Despite what our cultural mythology has taught us, Puritanism in early America was not the single major force that shaped our religious values; instead, from the time Europeans began settling New England, American religious life was complex and eclectic. Yale professor Butler approaches his subject by emphasizing religious beliefs and practices, rather than the formal institutions and the elites who run them. As a result, we learn that what most early American believers had in common was their desire to begin anew and to create their own religion, which most often consisted of a quest for direct access to salvation and to the supernatural.
A PEACE TO END ALL PEACE; Creating the Modern Middle East 1914-1922 \o7 by David Fromkin (Henry Holt)\f7
A panoramic view that attempts to explain the modern Middle East since the end of the Ottoman Empire, when the Allies divvied up the area without much regard for the religious sensibilities inseparable from nationhood in this part of the world. "The Middle East, as we know it from today's headlines, emerged from decisions made by the Allies during and after the First World War," Fromkin writes. Boundary lines for the new Middle East were arbitrarily drawn on "an empty map" without any input from the leaders of those countries themselves, says the author of this carefully researched book based on recently opened archival material.
THE SEARCH FOR MODERN CHINA; \o7 by Jonathan D. Spence (W. W. Norton)\f7
A passionately told epic of China by Yale professor and historian Spence, author of eight other acclaimed works on China. His not-surprising contention is that in order to come to terms with China today we need to know about its past. The author's dilemma was where to begin in a recorded history that spans 4,000 years. He decided on 1600 because from that point on there is a continuity in customs and practices, meaning that the presence of the past can be seen. A "modern" nation, according to Spence, is one that "is both integrated and receptive, fairly sure of its own identity yet able to join others on equal terms in the quest for new markets, new technologies, new ideas." Defined in this way, modern countries existed centuries ago; yet, he emphasizes, never has China been one of them.
THE QUEST FOR EL CID; \o7 by Richard Fletcher (Alfred A. Knopf)\f7
An illuminating tale of the life and times of Rodrigo Diaz, the 11th-Century Spanish aristocrat-soldier commonly known as El Cid. Spain's first great national hero emerges as a timeless character motivated by the quest for fortune, which he unabashedly sought by whatever bloody means were required. By the time of his death in 1099, he had become the independent ruler of a principality and the most famous man in Iberia, which accounts for his legendary presence in heroic tales to this day. In the masterful account of the old hero, Richard Fletcher has both clarified and verified previous research by others.
ITALY AND ITS MONARCHY; \o7 by Denis Mack Smith (Yale University Press)\f7
A densely packed account of the inner workings of the Italian monarchy, which existed only from 1861 until 1946 (under the reign of only four kings), yet exerted considerable impact on Italian history--much of it havoc-producing. Written by one of the world's leading historians of Italy, it "assesses the kings' influence on the slow and uneven progress of Italian parliamentary government, on an adventurous foreign policy that Italy could not afford, on the controversial decision to enter the two world wars, and on the authoritarian-nationalist experiment of fascism."
FRIEND OF MY YOUTH; \o7 by Alice Munro (Alfred A. Knopf)\f7
Powerful and haunting short stories. Munro's characters inhabit sparse Canadian landscapes; they are straightforward and refuse to feel sorry for themselves. Their wisdom is quietly ingested, their goodness revealed only through decent living. Yet the price they pay for their quiet dignity causes a catch in the reader's throat. Tragedy and mystery surround these characters who have no resources for the struggle against evil. As one of them says, "You either trust or you don't trust, in my opinion. When you decide you're going to trust, you have to start where you are."
REACHING TIN RIVER; \o7 by Thea Astley (G. P. Putnam's Sons)\f7