Tracing the history of a place or a people through personal stories is as old as humanity, but we never lose our taste for it. Boil a dry- bone chronology into a juicy family saga and we'll lap it up. So, in synopsis, Radek Sikorski's The Polish House: an intimate history of Poland (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 20) looks terrific. A Solidarity activist, exiled since 1981, returns to post-communist Poland to fulfil his dream of restoring the family manor house. We have the appealing central image of Poland's fortunes, rebuilt in parallel with the house, after 50 years of war and oppression. Better yet, the Oxford-educated Sikorski was a minister in Lech Walesa's first government. Perfect, but for one fatal flaw: his strategy of interweaving his family history with the rise of Solidarity and his own progress through Poland's shambolic post-communist regimes is undermined by an inability to write a rancour-free sentence. His desire to settle scores with communist foes is understandable, even if this diet quickly palls. It is his need to prove himself cleverer than his countrymen that turns the reader against this mean-spirited book.

Novelist Chaim Potok was presented with an epic when, in 1985, he visited the leading Moscow dissidents Volodya and Masha Slepak. Given access to their family chronicles, he was able to trace the arc of the century through the deeds of the Slepak clan. The Gates of November (Secker & Warburg, pounds 16.99) opens in 1906 with teenage Solomon Slepak fleeing his small town, a place of poverty and pogroms. His itinerant life takes him to New York, where union activism leads him to Marxism, and back to a Russia embroiled in civil war. The Jewish boy who left has become a ruthless apparatchik. His son Volodya, born in 1927, vividly remembers Solomon's loyalty to Stalin, despite the terror. Volodya's own faith in the Soviet system shatters when, in 1968, he and his wife apply to emigrate to Israel, triggering 18 years of persecution, Siberian exile and renown as heroic refuseniks.

Potok's reconstruction is curiously artless, almost as if he fears that any artifice will devalue his tale. He skirts around the aspirations which drove assimilated children of the revolution to abandon so much for the right to emigrate to a barely-known land. His reluctance to tackle this question turns what could have been a profound and moving book into a fascinating but frustrating one.

Serge Schmemann, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, brings a sense of historical perspective and a feisty spirit of inquiry to Echoes of a Native Land: two centuries of a Russian village (Little, Brown, pounds 20). Inspired by his grandfather's memoirs, he outfaces bureaucracy and war to reconstruct the story of the estate of Sergievskoye, won by an ancestor in a card game, expropriated by the Bolsheviks, now lying in ruins. There is an infectious zest to Schmemann's delving in the archives, encompassing everything from eccentric 18th-century landlord General Kar to the lowering of the Soviet flag over the Kremlin. At heart, his book is a hymn of praise to pastoral Russia: to the rural rhythms of a stoical people who survive serfdom, war, revolution and official neglect. His unsentimental, enthralling account shows that, done with empathy and integrity, this forking-around in the family compost heap can be enlightening for the reader as well as therapeutic for the author.

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