Alexander Hamilton: it’s simply amazing

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Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

3 words: detailed, absorbing, lush

 

It’s no secret that I’m hooked on Hamilton. But there’s much I’ve left unsaid on this topic. So, today: an exposé!

Welcome to… True Confessions and Contradictions

 

The 1st confession

It took me 14 months to read this book, even though I loved it.

Granted, it’s 818 pages long, but sometimes a person races through a long book. This biography is packed to the gills with details, and each sentence is worth reading with a fair amount of care.

Which is not to say that this is a tough read — it’s the opposite. In the Acknowledgments, Chernow says he read aloud every word of the book to his wife. When I saw that, I thought, “Ahhhh! So that’s why the thing is so darn readable.”

Take this section: “Words were his chief weapons, and his account books are crammed with purchases for thousands of quills, parchments, penknives, slate pencils, reams of foolscap, and wax. His papers show that, Mozart-like, he could transpose complex thoughts onto paper with a few revisions. At other times, he tinkered with the prose but generally did not alter the logical progression of his thought. He wrote with the speed of a beautifully organized mind that digested ideas thoroughly, slotted them into appropriate pigeonholes, then regurgitated them at will.” (p.  250)

So the book is long, the writing is lovely, and the subject matter is almost too weird to be true. Alexander Hamilton led a wildly unlikely life.

This leads us to…

 

The 2nd confession

I admire Hamilton’s genius and his work ethic and his professional ethics, but I despise his decision to betray his wife.

The heights this man reached, particularly considering the early obstacles he faced, are nothing short of astonishing. And then Chernow uses the perfect words to sum it up: “If Washington was the father of the country and Madison the father of the Constitution, then Alexander Hamilton was surely the father of the American government.” (p. 481)

I don’t know about you, but sentences like that stop me in my tracks and sometimes set me to weeping.

And then there are things like this: Jefferson gave Gallatin the task of uncovering fraud committed by Hamilton, and Gallatin came back with, “‘I have found the most perfect system ever formed. Any change that should be made in it would injure it. Hamilton made no blunders and committed no frauds. He did nothing wrong.’” (p. 647)

Again: stunned and awed.

And then I remember Hamilton’s torrid affair with Maria Reynolds, and I think: Dude, there’s never any call for that, and I think harsh thoughts about his character.

Which brings us to…

The 3rd confession

I find Hamilton a completely fascinating character, but I’m pretty sure that if I knew him personally, I wouldn’t like him.

There’s his decision to disregard his marriage vows and humiliate his wife, there’s his abrasive personality, there’s his ego. I don’t like any of i

t. And I know: without being abrasive and egotistical, he might not have accomplished all he did. But I still get to think I don’t like that personality.

And yet! There are other moments in his life that fill me with joy: the collaboration and writing of The Federalist (this part of the book made me so happy) and his partnership with Washington. I remember a reference question about political speechwriters from my early days as a librarian, when I learned that Hamilton and Washington had co-written Washington’s farewell address. And reading about it here caused me some mild ecstasy.

 

So, like the very best of books, I’m left pondering and weighing ideas and rethinking. It’s one of those satisfying reading experiences that carries on even after the final page. I’m leaving my page of reader’s notes inside the book when I shelve it, so I can easily refer back to the parts I loved best. (I’ve never done that before.)

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… the American Revolution, American history, historical scandal, complex historical figures, in-depth biographies, Hamilton the musical

 

Anyone else out there a Hamilton fanatic?

Boone boon

Boone: A Biography by Robert Morgan

3 words: myth-busting, detailed, literary

Travel-inspired reading: I’m kind of hooked on it.

 

Anyone else with me on that?

At the reconstructed fort

When the Dear Man and I were canoeing in Kentucky, we also visited Fort Boonesborough.

It’s a place where Daniel Boone lived and dramatic things happened there.

So: we history geeks were into it.

Result: I wanted to read a Boone biography.

During our visit to the truly spectacular Paris Public Library, I asked the wonderful librarian to recommend a biography of Boone, and she suggested the Robert Morgan. I’m so glad she did.

This book, written as it is by a novelist, is seriously narrative. Morgan’s one heck of a talented storyteller, and his writing is downright lovely.

Original site of fort

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed being immersed in this story.

Even beyond the drama (being captured by Native Americans and absorbed into the tribe as the son of the chief — who knew?!) Boone’s life offers plenty of food for thought.

There’s some major irony here. Boone loved hunting and exploring, but his efforts led to the destruction of what he valued most. By opening up the West to settlement, there went the hunting grounds.

And when a biography of Boone was published during his lifetime, he became a folk hero and lived with the weirdness of early 19th century fame.

Morgan’s warm, compassionate portrait paints Boone as a decent, talented man who was deeply loved by his family and friends. And that’s an angle I hadn’t really considered — the man’s personal life. Morgan brings him very much to life, and he made me care about this man whose legend has obscured his humanity.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like…exploration, stories of loners, the frontier, early American history, a nuanced and balanced view of a historical figure

 

So, good readers… have you ever read a book because of a vacation inspiration?

George Rogers Clark: this is one sad story

George Rogers Clark: I Glory in War by William R. Nester

3 words: detailed, accessible, revealing

OK, guys. Things are about to get super geeky here.

Today we’re talking George Rogers Clark.

Here’s my reintroduction to the dude… The Dear Man and I were touring Cave Hill Cemetery a couple of years ago, so we could visit the grave of Col. Sanders.

So the guy at the gate gave us a map that showed the locations of all of the famous people’s graves. And George Rogers Clark was on the map. We discussed the fact that we pretty much didn’t know who that was, other than: 1700s? Military leader, maybe?

So: learning.

Here’s the quick synopsis of his life…

First, The Good:

  • Revolutionary War hero, but in the West
  • Led a military unit that captured forts in current-day Illinois and Indiana
  • Founder of Louisville

Next, The Bad (aka The Sad):

  • He had a serious drinking problem
  • He peaked in his 20s
  • He fell into poverty

And finally… The Ugly:

  • Late in life, he betrayed his country by making deals with France and with Spain
  • He was an angry, bitter, resentful man in his later years

 

So there we have quite the story arc. The early rise, and the long downward spiral thereafter.

Which makes this book not the most jolly of stories.

 

Locust Grove

Nevertheless, the reading experience was a really good one, because the writing is fluid, the narrative is dynamic, and the subject matter is pretty darn fascinating. We got ourselves a seriously flawed hero here, guys.

I finished reading the book during our recent canoe trip to the Lexington area, which involved a stop in Louisville. Because we are some serious history geeks (when we’re not being fast food geeks [I was serious when I said we were visiting Col. Sanders’s grave]), we visited Locust Grove, the final home of George Rogers Clark. The house actually belonged to his sister and brother-in-law, but Clark lived there for the last several years of his life, when he was an invalid.

 

The office at Locust Grove

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… the American Revolution, narrative nonfiction about forgotten episodes of major historical events, true stories of the downward spiral, flawed historical figures

 

So, my fellow readers… what semi-obscure historical figure have you found fascinating?

That sports book that’s way more

Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian by Anthony Ervin and Constantine Markides

3 words: introspective, unflinchingly honest, surprising

The book I can’t stop talking about? It’s this one.

Ervin and Markides have written themselves one doozy of a memoir / biography mash-up.

This book’s got in goin’ on in multiple ways.

First, the structure is fascinating. If you like books with multiple viewpoints, you’re gonna love this thing. Ervin and Markides share the storytelling, and the story is so much more interesting than it would’ve been with only one viewpoint. Ervin tells his story in his own words, which brings an intimacy and an immediacy to the narrative. But Markides’s writing about Ervin is equally fascinating, because we see him from two angles.

Second, Ervin’s story is so outrageous and complex, it’s only believable because it’s actually true. No way you’d get me to buy this story if it were fiction.

Dude won the gold medal in 50 meter freestyle at the 2000 Olympics, then fell off the face of the Earth.

Except really, he fell into and out of school, drug abuse, homelessness, tattooing, rock & roll, cigarette smoking, nearly every type of high-risk behavior imaginable, and all kinds of different belief systems. He nearly wrecked himself.

Then, in 2011, he started swimming again.

And by 2012, he qualified for the Olympic team.

Again.

It’s pretty stunning.

Roll in there, the fact that he has Tourette’s, is half African-American and half Jewish (but doesn’t particularly identify with either group), and is training for the 2016 Olympics right this minute, and People, We’ve Got Ourselves a Story Here.

This book is a very intriguing look inside the mind of an elite athlete who’s also a philosopher.

And the book contains remarkable descriptions of Ervin’s form as a swimmer. Markides had me breathless when I read these words:

“It was strange to reconcile the unhurried, cerebral Ervin I knew with the swift aquatic creature slicing toward me. But it wasn’t even his speed that astonished me so much as the way in which he traveled through the water–although ‘through’ isn’t even exactly right. There was something in his swimming I’d never seen before: he seemed to swim not through the water but over it.” (95)

Yowser, guys. That’s some good stuff there.

 

(He’s the one in mint green.)

 

So yeah. This book, I couldn’t put it down. It’s not the usual heroic sports story; it’s way more more nuanced than that.

I’m grateful to Ervin for “torching his soul” to write this book, and to Markides for writing such a stunning, close third-person view of Ervin’s story thus far.

Anyone else gonna be watching the Olympic trials to look for the guy with the sleeves?

 

Nixon, we hardly knew ye

Reflecting pool at the Nixon Presidential Library…
for the man who was totally *not* into self-reflection
Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas
3 words: psychological, fascinating, insightful
So this was a weird one. I read a review of this book last year, thought I might like it, saw the page count (619), and thought, “Yeah, I think I’ll pass…”
Then it showed up on some “best books of the year” lists, and I felt bad for skipping it. But still not enticed.
Then one day we were in a bookstore and I picked up a copy and told the Dear Man, “Yeah, I’m feeling guilty about not reading this book…”
And as soon as I opened the book, I was hooked.
It was the typeface.
And here’s the thing: I’m not a typeface snob. 

I’ve always found it weird when books announce their typeface at the end of the book. But in this book’s case, man, it made a difference. (In case you’re wondering, the typeface was Sabon.)

There was also really beautiful spacing on the pages.
And a photo at the beginning of each chapter.
My friends, I read this book.
And from page xi, on which the author describes Nixon’s adoration of the movie Around the World in 80 Days and the way he’d get all enthusiastic about the scene with the elephant… I was a goner.
But the thing that most delighted me about this book is how sad it made me.
I know that sounds nuts. But stay with me, guys.
Because of my mild Watergate obsession, I’ve read me a book or two about Nixon. And many of these books have explored his psyche.
But none of them were like this.
This book delved deep into the contradictions in Nixon’s character, ambitions, and view of himself. And man, it’s nothing but fascinating.
He strove to be inspiring and positive and joyful.
And mostly he just wasn’t any of those things at all.
It kind of breaks my heart.

I have new sympathy for the man. 

This book breaks new ground, and it’s that rarest of rare things: a true original in a packed field.