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Dave Wood's Book Report, Oct. 29, 2008

There's an old saying that goes "The reason most academic debates are so prevalent and so acrimonious is that there is so little at stake."

After spending 20 years in the groves of academe I've always subscribed to that saying, but now I'm not so certain.

That's because I just finished reading "Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency," by W. Barksdale Maynard (Yale University Press, $30). Maynard, a prof at Princeton, describes Wilson's experience at the Ivy League school, as a student, as a faculty member, and, finally, as its controversial president.

After finishing the book, Wilson's role as president of the U.S. is much clearer to me than ever before. I've read several books about Wilson, even saw the epic movie, "Wilson," starring Alexander Knox, who did a great job playing the stiff-necked Calvinist from Virginia.

Unfortunately the books and the movie told the same old story, over and over, about how Wilson, the idealist, had a vision, The League of Nations, which a bunch of evil Republicans like Henry Cabot Lodge I torpedoes, sending Wilson to the hospital and a League-free U.S.

Barksdale paints a somewhat different picture. The acrimonious debates began at Princeton, when Wilson tried to democratize the elitist eating clubs creating a furor among the faculty, the students, the school's benefactors. Wilson turns out to be a stubborn, ascetic, holier than thou, preacher's kid who refused any kind of compromise.

He was eventually sent packing from Princeton and elected president of the U.S., where he demonstrated the same kind of intractability he had at his alma mater. This is a beautifully researched book, which ends before the U.S. presidency. We learn lots about Wilson, we learn that voters might not have been so enthusiastic if they had examined his performance at Princeton and we learn lots about the school, which in the old days was much smaller than Yale or Harvard and not as well endowed. We learn of flamboyant professors like Henry van Dyke (he wrote the great hymn "Joyful, Joyful, we adore thee") and about the fat cat graduates who didn't like their school being tampered with.

In "The Darker Side," by Cody McFadyen (Bantam, $24) FBI special agent Smoky Barrett ("The Face of Death") reappears at the behest of a Washington Bigwig, who has lost a child to a serial murderer. Barrett brings in her special Los Angeles staff to investigate the case.

"Distant Fires," by Scott Anderson, Illustrations by Les Kouba has just been reprinted by the University of Minnesota Press ($15.95 paper). It first appeared in 1990, published by Pfeifer-Hamilton in Duluth and won an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults.

It's difficult not to like this story, even if you're not a canoeist. Scott Anderson and friend Steve Baker leave their homes in Duluth and take a 1,700 mile canoe trip, following the waterways Eric Sevareid and his friend Walter Port paddled back in 1930, which also turned into a book by Sevareid, "Canoeing with the Cree."

Sevareid lived long enough to read Anderson's book and say nice things about it: "Some of Anderson's phrasing is very happy indeed: 'The resting place of the rivers.' I wish I had written that."

That's high praise from a no-nonsense writer and commentator like Sevareid.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Call him at 715.426.9554.