As the temperatures dip and the leaves begin to color, what could be better than a good book, a cup of tea, and a cozy sweater? This month’s column highlights three excellent reads by local authors to help you welcome in fall.
The Burning of the World: The Great Chicago Fire and the War for the City’s Soul, Scott W. Berg
Scott W. Berg’s third nonfiction release is an exhaustively researched story of the Great Fire in Chicago. On October 8, 1871, near 8:30 p.m., the fire began in a neighborhood just southwest of the city center. Berg’s engaging storytelling enables the reader to peer through history, seeing the immigrant shanty town that was the fire’s epicenter, “a terra incognita to respectable Chicagoans,” Berg writes, “a neighborhood ‘thickly studded with one-story frame dwellings, cow-stables, pig-sties, corn-cribs, sheds innumerable; every wretched building within four feet of its neighbor, and everything of wood—not a brick or a stone in the whole area.’”
Aided by a stretch of unusually hot and dry weather, winds that carried embers between first houses, then neighborhoods, then across the river, a construction style named “balloon frame building,” which relied on inexpensive pine supports, and an understaffed fire department, the fire burned for two days, jumping the south branch of the Chicago River, and consumed four miles of buildings. When it was over, 300 people were dead and a swath of just under 3.5 miles smoldered in ruins.
Berg’s book stands apart from others on the Great fire for its focus on the aftermath of the two-day conflagration, a glimpse into the contests of wealth, ideology, and urban policy that still—as any of DC’s ANC commissioner will tell you—often shape city planning conversations today. Throughout The Burning of the World, Berg shows us a Chicago that operated outside the norms of national politics, adhering to its own enigmatic rules and dynamics. His meticulous examination of four years of Common Council proceedings showcases the intricacies and complexities of Chicago’s political landscape, offering readers a captivating glimpse into what we now call “disaster capitalism,” borrowing from Naomi Klein. Ultimately, collective efforts to reshape Chicago left an indelible mark on the modern cityscape.
Combining his passion for the Windy City with his fascination for disasters and their aftermaths, Berg crafts a narrative that provokes as much consideration as it does entertain. Berg is also the author of Grand Avenues: The Story of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C. and 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End.
For more info about Scot W. Berg: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/authors/57957/scott-w-berg/
DC Scavenger: The Ultimate Search for Washington DC’s Hidden Treasure
JoAnn Hill, a well-known tour guide in Washington, DC and the author of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure, invites readers on an engaging journey through our nation’s capital. “DC Scavenger” isn’t your typical guidebook; it’s an interactive treasure map full of riddles and games—all written by Hill herself, drawing on her many years writing history and directing walking tours in DC—to help you encounter seventeen unique neighborhoods and sites throughout Washington, DC.
Decipher the clues and photos curated to re-introduce you to renowned monuments, innovative artworks, celebrations of activism and diversity, historical markers, markets, architectural marvels, beloved businesses, theaters, libraries, museums, and tranquil green spaces that are the city’s treasured gems. For those stymied by any of the cues, do not despair; Hill includes an email address in the introduction should readers need additional clues to solve the riddles.
Watching Bees: New and Selected Poems
Michael H. Levin’s latest poetry chapbook, “Watching Bees,” weaves together familial bonds, our intricate relationships with the natural world, and the dark realities of human cruelty and suffering. Opening introspection and enlightenment, the collection elevates each subject explored, inviting readers to consider their own humanity and relationships. Whether inhabiting the persona of a survivor of Mount St. Helen’s eruption (with no hair left on one side of his body) or mourning the death of his border collie, Levin’s range of voices resonates with humility, resilience, and grace. An example is the poem, “Dumbarton Oaks,” where stanzas celebrate the flush of spring:
“This is the sylvan time
when finches purple up, curled
fiddleheads emerge, and weather
bunches and uncoils like racehorse
haunches as it nickers through
new leaves. When even artifice –
that master gardener’s hand – reclines
beneath a cloak of flowering vines”
More about Michael H. Levin at: www.michaellevinpoetry.com
Friday, October 6th, 6:30pm, East City Bookshop and the Folger Shakespeare Library are co-hosting a book fair. Literary delights have been inspired by the Folger Theatre’s reopening season, poetry and book groups. Enjoy sips, snacks, poetry reading, and learning more about what the Folger has planned from Folger staff on hand. Attendees can be entered into drawings for Folger tickets, swag, and more.
Also mark your calendars for this month’s Capital Bookfest, a popup bookstore at Wilson Plaza (in front of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.) From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., book lovers can shop a wide range of used books, CDs, DVDs and vinyl (all on sale). Proceeds support Turning the Page, a nonprofit the supports a family approach to education.
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 writinglostriver.org.