The Literary Hill

“Dream Big” logo and “Marmite” cover (these are kind of small, but might be okay if you run them as thumbnails – of not, just skip them)

Mad as Hell

“Most Americans, if asked, would probably say that the U.S. system of government is one of the most democratic in the world. And yet,” writes Linda Killian, “it’s not.” In her new book, “The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents,” the Capitol Hill author documents the stranglehold that the two major parties exert on the political process and the extremism that has increasingly alienated moderate voters and politicians alike. “It’s like the parties have gone crazy,” bemoans one voter. And a former legislator tells her, “They govern from the extreme, and if you’re not on the bandwagon, they drive you out.”

The only ray of hope that Killian sees – barring the far-fetched notion that politicians will come to their senses – are the independent voters, who currently make up a larger portion of the electorate than either Democrats or Republicans. Based on nearly a hundred interviews with voters and politicians at both the state and federal level, Killian paints a picture of independents as an “ideological ‘middle of the road’ or centrist” group that is often fiscally conservative but socially moderate. “These voters swing back and forth between parties” and can be a crucial factor in deciding election outcomes.

More than just a rant on partisanship, “The Swing Vote” offers some concrete solutions to the problem, such as reforming voting rules, campaign finances and redistricting practices. Finally, in a chapter aptly titled “Battle Cry,” Killian rallies independents to get involved in civic life and take action to break the gridlock. She pictures “a collective moment like that in the 1976 movie ‘Network,’” in which people across the country stand up and shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Only then, she writes, might those whose interests are served by the current system be moved to change it.

Linda Killian is a journalist and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and has been a columnist and national political writer for “The Atlantic,” “Newsweek/The Daily Beast,” and a variety of other publications. Her previous book was “The Freshmen: What Happened to the Republican Revolution?”

A Poetic Rupture

Patricia Gray is one of Capitol Hill’s poetic treasures. Born in DC, she grew up in the Shenandoah Valley and, in 1994, originated the Poetry at Noon reading series at the Library of Congress.  A well-respected poet herself, her workhas appeared in “Poetry International,” “Shenandoah,” and other print and online publications, and her 2005 book, “Rupture,” was chosen by the “Montserrat Review” as one of the best poetry books of the year.

The more than three dozen poems in “Rupture” speak to -- and sometimes through – Gray’s flinty ancestors, explore the thread of maternal ties and the inspirations of an uncle’s natural wisdom, and go “trespassing through time” to revisit girlhood memories. They deal with sex, birth, divorce, and the way the city sometimes opens like an advent calendar, revealing what we remember behind what we now see. Like timeless miniatures, Gray’s poems capture those small moments – escaping from D.C. party talk or carving a Halloween pumpkin – and imbue them with the patina of universal human experience.

Snuffing Out the Flames of AIDS

A tinderbox requires steel, flint, and cloth to create a spark -- which then requires the right combination of elements to sustain the flame. “Take away any element,” writes Hill author Craig Timberg, and the fire burns out. In his new book, co-written with epidemiologist Daniel Halperin, “Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It,” Timberg uses the analogy to describe the spread of AIDS in Africa.

“Tinderbox” describes how the West helped to create the conditions for the spread of HIV through the colonization of Africa in the 19th century, which increased both the mobility of the population and its concentration in urban centers. Yet few at the time stopped “to consider that such intrusions might have anything but benevolent consequences.”

Later, when the virus began to move through Africa, the West fell back on the old colonial model, failing to recognize either the social factors contributing to the spread of disease or the local expertise that might have helped them to a deeper understanding. According to a nursing professor in Botswana, the influx of outsiders revived the dynamic in which the more revered knowledge and power came from outside and Africans themselves took a passive role.  “Some white person comes with utter garbage, something that will not work in our culture, and it’s hallelujah!” she told Timberg. “If we had tried to build on our culture, it might have made a difference.”

Timberg and Halperin would like to see the focus of Western AIDS relief shift from costly treatments to prevention. In “Tinderbox,” they make an urgent plea for health officials to refocus their attention on the ‘“lethal cocktail’ of extensive heterosexual networks and low circumcision rates” that they believe to be the primary culprits in the galloping rate of HIV infections. “The epidemic has depended on human action for its birth and spread,” they write, “and so too could human action finally overcome it.”

Craig Timberg is former Johannesburg bureau chief and now deputy national security editor for “The Washington Post.”

Digital Tar-in-a-Jar

Local author Maggie Hall reports that her iconic “Mish-Mash Marmite: A-Z of Tar-in-a-Jar’ has gone digital. Hall notes that the new edition has “a lot of new entries -- which is quite amazing, considering we’re talking about a humble tasty/disgusting spread.” Read a sample and share your thoughts on tar-in-a-jar at

Summer Reading for Kids

Want to keep your kid’s brain engaged this summer? ‘Science, Naturally!’ has the antidote to summer learning loss. Platypus Media, a Capitol Hill publisher, offers math and science books, including a One Minute Mysteries series, that entertain and educate. And if your little Einstein is loath to put down her electronic device, never fear. The books are also available in digital formats. Go to and click on ‘Science, Naturally!’ Naturally.

The DC Public Library celebrates summer reading with programs and prizes for kids of all ages. Youngsters from birth to age 12 are encouraged to ‘Dream Big -- Read’ both for the fun of it and for the opportunity to win an eReader. Teens from 12 to 19 can ‘Own the Night’ and get a chance to win an iPad or, by entering the Book Review Contest, a laptop computer. To sign up, visit your local branch or go to

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