Tag Archives: Kathryn Smith

Top Ten DC Authors

When I first began this site, my reviews were limited to DC books, authors, bookstores, and events. Though I’ve since expanded my reviews to cover all of my interests, you never forget your first love. And so, I give you my top ten list of DC authors!

10. Sarah Pekkanen
Sarah Pekkanen is a relatively new author to me. But when I heard about the local connection, I was on her latest book, Skipping a Beat, like white on rice. A book set in DC, written by a DC author? Yes, please. Pekkanen didn’t disappoint, and I am looking forward to her third book, These Girls, to be published in April 2012. Pekkanen is certainly an author to watch.

9. Dan Pink
I was very impressed with Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind, one of the first books I ever reviewed. Pink’s prose is eloquent and seamless, and his topics are as well-researched as they are fascinating. His other books explore how to get the job you’ve dreamed of, how to leave that job to work independently, and how to harness ambition to work better and smarter.

8. W. Ralph Eubanks
Ever Is a Long Time, Ralph Eubanks’s account of growing up in segregated Mississippi, is fascinating and informative. I enjoyed attending the Politics and Prose reading of his second book, The House at the End of the Road: The Story of Three Generations of an Interracial Family in the American South; Eubanks’s unique family history seems to provide endless material for his books, and I’m not complaining.

7. Blair Ruble
In order to understand DC, you need to read Washington’s U Street by Blair Ruble. He focuses upon the iconic U Street neighborhood to contextualize the overlooked histories of DC residents in an accessible, conversational tone.

6. George Pelecanos
George Pelecanos is perhaps the best known–certainly among the most prolific–of the DC author scene. No one takes on the gritty reality of the city’s streets like Pelecanos; I enjoyed The Turnaround, but I’ve heard good things about pretty much all of his books. In addition, he was a producer of and writer for “The Wire,” a show that reveals the lives of Baltimoreans in much the same way that Pelecanos explores the subcultures of DC.

5. Laura Lippman
Laura Lippman is another new-to-me author whom I’ve begun following assiduously. I was impressed with the quiet thrill of I’d Know You Anywhere, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting her next novel, The Most Dangerous Thing.

4. Dinaw Mengestu
I was blown away by Dinaw Mengestu’s characterization and prose in The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears; it was one of my top 5 books in 2010. I was disappointed by Mengestu’s second book, How to Read the Air, but perhaps that just goes to show that Mengestu is best suited to writing about DC!

3. Edward P. Jones
Edward P. Jones’s The Known World is brilliant and dark, with refreshingly original ways of introducing and describing characters that hearkens back to Jones’s mastery of the short story form; he has also published two collections of short stories, All Aunt Hagar’s Children and Lost in the City. Jones is a masterful storyteller.

2. Kathryn Smith
Few people have done more than Kathy Smith to record and preserve the histories embedded in DC’s neighborhoods. Her comprehensive collection of essays on DC, Washington at Home, is now in its second edition. This book is a must for DC bibliophiles.

1. Carolyn Parkhurst
I cannot say enough good things about Carolyn Parkhurst. (If I keep trying, I’m worried she’ll issue a restraining order.) Bethanne Patrick recently commented, “Those who have read Parkhurst’s previous work will know that she could find humor and pathos in a phone directory.” I loved Lost and Found and The Nobodies Album with a fervor surprising even to me. The only reason I’ve waited this long to read The Dogs of Babel is because then I wouldn’t have anything of Parkhurst’s to look forward to for a while.

Runners up:

Have you read any of the authors on this list? Who did I miss?

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature created by The Broke and the Bookish. Each Tuesday, bloggers create top ten lists about reading, writing, blogging, and more!

“Washington’s U Street” by Blair A. Ruble

Title: Washington’s U Street: A Biography
Author: Blair A. Ruble
ISBN: 9780801898006
Pages: 432
Release date: November 2010
Publishers: The Woodrow Wilson Center Press and the Johns Hopkins University Press
Genre: Urban history
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publishers
Rating: 4 out of 5

Summary

Blair Ruble begins by framing the U Street area as a “contact zone”—a place where cultures and peoples exist side by side. Whether black or white, southern or northern, professional or scholarly, residents in the neighborhood have interacted with each other with very few clashes for decades. U Street has bred activists, politicians, scholars, educators, athletes, musicians, and dancers, among others; and it calls such famous figures as Duke Ellington and Ralph Bunche sons.

Ruble explores the significance of cultural institutions and historical events, such as the founding of the NAACP, Jim Crow and segregation, the civil rights movement, and the establishment of U Street as “black Broadway.” He also discusses often overlooked but equally important topics, such as the elitism of a U Street society based on skin tone, lineage, and occupation.

The U Street area saw important advances in public and private African American education. Nowhere was the conflict between Du Bois’s belief that higher education should be equally available to all races and Booker T. Washington’s focus upon the manual trades more relevant than in this diverse neighborhood.

The author mentions the “white flight” that occurred after desegregation, but he also discusses other factors that shaped the social and ethnic makeup of the area. Ruble follows the creation of Shaw as a distinct neighborhood, and he voices the difficulties that many have had in trying to create a single version of this new district’s history. Ruble carefully delineates the events leading up to the 1968 riots, and he discusses its lasting effects on the neighborhood and the city as a whole.

With the relatively recent arrival of the metro, the neighborhood drew a new breath. But as U Street culture and landmarks are increasingly commercialized, the area is once again experiencing widespread (and often unwelcome) change.

Analysis

What so excited me about this book was its originality. Paul K. Williams has composed a visual history of Greater U Street as a part of the Images of America series, and Kathy Smith discussed “Greater Shaw” in her edited volume, Washington at Home. But no one has undertaken such a comprehensive examination of this undeniably important neighborhood.

The author is not a trained historian, but his research is impeccable; he brings to light dozens of unpublished theses on the neighborhood. At the same time, I found this account very readable and entertaining.

I was particularly interested in Ruble’s discussion of D.C.’s political representation. He shows that contrary to accusations of mismanagement and corruption, D.C.’s political scene was actually limited due to racist policies outside of local control. D.C. is one of the largest historically African American cities, and its limited political representation is an indication that we still have a lot to learn from centuries of bigotry and intolerant practices.

U Street has been Washington’s vibrant center for many decades, and Ruble’s detailed account of the neighborhood, from before the Civil War to today, puts its modern issues in context.

One recent topic that has divided the neighborhood is double-parking in front of churches. A newer, younger, often whiter set of residents has begun complaining about the crowded parking conditions caused by U Street’s longtime religious community (residents who, in some cases, have moved to the suburbs but still consider U Street home). Without knowing the history and importance of religious institutions in U Street life, it would be easy simply to side with those who want less crowded streets. But Ruble’s detailed explanation of this standoff, along with many other complex issues, shows both sides of the story.

At the same time, however, Washington’s U Street demonstrates the exceptional ability of the area’s many different residents not just to coexist but also to build a strong identity and unique culture.

Full Disclosure: At the time of this book’s publication, I was employed by one of its publishers, the Woodrow Wilson Center Press, in an editorial capacity. However, I would like to think that my position there has not influenced my opinion here, and–as with all of my reviews–I have not received any compensation for this discussion. Rather, I have chosen to review this book for its unprecedented historical analysis of an iconic D.C. neighborhood.