More people live alone in America and more American women identify as single than ever before. Kate Bolick’s blockbuster 2011 Atlantic cover story, “All the Single Ladies,” ignited a conversation about how unmarried women are changing contemporary culture. In her thoughtful follow-up to that article, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, Bolick considers the deeper questions emerging from the statistics on single women. How do women (like Bolick, like this reviewer) who are working, living and aging alone construct meaningful, loving lives? How do we negotiate between solitude and community?
In an interview some years ago, Erik Larson, author of such bestsellers as The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts, called himself “an animator of history” rather than a historian. Indeed, he has always shown a brilliant ability to unearth the telling details of a story and has the narrative chops to bring a historical moment vividly alive. But in his new book, Larson simply outdoes himself.
When Mimi Baird was 6 years old, her father, prominent Boston dermatologist Perry Baird, didn’t come home. In that moment, Baird effectively disappeared forever from his daughter’s life, for her mother told her only that he was “away.” Baird saw her father once in the 15 years between his disappearance and his death in 1959.
Grandparents who love their only grandchild fiercely, but haven’t spoken since their divorce 50 years ago, incite her urgent question: What happened? As she writes in A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in France, Miranda Richmond Mouillot hopes to recreate a fairy tale of love found, and somehow lost, amid the turmoil of World War II. But her grandparents, Armand and Anna, are growing frail and their memories of fleeing Nazi-occupied France are painful.
Cleopatra, Nefertiti: These are the names that come to mind when thinking of the legendary female rulers of ancient Egypt. In her highly engrossing The Woman Who Would Be King, Egyptian scholar Kara Cooney shines a spotlight on Hatshepsut, Egypt’s largely overlooked, longest-ruling female pharaoh, who led her country through a period marked by peace, prosperity and architectural achievement.
Suki Kim, author of the highly regarded novel The Interpreter, went to North Korea to teach English under doubly false pretenses. Her fellow instructors at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) were evangelical Christians pretending to be nonreligious teachers. (“North Korea was the evangelical Christian Holy Grail, the hardest place to crack in the whole world,” she writes.) To be accepted into the program, Kim pretended to be an evangelical pretending to be a nonreligious teacher. She feared exposure on all sides.
Real life spy Kim Philby had a level of charm that fictional spy James Bond could only aspire to. To meet Philby, it seemed, was to fall under his convivial sway. Thus, when it was disclosed in 1963 that this very proper, well-placed and Cambridge-educated Englishman had been spying for the Soviet Union since 1934, two people were particularly shaken by the revelation: Nicholas Elliott, his longtime drinking buddy and colleague at MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service, and James Angleton, the zealous spymaster at America’s Central Intelligence Agency. Both men had regarded Philby as the supreme exemplar of their shadowy trade. Of course, he was.
On September 13, 1993, the day Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, several dozen CIA officers quietly gathered at the grave of Robert Ames in Arlington National Cemetery. While most of the world focused on the hope of Middle East peace, those at Ames’ grave paid tribute to an operative who may have made that peace possible, even though few knew what he had accomplished—not the presidents he served, not members of Congress, not even his own family.
BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, April 2014
Frances Mayes’ lyrical memoir of growing up Southern was a long time coming. Worried about upsetting her family, she stopped and started Under Magnolia many times over: “Anytime I felt the impulse to start my Southern opus again, I instead headed for a movie or a new Thai restaurant,” she writes. “I’d go jogging or read a novel until the impulse faded.”
On July 21, 1999, a crane lowered experienced construction diver DJ Gillis and four other men down a 420-foot shaft to the opening of an almost 10-mile tunnel beneath Deer Island in Boston Harbor. At the end of the day, only three men would return alive.