At the local -Books for the new year

It's a new year, which of course means it's time for new books. Also, in January, Preschool Story Times will resume at the Capitol Hill Branch.

They will be held every Wednesday at 10:30 a.m., and last for a half-hour. Join us for stories, songs, play and fun!

And after all the holiday decorations have been safely stored for another year, here are a few recent books that might strike your fancy.

"His Excellency: George Washington," by Joseph J. Ellis

He is a larger-than-life historical figure, one whose image is nearly omnipresent - on our currency, on countless statues throughout the country, and, most impressively, on Mt. Rushmore - but what was George Washington really like? Using Washington's few surviving personal letters and papers, Pulitzer-prize winning author Joseph J. Ellis attempts to humanize the icon.

As there is very little known of Washington's earliest years, Ellis begins his novel with Washington's first foray into public life at age 21, when he was sent by the governor of Virginia to deliver a message to the encroaching French to the north. A dispute over territorial claims led to the French and Indian war, where Washington learned the hard way about the effectiveness of guerilla warfare while fighting in the Ohio territory.

After the war, he returned to Virginia, where he eventually married the very wealthy widow Martha Custis - which catapulted him into the ranks of the colony's aristocracy. Washington may have been more attracted to her money than her person at first, but they developed a close and enduring relationship. In keeping with his situation as a member of the upper-class, Washington ordered much of his clothing from London, but due to inaccurate written instructions to the tailors, the clothing almost never fit (which is why he wears his military uniform in so many of his portraits.

After the Revolutionary War (in which he lost many more battles than he won), Washington's popularity was such that many wanted to make him the new American monarch. He resisted this, but as a realist, he didn't hesitate to use his popularity to further his political agenda - the creation of a strong federal government that had the power to make squabbling or recalcitrant states act responsibly.

Ellis speculates that Washington was a man of very strong passions, but that his equally strong pragmatism led to the development of his legendary self-control. Washington owned slaves, but his views on slavery changed over the years, and he was the only one of the Founding Fathers to free his slaves, albeit after his death.

This book is a balanced account of the life and character of George Washington, and does a fine job of making a legend more "real" and accessible to the average person. Ellis emphasizes the best of Washington's personality, yet acknowledges his all-too-human side as well. It is a fast, absorbing read that may leave some wanting more.

A historical footnote: those ill-fitting, supposedly "wooden" teeth Washington wore? Actually, they were made from cows' teeth, human teeth, and elephant ivory, set in a lead base. No wonder he didn't smile very often.

"The Rottweiler," by Ruth Rendell

There is a serial killer loose in London, one who garrotes young women, then takes a small trinket from each body as a souvenir of the crime. The killer is dubbed 'the Rottweiler' by the press when the first victim is found with a bite mark on her neck (which turns out to have been left by her boyfriend and not the killer).

As all the victims come from the same area, the police focus their investigation on that neighborhood, especially on Inez Ferry's antique store, where the victims' missing items keep turning up. Inez also rents out flats over the store to an eclectic group of working class people, who all seem to have something to hide. As the murderer continues his/her killing spree, Inez begins to wonder which of her lodgers might be the culprit - and suspicions also mount between the tenants themselves.

In her inimitable style, Rendell takes a standard mystery device, and then uses it to delve into the darker side of the human mind. Interestingly, both the police and the meticulous killer are seeking the reasons for the murders. With merging story lines and vivid, engrossing character development, she explores such diverse issues as love, morality, perception and how crime affects the people around it. There is nothing "fair" in Rendell's tale of a dark, menacing London, but it has suspense, dark humor, and enough twists and surprises in its tight plot to keep the reader engrossed.

Katie Hilles is a librarian at the Capitol Hill Branch Library. Her column appears regularly in the Capitol Hill Times.[[In-content Ad]]