Woodrow Wilson came to politics from the academy, and undoubtedly his university experiences prepared him for the political challenges of the presidency. As unlikely a president as he was, his success in pushing through a reform agenda surprised his critics and the Democratic Party bosses who thought they could control him. With his comprehensive Wilson (Putnam, $40), Pulitzer Prize- winning biographer A. Scott Berg relies on fresh anecdotes and historical nuggets to paint a thorough, engaging, and refined account of Wilson’s life as an academic and a politician. Berg focuses on the political genius of the first “modern” president, but also on blemishes that marred Wilson’s career, including his atrocious record on race and freedom of expression.
With the centennial of the start of World War I nearly upon us, historian Max Hastings offers a lively and opinionated answer to the haunting question of how the conflict began, then provides a richly detailed description of the first months of war, covering all fronts, from the fields of France to the mountains of Serbia to the plains of Russia. In Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War (Knopf, $35), Hastings disputes the idea that a series of mistakes caused the conflict, instead planting the blame squarely on Germany. He recounts how, from the beginning, all the powers suffered from a mismatch of ambition and fighting capability. And in depicting the results, he broadens the focus beyond generals and statesmen to include grunts, ambulance drivers, and the wives left behind.
In order to publish The Myth of Sisyphus in occupied France, Camus had to comply with Nazi censors and cut his chapter on Kafka. This is one of many startling details—Camus, after all, considered revolt “the first value of the human race”—in Sean B. Carroll’s fact-filled Brave Genius (Crown, $28), a study of resistance in wartime France and Cold War Europe. A self-described “lifelong World War II history buff,” Carroll is also a noted molecular biologist, as is one of the two heroes he profiles, Nobel laureate Jacques Monod. While Monod didn’t meet Camus until after the war, the two held similar beliefs and both struggled tirelessly against the Nazis. For both men, the resistance informed their later work and shaped their philosophies; resistance didn’t end when the Germans left France. Rather, it shifted from being a cause worth dying for to being a way of making life worth living and a world worth living in. Carroll elegantly intertwines questions of ultimate meaning with Camus’s idea of the absurd and Monod’s research in genetics that revealed life as a product of chance and necessity, not the design of a higher cosmic order.