The War to Stay Out of the War Against War

WAR AGAINST WAR The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918 By Michael Kazin Illustrated. 378 pp. Simon & Schuster. “Yet it was our lives that were at stake, and we had been taught even as children that God himself created them and set us humans above all his other creatures,” Alfred Döblin has one German veteran of World War I tell another in his novel about postwar Berlin, “A People Betrayed.” “And here we were flinging them aside, our lives, as though they were dead logs, as though we had never learned anything.” The Americans who struggled mightily to prevent their Read More

The Underground Story

    GATEWAY TO FREEDOM The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad by Eric Foner Illustrated W. W. Norton & Company 301 pages   “I dreaded the approach of summer, when snakes and slaveholders made their appearance,” wrote Harriet Jacobs, author, educator, servant, mother of two — and escaped slave. Jacobs had fled from Edenton, N.C., to get away from the attentions of the father of a little girl who “owned” her. These had persisted even after she had two children by another white man (and a member of Congress), so she “hid in a small crawl space above her Read More

I Read You Loud and Clear

I love book clubs. I love reading for them, I love talking to them, and if I had my choice I’d probably do nothing but visit them to promote my books. Where else do you find people who have already made a commitment to read your book, and to read it closely enough to discuss it in a knowledgeable fashion with their friends? The best insights I’ve ever been offered about my work have come from book club members. In a world full of readings attended by the inevitable, random 5-to-10 bookstore browsers and 20-year-old assistant night managers who consistently Read More

In Full Swing

  ONE SUMMER:  America, 1927 Bill Bryson Illustrated Doubleday 509 pages Sometimes, one magnificent season can define an era. At least, that’s the view in trade publishing of late, where “year” books have become something of a mania: “19__: The Year Our World Changed/Began/Ended/Learned to Love the Macarena.” But it’s not hard to argue that the apogee of the wild ride America took in the 1920s came in the summer of 1927. It was the summer—if one allows “summer” to occasionally include parts of both spring and fall—that Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, much of the country was engulfed Read More

Professor In Chief

WILSON By A. Scott Berg Illustrated G. P. Putnam’s Sons 818 pages No American president was more improbable than Thomas Woodrow Wilson. None better embodied how we like to think of ourselves in the greater world. A Princeton University president and political economy professor given to making high-minded speeches and advocating a parliamentary system, Wilson held no public office until he was 54 years old. Recruited to run for governor of New Jersey in 1910 by a Democratic machine boss who thought he would be easily controlled, the prof schooled the pro in practical politics, passing a reform agenda that Read More

Adventures Underground

  RAGE IS BACK By Adam Mansbach Viking 290 pages   When I first came to live in New York, in 1976, I was enthralled by the graffiti in the subways. It seemed a language from some secret world beneath the city, letters that were barely letters, shaped by hands you never saw: a call to resistance, maybe, notes from the underground. Looking at pictures of it now — particularly the graffiti scrawled inside the cars — I admit it’s hard not to see it as many of my fellow New Yorkers did then, as signs of a city out Read More

Foiled Again

  ENEMIES A History of the FBI By Tim Weiner Illustrated Random House 537 pages   On Dec. 31, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows for the indefinite military detention, without trial, of any American citizen “who was a part of or substantially supported Al Qaeda, the Taliban or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.” This act effectively abrogates the Bill of Rights and removes one of the cornerstones of Western liberty. But not to worry. In a signing statement, Obama pledged that he would not authorize Read More

Coffin Ships

  The Law of Dreams By Peter Behrens Steerforth Press 408 pages   The Irish potato famine of the 1840s is one of those catastrophes that have lost much of their sting. Despite increased official recognition of the famine, thanks to the mundane nature of the tuber involved it’s still a punch line for many people, usually delivered in a mock brogue on St. Paddy’s Day: “Ah, the po-ta-to famine!” But this enormous human tragedy left more than one and a half million Irish men, women and children dead from starvation and starvation-related diseases, many of them dying along the Read More

The Doctors Who Killed a President

  DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President By Candice Millard Illustrated Doubleday 339 pages   “Charlie said, ‘Hell, If I am guilty, Then God is as well.’ But God was acquitted And Charlie committed Until he should hang.” — Stephen Sondheim                                                                                      “The Ballad of Guiteau,” from Assassins If an obscure 19th-century Read More

Mr. Muckraker

    I HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE A Life of Lincoln Steffens By Peter Hartshorn Illustrated Counterpoint 517 pages   He knew everyone and he went ­everywhere. He was a confidant to presidents, a mentor to two of the most influential journalists in American history, a friend to industrialists, artists, ward heelers, Communists and bohemians. He claimed to have spent the rest of his life after college “unlearning” everything he had been taught. He saw through all pretenses, circumventions and lies — even the ones he told himself — until in the end he was hornswoggled by the biggest lie Read More