The journalist and author on stories and secrets.
Journalist and author Masha Gessen has written on subjects as diverse as the genetic inheritance of illness (Blood Matters) and a genius who solved a century-old mathematical problem (Perfect Rigor). Her new book, The Man without a Face, turns to her native Russia and its enigmatic leader, Vladimir Putin, extrapolating the ex-KGB officer’s biography from what few facts are known about his life and examining his rise to power. When we asked her to pick her favorite reads, Gessen responded with a trio of books about secrets — those we keep from others and those we seek to discover.
By Dale Peck
“‘I have a secret,’ this book begins. This is the ultimate first sentence: All books are about secrets — the ones we hide and the ones we seek, in life, in reading, and in writing. Dale Peck’s writing is the sort that makes me wish the book would never end — I don’t even care how it all turns out as long as I can keep reading. What makes it especially impressive is that it is written in the voice of a very smart teenager, a voice whose mixture of brilliance, self-consciousness, insight, and naivete is almost impossible to fake. The narrator is dragged from Long Island to Kansas by his drunk of a father and proceeds to learn to write and, in the writing, to grapple with his secret. At the end of the book he arrives at its first line: ‘I have a secret. And everyone knows it. But no one talks about it, at least not out in the open.’ That’s as good a reason as any to go right back to the beginning and start re-reading: It is one of those books.”
By A. D. Miller
“This book is a confessional: The narrator is writing to his fiancée, telling her what happened to him over the four years that he lived in Russia in the early 2000s. Rather, he is telling her what he discovered about himself and what he is capable of doing — and who he is capable of loving and who he is capable of betraying. The narrative poses a question, too, a question that grows more urgent as the things Miller describes grow more horrifying: Will you still love me once you know who I am? Will you still love me even though I am incapable of loving myself? Miller’s language is exact and unadorned, and so chilling to the bone. This is also a great book for understanding certain things about Russia — just don’t read it if you are planning to visit anytime soon.”
By Michael Holroyd
“The title of this book is a masterpiece of English understatement, for the illegitimacy of the daughters and the absence of the fathers are among the least of the secrets Holroyd tells in this book, with a cast of characters that includes, it seems, half the English aristocracy of the 20th century. This book demonstrates the greatest advantage of nonfiction over fiction: The nonfiction writer can keep going where any novelist with a semblance of good taste would long have stopped — after the third time two lesbian lovers unsuccessfully try to run away together, for example, or at least once they have exhausted the repertoire of trains, sailboats, and even airplanes miraculously available to them, or when evil mothers collude not only with the husband but also with the hired help and the best friend/confidante. I actually found myself retelling, over and over again to different friends, the story of the relationship among lifelong lovers Violet Trefusis, Vita Sackville-West, and their respective husbands. It takes a while every time, but no one has been bored by it.”