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?

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

Huge buzz, decent book

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of
the Lusitania
by
Erik Larson
3 words:
immediate, tragic, anecdotal
I’ve
lived my entire life as a Lusitania ignoramus.
If
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.”
Yeah,
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!
Here
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.)
Larson
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.
Now,
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
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. 

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.