Review: Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman

Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman

Minoo Dinshaw

 

A seven hundred page biography of a now largely forgotten historian named Steven Runciman. Why I picked this up, I’m not sure. Why I enjoyed it as much as I did is also a bit of a mystery.

Runciman, who wrote a wildly popular series of books on the crusades, while also working around the world for the British government during WWII, and meeting just about everyone of significance in English politics and art from about 1930-to 1990.

It was an incredible life and Dinshaw doesn’t miss a detail. He covers every book, every trip, and, at times, it feels like every dinner. And not only that, but he runs to ground every interesting person Runciman meets along way. We learn the family history of a trouble young Oxfordian Runciman befriended, and the convoluted marital histories of various lesser-known members of European royal families. George Orwell makes an appearance. As does Aldous Huxley, the Cambridge spies, Keynes, and, it seems, everyone else you have (or haven’t) heard of in English history over the last 100 year. I think I first picked this up on the promise of Runciman’s interest in the occult. But this isn’t a main thrust of the book. Runciman as historian and bon vivant is much more central.

At times, it plods. But for some reason I still enjoyed it. Perhaps only at times for the sheer will it must have taken Dinshaw to write this thing. Still, I’ll be honest, this one isn’t for everybody. It you’re not interested in going deep in the weeds on English history and culture, this one might not be for you. But if you relish occasionally getting lost in the minutia of world’s gone by, this one is an interesting trip.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Chernow’s Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton
Ron Chernow

Yes, it’s a cliché for a New York liberal to talk about Hamilton. But here we are. At least this is about the book and not the musical.*
If you’ve found your way here, you probably already know all about this book. The definitive biography of the founding father without a father, the one who didn’t get to grow old, the one who didn’t end up president, the one who was for a century underappreciated but is now extremely famous — Alexander Hamilton.
Exhaustively researched the book is a play by play not only of Hamilton’s fascinating life, but also of the battles and machinations that surrounded the founding of America. I thought I knew something about this period when I started (we all took history, right?) but there was much that was new to me, not only about Hamilton’s incredible life from destitute child in the Caribbean to founder of the United States, but also in the battles (both real and figurative) that surrounded the war against England, the drafting of the Constitution, the establishment of the national bank, and and more. It was, a hell of a time and Hamilton had an incredible role in much of it.
This is a serious book, detailed, often scholarly, but it moves. Chernow can write, and he succeeds, where many have failed, in writing a popular book that doesn’t skimp on the historical complexity.
Many have criticized the musical for glorifying Hamilton as a paragon of a sort of modern East Coast liberalism that he really wasn’t. I think much of that criticism is more about Miranda, and the viewer, then about Hamilton the play. But regardless, the same criticism can’t really be made about this book. Here Hamilton appears warts and all, an owner of slaves, a man obsessed with status, and a adulterer, but also a genius, a forward thinker, and a generous friend. It’s one of the top biographies I have ever read, and no matter what you think of hip hop musicals, it’s worth a read.
Recommended.
*Which, by the way, is also brilliant.

Review: Gilbert’s The Last American Man

The Last American Man
Elizabeth Gilbert

I was a little worried about reading this one. Gilbert is the author of the mega-best seller Eat, Pray, Love… and books like that aren’t really my jam. But a good friend, whose taste usually align with mine, got me this one as a gift so I gave it a shot. I have to say, I was impressed, both by Gilbert’s writing (which is excellent, you can tell she’s a long time professional journalist) and by the story of the Last American Man, Eustace Conway.

Eustace is a fascinating individual. He is a scholar of Native American crafts, a serious outdoorsman, a small business owner, a long distance horse rider, and the owner of vast wilderness training center on which he has built numerous buildings, by himself, by hand.

He’s also a bit of a handful. He’s bossy, judgmental and clearly not easy to live with. A string of romantic partners come in and out of his life, but none really stick, largely because he is never happy with himself, or with those close to him. Always struggling, he never really appears happy.

He is a complex dude, and a deeply compelling character. Gilbert tells his story with honestly, clarity and dignity. If you’re interested in what it may costs to live a purposeful life, close to the land, you’ll be interested in this book.

Recommended.