The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

61vo1zbYYpL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Book – After her call-out in Jen’s Hamilton review for the also-excellent Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, I thought it was high time that Sarah Vowell had a blog post all to herself.  And now that I’ve made it through one whole sentence and have lulled you into a false sense of security, there’s half-a-chance you won’t instantly click away when I try to convince you that you might have fun with a book about the Puritans.

No, wait–really, though!  I wouldn’t have believed it myself before The Wordy Shipmates, but the history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony can (and in this case does) read as the tale of a group of quirky, infighting, self-important but also idealistic world-travelers who were, paradoxically, equal parts ruggedly individualist and staunchly authoritarian.  In fact, Vowell’s whole point is that our mental image of stern, humorless old men and women in weird buckled hats ignores the fact that the earliest European settlers in America were actually, y’know, people.  They had foibles and feuds and personalities that most histories tend to bury under a sea of brown homespun, but which Vowell makes it her mission to bring to light.  What I love about all of Vowell’s history books–but something which may or may not be your cup of tea, so fair warning–is the casual and personal tone of her writing.  She is not a detached historian writing from a distance; she is a character in her own story, discussing American history as it relates to herself in the present and thereby, I think, making it relatable for her readers too.  She is funny and personable, and learning history from her is like hearing it from a friend.

Just in case I’ve convinced you to give it a try, you should know that in addition to the paper book, you can borrow The Wordy Shipmates as an e-book or an audiobook on CD.

Hamilton: The Original Broadway Cast Recording

Music – If you’re into musical theater (or, indeed, if you watch late-night talk shows), surely by now you’ve heard of Hamilton, the outrageously popular hip-hop musical about Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. If you haven’t: It’s a hip-hop musical. About Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. It is, in a word, amazing.

The story follows Hamilton (played by writer & composer Lin-Manuel Miranda) from his arrival in New York City in 1776 through the Revolutionary War, George Washington’s presidency, and to his death in a duel with Aaron Burr (spoilers!) in 1804. Burr, played by Leslie Odom, Jr., narrates, offering a little distance from Hamilton’s own relentless enthusiasm. The music is a brilliant mashup of theatrical flair and the past several decades of hip-hop, quoting both lyrically and musically from sources as diverse as Les Miserables, Beyoncé, Company, Kanye West, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Biggie Smalls.

This show is so dense, complex, and uniformly strong it’s hard to pick out favorite pieces. General Lafayette’s (Daveed Diggs) rap in “Guns and Ships” is a huge amount of fun; Burr’s statement of purpose in “Wait for It” is outstanding; Thomas Jefferson (also Daveed Diggs, in a great piece of double casting) never gets his own showstopper, but he steals every piece he’s in anyway. When it comes down to it, though, it’s Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsbury) and Eliza Schuyler (Philippa Soo) I love best – their songs, particularly “Satisfied” and “Burn,” are some of the best depictions I’ve ever seen of strong women constrained by their place in history.

If you get hooked, there’s plenty of American history to keep you busy, from Ron Chernow’s biography that formed the basis of the show to new titles like War of Two: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Duel That Stunned the Nation and Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.