Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Her new book is Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch With Science, Love, and Common Sense.
Learned, humorous, and brassy, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker dispatches the idea of the tabula rasa in this 2002 book on the science of the mind. If he grinds his anti-religious ax a bit too often, his fascinating tour of the literature is worth it. Sorry, Rousseau, we are not silly putty. Human nature lives!
Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger by Richard Pipes (out of print).
The life story of the recently deceased Harvard historian who, as a teenager, watched from his balcony as Hitler entered Warsaw in 1939. Most affecting is his account of experiencing near-clinical depression while working on his history of the Russian Revolution.
Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (Vintage, $16).
Though her reputation is now clouded by some controversy (was she a self-hating Jew?), Némirovsky’s 1942 tale of French families fleeing Paris in advance of the Nazis is brilliant. Quotidian details like a pet escaping his cage are achingly apt. The author perished in Auschwitz only months after completing the book. Lost for decades, it was found by Némirovsky’s daughter and published in 2004.
The Black Book of Communism edited by Stéphane Courtois (Harvard, $61).
The cure for any lingering romanticism about communism. Courtois and 10 other scholars offer a country-by-country accounting of cruelty, terror, waste, and catastrophe (the body count exceeds 100 million — two million in North Korea alone). If I were emperor, The Black Book of Communism would be required reading in every university.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang (Touchstone, $19).
With a novelist's skill, Chang, who has also written a biography of Mao Zedong, tells the story of 20th-century China through the experiences of her grandmother (a concubine), her mother (a revolutionary), and herself (a historian).
The Death of Caesar by Barry Strauss (Simon & Schuster, $17).
You know how it ends, but this treatment keeps you on the edge of your seat. Caesar was almost asking for it. Brutus' biggest mistake was about money. But no spoilers.