Summer 2012 Reading List
Looking for some good summer reading? Check out the books Gwen and the Washington Week panelists recommend for the beach, the car, the plane or the pool. From fiction to politics, history to biography, there is something for everybody. The smartest reporters in Washington, D.C. bring you their suggestions for the summer's best reads.
Every political reporter says he or she is reading Robert Caro's "The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power." And we should be. The word magisterial was invented for works like this, which confirms our worst and best suspicious about a larger-than-life figure who managed to create the Great Society and launch us into the nation's least popular war. Caro unearths detail that makes every reporter digging into the book envious.
Volume four in Caro’s remarkable biography of Lyndon Johnson is another tour de force and a book that seems to be on every political junkie’s summer list. The story of the feud between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy alone is worth the price of the book, but there is much more in this account, which spans Johnson’s futile run for president in 1960, his despair as vice president to John F. Kennedy and his sudden turn into a commanding figure as president after Kennedy’s assassination.
Having read Caro’s prior works tracing LBJ’s life, how could I skip the one where he languishes in the vice presidency and then ascends to the presidency in the tragedy of John F. Kennedy’s assassination? It’s hard to believe it can surpass “Master of the Senate” for the unequaled narrative of power in Washington, but the subject matter alone recommends this one.
"The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity" by Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs
(Simon & Schuster)
This is a complimentary read to Robert Caro's book on LBJ. It sketches out the overlapping and protective relationships among the world's most powerful men, dating back to Hoover.
The book is an immensely enjoyable fascinating look at how these men relate to--and help--each other after serving in the White House. Truly fabulous.
You don't have to be a political junkie to enjoy the behind-the-scenes drama revealed in this book about the very exclusive club of former presidents. The book is a collection of stories about the natural rivalries, the unusual friendships, personality clashes and solidarity former presidents share despite their personal politics and party affiliations.
- Alla Lora, Washington Week
"How to Be Black" by Baratunde Thurston
When I need a break from reading about politics and politicians, I laugh at Baratunde Thurston's "How To Be Black" and dip into two excellent pieces of fiction now on my e-reader: "The Newyweds" by Nell Freudenberger and "The Beginners Goodbye" by Anne Tyler.
If you think Washington is tough, you never lived in ancient Rome, I guess. Harris – whose entire body of work is excellent – here takes on the life and times of an ambitious politician: Roman Senator Marcus Cicero. Told through the eyes of his slave Tiro, the novel is a gripping account of the life and death political intrigues of the Roman Senate. You’ll race through it, but thankfully, there’s a sequel already in print. You’ll never look at a filibuster the same way again.
Politics in England in the 1520s was a blood sport in which royal blood was often the object of the game. People would never be this conniving in Washington, would they? Mantel has written a compelling account of the rise to power of royal advisor Thomas Cromwell, and his delicate navigation of the politics of Tudor England and that bit of unpleasantness involving Henry VII and Anne Boleyn. Again, you’ll be thrilled there’s a sequel out this year, called “Bringing up the Bodies.” But start with Wolf Hall.
"The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America" by Erik Larson
After becoming thoroughly engaged by Larson's current “In the Garden of Beasts,” I am returning to his dazzling real-life tale about the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. Larson pairs the industrious, relentless activates of two men: Daniel Burnham, the Fair's architect and great city planner, and H.H. Holmes, the serial killer who opened a ghastly hotel and used the Fair as a way to lure his victims it.
"It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism" by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein
Mann and Ornstein, two men whose knowledge of Congress has informed my own reportage for nearly 30 years, have done something courageous in small-town Washington – They once again expose the contributions of both parties in making government all but dysfunctional in tackling the country’s major ills and yet they do what mainstream media can’t/won’t do: Call out unabashedly uncompromising Republicans for deserving the greater blame. Some Republicans likely will shun them or worse, but privately many will say – as they have to me and I’m sure to the two scholars – that Mann & Ornstein are right, and if the Republican Party does not moderate soon, neither the party nor the country will be helped.
Mann and Ornstein are two of Washington’s smartest analysts of government and politics. They warn that Congress’ fierce partisanship and gridlock are not a passing trend, but are results of an alarming shift towards extremism that threatens our checks-and-balances system of government.
"The Candidate: What it Takes to Win – and Hold – The White House" by Samuel L. Popkin
(Oxford University Press)
Sam Popkin is a leading political scientist and someone who has worked inside presidential campaigns over many years. He brings the discipline of an academic and the eye of a practitioner to the question of what makes some candidates successful and other not.
(Harper), July 2012
This book will be published in July, but it’s already on order for downloading to my iPad when it’s released. I am a Silva fan, having been introduced to his works by my wife, Nancy, and I’m eagerly awaiting the latest installment in the Gabriel Allon series.
This is an incredibly lively and readable story. The book’s subtitle tells it all: “The days and nights of London now – as told by those who love it, hate it, live it, left it and long for it. Craig Taylor spent several years, armed with a recording, compiling stories from Londoners great and ordinary and has turned them into a rich and quick-moving narrative. The New York Times review by Sarah Lyall whetted my appetite. She was on the mark in her enthusiasm.
The book examines the relationship between Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley. The book offers a glimpse of the Paris salons of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and all the crazy drinking, betrayals and drama that accompanied them. On a more serious note, it reminds that Fitzgerald crafted his novels around his experiences, which, for me, stirred enough interest to go back and read a few of them, too.
"Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West" by Blaine Harden
It is one of the most important and disturbing books to appear this year. Blaine Harden tells the incredible story of Shin, a young North Korean man born in one of the regime’s infamous labor camps. Raised with no experience of love, comfort, security or companionship, Shin nevertheless finds the will and strength to escape from the hell in which he has spent his whole life.
"What It Is Like to Go to War" by Karl Marlantes
(Atlantic Monthly Press)
It’s a book Americans need to read if they are to understand what we are asking our 18- and 19-year old men and women to do when we send them to a war zone. Marlantes was a Yale graduate when he went to Vietnam as a Marine in 1969, but his education did little to prepare him for the experience of hand-to-hand combat. His memoir of going to war, written after forty years of reflection, is an honest, searing but somehow inspiring book, all the more important today because of the unprecedented gulf that separates those Americans who are personally connected to war and those who are not.
"Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories" by Edith Pearlman
This is the best book of fiction I’ve read in a long time--a collection of exquisite short stories by Edith Pearlman. The introduction, written by another fine writer, Ann Patchett, asks a good question: ``To that great list of human mysteries which includes the construction of pyramids and the persistent use of Styrofoam as a packing material, let me add this one: Why isn’t Edith Pearlman famous?”
"Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour" by Lynne Olson
This is an engrossing and spirited tale of three Americans who were crucial to Winston Churchill and Britain early in World War II: Averell Harriman, Edward R. Murrow and John Gilbert Winant. Lynne Olson weaves fascinating history with a deep sense of the men's personal character, down to their various romantic liaisons.
"Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think" by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler
The book explores the promise of technology to accelerate human development, reduce government costs and transform global understanding of poverty and resource scarcity.
"American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer" by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
This is a highly readable look at compelling individual whose story tells us a good deal about the country, in days past as well as today. It resists the temptation to oversimplify, showing us a complex person in the cross-currents of his time. The authors manage to be comprehensive without sacrificing any of the story’s drama.
"Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind" by Bruce Watson
Most people familiar with the case of Sacco and Vanzetti know firmly where they stand on the pair’s innocence or guilt. Watson does not hide his conclusions, but he’s scrupulously fair in examining a case that captivated the U.S. and beyond and whose echoes are still very much with us.
"Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II" by Mitchell Zuckoff
This book provides a riveting account of what happens when U.S. servicemen and some WACs (Women's Army Corps) go missing in a place I'd only heard of but knew nothing about. The lively writing and unflinching detail make it a great -- and quick -- read.
"Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity" by Katherine Boo
The absolute best book I’ve read since last summer. It’s the story of the people who live in a shanty town on the outskirts of the Mumbai airport, not just their living conditions but their personalities and aspirations and feuds and dramas and tragedies. This book is non-fiction: It took three years of meticulous reporting. But it reads like a novel, a very good one. And the e-book includes videos Kate took that let you see the characters for yourself, a sign of things to come. (Be cool, and read it before in wins the Pulitzer.)
I just started reading -- beautifully written and has been described as the real-life version of Slumdog Millionaire. Takes place in the slums right next to the Mumbai airport.
"White House Burning: The Founding Fathers, Our National Debt, and Why It Matters to You" by Simon Johnson and James Kwak
To look beyond the theatre of the political campaign to the issues that will confront the winner of the November elections, turn to “White House Burning.” It’s both a history of the federal debt – all the way back to 1812 when the British invaded the U.S. Treasury building and found the vaults empty – and a prescription for avoiding fiscal catastrophe. And it’s clearly written so you don’t need to be a budget geek to follow it.
"The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins
For something completely different – and so you can keep up with your kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews – there’s the three volumes of the Hunger Games. It’s not great literature. It’s not as good as ‘Harry Potter,” if you ask me. But it is engaging, and you really do want to find out what happens in the end, and – particularly in the third book – it’s overtly political.
"Barack Obama: The Story" by David Maraniss
(Simon & Schuster)
It's 571 pages long and it only covers the first 27 years of Barack Obama's life. The narrative ends with its subject about to enter Harvard Law School. But it's worth the investment; Maraniss is the best, fairest and hardest-digging biographer of living presidents we've ever had. His biography of Bill Clinton, "First In His Class: A Biography Of Bill Clinton,” remains a definitive work. Maraniss says this is volume one of a two-volume project, but I'm willing to predict that if the president gets a second term, we're heading toward Robert Caro territory: three volumes, maybe four.
I can't wait to dig into David Maraniss' biography of Barack Obama, which is being released in mid-June. His book on Bill Clinton's early years was brilliant.
"The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power" by James Mann
Two presidential terms ago, Jim Mann explained where George W Bush’s neoconservatives (and non-neocons) came from in his groundbreaking book “The Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet.” Now he's turned his spotlight around to tell the story of Barack Obama's foreign policy squad -- a "team of rivals," including Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Robert Gates and Richard Holbrooke -- and how they managed to turn national security, often a weak point for Democrats, into an electoral plus.
"The Fifth Witness" by Michael Connelly
(Little, Brown & Company)
Michael Connelly's detective novels are my guilty summer pleasure. A former police reporter for the Los Angeles Times (although our paths never crossed, as far as I know), he hit the big time with his Harry Bosch stories, brilliant reinventions of the hardboiled LA crime novels of Raymond Chandler. But I prefer his second series, built around a cynical criminal lawyer named Mickey Haller who offers his clients "reasonable doubt for a reasonable price." Cynical with a heart of gold, that is. The Bosch stories are dark and dangerous; the Haller stories handle the same gritty material with an absurdist sense of humor.
"Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture" by Mark Feldstein
For those of us who occasionally dabble in Washington investigative reporting, this is bizarre-world look at our own industry in the ’60s and ‘70s. Feldstein’s allegation that Nixon’s men engaged in open plotting to kill muckraking Washington columnist Jack Anderson is a show-stopping revelation. Thankfully, they never actually got around to it, it would seem. The investigation tracks the mutual loathing and interdependence of Nixon and Anderson, two men who redefined their professions, for better or worse. My sense is that Washington politicians – and reporters, too – are a whole lot more ethical today than they were a generation ago. But maybe that’s too self-serving? You decide.
"Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan" by Rajiv Chandrasekaran
(Knoph) June 2012
No one has gone inside the war in Afghanistan like Chandrasekaran, who combines gripping reporting from the field with an insightful look at policymaking here in Washington, and explores the disconnect between the two.
"Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives" by Robert Draper
A great book for anyone interested in how Congress has changed, and how it hasn’t, since the arrival of the Tea Party. Draper embeds with a series of compelling figures on Capitol Hill and brings them to life as only he can.
"I Remember Nothing" by Nora Ephron
In a collection of essays Ephron looks back at her career as a journalist, screenwriter and novelists with wit and no apologies. A fun, fast read.
- Alla Lora, Washington Week
"Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior" by Rom Brafman and Ori Brafman
An interesting read about how people make decision and why even the most level-headed people are often motivated by irrational thinking.
- Alla Lora, Washington Week
"By Blood: A Novel" by Ellen Ullman
A strange, disturbing and, ultimately, beautiful novel in which the two main characters never meet each other. Winding a narrative between a Nazi concentration camp and gay San Francisco in the 1970s, Ullman is a talented and unique writer.
- Katherine Brewer, Washington Week
"The Miracle: The Epic Story of Asia's Quest for Wealth" By Michael Schuman
In 1981, East Asia had the highest poverty rate in the world at 80%. By 2005 the rate had dropped to 18%. Michael Schuman tells the amazing story behind Asia's transformation into an economic powerhouse.
- Katherine Brewer, Washington Week
"The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance" by Thomas McNamee
This is the story of one of the most revered names in American journalism -- my former New York Times colleague, a gentle son of Mississippi -- who revolutionized our country's conceptions of what constituted good food and good cooking, yet was tormented by doubts, insecurities and self-destructive demons to the end of his days. It's a reminder that in all endeavors, from high art to home-cooking, the creative person often pays a terrible price, seldom seen by his admirers. One can't help but wonder what joy Claiborne would have taken in Michelle Obama's White House garden. In no small measure, he planted the seeds.
What are you reading this summer, Washington Weekers?