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Louis Begley tells the life of a WASP in "Schmidt Delivered"; a new life of Jefferson Davis by William J. Cooper Jr.

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The all-too-human WASP
The world of the American WASP is fading, but it still holds an interest for many of us who have watched this group's sense of entitlement and success in many professional fields. Writer Louis Auchincloss is famous for showing us these people in fiction. Louis Begley, also, can write of this world with equal skill and maybe a bit more subtlety. In "Schmidt Delivered" (Knopf $25), Begley takes as his protagonist the widower Albert Schmidt (Schmidie), a WASP lawyer who has retired from a large New York firm and who is living alone in a big house in the Hamptons. There are no exciting adventures, no deep plots to keep us turning the pages, but because the writer is so skillful, we care about this man, his loneliness, his sense of failure as a father and as a member of his firm. We know he is deeply prejudiced and cannot forgive his daughter for marrying a Jew, but we watch with interest as he, at least partially, works through this. He is what many might call a not very admirable man, but Begley shows us that what he is is human, and like most of us, flawed. A note: This is the second Schmidt book. The first, "About Schmidt," was published in 1996. It, too, is a good read, but to read the two in immediate sequence is a bit much of Schmidt. It might be more fun to read the first, wait a while and then read this new one. Or read this one without the first. It stands alone as a good novel. —Rozanne Epps The many sides of Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis was an enigmatic and contradictory figure in American history. Early in his life, he advocated a fervent patriotic conviction that the Union remain insoluble and undivided. Yet later he was prepared to accept disunity to the point of setting up a Confederate government so that Congress would never abridge the rights of states to maintain the unacceptable institution of slavery. "Jefferson Davis, American," by William J. Cooper Jr. (Knopf $35) is a biography with a scope that includes the complex political evolvement of Davis from his heroism during the Mexican War, his fiery rhetoric as a Mississippi senator, to president of the Confederacy, defiant at the prospect of the abolition of slavery. Jefferson Davis was born June 3, 1808, in Kentucky, the last child in a family of 10 children. Losing his father while in his teens, his older brother Joseph became a surrogate parent. Moving to Mississippi, Jefferson Davis was educated in private academies and completed his education at West Point, receiving an Army commission. He was a stickler for details and proper protocol, yet as the Civil War would later show, he was not consistent. He exercised favoritism in Confederate army appointments and was hesitant to criticize any high-ranking colleague. Distinguishing himself as lieutenant during the Mexican War, Davis was touted as a viable Democratic congressional representative from Mississippi, who would defend domestic security and the right of states to chart their own course. It is here that a glaring, attractive part of his personality dramatically asserted itself. Though the Davis families were plantation owners who treated their slaves with respect and dignity, it was Davis' unalterable belief that African-Americans were better suited to serve than to possess individual liberty and equality. It was to preserve slavery that Jefferson Davis helped to drive the wedge into the fragile union. This book is firm in its criticism of Davis, yet the author gives Jefferson Davis redemption by telling us that, toward the end of his life, Davis regretted the havoc that secession inflicted on the country. — Bruce Simon

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