The fifteenth book from acclaimed journalist Marvin Kalb, entitled The Year I Was Peter the Great (Brookings, $24.99), is a memoir focused on one tumultuous year, 1956. Kalb was then a twenty-six-year-old Russian-speaking graduate student assisting the American ambassador as a translator at the U.S embassy in Moscow. As Khrushchev’s shocking, year-long campaign of de-Stalinization unfolded, Kalb was there as an eyewitness, meeting Russians of all types, assessing their attitudes and opinions, and watching them size up their American visitor too. This is a fascinating and highly entertaining story about a momentous year in Russian history—one especially relevant in the era of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.
Serious history buffs will appreciate the new perspective on the decline of the Roman Empire offered in The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire (Princeton, $35). While experts and armchair historians have spent years debating the human causes that contributed to the downfall of the great empire, Kyle Harper argues that it was brought to the brink of destruction by a larger, less manageable force: nature. He demonstrates that the Roman Empire was able to flourish due to an ideal climate, but when climate stability began to decay so did the fortunes of Rome. And while the Romans benefited from increased migration, travel, and trade, these factors also permitted the spread of a variety of deadly diseases. The author is clearly an expert in his field, and he makes a compelling case by drawing on modern developments in fields such as DNA sequencing, epidemiology, and climate science. As Harper lays out in his book, perhaps the Romans’ greatest mistake was holding on to the belief that they had “tamed the forces of wild nature.” These environmental factors, along with human error, helped to bring about the destruction of one of the greatest empire’s the world has ever seen.
Dan Jones has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most captivating and lively historians, proving that well-researched historical narratives need not be dry and impenetrable. Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors (Viking, $30) is his best work to date. It has the advantage of dealing with a fascinating and often ill-used subject, but Jones elevates the Templars above conspiracy theory histories to uncover the fascinating history within, from their military campaigns, Outremer Crusader states, their financial acumen and extensive properties, to the knights’ eventual downfall. This volume is possibly the most comprehensive modern history of the Templars, told by an incredibly talented chronicler and interpreter of facts and sources. It is a must-have for any history bookshelf.