Netflix film: WAR MACHINE directed by David Michod and starring Brad Pitt

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The Netflix film “War Machine” has drawn a series of negative reviews criticizing Brad Pitt’s portrayal of General Glen McMahon, I guess a stand in for what appears to be the real subject, General Stanley McChrystal who was fired by President Obama in 2010.  Though the movie has not been well received by critics I believe it has a number of redeeming traits.  It is obviously a satire of America’s approach to war in Afghanistan, a war which we are not winning and have no business committing more troops to as President Trump has strongly hinted he is considering.  As a member of the German parliament offers in one fascinating scene in the film as she deconstructs America’s position and strategy; she states, what should be considered the ultimate reality of our position in Afghanistan after sixteen years of fighting, “Please leave now!”

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The film was inspired by Michael Hastings book, THE OPERATORS an incisive and somewhat funny look behind the scenes of American military commanders and how they conducted the war in Afghanistan.  Director David Michod has created a commentary on General Stanley McChrystal who was placed in charge of the war in 2009 and because of comments in an interview with Hastings for “Rolling Stone” magazine was relieved of his command.  The McMahon character is the epitome of the macho military figure who has the loyalty of his men and is treated as hero by all as they defer to him.  Despite his limitations, McMahon does project a degree of empathy toward the Afghani people, but in the end for him it is about winning, a dogmatic attachment to some pretty dubious ideas, and like many of his type, he knows how to succeed where many have failed before.  McMahon is chasing a victory that it seems has passed the American military and politicians by long ago.

Other characters in the film are a bit over the top in terms of their comments and actions.  However, two in particular, Hamid Karzai, portrayed by Ben Kingsley, fits the “over the top” description, but it also reflects the corruption, egoism, and incompetence of the former Afghani president.  According to A.O. Scott in his New York Times review of the film, the second individual, General Michael T. Flynn, portrayed by Anthony Michael Hall may provide insight into the man President Trump appointed, fired, and now misses as his National Security Advisor.

Overall, the film is funny in spots but the reality of what it represents is maddening.  I agree with the flaws that other reviewers have pointed out, but I am still glad I spent the two hours and two minutes watching it.

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THE JERSEY BROTHERS: A MISSING NAVAL OFFICER IN THE PACIFIC AND HIS FAMILY’S QUEST TO BRING HIM HOME by Sally Mott Freeman

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(US soldiers after liberation from Japanese POW camp outside Manila)

Sally Mott Freeman’s first book, THE JERSEY BROTHERS: A MISSING NAVAL OFFICER IN THE PACIFIC AND HIS FAMILY’S QUEST TO BRING HIM HOME is an interesting study in family dynamics and how military strategy and policy was implemented during World War II.  The somewhat dysfunctional family is made up of its matriarch Helen Cross, her second husband Arthur, and their three sons and one daughter.  The story revolves around the experiences of the sons, the first two of which are children of Helen and her first husband.  The sons are Benny Mott, an officer on the USS Enterprise, a graduate of Annapolis, who witnessed a great deal of action during four years of combat duty in the Pacific; William (Bill) Mott, also a graduate of Annapolis, plagued by weak eye sight who winds up as the head of the White House Map Room where he observes and distributes war information to the Franklin D. Roosevelt and military leaders; lastly, Barton Cross, the son of Helen and Arthur who does not measure up to the Annapolis type, enlists and becomes a prisoner of war taken by the Japanese in the Philippines.

By carefully examining the Mott/Cross family, Freeman is able to analyze its dynamic, in addition to the strategy pursued in the Pacific War.  Her approach is unique and provides an alternative means of studying the plight of American POWs in the Pacific, the politics in Washington and General Douglas MacArthur’s command, how military decisions were reached, and the Anglo-American relationship.  However important the war is, it is the family that dominates the story.  Helen is an overprotective mother who obsesses over her third son, Barton who she views as evidence of a strong marriage after her first was a failure.  Barton is the favorite, and the pressure from his mother at times is overbearing.  Her other sons seek her love and attention and make do with how she parses it out.  What is fascinating is that the two elder brothers do not seem to resent their younger brother and will do anything to support him. The key element in the narrative is how family members react to the seizure of Barton by the Japanese and how they go about coping with wartime information that is directly related to his situation.  The entire family is concerned with what Barton is going through and how they can assist him, and perhaps facilitate his quest for freedom.

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Helen’s psyche is on everyone’s mind throughout the book.  Helen is the type of “helicopter” parent who will write the commandant of Annapolis as Barton withdraws from that institution, she will also write President Roosevelt, and military commanders.  Further, when Bill learns of the treatment of the POWs from a number of escapees, he withholds the information from his mother as long as he can, not to upset her.

The strength of the book is how Freeman alternates chapters taking the reader back and forth from the USS Enterprise through the experiences of Benny as it leaves Pearl Harbor, participates on the “Doolittle Raid” on Tokyo, finds itself in the midst of the Battle of Midway,  the Battle of Guadalcanal, and the taking of Saipan.  Next, we are taken inside the White House as Bill witnesses the decisions being made that effect the conduct of the war, or later when he becomes the Flag Officer aboard the USS Rocky Mount.  The plight of American POWs is described in detail including the Bataan Death March, and a number of other forced marches as American soldiers are moved from one prison cite to the next.   What is particularly disturbing is how unmarked Japanese ships transporting US POWs were sunk by American planes during the last year of the war.  In addition, Freeman focuses on the inhuman treatment of the POWs and how they reacted, and why some survived.  Another strength is her discussion of the planning and actual invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, two battles that did not go the way military authorities had hoped.  Heavy casualties were predicted, but not to the level that eventually resulted.  In part the problem was the Japanese use of Kamikaze pilots that invasion planners could find no solution to counteract.

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(The Jersey Brothers left to right; Barton Cross, Benny Mott, Bill Mott)

The major wartime personalities are integrated throughout.  MacArthur is dealt with in detail. Admiral “Bull” Halsey, a man who was beloved by his men and was a strategic genius.  President Roosevelt is presented as at times a warm and sympathetic leader, but also a harsh decision maker dealing with the realities of war.  Other important characters include Admiral Richmond Kelley Turner who commanded the Joint Expeditionary Task Force, known as Operation Forager designed to defeat Japan in 1944, a command and strategy larger than and as complex as the Normandy invasion; Steve Mellnick and William Dyees who escaped the Davao Penal Colony and along with Filipino guerillas sought to launch a rescue mission of the 2000 POWs left behind, as well as a host of other major historical figures.

Importantly, Freeman goes into depth in presenting the jurisdictional battles between the army and navy for control of the Pacific Theater which was rooted in the struggle between Admiral Nimitz and General MacArthur.  MacArthur does not fare well in the narrative as Freeman portrays the Pacific Army Commander as a self-serving egoist who only cared about his own place in history.  This characterization is quite accurate especially when discussing the strategy to invade the Japanese home islands, which MacArthur favored, or employ a blockade and massive bombing to save the lives of American GIs.  It seemed whenever anything did not go as planned, instead of accepting any responsibility, MacArthur blamed the Navy.

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(Later in his career William Mott’s promotion!)

What is clear throughout the book is that Bill did his utmost to try and learn the plight of his brother.  He traveled, wrote letters, and pressed friends, all in an attempt to learn the truth.  The author, Bill’s daughter makes excellent use of the memories of family members, in addition to diaries and other documents.  She has mined a tremendous amount of material and it is reflected in her strong narrative.  Her investigation into what happened to her uncle provides insights into how families were forced to deal with their missing sons, and for far too many the grief that followed.  Overall the book paints a fascinating portrait of a family’s plight during World War II.  It may get bogged down in family details at the outset, but once Freeman takes up the wartime experiences of Helen’s three sons the reader will become immersed in the detail and the heroic nature of what they experience and the actions they take.  The Cross/Mott brothers, were truly “a band of brothers,” and Freeman’s efforts reflect a strong effort for a first book!

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(American GIs after liberation from a Japanese POW camp near Manila)

MISSISSIPPI BLOOD by Greg Iles

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When I finished reading Greg Iles’ THE BONE TREE the second volume of his Natchez Burning trilogy it was clear the third installment would be equally suspenseful and the type of book that I would not want to put down.  I was not disappointed as MISSISSIPPI BLOOD drew me in, grabbed my attention, and would not release me.  Iles begins the conclusion of the trilogy by using old newspaper articles as a vehicle to review or present material from the first two books.  It is 2006, and Penn Cage, the mayor of Natchez, Mississippi is dealing with the murder of his fiancé, and is deeply troubled by his father’s refusal to talk about his past, and defend himself at his upcoming murder trial.  Compounding his father’s actions is the effect it is having on the Cage family.  Lurking in the background, soon to reemerge as one of the keys to the novel is a KKK offshoot, the Double Eagles, led by Snake Knox, a racist sociopath who will stop at nothing to keep his actions and past secrets hidden.

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A number of characters from the previous novels reappear; Shadrack Johnson, the District Attorney who prosecutes Cages father as a means of furthering his career and reputation; Dr. Tom Cage, Penn’s father; Walt Garrity, a retired Texas Ranger who fought with Tom Cage in Korea; Sheriff Billy Byrd, who hates Penn and is in bed with the Double Eagles; Quentin Avery, the diabetic attorney who defends Dr. Cage; Lincoln Turner, Cage’s half-brother from Dr. Cage’s affair with his nurse, and Penn’s mother Peggy, eleven year old daughter Annie, and a number of others.  As the novel progresses Iles integrates material from the first two books refreshing the memories of those who have read them.

Iles does introduce a number of new characters who help bring the state of excitement to new levels.  Serenity Butler, writer, college professor, native of Mississippi, and an Iraq war veteran; Terry “Toons” Teufel, the muscle behind the VK (Varangian Vindred or Viking Justice) a racist biker group somewhat aligned with the Double Eagles; Dolores St. Denis, whose fiancé was murdered by the Double Eagles at the “Bone Tree” in 1966; Cleotha Booker whose son Sam was murdered by the Double Eagles in 1966; Aaron and Roosevelt Harvin the older brothers of Keisha Harvin, a reporter who was brutally attacked by a woman acting for the VK, and a few others.  What is clear to everyone that Penn questions as he tries to figure out what his father is hiding is that if you went against the Double Eagles you would die.

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As the plot develops Iles takes the reader into the seamy underworld of racist terror from the Civil Rights era and the present.  What emerges is the depravity of southern racism that in many ways still remains today.  Through the relationship between the VK and the Double Eagles we see their world view and are exposed to the legal and political corruption that existed in Mississippi and Louisiana.   As Iles’ narrative progresses he provides the social texture that was Mississippi in the 1960s and some of which is contemporary.  Iles provides a number of important insights into southern culture by employing a realistic and engaging dialogue between his characters, particularly involving Penn, his father’s supporters, and those who want to convict Tom Cage and bury the past.

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The problem that dominates the novel is that Penn’s father is hiding important information about his life and how it impacts his trial.  Further, his close friend and lawyer Quentin Avery refuses to disclose his strategy that seems remarkably weak.  It grows worse as Doris Avery, Quentin’s young wife and Penn come to the conclusion that perhaps there is a pact between the two men, that in return for making sure he is found guilty, Dr. Cage will provide him with a painless death and release from the diabetes that has already cost him both of his legs.  For Cage it seems likely his father wants to be convicted in order to save his family from the Double Eagles, or assuage his own personal guilt.  As Doris states; “I think we’re all hostages, even though we’re walking free.  Annie, you, me…all of us.”  In response Penn states; “You mean literally?  Hostages to the Double Eagles?”  They conclude that most of the world has moved past the racist hatred that permeated Mississippi during the Civil Rights era, but not the Double Eagles and too many others.

Once the plot is laid out, the reader is taken on an imaginative, but realistic ride where it seems that the intensity of the narrative increases as you turn each page.  The events of the novel are put forth through, at times, intense dialogue, conversations, newspaper articles, and courtroom testimony that is conveyed in detail. The book is an ode to Natchez as Penn tries to overcome the city’s past and provide optimism for its future.  The book is riveting and can be tackled on its own, but I would recommend reading the three books in order.  No matter how you approach Iles’ trilogy, which is quite an achievement, you will not be disappointed.

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The Desert Queen – A Film by Werner Herzog

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(The Real Gertrude Bell)

Just watched Werner Herzog’s 2014 film, the “Desert Queen” staring Nicole Kidman as Gertrude Bell whose impact over British policy in the Middle East during and after World War I was quite impactful.  Hers was a rich life that reflected her work as a historian, archeologist, and later as a politician or pseudo diplomat.  The film is rather slow moving and dull in spots, however the cinematography is nicely portrayed.  The scenes with Churchill and T.E. Lawrence were poorly done, though we do get a sense of their egos.  Devoting over half the film to Bell’s love life as opposed to her research and work with the Bedouin and her influence over British policy is a misuse of time and “the Desert Queen’s” gifts.  Nicole Kidman masks a strong effort to accurately portray Bell, but overall the film could have learned a lesson from David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” though Herzog’s musical score does measure up.

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(Picture is replicated in film, with Churchill, Bell and company)

One watches the film, and follows Bell/Kidman travel the desert and after two hours, she finally meets with the Sharif of Mecca’s son’s Faisal and Abdullah and she sees them as future kings.  Though true, this could have been presented in a bit more greater depth, though their pet falcons were a nice touch.  If one is looking to learn about Gertrude Bell and I would steer toward two books, GERTRUDE BELL: QUEEN OF THE DESERT, SHAPER OF NATIONS by Georgina Bell, and DESERT QUEEN: THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF GERTRUDE BELL: ADVENTURER, ADVISOR TO KINGS, AND ALLY OF LAWRENCE OF ARABIA by Janet Wallach.

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(Gertrude Bell)

THE ZOOKEEPERS WIFE: A WAR STORY by Diane Ackerman

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(The Warsaw Zoo used in WWII to hide Jews, Polish resistance fighters, and others)

Recently I went see the film, “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” and I was taken by the story and the quality of the production.  The film was based on a book of the same name by Diane Ackerman, which was published in 2007.  Ackerman’s narrative history tells the story of Jan and Antonia Zabinski, who married in 1931, and shortly thereafter became the heads of the Warsaw Zoo located in the Praga district of the city.  The Zabinski’s were Christians who were horrified by the rise of Nazism in Germany, particularly the racial theories they expounded as they related to animals and humans.  The book replicated by the film tells the story of how the Zabinskis responded to the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939 and their final seizure of the entire country when they invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941.  What makes the book somewhat different from the standard historical narrative is that Ackerman, a prolific nature writer by trade is able to apply her expertise in her field to a story that is horrific as well as heroic.

Jan Zabinski was a member of the Polish Underground (Home Army) and throughout the book he tries to maintain the remnants of the zoo, while Antonia sought to help her animals as best she could, while shielding their son Rys from the carnage that surrounded them.  The Zabinski’s role in rescuing over 300 individuals, Polish resistance activists and Jews during the course of the Nazi occupation is the core of the book as Ackerman explores how this was accomplished and their commitment to saving “humans” as well as animals.  The author’s narrative describes how the couple lived before the war in a world where their lives revolved around the internal clocks of their animals as well as humans.  Their daily routines were never quite the same because of the needs of the animals which made each day a novelty with welcome moments especially when the animals seemed to visit and live inside their dacha.  It appears that Jan and Antonia lived in synchrony with the animals and did their best to view the world and align their senses with how their “animal guests” as they were called, might view and experience their world.  As Jan points out, “its’ by living beside animals that you learn their behavior and psychology.”

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(Antonia and Jan Zabinski)

The story is described through the daily rhythms and scents of the zoo’s resident animals.  The cacophony of sounds reflected animal life and the environment and care they were afforded by Jan and Antonia.  As war approached the matriarchal Antonia worried what would be the fate of her “animal republic,” since the zoo was located in Poland’s most populous city.  Her fears were justified as once the war began the German military slowly pinched off Warsaw from the rest of Poland, and the Nazis indiscriminately, whether through sport or just vengefulness, killed the animals.  Another character that looms large in the narrative is Lutz Heck, Director of the Berlin Zoo and a man obsessed with animal bloodlines whose research was designed to restore certain “pure blooded and extinct species.”  He was a powerful and ardent Nazi who supposedly arrived to borrow some of Jan and Antonia’s best animals and send them to Berlin, to be returned to them after the war.  Hermann Goring was Heck’s patron who also aspired to recasting Germany’s natural world, “cleansing it, polishing it, perfecting it.”

In order to try and save as many animals and people as possible Jan and Antonia came up with a proposal to feed Nazi troops by creating a “pig farm” at the zoo.  Heck approved and this provided Jan access to the Warsaw ghetto to obtain scraps to feed the pigs and fatten them up for slaughter. According to the Jewish Institute in Warsaw, Jan’s access to the ghetto allowed him to “bring out notes, bacon, and butter, and carry messages to friends.” It was an ingenious and dangerous plan, but it allowed Jan to use the zoo as a vehicle for the Polish Underground whose foothold in the Praga District helped protect 6,000 soldiers, the largest pool of saboteurs in the city.  Antonia was in a difficult position because Heck had designs on her apart from animals and she tried her best to play him to her advantage in order to protect her animals and her “human guests.”

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Ackerman’s narrative is historically accurate and insightful.  Her discussion of natural history is enlightening, particularly as she describes the Zabinski’s zoo management as animals were not just housed in cages, but in “habitats meant to recreate their native wetlands, deserts, and woods.”  Once the zoo is destroyed by German bombing Ackerman examines Jan and Antonia’s survival strategies, in addition to saving the lives of as many people as possible.  Her story reflects the empathy and care the Zabinski’s had for their animals and the people that were hidden in closets, rooms, and even animal cages during the Nazi occupation.  Throughout this process, Antonia tried her best to maintain a “normal festive” atmosphere so her “guests” could feel at home despite the ever present threat that at any time the Nazis would bang on their door.  Signals and other strategies were implemented to make people as safe as possible.

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(Cecylia Teodorowicz, the Zabinski housekeeper in the kitchen with an otter)

Jan’s plan was a simple one, hide Jews and ammunition in plain sight in the middle of the zoo.  He created a halfway house for Jews in hiding and in transit, “nomads, not settlers, they stopped briefly to rest and refuel in route to unnamed destinations.”  Like animals, these guests would blend into their surroundings.  Antonia was unaware of some of Jan’s Underground activities until after the war.  She did not know that he hid C13F, a water soluble explosive in a barrel, she was in the dark when it came to Jan as a leader of an Underground cell that specialized in sabotaging German trains by jamming explosives into wheel bearings, she did not know that he infected some pigs with worms, butchered them and slipped them into German soldier’s sandwiches.  These are the types of things along with details of how Jan smuggled people out of the ghetto to safety, and the overall danger he faced that Ackerman brings out in her narrative that is of the utmost importance.

Ackerman has the ability to blend her knowledge of the natural world with the historical tide.  Daily life in the Warsaw Ghetto, Himmler’s determination to destroy the ghetto to provide a birthday present for Hitler, the Polish Army’s rebellion against the Nazis as Stalin waited in the wings for its destruction, and numerous other events receive full consideration.  Integrating her “guests” into these events provides an even greater meaning to their intensity and importance.

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(The Warsaw Ghetto)

Antonia maintained a diary throughout the war that Ackerman heavily relies upon and integrates into her narrative.  It is an excellent source as Antonia did her best to prevent more Holocaust victims, but also shows that the animal world was not to be romanticized as she felt it was very violent, and that one had to tread carefully when caring for animals.  As far as citations are concerned it appears much of the book is based on a few sources and it would have assisted the reader if detailed footnotes could have been provided, not just a sentence or two.  In addition, I would have liked further information about the postwar experience of the Zabinskis both of whom did extraordinary work during World War II.

As far as a comparison to the film is concerned, the story is segmented and the parts that are produced seem fairly accurate.  In the movie Jan comes across as a softer figure, in the book he has an extreme edge at times in dealing with Antonia.  Lutz Heck’s role in the film is somewhat crucial to the story, but less so in the book.  Events are accurate, but the book relies more on Antonia’s natural world of animals than is presented in the film.  Overall, the book is worth the read, and the film should be viewed.

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(The Warsaw Zoo used in WWII to hide Jews, Polish resistance fighters, and others)

HAMILTON: THE REVOLUTION by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

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(Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton)

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter’s HAMILTON: THE REVOLUTION is the perfect companion for those interested in an in depth look at the development, creation, and performance of the musical, “Hamilton.”  At the outset the authors make the cogent point that they believe that what Lin has gifted to the American people is more than just a Broadway show, it reflects two revolutions side by side.  The first being the an 18th century revolution that is the foundation of our country and society, and the second, a 21st century revolution  for American theater as the musical provides a glimpse into a more diverse America.  In 2008, Lin came up with the idea of a hip-hop concept album about Alexander Hamilton.  He would employ hip-hop to tell the story that had nothing to do with hip-hop – using its form not content.  Lin’s success has gone far beyond whatever he could have imagined and his book co-written with Jeremy McCarter provides the public many important insights about the musical itself, and our country.

The book is both a narrative and oral history of how Lin gave birth to the musical lyrics and overall concept of “Hamilton.”  It is important that he does not deify the founders and by creating cast of Latinos and African-Americans to act out our “white” early history provides a unique perspective that audiences would not have experienced with a traditional approach to casting.  We are a nation of immigrants and through Hamilton’s own immigrant story it should bring us together and encourage immigration, as opposed to the political rhetoric of our times.

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(Elizabeth and Alexander Hamilton)

Lin is a master of character development.  A case in point is how in Act II has the actors who portrayed the Marquis de Lafayette and Hercules Mulligan, friends of Hamilton in Act I, play Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, his enemies.  Further, Lin creates lyrics based on his vast research, apart from Ron Chernow’s masterful biography, that augments the historical players and delivers through the lens of artistic license a fairly accurate presentation of history.  As a former history educator I drool at the thought of using the musical in a classroom situation. With students role playing and singing their way examining primary documents to learn our history, using a strategy that will make them remember their experience and material without pressure, would have been very rewarding.  The outreach of the musical in New York, and with plans to do the same as the production expands across the country, as McCarter points out on any given day hundreds of classes might be studying our early history using “Hamilton” as an excellent educational tool.

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The book explores a range of topics that include the biography of Alexander Hamilton, but also the causes of the American Revolution, its outcome, the main characters involved, the political struggle (vicious at times) that ensued, and culminates with the duel that resulted in Hamilton’s death.  The reader will gain a greater understanding of the beliefs of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Aaron Burr, John Adams, and George Washington.  Lin explores the partisanship that existed through his lyrics as he does with the most important events of Hamilton’s lifetime.  Lin also delves into Hamilton’s family and the portrait of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton is important in trying to determine what type of person Hamilton really was.  Lin has the ability to convey issues, relationships, and individual personalities in a way that entertains and interprets history in a meaningful way.

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The book thoroughly examines each song and places it in its historical context and how Lin went about creating the lyrics.  In addition, the book explores the people behind the scenes from the production, choreography, and scene creation in detail.  Vignettes abound, as the reader is exposed to information that normally would not be revealed in this type of companion volume.  If you did not believe that Lin was a “genius” before; once you read this book and explore songs ranging from the opening number that deals with Hamilton’s early years taking forty pages of Chernow’s biography and condensing it into song, to “Non-Stop,” which details the need for a justification for the new constitution, or the lyrics that go with George III’s three numbers, you will now.  Hopefully, all will be able to witness the musical in person at some point, but your viewing will be totally enhanced with the material that Lin and McCarter offer.

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(Hamilton and the Schuyler Sisters)