Summer Heats Up with Engrossing Reads

Mark L. Goldstein

If you need to beat the July heat, the four books reviewed in this month’s column– an alternative history about the courtship of JFK and Jackie; the history of renowned banker, philanthropist, and art collector, William Wilson Corcoran; the biographic history of a classical pianist, Rebecca Burstein-Arber; and a book about exquisite local gardens—will immerse and captivate you. Grab your lemonade, a comfy chair, and find a quiet spot in the shade to enjoy.

Before the Gilded Age: W. W. Corcoran and the Rise of
American Capital and Culture

Exploring the captivating life of William Wilson Corcoran (1798–1888), a prominent financier, art collector, and philanthropist, this meticulously researched biography offers a comprehensive account of Corcoran’s multifaceted contributions to banking and business, as well as the capital and the country.

Unflinchingly, Goldstein delves into Corcoran’s incongruities, showing readers a man who amassed influence, yet grappled with moral inconsistencies. While Corcoran was known for his compassion and generosity – particularly in the art world – his sympathies for the slaveholding South stain his legacy. As Corcoran’s story lays bare the intricate intersections between wealth, privilege, and power, it underlines the prevailing hardships and oppressions of the era.

Goldstein weaves together historical context and archival materials to illuminate the profound influence Corcoran exerted on a United States poised on the brink of modernity.

More info about Before the Gilded Age and author Mark L. Goldstein can be found at:

Nora Jean and Michael Levin. Photo: Becky Hale

Firebird: The Musical Life and Times of Rebecca Burstein-Arber

An evocative and intimate biography, Firebird breathes life into the remarkable tale of Rebecca Burstein-Arber, classical pianist, conservatory director, and music teacher. Compiling interviews with Burstein-Arber, her wide circle of students and colleagues, concert reviews, correspondence, news accounts, and history, Firebird highlights Burstein-Arber’s contributions to classical music, even as her life’s story is interwoven with pivotal 20th-century events.

Through the prism of Burstein-Arber’s performances, commitment to practice – at times playing the piano to keep her fingers warm – teaching, and traveling, we bear witness to European antisemitism, revolutions, wars, economic crises, political tensions, and personal tribulations. From Odessa to Petrograd, to Bucharest, and finally Israel, Burstein-Arber remained resolute, establishing herself as one of the most highly regarded musicians and teachers of music in Europe.

Firebird is a tribute to a remarkable musician, a recognition of the contributions of Jewish musicians to classical music traditions, and a celebration of the deep connections between music and the invincible human spirit.

Readers will find Firebird only through Politics and Prose Bookstore. Please visit:

Jackie &Me, A Novel

Louis Bayard’s latest novel, “Jackie & Me,” focuses on the future First Lady’s friendship with Kennedy intimate Lem Billings during Jack’s unconventional courtship. Photo: Anna Carson DeWitt

If you missed Louis Bayard’s tenth novel when it was released last summer, now is the perfect time to return to this captivating book. Through the perspective of Lem Billings, Jack Kennedy’s lifelong best friend (based on the real-life Kirk LeMoyne Billings), the novel offers a fascinating glimpse into the inner lives of these iconic figures, adding personal and emotional layers to what we know of their public personas.

The story follows Lem’s initial encounter with the young Jackie Bouvier. Both Lem and Jackie find solace in their shared outsider status during the campaign, forming a friendship that evolves amidst tumultuous Kennedy family dynamics. As Lem watches Jackie be drawn into the the Kennedy dynasty, he sympathizes with her conflicting feelings towards Jack’s family and her irresistible attraction to Jack himself. Lem’s underlying loneliness, as well as his awe, admiration, and at times, pity for Jackie shape the story he spins.

Bayard’s talent for crafting fictive histories shines in this terrific summer read, offering readers a rare glimpse into the deeply flawed humanity of people who are often only admired and remembered from a comfortable distance.

For those interested in exploring more of Louis Bayard’s award-winning works, additional information can be found at his website:

Private Gardens of the Potomac and Chesapeake

Through photos, design drawings and philosophies, a summary of the owner’s goals, and lists of plants, Claudia Kousoulas leads us on an intimate journey through 15 remarkable gardens—tucked into the backyards, exurban enclaves, and exclusive neighborhoods that characterize the DC-Metro Area and the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay.

The allure of the sites showcased lies in their ingenious ecological collaborations. Each garden featured possesses its own distinct charm and unique landscaping features, making this book a true treasure for gardening and natural-design enthusiasts. Avid gardeners, students of design, and those who appreciate an expertly curated back yard are sure to be delighted and inspired.

Available July 28, 2023. For more information, please visit: 

The 2023 Library of Congress National Book Festival

This exciting event for book enthusiasts returns Saturday, Aug. 12 from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., at the Washington Convention Center. This year’s theme, “Everyone Has a Story,” highlights the power of personal storytelling. Expect a terrific lineup of authors: Elliot Page, Douglas Brinkley, Amor Towles, Mary Louise Kelly, R.J. Palacio, Ada Limón, George Saunders, David Grann, Elizabeth Acevedo, Jesmyn Ward, and Meg Medina. Admission is free. Some talks and activities will be livestreamed, with all talks available for online viewing after the event concludes.

More information can be found at

Michelle LaFrance is Associate Professor of English at George Mason University. She teaches creative nonfiction, life writing, and civic writing at the Hill Center and can often be found in the company of a cranky chihuahua. She blogs about writing, announces her upcoming classes and events, and offers coaching services at