This morning on NPR, I got to talk about the National Book Awards. The story details some of the changes to this year’s nomination process, but I was there to talk about the Awards’ history. I wrote about this a while ago for the New York Times Book Review. You can find that essay here.
In this Sunday’s Wall Street Journal I’ve got a long review of A. Scott Berg’s new biography Wilson. It’s also an essay on what exactly a biographer adds to any biography. Just four years ago, another excellent biography of Wilson appeared — John Milton Cooper Jr.’s Woodrow Wilson — and that means we’ve got an excellent test case for just how two different biographers create two different versions of Wilson.
Anyway, read the review for more. One of my main points is that Berg tries too hard to fashion Wilson as a president who feels distinctly modern. Don’t just take my word for it, though. Here’s Berg talking to to Los Angeles magazine: “As I was writing,” he said, “there were literally days I would say, ‘I’m going to forget the name is Wilson. I’ll pretend it is Obama. And I will write it as though it is Obama.'”
Berg’s an excellent biographer. (Last month, in a separate review, I praised his decades-old book on Max Perkins.) But this method strikes me as problematic, to say the least. Cooper is also an excellent biographer, and I think his book is a better fit for anyone new to Wilson. But Berg’s scrupulous research — he spent a decade on Wilson — has unearthed lots of new supplementary detail, and for experts it’s worth checking out, as well.
One last thing: not many people know that Sigmund Freud cowrote a biography of Wilson with William Bullitt. It’s called Thomas Woodrow Wilson: Twenty-eighth President of the United States, A Psychological Study, and it’s really, really awful. Freud’s estate worked very hard to separate Sigmund from it, and a lot of historians still seem dubious about his involvement. But in 2008 J. F. Campbell published a scholarly article based on his research in Bullitt’s papers. It turns out Freud more than earned his status as co-writer, and more scholars should check out Campbell’s work.
In yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle I’ve got a review of Boris Kachka’s Hothouse, a fun new book on the history of FSG. Kachka’s uncovered a ton of good anecdotes, including this one about improbable FSG author Tom Friedman: once, when Friedman called the office and found out his editor was unavailable, he started screaming at the poor assistant who’d answered the phone. “Do you know who I am?” he said. “I’m Tom fucking Friedman, and I pay your fucking salary.”
Speaking of which: have you read Matt Taibbi’s seminal review of Friedman’s The World Is Flat? If not, go read it right now — forget my review. Taibbi’s is way better.
In this weekend’s Boston Globe Ideas section, I’ve got a short interview with Michelle Ann Abate, the author of a new scholarly book on the history of homicide in children’s literature. If your only exposure to YA and children’s lit is hearing about the scandals involving The Hunger Games — and unfortunately that describes me pretty well — then you might be surprised that there even is a history of homicide in this genre. But Abate makes a convincing case, and in the interview she also talks about how the adult reactions to these violent books have shifted.
This week in the Boston Globe I’ve got a review of Mark Leibovich’s This Town. The book’s been reviewed everywhere, of course, but one of my favorite anecdotes hasn’t appeared in any of them. (To be fair, it didn’t appear in my review either.)
Anyway, Leibovich spends a few pages profiling the late Richard Holbrooke. Whenever the ambassador arrived somewhere, aides would whisper, “The ego has landed.” So it makes sense that, one day, Holbrooke decided to single-handedly heal the rift between Samantha Power and Hillary Clinton. Power, you may recall, called Hillary a “monster” during the 2008 primary, leaving everyone unfathomably angry for six or seven minutes. Later that same year, Power was getting married, and Holbrooke pulled her aside and offered her a truly special wedding gift: he would use his diplomatic skills to defuse the Power-Clinton contretemps.
A lot of reviewers (including me) have read This Town as the story of the Obama administration lapsing into the ways of Washington. But the president himself comes off pretty well in the book. When he hears about Holbrooke’s matrimonial grandstanding, Obama shakes his head. “Some people,” he tells Power, “just get toasters.”
In today’s Indianapolis Star, I’ve got a short op ed on the claim that health insurance will go up by 72 percent under Obamacare. I’ve got a personal stake in this story since I’m moving back to my homestate later this year. But after doing some digging I found that this 72 percent number is totally misleading — and disappointingly political. It comes from Indiana’s Department of Insurance, an outfit that, in the words of one of my statehouse sources, “has traditionally preferred to do its work out of the public and political spotlight, regardless of which party controlled the reins of government.”
But that’s changing as Governor Pence’s administration makes one final push against Obamacare. Check out the op ed for more.
In this week’s issue of NUVO, Indianapolis’s alt weekly, I’ve got a review of Ted McClelland’s new book on the rise and fall of manufacturing in the Midwest. It’s an important book, even though it’s not a perfect one.
If you want more on this topic, check out my review last year of Mark Binelli’s Detroit City is the Place to Be. It’s still the best of the Detroit books. But one of the key things about McClelland’s book is that it expands its scope beyond that one city.