Ancient Rome helps define the way we understand the world and think about ourselves. The ideas of liberty and citizenship, the Western calendar, phrases such as “beware of Greeks bearing gifts” and much more came from this one source. Renowned classicist Mary Beard, a professor at Cambridge University, has spent much of the last 50 years studying the literature of the Romans and the thousands of books and papers written about them. Her magnificent, eminently readable SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome is an authoritative exploration of how a small and unremarkable village became such a dominant power on three continents.
James A. Michener had his Tales of the South Pacific. Now comes Simon Winchester—an equally engaging storyteller—with his tales of the vast Pacific, all 64 million square miles of it. To make such a gargantuan subject manageable, he selects specific events which he says symbolize larger cultural, political and scientific truths about the region.
Subversive historian Sarah Vowell offers another idiosyncratic chronicle of our nation’s coming-of-age with Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. This lively account of the Marquis de Lafayette and the American Revolution is of a piece with Vowell’s previous books, which include Assassination Vacation (2005), a tour of sites dedicated to murdered American presidents, and The Wordy Shipmates (2008), a raucous look at the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. These seem like sober subjects, but Vowell enlivens the proceedings with her prickly persona, her thing for slang and her taste for recondite factoids of Americana.
Tightly paced and furiously entertaining, The Witch of Lime Street tells the fascinating story of the rise of spiritualism in the years after World War One. With an entire generation lost to the trenches and the Spanish flu, charlatans and hucksters emerged in force to put grieving families in touch with their beloved dead. This was the era of séances, table rapping, ectoplasm and “spirit photography”—done with a camera that supposedly captured an image of you posing with your dearly departed’s ghost.
An imposing book by virtue of size alone, the 640-page Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives is also decidedly ambitious. The dual biography explores the profoundly different paths taken by two iconic and influential German artists in the years before and after Hitler’s rise to power.
James Holland’s The Rise of Germany, 1939-1941, the first of a planned three-volume series called The War in the West, is a great example of how a re-examination of historical accounts leads to new insights that urge us to reconsider the common wisdom about one of the most well-documented wars in history.
The stupendously wealthy 5th Duke of Portland had a very weird obsession: building underground. At his order, tunnels, a ballroom, a church and a vast network of chambers were constructed underneath his estate at Welbeck Abbey in England. It might also be said he lived an underground life, avoiding human contact whenever possible. He communicated with his servants by written message and traveled mostly at night, with a lantern attached to his belt.
There is nothing so compelling as history well told, whether in print or on film. And viewers who were engrossed by Ken Burns’ recent PBS series on the Roosevelts will find Jay Winik’s new book on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History, especially appealing. Winik, who has written about America’s founding (The Great Upheaval) and the Civil War (April 1865), brings his considerable gifts as a storyteller and a talented historian to this new work exploring the pivotal year of Roosevelt’s presidency and of World War II.
M.T. Anderson (The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing) presents a thrilling history of music and the terrible events of World War II. Extensively researched and passionately told, Symphony for the City of the Dead exposes the strengths and weaknesses of humanity through an engrossing tale of war, art and undying creativity.
Like so many Americans, writer Rita Gabis has mixed ancestry. Her late father was Jewish and her mother is a Lithuanian Catholic, whose family emigrated to the U.S. after World War II. Gabis knew her maternal grandfather—“Senelis” in Lithuanian—as a fond elderly man who bought her treats and took her fishing. But she had one disturbing memory: the time he told her, “No be like your father . . . Jews no good.”