Horror on the Great Plains: The Hunger

Alma Katsu examines the dichotomy between the myth of Manifest Destiny and the grim reality of settlers trudging west in her new novel, The Hunger.

It’s a story you’ve heard before, of how the Donner Party turned to cannibalism to survive after getting stuck in the mountains on their journey west.

Katsu’s point in this gripping novel is that the evil began long before then. It was with the wagon train from the beginning, trapped in the dark hearts of the settlers, all of whom had good reasons to flee their lives back east. These are less brave pioneers than troubled souls seeking salvation in California. The Hunger tells us their stories, unwrapping them slowly, the true horror not revealed until the very end amid the squalor of a desperate camp in the Sierras.

Interestingly, the book overlaps with another I read this year – A Friend of Mr. Lincoln. The doomed Donner party originated in Springfield, with many of the principals familiar with the future president, though this is unmentioned in The Hunger. You could read the books back-to-back, the straight historical fiction of A Friend of Mr. Lincoln and then the horror of The Hunger, to see how different authors depict historical figures and events.

They’re both good reads, particularly if interested in American history, and the truth behind some of our most cherished myths.

My DC: Blossoms, books and gelato

Jefferson Memorial with cherry blossoms

A weekend of cherry blossoms, books and gelato taught me to love DC once again.

I’ve become inured to the sights and sounds of Washington, DC – the historic monuments, the thudding helicopters, the blue sparkle of the Potomac. I see and yet don’t see, because they’re so familiar. Playing tour guide for the weekend helped me rediscover the city.

The occasion was a college reunion. Because I was the only one who still lived in the city, I was appointed tour guide.

It’s hard work being tour guide! Much easier to be led by another, not knowing where you’re going to eat or what you’re going to do next, confident that the tour guide has those details figured out. Make it a large group – eight people – and make it the height of the spring tourist season, and you can understand why I was a bit anxious. Thankfully, it was an easy group that I knew from time spent together at American University.

The advantage of being tour guide is going to the places you like best. Here are my choices for 36 hours in Washington, DC.

Friday

The Darcy
My friends stayed at this boutique hotel by Hilton. Located near Logan Circle, it’s an ideal home base for visitors who want to explore the city. Even better when you get an upgrade to a top-floor suite!

Tidal Basin
If you come to DC, you’re going to walk. During cherry blossom season, it’s also the easiest way to get around (other than biking, of course). After checking-in at the Darcy, we walked down 16th St to see the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin, along with half a million of our friends, it seemed. The walk is about thirty minutes, and filled with interesting sights along the way, like the White House and Washington Monument.

Thai Tanic
Every Thai restaurant in DC must have a pun-based name. Popular among Logan Circle locals like me, Thai Tanic been serving interesting Thai dishes on 14th St for years. They were also very accommodating as our party grew from six to eight on a busy Friday night.

Gelato time

Dolcezza
How I love this place! The gelato is delicious. I almost always get a combo of dark chocolate and hazelnut. If you’re with me, this is a mandatory stop.

Saturday

American University
It wouldn’t be a college reunion without a trip to college. We went to AU in the pre-wonk era, which was far more fun, and considerably cheaper, than the serious world-changers of today. While the campus is nicer, with a brand new School of International Service, it’s not the same, probably due to the lack of alcohol.

Surfside
One of the challenges of leading a large group through DC is, “Where will we eat?” While they took my favorite burrito off the menu, Surfside in Glover Park was still a good choice. No one noticed a group of eight in this taco joint mobbed with soccer moms and kids from the field across the street.

Bob in Georgetown

Georgetown Waterfront Park
If you’re with me, you’re walking (or biking). Thankfully, my friends love to walk. After lunch, we walked down Wisconsin Avenue and 33rd Street to the Georgetown Waterfront Park, which has a great view of Rosslyn and the Key Bridge.

Dog Tag Bakery
Georgetown Cupcake is for tourists. Instead, visit this pleasant little shop near the C&O Canal that helps military veterans and families. The scones are great and they serve Compass Coffee.

Whole Foods P St
Finding a table for eight on a Saturday night in Logan Circle struck me as impossible. Instead, everyone got food and drink at Whole Foods and partied back in the suite at the Darcy Hotel. Sushi, cheese, fruit, beer, wine, chicken, chocolate rugelach – we ate well, without the hassle of going out.

Sunday

Lil B
This New Orleans-inspired coffee shop at the Darcy Hotel became the spot to meet every morning. While the beignets are more like fried dough than what you’d find in the Big Easy, they make good hangover food.

Dupont Circle Farmers Market
Why don’t I go here more often? This sprawling market has more than just produce. You can get pancakes, pizza and even a growler of beer from Right Proper.

Spanish Steps
One of those 0ff-the-beaten path places that I love, this miniature version of the Roman landmark is a spot I captured in an award-winning photo. It’s a lovely walk from Dupont Circle, as well, in which you pass art galleries and embassies. Makes a great spot for portraits.

Kramerbooks

Kramerbooks
Now, this is a required stop, at least if you’re with me. Washington loves its bookstores and Kramerbooks is the oldest and most famous. I have a connection to it too – I did a reading here. You’re sure to find something smart for the plane in this bookstore.

Of course, this is just a small sample of things to do in DC. But if I’m the tour guide, there’s going to be gelato, coffee and books. That’s my DC.

Little Free Library Find: Bel Canto

Bel Canto

What kind of books do people leave in the Little Free Library? Are they books they don’t like or books they want to share with others? Seeing a well-worn copy of Bel Canto in my local Little Free Library, I’m inclined to believe the latter.

This novel by Ann Patchett is a visualization of Stockholm Syndrome in an unnamed South American country. Appropriate for the geography, the tale is told as magic realism, with a narrator who dips into the story at key moments, sharing what the captors and hostages should know but don’t. Despite the close relationships between terrorists and victims, they are equally doomed as their dreamy jungle idyll is bound to end in tragedy.

Bel Canto is both too long and too short, as we discover the life stories of all the participants – the talented soprano, the Japanese businessman, the illiterate rebel. The plot inches ahead, with key events taking place off-stage that are hinted at but not described. And then the fantasy comes to an end, as all do, and we’re left with unanswered questions.

This is by design. As Ann Patchett says in The Getaway Car, her short book on writing:

What I like about the job of being a novelist, and at the same time what I find so exhausting about it, is that it’s the closest thing to being God you’re ever going to get. All the decisions are yours. You decide when the sun comes up. You decide who gets to fall in love and who gets hit by a car. You have to make all the trees and all the leaves and then sew the leaves onto the trees. You make the entire world.

Her world, and the world of Bel Canto, is a lot like ours. A little messy, a bit ominous and love the only consolation for an uncertain future.

Free Library Find: Dear Committee Members

Dear Committee Members
Dear Committee Members

I let books find me. One reason I never fully embraced the Kindle is that I don’t always know what I want to read. Sure, you can find anything in the world by typing  a few letters into an e-reader but that’s not the same as aimlessly browsing titles on a Sunday afternoon.

Serendipity is what’s missing from the e-ink experience, the happy accident of stumbling upon the right novel at the right time.

In Praise of Little Free Library

Little Free Libraries are ideal for us serendipitous book browsers. Located in every neighborhood in Washington, these little boxes offer literary surprises for readers.

“Take a book, leave a book” is the motto of this nonprofit organization that fosters reading across the nation. I like to drop copies of my book, The Swamp, into Little Free Libraries in DC.

And I almost always find something interesting to take home with me.

The nicest Little Free Library in Washington is located at the top of a hill in Kalorama. Just a block from witless Jared and Ivanka, this bookish outpost is in a park, and offers a sunny bench to read your discoveries as dogs bark and children play.

Dear Committee Members

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher was a free library find, a book I pulled from the box like literary treasure.

The novel is a hilarious satire of academic life told through the endless letters of recommendation that Professor Jason Fitger is forced to write for students and colleagues. Each letter is inventive and unique; combined they tell a story of budget cuts, romantic humiliation and creative failure. Schumacher’s wry, ironic style reminded me of David Lodge, who satirized academic life in forgotten classics such as Small World.

Free is a powerful attractor, drawing you to things you might never consider. But the world is full of free things to read.

Selecting a book is an investment of time, not money.

You never know what you’ll find in the free library – biology textbooks, romance novels, books by unknown authors. Finding something worthwhile, like Dear Committee Members, feels like an achievement, not just because you discovered something great, but also for participating in the great reading experiment that is the Little Free Library.

Weekend Read: In the Midst of Winter

In the Midst of Winter
In the Midst of Winter

My reading is guided by serendipity. I let books like In the Midst of Winter find me. Reading should never be required but something you do because you enjoy it.

One night, going through Netflix, I found Allende, a portrayal of the last hours of the Chilean president, who was overthrown by a CIA-backed coup in 1973. The Spanish title for the film is even better: Allende en su laberinto or Allende in His Labyrinth. The movie is not magic realism, despite the title, but gritty realism, as Allende single-handedly defends his revolution against nearly every other institution of the state. His loss results in decades of dictatorship.

The movie left me curious about the thin country so when I saw In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende, I had to pick it up. This new novel by the niece of Salvador Allende concerns itself with social justice. Not what’s legal, but what’s right for vulnerable people such as refugees. As a child, Isabel Allende was driven from Chile following the overthrow of her uncle.

The novel starts with a car accident on a snowy day, an incident that upends the lives of everyone involved. Richard Bowmaster, a stuffy norteamericano academic, gets drawn into the lives of Evelyn Ortega, an illegal immigrant, and Lucia Maraz, a lusty 60-something Chilean. All three are haunted by painful tragedies, their lives shaped by the loss of loved ones. Drawn together in conspiracy, they grow closer as they share the stories of their lives.

The plot is a bit of a melodrama (a mysterious body in the trunk of the car), but, after reading of how much Richard, Evelyn and Lucia have suffered, you want a happy ending. You want them to discover an invincible summer in the midst of winter, to quote Camus.

How do you respond to tragedy, from the loss of family members to the inescapable indignities of growing old? What are our obligations, beyond the law, to refugees? How do you build a just society in an age of cruel states and dictatorships?

In the Midst of Winter offers the simplest of solutions – take care of your fellow humans – a revolutionary act to counteract a world steeped in tragedy.

Where Do Book Ideas Come From? The Story of The Swamp

Perfect headline/photo from the Express #snowquester

Where do book ideas come from?

In my novel The Swamp, a drone crashes into the White House, changing the course of history forever. Where did that come from? A bad weather forecast.

The Triggering Incident

On this day in 2013, Washington was supposed to get an epic snow storm. There was a run on milk and toilet paper. The federal government shut down. The local TV channels suspended programs and went to wall-to-wall coverage. Jim Cantore from the Weather Channel even flew in to witness the snowy carnage.

And it rained. I watched it all day, waiting for it to turn to snow, but the precipitation remained persistently non-frozen. It was the city that cried snow, to quote the Washington Post Express.

Around 4 PM, I gave up and went to happy hour, walking deserted downtown streets to be the only customer at a bar. The weatherman on TV said that there was a layer of hot air over the city; it was snowing in the suburbs.

Layer of hot air…. If you’re a writer, this is one of those amusing details that you file away.

Collecting Information

Ironically, I had recently started working in communications at the National Weather Service. A few months later, I had the chance to visit the Weather Forecast Office in Sterling, the office that had issued the bum forecast.

I didn’t ask them about that. Instead, I was shown how they used computer models and data displays to customize local forecasts. I was also shown a weather balloon, which carried a radiosonde designed to transmit atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity and wind speed data.

“The Secret Service visited after we had balloon end up on the White House lawn,” a meteorologist told me. Another interesting detail, filed away.

At the same time, I was annoyed by the ever-increasing level of security theater in DC. Public spaces and parks have been stolen by the Secret Service and other agencies in the name of security. The perimeter around the White House expands ever outward, seizing Lafayette Park to the north and the Ellipse to the south, grand public spaces that are routinely closed off. This is done despite the Secret Service’s failure to prevent fence jumpers and other miscreants.

Then, in 2015, a man crashed a drone into the White House in what was described as a drunken lark. It made a mockery of security theater. How can you keep the President safe in the age of the drone? Another interesting detail.

If you’re a writer, you constantly collect information – even if you don’t realize it, filing away interesting stories and amusing incidents for future use.

Write What You Know

I had a recently finished writing a mystery novel, Murder on U Street. It’s a dark comedy in which I kill off hipsters.

For my next book, I wanted to write a satire with a political edge, like Scoop by Evelyn Waugh.

What could I write about? The image of the drone disappearing into the night stuck with me. It would be a great way to open a book.

Write what you know. What did I know? The National Weather Service had taught me about weather forecasting and government bureaucracy. I knew security theater, for I had seen places I loved locked away by fences. And I had heard enough anti-Washington sentiment to understand that a good chunk of this country wanted this city to disappear.

So, where do book ideas come from? Putting all of these thoughts together, I had my idea for The Swamp:

A meteorologist, humiliated by a bum forecast, puts a drone into the layer of hot air over DC to measure its strength. It crashes into the White House, triggering a security scare. The nation is outraged. How can we keep the President safe from drones? By moving him, and the rest of government, out of Washington.

Now, I just had to write it.

Hail Caesar! Three Books About Tyranny

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century

Three books about tyranny provide lessons for Americans about overcoming dark times.

Heavily marketed, The Storm Before the Storm is a book that I desperately wanted to like. This work of popular history about the end of the Roman Republic has so many parallels to our time – at least according to the sales copy – but the book itself is a tedious examination of the political issues before Rome became an empire. Praetors, consuls and legates come and go in a swirl of assemblies, riots and wars, a mix of similar-sounding names and titles adding to the confusion.

Rome wasn’t a democracy, but a republic, ruled by a narrow set of wealthy families jockeying for political power in a country grown wealthy from foreign conquest. The original 1%, they governed through a series of norms and traditions that became degraded with wealth and privilege. Citizenship was narrowly construed (even Italians outside Rome couldn’t be citizens) and the masses restless, seeking cheap grain for the cities and land for ex-soldiers. Failure to resolve these contradictions, and defend their sacred institutions, led to Caesar and the Roman Imperium.

Left unsatisfied by The Storm Before the Storm, when I saw Dictator sitting on a shelf at the beautiful new West End Library, I had to pick up another book about tyranny. This novel by Robert Harris, the last in a trilogy about ancient Rome, does a far better job at explaining Roman politics and the end of the Republic. His Cicero is a tragic, deeply flawed figure in a brutal age. The novel starts out beautifully, with Cicero on the run from his enemies, lucky to escape into exile. He’s lost everything. But, through his genius and dogged work, he regains his property, his stature and his reputation.

Caesar is a dangerous man who indulges Cicero – to a point. The orator, however, doesn’t know when to shut up, even after being warned by Caesar’s generals. Is this due to vanity or a genuine commitment to democratic institutions?

The most practical guide to our times is On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Early in this spare tome, Timothy Snyder, who has written extensively about the Nazi regime, makes this observation:

The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands.

Germany was a democracy, just like us, yet they fell into catastrophe. Why? It’s not just “good men doing nothing”, it’s the systematic corruption of an entire society – the media, courts, even truth itself. On Tyranny is a guide to defending democratic institutions, and this slim little book provides practical advice on how to do so, drawn from the dark history of central Europe.

Are we Rome? Are we Germany? The founders of this country studied history, and books about tyranny, so as not to repeat the errors of the past. We would do so too, if we are to prevent tyranny in our time.

The Swamp: Early Reviews of My Book

Meeting Mandi, one of my readers in Orlando, Florida.
Meeting Mandi, one of my readers in Orlando, Florida.

One of the most gratifying things about being an author is hearing that people enjoyed your book.

And readers have enjoyed THE SWAMP!

Here are some early reviews of my funny new novel about Washington, DC, and the times we live in now.

Even better than experiencing good reviews is meeting readers, like Mandi in Florida! Her extended family has been some of my biggest supporters. Her aunt Rachel (the cool aunt) designed the cover of my novel.

Check out the hilarious world of THE SWAMP, available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon.

Michael Wolff: The Biographer the President Deserves

Sold out of Fire and Fury at Kramerbooks

There’s a tendency to think that people at the top of large organizations are smarter than you. After all, they’ve made it to the top. They must brilliant people guided by devoted staff and working within a well-organized system.

The truth is more like the moment Dorothy peeks behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz – it’s all chaos, a sham of smoke and mirrors aimed at concealing the very human weakness of the person in charge, as Michael Wolff’s reveals in Fire and Fury, his takedown of the Trump administration.

I’ve worked in communications for major organizations in Washington, DC. Everywhere, it’s the same – you may have smart staffers, and a process designed to to prevent embarrassing mistakes, but the work is driven by the whims of The Boss. If he (and it’s almost always a he), wants to put out a press release announcing his birthday, then one is produced.

I read Michael Wolff’s book Burn Rate back in the 90s. This was the era of Silicon Alley, when New York dotcoms aspired to be the next Excite or Yahoo. Wolff, a journalist, founded a company and then proceeded to burn through VC cash before walking away from the wreckage. The book mocks Internet pioneers and the industry.

He’s a loathsome character, with the attitude of a con artist putting one over on the rubes. In this case, the marks are his employees, who he stiffs, and investors, who lose their money. There’s a scene at the end of the book (and it’s very novelistic) where he succeeds at unloading the remains of his business on someone else though his media company is little more than a Filemaker database, a feat that Wolff gleefully recounts.

Whenever I’d see his name in the media, I’d think, “Ugh, that guy.” After burning Internet bridges, he went on to excoriate Rupert Murdoch and other billionaire/tyrants, his villainous headshot atop gossipy columns in Vanity Fair and other publications.

A simple Google search would’ve revealed all this.

Inviting this devious miscreant into the White House is the greatest act of communications malpractice this century. Instead of warning staff not to talk to this unreliable scribe, Sarah Sanders allowed this New York creature to observe the Trumpian chaos from a comfy couch. He’s a journalist who specializes in ripping apart media figures – what did they think he was doing there?

As Drew Margary in GQ writes, it takes a rat to catch a rat. Promising a nice book, and then writing a nasty one, Wolff worked the long con to perfection. For a change, Trump was the one being tricked.

Unethical, self-absorbed and steeped in the values of the billionaire elite, Wolff is the biographer that Trump deserves.

The Worst: 2017 in Review

inauguration protesters set limo on fire

Most Americans voted against Trump. Elected by a disaffected rump of the population, the crass New Yorker governed like a tyrant, his models being Putin, Erdogan and Chavez. The country was saved solely by the incompetence of the man, who turned out to be more Mussolini than Der Fuhrer.

Still, 2017 was a deeply traumatic year, where the infection of politics found everyone, even those who sought to avoid it, like myself, naively thinking that I could ignore the new President as helicopters whirred overhead on Inauguration Day.

That was the moment I was radicalized, hearing Trump speak of American carnage while I watched real carnage on the streets of DC. I spent my life avoiding politics in Washington, feeling it to be a pointless exercise. Yet, by the end of the year, it seemed essential that every American, including me, resist incipient tyranny.

reading at Kramerbooks

Ironically, a few weeks earlier, I was sympathetic to Trump voters, representing my beliefs in the short story Victory Party, which won the City Paper fiction competition. Yet, after my reading at Kramerbooks (the highlight of the year for me), events pushed me left.

My journey, and the journey of millions like me, was summed up in a tweet:

Running was a consolation, even in mid-winter, pounding around the monuments useful stress relief. I aimed for 300 miles this year. Not much for some, but more than I’ve ever run, and nearly got there except for injury.

Women's March crowds on 14th St

In March, cherry blossoms bloomed and then were covered in snow – it was that kind of year. By then, protests had filled the streets for months, from the comedic geekery of March for Science to the staggering crowds of the Women’s March, every one of them exponentially larger than the paucity of people that greeted the Donald to DC.

The year saw me increasingly politicized, especially after witnessing the heartless attitudes of Trump tourists toward refugees and visiting a South clinging to Civil War memories. The eclipse brought the country together, but only briefly.

eclipse in black and white

Meanwhile, I was thinking of The Swamp, doing some freelance work while I hammered my comic novel into place. Originally titled Drone City, and about 90% done at the start of the year, I revised it extensively for an era that was stranger than fiction, my selection of the title a clapback at the Trumpkins who think America can survive without a government. In my book, I gave them their wish.

My books are a cynical look at DC, while my photography is a romantic vision of the city. I like wandering the streets and taking photos, even in the snow, like the shot of the Spanish Steps which won the Mitchell Park Photo Competition and admission to the French Ambassador’s residence, a fancy event I attended in a ripped jacket.

A better fit for me was the wonderful Community Collective show, square views of the city curated by friends of mine. In addition to being the unofficial photographer of #BikeDC, I was also a Brand Ambassador for Enterprise CarShare and took trips to Gettysburg and Little Washington.

2017 was the year that money seemed to slosh through the economy, just out of reach for real people, but readily available for questionable notions like coworking and dockless bikesharing.

this could be a millennial-themed ad

Some of that free stuff found its way to me. I got to sample Uncle Nearest, the bourbon with a fascinating backstory. My bike dreams came true with a Brompton for a day. Through my friends at InstagramDC, I got to experience the interactive art of Artechouse.

But this was the year that America, and its Baby Boomer overlords, said, “Fuck it. We’re not even going to try anymore.” Their parents won a war, built infrastructure and sent a man to the Moon. Boomers spent money on themselves as America fell apart around them. I asked, Does Anybody Make Real Shit Anymore?

I won’t blame Boomers for one loathsome plague: brunch. Sloppy, gross and everywhere, it defined the horror show of America, 2017 edition. One of my last memories of the year was waiting for a friend to finish brunch (I refused to go) while Millennials arrived by Uber and were removed by ambulance, unable to handle their mimosas.

Just when you think that things couldn’t get worse, it got worse with Nazis marching and murdering in Charlottesville. The year saw me reading about the collapse of democracies and how ordinary men ended up standing over death pits with guns in their hands.

Tyranny is no longer academic in America, for a good chunk of the population longs for dictatorship – that’s the lesson of 2017. And why you should resist in 2018.

Elizabeth Warren

Our institutions are under attack. I worked for a few months at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a wonderful agency designed to protect poor people from financial scams. The Trump administration is now taking it apart from the inside. Elizabeth Warren came to protest, trailed by a media scrum worthy of a presidential candidate.

Thank god for biking, and a record year of it for me, and for books. It was the kind of year where you read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, as well as great novels like The Sympathizer and A Friend of Mr. Lincoln. Plus, some less great books that I picked up at Carpe Librum (used books for less than $4) like A Good Year, a wine caper that I thoroughly enjoyed, and reads from DC’s rejuvenated public library system (hello, West End!) including Everybody Behaves Badly.

The Swamp - proof

After much editing, rearranging and reorganizing, The Swamp came out toward end of the year. My friend Lynn Romano edited it, while Rachel Torda did the cover. Publishing through Amazon, the book is available in print and Kindle. If you’re in DC, I’ll sell you a signed copy for $10.

The Swamp starts with a meteorologist who thinks that he can predict the weather, if only he had a little more data. Things go badly from there. The theme of  the novel is that it’s foolish to think that you can forecast the weather – or anything else.

I will make no predictions for 2018. But I know what I’ll be doing. I’m going to write and resist.