There is perhaps no other national symbol as closely associated with its country as the Kremlin. In Red Fortress, Catherine Merridale attempts not just to trace the Kremlin's history, but to present it as a stage for the entirety of Russian history. Thus the story of a fort on a hill becomes a sweeping narrative that covers many cultures and steps outside Russian borders. Merridale is an impeccable scholar and a persistent researcher; she scoured archives and libraries both in Russia and in the West for material and interviewed diplomats, politicians, art historians, restorers, and architects. This wealth of material is presented via engrossing and clear prose that perfectly captures the spirit of this 'magnificent and lethal' landmark.
“Soviet cooking” seems like an oxymoron, considering that during most of the USSR’s existence food was in short supply. Yet in Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking (Crown, $26), award-winning food writer Anya Von Bremzen gives us a fascinating and often surprising look at the history of the USSR and her own family through the lens of food (or the lack thereof). She is a talented memoirist, and the book is much more than just a list of recipes and favorite dishes. Von Bremzen and her mother recreate classic pre-Revolution fare, prepare Stalin’s Deathday Dinner, and devise their own version of Salat Olivier (which Von Bremzen calls a “salady Soviet icon”). This touching memoir is a must-read regardless of your familiarity with Soviet cuisine (and yes, a recipe for borscht is included in the back).
What separates great athletes from truly extraordinary athletes? In The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance (Current Hardcover, $26.95), David Epstein covers the nature vs. nurture debate as it relates to elite athletic performance. It’s no surprise that athletic greatness is dependent on both genes and environment, but the real focus of the book is the extent and relative importance of these factors. Epstein examines scientific studies, conducts interviews with scientists, coaches, and athletes, and travels to places like Jamaica and Finland to give us a truly fascinating look at the latest in sports science. He does not skirt the sensitive topics of gender and race, either, but handles them masterfully and with care. As a truly skilled science reporter, Epstein presents facts without overgeneralization and gives a balanced look at this often thorny debate.