Indie Picks: Politics and Prose
Indie Picks is a new feature that will spotlight the owners of independent bookstores across the nation where you can purchase Moment. These well-read folks will offer suggestions for books they think Moment readers will love. In this inaugural edition, we sit down with Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine, owners of Politics and Prose, a literary institution in Moment‘s hometown of Washington, DC.
Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine, the new(ish) owners of the famous Politics and Prose in Washington, DC, didn’t set out to own a bookstore. But “the more we learned about what was going on in the book business, the more intrigued and interested we became about the whole prospect,” says Graham. And two years later, the former Washington Post journalists (and husband and wife) are “loving it and continuing to do what it takes to keep this great place going.” Moment editor Nadine Epstein chatted with Graham and Muscatine about upcoming events at Politics and Prose, recommended reading material and owning a bookstore in today’s world.
Why own a bookstore, and in today’s world?
Bradley Graham: At first we didn’t think we wanted to own a bookstore. When the store was put up for sale, we were concerned (like everybody else in the area) that it would pass to somebody or some group that would preserve it and remain faithful to it’s traditions, but we didn’t see ourselves as that group; I was starting work on a third book. But some friends encouraged us. The more we learned about what was going on in the book business, talking to other bookstore owners, the more intrigued and interested we became about the whole prospect. And now that we’ve been immersed in the business for nearly two years, we’re loving it and continuing to learn what it takes to keep this great place going. Politics and Prose is blessed with a large base of loyal customers who read a lot and buy a lot of books. We also have an advantage of a great staff and a wonderful events program filled with many, many authors.
Lissa Muscatine: We’ve expanded our classes, we’ve added overseas trips, we’ve acquired a book-printing machine. We’re doing an anthology about neighborhoods in DC and neighborhood experiences.
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer
Views the advent of World War II and the Holocaust from the eyes of the protagonist and his family. You get to see the story unfold from a personal vantage point as it’s happening. Orringer is a tremendous writer. I recommend it to everybody—it has tremendous universal themes, is a store favorite, [and] is really well done.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson
Deals with a personal catalogue of events during the Holocaust, but it isn’t a perfect book. There are some things missing from it–there aren’t records of some of the characters you want to hear from, because it’s non-fiction. It’s a piecing together of an ambassador’s story, but is still fascinating.
The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman
It’s a good read–[it] has subtexts about Jewish culture or Jewish traditions that are interesting and entertaining. It’s a book that women tend to like more than men, [because] the protagonists are two sisters: they are opposite ends of the spectrum in every respect, [and it is about] how their lives change and intersect at the end. It’s set in the Bay area and then Cambridge, MA; it has a lot of local landmarks and local flavor from those two places.
A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer Dubois
It’s a really smart book. Dubois takes a very complicated idea and makes it extremely accessible. It’s the story of a young woman who inherits a fatal genetic disease from her father, who is fascinated with two things: the Soviet Union and chess. She finds out that he had tried to contact the world chess champion a few years ago to get advice on how to beat the odds, how to beat something that’s unbeatable. She makes it her business to find this world chess champion, who by this time has become an anti-Putin presidential candidate. It has a very strong political message, and is really just a very smart book.
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
One of my favorite books of the last couple of years. It’s about people in transition, and people having to be uprooted and brought to a new place and adapt to very difficult circumstances. In this case, it’s about Japanese picture brides being brought to California, and what their lives were like. What makes the book extraordinary is that it’s written in the first person plural—it’s a little bit confusing for the first couple of pages, and then you quickly understand it’s individual stories telling the collective story, or the collective story telling individual stories. It’s written in a simple, spare language that gives it so much power.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
Johnson teaches narrative fiction at Stanford and is very interested in trauma narrative. He decided to try to tell the story of North Korea and its trauma in fiction. [He] spent many years reading all of the official things that came out of North Korea, as well as the testimonials from people who had escaped. He then constructed a story of what he thought it would be like to be in North Korea. It’s a complex book; it’s not the easiest book to read, but it’s incredible. We had Adam Johnson here to speak early last year, and he said, “Who knows if this is the story of North Korea? We don’t know it until someone who is actually from North Korea comes out of North Korea and tells their own story.”
The New Jewish Table by Todd Gray and Ellen Kassof Gray
A cookbook written by chef Todd Gray (who is not Jewish), and his wife, Ellen Kassoff Gray (who is Jewish). They own Equinox restaurant [in] downtown [Washington, DC], a farm-to-table, locally sourced restaurant. It’s a fun book that describes how they came together and how his cooking has been influenced by her and her family, and how he’s been able to create many recipes that are a fusion of cultures. It’s a beautiful book, and the recipes in it are fantastic.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Wild is the true story of a young woman whose life spins out of control after her mother’s death. She realizes that in order to get herself on track she has to do something dramatically different. [Strayed] ends up deciding to do this 100-day hike from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon-Washington border, and Wild is the story of that hike. She’s an incredible writer—she’s more revealing about herself and her life than most people would be with their best friends and spouses. It’s not prurient or opportunistic at all, though—it’s very genuine, and the honesty of it is part of the greatness of the book. She’s talked about how [Wild] is the story of how you bear an unbearable burden and keep marching through. The book is well done, funny, witty, deeply touching. I don’t know anyone who read it who didn’t find it amazing; even our 19-year old son read it!