Jennet Conant writes a colorful chapter of Washington history in The Irregulars (Simon & Schuster, $27.95), her new biography of Roald Dahl. She focuses on Dahl’s wartime years here, spying for the British, who were anxious to draw America into their battle with Nazi Germany. As a spy, Dahl relayed to his home office gossip from the political and diplomatic scenes, as well as from the local cocktail circuit and even pillow talk with the prominent rich and beautiful ladies he bedded, including Clare Booth Luce. If he couldn’t collect enough rumors, he manufactured them. Despite Dahl’s sometimes shaky espionage operations, the intelligence network, officially known as British Security, succeeded in securing America’s support for the British war effort.
Stalin’s Children (Walker, $26) profiles three remarkable generations of one family in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief Owen Matthews balances personal memoir with historical artifact to provide a vivid account of his half-Russian, half-British family. Matthews’s grandfather was a Soviet propagandist who disappeared in Stalin’s purges, leaving Matthews’s mother, Lyudmila, an orphan. His father was an Oxford student courted by the KGB but expelled from the USSR after he fell in love with Lyudmila. With recourse to KGB files, love letters, his own empathy and narrative talent, Matthews offers an enthrallingly personal story of seemingly impersonal forces and events. Matthews’s family was affected by everything from the first five-year plan to Stalin’s funeral, from Gorbachev’s college years to the USSR’s collapse. A lot of history—but when put in the perspective of one remarkable family, fascinating and comprehensible.
In White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Knopf, $27.95), accomplished biographer Brenda Wineapple has struck on a rich subject, one combining literature, American history, and fascinating personalities. Everyone has heard of Emily Dickinson, although she remains enigmatic. By contrast, Higginson is unfamiliar today, though renowned in his time as a journalist, editor, abolitionist, and activist for black enfranchisement and women’s rights. He led the Union Army’s first black regiment, the First South Carolina volunteers, formed in 1862. Higginson met Dickinson just twice—an experience he said “drained my nerve power”—but the two corresponded for nearly 25 years, and Higginson left some of the few first-hand impressions of the poet that we have.