January in Books


I always endeavour not to make New Year’s resolutions. Come on. They’re so mainstream and I’m so edgy. Actually, no. I just feel like they’re predestined to fail. It becomes the talk of February to discuss what a terrible job everyone’s done with whatever optimistic resolutions they made.

For 2016, though, I really wanted to make a conscious effort to read more books. I’m hoping that I can conclude each month with an informal roundup of my reading material. Thus far I have made my way through the books listed below, I’ve opened my Twitter up to recommendations and, on a 3am whim, I joined an online book club devoted to biographies about women. I’d call that a successful start.

Without further ado, I give you January’s selections…

 Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Taking on a book that could double as a doorstop is always a little intimidating but my escalating interest in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical persuaded me this was a must-read. After all, Hamilton’s life had to be pretty damn epic to warrant a three-hour Broadway musical. Assumption correct. The man is non-stop.

The biography opens with a prologue entitled ‘The Oldest Revolutionary War Widow’, introducing us to Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, in the latter years of her life, before we meet the man himself. In a particularly moving quote, Chernow describes that,

 [Eliza] frequently grew melancholy and longed for a reunion with “her Hamilton,” as she invariably referred to him. “One night, I remember, she seemed sad and absent-minded and could not go to the parlor where there were visitors, but sat near the fire and played backgammon for a while,” said one caller. “When the game was done, she leaned back in her chair a long time with closed eyes, as if lost to all around her. There was a long silence, broken by the murmured words, ‘I am so tired. It is so long. I want to see Hamilton.’”

Doesn’t that just break your heart? It left me wondering what kind of a man can have inspired such devotion in Eliza, a devotion, it turned out, that was not exclusive to Eliza but extended to her father, her sisters, and Hamilton’s many friends and mentors. It seems as though everyone who encountered Hamilton either became a faithful admirer or a potent enemy. If there existed an in-between, it didn’t make the biography. There may not be a more polarising political figure from the period. However, Chernow does not choose an enemy to open and close this biographical epic, but the woman who perhaps loved Hamilton most of all. The story of Eliza’s later years swiftly leads the reader into the accounts of Alexander Hamilton’s turbulent childhood, where the genius of the man quickly begins to emerge against a bleak backdrop. It didn’t take long for me to catch onto the hype. If only the unfortunate Aaron Burr had too.

It struck me that Chernow’s narrative structure, or perhaps simply the chronological sequence of events in Hamilton’s life, reflects that of the two-act ‘Into The Woods’ model. We spend the first half in the fairytale of Hamilton – he goes from an impoverished orphan living in obscurity to a self-made hero of the American Revolution, the adoring husband to Eliza and George Washington’s right hand man – until the transition into the second half begins his undoing, where the truth of Hamilton’s vices and a more cynical reality come into play. His life, both public and private, is dismantled until – spoiler alert! – he’s staring death in the face as he stands facing his long-time rival Aaron Burr, duelling pistol in hand, in Weehawken, New Jersey on that fateful morning of July 12th, 1804.

It’s hard to be concise when reviewing the life of a man who was anything but. My overriding feeling when reading Chernow’s biography was one of contentment – that Eliza’s desperate hope to ensure her husband’s legacy has been fulfilled. One of the most poignant moments in the musical comes during ‘The World Was Wide Enough’ as Hamilton, whose preoccupation with his legacy has defined him, raps, “Legacy. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see. I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me.” It leads neatly into the following song’s ultimate assertion: “You have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” In Carolyn G. Heilbrun’s book Writing a Woman’s Life, she notes that scholars have “lately written about how much of what passes as history is in fact evidence from the prevailing or established opinion of the age”. For so many years, it was Jefferson and a succession of Democratic-Republican leaders who controlled Hamilton’s narrative, painting him in the worst possible light. Two hundred years later, the Hamiltons are finally gifted a belated happy ending. Ron Chernow, an outstandingly comprehensive and devoted biographer, has recovered details of this impressive founding father’s many achievements that have laid the foundations to enable Alexander Hamilton’s success story to reach the masses.

As well as enriching the central Hamilton narrative with supplementary anecdotes, Ron Chernow’s biography offers fascinating nuggets about other characters such as Peggy Schuyler, Aaron Burr, Angelica Schuyler Church, George Washington, John Adams, Marquis de Lafayette and the Hamilton children. Simply put, it’s a must-read if you love the musical.

 Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

A friend suggested I read this in the wake of my sudden Star Wars enlightenment. I have to say, for a book that begins with a death, goes on to explore the dark side of celebrity, discusses drug addiction and bipolar, all before eventually concluding with PTSD, it’s a really funny read. That’s Carrie. (What a life!)

Reading Wishful Drinking was like sitting on the beach drinking cocktails, but in book form. It’s a short and sweet collection of memories from Carrie’s unusually eventful life. Now, I accept that “sweet” might seem an odd descriptor given the weight of many of the issues explored, but the openness with which every anecdote is retold makes you feel like you’re having a fun bonding sesh with your old bud Carrie Fisher. I didn’t even know I had an old bud Carrie Fisher! How thrilling. Now she’s chilling with me on this hot, sandy beach and telling me about growing up as the daughter of America’s sweethearts, and we’re laughing because, according to George Lucas, there’s no underwear in space, and she’s opening up to me about past loves and heartbreaks, and before I know it, the sun’s gone down and I’ve been so swept up in her stories that I haven’t even picked up my beach reading – except, oh wait, I’m not actually on a beach and I’ve been reading the whole time.

What I’m saying is, you’ll read this and like Carrie Fisher. If you don’t then, well, you’re weird and you don’t deserve to be Carrie Fisher’s beach bud.

 Shockaholic by Carrie Fisher

After the triumph that was Wishful Drinking, I moved swiftly on to Carrie Fisher’s follow-up memoir, Shockaholic. Of the two, the latter is my favourite. While she is characteristically open in both, Wishful Drinking has a kind of honesty that is encased in a layer of self-deprecating humour. This seems to be Carrie’s armour. She recalls the most heartbreaking of tales with a sharp wit that seems to purposefully distract from her pain. Wishful Drinking doubled as a one-woman show; Shockaholic did not. She never had to stand on a stage and tell these anecdotes with the requisite punchlines. They pack a very different kind of punch.

I don’t often cry when reading books but the final chapter, centred on Carrie’s relationship with her father, moved me to tears. Across the two memoirs, she tells so many stories about her absentee father’s indiscretions that I remember thinking, “If this was my dad, I would find any one of these actions unforgiveable.” And for most of her storytelling, she herself seems to have a detached apathy towards him at best. Then comes the conclusion of Shockaholic, recalling the period of time when she was touring her one-woman show amidst a relapse from sobriety that had followed the death of a friend. As a result of Carrie’s addiction, her daughter was no longer living with her. Carrie was on her own. As was her ailing father. She ended up becoming his primary caregiver. Despite all that he’d done to her, or not done for her, she looked after him in his final years. They seemed to form a bond only at the very end of his life, one that relied on her need to look after someone and his need to be looked after.

At first, I found it hard to understand why she would once more open her heart to someone who had looked after it so carelessly in the past. Perhaps her own flaws, her own vices, made it easier to forgive his. Or perhaps sometimes a daughter wants so desperately to have a loving relationship with her father that she can forgive almost anything. I don’t know exactly, but it made sense to me in the end. On an emotional level, if not an intellectual one.

She describes a memory with him on the Wishful Drinking tour, where he came to see the show, and came onstage to sing ‘If I Loved You’ from Carousel with Carrie. The song had come up a number of times before this, mentioned as the singular bonding experience that they had shared during her childhood. Something about it made me weep. A kind of put-the-book-down weeping. (And that was about the only time I put the book down.)

 Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

My well-documented love for Parks and Recreation brought me to this one. If I’m being totally honest, I’ll pick up whatever Aziz is putting down. Instead of the comedic memoir one might have expected, Modern Romance doubles as a sociology study examining the shift in the world of dating that’s taken place over the past fifty-or-so years. It’s seen a massive evolution, with Aziz noting that the marriages of previous generations were often contained to a single building, road or town, whereas now it’s customary to look a lot further afield for our romantic partners. The way that we meet people has changed, but so has the nature and the timelines of our relationships. All of this is explored through personal anecdotes of interviewees, quantitative research and comedic commentary.

As a nineties baby, one of the aspects I was most interested in was the way that current popular trends had been informed by earlier variations. Online dating, for example, had been preceded by personals ads. I struggled to believe that anyone really met their soulmate through their newspaper, but Aziz had found a couple who had married six years after meeting through a personals ad. He even includes the original ad of only a few short lines. How can half a paragraph of select information, ending with, “Be bold – call right now!” really have led to a long-lasting relationship? It blows my mind.

Aziz also explores whether the convenience of dating and the accessibility of alternative options have made our dating lives easier or harder. It’s a fascinating read, all told in Aziz’s incredibly distinct, funny voice. He quotes Pitbull and comes out with gems like, “In a sense we are all like a Flo Rida song” before establishing the “Flo Rida Theory of Acquired Likability Through Repetition”. Yes, this book is everything you would expect of him really.

The Martian by Andy Weir

This was my most recommended book of the month and I cheerfully breezed through it over the course of a day. It’s the kind of novel that would make for perfect commuter reading: as enjoyable when broken down into chapters as it is as a whole. Mostly told from the perspective of Mark Watney, the novel relies on its hero’s humour to lower the barrier that the plot-necessary scientific jargon creates. It works well, remaining engaging and entertaining throughout, with genuinely funny prose. I’m still surprised by how much I laughed reading about the unfortunate astronaut’s attempts to grow potatoes.

There’s something very American about the optimism that runs through the novel. I can’t help but think that if it was written by a Brit there might be a sharper edge to it. That’s no criticism. In a cynical world, reading a story about an international attempt to save a single man’s life was delightfully escapist. In an odd sort of a way, it reminded me of the classic West Wing episodes. Think ‘Celestial Navigation’: bad situation gets progressively worse, web of characters embroiled in the situation constantly expands, plenty of wry quips to counter the intensity of the drama, all permeated with that idealistic people-coming-together-for-the-common-good tone. (This is not the first time I’ve described something as “The West Wing but in space” and I doubt it’ll be the last.)

This novel also reminded me I would make a terrible astronaut. It’s not like I ever thought to myself, “You know what, Jessica, you’d be a BOSS astronaut” or anything, but now I know I would suck. I know nothing about botany! Maybe I could write some fun little anecdotes in my sol journals, but that’s not enough, is it? I’d die.

So, in summary, great book but that’s a hard pass from Kennedy for space travel, @ NASA.

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

I picked this novel out because the cover is a nice turquoise colour, and because the narrative concept interested me – the use of multiple versions of a timeline; it reminded me of an idea I used for my third year New Media Narrative project in some ways, so I was curious about how it could work within a novel. Truth is, I think, it was this narrative device that came between the book and I in the end. Whenever I began to feel drawn in by snapshot moments, the novel would cut to an alternative timeline. If I could have arranged each version into neat little pockets in my mind, perhaps I would have extracted more enjoyment but, as it was, I found my memories of all three folding into one another.

There was also something off-putting about the prominence of infidelity within the novel. It appeared in every ‘version’, perhaps to imply the pervasiveness of the lead characters’ predilection for cheating. It reminded me of a quote I read recently from a science fiction author, Joe Haldeman, who said: “Bad books on writing tell you to ‘write what you know’, a solemn and false adage that is the reason there exist so many mediocre novels about English professors contemplating adultery.” I guess what I’ve learned is that I find adultery kind of, well, tedious. But a book that teaches you something about yourself is a book worth reading, right? And the novel wasn’t totally unenjoyable. I enjoyed the prose and the comparison to One Day, a book I’m quite fond of, was well founded.

In the end, I was left wondering if I simply read this book at the wrong time in my life. If I were of a different demographic – older, married – it might appeal to me more. This wasn’t a bad novel, it just wasn’t for me.

If you’ve got recommendations for February, hit me up in the comments or on Twitter!

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  1. February in Books | Jessica Eve Kennedy
  2. Thoughts on Carrie | Jessica Eve Kennedy

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