Holiday Reading List 2011
The winter months can be the best time to enjoy a good book so that's why Washington Week asked a number our our regular panelists to give us their recommendations. If you're looking for a good read for yourself or possibly a holiday gift idea, check out the Washington Week Winter Reading & Giving List. It has something for just about everyone -- from fiction and non-fiction to biographies, memoirs and even a little rock and roll.
"Eisenhower: The White House Years" by Jim Newton
A compelling new biography of a Republican president who warned against excessive defense spending, resisted pressure to cut taxes, spent federal money on big infrastructure projects like the interstate highway system, and left his successor a budget surplus -- and a prosperous nation at peace.
"Instant City," by Steve Inskeep
(The Crown Publishing Group)
The intrepid co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition set out to write a book about cities, but got captivated by the intriguing history, heroes, villains, ethnic tensions and sheer magnitude of Karachi. So he wrote a book about Karachi, and along the way sheds great light onto what makes Pakistan tick.
To understand how the Middle East looked in the run up to the Arab Spring, one need to turn no further than Megan's book in which she beautifully takes readers on her travels through the region and the stressors that came to define the region and the subsequent uprising
It a fine memoir of post-911 war reporting written by journalist Megan Stack which was short-listed for the National Book Award. Stack brings a keen sensitivity to a job that often hardens people, and you sense that she paid heavily for it. Her loss, however, is the reader's gain, and she brings war reporting down from the strategic level to the point where it impacts, and so often ruins, people's lives. A really fine book.
"Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court" by Jeff Shesol
(W. W. Norton & Company)
With the Supreme Court's upcoming review of the massive health-care litigation, this book (out last year and now in paperback) has just gotten timelier. It dramatically portrays the struggle over federal power that is the touchstone for today's battle over the health-care law at the center of President Obama's domestic agenda. Shesol brings to life the story of FDR's court-packing plan and an era when people clung to their radios and devoured newspapers for every development in the epic fight that would shape American democracy.
"The Struggle for Egypt" by Steven Cook
(Oxford University Press)
Cook does what Megan did for the region to tell the story of Egypt in rich detail, beginning with Nasser and on to Sadat and Mubarak. I read a chapter of this for school and eager to read the rest.
"Becoming Marie Antoinette" by Juliet Greg
(Random House/Ballantine Books)
It's a very sympathetic portrait of the former queen but, as we all know, the winners get to write the first versions of history and they were rarely women. I loved the book for two reasons: It provides a very personal portrait of her life that is extrapolated from historic records, documents, letters, and journals. It's a totally fun read that brings the French court to life without sparing the undersides. (What to do with no public bathrooms?) A great book for winter stormy nights.
"Blue Nights" by Joan Didion
I read this book in one sitting. It is about the death of Didion’s daughter, Quintana Roo and is deeply depressing and uplifting at the same time. She is just such a brilliant self reflective writer. I can’t get this book out of my mind, and find myself fretting about how Didion must be coping . Okay, so maybe not exactly a holiday gift giving classic, but a beautiful book.
"Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics," by Nicholas Wapshott
(W. W. Norton & Company)
Okay. This may be one for the econo-nerds, but it’s a lively biography of the two men and their ideas and how their disagreements shaped today’s economics. Who knew that Hayek (a/k/a von Hayek) was such a weirdo.
"Travels in North America in the Years 1780, 1781 and 1782," by the Marquis de Chastellux
This is a book (two volumes) of early-early-American history worth reading and giving for the holidays, especially in the sense that we all need a reminder or two about what made America great from the start. A version of the book was republished in 2009 and is available on Amazon. (I have a 1963 set with translation and notes by Howard C. Rice Jr. published for the Insitute of Early American History and culture by the University of North Carolina Press.) The PBS/Washington Week audience might find this unusual. I just think it's wonderful to read and share.
- Alexis Simendinger, RealClearPolitics
"On China" by Henry Kissinger
This book is pure Kissinger -- sweep, history, brilliant insight and too self-reverential -- but at a moment when China has never loomed larger in the American psyche and economy, it shouldn't be missed. It's a reminder that the American fears about how to manage a rising power, something the US has never done well, will be a central issue in our politics for years or decades to come.
Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James McPherson
Like Obama, Lincoln was a onetime senator from Illinois with very little exposure to warfare and yet found himself commanding the most important war of his time. How did he evolve into commander in chief? McPherson brilliantly takes readers back and offers important lessons for today's war. Lincoln faced some of the same challenges as Obama does now, and McPherson shows how he learned on the job and ultimately saved the Union. I started reading this during a break from school and can't wait to get back to it.
"George F. Kennan: An American Life" by John Lewis Gaddis
The master of grand strategy in the 20th century is written about by the scholar who teaches Yale's famous Grand Strategy course. In this moment of extraordinary pragmatism in America's approach to the world, it raises the implicit question: Who is Obama's answer to Kennan? And is the American political system capable of creating an approach to the world as Kennan did?
The authorized biography, 30 years in the making, of the greatest American diplomat-thinker of the 20th Century, the man who first articulated the doctrine of "containment" of the Soviet Union, then spent his life regretting the turn that doctrine took. It' s not only a panoramic history of more than sixty years of American foreign policy but the deeply moving story of one man's life and occasional inner demons.
An engaging biography of the most important American foreign policy thinker of the 20th century, the diplomat who proposed "containment" as the framework for dealing with an assertive Soviet Union -- and forecast (in 1946!) that Soviet Communism would eventually collapse from its own inadequacies.
"The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole who Infiltrated the CIA" by Joby Warrick
This is a breathtaking book with details about the CIA and how it operated that will knock your socks off. It is about the (triple) agent turned suicide bomber who killed seven CIA officers/employees in Khost Afghanistan in December 2009. Warrick manages to give great detail about the agency but makes it a very human story about those killed as well.
"The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity" by Jeffrey D. Sachs
Jeffrey Sachs is an economist better known for diagnosing the ailments of third world countries turns his focus to America and finds its economy systematically corrupted to favor the wealthy and corporations. His views are often one-dimensional and his recommendations naive but everything he says is grounded in solid economics, which you can't say for a lot of commentary these days.
"The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter" by Mark Seal
An amazing true story of a man who fooled the smartest people you can imagine into believing he was a Rockefeller. How he did it and why they believed will keep you gripped until the end. In fact I wanted to know more!
"American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America" by David O. Stewart
(Simon & Schuster)
David Stewart, a Washington lawyer who was a Supreme Court clerk to the late Justice Lewis Powell, turned to writing fulltime a few years ago and has a real talent for enlivening constitutional history. American Emperor is a fascinating exploration of the nation's third vice president, a man best know for the fatal duel with Alexander Hamilton. Stewart's tale focuses on Burr's extravagant, audacious, plan to create a new empire. It's great history and a compelling read.
"Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain" by Jim Lehrer
From the man widely hailed as “the Dean of Moderators” comes a lively and revealing book that pulls back the curtain on more than forty years of televised political debate in America. A veteran newsman who has presided over eleven presidential and vice-presidential debates, Jim Lehrer gives readers a ringside seat for some of the epic political battles of our time, shedding light on all of the critical turning points and rhetorical faux pas that helped determine the outcome of America’s presidential elections—and with them the course of history. Drawing on his own experiences as “the man in the middle seat,” in-depth interviews with the candidates and his fellow moderators, and transcripts of key exchanges, Lehrer isolates and illuminates what he calls the “Major Moments” and “killer questions” that defined the debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain.
"In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin" by Erik Larson
When I'm reading for fun, therefore, I'm looking for books that will take my mind as far away from the campaign trail as possible. Most recently, that has been "In the Gardenof Beasts" by Erik Larson's riveting history of the family of William E. Dodd and its experiences in 1933, when he was America's first ambassador to Hitler's Germany.
"Conquered Into Liberty: Two Centuries of Battles along the Great Warpath that made the American Way of War" by Eliot A. Cohen
(Simon & Schuster/Free Press)
A brilliant history of our least-known wars on our most-ignored frontier -- our northern border with Canada. Upstate New York is part of the United States (and Toronto and Montreal are still in Canada) only because of the outcome of battles that could have turned out another way. The title comes from a pamphlet the Continental Congress published in 1774 for distribution in Quebec, in an early attempt at what we now call "regime change": "You have been conquered into liberty, if you act as you ought."
"Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth," by Fred Kempe
History is best written at a distance. One, time provides perspective. Two, the writer has access to all sorts of documents not available contemporaneously. Fred Kempe&rsfquo;s book about one of the defining moments of the Cold War is proof.
“Life,” by Keith Richards
(Little, Brown & Company)
The autobiography of Rolling Stones guitarist and co-founder Keith Richards is a good read. One surprising tidbit: When Richards and Mick Jagger formed the band, they never thought they’d be writing their own songs.
Diving into Darkness: A True Story of Death and Survival" by Phillip Finch
(St. Martin's Press)
This book has been out for quite awhile, but I loved it. It is the story of deep cave diving. The divers put themselves in extreme danger (and you can tell by the title some don’t make it) to explore the depths of ocean caves. It is the same kind of drive that mountain climbers have, these divers just go down instead of up. Finch writes in a way that you feel you are right there with the divers making you want to scream at some point “Stop!! This is nuts!”
"The Stranger's Child," by Alan Hollinghurst
The Stranger's Child is a beautiful Jamesian novel spanning the 20th century. Establishing himself as one of the best writers of the last two decades, Hollinghurst takes on war, politics, love and class with equal parts lyricism and intelligence.
- Katherine Brewer, Washington Week