24 Hour Library

A Library Blog by Abby Hargreaves

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Abby Reads: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Penguin Books, 2005, 832 pages
Biography

I caught the Hamilton bug last June, during which time I swore to myself again and again that I’d listen to something else for a change, just to once again, plug the Hamilton soundtrack into my ears. (The obsession gradually shifted to also include Panic! at the Disco’s Death of a Bachelor, but I still listen to Hamilton pretty heavily, discovering new layers every time — but that’s enough about my music habits.) Like pretty much the rest of the country/world, I decided I must read the original biography which inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda’s magnum opus in the first place. My friends, I was not prepared.

It took several months waiting on four or five different holds lists (hooray for living in a metropolitan area with reciprocal library systems!) before I finally got my digital hands on it in late August. I have never been so grateful to have checked out the digital version of a book, because this thing is massive. Not only is it eight-hundred-thirty-two pages, but the print is pretty small. But I’m never one to back down from a challenge. This little monster took me about three months and some days to read, slowly inching through it by commute and lunch reading. And it’s not because it was boring.

It took me a while to get on the biography train. I’m someone who likes a decent amount of dialogue because it helps switch up the sentence length and, therefore, the pace. And certainly there were genuinely slow parts of the biography during which the passage of time and details about Hamilton’s life were necessary to include, but did not feature any exceptionally exciting moments. Fortunately, Chernow is a master at detail and rich research, which brings the subject and other players to life in a way of which few biographers are capable. This level of detail also allows Chernow to logically draw conclusions and implications for events we cannot necessarily know for sure about. For example, while Hamilton’s exact intent for Burr and Hamilton’s duel are cloudy, Chernow makes a reasonable guess based on his research and what we know of Hamilton himself.

With all of the detail, it’s easy to get lost in Chernow’s depiction of Hamilton. Returning to the length of the book, readers might even expect to eventually get bored — surely there’s only so much to say about a person, right? Chernow again defies the odds with an engaging prose style that, while not quite reading like fiction, does read with an easy flow. Chernow’s intelligent, yet accessible prose makes Alexander Hamilton a win for most readers. Chernow highlights his writing with fascinating anecdotes from Hamilton’s life and heightened drama and stakes, even as he writes of the past.

For readers who enjoy the details of the influences on the subject, Chernow makes more excellent progress. His focus on Eliza (Schuyler) Hamilton is unprecedented, even as he acknowledges the first-hand information on her is limited. This makes the book not just a beautiful tribute to Alexander Hamilton, but of all his family, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and achievements.

The biography might have benefited from some illustrations, of course — although Chernow generally does an excellent job of explaining concepts, tools, and so forth of the past with which modern readers might not have familiarity, he often references paintings and other more visual media that might have increased the quality of the book had they been included. It’s reasonable, now, that we might simply use our phones to look up a given piece (I know I did), but when it was published in 2005, most readers did not have such a luxury and, to be sure, not everyone does now. Truly, I did most of my reading of this book underground in a Metro car. My cell service? Basically non-existent.

So, if you’re looking for something challenging in length this year, consider Alexander Hamilton. I think you’ll be as surprised as I was.

❤❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio

If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio
Flatiron Books, 2017, 368 pages
Literary Fiction

I received this eBook from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. If We Were Villains will be available for purchase April 11, 2017.

Beginning in 2007, Oliver Marks is greeted on his last days of imprisonment by the detective who put him there in M. L. Rio’s debut novel, If We Were Villains. Soaked in Shakespeare, Villains tells two stories: Oliver’s release from prison and his following conversation with Detective Colborne and the conversation itself: a retelling of what, exactly, happened at the Dellecher Classical Conservatory in 1997. One of seven remaining fourth-years at the elite school in the theatre department, Oliver is, compared to his six friends, decidedly ordinary. There’s Richard, who can nearly be described as a high school jock stereotype (though, not, as he is somewhat more complex and is a twenty-two-year-old theatre student), always cast as some king or equivalent; Meredith, his on-and-off girlfriend who is consistently cast as the temptress; Alexander, the moody and intense — too intense for his own self as he self-medicates with various substances — naturally and often cast as a villain; Filippa, nearly as much a bystander as Oliver, somewhat androgynous and cast just the same; James, a source of comfort for Oliver who is regularly cast as some hero or other; and Oliver himself, James’s sidekick both on- and off-stage. With a group so tightly wound around each other to the point of near-exclusion of other students and a natural inclination toward drama and theatrics, it’s no surprise that their lives implode when one of the students dies, or is killed, or has an accident, or who-knows-what and there’s the question of whether it’s better to know or to not know.

Having followed Rio as DukeofBookingham on Tumblr for a few years, I know a little bit about how this story came to be and the author’s work on it. It’s been a strange experience, coming into this piece of literature that I feel relatively intimately connected to, compared to any other book I’ve ever read. It made me look at the book differently and, I think, more critically. Rio regularly provides writing advice to her followers, so I went in expecting the best and, really, (probably unfairly) specifically looked for flaws. There weren’t many.

Rio, a big fan of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, incorporated much of one of her favorite novels into Villains: the setting, the tormented students, the relationships that spur on problems, death, an obsession with a scholarly pursuit. What I preferred in Villains over History, however, was that the novel’s narrator wasn’t quite so periphery as in History. I love periphery narrators (perhaps one of the biggest reasons I really enjoy The Great Gatsby — while Nick is present in the lives of the people he speaks of, he doesn’t act a whole lot. In fact, his inaction probably leads to a good amount of the tragedy that occurs — but I digress). Rio, however, made an excellent choice in giving Oliver more agency as a character in this instance. She very well could have made him a simple bystander, but Oliver’s guilt in all of this is far more interesting for his action, both direct and indirect.

Oliver as a narrator is observant and detailed. Readers learn about the specific architectural history of Dellecher (which I felt at points was overkill, but did do some work to build the scene). As the seven students live in what is known as the Tower, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Gryffindor dormitories of Harry Potter fame. I don’t believe this was intentional, but it did cast a sort of magical shimmer on the events of the novel without any other sort of magical realism going on, beyond, perhaps, some delusions. But back to Oliver’s narration and Rio’s skill with description: rarely, if ever, did the language become cliché. With Shakespearean quotes strewn about the text (again, perhaps too much, though it certainly served to demonstrate the characters’ immersion), anything said outside of that context was fresh. The description of the dead character’s body, in particular, was so striking I skipped lines and came back, skipped lines, came back — unusual, for me.

Also a bit overwhelming was the sheer number of primary characters. One of the female characters (I won’t say who so as to avoid leading you to figuring out which student dies) I could have done without as her involvement throughout the novel seems relatively minimal. Despite this, nearly everyone was well-developed and their individual relationships with each other similarly so, which was especially impressive given how many there were. Colborne, as a character, leaned toward a detective stereotype, though as his role as character in the novel was small, I ignored him, mostly. Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s presence felt lacking. Although his words can be found on nearly every other page, there was something missing in his influence on the students, particularly as Oliver blames Shakespeare for “all of it.”

Rio incorporates a fair amount of twists toward the end. While each one was at least a little surprising, the overwhelm of them felt somewhat gimmicky and insincere. This, too, was how I felt about a major decision made around the death of the one character, which featured a thought process I just couldn’t buy into. The character was awful, to be sure, but that awful? I wasn’t convinced. Additionally, the remaining character’s decision seemed moot: the time it would have required to act was not equal to the time in which things wrapped up (and, apologies for the vagueness here, but I don’t want to spoil it!). It’s a grand idea, just perhaps not executed well and, certainly, not easy to execute.

Rio’s first novel is clearly well-plotted, well-constructed, and well-written, if a little insincere at parts. I always felt a bit aware that I was reading fiction, as if Rio held back somewhat — perhaps due to her background in theatre in some way or other, but I won’t speculate too much on why, because I don’t know that it matters. Villains is a good next-pick for fans of The Secret History or Paper Covers Rock. Ultimately, I hard a hard time putting it down. With great attention to detail, Rio has a good amount of success with Villains and I’m looking forward to whatever comes from her next.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #2, “Read a debut novel,” and I leave it behind with four-and-a-half hearts.

❤❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard

Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard
Ember, 2012, 192 pages
YA Fiction

In Jenny Hubbard’s Paper Covers Rock, Alex returns to his private boarding school only to watch his close friend drunkenly dive off a rock in the woods and die. Convinced that revealing the truth of the alcohol use would expose him to the potential of being expelled, Alex keeps this secret along with others as the administration works out the details of the tragedy. Glenn doesn’t help, either, as he uses Alex to get close to a teacher they believe might have seen what actually happened. In a school full of boys, terrified by the sexuality of themselves and others, Alex and Glenn commit themselves to a series of self-serving acts while dealing with their own grief and conflict.

Remember how I said I love stories about privileged white boys in boarding schools doing awful things? Boy, does this book cover it. Not only is the writing style striking, moving, heavily characterizing, and thought-provoking, but the subtle movement of the plot makes this book a great piece of young adult literary fiction — a rare find, in my experience. In many ways, if you wished there was a watered down version of The Secret History, I’d be wholly tempted to hand you this novel. Set in the eighties (I suspect, largely, to avoid the problem of having a cell phone that could solve 99% of the problems in the book — such is a writer’s life), the novel takes hints from the great ones before it and even includes the text in some of those, including Moby Dick. The novel is absolutely ripe with opportunities for literary analysis (hint, hint, high school students) and a gorgeous reminder of the importance of literature around us.

So, yeah, maybe it’s a bit narcissistic, but I’d argue the same is true of Dead Poets Society and who doesn’t love a good self-pat on the back? It’s probably safe to assume many or most people reading a book appreciate content about books and literature, anyway. Being extra familiar with the materials referred to in the book (especially Emily Dickinson and the aforementioned Moby Dick) will significantly enhance the reading experience when it comes to Paper Covers Rock. Many of the scenes take place in Alex’s English class, taught by the recent Yale graduate, Ms. Dovecott, on whom Alex has a major crush. In one scene, you get to play along with the class as Ms. Dovecott pulls an explication of a Dickinson poem from the class.

Alex’s universe feels rather small in the novel. Even within the school, only a few select characters have a presence large enough to indicate that Alex is not alone. Although he’s in school, other students play relatively small parts in his story and the world outside the school is all but non-existent. This, perhaps, is an accurate portrayal of a teenage boys’ world — or, at least, Alex’s world, especially as Alex is so introverted and introspective — but I think a little farther reach could have done a lot for Paper Covers Rock.

One of the most interesting things about this novel is its discussion of homosexuality, especially as homosexuality in the 1980s. I’m hesitant to say much more in the spirit of avoiding spoilers, but, even as most of its presence throughout the book is subtle, the concept within Alex’s world makes for an especially interesting read and look at human (and, more specifically, teenage boy) nature.

I really can’t say enough good things about Hubbard’s writing style. She pulls off a lot of bold strategies and it works to serve the book and its main character. It is, largely, her writing that makes me eager to read her other work. Alex’s characterization comes so much from his first-person narrative that I want to see how she approaches other characters. There are authors out there who have an incredibly distinct voice for a character and it works phenomenally — until you discover that’s their one trick and that voice appears again and again in the rest of their work. Though I can’t say for certain, I have a feeling that’s not the case for Hubbard. This is mainly because even in their speaking voices, other characters in the book are distinct.

Hubbard bring together all the best elements of one of my favorite genres — angst, some peripheral character narration, an unreliable narrator, wealth, philosophy, and literature. There are so many little things that you can pull out of this book and look at in a million different lights. It’s a cerebral experience, but a relaxing and enjoyable one — definitely a book not to be missed.

❤❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Modern Library, 2000/1891, 451 pages
Classic Literature

In an effort to read more classics this year, I picked up Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. It is, perhaps, one of the less well-known classic titles, not on par in popularity with the likes of Pride and Prejudice or Oliver Twist, for example. I’m surprised, however, by its relative lack of fame. Even by modern standards, Tess of the D’Urbervilles makes hearty and fascinating commentary on sexism, image1 (6)double standards, religion, and classism.

After her father drinks himself to a stupor at the news that he may be the descendant of a rich and noble family (the D’Urbervilles), Tess Durbeyfield takes on the responsibility of delivering goods to a town with the family’s horse and her brother. The horse is fatally injured on the journey and, despite her earlier protests, Tess agrees to visit their wealthy, alleged relatives in hopes of securing a husband, some money, or both. She meets her cousin, the roguish Alec D’Urberville, who aggressively attempts to seduce her and ultimately sexually assaults her (although there’s debate on this point, as Tess’s actual consent is unclear). Given that this is Nineteenth Century England, Tess is up a creek when she finds she’s pregnant. In the time following the death of her infant, Tess re-meets the romantic Angel Clare, but soon discovers despite Angel’s carefree way of life, Angel is no angel and expects more of Tess than he does of himself.

The summary I just gave you doesn’t even begin to cover all of the social intricacies that occur in this book. At the risk of spoiling it, I’ll be blunt: After going back and forth for months about whether or not to tell Angel about her “impure” state, the two get married. Angel then reveals he’d engaged in premarital sex. Believing she’s now safe in her own confession — because how could Angel believe his sexual history was okay but maintain Tess’s was not, especially as it was seemingly forced upon her — Tess explains her experience with Alec. Angel is not pleased, to say the least. He abandons her for Brazil.

I could go on, as there are certainly more woes to Tess’s story, but I won’t. The point is, this book dares to address THE double standard. For modern literature, this isn’t as big a deal. I haven’t gone into the scholarly literature on TESS yet, but I can only imagine the kind of stuff you’d find in there. While Angel expects “purity” from Tess without believing reciprocation is appropriate, Alec expects forgiveness for the state in which he left Tess. Ultimately, realizing the money will do her good after further series of misfortunes, Tess relents and marries Alec to help ease the burden. Just in time for Angel to return. But Tess still gets the short end of the stick in everything. I’ll let the book show you how rather than explain myself, but, man, it’s a cruel, cruel world.

Commentary on class comes in especially with Alec, who, plenty well-off, is able to run about the countrysides and make poor decisions without real consequences. Tess, however, constantly seems to bear the brunt of consequences from the mistakes of others, such as her father’s drunkenness. Though the horse still might have been killed, driven by a sober Durbeyfield, the fact of the matter was, it wasn’t. And due to the lack of funds available for Tess and her family, she’s forced to go to the D’Urbervilles and her troubles follow from there. Many of her problems are compounded by a lack of money, too, increasing the urgency of poverty.

With religion as a frequent career path for the characters of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, it comes up frequently. In general, Hardy discusses whether religion or a lack thereof means a presence of morality. Despite Alec’s past as an uncaring and cruel person, he enters into a religious profession, just to drop it in favor of Tess herself. He remains a terrible person, though perhaps not as bad as readers are made to believe in the beginning, particularly depending on how you define Tess’s vague experience with him.

Like other classics, Hardy writes with complex and beautiful language. There’s a focus on the bucolic. As a dairymaid, Tess has great occasion to be outside and Hardy takes advantage of her situation to describe the rolling English countryside along with Tess’s own natural and unique beauty. It’s a book to be read slowly and digested. Though perhaps slow in action at times, the sheer aesthetics of the novel make it worth trudging through.

A faster turn of events toward the end of the novel make keeping up a bit challenging, especially when the reader is so used to a slower pace. Originally published serially, I imagine there are a number of reasons why this happened the way it did, but it doesn’t detract severely from the book as a whole. I wouldn’t recommend tackling Tess if you don’t plan on trying to stick it out. It’s a rewarding book if you can make it through, but you won’t get anything out of it otherwise. It’s not a book for everyone (and that’s okay!) but if you’re into classics and literature of the denser-but-still-commercial variety, I’d give this one a shot.

❤❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic Press, 2012, 408 pages
YA Fantasy

Blue Sargent grew up around psychics and, for a while, it seemed like nothing could shock her. But then she gets involved with the Aglionby Boys — the boys with the ravens on their school badges and a mission involving a dead king and mysterious lines of energy that get stronger when Blue nears them. With a prophecy hanging over her head, Blue can’t stay away from the adventure of it all, even while she watches the self-destructive behavior of her new friends — Gansey, Noah, Ronan, and Adam.

I purposely waited getting started on The Raven Boys series because I already knew I liked Stiefvater’s work and figured I’d enjoy this series as well. I’m glad I waited because September (when the last DSC_0221book comes out) doesn’t seem nearly as bad a wait as it could have been! Stiefvater does an incredible job in manipulating the reader’s perspective in order to produce well-rounded characters. I really admire her ability to make the most of the setting and objects relative to characters to build the story and its inhabitants in subtle ways. Her language is rarely ever overbearing or too little, but works as a constant hum as you read. Stiefvater’s abilities have only grown since her earlier books (I read and enjoyed both Lament and Shiver years ago), and it’s exciting to see how she improves even when you think it can’t get any better.

The beauty of Stiefvater’s writing style does have a consequence — almost (almost!) to the point of overstimulation, the writing sometimes obscures the plot. While this can help contribute to the mystery of things in some cases, in other instances (when the mysteries are being unveiled, for example) it doesn’t work as well and having to reread passages to get through the sensory mire (and what a beautiful mire it is!) makes the book slow-going. It’s an enjoyable process nonetheless, but requires a bit more attention from the reader than most other YA novels I’ve read. I still have some questions about The Raven Boys but opted not to read and reread and reread until I understood because (a) I’m a busy individual and can only reread a sentence so many times and (b) it was entirely possible the reality of the story was meant to be obscured and not truly revealed until a later book. Either way, I figured things would clear up with future books regardless of when the actual reveal was, just based on context. If not then, there’s always the internet!

As I mentioned, Stiefvater’s characters and phenomenally sculpted with very well-placed and thought-out details which you don’t even realize are teaching you about the characters until much later on. Surprisingly, I found Blue, at times, to be less-developed than the surrounding characters. I think, however, that is a result of Blue being a character who doesn’t really know who she is yet rather than a manifestation of poor writing or planning. I guess we’ll see with the next book (which I’ve started after reading the next two reviews-to-come: Finnikin of the Rock and Froi of the Exiles).

❤❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

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