Verity Goes to Washington

Verity Goes to Washington: the Pre-trip reading list!

Well in some exciting news, this author is going international for a couple of months.  I’m off to Washington DC for my proper job – and so I’ve been reading a lot of books about American culture and politics (as observant readers of the Week in Books may have noticed).  While I’m making my way across the Atlantic, here are my mini reviews…

Copies of some of the books on this list.

Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge

A heartbreaking, gutwrenching look at the toll that gun violence takes on every day Americans by telling the stories of all the young people shot dead on one single normal day in America.  The different stories here illustrate the stories behind the statistics and the toll each death takes on the people around the victim.  From a young boy shot dead as he answered his front door to a teen who’d got into gangs, this book puts a human face on the statistics and shows you the way that each shooting affects the people and communities the victim belonged to.

Who thought this was a good idea by Alyssa Mastromonaco

Less a politics book, more a look behind the scenes at the White House where Mastromonaco extrapolates some lessons that other young women can take from her experiences of being a young woman in a senior position in one of the most pressurised and powerful places in the world.

Yes We Still Can by Dan Pfeiffer

Dan Pfeiffer worked in the Obama White House and this is part memoir, part analysis of why the Democrats lost the 2016 presidential election and part plan for what he thinks the party needs to do next.  If you’ve listened to Pod Save America, you’ll have heard a lot of his ideas before, but the more structured format along with the indepth analysis and Obama White House stories do make it stand apart from his podcasting.

We Were Eight Years In Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I’d already read some of the essays in here – and have read Coates’ previous book too so there was a bit of cross over, but I found his introductions to each essay, where he reflects on the context of the piece at the time and what he knows now really, really interesting.

If Only They Didn’t Speak English by Jon Sopel

Having followed the campaign closely  – and heard Sopel speak in person – I’m not sure I learned a huge amount of new material here, but it is incredibly readable because Sopel writes like he talks.  If you didn’t follow the 2016 campaign and want a primer, this would work brilliantly.

Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff

The first of the Trump tell all books.  This is a slightly cheaty inclusion because I actually read this right after it came out and was open mouthed at the claims Wolff made – and the access that he managed to get.  The speed of the news cycle of the Trump White House means that this already feels like a long time ago – and it’s recently been supplanted by Bob Woodward and Omarosa Manigault Newman’s books – but as a book that caused a splash this is noteworthy even if we’ll only be able to work out in about a decade how accurate it actually is.

Together We Rise by the Women’s March Organisers

This arrived in a box of books that I won as a prize at a completely fortuitous time.  This is a glossy coffee table book that looks behind the scenes of the Women’s March that took place the day after Donald Trump’s inauguaration.  It’s more anecdotal and less academic than a lot of the other books on this list, but it gives a good sense of the emotions behind the massive march and an insight into the people who organised it.

Fantasyland by Kurt Anderson

The subtitle of this one is “How America Went Haywire: a 500 year history” and Anderson is basically setting out his theory that the current fake-news post truth era can be traced back to the very first settlers who crossed the Atlantic.  I can see some of his points but I thought this was a very european-centric view of American history and culture and didn’t always think the argument was always tremendously well backed up.

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance

A look at life as a working class American in Applalachia using the author’s own life story.  This won a whole bunch of prizes when it came out and I can understand why.  A lot of time has been spent on trying to work out what’s going on/wrong with poor white Americans – and this is one possible explanation for why Donald Trump’s brand of grievance politics has appealed to them so much.

Negroland by Margo Jefferson

A beautifully written examination of what it was like to grow up in Chicago’s black elite in the 1950s. To have some privilege but still to be other. To be an outsider in the white community and some of the black community. Thought provoking and fascinating.

My masterplan is to buy Bob Woodward’s Fear to read on the plane – I’m hoping the airport bookshop will have it in one of those airport paperback specials.

The great unknown here is of course what will happen to my reading life while I’m in Washington.  I fully intend to do as much sightseeing as I possibly can and will almost certainly have a much shorter commute than I do at home.  This may all mean that I’m reading less books – but I’m sure that you’ll all forgive me.

If you want to follow my adventures in the US the best place is probably going to be my Instagram account where I’ll be posting pictures of some of the places that I visit.  If you have suggestions for things I should do while I’m in Washington DC – please leave them in the comments!

Happy Reading!

American imports, books

Inauguration Reading?

As you may have noticed (I think it’s hard to have missed it) Donald Trump is about to be sworn in as President of the United States.  It always seems strange to me that it takes America so long to swap over after elections, but here we are, today is Inauguration Day.  And being a news person, that means this week I’m thinking politics and books about politics.  Regular readers will know that I’ve been reading Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife for sometime – it’s been my bedside book, although this week it’s had an upgrade – and I’m also reading First Women which I got for Christmas.  All of which means my reading this week has been fairly American politics heavy.  I’m at work getting ready to watch The Donald take charge (oh the joys of scheduled posting), but if you’re not watching – or if you’ve watched and want more politics, here are some reading suggestions for you.

First Women and American Wife
My current politics-themed reading choices

Primary Colors By Anon (Joe Klein)

Primary Colors tells the story of Jack Stanton, a southern governor making a presidential run.  One of the blurbs coyly says that some characters and events ressemble real-life figures – but it doesn’t take much knowledge to work out that the people in question are the Clintons and that this is a fictionalised version of Bill’s presidential campaign.  I read this on holiday last year, and although it’s incredibly readable, I really hope that the machinations in this are an exaggeration.  If half of them go on in real life, it’s a worry.  Worth reading if you haven’t already – you’ll probably end up down a Wikipedia hole as you try and work out which bits are true(r) and which are made up.

John F Kennedy: An Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek

This is a proper weighty tome.  It covers all of JFK’s life – but not much of the fallout (and conspiracies) after his assassination.  I came away with a much better understanding of what he stood for and what his background.  It’s not salacious – although the other women do get mentioned – but you do get a lot of detail about his family background and his medical history and how all of this influenced him.  I came away with a strong dislike of his family and strongly mixed feelings about him, but it’s definitely worth it.

The Importance of Being Kennedy by Laurie Graham

If you want a Kennedy fix, but don’t want a biography, (or if you’ve read the biography and still want more) try this.  Nora Brennan is newly arrived from Ireland when she gets a job as a nursery maid to a family in Brookline.  She ends up on the inside of American history as she looks after the Kennedy children and sees their parents try to build an empire.  It takes you through Joe’s time as Ambassador in the UK and WW2 and beyond.  Warning: you may not like many of them (detect a theme here with the Kennedys?) but it’s worth it for the wit and warmth.  The history is spot on as well which is what Laurie Graham does so well – if you like this, search out my favourite of hers Gone with the Windsors.

Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman

Slightly left field this I’ll admit – because it’s not about American politics but an English aristocrat in the Eighteenth century.  But Georgiana (pronounced George-ay-na in this case not George-ee-ana like Pride and Prejudice) was a political activist as well as a famed beauty and the queen of fashionable society, and this biography deals with that as well as with her (very) complicated love life.  She’s another person who I didn’t like very much, but I was fascinated by her story.  A film of the book was made a few years back featuring Keira Knightley which I keep meaning to get around to watching.

The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Sick of modern politics?  Need a reminder of how bad things used to be?  Read this. Turns out Imperial Russia was even worse that I thought – and I’m only just at the latter stages of the war against Napoleon.  So far there’s been patricide, filicide, plain old homicide, usurpers, wifes sent to convents, imprisoned deposed rulers and so many horrible murders and inventive torture methods.  So many. So gruesome.  Some involved spikes.  I’m listening to the audiobook and I can confirm that I run faster when listening to tales of horrible doings – probably because I don’t want any of them catching up with me!

What’s next on my list?  Well I have Paula Byrne’s book, Kick, about JFK’s sister sitting on the pile, so I might read that.  In all the Kennedy books I’ve read so far she’s probably come off as the nicest of them although she died young and had a bit of a tragicl life.  And as she married the eldest son of the Duke of Devonshire – so it sort of ties in nicely with Georgiana too!