Free Library Find: Cicero

Cicero at the Free Library

Little Free Libraries are little boxes of bookish surprises scattered around the world, like a real-life Pokemon Go, but for readers.

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician was a serendipitous find, a biography I was interested in, but then forgot, until I saw it in the Little Free Library on N St.

The last defender of democracy, Cicero used his oratory and wits in a face off against Caesar and the forces of dictatorship. While he ultimately failed, his true legacy was that, in the words of Voltaire, “He taught us how to think.”

With its marble-columned temples and soaring public spaces, Washington is a Roman city, one that Cicero would instantly recognize and feel at home in. He argued cases in the courts, led marches against the government and gave passionate speeches before the Senate. Our three branches of government, with its checks and balances, would be familiar to him, for they stem from Roman antecedents, our founding fathers inspired by Cicero’s failure to create something more resilient.

An aspiring dictator like Donald Trump would not surprise him. Cicero famously uncovered the Cataline Conspiracy, a plot by a bankrupt aristocrat to overthrow the government and burn Rome to the ground. He said:

A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear.

He had the traitor executed.

Democracy in Rome, as limited as it was, could not manage a rapidly expanding empire beset by financial problems and a military quagmire in the Mideast. Our troubles in the region would be depressingly familiar to Cicero. After uncovering the Cataline conspiracy, he was appointed governor of Cilicia, where he suppressed rebellious tribes in Syria.

Ultimately, however, Cicero was just an orator. As Rome slid toward autocracy, first through the self-dealing Triumvirate and then the rule of Julius Caesar, he was warned to stay out of politics,  a tale told in the interesting novel Dictator.

But Cicero couldn’t stay out of the Senatorial limelight. While not part of the plot against Caesar, it was he who Brutus hailed as the dictator bled to death. Once Caesar was gone, Cicero tried to unify the Senate against Mark Antony and the Julian faction.

A bloody civil war took place across the Mediterranean world of the Roman Empire, from Spain to Cleopatra’s Egypt.

When it was done, Rome had an emperor: Augustus.

A list was drawn up of enemies of the state. If you were proscribed, you could be put to death and your properties seized. Cicero was hunted across Italy. When soldiers caught him, he bared his throat so they could slash it properly, the gesture of a gladiator who meets his end nobly in the arena.

Democracy was dead but Cicero’s legacy lived on. Much of what we know from the Roman world comes from the voluminous letters of the orator, many of which survived. He also was a key transmitter of Greek and Roman ideas and philosophy, which were rediscovered during the Renaissance.

From him, we have the concept of natural law, the belief that there is a moral order beyond the rules enacted by governments. As he said,

For there is but one essential justice which cements society, and one law which establishes this justice. This law is right reason, which is the true rule of all commandments and prohibitions.

Our Founding Fathers were inspired by his life and writing.  John Adams said, “As all the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united than Cicero, his authority should have great weight.”

And weighing the lessons of Cicero, they produced the republic of checks and balances that we have today. Thanks to the ancient Roman orator, we have the means to resist a dictator.

America Needs Diplomats

War on Peace

Ronan Farrow has done the impossible in War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence, creating a story about bureaucracy that’s compelling and relevant to our troubled times. In this account of recent American diplomatic history, he reveals how the State Department has been hollowed out by Democratic and Republican administrations alike, to the detriment of our national interests.

Standing in for a robust, bipartisan American approach to international relations is the towering figure of Richard Holbrooke, who Farrow worked for at the State Department. He brought peace to the Balkans by literally locking squabbling leaders in a room. His mix of personal charisma, backed with American power, was indispensable in the Clinton era.

But not for Barack Obama, who disdained this figure tied to his political opponents. While he was eventually called to serve, and given the hopeless task for bringing peace to Afghanistan, he was undercut by an administration under the sway of its generals. Foreign policy problems, like coming to some sort of accommodation with the Taliban, became military problems and handled with the same kind of counter-insurgency tactics that failed in the Vietnam War.

Holbrooke lived long enough to see America escape one nation-building exercise, Vietnam, only to become embroiled in another one in Afghanistan.

Farrow makes the case that America needs its diplomats in War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence. Sadly, the decline that began under Bush and Obama has only accelerated under the nationalist Trump. We don’t even have ambassadors in hotspots like Saudi Arabia, anymore. Instead, our country is represented by double-dealing members of the Trump/Kushner crime family, who are focused on personal profits rather than our long-term national interests. This would be an anathema to Richard Holbrooke and any of the giants that built the peaceful post-war world that we enjoy.

The Man Who Came Uptown

The Man Who Came Uptown

Can a book change a life?

Anna thinks so, believing that putting the right book in the right hands at the right time can turn someone around. She’s a librarian at the DC Jail, responsible for picking out titles for troubled men. With time on their hands, they are avid readers, devouring everything from Westerns to Steinbeck.

One of the men is Michael Hudson, facing a felony gun charge. He’s freed, thanks to Phil Ornazian, a private investigator, who sprung Michael to involve him in a series of armed robberies. Phil, and his partner, an ex-cop, target drug dealers and pimps. They think that they’re the good guys.

With a library card and a new-found love for reading, Michael is trying to go straight. Can he escape those who seek to entrap him in criminality?

That’s the basic plot of The Man Who Came Uptown but the novel is really about the line between good and bad. Pelecanos is great when it comes to depicting men who operate on both sides of the law, people who commit violence in the name of justice. But once you cross into that kind of criminality, is it possible to come back without consequence?

His style can be awkward at first, with characters that speak in exposition, explaining things like gentrification in ponderous sentences.

But if you live in DC, this is a must read. George Pelecanos portrays a gritty Washington of neighborhoods far from the monumental core. It’s also a love letter to books and the DC Public Library system, a feeling that I share.

There really is a library at the DC jail. Books can change a life. It’s possible to come back from bad and rediscover your essential goodness.

Shameless Plug: If you liked The Man Who Came Uptown, check out my crime novel Murder on U Street. It traverses many of the same neighborhoods as Pelecanos’ book but with more of a satiric bite.

A Good Pitch: The Age of Surge

Sometimes people send me books to review; sometimes I review them. The Age of Surge is one that caught my interest.

As a writer myself, it’s an interesting approach to marketing. Based upon my previous Amazon reviews, authors have approached me to review their books. It’s almost always business books, and rarely novels or bottles of whisky. Perhaps this is because business authors are more marketing-savvy.

The email pitch was a good one:

I’m a first time author reaching out to those who love learning and reading about innovation, leadership and new ideas on reinventing companies for digital.
Your review of StrengthsFinder 2.0 is what caught my eye.  Our new book (The Age of Surge.) was written to help leaders and everyday employees take the kinds of ideas covered in StrengthsFinder 2.0 and show how to put them to work in even the most dysfunctional, “broken” companies.   I think you’ll find our book provocative and thought provoking…  you might even like it 🙂
Would you be open to reading our book if I send you a free digital copy (no strings attached)?  Obviously I’d welcome and appreciate any time you’re willing to spend leaving an honest review.

This was a good pitch for a couple of reasons:

  1. It was personalized. The email was not just a press release but a personal note that highlighted the fact that I liked a similar book. There was research behind it.
  2.  It was written in a human voice. The pitch came from the author. It was direct, concise and respectful of my time.

That said, just because it’s a good pitch doesn’t mean I’m going to review it.

I look at these books on business reinvention with a jaundiced eye – my novel Don’t Mess Up My Block satirizes the genre, following a clueless consultant who leaves disaster everywhere he goes. It’s based upon my experience seeing organizations conduct ill-conceived change initiatives.

I didn’t want to like The Age of Surge. But it is a very readable, humane look at change in the workplace from someone who operates in the real world, not the theoretical domain of management consultants. The author praises middle management – I’ve never seen that before.

So, it’s not enough to craft a catchy email. First, you have to write a great book. But to get reviewers to read your book you have to approach them with a personalized, human, relevant message. That’s a good pitch.

Behind the Screens – Read it for Film Festival Secrets

Behind the ScreensDo you dream of walking down the red carpet? Want to see your film on a big screen?

Then get Behind the Screens, the new book by Jon Gann that uncovers what film festival programmers really think. Gann, the founder of the DC Shorts Film Festival, has interviewed the directors of top festivals from around the country, including:

• Ashland Independent Film Festival
• Byron Bay International Film Festival
• CineSlam/Pride of the Ocean
• DC Shorts Film Festival
• LA Comedy Shorts Film Festival
• Napa Valley Film Festival
• New York Film Festival
• Prescott Film Festival
• Razor Reel Fantastic Film Festival
• Scottsdale Film Festival
• Seattle International Film Festival
• SILVERDOCS
• Sonoma International Film Festival
• Sundance Film Festival
• Tallgrass Film Festival
• Washington Jewish Film Festival

Every film festival is different. Rather than blindly submitting your film to every festival you’ve ever heard of (and paying hundreds in submission fees), spend $20 to get this book. Do some research and target the right festival for your film. Behind the Screens reveals what programmers are really looking for, in their own words.

Full disclosure – I’m a friend of Jon’s and have been a judge for DC Shorts for years. DC Shorts is unique in that anyone can volunteer to be a judge. The films selected reflect an urban sensibility and a preference for comedy. A lengthy documentary on deforestation wouldn’t be a good choice for DC Shorts while a “meet-cute” flick set in Dupont Circle would be ideal.

Other festivals have their own unique attributes, shaped by the festival director and the audience. They have their own culture. Which is why it makes sense to get a book like Behind the Screens, where you get narrative information beyond what you will find in a directory of film festivals.

Author Friend: Allison Silberberg

My friend Allison Silberberg has written an inspiring new book, Visionaries in our Midst: Ordinary People who are Changing our World.

I first met Allison more than ten years ago. She used to run the FilmBiz Happy Hour, a monthly meetup of aspiring filmmakers in Washington, DC. Held at the former Biddy Mulligans, these fun events attracted a diverse crowd of writers, actors, directors, voice artists and others. What made them different was that every month, Allison selected a charity to benefit from the happy hour. The charity collected the admission fees and also got to speak about the work that they were performing in the community. Allison brought a real passion to finding deserving organizations. She researched them, talked to their leaders and vetted them – they had her stamp of approval and meant a lot to her on a personal level.

So, it wasn’t surprising to me that she wrote Visionaries in our Midst: Ordinary People who are Changing our World. The book profiles amazing people working in the shadow of our nation’s capitol finding innovating and expansive ways to serve the citizenry and, in particular, the most vulnerable among us. And she got a quote from Studs Turkel!

“This is a book of wonders–and hope. It tells us of extraordinary things `ordinary’ people can do.”

What’s impressed me over the years is Allison’s compassion. I remember discussing with her the hopeless case of DC’s public schools. Hopeless from my perspective. She believed that positive change was possible.

Allison is speaking at her (and my) alma mater, American University. Here’s the info:

Book Talk and Signing with Allison Silberberg
Visionaries in our Midst: Ordinary People who are Changing our World
Wednesday, April 6
7:30 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.
School of International Service – Room 300

Admission is complimentary, but please RSVP online.

Contact Judy Donner, 202-885-1616 for more information.

Parking is free after 5p.m. in the SIS garage – entrance on Nebraska Ave. at intersection with New Mexico Ave.