1. Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, and the History of an Idea by Mitchell Duneier (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
In his first book Sidewalk, Sociologist Duneier focused closely on a few blocks in Greenwich Village, which established him as a keen observer of the contemporary urban experience, in the tradition of the legendary Jane Jacobs. He followed that with Slim’s Table: Race, Respectability, and Masculinity, about the men who gathered regularly at a cafeteria on Chicago’s South Side. In his brilliant new book, Duneier takes a longer view, considering the idea of the ghetto from its beginnings five hundred years ago in Venice. He considers how the ghetto has been studied by influential black scholars (Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake, Kenneth Clark, William Julius Wilson, among them), and considers what it has become today. The ghetto, Duneier argues, cannot be understood as merely a segregated area, but rather a “space for the intrusive social control of poor blacks.”
2. Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour by Richard Zacks (Doubleday)
When Mark Twain, the highest-paid writer in America lost his entire fortune, accrued from Huckleberry Finn and other classics, to bad investments he went on a world tour at age 60. Twain traveled to more than 70 cities in Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa and, of course, throughout America. In this compulsively readable book, Zacks channels Twain’s incredible pluck, resilience, and story-telling gifts, and vividly recounts how Twain entertained sold-out audiences and got himself out of debt. “Twain,” Zacks writes, “circled the globe – as he put it, raiding and pillaging – and he planned to talk his way out of hell and humiliation.”
3. The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton (Grand Central Publishing)
Hamilton reinvents the heartland coming-of-age novel, with narrator Mary Frances “Frankie” growing up and facing the tumult and anxiety of the world of a Wisconsin apple orchard that has been in her family for generations. The narrative cuts back and forth in time, as memories develop and as Frankie’s consciousness develops, and Hamilton captures the quirky humor and slight eccentricities of all those tied to the orchard. The wonderfully original Hamilton creates a world that seems to be vanishing in this novel that is so full of verve, so psychologically smart about family and social dynamics.
4, Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us from Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt (Little, Brown)
Decades before Sally Ride, during World War II, there were the unheralded women in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory which would later become part of NASA. They were armed with just pencils, graph paper, and sheer intelligence, and they went on to design the rockets that launched the space program. Holt, a microbiologist, discovers the forgotten history of these women, many of whom balanced family and children with their work as “human computers” in the lab. This is a gripping story about decades of pioneering women of science.
5. Hystopia by David Means (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Readers (and critics) have loved Means for his previous short story collections, and one of them —Assorted Fire Events — was a National Book Critics Circle finalist. With his first novel, he pulls from the talents he developed writing short stories, and opens his angle wide into an alternative universe in which President John F. Kennedy survived the shooting in Dallas and presides over a very different-looking 1960s. The war in Vietnam went on, and Means makes an account of that war a novel within a novel, an intoxicating mix of realism and satire about life, war, history and memory.