book review, nonfiction

Review: Hamilton: The Revolution

History is entirely created by the person who tells the story

Hamilton: The Revolution, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jeremy McCarter

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AUTHOR: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jeremy McCarter

GENRE: Non-Fiction

FORMAT: audiobook

RATING: 5/5 stars

BACKGROUND: In hindsight, it seems that most revolutions are inevitable. This applies to both the American Revolution and the revolution that Hamilton, the musical, has made in both musical theatre and rap. However, when you are in the midst of completing a revolution, nothing seems inevitable. This book tells of the process that shaped Hamilton from a mixtape, a concept album, to one of the best musicals of our generation- from the first performance that Lin did at the White House to the opening night on Broadway. It also includes the annotations to the libretto of the musical.

THOUGHTS: Okay if you have not listened to Hamilton or seen the show, this is maybe not the book for you. It will be so much more meaningful if you are familiar with the show in any capacity. So, if you have not but are intending to listen to this show, maybe consider not finishing this review.

Another disclaimer: I have been a fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda for the longest time so I enjoyed this book more than the casual fan of Hamilton would.

I absolutely adored every moment of listening to Hamilton: The Revolution. Being as big of a fan of the show as I am, there were plenty little tidbits included in the book that were news to me, which was quite enjoyable. Getting to know exactly what it takes to pull off such a phenomenon, and exactly how risky it was, is much more enjoyable to know now that the musical is indescribably popular.

The emotional moments of creating the musical, especially since there are so many elements of overcoming racial disadvantages and marrying modern music with musical theatre, are a joy to read. There are quite a few times during the audiobook in which I shamelessly teared up, or straight up cried. The fact that the cast of Hamilton tends to come from immigrant parents and very diverse backgrounds make the story of how this family came together very touching. The story of Anthony Ramos in particular broke and mended my heart in a turn of a sentence.

The inevitable intermingling of this story with the story of American history AND contemporary American politics also adds to the complexity of the story. The story of the American revolution and in particular, Alexander Hamilton, embodies so much of what we would now call the American spirit. Any patriot, any person who is proud of the multiracial, diverse, and yet united America will feel immense pride in how perfectly Hamilton seems to usher us into a new cultural, political, and social age– even though it is set in our deep past. You need to see it (or read it) to believe it.

If you are a fan of the musical, or a hip hop geek, or a musical theatre geek, or a history buff, you will definitely enjoy the annotations that Lin have provided on the libretto. I pinky promise.

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book review, memoirs/biographies, nonfiction

Review: The Year of Magical Thinking

Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion

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Click on the image above to purchase the book on Amazon.

I picked this book up at a book sale not knowing much about it other than knowing it was one of the books on Rory Gilmore’s Reading Challenge list, but I was pleasantly surprised.

AUTHOR: Joan Didion

GENRE: nonfiction, memoir

WHERE DID I GET THIS BOOK: at a book sale

RATING: 5/5 stars

BACKGROUND: Joan Didion is a writer, and so was her husband, John. Her memoir A Year of Magical Thinking takes us through the year immediately following the passing of her husband, John. There are many personal reflections on the significance of her grief, memories described that detail moments the writer lived through with her family and her husband, and there are even clinical and scientific considerations of what grief is or what it does to the human psyche.

THOUGHTS: I believe that anyone who has had to go through the painful experience of losing someone that is close to them can understand and take something away from this memoir. Since I personally had a bad experience with trying to understand my grief, I found this book to be intriguing, educating, but ultimately I found that I could relate to what Didion’s descriptions of her grief portrayed.

Didion’s writing is clear, succinct, and engaging. I flew through this book in the span of less than a day; it is easy to read, and it gripped me in every page. Didion has all the tricks and marks of an experienced writer, but it also felt like she did not hold much back in this memoir. I could not think of much criticism to lend this book, so I gave it the 5/5 stars that it deserves.

For those of us who would rather read a book that is more lighthearted or would like to stray from the emotionally heavy -this book may not be for you. Of course, reading about darker matters in fiction books is significantly different than reading about the same subjects in a nonfiction book. The stakes are real, and the descriptions that Didion offers in this book are quite hard to forget, or at least they are for me.

However, if you have had a personal struggle with grief- with dealing with it, with defining it, with reigning it in and letting it breathe, then I would highly recommend this book to you. Didion is almost everyman in this book, besides her glamorous lifestyle as a successful and career writer, but I almost assure you that you have something to gain from the details of her pain and the journey she went through. Additionally, she did all of the research on grief, so you don’t have to. The humanity of this memoir is probably its best quality, however- everyone, no matter their life experiences, can take solace from this book about how those who remain living, even when their loved ones pass, can engage in magical thinking until they are ready to return to a world that is not dominated and defined by loss.

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memoirs/biographies, nonfiction, Uncategorized

Review: Between the World and Me

I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Click on the image above to purchase on Amazon.

I was given this book by my University last year; it was assigned to all First Years as a “Common Book”, or a book that would help us in culminating an accepting and diverse campus. And let me tell you- it’s one of the most valuable books I’ve been given. Valuable, I mean, in terms of the potential it has to enlighten readers.

AUTHOR: Ta-Nehisi Coates

GENRE: Non-fiction

WHERE DID I GET THIS BOOK: my university gifted it to me

RATING: 5/5 stars

BACKGROUND: Ta-Nehesi Coates writes this book in the format of a letter to his young son, and with it comes advice for how to navigate through the modern American society as a black man. Coates touches on his own experiences, and those of his friends, to piece a picture of what the black experience in America was, and what it might be in the future. Coates employs self-introspection, evidence from the world around him, and past and contemporary events in order to define what really stands between the world and himself, in the hopes that his son will be able to understand where he is coming from and understand what his father is pushing him to do in order to protect himself in a society that values black bodies less than most other bodies.

THOUGHTS: There is not a whole lot of criticism aimed at this book, but I remember discussing it with a friend whose political views differ from my own. I remember that he told me that he didn’t agree with what the book was saying, and that it was written from a skewed perspective (I’m paraphrasing). However, I do not know if this is a valid criticism of the book because a) my friend is not a black American, so why did he think that his view of how African-Americans experience the world is more valuable than that of an African American’s and b) even if you disagree with the conclusions that Coates come to, it doesn’t mean you can invalidate his feelings and his experiences because they are uniquely his own.

With that out of the way, I thoroughly enjoyed this read because I realized that this is the closest that I will ever get to understanding what it is like to grow up as a black person in America, and that is a valuable thing to obtain. I am not an African American, but I am still a racial minority in this country that is definitely more socially privileged than African Americans are. Reading through Coates’ experiences, takes on the world, and advice to his son, I encountered, figuratively, many aspects of racial discrimination that I had not previously been exposed to in my personal experiences. I learned, not only the why and how things were, but more importantly, I could see how Coates’ experiences tied into his conclusions and his worldview. Although it is different than my own, I was grateful for further understanding why someone with remarkably different experiences than me would view American society in such a way as Coates does.

There are also aspects of this book that are universal, or at least more identifiable- the worry a father has for his son, the despair of a person who watched his friends suffer invisible tragedies, and the struggle of a community who has every odd against them. There is also the celebration of the value that community can bring, and the liberty that one or two books can provide. There is the questioning of the world around one’s person- and more importantly, the question Why? is echoed over and over.

Most of all, I appreciate the book’s acknowledgement of reality and it’s realistic approach to the subject- yes, there is hope, but more importantly, there is skepticism. After all, the history between American society and African Americans is brutal and horrific, and there is nothing that indicates that the future of their relationship will be drastically better. But it is not overly pessimistic either; Coates has not given up hope for his son, for the future of his race and his people. And that, to me, is the most important part of this book- acknowledging the mountain that lies ahead of you, and attempting to climb it anyways, driven by the slight hope that this time, you might make it to the top, because it will be worth it when you do reach it.

Even if this book does not sound like your cup of tea, I’d recommend it to you. I promise you will gain something valuable from it, even if it is only the perspective of someone that differs from you.

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book review, memoirs/biographies, nonfiction, reading recommendations

Review: Bossypants

Some people say, “Never let them see you cry.” I say, if you’re so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone.

Bossypants, Tina Fey

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Click the image above to purchase the book on Amazon.

I love Tina Fey. I have seen Mean Girls more times than I can count and I have seen every episode of 30 Rock. Also, how can I forget her unforgettable performances and writing on Saturday Night Live? If something has Tina Fey involved, I will probably be there.

AUTHOR: Tina Fey

GENRE: Memoir, Humor

WHERE DID I GET THIS BOOK: local library

RATING: 4.5/5 stars

BACKGROUND: Tina Fey: writer, actress, humorist. This is her memoir, which follows her from an awkward high schooler to the comedian trying to make it in Chicago to the female head writer at SNL and beyond. Always witty, and always funny, she relays the events in her life and her thoughts on feminist topics, such as the use of Photoshop, the morality of abortions, and more, but always maintains a lighthearted tone. Quirky, humorous, and honest, this memoir offers a deeper insight into the events of Fey’s career and the thoughts that occupy Fey’s mind.

THOUGHTS: I think Tina Fey has a very specific kind of humor in her command. It is the same kind that branded 30 Rock. It is a kind of humor that speaks to me and entertains me, but of course, it is not for everyone. 30 Rock, while critically acclaimed, never caught on to mass popularity with the general public. So, this book may or may not tickle your funny bone, but I thoroughly enjoyed the humor of it.

It was cool to gain the insider’s perspective of all the media that I had been a fan of for so long- Mean Girls, 30 Rock, working with Tracy Jordan and Alec Baldwin, and how she was introduced to Amy Poehler. I also liked learning about what Tina Fey, who has stood up for women in the entertainment industry multiple times, thought about the certain debates in feminist thinking as well. However she didn’t lecture on the morality or the rightness or wrongness of certain feminist perspectives, which I appreciated.

Fey’s writing is captivating, as as quirky as her own personality. Many of her insecurities throughout the year are more relatable to me than would be most actress’ memoirs; Fey is a comedian, is not classically attractive, and was somewhat socially awkward in her early twenties. All of these qualities, and the experiences that accompany them makes Fey much more relatable to the average reader than other actresses or celebrities that may write memoirs.

If you are a fan of Tina Fey and her work, and if you enjoy a good laugh, I would highly recommend this read!

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book review, nonfiction, reading recommendations

Review: Common Sense

A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason

Common Sense, Thomas Paine

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Click the image above in order to purchase it at Amazon.

In honor of it being Thanksgiving here in the United States, and because I am so very thankful that I reside in the United States, I decided to do more of a patriotic super-short review today.

AUTHOR: Thomas Paine

GENRE: Nonfiction

WHERE DID I GET THIS BOOK: local library

RATING: 4/5 stars

BACKGROUND: This was a pamphlet essentially published in order to convince the colonists that the solution to their issues with Britain was to break off and declare independence rather than try and make amends with King George III. Paine’s writing was quite influential at this time.

THOUGHTS: I was inspired to read this book as a result for my love for Hamilton: An American Musical. It is a quick read, amounting to around sixty pages, but considering that this was a propaganda pamphlet that was widely spread, that is quite a lengthy argument. The thing that I loved best about Paine’s writing is that the line of logic that it follows is clear and yet complex, making it quite difficult for anyone to argue against him. He approaches the argument for America’s independence from many sides- a religious approach, a moral approach, an economic approach, a political approach, etc; this demonstrates that the American Revolution was not just another war to be fought, but also a question of identity, of values, and of ideas.

Paine’s writing tends to be a little disorganized, but I suspect that is because I read a version that had been edited many times in order to address counterarguments that arose from his critics. One of my favorite parts of the pamphlet is when Paine mercilessly calls out those who deemed themselves pacifists; essentially, he asked those who opposed war to his side, and his arguments for why they should enter a bloody revolution were actually quite compelling. There is no argument that Paine could not morph until it fit his own agenda, and it is easy to see why colonists were so compelled by his words.

The language is dense and sometimes tedious to get through, but this is more a product of the time that has elapsed between the time it was published and now rather than a product of Paine’s lack of writing abilities. For any of you fellow American history buffs, or fellow fans of Hamilton, I would recommend this as a quick, patriotic read that will allow you to learn a little more about the values that America was founded on.

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book review, memoirs/biographies, nonfiction

Review: Dreams From My Father

My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t end there.
At least that’s what I would choose to believe.

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, Barack Obama

AUTHOR: Barack Obama

GENRE: Memoir

RATING: 4/5 stars

BACKGROUND: This book was published in 1995, way before Obama stepped onto the federal stage as the senator from Illinois and before he was President of the United States. This does not concern any of Obama’s public life, but instead his background and his family’s background. This seems to be before he was acknowledging a career in politics, as he does not mention it. The main focus of this book is rather Barry Obama’s quest in finding his own identity: his racial identity and his identity outside of his race.

THOUGHTS: I thought that this story was intriguing, not just because it is the story of our former president but rather it is a story of someone who is caught in between cultures and races. Barack Obama was brought up by his white mother and his white grandmothers, in the absence of his father who spent most of his time in Kenya, but was treated by everyone else that he knew as what he appeared: a black boy.

Obama’s writing was clear, succinct, and admirable for someone who is not a writer by profession. His capacity to relate emotions in a particular moment and his ability in describing events or landscapes took me by surprise, though anyone who has listened to any of his speeches is probably less surprised to hear what a good writer Obama is.

I think the honesty of the book is also refreshing. In a world of turbulent politics dominated by twistings of the truth and fake news, this brief, honest look into Obama’s early life and his early mistakes was intriguing. His struggles in becoming the best brother, the best son, and the best black advocate he could be struck a cord with me; even though the man is intelligent and successful beyond belief, he struggles with the same idealistic struggles that most young people go through.

Anyways, I can fully recommend this read for anyone who wants to know a little more about our former president. It is pretty clear of our typical political debates, besides a couple of chapters about his advocating in Chicago. But even that does not sound like the pushing of an agenda…just a description of the feelings that he went through at a particular moment in his life. This book is truly a memoir, and not of the same stock as those books published after a politician’s term, or before a politician’s election. If you enjoy memoirs in general, you should definitely check this one out!

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book review, nonfiction, reading recommendations

Review: Hidden Figures

Their dark skin, their gender, their economic status–none of those were acceptable excuses for not giving the fullest rein to their imaginations and ambitions.

Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly

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Click on the image above to purchase on Amazon.

So as soon as I saw that this audiobook was available to loan with no wait from my local library, I immediately borrowed it because I loved the movie!

AUTHOR: Margot Lee Shetterly

GENRE: Nonfiction

WHERE DID I GET THIS BOOK: local library

RATING: 5/5 stars

SUMMARY: Hidden Figures follows the journey of mostly black women (some white women and black men and their struggles are also touched on) that worked as those who specialized in math and/or science for NASA or NACA, as it was named before the space race. The women in this book include Dorothy Vaughn, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Mary Jackson, among other amazing black, female minds that are also mentioned. The story does discuss the racial or gender based barriers that the women face when trying to advance themselves and their careers at Langley Institute on the Virginian Peninsula, but more importantly, it details the achievements of these women that would otherwise have been lost to history, and how these women tie into and contributed to American history, as well as the American narrative.

THOUGHTS: I gave this book the highest rating possible because I cannot honestly think of something I would change about it. The writing was clear and precise, and the author did a good job of navigating the material- she neither underplayed nor overplayed the role of racism or discrimination in the story, but she also did not idolize the women described nor did she downplay their characteristics or achievements. Instead, she did what a good nonfiction writer does- stick to the facts, but also adding humanizing elements to the story because it is a story with a uniquely humanistic value.

The story of success against all odds, of how hard work and dedication and ingenuity can lead to achievement otherwise impossible for black females to even dream about, is a story that I’m sure all Americans with a belief in the ideals of this country and the American Dream can enjoy and sympathize with. However, the recognition that the racial discrimination of the 1950s and the 1960s is only in the near past and the acknowledgement that black women still have a gigantic hill to climb are important aspects of this story to, and more importantly, Shetterly knows this keenly and tells her readers as well.

I am sure some people will be disappointed that this is not the same story that was eloquently fictionalized in the film, but I believe that the film took the necessary creative license to dramatize the work and to embody the same message and sentiment as the book. However, if you are not the kind that enjoys nonfiction persay, but would prefer a clear-cut story, then this book is probably not for you. (Go watch the movie instead! It’s still amazing and inspiring and Shetterly was very involved in its production.)

Ultimately, I am grateful that this book exists to enrich the minds of both Americans and international readers- the achievements of Dorothy Vaughn, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden are a reminder of what is possible in America, despite someone’s gender or despite someone’s skin tone, as well as a reminder of how far we still need to go as an American society. The bits about how black men fared at Langely Institute are also important and of the also-forgotten white, female mathematicians that worked at Langely reveal that black women were not the only “hidden figures” in this story. (Quick note: the subplots of white and black female friendships are SUBLIME). Therefore, this story is not just one about race, or about gender…it’s about the fact that only those of a certain, preferred demographic are sometimes the only ones that get noticed and how all of us could best help everyone reach their full potential, so that there are no more hidden figures.

 

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