Year Zero: A History of 1945
by Ian Buruma
Setting out to tell the story of how the modern world “emerge[d] from the wreckage” of World War II, the Dutch writer Ian Buruma gives himself a difficult assignment. It’s impossible to talk about 1945 without talking about 1944 and ’43 and so on, although plenty of historians—from Adam Goodheart (1861: The Civil War Awakening) to Joseph Ellis (Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence)—have lately leaned upon a limited time frame to justify their scope. Because the book is organized thematically—“exultation,” “revenge,” “the rule of law”—rather than geographically, it swings from Paris to Saigon to Manchuria to London. The quick shifts can be dizzying, but you have to respect Buruma for attempting to present such a full portrait and—unusual for histories of World War II—for giving equal weight to both European and Asian events. And when he zooms in on the particulars of a given hardship, his writing is moving and evocative. To convey the deprivation that gripped immense expanses of the world in 1945, he describes, for instance, Tokyo’s Ueno Station, crawling with orphans collecting cigarette butts, “a kind of urban beehive full of the homeless.” In Germany, their counterparts were “camouflaged in filth,” the only clean spots “the whites of their eyes,” according to one British soldier. “Year Zero had been rather eclipsed in the world’s collective memory by the years of destruction that preceded it,” writes Buruma. But he makes a compelling case that many of the modern triumphs and traumas yet to come took root in this fateful year of retribution, revenge, suffering and healing.
Telling Our Way to the Sea: A Voyage of Discovery in the Sea of Cortez
by Aaron Hirsh
For ten years, Aaron Hirsh, a biologist, took college students on an annual weeklong trip to the Sea of Cortez, the body of water separating the Baja Peninsula from the rest of Mexico. (His wife, biologist Veronica Volny, and their friend, historian of science Graham Burnett, helped lead the voyages.) After the group arrives at a remote fishing village, they observe creatures ranging from a 200,000-pound fin whale—“such scale contradicts the fact that this thing belongs in the elementary mental category called animals”—to a sea cucumber that the students take turns holding in their hands. Hirsh makes both of these experiences awesome; when the sea cucumber finally objects to the manhandling by dissolving the collagen cables that hold its organs together and shooting its dark purple innards from its anus, the students are as stunned and full of wonder as when they face the magnificent whale. I can’t remember the last time I read a science book with such elegant writing, and Hirsh’s travelogue has easygoing philosophical weight as well. To explain how individual perception contributes to a broader understanding of our effect on the earth, he writes: “Measured by the magnitude of our collective impacts, we are far greater than ever, but individually, we are just about as small as ever—and this is the scale at which we perceive the world.”
Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin
by Jill Lepore
The latest book by the Harvard historian, who is known for fascinating stories woven from meticulous detail, is something of an odd beast: a sketchy account of Jane Franklin, Ben Franklin’s sister, a woman who stood very close to history but whose conventional historic importance seems slight. “For a long time, I abandoned the project altogether,” writes Lepore, and what she finally produced is not so much a conventional biography as what she calls “a meditation on silence in the archives.” Jane Franklin was perhaps the person to whom Benjamin felt closest, but she did not possess her brother’s eloquence. She could barely spell. But that didn’t stop them from carrying on a lifelong correspondence, which serves as the backbone of this book. Jane emerges as a spunky, relatable, sympathetic character: the one who took care of the extensive and often-troublesome Franklin family in New England while Ben was off making his name in Philadelphia, France and England. Thanking her for caring for their sick, elderly mother, Ben wrote just after their mother’s death: “Our distance made it impracticable for us to attend her, but you have supplied all.” Such tender moments humanize this towering figure, serving as a reminder of his humble past and the pressing familial concerns that followed him throughout his life. With this book, Lepore asserts the importance of the peripheral figures who supported the central ones. But even when an expert shines a light on “a quiet story of a quiet life of quiet sorrow and quieter opinions,” it’s hard to make that figure come fully alive.
Men We Reaped: A Memoir
by Jesmyn Ward
Toward the end of Jesmyn Ward’s moving memoir, the National Book Award–winning author of Salvage the Bones describes the first time she drank alcohol as a kid and the morning after, when, desperately hung over, she confessed her cooking-sherry binge to her younger brother. He offers an admission of his own as they’re standing outside in the Mississippi winter: He’s selling crack. This moment encapsulates the rather bleak mood of Ward’s memoir, in which she juxtaposes the universal experience of growing up against the peculiar and oppressive challenges of being black and poor in the South in the 1980s and ’90s. The book is structured around the deaths of five young men (the “men we reaped” of the title): Ward’s brother, her cousin and three other close friends who might as well have been family members, so fluid are the boundaries of this community. Ward punctuates the story of her own early life with the tales of these men to show the proximity of death in down-and-out Mississippi. Upon learning that a community park is also zoned as a burial site, she writes poignantly: “One day our graves will swallow up our playground.” There are glimmers of hope—and lots of love—here, but the overall impression is that Ward, who had an early benefactor and made her way to an Ivy League college, was very lucky to get out.