Day 1097: Alexander Hamilton

Cover for Alexander HamiltonBest Book of the Week!
I don’t think it’s ever taken me so long to read a book as it did Alexander Hamilton, despite it being a fascinating biography. Although it did not seem as if it went into too much detail, as some biographies do, it is certainly long.

Thanks to the Broadway show, which is based on this book, people have become a little more conscious of the accomplishments of Hamilton. Unfortunately, he was such a controversial figure that his enemies managed to blacken his legacy for many, many years.

A man of astounding intelligence, Alexander Hamilton sprang from a difficult heritage as an illegitimate son of a man who was a failure at business and deserted his common-law wife and their children. From this beginning, Hamilton expended his own formidable efforts, eventually to become one of the most powerful men in the new United States.

Hamilton was apparently not at all tactful and earned himself many enemies through speaking truth to power. He and Washington had a close and affectionate relationship that began when he was Washington’s aide during the Revolutionary War, but he counted among his enemies James Monroe, Thomas Jefferson, the New York Clinton family, Aaron Burr, and to a lesser extent, James Madison. John Adams hated him. None of these men emerge from this book looking well, although Hamilton certainly had his faults.

I think almost anyone interested in history will find this book fascinating, even if, like me, you are not particularly interested in the Revolutionary period. Alexander Hamilton was an amazing man who has been largely robbed of his proper legacy.

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Day 1083: Everybody’s Fool

Cover for Everybody's FoolBest Book of the Week!
I don’t think I am the only one to be delighted when I learned that Richard Russo was returning to the familiar ground of North Bath, New York, and Sully, of Nobody’s Fool. Sully has been diagnosed with a heart condition and has less than two years to live unless he undergoes a procedure he’s been avoiding. This situation leads him to consider a little more deeply some fundamental questions.

Sully’s friend Rab has felt a change in their relationship since Sully came into money. They no longer work together, and Rab feels that Sully neglects him. Rab is ridiculously dependent on him.

Sully is concerned for Ruth, his long-time lover, and her daughter, Janey. Janey’s abusive ex-husband is back in town, fresh out of jail.

A major character of the novel is Douglas Raymer. Once the rookie who waved his gun at Sully for driving on the sidewalk, Raymer is now the chief of police.  He has always been obsessively self-conscious and unsure of himself. His self-esteem has not been improved by finding out on the day of his beloved wife Becka’s death that she was leaving him for someone else. The problem is, he doesn’t know who, but he has found the remote for someone else’s garage door under the seat of Becka’s car.

Raymer is already considering quitting his job when he begins one of the worst days of his life. While attending the funeral of a judge, he passes out from the heat and falls into the grave. Later he realizes that he must have dropped the remote, which he planned to use to find Becka’s lover, in the grave.

Russo is great at creating flawed but lovable and believable characters, and he specializes in settings of beaten-down working class towns in the rust belt. He also doesn’t flinch from pushing his characters to the heights of absurdity, in a sort of tongue-in-cheek style. Sometimes he goes too far with this, but other times it works perfectly to produce a serio-comic effect. This is one of those times. Empire Falls remains my favorite Russo novel, but this one is right up there.

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Day 896: No Country

Cover for No CountryA story about Irish immigrants to India seemed like an interesting change to me. But I decided not to finish this 500+-page book.

It begins in 1989 in upstate New York, where the bodies of a couple are found and their daughter is being questioned. The promise is that the novel will answer the question of who killed them or whether they committed suicide, but at least in the first 200 pages, after this brief opening, the book doesn’t return to the crime.

Instead, the story goes back in time to 1843 Ireland. There, we meet two boyhood friends, Brendan and Padraig. Through several unlooked-for occurrences, Padraig ends up on a ship to Bangladesh with every intention of returning immediately, while Brendan adopts Padraig’s illegitimate daughter Maeve and ends up fleeing the famine for Canada.

Everything about the Irish section of the novel seemed clichéd to me, and because Ray spends no time at all on characterization, we’re not especially interested in the characters. The point of view switches between characters, but they don’t have distinctive voices or personalities. Finally, there is no sense of place to the novel. So, I decided to stick it out until the novel moved to India, hoping that would change things.

In Calcutta in 1911, we meet Robert, Padraig’s Anglo-Indian grandson. I didn’t stay with Robert very long because I still didn’t feel very interested, and again there was no sense of place. It seems obvious that the couple who die in 1989 are going to find they are related in some unanticipated way, but by then the relationship will be so distant, it would hardly seem to matter.

In fact, the story seems to be one of unrelenting misery, but a misery so detached that we feel little empathy as we read the catalog of horrors experienced by Brendan and his family in Ireland and on the way to Canada. The novel is ambitious to tell the story of these families but in a way that didn’t capture me or make me want to invest the time to finish it. From reviews I’ve read, it just becomes more complex, one reviewer mentioning it needed a family tree. But that would probably give away the ending.

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Day 858: Fates and Furies

Cover for Fates and FuriesFates and Furies is about a marriage. Lotto and Mathilde marry shortly before graduating from college, after knowing each other only two weeks. They are both very tall and blonde, considered by many to be a golden couple. Lotto is charismatic and loud, always the center of attention, with many faithful friends. Mathilde is quiet and aloof.

Although Lotto has had a bit of a Southern Gothic upbringing, he is the son of wealth and privilege. However, his mother cuts him off when she hears of his marriage. Mathilde appears to have no family or money. So, the couple’s first years are tough, as Lotto tries to make it as an actor in New York while Mathilde supports them. But one night Lotto stays up drunk and writes a play. When Mathilde reads it, she knows he has found his vocation.

The first half of the novel is from Lotto’s point of view. Success seems to come easily to him after he writes his first play. Even though he is prone to depression if things don’t go well, he has hit after hit. Mathilde quits her job to take care of the business side, and he becomes a little self-satisfied. Still, all in all they are remarkably happy. He considers his wife a saint.

It is not until the second half of the novel, when we see the marriage and past from Mathilde’s point of view, that we learn a different truth about their lives. Mathilde, who has been alone for much of her life, is fiercely loyal to Lotto. But she is no saint.

Lauren Groff seems to write completely different novels each time out. This one shows the complexities of human relationships. That this relationship is almost operatic in scope gives the novel a slightly gothic trend.

I have mixed feelings about this novel. I think we are supposed to like Lotto more than I did, but I distrust charismatic people. I think Lotto may be a little stereotypical, however, while Mathilde is mostly a cypher until her half of the book, when many secrets come out. It is not until we learn Mathilde’s side of things that the novel really begins to unfold. It is certainly an interesting novel and one that could provoke discussion.

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Day 710: The Kept

Cover for The KeptBest Book of the Week!
The Kept is a mysterious and darkly moody novel that I found compelling from the first sentences. Elspeth Howell arrives home on a snowy winter day in upstate New York near the turn of the 19th century. She has been away for months working as a midwife. But when she reaches home, she finds that her husband and all of her children that live in the house have been murdered. Only her 12-year-old son Caleb, who has taken to living in the barn, is alive, but he has been hiding in the pantry for days, and when she opens the pantry door, he shoots her in terror.

Caleb spends the next few days alternately trying to take care of his mother and dispose of the bodies of the rest of his family. He cannot bury them in the frozen earth, but in his attempt to burn them, he accidentally burns down the house. He ends up caring for his mother in the barn.

The Howell’s home is isolated and difficult to find. As a young girl, Espeth was driven from her home for having spoken to Jorah, the man she later married, because he was Native American. But there are other reasons for the family’s isolation. In any case, Elspeth thinks the murderers must have sought for their house.

When Elspeth is barely healed, she and Caleb set forth to find the three men who murdered their family, men whom Caleb watched from the barn. They stay briefly with an old couple who have been terrorized by the same three men and who point them in the direction of a town on Lake Erie with a terrible reputation. There, with Elspeth disguised as a man, they go to search for the men.

Beginning as a straightforward revenge novel, the book goes on to explore deeper themes. One of them is that of unintended consequences, as Caleb finds that their troubles result from Elspeth’s own actions years before.

This novel is well written and packed with atmosphere. It is vivid and brutal and beautiful.

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Day 688: The Age of Innocence

Cover for The Age of InnocenceI have certainly read The Age of Innocence before, but it was not until this rereading that I gained a full appreciation for its subtlety and complexity. I may have read it years ago, but I became really interested in it after an interview with Martin Scorsese about his movie adaptation (my favorite film ever) where he commented on “the brutality under the manners” of the upper class New Yorkers in the novel, set in the 1870’s, and likened them to gangsters.

This novel is about the tension between individual desires and the expectations of a rigid society. However, it is also about the two main characters trying to do the right thing in the face of yearning and passion.

Newland Archer is an intellectually inclined young man interested in art and travel who thinks he understands but sometimes is a little impatient of the rigid and insular customs of his time and social class. He has just become engaged to May Welland during a difficult time for the Welland family. May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, has returned to New York to her family, having left her husband, and society is shocked to see them bringing her to parties and the theatre. Archer decides to show solidarity with the Wellands and soon finds himself drawn into the Countess’ affairs in his professional capacity as a lawyer. Countess Olenska wants to divorce her husband, and the family is horrified, asking Newland to convince her not to.

Newland succeeds, but he soon realizes that he is in love with Ellen Olenska himself. Ellen is determined not to betray her cousin.  When she admits she loves Newland, she comments that by getting her to drop her divorce, he has assured that they can never be together. A disappointed Newland marries May.

Within a short time, Newland regrets his marriage and foresees a gray existence of doing the same things with the same people year after year. The innocence and purity he saw in May is actually an incuriosity and inability to grow or change. Although Newland doesn’t see Ellen, who has moved to Washington, he has begun to think of her as the only real corner of his life. All these feelings are brought to a climax when the Countess returns to New York and her family decides she should reunite with her husband.

This novel is vivid with carefully observed descriptions. Underlying it all is an understated yet savage critique of petty and provincial New York society of the time. Almost every sentence is double-edged, such as when Wharton describes a soprano’s solo in the first chapter:

She sang, of course “M’ama!” not “he loves me,” since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.

Nice! I understand that when this book was published, nearly 50 years after its setting, members of New York society were still able to match most of the characters in the novel with their real counterparts.

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Day 615: The Rural Life

Cover for The Rural LifeThe Rural Life is a collection of essays, more like musings by Verlyn Klinkenborg, a writer of the editorial board for the New York Times. Most of the essays were previously published in the Times and are related to his rural life, whether through his family history on an Iowa farm, his own farm in upstate New York, his father’s ranch in the Sierras, or travels to various western states.

I thought this would be an interesting and perhaps informative book, as I plan to be leading the rural life within a couple of years. Certainly many of Klinkenborg’s essays struck a chord with me. I liked best the pieces that do not go far from nature, whether he is discussing the care of bees, the lushness of his farm in the summer, or the beauty of a snow fall. Occasionally, he gets a little more philosophical than I am interested in.

The book is beautifully written. It occasionally confused me because it is ordered in chapters by month, and in the summer months he seems to be hopping back and forth between his farm and Wyoming. It wasn’t until a paragraph at the end that I discovered the book combines essays written over several years.