News & Politics

Books for the Beach

Good novels, political books, mysteries, biographies, sports stories, and other summer suggestions from Washingtonians who love to read

It's a good bet that DC author Judith Warner's Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety is on some Washingtonians' beach-reading lists. But Warner is planning to read about a different kind of anxiety this summer–the Philip Roth kind.

She's looking forward to his latest novel, The Plot Against America. It imagines, through a Jewish family, what might have happened if aviator and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh had run for president in 1940 and defeated Franklin Roosevelt.

Says Warner: "I've been a fan ever since reading Roth's American Pastoral, the story of a father-daughter relationship that falls victim to the forces of contemporary history."

Warner recently finished The Complete Stories of Truman Capote: "Wonderful–eerily imaginative and infused with a midcentury American gothic mood." She's now reading British author Ian McEwan's new novel, Saturday: "It's about a day in the life of a London neurosurgeon contemplating existence in the post-9/11 world."

ABC News political director Mark Halperin intends to read Saturday, too. "Everyone tells me it's a great read," he says.

Halperin has already flipped through an advance copy of The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House, a book just out by John F. Harris, who covered Clinton for the Washington Post.

"With so much said and written about Clinton, it's hard to imagine there's more," he says, "but John knows him as well as any observer, and there's so much that happened during his presidency that I'm looking forward to reliving."

Ana Marie Cox, proprietor of the political blog Wonkette, plans to reread Billy Lee Brammer's 1961 novel, The Gay Place. Brammer wrote it while on the staff of then-senator Lyndon Johnson.

"It's possibly the best book ever about American politics," Cox says. "Not just the maneuvering and manipulating part but the kind of people who participate–half ideologues, half idealists, half drunk, only occasionally married. It takes place in Austin, not DC, but anyone who's lived here will recognize themselves and their friends."

National Public Radio special correspondent Susan Stamberg has started Listener Supported: The Culture and History of Public Radio by Jack W. Mitchell: "Jack was NPR's first employee and my first producer on All Things Considered. He's done a thorough, sometimes wicked, really smart history of our radio heritage."

Stamberg is eager to dive into The Green Lantern: A Romance of Stalinist Russia, a novel by Jerome Charyn. Set in the 1930s, it's about a theater troupe that puts on a production of King Lear in Moscow and gets entangled with Joseph Stalin.

"Jerry and I were high-school classmates," Stamberg says. "He isn't well known in this country but adored in France, where he lives much of the year."

Foreign places interest Washington architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen, whose modern buildings are all over the world. He recently enjoyed Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology, edited by Adam Gopnik. It features the work of such writers as Thomas Jefferson, James Baldwin, and Gertrude Stein.

"I adore Paris," says Jacobsen, whose projects includes a renovation of the American Embassy there. "Gopnik's memoir, Paris to the Moon, was a great book."

Jacobsen is looking forward to reading The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life by Tom Reiss. It's about Lev Nussimbaum, a Russian Jew who took on the identity of a Muslim prince and became a celebrated author in Nazi Germany.

Poet Miles David Moore, host of the poetry series at Arlington's Iota Club and Cafe–his latest book is Rollercoaster–can't wait to read Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow and Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson.

Moore liked Pablo Medina's new novel, The Cigar Roller, about a stroke victim in Florida looking back on his life in Cuba; A Morning for Flamingos, a James Lee Burke mystery featuring Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux; and Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture, essays by National Endowment for the Arts chair and poet Dana Gioia.

Connie Briscoe's new novel, Can't Get Enough–set in the monied enclaves of Prince George's County–is touted by the publisher as "an African-American Desperate Housewives." She's looking forward to reading Benilde Little's just-released novel, Who Does She Think She Is?

"I like stories about strong women or women who discover their power and self-worth," says Briscoe, who lives in Howard County.

She'll also read Terry McMillan's The Interruption of Everything when it comes out in July. McMillan's novels include How Stella Got Her Groove Back.

Briscoe recommends two classic novels: Their Eyes Were Watching God–"Zora Neale Hurston wrote about women's issues in the early 20th century in a way that's timely today"–and I, Claudius by Robert Graves, about Roman emperor Tiberius Claudius.

Allan Topol, a partner at the DC law firm Covington & Burling and author of six thrillers, including the recent Enemy of My Enemy, found Israeli novelist Amos Oz's memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, "deeply thought-provoking." Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi is "a remarkable account of her life in postrevolution Iran."

He's now reading The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, a novel about an Afghani immigrant drawn back to Kabul to rescue the son of a friend murdered by the Taliban. "I'm just 23 pages in, and the writing is fantastic," Topol says.

Representative John Dingell of Michigan will read history this summer: Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley and Ron Powers, about World War II's battle of Iwo Jima; Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, the Battle That Changed the Course of the Civil War by James M. McPherson; and Winston Churchill's War Leadership by Martin Gilbert.

Eric Brace, who leads the alternative-country band Last Train Home, based in Washington and Nashville, is ready to plunge into two books about musicians.

"Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend by Michael Dregni tells the story of the great European jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt," Brace says, "and Bob Dylan's Chronicles, Volume One is, by all reports, an amazing tale."

Brace is writing "a musical of sorts" based on the California gold rush: "My happy homework is an overview of the 49ers by H.W. Brands, The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream."

Dr. Kurt Newman, head of surgery at Children's National Medical Center, plans to read Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game by Red Auerbach and John Feinstein. For four years, Feinstein joined Auerbach and others for lunch at DC's China Doll restaurant, where he gathered stories.

Says Newman: "I can't wait to learn more about Auerbach, one of the great basketball coaches, and the Boston Celtics. Who better to tell the story than Feinstein, a sportswriter without equal?"

Robert Peck, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, suggests Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis.

"Now that you can go online from your seat at RFK," Peck says, "you should read about Billy Beane of the Oakland A's, whose computer analyses of winning teams has revolutionized baseball recruiting and trading. For those who are policy but not baseball wonks, there are lessons on how the grip of conventional wisdom creates advantages for idea entrepreneurs."

Peck also liked Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism by Roger W. Wilkins:

"If you ever wondered how the Founders squared their rhetoric about the Colonies' being 'slaves' to the British Empire with their own slave holdings, read this book. Wilkins is a George Mason professor, former DC school-board member, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who hails from a family of civil-rights giants. This is riveting history."

Finally, for beach reading, why not go to a beach bookstore? Terry Lake, manager of Dewey Beach's Booksandcoffee, recommends the novel The Mermaid Chair by Susan Monk Kidd: "It's a beautiful tale of the mystery surrounding a chair of ornately carved mermaids. The chair, housed in a South Carolina monastery, offers Jessie answers and a link to a forbidden romance as she tries to free her eccentric mother and herself from their past."

Debby Creasy, the store's events coordinator, liked Lost in the Forest by Sue Miller: "It's a quiet but compelling novel about a family facing a sudden death and the ways each survivor deals with grief and change. Definitely a 'can't put down' book."

Senior Managing Editor

Bill O’Sullivan is senior managing editor; from 1999 to 2007, he was a features editor. In another lifetime, he was assistant managing editor. Somewhere in the middle, he was managing editor of Common Boundary magazine and senior editor at the Center for Public Integrity. His personal essays have been cited three times among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays. He teaches at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.