The Histories -- Herodotus by Tom Holland, translator, with an Introduction by Paul Cartledge, Viking '14, $40, 834 pages, ASIN #0670024899. Index, notes, 27 pages of maps.
Seasoned readers would agree that learning about their background and early lives illuminates the work of such authors as David McCullough and Philip Roth. So it is striking that we know next to nothing about the fifth-century BC life of Herodotus. Why? Largely because it was he who invented the genres of history and biography. Remarkably, to obtain such basic details of Herodotus's life as the names of his parents we have to draw on an entry under the name Herodotus in a 10th century AD Byzantine dictionary.
Herodotus of Halicarnassus made such an impact on his time that no less an icon as Cicero called him the "Father of History." "Working in a genre-defining amalgam of rational inqujiry and storytelling in the Homeric tradition," writes translator Tom Holland, "he ambitiously strove to document the limits of human knowledge amid a veritable clash of grand civilizations."
As a result, Herodotus's book The Histories became "the earliest surviving work of nonfiction," working its way from the Trojan War up to its thrilling climax: "an epic narrative account of the war between the Persian empire and the Greek city-states in the fifth century BC.
"Larger-than-life personages like Cyrus Xerxes, Darius and Leonidas stand tall through landmark events that ensured the development of Western culture and still capture our modern imagination," according to Holland, "including the odds-defying victory at Marathon, the heroic stand at Thermopylae and the naval triumph at Salamis."
Translator Tom Holland is the author of Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic, which was short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize. Paul Cartledge, who wrote the Introduction to this book, is A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge.
Jack of Spies by David Downing, Soho Crime '14, $27.95, 338 pages, ASIN #1616952687.
Setting the table for his newest espionage work, author David Downing writes, "It is 1913 at the beginning of Jack of Spies....and a globe-trotting luxury automobile salesman named Jack McColl is putting his military background and ear for languages to work for the fledgling Royal Navy Intelligence services. The world is on the brink of calamity, as the UK, Germany, and Europe inch closer to the First World War and Jack is about to find himself a player on the biggest of stages." Soon he'll be off to the races.
We had the rare opportunity to overhear author Downing and his Soho editor, Juliet Grames, in a brief Q&A concerning his writing of Jack of Spies:
Q. Spoiling the plot for the reader as little as possible (I hope): Jack of Spies features some fascinating and important political events that, I think, are often forgotten or overshadowed by World War I: the Irish Republican movement; the Indian independence movement; the Paterson strikes and workers' rights; the Tampico Affair. How did you decide to include these episodes in the plot?
A. Well obviously I needed somewhere to send my hero, and in 1914 there was no shortage of places where the British Empire was being threatened in one way or another. In Jack of Spies he turns up in China, the US, Mexico and Ireland, but it could have been any number of exotic destinations. And my female protagonist, Caitlin, a radical New York journalist, would have been all too aware of the Paterson strike and its aftermath in 1913-14.
Q. In the words of John Le Carre', 'Love is whatever you can still betray.' In part, the character Jack McColl is so eager to be a spy because he doesn't have anything tying him down. Falling in love with Caitlin Hanley compromises not only Jack's ability to be a spy but his loyalty to the same country he had so recently been willing to sacrifice it all for. What are your thoughts on the perfect spy, David? Can he or she have love in their life?"
A. Jack McColl is not so much a spy as an intelligence agent whose job involves some spying, and over he series he'll spend more time foiling plots than collecting information. But to answer your question -- I think a perfect spy would have to be a very imperfect human being, and in the long run at least, not a great bet as a partner in love.
David Downing, who grew up in suburban London, has written six books in the John Russell espionage series, set in WWII--era Berlin. He lives in Guildford, England.
Cured -- How the Berlin Patients Defeated HIV and Forever Changed Medical Science by Nathalia Holt, Dutton '14, $27.95, 313 pages, ASIN #0525953922. Index, timeline, notes, unillustrated.
From the dust cover:
"A Young molecular biologist at the forefront of HIV research, Nathalia Holt tells the historic, multilayered, and deeply compassionate story of two patients -- each known in medical literature as the Berlin Patient -- and their young research-minded doctors. The backdrop is nothing less than a revolution in cultural attitudes and medical thinking.
"These two patients' disparate cures came 12 years apart: the first in 1996 from an experimental cancer drug administered on an unusual schedule, the other in 2008 from a bone marrow transplant of cells with a particular genetic mutation. Nathalia Holt connects the molecular dots of these two cases for the first time, providing insight into one of the most remarkable medical breakthroughs of our generation."
Author Nathalia Holt is an award-winning research scientist specializing in HIV biology. He lives in Boston.