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Washington Read

Book reviews and the latest news on Washington authors.

The Calligrapher’s Daughter

Eugenia Kim drew on her Korean heritage for her first novel. Photograph by Chris Leaman

Everything is churning on the Korean peninsula in Washington writer Eugenia Kim’s debut novel, The Calligrapher’s Daughter.


In a dream, Najin—the willful young woman at the center of this story about self-discovery, spiritual awakening, and the fraying yet firm bonds of family—glimpses her ancestors’ response to Korea’s early-20th-century sociopolitical upheaval: “I saw how the wind blew their sighs of sorrow, the rain scattered their tears, and snow spread their icy dismay as Western thought, Japan and Bleak Future crossed our unwilling, hermit’s threshold.”

Determined to uphold family tradition, Najin’s father betroths her to the son of a painter and fellow resistance worker. Outraged, Najin’s mother sends her to live with family in the royal city of Seoul. The move opens both professional opportunities for Najin and a rift between father and daughter that two decades can only begin to mend.

Employing a variety of narrators, Kim’s writing is most arresting tethered to the tongue of Najin, a character modeled loosely on the author’s mother, who emigrated to the US with her husband in 1948.

It’s the connection between Najin and her mother that gives this sprawling, buoyant tale its emotional anchor.

Henry Holt, $26

Louis D. Brandeis: A Life

An Ivy League–educated child of immigrant parents gets nominated to a seat on the Supreme Court by a popular Democratic President, only to clash with conservatives over judicial philosophy. Sound familiar?

More than a century before Sonia Sotomayor’s Capitol Hill confirmation drama, Louis Brandeis—the lawyer, reformist, and dedicated Zionist put forward by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916—wrote the script.

In this biography, Melvin Urofsky, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who lives in Gaithersburg, marks Brandeis’s tumultuous confirmation as a pinnacle of the progressive movement in government and numbers the jurist among our most influential—and most elusive—public servants and intellectuals.

Brandeis, writes Urofsky, advocated “a living law, a Constitution responsive to the country’s needs, [and] judges sensitive to the changes going on around them.”

Pantheon, $40

Nothing Was the Same: A Memoir

“Washington may be jaded to human nature, but it keeps itself open to beauty,” writes Kay Redfield Jamison in this sober yet heartening memoir about losing her husband, National Institutes of Health scientist Richard Wyatt, to lung cancer.

From a meteor shower in Rock Creek Park to an owl exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History, Jamison’s account moves—and occasionally meanders—through the “cold horror” of first loss into the consoling “sanity” of grief.

A psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins whose Dante-like descent into suicidal depression fueled her 1995 memoir, An Unquiet Mind, Jamison is at her most insightful drawing distinctions between mania and mourning.

“I bled out during my depressions,” she writes. “This was not so after Richard died. My heart broke, but it beat.”

Knopf, $25

Book Deals—George Allen on Sports, Letters to Jackie Kennedy, and More

Long before his days as Virginia governor and US senator and his short run as the Republican Party’s rising star, George Allen was a two-sport athlete at the University of Virginia whose father was a popular coach of the Redskins. In Triumph of Character—out from Regnery in 2010—Allen, now a scholar at the Young America’s Foundation, will revisit the locker room to reflect on what sports can teach Washington.

Ellen Byerrum has signed a three-book deal to continue her breezy Crime of Fashion mystery series, which features Lacey Smithsonian, a pithy DC writer/detective who scours Washington’s threadbare fashion scene seeking material for her style column and undresses menace along the way.

Next fall, on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s election as President, Ecco is set to release presidential historian Ellen Fitzpatrick’s Dear Mrs. Kennedy, a collection of condolence letters Jacqueline Kennedy received after her husband’s assassination.

This article first appeared in the September 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here

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