The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Richard Cohen, Ben Shattuck, and Tove Ditlevsen.
Cohen (How to Write Like Tolstoy), former publishing director of Hodder & Stoughton in the U.K., demystifies the act of history-making in this sweeping survey. He documents how European history was shaped by Greek philosophy, Roman mythology, and Judeo-Christian theology and formalized as a discipline by 19th-century German scholar Leopold von Ranke and others. Along the way, he profiles noteworthy historical figures including Isaac ibn Yashush, a Jewish physician living in 11th-century Spain who cataloged inconsistencies in the Pentateuch, and Marc Bloch, a historian turned French Resistance fighter who was executed by the Nazis in 1944. Elsewhere, Cohen examines academic debates over the ethical limits of revisionist history, analyzes the influence of cinema and digital technologies on historical scholarship, and compares ancient historians such as Thucydides and Herodotus, who “wrote to be read aloud,” with Hamilton playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda. Though the biographical minutia threatens to overwhelm, Cohen makes a persuasive argument that history is created by historians as much as by politics, war, economics, and other forces, and convincingly shows how “the rivalries of scholars, the demands of patronage, the need to make a living, physical disabilities, changing fashions, cultural pressures, religious beliefs, patriotic sensibilities, love affairs,” and other human concerns have shaped the understanding of the world. The result is a fascinating and finely wrought history of history.
In this resplendent debut, Pushcart Prize winner Shattuck traipses from quiet elegy to compassionate celebration through a series of jaunts patterned after Henry David Thoreau’s rambles. Hoping to escape “a constellation of grief” over a breakup, Shattuck set out one May to walk the beaches of Cape Cod, retracing the footsteps of Thoreau. What started as a distraction turned into six separate treks, vividly brought to life here in Shattuck’s poetic retelling. On his first outing, a serendipitous meeting delivers him to the oysterman’s cottage where Thoreau slept 150 years earlier. When Shattuck’s later diagnosed with Lyme disease, he’s spurred to tackle two hikes: up Maine’s Katahdin and Massachusetts’s Wachusett mountains—where Thoreau walked after his brother’s death and, like Shattuck, found “consolation” in the stars, “displac[ing] bulging selfhood, under the shadow of such urgent beauty as the night sky.” After getting engaged, Shattuck returned to his roamings with a lighter heart, traveling to his family’s ancestral home in Sakonnet Harbor; the northernmost point of Thoreau’s Maine walk; and Cape Cod again, where he reconciled his grief as a necessary “period of fragility that brings your emotions closest to the surface.” Echoing Thoreau’s brilliant reflections with his own, Shattuck distills the healing power of nature into a narrative that’s a pure pleasure to wander through. Fans of Annie Dillard will find this mesmerizing.
This quiet and devastating collection of vignettes from Ditlevsen (1917–1976) follows Goldman’s recent translation of the last entry in Ditlevsen’s memoir cycle The Copenhagen Trilogy. The stories mainly turn on domestic dramas, revealing all the simmering, explosive tensions found in marriage, family, and parenthood. In “The Little Shoes,” a middle-aged mother is consumed by envy for her housekeeper’s youth. In “A Fine Business,” a woman is pained with sympathy for a single mother who, desperate for cash, accepts a cruelly low offer on her house. Often, characters imbue mundane, household objects with intense psychological meaning, as in “The Umbrella,” as a husband expresses his unreasonable contempt for his wife by breaking her umbrella. The stories are simple; the characters ordinary and immensely human. Their motivations are mysterious and subtle, and Ditlevsen is acutely sensitive to the way normal life can wear at their hearts. Readers will recognize the themes of anger, disappointment, and frustration that recur within the author’s universe. Alongside this discomfort, though, is the opportunity for deep transformation. Already renowned for her memoirs, Ditlevsen is now poised to win acclaim as a master of short fiction.
Critic and historian Green (Three Empires on the Nile) delivers an incisive study of the Western world’s shift from institutional religion to more personal beliefs in the second half of the 19th century. He contends that interaction between “innate religiosity” on the one hand and science and technology on the other produced “the irrational appeals to salvation by nationalism, socialism, and racism that derailed the global civilization, once in 1914 and again in 1939.” Not all the era’s “isms” were so catastrophic, however. The Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau, the Spiritualism of John and Margaret Fox, and the protofeminism of Elizabeth Cady Stanton either encouraged Westerners to take in ideas from the Middle and Far East or expanded the rights-based society first espoused by John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. Green also explores how Charles Darwin’s theories about the “common origins” of all species were disputed by “polygenists” including Josiah Clark Nott and George Robins Gliddon, who believed in “fixed racial differences” between Africans and Europeans, and documents how composer Richard Wagner’s racist ideas were eventually rejected by his devotee, Friedrich Nietzsche, whose conception of the Übermensch looked beyond simplistic moralizing and dubious racial claims. Throughout, Green draws illuminating connections between these transformational thinkers and briskly contextualizes the political, economic, and technological shocks of their epoch. This is intellectual history at its most comprehensive and convincing.
The hollowed-out soul of one of Nazi Germany’s worst criminals is explored through his wife’s recollections in this searching biography. Dougherty, a biographer and film critic who died in 2013, examines Heydrich’s rise through the S.S. to become head of the Gestapo and other intelligence agencies (he even ran one of Berlin’s swankiest brothels, staffed with amateur spies); his control of the Einsatzgruppen death squads that murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews; and his assassination by Czech resistance agents in 1942. She portrays him as the quintessential Nazi: tall, vigorous, “a wolf in a fancy uniform” with a “luciferous” knack for intimidation. Extensive interviews with Heydrich’s wife Lina, who died in 1985, offer an alternate version of the man as a striving careerist with little involvement in the Final Solution; Dougherty demonstrates how delusional that sketch is, but Lina’s viewpoint suggests how denial and wishful thinking distracted Germans from the Nazis’ crimes. Dougherty vividly dissects the murderous intrigues roiling Nazi bureaucracies—Heydrich poisoned an assistant’s drink and withheld the antidote until the man explained his suspicious relationship with Lina—and the crooked path of opportunism, brutalization, and warped Nazi idealism that led Hitler’s minions to a policy of extermination. The result is a chilling, revelatory case study of the moral corruption of the Third Reich.
Crowley (the Aegypt tetralogy) triumphs with this beautiful, subtle fantasy, set in a 17th-century Ireland subject to both the desires of Queen Elizabeth and a host of magical forces. Crowley introduces his protagonist, Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, as an adult in Rome, where he lives in fear despite residing in apartments provided by the pope himself; his past actions mean that he must sleep with a sword within arm’s reach because “on any night he might be murdered by agents of one or another of the powers he had striven with, or betrayed, or failed.” Having hooked his audience, Crowley flashes back to previous chapters in O’Neill’s life, starting with his childhood, to explain how he came to be at odds with both the English and Spanish Crowns, and his own Irish clan. Rich, evocative prose (“The ship she had watched could still be seen, dis-masted now and smashed in the rocks like unswallowed fragments in a mastiff’s mouth”), one of Crowley’s hallmarks, elevate this above similar works. Fans of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell will be mesmerized.
Hua’s provocative latest (after A River of Stars) follows a bold and shrewd woman as she navigates China’s political scene amid the Cultural Revolution. Mei Xiang is almost 16 when she trades a long-kept secret for a place in Chairman Mao’s troupe—an excellent opportunity to serve the party’s interests while escaping a dull, inevitable life filled with field work and famine. Her ambition and dreams of becoming a model revolutionary help her catch the Chairman’s eye and keep him interested long enough to incite the jealousy of the other recruits and even of his wife, long accustomed to turning a blind eye to her husband’s many indiscretions. At first, Mei relishes being the Chairman’s lover, his confidant, and even his pawn in the schemes he orchestrates to triumph over his political rivals. But eventually, she sees the deceit in their relationship and understands heroes aren’t always what they seem (“He had rewritten my history. To be everything to everyone, I’d become no one,” she reflects). Hua masterly presents Mei’s attempts to leave the Lake Palaces with their “power, secrecy, and isolation” behind as she processes her trauma. This finds a brilliant new perspective on familiar material via its story of a young woman’s brush with power. It’s magnificent.
The charm and communal spirit of a small town bring an unlikely couple together in this layered, soul-stirring romance from Jimenez (Life’s Too Short). Alexis Montgomery and her twin brother, Derek, have been groomed since birth to follow in their famous father’s footsteps, continuing the family legacy of excellence and philanthropy at Royaume Northwestern Hospital. ER doctor Alexis was content to let Derek bear the mantel, but when he chooses to marry for love instead of station, his parents disown him and put all the pressure on Alexis. Overwhelmed by her father’s expectations—among them that she should reconcile with her emotionally abusive ex—Alexis escapes the city on regular visits to the enchanting small town of Wakan. There she meets laid-back carpenter Daniel Grant, who’s 10 years her junior and everything her parents would hate. Through Daniel, Alexis learns what unwavering love and support feel like, but with both of them entrenched in separate worlds, will they be able to make it work? Jimenez dexterously tackles class difference and shades her endearing side characters with as much care as her lovable leads. The result is an emotional roller coaster centered on love as a source of empowerment.