The Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz: In this searing collection, the Polish poet blends history, philosophy, and lightly fictionalized biography to explore the psychology of complicity and other moral ambiguities of his era. I think I’ll be haunted for the rest of my life by Milosz’s description of a young woman being rounded up for the camps while shouting that the small child running behind her and calling out to her is not her own — as well as the sternness with which Milosz forbids his readers the consolation of judgment. This woman is young, he tells us, she is alive; she is not yet done living. It’s the brutality of Milosz’s empathy — as well as the brutality of his clarity — that makes this collection so powerful.
Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, Richard Perlstein: Written with novelistic verve and more deadpan humor than you might expect from a book about Richard Nixon, Perlstein’s account of the 37th president’s political rise casts modern American politics in an illuminating, and often frightening, context. With a cameo by a young Karl Rove as a puckish operative who lures hippies to opponents’ rallies with promises of free food and girls.
Finally, three astonishing literary thrillers: Jennifer Egan’s The Keep, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and William Landay’s Defending Jacob. These books’ plots cover varied terrain — The Keep follows the fallout of a childhood prank gone wrong, Gone Girl explores the sinister depths of a fatally flawed marriage, and Defending Jacob grapples with the harrowing legacy of family violence. But in each of them, the most terrifying aspect of the story winds up being the human mind’s capacity for denial, rationalization, and self-deception — and in each of them, the notion of the mystery plot twist is upended by re-imagined parameters of the mystery itself.
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