There are many ways to write about ancient Rome, and Emma Southon has found a most rewarding path by focusing on real-life murders of the era to illustrate how Romans saw life, death, and themselves. Julius Caesar, of course, earns a chapter, but the author presents an astonishing docket of cases that bring vividly alive (with a dash of wit) what Romans feared the most. Curious about the penalty for patricide, by the way? Let’s just say it involved a sack, a dog, a cockerel, a monkey, and a snake, a punishment that would lead any sane person to drop the knife and conclude father knows best.
The main characters in acclaimed novelist Andrea Lee’s latest book are a Black American professor and her husband, a wealthy Italian businessman. But the star is Madagascar, where they have a villa and whose terrain is so gorgeously described by Lee that any reader with an ounce of adventurousness would move to the island tomorrow. But beauty can never hide tension for long, and Lee deftly handles race and class in ways that resonate even for those who could not find Madagascar with a G.P.S.
There is no dearth of books about World War II (as devoted Air Mail readers of the Books section know), but there are few about how Europe repaired itself afterward that are as good as this one. Paul Betts, a professor of history at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, brings a dazzling intellectual panache to his telling of how a region gored by war came back to life by redefining what civilization means.