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Random Friday Question: What to Read at the Beach?

If you were going away to the beach this week, which I'm not, you'd want to take along a pile of books, and if you're like me, you'd never be quite certain about which ones to carry along--Do you do the fun, easy thriller, catch up on the bestseller that folks were talking about a few months ago but aren't anymore, or dip into the classics that you don't have the time or attention span to tackle the rest of the year?

I usually try to take a bit of each of those categories, but this year, I'm looking at a particularly enticing stack of non-fiction, much of it with strong local connections. Check these out as you make your choices:

Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade, by Linda Perlstein.

Perlstein, a former Washington Post education writer and author of a terrific book on middle school life called "Not Much Just Chillin'," spent a year inside Tyler Heights Elementary School in Annapolis to learn just how the No Child Left Behind revolution has altered the lives of children, teachers and parents. Result: She saw a system that has lost its soul, as the proud and historic mission of infecting kids with a love of learning is pushed aside by the grim focus on test scores, to the exclusion of the sense of discovery and search that the best schools can foster and enhance in children.

In "Tested," you see the sand tables, the play time and the naps vanishing from kindgergarten, replaced by administrators who insist on an absolute concentration on teaching reading skills. You hear the superintendent say that "Time is very precious. It's nonsense, as limited as our time and resources are, to pay teachers and teacher assistants to say, 'At 1:30, we're going to turn off the lights and you're going to lie down and sleep for 30 minutes."
And then you see how NCLB's relentless focus on reading and math is squeezing history, science and writing out of the school day, and you start to get very, very angry.

The Pentagon: The Untold Story of The Wartime Race to Build the Pentagon--And to Restore It Sixty Years Later, by Steve Vogel.

Vogel, a Post reporter who (full disclosure) worked with me in the Germany bureau of the paper in the early 1990s, has produced a biography of one of the world's most famous and iconic buildings that manages to avoid the dry and bureaucratic and become instead a fascinating story of human achievement.

The tale of the building of the Pentagon is one of almost inconceivable determination and speed, at least by today's lax standards. The thing was conceived on a Thursday, planned by Monday, approved by Tuesday and built in a mind-boggling 17 months. No one worried about determining which particular species of bug or bird might live on the site; they just built the building, and Vogel takes us inside the worksite, so intimately that you even meet the guy who handed out the $1 an hour cash payments to the construction workers.

That same insider view returns in the last portion of the book, where Vogel takes you into the 9/11 attack that Hollywood forgot, in a riveting account that continues straight through the reconstruction of the Pentagon, which was accomplished, interestingly enough for those who are all caught up in today's debate over immigration, largely by Salvadoran construction workers who spent their lunch breaks over at the tamales and pupusas truck.

War Without Death: A Year of Extreme Competition in Pro Football's NFC East, by Mark Maske.

Maske, who covers football for the Post, brings the Moneyball approach to coverage of the NFL, taking you inside the business of the sport to see how the agents, team owners, union bosses, and the commissioner create the illusion that it's all about the action on the gridiron, when really pro football is a corporate behemoth that devotes far more energy to TV contracts, revenue-sharing arrangements and media manipulation than to tackles and touchdowns.

For Washington readers, the scenes that will jump out from this taut tour of a year in the life of one of pro sports' toughest divisions are the intimate views of Redskins owner Dan Snyder, whose endless battle against the independent media that dare to cover his franchise without his approval leads him to cut off most access to daily reporters. Maske pierces the veil: You see the terrible reality of Snyder having to eat a meal without having his personal nutritionist on hand, and you see how late in a lost season, the brash young owner somehow manages to delude himself into believing that something big can still happen--you see, in the end, the boyish hope that beats on in the heart of a guy whose own mania for message control has turned his public image into that of a heartless prig.

Willis Conover: Broadcasting Jazz to the World, by Terence Ripmaster.

Ripmaster, a historian and jazz writer, delivers the first biography of one of the most famous Americans who most Americans have never heard of. Willis Conover was, to generations of people in Asia, Africa, Europe and almost everywhere except this country, the voice of America, the pied piper of American creativity and achievement. As the premier jazz deejay on the Voice of America, our country's shortwave radio outlet to the rest of the planet, Conover brought people, especially behind the Iron Curtain, a view of this country as a place that was confronting racial divisions, supporting the expression of renegade perspectives, and embracing the message of freedom and hope that jazz delivers.

Conover was everything that the United States, in its image abroad today, is not. In places all around the world where America is hated today, the name Willis Conover still draws smiles and releases a reserve of goodwill, yet the bizarrely narrow and smug Ken Burns PBS series on jazz a few years ago managed not even to mention Conover. For several decades, Conover was, along with Muhammad Ali and James Brown, one of the best known American names in the world, and Ripmaster takes us to the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, where Conover was particularly revered, for a view of how our country still has the power to make friends and demonstrate the American ideals that seem so very lost today.

The Voice: Mel Allen's Untold Story, by Curt Smith

Curt Smith has been a presidential speechwriter, a baseball blogger, and the author of a dozen books, including the classic Voices of the Game, about the great radio play-by-play men in baseball history. Now, he's put out a biography of Mel Allen, the broadcaster who was the Voice of the Yankees from the 1940s to the 1960s and later made "This Week in Baseball" a TV classic. Allen's voice will live on in history, as he was the guy who narrated 3,000 20th Century Fox newsreels, always concluding with the famous sign-off, "This is your Movietone reporter."

Allen's home-run call, "How about that!" has inspired latter-day broadcasters to come up with their own signature calls. Much of the book is devoted to the kind of cool baseball stories that will have fans staying up deep into the night, but the "untold story" of the sub-title refers to Smith's reporting on just why the Yankees sacked Allen in 1964, a media shocker that was never publicly explained.

Allen had become unreliable, given to strange, rambling public speeches, weird silences on the air, and oddly unfriendly behavior. But when the Yankees replaced him with Joe Garagiola, there was no explanation. Smith concludes that Allen was addicted to speed, prescribed for him by the same "Dr. Feelgood" who had supplied amphetamines to John F. Kennedy. It's not exactly proven here, but the story is a compelling one.

Please feel free to add your own selections for this summer reading shelf....

By Marc Fisher |  August 3, 2007; 7:31 AM ET
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Thanks for pointing me to Mark Maske's book. I just ordered it!

But, good thing you're not going to the beach this weekend. This load you've collected is heavy for beach reading. These books and sand do not mix, at least not on my beach.

Posted by: KK | August 3, 2007 8:21 AM

Don't read that garbage. Read This:

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration has repeatedly demonstrated that it does not feel bound by the law or the Constitution when it comes to the war on terror. It cannot even be trusted to properly use the enhanced powers it was legally granted after the attacks.

Yet, once again, President Bush has been trying to stampede Congress into a completely unnecessary expansion of his power to spy on Americans. And, hard as it is to believe, Congressional Republicans seem bent on collaborating, while Democrats (who can still be cowed by the White House's with-us-or-against-us baiting) aren't doing enough to stop it.

The fight is over the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires the government to obtain a warrant before eavesdropping on electronic communications that involve someone in the United States. The test is whether there is probable cause to believe that the person being communicated with is an agent of a foreign power or a terrorist.

Mr. Bush decided after 9/11 that he was no longer going to obey that law. He authorized the National Security Agency to intercept international telephone calls and e-mail messages of Americans and other residents of this country without a court order. He told the public nothing and Congress next to nothing about what he was doing, until The Times disclosed the spying in December 2005.

Ever since, the White House has tried to pressure Congress into legalizing Mr. Bush's rogue operation. Most recently, it seized on a secret court ruling that spotlighted a technical way in which the 1978 law has not kept pace with the Internet era.

The government may freely monitor communications when both parties are outside the United States, but must get a warrant aimed at a specific person for communications that originate or end in this country. The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that the court that issues such warrants recently ruled that the law also requires that the government seek such an individualized warrant for purely foreign communications that, nevertheless, move through American data networks.

Instead of asking Congress to address this anachronism, as it should, the White House sought to use it to destroy the 1978 spying law. It proposed giving the attorney general carte blanche to order eavesdropping on any international telephone calls or e-mail messages if he decided on his own that there was a "reasonable belief" that the target of the surveillance was outside the United States. The attorney general's decision would not be subject to court approval or any supervision.

The White House, of course, insisted that Congress must do this right away, before the August recess that begins on Monday -- the same false urgency it used to manipulate Congress into passing the Patriot Act without reading it and approving the appalling Military Commissions Act of 2006.

Senator Jay Rockefeller, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, offered a sensible alternative law, as did his fellow Democrat, Senator Russ Feingold. In either case, the attorney general would be able to get a broad warrant to intercept foreign communications routed through American networks for a limited period. Then, he would have to justify the spying in court. This fix would have an expiration date so Congress could then dispassionately consider what permanent changes might be needed to FISA.

Congress was debating this issue yesterday, and the final outcome was unclear. But there are very clear lines that must not be crossed.

First, all electronic surveillance of communication that originates or ends in the United States must be subject to approval and review by the FISA court under the 1978 law. (That court, by the way, has rejected only one warrant in the last two years.)

Second, any measure Congress approves now must have a firm expiration date. Closed-door meetings under the pressure of a looming vacation are no place for such serious business.

The administration and its Republican supporters in Congress argue that American intelligence is blinded by FISA and have seized on neatly timed warnings of heightened terrorist activity to scare everyone. It is vital for Americans, especially lawmakers, to resist that argument. It is pure propaganda.

This is not, and has never been, a debate over whether the United States should conduct effective surveillance of terrorists and their supporters. It is over whether we are a nation ruled by law, or the whims of men in power. Mr. Bush faced that choice and made the wrong one. Congress must not follow him off the cliff.

Posted by: President Evil | August 3, 2007 8:24 AM

I go to Ocean City every weekend. Rent a hosue in the Pines.

Beach reads this summer:
Harry Potter 7 (Bought at the midnight madness sale in Salisbury and read on the beach the next day.)
Several books by Charles Pellegrino.
"Collapse" and "Guns, Germs and Steel", by Diamond
Making of the Atomic Bomb by Rhodes, also Dark Sun by Rhodes.

Several others I can't remember offhand.

Posted by: wiredog | August 3, 2007 8:42 AM

The word is temperament.

Posted by: WILLOBIE | August 3, 2007 8:51 AM

I can't make it to the beach, but I want to get around to reading all the transcripts from the Lost Pants trial.

Posted by: Paul | August 3, 2007 9:04 AM

Read any or all of these novels by Alan Furst:

Night Soldiers (1988), Dark Star (1991), The Polish Officer (1995), The World at Night (1996), Red Gold (1999), Kingdom of Shadows (2000), Blood of Victory (2003), Dark Voyage (2004), The Foreign Correspondent (2006).

You could call these historical spy novels about Europe in the period of and around WWII, but cultural, social, and industrial details are seamlessly woven into the narrative, something rare in historical fiction. Convincing and well-written.

Posted by: Mike Licht | August 3, 2007 9:06 AM

My answer to the question of which books to read is: none. I enjoy reading, but for now, I'm not going to read a book written by someone else. I'm writing my own book.

Posted by: YourStrawberry23 | August 3, 2007 9:10 AM

Summer reading is purely escapist for me.
It's a world inhabited by:

- the early Carl Hiaasen books (they've just seemed to repetitive to be fresh in recent years, and I miss Skink)
- Christopher Moore
- T.C. Boyle short stories
- the Phillipa Gregory Tudor novels (half historical fiction, half bodice-ripper)
- the "thriller/mystery" novels of Douglas Preston/Lincoln Child, James Patterson, or PJ Tracy
- various Michael Crichton novel
- Any paperback that just looks entertaining enough at the Borders "3 fer" table.

I save my non-fiction for the winter months when I'm not outside as much and I spent time curled up under blankets anyway. Summer reading needs to be able to be put down so I can go and do stuff!

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | August 3, 2007 9:43 AM

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen!!

Posted by: Anonymous | August 3, 2007 9:45 AM

Pretty much anything by Arturo Perez-Reverte (can't do accents in this posting section) is great for the beach - great exciting stories, but also incredible writing. My favorite is probably The Club Dumas, but Flanders Panel is also quite good.

Wiredog, you and I think alike - I did the same thing with HP and the Deathly Hallows. Nothing quite like reading a beloved author while the waves crash on the sand, is there?

Posted by: Kate | August 3, 2007 9:49 AM

I don't read at the beach (too much else to do) but do read on a commuter bus every day into and out of DC. Just finished a biography about Clara Barton. Now reading 'The Mammoth Encyclopedia of the Unsolved.' I have several biographies and history books stacked on my bookcase to pick up next. I don't touch science fiction or bodice rippers.

My favorite summertime movie -- 'Doctor Zhivago.' When it's 95 degrees and 95% humidity, I close up in the air conditioned house with a cold drink and watch the Russian revolution. Instant cool down.

Posted by: Commuter | August 3, 2007 9:51 AM

I'm definitely a thriller reader in the summer. Something by James Patterson that I can read in a sitting or two. Michael Connelly is fun. I like the serial characters. Alex Cross, Lindsay Boxer, Harry Bosch, Tempe Brennan, Eve Duncan.

Posted by: Ryan | August 3, 2007 9:53 AM

I am definitely in the camp that taclkes "heavier" reads on the beach or other vacations. I find that I have fewer disctractions and am generally better-rested on vacations than I am during the workweek at home. I am currently reading (and loving) the Bronx is Burning and I hope to finish it at the beach this weekend!

Posted by: CDell | August 3, 2007 9:53 AM

To Commuter I just finished and loved "A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary 1785-1812" which is about the life of Clara Barton's great aunt.

And for true reading excitement we only have two chapters left of "Matilda" by Roald Dahl. I love watching my kids develope a true love for books.

For the beach I generally tote along thrillers that my mom has passed along over the year. But my favorite is to head to the local independent book store and buy books from the local authors or about the place I am visiting. The folks at the small bookshops are generally friendly and give great advice.

Posted by: Chesapeake Beach | August 3, 2007 10:53 AM

Willis Conover: I sure do remember Willis Conover: for years he was my nighty companion over WMAL. He nurtured my lifelong love of jazz. His show closing - "Good Night Old Shoe." When Bill Mayhew took over for him at vactaion time, he ended the show with "Good Night Old Sock." Near the end of his life I became a friend of Laurindo Almeida, the great Brazilian guitarist. We talked about Willis and Laurindo called him the "Father of Bossa Nova" in the US. I fondly remember both of them. This will be my Summer reading. Thancks!

Posted by: Jim Planck | August 3, 2007 10:59 AM


What a dreadful-sounding list of snoozers you recommended. Do you really think people want to read about middle school education or sports announcers while on vacation? Sheesh, give me an Elmore Leonard novel anytime.

Posted by: Steve | August 3, 2007 11:02 AM

Right with you, Steve! I'm always excited to check out what others are reading to get new ideas, but there wasn't one on that list that sounded even remotely interesting to me. Snoozers indeed!

Posted by: ZZZzzzzz..... | August 3, 2007 11:08 AM

Someone at my office just gave me a novel by Stephen Kimball called Death Duty about a young female foreign service officer who gets wrapped up in a conspiracy inside the State Department. Sounded cool, so that's what I'm taking to Dewey tonight.

See you there!


Posted by: Devon | August 3, 2007 11:13 AM

Thanks, Chesapeake Beach. I'll look for the Martha Ballard book. I also finished a series of Fiona Fitzgerald stories written by Warren Adler (found them on These are police detective stories set in Washington, DC, so a lot of local sites are named. If you can deal with the editorial and proofreading errors, they're quite interesting stories.

Posted by: Commuter | August 3, 2007 11:25 AM

As far as the NCLB bashing book-no thanks. Why not read about the failures of public education in all the decades pre-NCLB when schools were able to bury all the bad statistics? I much prefer the transpareny of the post NCLB world.-

If you want to read something inspiring-read Banker To The Poor by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus-great story about a little idea mushrooming into a program that helps millions of impoverished people.

Sometimes one person can make a difference.

Posted by: takebackourschools | August 3, 2007 11:54 AM


You'd love Amity Schlaes' new history of the great depression, The Forgotten Man.

Posted by: Kalorama Kat | August 3, 2007 11:59 AM

Jim Planck,

Are you sure it was Willis Conover on WMAL? I distinctly remember Felix Grant as being the one who always closed each night's jazz show with, "So long, Old Shoe."

And I recall Felix Grant as being credited for introducing Bossa Nova music to the US.

Whoever it was, it's too bad that jazz programmers like those two are mostly gone from the air.

Posted by: Mister Methane | August 3, 2007 12:32 PM

For thrillers, I recommend the James W. Hall series with Thorn as the main character (Tropical Freeze, Bones of Coral, Mean High Tide, etc.) - they all take place in the Keys so perfect for summer. There's also quite a few of them so if you get hooked like I did you'll be busy for a while. His books "Body Language" and "Rough Draft" make for some good serial killer thrillers too - his bad guys are always deliciously creepy.

That stuff Mark recommended is about as fun as unbuttered toast.

Posted by: Rosslyn | August 3, 2007 1:09 PM

Anyone who loves DC, history and Politics must read Manhunt by James Swanson. Better than fiction.The book follows the 12 days after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth.

Posted by: YOU MUST READ | August 3, 2007 2:50 PM

Anyone who loves DC, history and Politics must read Manhunt by James Swanson. Better than fiction.The book follows the 12 days after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth.

Posted by: YOU MUST READ | August 3, 2007 2:50 PM

You Must Read: I did read 'Manhunt' about a year ago. Fascinating. Also along the same line is 'American Brutus' by Michael Kauffman. It includes a psychological profile of Booth as well as a minute-by-minute account of Booth and Herrold's escape after the Lincoln assassination. Both are must-reads for Lincoln history buffs. If you can swing it, take the Booth Escape Tour offered through the Surratt House historical society. It's a full day event but well worth it.

Posted by: Commuter | August 3, 2007 3:00 PM

A Miracle of Catfish, by the late Larry Brown. You'll never forget it, unlike the other books Mark listed.

Posted by: mike | August 3, 2007 3:45 PM

I have favorites. If I want to laugh out loud, I'll read Chris Buckley. Right now, I'm reading the novels of (now-Sen.) Jim Webb. They are excellent and way above all the techno-military thrillers out there.

But in the end, read whatever you want. It IS a free country. Enjoy it!

Posted by: Andrew | August 3, 2007 4:38 PM

Andrew: For laugh out loud books, read any of Bill Bryson's books. A couple favorites: The Lost Continent, From a Sunburned Country, A Walk in the Woods, and Notes from a Small Island (or something like that -- about his train trip around England).

Posted by: Anonymous | August 3, 2007 4:53 PM

Interesting ideas re thrillers -- this summer, I've been rereading Eric Ambler (just finished Journey into Fear). His late 1930s books practically announced "a scary time is upon us" before World War II actually began. He always gives us a leading character (not exactly a hero) who's as ordinary and oblivious as we are, then finds himself in deep, dark waters. In fact, I can imagine an Eric Ambler leading man right now, idly choosing his books for a planned summer at the beach, little realizing that...

Posted by: Classic Thrillers | August 3, 2007 6:54 PM

I just thought of two "must reads" -- good thick action-and-character-packed novels with a totally modern perspective. Try "The Kite Runner" from a few years ago (coming of age in modern Afghanistan with Soviets, mujaheddin, etc. as background to the story) and the author's latest, which I also really enjoyed even though it's quite different -- I think that one is A Thousand Splendid Suns. They are such page turners that if you ask me, we have found our generation's version of Charles Dickens.

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