Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty (Leerhsen)

Every once in a while, I like to read a baseball biography, and  the prospect of this one intrigued me since I knew very little about Cobb aside from his reputation. And it is just this reputation that Leerhsen wants to address. His thesis is that Cobb’s reputation for violence is not deserved, and he couches this in the era he played. People were still learning what it meant to be a star, the role of baseball in the national consciousness was evolving, the relationship between players and fans was still being determined, Cobb’s mother murdered his father, and so on. Nevertheless, Cobb’s violence, regardless of time, place and circumstance, was just intense and often criminal. There can be no doubt about Cobb’s talent and innovation, and the move from Cobb-as-hero to Ruth-as-hero was kind of cool to consider, but Cobb’s sustained longevity was a product of the privilege of being a superstar. Granted, there were times that he used this for the benefit of others. He anticipated the protests of Curt Flood by pushing against the notion that players were property. Still, he was only able to get away with this because of his stardom.

Leerhsen writes like a fan, which is mostly fine. And, in an effort to be definitive (because he only has one shot at it and so rejects other efforts of other biographers – think Robert Wuhl in the movie), he writes a lot. Maybe we needed a few less game descriptions, but perhaps the book is like a baseball season. You can’t stay at the same level of intensity for the whole season. I definitely drifted through some sections.


Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel (Shapira)

When our daughter asked me who Ben-Gurion was, I showed her the subtitle of the book and she said, “Wow. That couldn’t have been an easy job.” And she is right. Based on Shapira’s well-focused biography, Ben-Gurion not only faced remarkable challenges in terms of establishing the state of Israel, but also in terms of developing as a leader. Though I don’t agree with Shapira’s rather abrupt contention that Jewish people have some sort of unique inclination to “schism,” dealing with internal factions – a warning George Washington offered the U.S. that we’ve failed to heed – seems to have taken up a great deal of his time. And he did not appear to have been blessed with tremendous interpersonal skills. This could be why his best work was accomplished during a time of crisis. He was unafraid of controversy and contributed to the establishment of the country in such a wide variety of ways. As long as I’ve introduced the comparison to the founding of the United States, I’ll say that he brought Benjamin Franklin to mind, at least with respect to his number and range of contributions.

As I mentioned, I was almost always pleased with how well-focused the biography was. I sensed innumerable times when Shapira could have been tempted to digress for many, many pages. Still, her paragraph, yes paragraph, on how easily Ben-Gurion abandoned his principles when it came to the treatment of Arabs seemed too casual for a topic that has had such long-lasting implications.

This book is part of the Jewish Lives series. I am not sure who should be next – Levi, Brandeis, Marx. Groucho Marx, that is.

Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer (Smith)

I’ve been fascinated by this guy ever since I saw an exhibit about him at the Maryland Science Center. He seemed the perfect model for the adventurer who finds Victor Frankenstein on the ice and hears his story.

Still, there has to be more than that. His exploits on the ice, in terms of improvisation, are legendary. His preparation, his domestic life – not so much. Does he have the whiff of a tragic hero about him, similar to Alexander Hamilton?

Smith writes well by limiting the technical jargon and the digressions and writing a kind of adventure story himself. So much is easy to see in hindsight. I also appreciated how Smith was careful to identify where knowledge stopped and speculation began, especially as it relates to Shackleton’s finances, a mysterious letter, and his relationship with women.

Maybe Shackleton’s charisma just works on me the way Smith reports on so many people who maybe should have known better. I think Smith’s account is balanced and in the end that he applauds him, for all of his many flaws. I guess, in this age where we’re bloodthirsty to take down anyone and everyone for any flaw real or perceived, I want to applaud both Smith and Shackleton.

Woody Guthrie: A Life (Klein)

I started this to get myself in the mood to teach Steinbeck, but I think I got more than I bargained for. This biography is just too long, especially when Klein quotes (at length) some of Guthrie’s more sexual letters. I also think he does Guthrie a disservice by waiting until the end to retroactively label some of Guthrie’s behavior as symptoms of the disease that would kill him (and had killed his mother).

It was interesting to read how Guthrie pretty much invented himself and made his way around the country, learning both by observing and by reading. The relationship between his family and fire was just heartbreaking. As always, I loved when Klein described intersections Guthrie had with other names I knew (musical and otherwise, like Steinbeck) as well as historical events.

I don’t know if it’s the best Guthrie biography out there, but it’s certainly the only one I’m going to read. And yes, I now have Guthrie in the regular Spotify rotation in my car.

Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (D’Emilio)

I knew very little about Rustin going into this biography other than a decision had been made to not have him as the face of the March on Washington because he was gay. But there was so much more for me to learn. It was really interesting to discover the evolution of Rustin’s thinking, from his early days as a pacifist to his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement to his recognition of what I think we’d call intersectionality today – the recognition that racial justice and economic justice (for example) are linked. Near the end of his life, he even became involved in the gay rights movement.

Though D’Emilio is clear that some of Rustin’s behavior was reckless, it was also enlightening to see how others (and by others, I mean the likes of Martin Luther King and A. Philip Randolph) reacted to his homosexuality and to his evolving thoughts, interests and passions. King, Randolph and Roy Wilkins do not always come off well here; they do come off as human, which is good.

This is a good, informative book – well-researched (without being overt about it) and illuminating. It just lacked a kind of narrative drive. Rustin was at the center of some tense and exciting moments of history, and D’Emilio is never really able to get the reader to feel the urgency of those times.

I’m glad I read it. I knew, as I said, very little about Rustin (perhaps that’s what D’Emilio means by using ‘Lost’ in the title), and I certainly know more now. It was just a bit harder to get through than I wanted it to be.

Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (Hoban)

Look, I’m no art critic, but I’ve always been intrigued by Basquiat’s work. Can you separate the artist from the art? Would it be as intriguing to me if I didn’t know anything about the human being behind it? I think so. Those who have had discussions with fiction with me know that I tend to downplay the author’s biography when it comes to interpretation. So does it matter here? I think so. Hogan’s thesis seems to that of the divided Basquiat. Talented, but untrained. Attractive and repellent. Desperate for fame and aware that it destroys first his talent and then his life.

The book is, as the cover blurb says, “compulsively readable.” Hogan makes interesting choices with her supporting material. Instead of weaving it into the narrative, she’ll just stop and tell you the biography of a dealer or the evolution. You might think this would kill the momentum of the biography, but it doesn’t; it’s a chance to catch your breath.

We know how this turns out. Basquiat dies. He dies young, and he dies badly. Hogan never shies away from that fact; nor does she attempt to create any kind of artificial suspense or pathos. It’s a sad and predictable ending to his chaotic life which, in turn, leads to a tangled afterlife for his work and its profits.

I can’t resist one psychological observation (a natural consequence of reading a biography, I think). Basquiat’s father gets a lot of the blame here; Mom disappeared from the narrative for so long that I wondered if I’d overlooked the fact that she’d died or something. There are a few who make tentative efforts, but no emerges, no friend, no mentor, no family member, no artist, no business associate, no girlfriend who makes any serious and consistent effort to tell him that he’s screwing up his life. They are all too attracted to him and afraid of him.

Was he talented? Was he just both a victim and a beneficiary of the 80s art scene? Are we just drawn to him because he died young and left a good-looking corpse? I don’t know. I like to look at his art. It makes me think; it makes me feel. That’s enough, yeah?

Alexander Hamilton (Chernow)

Phew. I finished it with a week or so to spare before I see the show in Chicago. It’s a tremendous biography. Though I didn’t exactly feel the hip-hop songs jumping off the page the way Mr. Miranda did, he is right when he says that the founding of our country is a remarkable story. And, sad to say, with all of the justified concern about the decline of civility in the political process, well, we didn’t invent that either.

Though it checks in at over 700 pages, Chernow’s book is remarkably streamlined. I can only think of a few times when it bogged down, namely when Chernow was being meticulous about detailing Hamilton’s meticulousness.

It’s not original to say that historical figures become frozen in time. I knew some of Hamilton’s work with the Department of Treasury, but nothing of his role in the American Revolution and his connection with George Washington.

Writing about historical figures, especially ones as admired as Washington, has to be a challenge. There’s also the issue of historical context. That which we criticize now may have been viewed differently then, however wrongly we may think those views were. For the most part, Chernow handles these moments well. The few exceptions will make you grit your teeth and, I hope, continue reading. He gets more assertive as the book progresses.

Biographers have to be a kind of psychologist – explaining choices and behaviors with reference to their subject’s past. And Hamilton’s upbringing provides plenty of fuel for the fire, but such amateur psychoanalysis irks me. It’s outside of Chernow’s field. Why not just lay the cards out and let us draw our own conclusions?

I also take issue with Chernow’s treatment of Jefferson. Just as Rick Atkinson seemed intent on making Winston Churchill a buffoon in his WW2 trilogy, Chernow makes Jefferson the villain of this piece. I’m not saying Jefferson didn’t have faults. I defer to Chernow on that score. I’m equally certain that he was not the one-dimensional person Chernow presents here.

There is a fair amount of criticism here. But I really enjoyed the book. Chernow’s prose is streamlined and he tells a good story. I learned a lot, especially about Eliza Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Most importantly, I have a new appreciation for Alexander Hamilton himself and his role in the founding of our country.

Review of show (11-6-16, Chicago)

Sometimes, things don’t live up to their hype. No worries here. This is an amazing show. The music is tightly constructed and powerful. The plots, both political and personal, are rendered well. The performance made the arc of the story clearer – Hamilton’s initial timidity becomes his consuming assertiveness. Burr’s friendly mentorship gives way to his selfish opportunism. Imagine being criticized, as he was, for campaigning openly. I hadn’t realized from just listening to the soundtrack (over and over and over again) that Burr serves as a kind of narrator. That makes his role, here played by Joshua Henry, central to the success of the show, and Henry was most certainly up to the task. Miranda also deserves a high five for the roles he assigns to the women in Hamilton’s life. They are both aware of the limitations society places on them and bursting at the seams to break out of them. The last image of the play – which I won’t spoil – was inspiring.

I don’t really have the vocabulary to talk about choreography, but think back on the first time you heard that there was going to be a musical about Alexander Hamilton. As much as I wondered what the songs would be like, I also wondered about the dancing. What sort of dance goes along with the story of the American Revolution? But Andy Blankenbuehler makes it work.

The cast was exceptionally strong. Eliza Hamilton (Ari Afsar) was tightly coiled, complex and convincing. Alexander Gemignani was wonderful as King George. Chris De’Sean Lee (LaFayette / Jefferson) and Wallace Smith (Hercules Mulligan / James Madison) were absolute scene stealers. Hamilton himself (Joseph Morales) was solid, but labored under my perception of Miranda’s performance.

I want to talk about casting. When I first heard that Miranda was casting his show with entirely non-white actors, it didn’t concern me much. I wasn’t surprised when very little came of the controversy over the casting call. Put it this way. If Miranda told me that I wasn’t the right person to play me, I’d step aside. I thought, initially, that his motive was to give opportunities to those had not traditionally been offered such opportunities.

Over time, I wanted there to be more to it. Who among us has not wanted to, for example, cast Romeo and Juliet in a way that illuminates its meaning (Palestinians as Capulets; Israelis as Montagues, for example)? What the production suggests is that the casting reflects that no one, at that time, was truly an American. Everyone came from somewhere else. And the constant reminders of the circumstances and locations of Hamilton’s birth could not help – two days before the election – remind of the immigration debate today. When Jefferson, Burr and Madison out on a West Indian accent in order to insult him, I admit I winced.

But I still wonder if there’s more. In both New York and Chicago, I believe, Hamilton is played by a lighter-skinned actors and his antagonists are dark-skinned. Coincidence or deliberate? In the production I saw, the actress (Samantha Marie Ware) playing the little mentioned Schuyler sister, Peggy, also becomes Maria Reynolds, who has (spoiler alert) an affair with Hamilton. What’s Miranda up to with these contrasts?

And I wanted Miranda’s commitment to non-white casting to be reflected in the audience. No such luck, at least on the afternoon that we saw it.

The show is tremendous and important. My father’s test of a great musical is – Do you walk out humming the tunes? I most certainly did and am looking forward to the mixtape version as well — Hamilton mixtape. And I am looking forward to the opportunity to see it again. And again. And again.