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Tuesday, Dec. 21, 3 p.m. ET

Washington Post Book Club: Lost in the City

December Post Book Club Selection

Jabari Asim
Washington Post Book World Staff
Tuesday, December 21, 2004; 3:00 PM

Welcome to the online meeting of The Washington Post Book Club, a monthly program presented by the editors and writers of The Washington Post Book World.

Edward P. Jones' first book, "Lost in the City," is a collection of "urban portraiture" composed of 14 stories set mostly in poor and working-class D.C. neighborhoods.

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Post Book World Editor Jabari Asim was online Tuesday, Dec. 21, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss this month's selection, "Lost in the City" by Edward P. Jones.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Jabari Asim: Good afternoon. Welcome to our discussion of Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones. I'm quite fond of this collection of stories and hope that you are too. Even if you're not, please join our conversation and share your thoughts. You don't have to be a native Washingtonian to fully appreciate Jones's careful descriptions of various communities here. Although I'm a relative newcomer to the nation's capital, I quickly grasped Jones's subtle points about the meaning of home and community.


Falls Church, Va.: I haven't read the book and just saw this chat. Is this a good holiday read? What's it about?

washingtonpost.com: Review: Lost in the City (Post, Dec. 5)

Jabari Asim: I certainly think it's a good holiday read, although it doesn't have a holiday theme. Lost in the City is Edward P. Jones's first book. You may be familiar with The Known World, his novel that continues to win acclaim, including a Pulitzer Prize. "Lost" is a collection of stories all set in DC in various eras. Jones has a subtle style that turns out to be quite moving.


Lenexa, Kan.: I thought "The Known World" resembled a work of music--the themes and narrative strands ("freckle-faced Laura, who played the piano so well"; Tessie's "My daddy made it for me" carved doll) recurring like leitmotifs. There was a sense that the entire complex, multi-threaded story flowed as naturally and as inevitably as a southern river (perhaps like Sidney Lanier's "Chattahoochee").

I think I read once where the author said he had the whole novel in his head and just lacked the initiative to get started. "I should be kinder to myself," he said in the interview. Many of us remember Yardley's landmark review of the novel. Who reviewed "Lost in the City" for the Post? I think I recall--saw bits and pieces--an author thanking you for an early review on C-SPAN2 at the recent Book Festival. It wasn't Jones, was it? Also, how well do you know the author and do you know if his next book will be a novel? Thanks again.

Jabari Asim: That's an interesting observation, one that I confess hadn't occurred to me. Often when reading an author whose work I admire I'm moved to read the lines aloud, savoring the way he or she strings the words and phrases together. Oddly, I haven't done that with Jones--but I think I will the next time I'm reading his work.

I think Jones was talking about The Known World when he discussed carrying much of the story around in his head before putting it to paper. Jonathan Yardley has reviewed both of Jones's books for the Post, and liked both very much. Regarding the Book Festival, I think you're talking about John Lewis, whose memoir I reviewed for the Post. I've met Edward Jones on a couple of occasions--we once judged a fiction contest together--and we share an editor at HarperCollins. I've found him to be a warm and engaging guy, very kindhearted. I suspect his next book will be another collection of stories. Several pieces--four, I believe--have appeared in the New YOrker this year.


Vienna, Va.: Why did you decide to choose this book for the book club? Is the book on any of the bestseller lists?

Jabari Asim: I admired Lost in the City when it was first published in 1992. It went out of print for a while and has re-emerged in paperback following the success of The Known World. I thought it would provide a nice opportunity to look at the initial installment of what promises to be a brilliant body of work.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Asim,

How does Jones compare to his fellow African American writers and playwrights? What is he working on now?

Jabari Asim: I think Jones is writing as well as any American writers currently working. As I said earlier, it looks like more stories set in Washington DC will be forthcoming.


Silver Spring, Md.: Jabari,
Do you think Jones accurately portrays the city? What do you think about his style of how he describes life in D.C.?

Jabari Asim: I think DC natives would be better qualified to discuss his accuracy there. What impresses me is the way he successfully transforms this city into Everycity if you will. The issues and conditions he describes--love, longing, hunger, violence, betrayal--are not limited to urban settings to be sure, yet something about his portrayal of such things enables makes them intimately familiar to many readers from similar backgrounds.


Anonymous: Why can't Book World choose bestsellers for their book club and chats?

Jabari Asim: I see no reason why Book World can't choose bestsellers. I have no desire to do so, however. I'd rather bring some attention to a lesser-known book that deserves it. Of course, Jones isn't exactly obscure. He's a two-time National Book Award finalist and a MacArthur Fellow as well.


Lorton, Va.: I really enjoyed Lost in the City and I am almost finished The Known World. Both are absolutely fabulous. Do you know if the author will be somewhere so I can get my books signed? Otherwise, I really want to go to Arlington with a big sign "Help me find Edward P. Jones to sign my books"!!!

Jabari Asim: He has made a number of local appearances, including the National Book Festival. Keep an eye on Book World's Literary Calendar to catch his future signings.


Washington, D.C.: I finished reading the book I enjoyed reading it very much although at some point I felt like I was reading a book full of tragic stories about African Americans. What is your opinion?

Jabari Asim: I suppose it would not be unfair to call Jones a great tragedian in the tradition of Shakespeare, Homer and Toni Morrison, to name a few. I had no trouble with the tragic aspect of the stories or with those tragedies impacting the lives of African-American characters. As we've seen, tragedy lurks at the heart of much great drama.


Lenexa, Kan.: Thanks for response. Now that you mention it, I do recall some recent short fiction (tore one out and saved it) of his appearing in "The New Yorker." I'll look forward to the next collection but am also really interested in what he might do with a second novel.

Some examples of the writing from "Lost in the City" that I especially enjoyed:

Willie's junky Hudson being stopped en route because somebody chance spotted Joyce and pearl (two newly impregnated girls moving in together to pool their "church mice resources"). Pearl was crying when they left: "Where the hell was them sorry men a theirs?" Cassandra wanted to know when the four were back in the car. "Where the hell was Rufus?"

The mothers of the star-crossed Santiago and Humphrey "had shared poor-women dreams of living in a place like this, with furniture no one else in the whole world had ever used. As she walked about the dark house, she liked to remember what she and Pearl had said once upon a time, remember how painful it could be to dream."

"Some days, as she (Vivian) sat in her office at the Agriculture Department, she would think of Anita arrayed in the pasture-green gown the Gospelteers wore on the fourth Sunday. She would be solo, standing just in front of the other women acting as chorus, and Anita's voice would take hold of the church and all the people in the church would be telling her to bring it on home, bring it on home, child."

Jabari Asim: Thanks for sharing those. The New Yorker stories have all been quite powerful, although I also anticipate cracking open another Jones novel. I was struck by the foreshadowing he does in both books, letting you know--almost in a casual aside--what will eventually happen to a character long before it happens. I often resent it when an author does that but I had little trouble with it in Jones's case.


Washington, D.C.: As a native Mr. Jones book brought alive many memories of my growing up in DC during those times. It was a wonderful read for me to return to those times through his wonderful descriptions of our neighborhoods.

Jabari Asim: Oh, thanks, I'm glad to hear from a Washingtonian on that. There is an undeniable nostalgic tone to many of the stories. At the same time I imagined that they performed a function similar to photographs, sort of capturing an image of a community and preserving it for posterity.


Anonymous: Off topic question, but what do you think about e-books -- books you can get free online?

Jabari Asim: I'm afraid I know nothing about e-books. Do the authors post the books online or it similar to music file-sharing? I'm wondering how the author gets compensated.


Washington, D.C.: Is Jones well respected as one of the gifted D.C. writers? Do you know if he's doing any speakings and where can I find more information about him?

Jabari Asim: I think he's very well respected. His website lists a number of upcoming appearances but none of them appear to be local ones, unfortunately. Btw, there are a number of good interviews with him on the Web, including at africana.com and elsewhere.


Washington, DC: I am new in DC and having to read about some of the places that I am just getting familiar with was certainly wonderful. In fact, I have just opened an account at the Riggs Bank on 15th and M; the Bank Jones' tells us Angelo managed to rob using a gun. As a matter of fact, I enjoyed Jones' subtle humour which he manages to bring out in the midst of a sad story. Remember how the booby-trap exploded on Angelo's face because he was so curious to see much he had gotten? or how they used to pay you US$25 if you turned in a crazy person and they would pat you on the back?

Jabari Asim: Hi, and thanks for pointing out that Jones has a sense of humor, albeit a sly one. Angelo's misadventure takes place in "Young Lions," a story we didn't get a chance to discuss. I'm grateful to you for bringing it up.


Arlington, Va.: To answer the first question, Lost in the City certainly ranks as a good winter read, if not a holiday title. I bought my copy at Kramerbooks as the blizzard of 1996 was starting, and I'll always remember easing into the book at the bar while the city slowly got buried in snow, then feeling so much more at home in D.C. on my walk back to my apartment.

Jabari Asim: That's a wonderful memory.Then its reemergence is timely indeed--although we can do without the blizzard this time.


Lenexa, Kan.: Mr. Asim: I really enjoyed the stories. It's hard to pick favorites but I was especially moved by "The Girl Who Raised Pigeons" (a father slowly losing control), "The Night Rhonda Ferguson Was Killed" (the total verisimilitude--characters/dialogue, failing dreams and anger), "An Orange line Train to Ballston" (Loneliness, children, chance encounters, unrequited hope), "Lost in the City" (great beauty, success, sex, death, drugs, unfulfillment).

One of the real pleasures of reading Jones (and Pelecanos, e.g.) is the authentic feel one gets of Washington--the bus line numbers, the subway line colors, the quadrants, the neighborhoods, the streets, "Curtis Brothers".... Walker Percy's moviegoer called it "certification" when everything in a film's locality was exactly right down to the smallest detail. Your thoughts? Thanks much.

Jabari Asim: I'm hesitant to pick a favorite because it keeps changing. One that really sticks with me is "The First Day," which may very well be the shortest story in the book. The narrator is remembering the day she enrolled in kindergarten. It's full of that evocative detail that you mentioned: "Behind my ears, my mother, to stop my whining, has dabbed the stingiest bit of her gardenia perfume, the last present my father gave her before he disappeared into memory."
And that devastating first line: "On an otherwise unremarkable September morning, long before I learned to be ashamed of my mother, she takes my hand and we set off down New Jersey Avenue to begin my very first day of school."

It's time for me to wrap things up on my end. I thank you all for participating. Have a happy holiday and please join my colleague Warren Bass next month when he discusses "The Best and The Brightest" by David Halberstam.


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