Letter from Washington: A War We Must Win

Greetings, comrades! Glory!
Greetings, comrades! Glory!

There was a moment during a recent demonstration. A crowd had gathered outside the White House to protest immigration policy. Standing in front of a chain-link fence, a young Honduran woman described fleeing the violence in her country. She loved America for saving the lives of her children. People applauded, including a 94-year old Holocaust survivor who had insisted on attending the demonstration. Stooped over, her eyes flickered with life.

At the edge of the crowd, a middle-aged couple approached, the female half in a Make America Great Again hat. They saw the demonstrators protesting Trump’s treatment of refugees. The woman snuck into the crowd and made a mocking peace sign so that her husband could get a picture. They laughed.

My friend Pippa is conducting dinners with Trump supporters. She feels that if only we all knew each other a little better, it would be easier to get along. Results have been disappointing. Breaking bread doesn’t change political opinions.

I was not a political person until this year. Living in DC, I had the opportunity to work on Capitol Hill. I declined, feeling it to be a waste of time, disliking the passion people brought to even the simplest of issues. A pragmatist at heart, I voted for Republicans and Democrats, always seeking the candidate who would do the least harm.

But Trump is different, representing an assault on democratic institutions, something that every American should oppose. Evidence is growing that he colluded with Russia, part of a Putin strategy to use fake news and select leaking to influence the 2016 election. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Secretary General of NATO, warned:

“It is Russia’s aim to undermine the political cohesion in Western institutions.”

Putin seeks is to divide and weaken the West, to discredit democracy itself and restore the old Soviet Union. He wants to end the Pax Americana that has kept the world free of global wars for more seventy years. It’s a dangerous moment, as America wavers, the prospect of a new wave of conflict on the horizon. A global war would mean the end of the connected world that we know and enjoy.

Encouraging these end times is a selfish con man, Donald Trump, a dupe who is willing to go along with Putin’s schemes and court international disorder if it will benefit his family of grifters.

Trump’s supporters have told me that he can do whatever he wants, because he is the President. They’re willing to throw away the Constitution and their own hard-won democratic rights in pursuit of vengeance against people like me. “We suffered under Obama. Now it’s your turn,” I’m told.

After the election, I was ambivalent. I even wrote an award-winning short story about my mixed feelings, Victory Party, in which a waiter receives the election news with something approaching happiness.

But since Trump’s American Carnage speech (“That was some weird shit,” George W. Bush), it’s clear what he and his supporters want: revenge. They don’t want to build a new America; they want to punish America and are willing to work with the Russians to do so.

“Since when are you a liberal?” a friend of mine jokingly asked me. I’m liberal in the classical sense, as someone who believes in free speech and free markets. I believe in the West, in freedom from tyrants under a system where every person is equal before the law. That marks me as an enemy of the state, at least this state, for Trump and his supporters seek to turn this country into a soft dictatorship, Putin light, where an autocrat makes all the decisions, without the pesky impediments of the Constitution.

“There was a very serious effort made by Mr. Putin and his government, his organization, to interfere in major ways with our basic, fundamental democratic processes. In some quarters that would be considered an act of war.”

Who said that? Dick Cheney.

The war began last year, when Trump’s entourage colluded with Russia to subvert the election. It’s a war against democracy itself – and one that we weren’t even aware that we were fighting until recently.

No amount of gentle conversations around a candle-lit dinner table will budge the hate and envy in the hearts of Trump partisans. Sorry, Pippa! No accommodation is possible with people who would collaborate with a foreign power to snuff out democracy in America.

Trump and his Russian backers declared war on America during the last election. It’s a war that will be fought in the streets, courts, legislatures and media. The majority of the country voted against Trump. We did not choose this war. But it’s one that we must win.

There is Money in Coworking

WeWork Creators Awards

There is money in coworking…

That was my thought upon entering the vast Mellon Auditorium on Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC. Located within view of the Washington Monument, this building with its Doric columns is such a classic of the DC genre that it has filled in as the Capitol in TV shows such as Veep and The West Wing.

Inside, you walk though a 20-foot tall arch and onto the marble floor of the lobby, where I was immediately served a drink, a delicious concoction of grapefruit juice and tequila. Black-clad waiters approached with bite-sized empanadas and spring rolls.

I was at the WeWork Creator Awards. The coworking company has committed over $20 million to empower creators around the world. Applicants pitch their ideas for grants to incubate, launch and scale their businesses. I went because techies always have the best parties.

Inside the auditorium, with its marble columns stretching upwards and a DJ playing, attendees got what was described as the full WeWork experience: educational workshops, job fairs, pop-up markets, live entertainment, and plenty of inspiration.

And plenty of drinks, as this crowd of PR people, entrepreneurs, WeWork members and creative types (like me), mingled and purchased items from local vendors. Entering the hall, I was handed a $50 chit to buy stuff which I used on a couple of t-shirts from No Kings Collective.

Half-drunk on tequila, with a bag full of free swag, it hit me: there is money in coworking. We’re talking 1999 dotcom money or SXSW excess, both of which I witnessed as a web person working on the content side. The WeWork party, with its open bar and air of excitement, reminded me of SXSW parties in Austin, circa 2008, when social media was on the rise. This time, the new new thing is coworking, which are shared workplaces where you can rent a desk or an office on a monthly plan.

I talked to a young woman from another coworking company who said WeWork was a billion-dollar company, which stunned me. How could renting office space be so profitable?

But her figure was wrong. WeWork is actually a $16 billion dollar company! Investors are betting big that coworking is the future.

Having spent far too much time in the beige cubicles of government offices, I see the attraction of coworking. A few weeks earlier, I visited WeWork White House, which looks like a Hollywood set designer’s idea of a workplace rather than the Office Space environments that are norm in America. It’s a big, beautiful, bright space, set across two floors, including a coffee bar and a roofdeck with a view of monumental DC. A dream office, in other words.

WeWork White House - Lobby

I thought coworking was just for freelancers. It’s also for small nonprofits and companies wishing to provide flexibility to their employees. At the WeWork White House, I met a woman working for an international organization with headquarters overseas, as well as a small business offering babysitting services. They had an office set up to do headshots for babysitters.

It was a happy place. And no wonder. With more control over their environment and a sense of community from working in a hive of creative folks, coworkers derive a stronger sense of meaning than cubicle-dwellers.

But what’s the attraction for business? Setting up an office is hard. A friend of mine looked for more than a year to find space for his young company. And once finding the space, had to retrofit it to make it ADA-compliant and fight with the local telecom for months just to get online.

In contrast, a coworking space offers you the ability to just move in and get to work. The WeWork White House is ideal for companies that want a Washington presence without the hassle of renting real estate in DC.

It’s big business. More than a million people will cowork this year, according to a survey by Deskman. By the end of the year, around 14,000 coworking spaces will be in operation worldwide.

Coworking is more than just shared office space. It’s a worldwide movement away from boring cubicles and into more flexible and fun space led by companies seeking to save money and freelancers searching for a sense of community.

There is money in coworking, as WeWork demonstrates. It’s the future – hopefully – for all of us who seek creative space and support to do our best work.

Artomatic Demonstrates the Creative Power of DC

Artomatic
Artomatic in Crystal City

Washington is not The Swamp. Nor is it House of Cards. And it’s certainly not the sleepy burg with a couple of cool restaurants that The New York Times rediscovers every few years.

Instead, it’s something different – a sprawling urban corridor that stretches along I-95 from Richmond to Baltimore, from the blue waters of the Chesapeake to the green forested Appalachians. More than just the nation’s capital, it’s six million people in a megacity that dominates the Mid-Atlantic.

Saturday, while the cherry blossoms were blooming along the Tidal Basin, I crossed the river and went to Artomatic. More than 600 artists, performers, musicians, and creatives of all stripes have converged upon Crystal City for this massive art festival that runs from March 24 – May 6. Artomatic is seven floors of art, along with classes, performances and movies, all taking place in an empty office building just across the Potomac from the capitol. Admission is free.

Artomatic is a non-juried festival. Anyone can participate. Artists that pay a fee and agree to do some volunteer time get space to display their work. Which means that you’ll find stuff you love, stuff you hate, and lot of work that falls somewhere in between.

It’s always inspiring. And I love to see friends of mine in the show. You’d be surprised at how many artists there are in Washington. Lawyers, web developers, government workers by day, they’re painters, photographers and dancers by night. Artomatic gives them the opportunity to shine.

Reach IV by Frank Mancino
Reach IV by Frank Mancino

The 5:01 Project by Victoria Pickering
Victoria Pickering took a photo at 5:01 PM every day for this project.

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Artomatic is quirky

And where else but in the Washington megacomplex could you have a massive, open festival like Artomatic? Only here will you find the ingredients necessary for this unique happening:

  • Space. A lot of it. Thousands of square feet of space in a building soon to be redeveloped, opened or torn down. Artomatic began in 1999 when a developer donated space in an old building. Artomatic typically takes place in transitional neighborhoods, where space is being converted from use to another. Military offices have moved out of Crystal City and their space is being redeveloped.
  • Artists. A lot of them. The 2008 show featured 1,540 individual artists, including painters, sculptors, photographers, dancers and poets stretched over ten floors in a new office building in NoMa. The artistic community is large in the region, featuring moonlighting professionals as well as graduates from local universities.
  • Audience. The memorable 2008 edition of Artomatic hosted the biggest audience ever, drawing 52,000 people. When I visited on Saturday, the halls were full of friends and family of the artists, as well as the culturally curious, drawn to see something new.
  • Organizers. Artomatic ain’t easy. The festival requires talented event planners to acquire the space, recruit volunteers and manage the event. Smart, well-organized, Type-A people, something DC specializes in.

Only in DC will you find this combination of arts, audiences and organizers. Washington isn’t the city you see on CNN. It’s more than just marble columns and endless arguments. Artomatic demonstrates the creative power and vibrancy of a city that few in America truly know.

The Way We Live Now: Incompetent Dystopia

Washington Monument, before the storm

“Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present.”

― The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047

Dystopia deserves its own category in the bestseller charts. From financial collapse to the close of the millennial party, every novelist in America is working to end the world – on paper, at least.

As Lionel Trilling illustrates in The Mandibles, her account a family experiencing economic ruin, these dystopian fantasies tells us more about the present than the future. Seeing the world awash in debt, Trilling wrote a book about what happens when the facade of fiat money is exposed. More terrifying than the scariest of horror movies, The Mandibles is about the day our currency is revealed as mere paper.

Super Sad True Love Story is another novel of American decline, in which New York hipsters barrel toward a cliff which the reader can see but they can’t. Shteyngart presents Americans as willfully stupid, in love with selfies and sex, unable to admit that the world around them has changed. When it all comes crashing down, the Chinese – it’s always the Chinese – swoop in to buy Manhattan for pennies on the dollar, a reverse of the old Dutch barter, the impoverished survivors lucky to work as ditch-diggers for their Mandarin masters.

Previous generations did dystopia differently. The state in George Orwell’s 1984 is omniscient and omnipotent, able to spy on your very thoughts. No escape is possible, the boot stamping on a human face forever. Authors of the period, caught between titanic blocs, assumed that a modern administrative state forged by war would be used to comprehensively subjugate the people.

But what if the super-state wasn’t so super? What if the people in charge were more hapless bunglers than evil geniuses? What if our age is less 1984 and more Catch-22? Joseph Heller’s book, published in the 1960s and set during WWII, is a portrayal of the American government that rings true even today.

Heller’s story is one that we can all recognize – the story of a lone man fighting bureaucracy. Instead of battling for Obamacare subsidies or fighting a traffic ticket, Yossarian takes on the Army as it buries its enemies in bombs and its soldiers in red tape.

Like Yossarian, we think someone is in charge. There must be some sensible authority figure, who can undo what makes no sense. But bureaucracy is something that entangles all its participants, as anyone who has worked in government knows.

Now, however, Americans are discovering a new kind of dystopia, one of our novelists didn’t prepare us for – the incompetent dystopia. At its head is an erratic TV star, leading an administration that can’t even write a lawful executive order. Or a tweet that doesn’t enrage an ally. Or a press release without a typo.

Orwell would be disappointed. Big Brother is someone you rely on, to monitor and oppress, capable of shaping the future and erasing the past. But this government can’t even cope with the present.

Dystopian fiction is more than just entertainment, it serves a function. Novels like The Mandibles and Super Sad True Love Story are warnings, our most creative minds looking at contemporary events and extrapolating outwards. Shteyngart sees us undone by our vanity, while for Trilling the end comes from excess borrowing.

Fortunately, novelists are poor predictors of the future. Their dystopias never arrive, for they’re writing about the present, not the future. Of that we can be thankful.

The Rich Are Different Than You and Me

Spanish steps in DC
Spanish Steps in the snow

It was a very wet snow, typical for DC, one of those storms lingering on the edge of the rain/snow line. A damp, cold and miserable day.

But I went out anyway, not being one to sit inside, no matter the weather. Perhaps that’s why I love photography so much – it gives me an excuse to get out and explore the world.

Ice formed on the hood of my jacket as I trudged up Massachusetts Avenue. When it snows, I enjoy doing a loop around the historic mansions of the Kalorama neighborhood.

In my photography, I like classically-framed compositions. I like strong lines and contrast. I like photos that tell a story, ones that you draw you into the frame.

Which is why I love the Spanish Steps so much. With wet flakes falling on the marble steps, and one streetlight golden, the scene looked like a fairy wonderland. I took off my gloves, pulled out my Canon Rebel, and took this photo.

One of the benefits of being an amateur is that my photos are for myself. I took this photograph with no expectation of anything other than producing a pleasing image.

A couple of years later, I was walking through Mitchell Park, the green jewel that sits atop the Spanish Steps. There was a flyer for a photo contest, sponsored by the Friends of Mitchell Park. Free to enter, prizes unspecified. Remembering my photo in the snow, I entered it into the contest.

Several months later, I received an email telling me that I won one of the categories and would I come to a reception at the residence of the French Ambassador. Sure! There I was trudging up another hill in Kalorama, this time to a Tudor mansion, after a couple of $4 beers at Glen’s Garden Market

French Ambassador's residence
Residence of the French Ambassador, a Tudor-style mansion in Kalorama.

Inside, it was like a scene from the Great Gatsby, though the crowd was older, as supporters of the park enjoyed champagne and canapés. The French Ambassador gave a short speech, thanking those present for their support in making Mitchell Park such a special little park. DC parks often depend on outside financial support for their operation.

The other two winners and myself were then recognized and given prizes. Mine was a wine tasting for six! That’s way more than I expected from a free contest.

I won!
Me and my photo.

The rich are different than you and me, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Mitchell Park has some illustrious neighbors, including the Obamas, Ivanka Trump and Jeff Bezos. Topics at the reception included speculation on how much the Amazon founder paid for his mansion. While the Mitchell Park supporters were not as wealthy as Bezos or Trump, they were a world away from my $4 beer lifestyle.

But money can’t get you everything. Money can’t buy the experience of pulling on your boots and venturing outside in terrible weather. All the riches in the world won’t put you in front of the Spanish Steps on a snowy afternoon, as you line up the perfect shot, your fingers slowly freezing. That’s something that you have to do for yourself.

The Terranauts: Adam and Eve Under Glass

good read: The Terranauts

T.C. Boyle has been writing the same story his entire career. But it’s the oldest story of them all – the story of man’s fall.

From his early short stories to his sprawling novels, Boyle explores the tragic nature of existence, in wildly comic fashion, as he reveals all of us to be creatures of our own desires, with no nobility, just advanced primates with super-fueled egos and ambitions.

Never has that been better expressed than in The Terranauts, his account of scientists living under a dome in the Arizona desert for two years. Vaguely cult-like, the objective is to create a better earth, in case we destroy this one, and to pioneer methods for transporting man to the stars.

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because the novel is based upon Biosphere II, one of those 90s experiments that best lay forgotten. Like the Biosphere II team, the Terranauts descend into chaos as they slowly starve (and nearly suffocate), under a glass dome without enough nature to support them.

The book is written as an oral history of the project, with different Terranauts and crew telling their side of the story – and casting blame for their project’s infamous failure, the conceit being that the story is well-known to everyone.

One of the most compelling voices is Linda Ryu. Passed over to be an original Terranaut, she lingers on as support staff and is slowly driven mad by jealousy and rage, at one point wondering if the whole project was a kind of practical joke at her expense.

I’ve been a fan of T.C. Boyle’s work ever since reading Greasy Lake and Other Stories, a collection of fiction of that roared into my consciousness like a Bruce Springsteen anthem. I had never read anything anything so hilarious and contemporary before, a riff from a wild literary genius.

Since then, I’ve read most of his books, following along as Boyle explores how our desires take us out of the Garden of Eden. It’s fitting that, in The Terranauts, the action is set in a literal garden under a dome. But, like the original habitants of the original garden, the Terranauts give way to their desires, turning heaven into hell. In this petri dish in the desert, Boyle tells the oldest story of all, and has never done so more powerfully.

Southern Monuments

Confederate War Memorial in Sylva, NC
Confederate War Memorial in Sylva, NC

Monuments tell the story of a people. Overlooking the town of Sylva, North Carolina, stands a Confederate War Memorial. The statue was erected in 1915, at the height of Jim Crow in the South. Bands played and dignitaries came from as far away as Asheville. The copper soldier stands guard atop a stone base in front of the courthouse, with a commanding view of the town below. Inscribed on the monument reads:

Back (west), plaque: TO OUR VALIANT FATHERS:- / CHAMPIONS OF RECONCILIATION WITH / JUSTICE, OF UNION WITH MANHOOD, / OF PEACE WITH HONOR; THEY FOUGHT / WITH FAITHFULNESS, LABORED WITH / CHEERFULNESS, AND SUFFERED IN SILENCE. / TO OUR HEROIC MOTHERS:- / SPARTAN IN DEVOTION, TEUTON IN / SACRIFICE, IN PATIENCE SUPERIOR TO EITHER / AND IN MODESTY AND GRACE / MATCHLESS AMONG WOMANKIND.
Front (east), plinth: 1861 CSA 1865
Front (east), base: OUR HEROES / OF THE CONFEDERACY

If you read Cold Mountain (or saw the movie), then you know that the people who lived on the slopes of the Blue Ridge were reluctant participants in the Civil War, for the conflict brought nothing but chaos, murder and starvation to this remote corner of North Carolina. It took decades to recover. Northern money brought the region back, as Sylva became a manufacturing center, its paper mill belching white smoke into the valley up until the present day.

I was in Sylva for a job at interview at Western Carolina University. I’ve been coming to the region for twenty years, ever since friends moved here from Florida – a very common story. The mountains are filled with Floridians retiring from Florida to North Carolina.

Trump supporters are proud of a map colored red, all those counties away from the coasts voting for a new kind of war against the federal government.

All-Gender Restroom

But the red states are red just barely. In Asheville, which went for Clinton, restaurants and coffee shops make a point in identifying their bathrooms as “all-gender,” appalled by their legislature’s bumbling efforts to regulate toilets.

The cities and towns are blue, while the rural areas are red. A man who worked in a remote valley said that people just assumed that he voted for Trump. After all, he was in his 60s and white. But he didn’t. Old enough to remember segregation, he recognized wrong then and he recognized it now.

“We fought the civil war once already,” he told me, not interested in another red versus blue battle.

I-26 east of Johnson City

On the way home, I took I-26 from Asheville, NC, to Johnson City, TN, a four-lane highway soaring over the Eastern Continental Divide and down into the green valleys of Tennessee. It’s a monument to the genius of American construction, with passages blasted through granite and tons of concrete used to create ramps and bridges, allowing me to drive 70 mph over mountains that formed an impassable barrier during the Civil War.

I nearly had the road to myself, just me and a few other drivers enjoying the monumental views of the Blue Ridge. Where other generations valued segregation and identity, this generation values progress, as memorialized in the monuments that they build. Rather than crafting fictional depictions of a lost cause, they’re connecting cities with highways.

During my interview, I kept being asked professors and university staff, “What’s going on in DC?” Even in the mountains, people recognized that calamity in the nation’s capital would eventually touch their lives. Research depends on grants from the government. Retirees can only afford to live in these red counties with Social Security. The federal government battles the opioid epidemic that plagues trailer parks in the hollows. And highways like I-26 are only possible due to the largess of the federal government. Progress is only possible due to the federal government.

But the federal government is a monument that some would tear down upon themselves, happier to live among the rubble of a destroyed system. Like those who precipitated the Civil War, they would rather see the country burn.

A great America is only possible with a great American government. If you truly want to make America great again, then you need to make the federal government great again. It’s the monument that we all depend upon – and one that we build together.

Seven Principles for a Web Team

I’ve worked on a lot of web teams. I’ve written and edited web content, collaborated with designers and developers on new sites and been responsible for the management of existing sites in government and nonprofit organizations.

Every web team has its own principles, even if they’re unwritten. A combination of culture and procedure, these are the guides that team members follow when it comes to web development.

For example, when I was at AARP, we had a rule that we wouldn’t launch a new site on a Friday. Why? Because the team wanted to get out of the office on a Friday. They wanted happy hour, not to proof the site. Mistakes would be made and they would stay up all weekend long, until someone noticed the error on Monday. Therefore, no site launches on a Friday.

If you’re lucky, everyone agrees to the same principles. The web site manager supports the web designer when she says “no” to the client who wants a giant flashing red banner on the home page. And to launch it on a Friday without testing.

At the recent WordPressDC meetup.  Mark Wahl, Technical Director at Jake Group, shared his Seven Principles for a Web Team.

It’s about choices, according to Mark. WordPress is infinitely flexible and, as a small firm, there’s a wide variety of projects and clients to consider. What workflow should you follow? How are projects managed? And, most importantly, how do you keep the web development team sane? No one likes chaos, especially web developers. They want achievable deadlines and established processes rather than churn and instability.

The answer is to follow a set of principles. Discover the principles that guide your team. Write them down. This clarity reduces stress for everyone by eliminating unwelcome surprises, like the cry of a manager, “We need to launch the site on a Friday! Rules be damned!”

Some (bad) managers may object. Rules are limiting, after all. But, as Mark wrote:

Principles make our approach clear to the entire team, allowing all to participate and contribute.

A set of clear and concise principles let team members to make decisions, confident that they’re following the “rules of the road.” Not only is this the most efficient way to manage a team, it’s also the most sustainable. Chaos is a tiresome and burns out developers and content creators.

While a rule like “don’t launch a site on Friday” may seem silly, a set of principles keeps everyone on the web team happy, engaged and sane.

Letter from Washington: We Don’t Need Any Stinking Credentials!

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We’re winning. That was my thought watching a dozen women make out in front of the Trump Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. A right-wing blog called the protest “sparsely attended.” Which was true. Participants were outnumbered by a crowd of viewers, which included photographers, police, tourists, friends and security guards.

But the protest was just one of a dozen that took place in Washington, DC, over a very mild President’s Day Weekend. Or, as it was called here, Not My President’s Day Weekend.

Despite the small size, there was a joy in the LGBT Makeout Against Trump protest that would overwhelm even the most bigoted heart. Protesters distributed mints and gum to the crowd. Funny signs were shared. Selfies were taken, as the thump of Nicki Minaj reached up the face of the Old Post Office.

My anaconda, don’t

My anaconda, don’t

Security guards delicately looked away as women grinded on the other side of the barricade. Two men paused in front of the Trump sign. And kissed, as the cameras whirred, recording their contribution to the resistance.

The interesting stuff always happens on the margins of these protests. In the middle, you have a hard core of organizers and participants – the people who make the signs and lead the chants. Surrounding them are supporters, friends and media. Beyond them, you find people passing by, drawn in by the noise and excitement.

And there’s always one or two who come to yell at the crowd, like Canute trying to hold back the waves. During the Muslim Ban March, there was a woman who shouted at the streaming throngs from her balcony, filled with desperate madness and fear, yelling until she went hoarse.

The LGBT dance party was no exception, one middle-aged man giving a young AU student a hard time. Her offense? Trying to interview him. She was a journalism major and was seeking opposing opinions for her video. “Where are your credentials? I need your credentials!” he kept demanding of the blonde girl, his face full of aggro.

But, if the election of Donald J. Trump has taught us anything, is that no credentials are needed. His election has inspired millions of people to do things they previously thought unthinkable – writing their member of Congress, organizing rallies and even making out in the street. You don’t credentials to be a journalist. Or a protester. Or the President. That’s what truly makes America great.

Good Read Alert: The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer

Fiction requires the suspension of disbelief. Novels aren’t true but they have to feel that way, whether they’re about Hobbits from the Shire or jaded exiles in 1920s Paris.

I started Moonglow by Michael Chabon and put it down halfway through. The book strides the line between memoir and novel and succeeds at neither. There’s a scene where Chabon’s grandfather and another man attach explosives to the Key Bridge during WWII to tweak local authorities. Maybe because I live in Washington, and have crossed the bridge numerous times, but this scene did not ring true with me. The tale seemed impossible, as did Moonglow, which read like a shaggy dog story, despite the good reviews.

I did not have that problem with The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which captured me instantly, from the very first line:

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.

The book is a confession, written to his jailer, as a nameless secret agent recounts his sins during the Vietnam War. We get his story, and the story of the war from the Vietnamese perspective, as well as a wry account of refugees in America in this tour-de-force of a novel.

It’s a little too long. A hundred pages could be excised from its length but there’s hardly been a novel published in the past ten years that I haven’t felt the same about. Still, there’s not a false word in this work of fiction. Nothing breaks the spell of disbelief.

The Sympathizer deserves the Pulitzer Prize for that reason. It’s a powerful story that feels true. And that’s the test of great fiction.