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A spy in the right place at the right moment

Alexsi is a creation of and for the world of Joseph Stalin at its most terrifying. A practiced thief at 16 years old, he is captured by the communist NKVD, the law enforcement agency of the Soviet Union, and becomes a secret agent who is also a trained killer.

The Gipper in transition

When we think of Ronald Reagan, it usually involves either his two successful terms in the Governor’s Mansion of California or the White House. What we rarely consider is the period when this great modern conservative figure was trapped in the political wilderness — with a future that was far from certain.

A political porcupine

Good biography should not just bring the subject individual into clearer focus, it also should inform us about how that life has something to tell us about current events. This meticulously annotated selection from the diaries of our sixth president reads like the banner headlines of today’s news reports of political intrigue, raw ambitions and the same existential crisis that divides our nation today.

A stunted soul that housed an enormous talent

Many books fail to live up to their titles. Only occasionally does the title fail to live up to the book. A current example is Oxford and Cambridge scholar John Stubbs’ massive, magisterial “life and times” biography of Jonathan Swift (1667-1745).

Words on life from a writer and true gourmand

Jim Harrison and red wine started going together when he was a teenager and they never broke up. The 79-year-old poet, essayist, screenwriter, and novel- and novella-writing man of letters was a lifelong drinker of red wine, the quality of which was directly related to his current income.

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The first Brexit

For more than 50 years British historian John Julius Norwich has been generating scores of thoroughly researched, engagingly written books that are damned with the faint praise of being "popular" histories. This is unjust as it is wrong.

Giving Shakespeare novel treatment

Jeanette Winterson's scintillating, clever "The Gap of Time" ($15, 273 pages) is the first of the novels commissioned by the Hogarth Press in honor of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, each of which takes one of the Bard's plays and rewrites it as a novel.

What Huck did after he headed West

It's hard to imagine a gutsier move by a novelist than to take up where Mark Twain left off. "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is about as seminal a work of fiction as we have in our literary history.

Making America great the first time

For decades George Melloan has been the insightful pater families of The Wall Street Journal's editorial pages. Recently he retired as deputy editor and columnist, although he continues still to contribute commentary to the paper. Yet, he also has taken time to research, report and create this charming and penetrating memoir of his life during the Great Depression and its parallels to Washington's continuing irresistible impulse to shape America to the liking of our political elites, left or right.

The spy among us

Everyone loves a good spy story. But it can be hard to tell if the story is fact or fiction; this is especially the case with spy memoirs. Jack Barsky's page-turning memoir, "Deep Undercover," has a ring of authenticity to it. Most of the book is written using recreated dialogue, but is it true?

Imagining the very human sufferings of a queen

As a person, Queen Anne (1765-1714) is generally accounted the least impressive of the all the female monarchs who have ruled England. Which is not to say that her reign did not see great victories and many consequential events: it's just that she was more a presider over them rather than being as much of an activist as her predecessors or Queen Victoria.

Addressing the use of force by innocent civilians

What justifies the use of lethal force in self-defense? On the surface, it seems to be a simple concept, particularly to laymen; but the question is one of the most complex and thorny legal issues that prosecutors and courts of law can deal with.

An American poet and his demons

Seldom if ever has there been such a neat match between author and subject as in this penetrating study of the American poet Robert Lowell (1917-1977). If other poets have struggled with mental illness, there can be few who have done so more fiercely and painfully than Lowell, nor perhaps any whose challenges in that arena are as bound up with his literary output.

How the JFK assassination film became one family's albatross

For more than 50 years, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy has weighed heavily on those who lived through that somber time. In "Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film," Alexandra Zapruder recounts how her grandfather, Abraham Zapruder, filmed the Kennedy assassination with his movie camera and how the film affected the nation and became an albatross to her family.

How dictionaries are put together

Of course, as rational creatures we know that dictionaries must be made by people, yet we don't really think of them as human productions. They seem to be just there like works of nature or age-old monuments. Not that you notice dictionaries much until you need to look up the meaning of a word.

What is essential is 'speed, speed, speed'

"The most famous conservative journalist whom liberals have never heard of," wrote The New Yorker a decade ago. That's no longer the case.

A unique perspective on a unique city

As a longtime provincial backwater that, almost overnight, became the capital of Europe's mightiest commercial and military power, Berlin has always been a special case.

How English soaks up words from other languages

For many people across the world, the dominant role of English has been a problem. Back in the 1960s, President Charles de Gaulle was so concerned that French was being contaminated by such an infusion from across the Channel, that he fought a largely unsuccessful rear-guard action against what was known as "Franglais."

Why 'rage is not a policy'

We usually think of the culture wars as being a competition between the broad groups we currently call "progressives," and "conservatives," each of which has a general concept of a just society.

Mysteries upon mysteries and the painting behind them

The German lawyer who is the unnamed narrator of "The Woman on the Staircase" is hired by the painter Karl Schwind to secure his right to photograph one of his paintings now owned by Peter Gundlach.

Imagining war from the enemy's perspective

Martin Cruz Smith is perhaps best known for his crime thriller series featuring Arkady Renko, a Russian militia investigator whose decency often made him run afoul of his Soviet masters.

To catch the conscience of a king

Here's a novel way to chase those torpid springtime blues: go see the production of the play "King Charles III" currently on at Washington's fine Shakespeare Theater Company. Then order a copy of this biography, which is due out in a month's time.

How presidents have responded when disaster strikes

Tevi Troy, CEO of the American Health Policy Institute and former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and White House aide, tells us he "spent most of the first decade of the 21st century working in the executive branch of the U.S. government dealing with disasters."