Tag Archives: Ron Chernow

A Super Tuesday Reading List

The presidential primary season, when we pick the candidates who will compete for our nation’s highest office, is inevitably among the dumbest times in our history. And while we’re not historians, it’s a safe bet that 2016 is among the dumbest we have seen. Today is Super Tuesday, when multiple states cast their votes in this spectacle of our shame, so to smarten up the place a bit, we decided to recommend a few books to the supporters of the various candidates.  We want everyone to have an opportunity to tune out the [unintelligible yelling] and enjoy some good reading.

Hillary Clinton

HRC Book GIF

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The Twelve Books of Christmas (or Your Chosen Winter Holiday)

At this time each year, two major things happen: everyone starts telling you what the best books of the last 12 months are, and you start trying to find nice gifts for the people in your life. Books, of course, make excellent gifts. They’re weighty but not too large. They’re often beautifully designed. And they (usually) communicate a certain respect for the cultural and intellectual qualities of the receiver.

But books as gifts also come with hazards. Giving one is a not-so-implicit demand that the receiver must actually read it. Where does your friendship stand a month from now if they read it and hate it? Are you maybe just giving them a book to show off your own cultural and intellectual qualities? 

It’s enough to make you just buy a gift card. But don’t give up. Fiction Advocate is here to help, with a list of some of the best, and worst, books to give as gifts this holiday season. We’re happy to present the 2015 Twelve Book of Christmas/Your Chosen Winter Holiday.

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1: BEST BIG BOOK TO GIVE: City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

City on Fire

An ensemble piece like Love Actually, except instead of Christmas in Britain it’s the collapse of civilization in 1970s New York City. There’s been a lot of hype around this one. Believe it.

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2: WORST BIG BOOK TO GIVE: Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen

Book of Numbers

A young man with no responsibilities, and no apparent consequences for his actions, complains about the ridiculous writing job and extraordinary adventures that he falls into. I’m sure other stuff happens but I gave up around the part where he uses a laptop charger cord to masturbate. This book is a solipsistic hellscape of narcissism, entitlement, self-destructive behavior and bullshit masquerading as a commentary on our digital age.

…if for some reason that sounds good to you.

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3: SUREST BET TO GIVESlade House by David Mitchell

Slade House

Beautifully designed on the outside, a page-turner on the inside. Literary enough for your snob friends, accessible enough for your Dan Brown friends.

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4: RISKIEST BET TO GIVE: Jillian by Halle Butler

Jillian

Is it too much like the TV show Girls? Is it too much like your actual, depressing life? Or is it exactly the right amount of bleak, contemporary, hilarious realism? At least one person in your life will absolutely adore this book. But choose carefully.

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5: COOLEST NERDY BOOK: Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Hamilton

This may be your best chance to show both your nerd cred and your cool cred by giving a doorstop historical biography that is also the basis of a hip-hop Broadway sensation. Read here if you need more convincing.

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6: JUST PLAIN NERDIEST BOOK: Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe

Thing Explainer

You know, things. Like “Bags of Stuff Inside You.” And “Stuff You Touch to Fly a Sky Boat.” Totally normal, socially well-adjusted things.

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7: MOST FUN BOOK TO EXPLAIN: MORT(E) by Robert Repino

Morte

“Giant intelligent ants take over the planet, and a cat with opposable thumbs rises up against them, but he’s in love with a dog who hasn’t been transformed yet, and there might be a few humans alive, but they’re dressed like raccoons because they’re hiding. The whole thing is a critique of organized religion. You’ll get it. Just read it, you’ll get it.”

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8: MOST FUN BOOK TO NOT EXPLAIN: Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself by Anneli Rufus

Unworthy

“Thought you could use this!”

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9: BEST TITLE: The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper

Hopper

You see this title and you say “Really? No, that can’t be true. Oh fuck, of course it’s true. Which means it’s the greatest title I’ve ever heard. And now I have to read it.” (It’s good inside, too.)

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10: WORST TITLE: The Whites by Richard Price

Whites

It’s supposed to be really good and I want to read it, and it has nothing to do with race. But you run too much of a risk that your dumbass cousin or Fox News-watching brother-in-law is going to take an interest and start a conversation about how all lives matter.

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12: BIGGEST AMOUNT OF BOOK: 3000 Classic Books USB Drive

3000 Classic Books

For your family member who likes to buy white tube socks by the hundreds at Costco (and has never heard of Project Gutenberg).

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12: LITTLEST AMOUNT OF BOOK: Iterating Grace by Koons Crooks and Anonymous

Iterating Grace

In 26 unforgettable pages, an anonymous writer takes the douchebags of Silicon Valley over his or her knee and spanks them in the most literary way possible.

 

Michael Moats and Brian Hurley

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Americans Made

Alexander Hamilton and Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
Did you know Washington, DC was almost named Washingtonople?
Status: Available in DC area only

FOR PEOPLE LIKE ME, WHO ARE DEDICATED BUT DECIDEDLY AMATEUR READERS OF AMERICAN HISTORY, there are a lot of good options to choose from. If your tastes lean more toward ideas and cultural context than the personal stuff, you can look to authors like Gordon Wood, who bind together stories about the founders under themes like “character,”  or explain how their Christianity or atheism, or that fact that the FF’s were gardeners or closeted homosexuals, or both, helped shape the course of human events.

If you’re really into ideas, you can turn to surly geniuses like Gary Wills, who can take a particular event or document — the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address, for example — and make riveting work out of tracing its intellectual roots in the Scottish enlightenment or thanatoptic poetry, respectively.

Howard Zinn has taken on the noble effort of showing how the actions of the Great Men who get the attention affected everyone else who was around at the time. “A People’s History of the United States of America” is something close to excellent, but should be read with the understanding that not every person who did anything of historical significance did it by way of a dark capitalist conspiracy. The right kind of reading in these books can provide an important awareness about how messy our path has been and likely will be, and get you primed for the nuances and complications of book like Reinhold Niebuhr’s “The Irony of American History.”

For the more narrative, orchestra-swelling angle, try Joseph Ellis or David McCullough. For the more narrative, stomach-churning stuff, you can check out those Drunk History videos online.

Then there are guys like Ron Chernow and biographies like “Alexander Hamilton” and “Washington: A Life.” The best description of Chernow’s approach might be ‘the granular,’ in that he documents each man’s life down to very smallest of details. It’s not so much narrative or thematic as it is simply observant. We learn about the backgrounds of Hamilton’s benefactors on the island of St. Croix where he was born, and are told that on his voyage to college in New York, the ship caught fire and “crew members scrambled down ropes to the sea and scooped up seawater in buckets, extinguishing the blaze with some difficulty.” Of Washington, Chernow spends time on his near-constant worry over the finances of Mt. Vernon, his chiding letters to his employees there and his deep concerns about the discretion of his dentist. But we also hear about Hamilton’s abolitionism and dedication to his family, and that Washington’s mother’s shrill disapproval may have set the mold for his commitment to duty above all, that over the years he took in various orphaned members of his family, and that his stoicism was critical to holding together a young country looking for just about any reason to tear itself apart.

One of the many reasons to read these books is the deep connection between the two men. As relationships between the founding fathers go, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams get most of the attention for their academic and adversarial exchanges about the genesis of the country, which they wrestled over as President and Vice President and in years of correspondence, before poetically dying within hours of each other on the 50th anniversary of declaring independence. The professional and personal interactions between Washington and Hamilton lacked such made-for-TV dramatics, but were in the end far more influential on the workaday construction of an enduring republic and the shape of the nation we know today.

Washington’s importance is undeniable; what often goes unremarked, however, is that Hamilton was by Washington’s side for most of the Revolutionary War, the drafting and defending of the constitution, and the laying of foundations for America’s government and economy during Washington’s presidency. When a looming war with France threatened to pull Washington out of retirement, he insisted against the wishes of President Adams and the decorum of military succession on elevating Hamilton to his second in command. The two men were cornerstones of each other’s success, from the battlefield through the drafting of the Washington’s farewell address, and to praise one is to praise the other. An apt comparison might be between Kennedy and Ted Sorensen, although an odder but more illustrative parallel can be made to Jay-Z and Kanye West: the patriarch reaching the peak of his abilities, and shaping his entire career, through the volatile creative genius of his upstart protegé.

OF THE TWO, HAMILTON’S BIOGRAPHY IS THE MORE INTERESTING. Hamilton rose from less than obscurity, the illegitimate son of an insolvent debtor on St. Croix, and by his early 20s was one of Washington’s closest advisers. Continue reading

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