Hamilton (Original Cast Recording) / *****

9a0719a9435a9d31860f6a7067004fc0I’m going to be honest and say that I feel fairly unqualified to write this thing that I’m writing. I’m not a huge musical fan, or more accurately, I don’t think of myself as one. I’ve come to think over the years that maybe I just don’t like Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, and that’s all I thought there was for a long time. But as I’ve seen more – Avenue QSweeney ToddThe Book of MormonOnceThe Lion King – I’ve come to realize that I was maybe selling musicals short as a kid, and that goes doubly for many of the classics. (Teaching and viewing Les Miserables this year has reminded me that, yeah, there’s a reason that one’s such a classic.)

And if that’s not enough, there’s the fact that nothing makes me feel more like a middle-aged white guy than talking about rap and hip-hop. I’m getting more and more into rap these days; from The Roots to Jay-Z, from Kanye to (especially) Kendrick Lamar, to all the various members and permutations of the Wu-Tang Clan, I’m finding more and more to love and enjoy about rap, but I’m still acutely aware of my lack of experience in the genre. I’m diving into it with more and more passion, but it’s a genre that I’m new to, and much of the essential history is still unknown to me.

All of which makes me feel unqualified to talk about Hamilton, given that a) it’s a Broadway musical, b) it’s a hip-hop album, and c) it draws on and alludes so heavily to the history and traditions of both that I’m only catching maybe a quarter of the references. And besides, it’s Hamilton. What new could I possibly bring to the table after all the acclaim, all the reactions, all the praise?

And yet, here I am, feeling compelled to write about it. Why?

I mean…have you heard it?

Look, if you haven’t, you may well be like me. I’d heard bits of Hamilton over the last year, ever since first becoming aware of it in an NPR story about its (then) pending jump to Broadway from a successful off-Broadway run. Since then, the acclaim has piled on, and I’ve often thought, “Yeah, I should check that out,” but just never gotten to it. The concept – a hip-hop musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton- sounded great, but also like a gimmick. And even though I liked what I heard, I had a feeling that a) it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype around it, and b) if it did, I suspected it might rely so heavily on the main performance by Lin-Manuel Miranda that I’d be more impressed with him than the show.

Then I heard it this week, and turned out to be wrong on every single count. Hamilton didn’t just live up to the hype; it surpassed it, blowing past my expectations again and again until I was in awe. By the time the first song ended, I was hooked; by the time I was at the end of the third track, I was starting the whole thing over just to take it in again; by the time I was finished with the first act, I was in awe; by the time I finished the whole thing, I was pretty much just stunned.

Where to start? Maybe, let’s start here: Hamilton isn’t the single-performance spectacle I expected. Yes, Miranda is phenomenal as Hamilton, bringing out the swagger, confidence, intelligence, and aggressiveness that makes the role so instantly iconic. But Hamilton is packed with rich characters, and many of the show’s best numbers are given not to Hamilton/Miranda, but to the supporting cast. Listen, for instance, to Reneé Goldsberry belt out “Satisfied,” a rapid-fire dissection of her own conflicting emotions and pained sacrifice. Or Daveed Diggs’ staggering machine-gun pace – in a French accent – as General Lafayette explodes back onto the stage in “Guns and Ships.” And none of that gets into the quiet, malleable performance by Leslie Odom, Jr. as Aaron Burr, whose solo number “Wait For It” is a burst of unexpected energy from a character known for his reticence.

17-lin-manuel-miranda-w529-h529Because, that’s one of the true joys of Hamilton. Even though I’ve only experienced the musical through the cast recording, there’s no worry that you might lose the story. Every character – every single one – has their own “voice,” their own rhythm, their own pace, their own motifs, to the point that even though many actors play two roles, you know who they’re playing as soon as they start into their part. Listen to how Hamilton always has to have a faster pace than everyone else around him, running around them in more complex rhymes to demonstrate his own dazzling intellect. Or listen to how Burr, always unwilling to commit to a position, shifts his voice and rhythm to fit the song around him, making him the eternal chameleon. Realize how you know that Jefferson is a true rival for Hamilton as soon as he demonstrates his flexibility (most notably in his frustrated, raging burst in “Washington on Your Side”), to the point where their two “Cabinet Battle” numbers are a staple of the show, as these two verbally spar and duel back and forth.

So, yes, Hamilton is astonishing from a musical perspective. The songs are catchy, the voices compelling, and oh, the motifs that link the show together are dazzling. The way Miranda turns time into the foil of so many, from the slow count of a duel to the way our legacies are removed from our own hands through the slow clock of history. Look at how satisfaction drives characters, both in its emotional terms and in terms of honor. And that’s just scratching the surface – Miranda knows what he’s doing, and what he’s doing isn’t just making a rap album. It’s a coherent, tightly constructed experience, to the point where I struggle imagine listening to many of the songs out of context, knowing how much they gain when you put them all together.

And, oh, those lyrics. At this point, I’ve spent a fairly large amount of time digging through the Genius annotations on the songs (many written or approved by Miranda himself), and even then, I feel like I’m only scratching the surface of it all. As if it’s not enough to create insane rhyme schemes, duelling verses, raps that dive through other characters’ words to make their own verse (as in “Farmer Refuted”) – as if all that’s not enough, Miranda manages to interweave nods to Broadway shows throughout the ages, countless legends of hip-hop and rap, and historical details through and through. Indeed, that latter one is fairly incredible; by all accounts, Hamilton is far more faithful than I would have expected, showing off that Miranda knows his history and his players, and dives into their emotions and ideas, using them not just as background, but as part of the musical. What other musical doesn’t just orbit around the founding of the nation, but makes its debates and struggles part of the text? (I know. 1776. Shut up. Miranda knows that too.)

But none of that would matter – not the infernally addictive songs, not the insanely crafted lyrics, not the brilliant writing – if Hamilton weren’t so emotionally powerful and rich. Miranda isn’t just telling the story of history; he’s telling the story of a man who was desperate to prove himself, who wanted to use his intellect to make something more of his life and find a place in that. It’s the story of a man whose gifts made him arrogant at times, and off-putting, and whose very gifts were the very thing that undid him. But it’s also the story of a man who always held back, fearful to commit. It’s the story of a woman who loved a man but gave him up for her sister, and always regretted it. And most importantly, it’s the story of Hamilton’s wife, who stood by him, fought with him, forgave him…and crafted his legacy in ways he might never have dreamed.

hamilton0044rMiranda doesn’t just make these characters walking icons from history; he makes them people. And if you doubt that, try not feeling George Washington’s weariness when he tells Hamilton that he needs time to himself, to tend his own vine. Or when Burr and Hamilton sing to their newborn children. Or, most critically, when Hamilton loses his child, and the brutal, devastating “It’s Quiet Uptown” follows their marriage in the aftermath. Never – and I say this without hyperbole – never has a song hit me like this one has. It’s a quiet song, and a simple one, following Hamilton and his wife as they grieve, and listening as Hamilton – ever hyper-verbal, ever fast-paced – for the first time is without words. And it wrecked me. And then on the second time? It wrecked me even worse. It’s a devastating, haunting number, and if you doubt that Miranda has succeeded in making these characters come to life? Listen to it in context and try not to feel the pain in every line.

At this point, I look back over these 1,500 words and realize that I haven’t even scratched the surface of how great this is. How it’s genuinely inspirational. How it reminds us that, even nearly 250 years later, that era was uniquely American, and the men within it every bit as revolutionary and wild as some we see today. How we all strive to create something larger than ourselves, and want to leave behind a story that people still tell. Or just how damn good it is – not just important, but fun and exciting and listenable and enjoyable. How awe-inspiringly well-written it is, and how stupidly, unfairly talented Lin-Manuel Miranda is. (He’s my age, almost exactly. What a stupid, super-nice, incredibly talented, apparently incredibly humble jerk.)

In other words, it’s just another middle-aged white guy raving about Hamilton. But dammit, people…you try listening to it and not having something to say about it all.

And if you’re thinking this is a lot of words, well, I like to think Hamilton himself would be okay with that.

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The Man on the Bench, by Robert Swartwood / ****

51q4zj7vh3l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Novellas are a strange animal. Too long to be a short story, too short to be a novel, they exist in this odd gray area between the two. That’s historically been a problem for marketers, of course, although that’s lessened in the Kindle and e-book era. It remains a problem, though, for readers. What should you expect when you read a novella? Is it going to have some of the complexity of a novel – multiple plot threads, rich development – but simplified? Or is it going to be like a long short story, with a single thread, just extended? (For examples of each of these, you could probably use a few by Stephen King: “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” fits the former well, as does “The Mist”; meanwhile, “The Sun Dog” is a nice example of the latter.)

The problem, such as it is, with “The Man on the Bench” is that I expected it to be the former, and it turned out to be the latter. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you; there’s something exciting about a nice, pulpy horror novel, and this one has a great hook, in which three boys growing up in a small town in the 1930’s start seeing a man sitting on a bench, overlooking a local lake…and then they realize that no one else seems to see him. That’s a great eerie image to start off the story, and Swartwood takes in a fairly wild direction that I definitely didn’t see coming.

What’s frustrating, though, is that “The Man on the Bench” seems like it’s going to be…more. The book opens with some great scene-setting, and some wonderful material about a bully the boys have been dealing with, all of which makes for a great slice-of-life tale, or maybe some coming-of-age material. And as the horror elements started to creep in, I wondered if what I would get would be some great blending of those two aspects, something along the lines of It (albeit a far less ambitious version).

Instead, about halfway through, Swartwood slams on the gas, and his story just moves like a rocket, as though he felt like he needed to get through the exposition and investigation in a hurry. The explanation for the man is conveyed in a pretty big chunk of exposition, and although the book then transitions to a pretty great, bizarre, surreal finale that I liked a lot, there’s a sense that this middle section is cut down from something far more ambitious and interesting. Indeed, even Swartwood’s touching ending feels like it belongs to a different version of this book than we got, something more about the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood in the face of horrors.

All of which sounds like I’m being really negative about this book, and I don’t really want to do that. It’s a pretty solid read, and I was hooked pretty much throughout; although I found the exposition dump pretty disappointing, the beginning and end are both pretty fantastic. More than that, Swartwood makes his characters work well here, investing us in these people quickly and efficiently, and bringing this small town to life in a minimum of pages. (Given Swartwood’s talent for what he calls “hint fiction” – stories of 25 words or less – that shouldn’t be a surprise.) It’s just that there’s a sense that, outside of this pretty solid and fun novella, there’s a much better novel version of it that I would have really loved to have seen. For what it is, though? It’s pretty solid – creepy, engaging, well-written, well-crafted. I just wish it could decide what it wants to be…or become something more.

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Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley / **** ½

41cmq0ncxbl-_sx329_bo1204203200_I wasn’t aware, until recently, that Noah Hawley was an author. In hindsight, of course, it’s something that makes quite a bit of sense; when you look at the two seasons of the amazing Fargo, there’s a novelistic quality to them, as characters and plot threads interweave, larger themes emerge, complex stories blossom and resolve, and so forth. And that doesn’t even get into the appeal that a close-ended story, such as Fargo‘s self-contained seasons, would probably have for a novelist.

So, yeah, it makes sense that Hawley is a novelist. And furthermore, it’s not a shock that he’s such a good one. Hawley’s Before the Fall (which is set for release in May) is the story of a plane crash – or, more accurately, of the two survivors of a plane crash. When a small private plane goes down in the ocean, only two people make it out alive: a painter named Scott Burroughs, and a young child whom he basically carries all the way back to shore. What unfolds from there is part mystery, part drama, as various forces – both governmental and private – try to figure out why the plane went down, how exactly an alcoholic painter made his way onto that plane, and if there’s more to his survival than random luck and chance. Hawley stirs in a slew of factors into this mixture – among the passengers on the plane were a news network head (roughly akin to Fox News) and a financier who was under federal investigation, and that’s before aviation officials get involved – all of which allow him to follow a slew of disparate threads as they all spiral outward from this disaster.

As you might expect from Fargo, Hawley is less interested in the crash itself, and more interested in the ramifications. From the way Burroughs and the child cope with their trauma to the media coverage of the survivors, from a cable news demagogue to a modern art figure, from fragments giving us windows into the lives of the passengers to glimpses of Scott’s haunting artwork, Hawley uses the crash as an inspiration point that allows him to take on some big material. This is a book about the way the media shapes the news, yes, and about how artists cope and try to make sense of the world. But it’s also a book about the corrupting influence of money, and the way that death and trauma can shape us both for the better and for the worse. It’s about how people are often desperate for one more chance to prove themselves, and how every single person is more complex than we want to believe they are.

In short, this is heady material, done in the guise of a thriller. And that’s no doubt going to disappoint some people who expect something more conventional – more thrilling, more mysterious, more…something. And it’s not those things. Indeed, the ultimate answer to the plane crash is a simple one, and one that’s far more tragic and awful than anything else we might have expected. But that’s part of Hawley’s plan here – as he was in Fargo, he’s interested in how people treat each other, how they relate and judge, and how they’re shaped by the factors in their lives. For those who want something thrilling, or exciting, they’ll be disappointed. But for those who love rich character work, complex human interactions, thoughtful writing about the world and our place in it, and a fascinating mystery that’s engaging but never the focus, Before the Fall is richly satisfying and compelling stuff.

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Better Call Saul (Season 2) / *****

saul-art1I thoroughly enjoyed the first season of Better Call Saul, a fact that should probably surprise exactly no one. After all, I’m an ardent, outspoken fan of Breaking Bad, and although there was no guarantee that a prequel to that show would be great, I was definitely going to be giving it a shot. And as the show became its own thing – focusing not on the spectacular fireworks and masculine rage that defined Breaking Bad, but instead working its way through more complex, smaller (but no less significant) moral quandaries – I found myself on board real quickly.

Even so, none of that prepared me for how good the second season of this show is.

I often commented that while I enjoyed the first season of Breaking Bad, it largely works because of Bryan Cranston’s astonishing performance, as the show around him is figuring out whether it wants to be a comic book, a drama, or something more. After the first season’s abrupt (writer’s strike-induced) ending, though, the show regrouped, and every single person – the actors, the writers, the crew – all stepped up, and the show started to become the masterpiece that it would become. And honestly, something similar happened with Better Call Saul. Simply by virtue of living with their characters longer, Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks could bring more to the show in that first season. They know their characters, and even in these inchoate forms, they know how to handle it. The show around them, though, was fresh turf. New people, who had to find themselves. And it didn’t help that one of those new characters was hiding his cards from the audience for much of the season, keeping us from truly understanding his purpose.

With season two, though, the show has found a purpose, a voice, and a structure. The supporting cast is living and breathing as much as those core two characters. The moral dilemmas are allowed to build, becoming richer and more complex as they stack on each other. And most importantly, the show expanded its focus from two leads to three.

That third lead comes in the form of Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler, Jimmy’s partner, sometimes lover, and fellow lawyer. Seehorn has always been a reliably great part of the show, but her work in the second season has been phenomenal, creating a fully-realized, interesting, complex female character in a series of shows that has almost always focused on male characters. More than that, she’s allowed to break free of the usual tropes for female leads, which finds them being either enablers or foils for their male counterparts. Instead, Kim feels like a person, one whose reactions are complex and driven by more than simple plotting or tropes.

That’s of a keeping with the show as a whole, which gloriously rejects the idea of good and bad people in favor of a rich, complex morality that’s filled with shades of gray. Yes, Jimmy’s brother Chuck is truly awful to his brother…and yet, we understand so much of why he is that way. Yes, Jimmy butts heads with superiors, often to his own detriment…but it’s a part of him, and an understandable one. Nowhere does all of that become clearer than near the end of the season, where a three-way confrontation becomes a gripping piece of drama where every single character is both factually and morally right, and we find ourselves pulling for the one who’s perhaps least along that scale. It’s complex, exciting, engaging material, done with intelligence and grace (to say nothing of a great sense of humor).

And if all that’s not enough for you, the show gets to have its cake and eat it too, delivering all this while dipping its toes slowly into Breaking Bad territory through Mike’s story. The fact that Jonathan Banks is such a reliably intense, great presence makes that half of the show work unbelievably well; few shows can rely so well on silence and physical motion to convey all the internal action of a character, but Banks makes it work, telling a whole character arc through facial expressions.

But the true joy in Better Call Saul comes from how willing the show is to take its time. Whether it’s Jimmy’s slowly eroding moral lines, or Kim’s affection (and wariness) for Jimmy, or Mike’s willingness to take “full measures,” the show knows where it’s going, but is willing to take its time in getting there, letting each step lead inexorably to the next without ever skipping one. It’s thoughtful, carefully paced television. And it’s riveting – funny, sharp, intelligent, well-written, astonishingly well-acted, and all around amazing. The first season was good; the second? May just be the best show on television right now.

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Wanted! New Dad, by Gary Taaffe / ****

3abd07ceeacc610d4b9e10afc98a55b8Wanted! New Dad is the 9th entry in author Gary Taaffe’s Urban Hunters series. It’s a low key, charming series about a young aboriginal boy who goes on his walkabout into mainstream Australian culture, and the people he meets along the way. That makes it an odd choice for a serialized story; the stakes are low here, cliffhangers are non-existent, and the tension is fairly minimal. And yet, it’s a format that’s worked for this series, at least for me; every time I get a new entry, I find myself charmed, smiling, and happy to re-engage with this world all over again.

Part of what makes it so easy to return is the way that Taaffe makes the most of his digital format; every entry comes complete with a character index that recaps who everyone is and what their story is so far, and making that even better is the fact that Taaffe hyperlinks the first occurrence of each character’s name to their entry for easy recapping. But really, even with the low stakes, I found myself remembering the story fairly quickly, and adjusting quite nicely back to the world.

Well, more or less. Wanted! New Dad feels a bit more chaotic than some of the other entries; as if it’s not enough that Billy’s currently supervising a group of orphans, a pack of dogs, and bonding with a girl of about his own age, this volume finds him making his way back to his tribe, dealing with some anxiety among some of the boys, and somehow or another intersecting with a big Pride parade. All of which is pretty delightful material, but it doesn’t feel as effortlessly told as these books usually do, and I definitely spent a moment or two in the parade wondering how we ended up here. Nonetheless, Taaffe makes it all work. His characters are wonderful to hang out with; his dialogue is fun; his world interestingly depicted and sharply realized (especially for an American audience); and while the plot may feel minor, he keeps the emotional stakes high at all times, driving you to care about these characters and what happens with them.

Is making something this quiet and simple the ideal fit for the serialized format? Maybe not…but it hasn’t made me enjoy it any less, or be any less happy every time I get to read a new entry. Bring on the rest, and here’s hoping there’s no end in sight. I love this wonderful little series, and I’m glad it keeps on coming.

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The nth Day, by Jonathan Huls / **

27815772You certainly can’t say that The nth Day doesn’t have a great premise. Essentially, God has returned – an immaculate conception, once again, although this time to a fairly unworthy couple who seems to be less holy and devout than you might hope for. As they start raising their unique child, the book cuts to other characters, including a millionaire who disguises himself as a beggar, a little girl who gets saved by this new Incarnation, and more.

Oh, and did I mention that this becomes a horror novel?

That’s all a pretty solid hook for a novel, and one that could go in a lot of interesting directions. And the fact that it ends up as gory and violent as it does is a pretty intriguing one…except for the fact that, even having read the book, I’m not sure I could tell you why it ends up the way it does. Or why this millionaire enjoys dressing as a beggar. Or why pretty much anything happens in this book. God exists and is reborn, and is apparently a little bit of a brat – He kills his parents when He loses at Connect Four. More or less. And that’s before he starts wandering the Earth and smiting a whole lot of people.

The nth Day, really, is a mess. There are some interesting ideas here and there – the section in which God destroys all money in the world is compelling, and there are some fascinatingly weird derails along the way. But the characters are almost entirely, uniformly awful. Orphans get abused and molested. Children get neglected. Everyone’s awful, everyone’s flawed, and everyone deserves to die. Which, apparently, God is pretty okay with, I guess, although I have no idea why, or why he’s back, or what his goal is, beyond walking around a lot and messing with people. And once you add in blank characters and unclear plotting to some weak writing, you’ve got a book that just doesn’t have a huge amount to recommend it. Huls has some neat ideas here and there, and there’s a novel book buried somewhere in this mess. But it’s far from evident, and probably at least one or two re-writes away from emerging.

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Lovecraft Country, by Matt Huff / **** ½

lovecraftcovAnyone who’s a serious fan of horror knows their way around H.P. Lovecraft. Love him or hate him – and while most love him, he’s got his detractors – it’s hard to deny Lovecraft’s influence and impact on the horror genre. From his Cthulhu mythos to his surreal, nightmarish worlds, Lovecraft’s imagination inspired a generation of authors. And yet, as famous as Lovecraft’s writing is (and I do count myself a fan of it), there’s also the other aspect of his reputation that you have to deal with: his virulent, toxic racism, which lurks beneath the surface of so much of his writing, and often peeks through the text when you least expect it. It makes him a problematic author, one whose influence is legendary, whose talent was remarkable, and yet whose social and personal views are repellent and nauseating.

All of which brings us to Lovecraft Country, which takes the two aspects of Lovecraft’s life and combines them into something wholly unique and fascinating. Lovecraft Country is undeniably a horror novel, and one inspired by Lovecraft; it’s about a family who is summoned to an ancient estate, where they learn about the horrifying rites that are performed there, and end up trying to deal with a group working to unleash demonic forces to reshape our world. That’s pure Lovecraftian pulp, and although Lovecraft Country often feels a little more conventional in structure than your typical Lovecraft tale, there’s no denying the influence. But what makes the book work is that the supernatural side isn’t the only source of the horrors. No, Lovecraft Country is also a book about Jim Crow, where the protagonist and his family are African-Americans dealing with racism, discrimination, and fear for their lives on an everyday basis – fear that makes dealing with the supernatural a piddling task in comparison.

It’s an unusual union, but Matt Huff makes it work, marrying the fears of black Americans to the fears of unstoppable powers, and reveling in the comparisons between the two. It doesn’t hurt that Huff seems to have a knack for unsettling images and tension; whether it’s the slow emergence of a ghost through the elevator of a house or the rush to get out of a county before the police catch you committing the awful crime of “being black after sundown,” Huff treats each with equal horror and anxiety, and the parallels allow him to dive into some rich territory.

Huff’s other smart move is the choice is basically divide Lovecraft Country into a series of stories, rather than one single narrative. Mind you, all of the stories are connected to an overarching plot, but each stands alone a bit, and each feels slightly different, inspired by different works. There’s a spectacular homage to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that works as one of the book’s finest sections, in which a black woman is given the chance to tap into a very different side of the world through a transformative potion. Another section works more as a ghost story, although one that feels more akin to Shirley Jackson or Richard Matheson than it does Lovecraft’s otherworldly nightmares. Another piece ties more into sci-fi tropes, and so on. And in each, Huff finds new ways to draw parallels to the race issues he’s interested in, all while paying his chosen genre the respect it deserves.

If there’s a flaw to Lovecraft Country, it’s the sense that it never quite comes together into something truly great; the whole feels like less than the sum of the parts, and it all ultimately comes together into a more conventional, traditional climax than you’d hope from the wild book that precedes it. But none of that really detracts from the power of what you’re reading along the way, or how wonderfully ambitious and fascinating the book around it is. It’s just a bit of a letdown to get to the end and feel like the book ends without the richness you’ve come to expect from it. And yet, the ride along the way? Very, very much worth it.

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