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Thursday, September 12,2013

Notes from Neil

by Neil Rajala

Summer offered one last bit of 90-degree flirtation this week before she stepped aside for the arrival of her cooler sister, Autumn. I'll be spending a little more time this week on a single title. I found it to be not only a great read, but a significant book of American history. Here's what we're reading:

Wilson - A. Scott Berg.
As I'm the product of a pretty typical public school system, I experienced the same glancing blow approach to the study of American history as everybody else. The half-defined and vague image I'd always had of President Woodrow Wilson was that of a slender man who favored top hats and happened to be in office when World War One broke out. There was also a dim memory of a second wife and some sort of illness while he was President, but after all these years, that was about it. Mr. Berg's new deeply researched and beautifully written biography of our 28th President reveals the man at the center of profound national and international upheaval and change.

There were a lot of firsts associated with Wilson's time in office - he was the first (and last) President to rise to the office from the world of academics, rather than politics. A generous part of the story is given to his rise to the presidency of Princeton, including the appearance of health issues that would play such a dramatic role later. The first President to speak to a crowd through a public address system, the first sitting President to travel overseas, and the first to mobilize our nation's military and industrial forces to fight a war far removed from our own shores.

Our entry into the war turned a four-year stalemate into an Allied victory. Wilson's arrival in Europe to negotiate the peace treaty led to a level of adulation from governments and their people such as the world has rarely, if ever, seen. That an opposition Senate, led by the towering personality of Henry Cabot Lodge, refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles upon his return was a devastating setback, and led directly to the stroke that incapacitated him for much of his second term.

Wilson the man is revealed as clearly as Wilson the President. A son of the South, he was profoundly religious, and yet his views on racism and segregation were typical for his background. He was deeply intellectual, well read, a brilliant public speaker and the author of several bestselling books on history and political thought. He was indifferent to the cause of women's suffrage until the newly-established female vote in the Western states carried him back into office for a second term (the 19th Amendment was passed during that term). Driven, complex and supremely confident, he was certain he could succeed in his role as President by speaking directly to the American people and, rather than talk down to them, raise the intellectual level of public debate to his own. That strategy proved repeatedly successful during his time in office. I kept thinking as I read that someone should try it now.

Rivers - Michael Farris Smith.
A truly fascinating concept for a story - What if Hurricane Katrina hadn't been an anomaly back in 2005? What if it had been the beginning of a significant global weather shift that didn't stop, and the Gulf coast was battered with one hurricane and thunderstorm after another for years?

That's the desolate world Mr. Smith creates for Rivers. The government has decided there's nothing more they can do to assist anyone who chooses to remain below The Line. To live within 90 miles of the coastline is to live at your own risk, outside the reach of the law or help. The author takes you on a trip through the nightmare to find those who made the choice to stay, and tells the story of a small band who still represent humanity and hope in a land given over to chaos. An exciting and deeply moving novel.

Big Appetites - Christopher Boffoli.
And the other side of the coin from the literary significance of Wilson is this book. Did the world really need Big Appetites? Probably not. Does it have artistic significance? Maybe a tiny bit. Is it fun to look through? Absolutely! It caught my eye passing through the store and I couldn't put it down. Mr. Boffoli takes tiny toy figures, furniture and props, photographs them with food and creates compelling and humorous landscapes. A tiny paleontologist examining animal crackers, cooked fettuccini as the inside of a carwash, a golf game on the cut side of a papaya using the little round seeds as golf balls. Surprising and funny - come to think of it, that's significant enough for me.

Thank you all once again for the excellent emails - the best part of writing this newsletter. What's the upcoming Fall title you're looking forward to the most? It's going to be a great season for readers.  

Until next week,
Neil 

NeilNeil Rajala is Currently Director of Community & Business Services for Schuler Books, Neil's decade with the company has included the wearing of many different hats - and lots and lots of reading.

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