New Releases in Books on History
Non Fiction (Essay, Biography and Monograph)
Ferguson, Niall (2021). Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe. Allen Lane.
Disasters are by their very nature hard to predict. Pandemics, like earthquakes, wildfires, financial crises and wars, are not normally distributed; there is no cycle of history to help us anticipate the next catastrophe. But when disaster strikes, we ought to be better prepared than the Romans were when Vesuvius erupted or medieval Italians when the Black Death struck. We have science on our side, after all. Yet the responses of a number of devloped countries to a new pathogen from China were badly bungled. Why?
Niall Ferguson describes the pathologies that have done us so much damage: from imperial hubris to bureaucratic sclerosis and online schism. COVID-19 was a test failed by countries who must learn some serious lessons from history if they are to avoid the doom of irreversible decline.
Colley, Linda (2021). The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions, and the Making of the Modern World. Liveright.
This work traces the global history of written constitutions from the 1750s to the twentieth century, modifying accepted narratives and uncovering the close connections between the making of constitutions and the making of war. In the process, Linda Colley both reappraises famous constitutions and recovers those that have been marginalized but were central to the rise of a modern world.
Written constitutions are usually examined in relation to individual states, but Colley focuses on how they crossed boundaries, spreading into six continents by 1918 and aiding the rise of empires as well as nations. She also illumines their place not simply in law and politics but also in wider cultural histories, and their intimate connections with print, literary creativity, and the rise of the novel.
Otele, Olivette (2021). African Europeans: An Untold History. Basic Books.
Conventional wisdom holds that Africans are only a recent presence in Europe. But in African Europeans, renowned historian Olivette Otele debunks this and uncovers a long history of Europeans of African descent. From the third century, when the Egyptian Saint Maurice became the leader of a Roman legion, all the way up to the present, Otele explores encounters between those defined as “Africans” and those called “Europeans.” She gives equal attention to the most prominent figures—like Alessandro de Medici, the first duke of Florence thought to have been born to a free African woman in a Roman village—and the untold stories—like the lives of dual-heritage families in Europe’s coastal trading towns. This book is a landmark celebration of this integral, vibrantly complex slice of European history, and will redefine the field for years to come.
Rasmussen, Dennis C. (2021). Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders. Princeton University Press.
Americans seldom deify their Founding Fathers any longer, but they do still tend to venerate the Constitution and the republican government that the founders created. Strikingly, the founders themselves were far less confident in what they had wrought, particularly by the end of their lives. In fact, most of them―including George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson―came to deem America’s constitutional experiment an utter failure that was unlikely to last beyond their own generation. Fears of a Setting Sun is the first book to tell the fascinating and too-little-known story of the founders’ disillusionment. As much as Americans today may worry about their country’s future, Rasmussen reveals, the founders faced even graver problems and harbored even deeper misgivings.
Plokhy, Serhii (2021). Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis. W. W. Norton & Company.
Drawing on a range of Soviet archival sources, including previously classified KGB documents, as well as White House tapes, Plokhy offers an international perspective on the Cuban missile crisis, tracing the tortuous decision-making that produced and then resolved it, which involved John Kennedy and his advisers, Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro, and their commanders on the ground. In breathtaking detail, Plokhy vividly recounts the young JFK being played by the canny Khrushchev; the hotheaded Castro willing to defy the USSR and threatening to align himself with China; the Soviet troops on the ground clearing jungle foliage in the tropical heat, and desperately trying to conceal nuclear installations on Cuba, which were nonetheless easily spotted by U-2 spy planes; and the hair-raising near misses at sea that nearly caused a Soviet nuclear-armed submarine to fire its weapons.
Drakulic, Slavenka (2021). Café Europa Revisited: How to Survive Post-Communism. Penguin.
An immigrant with a parrot in Stockholm, a photo of a girl in Lviv, a sculpture of Alexander the Great in Skopje, a memorial ceremony for the 50th anniversary of the Soviet led army invasion of Prague: these are a few glimpses of life in Eastern Europe today.
Totalitarianism did not die overnight and democracy did not completely transform Eastern European societies. Looking closely at artefacts and day to day life, from the health insurance cards to national monuments, and popular films to cultural habits, alongside pieces of growing nationalism and Brexit, these pieces of political reportage dive into the reality of a Europe still deeply divided.
Buchanan, Sherry (2021). On The Ho Chi Minh Trail: The Blood Road, The Women Who Defended It, The Legacy. Asia Ink.
Part travelogue, part history, and part reflective meditation on conflict and reconciliation, Sherry Buchanan’s new book offers both a personal and historical exploration of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, highlighting the critical role women militia and soldiers played in defending the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War. Accompanied by two travelling companions, Buchanan winds her way from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, in the south. Driving through the spectacular scenery of Vietnam and Laos, she encounters locations from the Truong Son mountains, the Phong Nha Caves, ancient citadels and Confucian temples to the Khmer Temple of Wat Phu at the western-most point of the Trail in Laos. The book brings together geography, history, and personal accounts to readdress the culture of indifference to the War, bringing to light the scale of the tragedy, its lasting legacies, and our memory of it.
Millward, James (2021). Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang (Revised and Updated). Columbia University Press.
Eurasian Crossroads is an engaging and comprehensive account of Xinjiang’s history and people from earliest times to the present day. Drawing on primary sources in several Asian and European languages, James A. Millward surveys Xinjiang’s rich environmental and cultural heritage as well as its historical and contemporary geopolitical significance. Xinjiang was once the hub of the Silk Road and the conduit through which Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam entered China. It was also a fulcrum where Sinic, steppe nomadic, Tibetan, and Islamic imperial realms engaged and struggled. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the Han-dominated Chinese Communist Party has failed to include Xinjiang’s diverse indigenous Central Asian peoples. Its nationalistic visions have spurred domestic troubles that now affect the PRC’s foreign affairs and global ambitions.
Ennos, Roland (2021). The Age of Wood: Our Most Useful Material and the Construction of Civilization. Scribner.
The Age of Wood reinterprets human history and shows how our ability to exploit wood’s unique properties has profoundly shaped our bodies and minds, societies, and lives. Ennos takes us on a sweeping journey from Southeast Asia and West Africa where great apes swing among the trees, build nests, and fashion tools; to East Africa where hunter gatherers collected their food; to the structural design of wooden temples in China and Japan; and to Northern England, where archaeologists trace how coal enabled humans to build an industrial world. Addressing the effects of industrialization—including the use of fossil fuels and other energy-intensive materials to replace timber—it not only shows the essential role that trees play in the history and evolution of human existence, but also argues that for the benefit of our planet we must return to more traditional ways of growing, using, and understanding trees.
Rogoyska, Jane (2021). Surviving Katyn: Stalin’s Polish Massacre and the Search for Truth. Oneworld Publications.
Committed in utmost secrecy in April–May 1940 by the NKVD on the direct orders of Joseph Stalin, for nearly fifty years the Soviet regime succeeded in maintaining the fiction that Katyn was a Nazi atrocity, their story unchallenged by Western governments fearful of upsetting a powerful wartime ally and Cold War adversary. Surviving Katyn explores the decades-long search for answers, focusing on the experience of those individuals with the most at stake – the few survivors of the massacre and the Polish wartime forensic investigators – whose quest for the truth in the face of an inscrutable, unknowable, and utterly ruthless enemy came at great personal cost.
Fiction (Historical Novel)
Haynes, Natalie (2021). A Thousand Ships. Harper.
In the middle of the night, a woman wakes to find her beloved city engulfed in flames. Ten seemingly endless years of conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans are over. Troy has fallen.
From the Trojan women whose fates now lie in the hands of the Greeks, to the Amazon princess who fought Achilles on their behalf, to Penelope awaiting the return of Odysseus, to the three goddesses whose feud started it all, these are the stories of the women whose lives, loves, and rivalries were forever altered by this long and tragic war.
A woman’s epic, powerfully imbued with new life, A Thousand Ships puts the women, girls and goddesses at the center of the Western world’s great tale ever told.
Rutherfurd, Edward (2021). China: The Novel. Doubleday.
The story begins in 1839, at the dawn of the First Opium War, and follows Chinese history through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and up to the present day. Rutherfurd chronicles the rising and falling fortunes of members of Chinese, British, and American families, as they negotiate the tides of history. Along the way, in his signature style, he provides a deeply researched portrait of Chinese history and society, its ancient traditions and great upheavals, and China’s emergence as a rising global power. As always, we are treated to romance and adventure, heroines and scoundrels, grinding struggle and incredible fortunes. From Shanghai to Nanking to the Great Wall, Rutherfurd chronicles the turbulent rise and fall of empires as the colonial West meets the opulent and complex East in a dramatic struggle between cultures and people.
Extraordinarily researched and majestically told, the book paints a thrilling portrait of one of the most singular and remarkable countries in the world.
Hannah, Kristin (2021). The Four Winds. St. Martin’s Press.
Texas, 1921. A time of abundance. The Great War is over, the bounty of the land is plentiful, and America is on the brink of a new and optimistic era. But for Elsa Wolcott, deemed too old to marry in a time when marriage is a woman’s only option, the future seems bleak. Until the night she meets Rafe Martinelli and decides to change the direction of her life. With her reputation in ruin, there is only one respectable choice: marriage to a man she barely knows.
By 1934, the world has changed; millions are out of work and drought has devastated the Great Plains. Everything on the Martinelli farm is dying, including Elsa’s tenuous marriage; each day is a desperate battle against nature and a fight to keep her children alive. In this uncertain time, Elsa must make an agonizing choice: fight for the land she loves or leave it behind and go west, to California, in search of a better life.
Callahan, Patti (2021). Surviving Savannah. Berkley.
When Savannah history professor Everly Winthrop is asked to guest-curate a new museum collection focusing on artifacts recovered from the steamship Pulaski, she’s shocked. The ship sank after a boiler explosion in 1838, and the wreckage was just discovered, 180 years later. Everly can’t resist the opportunity to try to solve some of the mysteries and myths surrounding the devastating night of its sinking.
Everly’s research leads her to the astounding history of a family of eleven who boarded the Pulaski together, and the extraordinary stories of two women from this family: a known survivor, Augusta Longstreet, and her niece, Lilly Forsyth, who was never found, along with her child. These aristocratic women were part of Savannah’s society, but when the ship exploded, each was faced with difficult and heartbreaking decisions. This is a moving and powerful exploration of what women will do to endure in the face of tragedy, the role fate plays, and the myriad ways we survive the surviving.
Que Mai, Nguyen Phan (2021). The Mountains Sing. Algonquin Books.
With the epic sweep of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and the lyrical beauty of Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multigenerational tale of the Trần family, set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War. Trần Diệu Lan, who was born in 1920, was forced to flee her family farm with her six children during the Land Reform as the Communist government rose in the North. Years later in Hà Nội, her young granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the Hồ Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that tore apart not just her beloved country, but also her family.
Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Việt Nam, this novel brings to life the human costs of this conflict from the point of view of the Vietnamese people themselves, while showing us the true power of kindness and hope.