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.

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 ( 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.

‘Bertrand Court’ reveals the extraordinary in everyday life

  • UnknownBertrand Court by Michelle Brafman (Prospect Park Books, September 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Seventeen stories connected through a cul-de-sac in the Washington area show that familial ties can bind or chafe, lovers connections can linger, and everyone has fragile moments. Brafman has a wonderful grasp of the inner voices of her characters.
  • Genre: Fiction, short stories
  • Locale: Washington DC area
  • Time: 1970 – 2000s
  • Read this for well-crafted stories of the extraordinary elements of everyday life. Perfect to savor in small bites.

One of the most difficult things an author can do is make the commonplace events of daily life compelling.  In Michelle Brafman’s new collection, Bertrand Court, families and friends, colleagues and lovers reveal and conceal themselves in the Washington suburbs. Although some of the people in these stories have careers that are very Washington, the underlying circumstances and insecurities of their personal lives are much more universal.

Brafman tackles the long-simmering jealousies between aging sisters, and couples trying to hide their financial reversals from family and friends. There are those blessed with children and others not as fortunate. Some find a spiritual home in organized religion and one woman wishes for that to fill a hole that her family’s wealth could not satisfy. Husbands question their wives’ choices and vice versa and the children must be shielded, regardless.

While most of the stories need not be connected, it is the periodic convergence of friends and families in Bertrand Court that brings the collection together. Whether it is a birthday party or a (non) book group night, the connection is what counts. No matter how perfect anyone’s life may seem, the stories serve as a reminder that the human condition is fragile and that it’s not the errors or self-doubt that define someone but rather what happens next.

The fascination with Shylock

Al Pacino as Shylock

Whether you are someone who seeks out Shakespeare’s work or is uncomfortable with the language and cadence, Shakespeare’s stories and words permeate our culture. Few of Shakespeare’s characters evoke such strong feeling as Shylock, the titular character in The Merchant of Venice. When first performed over 400 years ago, Shylock was the personification of all the prejudices about Jews – clannish, money-grubbing, dirty, ugly, sanctimonious – the list goes on and on. In different eras and in different cultures, Shylock has at times received more nuanced and sympathetic treatment. Luminaries of stage and screen have taken on the role, each giving it his own take.

This year there are two very different productions with Shylock at the forefront in the Washington area. This past week, a new play based on The Merchant of Venice Unknown-5has been staged at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. District Merchants by Aaron Posner, brings the story to Washington in 1873, a time of great political and economic upheaval immediately following the Civil War. The Folger’s strong reputation and Posner’s skills in rethinking the work of others on the stage encouraged us to see the production. In one word GO!

images-1The massive pillars that filled more than half the set served two purposes: first, a reminder of Washington and the fundamentals that created the US, tested by the Civil War; and two, it effectively brought forward and contracted the size of the stage, increasing the interplay between the actors and audience in what is already an intimate venue.  The quintessential issues of justice and prejudice, family and peoplehood, generosity and greed flow naturally through this retelling. Each of the eight cast members lived his/her character. The melding of Posner’s and Shakespeare’s words was completely successful. Whether the Shylock’s story is set in the 16th, 19th or 21st century, its power remains the same.

For traditionalists, in late July Shakespeare’s Globe on Tour will present The Merchant of Venice at the Kennedy Center. The show is advertised as “..this new production of Shakespeare’s play dramatizes competing claims of tolerance and intolerance, religious law and civil society, justice and mercy.” Isn’t it always so?

Were this not enough, there is a new version of Shylock’s tale for those who prefer the armchair view. The Crown Publishing Group’s Hogarth Press has commissioned the retelling of eight of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays by some of Unknown-4the world’s most renowned novelists. British novelist and 2010 Man Booker Prize-winner Howard Jacobson was chosen to tackle The Merchant of Venice. His novel Shylock Is My Name was released in February. I’ll go out on a limb and predict at least one of my book groups will tackle it during the 2016-17 season. Watch this space for my assessment.

For the Anne Tyler fans out there, her take on The Taming of the Shrew will be published tomorrow.  Vinegar Girl, set in contemporary Baltimore, should be a great mashup, proving again how modern masters can bring the timelessness of Shakespeare to today’s audiences.

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?”


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