Reading Reaction: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

I did it! I finally finished reading the mammoth biography, Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.

It’s no secret by now that this 800+ page history book is the inspiration for the Broadway musical Hamilton. And — oh yeah — let me just mention right here that I have tickets to the show FOR THIS WEEKEND!

Once I actually got the tickets, I became firm in my resolution to read the book. I was not giving away my shot to learn more about the ten-dollar founding father without a father. And so, in early April, I dug in. First, I started with the audiobook — a 36 hour audiobook! — figuring I’d make slow but steady progress. And I did — but took a break to listen to a couple of other things, and then couldn’t get back into the flow.

Next, I turned to the Kindle edition, with a vague plan to treat it as a serial read — maybe I’d devote 10 – 15 minutes a day, and sooner or later I’d get through the book.

I had to finish it.

After all, there were a million things I hadn’t known.

But it turns out, I just couldn’t wait.

Pretty soon, I was reading like I was running out of time.

(Sorry. I’ll stop. Soon.)

But seriously, I’m glad I stuck with it. Alexander Hamilton is a brilliant, LONG, minutely detailed, and exhausting book — but emphasis on the brilliant.

Sadly, it also made me realize that while I thought I’d gotten a pretty decent education when it came to US history, apparently my teachers skipped quite a bit. I was fairly good on the Revolutionary War and Civil War, but this book showed me how little I knew about the early, post-war years of our country, the political factions and their intense rivalries and scorching hatreds, and the incredible animosity between Hamilton and, well, so many of the founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. I actually had only the slightest clue about the process of the creation of the Constitution and Hamilton’s role in it. The book is eye-opening in the extreme — and while said eyes did actually glaze over a bit, especially during the chapters on Hamilton’s economic plans, national debt, banking, etc — I learned a tremendous amount that was new to me and/or gave me new perspective on political discord and the origins of controversies that linger to this day.

The writing in Alexander Hamilton is quite wonderful and never dull, and I loved how, thanks to Hamilton’s compulsion toward the written word, so much of his own written record is incorporated into the book. It’s enlightening as well to see writings of George Washington and other historical figures, and particularly moving to see the written record of the love and affection between Hamilton and Eliza.

The behind the scenes look at Hamilton’s time on Washington’s staff during during the war, the maneuvering and struggling to get the Constitution ratified, the deeply bloodthirsty political battles — all are written so vividly, and with such great use of language from the historical record of correspondence, newspaper articles, and personal memoirs — that I often felt like I was in the room where it happened.

So how is it that an 800-page history book can bring a woman of the 21st century to tears?

Adieu, best of wives and best of women. Embrace all my darling children for me.

Easy. By the time the duel with Aaron Burr rolled around, I was ready to put the book in the freezer. (Yes, that’s a Joey Tribbiani reference. Always appropriate.) I didn’t want it to happen. Make it stop! It feels especially silly getting emotional over events that (a) are carved in stone and actually happened and (b) happened over 200 years ago. Kind of similar to how I felt reading Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel — I wanted to somehow have the story work out differently so that Anne Boleyn could keep her head, but damn history! It happens anyway, despite my feels.

There are places where Hamilton’s writing and Chernow’s analysis are startlingly relevant. I’ll just leave a few bits here:

After a protracted inquiry into Hamilton’s conduct as Treasury Secretary which resulted in a finding that all charges were baseless:

Nevertheless, it frustrated him that after this exhaustive investigation his opponents still rehashed the stale charges of misconduct. He had learned a lesson about propaganda in politics and mused wearily that “no character, however upright, is a match for constantly reiterated attacks, however false.” If a charge was made often enough, people assumed in the end “that a person so often accused cannot be entirely innocent.”

Hmmm. (But her emails…)

Or hey, how about how a President selects key advisers?

Washington had always shown great care and humility in soliciting the views of his cabinet. Adams, in contrast, often disregarded his cabinet and enlisted friends and family, especially Abigail, as trusted advisers.

Lest we think political discourse was more genteel and polite back in ye olden days…

On October 1, he sent a follow-up note to Adams, calling the allegations against him “a base, wicked, and cruel calumny, destitute even of a plausible pretext to excuse the folly or mask the depravity which must have dictated it.”

And then there’s this commentary on a document about Adams published by Hamilton:

“And, if true, surely it must be admitted that Mr. Adams is not fit to be president and his unfitness should be made known to the electors and the public. I conceive it a species of treason to conceal from the public his incapacity.”

I ended up highlighting a LOT as I was reading — either wonderfully phrased words from Hamilton himself or interesting bits about the customs of the day or insightful hints of how Hamilton and his friends, family, and foes thought, as gleaned from their journals and letters.

I may not be all that young, scrappy, or hungry, but I did end up devouring this book once I got into its rhythms. Again, it’s weird to say that a book about history, some of it quite well-known, can be suspenseful, yet that’s how it felt. The author manages to take the events and people of the historical record and make them feel alive, and writes with a flair for capturing the intensity and drama of Hamilton’s life, as well as the emotions and experiences of Eliza, Angelica (the Schuyler sisters!), and Hamilton’s closest friends and harshest critics and enemies.

Okay, and I did come away from the book despising Aaron Burr (the damn fool who shot him), because it seems clear that Hamilton went to the duel determined not to shoot Burr, but Burr went there planning to shoot to kill, if he could.

Beyond the dramatic ending, I gained a huge amount of knowledge about Alexander Hamilton, the man who grew up impoverished and of questionable birth, who grew into one of our nation’s finest thinkers and leaders. What an amazing reading experience!

Yes, just about everyone has fallen in love with the Hamilton musical. (I admit, I was very late to the party myself, but have been doing my best to catch up!) If you’re someone who mainly knows the story of Hamilton courtesy of Lin-Manuel Miranda, I encourage you to give this book a shot. It’s worth the effort, and gives a whole new meaning to all those amazing lyrics that we all quote at random times. (Right? Not just me? Thanks.)

It’ll probably be a while before I venture back to the non-fiction shelf to pick up a history book or political biography… but Alexander Hamilton has proved to me once again that reading non-fiction can be just as much of a thrill as reading a great novel, when done well and in the hands of a gifted writer.

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Shelf Control #57: Firehouse

Shelves final

Welcome to the newest weekly feature here at Bookshelf Fantasies… Shelf Control!

Shelf Control is all about the books we want to read — and already own! Consider this a variation of a Wishing & Waiting post… but looking at books already available, and in most cases, sitting right there on our shelves and e-readers.

Want to join in? See the guidelines and linky at the bottom of the post, and jump on board! Let’s take control of our shelves!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

firehouseTitle: Firehouse
Author: David Halberstam
Published: 2003
Length: 208 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

“In the firehouse, the men not only live and eat with each other, they play sports together, go off to drink together, help repair one another’s houses, and, most important, share terrifying risks; their loyalties to each other must, by the demands of the dangers they face, be instinctive and absolute.”

So writes David Halberstam, one of America’s most distinguished reporters and historians, in this stunning New York Times bestselling book about Engine 40, Ladder 35, located on the West Side of Manhattan near Lincoln Center. On the morning of September 11, 2001, two rigs carrying thirteen men set out from this firehouse: twelve of them would never return.

Firehouse takes us to the epicenter of the tragedy. Through the kind of intimate portraits that are Halberstam’s trademark, we watch the day unfold–the men called to duty while their families wait anxiously for news of them. In addition, we come to understand the culture of the firehouse itself: why gifted men do this; why, in so many instances, they are eager to follow in their fathers’ footsteps and serve in so dangerous a profession; and why, more than anything else, it is not just a job, but a calling.

This is journalism-as-history at its best, the story of what happens when one small institution gets caught in an apocalyptic day. Firehouse is a book that will move readers as few others have in our time.

How I got it:

I found it at a library sale.

When I got it:

About 3 – 4 years ago.

Why I want to read it:

To be honest, the cover caught my eye while I was browsing the sale. At the time, I didn’t realize this book was focusing on 9/11 — I saw Halberstam’s name, and remembering reading one of his books during college, so I picked it up. I’m not usually much of a non-fiction reader, but given the subject matter, the author, and the relatively short length of the book, this is one that I think I really do need to make time to read, and soon.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link below!
  • And if you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and have fun!

For more on why I’ve started Shelf Control, check out my introductory post here, or read all about my out-of-control book inventory, here.

And if you’d like to post a Shelf Control button on your own blog, here’s an image to download (with my gratitude, of course!):

Shelf Control

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Audiobook Review: The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

The Boys in the BoatThe Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics tells the inspirational true story of the US men’s rowing team who won gold, against all odds, in what was then one of the most popular sports world-wide.

The book follows one of the team members, Joe Rantz, from his childhood during the Depression through his years of college rowing, culminating in the victory in Berlin. Joe came from a poor family, with a stepmother who disliked him so intensely that he was abandoned at a young age and left to fend for himself. From an incredible inner core of strength, Joe made it to college at the University of Washington and joined the freshman crew program.

At that time, Washington was in hot competition with the Cal crew to dominate not just the West Coast, but all of the US colleges in national regattas, and from the start, Joe’s freshman boat showed remarkable promise. As they won their freshman races and then competed for the varsity seats, Joe and the boys in his boat faced ongoing struggles with financial hardships, family complications, and the sheer bodily torture that is needed to persevere and make it as a rower.

Rowing is a sport of skill and strength, and The Boys in the Boat shows us step by step what it takes to train, to master the physical requirements, and to gain the mental focus and determination to excel. By following Joe and his teammates, we see boys of a variety of backgrounds, mostly working class and struggling to get by, throw themselves into a punishing sport and come together to overcome every obstacle.

team photo

Early on, in the prologue, the author describes meeting Joe Rantz as an old man. Joe tells him of his childhood and family, and about memories of the Olympics in Berlin:

It was when he tried to talk about “the boat” that his words began to falter and tears welled up in his bright eyes.

He goes on to define what so moved Joe:

Finally, watching Joe struggle for composure over and over, I realized that “the boat” was something more than just the shell or its crew. To Joe, it encompassed but transcended both — it was something mysterious and almost beyond definition. It was a shared experience — a singular thing that had unfolded in a golden sliver of time long gone, when nine good-hearted young men strove together, pulled together as one, gave everything they had for one another, bound together forever by pride and respect and love. Joe was crying, at least in part, for the loss of that vanished moment but much more, I think, for the sheer beauty of it.

The Boys in the Boat captures beautifully the open-hearted nature of the boys, their essential earnestness and deep friendship, and their passion for the boat, their school, their coaches, and their shared goals.

Woven throughout are chilling sections describing the Nazi rise to power and the role of Nazi propaganda in the 1936 Olympics, showing how Germany used the games to present a whitewashed version of the Nazi regime to a global audience. It’s truly disturbing to hear or read the parts of the book that describe the gleaming stadiums, the omnipresent swastikas, and the fates of those driven out or disposed of in order to present a pretty picture to the world.

I should pause for a moment to note that I am not at all a sports fan, and I never would have suspected that a book about a rowing team could grab my attention the way it did. Granted, I learned a lot more about rowing that I ever thought I’d need to know, and occasionally the narrative goes so deeply into times, techniques, strokes, and boat-building methods that I got a littly antsy waiting for the action to continue. However, the author does such a terrific job of intercutting the personal stories of the boys and the happenings of the greater world into the narrative of the sport that the whole is simply fascinating.

The audiobook is narrated by Edward Herrmann, whose narration I loved when I listened to Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand last year. (In fact, it tickled me when Louis Zamperini gets a one-sentence mention in this book.)  Edward Herrmann’s deep voice has a folksy rhythm to it as he narrates The Boys in the Boat, so that I often felt like I was sitting around listening to a good-humored old gent telling me stories. (I have no idea about the narrator’s age or personality, but listening, I couldn’t help but envision a grandfatherly type, wearing a sweater, sitting in an armchair by a fireplace. I guess I need visuals when I listen to an audiobook!)

In reading or listening to a work centered on historical events, it’s no secret what the outcome will be. Just look at the cover and you’ll know that the boys did in fact win gold. You might expect there to be a lack of drama, knowing the end result, but in The Boys in the Boat, that’s simply not the case. The writing is so well-crafted that by the time I got to the actual Olympic race toward the end of the book, I had to remind myself to keep breathing while listening to the detailed description of how the US boat made it from start to finish, detailing practically every stroke along the way.

The epilogue is quite touching as well, covering the experiences of each of the team members immediately after Berlin, their war experiences in the years that followed, and what happened to each over the course of his lifetime. Perhaps most moving is the fact that the nine teammates came together and kept their connection alive for the rest of their lives, even doing anniversary rows together every ten years until they were all in their seventies.

I can’t say enough about how wonderful this book is, whether in print or via audio. The story is truly inspirational, and I’ve found myself unable or unwilling to shake off the images of this group of strong, determined athletes and what their boat meant to them. I strongly recommend this book — and no, you do not have to be a sports fan or rowing enthusiast to enjoy it.

A quick suggestion for those who listen to the audiobook: If possible, keep a copy of the physical book or e-book on hand as well, as you won’t want to miss the photos that go with the story. For some reason, the author’s notes at the end of the book are not included in the audiobook, so be sure to read those as well.

A final note: There are quite a few different videos available about the US Olympic rowing team, including footage filmed by Nazi propagandist and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Here’s a video that gives a great overview of the achievement of this remarkable nine-man crew from Washington:

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The details:

Title: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Author: Daniel James Brown
Narrator: Edward Herrmann
Publisher: Viking
Publication date: June 4, 2013
Audiobook length: 14 hours, 25 minutes
Printed book length: 416 pages
Genre: Non-fiction/history
Source: Audible

Audiobook Review: Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

Unfamiliar Fishes

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Many think of 1776 as the defining year of American history, when we became a nation devoted to the pursuit of happiness through self- government. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell argues that 1898 might be a year just as defining, when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded first Cuba, then the Philippines, becoming an international superpower practically overnight.

Among the developments in these outposts of 1898, Vowell considers the Americanization of Hawaii the most intriguing. From the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, their goal to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d’état of the missionaries’ sons in 1893, which overthrew the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, and often appealing or tragic, characters: whalers who fired cannons at the Bible-thumpers denying them their God-given right to whores, an incestuous princess pulled between her new god and her brother-husband, sugar barons, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode “Aloha ‘Oe” serenaded the first Hawaiian president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.

With her trademark smart-alecky insights and reporting, Vowell lights out to discover the off, emblematic, and exceptional history of the fiftieth state, and in so doing finds America, warts and all.

My Thoughts:

Unfamiliar Fishes has been on my to-read list for a few years now. I’m fascinated by Hawaiian history, and have heard all sorts of good things about the author, Sarah Vowell. Since I’m rarely in the mood to sit down with a non-fiction book when there are ALL THE NOVELS to be read, I thought the idea of listening to the audiobook was rather brilliant on my part.

Sadly, the audiobook was a big disappointment, in several ways.

First of all, the content: Unfamiliar Fishes can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be history, social commentary, or personal travelogue. The historical facts and interpretations are there, sure, but mixed in are the author’s narrative of hikes, visits to Hawaii with her nephew, and other random observations. The history is presented chronologically — except when it’s not. So, for example, we may learn about a school founded by missionaries, then jump to President Obama’s school days and quotes from his memoir, before hearing from a modern-day descendant of native Hawaiians on her thoughts about the school, before returning to the historical record.

The narrative jumps from King Kamehameha to the last queen of Hawaii, Queen Liliʻuokalani — a jump of at least 80 years. When a section about the whaling industry and its impact on Hawaii gets underway, we have all sorts of digressions about Herman Melville and Moby Dick, as well as a visit to the Melville museums and tourist attractions in Massachusetts.

The story is all over the place, and particularly in an audiobook, this makes it hard to follow. Without being able to flip back to the last place where the history left off in pursuit of other digressions, it’s practically impossible to keep track of the various missionaries, chiefs, and Hawaiian royalty.

Second, the narration of the audiobook: Most of the audiobook is read by Sarah Vowell herself. To say that she has an odd voice is putting it mildly. Her voice is quirky and sounds as though every line is expected to produce a reaction, so that it’s hard to take it entirely seriously, even when dealing with serious matters. (Of course, some will love this kind of thing. I found it hard to listen to.)

What was even harder for me, and rather puzzling, was the use of some big-name comedians and actors to read sections of the books where there are quotes. According to the audiobook description, narrators include Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, John Hodgman, Catherine Keener, Edward Norton, Keanu Reeves, Paul Rudd, Maya Rudolph, and John Slattery. Impressive? Well, not if their voices are unrecognizable. Listening to the book, it just sounded like random people. Not all quotes were read by these folks — some are just done by Sarah Vowell as part of her narration. But every once in a while, when there’s a quote from a missionary’s memoir or a document written by some other historical feature, one of these random voices pops in to read it. It makes for a very weird and disjointed listening experience, and is distracting too. I found myself losing focus on the context and thinking instead, “Should I know who’s speaking right now?”

Having these people as the voice of the missionaries also seems to imply that we should view everything the missionaries wrote as funny or mock-worthy, and I’m not convinced that the actual content of their writing supports that interpretation. It’s certainly an odd approach to historical documents.

True confession time: I didn’t finish this audiobook. By about the 50% mark, I knew I was struggling. I tried to force myself to continue — I even took the advice of a Twitter friend who suggested listening at 1.5x speed to get through it faster! (Believe me, the higher speed did nothing for the quality of the narration.) Finally, I quit at about 67%. I wasn’t enjoying it, I was fighting to pay attention, and it just wasn’t working.

This was a sad DNF for me. As I mentioned, I do really enjoy learning about Hawaii, but this experience taught me very little except that I should find myself a more traditional history of the islands to read. Unfamiliar Fishes couldn’t seem to decide if it was serious or snarky, and in the end, it ends up somewhere in the muddy middle, not successfully achieving either.

I’ve heard from friends that two other books by Sarah Vowell, The Wordy Shipmates and Assassination Vacation, are worth checking out. Based on my experience with Unfamiliar Fishes, I’m not inclined to read more by this author — but if you’ve have a positive experience with her books, please tell me so!

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The details:

Title: Unfamiliar Fishes
Author: Sarah Vowell
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication date: March 22, 2011
Audiobook length: 7 hours, 28 minutes
Printed book length: 258 pages
Genre: History/social commentary (non-fiction)
Source: Library (audio download)