Manal al-Sharif’s journey in Saudi Arabia, as told in her memoir, Daring to Drive (Simon & Schuster, $26), is an extraordinary story of perseverance and transformation. Her book begins with al-Sharif’s arrest in the Saudi city of Khobar for driving while being a woman. As the events unfold, al-Sharif makes the danger she faced quite clear. A lone woman in the Saudi criminal justice system has few allies or resources, to say nothing of rights. She leaves us in suspense concerning the outcome of her trial in order to recount how she became a feminist activist. Al-Sharif endured poverty and abuse in Mecca. Over the years her burgeoning sense of self, especially as it was expressed through art and literature, was squashed under the heel of an ultra-conservative Saudi interpretation of Islam. Amazingly, all was not lost. Slowly al-Sharif became an opponent of oppression. She got an education. She learned the skills needed to obtain a highly technical job in Saudi Aramco, the nationalized oil company. She learned how to drive. She became independent in a culture that effectively forces women into isolation. Finally, when all she had achieved was again threatened by a man reminding her of her place in Saudi culture, she began to fight back. Through this incredible memoir, al-Sharif illustrates that change is possible or, as she puts it, “the rain begins with a single drop.” Even in the desert, the rain will come.
Masha Gessen’s breathtaking history of Russia from the end of communism to today is a detailed analysis of what initially looked like a revolution but that, in the end, only brought the country full circle. Chronicling the shifts from glasnost and Gorbachev through Yeltsin and on to Putin’s efforts to re-establish a Greater Russia, The Future is History (Riverhead, $28) doesn’t recount a story of the iron curtain being torn apart and rewoven as much as it charts the condition of a patient with “a recurrent infection.” The disease is totalitarianism. Its toxins include terror and ideology, secrecy and repression. Those it afflicts suffer a host of symptoms, including constant anxiety and depression, both economic and emotional. These combine to turn ordinary individuals into the hollow, traumatized Homo Sovieticus, a creature too insecure to make demands. While this species seemed to die off with the Soviet Union, Gessen shows that, like Soviet-style totalitarianism itself, Sovieticus has survived. Her analysis puts this survival into the contexts of both political theory and psychoanalysis, showing first how totalitarianism took hold and continues to hold on, and then describing exactly how this repression breaks a society. While she invokes leading theorists such as Orwell and Arendt, Gessen grounds her account in the stories of seven people and their families. If her focus on a psychologist, a sociologist, a pioneering gay academic, a philosopher, and a Pussy Riot activist emphasize the social sciences, this is no accident. One of Gessen’s most striking points about the Soviet system is that it deliberately erased sociology and related disciplines, thus robbing people of the tools they needed to see, define, and understand themselves.
Most biographies start with their subject’s ancestry, but Laura Dassow Walls introduces Henry David Thoreau (Chicago, $35) by way of a survey of New England’s geography. She explains the region’s kettle ponds, drumlins, and rocky promontories, and describes the ways of its indigenous peoples. These were Thoreau’s early fascinations, and they shaped his entire life. As she traces how his ideas about nature, social justice, and transcendentalism grew from and supported each other, Walls brilliantly puts Thoreau’s thinking about ecology, equality, and a “higher law” into the context of his time and shows how very much ahead of his time he was—to the point that editors censored his essays. Much of her remarkable portrait revises common assumptions about Thoreau. He was neither a recluse nor a misanthrope. He joined many groups, lectured frequently, and made lifelong, devoted friends, including Emerson and Horace Greeley, who acted as his literary agent. Living “deliberately” at Walden Pond did not mean living alone. Thoreau had constant visitors there and became part of an overlooked community of freed slaves, Irish immigrants, and the impoverished. He aligned himself with the marginalized ever after. Walls has done prodigious research for this deeply affecting book. She explains why good pencils were so hard to make in the nineteenth century, shows us step-by-step how Thoreau built his Walden house, takes us on his hiking and boating trips, and traces his evolving ideas. The result is a Thoreau you don’t just know more about, but a living, breathing, thinking person you feel you really know.