Alexander Hamilton


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Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton is the basis for the highly acclaimed Broadway hip-hop musical “Hamilton”. Before this musical I thought Hamilton was the most underrated Founding Father of the United States and felt that a hip-hop version of his life would not do him justice.  I turned down tickets for the show when it was in preview. I have not seen the show to take its measure, but it did revive Hamilton in the minds of America; encourage knowledge of history that is lacking among young people; and retained A.H. on U.S. currency. I found it reprehensible that our political correctness would remove the founder of the U.S. Treasury as the face of the $10 bill. Hamilton’s contributions were immense: co-author of The Federalist Papers; First Secretary of the Treasury; establishment of coinage in the U.S.; developer of the U.S.’ first tax and budget systems; creator of a National Bank that permitted borrowing; originator of the Customs Service and the Coast Guard; and interpreter of the Constitution’s “implied powers” that was reinforced by Supreme Court Justice Marshall and  subsequently used by President Jefferson to support the Louisiana Purchase, even he opposed Hamilton’s interpretation before becoming President. He was also the first true immigrant Founding Father, and one from the lower class (and viewed as a bastard).

Like many biographies, this one does put a gloss on the subject. Nonetheless, Chernow does address Hamilton’s jingoistic executive approach to power, which I had not realized about him. I also held Washington in higher regard after reading this biography. Washingotn was never considered a great general, nor the intellectual equivalent of his peers. His skill his ability to read people and situations extremely well and balance the partisans that surrounded him. His first administration appears to be the Hamilton Administration as he supported what Hamilton devised, while holding him in check. In this regard modern Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Reagan seem to be comparable but lesser equivalents.

The highly partisan and abusive nature of politics at that time make our current depraved situation seem tame. The Louisiana Purchase as a political ploy of Jefferson to increase the power of the slave holding South prompts New England States (Federalists) to consider seceding. It is not the civics lesson you learned about the Louisiana Purchase`. While slavery was clearly an issue at the Constitutional Convention, how emotionally charged it was early in our history was surprising to me, considering abolitionists (of which Hamilton was one) were not strong in the “North”.

The reason why Hamilton decided to duel Burr is peculiar and remains a mystery. By even current standards it would hardly constitute slander and could easily have been remedied. Hamilton and Burr careers had waned and neither was in good financial condition (Burr was insolvent). Even considering pride, the decision is inexplicable to me, as Hamilton was one of New York’s best lawyers.

Burr was a capable lawyer and his statesmanship was evident in the politically motivated impeachment trial of Justice Chase. Burr effectively saved the independence of the Federal Judiciary to the disappointment of President Jefferson. Most interesting, Burr as Vice President presided over the trial in the Senate at a time that we was indicted and wanted for murder in NY and NJ for the killing of Hamilton in the duel.

This book is over 700 pages, so it cannot be digested in one read. It is a mixture of primary and secondary sources and encourages reading of other Founding Father biographies to compare different interpretations.

Reading this highly regarded biography is certainly worth your time.

The Maestro, the Magistrate & the Mathematician


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Music and food are transporting to the diaspora community.”The Maestro, the Magistrate & the Mathematician” are emigres to Scotland from Zimbabwe. The authoritarian rule of President Mugabe is a contributing factor, though none sought amnesty. The novel is overtly more social than political, particularly as succession in Zimbabwe is again in the news.

Sungura is the music that reminds the Magistrate of his upper middle class life in , Zimbabwe, now that he is working as a health aide in Edinburgh. At the country club in Zimbabwe that background Sungura music “wasn’t his style, rather something in the background of the culture that could not be avoided, but after a while this peasant music with its whiny guitars and hard drums had grown on him.” The societal differences and change in economic class require adjustment.

”  ‘Aika, Alfonso, you are here.’ Her familiar tone bothered the Magistrate. Back home he would have been Babamudiki or VaPfukuto at the very least. This western business of calling people by their first names riled him. He reasoned it was the consequence of an individualistic culture, as though everyone had simply sprung up from nowhere. Some utopian ideal of equality- calling Her Majesty, Liz! The Shona way, the right way, stressed the nature of the relationship. The individual was the product of a community and had to be placed in relation to the next man. It was the glue that held them together, giving each value.”

The diaspora is a great equalizer. Alfonso, a servant in Zimbabwe,  is a hustler and huckster. He worked for the upper class family of the Mathematician in Zimbabwe and is under suspicion about their downfall and economic losses there. In Edinburgh, the Magistrate has to come to Alfonso for a job as a health aide, which because of need he accepts. The Mathematician is a PhD candidate in political economics and continues to live a relatively privileged life in Edinburgh, with an undercurrent of conflict with some members of the Zimbabwe community.

The Maestro is a man with an unknown past who works as a stock clerk at Tesco. He is killed by love of literature. “What are books if not vessels containing minds? Conscious thoughts comes in words, and, if a book contains an idea, then it contains something of a writer’s soul. The Maestro saw that, for all his time in the flat, he’d not once been alone. He had been at the centre, playing the moderator for conversations between a thousand other minds. At the fore were those who had written the works he’d read, but, in the shadows, lay other thinkers, other minds that had influenced them. A slew of minds linked through time and space had resided in the flat with him, challenging one another, contesting, arguing, seeking a higher truth. But, these minds had not done it alone. It happened through him, with him, in him.” He divorces himself from the world, becomes homeless, and indirectly as a reader, dies for someone else’s art.

Mr. Huchu in 2014 was shortlisted for the 2014 Caine Prize for African Writing. Ohio University Press selected this novel as one, from a number of African writers, in part because it is commentary about Zimbabwe and Western society. The novel has a surprising twist at the end.

“Sungura was the music of the time, focusing mainly on social issues in an age of hardship and despair. Macheso and his band Orchestra Mberikwazvo were a soothing balm to their fellow Zimbabweans, for who but a man who grew up on a farm, a man with little education, could speak in their voice, to their experience? And he could use his lyrical mastery, this gift of poetry, in Shona, Chichewa, Sena, Vena, and Lingala, the languages of the working-class poor.”

This novel entertains while imparting knowledge about Zimbabweans. A sample of Sungura can be heard at:

Macheso is currently being criticized for his support of Mugabe.



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Pat Barker’s Noonday is the final novel in her WWII trilogy. I previously read and reviewed Ghost Road, her Booker winning novel that was the final novel of her so-called Regeneration WWI trilogy. In both cases it is unnecessary to read the prior books in order to follow the plot. Pat Barker’s strength is character development: minor characters are not ignored in passing. In addition, her works capture the war genre from perspectives other than the battlefield. In Ghost Road it is the hospital in England where soldiers removed from the battlefield were treated. Their was also a cultural anthropology back-story in Oceania as part of one of the physician’s flashback. It was this element that made the novel distinctive. Noonday also has a subplot, but for me it was an unnecessary distraction. The novel’s venue is London during the Blitz and one of the characters is either a medium, a fraud, or a schizophrenic. The minor subplot is plausible, but in my view a more detailed examination of London during the Blitz is warranted instead. It is not that Ms. Barker does not cover the territory, but it seems superficial. The focus is upon the personal relationships of the main characters; doubtlessly a carry-over from the prior novels in the trilogy. In some respects it borders on a commercial romance novel, although I am overstating this. Catastrophes challenge marital relationships and this was certainly the case in WWII and other wars.The principal characters work as ambulance drivers and rescue wardens finding people injured or dead in bombed buildings. Ms. Barker covers the territory, and yet I didn’t feel the tension and fear in her writing. In defense, life goes on even in the worst of circumstances and there is the so-called British stiff-upper lip that might justify not overstating the tragedy that Londoners endured.

The book is a fast read and will likely entertain. It is just considerably below the standard she set in Ghost Road.

The Noise of Time


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“Lenin found music depressing. Stalin thought he understood and appreciated music. Khrushchev despised music. Which is the worst for a composer?”

Julian Barnes’ does not answer this question in his biographical fiction “The Noise of Time”, which examines Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich’s life and travails in the Soviet Union. Shostakovich is a facility for Barnes to question whether Art will ultimately conquer Power; the latter presumably being more fleeting despite its repetitiveness.

“What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves- the music of our being- which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history.”

You can consider four personality types: believer; collaborator; critic; and martyr. Barnes’, or at least Shostakovich as interpreted by Barnes, viewed liberal critics of the Soviet Union, who criticized outside the reach of an authoritarian regime, to be no different from the autocrats who required propaganda from their artists. Shostakovich loved Stravinsky for his music, but thought no more of him and Nabokov for their criticism than he did of Stalin. Shostakovich, did not believe in the Soviet system, but did not martyr himself. According to Barnes’ his cowardice, protection of family, materialism, or wish to be left alone to be a musician, made him a collaborator.

This is not a particularly well written novel. It is principally based on Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. There is no real discussion or analysis of Shostakovich’s music.  It could be read as non-fiction, except some of its rare dialogue seems unrealistic. Shostakovich who fears the Stalin has ordered his death purportedly receives a call from Stalin requesting that he attend the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace in New York. The dialogue has Shostakovich giving Stalin one excuse after another why he cannot attend: he is sick; he can’t fly; he does not have a tail-suit; that his music is not being played in the Soviet Union. It reads like a conversation between a teacher and a young student who has forgotten his homework. Worse, there is very little imagined dialogue in the novel. It is a narration as if it were non-fiction.

“The Testament of Mary” which I reviewed, imagined the cruxification of Christ from the vantage point of his mother, Mary. Colm Toibin’s biographical fiction, demonstrates imagination, not recounting of a secondary source work of non-fiction. As a character, Barnes’ did not create in my mind the fear of death that Shostakovich would have had waiting outside his apartment in anticipation of being taken away, tortured and killed.

I can’t subscribe to Art being immune from subjectivity and control outside of political power. There may be universality in creation for the sake of creation (without recognition), but that is individualistic and will not aggregate to be a “whisper of history”.

Julian Barnes has written better, and will write better than “The Noise of Time”.



Dermot Healy The Collected Short Stories


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Dermot Healy was well-regarded by other Irish writers. I am not Irish.

The collection i read selections from included his 1982 published collection “Banished Misfortune and Other Stories.” The Editors’ Forward was helpful in understanding some of the stories I read.

“First Snow of the Year” is a story about a jilted boyfriend who confronts the new love interest. There are two versions of this story, the original version being written in 1973. It won a Hennessy Literary award adjudicated by Edna O’Brien and V.S. Pritchett. The two versions are different structurally and substantively. The prose in the earlier version was cleaner than the later version. The latter is not experimental as “The Island and the Calves” which is dense and difficult to read and comprehend. After this story I decided to read only selective stories.

The stories are descriptive of rural Ireland and its locals. I was underwhelmed by what I read, the highlight being able to compare different versions of the same story. I wish readers had more opportunities to do so as it is a window into the writer’s craft during stages of the author’s career. It would be instructive to writers. The same would be true by seeing drafts to evaluate contributions by editors.









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This is a sensual gem. It is as relaxing as a good massage or warm bath or towel. A novella that if pages were compressed would be no longer than a short story. Composed like a fairy tale or fable, it has a chorus that repeats  a courier’s itinerary from France to Japan in the late 1800s. Due to disease affecting the silkworm eggs in France, resort to Japanese eggs was necessary even thought Japan had not opened its borders to foreigners.

Hervé Joncour is the courier for the commercially brilliant Baldabiou who employs Joncour on behalf of the silk industry that Baldabiou created in the environs of Lavilledieu, France and who with Joncour rescues that industry. Silk is a visual and tactile feeling.

This is a tale of love, passion and intrigue. It is an adult tale that surprises. The simplicity of the writing promotes the story and beautifully depicts a certain area of Japan during that period. Read the novella to the end even though three-quarters through some of the writing seems to be inconsistent and ill-placed with the rest of the novella. The story is as rewarding as it is intoxicating.

“Silk” was a best seller in Italy and has been translated into sixteen languages. Guido Waldman is the translator of the English version that I read. Alessandro Baricco’s earlier novels, in English “Lands of Glass” and “Ocean Sea”, won French and Italian literary awards. I am encouraged to read them because of this novella.

This would be a nice beach read.


Maps for Lost Lovers


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In May, 2015 I very favorably reviewed Nadeem Aslam’s “The Biind Man’s Garden. Nadeem Aslam is to Pakistan, what Jhumpa Lahiri is to India. At some point in his career I would not be surprised if he is awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature.

“Maps for Lost Lovers” is one of Mr. Aslam’s earlier novels. The venues are England and Pakistan. The heart of the story is an “honor killing”. Mr Aslam adroitly tackles Muslim  fundamentalism in this novel. Unlike in “The Blind Man’s Garden” this is not radical Islam. It is the societal and cultural restraints that orthodoxy imposes on families particularly when juxtaposed with alternatives in a secular country. Such honest and fervent belief is not unique to Islam. It is not without consequences.

Through characters Mr. Aslam presents alternative viewpoints. On the whole his writing does not invite a fatwa because criticism is balanced by praise. Shamas and Kaukab are the product of an arranged marriage. Shamas has a Hindu family lineage, but is Muslim. He masks his secularism in deference to Kaukab who is a very devout Muslim. Shamas is book educated. Kaukab has a limited education outside of the Koran. They live in a lower middle class immigrant Pakistani neighborhood in England. England is satanic to her. Kaukab’s orthodoxy has a disintegrative effect on her three children who migrate toward English white women and men in their relationships. The “honor killing” however, is to avenge cohabitation before marriage between two Muslims, one her son. Marriage is bondage to Muslim women. Husbands and their families dictate terms, and a wife’s failure brings disgrace on her family that impacts the future of younger daughters.

It’s as though Allah forgot there were women in the world when he made some of his laws, thinking only of men – but she has banished these thoughts as all good Muslims must.”

“.. she remember her mother stopping in her tracks and sharply telling her father not to play too enthusiastically with his little daughter lest he cause ‘irreparable physical damage to her private areas,’ having warned him many times before that ‘If a flower loses a petal it does not grow back!'”

“… the word sala – “brother-in-law- was a term of abuse all over the Subcontinent: to call someone sala was to say, ‘I fuck your sister and you can’t do anything about it,’ ‘You can’t stop me from trying my manhood on one of your women!’ What would be more humiliating to men who been brought up to defend their women’s honour above all else? A man’s brother-in-law was a swear word made flesh, and frustratingly , he had to accept it.”

The plot of this novel is like a murder mystery. The prose however is highly crafted and denser as Mr. Aslam imparts knowledge across a wide range of subjects. The author writes like a naturalist, with keen attention to flora, butterflies and moths, and birds. The writing is both metaphorical and relational, and is imbued with religion, culture, culinary arts, and history.

“The harsinghar tree in the courtyard, which dropped its funereal white flowers at dawn, had more flowers than usual under it during those mornings, as though the branches had been disturbed during the night. Shamas was no believer, but imagination insists that all aspects of life be at its disposal, the language of thought richer for its appropriation of concepts such as the afterlife. And so as he looked at the carpet of blossoms he couldn’t help entertaining the thought that during the night Izraeel, the Muslim angel of death, had wrestled in the branches above with the Hindu god of death for our father’s soul. Shamas looked up and imagined the branches twisting around the two supernatural beings, the flowers detaching from twigs and forming a thick layer on the ground.”

“He edges away from a small Japanese knotwood tree of whose pale cream flowers-looking as though dusted with custard powder- he had tried to discover the smell of a few years ago, and found himself taking in a lungful of decay, suppuration, the shock throwing him back on his heels where he had reached up with his neck stretched like that of a hanged man’s. Perfumes come from plants; its animals who produce disagreeable odours, humans included. Musk, honey, milk- these are as much an exception in the animal world as those tropical plants said to produce blossoms smelling of festering flesh or this Japanese knotwood around whose shimmering flowers he had capped both hands that day, the way a young man kisses his first girl. He’ll never now kiss her mouth again while his penis is engorged and sticky at the tip like a bull’s muzzle, or lie with her head on his chest while from somewhere nearby comes the summer noise of a bee that’s got stuck inside a snapdragon flower, a panicked wing-thrash, as it tries to back out. According to her, what she did with him was a “sin,” and she, according to her, will have to bear the “stigma” of that sin “till Judgment Day and after.” She’ll view the pregnancy as the beginning of her punishment.”

” ‘Do you know why paisley is so linked with Kashmir? No? Imagine two lovers quarreling in that region. Her footsteps formed paisleys when she hurried away from him in distress. He searched for her forlornly in the forest glades where luminous orchids arose from the ‘- it is too late for him to stop- ‘spilled semen of mating animals and birds, where the urge for existence forced creepers and vines towards faraway chinks of sunlight, where branches quivered with living songs and at sunset the sky turned red as though the departing sun had heaped rubies on the day’s shroud. And it was the paisleys imprinted amid the low flowers that eventually led him to her. He was the god Shiva, she the goddess Parvati, and when he found her he commemorated their union by carving the Jehlum river as it flowed- and still flows- through the valley of Kashimir in the shape of a paisley.'”

“.. only Allah is perfect and that we should acknowledge that fact when performing a task, that we should introduce a tiny hidden flaw into every object we make. ‘The Emperor Shah Jahan had made sure that there was a built-in imperfection in the Taj Mahal- the minarets lean out by three degrees,’ he said.”

These are but a few examples of the breadth of the writing intertwined with the plot. The overarching theme is how religious and cultural mores impede relationships and evaporate happiness. Shamas likes the paraket, because like Hiraman the paraket, it tells us what we should aim for, what is truly worth living and dying for. Prejudices abound. The Pakastani’s hope those in Bangladash will drown in the monsoon, because of the secret pact they made with the English that marked the beginning of the British Raj in India and the decline in Islam, and their breaking away from Pakistan. So much ignorance and lack of communication festers individual, societal and political hatreds by race, class, gender and belief.

Nadeem Aslam is not for everyone. For me, it is a marvel how he composes sentences and paragraphs that at times are lyric, learned and fluid. His characters are well-drawn and the plot, here languid at times, is engaging. He is someone whose writing you should experience at least once.



The Bishop’s Man


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Linden MacIntyre’s “The Bishop’s Man” is a Giller Prize winning novel. It revisits the sexual abuse controversy in the Catholic Church. The venue is predominantly rural Canada, whose historic local fishing industry is vanishing. It is narrated by a priest whose niche is investigating wayward priests so that they may be transplanted elsewhere by the Bishop. The priest who was relocated to Honduras for the benefit of the Church, has flashbacks to his relationship with a more revolutionary priest of purer faith and a woman, Jacinta, who challenged his celibacy. The latter, mixed with alcoholism, is a burden to him, as the weight of his depressing role takes its toll.

As “Spotlight” told the story from journalists’ perspective, this novel addresses it from the Church’s. It is not a unified perspective, although the consequences are uniformly damaging and deadly. Underlying the misdirection of mission, is a crisis in faith: a society that has bypassed the Church; the challenge of celibacy; the product of miscreant priests recruited from a less faithful pool.

This is a fast paced novel. It is pure storytelling. The author is a journalist, so the prose is straight forward. The novel is not illuminating, but is a pleasant read.

The Good Doctor


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Damon Galgut’s The Good Doctor was shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize. I have not read other works on the Shortlist for that year, although Margaret Atwood’s highly regarded Oryx and Crake was also on that list. The very popular The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was Longlisted.

The venue is South Africa soon after the end of apartheid. The scene is a rural hospital that virtually has no patients or useful equipment. Some of the latter is stolen by one of the employees, Tehogo who along with the local military express some of the racial tension associated with change in power and outlook.

The principal characters are two doctors at the hospital. Frank, the long-time employee who has been promised leadership of the hospital after Dr. Ngema is promoted, is cynical or realistic depending on your point-of-view. Dr. Ngema is a bureaucrat and Frank is one in-waiting. He is the product of a very successful father and a broken marriage, and the hospital is a refuge. In contrast, Laurence is the young idealistic doctor, devoid of social experience, who in search of a challenge chooses this hospital, perhaps believing it had a patient base. Laurence energizes the hospital by trying to start a clinic in the villages in the bush. Unfortunately, it has no capability to service any medical condition that is more than minor. The interesting aspect of Laurence’s character is whether he is truly “good” or more passive-aggressive.

It is an entertaining read, but I doubt I would have Short or Longlisted it. Sometimes prizes are the product of the times.







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I tried to read Patrick Modiano’s La Place de l’Étoile, which was his first novella and subsequent re-release as part of his Occupation Trilogy, better received, but I had to put it down. It had all the pretensions of a young writer doing a literary mind-dump about French collaborators during WWII. I subsequently came across Honeymoon which was his first novella after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Apart from the connection to WWII there is no comparison between the writing styles. The latter is more atmospheric and spare. The principal character and narrator Jean is captivated by a chance discovery of a suicide of a woman in his hotel, who turns out he knew, having spent time with her and her husband during WWII when the latter was sheltering her because of her Jewish religion during the war. In a French open marriage, the principal character abandons his career as a documentary film producer and hides from his wife and goes in search of the woman’s husband to uncover their history. All of this occurs in Paris where his wife is as if Jean is in an altered space and time. It is fitting that a Chirico graces the cover of the book, as there is a surreal feeling about the book. Jean, perhaps in a mid-life crisis, is bored with his life and existence and is in search of a spark through the mystery of a suicide.

It is the author’s style rather than the plot that makes this novella interesting. There is a quiet intensity even when there is no action. Modiano is a storyteller, but his mechanics are different. It is an interesting read in this regard.