This collection--at once insightful, funny and sad--digs into the psyche of the nation's capital. Marjorie Williams knew Washington from top to bottom. Beloved for her sharp analysis, elegant prose and exceptional ability to intuit character, Williams wrote political profiles for the Washington Post and Vanity Fair that came to be considered the final word on the capital's most powerful figures. Her accounts of playing ping-pong with Richard Darman, of Barbara Bush's stepmother quaking with fear at the mere thought of angering the First Lady, and of Bill Clinton angrily telling Al Gore why he failed to win the presidency--to name just three treasures collected here--open a window on a human reality behind Washington's determinedly blank façade. During her last years, she wrote about her own mortality as she battled liver cancer, using this harrowing experience to illuminate larger points about the nature of power and the randomness of life.--From publisher description.
Also I'm a former Washingtonian and still a sporadic political junkie. Yet the only profile that has staying power is the one of Vernon Jordon and perhaps Jeb Bush (perhaps not; did she even interview him?).
Noah says that he decided not to include profiles of non-Washingtonians or non-powerbrokers, such as Anna Quindlen. I think that was a bad decision as was including "essays" that seem to have been op-eds in the Washington Post. All right, I'm lying. I couldn't plow through. Long-forgotten people and teapot tempests, Lewinsky-gate (she made assumptions and jumped to conclusions too fast--see Jeffrey Toobin's book), and then there is the mommy bloggerish stuff. Just too slight to preserve on the page, I guess. Even worse were scraps from Slate gigs.
I don't think she knew much about policy-making, the legislative process and so on, but she can note the characteristics of certain types of Washington figures. What's astute in the Vernon profile is how, like a novelist, she picks up on his physical gestures, his effect on people, clothing.
Why she isn't up to the Marc Singer (in Character Studies) standard of profiling? I read a profile of Donald Trump in that book! And enjoyed it. I don't want to think too much about this ... Singer doesn't do Washington that I know of ... and Washington has so much movement, people moving in and out, even though there is constancy too.
BUT I think she lacks the ability to lodge these people--Barbara Bush, the Clintons, Jordon--in their historical moment. In Barbara Bush's case, how did she fit in China (the diplomatic service), Houston, the D.C. social circuit, with younger generations of women. She comes across as a rather lone figure hanging onto her husband's coat-tails. Was BB even interviewed in this profile? I don't think so. That should have been reason enough for Noah to omit her.
Then the final bit is a long, long account of Williams' illness. Then this happened, then this, the doctor said, that doctor said. Ouch! I bet this was just a very rough draft and she would never have published it. It's been years since I read Anatole Broyard's memoir of his fatal disease (Intoxicated by My Illness?), but I still remember how many insights he pulled, how he was able to see outside himself.
In fact, the personal essays comprise the smaller part of this collection. Most pieces are in-depth political commentary or profiles of Washington, D.C. personalities. I'm not interested in that subject matter at all.
Also, this collection was compiled after Williams' death by her husband, and contains material that she apparently never intended to publish.
Despite both of those drawbacks, I have to give this book 5 stars. Williams was a gifted writer -- insightful, precise, and painfully honest. I enjoyed the personal essays immensely (particularly the piece about her complex relationship with her mother) and even found myself reading and enjoying the political essays.
I found it a little hard to get excited about this book when I started reading, and I don't know why. I skipped a story here and there, scanned some, and read some with relish. Soon I settled in and read. The book is divided into Profiles, Essays, and personal writings of the author's life and cancer. Once I reached essays and the personal section, I wanted to go back and read every word she wrote. The stories about famous people of DC are astonishing in details we never knew, and oh so humanizing. I was struck by how many intimate interviews, dinners, and gatherings Marjorie must have attended and by her intelligent observations. Her personal observations were no less beautiful and honest. The reader will learn tidbits about people like Barbara Bush that would never have been written about were it not for Marjorie. Unless the reader is part of the Washington DC scene or perhaps a journalist, he will learn about other characters that are virtually unknown outside DC.
The book won a Penn/Martha Albrand Nonfiction Award. It's for intelligent readers, not for readers who relish dime-a-dozen romance novels and the like. Mature readers will enjoy it more than very young readers because it has a level of sophistication and history about it that the average young reader won't appreciate. However, young readers interested in literary works, the political scene, and journalism may enjoy it. I love books that send me to the dictionary and this one did.
Marjorie's death is a great loss to all who read her columns and articles and to all who may discover her later through this book.
The second part of the book, her unfinished cancer memoir "Struck by Lightning", however, is brilliant. Living with cancer and raising small children just meant that you needed to eat more pancakes, she writes, and so she does, describing the details of her cancer treatments and life with her family. "The Halloween of my Dreams", the last thing she published, is a look-death-in-the-eye coming to terms that she will not live to see her children grow up. I confess I cried when I read it, and it is still something I occasionally take down and re-read today.