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! 
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

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.

 

 

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.'”

Yes.

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.

Ghoul.
*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
things.
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
husband.
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.

Two marriages

The Still Point by Amy Sackville
Here’s how we know how big of a liarhead I really am: I say I detest historical fiction because people back then lived in such discomfort, and I Don’t Want To Experience That.
But… I’m nothing but a sucker for the arctic exploration books. Those puppies are filled with suffering, and I mean lots of it.
(image credit: Library of Congress)
This book has that arctic exploration thing happening. And, to add to the suffering… it also has a current-day troubled marriage storyline.
I was entranced.
It doesn’t hurt that the author trots out sentences like this: “She has pegged the washing out on the line, so that the sheets billow fresh white at the edge of her vision like the sails of a ship; she is afloat in the summer morning.” (p. 26 of the eBook)
And, in addition to beautiful sentences, there’s a plot! With two storylines, actually—past and present. Yet the whole story is set up within a single day in the here and now.
The present day has that troubled marriage couple I mentioned: Julia and Simon. She’s the dreamy descendant of a semi-famous failed arctic explorer from the turn of the last century, and she and Simon have moved into her family’s house, which is also home to explorer Edward’s artifacts and journal. Simon’s thinking he just might have an affair.
While he’s contemplating this possibility throughout the day, Julia’s casting back to great-grand-uncle Edward’s life—and his gorgeously romantic marriage to Emily, who waited for his return all her life.
So we get excerpts from Edward’s journal and the story of his ill-fated mission to the Pole, plus the story on the homefront in 1900, as Emily waited.
And deceptions are revealed, and it’s good because you know something’s gonna happen, but you don’t know what. (At least I didn’t.)
And since I love this kind of thing, I’m gonna throw you some read-a-likes:
Antarctic Navigation by Elizabeth Arthur—has an Antarctic (rather than Arctic) thing going on, but it also features a current-day woman researching a tragically-fated polar expedition. 800+ pages of goodness
The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett—a gorgeous novel about a Victorian Arctic expedition and the women who waited for the explorer’s return. (Love that homefront stuff)
Exiles by Ron Hansen—has a tragedy (a shipwreck) at its heart, but also has the sensitive soul (a poet) who is haunted by it. Has the same sort of emotional pull as The Still Point
On a completely different note, here’s one way the Nook Color may be improving my brain: I actually use the built-in dictionary function (Just touch the word and then touch “dictionary”!) to look up words I don’t know, rather than skimming over them, figuring I’ve picked up enough context clues to get the meaning. In this book, I looked up “nacreous,” “alembic,” and “ambit.” I’m wondering: Am I simply dense not to know those words?

It’s not about the plane crash

Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival by Norman Ollestad
How did this book miss my radar for 2 years? It’s a remarkable story, gorgeously and simply told, and as an audiobook it’s simply stunning. And I’m rather appalled that I missed knowing about it till now.
We know I can’t keep away from plane crash stories. This is such a story.
But it’s really a father-son story, told by the grown son, who’s looking back at his childhood and the influence of his charismatic father. Ollestad’s dad really pushed his son to excel athletically—dragging him out of bed for hockey practice, taking him surfing in waves he found frightening, and skiing with him down icy mountains. And all that adventure travel and extreme sport stuff prepared him for February 1979, when the worst happened.
Eleven-year-old Norman, his dad, his dad’s girlfriend, and a pilot were flying in the mountains, and they crashed.
The plane crash story is interwoven with the story of Norman’s life in the year or so leading up the crash. Obviously we know Norman survived, but it’s still surprisingly suspenseful to read the passages about the crash and its aftermath. It’s pretty amazing that an 11-year-old could have the strength and the presence of mind to take the steps necessary for his survival, but he was kind of an extraordinary kid.
He’s grown up to be an extraordinary writer.

Other notes: The author reads the audiobook himself, and I can’t imagine anyone else reading it. His intonation adds so much to the story that I actually can’t even imagine reading it on the page. It’s rare that an audiobook is powerful enough for me to say that. (Audiobook: 7.5 hours)
BTW, Amazon has an essay the author wrote about enticing his young son into reading. I love it.