Like thousands before him, Christopher Buckley came to Washington expecting to leave after a few years. More than 20 years later he remains, having moved from the practice of politics (he wrote speeches for Vice President George Bush during Ronald Reagan's first term) to his current niche as a humorist, novelist and magazine editor.
He is an ideal choice for a Washington tour guide, even if you're a Democrat. As he leads readers from monument to museum to historic site to cemetery, he can draw upon not only his adventures inside the government but also a tale or two from his father, author, columnist and talking head William F. Buckley Jr. (whose name he never drops in full).
Some of my favorite observations, in fact, allude to the historic lore that perhaps only a speechwriter, groping through national history for words and ideas, might gather.
For instance: As World War II was winding down, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower asked his aides for suggestions on the language to use in the cable announcing the end of the war. Once he'd made his way through all their proposals for grandiloquent pronouncements, he set the purple prose aside and wrote in pencil: "The mission of this Allied Force was fulfilled at 0241, local time, May 7th, 1945."
The greatest asset of this book, however, is Buckley's wit. He's very funny, and he clearly delights in slipping in surprises whenever the historical data threaten to become numbing.
"When I worked in the White House," he recalls, "I would sometimes go and watch official welcoming ceremonies for foreign heads of state on the South Lawn. In July or August, these occasions were just killers for the poor soldiers who had to stand there for two hours or more holding flags and carbines while the prime minister of Uruguay droned on about the historic synergy between our two great countries. Often they would faint, and the protocol was that they had to be left there on the ground until the ceremony was over. It was surreal. There'd be four or five soldiers lying there facedown on the White House lawn, with cannons firing the salute ... and the band playing the national anthem of Uruguay."
Sometimes the insider peeks and one-liners take a back seat to simple, striking observations.
In the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum ("the ultimate boy's bedroom"), Buckley looks over the scorched underside of the Apollo 11 capsule and reminds us that fewer than 70 years passed between the Wright Brothers' flight at Kitty Hawk and that capsule's round trip to the moon. (Writing months before the Columbia disaster, he also worries that the space program has lost its focus and drive and hasn't commanded public attention since the Challenger disaster in 1986.)
Buckley is also willing to throw stones, which is always something I appreciate in a tour guide.
Describing his distaste for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial on the mall, Buckley notes that, from a distance, "with his opaque bronze eyeglasses and upturned hat, he looks like James Joyce sitting on a toilet."
Bargain hunting in rural France
Forget Paris and its prices. In the countryside of France, this guidebook reminds us, bargains await. And frequently they wait in memorable old buildings.
This book offers up small and small-town lodgings in greater numbers than most guidebooks can, and most of its listed lodgings are less than $100 nightly.
Though its descriptions sometimes seem suspiciously uniform in their sunniness, the one lodging here I've stayed in recently is described precisely.
In any event, seeing is a good part of believing, and every inn's entry features one to three top-notch photos (full of rich fabrics, quirky antiques and aged beams) along with price ranges and contact information.
And those sunny descriptions can be charming, such as the aside in the account of Le Mas dou Pastre in the southeastern town of Eygalieres: "Cicadas have set up shop in a room named after them, and no one would dream of getting rid of them."
Capturing Ireland in black and white
In 80 gorgeous, stark, richly detailed black-and-white images, photographer Agnes Pataux documents the naturally dramatic western coast and islands of Ireland.
Having spent a rain-soaked, wind-raked day exploring the stony precinct of County Clare known as the Burren, I recognized that near-moonscape among the stark scenes, but I enjoyed it more than when I stood amid it all. This time I was dry.
And this time Pataux and her large-format camera had distilled a sprawling and harsh yet well-tramped landscape into flinty-sharp compositions.
The best shots in this coffee-table book, from the orderly stone "famine walls" that date to the mid-19th century to the sheer, wave-spattered cliffs, obliterate cliche and banish that other postcard Ireland of perfect castles and perfect green fields.
This is the Ireland of stone, peat and seafoam, gnarled wood and the occasional gnarled face.
The shadowy indoor portraits of some of those gnarled faces at the book's end, however, are among the least successful in the book; several are just too murky.
But forget them. This book is really about the stone, the seafoam and the peat.
Christopher Reynolds' books column runs twice a month.