Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, by Alex Ross
This biography of Richard Wagner, written by the New Yorker music critic whose 2007 book, The Rest Is Noise, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, unspools the German composer’s complexity in the context of the world he influenced so greatly. Read a review by fellow Wagner aficionado Simon Callow—known for his work on both sides of the screen but also for his books, which range from a three-volume biography of Orson Welles to Being Wagner—or listen to the audio recording here.
Hitler: Downfall—1939–1945, by Volker Ullrich
In the second volume of his biography of Adolf Hitler, focusing on Hitler’s final years, German historian Volker Ullrich depicts the dictator as a lesson in “how quickly democracy can be prised from its hinges.” Read a review by Tim Bouverie, the British historian and author of Appeasement: Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War, here.
A World Beneath the Sands: The Golden Age of Egyptology, by Toby Wilkinson
Ancient Egypt was shrouded in centuries of mystery and sand before Napoleon descended on North Africa. Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson reveals the race between the Americans, British, French, and Germans to discover—and claim—ancient Egyptian treasures, from hieroglyphics to Tutankhamen’s tomb. Read a review of the book by Max Carter, head of the Impressionist and Modern Art department at Christie’s, here.
We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence, by Becky Cooper
Forty years after an unsolved murder rocked Harvard, Becky Cooper landed on campus as an undergrad. Her compelling, personal book explores the crime through the lens of her college life and the school’s long history with keeping scandal under wraps. Read a review by Sarah Weinman, author of The Real Lolita and editor of the true-crime anthology Unspeakable Acts, here.
To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq, by Robert Draper
A nearly 20-year perspective and extensive research—yielding new revelations—made for Robert Draper’s definitive account of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. To Start a War is reviewed by Romesh Ratnesar, who served in the U.S. Department of State from 2015 to 2017, here.
Diary of a Foreigner in Paris, by Curzio Malaparte
He was as unreliable a narrator as they come, alternating between names and W.W. II allegiances as it suited him best, but the 20th-century artist and writer Curzio Malaparte was nothing if not entertaining. Published in English for the first time, with an introduction by Edmund White, his colorful journals from postwar Paris are reviewed by Max McGuinness, a professor at the University of Limerick, here.
The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China, by Jonathan Kaufman
This multi-generational epic tells the tale of the displaced Jews from Baghdad who mastered Great Britain’s tools of empire in 20th-century China. The book, which reads like a novel in the hands of Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jonathan Kaufman, is reviewed by Helen Zia, author of Last Boat Out of Shanghai, here.
The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Precarious State, by Declan Walsh
From the former New York Times Pakistan-bureau chief, this book offers a searing, informative portrait of a broken country. It’s a “precarious state” that author Aatish Taseer (The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges) knows well: “Of The Nine Lives of Pakistan, Declan Walsh’s portrait of the country he describes as a ‘multi-ringed circus of violence,’ one of them is my father’s,” he writes in his review of the book, which can be read here.
The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, by Sam Wasson
It’s not easy to forget a closing line like “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” This book, on the making of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, deftly considers the film’s role as the last great Hollywood picture before the industry gave way to commercialization. Read a review of The Big Goodbye, by Daniel Okrent, author of several books, including The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other Europeans Out of America, here.
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, by Erik Larson
No AIR MAIL books list would be complete without a thorough, riveting history of London during the Blitz. Extra points for Churchill, who appears throughout Erik Larson’s portrayal of Britain in crisis. Read a review by Andrew Roberts, author of Churchill: Walking with Destiny, here.