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?

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! 
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
“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)
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

Huge buzz, decent book

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of
the Lusitania
Erik Larson
3 words:
immediate, tragic, anecdotal
lived my entire life as a Lusitania ignoramus.
you’d’ve asked me what I could tell you about it, I’d’ve said “British ship
sunk by the Germans during World War I. Americans on board, so the U.S. entered
the war.”
sort of right. Partial credit. Actually, it took 2 more years for the U.S. to
declare war. (Who knew?!)
So this
is an Erik Larson book, which often means we’re gonna have dual narratives.
This one’s no exception. Except: Wait—there’s more!
we’re on board the Lusitania; on
board the U-boat that sunk the ship; hanging out in the code-breaking room in
England; and eavesdropping on President Wilson, who’s wooing his second wife. And
there are some side trips to shipping offices, too.
But the
main storyline is, as expected, onboard the Lusitania,
which (didn’t know this, either) had an unusually large number of children and
babies aboard during its last voyage. (Sad, guys. This stuff is sad.)
did some fine research, so we get to hear the story from several of the
survivors. He paints a detailed picture of life on the ship.
maybe this is just me, but one thing I expected from this book—since it’s
tragedy and it’s true, and I love that stuff—didn’t actually happen. I thought
I’d become slightly obsessed with the topic, Googling and YouTubing and looking
up other books about the Lusitania
But I find that this book is enough. And I’m not sure whether that’s because I’m not
the ideal audience [pretty sure I am] or because Larson’s narrative didn’t completely
pull me in to the story. Unlike every time I’ve read Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, the classic
account of the sinking of the Titanic,
Dead Wake didn’t make me feel like I
was there. I’m beginning to think there’s something about Larson’s style that just doesn’t
jibe with me. 
This is
a fine book in many ways, and I liked it rather much. But I really wanted to
love it.

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
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. 

Anne Frank walking tour

Before my fabulous friend’s and my recent visit to Amsterdam — a destination I chose solely because of my lifelong wish to visit the Anne Frank House — the Dear Man told me about two amazing things that greatly enhanced the experience.

First, he alerted me to this remarkable site, which contains photos
of (and related to) Anne Frank, blended with current photos of the same sites. Looking at these photos left me speechless.

Then he found the Anne’s Amsterdam app (which I’m sorry to report is no longer available), which allows a person in Amsterdam to do the same thing, only in real life. For true!

So my friend and I trekked around Amsterdam with the app, and she (who can navigate, unlike some of us) located these sites for us to visit.

At some of these locations, I did gasping and standing still and staring wide-eyed. Actually, I mostly did that the entire time.

The school Margot attended

A statue of Anne Frank, on the site where the next photo was taken…
Anne Frank (on right), with two friends

(photo courtesy of Anne Frank Stichting, Amsterdam)

The Frank family’s home, where the following footage was filmed

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched this, but it’s lots.

The bookstore where Otto Frank bought Anne her diary

The Van Pels family’s home

The thing that was interesting, too, was that the Frank family’s home didn’t bear a plaque. It appears to be just any other home in Amsterdam, and it looks like people live there. For some reason, this surprised me. You could be walking down the street, and you wouldn’t know you were looking at a place that was so significant. It’s a bit strange.

Amsterdam is an amazing city for so many reasons, but the absolute highlight was seeing the Anne Frank House and visiting these other sites.

It was one of the best things I’ve ever had the opportunity to do.

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.



Anne Frank: The Diary

(photo credit: Anne Frank Stichting, Amsterdam)

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

When I was in 6th grade, I read a book that captivated and devastated me. And those feelings have remained the same ever since.

The first time I read Anne Frank’s writing, I experienced shock and amazement and horror and wonder. Marveling that a girl my own age could write the way she wrote. Horrified at the hatred that caused her death.

And when my book club read her diary earlier this year, those feelings returned tenfold. Because reading her words and her ideas as an adult reader, I realized from a completely new perspective how remarkable she was.

And then I said some really strong curse words because she was killed.

When I read her diary earlier in life (all those times I re-read it), I was reading the edited version. The first time I’d read The Definitive Edition was this year, and I kept wondering if the reading experience was different only because I was now an adult, or whether reading the longer edition made that big a difference. I’ll never know. I’d’ve had to have read the edited version this year, followed by the definitive edition, to have gotten a good sense.

But these two things kept making me pause and feel a sense of admiration: her insightful commentary on herself and her situation, and her marvelous prose style. The girl could write.

The only saving grace is that her diary was salvaged and published. When a book becomes a stronger work upon re-reading it, you know you’re reading something of enormous power.  

The Anne Frank website states these words, and they fill me with hope for humanity: 

“Otto often concludes his letters with the words: ‘I hope Anne’s book will have an effect on the rest of your life so that insofar as it is possible in your own circumstances, you will work for unity and peace.'”


Update… In late 2013, I visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, fulfilling the dream I’d had since sixth grade — of standing in the space where she lived and wrote. A remarkable experience. I’m still overcome by it.

True confession

I love and adore nonfiction books about horrid tragedies. The
horrider, the better. 
Though I swear, I’m not a ghoul. My reading tastes just
trend that way.
And I have a theory about why this is the case.
I think it has to do with the fact that I am wickedly annoyed
by books/movies that drama things up beyond reason. [I also ain’t so keen on
actual people who ratchet up the drama just for kicks.] The thought, “It’s not
life or death,” comes to mind when
high drama is occurring for little to no reason. 
(Movies are the worst at this. At one point, I nearly
swore off drama in film form forever, I was so peeved at the wailing violins
that were cranking up the sadness factor in some dreadful movie that was going
for an emotional response. I was so ticked I could barely see straight. Yes, I
realize that my reaction was… dramatic.)
So when a situation is actually
life-or-death (oh, say the Titanic is a-sinking, or the Hindenburg is aflame,
or the plane’s in a tailspin), some drama is appropriate.
And the thing I love (LOVE!) is that often the drama is quite
low-key in these real-life situations.* People actually step up.
I’m talking nonfiction here. Because in fiction authors often get
so excited that there’s a tragedy
happening to my poor character!!
that they lose all sense of proportion.
Some fiction authors can pull it off, but I place my trust in nonfiction.
If there’s gonna be a tragic event in the book I’m reading, I want
it to be true.

*Case in point: George McGovern (may he rest in peace). Now, I know you’re wondering where I’m
headed with this, but stick with me. [No, we’re not going to talk about the
fact that Nixon trounced him in 1972. That was a disaster of a different sort.]
Here’s what I learned from Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus: McGovern had been a B-24 pilot in WWII.
Did.Not.Know.This. And here’s what he said to the crew as he limped their
shot-up plane back to safety: “Resume your stations. We’re bringing her home.”
I swear to God, I got teary. That’s the
way to handle a calamity, people.  

She never wrote a memoir, but she did do this…

Jacqueline Kennedy:
Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy: Interviews with Arthur M.
Schlesinger, Jr., 1964
(photo credit: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)
It’s a book, it’s an audiobook, it’s one of the coolest things ever.

This is exactly the kind of historic record that I’ve been know to
pray will appear on the scene during
my lifetime. And it’s fabulous.
Arthur Schlesinger was part of JFK’s brain trust, and it sounds
from these recordings, like Jackie was reasonably comfortable with him. At any
rate, she’s rather candid, and there are things she talked about that later she
said she didn’t want to have shared.
Of course, these are the good
Such as: There were kids’ bath toys lined up along the edge of the
bathtub in JFK’s bathroom—the one their visitors to the family quarters would
use—because John, Jr., would hang out in there while his dad was in the tub.
And, of course, when she speaks of her husband, Jackie idealizes
him completely unrealistically. Of course
this is what a wife would do. It was up to her to set the tone for his
legacy. And besides, the man had just been assassinated mere months before. So
of course she’s going to make him sound like a saint.
But, beyond the perfected version of things that she presents, there
are some little glimpses of both of them as real humans, such as when she says
he’d sometimes call her “Kid,” and when she describes how he wept after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. And that he ate breakfast in a
t-shirt and underwear, on a tray in his bedroom.    
These tapes are also completely fascinating as a relic of the-way-(some)-marriages-were.
She provides a very clear view of how she saw her role as a wife, and it’s
old-fashioned-y stuff: Don’t ask your husband about his work day unless he
offers information; Make sure the children are in a good mood when your husband
gets home; First and foremost, provide a comfortable home life for your
The intimacy of listening to the actual interviews is pretty darn
amazing—of course, there’s her famously breathy voice, but there’s all kinds of
wonderful background noise, too: ice cubes clinking in a glass, cigarettes
being lit, airplanes overhead, and John, Jr., tearing into the room.
This is good enough stuff that probably even the Normal (non-Kennedy-obsessed) out there will
find it worth a listen.
Also—it comes with a book that has helpful footnotes (to remind us
who Douglas Dillon was) and some good photos.

(Coincidence? Or not? Today is the 51st anniversary of John, Jr.’s birth. Just realized that when I looked at the date.)

A close call

Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan by Del Quentin Wilber
Who knew there wasn’t a book—until now—about the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan? I guess I never thought to look for such a thing.
But now it exists, and it’s a darn good book, especially for the presidential history geeks among us.
Del Quentin Wilber, a journalist at the Washington Post [pause here for impassioned shouts of adoration for said newspaper] did all the good investigative stuff journalists do, and he pieces together an account of the events of March 30, 1981, and the weeks that followed.
And he tells it in that engaging journalistic style that makes you feel like you were there.
The NPR story that alerted me to this book includes an excerpt from the Secret Service radio recording at the moment when Jerry Parr, the lead agent on the scene, realized that Reagan had been shot. (They were already in the car, headed for the White House.) When you hear the calm in Parr’s voice, it really makes a person glad the Secret Service exists.
We all know the folklore about Reagan’s jocularity following the assassination attempt.
But the thing we didn’t know at the time was how close the bullet was to Reagan’s heart. That whole scene could have turned out much worse for him, and now, 30 years later, we’re just getting a better sense of that.
Anyway, to the human interest story…
Keeping in mind that I’m not exactly a fan of Reagan’s policies, I really have to confess I like the guy as a human.
Not only because he walked himself into the hospital with a bullet in his chest, but because he responded with such grace and humor to that terrifying situation. Wilber reminds us how reassuring that was to a freaked-out American public.
His son Ron later said that his father was so jovial during those dire moments following his shooting because he was a performer at heart. Ronald Reagan seemed to confirm this when he said during a 1985 interview, “There was a crowd standing around. Somebody ought to entertain them some way.” (p. 219) I am so weirdly charmed by this.
Plus, the man was just witty, you know? Parr was the Secret Service agent who shoved Reagan into the car and jumped on top of him during the assassination attempt. When Parr retired in 1985, he visited Reagan in the Oval Office. Wilber tells us, “When the president saw him, he said, ‘You’re not going to throw me over the couch, are you?’” (p. 224)
This book was one of my Read-a-Thon choices, which means I read it from start to finish. Since I usually have 5+ books on the go at a time, it’s rare that I (happily) read a book straight through. This one fit the bill.