The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue

thewonder2The Wonder is the story of an eleven-year-old Irish girl, Anna, living in the mid-19th century (the years just after the potato famine), whose family claims she has gone four months without eating and is still in perfect health. To verify this apparent miracle, the local community hires two nurses to watch Anna 24/7 for two weeks and be sure she really is not eating. Could God be sustaining her by supernatural means? One of the nurses is a devout nun; the other, from whose point of view the story is told, is Lib Wright, a skeptical professional nurse, trained by Florence Nightengale during the Crimean War. Lib is convinced that either Anna, or her parents, or all of them together, are perpetrating a hoax. She has no time for miracles, mythology, or religion, and embarks on her duty with relish, sure she will soon debunk Anna’s claims.

This is a delicate, beautifully written novel in which the unfolding relationship between Lib and Anna threatens all of Lib’s preconceived notions, without ever shaking her faith in science or her skepticism about the superstitious world in which she is suddenly immersed. There are no good guys or bad guys in this novel, only people trying to do their best according to their understanding of how the world works. But those different understandings are about to clash in a dramatic climax to what has been, for most of its pages, a fairly slow and quiet novel.

I really loved The Wonder, and it will take its place along with Frog Music, Slammerkin, and Room as one of my favourite of Donoghue’s novels.

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

hamiltonrevolutionAs you read down through the next few blog posts, you’ll see that a lot of my reading over the last few months has been inspired by my fascination with the musical Hamilton (I blogged about my love for the musical here, and will be seeing it live in New York in May!). Getting the “book of the musical” for my birthday was the next logical step.

Hamilton: The Revolution is a must-have for anyone who loves the musical. It contains the entire script — all the song lyrics for this sung-through musical — along with writer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s often hilarious footnotes about the writing process for each song. Between each of the songs is an essay about the process of writing, directing, casting and staging the musical, and there are lavish, full-colour photographs of the stage production throughout. It’s like everything you would ever want in the DVD extras of a movie or TV series you loved, all in a beautifully bound book that you can open and leaf through as often as you want. This is a coffee-table book that currently lives on my coffee table, and I’m loving it.

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Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow

hamiltonFans of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton (which you’ll see from this series of reviews has been a bit of an obsession of mine for the past few months) know Ron Chernow’s biography as the book that started it all — the book that Lin-Manuel Miranda read that gave him the germ of an idea which eventually turned into a hip-hop musical about the guy on the ten-dollar bill, one of the US’s Founding Fathers. Hamilton is probably best known today for dying in a duel at the hands of his political enemy, Aaron Burr. Though his life ended tragically in his late forties, Hamilton had already accomplished a lifetime’s worth of work in helping to establish the fledgling United States as a cohesive nation. Though, unlike his compatriots (some friends, some enemies) Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison, he never became President, his personal story is fascinating and it’s not hard to see how it inspired a work as creative as the musical.

Hamilton was distinguished from most of the other Founding Fathers by his humble beginnings — he was born outside what were then the 13 colonies, to an impoverished Scotsman and a Frenchwoman of dubious reputation, who were not legally married to each other. In that extremely class-conscious era a man less talented, brilliant and hardworking than Alexander Hamilton would have been doomed to a life of poverty and obscurity, but Hamilton’s life was marked by his dogged determination to outrun his origins.

Hamilton accomplished a lot and was in many ways an engaging character, but he certainly had his flaws and made some crucial mistakes, and Chernow doesn’t spare his subject in revealing these. Though the biography is biased in the sense that Chernow clearly admires Hamilton, it does attempt to give that rounded picture, showing all sides of the man and meticulously examining the primary sources for his life, that a more creative portrait like the musical, or a novel, can’t capture. If you are interested in American history and like weighty, well-researched biographies, check this one out — even if you’re not a fan of the musical. (Though, why would you not be?)

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The Hamilton Affair, by Elizabeth Cobbs

thehamiltonaffairLike a lot of people, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time with Alexander Hamilton this summer, not because I’ve been spending a lot of American $10 bills but because I’m obsessed with the soundtrack for the Broadway musical Hamilton (eight months till I see it on stage!). Along with taking a long, slow ride through the Ron Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton, I also took time out for a much quicker read: Elizabeth Cobbs’s novel about Hamilton and his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton.

Elizabeth Cobbs has had the kind of luck that writers of historical fiction can only dream of. She was researching and working on this novel already before the musical came out, and if the musical hadn’t been a huge hit, let’s be honest, this would have been one more well-done historical novel about a minor love story from centuries past, and a few thousand readers would have found it and loved it, end of story. It was sheer good fortune that as she was writing it, the musical came along and became an unexpectedly huge hit, pushing Alexander Hamilton into the forefront of pop culture awareness for a couple of years. (It was probably also some good timing on Cobbs’s part in submitting it to an agent or publisher, and her publisher’s decision on when to release and how to market it — I’m sure it’s no accident, for example, that the cover art is highly reminiscent of the Hamilton poster art). Let’s face it, if someone had produced a ginormous hit Broadway musical or movie or anything else that exploded into the public consciousness about, say, Jonathan Swift in the same year my novel The Violent Friendship of Esther Johnson came out, I’d probably be living a very different, or at least much cushier, life right now. As a writer, you can’t plan for these things, but you can be very, very grateful if they happen, and I’m sure Elizabeth Cobbs is.

Devotees of the musical will find a very similar story in the pages of the novel, with some differences — of course in adapting history to fiction some corners always have to be cut, but as a novelist Cobbs is able to stick more closely to historical accuracy than Miranda is in the musical. She chooses to tell the story alternating between Elizabeth’s and Hamilton’s points of view, which helps to flesh out Eliza’s side of the story. However, I was disappointed at the end that the years of Eliza’s widowhood (which lasted much longer than her marriage — she lived to be ninety-seven) are here compressed into a single epilogue-like chapter, just as in the musical they’re compressed into her final song. I realize the focus on the novel is on the Hamiltons’ marriage, but as we were getting the story from Eliza’s point of view I’d like to have seen more than a glimpse of what she did for the fifty years after her famous husband stupidly got himself shot.

The writing here is straightforward with no fancy literary flourishes but a clear focus on telling the tale. I think anyone who likes historical fiction and is intrigued by Hamilton’s story would probably enjoy Cobbs’s re-telling of history.

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America’s First Daughter, by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

firstdaughterYet another book I picked up because of my Hamilton-inspired fascination with US history, this novel tells the story of Thomas Jefferson’s daughter Martha (usually known as “Patsy” for some reason) from her own point of view. Her famous father emerges as a great but flawed man, deeply loved and tirelessly served by his daughter (and indeed most of his family) but certainly not without his weaknesses.

If you think corruption and scandal in American politics are something new they invented for the 2016 election, you definitely should read some history. The scandals surrounding Jefferson’s extended family alone are enough to fill a book, and they do fill this one, while fleshing out the portrait of Martha as a woman of her time, who lives through incredible events and tries to carve out a life for herself and her family in the midst of those events. I found this an interesting and informative read.

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Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen

borntorunRock ‘n’ roll memoirs are not generally my speed, but if it’s Springsteen, I have to make an exception, because I love the man and his music. This is a very obviously not ghostwritten memoir which sounds like it was written by a rock poet who has beautiful turns of phrase but also overwrites a bit — there are lots of rambling sentences, multi-hyphenated passages of description, and long-winded philosophizing. But there’s also plenty of insight here into Springsteen’s early life, his roots in the music business and how he and the E Street Band got famous, his struggles with mental illness, and much, much more. I can’t imagine anyone who’s not a Springsteen fan really loving this book, but if you are a fan, you shouldn’t miss it. You’ll definitely come away with a deeper insight into the man and his music.

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When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi

breathbecomesairI’ve seen this book referenced by a lot of people and was glad to finally have a chance to pick it up. It’s a short but powerful read, published posthumously, so you know going in there’s going to be no happy ending.

Paul Kalanithi was an extremely successful young doctor, finishing a residency in neurosurgery and looking forward to a brilliant career, when he got the news that he had cancer. His career, his marriage, and most importantly his whole view of who he is and what his life is about are shaken by the news. Well, they would be for anyone, wouldn’t they? Getting cancer in your mid-thirties is disruptive to any life. But if you’ve based your whole life around training for a career that takes years and years of exhausting preparation, and you’re just at the cusp of finishing that preparation and ready to reap the rewards when you’re diagnosed — then that’s going to lead to some deep soul-searching.

That’s what Kalanathi does in this book, and it helps that he considered a career as a writer and studied English literature before specializing in neurosurgery, because he tells his story well. An afterword by his wife brings the story up to and beyond his death. It may be trite to say that reading someone’s cancer memoir delivers the message that you should live every day to the fullest, but this one does a good job of making that potentially tired message come alive.

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