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.

Reading to move forward at Thanksgiving


Two weeks ago I spent the morning leading a discussion for approximately 30 people titled Page to Screen. While there was interest in the material presented, there was a persistent buzz and uncertainty in the room about the upcoming election. While the outcome was known two days later, a general unease remains about how we got to where we are today and how we can move forward.

Regardless of one’s choices, the daily news is disturbing. Vandalism, hate crimes and incivility are increasing. This is not the peaceful transition of power that has characterized the aftermath of US elections for two hundred years. Being an informed and engaged citizen is at least as important today as it was two weeks ago. While it is important to step up and support the issues and organizations that speak to our individual concerns, it is also vital to step back and focus on those elements of our lives that shape our views: family, home, personal history and health, leisure interests and more.

Reading can calm or energize; help educate or offer the option to escape – it’s all in the selections. Daily, people are approaching me for book recommendations to distract from the political furor. For some I suggest the hair of the dog, fine narratives of earlier eras in American history, both fiction and nonfiction. Examples would be Erik Larson’s Dead Wake and In the Garden of Beasts, Ruth Gruber’s Haven, Mary Doria Russell’s Epitaph, and Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. All serve as a reminder that America has faced intractable problems and dissension in the past, and solutions come with a high price. Here is a list Penguin Random House built of titles to understand America in 2016.

2016 National Book Award finalists
2016 National Book Award finalists

Others are looking for books where the emphasis on characters and plot provide a respite from real politics and history. My current picks in that area are Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War, Louise Penny’s mysteries, and the short stories of Molly Antopol and Edith Pearlman. And great comfort comes from re-reading whichever books you consider your old friends.

Don’t forgot that the anger, disappointment, and uncertainty heard in our conversations and seen in the news can disturb children as well. This may be a great time to drop everything and read classic and modern children’s literature together. Biographies of American leaders – presidents, suffragettes, inventors or leaders of the Civil Rights movement – can provide both perspective and inspiration to all in these complicated times.

As I prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday, my hope is that everyone finds a welcome spot around a table, that there be conversations to bridge differences, and violence is left on the football field. If you choose to battle the shopping hoards, please consider a stop at your local bookstore. Between the books and other gift items stocked, there is likely something for everyone on your list with no assembly required. Even Senator Tim Kaine is ready for a stop at his local bookstore.

Courtesy of Shelf Awareness
Courtesy of Shelf Awareness

‘TRIBE: On Homecoming and Belonging’

IN A NUTSHELLUnknown - Version 2 

  • Unknown-4TRIBE by Sebastian Junger (Twelve, Hachette Book Group, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: An outgrowth of a June 2015 article on soldiers’ PTSD long after leaving the battlefield, Junger posits what is it about modern society that has created this problem. Using recognized research and his observations, Junger provides food for thought.
  • Genre: Nonfiction/Anthropology
  • Time: 300 plus years of communities
  • Read this for an interesting take on the how individualism and independence may leave our society vulnerable to depression, PTSD and other problems.

Sebastian Junger is a familiar name to many for his book The Perfect Storm about the New England fisherman caught as three weather fronts came together in 1991. His writing is fiercely analytical, bringing together the individual, societal and (in that case) climatological factors that marked that tragedy.

Junger spent time embedded with troops in Afghanistan. As a journalist, filmmaker, and long form author, he was struck by the strong bonding of military units regardless of the ethnic, racial, intellectual and social differences that might divide in other environments. Junger saw wounded soldiers desperate to return to their units rather than to be sent home.  Many of the same strong and courageous individuals had severe and long-lasting difficulties reintegrating upon returning home. TRIBE is his effort to understand why.

This brief book, less than 140 pages, refers to dozens of psychological, sociological and anthropological studies, business and newspaper articles on the evolution of tribal and group behavior. The primary exemplars are tribes, going back to ancient times through early America, who’s communities were completely interdependent with well-defined communal roles. His contention is the superiority of this model is reinforced by the resistance of captured American settlers to return to their communities, often fleeing to return to those who had been their captors.

Junger asserts that that interdependence is seen in military units and that the loss of it causes/exacerbates reintegration difficulties. On the civilian side, he suggests that this lack of fundamental purposefulness contributes to some instances of depression, abuse of medical insurance and other behaviors.  As evidence, he shares data that suggests catastrophes such as 9/11 resulted in reductions in suicide and symptoms of depression. Rather than turning inward, people reached out to help others both selflessly and to fulfill a need to contribute to making society whole. In my opinion, his assessment might also be worth looking at in terms of gang members and those who have been incarcerated.

This is not an academic treatise nor does he proport to be a scholar.  Having said that, I’d recommend it to those who study societal dynamics, social workers, and particularly those involved in the serious problem of appropriately training our military and reintegrating them into civilian service. Even if he isn’t spot on, his work provides a starting point for discussion.


‘The UnAmericans’ deserves your attention

IN A NUTSHELLUnknown - Version 2

  • Unknown-2The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol (W.W. Norton & Company, 2014)
  • In 40 words or less: In eight stories, Antopol crosses continents and decades bringing together politics, love, longing and the human condition.
  • Genre: Short stories
  • Locale: Various
  • Time: Various
  • Read this to experience the richness of an excellent collection of short stories.

I admit it.  It took far too long for me to pick up Molly Antopol’s extraordinary collection of stories. From the opening sentences, each story in the UnAmericans drops the reader into a distinct location and time. Throughout the collection, Antopol brings in elements gleaned from her family’s Eastern European experience and their leftist leanings when they arrived in the U.S. Several stories in the collection take place in Israel, each depicting very different family situations.  The precision with which she creates the wide range of settings is extraordinary in writings of this length.

The first story, The Old World, brings together a lonely dry cleaner and a woman longing for her life in Ukraine before Chernobyl. Antopol deftly weaves in each character’s backstory, bringing in the disapproving daughter and son-in-law to underscore the businessman’s vulnerability.imgres

Both The Quietest Man and The Unknown Soldier are twists on the classic theme of divorced fathers seeking to elevate themselves in their child’s eyes. The Unknown Soldier is set as an actor-father leaves prison, having been jailed as a result of the McCarthy hearings. His celebratory road trip with his son does not go as planned, each wanting it to be the other’s trip of a lifetime. In The Quietest Man, a young woman has sold her first play. Long divorced, she has spent little time with her father over the years. Her parents were Czech activists and her father was a celebrated lecturer on their arrival in the U.S. While in the spotlight he neglected his family. Over the years, as new world crises arose, his fame declined. Now her father brings her for a visit seeking reassurance that his image isn’t tarnished in her writings.

With all the different timeframes and settings, there are recurring themes throughout the book. Family is key. Standing up for your beliefs should be lauded, fakery punished. Love isn’t always what it seems. It is how these themes are revealed that differentiates Molly Antopol from most other writers. Antopol was recognized by the National Book Foundation as “5 Under 35” author for this book. She won the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, was longlisted for the National Book Award, and finalist for numerous other awards. The UnAmericans appeared on more than a dozen “Best of” lists in 2014. My only criticism is I enjoyed the stories so much that I rushed to read through them rather than taking more time to savor each one.



Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story

IN A NUTSHELLUnknown - Version 2

  • PumpkinflowersPumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story Matti Friedman (Algonquin Books, May 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Friedman shares both his personal and journalistic views of Israel’s experience in Lebanon in the 1990’s with the outpost called Pumpkin as the focus. Heart-wrenching and informative, it reminds the reader that history happens one person at a time.
  • Genre: Narrative history/memoir
  • Locale: Israel/Lebanon
  • Time: 1994-2002

Two years ago I first learned that Matti Friedman’s next book would be about the little-mentioned experience of Israeli soldiers in outposts in Southern Lebanon. These fortifications and their platoons were protection from Hezbollah incursions into northern Israel. This is a personal story for him – it was in the Pumpkin that Friedman served during his time in the IDF in the late 90s. Pumpkinflowers goes beyond his story to tell of those who came before him, their families and friends, and of the women whose outcry led to the abandonment of these positions on the hills.

In Israel, all but the ultra-Orthodox are obligated to serve in the military. Leadership is cultivated early and the bonds of service continue beyond the time in uniform.  Israel is a small country so troops are rotated from post to training with frequency and weekend visits home are a part of the culture. And when there are casualties, each wounded soldier (flower) or death (cyclamen) is a collective sorrow, invariably a distant relative or friend of a friend’s cousin.

The early days of the Pumpkin are given life through Avi, a writer by temperament, who was sent with his platoon to the Pumpkin in 1994. Friedman uses diaries and letters, interviews with Avi’s parents and others from the platoon, to paint the picture of life on the hill.  Friedman lays out the routines, the boredom broken by fear when trying to ascertain whether a shepherd is merely looking for lost sheep or is actually a threat. The platoon members are from different backgrounds, religious to completely secular, though all are schooled in the Biblical history of the land. They are at the cusp of adulthood, intrigued by popular culture, keeping in touch with their friends, trying to figure out what is next.

Access to the outposts was difficult and troops were often conveyed by helicopter. In February 1997, poor weather conditions contributed to a tragedy that changed the direction of Israel’s defense in the security zone. Begun by mothers, slowly but surely pressure to bring the soldiers home from the outposts began.

And it was after this that Matti Friedman, at nineteen, was sent to the Pumpkin.  Only after telling the story of the early years does Friedman share his experience.

Well-conceived narrative history can bring breadth in a very compelling way. In Pumpkinflowers Matti Friedman gives life to the Pumpkin and to the terrain that the platoons are charged with protecting.  The difficulty in defending borders when combatants look just like their neighbors. The combination of bravado and naiveté among the IDF’s soldiers, and a country where each casualty is a tragedy within the family. Friedman also lays out the politics and resistance.

In the end, it is a very personal story, incomplete without Friedman’s visit back to where it all began. After the Pumpkin was the temporary home to too many young men lost, it is now a hill with scars. And the view remains essentially the same as it has for thousands of years.

Pumpkinflowers is well-documented and tightly written. Covering a rarely discussed period of Israeli history, this book is important for the gap it fills and the manner it which it is addressed. As he says, this period is the beginning of a new type of warfare in the Middle East and Hezbollah was its start. This book has appeal for readers of all genres and will be a great source of discussion.

Matti Friedman is a journalist and author. His 2012 book, The Aleppo Codex, was awarded numerous prizes, including one which afforded him the opportunity to turn his attention more fully to his experience in Lebanon.  Friedman continues to write both narrative journalism and opinion pieces.