Best Bluegrass of 2013

Dear Sister This year brought us some very good bluegrass music – much of it coming out of Alison Brown’s Compass Records in Nashville. In looking at the different albums that came to my attention in 2013, three of my top five bluegrass releases of the year came from this eclectic roots music label which has been stretching boundaries and introducing the world to exciting new artists for almost two decades.

First up in the More to Come… “Best of Bluegrass 2013” list is the wonderful Claire Lynch and her Dear Sister project (and not just because she signed my CD cover).  This is a great group of songs that include tunes I began writing about almost two years ago.  The title track comes from letters written before the Civil War battle of Stones River – fought near my hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. I’ll Be Alright Tomorrow is a new working of the Osborne Brothers classic, that sounds just right in the hands of the newly minted 2013 International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Female Vocalist of the Year. Claire’s killer band gets to showcase its chops throughout Dear Sister, including bassist Mark Schatz considerable hambone skills on Buttermilk Road/The Arbours.

Claire Lynch

Dear Sister is another in the impressive catalog of Claire Lynch recordings.  Enjoy the video of Once the Teardrops Start to Fall from this project. You will get a sense of the terrific music this wonderful songbird and her band of outstanding musicians continue to make.

Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen On the EdgeFrank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen‘s On the Edge is an impressive work for the second release from this Washington, DC-based band. Solivan (who doubles as a chef – hence the catchy band name) is an impressive mandolin player who has assembled a dynamite group of pickers, including IBMA 2013 Banjo Player of the Year Mike Munford and IBMA 2013 Momentum Award winner Chris Luquette.  To understand how this group jells, it doesn’t get any better than the description of the band from an Irish Times review:

If Tim O’Brien and Alison Brown ever had a love child, it might just be Frank Solivan. This newgrass/bluegrass foursome spirals through skin-tight banjo picking, razor-sharp mandolin and jazz-tinged concentric circles – all with a degree of control that balances technical precision and improvisational virtuosity.


The project begins with a bang on I Fell Short (On Standing Tall) thanks, in part, to guest Rob Ickes’ dobro. A bluegrass remake of the old Box Tops hit The Letter shows these guys can handle a wide range of styles – and make great new music in the process. M80 is a terrific instrumental, where Munford (the tune’s author) and Luquette really shine. On the Edge of Letting Go tackles mental illness – a topic not often explored in traditional bluegrass – with a sensitivity and restrained musical accompaniment.  On the Edge ends with a jazz-infused instrumental, Bedrock.

Most commentators have said this is the project to put Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen in the top-tier of bluegrass bands, and I agree.

The first video I posted with this blog has been removed, so treat yourself to the band’s version of I Fell Short (of Standing Tall).

Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill MonroeThe third Compass Records release to make my “Best Bluegrass of 2013” list is one of the coolest concept albums to come along in years – banjo phenom Noam Pikelny recreating the famous 1976 Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe album.

In Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe, Pikelny recreates the twelve Monroe instrumentals that long-time Monroe fiddler Kenny Baker included on his landmark album. For those who have heard Pikelny (the winner of the inaugural Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass) with the Punch Brothers or from his earlier Compass release Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail, this is as close to straight bluegrass as Pikelny’s going to get.

The players Pikelny assembled for this project are cream of the crop bluegrass pickers:  Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, Bryan Sutton on guitar, and Mike Bub on bass. The first track, Road to Columbus, has Pikelny beginning with a straightforward bluegrass banjo break, but on the second and especially third breaks, he explores the fretboard in ways that Earl (rest his soul) never imagined.  Jerusalem Ridge – one of my all time favorite Monroe instrumentals – gets a similar treatment.  Candice and I heard Pikelny on the Sirius XM Bluegrass Junction show Track By Track just last week, and it was fascinating to hear him talk about this project in general and Jerusalem Ridge in particular.  The ending double banjo/fiddle duet with Stuart Duncan is short, but sweet.

Noam Pikelney

For lovers of instrumental bluegrass, there isn’t a false note on this record. I’ve posted a video of “Noam Pikelny and Friends” playing the Monroe instrumental Wheel Hoss, which is a cut from the Kenny Baker/Bill Monroe project.  Pikelny, Bryan Sutton, and Luke Bulla have especially wonderful solos. Who knew fingers could fly that fast!?!  (Well, I did, but then I can’t imagine mine going at one-quarter of that speed.)  As much as I love the progressive work that Pikelny does these days, I am glad he took the time to return to some bluegrass roots on this project, and I applaud Compass for backing this type of work.  Enjoy!

The SteelDrivers Hammer DownI’ll admit it…I love The SteelDrivers type of bluegrass, even though purists would point out that their lead singer sounds more Muscle Shoals than Kentucky hills and some members of the band play a lot of commercial country in their day jobs as Nashville studio musicians.

The group’s 2013 Rounder Records release Hammer Down continues the tradition of their first two recordings – great songwriting, soulful vocals, and skillful instrumental treatments.  This is the first of the group’s three albums with Gary Nichols taking over the lead vocals from founding member Chris Stapleton, and he more than holds his own.

Hammer Down begins with the haunting Shallow Grave about the burying of an addiction. (“I buried my love with a silver spade, Laid her down in the shallow grave, Can’t keep love in the cold, cold ground, Nothing in the earth can hold her down.”) The harmonies between Nichols, fiddler Tammy Rogers, and bassist Mike Fleming are one of the things that make this band’s work so satisfying – and they are off to a strong start on Shallow Grave.

One commentator noted that a trio of dysfunctional relationship songs starts the album…but I think that’s where this band makes its living. The trio ends with the sprightly When You Don’t Come Home, Rogers’ harmonies giving this tune the perfect honky-tonk feel.  Ditto for Wearin’ a Hole (in a honky-tonk floor). The SteelDrivers do break up the fast-paced melancholy with some slow-paced melancholy on occasion (give a listen to I’ll Be There), but this is a band that is best when it is ripping through some whiskey-soaked tune. Hell on Wheels is a fun take on the story of a wild young woman living in a small rural town.  That tune, plus Cry No Mississippi (another small town story) and When I’m Gone are a very satisfying trio of songs to end Hammer Down.

The SteelDrivers have survived the departure of two founding members and yet continue to make great music.  Take a listen to the video of When You Don’t Come Home and see if you don’t agree.

The Stray Birds "Echo Sessions"My fifth choice isn’t really bluegrass and it really isn’t an album…but I’ve fallen in love with The Stray Birds and just want to write about them.

In 2013, this folk, Americana, roots music outfit put out a five-song EP recorded at the Echo Mountain Studios in North Carolina (hence the project’s name). Echo Sessions is dedicated to five songwriters that have touched the band members through the years.  I recently heard the group’s terrific take on Jimmie Rodgers’ Blue Yodel #7 (Anniversary Blue Yodel) from the Echo Sessions and was smitten.

So who are songwriters that rank with these three musicians? The EP begins with the Townes Van Zandt tune Loretta, and then moves to the beautiful Susannah Clark song I’ll Be Your San Antonio Rose.  The Louvin Brothers contribute When I Stop Dreaming, followed by Rodgers – one of the most influential songwriters of all time.  The EP ends with Nanci Griffith’s I Wish It Would Rain.  Not a bad line-up of inspirational songwriters and not a bad EP for one-day’s live session.

The Stray Birds are making a splash on the festival and club circuit (they open for the Seldom Scene here at the Birchmere on New Year’s Eve), so this is more a “keep your eye on them” note than a “Best of 2013” post.  Look for their second full-length album in the Spring of 2014. And to prove that others see them as bluegrass, I’m posting a video from WAMU’s Bluegrass Country of the tune Time in Squares.  Enjoy.

Just a final note about how this list is chosen.  Not being a professional reviewer, I don’t receive dozens of CDs to review. I do listen to a fair amount of bluegrass on WAMU’s Bluegrass Country and Sirius XM’s Bluegrass Junction.  The latter’s Track By Track show is a great way to hear new music all year long.  But I know I miss some bands and performers that others would put on any “best of” list for the year.  These just happen to be the ones that caught my ear and led me to purchase them for my own collection. I hope you find something you’ll like in this grouping.  I can’t wait to see what 2014 brings.

More to come…


Farewell 2013; Hello 2014

Brown Family December 22, 2013
It is the season for musing on the year that is rapidly passing away and making resolutions for the year ahead.  I tend to use this blog to reflect on items throughout the year (see – among many others – thoughts on the Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service, preseason baseball, wonderful European travel, fathers, live music set in the midst of the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, “stay-cations”, holiday weekends, our year in photos, and 21st birthday celebrations.) So I have only one additional reflection today…but I have several resolutions.  I’ve found that when I call out my resolutions publicly, I tend to keep them.  (Funny how that works!)  But first, let’s look back.

I am a lucky man.  The picture above pretty much explains it all.  As Claire and Andrew have passed significant life milestones, I have often written about my wonderful children.  They aren’t perfect, but they do give me a great deal of pleasure (when they aren’t driving me crazy.  Have you seen those rooms!?!) However, I’ve been reminded over this holiday season how lucky I am – in fact how lucky the three of us are – to have Candice in our lives as wife and mother.  I like the Urban Dictionary definition of “marrying up” – as they note that “back in the day this would have been used of marrying someone higher up in society, but nowadays it’s just generally when someone is punching above their weight in the romance department.”  That fits me to a T.

We have had a wonderful holiday season in 2013 due – in large measure – to Candice and the way she is so intentional about our life today.  Because the twins’ birthday comes close to Christmas Day, we’ve traditionally focused more on Advent during December, leaving the decorations, gifts, and parties until the 25th and the 12 days of Christmas.  And this year, we had an especially thoughtful Advent season, that included daily reflections; lots of music, including Andrew’s solo in Messiah, two different services of Lessons and Carols, and the traditional Institute of Musical Tradition holiday concert with the talented Robin Bullock; time to reflect with friends; and wonderful meals both at home and in some great restaurants.  (Check out Gracie’s if you are ever in Providence, and then eat breakfast and lunch in their affiliated bakery, named Ellie’s.  Candice found them both – Gracie’s on our last trip and Ellie’s on this visit – and I’ve seldom eaten so well!)

This year Candice has led the family renaissance in health. After working faithfully on a daily basis to come back from her double whammy of severe concussion and hip replacement, she has supported me as I’ve tried to live a more healthful life.  (More on that below.) With her intentional focus, she has reached out to friends and has made connections a big part of our life as empty nesters. My job wouldn’t be as satisfying without Candice’s support – from listening to concerns to cheering success stories and commenting on upcoming speeches. She keeps the business part of the family on track, which is a big relief to all four of us. When the heating system decides to die (as it did this fall), Candice plays the role of general contractor in researching the new equipment and getting all the workers to the right place at the right time.  She doesn’t have many flaws, but she does have a few.  She can’t carry a tune in a bucket.  (She’s like my father in that respect.)  But even that has been good for me, as she thinks I’m a great guitar player and she has supported my mid-life crisis-fueled Guitar Acquisition Syndrome with gusto.

For this holiday season, we’re continuing a tradition of having a special family celebration for each of the 12 days of Christmas. This was Candice’s idea, and she makes sure it takes place each year.  On Christmas Day 2013 we helped serve food at our parish’s Christmas dinner for the homeless and those in the neighborhood who don’t have anyone else to celebrate with, then we had a family friend over for dinner and a film. The day after – we simply made sure we exercised!  Yesterday, we celebrated over lunch with Andrew’s godparents.  Tonight, we’ll all take in a play at Arena Stage.  You get this gist…just a little something nice on each day to celebrate community, family, friends, and the season.

I’ll end this reflection of 2013 where I began.  I am a lucky man.  Thank you, my love.

New years bring new resolutions.  I have found that if I make a resolution public then I keep it – such as stating on my then-Facebook page in February of 2012 that I was giving up sodas.  I haven’t had a drop of soda in almost two years (and I had a 2-4 Diet Coke-a-day habit) and I feel much better.  So here goes.

As I began 2013, I resolved privately – with a great deal of help and prodding from Candice – to focus on my health.  My excuse was that in helping to bring Candice back from her injuries, I had let myself go. But that didn’t do much for me.  I was fluctuating between 210 and 220 pounds – well above where I should be – and simply wasn’t feeling well much of the time.

But after a commitment to go six months with a personal trainer (then extended for the rest of the year…and then on into 2014), I kept that resolution.  At the end of the year I weighed 15 pounds less than at the beginning of the year (and was fluctuating between 187 and 197…a significant improvement!  I was visiting the gym on average five days a week. At the beginning of the year I didn’t even know what a “plank” was…now I can hold one for a while before I collapse. Thanks to Sue Immerman at MAD Fitness, Washington Sports Club, and Tanya Colucci at Transform Holistic Healing and Wellness Studio, I’ve made some progress on this front.

So my first resolution is to continue last year’s resolution.  I hope to end 2014 another 15 pounds down from where I am now, and to solidify the change in lifestyle.

Several years ago, Candice saw the authors of Younger Next Year:  A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 and Beyond on television, and bought me the book.  I was just turning 50 at the time, and while I was a little overweight, I didn’t feel like I was terribly out of shape. So I read the book, agreed with much I read, and then proceeded to live the way I had for the previous decade. Life was too busy.

But this year, I went back and re-read the book.  58 was much more difficult for me than 49. The book – geared toward men – focuses on exercise, looks, life commitments, and more. I loved the no-nonsense advice of this book – written by a retired lawyer and a young doctor – for the Next Third of your life. My all-time favorite in the chapter entitled “The Ugly Stick and Other Curiosities”: Just Say No to Yasir Arafat.

You may be tempted, particularly when you’re not going to the office every day, to forget about shaving.  Don’t. You may think “Bruce Willis!” but you may look “Yasir Arafat!”

Younger Next Year has seven “rules” for living the Next Third.  I’ve taken those, plagiarized some directly, reworked others a bit, and added some just for me. They’ve become my resolutions for the year(s) ahead, and they are now my computer wallpaper – the first thing I see when I boot up in the morning.  I’ll share them here, with a little explanation.

1.  Exercise six days a week for the rest of your life.  This is also the first rule in YNY.  The book makes the point that exercise tells the body to grow.  Sitting too long tells the body to decay.  My inspiration here is my father, Tom Brown.  He often says that the membership we gave him to the YMCA at age 70 saved his life.  Dad – who was not the picture of health at the time – now goes to the gym six days a week and has done so for the past 18 years.  He can’t hear worth a darn (and could never carry a tune), but he’s very healthy for someone who turned 88 last July.

2.  Listen more than you talk.  This is one I added just for me.  When you are in an executive position (be it at work or just as a parent), the temptation is to enjoy the sound of your own voice.  As I’ve become older, I have realized that I need to read this every morning before starting the day, as a good reminder.

3.  Spend less than you make. This is another direct take from YNY but it is important for me. I have found that as our financial position becomes more comfortable, I worry less.  That’s good, but it also leads to dumb decisions about money.  (Some would suggest I look at the G.A.S. post above.) In thinking about sustainability (personally as well as with the family, community, and planet), this just makes sense.

4. Quit eating crap!  Eat less of everything else.  The first is a direct quote from the YNY rules.  The second is my addition to remind myself that I can survive on a lot less food than I normally put into my body on a daily basis.  It would be more politically correct to use Michael Pollan’s famous, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” But I inevitably understand what is the crap I should keep out of my mouth (e.g., french fries) and when I think of it that way, it can tend to have more impact.

5.  Play music. He who sings, prays twice. I’ve decided that this is going to be a perpetual resolution. Music is one of the key things that feeds my soul.

6.  Connect and commit.  While this is taken directly from YNY, Candice could have helped me write this one. The authors devote an entire chapter to this critical issue of relationships, with sub-sections entitled “Cuddle or Perish,” “Don’t Retire at All,” “Using the Other Side of Your Brain,” “Make a Job Out of Your Social Life,” and “Just Say ‘Yes’.”  As someone who has to be prodded on occasion to accept social engagements, this is an important reminder.  Just since putting it up on my list, I’ve taken some steps in this direction.

7.  Don’t be a Grumpy Old Man.  Enjoy life!  I’ve never enjoyed being around older folks who gripe. (Actually, I’ve never enjoyed being around younger folks who gripe either!) But it is easy, as one gets older, to think you have all the answers.  That’s one of the great things about having kids. Mine remind me all the time that I don’t know squat about so many things in life.  But as I started the post on this note, I want to end here by remembering that I am a lucky man.  I have a great wife and children, a father who is still going strong at 88 and a mother-in-law who is a joy in our lives, a caring extended family, a wonderful set of friends, a challenging and satisfying job with fantastic and smart colleagues, and a wonderful community.  I have (most of) my wits.  I can still play a decent guitar, even if I have given up the dream of flat-picking like Doc Watson, and while I can no longer hit the high notes, I still sing a respectable tenor and do so with gusto when I know the song (to the embarrassment of my children). I love a good joke and like to laugh. Washington has a good professional baseball team and I get to share in a season-ticket package with good friends. My wife is an amazing cook and we both enjoy good food and wine on an almost nightly basis. Our house is not big, but it is big enough. I could go on and on.

So there they are…some resolutions (or musings) for 2014. Now that I’ve put them out there, feel free to let me know when I fall short (as I will). But also, if something strikes you as worth doing, feel free to take it and call it your own.

Happy New Year!

More to come…


Happy 21st, Claire and Andrew!

Fallingwater with the Browns August 2013Today – December 20th – Claire and Andrew celebrate their 21st birthday.

How did that happen?!

It seems like their 20th birthday was just yesterday, and here it is – a year later – and we are celebrating their “legal” ascension to adulthood. Of course, truth be told, it really seems as if they just left the house for the first day of kindergarten.

In celebration of the twins’ 21st birthday, join us on this visual walk through their lives (so far!) with a picture from each of their 21 years.  As always, just hold your cursor over the picture to see the caption.

Let’s begin with that very short…but very important…birth year of 1992.


Andrew and Claire's First Christmas 12 25 92


Andrew and Claire in my favorite baby picture 1993


Claire at Easter 1994

Andrew on SC Beach 1994


Andrew and Claire July 1995


Andrew and Claire Cropped October 1996


Andrew and Claire on Godmother Katharine's Porch October 1997


The Browns October 1998


Thanksgiving Pilgrims at CES


Halloween 2000


Catching Crabs 2001

Andrew and Claire Fall 2001


Andrew and Claire with piano teacher Bert Wirth in 2002


Claire and Andrew at the Cathedral, Fall 2003


Claire and Andrew at the Beach, August 2004


Andrew and Claire at the House 2005


Andrew and Margaret Potter - Cathedral Head Choristers - 2006

Claire and Maria at the River House 2006

Monster Cone 2006


Claire CES Graduation 2007 (2)


Andrew at the Ocean in South Africa

Lilly and Claire at Blessing of Animals 100408

Rio Grande Rafting 2008


Claire & Andrew June 2009


Concert at the Cathedral 102010 002


Andrew's High School Graduation


The Brown Family - 2012

Claire in Stockholm Ice Bar 2012

Andrew in Spain 2012


Halloween 2013

It has been a great ride, guys. We are both so proud of you – the people you are and all you have accomplished. We can’t wait to see what the next 21 years will bring.


Mom & Dad

More to come…


A Musical Weekend

MessiahMessiahJust a mention of the name of the famous Handel oratorio this time of year brings up thoughts of Advent. So it was only fitting that we settled in at the beautiful First Church of Christ Scientist in Providence on Friday evening for the first of two performances of this perennial favorite on our weekend calendar.

Candice and I are in Providence to visit with Andrew and to hear him sing with both the University Chorus and the Brown Madrigal singers.

Friday evening’s performance of Messiah was a double bonus, in that this was a “bring your own score” community sing-a-long.  It has been a long time since I sang in a regular performance of Messiah, but I do own a score and brought it along for the evening. Some choruses were like riding a bicycle – you never forget.  Others…well, I decided not to inflict pain on those around me and quickly dropped out of those where my muscle memory wasn’t very good.

Andrew, as you already knew, did a much better job with his singing.  He had the tenor solo for the Every valley shall be exalted… air and did a great job.  I’ve attached a video below of his solo, which I think you’ll enjoy.

Then Candice took over the camera for Hallelujah… as I joined in which the chorus.  You can see the beauty of the church – which is celebrating the centennial of this building – in this video.  All missed tenor notes that you hear are (no doubt) mine.

We’ve just returned from hearing the Madrigal singers present a concert of carols at Smith’s Castle historic site in nearby Wickford.  This was fun – in part because several of the singers had other obligations and we got to hear Andrew sing bass for the first time in our lives!

And after we touch down tomorrow back in Washington, we’ll head over to the National Cathedral for our second Messiah of the weekend.  Canon Mike McCarthy’s interpretation of the piece is wonderful (and yes, if you click on this link, the chorister you see over Mike’s left shoulder is a young Andrew!).


More to come…


Every Valley


From the Bookshelf

Lawrence in ArabiaDespite a busy fall schedule of work and travel, I’ve managed to finish several books that have sat on my bookshelf for various periods of time. Some are hot off the press, others have been waiting for me to pick them  up for more months than I care to admit. All were worth reading, and two were terrific finds.  So here are a few thoughts on a season’s worth of reading – beginning with the one I finished earlier this week, and working backwards from there.

Lawrence in Arabia:  War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson. This new work on the Middle East of World War I falls in the “terrific finds” category. Obviously much has been written about the exploits of T.E. Lawrence – the famous “Lawrence of Arabia.” In this book, however, the veteran war correspondent Scott Anderson weaves in Lawrence’s story with those of three spies from the era (German Curt Prüfer, American – and Standard Oil employee – William Yale, and Zionist Aaron Aaronsohn) to create a complex yet highly readable account of the miscalculations, deceit, and – most of all – hubris that led to decisions by the Allies that haunt the region today. Anderson knows war and doesn’t sugarcoat the awful impact on everyone involved.  He also calls a spade a spade when it comes to the reasons for WWI (petty arguments among Europe’s ruling classes – who were often kin), the imperial designs of all the major participants, and Woodrow Wilson’s naive approach to dealing with the Allies and the complex history of the Middle East (“…the American president’s almost comic fondness for tidy enumerated lists…”).  One especially illustrative comment comes near the end of the book, when Anderson is discussing a top-secret report sent to U.S. military intelligence from Middle East attaché William Yale.  Anderson writes, “With that dispatch he was establishing a tradition of fundamentally misreading the situation in the Middle East that his successors in the American military intelligence community would rigorously maintain for the next ninety-five years.”

Lawrence in Arabia is informative, thoughtful, illuminating, and a real page turner.  Not a bad combination.

Short Nights of the Shadow CatcherShort Nights of the Shadow Catcher:  The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan.  I’ll admit that I bought this book simply because I think Timothy Egan is one of the smartest voices writing today in the New York Times.  I enjoy the fact that he is not part of the Boston-to-New York-to-Washington chattering class and provides that paper with its only regular western voice.  But I’ve also found several of his other books – especially The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl  and The Big Burn:  Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America – to be wonderful reads about topics that are not often explored in modern American writing. So even though this 2012 book about a Northwest photographer’s obsession with Native Americans wasn’t what I was looking for when I found it at our independent bookstore Politics and Prose, I bought it solely on my admiration for Egan’s work.

The story of Edward Curtis’ rise from poverty to the top of Seattle society, to – at great personal sacrifice – the nation’s chronicler of a fast vanishing Native American life, is fascinating in Egan’s expert hands. Take a few minutes to look at the iconic photographs of Native Americans from the turn of the 20th century, and you’ll instantly recognize the at once proud and haunting images that are well-known – even if the photographer is not. But as Egan shows, Edward Curtis was so much more than the “Annie Leibovitz of his time.” At age 32 he gave up his lucrative career to capture the old ways of the Native Americans in photographs, audio recordings, and film (making the first narrative documentary film.) This short biography tells it all – the heights found through the backing of Teddy Roosevelt and J. P. Morgan, the amazing feats of mountaineering and travel to locate the tribes in their native lands, the never-ending fight with the “experts” who disparaged his work for many years, and the perpetual state of being on the edge of bankruptcy.  When the 20th volume in his masterwork was published in 1930, it was virtually ignored.  But now, a century later, Curtis’ reputation is intact and rising.  Timothy Egan’s most recent work helps ensure that this very positive state of affairs continues into the future.

Midnight RisingMidnight Rising:  John Brown and the Raid That Started the Civil War by Tony Horwitz.  John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry set in motion events that reverberate today. Master story-teller Tony Horwitz captures the events and the man behind them in this 2011 book that has been sitting on my side table for over a year. I’m glad I finally found the time to reconnect with this turning point in American history that has few equals.

John Brown was a troubled soul willing to die for his beliefs.  Horwitz paints in the background of Brown’s Calvinist upbringing, his joining the fray in Bleeding Kansas, and his gathering of a small band of idealists to attack the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry from where he hoped to lead a slave uprising.

This is a riveting story, which Horwitz handles with his usual skill. I appreciated the lengthy “Immortal Raiders” epilogue, where the author lays out the multiple effects of the raid, from the 1860 presidential election, to Lincoln’s presidency, to the town of Harpers Ferry itself.

For fans of Confederates in the Attic, I think you’ll enjoy Horwitz’s next entry into the Civil War.

Roosevelt's Second ActRoosevelt’s Second Act:  The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War by Richard Moe. Full disclosure:  I worked with Richard Moe for 16 years at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. I have always appreciated Dick’s political knowledge and his style as a writer, so I am not an unbiased reader.

In his most recent book, Moe looks at one of the most consequential presidential races in history, the 1940 election which took place at the end of Franklin Roosevelt’s second term amidst the backdrop of war in Europe and Asia.  There’s much to like here for the lover of politics and history.  The story of the Chicago convention is riveting, especially in comparison to the made-for-TV staged political conventions of today. Roosevelt never made an appearance in Chicago (can you imagine a candidate today not attending his or her own nominating convention?) but he was still pulling strings – and remaining opaque as to his true desires – throughout it all. Then Roosevelt’s involvement in the selection of the Vice Presidential candidate – which was seen as the purview of the delegates – continued the break with tradition that exemplified this entire election.

Dick Moe returned to his love of politics and history in this work, and we’re all the beneficiary.  Recommended.

Thinking,_Fast_and_SlowThinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.  In the late summer/early fall, I began this amazing 2011 book by psychologist Daniel Kahneman.  Thinking, Fast and Slow takes Kahneman’s groundbreaking research over several decades and brings it together in this tour of how our minds work.

There is so much here to absorb that it is impossible to do this book justice in a couple of paragraphs. Kahneman begins by explaining our two systems for thinking – one fast, highly intuitive, and emotional, and the other slower and more logical.  Of course we use the first system for most of our decisions, and Kahneman demonstrates again and again how our unwillingness to push ourselves to the more systematic – but harder – system of thinking drives bad decisions.  As just one example, he shows how when faced with a difficult question, we’ll often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.

Yet another section of the book  explores “our confidence in what we believe we know, and our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainty of the world we live in.  We are prone to overestimate how much we understand about the world and to underestimate the role of chance in events.  Overconfidence is fed by the illusory certainty of hindsight.” In example after example and test after test, Kahneman explores this facet of the human condition.

There is so much here to challenge what you think you know.  As the New York Times book review said, ” It is an astonishingly rich book: lucid, profound, full of intellectual surprises and self-help value. It is consistently entertaining and frequently touching….”

Just read the book – you’ll thank me for it later.

So what’s next?  Well, I’m on to Witold Rybczynski’s new book How Architecture Works:  A Humanist’s Toolkit.  Yes, I heard him speak at Politics and Prose (support your local independent bookstore!) and have always enjoyed his work.

Keep reading!

More to come…