The author known as Zane has published 39 books. She has invented characters like Soror Ride Dick and described them as they partake in weekend-long mega-orgies, have sex at mattress stores, and lick unlikely foodstuffs off unnameable body parts. She has landed more than a dozen books on the New York Times bestseller list. In all, more than 5 million of her books are in print.
Along the way, the author of The Sex Chronicles, Dear G-Spot, and The Hot Box has become a one-woman erotica cottage industry. As a pioneer of the gritty genre publishers euphemistically call “urban fiction,” she heads her own imprint at Simon & Schuster. She has been named executive producer of two shows on Cinemax, including Zane’s Sex Chronicles, which at the time was the network’s top-rated adult series. Last year, one of her novels was turned into a major motion picture. Another was adapted as a play. This past February, she launched Zane’s Literary Salon, a satellite-radio show. She has hatched plans for a bookstore and a lingerie line and has discussed an idea for a restaurant chain she would call Zane on Main. “I thought of that name because every town has a main street,” she told me. “Don’t you think that’s cute—Zane on Main?”
“If you stop to look, you’ll see a lot of buildings in DC that do nothing. Safe houses—I used to keep a list of them,” says Brad Meltzer, casually, over lunch. In the course of researching his political thrillers, he has also crawled through ventilation tunnels beneath the US Capitol; has seen the side entrance at the Lincoln Memorial, reserved for Presidents; and staked out one of those safe houses, where Israelis and Palestinians once met clandestinely.
Seattle is the "Most Well-Read" city in the US, Amazon announced Tuesday. The District was the fifth-best-read city on Amazon's list, which compiled data based on sales books and magazines, in both print and electronic formats, from the retailer between April 2014 and April 2015. (DC did beat Seattle in one regard: It was the city with the "most purchases of print books," Amazon says.)
Seattle's ascendance knocks off the three-time reigning champion, Alexandria. Did Seattle—home to Amazon—just start reading its brains out?
Not necessarily. In previous years, the Most Well-Read list looked at per-capita sales in cities with more than 100,000 residents. Alexandria has 150,575 residents according the US Census Bureau's most recent estimate (full disclosure: I am one). This year's list looks only at cities with more than 500,000 residents. "As the reigning champions for the past three years, our well-read city is flattered to be in the same league as Seattle,” Claire Mouledoux of Visit Alexandria, the city's tourism office, tells Washingtonian.
Alexandria remains, according to Amazon, one of the nation's most romantic cities, in a list that looked at "purchases of romance novels and relationship books...romantic comedy movies...a curated list of romantic music...as well as the sales of sexual wellness products." That list examined cities with populations of more than 100,000. Seattle was among the cities that "lost that lovin’ feeling," the retailer wrote, "falling off the top 20 this year."
Amazon did not reply to a request for comment on why it changed the survey's methodology.
Less than 15 pages into Mislaid, a novel by Nell Zink, our heroine, Peggy—a white girl growing up in small-town Virginia in the 1960s—has realized “she was intended to be a man,” come out to her pearl-clutching mother, headed off to fictional Stillwater College, and met Lee Fleming, the all-women school’s infamous gay poetry professor, with whom she falls into a torrid affair and ends up “fixing to have a baby.” Another 15 pages in, Peggy has morphed into a disgruntled housewife who vengefully drives her husband’s VW into a shallow lake. To say Zink careens through her characters’ lives is an understatement.
The pace noticeably slows through the rest of this comically named (Mislaid—get it?) domestic novel gone wild, but not before Peggy reaches a breaking point: She flees her marriage, leaving behind her son but taking her toddler daughter, Mireille, and assumes new identities for them both—as African-Americans.
Zink presses on her readers a strange narrative conceit, albeit one based in a disturbing truth. Racial identity in 1970s Virginia, despite the civil-rights agitation of the time, wasn’t an individual’s prerogative (unless you were white).
As Zink writes, “Maybe you have to be from the South to get your head around blond black people. Virginia was settled before slavery began, and it was diverse. There were tawny black people with hazel eyes. . . . Blond, blue-eyed black people resembling a recent chairman of the NAACP. The only way to tell white from colored . . . was the one-drop rule: if one of your ancestors was black—ever in the history of the world, all the way back to Noah’s son Ham—so were you.”
Anyone who raises doubts as to the authenticity of Peggy and her daughter’s race, such as the registrar at Mireille’s school, quickly gives in to innate prejudices: “The daughter was one of those pallid, yellow-haired black kids you sometimes see. . . . Probably anemic and undernourished—a lot of rural black kids had worms . . . .”
As Peggy and her daughter settle into a community they can’t possibly understand, her estranged husband and their son, Byrdie, float through life as shabby blue bloods, occupied with yacht-club dinners and boarding-school high jinks.
It’s only then that Mislaid reveals its fundamental preoccupation—with the unexpected, grievous intricacies of life in the post-civil-rights-era South. More particularly, it’s an examination of Virginia itself: a resolute bastion of Southern sentiment, a verdant landscape that simultaneously harbors horseback-riding patricians and the nomadic hallucinogenic-mushroom dealers Peggy falls in with. It’s a world of don’t-know-better racism where the school “like[s] to know who’s black so we can help them out with affirmative action and a free hot lunch” and considers a class with only two African-American students properly desegregated.
Zink’s sly banter about these serious topics will leave readers gasping at her insouciance but gripped by the realization that her fiction is not, alas, stranger than truth. Racism is personal and anecdotal, as in Peggy’s father’s pride “because he was descended from a family that sheltered John Wilkes Booth,” but also structural: Lee Fleming’s fight, in his cozy, white world, is with college feminists who want to take over his poetry magazine, while Peggy battles to become the artist she wishes to be in a culture of getting by: “As a writer, she was struggling. As an accomplice to the wholesale drug trade, she was setting new benchmarks for excellence in felony crime.”
Bizarre as its plot is, Mislaid is more damning than any straight-faced, shame-inducing diatribe could be. Changing our attitudes about race is slow and unsteady, as often absurd as it is sad. But evolution in hearts and minds, Zink seems to say, can and does take place.
This article appears in our June 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
When I reached Sally Mann by phone, she asked me to wait a few minutes before we talked. “I’m in the darkroom,” she explained. This might be expected: If Mann isn’t out shooting in her mobile photography lab—a converted GMC Suburban—she’s holed up on her Virginia farm, making print after print until she’s achieved her signature imperfect perfection.
The resulting body of work is a testament to her breadth as an artist and her abiding ties to the Shenandoah Valley: nostalgic landscapes, unsettling but intoxicating portraits of decomposing bodies, including still lifes of her own dog’s bones.
by Joseph J. Ellis
In 1776, the 13 Colonies declared their independence from Britain, formed a nation, and fought a war to gain their sovereignty. Right? Wrong, according to historian Joseph J. Ellis, who puts to rest one of the most persistent myths of our national history: that the United States was founded in 1776. Instead, he explains, the US of that pivotal year was never meant to last—the Union was merely a stopgap measure put in place until after the British were defeated.
by Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus with Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan
For ten years, Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight were kept chained up in the home of a school-bus driver who raped and regularly berated the girls. In that time, Berry kept a diary, which forms the basis of Hope. It’s told in conjunction with one of her fellow captives and two Washington Post reporters. The result is a profoundly disturbing tale, told with astonishing candor.
by Andrea Mays
Shakespeare did not die a famed, lauded genius. It took two friends several years to assemble his plays in book form (now called the First Folio), ensuring that Shakespeare’s legacy not only survived, but flourished. Without it, he might still be considered a minor author skipped over in most high-school literature classes. And without Henry Folger—who helped run Standard Oil in its heyday but lived for Shakespeare memorabilia—the largest collection of Shakespeareana in the world, in DC’s Folger Shakespeare Library, might not exist. Mays traces these two stories at once.
Hillary Kelly is a freelance writer in Washington.
This article appears in our May 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
If it weren’t considered the federal government’s factory town, Washington might be known as a literary capital. But never mind—the two are interrelated: The intrigue that happens here daily is a fine muse for novelists, in particular David Baldacci. The author, who lives in Northern Virginia, has produced one bestseller after another, dating back to Absolute Power in 1996. He wrote his latest, Memory Man—as he did some two dozen of his 30 novels—in this cozy nook in a nondescript office park off Fairfax County Parkway in Reston. Odd location? Not for Baldacci, who says: “No matter where I am, I can write, but the office is quiet and I can be creative here.” He’ll write out the first chapter and edit it by hand. For the “big edits,” he moves to the contraption opposite him on the round table and sits in the “Hemingway chair” (right), an homage to the writer Baldacci says was a model for him.
This article appears in our April 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
Before people began not only to eat kale but to drink it; before “locavore” came into popular usage; before “free-range” and “cage-free” showed that there’s fine linguistic nuance to the conditions under which laying hens are kept; before suburban farmers markets became a thing; before Whole Foods; before Fresh Fields, even; before Mark Bittman started writing about food policy; before Michael Pollan started writing bestsellers; before Trader Joe’s spread east; before that episode in Portlandia where two foodie diners ask a waitress to recite the life history of the chicken they’re thinking of ordering; and way, way before Michelle Obama picked up a trowel and told a nation to change its eating habits, there was Nora Pouillon.
Pouillon—who launched Restaurant Nora on the outskirts of Dupont Circle in the late 1970s and turned it into one of the city’s leading power-dining establishments—was an early adopter of the pesticide-free, humanely raised, locally sourced food ethos. Such an early adopter, in fact, that on her original menus she struggled to find a description for the food Restaurant Nora would be serving. Fearing that most diners circa 1979 wouldn’t know what “organic” meant, she came up with the rather wordy and unappetizing “new American food with additive-free ingredients.”
We learn from her memoir, My Organic Life: How a Pioneering Chef Helped Shape the Way We Eat Today, that Sally Quinn—the journalist and socialite who along with her late husband, Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, was an early patron and financial backer of the restaurant—advised her to play down that good-for-you part: “Don’t mention anything about being healthy and natural.” Pouillon ignored the advice. In fact, she became so obsessed that at one point, in the quest to make her establishment the nation’s first certified-organic restaurant, she ordered 1,000 pounds of organic sugar (the smallest amount she could obtain) and had to dedicate nearly a whole room to storing it.
Pouillon’s spare, clearly written memoir is built around two complementary narratives. One involves the culinary journey of a country where you can now buy organic sugar by the bag at your neighborhood grocery. The other involves her more personal journey from ingénue housewife to self-made restaurateur. While never as famous as Alice Waters of California’s Chez Panisse, Pouillon had as much influence on our local culinary landscape as, say, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan had on our physical one. She was so ahead of her time that you feel she hasn’t gotten enough credit. Who knew that Pouillon was a driving force behind the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market, which, unbelievably, some merchants at first resisted? Or that she was part of the political movement for national standards for organic certification?
Without being preachy, her memoir is also the story of an uncredentialed female cook making her way in the sexist high-chef culture, the story of a natural-born problem solver working to build a small enterprise before there was talk of start-ups or woman-owned businesses. It’s also a testament to the personal consequences—not good ones—for a wife and mother who succeeded at becoming a breadwinner before that, too, was a thing.
• • •
In the annals of food history, the most famous culinary epiphany is the one experienced by Julia Child when she tasted sole meunière in France and understood just how good food could be. The Austrian-born Pouillon had what you might call the reverse epiphany: On arriving in the US in the 1960s—her French husband had landed a job at Voice of America and the couple rented a small house in Tenleytown—she was so appalled by the local supermarket’s iceberg lettuce, processed cheese, and packaged, precut beef that she understood for the first time just how bad food could be.
She sought out alternatives, educating herself by prowling ethnic markets, talking with the proprietors about how to use lemongrass or feta or cilantro or queso fresco; by showing up early to dinner parties and watching what the host was making; by hunting down a farmer who sold grass-fed beef out of the back of a van, at a time when doing so was furtive and illegal. Restaurant Nora grew out of her perambulations.
That said, the most evocative parts of the book come early. Pouillon was born in 1943, and her father, an Austrian businessman, sent his wife and three daughters to wait out the war on a mountain farm that was a two-hour hike from the nearest village. Nora lived there, on and off, until she was eight, reveling in Tyrolean farm life: the picking of wild mushrooms, the making of fresh butter, the baking of sourdough, the resourceful consumption of all parts of the animal. “[S]he’d cut off the head and legs, pop out the eyes, put water on to boil . . . [then] cut out the tongue and the comb for a special omelet,” she writes, casually, about her grandmother’s approach to a freshly killed chicken.
Later, Pouillon came to savor the urban sophistication of Viennese restaurants and cafes. None of this prepared her for the shock of encountering Wonder Bread.
The book conjures what it was really like—and often still is—to eat and socialize in Washington. During their early married life, she and her husband, Pierre, attended the kind of informal dinner parties that many of us do: non-expensive, non-famous, nothing high profile, just somebody cooking in a small apartment kitchen, drinking wine and using whatever cutlery happens to be in the drawer. She also took advantage of some uniquely Washingtonian opportunities, picking up tips from the expats in their circle and sourcing good wine—once so hard to find—from barrels at the French Embassy.
As she gained confidence, Pouillon began giving the dinner parties. When she realized her husband’s salary had topped out, she went to work to help support the family, which included two young sons. She started catering and gave classes in how to cook on a budget, which she learned by reading James Beard. She was invited to launch the restaurant at the Tabard Inn; after a successful year in which the N Street lunch crowd learned that BLTs taste better with local Virginia tomatoes and house-made mayonnaise, she decided to open her own place.
Before it became a gustatory headquarters for Clintonites, Restaurant Nora got its start as a lower-priced establishment catering to journalists and aficionados who were allowed to run up a tab, in part because Pouillon couldn’t afford credit-card fees. Restaurant Nora, at first, was almost a club. When Pouillon went upscale and white-tablecloth, some regulars were offended and were replaced by an expense-account crowd.
• • •
People who come to this memoir hoping for insider tidbits will be disappointed, however: Part of the author’s success arose from her discretion. While she mentions her excitement at serving Meryl Streep or Baryshnikov, the closest she comes to gossip is revealing that Nora Ephron and Carl Bernstein had an argument at her restaurant—hardly surprising. But to be present when a spat between those two happened! It seems at this point historic. You feel there should be a commemorative plaque at the table, like the one in Georgetown’s old Au Pied de Cochon (now Five Guys) marking where former KGB officer Vitaly Yurchenko re-defected.
But a feminist thread also runs through this story, and it’s kind of a sad one. Some of Pouillon’s early influences were women’s-libbers, friends who told her she was too good and too smart to be spending nights getting drunk at parties. Not all aspects of ’70s culture were so encouraging: When she was getting started, she recalls, “I’d talk to the fishmonger, and he’d say, ‘Hey, babe, because you’re so sweet, I’ll sell it to you for $6.50 a pound.’ ” Her male partner would be quoted a price more than $2 cheaper. “They thought I was naive and helpless,” Pouillon notes. “. . . [H]e seemed to have a lot more buying power as a man.” Yet she remained committed to local purveyors. To ensure farmers could afford to raise the beef she wanted, she would agree to buy the whole animal, even though it meant she had to convince diners who wanted New York strip to take the lesser cuts as well—ground beef and the like—not to mention things like pork jowls and ears, which went into terrines. She’d give farmers imported seeds for arugula or Italian parsley and commit to buying their whole crop, even if the insects got it.
Her husband’s response as she began to find her calling was to have an affair with the au pair. She had a retaliatory fling, moved out, and began dating a younger hotel manager who became her business and life partner. They had one child and adopted another. Decades in, she says she learned he’d been having a long-term affair with their children’s piano instructor. By the end of the book, she’s 70 and alone. Workaholic females, beware! “I am a mature European woman,” Pouillon writes, sounding brave but also poignant. “. . . Being separated and single has been a big change for me.”
If it seems glamorous to have a restaurant named after you, Pouillon reminds us that it’s crushingly hard work. She remembers mixed or bad reviews without apparent rancor—though she does remember them, including from this magazine—and seems to have a healthy tolerance for failure, maybe because she grew up skiing and knows that falling, as the instructors say, means you’re learning. There are times when she sounds demented—at one point, she’s determined to have all-organic tablecloths—but visionaries need to be obsessive.
In the end, Pouillon reflects that what she has tried to do is restore us to the way people ate before the war that defined her childhood—before the era of the atom bomb and better living through chemistry. She has tried to recreate the farm food she knew growing up, to take us forward by going back.
Finishing the book, I knew where I wanted to go. I wanted to go to Restaurant Nora and see what she’s been up to.
Liza Mundy is a Washington journalist and author.
This article appears in our April 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
The Road to Character
Washington’s David Brooks—the New York Times columnist and PBS commentator whose measured calm gives punditry a good name—offers the building blocks of a meaningful life in The Road to Character, interweaving profiles of mostly non-sexy but inspiring exemplars (New Deal Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, civil-rights leader Bayard Rustin, Ike Eisenhower, to name a few) with his own reflections and analysis.
The Language of Paradise
“James left for Boston on April 30, a day of soft beauty, the sky a new blue and a green haze frothing the trees.” If that sentence doesn’t describe the day you’re reading this, it will soon. It’s from The Language of Paradise by Annapolis’s Barbara Klein Moss—the story of a 19th-century minister’s daughter, the offbeat theology student she marries, and his effort to discover the tongue Adam spoke in the Garden of Eden.
Teaching Peace: Students Exchange Letters with their Teacher
Former Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy has taught peace studies at AU, Georgetown, and Woodrow Wilson and Bethesda-Chevy Chase high schools, among others, for 30-plus years. The often intensely heartfelt correspondence in Teaching Peace: Students Exchange Letters With Their Teacher includes moments both light and unexpected—such as his recommendations of local country clubs to try for a summer golf-caddy job.
Washing the Dead
Glen Echo writer Michelle Brafman’s novel, Washing the Dead, is about a woman returning to an Orthodox community for a burial ritual, years after her mother’s affair separated her from it: “My mother’s mood hovered over us, a mist that could either turn to rain or vanish into the sunlight. During our family walk to Shabbos services, I saw her eyes honeying over, the first sign that at any moment she could dip away from us, into that place inside herself.”
This article appears in our April 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
Attending every powerful man or woman in Washington is a host of enablers. At the top of this class are clerks at the Supreme Court, legislative assistants on the Hill, and special assistants throughout the federal government. They have important work to do—overseeing schedules, providing counsel, relaying confidences from other bigwigs. But a large part of the job is managing the ego of the man or woman they serve, anticipating their boss’s needs, accepting his or her disdain, imparting bad news—rarely. Suffering these indignities is the price of proximity.
Among the coolest and most humbling of these gigs is the personal assistant to the President, better known as the “body man.” Invariably the young man (if Hillary is elected, the gender will change) makes sure the leader of the free world’s water is carbonated, not still; sees that his suits are pressed; and hustles him to his next meeting. Body men keep a low profile, endure a good share of abuse from a tired boss, and are granted a remarkable view of history.
Though essentially factotums, body men—who usually carry over from the presidential campaign—are political animals, climbers who graduate to fine business careers. Kris Engskov, one of Bill Clinton’s body men, is a Starbucks executive in London. Jared Weinstein, who worked for George W. Bush, runs a capital firm in New York. But because they tend to fade into the background after their presidential tenure is over, we rarely hear from them again.
Until now. Reggie Love, a body man from the 2008 presidential campaign through the first years of the Obama administration, has made headlines since leaving the White House in 2011, once revealing that he played spades with the President while Navy SEALs hunted Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
Now Love has released a memoir, Power Forward: My Presidential Education. The title is a triple entendre, playing on Love’s athletic career (he played basketball and football at Duke and was briefly enlisted by the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys), his rise from middle-class kid to presidential body man, and his things-I’ve-learned counsel to the rest of us.
Much of the last of those three hits somewhere between Tony Robbins and a TED Talk. “Every day doesn’t end or start with a slam dunk,” Love consoles those of us who would settle for toothbrushing. His big finish aims to inspire: “ . . . I know there is no music as beautiful as the swish of a net, that there is nothing we can’t achieve, if we just stand tall, take the ball, and power forward.”
As White House memoirs go, Love’s isn’t scholarly hagiography, like Arthur Schlesinger’s JFK Oval Office account, A Thousand Days. It lacks the ungrateful barbs of George Stephanopoulos’s All Too Human, about the Clinton years. Love’s recollection is more akin to Ten Minutes From Normal by Karen Hughes, the longtime George W. Bush adviser, whose most mundane moments seem meant to impress, as when she shares how bizarre it is to be shopping for produce while taking a phone call from Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Love’s humblebrag comes one morning on the campaign trail, when Obama walks into his hotel room while the body man is entertaining a, um, guest. In Love’s telling, his date has the sheets up to her neck and Obama politely apologizes. Love, who seems to want us to know both how tight he is with the President and how he can score on the road, comes off as less modest.
Other tales speak piquantly of the longueurs of the job—watching the health-conscious President pick M&M’s out of his trail mix, nearly getting fired for misplacing Obama’s bag. At one stop, Love has tossed out the taquitos Obama is craving. Fortunately, the body man finds some at the next stop. “I earned some respect that day,” he writes.
J. Alfred Prufrock measured his life in coffee spoons. For the body man, it’s about sticks of meat and cheese.
The Case of the Missing Taquitos will be enough to tempt political junkies to buy this book. But a close reading offers a glimpse into Obama’s character as well. Love doesn’t get into it directly, but you can see why the two men became so close.
Yes, the President famously loves basketball and loves his guy Friday’s ability to talk hoops at all hours. The two share other bonds, however. Each went, with considerable financial aid, to private school—Obama to the prestigious Punahou School in Honolulu, Love to Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina. Each went through a bad-boy phase before settling down.
This common history throws their differences into relief. As a basketball player at Duke, Love lived the life of a rock star. At Columbia, Obama was reclusive, by his own account, residing off campus in New York City’s then seedy Morningside Heights. I was a year behind him, Stephanopoulos a year ahead; neither we nor any of the future pols on campus I’ve since asked ever knew the President-to-be.
Love’s African-Americanness, too, must have appealed to Obama, in the same way eventual First Lady Michelle Robinson’s did. Love had none of the dreams-from-my-father angst that plagued “Barry” Obama as he grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia of mixed race and with multiple caregivers. Love’s touchstones were church, rootedness, and middle-class values: “. . . [T]he things that give me satisfaction don’t change. Sweet tea. . . . The stirring swell of a church choir. . . . My mother saying she’s proud of me. My father shooting hoops with me.”
Love emerged from that upbringing with a mix of hubris and modesty that’s simultaneously endearing and infuriating. To his credit, he’s quick to say he has screwed things up, from a DUI at Duke to being a jerk to flight attendants aboard the campaign charter. It’s a rather self-deprecating account for someone whose college years were rife with friends and hangers-on.
At times, he can appear blind to himself and the culture of Washington. At one point, Love invites friends to a DC bar to celebrate his birthday, but when word gets out, a crowd of nearly a thousand people shows up, desperate to touch a little power. Love is stunned by this throng.
He shouldn’t be, as he himself is a bit like the crashers. Had he not wanted to get close to Obama, Love’s followers wouldn’t be following him. But when it comes to his desire to cozy up to Obama, his candidness dissolves into “aw, shucks.”
Love—who left the White House before the President’s term ended (most body men do)—got an MBA from Wharton and is now a partner in Transatlantic Holdings, a financial holding company in DC. His ambition and smarts would likely have gotten him there anyway, together with his standing as a commanding athlete and his Duke degree. But his life has been supercharged by a superb ability to manage up and render himself indispensable. That makes Love a lot like the rest of us who harbor ambition and chirp, “Great idea, boss.” We’re all body men.