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.