In the introduction to A Certain Somewhere: Writers on the Places They Remember, edited by Robert Wilson (Random House, $24.95), Sudip Bose wonders if there isn't a risk involved in gathering so many writers' sketches of places they have lived in, visited or otherwise been powerfully attached to. "If the essayist successfully evokes a certain landmark, mythologizes it entirely," he writes, "is there a danger for the reader who has never before seen that landmark? In other words, can the reader's imagination, stimulated by a skillful prose rendering, devalue the actual physical place, even unintentionally?" The pieces themselves -- reprinted from Preservation magazine -- range from the confined locale (Thomas Mallon on the New York Public Library) to the expansive one (Stanley Abercrombie on Sonoma County, Calif.), from the historic corner (Maurice Isserman on Fort Ticonderoga) to the eternal metropolis (Edith Pearlman on Paris) and the gritty rust-belt steeltown (Book World's Michael Dirda on his childhood home of Lorain, Ohio). One of the book's many surprises is Anita Desai's explanation of why she, an Indian, feels so at home in Mexico: "Just as in India, one has a constant awareness in Mexico of history being a palimpsest, with layers and layers of time accreting to form the present, each contributing to what life is now. This is in great contrast with the civilizations of the north, where what you see on the surface is what there is beneath."
-- Dennis Drabelle
Just how much was George W. Bush transformed by the transforming events of Sept. 11? That's the question at the heart of Bill Sammon's Fighting Back: The War on Terrorism -- From Inside the Bush White House (Regnery, $27.95), and the answer he offers is: not much. Newspaper and television coverage, often critical and lampooning in Bush's early months in office, might have portrayed a bumbling, out-of-his-element chief executive suddenly grown larger, more confident and more "leaderly" in the hours and days after the planes hit the Twin Towers, but that was more a function of the media's own prejudices than the truth about Bush's character, charges Sammon, White House correspondent for the Washington Times. The Bush the country has grown to admire was always there, he says in this paean to the commander-in-chief that draws on his own recollections as well as interviews with members of the Bush administration and W. himself to recreate the historic events of 2001 as viewed from the inner circles -- both political and journalistic -- of Washington.
And the view from those circles is nothing if not exciting. In Sammon's account, Bush took charge commandingly after news of the Trade Center attack was relayed to him. On Air Force One as it sat on the ground in Florida, where Bush was to have delivered an education speech, the president turned to the advisers traveling with him and made it clear he "needed men of action. 'That's what we're paid for, boys,' Bush said. 'We're gonna take care of this. When we find out who did this, they're not gonna like me as president. Somebody's going to pay." Sammon's chronicle moves along at a fast, page-turning clip as he takes us from Bush's awakening on the morning of Sept. 11 (in the same bed at a Florida resort, coincidentally, in which Al Gore had once slept) through the launching of the war on terrorism and the Afghan campaign. Sammon's dewy-eyed perspective can be cloying, and his habit of putting himself inside Bush's mind even more so, but reading this book is a bit of a revelation -- it makes it clear what an amazing time we've all just lived through.
-- Zofia Smardz