Wilson by A. Scott Berg, Putnam '13, $40, 818 pages, ASIN #0399159215. Index, notes and sources, bibliography, three groupings of b&w images.
As much as any 20th century American president, Woodrow Wilson was a study in contradictions, writes celebrated biographer A. Scott Berg in his latest work. A British Parliamentarian wrote that he knew no historic personage "who so strangely attracts and repels" as Woodrow Wilson." Another Wilson acquaintance explained this conundrum by observing that "probably in the history of the whole world there has been no great man, of whom so much has been written, but of whom personally so little has been correctly known."
Another acquaintance, who first encountered Wilson as a college student, commented on "the personal paradox that was the man: 'Stern and impassive, yet emotional; calm and patient, yet quick-tempered and impulsive, forgetful of those who had served him, yet devoted to many who had rendered but minor service...precise and business-like, and yet, upon occasion, illogical without more reason than intuition itself.'"
Why should Wilson, about whom so much has been written, deserve an 818-page biography now? The occasion seems to be the centennial of Wilson's inauguration as President. His latest biographer has already written four celebrated biographies: Max Perkins: Editor of Genius; (Charles) Lindbergh, which won the Pulitzer Prize; (Samuel) Goldwyn; and Kate Remembered, a memoir of Katharine Hepburn. He lives in Los Angeles.
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking -- A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya Von Bremzen, Crown '13, $26, 338 pages, ASIN #0307886816. Selected sources, b&w images sprinkled through text.
"This is my 'poisoned madeleine' memoir," writes author Anya Von Bremsen in her Prologue. "It was my mother, my frequent co-conspirator in the kitchen and my conduit to our past, who suggested the means to convey this epic disjunction, this unruly collision of collectivist myths and personal antimyths.
"We would reconstruct every decade of Soviet history -- from the prequel 1910s to the postscript present day -- through the prism of food. Together, we'd embark on a yearlong journey unlike any other: eating and cooking our way through decade after decade of Soviet life, using her kitchen and dining room as a time machine and an incubator of memories.
"Memories of wartime rationing cards and grotesque shared kitchens in communal apartments. Of Lenin's bloody grain requisitioning and Stalin's table manners. Of Khrushchev's kitchen debates and Gorbachov's disastrous antialcohol policies. Of food as the focal point of our everyday lives, and -- despite all the deprivations and shortages -- of compulsive hospitality and poignant, improbable feasts."
Author Anya Von Bremsen has won three James Beard awards, has written five acclaimed cookbooks; and is a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure magazine. She has written for Food & Wine, Saveur, The New Yorker, Departures, and The Los Angeles Times. She divides her time between New York City and Istanbul.
The Dark Road -- A Novel by Ma Jian, Penguin '13, $26.95, 375 pages, ASIN #1594205027.
One of the most controversial social policies in the world was promulgated in 20th century China. It has nothing to do with the nation's headlong economic growth; instead, it is the state mandate that parents may be permitted to have only one child. In his latest novel, Chinese writer Ma Jian tallies the "human cost of China's one-child policy through the lens of a rural family on the run from its reach." The Dark Road recounts the story of one such family -- Meili, a young peasant woman; her husband, Kongzi, a village schoolteacher; and their daughter, Nannan.
The dust jacket offers a hint of a life brought about by a state policy that is controversial to say the least:
"Kongzi is, according to family myth, a direct lineal descendant of Confucius, and he is haunted by the imperative to carry on the family name by having a son. And so Meili becomes pregnant again without state permission, and when local family planning officials launch a new wave of crackdowns, the family makes the radical decision to leave the village and set out on a small, rickety houseboat down the Yangtze River. Their is a dark road, and tragedy awaits them, and horror, but also the fierce beauty born of courageous resistance to injustice and inhumanity....
"But The Dark Road is also a celebration of the life force, of the often comically stubborn resilience of the deepest folkways and most basic instincts in the face of the most corrosive of poisons."
Author Ma Jian, born in Quindao, China, in 1953, has worked as a watch mender's apprentice, a painter of propaganda boards, and a photojournalist. He has written a travel memoir, critically acclaimed novels and a collection of short stories. He lives in London with his partner and translator, Flora Drew.