Navigating the holiday season in this company town

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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.

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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.

My Day at the LOC National Book Festival

It’s my own special holiday, anticipated far more than my birthday. For the last 16 years, each September, authors of all stripes have come to Washington to speak of their craft before thousands and thousands of book lovers and visitors who just wandered by. I miss the days when it was on the mall, rain or shine or beastly heat.  There is something about the big tents with people crowding at the edges after all the seats are gone, that bring to mind a mash-up of a country fair, a Chautauqua festival, and a revival meeting, all focused on the power of the written word.thumb_img_4586_1024

I was among the early entrants to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, (as was Stephen King!) thumb_img_4580_1024quickly picking up the complimentary tote bag, poster and schedule of events. Thirteen speaker venues on four levels plus extensive exhibition space, devoted to literacy and educational resources rather than tchotchke sales, have attendees making tough choices from 10 am to 10 pm. Add in the thousand plus volunteers and you get an idea of the sheer size of the event.

Many of the programs I attended were on my “A” list, some were just good fortune. And timing or space constraints prevented me from others I would have definitely enjoyed. So here’s my day, chronologically:

  1. Marilynne Robinson, 2016 winner of the LOC Prize for American Fiction was introduced by Carla Hayden, the newly sworn in Librarian of Congress. Ms. Robinson was interviewed by Marie Arana and they spoke about the characters that have developed and changed through her trilogy of Gilead, Home, and Lila. Robinson is deeply religious. Rural life, theology and the institutions of religion play an important role in her novels.  unknown-12Long a professor of English and creative writing, she has recently retired from teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She talked about her characters speaking to her, directing their way through her novels. Robinson has a gentle sense of humor and looks like many of the teachers I had in elementary school. Her manner is very consistent with the settings of her writings, approachable, open and interested in everything around her, storing impressions of the world around her to be adapted in her writing.
  2. Yaa Gyasi debut novel, Homegoing, has been receiving raves everywhere. unknown-9Shame on me to not have picked up a copy at Book Expo! The author is only 26 but worked on her novel for seven years. Listening to her speak about the story of two half-sisters born in the 18th century, unknown to each other, in West Africa. It’s a story that travels from the villages and palaces of West Africa to the slave ships to Baltimore and Harlem. Gyasi’s voice is lyrical. This is moving way up on my to-be-read pile.
  3. Winston Groom, of Forrest Gump fame, and Colson Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad, were interviewed by NPR’s Audie Cornish. Groom, whose new book is El Paso, and Whitehead were brought together since each incorporates actual historical figures in their books despite the books veering far unknown-10unknown-14from historical reality. Whitehead’s title, the August pick for Oprah’s Book Club, reimagines the Underground Railroad as an actual transit system, changing at state borders. Through the eyes of a single slave, the story unfolds across time, geography and circumstance from the bringing of slaves to the US through the present day. And a slave catcher is giving chase. Groom’s El Paso is about a lesser known period of history, 1916 in Texas on the Mexican border. An industry magnate’s family members are kidnapped and he has to recover them. Icons of early 20th-century industry and politics are woven into the story. After what he did in Forrest Gump, I’m sure the reader is in for some ride.
  4. I couldn’t miss the chance to hear Carlos Ruiz Zafón speak about his novels. The Shadow of the Wind was one of those revelatory reading experiences for me. I’m not one to read the fantastical, but he caught me up from the very beginning. Zafón spoke about his writing, both for adults and young adults, as well as hisimages-3 experiences as a screenwriter. He is grateful to have left screenwriting behind. There were questions about the translation process and the level of input he has as an author – completely involved with his English translator, a matter of faith with the Korean. His works have been published in more than 40 countries. In his case, he is a wordsmith, whether in Spanish or English.
  5. unknown-11Adam Gopnik‘s presentation was a cross between stand-up and storytelling. There were riffs on food, family differences, New York, with a touch of politics thrown in. For example, Gopnik told how a crisis occurred when he seared tuna and served it rare. His wife and son asked that he go back and cook the fish. This so offended his sensibilities that he left the house in a huff, not before his wife told him to come back when he was ready and to cook the fish.
  6. The final event in my #NatBookFest day was Co-Chair David Rubenstein’s interview of Bob Woodward, award-winning journalist and author. In the hour-long discussion, Woodward told how his time in the Army and as aunknown-13 reporter for the Montgomery Sentinel led to a second (and successful) tryout with the Washington Post. As low man on the staff, he was sent to a burglary arraignment on a beautiful June morning, and so the Watergate break-in saga began. Rubenstein asked his impressions of this year’s candidates and many other leaders Woodward has interviewed over the years. I’ll have a lot of catching up to do if I want to read all of Woodward’s eighteen books.

For those who wish they could have been there, the Library of Congress usually posts videos of a number of the events on the website (www.loc.gov/bookfest) shortly after the Book Festival has concluded. I will be looking there, too, to see some of the speakers I couldn’t squeeze into my schedule. Let’s hope our next president continues this wonderful literary event, initiated by Laura Bush and supported by corporations, nonprofits, government agencies, foreign embassies and individual donors.

Book snobbery – can’t we just get along?

Fair warning: I’m on my soapbox this afternoon.

In today’s Washington Post (8/6/16) (here), Sophie McManus came out, guns drawn, against readers of “beach reads.” In no uncertain terms, she paints the readers as sexist and vapid.  Through three-quarters of the column, she screeches about the unsuitability of their choices, because “these women” are a monolith. If one reads to the end, she raises the lack of diversity among editorial staffs and the importance of reading among African-American women. Now, having never heard of Ms. McManus, I felt obligated to do a little research before questioning her conclusion.

According to Ron Charles of The Washington Post, in reviewing her novel The Unfortunates on June 16, 2016, Ms. McManus graduated from Vassar and Sarah Lawrence and is the daughter of the editor in chief of Time Warner. Her novel, reviewed in all the “right” places, is about the ultra-rich and apparently is, in part, a social satire. I only wish her Book World piece was satire.

As a reader, professional book group facilitator, and blogger, much of my time is spent talking with people about what they read and why. Just like the teacher you wish you or your child had, I wouldn’t dream of criticizing someone’s choice of book or genre because they are reading. Reading is the enemy of ignorance.

When I speak with readers I try to erase the notion of “guilty pleasures” in reading. Who is anyone to criticize a social worker who deals with abused children from choosing to read fantasy for escape? And the person who spends day after day caring for a chronically ill relative may choose a “beach read” since there is no vacation on the horizon. Or, it could be the friend who called the article to my attention – a parent, leading volunteer in her community, and a practicing audiologist with a doctorate. People read for many reasons: to escape, to armchair travel, to learn an unfamiliar topic, to be entertained, to be part of a reading community. There are many reasons and they may change with one’s age and stage of life.

The women on that beach may be attorneys or wait staff, Uber drivers or teachers just looking to carve out that rare time away.  These same women may be in the book group Ms. McManus wishes would read her book but the group may choose narrative nonfiction, memoirs, classics or even other literary fiction. Let them read what they want when they want!

Isn’t there far too much divisiveness everywhere we turn? What is the upside to criticizing what writers write and readers buy? The assumption that all women who may read a “beach read” are so foolish they can’t see it isn’t real life nor anything one should aspire to is condescending. It would be tempting to say, given Ms. McManus’s background and comments, that maybe she should get a better sense of how the other 99% live and read. And if she hasn’t anything useful to say, maybe she’d best say nothing.

 

Anne Tyler reimagines ‘The Taming of the Shrew’

  • imgresVinegar Girl by Anne Tyler (Hogarth Shakespeare, 2016; Random House Audio, Kirsten Potter, reader)
  • In 40 words or less: A commissioned reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew in novel form. Kate is a preschool teacher’s assistant “encouraged” to marry her scientist father’s research assistant before his visa expires.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Baltimore
  • Time: Contemporary
  • Read this if you are interested reading each of the eight titles in the Hogarth modern retelling of Shakespeare’s classics.

Fair warning, I rarely opt to share my opinion on a title I can’t wholeheartedly recommend. I am making an exception having had multiple occasions in the last two weeks to consider different treatments of Shakespeare’s works. My post, ‘The fascination with Shylock’, gives a taste of my Shakespearian interactions.

Modernizing classic literature for contemporary audiences is far from new. West Side Story and Kiss Me Kate have engaged many who otherwise would have been put off by Shakespeare’s language. Film marathons could be devoted to treatments of Romeo and Juliet or Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In the spirit of finding new audiences via modern retellings by acclaimed authors, Hogarth Press has created a new series, Hogarth Shakespeare.

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A week ago, we saw The Shakespeare Theatre Company‘s all-male version of The Taming of the Shrew, the final production of the 2015-16 season. In brief, while

imagesthere were some wonderful acting performances, the shtick of the all-male casting often overtook the production. In another Shakespeare foray, prep for my book groups for next program year has made Howard Jacobson’s My Name is Shylock, his fresh look at The Merchant of Venice, courtesy of Hogarth, a preferred pick.

The third entry in the Hogarth series is Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, released earlier this month. Tyler is renowned for her Baltimore-based novels of quirky family life. In theory, bringing Shakespeare’s tale of two daughters to a classic American city could give the story a different, yet spicy flavor. Anne Tyler ability to share the quirkiness of “regular” families makes her one of America’s beloved authors. In this novel, Tyler doesn’t take full advantage of the opportunity, creating a family most notable for its stultifying routine.

Thanks to Random House Audio, I had the chance to listen to Kirsten Potter’s reading of Vinegar Girl. To her credit, Potter aptly gave voice to the personality traits Anne Tyler imparted to her characters. Among the funniest characters are those least seen – Kate’s aunt and uncle that each have unique roles to play in the nuptials.

Kate and Bunny Battista are mere shadows of Kate and Bianca Minola. Kate Battista is rather aimless for a 29-year-old daughter of a widowed college professor – she’s dropped out of college and is barely hanging on to her job in a preschool with no real friends. Her off-hours are spent preparing the same one-pot meal to cover dinners for the entire week, doing her family’s laundry and criticizing her beautiful-but-empty-headed high school student sister.

Dr. Battista is in a quandary. He is concerned about continuing funding for transformative research involving rats. He seems on the cusp of a breakthrough but is faced with losing his assistant, Pyotr, whose three-year visa is about to expire. Battista’s solution is to have Kate marry him. Battista intends it be a marriage of convenience, creating pictures on his phone to convince ICE that it is a love match. Dad’s plan would have Pyotr moving into a (separate) bedroom in Battista household and Kate continuing with her domestic roles. Unlike Shakespeare’s Petruchio, Pytor is neither brash nor wealthy. In his somewhat awkward yet genuine way, he undertakes to woo Kate in furtherance of the scheme.

While Kate is hardly a warm, creative and altruistic figure, she is far from the obstinate and feisty character in Shakespeare’s play. The secondary characters at her preschool might make anyone a bit churlish. And Bunny’s high school infatuation with the boy next door hardly qualifies as the string of suitors set to marry Bianca as soon as Kate is married off.

For the modern reader or theatergoer, the treatment of Kate as little more than chattel is at best troublesome. Tyler hasn’t reached sufficiently beyond this in her novel. For its many failings as a modern comedy, the one aspect of the Shakespeare’s play that provides some relief is the comic changing/mistaken identities. While it may be an overused device across the body of Shakespeare’s work, having this twist might have added a comedic lift to Vinegar Girl.

To the good, it is genuine affection between Pyotr and Kate that carries the day in the end, rather than submission. Given such broad license with The Taming of the Shrew, I expected more.

Rain Delay Book Club

IMG_2968It is now 11 days of rain and counting. I love baseball and I’m no fair weather fan. I also take public transit to the park and read en route. In the ten plus years I’ve been a frequent attendee at Washington Nationals games, there have been many rain delays. After all, this IS Washington. Fortunately, the team is on the road so this week’s ceaseless slosh hasn’t affected my viewing. But I do like to have a Plan B.

So what’s a book-loving baseball fan to do? Find other readers who are waiting for the game to resume! It’s a much better option than trying to get a signal so you can peer at weather radar for an hour.

Are you in? Doesn’t require much. Post on Facebook or Twitter or even Instagram. Tag it #RainDelayBookClub and include the title of your book. Share your location if you wish, after all, you are already squashed up close and personal with 20,000 or more strangers. Here’s a chance to meet some kindred spirits. And you can join in whether you are at the park or not, or even at Wrigley or Fenway or Pac Bell.

For my part, I’ll pick a title or two each month of the season (hopefully, through October) and share it here and on Facebook. If you have suggestions, bring ’em on. And I’ll be happy to meet up with you at Nats Park and ask you, “So what are you reading?”

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May titles:  Fiction – Circling the Sun by Paula McLain; Nonfiction – Pumpkinflowers by Matti Friedman