenth century’s most singular writers will at all regret the journey.

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Peter the Great, by Jacob Abbott

September 15, 2013 at 19:39 (Biography, Book Reviews, Historical, Mediocre Books, Politics) (, , )

6/10

There are few reasons to elevate this book above any other historical biography. In fact, it might be expected that a book about so colourful a character as Peter ought to make thrilling reading from start to finish. There are, therefore, two things that must be granted to Abbott before commencing. The first is the admission that in spite of such a colourful subject, he seldom succumbed to the temptation to indulge in creative writing, or really any sort of sensationalism whatsoever. Rather than seeking to either panegyrise or demonise Peter with a magniloquent pen, he does his level best to judge him as a seventeenth century monarch, and to give the dull but important scenes from his life at least equal footing with the rambunctious but trivial.

“The sending of a grand embassage like this from one royal or imperial potentate to another was a very common occurrence in those times. The pomp and parade with which they were accompanied were intended equally for the purpose of illustrating the magnificence of the government that sent them, and of offering a splendid token of respect to the one to which they were sent.”

-Peter the Great (Abbott)

Abbott’s second success lies in his crucial effort to offer his suggestions on the significance of Peter’s reign and life, both on Russia and on European history. He strikes a patient and pleasant balance between investigating the long-term effects of Peter’s reign, without overstepping his bounds as a reporter and analyst of a particular era.

With these bright spots acknowledged, it must be said that this book is neither groundbreaking nor controversial. It is a bread-and-butter history text, and while useful or even necessary for a student of Russian history, has little unique to recommend it, either in its facts or in its style. Again: it should be impressed upon the prospective reader that these two points in favour of Abbott’s history are issues that many, many other historians trip upon, and trip upon badly. Peter the Great is extremely useful, and it is even quite interesting. It isn’t thrilling, and if the author cannot really be faulted for this then he cannot either be lionised for a rather prosaic work. It is in many ways like reading a school textbook. Some very memorable hours can be whiled away in reading school textbooks, but when in school, even poetry textbooks are never poetic.

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News of a Kidnapping, by Gabriel García Márquez

July 27, 2013 at 14:58 (Biography, Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Highly Rated Books) (, , , )

NewsOfAKidnapping

7/10

7/10

There are many peculiar things about this book. It is not like Márquez’s fiction. It is too straightforward, too politely arranged and linear. There are too many straight lines and sober summaries. But then, it is unlike so many nonfiction books, as well. Garcia Márquez has no need to trumpet his own particular style or voice over the events he describes (his style has plenty of outlets), and so the narrative is unnervingly raw, without the bluster of a newspaper or the bustling self-importance of a professional writer.

“Maruja and Beatriz stood motionless in front of the closed door, not knowing how to take up their lives again, until they heard the engines in the garage and then the sound fading away in the distance. Only then did they realize that the television and radio had been taken away to keep them from knowing how the night would end.”

-News of a Kidnapping

The author’s attraction towards the macabre and the tragic are one point of resonance in his choice of this particular story to tell. In a sense, this book demonstrates a single side of the magic realism genre that Márquez helped to create: the harrowing story of the kidnapping, with all of its unsavoury boors and capricious thugs, is told with a sense of reverent wonder at the majesty of the hallowed normal. There are no casual treatments of supernatural happenings, but in spite of the real setting there is a subtle and underlying sense that something quite extraordinary might be taking place.

Ultimately, the weakest part of this story is simply the fact that it is not the most interesting of events to read about. A decades-old kidnapping that dominated the headlines of a distant corner of the globe for a matter of months, before coming to a generally unremarkable end will struggle to find a place on a bookshelf crammed with mystical kingdoms and daring exploits. It will even struggle to find a place on a shelf containing only books by Gabriel Garcia Márquez. But there is an appeal in the honesty of the writing. It is a shame that more great writers do not follow this example, and humble themselves into writing stories that neither shake the earth nor shake the reader, but which are worth telling anyway.

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Atatürk, by Andrew Mango

March 24, 2013 at 20:21 (Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Twentieth Century) (, , , )

Atatürk

9/10

9/10

Andrew Mango announces his rules clearly in beginning this book with a brusque and stern explanation of the Turkish grammar he intends on using, a hard rebuke towards prevailing racist western attitudes towards Turkey, and a firm reminder of his credentials as an historian who has searched exhaustively through sources Turkish and English for what, the subtext thunders, is a comprehensive, definitive, and especially serious biography.

This forbidding introduction then unfolds surprisingly into a spellbinding and rich tableau, and a deliciously-rendered summary of Turkish and European history ancient and modern; often straying, frequently magniloquent, always utterly and devastatingly pertinent. It is genuinely surprising how well Mango manages his charge: Atatürk bears all the hallmarks of a stiff and fatally padded book, wherein an author seeks to prove his mettle by including every anecdote, chasing down every family tree, dwelling on the minutiae of every source he can be sure nobody else has included in their biography. To borrow a phrase, this is indeed a loose and baggy monster, and while it would be difficult to claim that any particular event or period in a man’s life is irrelevant in the discovery of the whole, there are chapters that drag endlessly and which might have been truncated, particularly in Mustafa Kemal’s early life.

“Atatürk earned his place in history by directing the successful resistance of the Muslim inhabitants of Anatolia against the occupation and attempted partition of their country. Many others took part in the preparation, planning and execution of the struggle. But from the moment he was chosen chairman of the Erzurum congress in 1919 to the time when the victory of the Turkish resistance received international recognition at Lausanne in 1923, he was in charge of the forces of Turkish nationalism.”

-Atatürk

Of all the books to compare this to, it might well be compared to Tolkien, but with a keener sense of purpose. The quality of the writing is impossible to condemn, but the grinding thoroughness with which Mango attends to each scene in the theatre of Kemalism is impressive, to say the least. As churlish as it is to say, there are moments when readers will grow relieved that Kemal’s life was not another twenty years longer.

It is difficult for a reader unaccustomed to Turkish history to manage the unfamiliar names littered prolifically through Mango’s history; particularly seeing that so many of the principle characters share titles or given names in common. The author’s parenthetical use of the surnames that Atatürk introduced late in his reign is a confusing anachronism that aids identification at the expense of interrupting the lucidity of the writing.

Any good historical text ought to be judged not only on its readability, but on its voice. Andrew Mango’s history is peculiar, in that he comes across as an unabashed Turkophile, but without a great deal of antipathy or admiration for any particular faction of the nascent Turkish Republic. Thus, he has no sympathy at all for the Kurds, British, or French; and treats the Greeks with something approaching open hostility. At the same time, it is difficult to tell whether or not he truly approved of the methods Atatürk used in silencing Kâzım Karabekir, or what he thought of the Young Turks. He does not even reveal whether he is a believer in Kemalism until the final chapter, Aftermath, which is a brilliantly insightful essay on the entirety of Atatürk’s life and government, and on Turkey through the Twentieth Century.

There are shorter books and easier books, and probably many which would confer similar benefits to Mango’s biography. But it is truly a joy to be in the hands of an author that the reader can trust, and then forgive for the length of the road and a handful of inconveniences along it. In delving into the recent history of Turkey, why start anywhere else?

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Angler, by Barton Gellman

February 23, 2013 at 14:13 (Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics) (, , , , )

8/10

8/10

Angler

Gellman does not really have much reason to coddle the subject of this biography. The notorious secrecy that he describes as innate to the Cheney Vice-Presidency extended past 2008, and it is clear from an examination of Gellman’s sources and his postscript that on matters of substance, Cheney’s office was generally cold and hostile towards him in the construction of an attempted intimate portrait of the Bush government. He puts a faintly transparent mask over his perplexity at Cheney’s intransigence, which leaks through readily when describing events that he considers to be indicative of Cheney’s worst moments. But it is important to note that it is perplexity, and not outrage or dismay. Gellman might be a rather emotive author prone to strong reactions, but he keeps carefully balanced on a plinth of professionalism, and takes great care not to tread on the narrative with heavy feet of approval or disapproval.

George Bush, Condoleeza Rice, Karl Rove, and many of the other big-noise names from Bush’s presidency receive only marginal recognition in this carefully-focused book; obviously Bush himself is the most important peripheral figure, but surprisingly he is only studied when Gellman seeks to explain his oft-misunderstood relationship with his Vice President. In the hands of a poorer author, such a myopic focus might be detrimental, but Gellman is absolutely terrific at crafting context without stepping outside of a very tight circle. There is much that is missed, but few readers will complain for missing it.

“All hell was breaking loose at Justice. Phone calls and BlackBerry messages pinged around the senior staff. Lawyers streamed back to the building from the suburbs, converging on the fourth-floor conference room.
-Angler

Barton Gellman has little or no patience with stupid questions, and when he is obliged to bring up accusations or issues without basis in fact, he does so brusquely and with marked brevity. He is unafraid of admitting a dearth of information with a particular subject, and purposely leaves some questions dangling for future authors to pick up, rather than neatly trimming them off. He clearly recognises that an unanswered question is sometimes of equal value to an answer, and his attention to detail and zeal for a comprehensive account are both commendable.

This book could never be described as a panegyric, but neither is it a bleak demonisation or even harsh criticism. When Gellman has (frequent) cause to be critical, it is not always because Cheney has done something “bad” that he ought to be punished for. Often it is because Cheney has done something that the author neither condemns nor lauds, but which led to certain consequences that are spelled out as far as is possible, and then analysed. Such an approach might be considered dry, but either to Gellman’s credit or because of the rich subject matter, even the most noncommittal verdicts read very fluidly. This will hardly be the last word on Dick Cheney, for better or for worse, but it is a valuable insight that succeeds on all of the goals that it sets out to achieve.

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On the Road, by Jack Kerouac

February 16, 2013 at 11:28 (Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , )

OnTheRoad

8/10

8/10

In the parlance of the Twenty-First Century, On the Road is a singular and remarkable blog transcript. The problem in claiming this is that it is incredibly difficult to find a blog that says anything worth saying; and those that are written about the most fascinating things are never written by gifted storytellers. Jack Kerouac sets down a truly spellbinding trail of experiences and maturations, but in spite of the constraints of reality (or the freedom of writing fact as fiction), he produces a throbbing, vibrant, masterpiece that transcends the brief span of post-war years in which it was set, and becomes something almost spiritual.

“Just ahead, over the rolling wheatfields all golden beneath the distant snows of Estes, I’d be seeing old Denver at last. I pictured myself in a Denver bar that night, with all the gang, and in their eyes I would be strange and ragged and like the Prophet who has walked across the land to bring the dark Word, and the only Word I had was ‘Wow!'”

-On the Road

There is a startling mysticism clasped within these pages, where Kerouac repurposes the “beat” label with no small trace of irony into beatification, and in hushed tones describes the holiness of the unwinding road. Psychoanalysts will have a field day (and surely already have) with the oft-discarded and oft-rejoined quest to find Dean Moriarty’s errant father who is always at the end of the next road, and Dean’s own transformation into the same type throughout the erratic adventures, but what Jack Kerouac writes–powerfully, and crashing through and above any attempts to psychoanalyse the protagonists–is a profound sense of longing; of desperation through madness and passion in a passionless world.

Without hectoring his readers or (worse) shamelessly romanticising the journey he recounts, Kerouac has some moving things to say about the human condition and the ubiquity of modernism. More importantly, he says it in a personable and unpretentious way, and with a warm and inviting style. To open this book is to open the door of a run-down old car–from any decade, providing it is fifteen years old–and find smiling and mad and troubled faces there within. Where you going? Sure. Hop in.

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To Own a Dragon, by Donald Miller

June 3, 2012 at 18:46 (Biography, Book Reviews, Comedy, Highly Rated Books, Theology) (, , , , )

7/10

Is…that a moustache? It looks like a wheat field, but…no, that’s definitely a moustache. As uncomfortably close as anyone might wish to get to a stranger’s moustache, but a moustache nonetheless. A soul patch, maybe, but certainly a subset of the moustache species.

Putting aside (with difficulty) the brazen cover art, To Own a Dragon might be the first book Donald Miller has written as a grown-up. This could be a good thing or a bad thing. One of the reasons his previous books (Blue Like Jazz, Searching for God Knows What, etc.) were so brilliant, so re-readable and heartfelt, was because they had an unquenchable air of rebellion about them. They were emphatically not written by a stodgy old know-it-all. They were not preachy because it was impossible to imagine a preacher scrabbling around beneath a hippy van in a sunbleached corner of Arizona. They were written by a fellow who listened to Ani DiFranco.

“In the end, women are really attracted to guys who have their crap together. I doubt there are many women enamored (sic) by the idea of living in a box under a bridge, sucking on a bouillon cube while her man reads Emerson. This is probably not what the old ovaries are pining for.”

-To Own a Dragon

In To Own a Dragon Miller has noticeably matured, and seems to have shed some of the rambling artist along the way. His voice and his authority are clearer, and for perhaps the first time he writes with the weight of experience (rather than the rather novel concept of emphasising his weight of inexperience that so characterised his earlier books).

This makes To Own a Dragon a little less funny than it might have been, but does not necessarily make it more profound. It is simply a different tone for a different subject, and while it can be compared just a little less favourably than its predacessors, it is a valuable book with some excellent theology and wise principles to live by laid out in a gentle and very appealing way.

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Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited, by Colin Irwin

April 1, 2012 at 19:50 (Biography, Book Reviews, Mediocre Books, Music) (, , , , )

5/10

A good solid look at a classic album, although it is questionable as to whether or not this book was really necessary. There isn’t much here that one couldn’t find in a good biography of Dylan, save for a very in-depth treatment of the session musicians (who might be given their own sentence or paragraph in a full-fledged biography) and producers  (who are certainly covered in detail in most biographies) involved in the album, and maybe a little more record company politics than you’d otherwise expect to find. Colin Irwin obviously likes the album a great deal, and is a little embarrassing in the praise he slathers all over the pages of his book, but it’s not his job to make value judgements, and he tells the story he’s here to tell very well.

“Dylan once claimed he wrote ‘Desolation Row’ in the back of a cab on the way to the studio, but as the song clocks in at over 11 minutes and contains 659 words, that must have been one hell of a cab ride.”

-Highway 61 Revisited (Colin Irwin)

There is a great deal of commentary on Dylan’s lyrics, and Irwin is also smart enough to stick to the facts and not use this book as a pulpit for his own ideas. Rather than use this book to tell his own theories about what certain songs mean, he finds some excellent soundbytes from interviews with Bob, and allows himself just a little educated guesswork, more often than not ending in a shrug. The book is written like a review in a music magazine (coherently, but packed with journalese), and provides few surprises, pleasant or otherwise.

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King George III, by John Brooke

January 11, 2012 at 20:14 (Biography, Book Reviews, English History, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics) (, , , )

8/10

It is something of a rare pleasure to read biographies by serious historians and dedicated men of letters, rather than well-meaning amateurs, celebrity talking-heads, or journalists. What John Brooke lacks in shimmering prose or scandalous new theories, he more than makes up for in levelheadedness, clarity, and perspicacity. Like so many historians, he has very little time for theories that he does not subscribe to, and some of the juiciest and most entertaining passages of this book are taken up by Brooke’s withering scorn for the pop-psychologists of the twentieth century, the sensationalists of the nineteenth century, and the jingoists from all centuries.

“In the mythology of American history King George III is the would-be tyrant whose wicked plans were foiled by the courage and resistance of the American people. He is the scapegoat for the act of rebellion.”

-George III (John Brooke)

These moments aside, Brooke is methodical without being too dry, and has an aura of The Establishment about his writing, that creates a slightly artificial awe around the subject of his work, as well as lending him a voice of authority to match. He clearly has a great deal of affection for the entire band of miscreants of the eighteenth century–North, Fox, the Pitts, the Willises, the Prince Regent, Bute–and an even stronger affection for the King. While this could be seen as detrimental to a supposedly impartial review of the monarchy, Brooke makes the calculated decision to tell a chiefly personal biography, crossing occasionally into politics when the two areas overlap. Consequently, this book is most comprehensive when the King was most active (during the 1760s through to the 1780s), and includes only the barest treatment of William Pitt the Younger, Napoleon, or America’s turbulent relationship with Britain after the Revolution. This can often be vexing; Brooke is not a consistent author, and by caprice or by design distributes his attentions rather imperfectly. There are times when his portrait of George III is badly affected by his refusal to offer a glimpse at a wider context, and there are times when he drones just a little about a favourite politician with only tenuous links to the King.

As an history of its period, this work is incomplete; as a portrait of a man, it is decidedly myopic. But for all its faults, it is a fine introductory biography, and does not delve too far from the path of received knowledge. A useful book to have in one’s library, and a valuable arrow in the quiver for defending the facts about one of history’s most misconstrued characters.

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A Journey, by Tony Blair

December 4, 2011 at 13:33 (Biography, Book Reviews, English History, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics, Twentieth Century) (, , , , )

7/10

One of the first things that everyone in the world either loved or utterly loathed about Tony Blair was his hokey, jokey, everyman persona: which was either just that, a carefully and cynically constructed persona; or else a genuine dislike for the airs of power and tradition, and a refreshing and frank openness hitherto unseen in politics. Whether genuine or not, this book is written in a voice that matches Blair’s manner immaculately. Presumably, this has garnered it praise and poison in equal amounts; but that is the first thing any reader will notice. Stiff and awkward, like an older person talking to a teenager about the fashions and bands of five years ago; inoffensive and dreadful jokes that will be laughed at for their daring in being told at all; the confident aside whispered knowingly after any particularly salient point; ready and good-natured self-effacement throughout. Whether Blair penned this biography entirely on his own (he is certainly a capable enough communicator) or worked with a ghostwriter, the very essence of his personality was captured acutely. Whatever else that means, it suggests that this book is written much better than it seems at first glance. It is difficult to write (or act, or paint) well; it is considerably harder to do so–not badly–but just noticeably worse than you are capable of.

“Hadn’t we fought a great campaign? Hadn’t we impaled our enemies on our bayonet, like ripe fruit? Hadn’t our strategies, like something derived from destiny, scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts?”

-A Journey

Weighing in at nearly 700 pages, it is remarkable that Blair covered only his career as leader of the Labour party. There are a few scanty passages about his early life, a handful of reminiscences of his legal career (when germane to the political story) and a little about the ’80s under Neil Kinnock; otherwise almost the entire tome is strictly business, and strictly focused on his tenure as (brief) leader of the Opposition, and of the country. This allows a rare comment to be made. Rare to be said about any biography or history. Blair covers his material comprehensively, and without any area of omission. It is honestly difficult to conceive what of his political career might have been unfairly or unnaturally truncated. Some of his comments are brief (terse, even); but even with these he cannot be said to have left anything out.

His treatment of colleagues and competitors, enemies and acquaintances, and all manner of human beings in between, was always going to be a key talking point about this book. One can almost imagine feverish teams of newspaper hacks hunched up outside Waterstones in the early hours of release day, taking a chapter each and scraping each last ounce of nuance from Blair’s every word, his every pronouncement and judgement of every character, searching for scandalous rivalry or sour grapes. He is a gentleman throughout–although sometimes a snide gentleman with a great deal of subtext. When the time comes to censure someone, he employs like clockwork a patronising, “so-and-so is an excellent and peerless MP, but has an unfortunate tendency to shortsightedness, and doesn’t understand the way the Civil Service works.” Or some variation of the formula. Rupert Murdoch and Ed Balls in particular come in for a regular savaging, but Blair always attempts to justify himself, and never in this book is there an unpleasant taste of bitterness or bile. Seldom, anyway.

“Ed Balls was and is immensely capable intellectually, and also has some of the essential prerequisites for leadership: he has guts, and he can take decisions. But he suffers from the bane of all left-leaning intellectuals. As I have remarked elsewhere, these guys never ‘get’ aspiration…truly muddled and ultimately damaging…”

-A Journey

As far as his honesty goes, an odd curiosity is his clear and conscious attempt to prove that, while he is certainly a master of persuasion, and incredibly good with words, there is more to it than that. A great deal of the effort in this book is given to bolstering his verisimilitude as a politician, and therefore as a writer. If his chief intention is to be believable, then he works like a Trojan, and puts every argument to work in his favour. He parries countless thrusts at his personal and political integrity, and does so with masterful flourish and disarming frankness. While this does not, of course, prove his character or nature (the devil can quote scripture to suit his purpose), it does at the very least provide a challenge to the reader. Listen to what he has to say, and weigh his words with an open mind. His strong insistence that he relies on more than just showmanship and “spin” is powerfully backed up by his record, and together his facts and his rhetoric make for a heady mixture.

This was not altogether a particularly pleasant book to read (the depth with which Blair deals with every shade of issue, from foreign policy to economics, education to the media) makes that a foregone conclusion. And despite how genuine his charming everyman persona might or might not be, it grows tiresome after a while (his parenthetical, “Blimey, I thought to myself,” coming off as particularly cloying). Nevertheless, this is a powerful and persuasive book, and if not a pleasure to begin then certainly a pleasure to reflect on and digest.

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