What was England like before there was even an English language? The sweeping narrative of Britain Begins (Oxford Univ., $45) takes us from the earliest moments of unsettled, rolling hills up to the point where the Norman conquest gave birth to the language of Chaucer. As an archeologist and Oxford professor Emeritus, Barry Cunliffe is well prepared to delve as far back as DNA evidence, oral history, and a clear mind can reach. Most fascinating in his telling are the scientific and cultural roots of the myths we associate with inherent Britishness, such as King Arthur. Cunliffe also illustrates how hunter-gatherers, Celts, Vikings, and Romans influenced and were themselves changed by the magnificent green islands.
After taking his degree at Oxford, Timothy Garton Ash went to Cold War Berlin to study German resistance to the Nazism. As he lived and traveled behind the Iron Curtain, he recorded the personal and intellectual intensity of his youth at the hinge of history. The Stasi, the East German secret police, also watched and took notes. After the wall fell, the Stasi files were opened, revealing in every detail a scheme of social control both insidiously malign and grimly bureaucratic. Garton Ash tracks down and interviews those who tracked and informed on him—out of fear, cupidity, ideological conviction and a preference for the path of least resistance. What emerges is a portrait of an ineluctably compromised society. The File's remarkable admixture of deep political erudition, engagé directness and pellucid style marks Garton Ash as a worthy heir to George Orwell and Isaiah Berlin.