Navigating the holiday season in this company town


The next month is an ongoing series of office-neighborhood-networking parties celebrating the holidays and year’s end. Even for party animals who consider small talk a sport, parties this season in the Washington area have an underlying current of uncertainty. We are accustomed to the quadrennial cycle of presidential elections and the anticipated turnover of jobs, real estate and alliances.  Just like everything else this year, different doesn’t quite capture the climate.

Washington is a town where the second question asked after you meet a stranger is “What do you do?” Sometimes it is out of genuine interest, too often it is to gauge whether the person is valuable to get to know. When many people in government and not-for-profit organizations are concerned their jobs may be adversely affected and the fabric of our society has been shredded, and the politico-social environment has people shouting at rather than talking to each other, this quick sizing up of one’s value may be hard to handle.

So what does this have to do with reading and books?

Here’s my suggestion to change up the small talk with someone new – ask her (him) “What are you reading?” While there are some people who choose not to read, in this town reading is taken seriously across demographics and philosophies. Now this is not a foolproof conversation starter. I’ve been told that s/he reads a screen all day long and just can’t read at home (oh, that must be very stressful. Hope the situation changes) or the only thing s/he has time to read is Hop on Pop/Curious George/Good Night, Good Night, Construction Site (there is no greater gift than the love of reading, enjoy this time.) Thankfully, this is a question that usually perks up even the most reticent attendee.


Over the last decade, there have been occasions where my political views have been very different from everyone else’s in the room. Rather than arguing politics, we talk books, generally histories or biographies. For those with whom I often disagree on policy, we look forward to these conversations. The focus on how history and the success/failings of leaders can inform our views tamps down the acrimony of the daily news.

And then there is the sheer joy of sharing a book or author you love with someone new. I never tire of the excitement people bring when they tell me about a new find. In these chats people seem to be all ears, listening with an open mind to what is compelling about a book, author or genre. The conversation may veer into what someone’s day job or passion is, rounding out the understanding of who you are speaking with. Expect to be surprised – the button-downed guy may be a sci-fi geek, the hipster may be on a Dickens jag, and the social worker may be into psychological thrillers. Who knows, you may come away from the event having had a break from the every day, made a new acquaintance, and have some new books to read when the news is just too much to bear.

To review or not to review – here’s how I decide


If all someone knew about my reading habits is my posts, they’d think I like all the books I read.  Nothing could be farther from the truth. There are tens of thousands of books published each year and no one can read every book that may appeal.  Reading time is very precious to me and I’d rather read more and write less, so I need to be selective.

What I will review:

  • Titles that beg to be discussed with a group, both fiction and nonfiction.
  • New titles from a favorite author.
  • Quirky books that defy easy classification.
  • Books about readers and bookstores, a particular weakness of mine.
  • About-to-be published titles that I’ve read (and enjoyed) before reviews have appeared.
  • Backlist titles that deserve another reading.
  • Any book that I am ready to share with a stranger, let alone a good friend.

(For a quick look, check out the BOOKS page.)

What I usually won’t write about:

  • Books I finished but didn’t particularly enjoy. I’ll share my opinion if you ask about a specific title but it may be my attitude, not the quality of the book. After all, who am I to bash a popular debut novel just because I found it pedestrian?
  • Most of the books I read to cleanse my palate. Often these are mysteries or thrillers that I do enjoy but don’t stick with me once I’ve closed the book.
  •  Nonfiction where my underlying knowledge is limited.


So how do I find my books?

Long before major new titles hit the shelves, information begins appearing in trade newsletters and emails. There are many regular emails for readers as well, many of which offer the chance to win advance copies or to read a sample chapter online. For something different, I often read the book reviews and awards announcements from British or Canadian newspapers in addition to a number of US papers. Only a portion of well-received titles come across the borders. And wherever I am, I seek out independent bookstores and the professionals that work there. Each community has some of its own “hot reads” and often quality books by local authors. The local library and the library’s used bookstore also fill my plate. And I ask everyone I meet, “What are you reading?”

As a book group facilitator and blogger, I periodically receive upcoming titles that may be of interest. They arrive with no specific obligation on my part. Certainly, the publishers’ marketeers are thrilled to get an email or see a post that will put my small band of followers on the lookout for an upcoming book. And when a gem lands on my doorstep, I am happy to share the find.

Once published, it is difficult to judge a book entirely on its own merit. Often there have been newspaper/website/radio/blog reviews or ads. Your best friend/work colleague/book group buddy/significant other loved (or hated) it and can’t imagine you’d think otherwise. Word of mouth on the new “hot” book can spread far faster than the flu.

Often as not, an advance copy may just keep moving down my “to-be-read” pile, displaced as the time gets closer for a calendared book group selection or an author/topical favorite that appeared in the mail. Sometimes, it is just a matter of the right book at the right time. Recently, work with a new book group provided the perfect opportunity to finish and discuss My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet.

So, my to-be-read pile continues to grow and with it books I may write about someday. But what is most important to me is that we continue to read and share books, over coffee, in a group or across continents via the web. In the beginning there were stories. And through stories we can better understand our world and imagine worlds beyond.





Jazz, gangsters and booze in a novel of 1920s Chicago

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  • images-2The Jazz Palace by Mary Morris (Nan A. Talese – Doubleday, 2015)
  • In 40 words or less: Chicago in its strength and grit comes to life in this jazz age novel. Figures such as Al Capone and Louis Armstrong add an authentic flavor to the story. If the development of jazz speaks to you, this is your book.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Chicago
  • Time: 1915-1927

There is nothing like a real life disaster to capture attention. On the shore of the Chicago River, author Mary Morris introduces two families touched by tragedy in 1915.  That summer the S.S. Eastland, an excursion boat chartered to provide factory workers an outing, tipped over, drowning 844 people, about a third of those on board.

Benny Lehrman was out delivering caps from his father’s factory when he came upon the disaster. Guilty over the loss of his youngest brother during a snowstorm, Benny jumped in to try to save others. And here his path crossed the Chimbrova family. Three of the Chimbrova brothers died, their young sisters scarred by what they witnessed and their mother destroyed by the loss.

Chicago was an industrial, cultural and social hub in 1915. It was the center of the railroads, a city of factories with immigrants jostling for jobs and housing, each group protecting its people and territory. At the same time Chicago was drawing African-American musicians from the south as part of the Great Migration. Jazz and the blues had taken root in New Orleans and Biloxi and its stars were taking the train north in search of money, fame and a safer life.

After the end of WWI, the South Side of Chicago became a honky-tonk paradise for the growing African-American community with live musicians and dancing, drinking and brothels.  The North side had a similar mix for the white community. Both were under the watchful eye and protection, at a price, of the growing gangster presence which included Al Capone.

Up from the South is Napoleon, a man as physically impressive as he is talented with the trumpet. His music is his life, fine clothes his obsession, and he pushes the envelope in pursuit of both. Despite the risks, he searches out opportunities to play across town and musicians worthy of partnership.

As the oldest child, Benny’s family rests its hopes on him. By making deliveries, rather than working in the factory he has some leeway  and can follow his beloved White Sox, mired in scandal. Convinced he has musical talent, his family sends him for him weekly classical piano lessons. Though he does play Beethoven for his mother,  Benny is consumed by jazz and dedicates his free time to writing and playing this music, leaving the lessons behind. His pursuit of this passion further alienates him from his family.

It is the Chimbrova sisters and their club, the Jazz Palace, that brings these men together and can tear them apart.

Mary Morris’s The Jazz Palace is a true period piece. She captures the excitement and the grit of Chicago as the jazz age comes in, followed shortly by Prohibition. Her characters reflect the aspirations of working class immigrants and those seeking more freedom from the discrimination of the South. The pull of Lake Michigan and the brutality of the Chicago winters play a role in the novel. All these together paint a portrait of the City of Broad Shoulders during this transformative period.

History, One Character at a Time: Fiction

One of the beauties of historical fiction is having a lens to see shattering events through the eyes of a small number of characters.  For many, troop movements, names of battles and the immense number of casualties is beyond comprehension.  The human toll of war is lost in the numbers. Successful authors of high quality historical fiction devote more time to research than writing. As a reader, the novels are a first step to re-examining a time in history.  But it is critical to remember these books are fiction. Here are five titles to add to your reading list.

Hungary was occupied much later in WWII at a time when the Nazis were desperate for labor to continue their march. As such, the men taken by the Nazis, both Jews and non-Jews, were often subjected Invisible bridgeto back-breaking slave labor conditions, felling trees, digging roadways and other activities designed to increase the Nazi reach. In the historical novel, The Invisible Bridge, Julie Orringer’s follows two families from the cultural and educational heights of the late 1930’s in Paris and Budapest through the devastation and aftermath of the war. While the story itself is clearly fiction, the underlying setting is carefully researched and paints a detailed portrait of the vise-like shrinking of normalcy in daily life as the Nazi influence and power spread.

It is easy to forget how big the world is and how remote many areas were during World War II.  Nathacha Appanah’s The Last Brother is set on Mauritius, a BritishScreen Shot 2015-06-15 at 9.49.10 PM colony in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The reader first encounters Raj as an older man, looking back at his life. Raj was born on the island, home to a sugar factory and subsistence economy, beset by the vagaries of nature.  During a horrific storm, Raj’s brothers are swept away. The tender ministrations of his mother cannot offset his father’s temper and brutality.

One day a ship delivers to a fenced camp on the coast hundreds of white-skinned people, some with yellow hair and blue eyes, completely different in appearance from the local population.  Through the fence, Raj makes a friend and finds a brother. The island’s population knows little about these imprisoned people, where they came from or why they are being held. This is a heart-wrenching story of family, friendship and loss, set in 1944 when a ship actually did bring European Jews trying to escape to Palestine to an interment camp. This small but powerful book tells a story that resonates far beyond its time or place. Continue reading History, One Character at a Time: Fiction

Ellen in Wonderland- The Last Hurrah

By the third day of BEA15 I had totes filled with unread titles and a blister or two on my swollen feet. It wasn’t a “more is better” philosophy that kept me coming back – it was the prospect of the Book Group Speed Dating event on Friday afternoon. With that knowledge, I was very particular about the booths I visited beforehand. Continue reading Ellen in Wonderland- The Last Hurrah