Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man

by Christopher Hitchens

Grove Press New York

book review by Christopher Klim

“To begin with, a summary of Paine’s astonishing life and career is to commence with a sense of wonder that he was ever able to emerge at all.”

Now that radical elements are attempting to erase history, Thomas Paine might laugh in his grave. As the singular most important figure in the birth of modern democracy, the promoter of human liberty, and the author of an American bestseller only eclipsed by the Bible, Paine should have a monument in Washington, DC at least as big as the “founding fathers,” but he has been mostly forgotten—and that occurred before he even left the planet.

Born the son and later apprentice of a corset maker, Paine stumbled into London after escaping death at sea during the outside of The Seven Years War between England and France. There his Quaker roots crossed paths with the freethinking denizens of the city. He fumbled through professions and a marriage, while expanding in radical thought. In 1774, he appeared in Philadelphia alone with a modest letter of recommendation and a recent acquaintance with Benjamin Franklin. Two years later, he published a half million copies of Common Sense—a pamphlet that challenged British authority and monarchy in plain and ingenious language. Often referred to as the greatest American bestseller, Common Sense was either read by or to read to nearly every colonists and became the catalyst that altered history.

Later, with The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason, Paine influenced generations forward and still does today. This latter work, which challenged the papacy, rejected the fantastical elements of belief in God, and even criticized George Washington, caused a backlash among his peers and isolated him from society. After a stint abroad fanning the flames of The French Revolution, the father of two national freedom movements spent time in prison, narrowly escaped execution, and returned to America in anonymity to die nearly a pauper in the New York. Like a true zealot, Paine had alienated himself from even his staunchest supporters in the end.

With his usual wit, economy of words, and deft deployment of facts, Hitchens paints a wonderful and honest portrait of Paine centering around The Rights of Man—a brilliant discourse on the nature of humanity and that rights are inherent to man and not bestowed by any earthly authority. It is existential and timeless as it is practical and current. Hitchens never minces words or arguments, and it’s clear that he is passionate about his subject matter. If Paine was a singular gift to humanity, then Hitchens’ handling is reverent and as needed now as much as ever.

RECOMMENDED

Loserthink

by Scott Adams

Portfolio

book review by Christopher Klim

“If any part of your argument depends on asking critics to ‘prove it isn’t true,’ you are thinking like a cult member.”

Famed Dilbert cartoonist and public commentator, Scott Adams, wants to bust us from our mental prisons. We find ourselves trapped inside dead end thinking from time to time, some more often than others. He calls this “looserthink.” It’s essentially a flawed way of thinking—either through ignorance or bias—that blocks our success and even worse detracts from societal progress overall. The worst state of existing within mental bars, which occurs more often than we care to admit, is being unaware of its existence within ourselves. To escape, Adams says, it’s all a matter of training.

The book begins with a little background on the author’s own failures and eventual successes and then launches into various ways to literally think. This includes thinking like a psychologist, historian, artist, engineer, leader, scientist, entrepreneur, and economist. Separate chapters are devoted to each, and while they are insightful, it’s the economist chapter that lands most poignantly, given Adams’ past training and experience in business.

If you don’t recognized yourself in a dead-ended thought pattern—at least a tendency toward a few—he reminds us throughout the book that you are probably locked inside a mental prison of your own design. For example, “If you are arguing over the definition of a word rather than the best way forward, then you are not part of the productive world.” We see this repeated in the public discourse, if you can call the room full of mostly shouting and not listening souls connected to social media a true debate. Adams does however acknowledge the  Internet trolls for their help in the creation of this book. He has tangled with enough of them and indeed has become famous for his powers of persuasion demonstrated regularly on-line.

The book ends with helpful advice for breaking free of loserthink. Adams wields a kindly and concise delivery—the kind of teacher you most appreciate—when he could easily castigate the loserthinkers and close off the people who most need these lessons. We all need these lessons at some point. In the end, he believes that advancements in society have led us to the dawn of a new Golden Age, and we all need to pull together and add to the whole of a new greatness. Ditching the loserthink will unlock our minds to this possibility.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Learn From The Dead: There’s a reason they’re still with us

We live in an age where everyone seems most concerned with what comes next. But writers should never apologize for spending considerable time with what came before. The simple truth is that we can learn from the dead just as we do from the living. William Faulkner, an author who knew a thing or two about writing fiction, is quoted as saying, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” He realized that as writers, we must forever be willing to re-examine, to look backward as well as forward, not just at our own work and experience, but that of others as well

While there are certainly contemporary authors we read, admire, and constantly learn from, we should also learn from writers who are no longer with us. Famous writers endure because their work touches different emotions in different people. So an immersion in the past need not be onerous. It can be as engaging as it is valuable. Ask yourself this question. Who are long gone writers that you admire, and why? Your answers will be your own. Here are three you may want to consider: Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, and Malcolm Lowry. They may indeed be gone, but their work continues to live and inspire via their distinctive voices.

Chandler elevated the detective novel from potboiler to mainstream literary fiction because he wrote, as one devotee said, like a “slumming angel.” No one could turn a phrase quite like Chandler’s private eye Phillip Marlowe. His character became the archetype for all who would follow. But Chandler’s writing wasn’t mere linguistic sleight of hand. There was always acute observation and insight involved, as in The Long Goodbye, when Marlow casually tosses off the thought, “At The Dancers they get the sort of people that disillusion you about what a lot of golfing money can do for the personality.”

Graham Greene’s sardonic, irony-laced tales literally drip with attitude. Often venomous, always filled with regret, they chronicle the fall of the British Empire as omnipresent Greek Chorus in stories set in sordid little backwaters of the world where one or another disenchanted Englishman finds himself having to deal with betrayal, irresponsibility, and honor or the lack of it. More often than not his characters come to a bad end. But just as often, they grudgingly accept it, as Greene’s Major Scobie laments in The Heart Of The Matter, “We are all of us resigned to death: it’s life we aren’t resigned to.”

And for an absolutely heavenly descent into hell, check out Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece, Under The Volcano. Reading of his protagonist, Geoffrey Firmin’s last twenty-four hours on earth, one is made mindful of the sad inadequacy one’s own vocabulary. Lowry’s explosive novel erupts from page to page as his alcoholic Consul spews a tsunami of words and phrases that turn into images and scenes and drama that one is unlikely to ever forget. Such as the last words Firmin utters when he’s finally stripped to realistic simplicity, “Christ,” he remarked, puzzled, “this is a dingy way to die.”

Make room for your own long gone but constantly remembered writers. Let them rent space in your brain. They will help keep the fires of inspiration burning. When it seems difficult to write something, read something you love. Nothing will help your writing more than having a head full of sources, styles, and stories to draw from. There is no better intellectual reservoir than a well-furnished mind. Keep yours filled with the work you truly enjoy, and don’t be shy about looking back to move forward with your fiction.

Joe Kilgore is contributor to The US Review of Books and an award-winning writer of short stories, novels, and screenplays. The Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library recently featured one of his stories. Joe’s latest novella is The Horse Killer

The Crowded Hour:  Theodore Roosevelt, The Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century

by Clay Risen

Scribner

book review by Christopher Klim

“Strictly speaking there is no single San Juan Hill.”

At the turn of the twentieth century, before America entered Europe to join the WWI campaign, the US was an isolationist country healing from the great war of the previous generation when its north and south did all but completely tear the union asunder. It had pushed to the California coast, claiming the nomadic plains from Native American tribes as well as Mexico’s Spanish legacy. The scars of battle were fading, but the mythology of the Wild West was taking hold. Both a romanticism and dread of the past competed in the American psyche, as it headed into a bold and fearsome future.

Meanwhile, the long reach of Spain, one of the last European empires, loosened if not entirely retracted. It’s holdings across the globe were no longer strictly under its control, and where Spain could, it kept the people in line through colonial brutality at the tip of a bayonet. Cuban was one such place, blown-up and divided via a series of indigenous revolts spread over more than one hundred years. For Cuba, independence was at stake. For Spain, the loss of its final new world foothold, including significant financial benefits, hung in the balance. Eventually, the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana, which may have been a military accident and not Spanish aggression, mobilized the US to Cuba’s side, thus beginning America’s longstanding policy of global intervention for freedom.

There exists periods in history when a man is born for the times. Theodore Roosevelt was one such man. Revered by many for his frontier exploits and often reviled by those in higher offices, Teddy Roosevelt had the capacity to charm, repel, lead, and recoil men. While benefiting from a privileged upbringing, stoic might be a primary word to describe him, but he wasn’t a quiet man. He lauded the selfless deeds of others, while booming his dissatisfaction with the military’s general lack of preparedness. As an assistant to the Secretary of the Navy, he pushed for an increase in naval forces. While many in power lingered in the terrible memories of the Civil War, Roosevelt asserted that weakness in fact attracted outside aggression. After the Maine and against recommendation, he resigned his post to assemble a special force for the looming engagement with Spain.

This is the evolution of Roosevelt’s famous Rough Riders, a throwback cavalry ranging from greenhorns to seasoned adventurers, war veterans, and frelance cowboys who volunteered on horseback to avenge the Maine. In fact, they were the country’s first volunteer cavalry. Every bit of the American spirit and experience seemed to assemble outside San Antonio, and at first blush, Roosevelt wondered if they’d ever get this regiment of around one thousand men into working order. They were lean and rugged, and many barely operated with a sense of discipline. Order had to be maintained, even while rules were bent to accommodate those who’d spent a lifetime demonstrating the essence of liberty and independence on the frontier.

While the entire campaign is outlined in this book, the turning point, as well as one of Roosevelt’s personal high water marks, is superbly detailed during the Battle of San Juan Hill. In breadth, length, and barbarity, the battle fails in measure against any involving US troops before or after, yet it remains iconic in American history. Perhaps this was because the troops themselves were somewhat iconic even before they set sail from the Florida coast. For months, Roosevelt feared that the conflict might conclude before they reached Cuba, and although his troops eventually did land and see action, when the famous moment arrived along a rise known as Kettle Hill, he rushed forward with his charge almost out of a sense of overall frustration as much as his concern to protect his men. For the most part, the battle was paced and labored, gathering many casualties, not the storming uphill gallop depicted in art and lore.

In The Crowded Hour, eponymously named from Roosevelt’s battle description at San Juan Hill, journalist and author Clay Risen narrates a pivotal moment when the US rejoined in the aftermath of the Civil War and western expansionism and turned outward to launch its mandate of spreading democracy around the world, or at least pause the succession of imperial, dictatorial, or socialist growth.  As is always the case, motivations are never pure, and Risen does well to identify both the genesis of our actions and the naivety of the times.  He also dedicates significant pages to establishing the assembly of the troops and the attitudes surrounding them and those of their peers and countrymen. In many ways, these noncombat aspects are more important than following a roughly two-month “war” in the Caribbean. In the end, a maturing country had finally chased the last vestiges of the old world from the new world, while beginning a global policy that exists until this day.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Socrates in Love: The Making of a Philosopher

by Armand D’Angour
Bloomsbury Publishing

book review by Christopher Klim

“But if the stimulus to Socrates’ adoption of his philosophical perspectives and procedures was the woman who first taught him ‘all about love, we should recognise that Aspasia was not just a dynamic and unusually clever woman in her own right…”

To the western world, Socrates is most often seen as an aging philosopher. Both history and art ratify this, most famously in Jacques Louis David’s masterpiece The Death of Socrates. Here the legendary philosopher holds court a final time, while facing a deadly mixture of hemlock, the result of a politically motivated death sentence. As in most of Socrates’ depictions, he is a finished product at the height of his mental prowess and approaching his untimely ruin. In contrast, Oxford professor D’Angour attempts an image of young Socrates, employing known texts to unearth the potential experience and motivation that formed the mature man. The result is Socrates in Love, a kind of reverse engineering through history to reveal the famous philosopher’s genesis.

Uncovering Socrates is a Rashomon study. While credited with inspiring the studies of ethics and epistemology, he committed nothing to paper, and therefore we know of his words and deeds through the secondhand recollections of those who loved him and sometimes disliked him via conflict and jealously. His character is legendary, but it’s clear Socrates was beloved by the people, exhibiting a charm that drew both the robust and the intelligent to his side. Evidence of this truth exists in his legacy. Almost 2,500 years have passed, and we haven’t stopped speaking or writing about him. While we employ the Socratic Method—an argumentative dialogue inspiring critical thinking—Socrates is this method, immortalized through its brilliance and simplicity.

Can Socrates be shown in his youth? No one but other scholars will refute D’Angour’s depiction. His narrative presentation is story craft, beginning with Plato’s recollection of Socrates’ dissertation on love and then trolling history and testimony to reveal the geopolitical environment and events that shaped and surrounded the philosopher’s life. Heavily annotated and cross-referenced, the author presents acceptable facsimiles of Socrates as a boy, warrior, dancer, lover, and ultimately a vagabond sage who shunned material wealth but purported a zeal for life. It’s a fun read, albeit academic in nature, as it somewhat humanizes the legend, although not as assuredly as Mark Lankford’s Becoming Leonardo.

The discussion comes full circle with “The Mystery of Aspasia”—for it is back to love, so central to Socrates passion. Aspasia, partner of statesmen Pericles, entertained what might be called in modern times an artist’s salon, hosting thinkers of the day whom likely included Socrates. Aspasia was no passive host, both influential and persuasive. Socrates perhaps sought her advice on matters of love, and this aspect indeed crosses paths with the known record, but not by her name. Her exact role cannot be determined, although that it may have been larger than can be attributed. Regardless, D’Angour supposes that it would have been impossible for these two broad thinkers to resist each other’s company, and here we perhaps find the burgeoning philosopher in love.

American Moonshot

American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race

by Douglas Brinkley

Harpers

book review by Christopher Klim

“Are we working 24 hours a day on existing programs? If not, why not?” – from JFK memorandum regarding US space effort

Famous for making a “giant leap for mankind” upon the lunar surface, the US space program was in fact built with small steps. It began with the great minds of earlier centuries and the brainchildren of inventors and tinkerers. By the time John F. Kennedy took the reins of the Presidency and a splintered military push for rockets, an approach for the moon had already been discussed and often been dismissed within the higher circles of scientists and pundits. Then the first Russian Vostok missions occurred, solidifying a presidency as well as defining a purpose for America in space. Reaching the Moon would “leapfrog” Krushev’s accomplishments and threats. In many ways, the free world drew focus for the first time since WWII, lifting three astronauts to the Moon and etching a new high water mark for humanity that for fifty years remains unduplicated and unsurpassed.

In American Moonshoot, historian and deep narrative journalist Brinkley braids the stories of JFK with the US Moon landing. There exists glory and tragedy in both, and eventually JFK’s ghost hung over everything. Like war itself, much blood and treasure were spent along the way. When Neil Armstrong pressed boots on the Moon for the first time, it was the fulfillment of Kennedy’s mandate. This was in spite of the fact that the program had passed through the stewardship of Presidents Johnson and Nixon—both having profited from the effort and achievement in various ways.

While Brinkley’s detailed narrative lacks the immediacy of The Great Deluge, his seminal work on the human tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, he picks his spots to reveal the humanity of JFK and the people who made the Moon missions possible. That is perhaps one of the author’s best skills—to hold a mirror to us without judgment and let the facts speak on their own—a dying art in journalism. For that alone, this book is worth the read and maybe its selection above others. Alan Shepard’s and Deke Slayton’s heavily ghostwritten, Moonshoot, will always be a favorite for the astronaut’s insider view of rockets, although tightly focused on just the Apollo Program. Brinkley’s palette is a broader and more revealing worldview of the space effort in general.

Few books delve into the true genesis of the space race—beginning immediately after WWII with the seizure of German rocket scientists—with Brinkley’s aplomb. The pacing early on is historically slower and less dramatic, though none less essential to understanding how the space race evolved from military experiments into a civilian force idolized by the world. This is perhaps why many narratives begin late in the process with the famous Mercury Seven astronauts, when in large part the tone and ambitions of the US effort were already set. For those retellings, it’s almost as if astronauts and rockets suddenly arrived in the early sixties. Brinkley rightly reveals that nothing was further from the truth. The building toward the eventual Moon landing had begun two decades earlier in technological growth and at least a century earlier within the hearts and aspirations of scientists and artists alike. The achievement, if eventually surpassed, will remain a landmark.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter

by Tom Clavin
St. Martin’s Press

book review by Christopher Klim

“Their subsequent conversations, gathered in an interview for an article published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, would do much to create the Wild Bill Hickok legends that exist to this day. It even contained a few facts.”

Why do legends exist? Perhaps to capture the boldness of a moment in time. Perhaps to whitewash its dirtier element. Or perhaps to underscore the human desire to become bigger than we are. Sometimes a person of unique caliber intersects with the right moment in time and the stories of their adventures take on a life of their own. They transform into an enduring legend.

Wild Bill Hickok is one such legend. Born at the dawn of the great American western expansion, his above average height and looks, as well as his cool demeanor and superior shooting skills, cut the image of a remarkable man. He was the first American gunfighter, or shootist as they were called. He could fire with either hand and punch lead through your heart before you raised your gun very far from its holster.

Spending time as a military scout on the frontier during the Civil War, he learned the ways of wagon trains, cattle drives, and Indians. He knew the front trails and back trails and even served time as a U.S. Marshal, tracking down criminals but mostly military deserters escaping miserable conditions. He loved various women—Calamity Jane being the most famous—and was loved by women, more than he’d know. And of course, he savored the occasional whiskey and a good card game for stakes. It’s the type of life that many a man tries to recapture even today, but the lawlessness and landscape are gone forever. Any man who tries appears like a cheap and cowardly criminal and is quickly extinguished. Hickok himself would be gunned down in the end, because that’s where the tracks run afoul for every man who lives by a pair of six-guns at his side.

Author and historian Clavin brings us through it all. He tells us that Hickok wasn’t exactly the legend we know today, although the famous gunslinger did little to deny the tall stories circulating in his name. Americans wanted to believe in the luster of the great move west. They needed to. The reality of traveling through and settling in the harsh landscape was much different, deadlier even. Still, the tales of Hickok ran close enough to the facts that the man and legend soon became difficult to separate, and in the end, even Hickok passed those stories as his own.

Clavin is not a flowery writer, but engages as storyteller who might keep you rapt around a campfire or across the bar with subtle, wry commentary. With on-point side excursions into western lives, he covers not only Hickok but those tangent to his biography. In doing so, he paints a wider image of perhaps the widest American landscape in history. Well done.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review