January in Books

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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.

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Pawnee Forever: A Farewell to Parks and Recreation

fdgfParks and Recreation is the last remaining of NBC’s beloved, though criminally under-watched, sitcoms from their old Thursday night comedy block, but soon it too, hot on the heels of The Office (ended), 30 Rock (ended) and Community (rehomed), will conclude its run. I have to admit, I write this post with more emotion than can usually be found on this here page. As the finale date draws closer with alarming velocity (anyone ever told you, you’re the worst, NBC?), I am struck by just how missed this comedy will be. It’s rare that a cast of characters is so universally warm, energetic and loveable, reiterating the message, time after time, that no one achieves anything alone. That is Parks‘ heart and soul.

If there is one thing to take away from the critically acclaimed comedy, it’s the value of creating rich relationships with every combination of characters that you have in your arsenal. I imagine half the fun of writing this show was pick-‘n’-mixing character pairings for subplots. I mean, think about it. Think about any two characters and, if you’ve seen the whole series, you’ll know their dynamic. From Ben and April (“She’s like the little sister I never had, because the little sister I do have is normal and not terrifying.”), to the mutual respect between Leslie and Ron as they settle their differences over breakfast foods, to the juxtaposition of super-fit Chris and, well, Andy, to the inspiring masterminds behind “Treat Yo Self”, Tom and Donna, everyone fits together and, crucially, provides an endless source for comedy. One relationship above all others really steered the show and that was the friendship between Leslie and Ann, unique in its platonic nature as the focal relationship. Given how female friendship has been portrayed within the media when it’s portrayed at all, Parks was a rare treat, celebrating the way that women can support and inspire one another – often over breakfast food. This started with Leslie and Ann but quickly seeped into every female dynamic the show has to offer: the mentor relationship Leslie has with April, the love-hate-but-secretly-just-love between April and Ann, and the ladies’ casual and constant admiration for Regal Meagle.

The reason these friendships are all so special, of course, is because the characters that make them up are a wonderful bunch of weirdos, just as any comedic cast should be. When shows end, often it can be hard to say goodbye to a beloved favourite character. How do you keep it together when you’re saying goodbye to so many favourites at once? If anyone knows, share with the group. I’m desperate here. As I haven’t figured it out, here are my heartfelt goodbyes to each one of Pawnee’s finest…

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