Sam Shepard is a national treasure. I know that there are pockets of the literary world that appreciate him, but I still think he is vastly underappreciated overall. If we take away his very good acting career, he’s still the greatest living American playwright and, in my opinion, the very best when it comes to crafting a short story that grips you, immediately means something, and leaves you wanting more-and-more. I don’t know any writer — dead or alive — who creates nameless, faceless characters out of thin air and makes you care about them within a few very short paragraphs before allowing them to vanish (and being okay with it — he is never, ever greedy with his stories and characters, he is restrained almost to the point of stinginess).
As it might be clear from the type of writing that I specialize in, I don’t spend a whole lot of time reading fiction. I’m more comfortable with non-fiction (particularly when it comes to my own writing), and the main reason for that is because it is real. I can relate to it so much better because when something is real, I can feel it. I have a very difficult time when it comes to being touched by fiction.
And the truth is that I always want to feel something. Personally, I have a difficult time expressing my feelings and accessing my feelings. Non-fiction — history — makes it easy because I don’t have to spend a lot of time putting my imagination into gear in hopes of triggering certain emotions. With history, they are often already on the surface — I know where I’m supposed to be going, and that makes it easier to get there.
But when I read Sam Shepard, his words — often simple, unadorned phrases — provoke instinctive, visceral feelings. I can’t tell if Shepard’s writing is connecting with something deep inside of me, or if his stark language is scalding the very surface of my skin. Whatever it is, I feel it. It doesn’t matter how austere the prose, how alien the setting, how foreign the characters, I always feel what Sam Shepard writes, and I can’t say that about any other writer that I have ever read. I read to learn, but we also all read to feel. Sam Shepard’s stories don’t always make me smile, but I feel every single piece and they resonate with me long after I close his books.
Decades from now, when I am old(er) and gray(er) and talking about my favorite writers, I’ll be able to say that I read the collected works of John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway and Ambrose Bierce, or learned the poetry of Pablo Neruda — legendary writers who died before I was even born. I’ll be able to mention that due to my age I caught the tail-end of the careers of Hunter S. Thompson, Gabriel García Márquez, or Yevgeny Yevtushenko — appreciating them once they were already established as literary giants but appreciating no less than what they rightly deserved. And all of that will be wonderful. But then I’ll be able to mention that I bought Sam Shepard’s books as they were released — maybe not Hawk Moon, Motel Chronicles, or Fool For Love because I was too young, but that I went to the bookstore (I’ll probably have to explain what that was) and picked up The Unseen Hand and Other Plays, Cruising Paradise, Great Dream of Heaven, and Day Out of Days (and hopefully a few more collections of stories before all is said and done). I’ll be able to brag that I bought them on the day of the release and pull out my somewhat worn (but hopefully in good condition) first edition copies of these Sam Shepard collections, and someone will look at them with wonder and awe, just like I’d look at first edition copies of The Sun Also Rises or Tortilla Flat or The Beautiful and Damned if someone pulled them out today.
Sam Shepard is on the same level as Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, or HST. The only difference is that Shepard is more versatile as an artist. Those who don’t know his work might scoff at the comparisons; those who do know his work don’t need any convincing. But I know one thing for sure — Sam Shepard takes an art form and somehow uses it to create an emotion.
The last five books that I have finished are:
•The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon & Schuster)
•1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War by Charles Emmerson (PublicAffairs)
•Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century by Christian Caryl (Basic Books)
•Here Is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History by Andrew Carroll (Crown Archetype)
•Lawrence In Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson (Doubleday)
•Lincoln in the World: The Making of a Statesman and the Dawn of American Power by Kevin Peraino (Crown)
Yes, and one thing that I always make an effort to do is support the authors that I really enjoy by going out and buying their books — even if the publisher sends me a review copy. In those cases, I just feel like I owe the author something because I appreciate their work. Sure, it probably makes little-to-no appreciable contribution to their overall earnings, but it’s just something that I feel good for doing.
I don’t do that for all authors, of course, but I almost always do go out and eventually buy a copy (even if I already have that free review copy) from my favorite writers such as:
•Doris Kearns Goodwin
Those are just the authors that immediately come to mind, but I definitely try to support my favorite authors, no matter if I get free copies or not.
You’re off to a good start because I think that Chernow’s book is probably the very best biography of Alexander Hamilton that you will find. Willard Sterne Randall (Alexander Hamilton: A Life) and Richard Brookhiser (Alexander Hamilton, American) are top-notch historians of the Revolution and Founding Fathers, so they also have written solid biographies of Hamilton, but Chernow’s is the cream of the crop. While they aren’t completely focused on Hamilton, there is also great insight in Joseph J. Ellis’s Founding Brothers and Thomas Fleming’s Duel.
If you are wanting to dig a little deeper into Hamilton’s political philosophy and his role is shaping the American government, there is a book edited by Douglas Ambrose and Robert W. T. Martin called The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton: The Life and Legacy of America’s Most Elusive Founding Father that you may want to check out.
However, the very best source for Hamilton’s political thought would be The Federalist Papers. While they were all published under the pseudonym “Publius”, it’s easy to find editions which identify whether you’re reading an essay by Hamilton, James Madison, or John Jay. The vast majority of the essays were written by Hamilton. I think Jay wrote just 5 out of the 85 essays and Hamilton wrote almost twice as many as Madison (Hamilton and Madison also teamed up on 2 or 3 of the essays). You can get a good understanding of Hamilton’s political philosophy and his ultimate influence on the government that was formed through The Federalist Papers. Plus, you can easily find them for free online.
The last question about my books motivated me to share this quote of Churchill’s about books, which is one of my favorite quotes ever.
The weekend is almost here, and with it comes two, brand-new, feature-length articles from me in AND Magazine!
Both articles will spend time on AND Magazine's cover page this weekend, but my loyal followers here on Dead Presidents don’t have to wait. You can check them out now, in their entirety.
¿Viva La Revolucíon? looks at the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, its impact on his country, and Chávez’s influence on Latin America and the regional leaders who came to power during (and often because of) the Chávez era. ¿Viva La Revolucíon? also examines the life and legacy of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution and Hugo Chávez’s relation to that movement as well as his connection to one of the Revolution’s enduring symbols, Ché Guevara.
In my other new article, Sede Vacante: Historic Happenings at the Vatican, I focus on the Papacy in transition following the surprising and extraordinarily rare resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and write about what we might be able to expect, from a historian’s point-of-view, as the College of Cardinals meets in a Conclave to elect a new Pope under almost unprecedented circumstances — a perfect storm of uncertainty in which a Papal vacancy, scandals in the Church, a shift in worldwide Catholic demographics, and a Conclave held in the wake of a voluntary resignation rather than under the solemnity and sadness of a Pope’s death may result in a far more political process (at least openly) than usual.
Check my articles out now, before they even hit the cover page at AND Magazine! And, if you do read ¿Viva La Revolucíon? or Sede Vacante, please take a moment to click the Facebook “like” button near the top of each page. In fact, even if you don’t read the articles, just go to the page and click that “like” button because it helps me a whole lot. Seriously, you don’t even have to read the articles right now, just go to those links and click the Facebook “like” button and I’ll be your friend in real-life, be the godfather to your children, hide your murder weapon like Robert Kardashian (allegedly) if you pull an O.J. Simpson (allegedly)…whatever you need, I’m there if the Faceboook “likes” on each article gets over 100, okay? Cool.
Speaking of suits, that last question, about whether I would wear a suit as President, reminds me of my favorite Presidential book, Bob Greene’s wonderful Fraternity: A Journey In Search of Five Presidents (BOOK•KINDLE). In the book, Greene sets out to visit with five former Presidents who are in different stages of retirement. Although he is unable to see the ailing Ronald Reagan, Greene spends time with Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush and gives the reader interesting insights on how they live and what their lives are like after being the most powerful and recognizable person in the world.
Nixon is the first former President that Greene visits and the author is surprised to find out that Nixon never took off his suit jacket while in the Oval Office and, nearly 20 years after his resignation, the former President still worked in a suit jacket and tie — even if he was sitting in his home office all day and working alone on a book that he was writing. ”It isn’t a case of trying to be formal,” Nixon told Greene, “But I’m more comfortable that way. I’ve done it all my life. I don’t mind people around here in the office, particularly younger people — they usually take their coats off. But I just never have. It’s just the way I am. I work in a coat and tie — and believe me, believe it or not, it’s hard for people to realize, but when I’m writing a speech or working on a book or dictating or so forth, I’m always wearing a coat and tie. Even when I’m alone. If I were to take it off, probably I would catch cold. That’s the way it is.”
In a way, however, Nixon’s formality isn’t all that surprising. After all, there are many photos of a relaxing Nixon walking the beach along the Pacific Ocean near his home in San Clemente, California, La Casa Pacifica sans suit coat and tie, but in suit pants and wingtips.
Later in Fraternity, when Bob Greene visited with former President George H.W. Bush, he was struck by how down-to-earth and relaxed the supposedly-patrician, WASPish 41st President was. Greene decided to tell Bush about Nixon’s personal suit-and-tie rule and get another President’s opinion, so I’ll share that excerpt from Fraternity, a book that I’ve recommended countless times and will undoubtedly recommend again:
"Mr. Nixon said that he permitted the men in his office to take their suit coats off, but that he never did, because he wouldn’t like the way it made him feel," I (Greene) said.
"I never did, in the Oval Office," Bush said.
"You didn’t take your suit coat off?" I said. Bush was still jacketless as we sat and talked.
"No," Bush said.
"When you were alone?" I asked.
“THAT’S what you’re talking about — Nixon wouldn’t even take his jacket off when he was alone?” Bush said.
"Yes," I said.
"Oh," Bush said, looking toward the ceiling as if trying to picture this. "I see," he said, sounding as if he found the notion quite peculiar.
He thought for a second. ”I might have taken it off when I was alone in the Oval Office,” he said. ”But when people were there, I put a jacket on.”
"But Mr. Nixon said that wherever he was, not just in the Oval Office, when he was alone working on a speech by himself or something, he would keep his suit jacket on," I said. "He had to have it on."
"No," Bush said, remembering his own routine in the White House. "I think I would go in there to the Oval Office on a Saturday morning when nobody was there, and I wouldn’t wear a jacket. At he house, the living quarters part of the White House, that’s different, too. I mean, I’d walk around there in a bathrobe. I mean, you know, the bedroom? You’re not going to wear a suit."
So, there you go, more than you’ll ever need to know about Presidents and suits. Again, you’re missing out if you’ve never read Bob Greene’s Fraternity: A Journey In Search of Five Presidents (BOOK•KINDLE). It is my favorite Presidential book because I love how Greene presents the Presidents he visits as people. Instead of simply looking at what they did or did not do, Greene asks the Presidents he talks to — Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Bush 41 — exactly what I would want to ask a President: ”What did it feel like?” I am confident that it is a book that many of my readers would really love.
On average, I would say that I read 3-to-5 hours per day. No matter how busy I am or how tired I might be, I have always made a point to read for at least 2 hours before I allow myself to go to sleep.
Of course, it’s easier for me to do this now as opposed to before I started working for AND Magazine. Since reviewing books is part of my job, I have the luxury of spending most of the day reading because I’m getting paid to do it. It wouldn’t be nearly as easy if I was still doing the work I did when I was younger.
Awesome, I’m glad to hear that! I’m fortunate enough to get a ton of great books to review for AND Magazine, so I love being able to share my thoughts and make recommendations for my fellow history fans.
Everyone is welcome to connect with me on Goodreads, as well. Since I don’t always have the time to write a full-scale review on all of the books that I read, I’m going to try to remember to at least use Goodreads to post a short review (or a star rating at the very least!). I’m training myself to go to Goodreads daily so that I am consistent about it, but you’ll have to be patient with me because, as anyone who follows me on Facebook and (especially) Twitter knows, I tend to go through phases.
You made a solid choice with The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace (BOOK•KINDLE). I think it was one of the best books of the year, and that’s no surprise since H.W. Brands always delivers. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that it’s the best book written about Grant other than the one that General Grant wrote about himself.
Wow, I don’t really know how many books I have that focus on the Civil War or that era. If I were forced to make a guess, I’d say that I probably have about 90 or 100 books on the Civil War. Most of them focus on specific aspects of the Civil War or the crises that led to the war or the important individuals and events. Few of the books try to tell the complete history of the war and that’s good because it really can’t be done in one volume. So, if you were to dig through my Civil War library, you’d find a lot of biographies of people like William Tecumseh Sherman and Jefferson Davis, as well as books like William J. Cooper’s recent released We Have the War Upon Is: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861 (BOOK•KINDLE) which takes a detailed look at the country from Lincoln’s election to the firing on Fort Sumter as President Buchanan’s lame duck administration does nothing while states begin to secede from the Union.
I don’t think they get redundant at all. Sure, you’ll cover some common ground, but each writer tells the stories in a different way, spotlight different people or events, and bring the history to us in their own voice. I actually prefer to read several books on the same subject because it really drives home the history, breaks through any potential biases or inconsistencies of individual authors, and helps complete the story.
I never think of common history that I read from different authors as redundancies. It’s more like a validation of the information. I truly believe that you can always get more out of a story, whether it’s through research that reveals new information, or the perspective of the writer, or just the way that something is written. Just as an example, if an editor asked me to write a different story every day for a week but that I had to detail Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in the story as the centerpiece each day, I could easily do it by shifting the narrative or approaching the details a little differently or with a totally different voice. That’s how I look at multiple books about a common subject.