News & Politics

Washington Read: January 2010

What we're reading this month.

Photograph courtesy of Gary Knight.

The Hidden Brain By Shankar Vedantam

One of the most compelling stories in Shankar Vedantam’s The Hidden Brain is about an incident that happened 15 years ago on the bridge between Belle Isle park and downtown Detroit. One hot summer night, a man dragged a woman through a station-wagon window and beat her bloody. Fleeing as he came at her with a tire iron, she leapt to her death in the rapids below. Dozens witnessed the assault, which lasted a half hour, but as if auditioning for roles in Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, no one came to the woman’s rescue while she was being attacked.

To make sense of this episode and other puzzling human behaviors—from how educated individuals become suicide bombers to why a stranded puppy yanks our heartstrings more than genocide does—Vedantam began scouring a new field of psychological research that links our action, and inaction, to an array of unconscious influences, what Vedantam calls “the hidden brain.” The result is a fascinating piece of explanatory reportage, in the tradition of Thomas Friedman and Malcolm Gladwell, that has the capacity to sway public policy and spawn a popular franchise. Vedantam, a Washington Post science columnist, is set to turn the idea into a blog for Psychology Today.

King of the Lobby By Kathryn Allamong Jacob

Like the cocktail that bears his name (Chartreuse and shaved ice in a hollowed lemon half), there was bite to the brio of Gilded Age lobbyist Sam Ward. His table was the hottest ticket in Washington, his wine the most exotic, his stories the most grand. Behind it all was a puppet master who knew that the surest path to appropriations was through the portly stomachs of key lawmakers.

In the delectable biography King of the Lobby, Kathryn Allamong Jacob serves up the life and times of this protean character. Ward dug for gold in San Francisco, translated French epics, became an honorary Paiute Indian chief, delivered the news of impeachment to President Andrew Johnson, made a fortune on Wall Street, and died broke on the coast of Italy. His friends included poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Supreme Court justice Salmon P. Chase, writer Oscar Wilde, and Pope Leo XIII.

Writing once to Longfellow, Ward expressed a wish to shed his jacket, pour a glass of Burgundy, and divulge the secrets of the trade he called “gastronomic pacification.” Jacob’s book is a seat at such an occasion—an exchange between confidants and a satisfying nightcap.

The Swan Thieves By Elizabeth Kostova

For most writers, a 500-page novel isn’t a scale-down, but such is the case with Elizabeth Kostova and The Swan Thieves, the less ambitious followup to her genre-bending debut, The Historian. That book managed—even before Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series—to make vampires the rage of even the literati.

As in The Historian, which opens with a 16-year-old finding an ominous woodcut associated with Dracula, art prompts plot in Thieves. After attacking an obscure painting of Leda and the Swan in DC’s National Gallery of Art, tortured painter Robert Oliver comes under the care of psychiatrist Andrew Marlow. An artist himself, Marlow threads the needle between Oliver’s outburst and the mysterious woman he sketches to reveal an art-world scandal that takes the doctor from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Musée d’Orsay to Oliver’s girlfriend’s bed.

Kostova paints this cause célèbre, involving a female Impressionist’s career-ending love affair, with opaque strokes. Yet she writes sharply about art and the act of creation. 

Book Deals: Michelle Obama’s Roots, Michael Brown on Katrina, and More

Within weeks of her New York Times story unearthing the slave roots of Michelle Obama’s family tree—written with Jodi KantorRachel Swarns signed on to produce a book about the subject; it’s slated for fall 2011. . . . Ex–FEMA director Michael Brown has tapped Marilyn Monroe biographer Ted Schwarz to cowrite Deadly Indifference, about the politics of disaster, due in June. . . . Joseph Quinlan, a Bank of America executive and Johns Hopkins senior fellow, will tackle the end of America’s economic dominance in Future Imperfect, out in the fall. . . NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep will draw on his reporting from Karachi to explore the world’s emerging metropolises in a book slated for winter 2012. . . . Joe Gans, the black boxing champ immortalized by painter George Bellows, is the subject of a biography by former Post columnist William Gildea, due in 2011.

This article first appeared in the January 2010 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.

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