News & Politics

Guilty Pleasures: Serious authors spill their guilty pleasure reads

Hard-boiled thrillers, comic memoirs, sports stories, romantic novels, and other books local authors read when no one’s looking

Serious authors sometimes don’t want to admit they read books purely for fun—the literary equivalent of a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. For people who love words and ideas, a guilty pleasure is often a book written in a different style from theirs or an author they admire but haven’t had time for.

I asked Washington writers to name books they’d recommend or are looking forward to that their fans might not expect them to pick. There’s little trash or fluff here—if they indulge in that, they’re not saying—but there is some good reading.

W ashington Post reporter Jackie Spinner’s first book— Tell Them I Didn’t Cry: A Young Journalist’s Story of Joy, Loss, and Survival in Iraq —came out this year. An account of her time as a correspondent in Baghdad, it alternates with shorter passages by her twin sister back home.

“I have a stack of books that taunt me every night when I drag myself home from the newsroom,” Spinner says. “Most of them are about Middle East politics and the war in Iraq.”

She can’t resist recommending one from this group—what she calls her cold-weather reading: “I’ve been unable to put down Sandy Tolan’s new book, The Lemon Tree, a nonfiction narrative about a friendship between an Arab and a Jew in the Middle East.”

But when she goes to Rehoboth Beach this summer, she’s bringing something lighter—an Adriana Trigiani novel:

“She hooked me with her Big Stone Gap trilogy and has had me laughing and crying ever since with Ave Maria, the Italian-American who finds love unexpectedly and rediscovers her roots, herself, and her faith. Trigiani’s books are wonderfully written, with detailed descriptions of small-town life that remind me of home on the prairie, even when she’s writing about Italy.”

Spinner, who fell behind on Trigiani while in Iraq, plans to catch up with The Queen of the Big Time, about three generations of Italian immigrants in Pennsylvania.

Robert Wilson spends his days editing the DC-based literary journal the American Scholar. He’s also author of the recent biography The Explorer King: Adventure, Science, and the Great Diamond Hoax—Clarence King in the Old West, about a 19th-century adventurer.

Wilson is looking forward to Dream Golf: The Making of Bandon Dunes, a new book by George Mason University creative-writing professor Stephen Goodwin. It’s about an entrepreneur’s efforts to build a British-style links golf course on the Oregon coast.

“Goodwin’s a fine novelist who has also written for years about golf,” Wilson says. “I’m just coming off a hip operation, so this is as close as I’m likely to get to a golf course this summer.”

I just went to the bookstore last week and came out with five books I’m hoping to read,” says novelist Susan Coll, author of A Love Story and Rockville Pike: A Suburban Comedy of Manners, both set locally.

“My definition of a guilty read has more to do with finally getting to the books I feel guilty about never having read—hence four of the five are John Updike’s Rabbit novels. I figure if I’m going to keep writing about the suburbs, I ought to take a look at how the master has done it.”

Coll—whose next book, Acceptance, also takes place here—says her real guilty pleasure this summer is to take a drawing-and-painting class at Glen Echo Park: “As complementary reading, I hope to get through the new biography De Kooning: An American Master by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan.”

Mitchellville author Marita Golden—whose fiction and nonfiction include the new novel After, about an African-American police officer in Prince George’s County who shoots a young black man—initially couldn’t think of anything besides everyone’s guilty pleasure of late:

“My last was The Da Vinci Code. I save my guilty pleasures for movies and TV.”

But later that day, she had second thoughts: “I was browsing this afternoon, and since you struck the guilty-pleasure nerve, I bought Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings by Tyler Perry.”

Subtitled Madea’s Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life, the book is narrated by Perry’s female alter ego, Madea, popularized in the films Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Madea’s Family Reunion.

“Perry unashamedly mocks the stereotypes about black women that in the black community we know so well,” Golden says. “He does it in a way that makes belly laughs and a major dose of wisdom a part of the process.” Madea’s humor, Golden says, “owes as much to burlesque as to the great comedians Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley. It’s a hoot.”

DC’s Rosalind Wiseman is author of Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends & Other Realities of Adolescence —the inspiration for the movie Mean Girls —and coauthor of the recent Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads: Dealing With the Parents, Teachers, Coaches, and Counselors Who Can Make—or Break—Your Child’s Future.

She recommends Everybody Into the Pool: True Tales, a comic memoir by Beth Lisick about a suburban homecoming queen turned denizen of San Francisco’s underground scene. “She’s funny, quick, and edgy,” Wiseman says, “my favorite combination in a summer read.”

Wiseman also likes The Inn at Lake Devine, Elinor Lipman’s novel about a Jewish girl’s efforts to gain admittance to a gentiles-only resort in the 1960s. Wiseman calls it “funny and romantic—romantic in a tolerable way, not a want-to-throw-up way.”

Alexandria journalist David Taylor, author of the June release Ginseng, the Divine Root: The Curious History of the Plant That Captivated the World, is tempted to recommend local crime novelist George Pelecanos, “but his stuff’s too good to be called a guilty pleasure.”

Instead, Taylor suggests the “satisfyingly pulpy” Jim Thompson noir thriller The Killer Inside Me: “It’s about a well-liked deputy sheriff who’s also a serial killer. Sex, gore, corruption—it’s got it all.”

Taylor also enjoyed A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East, journalist Tiziano Terzani’s account of wandering through Southeast Asia: “He avoided airplanes for a year on the advice of a Hong Kong savant. He’s another great observer of street life and corruption.”

Andrew Holleran—whose novels include Dancer From the Dance and Grief, his new book set in DC—says reading is the one area of his life where he doesn’t feel guilty:

“If I feel guilt, it would only be with a magazine like Vanity Fair, where occasionally I have to lift my head up and say, ‘Why are you reading this?’—when the level of trivia and celebrity dish is really bad. Then there’s the People I reach for in the doctor’s office but won’t buy, or the occasional National Enquirer. But I can’t think of a book that has made me feel guilty.”

more summer reading

Lost and Found is local novelist Carolyn Parkhurst’s follow-up to her popular The Dogs of Babel. The new book is about the cast of an Amazing Race –like reality show.

District writer Sarah Grace McCandless, whose first novel, Grosse Pointe Girl, explored adolescence, returns to that territory in The Girl I Wanted to Be, about a 14-year-old coping with family secrets and loss.

Lawrence Otis Graham’s The Senator and the Socialite: The True Story of America’s First Black Dynasty is about Blanche Kelso Bruce, a former slave who became the first African-American to serve a full Senate term. Bruce and his wife, the daughter of a wealthy black doctor, broke racial barriers in 19th-century Washington’s social scene. The family later met with scandal and humiliation.

Next month, look for The Last Town on Earth, a novel by DC writer Thomas Mullen about a town that quarantines itself during the 1918 flu epidemic.

George Pelecanos’s The Night Gardener is about three District police officers haunted by an unsolved serial-murder case.

Features editor William O’Sullivan can be reached at

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.