The anthropologist Franz Boas — he’s the central figure in Charles King’s new book, “Gods of the Upper Air,” below — was more interested in similarities than in differences, ever alert to the things that united human cultures. So maybe he would find a common theme among the 12 titles we recommend this week. Me, I’ll just note how wildly varied they are (an anthology of reporting by Arab women, a study of Supreme Court politics, a gay coming-of-age memoir, a punctuation history and a biography of Confederate sisters, along with King’s book and half a dozen disparate novels), and happily remember the slogan I first saw on a banner at a church carnival years ago: Strength through diversity.
Senior Editor, Books
OUR WOMEN ON THE GROUND: Essays by Arab Women Reporting From the Arab World, edited by Zahra Hankir. (Penguin, $17.) In this stirring, provocative and well-made new anthology, put together by the Lebanese-British journalist Zahra Hankir, 19 Arab and Middle Eastern sahafiyat — female journalists — detail their experiences reporting from some of the most repressive countries in the world. “The result is a volume that rewrites the hoary rules of the foreign correspondent playbook, deactivating the old clichés,” our critic Dwight Garner writes. “Each of these women has a story to tell. Each has seen plenty.”
GODS OF THE UPPER AIR: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century, by Charles King. (Doubleday, $30.) This elegant and kaleidoscopic book is a group portrait of the anthropologist Franz Boas and those he influenced, including Zora Neale Hurston and Margaret Mead, who collectively attempted to chip away at entrenched notions of “us” and “them.” “A century ago, the prospect of a common humanity seemed radical to an American public that had been schooled in the inherent superiority of Western civilization,” our critic Jennifer Szalai writes. “Boas and his disciples argued for pluralism and tolerance at a time when cross-cultural empathy was deemed not just threatening but almost unfathomable.”
SEMICOLON: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, by Cecelia Watson. (Ecco, $19.99.) “Style, I’d argue, is 90 percent punctuation,” our critic Parul Sehgal writes in her review of this “biography” of the semicolon. Cecelia Watson reveals punctuation, as we practice it, to be a relatively young and uneasy art. Her lively book tells the story of a mark with an unusual talent for controversy. “Watson covers impressive ground in this short book,” Sehgal writes, “skittering back and forth like a sandpiper at the shores of language’s Great Debates.”
HUNTER’S MOON: A Novel in Stories, by Philip Caputo. (Holt, $28.) Set in the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, these linked stories deftly probe the psychic wounds of men with lost jobs, bruised egos and failed expectations: an unflinching reality check on the state of middle-age manhood today. “Caputo’s wisdom runs deep,” Bruce Barcott writes in his review. “Few writers have better captured the emotional lives of men, their desperate yearning to improve them and their utter lack of tools or capacity to accomplish the task.”
CHANCES ARE …, by Richard Russo. (Knopf, $26.95.) Tinged with regret and melancholy, this novel explores the secrets revealed by three men, old college friends who reunite one weekend on Martha’s Vineyard only to discover they might not know one another as well as they believed. “The suspense may carry you through the first half,” Alida Becker writes in her review, “but what works better is Russo’s depiction of his central characters, with their father issues and insecurities about class and money, their ingrained cluelessness about women and their need to present a certain image to the world, even if they’re pretty sure the world couldn’t care less.”
SUPPER CLUB, by Lara Williams. (Putnam, $26.) This tart debut by a British novelist is about a secret society for hungry women, who throw extravagant, out-of-control dinner parties. These bacchanals are a small utopia celebrating the intoxications of female friendship and standing as a private bulwark against patriarchy. Our reviewer, Andrea Long Chu, writes that Williams has “an exquisite patience with the emerging texture of an emotion. As a stylist, she is subtle and superbly attentive. … But where Williams truly shines is, if you’ll forgive me, in the kitchen. The food in this book eats you. It literally changed my dinner plans.”
SISTERS AND REBELS: A Struggle for the Soul of America, by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall. (Norton, $39.95.) Hall’s evocative history refracts the post-Civil War South through sisters who responded to their Confederate heritage in different but equally powerful ways, with forays into the cult of the Lost Cause, the civil rights movement and communism. “One strength of Hall’s work is her nuanced portrayal of the Jim Crow South, as neither ‘solid’ nor walled off from social currents roiling the nation,” Tony Horwitz writes in his review. Among other things, the book is “a reminder that the civil rights triumphs of the 1950s and ’60s followed decades of lonely struggle by a dedicated cadre that included Southern women of both races.”
CONFIRMATION BIAS: Inside Washington’s War Over the Supreme Court, From Scalia’s Death to Justice Kavanaugh, by Carl Hulse. (Harper/HarperCollins, $28.99.) The Times’s chief Washington correspondent offers a shrewd, entertaining look at the machinations surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court and the ominous political divisions his confirmation hearings revealed. “As a longtime Washington correspondent, Hulse is an expert guide through the machinations on Capitol Hill,” our reviewer, Evan Thomas, writes. “Kavanaugh survived. But the spectacle was unedifying and, possibly, a harbinger of worse to come.”
IN WEST MILLS, by De’Shawn Charles Winslow. (Bloomsbury, $26.) From the first page of this debut novel, set in a fictionalized black community in North Carolina between 1941 and 1987, Winslow establishes an uncanny authority and profound tone. “The precision and charm of his language lure us in and soothe us,” Margaret Wilkerson Sexton writes in her review. “He paints a community so tightknit and thorough it becomes easy to forget the people in it don’t exist, that no one will be playing music later tonight at Miss Goldie’s barnhouse juke joint, or traveling upbridge to Manning’s General Store for candy.”
THE GONE DEAD, by Chanelle Benz. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $26.99.) Benz’s novel centers on a woman’s quest for justice for her dead father upon returning to the Mississippi Delta in 2003, after 30 years away from home. Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, reviewing the book alongside Winslow’s novel (above), is impressed: Benz, she writes, “traces with nuance and subtlety the stagnant trail of race relations, linking mass incarceration, mandatory minimums, unemployment and crack to anti-miscegenation laws, Freedom Rides and even the South’s loss in the Civil War. Her attention to the recurring nature of racism in this country, and her gift for weaving these insights into a gripping narrative, establish Benz as an adept critic and storyteller.”
THE LIGHT YEARS, by Chris Rush. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.) In this vivid memoir, a gay artist recalls his youth in the affluent New Jersey suburbs of the 1970s and his drug-fueled quest for enlightenment in communes and stash houses out West. “What’s fresh and interesting about ‘The Light Years’ is its account of gay survivalism,” Brian Blanchfield writes in his review: “what it’s like to be rejected or adrift from others’ custody; coupling occasionally; at least once in love; and often in profound solitude in the natural world. … The rare thing the book offers is a nearly documentary collection of gay and genderqueer kids, and their situations, in the early 1970s.”
THE MOST FUN WE EVER HAD, by Claire Lombardo. (Doubleday, $28.95.) Lombardo’s engrossing debut follows a family of four daughters for decades, through weddings, deaths, illnesses and pregnancies. “The big family secret is revealed almost immediately,” Jade Chang writes, reviewing it. “But all the small secrets — from misremembered slights to misplaced bedsheets — are uncovered patiently, skillfully, precisely, in service of the novel’s central mystery: How do you love?”
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