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The epitome of success for an intelligence agency is to place an informer within the highest echelons of the enemy’s organization. But what if that mole is then asked to do something that endangers lives? Does the agency sacrifice the spy and jeopardize their mission, or allow someone on their own side to die?

In the murky world of secret agents and their handlers, this ugly quandary known as “the spymaster’s dilemma” is at the heart of British author Henry Hemming’s enthralling Four Shots in the Night: A True Story of Spies, Murder, and Justice in Northern Ireland, an account of the real-life intelligence war between British authorities and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during Northern Ireland’s “troubles.” The 1968–1998 conflict led to the deaths of more than 3,500 people and created an atmosphere of constant fear and heartbreak.

Hemming follows an array of participants, but his focus is on three men: Frank Hegarty, Freddie Scappaticci and Martin McGuinness. Hegarty and Scappaticci were working-class Catholics with IRA connections who were recruited as informers by the British; McGuinness was a top IRA leader who ultimately morphed into a successful politician. Hegarty was killed by the IRA in 1986, and his murder led to what Hemming calls “kaleidoscopic fallout” in Britain that has lasted well into this century.

Hemming artfully unspools this complex tale with the skill of a suspense novelist, from Hegarty’s recruitment in 1980 by a fellow greyhound enthusiast, through the 2016 police investigation meant to bring closure to the case. Hemming’s greatest strength is his ability to take the reader inside the spies’ tradecraft: We learn how informants are persuaded (or coerced) into cooperation, how they meet with their handlers and exactly how they die when they’re betrayed. And like iconic espionage novelist John le Carré, Hemming shows us how internal bureaucratic rivalries can have lethal consequences.

Was Scappaticci the infamous British agent “Stakeknife” who was on the IRA’s hit squad? Was McGuinness a British asset? Who ordered Hegarty’s execution, and who did the deed? The main players are all dead now, and we’ll never know for sure. But Hemming allows us some informed guesses and forces us to face the inevitable moral tradeoffs of our shadow wars.

With the skill of a suspense novelist, Henry Hemming artfully unspools an enthralling investigation into espionage during Northern Ireland’s “troubles.”
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Winston Churchill’s close ties with the United States began with his mother, Jennie Jerome, who at age 20 married Lord Randolph Churchill. As an author and prominent public figure, Winston developed an extraordinary relationship with the United States, and a keen interest in the Civil War. Over the years he had two basic goals related to the U.S. First, he believed it was in Britain’s national interest for the two countries, with their shared purposes and similar concerns, to stay close. The second was personal. He lived extravagantly and was always looking for ways to expand his resources. His books were published and reviewed in the U.S. and he was paid well for his lectures and magazine and newspaper work. Like his mother, who had used her influence to advance his early career, he became a world-class networker himself as he met American leaders.

How this developed is the subject of Cita Stelzer’s fascinating Churchill’s American Network: Winston Churchill and the Forging of the Special Relationship. In Churchill’s age, the public got the news from newspapers and magazines. Stelzer’s research largely is sourced from “rich and relatively underutilized” local and national press reports of Churchill’s U.S. visits—ranging from where he went and with whom, to local responses at his public lectures, his humorous quips, what he ate for lunch and how he found his accommodations. Stelzer brings to life a cast of characters Churchill brought into his network, among them media giant William Randolph Hearst, actor and director Charlie Chaplin, journalist Edward R. Murrow, steel magnate Charles M. Schwab and socialite and suffragist Daisy Harriman.

While Stelzer does not claim Churchill single-handedly influenced Roosevelt’s decision to come to Britain’s aid during World War II, she makes clear that his relationships with American politicians and leading thinkers “were a helpful offset to the noninterventionist and isolationist, even pro-German background of public opinion.” Churchill’s network “reenforced the favorable view of Britain,” Stelzer writes, “and enlisted others in support of his view that the Anglo-American alliance . . . was key to a stable, prosperous, and peaceful world.”

Stelzer’s scholarship on Churchill has been highly praised: 2019’s Working With Winston explores the world of Churchill’s secretaries, and 2013’s Dinner With Churchill focuses on the prime minister’s dinner table diplomacy. Churchill’s American Network is another enlightening look at the statesman, one with an even broader scope.

Cita Stelzer’s enlightening Churchill’s American Network explores the statesman’s nexus of influencers in a country he loved.

Comedy and classicism might seem an unusual pairing, but Natalie Haynes has parlayed her two areas of expertise into a career as a bestselling author of fiction and nonfiction, respected scholar and journalist, and popular podcaster (the BBC’s “Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics”).

Her new book, Divine Might: Goddesses in Greek Myth, is a fascinating follow-up to last year’s history of mythological women, Pandora’s Jar. Here, she revisits Greek mythology with an eye to interrogating and reconsidering the stories we’ve long been told—and the roles to which goddesses have been relegated—from a feminist perspective.

Haynes’ passion for her subject is evident whether she’s conveying the results of rigorous research into the works of Homer, Ovid, Sophocles and Aeschylus; explaining how modern pop culture reflects common interpretations of Greek mythology; or describing in vivid detail her experiences of wondrous works of art both ancient and modern (poems, plays, sculptures, paintings, films, music videos and more).

Divine Might begins with the Muses and ends with the Furies; in between are chapters about Hera, Aphrodite, Artemis, Demeter, Hestia and Athena. All have been underestimated, whether in terms of their strength and wisdom, or their vengefulness and anger. As Haynes notes, “We like to be able to separate heroes, villains and victims. It’s convenient for a simple narrative, but it isn’t always reflective of the truth.”

For example, Hestia is not as well known as her counterparts, but as goddess of the hearth she “must have been constantly referred to in daily life, even if not in grand mythological narratives.” And while Artemis is portrayed as “a woodland goddess, riding through mountainous forests with her entourage of wild creatures” we mustn’t forget she revels in “absolute lawlessness, her insistence that everyone subscribes to her view of the world or pays the price.”

With intellectual rigor and contagious enthusiasm, Haynes urges readers to take a second look at contemporary art and society with a new, enlightened appreciation for these mythical women. After all, she writes, “When women make art like men do, their goddesses look divine.”

With intellectual rigor and contagious enthusiasm, Natalie Haynes urges readers to take a more enlightened look at Greek goddesses.

In Divine Might: Goddesses in Greek Myth, Natalie Haynes shoves aside the male-centric lens through which we’ve long viewed goddesses like Aphrodite, Demeter and Artemis, whether in history, literature, art or music. She steps into that breach armed with a sharpened gaze and copious research as she reveals to readers how these otherworldly women have been misrepresented and misunderstood in the past, and explores the ways in which they inspire and inform us in the present. BookPage asked the acclaimed author/scholar/comedian/broadcaster about her fascinating career and what she thinks we can all learn from the undersung women of the ancient world.

In last year’s Pandora’s Jar, you brought the likes of Medusa and Jocasta to the forefront. And now in this book, you turn to the goddesses in all their power and glory. What drives you to interrogate and explore how women were portrayed in myth and in art?

I can’t imagine not being interested in the portrayal of women: We’re half the world! And since almost all literature and art that survives to us from the ancient world is by men, it provides a fascinating canvas to explore. How did men imagine women, and how did they imagine powerful women, when they knew no such people in real life? What kind of goddesses would these men worship? I really wanted to explore the goddesses, the temples built to them, the stories depicting them, the art embodying them. So that is how Divine Might happened.

What was the most surprising, challenging and/or gratifying thing you discovered in the course of your research, in terms of seeing echoes of the ancient past in our present society and culture? Do you now have a favorite goddess?

The most challenging thing I discovered was just how little impact the goddess Hestia—once central to worship of all the gods in ancient Greece—had made on the modern world. There were so few examples of her in contemporary fiction and art that at the beginning of her chapter, I wasn’t sure I would be able to write it at all. But it turned out to be a really beautiful process, finding her where I could, and trying to explain how and why she had disappeared. I don’t have favorites—I change my mind with every chapter!

“Female anger is frightening to men. Always.”

Artemis may well be the most widely known goddess, with loads of mentions of her female-archer guise in ancient art and current pop culture. But while her strength and skill are routinely celebrated, you assert that at her core, “She is a true predator . . . fixed on death.” Will you share a bit more about what you found to be the most intriguing contradictions in terms of how Artemis has been portrayed and viewed?

Book jacket image for Divine Might by Natalie Haynes

I’m interested that Artemis is such a popular goddess here! I always assume Aphrodite/Venus must be the best known, just because of the sheer cultural penetration (and a planet named after her too.). Artemis is a puzzle because she is syncretized with so many other goddesses: every area in the Greek world seems to have known her by a different name and worshiped a different aspect of her. This is how you end up with a goddess who protects young girls, but also shoots and kills them, and a virgin goddess who is closely linked with the goddess of childbirth. I think it’s appropriate that she is so hard to pin down, though. Artemis belongs to the places away from cities and towns: She is a goddess of wild places, forests and mountains. We don’t really belong in her world; she is most at home with wild creatures. So we either accept we can’t understand her, or we become a little wild ourselves.

What differences do you see in art created by men versus women? 

I think the more women make art, the more we’ll see different interpretations of what it means to be a woman. I was thinking about it today reading a review of Britney Spears’ new book: How she chooses to present herself seems completely different from how her management/family chose to present her when they controlled so much of her life. There’s a terrible poignancy to how long she has had to wait to be allowed to be her full self. And—more cheeringly—look at the Taylor Swift juggernaut. She remakes herself with each album, sometimes more than once. It’s a master class in depicting powerful womanhood in hugely varied ways. She’s inspiring millions of girls as she does it, so I think we could be in for an exciting time ahead.

You describe in colorfully unflinching detail some of Hera’s “spectacular and creatively unpleasant revenges.” And you note that modern culture often turns this exasperation into fodder for comedy rather than, say, a reasonable explanation for rage. Why do you think—even in myths that spoke plainly about murder, rape and other terrible things—Hera’s and other goddesses’ anger was assiduously avoided and downplayed?

“. . . women’s stories are every bit as valuable and compelling as men’s, every bit as important as I believe them to be.”

Female anger is frightening to men. Always. And it’s much easier to deny that if you claim that it’s irrational, that it comes out of nowhere, that it’s the consequence of being crazy or cruel. Otherwise you’d have to accept that structural inequality is irritating and make an effort to change it for the better. Sometimes I feel like Bruce Banner in The Avengers: “That’s my secret, Captain. I’m always angry.” He doesn’t wait for an alien invasion to be mad, he lives there. Well, me too.

Your first book, The Ancient Guide to Modern Life, was published in 2010, and you’ve since written several books—fiction and nonfiction—that challenge our assumptions about the ancient world. Have you met with any pushback to the new perspectives you’ve offered? How has your work and your life as an author changed since your first book? 

I am told by academic friends that I am generally appreciated in their profession for encouraging so many students to pursue classics and ancient history. I’ve no doubt there are some scholars who hate me—that’s just a statistical reality—but I can’t honestly say I give them a moment’s thought. Who has the time?

Comedy + classicism is a pairing that’s worked quite well for you, to say the least! Which came first? When were you first inspired to combine the two? Does your BBC podcast “Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics” inform your books and vice versa? 

Ha—I guess I would say I was funny before I was a classicist, but I was a classicist before I was a comedian. I started doing stand-up during my undergrad years. Since then the two have swirled around me most of the time, I suppose. The first few years in comedy were pretty low on classics (not much call for jokes on the ancient world in the late ’90s comedy circuit). But now these two fields have really merged for me. I love doing the live shows and making the BBC podcast. I’m extremely lucky!

What are you most hoping readers take away from this book? 

I’m hoping that readers will come away from the book thinking that women’s stories are every bit as valuable and compelling as men’s, every bit as important as I believe them to be. I hope they’ll have a newfound respect for the huge power of these goddesses and the centrality of their role in the ancient world.

Is there anything you’d like to share about what’s next for you, goddess-y or otherwise?

Next up is season 10 of the podcast, I’ll be recording it in the spring. Still choosing who to include. And the new novel is about Medea, so that is going to be an intense time, writing her. But I wrote my dissertation on Euripides’ portrayal of Medea and Hecabe, so I have been squaring up to take on this story for decades. It feels like now is the time. Let’s hope I’m right.

Photo of Natalie Haynes by James Betts

Read our review of Divine Might.

The author-comedian discusses women’s stories, Taylor Swift, female rage and her new history of Greek mythology, Divine Might.
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Mark Braude’s Kiki Man Ray: Art, Love, and Rivalry in 1920s Paris takes an in-depth look at Kiki de Montparnasse, a painter and performer who served as a muse to a number of the era’s preeminent artists, including photographer Man Ray. Longtime lovers and creative collaborators, Kiki and Man Ray worked together to produce some of his most famous images. In this wonderfully detailed history, Braude spotlights Kiki’s background and unique genius, her turbulent relationship with Man Ray and lasting impact on popular culture. Readers who are fascinated with the Lost Generation will savor this atmospheric account of bohemian Paris. 

In her captivating historical novel Becoming Madame Mao, Anchee Min tells the coming-of-age story of Yunhe, who is born into poverty in rural China but defies expectations by becoming the wife of Mao Zedong. Yunhe leaves home with hopes of becoming an actress, changes her name, enlists in the Red Army and eventually marries Mao. Min mixes fact and fiction as she depicts their troubled relationship and Yunhe’s evolution into a woman of political influence. This beautifully executed novel offers rich discussion topics including Chinese history and politics, gender roles and female agency. 

With The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire, Jack Weatherford takes readers back in time to 13th-century Eurasia, when formidable women like Khutulun and Mandukhai the Wise helped to ensure the dominance of the Mongol Empire by developing commerce, supporting education and fighting in battle. Their stories appear to have been intentionally deleted from Secret History of the Mongols, an account of Genghis Khan’s reign that appeared in the 13th century. In this fascinating, well-researched narrative, Weatherford highlights their remarkable accomplishments while immersing readers in Mongol culture.  

Set in the 19th century and inspired by historical events, The Last Queen: A Novel of Courage and Resistance by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni chronicles the life of Jindan, a lowborn Indian girl who married Maharaja Ranjit Singh, ruler of the Sikh Empire. After the death of her husband, Jindan’s young son assumes the role of maharaja. Acting as regent, Jindan develops into a strong leader who is perceived as a threat by the British Empire. A bestseller in India, the book’s powerful themes of motherhood and female fulfillment provide great talking points for reading groups.

Behind every great man, there’s a woman—often with an excellent book about her.

It’s impossible when looking at World War II statistics to fully grasp the enormity of the war’s impact on the lives of ordinary people. In his ambitious new work, the Swedish journalist and historian Peter Englund turns his considerable research skills to addressing just this by exploring the lives of individuals during a single month during the war: November 1942.

Eleven months after the United States entered the war may not, at first glance, seem like an obvious turning point. But Englund argues that events during these four critical weeks turned the tide in favor of the Allies, although a final victory would still be years away. However, the author is not writing military history here. He has something more intimate in mind: to uncover what it was like for human beings caught up in what Englund calls the “struggle between barbarity and civilization.”

In November 1942: An Intimate History of the Turning Point of World War II, Englund explores his theme through a series of 39 interwoven biographies. Peter Graves’ translation from Swedish is seamless, and readers will be immediately invested in the vivid depictions of places and people, which have largely been drawn from memoirs and diaries. Some of the people are well known, such as author and pacifist Vera Brittain and Albert Camus. Other figures are more obscure. In the Hongkou district of Shanghai, a 12-year-old German refugee named Ursula Blomberg and her parents follow the war on a friend’s hidden radio. Englund uses Ursula’s diary to vibrantly bring her to life. And so it is with each individual that follows, whether it’s Willy Peter Reese, a young German infantry private; Royal Air Force machine-gunner John Bushby; or Lidiya Ginzburg, a Jewish resident in Leningrad.

November 1942 is cinematic in scope and execution, both intimate and wide-ranging. In the hands of another writer (and translator), interweaving so many disparate lives and the events of four weeks in a global war into a single cohesive narrative might fail to hold together. Instead, November 1942 stands out as a unique and remarkable achievement, and a significant contribution to our understanding of war.

Peter Englund’s November 1942 chronicles World War II through the lives of 39 people in a single month, creating a significant contribution to our understanding of war.
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“I was twenty-eight years old when my mother first told me that her father had been imprisoned as a war criminal,” writes longtime New Yorker staff writer Burkhard Bilger. His mother was born in 1935 and grew up in Germany during World War II. She immigrated to the United States, along with Bilger’s father, in 1962, and Bilger heard little talk about his mother’s father while growing up in Oklahoma. But after his mother received a collection of letters from an aunt in Germany in 2005, Bilger decided to find out as much of the truth as he could about his grandfather, Karl Gönner. 

Bilger shares his long journey of historical investigation in his exceptionally well-written and compulsively readable Fatherland: A Memoir of War, Conscience, and Family Secrets. Official documents, letters, diaries and personal interviews with those who knew Gönner helped Bilger piece together this puzzle.

In 1940, Gönner became a school principal in the village of Bartenheim in occupied Alsace, “the land of three borders: France, Germany, and Switzerland all within a ten-mile radius.” In 1942, he also became the village’s Nazi Party chief, though Gönner would later claim that he refused the position at first. At the heart of Bilger’s book is the question of whether Gönner was a basically good person doing what he had to do to get by during wartime or if he was a committed Nazi monster. Former students and other villagers spoke well of how he had helped them during the war. At the same time, Gönner had been a member of the Nazi Party since 1933 and never seriously challenged the Party’s reign. Bilger did not find any antisemitic remarks in Gönner’s personal writings, but Bilger’s mother said Gönner made such comments at home. As Bilger writes, “There were no little errors in wartime Germany. The choices you made put you on one side of history or the other. Yet the more I learned about my grandfather, the harder he was to categorize.”

After the Germans were defeated, “more than three hundred thousand people [were] charged as war criminals and collaborators in France,” Bilger writes, including Gönner. It took a lot of hard work to convince the court that Gönner was not guilty of certain crimes, including murder. But what of Bilger’s ultimate judgment of Gönner? All of us would like to believe that we would have been strong enough to stand up against barbaric behavior and evil regimes. But as Bilger reflects, life is usually more complicated than we want it to be. Gönner’s life and times, as revealed through Bilger’s elegant and discerningly observed memoir, will challenge and enlighten many thoughtful readers.

In his exceptionally well-written memoir, Burkhard Bilger shares his long journey of historical investigation into his grandfather, who was a Nazi Party chief.

In His Majesty’s Airship: The Life and Tragic Death of the World’s Largest Flying Machine, award-winning author and historian S.C. Gwynne (Rebel Yell) delves into the little-known story behind the 1930 crash of a hydrogen-filled British airship called R101.

R101 was the brainchild of Lord Christopher Birdwood Thomson, who held the rather inflated title of Secretary of State for Air. A baron and peer of the House of Lords, Thomson had been put in charge of the development of British dirigibles. On October 4, 1930, he prepared to make a 5,000-mile journey from England to Karachi, India, in R101, which Gwynne describes as “a giant silver fish floating weightless in the slate-gray seas of the sky.”

At the time, R101 was one of the largest human-made objects on Earth, larger by volume than the Titanic. It’s an apt comparison, because like the ocean liner, the R101 was touted as the pinnacle of technological achievement, luxury and safety. Its press office boasted that the 777-foot-long hydrogen-filled R101 was “the safest aircraft of any kind ever built.” 

Using hydrogen airships to fly long distances and connect England with its far-flung colonies was in part a reaction to the state of airplane travel at the time. Just three years previously, in 1927, a flight from England to India took 12 days and required 20 stops. An ocean liner could make the trip in two weeks. Thomson’s goals for the R101? Four days. 

Gwynne intersperses the story of R101’s short, tragic flight with the history of zeppelin airships more generally, including the use of airships as aerial bombers during World War I and the impact of the August 1921 crash of a British airship called R38. Gwynne’s well-documented account also includes photos of airships, as well as of Thomson. The most fascinating part, of course, is following Lord Thomson as he prepared for this doomed voyage, for which he brought champagne, lots of ministry paperwork and even fancy carpets! R101 took off into a developing severe weather system, flying over London against a stiff wind while people rushed out onto the streets to see this incredible sight. 

R101 has more eerie similarities with the Titanic: It burst into flames shortly after 2 a.m., and newspapers around the world carried news of the disaster. There were only six survivors (all crew members) out of 54 people on board, but the crash of R101 did not entirely end the era of experimentation with hydrogen airships. That would come later, in the aftermath of a crash far better known today: the Hindenburg.

Gwynne is a consummate storyteller, and his account of R101 is riveting and not to be missed.

S.C. Gwynne is a consummate storyteller, and his account of the 1930 crash of a spectacularly large hydrogen-filled British airship is not to be missed.
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Mothers—for better, worse or somewhere in between—shape the people we become. Whatever lessons we learn from their example, whatever traits we inherit, go on to become shaping forces for our identities and lives. Author and historian Tracy Borman (Henry VIII, The King’s Witch) illustrates this in Anne Boleyn & Elizabeth I: The Mother and Daughter Who Forever Changed British History. Despite living in a strict patriarchal society, the love and influence of her infamous mother guided Queen Elizabeth I through her tumultuous life and much-glorified reign.

As one of England’s Chief Curators of Historic Palaces and the author of Elizabeth’s Women, Borman is well placed to explore the intertwined lives of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife and reformer of the English faith, and their daughter, the celebrated “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth I. This required some detective work, as both time and circumstance make the relationship seem practically nonexistent: Anne was executed when Elizabeth was only 3, and for many years after, Anne either went unmentioned in court to avoid provoking Henry VIII’s vicious temper or was slandered as a “strumpet” and seductress who had an affair with her own brother and enchanted the king with witchcraft. Even before Anne’s death, royal custom stipulated that princes and princesses were raised by nursemaids in separate households from their parents. It would be unsurprising if Anne had been an invisible figure to Elizabeth, holding little to no influence over the woman and ruler she became.

Yet Borman insists this was not so. Citing evidence from correspondence, material objects and the observations of witnesses during Anne’s brief reign as queen and Elizabeth’s long one, Borman re-creates the relationship between the two women as loving and full of significance, even after Anne’s death. Letters and receipts for purchased items reveal a mother who adored her small daughter and took their separation hard, consoling herself by ensuring Elizabeth was impeccably cared for, primarily by Boleyn relatives. Many of these caretakers would go on to become lifelong advisors and friends to Elizabeth, helping to sustain her through her uncertain adolescence and her imprisonment during her sister Mary’s years on England’s throne. From her coronation to her deathbed, Elizabeth’s time as queen was peppered with mementos of Anne: She incorporated her mother’s badge into her own insignia, packed her court with her Boleyn relations and honored those who had been allies during Anne’s lifetime and could share stories with Elizabeth about her charismatic, brilliant mother.

Anne Boleyn & Elizabeth I offers a fresh perspective on Tudor history. Set against the many volumes about Henry VIII’s rule and Elizabeth I’s influence, Borman’s book triumphantly pulls the fiery, educated Anne from the shadows and restores her to her rightful place as a reformer, patron and queenmaker.

Historian Tracy Borman triumphantly shows that Anne Boleyn’s love and influence guided her daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, through her tumultuous life and much-glorified reign.
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In Goodbye Eastern Europe: An Intimate History of a Divided Land, journalist and historian Jacob Mikanowski manages to pull off the nearly impossible: An accessible and detailed history of Eastern Europe that spans 2,000 years in under 400 pages. 

The book’s subtitle reveals both the greatest challenge he faces and the advantage he brings to the task. Eastern Europe is indeed a divided land. Numerous migrations, invasions and empires have led to hundreds, if not thousands, of ethnic groups living cheek by jowl across the lands between Western Europe and Russia. Their languages, religions and customs have co-existed, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. Over the centuries, their countries have merged—as loose confederations, united republics, and vassal countries or regions in larger empires—and broken apart. 

The resulting complex and haunting history is also tragic. During the early 20th century, wars smashed through Eastern Europe, leaving millions dead or displaced while setting the stage for Soviet domination over the region. 

Telling this story, which could fill many volumes, within the confines of just one is daunting. It would be tempting to glide over details in the interest of brevity or to rely too heavily on statistics, allowing numbers to tell the story. Instead, Mikanowski deliberately frames his book as an intimate history—intimate, because the story of all these different people is also the story of his family. Like each of us, Mikanowski is a product of history. Polish princes, Lithuanian merchants and Jewish scholars all played a part in his family background, and their lives were shaped, and often shortened, by history. 

This very personal perspective gives depth and humanity to Goodbye Eastern Europe, along with urgency. In this increasingly divided world, Mikanowski reminds us that differences can lead to resentment and violence. But he also points out that countries can embrace these divisions, making themselves and their people stronger as a result. Goodbye Eastern Europe is both cautionary tale and signpost.

Journalist and historian Jacob Mikanowski manages to pull off the nearly impossible—an accessible and detailed history of Eastern Europe that spans 2,000 years in under 400 pages.
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Four extraordinary women, with quite different and often controversial ideas, are the subjects of Wolfram Eilenberger’s masterfully researched and beautifully written The Visionaries: Arendt, Beauvoir, Rand, Weil, and the Power of Philosophy in Dark Times. Eilenberger’s much praised Time of the Magicians (2020) covered the lives of Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ernst Cassirer and Walter Benjamin. Like that work, The Visionaries is a superb combination of biography, history and philosophy for general readers, this time covering the period from 1933 to 1943 and the impact of World War II on four writers’ lives. Each of these women recognized that “there was something fundamentally wrong with [the] world—and with the people in it,” Wilenberger writes. “But what exactly could it be? And how, in the early 1930s, was it possible for an individual to heal that increasingly oppressive malaise?”

Hannah Arendt left her native Germany in 1933 for France, where she helped others immigrate to Palestine, before coming to the U.S. to write and publish. Arendt wrote that she would like to identify with “the tradition of German-language writing and thought,” but she was denied the chance because she was Jewish. “Certain people are so exposed in their own lives that they become junction points and concrete objectifications of life,” she wrote, and indeed she became one such person. As a result, Arendt had a lifelong concern for human rights, and her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, is considered a classic.

Ayn Rand immigrated from Russia to the United States in 1926 and experienced ups and downs as a writer, including a hit Broadway play. “From her earliest youth she had known exactly why she was in the world: to forge her own happiness in life and to create stories that showed the world as it should be—and not as it unfortunately was,” Wilenberger writes. Rand became a cultural icon with novels like The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged and other works.

Simone Weil left France to work as a journalist and social activist. Weil felt that the only definite way out of the crisis of their time was to return to the “great source texts of humanity,” Wilenberger writes. Throughout her lifetime, Weil engaged with the works of Homer and Plato, the Bhagavad Gita, the Stoics and Christian writers, and her 1949 book, The Need for Roots, continues to be read today.

Simone de Beauvoir remained in France as a teacher, novelist and essayist. Within a year after the German occupation of Paris, Beauvoir wrote, “I was at last prepared to admit that my life was not a story of my own telling, but a compromise between myself and the world at large.” With the publication in 1949 of The Second Sex, a founding document of modern feminism, Beauvoir became an international celebrity.

Wilenberger’s engaging book will enlighten and entertain—in the best sense—many thoughtful readers.

The Visionaries delves into the controversial ideas of Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Ayn Rand and Simone Weil with a superb combination of biography, history and philosophy.
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How important are individuals in the shaping of history? Twentieth-century Europeans knew leaders whose decisions, good or ill, transformed their countries, the continent and, in some cases, the world. Ian Kershaw, one of our leading historians of the period, focuses on 12 of them in his enlightening and stimulating Personality and Power: Builders and Destroyers of Modern Europe. They range from the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin to Helmut Kohl, chancellor of West Germany in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. We learn of the personality traits and historical preconditions that brought each person to power, and Kershaw provides examples of how that power was used and an assessment of each leader’s legacy.

War was the most important enabler of power in the 20th century. Without World War I, the chances of Lenin, Josef Stalin, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler becoming leaders would have been virtually zero. Without World War II, it is unlikely that Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle or Josip Broz Tito would have led their countries. Of the 12 figures in Personality and Power, only Konrad Adenauer, Mikhail Gorbachev and Kohl were never war leaders. (Francisco Franco had the Spanish Civil War, and Margaret Thatcher the war in the Falklands.)

Each leader profiled here had a strong sense of self, a relentless will to succeed and the ability to get complete loyalty from followers. Some have dark legacies, such as Hitler with the Holocaust and Lenin with communism, that still endure. Other legacies are more mixed. Between 1940 and 1945, probably no European democracy had a leader with more power than Winston Churchill. He was somewhat of a political failure before that, and his later return as prime minister from 1951 to 1955 was not a great success. But his example during the war continues to inspire people today. Similarly, although Gorbachev’s years in power were few, it is unlikely that anyone else could have instigated and pursued the policies that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Leadership changed, however, and his policies were reversed.

These excellent in-depth profiles of major figures and their influence on millions of people help us better understand why the world is as it is today.

Ian Kershaw’s excellent in-depth profiles of 12 major leaders from 20th-century Europe help us better understand why the world is as it is today.

As World War II recedes further into the past, Jonathan Freedland has revived one story from the Holocaust that’s both historically significant and a riveting read. Freedland, the author of several thrillers and a correspondent for The Guardian, writes with a novelist’s verve to tell the story of Rudolf Vrba, one of the first Jewish people to escape from Auschwitz.

The Escape Artist opens with Vrba (born Walter Rosenberg) and Fred Wetzler, another young prisoner, in the middle of an escape attempt. With the help of two other prisoners, Vrba and Wetzler climbed into a woodpile to hide, the first step in escaping the death camp. “For the teenage [Vrba], it was an exhilarating feeling—but not a wholly new one,” Freedland writes. “Because this was not his first escape. And it would not be his last.”

In the late 1930s, leaders in Slovakia seized Jews’ assets and steadily banned them from public life, including schools. Even so, a young Vrba taught himself new languages and learned chemistry from an illicit textbook. As deportation approached, Vrba tried to escape to England but landed in a transit camp. He escaped the camp, got captured again and was eventually sent to Auschwitz. The Nazis had convinced the deported Jews that they were merely being resettled, but once inside Auschwitz, Vrba began to understand the truth: The Nazis were methodically killing millions of Jewish people.

When Vrba was put to work in the section of Auschwitz that processed stolen Jewish belongings, he found a new level of corruption: The Nazis had stolen every material possession from each deported Jewish person, and SS guards were making deals with enslaved workers to keep certain valuables. The brutality and inhumanity of Nazis at every level is chilling and can make for difficult reading. At the same time, Freedland’s depth of research gives a more complete picture of Auschwitz, and Vrba’s inventiveness and ultimate escape from the camp, and his efforts to tell the world the truth about its horrors, make for a gripping narrative.

The book’s last section follows Vrba through his long postwar life in Canada, where he worked as a biochemistry professor at the University of British Columbia. Vrba wrote his own memoir in the 1960s, but now The Escape Artist vividly brings his story to a new generation of readers.

Jonathan Freedland tells the story of Rudolf Vrba, one of the first Jewish people to escape from Auschwitz, with a novelist's verve.

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