Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Hamilton Affair



The Hamilton Affair - Elizabeth Cobbs. This wonderful historical novel follows the lives of Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler. Each chapter alternates Alexander's and Eliza's point-of-view, beginning in their wildly different childhoods -- Alexander's in the Caribbean, and Eliza's in New York.

The Hamilton Affair is richly grounded in history and a joy to read. My only nitpick is that one of the characters, Ajax Manly, is fictional and he seemed that so much that it broke my concentration at times. 

Here's what's wonderful: You can read this book and shout out Hamilton lyrics on practically every page. (The cover even looks like one of the Hamilton posters.) 

Here's what makes me want to read more of Elizabeth Cobbs: She's a subtle writer. She really got to me emotionally towards the end of the novel by an almost offhand reference to something at the beginning of the novel. It was so elegant, so understated, so powerful...there I was at 3 a.m. sobbing. "HIS SHOE!"  This example should be taught in creative writing seminars everywhere.

What else to say? Nothing but read it, read it, read it. Or listen, listen, listen. I have a feeling that this is a great audiobook.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

All About August Reading



I finished seven books in August! Clearly, the heat and humidity didn't slow me down at all.

As you can see, my Hamilton obsession hasn't abated one iota.

Here's how the deal went down:

1. Kick: The True Story of JFK's Sister and the Heir to Chatsworth - Paula Byrne. (biography) With every book I read about the Kennedy siblings, I despise Joe and Rose Kennedy even more. Where they were utter monsters in the case of Rosemary, in Kick's (Kathleen's) case, they were simply overbearing, expecting their adult children to toe their line, especially where religion was concerned. Paula Byrne provides a sympathetic look at a vital, independent young woman who lost her life in a plane crash at 28 amidst scandal. Sometimes the book is a little fangirlish and gossipy and repeated phrases or ideas following a similar theme can be grating, but these are nitpicks. For those who are fascinated by the Kennedy mystique, this lacks the pathos and drama of Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter, but it's worth a look at a life lived with blazing intensity.

2. A Family Matter - Will Eisner. (graphic novel) Written and illustrated by the man who coined the term "graphic novel", this is the uncomfortable tale of an elderly patriarch who is dying, and his children who are greedy, angry and damaged in varying degrees. Their complicated lives are sketched minimally but effectively as they gather to make decisions about the old man.

3. Dead Presidents - Brady Carlson. (nonfiction) A fun, informative and educational look at the afterlife of United States presidents. Carlson covers such topics as memorials that are both large and small; how presidents' reputations change over time (Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Richard Nixon are prime examples); and all sort s of delectable trivia tidbits about each president. Weirdest thing: the LBJ robot! Something interesting: Eisenhower was the last president to have his body taken back to his home by train. Since he was the president who championed and funded the interstate highway system, it would have been much more fitting if he had gone to his final resting place in that manner, but perhaps that is impractical. Carlson's quirky writing and enthusiastic research made for a quick, entertaining read. Fans of A.J. Jacobs and Bill Bryson will enjoy Dead Presidents.

4. Idiot Brain - Dean Burnett. (nonfiction) Welsh neuroscientist Burnett explores what makes our brains tick. Why do our brains understand the right and proper ways to behave and then we turn around and undermine our own efforts? Short answer: the right/proper section of our brain is fairly new and the older part, "idiot brain" "reptile brain" is going with what has worked for survival for thousands of years, thank you very much. Some of the book seems dense with information, but Burnett keeps it light with jokes and humorous examples. Although I enjoyed Idiot Brain, a book I read late last year, Focus, by Daniel Goleman, covers a lot of the same ground, and is my preferred read on the subject. I don't know if that's the newer or older part of my brain popping off. Sorry!

5. The Emigrants - Johan Bojer. (novel) This 1920s Norwegian novel follows the fortunes of a small group of people from a small village in Norway who are down on their luck and decide in the early 1880s to follow a friend who emigrated several years before, to America. The strongest, starkest part of the novel is their arrival and first years on the bleak Dakota prairie, homesteading in sod houses and pitting themselves against nature and isolation. Also effective is Bojer's depiction of feeling caught between two worlds. I really liked this book and wish that I could read a more modern translation. The copy I read was translated in 1925 by someone who was obviously English and hung out with the likes of Bertie Wooster.

6. Burr - Gore Vidal. (novel) I read Burr back in 2012 when my long-lost, lamented book group, Cracked Spinez, decided one month to feature works by Gore Vidal. As I suspected, I enjoyed Burr even more this time, since I am all a-wash in Hamiltonia.  Burr catches up with its title character in old age, an old scoundrel who has just gone fortune-hunting and married a wealthy widow. Although nearing 80, he still has dreams of his own empire, possibly in Texas. Meanwhile, he dictates his memoirs to a young law student/reporter, Charlie Schuyler, who is intent on digging up dirt about Burr's possible relation to presidential hopeful Martin Van Buren. With mordant wit, Burr seems to reveal all, but remains a charming, maddening enigma. I really love this book, and I miss the hell out of Gore Vidal.

7. My Theodosia - Anya Seton. (novel) More evidence of my Hamilton mania. Blame this one on Goodreads. They saw that I was reading Burr and so kindly and considerately recommended My Theodosia to me. Thanks, guys. Theodosia was the only child of Aaron Burr and Seton's 1941 novel details their devoted and intense relationship.  An excellent blend of "historical" (wonderful, thorough research!) and "novel" (a teenaged flirtation with Washington Irving? A passionate affair of the heart with Merriweather Lewis? Eliza Hamilton referring to Alexander as "Sandy"? Hmm.). There are a couple of Easter eggs in My Theodosia: Hamilton has a thought that could possibly be a clue about what led to their fateful meeting in New Jersey; and Seton makes a glancing reference to the woman Burr would end up marrying late in life for her fortune.  Good stuff; I ate this book up like potato chips. Now the bad: My Theodosia was Seton's first novel, and she had some rookie problems with pacing, characterization and other pesky novel-writing things. At one point, she had a POV switch that nearly gave me whiplash. (No, that's not so bad, yes you're right.) Here's what's really bad: Even though I enjoyed this book, I really can't recommend it because there are some severe problems with racism. Political incorrectness doesn't even begin to cover it. Although I argued to myself that the racist passages in question could be an accurate depiction of how Theodosia, Aaron and other characters talked and thought in the late 18th and early 19th century, Seton went way over the top and there was a lot of gratuitous nastiness that was permissible in the publishing world in 1941. If I could unread some of those passages, I would. Not enough Visine in the world. I ended up not rating the book on Goodreads because of this issue. I lovehate and hatelove My Theodosia, and hesitate to read any of Anya Seton's other work. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Mid-August Finds Me

I hated the title of this post, then it struck me that it sounds like one of those novels from the 1910s that end up getting reprinted with great acclaim by something like Virago Press. So there it stands.

Mid-August finds me in the middle of several books again:

1. Burr - Gore Vidal. Novel.
This is my main read right now, and I'm enjoying it more than when I read it back in 2012. I can't help but wonder if Lin-Manuel Miranda had a look at Burr as well as the Ron Chernow biography of Hamilton, because I have come upon several passages in which I nearly burst into song. My most recent hum-along is The Room Where It Happens. I'm having a brilliant time!

2. Villette - Charlotte Bronte. Novel.
 I should give up, but I don't. I won't. I can't. I'm 18 chapters in! I predict a mad reading/listening rush to midnight on New Year's Eve. Bronte! Bragging! Rights!

3. Triptych - Joyce Cary. Novel.
Even with the new magnifier, the print in this book is putting me off. I don't know what I'm going to do. Hoping to finish at least the first book in the volume, Herself Surprised, but more and more, I'm just not feeling it.

4. Washington: A Life - Ron Chernow. Biography.
I had to switch to the e-reader edition because I got tired of lugging the physical book around. Also, there were print issues with this one, too. I am so irritated with my eyes for wavering and watering! Stop that, you two! I'll turn this head around, I swear I will!!!

5. The Emigrants - Johan Bojer. Novel.
Written in 1924 and translated into English the following year, this Norwegian novel is about a family leaving Norway and pioneering in North Dakota. Although I haven't gotten beyond the first chapter, this book pleases me on several fronts: It's old. It's about the emigrant experience. It's about pioneers. It's obscure.

6. Heroes of the Frontier - Dave Eggers. Novel.
I was captivated by What is the What, Eggers' novel based on the life of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. Heroes of the Frontier seems very different so far -- it starts out with a dentist unexpectedly taking/whisking away her two young children on a vacation to Alaska. So far, I'm drawn in and asking the sorts of questions an engaged reader asks.

Mid-August finds me wanting something very much. I can't even say it here. Not now. But I want this particular thing BAD. On alternating days I'm:
1) hopeful
2) resigned
3) despondent
4) actively snarling and looking for rocks to throw at the "thing with feathers"

Some days, I'm all of those things in succession. Today was like that.

Mid-August finds me running out of shelving space in my bedroom. Time to cull the herd.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Bookworm Notes: The Fireman by Joe Hill

During July, I did a The Fireman readalong with Care and the usual suspects who make my online book loving life so agreeable.  I finished the book fairly quickly without doing a review or casting my impressions about on this blog. This is a job that needs to be done before I can move on and talk about other books in my life right now. But my short-term memory...yikes. Before everything about The Fireman fades away, I'm going to make a list:

1. I've only read this and Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. The Fireman is the one I prefer.

2. I went into this book feeling as if I would be reading a Stephen King book. That impression changed very little. The thing that makes it feel not like a King book is that when Hill's characters curse, it's not as creative or funny; it's the way real people curse, which is not as much fun on the page.

3. I know other readers brought up the title. Why that title? I guess The Nurse wouldn't have worked. Dragonscale would have made the book seem like fantasy. Well, I'm fresh out of ideas.

4. I had to stop reading and go listen to that Dire Straits song John and Harper kept referencing.

5. Back to Dragonscale. What a beautifully imagined disease and lovingly described.  An almost enviable condition. Very J.K. Rowling.

6. The book could have been a little shorter. Some of the scenes dragged.

7. I hated Jakob at first, and roared when Harper/Hill savaged his lame hidden novel, Desolation's Plough. (Nice extra jab...plough instead of plow) I felt as if this send-up was an affectionate shout-out to Uncle Stevie's On Writing. After a while, Jakob became so cartoonishly evil that I couldn't muster up anything but yawns for him.

8. The sheer bounty of references to other books, novels, authors, movies, songs, etc. made me so happy that I damn near glowed with Dragonscale. I am dreaming of the day when The Fireman is annotated. Please, O Publishing Gods, let it be soon! Don't make me wait too long.  I feel the stirrings of certainty that somewhere, this project is already underway.

9. Maybe it's because I'm under the influence of Hamilton, but I am seeing this book as a potential musical.

10. There's going to be a sequel, isn't there?

11. The supporting characters in the compound. I loved them, especially Renee (?) The characters' names are starting to slip away from me. The young girl/woman (name?) reminded me a bit of Katniss Everdeen and also of a character in one of King's recent novels. Doctor Sleep, I think it was. Carol was disturbing. Not over-the-top like Jakob, because the reader could uneasily understand her motivation.

12. Although The Fireman has a bleak setting and the world is in peril, the tone of the book is anything but bleak and flat. No Cormac McCarthy here. Instead, there is hope and humor. It seems odd in a dystopian horror novel, but I like it.

Monday, August 01, 2016

In Which I Am So Glad I Don't Owe the Whole Internet Ten Dollars



July 30. I did it. I finally finished Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. We were together 2 months and 2 weeks. Now there's an Alexander Hamilton-shaped hole in my life.

That last day, I read about 40%. There comes a point when you can't stop reading, you don't want to stop and you can't dissemble. Even my mother was getting the stony eff-off-I-am-reading look. When that didn't work, I used subtler, more effective methods: I started reading aloud from Alexander Hamilton, and she wandered off to play Candy Crush then take a nap.

 I continued to read and read. Tears from eyestrain streamed from my right eye. Tired of wiping it, I covered it instead and continued with my left.

But never mind my eye. Alexander Hamilton! What a story Ron Chernow brings to life! Best of men and best of biographers. By the end, I was shedding more than eyestrain tears. I was a wreck.

After a halfway decent interval, I took a deep breath and took up the next book I'd slated for myself, Fallen Founder, a biography of Aaron Burr. After twenty minutes or so, I was thinking oh hell no. The premise of Fallen Founder is that Aaron Burr, like Dr. Pepper, is terribly misunderstood. Deep down, he was really a swell guy. I didn't stick around to find out. I don't give a damn if he was a Mary Wollestonecraft fan, or if he was president of her fan club. He shot Alexander Hamilton! My wrathful feelings towards Burr may cool off at some point. I don't know.

After a couple of days, I decided to do a reread of Gore Vidal's novel about Burr. After all, Vidal's portrayal is that of a villain (although an entertaining one, I hate to admit) in his hoary old age who is just as much of a scoundrel as ever. Besides, I've been missing Gore Vidal lately. I wish he were alive to make savage and witty remarks about the current political scene. Even better, Ron Chernow likes Burr.

Time to listen to the musical again.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Nothing But Hamilton

Here I am at mid-month, awash in Hamiltonia.

 Although I've been working on Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton since May 15, I didn't really catch fire till now when I finally got the soundtrack to the musical and in very quick succession, Hamilton: The Revolution, the libretto by Lin-Manuel Miranda chock-full of his thoroughly entertaining, slightly nerdy notes. I polished it off like candy or potato chips. Delicious. The soundtrack is in constant rotation on my devices and in my brain.

Taking a deep breath, I jettisoned some of my reads, returning the Dylan Thomas and Hildegard Knef biographies to the library. I've cleared the decks, and it's nothing but Alexander Hamilton's biography until I'm finished. I'm at 41% now, and I should be done by the end of this month. Bet you ten bucks.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Six On The Go?



Sometimes, I can't get into a reading groove, and I wander from book to book to book. This is one of those times. Blame it on my swoony malaise...malaise-y swoon? after reading Encounter with an Angry God.  I've fallen and I can't get up; I'm in the middle of six books:

1. Hamilton - Ron Chernow. I'm 33% in after nearly two months, but that will change. I'm listening to the Broadway musical, and the spark has been reignited. I'm eager to jump back in and finish. No quitting this one because I'm not throwing away my shot! I am not throwing away my shot!

2. Villette - Charlotte Bronte. I'm about 21% into this audiobook after a couple of months. Not terribly compelled. This is going to be all about grit and discipline. I want to finish. I want Bronte bragging rights.

3. Triptych - Joyce Cary. This book consists of three short interconnected novels: Herself Surprised, To Be A Pilgrim and The Horse's Mouth. I read two of them nearly 30 years ago, but don't remember much. Right now, I'm in the first few pages of Herself Surprised, and it's pretty sprightly, but I'm having trouble getting back to it.

4. The Fireman - Joe Hill. I'm reading this with Care and a cast of favorite book bloggers as part of the #FiremanAlong. I'm halfway through; the excitement is carrying me along. I guess you could say I'm on fire.

5. Dylan Thomas: A New Life - Andrew Lycett. I've been reading and reading and Dylan is only just 20 years old and seems more like a snot-nosed adolescent than a great poet in the making, but I know he is a fledgling genius, so I'm waiting patiently. I did page through all the photos and skip to the index to see if that anecdote about Shirley Jackson is in there. It is. Hope I haven't spoilered anything.

6. The Gift Horse - Hildegard Knef.  Hildegard Knef was a German film actress who appeared in a couple of American films as Hildegard Neff. This memoir (1970) seems to be about growing up and getting into acting during Hitler's regime. I'm reading a library copy. I am not sure what attracted me to the book; it just beckoned to me during one of my romps in the biography section. Perhaps I first read about it on the Neglected Books blog.

Anyway, six books. Yikes.

What's the most you've had on the go at one time?