Gwen's Take: Toes in the Sand; Eyes on the Page

It's true that when I want a little getaway reading, I normally download or pack a nice piece of fiction. But this year, I couldn't resist doing a deep dive into three books about Washington. It helps that each is written by journalists I respect and, as important, like a great deal. Even better, the books expanded my mind.


It is true that when I want a little getaway reading, I normally download or pack a nice piece of fiction. But this year, I couldn't resist doing a deep dive into three really good books about Washington.

It helps that each is written by journalists I respect and, as important, like a great deal. Even better, the books expanded my mind. Each read took me into different corners of the world I spend a lot of time thinking about -- politics, politicians and the people who inhabit the nation's capital.

New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich's was the first one out of the gate. In "This Town," he exposes official Washington's least appealing traits -- self absorption, hypocrisy and conflicts of interest.

It's a snackable book, full of boldfaced names behaving (often) badly in a city where power is the currency instead of Wall Street cash or Hollywood celebrity. Occasionally, at fetes like the annual White House Correspondents dinner, all three collide, and the result is not pretty.

I rub elbows with enough of the people in the book to cringe when Leibovich lands a blow on someone I know, or to nod sagely when he exposes an often silly truth. But I also know Washington is like any other city where people worry about their parents, their kids, their pets and their heating bills. It's just that that is not nearly as much fun to read about.

Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post, writes the classic campaign book -- reacquainting us with the innards of an election year we thought we knew plenty about. I covered the thing from beginning to end, but only after reading "Collision 2012" did I finally get the Chris Christie frenzy, appreciate the sheer stubborn political natures of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich and grasp the myriad ways the "Obamanauts" beat the Romney forces to the punch on money, message and metadata.

Moving from Leibovich to Balz is like shifting from popcorn to granola. The deep dive into the 2012 campaign sticks with you longer, and delivers a heftier crunch.

But the weightiest tome of all is New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker's take on the George W. Bush presidency, due out this fall. In "Days of Fire," Peter tells the stories of an administration laid low by war and terrorism through the lens of the president's relationship with his powerful vice president.

There has been no shortage of memoirs and deconstructions of post-9/11 America, but this one peels back the onion on one of the most intriguing partnerships Washington has ever seen. Vice President Dick Cheney is indeed hard, inscrutable and tough as a bone. Bush is as we came to know him -- affable, emotional and possessed of rigid certitude.

That combination of political gifts, faults and mission shaped America for decades to come -- if only because it is much tougher to pull out of wars than to declare them.

If Mark's Washington insider story is popcorn, and Dan's tale of those scrambling to get to Washington is granola, Peter's deconstruction of the Bush years is a thick steak, full of the kind of context that will make it a permanent fixture on historians' bookshelves.

Taken together, these three books actually enriched my summer. But now I'm on the hunt for a little cotton candy. Recommendations welcome.

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