As the end of this endless year approaches, we find ourselves in a retrospective mood: Out with the old, in with the even older! Our recommended books this week cast an eye back on the Bolshevik Revolution and the seeds of the Cold War (“The Lenin Plot,” by Barnes Carr); and on the little-known role that people fleeing slavery played in American foreign and domestic policy before the Civil War (“South to Freedom,” by Alice L. Baumgartner); and on the ways that Winston Churchill’s larger-than-life legacy continues to shape British politics to this day (“The Churchill Myths,” by Steven Fielding, Bill Schwarz and Richard Toye).
You might also ease out of the year by reading an essay collection about the cultural woes of post-Soviet Europe (“The Age of Skin,” by Dubravka Ugresic) or a sweeping theory about the link between autism and the rise of a uniquely human intelligence (“The Pattern Seekers,” by Simon Baron-Cohen), or an Afghan woman’s memoir, written as a series of letters to her son (“Dancing in the Mosque,” by Homeira Qaderi).
In fiction, take your pick between an updated Cinderella romance set in Hollywood (“If the Boot Fits,” by Rebekah Weatherspoon) and a stark techno-dystopia about the end of everything (“The Silence,” by Don DeLillo). That one is supposedly set in the near future, but after living through 2020 nobody would blame you for thinking it’s one more work of history on our list; as DeLillo has written elsewhere, it is all falling indelibly into the past.
SOUTH TO FREEDOM: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War, by Alice L. Baumgartner. (Basic, $32.) This meticulous history offers a fresh look at the flight of enslaved Americans south to Mexico, where they invoked antislavery laws to claim their freedom, in the process profoundly shaping relations between the two countries and the future of slavery in the United States. “Rarely has this story been told as compassionately, or rendered as beautifully,” Kerri Greenidge writes in her review. “Baumgartner’s important conclusion is that we must reconceive the impact of the supposedly powerless on the economically and politically powerful.”
IF THE BOOT FITS, by Rebekah Weatherspoon. (Dafina, paper, $8.99.) In this smart, sparkling modern-day Cinderella tale, an aspiring screenwriter who works as a personal assistant to Hollywood royalty realizes that her own dreams and ambitions are worth putting first in her own life. “Most Cinderellas famously leave a slipper behind,” Olivia Waite writes in her latest romance column. “Weatherspoon’s heroine, Amanda McQueen, holds on to her shoes, but unwittingly makes off with her one night stand’s brand-new Oscar statuette. It’s a fun twist on the traditional scene, and it sets the tone for an adorable retelling, engaging and character-rich.”
THE PATTERN SEEKERS: How Autism Drives Human Invention, by Simon Baron-Cohen. (Basic, $28.) Baron-Cohen argues that humans are distinguished by their ability to categorize and systematize — a quality particularly pronounced in people with autism. He contends that if we better understand how this trait works in them we can better appreciate what makes our entire species unique. “Grand theories aside,” Christine Kenneally writes in her review, “Baron-Cohen is at his most striking when he writes about people with autism, like Jonah, who was slow to talk but who taught himself to read” — a “born pattern seeker” who “was taunted by other children for being so different. … Baron-Cohen argues with feeling and conviction that society must do a better job of making room for people like Jonah, and that it will benefit enormously when it does.”
THE SILENCE, by Don DeLillo. (Scribner, $22.) For some 50 years now, DeLillo has demonstrated his gift and his affinity for using the novel to chronicle America’s unrelenting contemporary culture. In his bone-hard and skeletally spare latest, he imagines a near-future in which technology is dead — and civilization might be, too. “The novelists of DeLillo’s generation expected the end of the world through nuclear calamity, but of them only a few still remain alive to countenance the change: namely, the increased chance of the world ending not with a bang, or even a whimper, but in silence,” Joshua Cohen writes in his review. “This is the eschaton through lack of access, but also through human atrophy, debility, the desuetude of critical function.”
THE LENIN PLOT: The Unknown Story of America’s War Against Russia, by Barnes Carr. (Pegasus, $29.95.) Carr’s revealing book upends notions of the Cold War, showing that it began earlier than assumed — as soon as the Bolsheviks took over — and that it wasn’t always cold: In 1918, America led a failed military intervention to oust the Communists. “One would be hard pressed to find anything about this conflict in official United States documents, or even American military history books, which makes Barnes Carr’s entertaining new study, ‘The Lenin Plot,’ a welcome corrective,” Victor Sebestyen writes in his review. “The story is vividly told by Carr, who has unearthed some fascinating new archival sources to add to a sparkling narrative.”
DANCING IN THE MOSQUE: An Afghan Mother’s Letter to Her Son, by Homeira Qaderi. (HarperCollins, $26.99.) In this galvanizing memoir, an Afghan women’s rights activist living in exile in California tells the story of her life through a series of honest, brave letters to the son she had to leave behind. “A stunning reminder that stories and words are what sustain us, even — and perhaps especially — under the most frightening circumstances,” Elisabeth Egan writes in her latest Group Text column. “Qaderi risked everything to tell her story. When you hear what she survived — the Taliban, a refugee camp, marriage to a total stranger — you’ll want to hand her memoir to a friend and say the words that have fueled resistance for centuries: ‘Pass it on.’”
THE CHURCHILL MYTHS, by Steven Fielding, Bill Schwarz and Richard Toye. (Oxford University, $25.95.) The authors, all of them historians at English universities, argue that Britain is pathologically in thrall to a misguided and inaccurate notion of Winston Churchill’s legacy. “Even dead, Churchill continues to shape our political landscape,” Kori Schake writes in her review. “The three authors show Churchill being enlisted by the Spice Girls and the U.K. Independence Party; analyze the 2018 movie ‘Darkest Hour’; discuss at length Boris Johnson’s attempt to recast Churchill as an earlier embodiment of Boris Johnson; and note that British culture clung ever more tightly to Churchill during the sunset of Britain’s international prominence.”
THE AGE OF SKIN, by Dubravka Ugresic. Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac. (Open Letter, paper, $16.95.) These essays from a fitfully democratizing post-Soviet Europe cover politics, art, feminism, fashion and more with razor-sharp humor and a unifying theme: cultural decline. “A major literary voice in Europe, Ugresic brings deep personal insight into the grinding despair and destructive nationalism of post-communist societies, often writing with lively, ironic flair,” Lori Soderlind writes, reviewing the book alongside three other essay collections. “Not too long ago, this collection might have inspired gratitude for American democracy, once characterized by its optimism, a beacon to the world. Today, it is striking to read about post-Soviet Europe and recognize ourselves, including the creepy sense of Russia’s unchecked influence in our struggles. Ugresic’s warning is unvarnished.”
source: New York times