This may sound like a bit of a weird idea for a post, but I decided to group together 3 short reviews of nonfiction books I read recently (within the last 5 months) that I thought were going to be good, but turned out to be disappointing. Two of them in particular are pretty popular and frequently recommended, so beware!
By reviewing them I hope to spare others from my fate, listening to Dead Wake and wondering when the Lusitania would finally get torpedoed (spoiler alert: it’s not till the very end of the book), trying to plod through Alexander Hamilton and wondering what the big fuss was about, or reading Disaster Falls and feeling bad about disliking a memoir about grief and the death of a child.
Learn from my mistakes and read below about why I wish I hadn’t skipped these three nonfiction picks.
Dead Wake by Erik Larson
Publication Date: March 3rd 2015
Publisher: Crown Publishers
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
From the bestselling author and master of narrative nonfiction comes the enthralling story of the sinking of the Lusitania. It is a story that many of us think we know but don’t, and Erik Larson tells it thrillingly, switching between hunter and hunted while painting a larger portrait of America at the height of the Progressive Era. Full of glamour and suspense, Dead Wake brings to life a cast of evocative characters, from famed Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat to pioneering female architect Theodate Pope to President Woodrow Wilson, a man lost to grief, dreading the widening war but also captivated by the prospect of new love.
Why You Shouldn’t Read It
This book is often recommended by other book bloggers. As someone who is an avid reader of nonfiction books on extreme historical events, including disasters of historical importance, I thought this one would end up being a favorite. There’s something about reading of people dealing with some of the most extreme and excruciating circumstances that humans can face on this earth that really puts life into perspective and provides a lot of insight into the human condition. Though I own a hardcover copy of Dead Wake, I decided to listen to the book on audiobook because I thought it would be gripping enough to keep my attention during my commute to work.
I don’t know for sure if I would have enjoyed the book more had I read it in the physical version, but I seriously doubt it. I’m not averse at all to reading about the historical background leading up to a significant event, and in fact I’ve read many similar books in which a lot of circumstantial details are provided surrounding the actual central focus of the narrative. An example would be a different book by Erik Larson, In The Garden Of Beasts, about the life of the family of the U.S. Ambassador to Germany in Berlin leading up to World War II. Larson opens the book with a setup that includes descriptions of the characters and their lives before their departure for Berlin which is very interesting and completely in keeping with what’s required for the book to work as a whole.
In Dead Wake, however, Larson decides that the setup to the actual central event of the book is going to take up the first 80% of the chapters. What results is an often repetitive and equally often meandering run-on description of anything of even minor relevance to the trip of the Lusitania before it was torpedoed. Some of this is very interesting, like the movements of the u-boat responsible for the torpedoeing in the hours preceding the event or the decisions of the British and American government entities about what to do with regards to warnings they were receiving that German u-boats were going to target the boat. On the other hand, some of it was unfocused and seemed tacked on to add length, like the entire tangent on President Woodrow Wilson’s private life and the endless descriptions of who and what was or wasn’t on the boat at the time of its departure.
This also resulted in the actual ‘action’ of the book – the sinking of the ship and its aftermath – being relegated to a few admittedly engrossing but rushed chapters at the end. I went from being bored and wondering when Larson would actually get to the point, to wishing there was more there about the people who were affected by this event, including the rescue efforts and the families of the victims who struggled to locate the bodies of their loved ones in the subsequent weeks and months. Ultimately, the book just felt unbalanced in the amount of attention it gave to the background material versus the event itself, and it really ruined my experience of it. Since I loved Garden Of Beasts, however, I’m not giving up on Larson and will be reading more of his work.
It takes Larson 80% of this tome to get to the actual events he’s building up to, which results in a weirdly unbalanced book that meanders for quite a while before rushing through the event that should have been central to the narrative itself.
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Publication Date: March 29th 2005
Publisher: Penguin Books
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow presents a landmark biography of Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father who galvanized, inspired, scandalized, and shaped the newborn nation.
Few figures in American history have been more hotly debated or more grossly misunderstood than Alexander Hamilton. Chernow’s biography gives Hamilton his due and sets the record straight, deftly illustrating that the political and economic greatness of today’s America is the result of Hamilton’s countless sacrifices to champion ideas that were often wildly disputed during his time. Chernow here recounts Hamilton’s turbulent life: an illegitimate, largely self-taught orphan from the Caribbean, he came out of nowhere to take America by storm, rising to become George Washington’s aide-de-camp in the Continental Army, coauthoring The Federalist Papers, founding the Bank of New York, leading the Federalist Party, and becoming the first Treasury Secretary of the United States.
Why You Shouldn’t Read It
This is one book you’re definitely supposed to like. For a while, it was all anyone could talk about because of the blockbuster musical it inspired. I’m not one to be intimidated by 800 page long books, and I was expecting to dig into this one and hang on its every word. Maybe, once again, I shouldn’t have listened to it in audiobook. But I think ultimately that it was the substance and structure of the book that I had issues with, which wouldn’t have been affected much by the medium in which I decided to consume it.
There were two distinct things I disliked about the book. The first and most significant was that it felt less like a biography and more like a creative retelling of a historical figure’s life with a specific bias behind it. Chernow is conservative in his political views, and I felt that he made little effort to dissimulate it. From his less than thinly veiled disapproval at the suggested possibility that Hamilton may have been gay, to his efforts throughout the narrative to turn Hamilton into some kind of idealized super-human figure, Chernow glosses over negative truths about Hamilton like the fact that he also owned slaves while being more directly critical of other political figures of the time who did the same thing. I came to this book with little knowledge of who Hamilton was or what he had done, and realized that there are a lot of aspects of his life that historians still do not agree on. The fact that I could hear and feel the bias in Chernow’s words made me unsure of what to actually believe of the facts of Hamilton’s life as told in this biography.
The second thing I didn’t like about the book was that it was boring. There, I said it. I found myself zoning out for entire chapters in the car, wondering how it could have been possible for Chernow to go into any more dithering detail, until somehow, he did. I think the meat of the book is good, including the overview of Hamilton’s origins, his significant contributions to the founding of the government of the United States as we know it, and his squabbles and relationships with other significant figures in U.S. history like Washington and Jefferson. But all of that could have easily been accomplished more effectively in 400 to 500 words. The in between was either needless detail, repetition or clearly skewed opinion on the actual facts.
I haven’t watched the musical Hamilton yet, but based on people’s reactions to it I’m sure it feels nothing like this book. Musicals do not pretend to have the same accuracy or impartiality of historical biographies – they have much more leeway to get creative with historical fact in order to increase its interest or serve the purpose of their narratives. It’s honestly unfortunate that so many people are being led back to this book to read about Hamilton’s life due to the popularity of the musical, because I think the two really have little to do with each other. I think as a biography this fails both in its validity (due to the issues of bias), and in its readability. I went looking for a shorter book that probably conveys about the same breadth of information and came upon Washington And Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America by Stephen F. Knott and Tony Williams, which probably covers everything the avid history reader would need on the topic in 352 pages. You’re welcome.
Long, biased and a struggle to get through, this biography likely has nothing to do with the famed musical you loved. Think twice before investing your time in its 800 meandering pages.
Disaster Falls: A Family Story by Stephane Gerson
Publication Date: January 24th 2017
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
In this piercing memoir, a father maps the contours of his grief and explores how his family navigates the unthinkable loss of eight-year-old Owen. On a day like any other, on a rafting trip down Utah’s Green River, Stéphane Gerson’s eight-year-old son, Owen, drowned in a spot known as Disaster Falls. That same night, as darkness fell, Stéphane huddled in a tent with his wife, Alison, and their older son, Julian, trying to understand what seemed inconceivable. “It’s just the three of us now,” Alison said over the sounds of a light rain and, nearby, the rushing river. “We cannot do it alone. We have to stick together.”
Disaster Falls chronicles the aftermath of that day and their shared determination to stay true to Alison’s resolution. Gerson captures the different ways of grieving that threatened to isolate each of them in their post-Owen worlds and then, with beautiful specificity, shows how he and Alison preserved and reconfigured their marriage from within.
Why You Shouldn’t Read It
This title definitely isn’t as popular as the two previous ones in this post, but I ended up picking it as one of my Blogging For Books selections a few months ago. Again, it may seem weird that I’m attracted to such harrowing storylines – this is a book after all about a family’s loss of a child by drowning – but there’s something elemental to the human experience when people are faced with such an extreme event that draws me in. There certainly was a lot to learn about love, loss and family in this book, and I think in its essence it would be very valuable to someone going through a similar experience of grief.
However, I have to be honest that for someone like me, who luckily hasn’t recently dealt with a loss of this magnitude, the book was just too sad and depressing. I guess it’s unfair to expect that this kind of factual narrative could have an uplifting angle or some kind of positive resolution – something you maybe might expect in a novel with this kind of storyline. The author, Stephane Gerson, father of the young Owen who drowned on the Green River, doesn’t pull any punches when he details the stages of his feelings after his loss and the effect of the events on his other child and his wife. It was just much too sad to witness because the entire book was focused on the emptiness left behind and the disorder and unfamiliarity of Stephane and his wife’s life in Owen’s absence.
It didn’t help that the structure of the book was disjointed, going back and forth through time and often causing the writing to become repetitive. Gerson also writes in a long-winded and circuitous manner that may come from his background as a historian. By the end of the book you’re desperate for some kind of resolution, some lifting of spirits or changing of perspective that may be unrealistic but that it is also very human to hope for. Instead there’s an additional loss which happens in a way that does add to the reflection on what life and death mean within the book, but that also is like an extra sucker punch to the gut for the reader.
I feel like a bad person for not having liked this book, but I think that it’s really only for people who have had a similar experience and are looking to see their feelings mirrored in Gerson’s account, or maybe for those who for whatever reason need to read something really depressing. I’ve read books about people escaping from polygamist cults, coroners dealing with murder victims and experiences of people who died or lost relatives during 9/11, but somehow none of them felt as unremittingly sad as this book.
Sad, depressing and clumsily written but honest account of the grief following the accidental death of a child, most likely best suited for those unfortunately experiencing a similar loss.
Have you read Dead Wake, Alexander Hamilton or Disaster Falls? What did you think of them? Do you agree with my ratings? Let me know in the comments.
For some great upcoming nonfiction picks, read my recent post on Summer 2017 Nonfiction Releases.
Please note this post contains affiliate links from Book Depository. I received a copy of Disaster Falls from Blogging For Books in exchange for an honest review.