Their focus may be on the past, but members of the Washington Historical Society are up-to-date when it comes to reading.

They relish books of all genres and, this month, were happy to review novels, nonfiction, biographies and memoirs for “Novel Ideas’ ” annual summer feature.

We’re sure you’ll find a title here to pique your interest and provide hours of entertainment.


‘Carole King: A Natural Woman’

Reviewed by Nancy Ayres

Nonfiction books are usually not my choice of reading material, and I could count the number of biographies I have read on one hand that’s missing a few fingers.  But when I saw that one of the book choices for this month’s “Novel Ideas” was “Carole King: A Natural Woman,” I had to pick it up.  

What immediately came to mind was sitting under a tree with my sister’s guitar faking a D6 chord so I could accompany myself singing “So Far Away.” I was feeling the ongoing impact of Carole King’s “Tapestry” album even though I was only 9 when it was released.

Carole King is a woman of extraordinary giftedness.  She was writing hits in her late teens.  “One Fine Day,” “Go Away Little Girl,” “Up On the Roof” and of course “Natural Woman” were just a few of her 1960s hits.  Her “Tapestry” album brought her roaring into the ’70s, and she has never really stopped.  

First and foremost she is a musician, and the parts of the book that had to do with making music were the most interesting to me.  The same year “Tapestry” came out she also played piano and sang backup on James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” album. James Taylor, for me, is the answer to the question, “If you were on a desert island and could only have one CD, whose would it be?”

The book also shows her extreme personal resilience.  She was born in an era without television and now has songs on iTunes. She was married at 17 and had two children by the time she was 21. She was working every day and doing all the household chores as well since she was still living in the June Cleaver era. 

Two husbands became drug addicts. One physically abused her. She spent three years living without electricity or running water, yet through everything she never missed a beat  — literally. She continued to write, produce and perform and never stopped being thrilled by just jamming with other “cats” as she calls them. 

The first few chapters of this book are a little disjointed, but when she begins telling the story of writing “Natural Woman” for Aretha Franklin the book hits its stride and carries you through smoothly to the end. She tells her story humbly, without self-pity, and with very few regrets.  The end result is a good read. 


‘The Chemistry of Tears’

Reviewed by Slava Bowman

Two stories of love, two very different kinds of love, the common denominator between them the way they consume the subject fully and completely, doing away with the restrictions of time and space.

The year is 2010. Catherine Gehrig is a middle-aged horologist working in the Swinburne Museum in London, a universe on its own. When she learns of the sudden death of her married colleague and lover of 13 years, Catherine is torn by anger, despair and grief. The only other person who knows her secret is her boss, Eric Croft, who assigns her a special project. Catherine is to work at the museum’s Annexe, away from prying eyes, trying to reassemble a complex mechanical toy. A task that would normally make her giddy with excitement and joy, now only seems to intensify her maddening sorrow.

It is not until Catherine uncovers a series of notebooks written by the 19th century gentleman who commissioned the mechanical creature that she begins to show interest in it. His touching story, full of ambiguity, delusion, wonder and possibility, driven by his unconditional love for his sickly son, is the only thing that keeps Catherine’s crumbling world from falling apart completely. Their hope is vested in the mechanical precision of the elaborate creation, and every page is charged with complex emotions, mad passions and constant attempts to deal with the permeating sense of loss. 

The chemistry of tears is more powerful than we know, and only through their clarifying power we can see what is invisible for the eyes. The process of bringing the mechanical creature back to life links two strangers divided by the concept of time together in the mystical space of creation and hope for something better ahead, leaving the reader with more questions than answers.


‘By the Iowa Sea’

Reviewed by Joe Sedlock

The title of this book made me think the focus would be about flooding rivers in Iowa. I was not disappointed; the setting is the Iowa River flood of 2008.

The book jacket notes that this book is a “memoir,” but I didn’t give that much thought until well into reading the book when I figured out the writer, Joe Blair, was relating his personal experiences.

Joe was an East Coast boy with dreams of being an adventurer, riding his various motorcycles throughout the country. But life didn’t work out for Joe that way. He and his new wife left on their honeymoon (on a motorcycle) to explore the United States but only got as far as Iowa, where they settled down and lived a very typical lifestyle. After 16 years of marriage, and four children — one of whom is severely autistic — the floods came.

Joe is a refrigeration technician (a pipefitter) as well as an aspiring writer (this is his first book, and it is very well written). He takes the reader into very personal aspects of his life, including a brief encounter with another woman. When the river floods, it indirectly causes Joe and his wife to delve more deeply into their lives and face their fears and concerns.

The book’s ending really surprised me — I think many readers also will be surprised.


‘Never Tell’ 

Reviewed by Lisa Buddemeyer

“Never Tell” — what a story! I found it hard to put down. 

This book is about a 16-year-old girl, Julia Whitmire, who everyone thinks has it all, money, townhouse, famous father, friends.

Then she ends up in her bathtub with her wrists slit and drugs in her body. Everyone, from the EMTs on the scene, to the medical examiner who responds, feel her death is a cut-and-dried case of suicide. But her mother, Katherine, insists, even though there was a suicide note, it was murder. 

She convinces NYPD homicide detective Ellie Hatcher and her partner, Rogan, to take a closer look. Katherine is convinced that her daughter’s death had to do with some homeless kids that Julia once let into their house.

Ellie and Rogan interview these street kids along with Julia’s best friend, Ramona, and also stumble onto a blog written by Ramona’s mom. This blog centers on her personal story of sexual abuse while she was a child. During the investigation Ramona’s mom starts receiving death threat messages as comments to her articles.

More and more individuals are pulled in and this is where the twist and turns are relevant. 

The presentation of the characters was interesting, and the story line was very well written.

This is my first reading of an Alafair Burke novel, and I’m definitely looking forward to the next.


‘The Presidents Club’

Reviewd by Bill Schwab

On Jan. 20, 1953, together on the platform at Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration, Harry Truman greeted Herbert Hoover. 

“I think we ought to organize a former presidents club,” Hoover suggested. “Fine,” Truman replied. “You be the president of the club. And I will be the secretary.”

So began the modern Presidents Club, an exclusive organization that has never had more than six members. This book contains well-researched, and sometimes unexpected stories, about the association of current and former U.S. presidents. 

Of particular interest to me are the surprising stories of Truman’s strong reliance on Hoover’s presidential experience. Franklin Delano Roosevelt seldom had included Truman in decision making, so when Truman suddenly became president, he turned to the much maligned Hoover for help. The fact that Hoover and Truman belonged to different political parties did not matter. 

I was also intrigued by the extraordinary influence Nixon had on six presidents after he resigned. Nixon was exceptionally knowledgeable about foreign relations. Many newly elected presidents felt inadequately prepared in this area and consulted him. Bill Clinton’s genuine love for George H.W. Bush and accounts of their post-presidential international relief efforts also make for fascinating reading.

Time editors Nancy Gibb and Michael Duffy have added a well-researched, and documented, volume to the library of presidential histories. If their names look familiar to you, Michael Duffy is a regular on PBS’ “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill. Both Nancy and Michael appear occasionally on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”  

Those who enjoy reading Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Beschloss and David McCullough will find this work to their liking.

I especially appreciated the format of the book. There are many sections to each chapter, so the book can be picked up and read for a few moments or for hours.


‘The Right Hand Shore,’ 

Reviewed by Elsie Sedlock

“The Right Hand Shore” by Christopher Tilghman is a good read. 

Mr. Tilghman’s plot carefully portrays two families’ efforts to live life to the fullest regardless of the challenges presented. It explores American culture for a better part of a century. 

I thought I liked the book until the end, when I realized I loved it. It was a splendid summer reading choice.  

Character development: I valued each rich personality, even when I didn’t like the character.  

The vocabulary: Twice I went to the dictionary (yes, not the Internet). I savored and tasted beautiful words like “miscegenation” and “orchardist.” 

The story line drew me in, even when I suspected I knew where it was going. Over a long day on a front porch 13 family stories tell of 19th century industry, enormous wealth, peaches, cattle, success and failure. 

The stories tell of free blacks in Maryland after emancipation. They speak of a noble boyhood friendship and of consequences of a forbidden true love, of the powerful Catholic church and of the development of agricultural science — all strong threads that weave a special part of the American story.

See if you find a deep creativity in Tilghman’s writing, something that comes only from a respect for solitude (not a disease or loneliness). And then there is Chapter 11, one of the finest descriptions of love someone will ever write or read. 

Whether or not you read this book is entirely up to you. Here’s trusting in the truism, “Happy is the one who reads.”  


‘September Hope,’ 

Reviewed by Walt Larson

This book is not for the faint of heart.  It is for those for whom U.S. military history and details of action during World War II hold unlimited fascination. 

This is a nonfiction description of “The American Side of a Bridge Too Far,” which is the subtitle to this 512-page book. The narrative flows smoothly, is quite readable and difficult to lay down until finished.

In September 1944, the largest airborne attack in military history occurred in Holland when British, Polish and American paratroopers and soldiers arriving in gliders participated in Operation Market Garden.  

The operation was designed by British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery as a means of seizing key bridges over the Rhine River in a plan to allow a lightning armored advance into the vitals of Germany.  

Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower preferred a broad frontal attack on German forces but gave permission for Montgomery to proceed.  Operation Market Garden failed in that while several bridges were captured, the main objective to move Allied troops across the Rhine River was prevented. 

Bad choices were made in the planning and opportunities were ignored.  Failure in Intelligence regarding placement of German Panzer Corps, bad weather, untested Allied radio communications and an unrealistically tight schedule all contributed to the failure of the campaign.

A book (“A Bridge Too Far,” 1974) and movies (“Theirs Is the Glory,” 1946; “A Bridge Too Far,” 1977; and more recently parts of “Band of Brothers”) cover the British and Polish fighting around Arnhem where only 2,000 of the original 10,000 British soldiers in that sector were not killed, wounded or taken prisoner. 

This book presents in detail the American participation in Operation Market Garden through the preliminary planning, the airborne drop into Holland, the fighting and the withdrawals. 

Extensive firsthand accounts of privates, sergeants, captains and generals are included by the author. While giving an overview of the campaign like most military history books, the author, however, provides extensive descriptions of the American infantry combat, combining battle details of heroism with the gore that existed in the foxholes and trenches. 

About 3,600 Americans were lost in the American sectors of Operation Market Garden.

The author, John C. McManus, earned a master’s degree in American history from the University of Missouri and a doctorate in American history and military history from the University of Tennessee. He currently teaches Civil War, World War II, Vietnam and military history in Rolla at the Missouri University of Science and Technology.  


‘The Seventh Gate’ 

Reviewed by Sue Lampe

Adventurous, curious, artistic Sophie Riedesel is coming of age in 1930s Berlin while the Nazi Party is consolidating power and becoming the ruling party in Germany. It isn’t long before the Nazis take their reign of persecution and terror against the Jewish population one step further toward their goal of complete ethnic cleansing. A program of forced abortions, sterilizations and, finally, genocide is declared against the handicapped, the blind, the mentally challenged — in fact anyone different from what the Nazis consider perfect. 

Sophie witnesses with disbelief and helplessness, her Jewish neighbors beaten and dispossessed, her circus performer friends driven into hiding, the disappearance of her best friend and her whole family. When her autistic younger brother is notified by the Ministry of Health that he is scheduled to be sterilized and their father will not try to intervene, Sophie knows that her loyalty must be to her brother and her friends and that the greatest protest they can make is to survive!

I was surprised that what made “The Seventh Gate” an adult novel was not the dark story line, but the sexual content. With a murder mystery, Jewish mysticism and unfolding historical events, as seen through Sophie’s eyes, the author definitely captured my attention and imagination.  

“The Seventh Gate” is a novel not easily put down or put out of mind.


‘Stand Up That Mountain,’

Reviewed by

Wanda Rogers-Larson

With honesty and self-deprecating humor, Jay Erskine Leutze penned the true story of a protracted legal battle he and his Appalachian neighbors launched to save their Belview Mountain homes in Avery County, N.C.

Paul Brown, owner of the rock-mining enterprise Clark Stone Company, began his operation to take off the face of the mountain and had a permit which would allow him to continue exploiting the site for 99 years.  

Belview Mountain happens to be in view of the Appalachian Trail, a national park spanning 2,184 miles from Georgia to Maine. It is the nation’s most popular “dirt path,” named by some as owning the most breathtakingly lovely and verdant views in the country, if not the world.

The saga began when homeowners were alarmed by heavy equipment rumbling up the mountain.  Then came the blasting that shook the foundations of their homes and rattled the nerves of the people who had eked out a living on the mountain for generations.  

The homeowners, including the colorful Ollie Ve (pronounced Vay), her son Freddy, and her niece Ashley, were being put through “pyore Hayull” over the noise, the quaking and the stifling dust; but they had very little money for lawyers and legal fees. They were also of the opinion that Paul Brown had “bought and paid for every official in Raleigh” to obtain his permit without due process.

Even with their distrust of all people nonmountain, the little group of homeowners sought Mr. Leutze’s help.  Jay had moved back to the family retreat of his childhood to fish, read, and write novels — as well as to hike the steep, rugged mountain up to and along the Appalachian Trail. Since he was a law school graduate (even though he did not pass the bar on the first try and had turned his ambitions elsewhere) the group felt he was their only hope to save their homes.  

When Jay got to work, he learned that the permit was obtained by deception. Getting the permit rescinded, however, was a daunting task. As Ollie Ve would say, it’s enough to give you the “swimmy head.”

Leutze breaks up the tension in this passionate story by his generous use of humor, especially with his sprinklings of mountain vernacular. As the story unwinds, the reader will be awed by the brilliance and dedication of some of the great legal minds who joined the melee, and s/he might be surprised by the regulations and the politics — not to mention capricious judgments — which at times tie the hands of our conservation organizations.   

At the conclusion of this enjoyable and eye-opening book, the reader is left to ponder not only what an individual can do to protect the nation’s parklands, but what has become of plucky Ollie Ve and her family who we’ve come to appreciate in the reading of their struggle to “stand up that mountain.”



Reviewed by Diane Schwab

When Auggie begins fifth grade in a new school, we can expect he might have a few difficult times.  But Auggie starts with two problems most students never have.  He has always been home-schooled, and he has a facial deformity caused by a genetic disorder.

Although the principal asked three students to be his “guides” and be nice to him, only Jack and Summer talk to him. No one sits by him in the cafeteria.  At one point the other children are telling one another not to sit by Auggie because if he accidentally touches them they will get the “plague” that Auggie has. 

Mr. Brown, his English teacher, is instrumental in Auggie becoming accepted.  Each month he assigned a precept for the students to consider and respond to in writing. September’s precept was, “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind,” by Dr. Wayne W. Dyer. 

The kids’ attitude toward Auggie changes as the school year continues with ordinary activities and a few extraordinary events.  They come to realize that you can’t judge a book by its cover or a boy by his face.

I recommend this inspiring book to fifth-graders and those older.  I especially like the realistic scenes of the school cafeteria. I would change two things about the book:  the vocabulary in the flashback section about Auggie’s birth and the “fairy tale ending.”  

It is written in short chapters and told from the point of view of a variety of the characters.