Best books about Washington: Our choices

January 9, 2013

Although Barack Obama and his family will remain in the White House, the inauguration will still bring plenty of newcomers to Washington, and 2013 is expected to draw tens of thousands of new residents. In fact, among the states, only North Dakota is growing faster than the District, according to recently released data from the Census Bureau.

For all our new neighbors, Washington Post editors and critics have prepared an eclectic list of books to help introduce the capital.

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears , by Dinaw Mengestu.

In this remarkable first novel, an Ethio­pian emigre describes a period of unrest in Logan Circle when gentrification led to evictions.

“Even the late-afternoon light seems to hit D.C. the same way. Right now it’s a soft, startling pinkish hue folded into a few large clouds building up along the western horizon. In two more hours, it will dissolve into long, dark red tendrils of light that will stretch across the sky, and this day will have finally ended.”

Cooking With Love , by Carla Hall.

More than 100 recipes from the D.C.-based chef who has revolutionized comfort food.

“If you had to serve lunch to the Securities and Exchange Commission, what would you make? Not easy, right? I had this brilliant idea of bean salad with green beans cut into tiny coins. They’re pretty that way and easy to scoop up.”

The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, 1880-1918 , by Patricia O’Toole.

An absorbing description of Washington’s most impressive circle.

“Henry retreated to his study to write a history of the United States in the opening years of the nineteenth century. Such an existence was idyllic, he thought — ‘like a dream of the golden age.’ Henry fervently believed that the future of the world lay in the United States and that the future of the United States lay in Washington. He reveled in the expectation and fancied himself one of ‘the first rays of light’ that would one day set fire to the world.”

Capitol Hill Haunts , by Tim Krepp.

A hair-raising guide to Washington’s ghosts, from the Demon Cat to the weeping lady of the Maples.

“It is one of the oldest buildings in the city and has been the epicenter for drama high and low for more than two hundred years. It is the symbolic center of the District of Columbia, so much that our lettered and numbered roads start from here. Obviously, weighty decisions of great national importance have been and still are debated here, but the Capitol has also seen its fair share of violence, heartbreak, and just general mayhem as well.”

Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City , by Natalie Hopkinson.

In the ’60s, when outsiders saw the nation’s capital devastated by crime, those who knew where to look could find a vibrant public sphere that moved to the blaring horns and thumping percussion of the new groove.

“As far as Chocolate Cities go, there is no more extreme case than Washington, D.C., in the second half of the twentieth century. Beyond the federal capital, Washington, lies a very black city, D.C. . . . When you happen to be born in a world designed for white people, to live in a Chocolate City is to taste an unquantifiable richness. It gives a unique angle of vision, an alternate lens to see world power. In a Chocolate City, black is normal.”

A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures , by Ben Bradlee.

The Post’s former executive editor looks back at Watergate and other events that shaped modern Washington.

“But for politicians who rode the wave into Washington after Watergate, the lessons they seem to have learned have boiled down to this: Don’t get caught. And they haven’t learned that lesson all that well.”

House Mouse, Senate Mouse ,
written by Peter W. Barnes, illustrated by Cheryl S. Barnes.

This funny children’s book explains the legislative process using characters that include the Squeaker of the House and the Senate Mouse-jority Leader. (The only complaint here is that the book strains credulity in showing members of the Mouse House and Mouse Senate actually working together.)

“America’s mice have a government, too

With Presidents, Senators and Congressmice, who

Are elected, debate, vote the popular will —

It’s a Rodent Republic on Capitol Hill.”

Lost in the City , by Edward P. Jones.

Overlooked neighborhoods in the nation’s capital are the settings for these powerful short stories.

“She came to know the city so well that had she been blindfolded and taken to practically any place in Washington, even as far away as Anacostia or Georgetown, she could have taken off the blindfold and walked home without a moment’s trouble. Her favorite place became the library park at Mount Vernon Square, the same park where Miss Jenny had first seen Robert and Clara together, across the street from the Peoples where Betsy Ann had been caught stealing.”

Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape , by Kirk Savage.

This superb study of monumental Washington traces how changing attitudes about our heroes are reflected in stone and space.

“Washington’s plans and monuments aspire to represent the essential America, but as they take shape on the ground, they become enmeshed in the complex realities of a living America. It is this interplay of aspiration and practice that makes the memorial landscape come alive, for in that interplay the landscape ceases to be a mere symbol of America and becomes an actor in the nation’s drama. Not only do the monuments of Washington retell the story of the nation but in certain times and places they change the national history itself.”

District Comics: An Unconventional History of Washington, D.C.

From Colonial-era Georgetown through Obama-era downtown, more than three dozen cartoonists weave a richly textured tapestry of the capital.

“Most people think of D.C. as center stage for national politics and iconic monuments, but it’s more than that; if you scratch the surface, you’ll uncover a city rich in history, offbeat tales and unique personalities.”

Palimpsest , by Gore Vidal.

The late writer’s witty memoir captures movers and shakers of 20th-century Washington in gossip and satire.

“In June of the year 1957, my half sister, Nina (known henceforward as Nini) Gore Auchincloss, married Newton Steers in St. John’s Church, ‘the church of the presidents,’ in Washington, D.C. For over a century presidents, of a Sunday, would wander across the avenue that separates White House from Lafayette Square and its odd little church, whose chaste Puritan tower is topped by an unlikely gold Byzantine dome — metaphor?”

Personal History , by Katharine Graham.

The Post’s legendary publisher describes her family, her life and her experiences during the Watergate years.

“The lives of those of us who stay on in Washington change somewhat with a change of administrations, but our core friendships remain pretty much the same. There is a saying about relationships in Washington: ‘If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.’ Maybe because I’ve always lived here, because this is in a very real sense my hometown, I’ve found that not at all to be true.”

The President’s House: 1800 to the Present — The Secrets and History of the World’s Most Famous Home ,
by Margaret Truman.

The daughter of President Harry Truman takes us behind the scenes of the storied residence.

“An opposite variation on the effect of power on personality is a syndrome my father christened ‘Potomac fever.’ Its main symptom is a ballooning self-importance that runs roughshod over anyone and anything in its way. PF can and does afflict almost everyone in the Washington, D.C., power structure, but it is especially prevalent in the White House. The mere ability to get on the telephone and say ‘This is the White House calling’ is enough to make anyone’s judgment go squishy.”

Reveille in Washington: 1860-1865 , by Margaret Leech.

Although written more than 70 years ago, this remains one of the finest histories of what life was like in the capital during the Civil War.

“There were people who loved Washington, not alone with an habitual affection for warm firesides and growing gardens, but because they found enjoyment in the particular life the town afforded. They derived a vicarious excitement from the proximity of Government, and from the many rumors of which Washington was the sounding box. They watched with pride and pleasure the progress of the public buildings, attended the improving lectures at the Smithsonian Institution, danced at the hops at the big hotels, and ran pell-mell to the fires.”

The Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation’s Capital ,
by Constance McLaughlin Green.

A bracingly honest look at the city’s underprivileged and powerless.

“The District of Columbia was neither the ‘colored man’s paradise,’ as unobservant whites had once labeled it, nor was it in its entirety the ‘Magnificent Capital’ portrayed not long ago in a best-selling picture book. The black ghettos were as much part of Washington as were the stretches of greensward and the gleaming white marble facades of public buildings.”

So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government ,
by Robert G. Kaiser.

An informative and distressing guide to the lobbying culture and its hidden control of our politics.

“Washington, never immune from the fashions and enthusiasms of American society, absorbed and then reflected the spirit of the go-go years. Commercial and residential real estate boomed as downtown Washington spread to the east and west of the traditional business districts. New stores and restaurants catered to a wealthy clientele. A building boom of mansion-style suburban housing transformed large sections of Fairfax County, Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland, Washington’s two wealthiest suburbs.”

The Sweet Forever ,
by George P. Pelecanos.

This gritty crime novel set on U Street in 1986 shows the darkest side of Washington’s recent history.

“Marcus Clay and George Dozier sat at the counter of the Florida Avenue Grill, located at the corner of 11th and Florida on the tip of Shaw. They had seen each other at church, as they did every Sunday, and Clay had followed Dozier to the grill for a late breakfast. They sat on red stools where the counter jutted in, back toward the swinging kitchen door. Along the wall, front to back, above the grill and sandwich board and coffee urns, hung framed photographs of local and national celebrities who had visited the diner over the years for some of the very best soul food in Washington, D.C.”

The Woman at the Washington Zoo ,

by Randall Jarrell (not pictured).

This poem captures city residents’ aspirations for change.

And I . . .

this print of mine, that has kept its color

Alive through so many cleanings; this dull null

Navy I wear to work, and wear from work, and so

To my bed, so to my grave, with no

Complaints, no comment: neither from my chief,

The Deputy Chief Assistant, nor his chief —

Only I complain . . .

The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made ,
by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas.

A study of the men who advised Harry Truman about how to rebuild Europe and contain communism in the years after World War II.

“Washington was filled with excitement that sunny Monday: Dwight Eisenhower, the returning hero, was greeted by the largest crowds in the city’s history as he paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue. Wedged into Truman’s afternoon schedule — between lunches and dinners and other ceremonies honoring Eisenhower — was the meeting on Japanese strategy.”

The Tears of Autumn , by Charles McCarry.

A classic thriller that offers a plausible conspiracy theory about the Kennedy assassination.

“Politics is politics. Life is life. I hate Washington since the war — they don’t understand misery. They don’t know how to look into the mind of most of mankind, they think suffering — real suffering, which is at the center of everyone’s history but America’s — does not matter. But Americans are different, individual Americans.”

Rachel Lubitz, Megan McDonough and Tim Smith contributed to this report.

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Entertainment