Five Books That Tell More About Washington Than an Unsuspecting Reader Might Think

Rather than grouse about how Washington has never produced a classic tome that truly nails the city the way Tom Wolfe did New York or Dashiell Hammett did San Francisco, I set my mind on making up a list of books that reveal corners of Washington we otherwise might never stumble into. I don't mean books simply set in the District. Anyone can come up with those: George Pelecanos's excellent white-knuckle thrillers; Edward P. Jones's superb human stories; the minx-lit of Jessica Cutler or Ana Marie Cox. What I'm proposing here is a little trickier: a book that shines light on a D.C. you didn't imagine was there.

I started by thinking of those tobacco and firearm lobbyists who show up in Christopher Buckley's Thank You For Smoking. And then . . . I got lazy and decided to call Buckley himself. In true K-Street fashion, I promised I'd make him Numero Uno on my list if he would do the bulk of my work for me (i.e., come up with the other four). Here's the dirty little result. Feel free to pile on the pork!


1. Thank You For Smoking, by Christopher Buckley.
Have you ever -- I mean have you ever -- read anything more dead-on about what the business in this capital of the free world really is?

2. Advise and Consent, by Allen Drury.
Look out for the brand-name residential hotels where the key senators live!

3. Seven Days in May, by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II.
Note how easy it was to get around Washington in those days and how little Secret Service protection the president had. Not to mention how easy it was to mount a military coup against the U.S. goverment!

4. The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam.
Track JFK as he all but walks around Georgetown during his transition, banging on doors of the Establishmentarians, inviting them to serve in his cabinet. (Not that it took a lot of arm-twisting.)

5. Any White House memoir.
They all have two themes: 1.) It wasn't my fault! and 2.) It would have been so much worse if I hadn't been there. Now that really tells you something about this town.

-- Marie Arana

By Christian Pelusi |  May 15, 2008; 6:37 AM ET Marie Arana
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This doesn't really fit the theme, but I read "Carnivore Diet" by Julia Slavin solely based on Jonathan Yardley's book review, and it is (among other things) an absolutely dead-on satire of upper NW/Chevy Chase people and their quirks and foibles. That book is so awesome.

Posted by: Lindemann | May 15, 2008 12:56 PM

I love Christopher Buckley! He is my favorite writer these days. I would also offer up his books "Little Green Men" and "No Way to Treat a First Lady".

The latter may just remind you of a certain power couple very much in the news these days!

Posted by: CJB | May 15, 2008 1:58 PM

This may seem an obvious choice, but what about "All the President's Men"?

I think the book's pace and rhythm really reflects life in D.C. and that of a major newspaper. It's also an apt illustration of how when you start pulling at one little thread, the whole sweater unravels.

Posted by: Sappho | May 15, 2008 4:20 PM

Great suggestions. Thank you!

A few other revealing D.C. novels:

Tom Mallon's "Fellow Travelers," which depicts Washington D.C. during the anti-gay purges of the Joe McCarthy era.

Marita Golden's "Long Distance Life," tells of a sharecropper's daughter, who comes to D.C. in the 1920s.

Andrew Holleran's "Grief," in which the narrator of the novel arrives in D.C. to teach a course on literature and AIDS . . .

But here's a question: Of all the Washington memoirs, which tells you the most about how we live right now in the nation's capital?

Posted by: Marie Arana | May 15, 2008 6:11 PM

Of all Washington memoirs, I choose Katharine Graham's "Personal History."
Mainly for what it tells about labor relations. Who would have thunk that you'd learn something like that from a DC memoir?
That's telling you more than an
unsuspecting reader might think.
The book is an education.

Posted by: Dave | May 15, 2008 10:56 PM

This isn't about current Washington, but what about "Echo House" by Ward Just? (He used to write for the Post.) It's about a political family living in D.C. from the 1940s onward.

Posted by: Sappho | May 16, 2008 11:54 AM

CJB's comment, above, is clearly the most incisive and accurate. But the other make excellent points. And what a fun topic Senora Arana has come up with.

I wonder how many readers are aware that she is a countess in her native Peru--descended from Pizarro himself. She is much to shy to mention this. I suspect it was a large factor in Jonathan Yardley's courtship of her. He has always been unable to resist nobility. But who, really, could resist Marie?

Posted by: Christopher Buckley | May 16, 2008 12:00 PM

Buckley is right, of course. The residence that Marie and i own in Lima is known popularly as Casa Pizarro

Posted by: Jonathan Yardley | May 16, 2008 12:23 PM

Like a true Washington document, this little string appears to have acquired its share of pork!

Posted by: Marie Arana | May 16, 2008 12:35 PM

Ha ha!Pork indeed!
Pizarro's dad was a pig farmer, after all.

Posted by: gw | May 16, 2008 12:57 PM

So, when trying to "reveal corners of Washington we otherwise might never stumble into," you chose books about lobbyists, Congresspeople, and the White House?

Um. This is like the tourist trap selection of books about DC.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 16, 2008 5:12 PM

hey, last poster, where's your sense of humor?
i wish i could drum up a book in which i stumbled into curious facts about d.c., but the one in which i slammed up against them was gore vidal's "washington d.c."
pretty amazing

Posted by: maud | May 16, 2008 6:48 PM

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