Winter Reading List 2013

Your favorite Washington Week panelists are back with their winter book recommendations. If you're interested in politics, history, biographies or fiction, you're sure to find an interesting title to add to your library or give as a holiday gift.

“The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf)

She is one of my favorite authors, in part because she climbs inside the immigrant experiment so completely, and delivers such fully-realized female characters. In this book, she fleshes out the men as well, telling the story of two brothers who chose drastically different paths. And along the way, I learned about Indian revolutionary history in a way I would never have considered.

- Gwen Ifill, Washington Week
"The Good Lord Bird" by James McBride
(Riverhead)

McBride, who I worked with briefly at The Washington Post back in the day, brings a reporter's eye and curiosity, a historian's reach and a writer's fine touch to a story of slavery and abolition and upheaval seen through the eyes of a child -- a girl who's really a boy. Surprisingly, it also manages to make me laugh.

- Gwen Ifill, Washington Week
"Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House" by Peter Baker
(Doubleday)

This is the best, most thoroughly reported and elegantly written account of President George W. Bush's eight years in the White House and of the relationship with one of the nation's most powerful and controversial vice presidents..

-Dan Balz, Washington Post

A terrific look into the Bush White House, with great interviews, insight and perspective. It’s classic shoe-leather reporting from one of the best White House reporters on the beat.

                                             - Jeff Zeleny, ABC News

I'm reading Peter Baker's fantastic accounting of the Bush-Cheney legacy, "Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House." I've learned more new things about the two of them in the first 100 pages than expected and Peter paints an incredibly studied portrait of two complex characters and their even more complex relationship.

- Ed O'Keefe, Washington Post
"The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism" by Doris Kearns Goodwin
(Simon & Schuster)


Doris Kearns Goodwin writes a dual biography of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft that puts their rivalry and friendship in a new light. What sets this apart is the portrait of the press and the muckrakers who helped define the Progressive Era and whose relationship with Roosevelt was of critical importance.

-Dan Balz, Washington Post

A new Doris Kearns Goodwin book is an event worth waiting for and this one promises to look back at one of the most fascinating periods in our history with some of the most larger-than-life characters ever produced by the American presidency or American journalism. Looking forward to digging in.

- Peter Baker, The New York Times
"This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral-Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!-in America's Gilded Capital" by Mark Leibovich 
(Blue Rider Press)


This book came out in early summer but it's still on my holiday list. It's a wry, skillfully observed and smartly written illumination of what makes so many people hate Washington. Leibovich is no outsider to this culture, which makes his book all the more engaging and entertaining.

- Dan Balz, Washington Post

"The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry"
by Rachel Joyce

(Random House)

This is an amazing, original novel that is perfect for inspiring end-of-year reflections and new year's hopes.

- Beth Reinhard, National Journal

"The Deep Blue Good-by"
by John D. MacDonald

(Random House)


In winter, who doesn't love a mystery, sun and sea, romance, a free-spirited protagonist and reminders of mid-century American life when it was unplugged. John D. MacDonald (my college commencement speaker) and his salvage-expert hero, Travis McGee, are perfect escapist, retro fun, especially as Random House reissues the author's large body of work. Winter readers can get a head start: Leonardo DiCaprio wants to bring McGee to the big screen, perhaps in time for next year's 50th anniversary of MacDonald's "The Deep Blue Good-by," the novel that launched a best-selling series.

                                          - Alexis Simendinger, RealClearPolitics
"Double Down: Game Change 2012" by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann
(Penguin Press)

The subtitle is of this book is "Game Change 2012." It’s the sequel to the duo's big book about 2008 and once again it is filled with insider details and some good scoops, along with insights into the personality and style of President Obama and the often-wacky contest for the Republican nomination.

- Dan Balz, Washington Post
"The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide”
by Gary J. Bass

(Knopf)

Quite possibly the best book of the year because it tells us a story most of us know nothing about but really should. This is the inside tale of how Nixon and Kissinger sided with Pakistan during its genocidal killings in what is now Bangladesh, ignoring and ultimately punishing the American diplomat named Archer Blood who sent warnings back to Washington. With all its Cold War, extralegal intrigues, it’s a story that’s essentially Darfur, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Iran-contra all rolled into one.

- Peter Baker, The New York Times

"Heart: An American Medical Odyssey"
by Dick Cheney and Jonathan Reiner

(Scribner)


Love him or hate him, beyond all the controversy that surrounds Dick Cheney is a gripping story of a man who survived four heart attacks before becoming vice president and then a fifth after leaving office before undergoing a heart transplant in his seventies. If nothing else, the heretofore unknown fear that Cheney was about to have a heart attack on 9/11 and the steps taken to prevent terrorists from killing him through his pacemaker make this worth the read.

- Peter Baker, The New York Times
"Thank You for Your Service"
by David Finkel
(Sarah Crichton Books)

David Finkel is a marvel—a Pulitzer Prize winner and a MacArthur “genius” grant awardee. His latest book follows some of the soldiers he wrote about in  “The Good Soldiers” as they return to life at home and the readjustments they and their families must make after an experience that had changed them physicially and psychologically.

- Dan Balz, Washington Post

With a quiet and reserved style, Finkel chronicles life for soldiers and their families after war. He keeps himself out of the story, as he witnesses up close the terror of these families trying to hold their lives together.

- Joan Biskupic, Reuters
"Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks that Saved the Nation" by Steve Vogel
(Random House)


This is a book I hope to read — it was on my summer list and I haven't gotten to it yet.


- Ed O'Keefe, Washington Post

"My Share of the Task: A Memoir"
by General Stanley McChrystal
(Portfolio Hardcover)

I have also recently reread "My Share of the Task," by General Stanley McChrystal, the former Special Forces Commander in Iraq and overall commander in Afghanistan before being relieved in a controversy sparked by an article in Rolling Stone. It's a remarkable memoir that offers an unadorned and insightful look at how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan changed the way the US military thinks about fighting the wars of the future against terrorists and insurgencies

- James Kitfield, National Journal
"Thinking, Fast and Slow"
by Daniel Kahneman
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Every smart social scientist I know says this is one of the most important books in years: a groundbreaking explanation of the way we think, both rationally and irrationally, consciously and unconsciously. But it's not only important; it's amazingly readable, too.

- Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times

"The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer" by Siddhartha Mukherjee
(Scribner)

I picked up this book with its forbidding title based on Gwen's recommendation in an earlier edition of the Washington Week reading list -- and she was right: It's a terrific read. We all think we know something about cancer, but the story of cancer research and cancer medicine is astonishing and compelling.

- Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times

"Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America"
by Dan Balz

(Viking Adult)

Smart, fair, thoughtful, analytical, revealing, compelling and important, in all the quintessentially Balzian ways we’ve come to expect over the years. From the deep reporting and big thoughts to the small grace notes, Collision 2012 is a page-turner that brings last year’s election and its collection of characters to life.

- Peter Baker, The New York Times


"Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk"
by Ben Fountain

(Ecco)

A clever view into America’s uncomfortable relationship with its modern war heroes.

- John Dickerson, Slate Magazine/ CBS News
"The Son" by Philipp Meyer
(Ecco)

"The Son" is an epic if unconventional tale of the settling of Texas stretched over a hundred years and three generations of a single family. The character of Colonel Eli McCullough, who was stolen and raised by the Comanches before becoming a patriarch of the Lone Star State whose strengths and weaknesses are handed down through the generations to tragic effect, is one of the most compelling I have read in recent literature. The book is by Philip Meyer, a writer whose reputation has yet to catch up to his deep talent, who also penned the excellent book "American Rust."

 - James Kitfield, National Journal

 

“Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy
White House” by Robert Dallek
(Harper) 

Another classic from the country’s premier JFK biographer, this one looking at the people who surrounded the slain president and the internecine battles during the Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis and other pivotal moments.

                                  - Peter Baker, The New York Times

"The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt" by T.J. Stiles
(Vintage)

What I thought would be a simple introduction to America's first railroad magnate ended up being a fascinating tale of New York City in its infancy, Americans pushing past their frontiers and a man who so successfully captured the American Dream that he forced the country to figure out ways to limit that ideal.

- Alan Gomez, USA Today

“Things that Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics”
by Charles Krauthammer

(Crown Forum)

You’ll learn something from his collection of columns. Whether you agree or disagree with his politics, there’s no one like Krauthammer.

- Jeff Zeleny, ABC News

"The Big Sort" by Bill Bishop
(Mariner )

I'm catching up on a 2008 book, "The Big Sort" which explains how Americans choose to live among people who hold similar social, religious and political views. Along with gerrymandering, this "sort" plays a profound role in the nation's partisan divisions.

- Charles Babington, Associated Press

"The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America" by George Packer
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

We’ve been reading these separate pieces for the past 30-plus years, but George Packer relates the whole story with more intimacy and power than anyone has managed. A fabulous book.

- Tom Gjelten, NPR
"Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel
(Picador)

I was late coming to it this fall, but highly recommend “Wolf Hall,” the historical novel about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII. It is a beautifully written account of how power is accumulated and exercised, and a refresher course in a crucial period of English and European history.

- Janet Hook, Wall Street Journal

"The Maid's Version" by Daniel Woodrell
(
Little, Brown and Company)

“The Maid’s Version” is a rich, slim novel by Daniel Woodrell, the author of “Winter’s Bone.” It looks back at a 1929 dance hall explosion that killed 42 people in a tiny Ozarks town, through the eyes of a woman whose sister died in the tragedy.

- Karen Tumulty, Washington Post

“A Confederacy of Dunces”
by John Kennedy Toole

(Grove Weidenfeld)


As the government shutdown dragged on, I was looking for a distraction and ended up re-reading this gem. Or, as Ignatius J. Reilly, the book's incomparable protagonist, explains: "When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip."

- Alan Gomez, USA Today

"The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology"
by Jack Kornfield
(Bantam) 

For something completely different, I also read “The Wise Heart” by Jack Kornfield, a book about Buddhist principles that I would recommend to anyone who has an interest in enriching or starting a meditation practice.

- Janet Hook, Wall Street Journal

"Twelve Years a Slave" by Solomon Northrup and Dr. Sue Eakin
(Eakins Films and Publishing)

After seeing the movie, I found an e-version of Solomon Northrop’s “Twelve Years A Slave” online for 99 cents, complete with extensive footnotes by Sue Eakin, who spent much of her career on the book. It’s a quick read, and a painful one. It shows how close the movie came to the book, despite some minor, and occasionally inexplicable, discrepancies. The Eakin notes and her exhaustive research through property records and censuses confirm much of the story, but she questions other parts – most notably asking why a slaveholder would ship slaves to the point where they couldn’t work.

- David Wessel, Wall Street Journal

“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena”
by Anthony Marr

(Hogarth)

“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is a haunting first novel by Anthony Marra, which traces the interconnected lives of people who are caught by two wars in Chechnya that span a decade. Wonderfully written, it is bleak and brutal, and yet at times darkly funny. And its characters are unforgettable.

- Karen Tumulty, Washington Post
“Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage”
by Anthony Marr

(Simon & Schuster )

This book exploring the improbable relationship between Eisenhower and Nixon  came out last February, and I’m only now – happily -- catching up to it. With a fiction writer’s eye, Jeffrey Frank weaves a complex tale about a fateful pairing and reminds us there’s always more to know about Nixon.

- Joan Biskupic, Reuters

Check out our past reading lists:

- Summer 2013
- Winter 2012
- Summer 2012

What are you reading this winter?