In honor of the inauguration this week

Washington Schlepped Here: Walking in the Nation’s Capital by Christopher Buckley

A pure delight. That’s what this book is. A delight. And if you watched the inauguration coverage this week, you saw some of the terrain it covers.

I listened to this book—it’s a little thing, only 3 CDs in length—and it’s nothing but good. I’ve actually listened to it three times now: once just for fun, once in preparation for a trip to Washington D.C., and one more time just because. Buckley confesses to being no expert on D.C., but he gathers the good stuff from the various books about the city and its history, and he wraps it up in the nicest little gift-wrapping and presents it to us. The book is set up as a guide to a few walking tours, and I found that I could “walk” along with him in my head, both before and after my recent trip to Washington. The “walking tour” format is really actually only a device that allows Buckley to string together the interesting facts and anecdotes related to various Washington sites—including some anecdotes about his days working in the OEOB, facts about the Capitol, the story of the building of the Washington Monument (and why it took so long), and the story of Pierre L’Enfant.

The only down side I found is that Buckley is, of course, a partisan, and he occasionally lapses into a brief, snarky comment about the left—which was out-of-step with the light tone of the rest of the book. It’s a minor thing, though, given his wonderful sense of humor and the joy he takes in his adopted city. He loves Washington, D.C.; I love Washington, D.C.; how can you not love Washington, D.C.?

Troubled Time Travel

Kindred by Octavia Butler

A time travel novel that reveals the horrors of slavery and the effects of living in constant fear and uncertainty. Dana, a black woman living in 1976, is suddenly tugged back in time to the early 1800s, where she rescues a young white boy named Rufus, who is destined to become Dana’s ancestor (and who is not the world’s greatest human being, to put it lightly). Repeatedly, Dana is called back in time whenever Rufus faces danger, and she can return to her life in the 1970s only when her own life is in danger. Dana’s husband Kevin, who is white, also travels back in time with her on one of her journeys, and the couple find themselves carrying out a strange and terrible façade of acting as slave and master. We know from the very beginning that Dana survives, but only after she suffers a severe injury. Nevertheless, there were several points in this book when I feared for her well-being. Butler (1947-2006) was a fabulous writer who fully deserved that MacArthur genius grant— and she was someone we lost too soon.

Driving Around with a Poodle

Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

I remembered loving this book when I first read it years ago, and I’ve just recently listened to it on audiobook – and it’s reminded me why I adored the book in the first place. Steinbeck’s tone is perfection: wryly funny, observant, non-judgmental. Several times I found myself just smiling as I listened. In fall 1960, Steinbeck began his journey in New England, driving his truck camper (which he dubbed Rocinante) and accompanied by his poodle Charley. His aim was to rediscover America and its people, while remaining anonymous himself. As he drove west, Steinbeck met ordinary, interesting people and talked with them – and mainly, listened to them. I was interested to hear that before the 1960 election, people seemed disengaged from politics and reluctant to express an opinion. (I thought that only happened after Watergate!) He talks with waitresses, a roving actor, a ranch hand, a cab driver, some very wealthy folks, and many others. Steinbeck deviates from his non-judgmental tone when he reaches the South and witnesses the horrifying spectacle of white women jeering a very young African-American girl as she enters her school. This is the scene I recalled most vividly from my first reading of the book; it’s unforgettably horrid. Overall, this book is a fascinating snapshot of America; it’s also my favorite book by Steinbeck.

This One Stands the Test of Time

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

The Westing Game is, hands down, the book I’ve re-read the most often. Since age 10, I’m guessing I’ve re-read this book about once every 2 years. And it’s still magical. Plus, with every reading, I pick up on a new clue the author dropped very cleverly into the story. It’s a puzzle mystery of the finest sort. Here’s the set-up: A wonderfully diverse and quirky group of people receive invitations to move into a beautiful new high-rise building along the shores of Lake Michigan. While they appear to have little in common with one another, the 16 new residents all soon are summoned to the Westing mansion, where they learn they are all potential heirs to the Westing fortune… if they can solve the puzzle Sam Westing has devised for them. They are divided into unlikely-matched teams of two, and they tackle the clues they have been given. Young Turtle is perhaps the main character, and she’s the kind of person a reader can grow up with; she was a good friend when I was 10, and I still like her today. Why can’t all books be this good?

Watergate, 36 Years Later

All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

Even for non-political-junkies, this is one thrilling book. It unfolds like a great detective novel. I’ve read it 4 times now at least, and each time I’m stunned by the addictiveness of the storytelling. Bernstein and Woodward narrate their investigation from its inception, when the Watergate break-in truly appeared to be nothing but a “third-rate burglary” – and the 2 reporters didn’t much like one another. Plus, the story of Deep Throat, sprinkled throughout the book, is tantalizing. When W. Mark Felt was revealed to be Deep Throat in 2005, it was almost sad to lose the sense of mystery. But Bob Woodward’s publication of The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat helped soothe the pain; it’s a great story.

Did He… or Didn’t He?

In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien

I still don’t know how it ends. I’ve read this book 4 times now, and I continue to marvel at O’Brien’s mastery of the art of telling a story – and at my ability to change my mind about what actually happens to the main characters at the end of the story! Each time I’ve read the book, I’ve come to a different conclusion. Politician John Wade and his wife Kathy have retreated to northern Minnesota, following a major electoral defeat. And while they’re on vacation, they both vanish. The novel is a combination of the story of the days leading up to their disappearance, and chapters that contain little blurbs: quotes from friends and colleagues; excerpts from books about politics, Vietnam War, and magic; and excerpts from the transcript of an inquiry into a My Lai-like massacre in which John Wade had participated during the war. Remarkable, disturbing, unforgettable.

Unsinkable

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord

The Titanic disaster has been the subject of oodles of books, many of which I’ve read, but I keep going back to this old chestnut. Walter Lord has written the most wonderfully readable narration of the events of April 14 – 15, 1912, on that ill-fated voyage. His writing is clear, concise, and compelling. Best of all, he conveys a sense that “you are there.” (Anyone else remember those Walter Cronkite documentaries we saw in school?) If you read only one book about the Titanic, make it this one.

The Lost Is Found

The Eyes of the Amaryllis by Natalie Babbitt

The lost book of my childhood. When I was about 11 years old, I checked it out from the library, loved the book, returned it, and went to the shelf to find it again later – to no avail. I could remember the area of the shelves (near the beginning of the alphabet) where I’d found the book initially, and I made the pilgrimage back over and over again, searching for the “amaryllis” book. I should have asked a librarian! Years and years later, when online catalogs appeared in libraries, I did a title keyword search on “amaryllis” and found my long-lost book. Hooray for technology! The nifty thing is that this little tale – of searching for something that is lost – is also a theme of the book itself. And, wonderfully, when I re-read the book as an adult, the book was as wondrous as I had remembered. Young Jenny visits her widowed grandmother, who lives by the sea. Years ago, her husband, a sea captain, went down with his ship, and now Gran walks along the shore and waits for a sign from her beloved. And as she does so, a mysterious stranger watches her… Love, loss, and longing. Haunting.

Cry, Cry, Cry

Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean

A heartbreaking, haunting book about smokejumpers’ deaths in a wildfire in Montana, written by a brilliant writer who knew he was nearing the end of his own life. This is the first book I began re-reading within days after reading it the first time. And it was equally devastating the second time around (and in subsequent re-readings). Maclean’s understated writing can make a person weep. For the full experience, listen to Richard Shindell’s definitive interpretation of James Keelaghan’s song “Cold Missouri Waters” on the CD Cry Cry Cry.

Terrific Mystery

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, Or, On the Segregation of the Queen by Laurie R. King

One of the best mysteries I’ve read, and – even better – it’s the first in a terrific series. As a young woman living in the English countryside, Mary Russell meets the retired Sherlock Holmes. And her brain is a match for his. Together they take on a brilliant criminal mastermind, and the outcome is surprising, to say the least. I’ve suggested this book to several people, and all have become hooked on the series.