The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961–1989
by Frederick Taylor (HarperCollins)
For something that lasted only slightly more than a quarter century, the Berlin Wall cast a very long shadow. Built almost overnight by desperate Soviet authorities determined to keep East Berlin’s population from hemorrhaging to the free sectors of the city, the Wall did its job with brutal, stifling effect. This vivid account of the Wall and all that it meant reminds us that symbolism can be double-edged, as a potent emblem of isolation and repression became, in its destruction, an even more powerful totem of freedom.
Forgotten Wars: Freedom and Revolution in Southeast Asia
by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper (Harvard)
Two years after their brilliant and vivid Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941–45, the Cambridge historians Bayly and Harper produce a sequel that examines Britain’s conflicts in Southeast Asia in the four years after the Second World War. While adroitly analyzing Britain’s hard-fought battle against insurrectionary forces in Malaya, the authors explore lesser-known episodes: Bengalese and Burmese skirmishes seldom highlighted in accounts of the Raj’s end, and the British interregnums between the ends of the Japanese occupations of Indonesia and Vietnam and the restorations of the respective former colonial administrations.
The Last Mrs. Astor
by Frances Kiernan (Norton)
At the end of the 19th century, the then-Mrs. Astor was known for setting the parameters of New York society by the number of people who could fit into her ballroom. It is a measure of high society’s progress since those days that the current (and final) undisputed holder of the title has made her mark through intelligent philanthropy and discriminating patronage of the arts. Recently in the news because of an unseemly tussle between her son and grandson over her guardianship, the 105-year-old Brooke Astor deserves to be remembered for what she actually accomplished, and this sympathetic telling of her story should counterbalance all that gossipy sensationalism.
Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr
by Nancy Isenberg (Viking)
National memory is inevitably drawn to melodrama, and Burr has historically been cast in the role of black sheep in the Founding Family. But Isenberg argues, with elegance and meticulous research, that the principled, adroit Burr shouldn’t be the fall guy in our early national narrative. On some issues, particularly those later espoused by feminists, he was far ahead of his time, and his political conduct was “no better, no worse” than that of his contemporaries Jefferson and Hamilton. In fact, in her assessment of Jefferson’s and Hamilton’s treatment of Burr, Isenberg reveals an unsettling truth: “Politics, then as now, causes ‘great’ men to speak irrationally and act deviously.”
George Kennan: A Study of Character
by John Lukacs (Yale)
The dean of the realist school of foreign policy wouldn’t seem to be a natural biographical subject for so passionate an opponent of totalitarianism as Lukacs. But mostly the author focuses on Kennan as the great American figure of his age: a sterling character and true font of wisdom, a man whose actual views were far more complex and nuanced than the gross public perception (based on his espoused policy to simply contain the Soviet Union). This beautiful little book is suffused with the love and respect that Lukacs has for his subject, whom he knew and revered as that rare breed: the foreign-policy expert who becomes a true statesman.
Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America
by Matthew Avery Sutton (Harvard)
This biography of McPherson explores how the evangelist combined old-time religion with newfangled technology to build a multimedia soul-saving juggernaut in 1920s Los Angeles. Even if Sutton’s efforts to connect McPherson to today’s evangelical resurgence are sketchy and unconvincing, his book (particularly in its analysis of the media coverage surrounding McPherson’s 1926 “kidnapping”—likely staged in an attempt to obscure an illicit affair) is a thorough and absorbing portrait of a wholly original figure.
Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion
by Jeffrey J. Kripal (Chicago)
Mysticism and empiricism, East and West, enlightenment and … golf? Esalen—equally a phenomenon and an institute—sought to amalgamate these things and more into a “human potential movement,” a unified utopia “creatively suspended between the revelations of the religions and the democratic, pluralistic, and scientific revolutions of modernity.” And for a time it did, resolving many of its inherent paradoxes to achieve something unique (and uniquely American) in its eclectic egalitarianism. Co-founded by former Stanford classmates Michael Murphy and Richard Price, Esalen had as its set and setting 1960s California (a sui generis time and place if ever there was one). During its heyday, it drew counterculture notables—Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Leary spent time there; so did Maslow, Huxley, and Campbell—and notoriety (the term touchy-feely sprang forth, fully formed) in equal measure. It eventually lost its vitality, but not before giving rise to the New Age movement that persists today (as does the institute itself, albeit in neutered form).
Kripal, a religious-studies professor at Rice University, examines Esalen’s extraordinary history and evocatively describes the breech birth of Murphy and Price’s brainchild. His real achievement, though, is effortlessly synthesizing a dizzying array of dissonant phenomena (Cold War espionage, ecstatic religiosity), incongruous pairings (Darwinism, Tantric sex), and otherwise schizy ephemera (psychedelic drugs, spaceflight) into a cogent, satisfyingly complete narrative. That he reconciles all this while barely batting an eye is remarkable; that he does so while writing with such élan is nothing short of wondrous. This essential volume achieves what Esalen itself ultimately couldn’t sustain: a true gestalt.
Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
by Danny Danziger (Viking)
The genius of Danziger is to get to the heart of an institution through myriad personal interviews. From his second book, All in a Day’s Work, with snapshots of 50 people’s jobs, to the revealing Eton Voices, which exposed the mystique of Britain’s premier upper-crust school through interviews with Old Etonians, and now to New York’s Metropolitan Museum, Danziger is a master of the pointillist portrait. Here he runs the gamut of subjects, from cleaner and waitress through curator, trustee, and CEO, to show how this cultural behemoth functions.
The Decoration of Houses
by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr. (Rizzoli)
This handsome reprint of Wharton’s first book (1897) might well be subtitled “Feng Shui for the Gilded Age.” For Wharton and Codman, house decoration should not be mere “superficial application of ornament” but rather an organic activity guided by the principles of simplicity and common sense. The architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson has written a brisk and informative new foreword.
Where’s My Jetpack?
by Daniel H. Wilson (Bloomsbury)
A leading (if not the only) comic roboticist checks up on the progress of such once-promised technological innovations as the flying car, the death ray, and the ever-elusive meal in pill form. Although some of the most ambitious inventions Wilson discusses do in fact exist (including the jetpack, hampered only by extremely expensive fuel and the small matter that what goes up must somehow come down), a larger number do not, which movingly reflects inventors’ optimism about the eternal future—as well as the public’s even-keeled acceptance of the fact that the future often turns out to be distressingly similar to what immediately preceded it.
by Michael Ondaatje (Knopf)
In this structurally disjointed but thematically cohesive tale divided between Northern California in the 1970s and France in the early 1900s, Ondaatje explores the tenacity of youthful experiences and relationships in the face of life’s radical forks. Emotionally enthralling and lushly envisioned, this novel, like The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost, demonstrates Ondaatje’s rare talent for imposing satisfyingly clear ideas on realistically ambiguous lives.
by Tova Reich (HarperCollins)
In this merciless satire on the American glorification and commodification of victimhood (the first chapter of which appeared in this magazine), every group vies for the distinction of having suffered the most. As one of the characters (the president of Holocaust Connections Inc.; slogan: “Make Your Cause a Holocaust”) observes, “Everyone wants a piece of the Holocaust pie.” Reich, whose husband once was the director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, writes with intense authority and relentless humor, so that this bitter poison goes down like sweet butter.