Book report: The Founding Father without a father

51X4L0OiziL._SY346_Whew. I finally finished the EPIC Alexander Hamilton. Ron Chernow did a masterful job here, however the sheer weight of the 818-page tome made me especially grateful for my Kindle. I started reading it after I’d become obsessed with the soundtrack ofHamilton,” the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical it inspired. I heard Miranda say once that hip-hop was the only genre that could have captured the story, simply because it gets more words per measure.  An example: “The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father / Got a lot farther by working a lot harder / By being a lot smarter / By being a self-starter.”

Years ago I read Gore Vidal’s Burr.  I knew of the legendary duel between these two Founding Fathers. I also remembered the irony of Hamilton being an illegitimate child born in the Virgin Islands. However, somewhere I’d missed (or forgotten) Hamilton’s profound influence on our country’s birth, especially our financial system. And remember the Federalist Papers? Those essays written to promote the ratification of the U.S. Constitution? Yeah, Alexander Hamilton wrote most of them. He was kind of a big deal. And his origin story is pretty compelling as well.

“He embodied an enduring archetype: the obscure immigrant who comes to America, re-creates himself, and succeeds despite a lack of proper birth and breeding.”

“He chose a psychological strategy adopted by many orphans and immigrants: he decided to cut himself off from his past and forge a new identity. He would find a home where he would be accepted for what he did, not for who he was, and where he would no longer labor in the shadow of illegitimacy.”

“Like other founding fathers, Hamilton would have preferred a stately revolution, enacted decorously in courtrooms and parliamentary chambers by gifted orators in powdered wigs. The American Revolution was to succeed because it was undertaken by skeptical men who knew that the same passions that toppled tyrannies could be applied to destructive ends.”

I will admit to skimming through chunks of the middle—I got a bit bogged down in the detail of the political and highly partisan infighting. Nonetheless, it did remind me that our leaders have always fought, always been driven by principle—not to mention ego. No one mentioned here (Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Burr…) is without fault, least of all Hamilton himself.

Hamilton’s life was fraught with tragedy and scandal. He was passionate in all areas of his life Mrs._Elizabeth_Schuyler_Hamiltonand frequently his ego got the better of him. The one stabilizing influence was his wife Eliza Schuyler. From all appearances this was a love match. Eliza stood by him through scandals and long absences. His death left her in debt, still she worked to preserve her husband’s legacy as she built one for herself. Throughout her very long life, she served widows, orphans, and poor children. She established a school and an orphanage. Eliza even gave older orphans jobs in her home and helped one gain admittance into West Point.

Aaron Burr comes off especially poorly.

“For the rest of his life, he never uttered one world of contrition for having killed a man with a wife and seven children and behaved as if Hamilton’s family did not exist.”

If you–or someone on your gift list–loves history, I’d recommend this book. Otherwise, stick with the soundtrack to “Hamilton” and hope that Santa slips a ticket into your stocking (hint, hint).

 

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Book report: War comes to a small town in Sussex

The Summer Before the War has been51eS2lPk4cL._SY346_ on my “to be read” shelf since I heard author, Helen Simonson interviewed on NPR some time ago. I’d enjoyed her debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I found to be simply charming and have recommended often.

Now I can recommend her second novel to you, especially if, like me, you were a fan of “Downton Abbey.” This book is not set on a grand estate, but rather in the town of Rye in Sussex, just before England enters World War I.

We meet liberally-educated and well-traveled, Beatrice Nash, whose father has recently died. She arrives in Rye, still grieving, to take a position teaching Latin as she seeks to gain independence from her family who controls what little money she has inherited. Already in her early twenties, she has resigned herself to spinsterhood. Moreover, as a woman in 1914, she is thwarted at every turn by convention, pettiness, hypocrisy, and prejudice embodied by landladies, solicitors, and small town gossips. Through Beatrice, we are also introduced to a cast of artists, progressives, and a few gypsies who challenge the status quo with their kindness, courage, intelligence, and heart. Beatrice even finds love.

I admire Simonson’s skill at immersing readers into the landscape and conflicts of this time and place. Every well-chosen detail does double duty, informing character or enhancing tension. Simply a pleasure to read. Recommend.

 

 

 

Book review: Between father and son

511ktu-msbl-_sy346_Between the World and Me

by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This book is an earnest and fervent warning from Coates to his son and in reading it, I felt his urgency in trying to protect the life–“the body” — of his teen-aged son. Three long essays detail why being black in America is dangerous in ways that those who are not black can never fully appreciate.

Coates understands the reality. He could spend years educating himself, developing a career, acquiring assets, being responsible, and one racist act could end it all. He cites examples from history, the news, and from his own life.

Rather than trying to summarize his thoughts, I’ll let Ta-Nehisi (tah-nuh-hah-see) speak for himself.

The big message:

“…you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know… Indeed you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you… You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”

Race is a social, not a biological construct:

“As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissident; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.”

No sudden moves:

“Each time a police officer engages us, death, injury, maiming is possible. It is not enough to say that this is true of anyone or more true of criminals… It has nothing to do with how you wear your pants or how you style your hair.”

 “Should assaulting an officer of the state be a capital offense, rendered without trial, with the officer as judge and executioner? Is that what we wish civilization to be?”

No escape:

“When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of high learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing.”

  “We could not get out. The ground we walked was trip-wired. The air we breathed was toxic. The water stunted our growth. We could not get out. …my father beat me for letting another boy steal from me. Two years later, he beat me for threatening my ninth-grade teacher. Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not escape.”

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Author Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic.

I recommend this book as a brief walk in another person’s shoes. I think you’ll find it both troubling and enlightening, as I did.

Book review: Missing your “Daily” fix?

daily-showThe Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History

as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests

Chris Smith

If you love and still miss your nightly fix of Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, you will probably want to read this compendium of how Jon and his staff rebuilt “a little nothing cable show.” The format of the book is unusual. Author Chris Smith conducted interviews and presents those with only a smattering of context and connective tissue written by him. He also includes clips from the show. It’s a bit like reading a Ken Burns documentary.

Jon wasn’t the most likely person to replace Craig Kilborn. He’d had a few failures, a few attempts to find himself comedically. And when he took over, there were some ruffled feathers among some of Kilborn’s staff. You see, Jon had ideas of his own about the tone and direction of the show. Under Jon’s leadership, writers would refocus their attention from silly people on the fringes, to the people with power–namely politicians and the media.

“The tone of The Daily Show could be sarcastic and adversarial, but it generally wasn’t cynical or snarky…The humor was always from a point of view that held out a hope that the world could be improved, and I think that tone was essential to its success.” ~James Poniewozik, televison critic

Readers are also reminded of what was happening back then, culturally. “The anchors of the real news were still a trio of white male eminences… But the network news hegemony had been rattled by the arrival of CNN, especially its coverage of the 1990 Gulf War. Now Fox News and MSNBC—both launched, coincidentally within months of the Daily Show’s 1996 debut…And a wised-up, postmodern generation of viewers was hungry for what the Daily Show would soon deliver.”

In addition to the behind the scenes “how the sausage gets made” details, readers are also reminded of the personalities, tragedies, disasters, and political fights that Jon and his team of writers, producers, and correspondents helped viewers see more clearly through satire. Indecisions 2000 -08. 9/11. W. Mess O’Potamia. Sarah Palin. WMDs. The financial meltdown. Anthony Weiner.

In Jon’s words:

“We were serious people doing a very stupid thing, and they were unserious people doing a very serious thing, and that juxtaposition really landed.” 

 “…the show always did best when it existed in the space between what was presented as public policy and the strategizing that went into creating it. That was the defining thread of the show, that sense that we were being sold something.”

“If your world does not include enough access to different people, and their world does not include enough access to you, you are speaking from ignorance.”

Correspondents conducting field pieces interviewed real people who really believed the things they were saying. Interviewers confronted them with the contrary view in a humorous way, and then let the tape roll, giving full voice their (contradictory, hypocritical, sometimes scary, sometimes hilarious) perspective. Daily Show alums include Samantha Bee, Lewis Black, Steve Carell, Nancy Walls Carell, Wyatt Cenac, Stephen Colbert, Rob Corddry, Ed Helms, John Hodgman, Jason Jones, Al Madrigal, Assif Mandvi, Olivia Munn, John Oliver, Rob Riggle, Mo Rocca, Kristen Schaal, and Larry Wilmore. All of them give credit to Stewart for his mentorship in building their careers.

“I found out…that I had a political point of view…I don’t think I would have done that if Jon hadn’t shown me a way to do it and still by joyful and inventive about it, rather than being finger-waggy.” ~Stephen Colbert

“…because now all I want is to part of something that’s smart, silly, and has heart at the same time. Why can’t everything have all three?” ~Al Madrigal

Sure, this is a book for fans of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, but it’s also a tutorial in how to build a team to do important work while having fun. It’s a bit long, but I never once thought of giving up. Recommend.

“He started out to be a working comedian, and he ended up an invaluable patriot. He wants his county to be better, more decent, and to think harder.” ~David Remnick. Editor in chief, the New Yorker

 

Book report: It ain’t over till it’s over

confedsConfederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

By Tony Horwitz

Think you understand the Civil War? Think you understand its causes and the influence it still holds on America? This book may cause you to think again, especially about why some folks can’t let it go, 150 years later.

As a boy, the prize-winning war correspondent Tony Horwitz was fascinated by the Civil War, particularly the books of old photos he studied with his Jewish immigrant grandfather. That passion is rekindled when, after returning from assignments in Bosnia and the Middle East, he is awakened one morning by the musket fire of Civil War re-enactors just outside his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Those shots signaled the beginning of a quest.

Throughout his travels, Horwitz demonstrates his curiosity and courage, his sense of humor and of history as he introduces readers to a host of characters including a band of “hardcore” re-enactors who diet just so they can look like starved Confederates and who spoon to keep warm on long cold nights. At every stop, he chats up bartenders, bikers, store-clerks, elected officials, teachers, home-schoolers, park rangers, as well as the staff at small museums and visitors centers. He even embarks on a marathon odyssey (dubbed a “Civil Wargasm”) from Antietam to Gettysburg to Appomattox with the super hard-core Robert Lee Hodge (pictured on the cover) as his guide. Horwitz covers a murder provoked by the display of a Confederate flag. He searches for Tara and meets a young woman who makes a living as a Scarlet O’Hara look-alike. He spends a day with Shelby Foote, as well as time with the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

What emerges defies easy description.

“In the neo-Confederate view, North and South went to war because they represented two distinct and irreconcilable cultures, right down to their bloodlines. White Southerners descended from freedom-loving Celts in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Northerners—New England abolitionists in particular—came from mercantile and expansionist English stock.”

“For the past several weeks people had been talking to me about ‘heritage.’ But like the flag, this obviously meant very different things to different people. For the Sons of Confederate Veterans I’d met in North Carolina, it meant the heritage of their ancestors’ valor and sacrifice. For <others> it was the heritage of segregation and its dismantling over the past forty years. Was it possible to honor one heritage without upholding the other?”

horwitz
Tony Horwitz

The result of Horwitz’s inquiry is a complex mosaic–sometimes funny, sometimes frightening–full of irony and contradiction. He sees a hardening of attitudes on both sides from the mid-1980s onward. They are more contentious and less interested in facts. While this book is nearly twenty years old now, the conflicts Horowitz exposes resonate even louder today. Modern battlefields are “classrooms, courts, country bars” where the past and the present rub up against each other, in sometimes deadly ways.

“While I felt almost no ideological kinship with the unreconstructed rebels, I’d come to recognize that in one sense they were right. The issues at stake in the Civil War—race in particular—remained raw and unresolved, as did the broad question the conflict posed: Would America remain one nation? In 1862, this was a regional dilemma, which it wasn’t anymore. But socially and culturally, there were ample signs of separatism and disunion along class, race, ethnic and gender lines. The whole notion of a common people united by common principles—even a common language—seemed more open to question than at any period in my lifetime.”

After this last election, the half of us on the losing side can perhaps feel at least a little empathy for those who can’t let it go. Americans again face a bitterly divided country. Friends and family members find themselves at odds. And once again our survival as a free nation is at risk. That alone is worthy of our consideration and a look back at what happened last time.

Book review: I’m (still) a believer

index11I admit this recent election has left me disheartened and disappointed. I keep looking for signs of hope. And I’ve found a few.

The nearly four million members of Pantsuit Nation on Facebook continue to share stories of everyday and heroic kindnesses they witness.  Good people across the country endeavor to “go high” when others “go low.” They’ve stood beside someone being harassed. They’ve bought coffee for someone in a hateful mood. They’ve refused to look away. Small things can turn into big things and remind us to start where we are.

One much quieter thing I did to improve my frame of mind was to read David Axelrod’s memoir, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics. I’d heard David on NPR soon after the results came in and I detected in him the same search for hope that I felt.

Axelrod was infected by the politics bug as a child, when his babysitter took him to see John F. Kennedy speak. While he was too young to understand the nuances of JFK’s words, the message that he took away from that experience was simply this:

“…we are the masters of our future, and politics is the means by which we shape it.”

In the book, he traces his roots to his Jewish immigrant grandparents and his mismatched parents. David finds his way to college in Chicago and then a job as an idealistic young journalist tilting at the windmills of Chicago politics. He marries Susan and tells of the heartbreak when their infant daughter begins having seizures. The inability to protect her child from seizures as well as the devastating effects of the medications meant to control them leads Susan Axelrod to found CURE. 

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David begins taking a more active role in campaigns with Senator Paul Simon, whose refusal to sell out impressed him when Simon said, “I’d rather lose with principle that win by standing for nothing.”

As a journalist, Axelrod seemed to understand at an instinctual level that campaigns were about telling compelling stories. His earliest campaign efforts reflected that.

obama-axe

While this narrative stops short of the most recent campaign it details not only the election of Barack Obama but also the challenges and issues he faced as President. Axelrod acted as a senior adviser through the first two years of the Obama administration then returned for the 2012 campaign.

It gets into the weeds of personality, policy, and politics as they tackle the housing meltdown, the auto bail-out, unemployment, deficits, stimulus, Guantanamo, healthcare, and more. It’s a long read. You might find yourself skimming a few of the weedier sections, as I did.

No one comes out as perfect here. Everyone made mistakes. There were some failures and a few embarrassing moments. Nonetheless, for this lifelong Democrat, it reminded me of all the good that was accomplished in the last eight years.  The reality is that in spite the current uncertainty, a President—no matter how “great”–can only do so much. Furthermore, the only way for us to shape the future is to stand up, be counted, and never stop believing.