The Monday Check-In ~ 12/17/2018

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life.

It’s the little things in life that warm a book-lovers heart. On Saturday, I took a whole bunch of books to the library donation center, then headed over to my very favorite bookstore in the city (Borderlands!), where I treated myself to one new book and drooled over half a zillion others, then stopped off at the library on my way home to pick up the books on my hold shelf. So many books to gaze at and admire and adopt!

What did I read during the last week?

The Library Book by Susan Orlean: Fascinating non-fiction. My review is here.

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne: Contemporary romance, borrowed on a whim. My review is here.

Love and Other Words by Christina Lauren: I just discovered this author duo’s books a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve just finished my 3rd book by her (them). So much for me not being a romance reader — clearly, I seem to have a sudden weakness for contemporary romance. I’ll share a review post later this week.

Outlander, baby!

I’m writing reaction posts for each episode of season 4:

Episode 405, “Savages” (aired 12/2/2018) – my reaction post for the 5th episode is here.
Episode 406, “Blood of My Blood” (aired 12/9/2018) – my reaction post for last week’s episode is here.


NEW: Episode 407, “Down the Rabbit Hole” (aired 12/16/2018) – my reaction post for last night’s episode is here.

Fresh Catch:

I did a major bookshelf purge, and took all these books to the library donation center:

But then counter-balanced my sense of virtue by buying a few more new and used books:

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

Fire & Blood by George R. R. Martin: With two weeks left in December and my 2018 Goodreads challenge already complete, this seems like a good time to take a deep breath and dive into this massive tome. Wish me luck!

Now playing via audiobook:

A tough choice! I’m in-between audiobooks right now, but next up will either be:

  • An audiobook re-read of Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire, since the next Wayward Children book comes out in January; or…
  • Zero G by Dan Wells, an Audible Original that was a free selection for December

Ongoing reads:

Book group reads — two approaching the end, and one just for Christmas!

  • Classic read: Middlemarch by George Eliot — we’ll be done in January.
  • The Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon — Last chapters this coming week!
  • The Night Before Christmas by Nikolai Gogol — our group read for December

So many books, so little time…

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Book Review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

On the morning of April 28, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual fire alarm. As one fireman recounted, “Once that first stack got going, it was ‘Goodbye, Charlie.’” The fire was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?

Weaving her lifelong love of books and reading into an investigation of the fire, award-winning New Yorker reporter and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean delivers a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling book that manages to tell the broader story of libraries and librarians in a way that has never been done before.

In The Library Book, Orlean chronicles the LAPL fire and its aftermath to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives; delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from their humble beginnings as a metropolitan charitable initiative to their current status as a cornerstone of national identity; brings each department of the library to vivid life through on-the-ground reporting; studies arson and attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; reflects on her own experiences in libraries; and reexamines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the LAPL more than thirty years ago.

Along the way, Orlean introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters from libraries past and present—from Mary Foy, who in 1880 at eighteen years old was named the head of the Los Angeles Public Library at a time when men still dominated the role, to Dr. C.J.K. Jones, a pastor, citrus farmer, and polymath known as “The Human Encyclopedia” who roamed the library dispensing information; from Charles Lummis, a wildly eccentric journalist and adventurer who was determined to make the L.A. library one of the best in the world, to the current staff, who do heroic work every day to ensure that their institution remains a vital part of the city it serves.

Brimming with her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, The Library Book is Susan Orlean’s thrilling journey through the stacks that reveals how these beloved institutions provide much more than just books—and why they remain an essential part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country. It is also a master journalist’s reminder that, perhaps especially in the digital era, they are more necessary than ever.

After that lengthy synopsis, I’m not sure what else there is to say, other than to talk about my experience reading this book.

The short version is — I loved it.

Susan Orlean is a brilliant writer, new to me, although I’ve been hearing about The Orchid Thief for years and always meant to get to it (and after finishing The Library Book, finally bought myself a copy). The story here is fascinating and multi-layered. The framing device of the book is the 1986 Los Angeles library fire, which is devastating and horrifying to read about, as the author takes us practically minute by minute through the fire’s path and shows us the awful damage done during those terrible hours.

Interspersed with the story of the fire is a history of the role of libraries in society, focusing mainly (but not exclusively) on the history of the library in Los Angeles, showing the library as a reflection of the society it serves, its challenges and its triumphs. We see how public libraries have evolved over time, and how those who work in libraries are devoted both to serving the public and to keeping public libraries vital and vibrant, even as society and technology constantly change and provide fresh challenges to the concept of what a library actually is.

We also meet amazing people, past and present, who played a part in the Los Angeles library, from head librarians to architects to security guards. It’s amazing to see the incredible talent and intelligence and humor of the people who helped build the library system and who continue to keep it relevant and important.

The story of Harry Peak is the most puzzling piece of the book — an unsuccessful actor who was suspected of the arson, but whose constantly shifting stories and alibis made any sort of case against him questionable at best. He’s an odd person, and so much is uncertain — but it’s interesting to see how his strange life intersected with such a major civic disaster.

Susan Orlean’s writing is gorgeous. Like the best non-fiction, it flows and captivates, and I never for a moment felt bored or like I was reading a dusty, dry history book.

On visiting a boarded-up, abandoned branch library:

This building made the permanence of libraries feel forsaken. This was a shrine to being forgotten; to memories sprinkled like salt; ideas vaporized as if they never had been formed; stories evaporated as if they had no substance and no weight keeping them bound to the earth and to each of us, and most of all, to the yet-unfolded future.

Other memorable (or just entertaining) lines and passages:

In times of trouble, libraries are sanctuaries.

In the year leading up to Prohibition, when the ban on alcohol seemed inevitable, every book about how to make liquor at home was checked out, and most were never returned.

[Althea] Warren was probably the most avid reader who ever ran the library. She believed librarians’ single greatest responsibility was to read voraciously. Perhaps she advocated this in order to be sure librarians knew their books, but for Warren, this directive was based in emotion and philosophy: She wanted librarians to simply adore the act of reading for its own sake, and perhaps, as a collateral benefit, they could inspire their patrons to read with a similarly insatiable appetite. As she said in a speech to a library association in 1935, librarians should “read as a drunkard drinks or as a bird sings or a cat sleeps or a dog responds to an invitation to go walking, not from conscience or training, but because they’d rather do it than anything else in the world.”

The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen.

The Library Book is simply a delicious read, perfect for anyone who appreciates finely detailed research, expressive writing, and a passion for books and libraries. I loved this book, and can’t wait to give copies to a whole bunch of book-obsessed friends.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: The Library Book
Author: Susan Orlean
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: October 16, 2018
Length: 317 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Source: Gift (yay!)

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The Monday Check-In ~ 12/10/2018

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

What did I read during the last week?

Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Quuen by Tamora Pierce: I read both books in the Daughter of the Lioness duology. Sadly, a fairly weak story in the world of Tortall, which I really struggled to get through. My thoughts are here.

 

 

 

I also posted wrap-ups of two series that I loved:

Old Man’s War series by John Scalzi


Protector of the Small quartet by Tamora Pierce

In audiobooks, I listened to two terrific Audible Originals:

Check out my review of both, here.

Outlander, baby!

I’m writing reaction posts for each episode of season 4:

Episode 404, “Common Ground” (aired 11/25/2018) – my reaction post for the 4th episode is here.
Episode 405, “Savages” (aired 12/2/2018) – my reaction post for last week’s episode is here.
Episode 406, “Blood of My Blood” (aired 12/9/2018) – my reaction post for last night’s episode is on the way! I was too tired to stay up late enough to finish… so watch for my post later Monday or early Tuesday.

Fresh Catch:

Two new science fiction books arrived this week:

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

The Library Book by Susan Orlean: I’d been wanting this book… and then a wonderful family member gave it to me for Hanukkah! I swear, I did NOT drop any hints. I’m just getting started, but loving it so far.

Now playing via audiobook:

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne: I got this from the library on a whim, while waiting for something else to come in. I’m just starting it today — wish me luck!

Ongoing reads:

Book group reads — getting close to the end for both!

  • Classic read: Middlemarch by George Eliot — we’ll be done in January.
  • The Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon — just a few chapters still to go!

So many books, so little time…

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Audiobook double feature: Stephen Fry’s Victorian Secrets and Have A Nice Day

Audible Originals came through for me in a big way this week, as I listened to two terrific productions that really made me happy.

 

Legendary British comic Stephen Fry is our tour guide to the highs and the lows of Victorian society. In popular culture, the straitlaced era is portrayed as one of propriety, industry, prudishness, and piety. But scratch the surface and you’ll find haunting tales of scandal, sadism, sex, madness, malice, and murder.

“They were us in different dress and slightly different codes,” says Fry, whose signature wit and whimsy are in full force in this Audible Original. Find the quirky, dark, and forbidden details and family skeletons that even the most distinguished and conventional households attempted to cover up and hide, as you listen for the humanity beyond the polished veneer of this most fascinating era.

This audio adventure is a fun look at the secrets of the Victorian era, covering everything from fashion to lunacy to sexual orientation, plus sewers, sanitation, Sherlock Holmes, and more. Stephen Fry narrates, explaining the context and the strange stories from that time, and including interviews with historical experts and excerpts from diaries and newspapers of the time — all of which make the tales come to life. Parts of Stephen Fry’s Victorian Secrets are quite sad or disturbing, and some topics were of greater interest to me than others… but all in all, it’s really an informative and entertaining listen.

Audible Original: 7 hours, 33 minutes

 

Have a Nice Day features a live multi-cast script reading captured over two evenings at Minetta Lane Theatre in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.

Tony and Emmy Award winner Billy Crystal leads an all-star cast including Oscar winner Kevin Kline (President David Murray) and four-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening (First Lady Katherine Murray) in a performance of this hilarious and poignant story about a man desperately scrambling to put his affairs in order: to save his presidency, his marriage, his relationship with his daughter—and possibly his life.

President David Murray starts the day in crisis. He’s lost control of Congress, has to decide whether to run for a second term, and his wife and teenage daughter are barely talking to him. What’s more, the Angel of Death has sent a rather inept “repo man” who is at the foot of his bed, giving him only one more day to live.

Cast members include Justin Bartha, Irene Bedard, Annette Bening, Chris Cafero, Dick Cavett, Auli’i Cravalho, Billy Crystal, Rachel Dratch, Darrell Hammond, Christopher Jackson, Robert King, Kevin Kline, and Robin Thede.

Have a Nice Day was an unexpected treat! I listened to this all in one go while out for a long walk, and got completely sucked into the funny yet poignant story of a man — in this case, the President of the United States — trying to make things right on the last day of his life. The story is written by Billy Crystal and Quinton Peeples, and features Billy Crystal as death’s messenger. Kevin Kline is terrific, as is Annette Bening and the rest of the cast. The story is sweet, and includes just enough laughs to keep it from getting too sappy. Still, I found myself really moved by the story of a good man trying to make amends to his wife and daughter –while also trying to keep his security detail and White House aides from freaking out over his caught-on-video moments going viral.

This is a relatively short listen, perfect for one of those weeks when your time is limited.

Audible Original; 1 hour, 46 minutes

If you’re an audiobook fan looking for a break from longer books or wanting to switch up fictional pursuits with something a bit different, give one (or both) of these recordings a try!

Shelf Control #139: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.png

Title: In Cold Blood
Author: Truman Capote
Published: 1966
Length: 343 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues.

As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy. In Cold Blood is a work that transcends its moment, yielding poignant insights into the nature of American violence.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy about 5 years ago at a used book store in Anchorage, Alaska (of all places!)

Why I want to read it:

In Cold Blood is one of those modern classics that seemingly everyone reads eventually. I never had it assigned for school, and just never got around to picking up a copy until recently. It seems like a big oversight in my reading life never to have taken the time to read In Cold Blood, and I’m planning to make this a priority in the coming year.

__________________________________

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 in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Book Review: Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction

Take a tour through the horror paperback novels of the 1970s and ’80s . . . if you dare. Page through dozens and dozens of amazing book covers featuring well-dressed skeletons, evil dolls, and knife-wielding killer crabs! Read shocking plot summaries that invoke devil worship, satanic children, and haunted real estate! Horror author and vintage paperback book collector Grady Hendrix offers killer commentary and witty insight on these trashy thrillers that tried so hard to be the next Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby. It’s an affectionate, nostalgic, and unflinchingly funny celebration of the horror fiction boom of two iconic decades, complete with story summaries and artist and author profiles. You’ll find familiar authors, like V. C. Andrews and R. L. Stine, and many more who’ve faded into obscurity. Plus recommendations for which of these forgotten treasures are well worth your reading time and which should stay buried.

 

A must for horror fans. This book traces the history of all sorts of insane horror trends from the 70s and 80s, and makes some fascinating connections between the crises of the times (inflation, environmental issues, HIV/AIDS) and the rise and fall of horror publishing themes and crazes. The author’s commentary is often snarky and truly funny — but the real highlight of Paperbacks from Hell is the amazing assortment of cheesy, disgusting, disturbing book covers. Some are iconic (Jaws, The Omen, Flowers in the Attic), and some just head-shakingly awful — but put them all together, and it’s a truly entertaining look back at horror’s not-so-distant past.

Take a look at just a small sampling of the amazing books featured in Paperbacks from Hell:

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction
Author: Grady Hendrix
Publisher: Quirk
Publication date: September 19, 2017
Length: 256 pages
Genre: Horror/non-fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Quirk Books

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Book Review: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

From New Yorker staff writer David Grann, #1 New York Times best-selling author of The Lost City of Z, a twisting, haunting true-life murder mystery about one of the most monstrous crimes in American history

In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.

Then, one by one, they began to be killed off. One Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, watched as her family was murdered. Her older sister was shot. Her mother was then slowly poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances.

In this last remnant of the Wild West—where oilmen like J. P. Getty made their fortunes and where desperadoes such as Al Spencer, “the Phantom Terror,” roamed – virtually anyone who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll surpassed more than twenty-four Osage, the newly created F.B.I. took up the case, in what became one of the organization’s first major homicide investigations. But the bureau was then notoriously corrupt and initially bungled the case. Eventually the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to try unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including one of the only Native American agents in the bureau. They infiltrated the region, struggling to adopt the latest modern techniques of detection. Together with the Osage they began to expose one of the most sinister conspiracies in American history.

In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann revisits a shocking series of crimes in which dozens of people were murdered in cold blood. The book is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction, as each step in the investigation reveals a series of sinister secrets and reversals. But more than that, it is a searing indictment of the callousness and prejudice toward Native Americans that allowed the murderers to operate with impunity for so long. Killers of the Flower Moon is utterly riveting, but also emotionally devastating.

It seems we’ll never run out of shameful chapters from America’s past. In Killers of the Flower Moon, writer David Grann explores the “Reign of Terror” waged against the Osage tribe in Oklahoma during the 1920s. The murder epidemic itself is horrifying, and so too are the years that came before in Osage history. For starters, when the Osage were forced off of their previously held land, they ended up settling in a rocky area of Oklahoma clearly unsuited for farming, feeling that it would be a stable home since the land was worthless and wouldn’t be taken over by white men. The irony, of course, is that under the land were undiscovered oil deposits that would soon turn the Osage into millionaires.

The members of the Osage tribe were allotted “headrights” — basically, a share of the oil and mineral ownership — and these headrights could not be sold, only passed on through family members. At the same time, the government considered the Native Americans incapable of managing their own affairs, and adult Osage who were deemed incompetent (and most were) were required to have white guardians to manage their money.

As we see in Killers of the Flower Moon, there was a lot to be gained by finding ways to either manipulate the Osage through shady business dealings and corrupt guardianships, or more directly, by murder. Mollie Burkhart is the initial focus of the book, and we see as her entire family is wiped out, one at a time, through violent murder or insidious poisonings. Between the crimes themselves and the bungling and corruption of the investigation, Mollie and her tribe lived in terror and with a very real threat hanging over their heads.

Part I of the book explores the crimes, and Part II traces the involvement of the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI), as well as the early stages of the Bureau’s investigative approach and its evolution under J. Edgar Hoover. We see the lawmen tasked with investigating the murders, and follow them all the way through to the eventual arrests and convictions of the men involved. In Part III, the author describes his research and what he uncovered in historical archives, through which he finally unearthed evidence that helped some descendants of the victims find a sense of resolution.

The subject matter of Killers of the Flower Moon is fascinating and very, very disturbing. However, I did find myself losing interest at various points, especially in Part II, as the sections about the Bureau and its processes just didn’t grab me as much as the parts focusing on the Osage tribe members and their experiences. I also wished that I’d felt a more personal connection to some of the people involved. While we learn what happened to Mollie and her family, Mollie herself often seems unknowable. Granted, this is history, not a dramatization, but I still wish there was some way to get more of a glimpse beneath the individuals’ surfaces.

I recognize too that my lack of interest or focus in certain parts of the story may say more about me as a reader than about the actual book itself. I can be easily distracted when reading non-fiction, and I might not have always been in the right frame of mind to truly appreciate what I was reading.

That said, I do feel that Killers of the Flower Moon is a powerful and compelling book. It’s astonishing to me that the history of the Osage in Oklahoma isn’t better known, and I’m sure that this book will change that. (I understand that a film version is planned, and will be a Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio venture — something to look forward to!)

Even people (like me) who tend not to read a lot of non-fiction will find themselves absorbed by the story once they pick up Killers of the Flower Moon. Highly recommended.

For more on the movie, go here.
To read the New York Times review of the book, go here.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
Author: David Grann
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication date: April 18, 2017
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Non-fiction/true crime
Source: Library

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Take A Peek (audio) Book Review: Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Mary Norris has spent more than three decades in The New Yorker‘s copy department, maintaining its celebrated high standards. Now she brings her vast experience, good cheer, and finely sharpened pencils to help the rest of us in a boisterous language book as full of life as it is of practical advice.

Between You & Me features Norris’s laugh-out-loud descriptions of some of the most common and vexing problems in spelling, punctuation, and usage—comma faults, danglers, “who” vs. “whom,” “that” vs. “which,” compound words, gender-neutral language—and her clear explanations of how to handle them. Down-to-earth and always open-minded, she draws on examples from Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and the Lord’s Prayer, as well as from The Honeymooners, The Simpsons, David Foster Wallace, and Gillian Flynn. She takes us to see a copy of Noah Webster’s groundbreaking Blue-Back Speller, on a quest to find out who put the hyphen in Moby-Dick, on a pilgrimage to the world’s only pencil-sharpener museum, and inside the hallowed halls of The New Yorker and her work with such celebrated writers as Pauline Kael, Philip Roth, and George Saunders.

Readers—and writers—will find in Norris neither a scold nor a softie but a wise and witty new friend in love with language and alive to the glories of its use in America, even in the age of autocorrect and spell-check. As Norris writes, “The dictionary is a wonderful thing, but you can’t let it push you around.”

 

My Thoughts:

What fun! Mary Norris’s excellent memoir/grammar book is funny, clever, informative, and endlessly entertaining. She recounts her early days at The New Yorker, learning the rules of copy editing one pencil mark at a time. She has chapters dedicated to the finer nuances of punctuation, a fascinating chapter on vulgarity and swear words in print, and an homage to her obsession with pencils.

I listened to the audiobook, which has pros and cons. On the pro side, Mary Norris herself is the narrator. She has a distinctive voice, very sharp and clear, and you can sense the humor underlying every sentence she utters. On the con side, some of the punctuation chapters were especially difficult to follow, and I think I would have enjoyed them more if I’d at least had a print copy on hand for reference.

Between You & Me is perfect for word geeks and bibliophiles everywhere. I think I need to grab a hard copy to keep on hand for the next time I need to clarify some commas or hyphens, or finally settle on whether to use “which” or “that”.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen
Author: Mary Norris
Publisher: W. W. Norton Company
Publication date: August 4, 2016
Print length: 240 pages
Audiobook length: 8 hours, 10 minutes
Genre: Non-fiction
Source: Audible

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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 #74: Riding Rockets

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! Fore more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

Title: Riding Rockets
Author: Mike Mullane
Published: 2006
Length: 382 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

On February 1, 1978, the first group of space shuttle astronauts, twenty-nine men and six women, were introduced to the world. Among them would be history makers, including the first American woman and the first African American in space. This assembly of astronauts would carry NASA through the most tumultuous years of the space shuttle program. Four would die on Challenger.

USAF Colonel Mike Mullane was a member of this astronaut class, and Riding Rockets is his story — told with a candor never before seen in an astronaut’s memoir. Mullane strips the heroic veneer from the astronaut corps and paints them as they are — human. His tales of arrested development among military flyboys working with feminist pioneers and post-doc scientists are sometimes bawdy, often hilarious, and always entertaining.

Mullane vividly portrays every aspect of the astronaut experience — from telling a female technician which urine-collection condom size is a fit; to walking along a Florida beach in a last, tearful goodbye with a spouse; to a wild, intoxicating, terrifying ride into space; to hearing “Taps” played over a friend’s grave. Mullane is brutally honest in his criticism of a NASA leadership whose bungling would precipitate the Challenger disaster.

Riding Rockets is a story of life in all its fateful uncertainty, of the impact of a family tragedy on a nine-year-old boy, of the revelatory effect of a machine called Sputnik, and of the life-steering powers of lust, love, and marriage. It is a story of the human experience that will resonate long after the call of “Wheel stop.”

How I got it:

I bought it.

When I got it:

2010 or thereabouts.

Why I want to read it:

I have a soft spot for a good space exploration story! I read Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars when it came out, and thought it was hilarious — and I’m pretty sure I either read or heard her recommending this book. Memoirs by people involved in NASA and the space race and the science of space exploration are just so fascinating to me. I really do need to make a point of reading this one!

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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 in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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