Review: Faces of a nation

  • Article by: SUSAN AGER•SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE
  • Updated: January 10, 2010 - 10:12 AM

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Maraniss reflects on his family and dealing with grief. But the stars of this collection are profiles of titans of American politics and culture.

Into the Story, David Maraniss

Somewhere between the printing of the first galleys for this book and its publication between hard covers, somebody decided to change its title. Good thing. The old title, "The Sweet Long Days: A Writer's Journey," made it sound as if writing is a breeze for David Maraniss, or that he thrills to his topics so much that he hates to put down his pencil for bed. In fact, this journalist's wide-ranging collection features reflections on the deaths of his sister and his parents and the mental illness of an uncle. Not much sweet about those days except, perhaps, that he could later find the courage to describe them.

To my disappointment, however, they are among the weaker pieces in the book, failing to break any new ground in describing the mystery of family or the hauntings of grief. Far more insightful and surprising are his profiles of political and sports giants of our era: Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Al Gore, Muhammad Ali and Vince Lombardi among them.

Did you realize, for example, that Obama was born in Hawaii only two years after it was admitted to our union? Did you know that Obama's mother never learned to drive? Did you know that only about 20 people made it to her funeral? Maraniss may convince you that while it was his father about whom Obama wrote a book, it was his mother who was his guidepost.

You should also know that it was Maraniss who penned in a 1992 book what has become the common wisdom about Clinton: that his childhood in Hot Springs, Ark. -- not Hope -- turned him into a man with "a divided soul: part earnest preacher, part fast-talking gambler, with an urge to reform, yet also to accommodate."

The author's piece on Ali is touching. And his account of the famed Ice Bowl, when Lombardi's Green Bay Packers eked out a victory in 13-below-zero temperatures, is a classic.

Some of these pieces, from magazines or books, are crafted as precisely as a mosaic. But others were cobbled together on Washington Post deadlines so tight that Maraniss must have felt squeezed in a vise. His tick-tock accounts of 9/11 and the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech were each written in a day, remarkable achievements of sifting and sorting multiple players, moments, quotes, scenes and details.

These 32 pieces prove Maraniss' journalistic principles: Look for connections, use details to illuminate, and search for truth with "deep reporting" and common sense. There, he says, you will always find the story.

Susan Ager, a former columnist for the Detroit Free Press, is at susan@susanger.com.

  • INTO THE STORY

    By: David Maraniss.Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, $26.

    Review: These 32 pieces cover a lot of ground -- family, grief, politics, sports. Some were written at a leisurely pace, while others are fine examples of reporting and writing under intense deadline. All show the writer's core skills of deep reporting and detailed writing.

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