5 HOT BOOKS: A History of Bunk, the Fall of Rome (with Modern Parallels) and More

The following article first appeared in The National Book Review:

1. Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News by Kevin Young (Graywolf Press)

Early on in his fascinating cultural history of hoaxing, Young introduces showman P.T. Barnum and then turns to an explication of the penny press, which, like the Internet, was “spurred on not by arguments over objectivity or facts but over hoaxes, impostors, vast fictions, con artists, and cheats.” Race emerges as a theme in Bunk, as Young, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and Poetry Editor of The New Yorker, exposes how frequently hoaxes track racial stereotypes and prejudices. Young makes brilliant, original connections between 19th century Spirit photographers and 20th century journalistic fabulists and plagiarists, and finally, in his Coda, “The Age of Euphemism,” he takes on Donald Trump as the latest, and most consequential, purveyor of fakery in which “the truth isn’t so much absent or contested as it doesn’t matter.”

2. The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic by Mike Duncan (Public Affairs)

Duncan’s award-winning podcast The History of Rome has engaged legions of listeners, and now his multitudinous followers have helped propel his new book to a debut at #8 on the New York Times Best Seller list. The book, which focuses on 130-80 B.C., the years leading up to the Republic’s collapse, is written in Duncan’s usual congenial style. He zeros in on Rome’s polarization between “optimates” (conservatives) and “populares” (populists), the disintegration of participatory democracy, and the concomitant rise in inequality, uncivil discourse, and violence. The parallels with modern times, and particularly contemporary America, leap off the page.

3. The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball by Noam Cohen (The New Press)

Former New York Times tech journalist Cohen, who wrote the “Link by Link” column, focuses on the intellectual underpinnings of Silicon Valley in this compelling narrative about the rise of the computer era, and what it has meant for society. In each chapter, Cohen zeroes in on an entrepreneurial genius or two, from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, to Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, each of whom believes in disruption and a libertarian explanation for his own success. With the rise of Silicon Valley, Cohen explains, these billionaires exert outsized impact on the world’s economy and politics, and the cumulative effect has been elitist and anti-democratic.

4. The Revolution of Marina M. by Janet Fitch (Little, Brown)

With the approach of winter, here comes a big, immersive novel for fans of Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow. Fitch, author of Oprah Book Club selection White Oleander, sets her coming-of-age story in revolutionary Petrograd in 1916, and focuses it on the privileged Marina Dmitrievna Makarova, an aspiring 16-year-old poet with romantic ideas about the Russian Revolution. Swept up in the Bolshevik fervor, the irrepressible red-headed heroine breaks from her parents to join her radical friends and contends with personal feelings of betrayal and self-doubt, as well as her own naivete, as she witnesses the dramatic national upheaval around her.

5. The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led A Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It by Joanna Scutts (Liveright)

Depression-era newspaper columnist Marjorie Hillis became a symbol of and totem for female independence with her bestselling non-fiction book Live Alone and Like It. In this fascinating history, Scutts rediscovers Hillis as a self-help writer who provided advice and inspiration for women working during the Depression and wartime. Scutts, a New-York Historical Society historian, explains how Hillis spoke to women with the same optimism and self-belief as Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale offered men. Although Time magazine sniffed in a brief obituary that Hillis merely “glorified spinsterhood,” Scutts convincingly depicts her as a smart, witty pioneer who blazed a trail for independent 20th – and 21st - century women, and whose words have never resonated more powerfully than they do today.

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