by David Remnick

This most readable history chronicles the unraveling of the Soviet empire, from Gorbachev's glory in the late '80s to Yeltsin's dramatic ascension after the hard-liners' attempted coup in 1991. Remnick, during those years The Washington Post's Moscow correspondent, points out that Gorbachev intended perestroika to reform Communism, not destroy it, but once the new openness took root, the democratic movement could not be stopped. Remnick sees Gorbachev and Yeltsin as inextricably linked; if the former hadn't laid the groundwork for change, the latter could not have seized the moment.

This enthralling book offers more than a history lesson, however. It portrays a culture trying to come to terms with its blood-soaked past. The author regales readers with moving stories of innocents who fell prey to Stalin's terror, of their children who grew up to suffer in silence or bravely dissent, and, finally, of the new Pepsi generation eager for Western acquisitions.

compelling narrative that even those unfamiliar with Russian history will find fascinating and informative. (Random House, $25)

by John le Carré

The Wall is down, the Evil Empire fragmented. Karla has been unmasked, and George Smiley has retired—again. What now is the master of espionage fiction to do? Le Carré fans needn't worry: Not all the spies have come in from the cold.

In this richly detailed and rigorously researched 14th novel, the "us" remains British intelligence. The "them," however, has transmogrified from Moscow Central to a more vivid evil: international peddlers of military arms and their drug-lord partners.

Slowly drawn into the vortex of a multimillion-dollar guns-for-cocaine deal, Jonathan Pine, an Englishman with a troubled past, presently night manager of Zurich's Hotel Meister Palace, is eventually—and willingly—recruited In a feisty little branch of the British secret service. His mission: to worm his way into the entourage of Bahamian-based English arms dealer Thomas Roper and report on his plans.

Two circumstances complicate Pine's deadly assignment. He falls in love with Roper's girlfriend, Jed, and, in the corridors of Whitehall, he becomes a sacrificial pawn in a tangled game of ruthless realpolitik.

As the story unspools, Le Carré's gift for building tension through character has never been better realized. Presenting the moral dilemmas of ordinary people caught in extraordinary situations has always lifted the author above the genre. "There are many kinds of loyalty, and we cannot serve them all," echoes a voice from Pine's past. "You believed you were a patriot. Next time you will make a better choice. By novel's end, he does. Pine progresses from being a night manager to managing, however tenuously, the night that seems to loom beyond the last light of the Cold War. (Knopf, $24)

by Melanie Rue Thon

When they're in the backseat of a Chevy with Iona Moon, the boys from White Falls, Idaho, don't mind dirty fingernails and the smell of cow dung. This bony "bad girl" from the potato fields of Kila Flats is the narrative voice of Thon's intensely erotic novel—a novel that blows apart the brutal and hopeless life of a small town in the '60s as powerfully as Vietnam vet Everett Fry blows out his brains in the opening chapter.

Iona Moon lives in a world without choices, where "the distance between girlhood and old age was painful and brief." In poignant and beautiful prose, the author presents Iona's thoughts, her dreams, her conversations with ghosts, as we watch Iona bury her mother, leave school, run away from home and return to confront her past.

Thon, author of Meteors in August and Girls in the Grass, burrows into the heart of Iona Moon to give us a rare glimpse of a young girl's triumphant coming of age in a landscape that offers no sympathy. (Poseidon, $21)

>David Remnick

SHOWING OFF THE BABY AS GORBY FELL

WHEN DAVID REMNICK BOARDED A plane in Moscow on Aug. 18, 1991, he could hardly have predicted that by the time he arrived home in New York City "to show the new baby to all the grandparents," an anti-Gorbachev coup would be underway, imperiling new freedoms but hastening the demise of the Soviet Union. "I turned on CNN and saw tanks going by our [Moscow] apartment building," says Remnick, 34. "This was terrible for the world—and also for the career of David Remnick! The next day I was headed back to Moscow."

Remnick, who now writes for The New Yorker and lives in Manhattan with his wife, Esther B. Fein, a New York Times reporter, and their two sons, says he became a Moscow correspondent "by fluke." A feature writer at The Washington Post in 1987, he saw the Moscow job posted on the office bulletin board—"a sure sign it was filled. I went to the foreign editor and said, I know it's not a real opening, but I speak a little Russian, and I'm interested.' Well, I put my foot in my mouth—he was interested."

After brushing up on Russian, the newly married Remnick and Fein arrived in Moscow in early 1988. "Everything difficult about starting a marriage is compounded by 10 in Russia," he says. "For example, if you're going to get something dry-cleaned, you have to take the buttons off, otherwise, they'll be lost or broken." Still, Remnick is cautiously optimistic about Russia. "Children of educated people in urban areas have very little Soviet in them," he says. "Very little fear, very little feeling of innate limitation."

  • Contributors:
  • Jill Rachlin,
  • J.D. Reed,
  • Louisa Ermelino.