Hamilton

Hamilton is in town for a four-month tour.  When tickets went on sale, local television coverage showed a stampede of people willing to part with their hard-earned money for a ticket – any ticket.   One had to be very, very lucky or very, very rich to secure a coveted seat.

Husband and I tried a few times, but bulked at individual ticket prices that cost more than a month’s rent our first apartment.

It will come back, we rationalized, and then we heard rumors they’ll be making a film.  So, we said, of course, we’ll see it on the big screen. We watched the PBS special Hamilton’s America (watch for it during pledging, well worth it) and, in the end, we were content.

Then, last Tuesday afternoon we were coming in from the garden and the phone rang.  It was our dear friends who suddenly, due to conflicts with children and schedules, couldn’t use their tickets for Hamilton that very night – did we want them?

Did we want them? Did we want them? We were scrubbing the garden dirt out from under our fingernails and downtown in record time.

In case you’ve been under a rock, Hamilton premiered at New York’s Public Theater in February 2015, before transferring to Broadway and winning 11 Tony Awards.  It blends musical theater, hip-hop, rap, R&B, jazz, pop, and American history to dramatize the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton, based on the biography by Ron Chernow.

Bear with me as I heap further praise on Hamilton —  it’s everything you heard,  it is indeed extraordinary.  There’s wonderfully written and cleverly delivered lyrics, filled with sly political references, and laugh-out-loud double-entendres.  There’s amazing choreography, lighting and a set that transforms subtly for each number.  But it’s the characters that shine – every character was fully drawn, in period, and beautifully developed.  There’s a scene with Alexander and Eliza Hamilton that left me (and many others) drying our tears.

The politics of Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington, and Madison were not that different from today, which Lin-Manuel Miranda beautifully mirrors in his lyrics and script.  In the song The Room Where It Happens, Hamilton tells Burr that he is having a private dinner meeting with Jefferson and Madison.  Later they emerge from behind closed doors with a three way deal.  Burr is incredulous that no one else was in the room where it happened.  You can listen to the song and lyrics HERE.

Our San Francisco cast was exceptional — with Michael Luwoye playing Hamilton (left) and Joshua Henry as Burr (right).

I thought the show’s most complex character was not Hamilton, who stayed steadfast and unchanged in his beliefs, but Aaron Burr, who goes from being a petulant wannabe politician, to a wiser and more emphatic man – after being the “damn fool who shot him [Hamilton] “.

King George appears alone on stage several times, with messages from across the pond.  His three musical interludes are just delightful  “You’ll be Back” ,”What Comes Next”, “I Know Him”: Listen HERE

Both Husband and I were mesmerized, sitting forward in our seats to catch every phrase, every nuance.  We left the theater a few inches above ground and feeling like the luckiest couple in the world.

If you get a chance to see Hamilton, just do it.

As to our kind and generous friends – (who would not let us pay for the tickets) – we are now indentured lifetime babysitters.

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Nina Sankovitch

Every so often, a reader can’t help but form an instant connection with an author.  Especially when they share a passion for the same things.  That’s just what has happened with me and the author Nina Sankovitch. These two books delve into two of my favorite things  — a love of reading and a fascination with old letters.

Imagine the chats we could have over a cup of tea…

Back in 2012, I read Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

Ms. Sankovitch lost her beloved sister, Ann-Marie, to cancer at age 46.  Reading was a lifelong passion for them both. During Ann-Maire’s final months in the hospital, Ms. Sankovitch read aloud to her — spending as much time together as possible during her last days.

After her sister’s death and overcome with grief, Nina decides that the same passion that bonded her with her sister and carried her through her life will be her therapy. She will read a book a day for a year. 

A book a day, I wondered?  Even I, a voracious reader, can’t compete with a book a day.  These were her rules:

• She would read only one book per author,
• She would not re-read any books she had already read,
• She would limit her choices to books that were no more than one inch thick, ensuring that they would, for the most part, be in the range of 250-300 pages each,
• And she would only read the kind of books she and her sister, Anne-Marie would have enjoyed together.

For those of us who want to read about what someone else is reading, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair takes us on her journey, as she reads from her favorite purple chair. 

She shares her epiphanies and discoveries  — all from the pages of her carefully chosen books.  She intersperses her bookish insights with memories of her sister and of growing up in a bookish immigrant family who instilled in her the belief that books are not a luxury, but a necessity.

Never fear, this is not a grim tale of a painful year, nor is it an instruction manual for grieving.  Ms. Sankovitch gives us a book straight from her heart, full of hope and wisdom.  It’s about stopping the merry-go-round of a busy life to read, think and learn.

This book will appeal to any bibliophile, but especially for those of us who turn to books for answers, comfort and wisdom. 

 

 

Signed, Sealed, Delivered begins with Ms. Sankovitch’s discovery of an old steamer trunk she finds in her backyard which holds hundred year old letters written by a Princeton freshman, James Seligman, to his mother in the early 1900s.

These letters are fascinating, as he reports on an explosion in the J.P. Morgan building, comments on Roosevelt’s presidential campaign, and the death of his uncle on the Titanic. His letters are dry and acerbic, but filled with details.

Ms. Sankovitch’s book goes on explore the history of letter writing  and we get to read correspondences ranging from the ancient Egyptians, to medieval lovers, to letters exchanged between Samuel Morris Steward, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas — the latter, some racy and fun reading. 

Her section on the letters President Lincoln received after his son’s, Willy’s, death, revealed a rare bit of history.  Franklin Pierce and family were in a train crash on their way to Washington DC to take office in 1853. Thrown from the carriage, Pierce and his wife watched helplessly as their son was hit and killed by the still-moving train. Pierce was writing from his own similar experience when he penned his heartfelt condolences to Abraham Lincoln.

Ms. Sankovitch interweaves her own experiences and correspondences with well-researched accounts of other letter writers in history.  I love to read other’s correspondence, peeking into their day-to-day lives, hopes, and dreams.

The book is a love story to the lost art of letter writing, a wonderful way to glimpse into history and relationships  — all revealed through letters:

“A written letter is a one-of-a-kind document, a moment in time caught on paper, thoughts recorded and sent on, a single message to a special recipient.”

“Sir, more than Kisses, letters mingle souls.  For thus, friends absent speak”  John Donne, “To Sir Henry Wollow”

Ms. Sankovitch’s own son is heading off to Harvard, and she hopes that he will write to her, as the Princeton student wrote to his mother and as Nina wrote to hers — but she knows she will have to settle for emails or text messages.

“Yes, I am waiting for an answer to my letter but waiting is not my main activity. To be dependent on e-mail and text is to have access to immediate response — but diminishes the rich opportunities that come from living with delayed gratification. For so much happens in the delay.”

This book made me think about future generations.  Somehow, I suspect that no one is saving emails and text messages in old trunks. Without letters — from those who made history, shared their love for each other or, just reported on their routine lives — how will we know those long dead?

Luckily I have boxes of old letters, filled with letters from teenage pen-pals, past loves, from Husband, parents, grandfather and those I wrote to my family when I was away at college.  Some rainy night – I will revisit those.

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Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel

Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty presented me with a dilemma  — the age old struggle of plot versus characters.  Can you like one but not the other?

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The book opens in 1976, with this delightfully written description of Fern, Edgar and their three young children enjoying their summer house on Martha’s Vineyard:

“Summer fattened everybody up. The family buttered without reserve; pie seemed to be everywhere.  They awoke and slept and awoke in the summerhouse on the island, ate all their meals on the porch while the sun moved across their sky.  They look out at the saltwater cove and watched the sailboats skim and tack across the blue towards the windward beach, littered with the outgrown shells of horseshoe crabs.”

“The children were brown with white, white behinds and they wore anklets of poison ivy blisters.  For them the whole point of life was to be wet and dry eight times a day and never clean. There was always sand in the bed and none of them wanted it to end.”

However, at the end this holiday Fern and Edgar discover that their seemingly endless supply of inherited money has run out.

Fern comes from one of the oldest and richest families in Chicago.  Her parents are elegant, classy and self assured in their position.  Their historic house reflects the worn shabbiness of wealth.  Their clothes are old but so well made they last forever.  Even their roses reflect this attitude:

“Their rosebushes were so old that some of the branches were a big as ankles and when they bloomed they were just imperfect enough, as if someone had come out at dawn and carefully ruffled them.”

In contrast, Edgar’s family is new money and his mother Mary studies the old money types, attempts to mimic class — redecorating every year and buying only the most current clothes each season:

“If Edgar’s parents could have worn clothes sewn from money itself they would have.  Everything they had on was the most expensive version available.  Mary wore a silk shift [—-] a mink stole even thought it was summer and yellow heels that had been made for her very feet by an ancient Italian cobbler.”

Ms. Ausubel beautifully weaves this tale set in the 1960’s and 70’s and chocks it full of dark humor, bittersweet ironies, and a string of bizarre vignettes.  From Fern and Edgar’s indifferent parents and their lackluster childhoods – we begin to see that wealth – whether old or new – has consequences.

After Fern and Edgar get married they profess to embrace the 1960’s counter culture movement – trying desperately to eschew the wealth that follows them. But after three kids they have settled into enjoying the trappings of their privilege – sailboats, summer houses. When they learn that this accustomed wealth, always safely in the background, is gone — they both fall apart.

“Everything around her — the house, the furniture, the manner of life — was poised to evaporate.  She was a soft body trying to prepare herself for the unknown future.”

Fern and Edgar each experience what could be called an extensional crisis. Edgar takes an extended sailboat trip with his mistress, and Fern, learning of the affair, escapes on a cross country road trip with a stranger (a gentle giant of a man- no really, a giant!).  In one of the strangest plot twists ever, neither checks with the other and they each take off believing the other is staying home with the children. “Despicable people!” I sputtered out loud as I read these pages (What? Don’t you talk to your book’s characters?). 

Their respective journeys are told against the frightening tableau of their young confused children who are afraid of being sent to an orphanage, so pretend everything is normal.  The children forge meals from whatever they can find, get dressed, go to school, and play outside as always.  No one realizes they are alone. Finally, an astute teacher catches on, and both parents race home.  But that’s all I’ll tell you.

I found Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty* often dark, sometimes hilarious, but always captivating.  A wonderful treatise on the moneyed privileged and the pitfalls of wealth – both for those who have it and those who once did.

Ms. Ausubel can certainty write and has created way (way) out of the ordinary characters — characters who are shallow, brave, mean, immature, wise.  While I often despised the characters, they were real and leapt off the page, working their way into my brain.  I devoured this book and whenever I wasn’t reading it – I wanted to be.

 

*I keep wanting to call it Sons and Daughters of Good and Plenty.  

 

An advanced readers copy was provided by Riverhead books, an imprint of Penguin Random House

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Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

For a long time, I’ve had Orphan Train recommended (actually thrust upon me) by fellow readers, various bookstore customers, and, yes, even my Mom ~~ all opinions I value…but for some reason I never got around to reading it.

After my last two magical-mystical-tour reads, I was ready for some reality. I unearthed my long ignored copy of this popular novel and dove right in.

In case you’re one of the few (like me) who haven’t read this historical novel, I’ll give it a proper Book Barmy review.

It’s 2011 Maine and 17-year old Molly, a Penobscot Indian, has been sent from one foster home to another, from school to school, and has been in and out of trouble.  Her most recent crime?  Stealing a beat up paperback copy of  Jane Eyre from the library. 

(Sigh, Jane Eyre really?  I’m already on her side, mentally figuring out the cost of a multiple times read mass market paperback to an entire library system, versus the cost of juvie –)

Molly is facing juvenile detention, when her boyfriend, Jack, offers up a solution.  His mother, Terry, is a housekeeper for a 91-year old woman, who wants to clear out an attic of memorabilia.   Jack suggests Molly do community service hours by helping Vivian clean the attic.

Together they form a prickly friendship and as they go through the boxes and mementos, the book switches narratives to 1929, when Vivian was nine-year old Niamh Power.

Her family emigrated from Ireland to the tenements of New York. Her father was a drunk and her mother depressed (although she taught Niamh excellent sewing skills). With both parents incapable, Niamh takes care of her siblings, especially her baby sister, Maise. 

Then a horrible fire leaves Niamh an orphan, and she is herded onto an orphan train.  These trains were arranged to take orphans from areas such as the New York tenements and give them to anyone who wanted a child. These children were left with people in the hopes that they would be given a good life. Some were, but many were nothing more than indentured slaves on remote and hardscrabble farms.

The author has created an unforgettable character in Niamh, who brings this little known part of our history alive.  As an old woman, she helps the young Molly see that she is not the only orphan to suffer:

“I learned long ago that loss is not only probable but inevitable. I know what it means to lose everything, to let go of one life and find another. And now I feel, with a strange, deep certainty, that it must be my lot in life to be taught that lesson over and over again.”

Ms. Baker Kline did an extraordinary amount of research, and as a result, the story comes alive with rich details and colorful descriptions. I knew nothing about this part of history — orphan trains — and it’s as interesting and heartbreaking as it gets.

Orphan Train is a powerful read, both historically and emotionally.

I now join the legions who highly recommend this book. 


Now I’m a bit miffed at myself for waiting so long…

 

 

 

 

N.B.   Ms. Baker Kline has new book — A Piece of the World about Christina Olson, the real life model in Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World. 

 

I’ll be reading this very soon. 

No waiting this time.

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The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna Van Praag

I was recently surprised to enjoy THIS book about reincarnation.  Well, as if on a mission from another universe, another unusual book entered my orbit.

Really liking the cover, I opened this book on my Kindle, and before I knew it, I had read two chapters.

Magic, fantasy – not usually my cup of tea (true confession time, I only made through the first Harry Potter book), but I kept reading well into the night and finished The House at the End of Hope Street the very next evening. 

When Alba, an extraordinarily smart woman experiences what she believes is a career-ending event, she wanders the streets with no idea what should happen next. That’s when a large Victorian house pops up out of nowhere, covered in fragrant wisteria and with a sense calm that emanates from within.

Peggy, the caretaker of the house, appears to expect Alba. And oh how the house welcomes her.  In this house, the floors are soft under foot, the walls breathe and hug you, and one sees colors when words are spoken.  Important notes flutter down from the ceilings for the intended recipient,  and the framed portraits of past residents of the house, such as Agatha Christie, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf chat away, giving advice and counsel.

Turns out this magical house has been rescuing extraordinary women, for 200 years.  And each woman, including Alba, have 99 nights to stay in the house and turn their lives around.

“If you stay I can promise you this. This house may not give you what you want, but it will give you what you need. And the event that brought you here, the thing you think is the worst thing that’s ever happened? When you leave, you’ll realize it was the very best thing of all.”

Peggy, the 80+ caretaker of this magical house, is my favorite character.  She lives in her own private tower of the house, entertains a mysterious lover every Sunday, eats cake for breakfast, and has an invisible cat named Mog.

We also learn the stories of Carmen and Greer, the other residents of the house, who also arrived heartbroken, hopeless, not knowing what to do:

“[each woman] must be allowed to feel her grief, must dive headlong into despair, before she can emerge again, her spirit richer and deeper than before”

One would think that Ms. Van Praag would have trouble creating believable characters in and among all this hocus pocus magic but each character is rendered with realistic layers of character flaws and redeeming talents.  

But my favorite part of this book was the rooms that magically fill with objects to suit the occupant.   Greer loves clothes so her room is filled with an amazing wardrobe. Alba loves books so her room is filled with the books the house thinks she should read.  What’s not to like about that fantasy?

I felt quite buoyed upon finishing this book, believing the magic — that problems can be surmounted, that heartbreak can be lessened, and troubles put in their proper place.

Magic sure, but it’s Magically Delicious

A digital advanced readers copy was provided by Penguin Books via Netgalley.

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The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katrina Bivald

 

I have enjoyed many books about reading, bookshops and book lovers.  So when The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend was compared to The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry — I had high hopes.

In this novel Sara, a Swedish woman, comes to Broken Wheel, Iowa to visit her pen pal and fellow book lover, Amy.  But when she arrives in this rundown small town she finds that her elderly friend recently died and left instructions for Sara to stay in her house as long as she wants.   Sara, a devoted bookworm tries to hide herself in the books from Amy’s library but soon gets drawn into the town and the lives of its local inhabitants  — a motley crew of misfits.  These normally insular Iowans gradually warm up to Sara and make her a part of their town. She opens a bookshop and recommends the perfect reads for her new friends and neighbors. Much of the story is about the effect Sara and her reading recommendations have on the inhabitants of Broken Wheel.

The book is interspersed with the past correspondence between Amy and Sara and I really wanted these letters to tell more about their relationship and shared love of reading.  But, sadly the letters are stilted and reveal little about either Amy or Sara.

The small saving grace in The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is Sara’s love for books  — I had to smile, as Sara explains the difference between the smell of a paperback and that of a hardback — a true book lover.

I also nodded in recognition at this description of Sara’s school experience:

 “Others might have found themselves stuck in a tired, old high school in Haninge, but she had been a geisha in Japan, walked along with China’s last empress through the claustrophobic, closed off rooms of the Forbidden City, grown up with Anne and the others in Green Gables, gone through her fair share of murder, and loved and lost over and over again.”

This is a sweet but predictable (and often trite) story of friendship, small-town America, and the love of reading and books. It tries to be life affirming, but instead, wanders into the clichéd.

Reading The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend was an enjoyable, if  bland, experience.

I just wished it could have been better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A digital advanced readers copy was provided by Sourcebooks Landmark via Netgalley.

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