The Warmth of Other Suns: perfect narrative nonfiction

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

 

3 words: narrative, absorbing, poignant

You know when you read a book that you realize is going to unseat one of the books on your top 10 favorites list? Happened to me with this book.

Isabel Wilkerson is one of those remarkable writers who blends intimate, individual narratives with a broad look at a major event in American history. In other words, she’s a genius writer of narrative nonfiction. 

Her writing invites the reader to walk alongside the three people she follows, and I marveled at the detail she included. Once I read the Acknowledgments, I saw that she spent countless hours interviewing the three people whose stories she tells in depth, and she traveled with them back to their starting points in the South. They clearly developed a closeness and trust, and that comes through in the writing. 

The Great Migration took place during the first part of the 20th century, when millions of Black Americans moved from the South to the North, seeking a better life. In some cases, their stories are terrifying, as they fled the threat of lynching. This book blends uplift with heartbreak, hope with fear, and self-deliverance with a tempering of displacement. 

One of the things that makes this book so powerful is that the reader gets to learn on multiple levels — intellectually because the book is filled with fascinating facts about the Great Migration, emotionally because we as readers grow to care deeply about the people we’re reading about, and spiritually because this narrative is an important part of our American story and who we are as a nation — the good and the ugly. These unique stories tell the bigger story, and at the same time remain the experience of the single individuals who lived them. 

And throughout the book, the writing is lyrical and expressive and a pure pleasure to read. More than once, I read a sentence out loud for the sheer pleasure of the language.

Give this book a whirl if you like… learning about the Great Migration, nonfiction by Black authors, narrative nonfiction, lyrical writing, #ownvoices nonfiction, individual stories interwoven in a larger historical context

Alexander Hamilton: it’s simply amazing

shirt courtesy of twhistory.storenvy.com

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?

Making the Constitution completely fascinating

(Photo by Jomar Thomas on Unsplash)

The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation by Jonathan Hennessey and Aaron McConnell

 

3 words: educational, lively, page-turner

Happy Independence Day, my fellow Americans!

While it’s fair to say I’m primed to love this book (political science major and Hamilton obsessive), there’s so much here to love.

But… I’m not a natural reader of graphic novels, so in order for this book to really work for me, it had to perform on a pretty high level. I need to be won over by a graphic novel, and this one accomplished that feat.

As I was reading, I couldn’t believe how fun the author and illustrator made this book. Yes, it’s about the Constitution, and yes, that could be on the dry side, but… they make it interesting. And colorful and visually engaging. I kept thinking of Schoolhouse Rock, and that ramped up my fondness even further.

The author makes the Constitution and the Bill of Rights downright relatable, and he makes it relevant. We learn the Why.

I gotta say: pretty darn fascinating.

But then, I’m also the reader who occasionally got verklempt while reading this book, because: our government!

It’s messy and sometimes it doesn’t look like it’s working well at all, but it’s built strong enough to endure some serious crap. And that’s a serious comfort, my friends.

And if you need a soundtrack, of course Hamilton provides one.

Give this book a whirl if you like… nonfiction graphic novels, American history, the Schoolhouse Rock approach to learning, the “why” behind the American system of government

 

My fellow readers… what book would you recommend for the 4th of July?

Visiting the dead presidents

Dead Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation’s Leaders by Brady Carlson
3 words: rollicking, enthusiastic, informative
Bybee, you’ve done it again. Your fantastic, enticing review of Dead Presidents sent me directly to that book, and I devoured it with complete delight.
Turns out, author Brady Carlson and I are of the same tribe. We’re the ghoulish sorts who visit cemeteries for fun. And if there’s a president buried there, we plan our vacations around the presidential grave visit. 
Yep. You’re hanging out here with one sick puppy.
And I gotta say, I think we also have a similar graveside manner: reasonably reverent, but with an eye for the peculiar.
For example, when the Dear Man and I were in Louisville, we visited the grave of Zachary Taylor. 
(Brief pause, while we reflect on the fact that while Taylor is more memorable than, say, Pierce, he sure ain’t no U.S. Grant. OK. Back to our story…)

And on the way there, we Googled Taylor and found out dude had been disinterred during our lifetime!
(This is one weird world we live in, my friends.)
Apparently (who knew?!) there have long been rumors that Taylor had been poisoned. 
(Test results say: ummmm… NO.)
Brady hits that story in this here book, and lots of other great little anecdotes that will surprise and delight.
And we mere civilians can also attend! 
Imagine a world where Grover Cleveland’s grandson rubs elbows with the grand-nephew of Harry Truman…
Pure magic, right?
For a book dealing with dead people, this thing is awfully darn fun. Carlson’s tone is ebullient, and his observations sharp and delighted. 
There are moments in this book that made me laugh out loud, such as this one:
“We take a look through the Harrison items in the back room, including something called an ophicleide, which looks like the love-child of a tuba and a bugle, played when Harrison was interred in North Bend in 1841 and brought out again at the renovation of the tomb in 1922.”  (p. 34)
(Love-child of a tuba and bugle!) 
If you’re even vaguely interested in Geek Tourism or the presidents or travel memoirs, give this book a whirl. Carlson’s a fun and knowledgeable tour guide who’ll skip the boring parts and delivery only the good stuff. 
Confession time, my friends… What’s your weirdest travel quirk? 

Me & Ben improve ourselves (mostly he does that, while I listen)

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin

3 words: literary, straightforward, ambitious

Before listening to his autobiography, here’s what I could’ve told you about Benjamin Franklin:

  • That electricity thing with a kite
  • That quest for self-perfection
  • Philadelphia boy
  • Dude went to France
  • Poor Richard’s Almanack
  • That really bad hair

 

As I listened, though, I remembered what I’d known and forgotten:

  • Founded one of the first lending libraries in America
  • Worked as a printer
  • Known for his writing (oh, thank goodness!)
  • Self-made man

 

And I learned things I never knew:

  • Dude was a wise, wily politician
  • Not into church-going
  • Founded a fire department in Philadelphia

 

I found his autobiography a rather uplifting reading experience. Granted, his life could be considered a success, but he describes his mistakes with honesty and humility. He owns that crap.

And his writing is clean and surprisingly straightforward for its day. I was prepared for all kinds of flowery speech, but he preserved us from that fate. (This might be one of the reasons this book is still so widely read.)

My favorite section was the part where he describes his plan to become a better person by observing the 13 virtues he identified and worked on, one by one: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility.

Oh, I liked this part a lot.

I had all kinds of happy little flashbacks to reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. Her formula for happiness is “being happier requires you to thinking about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.”

It appeals to me so strongly, that “atmosphere of growth” stuff. And Franklin’s life embodied that concept.

So hanging out with him while he told his life story was pretty darn inspiring. While I scrambled eggs, he described figuring out how to set up a fire department and save lives, all while living a life of frugal, tranquil sincerity.

So yeah, inspiring and enjoyable. Glad I read it.

 

New Year, old scandal

Watergate tourist. I know: sad.

The Last of the President’s Men by Bob Woodward
3 words: fascinating, strange, bitter
My Watergate obsession rages on.
And when Bob Woodward releases anything linked to those days, I get truly a little bit scarily excited.
So this book made me bliss out (even though it made me sad to see the word “Last” in its title — Bob, don’t let the well dry up!)
It’s the story of Alexander Butterfield, the person who blew the whistle on the taping system in the Oval Office.
I’d always wondered why he spilled the beans, and this book basically answers that question. 
Dude was ticked. 
He’d given up an important position in the Air Force to work for his old buddy Haldeman in the White House, only to discover his boss’s boss had severe social anxiety and was too nervous to meet him for weeks. (We’re talking here about the President of the United States, people.)
And that’s merely the tip of the iceberg.
One of my favorite lines from the book: “The Nixon inner circle sounded like both snake pit and kindergarten.” (27)
Oh, boy.
So, yeah, some dirt is dished here. Seems like Butterfield’s still kind of holding a grudge, which could cause a person to take this book with a grain of salt, except: Woodward pre-salted it. He acknowledges Butterfield’s lingering anger and knows it’s part of the reason he consented to share long-concealed documents he removed from the White House when he left.

Fascinating stuff.

It’s official: I’m related to a witch

Witch House, Salem (photo credit: Library of Congress)
The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff
3 words:
detailed, narrative, dense
Related to a witch! 
Actually,
I’m not. 
But my 8th great grand uncle* (a male witch—even more
unexpected!) was accused of witchcraft (and later released).
This was
vaguely horrifying and mostly thrilling. It may have been the high point of the
book for me.
Years
ago, I read Saint-Exupery: A Biography by
Stacy Schiff, and it was one of those remarkable reading experiences where a
book just drew me into its world and I wanted to stay there.
So this
new book, The Witches, enticed me powerfully.
Schiff has become a Name in the world of biography writing, and I was excited
at the thought of reading another one of her books.
And then
I got into this book, and I felt frustrated.
Here’s
why: Schiff does a masterful job of gathering and presenting an immense array
of research, so she is able to present a wonderfully detailed account of the
events of 1692 in Salem. She places the reader in the scene, which is a
terrific accomplishment.
But I
was bothered by the lack of analysis of why
this group of adolescent girls was twitching and writhing and accusing
others of being witches—and why innocent people were confessing to being
witches.
There
was no sense to it! And it was really bugging me.
And I
realized that as a reader, I needed some interpretation along the way, to help
explain the madness that was taking place in Salem—to cut my irritation with the
utter nonsense of the situation.
Relief
arrived in the final chapters, where Schiff explains some of the possible
reasons for the witch accusations and trials. But I’d
just experienced over 300 pages of descriptions of utterly bizarre behavior
without much of an explanation. I was worn out and slightly peevish.
That
having been said, I don’t want to undercut the book overall. Beyond being a
magnificent researcher, Schiff has a delightful writing style—and even manages
to add some humor occasionally, despite the grimness of her subject matter.
For
example:
“He that
summer took in thirteen-year-old Martha to see to her cure. She cantered,
trotted, and galloped about the Mather household on her ‘aerial steed,’
whistling through family prayer and pummeling anyone who attempted it in her
presence, the worse houseguest in history.” (21)
And:
“…the
devil aimed to destroy the villagers because they bickered among themselves and
their ministers. (In fairness, were those the criteria, Satan would have had
his choice of New England congregations.)” (303)
I wanted
to love the experience of reading this book. But I merely liked it. I remain un-bewitched.
*my personal
history of genealogical nerdiness is indeed quite something

Flight the Wright way

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
3 words:
triumphant, character-driven, family
David
McCullough is one of my guys. Two of his books appear in my blog banner, which
I realized only when I was reading his latest, about the Wright brothers.
(courtesy of Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)
Me and
Wilbur and Orville, we go back a ways, too. 
For
years, I’ve gotten all misty-eyed and boring at cocktail parties* every
December 17, because I regale anyone within earshot with the news that it’s the
umpteenth anniversary of the first powered flight. 
I say the words “Kitty Hawk”
and “Kill Devil Hills.” 
I say the words “muslin-covered wings” and “wind tunnel.” 
I speak in awestruck tones about seeing the Wright Flyer at the Air and Space Museum.
I’m seriously
the life of any party.
So this
book had me all in a flutter. The
flutter was worth the while.
McCullough
is a wonderfully comforting writer, who is a master of his craft. His sentences
just flow.
The
other thing that makes him comforting is that he tends to tell the heroic
stories, in a tone that’s relatively wart-free. He’s not out to tell how the
Wright’s competitors tried to make them out as mean-spirited moneygrubbers
whose protection of their patents bordered on the obsessive.
No, this
book is about their hard work and their triumph. And it’s very much about their
personalities and their family.
Neither
man married, and they lived with their father and sister. Which sounds kind of
horrid, except that it sounds like they had rather a happy home life.
And they
were quiet fellows who largely kept to themselves, at least until fame struck.
So there
are quiet, wonderful moments like this one, when Wilbur was about to take off
on a demo flight in France:
“Finally,
at six-thirty, with dusk settling, Wilbur turned his cap backward, and to Berg,
Bolée, and the others said quietly, ‘Gentlemen, I’m going to fly.’” (p.
170)   
Reading
those words made me stop and clap a hand against the center of my chest and do
the heartstruck look.
So,
yeah.
McCullough
is a pleasant, talented author, and he’s writing about these quirky fellows
whom he finds pleasant and talented himself, so it’s a whirlwind of goodness.
And
despite the theme of flight, McCullough keeps it down to earth:
“Their
nephew Milton, who as a boy was often hanging about the brothers, would one day
write, “History was being made in their bicycle shop and in their home, but the
making was so obscured by the commonplace that I did not recognize it until
many years later.’” (p 113)
Warm,
heroic, and stoic.
*I avoid
cocktail parties like the plague. But anywhere else I am, I bore people with
this December 17 business. Avoid me on that date.

More doom. More gloom.

Five Days in November by Clint Hill with Lisa McCubbin
This was a positive reading
experience, guys, even though the book is sad. I picked up this book before
bedtime one night, and ended up reading way later (way later) than I’d planned.
Though, as I’ve said
before, I know this story.  
I mean, for
goodness’ sake, we all do.  

(photo courtesy of the John F. Kennedy
Presidential Library and Museum)
I’d read Clint
Hill’s other book Mrs. Kennedy and Me and loved it. So I
wondered if this book would feel redundant. But its focus is quite different.
While the first book dealt with his working relationship with Jacqueline
Kennedy, this book is all about the trip to Texas in November 1963. And it’s filled with
photos, many of which I’d never seen.
While I’ve read a
lot of books about JFK, I tend not to focus on those days in November. Other
than William Manchester’s remarkable The Death of a President, I’ve focused on the president’s life rather than his
death.  
But the way Clint
Hill’s book brings the behind-the-scenes perspective to the story makes this
book different. It feels like someone describing a death in the family. 

And it’s heartbreaking. 

Visiting the Anne Frank House

Anne Frank House: A Museum with a Story published by Anne Frank House

Back when I first read Anne Frank’s diary, I dreamed of visiting the house where she and her family and the others were in hiding. And I swore that when I first went overseas, that would be my destination. And then I wondered whether it ever would really happen.

A decade or two passed (or maybe three) and finally the opportunity presented itself. And I kept repeating to myself, “Lucky, lucky, lucky…” because really: how many of us get to actually realize a childhood dream?

And then I thought of how Anne’s childhood dream—of publishing her story—came true, but how it happened only after her much-too-young, much-too-terrible death. And then I felt that awful sick feeling that comes over me when it hits me that that was really real.

So when I visited the Anne Frank House recently, the experience was very real and also surreal.


And when I saw the swinging bookcase, I stopped in my tracks and blinked a whole bunch to keep from crying.

People, it’s an emotional experience to visit that place. 

The good people at the Anne Frank House museum have put together a remarkable website that allows virtual visits.  

But there’s nothing that really compares to being in that space. My God. Anne’s movie star pictures are still on the walls of her room, and one of the doorways still contains the marks the Franks made to record their daughters’ growth in height. 

It’s devastatingly moving.

The museum’s book, Anne Frank House: A Museum with a Story,
is a wonderful companion. It provides photos of the spaces with the furniture in place, so you can get a sense of what it was like when the Frank family, Van Pels family, and Fritz Pfeffer lived there. (The rooms are now devoid of furniture.)

At the end of the book, there are pages about the fate of each of the occupants of the secret annex. And it was in this section that I struggled to keep it together.

A small book, but an important one.