Washington D.C.

snow walk in logan circle
Photo of Logan Circle by Joe in DC used under a Creative Commons license.

Dinaw Mengestu, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (Riverhead, 2007).
Sepha Stephanos is an Ethiopian immigrant who has lived in Washington, D.C., for seventeen years, half his life.  Stephanos runs an unsuccessful convenience store in Logan Circle, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.  Alienated, not just literally, he drifts between worlds: the poor residents and newcomers in Logan Circle, the United States and Ethiopia.  Other characters include Stephanos’ immigrant buddies, an engineer from Kenya and a waiter from the Congo, and a university professor on sabbatical who moves into the neighborhood with her eleven-year-old daughter.  Stephanos grows attached to each of them, and his relationship with the young girl, Naomi, is particularly touching.  Both bookworms, they read Dostoyevsky together in his store.  Mengestu’s novel is achingly well written, moving and evocative.  It was released as Children Of The Revolution in the U.K., where it won the Guardian First Novel Award.

Here’s a brief bio of Mengestu. Bob Thompson (Washington Post) profiles him.  Google BookSearch offers a preview.  NPR has an excerpt, and you can listen to Mengestu read it.  JP posted some favorite passages.  Kathryn Lewis (bookforum) says Mengestu has produced a layered and nuanced account of American life.  Rob Nixon (The New York Times) calls it a great African novel, a great Washington novel and a great American novel.  Olivia Laing (The Guardian) calls it quietly accomplished.  Jaime thinks it is a little too subtle. Constance Howes calls it a clear, honest reckoning of life’s baggage.  Marie-Martine Buckens (The Courier) says Mengestu gives us a meditation on the social regression and emotional poverty that enforced exile in a new country brings.  Shannon Luders-Manuel says Mengestu has humility and grandeur.  Dovegreyreader says it’s an exquisitely written book, gentle and sad, great rafts of melancholy.  Jennifer Reese (EW) thinks Mengestu’s control over his material is too tight.  Matthew Schnipper (The Fader) says it tells large stories through little movements.  Bethonie Butler (Washingtonian) likes that Mengestu treats his subjects without judgment.  Jeff Kelly Lowenstein says it renders a rarely-told experience of Ethiopian immigrant life.  Matt Sedlar (DCist) says it details Washington, D.C.’s past and present with loving care and unflinching honesty.  But raych calls it wholly unremarkable.  Naomi calls it depressing and forgettable.  Brian sounds underwhelmed.  Karen R. Davis says it’s a slow, relaxing read.  Abby Jean says it’s much more articulate than her review.  J. Otto Pohl says it’s a very accurate description of the city of Washington DC.  Phil Marsden says it’s engaging throughout. Mary Brodbin (Socialist Review) says it’s gripping in an unexpected way.  Alan Garner describes it as an exercise in loss, isolation, nationhood and cultural identity.  Stefania likes the unusual and sad portrait of Washington, D.C.  Mengestu was interviewed by Tadias magazine.  Watch Mengestu read from the novel (at — sniff — Cody’s Books in Berkeley) and discuss it.  Read or listen to Tavis Smiley interview Mengestu on PBS.  Here’s some love for Logan Circle.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Ingraham & Georgia Ave NW
Photo of Ingraham & Georgia Ave. by AlbinoFlea used under a Creative Commons license.

George Pelecanos, Drama City (Orion Press, 2005).
Lorenzo Brown is the main figure in this novel, out of prison after eight years in on drug charges, and trying to stay clean and out of trouble. As an officer for the Humane Society, Brown gets mistaken for law enforcement, and his efforts to protect the mistreated dogs and cats of the District of Columbia underscore the daily grind of many in the capital city. As one might expect, trouble finds Brown. This novel takes place south and east of Rock Creek, in poorer quarters that don’t make the national news. Pelecanos, who wrote for The Wire, knows this part of town and has an ear for the way people talk, though some of his characters sing flat. This was his thirteenth novel; several of his others are set in D.C. as well.

Wikipedia has this page on Pelecanos. Here is Google Book Search. Michael Gawenda writes about Pelecanos and the novel for The Age. Here are reviews and other pieces from Guy Johnson (Washington Post), Janet Maslin (The New York Times), Gary Dretzka (Chicago Sun-Times), Maxim Jakubowski (The Guardian), Joe Hartlaub (Bookreporter.com), Jana L. Perskie (Mostly Fiction), Ali Karim (scroll way down) (January Magazine), Daniel Fierman (Entertainment Weekly), Publishers Weekly, David Lazarus (San Francisco Chronicle), David Thayer (Collected Miscellany), Scott Butki (Blogcritics), Jeff Charis-Carlson (Rain Taxi), Byron Merritt (FWOMP), Zee (Zee Says), Bev Vincent (Onyx reviews), carol o (Rawbrick.net), Andrew Byers, Ted Lehmann, and Lorne (Wick’s Picks). Petworth News picks up an article about Pelecanos’ Washington. Watch or read Tavis Smiley’s interview. Read Peter S. Scholtes’ interview for City Pages. Listen to Kacey Kowars interview Pelecanos in this podcast. Or watch this Chatshow interview with him from 2005. Nick found himself in the book (literally). And largehearted boy found this piece by Pelecanos about the novel. Pelecanos apparently wrote this for The New Republic about dogfighting, whch makes an appearance in the novel. And here is Pelecanos on Richard Price’s Clockers.

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Photo of the Watergate by M.V. Jantzen used under a Creative Commons license.

Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, All the President’s Men (Simon & Schuster, 1994).
The true and well-known story of how two young reporters at the Washington Post brought down the President of the United States. Woodward and Bernstein pursued leads they found in writing about a break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate complex, and kept pursuing them all the way to the Oval Office and a Pulitzer Prize. The book ends with the resignations of H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman and the disclosure that Nixon had been taping conversations. The two authors later wrote The Final Days, about the bitter end of the Nixon Administration. Thirty years later, the cast of characters in the capitol has mostly changed, but this is still the quintessential story of modern American politics.

The University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center offers this sketch of Woodward, Bernstein, and the events that led to the book. This series on washingtonpost.com also describes how the story started. Many of the original reviews are not particularly accessible now, but Woodward was interviewed in 1997 on the 25th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, and you can watch the trailer for the movie. Ron Rosenbaum remembers the day Nixon resigned and Daily Sally remembers Woodward and Bernstein back in the day.

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