Adrift in the Pentagon
If you’ve ever wondered what goes on inside that forbidding five-sided fortress across the Potomac, prepare to be illuminated. In “Only Small Things are Good,” first-time novelist Micah Harris captures the quibbling, power struggles, acronym-speak, and bureaucratic machinations at the Pentagon in all their Kafkaesque absurdity.
Thrust into the midst of the maelstrom is Joel Alden, an earnest young assistant to the Secretary of Defense who, despite his disillusionment following a work stint in Africa, still clings to a semblance of idealism. But making a difference is proving to be harder than he’d thought. “It would be okay, I suppose—thirty-year-olds running the world,” he muses. “The only problem is, thirty-year-olds were taught by fifty-year-olds who don’t believe in anything.”
When his push for a policy on re-educating detainees leads to a briefing at the White House, he catches the attention of the president, who requests a private meeting to seek his unofficial advice. Over whiskey, a pensive president (clearly not the current office holder) tasks Joel with nothing less than explaining to him “who we are in this country and who is responsible for tending our culture.”
In the course of preparing his response, Joel revisits his ties to his family and his faith, has long philosophical discussions with friends, and painfully examines both his own soul and the soul of the country. The result is a fresh, thoughtful, and sometimes droll exploration of what happens when “[America’s] national myth unravels [and] you no longer know who you are and who you’re supposed to be.”
A West Texas native, Hill resident Micah Harris has worked for the past 12 years in the Senate, the White House, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is currently a consultant for the Department of Defense. Find him at micaharris.com and on Twitter @writermicah.
Growing Up Busang
Brett Busang possesses either a prodigious memory or an amazingly fertile imagination. I suspect it’s a hefty dose of both. How else to explain the way he’s able to portray so convincingly the life of a boy growing up in post-WWII suburban Memphis?
In his new book, “Laugher and Early Sorrows and Other Stories,” Busang casts himself back into the mind of a kid who can spend hours pinging stones off a sidewalk, and evokes a child’s-eye view of grown-up faces, with their “drooping and flaring universe of age-elasticized flesh” and “enormous, Deep Space-dark cavities.” He’s also able to call up every piquant emotion of childhood, with all its bewildering fears, guilt, shame, and injured sense of righteousness.
In “The Great Walkout,” his unnamed narrator pitches against a church-league baseball team that has brought in an over-aged ringer. While the game predictably goes terribly wrong, it somehow also ends up going terribly right. In “Moment Musicale,” he succumbs to an accordion craze that’s sweeping Memphis and discovers that, while he has no musical talent, he does have a flair for performing (and “sure looked good in a clip-on tie!”). In the title story, the giddy excitement of an illicit nighttime adventure with his friend Sam quickly gives way to a sour sense of disappointment.
Whether surviving the summer camp from Hell, puzzling over a shut-in neighbor who hovers “in the gloom of the carport like…a wraithy thing,” or challenging a cruel, fat-shaming teacher on behalf of an overweight but amiable schoolmate, Busang’s crystalline focus is so sharp that you’ll feel as though you’d lived through all the experiences yourself.
Brett Busang is a prolific essayist, playwright, and painter (he provided the cover art for “Laughter and Early Sorrows”). His first novel, “I Shot Bruce,” told the story of a musician ousted from a rock band just before they made it big. Find him at brettbusang.com.
A Solid Addition to the Neighborhood
Welcome, Solid State Books! The new independent bookstore that opened as a pop-up just before the holidays has now settled into the neighborhood. Billed as a “full-service general interest bookstore with a deep and diverse selection of fiction and non-fiction titles,” Solid State hopes to appeal both to neighborhood readers and to DC’s many visitors.
In addition to a wide selection of books and gifts for all ages, owners Scott Abel and Jake Cumsky-Whitlock will offer a full schedule of author readings and signings, children’s story hours, book groups, and local interest panels. And if that’s not enough of an attraction, they’ve even got a coffee bar stocked with a selection of pastries, snacks, beer and wine.
This month, they’re hosting a talk by Emily Dufton, author of “Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America,” Feb. 21, 7:00 p.m. Solid State Books is at 600 H Street (next to the Wydown Coffee Bar), open every day 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. www.solidstatebooksdc.com
On the Hill in February
East City Bookshop presents authors J.D. and Kate Dobson (“Hottest Heads of State: Volume One: The American Presidents”), Feb. 2, 6:30 p.m.; Morgan Jerkins (“This Will Be My Undoing”), Feb. 6, 6:30 p.m.; Hermione Hoby (“Neon in Daylight”), Feb. 8, 6:30 p.m.; “Saving Family Memories,” a workshop led by local author Louise Farmer Smith, Feb. 11, 3:00-4:15 p.m.; Short Story Happy Hour + Author Talk by Ho Lin (“China Girl”), Feb. 12, 6:30 p.m.; and a book launch with David Bonior (“Whip: Leading the Progressive Battle During the Rise of the Right”), Feb. 22, 6:30 p.m. www.eastcitybookshop.com.
Folger Shakespeare Library presents “Natural Mystic: A Poetic Celebration of Reggae,” an O.B. Hardison Poetry reading with Kwame Dawes and Safiya Sinclair, Feb. 5, 7:30 p.m. Tickets and information at 202-544-7077 or www.folger.edu.
Smithsonian Associates continues a four-part series, “The Immigrant Experience in Literature,” with “Breath, Eyes, Memory” by Edwidge Danticat, Feb. 5, 6:45 p.m.; and talks by Charles W. Calhoun, author of “The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant,” Feb. 8, 6:45 p.m. and Andrew Morton, author of “Wallis In Love,” about the Duchess of Windsor, Feb. 20, 6:45 p.m. www.smithsonianassociates.org.