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The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by H.W. Brands (Doubleday, $35). In a graceful, even witty prose that leads one to imagine him a gifted lecturer, Texas A&M historian H.W. Brands relates the entire, dense-packed life: Franklin's scrapes as one of 15 children of an authoritarian Boston chandler, his dreams of shipping out, his breaking of his apprenticeship and his exhausting flight to Philadelphia, the extraordinary luck that landed him influential Pennsylvania connections literally before he was shaving and the bourgeois success he built in his 20s, 30s and 40s. When Brands arrives at the midpoint of his story -- once Franklin retires from printing to apply himself to science, politics and diplomacy -- it becomes clear why Franklin has been pretty much left alone by American biographers for the last half-century. Brands labels Frankin as not particularly patriotic and not particularly moral, and describes a life outside his aphorisms and inventions.

The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (Knopf, $25). Ambitious and adventurous, Peter Carey, author of six previous novels and winner of the prestigious Booker Prize for "Oscar and Lucinda," here turns to the second half of the 19th century in his native Australia. He tells the life story of the celebrated outlaw Ned Kelly (1854-1880), who, together with a little band of mates, drove the lawful authorities to distraction for a few memorable years and ever after. At least to the Australian reader, the story and the details of Ned Kelly's life are well known. Carey's special challenge is to satisfy that audience while at the same time speaking to a potentially much larger audience -- most Americans, for example, who don't know Ned Kelly from the Man in the Moon. Carey succeeds brilliantly in allowing Kelly to tell most of the story himself, in his own words as a first-person narrator. But the great strength and pleasure of this novel is the language Carey has created for Ned Kelly, allowing a full range from lyrical to rowdy and ribald.

An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood by Jimmy Carter (Simon & Schuster, $26). In the two decades since his involuntary departure from the White House, Jimmy Carter has done an impressive amount of Good Works -- most notably through Habitat for Humanity and the Carter Center -- and in the process refurbished a reputation that was rather badly bruised by his term as president. He has also become a prolific writer; "An Hour Before Daylight" is his 14th book. The subject of his books invariably is himself. Sometimes this takes the form of straight autobiography or reminiscence, while at others (as in the books on the Middle East, wherein Carter appears as the great peacemaker) it is more indirect and subtle, but there never is any doubt that a strong vein of what might be called polite self-promotion runs through them. Certainly that is true of "An Hour Before Daylight." Though Carter's retentive memory and obsession with detail can be vexing, in this instance both serve him well, for he is able to give his recollections the rich texture of fact and evidence. The book conveys with quiet passion -- a quality not ordinarily associated with Jimmy Carter -- its author's love for the place in which he grew up and where, he says, he expects to rest for eternity.

-- Washington Post

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