Rehm, Woodward and Gingrich Make News at National Book Festival

September 26, 2016

Three of D.C.’s best-known authors pitched their latest last Saturday at the convention center.

New Novels: Spies in Sarajevo and Paris

August 15, 2016

Our discriminating thriller-reader reviews the latest from Matthew Palmer and Alan Furst.

New Novels: Spies in Sarajevo and Paris

August 11, 2016

Our discriminating thriller-reader reviews the latest from Matthew Palmer and Alan Furst.

‘Gardens of Georgetown’ Book Signing, April 23

April 27, 2016

On Saturday, April 23, from 1 to 5 p.m., the Georgetown Garden Club will host a book-signing party for “Gardens of Georgetown: Exploring Urban Treasures,” published by the club in 2015. The event, at the Lou Lou boutique at 1304 Wisconsin Ave. NW, will include “sips and sweets.”

The 95-page hardcover book, with text by Edith Nalle Schafer, features glossy color photographs by Jenny Gorman. Together, words and images offer an inside look at some of the most beautiful private green spaces in Georgetown, where “the gardens expand the living areas of the houses for six months of the year.”

Proceeds from the sale will benefit Georgetown’s parks and public spaces. Tickets for the club’s May 9 Garden Tour will also be available for purchase. For details, visit

 Harper Lee of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and Southern Literature

February 24, 2016

When the news came that Harper Lee, the author of the enduring American classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” had died in an assisted living home in Monroeville,  Alabama, it excited talk and discussion about all sorts of things,  including such topics as the impact of one-hit literary wonders, Southern culture and literature, the importance of the lives of authors and the fate and future of books and particularly novels themselves.

Lee’s death on Feb. 19 came not too long after the somewhat mysterious and controversial publication of what was probably an unpolished and ultimately unwanted sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” in which the heroic, gentle figure of the gentlemanly small town Southern lawyer Atticus Finch, who stood up to defend a wrongly accused black man in a segregation-seared Jim Crow South, is seen years later as a somewhat embittered segregationist.

There’s little doubt that this development in the oddly-titled book “Go Set a Watchman” disappointed the huge multi-generational number of fans who saw in Finch a role model, an affirmation of American hopes and values such as fairness, moral courage, even in the face of ultimate failure, the good, strong, brave man as an example to others, as seen through the coming-of-age eyes of his young daughter Scout.

The mixed reviews and even expressions of outrage did not prevent “Go Set a Watchman” from becoming a best-seller, just as its predecessor had been, although without the impact and the enduring print runs that have made “To Kill a Mockingbird” a literary phenomena.

That book, published in 1960, at the raw and powerful beginnings of the civil right movement in the south (Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech was only three years away).  The novel, written with a gentle style that had its poetic elements, begat a film starring a glasses-wearing, slow-speaking Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch — and you could not have asked for a more embodying actor to play the part.  Peck’s sometimes awkward manner made  him a heroic figure on the screen, and in his white jacket, glasses and carefully worded speaking, he pinned the liberal and human values of the book to the screen.

Both the book and the film—the book continued and continues to be a requirement in schools ever since and the film won an Oscar for Peck—had an impact on public acceptance of the rightness of many aspects of the civil rights struggles at that time. Whether this came from reading Lee’s words or seeing the film is hard to measure. As there are millions of people who insist they were at Woodstock, so there are probably millions of people who believe they read “To Kill a Mockingbird” — when they “only” saw the movie.

The success of the book and film excited a good deal of interest in Lee herself, a woman who was born in the same little Alabama town in which she died.  She had a literary bent and interest and literary friends — most notably Truman Capote, who advised her and whom, in turn, she helped research his best-selling “In Cold Blood.” Lee gained a reputation for reclusiveness because any conversations with her in print were rare, and she gave few interviews. Indeed, after “Mockingbird”, which won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, she produced nothing much in terms of a follow-up to the influential book.

“Mockingbird” is one of those books that seems like a solitary flame that burned and at the same time destroyed the gift from which it came. There are plenty of those in the annals of literature, both high-brow and pop.  It is also an example of a product of Southern culture , certainly in literature, which is so haunted by its past. Because the book became something beyond its own reputation in terms of its impact  in schools and culture,  it still has something to say about race, about books themselves and the lives of its authors.

Lots of writers have been one-book wonders. Critics point to the Bronte sisters, Emily and Charlotte, and their forever feverish novels of obsessive love “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre,” respectively, but in fact, they did write other books, which were not successful. (Emily died at age 30.) J.D. Salinger bears a resemblance to Lee in the sense that “The Catcher in the Rye” was and probably remains a favorite of disaffected adolescents. Salinger himself was a thorough recluse around whom intense curiosity never abated, even though he continued to write slim volumes about the Glass family.

“Catch 22” was such a popular war novel (actually anti-war) that the title itself became a description of bureaucratic cruelty (that’s some catch, that catch 22) for its author Joseph Heller, who wrote other, very fine novels, but none that had such an impact.  The same was true for Mario Puzo, an aspiring writer of failed literary novels, who wrote “The Godfather” and was set for life. He wrote more novels, but never anything that matched the success of the mafia book and films that came after.  Margaret Mitchell, a true lady of the South, won a Pulitzer  Prize for “Gone With the Wind,” saw the movie become a legend and never accomplished much of anything else. The great American novel, as always, remains not just a goal but a curse, while James Patterson laughs all the way to all the banks.

Lee was a Southerner in the truest sense of the word in the sense that she inhaled small town Southern life, with all its richness and terrible ghosts, much of which found its way into “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  She is also part of a literary Southern tradition that no doubt came from living in a geography, where history is in the DNA — and nothing is black and white, and everything is black and white.

Not all Southern literature, or art, or architecture or popular music is about race or injustice or climate, but some part of living in it is. Southern artists have responded to it on some level or another, beginning most foremost with Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Faulkner, whose fiction is a kind of and sometimes difficult-to-decipher blueprint of the geography.  They vary — whether in the art of people like William Christenberry, for instance, or William  R. Dunlap, in the poetry of Allan Tate and his famous (or not) “Ode to the Confederate Dead” or the stories of Alabama native Zora Neale Hurston. Compare and contrast Thomas (not Tom) Wolfe, whose soul burst into his profusive, all engaging-novels (like “Look Homeward Angel), out of Asheville, North Carolina, or novelist William Styron, from Hilton Village, Virginia, two of whose major novels, “Lie Down in Darkness” and the controversial “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” were Southern to their core.

Faulkner addressed the larger issues of the book, the novel, fiction itself, which echo mightily in the digital world, where the death of books and literature is often predicted.  In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he said, “Man is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.”

It’s fair to say that Lee with her “To Kill a Mockingbird” fulfilled both duty and privilege — and more.     
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Katrina at 10: Where Y’at?

September 17, 2015

On Monday, August 29, 2005, at 6:10 a.m., Hurricane Katrina made landfall at Buras, Louisiana … But the greatest destruction to New Orleans, and the great loss of life, did not come directly from the storm.” So begins Georgetown University Associate Dean Bernie Cook in his book “Flood of Images: Media, Memory, and Hurricane Katrina.”

At the 10th anniversary of America’s costliest natural disaster, Katrina is remembered for leaving more 1,000 dead in the New Orleans area, flooding 80 percent of the City of New Orleans and captivating us with scenes of desperation and desolation. Yet there is even more to it than that: this great deluge would prove a breach of faith.

Last week, in his serene and simple office on the main campus of Georgetown University, Cook seemed worlds from the sorrow, damage and death that was Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago this month.

“Most remember Katrina from the TV news,” Cook says. “Ninety-nine percent saw it as a media event.” Finger-pointing began as soon as the storm hit — the levees breaking, government disorganization, press misinformation. He dismisses the blame game with a wave: “Everyone is culpable … at every level, people were squabbling.”

Cook sees his book as offering “both analyses and intervention into the remembering and forgetting of Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans.”

The event and its stories hit the professor — an associate dean of Georgetown College and its director of film and media studies — on many levels. He is a native of New Orleans, he went to the Jesuit High School of New Orleans and his father is a retired professor at Loyola University. To complete the circle, Cook has a blog and has produced short films on social justice.

“Flood of Images” focuses first on CNN, Fox News and NBC News. Cook shows how TV news reporting can be pre-produced, as it were — pro-filmic or pro-televisual — ready for the latest information to be sent through its standard template. The TV crews went to the easiest places 10 years ago, the Business District and the French Quarter, neither of which were seriously flooded. “They followed their playbook at first, and then they saw the Ninth Ward,” he says.
Cook cites the work of Martin Savidge, Shepard Smith and Brian Williams — when it worked and when it was hyperbole or just plain wrong. He points out how correspondents might dress as if they were survivors, then simply return to their luxury hotel rooms. He repeats the phrase: “This is not Iraq. This is not Somalia. This is home.” America could not believe how bad things had gotten after the storm left and moved north.

The stick-to-it-ness of film and TV documentaries, which Cook calls “another way to see, more detailed, more personable,” is discussed in contrast to the TV news approach of hitting a story then quickly moving on. Examined are Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke” and “If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise,” Tia Lessin’s and Carl Deal’s “Trouble the Water” and Dawn Logsdon and Lolis Elie’s “Faubourg Treme.” Cook also looks closely at the HBO drama “Treme.”

One of the most fascinating parts of the book is the chapter, “We Were Not on the Map,” which explores “A Village Called Versailles,” about the Vietnamese community of New Orleans East.

Ten years ago, Cook was on hand when Georgetown University accepted 55 students from Loyola University and Jesuit High School. His father — still a professor at Loyola in 2005 — was at Georgetown to help orient the transplanted students.

“We knew the hurricane was coming,” Cook recalls. “Registration was around Aug. 25. There was no access to records. We took them at their word.” Many students were sent to states far away from their homes, part of what has been called the largest migration in American history. “The very continuance of these institutions [in New Orleans] was in question,” Cook says.

A Georgetown student who majored in English — favoring Southern writing and loving film — and went on to get a Ph.D. from U.C.L.A., Cook wrote his dissertation on action-film heroes. Back on the Hilltop as head of film studies, he lists movies involving some of the school’s students: “The East,” “Rebirth,” “Jesus Camp” and “Another Earth.”

And his favorite movies? Well, that’s like asking … but Cook threw out a few: “Taxi Driver,” “Chinatown” and “Thelma and Louise.” In fact, Cook is editor of “Thelma & Louise Live! The Cultural Afterlife of an American Film.”

The professor and film lover continues his look at Katrina with a university symposium, “Katrina@10,” on Oct. 22 and 23, with “film screenings, musical performances and thoughtful panels.”

However one views the hurricane and its aftermath, it is a journey through images, sounds and intentions, mediated or not. And the engaging and incisive Cook — informed by his Jesuit education to question the meaningfulness of things and seek social justice — is an excellent guide for that journey.

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A Homegrown Page-Turner

April 14, 2015

It is always good to be the star, and in “The Bullet” – Georgetowner Mary Louise Kelly’s new thriller – we are. Along with Caroline Cashion, the book’s heroine, Georgetown itself plays a big role.

In fact, the word ‘Georgetown’ is right there on the front page. Cashion is a (fictional, of course) professor of 19th-century French literature at Georgetown University.

Unlike most professors, Cashion is beautiful and loaded with interesting secrets, the most intriguing being: Why is there a bullet lodged in the back of her neck, a bullet (it gets even better) that she never knew was there?

Unraveling the why and figuring out the who lies at the heart of the book, which includes several familiar settings. Early on, Cashion gets drunk at the Tombs. (I say from experience that she’s among the legions who have done the same thing.) Shortly after, she cops to an obsession with Pâtisserie Poupon’s croissants – she also likes the bacon quiche – and hangs out at Saxby’s on 35th Street.

As the pace picks up, Cashion figures out why she’s carrying a bullet around in her neck. She is attacked at her house on Q Street and runs to the Georgetown University police for help. It turns out she was adopted when she was three years old, and the bullet in her neck is the same bullet that killed her mother. Who killed her parents? Why? She soon realizes that, because the markings on the bullet she’s carrying could identify the killer, she is in danger.

Kelly wrote most of the book while on sabbatical in Florence last year, where her two boys learned to rattle off Italian slang and honed their soccer skills. Now she’s back home in Georgetown. It is nice to think of her staring out at the dry hills above Florence while thinking about the coffee at Saxby’s. Now she’s probably sitting at Saxby’s thinking about the caffè latte at her favorite place in Florence. [gallery ids="102026,134910" nav="thumbs"]

In Time for Garden Tour: ‘Gardens of Georgetown’

March 16, 2015

The Georgetown Garden Club has published “Gardens of Georgetown: Exploring Urban Treasures,” profiling 38 neighborhood gardens. The book’s author is well-known town observer Edith Schafer and the photographer is Jenny Gorman. For details, visit, or call 202- 625-1175.

‘This Town’ Is In Our Town, Just Not Where We Live

November 7, 2013

“This Town,” subtitled “Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital,” is a book about Washington, D.C., by Mark Leibovich, chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine.

It’s not necessarily about where you and I live, nor is it about neighborhoods, Vincent Gray, Jack Evans or even Marion Barry, nor is it about Jim Vance or Doreen Genzler or Mark Plotkin, or even Bryce Harper or RGIII, or the Ambassador from Mexico, or the Whitman Walker Clinic or Arena Stage. It’s not about Adams Morgan, or even Georgetown, although Georgetown parties, and social and political folks make appearances, along with some restaurants and hostesses, but not the pandas at the zoo, although there are times when “This Time” resembles a zoo.

It’s not about this town, but about “This Town,” the one that seems to exist a little like the town under the dome in the TV show, whose citizens have been rendered invisible to the rest of the country.

Never have you seen a book which has managed to put so much truth in advertising on its outside front and back covers. The front cover of “This Town” (published by blue rider press—their lower case, not mine), has a high-contrast, half-head, color portrait of what is clearly a denizen of This Town, a politician/lobbyist, easily identified as such by his red tie, half a big smile, dark suit, double-flag pin on one lapel, a thousand-dollar bill in his left pocket. The Capitol dome and muted night-time noir lights are behind him.

The back cover, illustrated by Ben Franklins floating from top to bottom, features a mission statement and a warning: “Today’s insider Washington has become a sprawling ‘conversation’ in which tens of thousands partake by tweet, blog, or whatever…The Washington story has become something more momentous, benefitting a ‘narrative’: a pumped-up word in a pumped-up place where everything is changing, maybe more than in any city in the country …or maybe nothing is changing at all, and the only certainty is that the city fathers of This Town will endure like perennials in a well-tended cemetery.”

Here’s the warning: “ ‘This Town’ does not contain an index. Those players wishing to know how they came out will need to read the book.”

Fair enough. I read the book all the way through, not surprised not to find my name in it, or that of many of my friends, associates and neighbors. Not surprisingly, since I work for this newspaper in a number of capacities, there were quite a few persons in the book whom I actually knew, or had seen in passing, or occupied the same room with (the Kennedy Center Opera House is a really big place), or had words with, or, or seen at a party or reception, on occasion, interviewed, or had seen on television. Memory in “This Town” plays tricks—one minute you’re absolutely positive you saw that Nixon-era attorney general walking his dog in Georgetown, the next time he’s in a Watergate documentary.

For the record, I have never met or talked with Mark Leibovitch, although I do read the New York Times Magazine occasionally, and the Washington Post every day (still), a paper for which he also worked. Leibovitch is not much interested in ancient John Mitchell-like history—he’s interested in now, right now, or how we got to right now. He is, it should be added, a terrific writer and reporter—his observations are sharp, funny, even touching, as he rolls out his characters, his scenes of parties and funerals (as well as political parties from Dems to GOP to Tea).

This is “This Town” that all the persons who’ve only visited here in horrible summers like this one complain about—this is Oedipus town, where incest of a non-physical kind is practiced as routinely as a Friday night poker game with beer and pizza is at a street corner or your friend’s house. One of Leibovitch’s principal revelations—that “This Town” rolls—like many towns only more so—on money is a theme, if not a shock. He documents, with style and even with some affection–the well-traveled journey—from Lott to Dodd and congressmen and senators in between—from holding office and public service to your friendly neighborhood lobby shop. Most politicians roll into town after having vowed to throw out the scoundrels (lobbyists and other hangers-on, some of them now strategists and consultants). It would appear that while assailing the Washington scoundrels and money men, they kept their business cards.

That part is hardly a revelation—it’s the merry-go-around of power types that includes members of the media, elected officials, their aides and chiefs of staff, the new media class of bloggers, twitterers, websites and Politico that is in some way as awe-inspiring as a second-tier royal wedding. Everyone—it seems—in “This Town” not only knows, works with at some time or another, socializes with, parties with and writes and blogs about each other, they’re practically sharing pads. Or as reporter noted—in a collection of comments from reporters who were mentioned in this book—if things got any more incestuous, their children would start having birth defects.

Leibovitch goes back to this theme—senators get elected, leave office and join a lobbying firm after vowing not to ever, ever do that, media types get tips from political aides wanting to get famous and so on time and time again. But in between, he offers choice vignettes and portraits—the scene at Ted Kennedy’s funeral, or the Kennedy Center memorial for “Meet the Press” wonder Tim Russert whom Leibovitch names the mayor of “This Town.” Russert’s shocking death and the service gives a graphic, at times moving, at times bewildering and head-scratching example of what happens when the citizens of this town gather to mourn—and kibitz.

The author gives a spot-on and up-to-the-second portrait of the new media as personified by Mike Allen and Politico — and especially Allen’s dot-dot daily reporting, in which he manages to capture the next second while pitching birthday, wedding, promotion and baby congrats.

The book is immensely readable. It’s gossipy, sure, but it’s also, one assumes, accurate in its snapshots of people. This is inside under the dome stuff, the parties—most of them seemingly thrown by the uber-hostess Tammy Haddad, whose brunches and parties during the week of the White House Correspondents Association Dinner is the top ticket in town.

When he’s not pursuing the career curves of politicians pursuing jobs, Leibovitch gives us some magnetic portraits of the likes of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., not usually seen in a non-partisan way.

In one chapter—dubbed “Suck Up City”—we see that the insiders may be competing, fighting, sniping and so on in a kind of rubber knife combat, but they’re always striving, branding and, well, sucking up.

Leibovitch’s portraits in “This Town” are hardly flattering. He may have some concerns about backlash, socially and accessibility-wise, but we doubt it. As he admits he’s very much an insider reporting on insiders, but it’s not like he’s Truman Capote. While a lot of what he serves up surprises—some of us actually don’t know that the Clintons and the late Tim Russert despised each other. Taken as a whole, however, the existence of “This Town” hardly surprises.

Everyone who lives here long enough, even on the periphery, experiences the little neighborhoods of “This Town”, those little drug-like rushes of being in the presence of power or name-droppers. But Leibovitch, on the whole, ignores the whole town in which “This Town” exists, except for a quick and undeservingly tiny passing reference. There is, after all, a context to “This Town”.

Fittingly, the book is pretty up to the moment, and moves fast like the kind of mystery thriller that I like to read. But we—and he—know the ending already. It’s going happen in 60 seconds, in Allen’s next Playbook which is appearing: right now in “This Town.”

‘God Is in the Details’ for a Georgetown Mystery Novel

June 20, 2013

It drove me crazy when I watched the finale of the first season of “Homeland” and the street sign in “Foggy Bottom” read “Obey State Speed Limits.” I mean, c’mon! I couldn’t watch the thing after that—as Mies van der Rohe says, God is in the details, even if he ain’t in Hollywood.

Here’s one that will get it right, though. One of my Georgetown neighbors and friends, Mary Louise Kelly, has written a mystery, “Anonymous Sources,” partly set in a not-so-anonymous locale. One of the key scenes is a murder on Dumbarton Street, which the novel’s heroine, Alexandra James, describes as “full of well-kept gardens, gas lanterns, and historical plaques. Through the windows I caught glimpses of antiques and trays of polished silver.”

The heroine is clearly not looking in my window, where she’d see piles of mail and footballs, but the reason the details ring true is that the author is a longtime Georgetowner who used to live on Dumbarton.

“Anonymous Sources,” which is published by Simon and Schuster, comes out June 18, and is peppered with references that Georgetowners will recognize, ranging from a sheath dress at J. Crew on M Street to lush descriptions of the shiny cars lining the streets.

While she was writing the book, Kelly hung out at Saxbys, on her way to write at Georgetown University’s Lauinger Library. She hit Patisserie Poupon to reward herself with a chocolate chip cookie each time she finished a chapter. And as a former national security reporter for National Public Radio, she knows how to get the details right.

While “Anonymous Sources” begins at Harvard Square, the story shifts to Cambridge, England, and then to London. The second half of the book is set in Washington. The reporter, Alexandra James, rushes from interviews at the White House to off-the-record trysts at CIA headquarters.

“Those were some of the most fun scenes to write,” says Kelly, “because I know first-hand how those conversations unfold, since I covered the spy beat at NPR.” Kelly says several former sources agreed to read her manuscript and offered tips and corrections. And even though, Kelly says, those old sources were notoriously tough to pin down when she was working as a reporter, a few even gave her blurbs for the book, which was far more convenient than trying to pin them down for a sound bite on the daily news. [gallery ids="102441,121369" nav="thumbs"]