5 HOT BOOKS: Sex, Race, and Music, a Marine's War Memoir, and More


1. Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music by Ann Powers (Dey Street)

For her radical revision of pop music history, NPR critic Powers draws her title from Little Richard’s original lyrics before they were sanitized and re-written for 1950’s radio as “Tutti Frutti.”  In her thoughtful, far-ranging narrative, Powers goes beyond the cliché that popular music is about sex, and elevates the roles of race and spirituality. She begins with the rhythms that echoed through the Middle Passage of the slave trade, follows it through the New Orleans Creole sound, and on to in punk, hip-hop, and more recent Top 40 music “cyborgs” like Britney Spears and Beyonce.

2. Shooting Ghosts: A U.S. Marine, a Combat Photographer, and Their Journey Back from War by Thomas J. Brennan and Finbarr O’Reilly (Viking)

After embedded Reuters photographer Finbarr O’Reilly documented a Taliban ambush explosion in which U.S. Marine Sergeant Thomas J. Brennan was gravely injured, the war correspondent and the combat vet forged a deep bond. It led them to launch The War Horse, an ambitious non-profit digital newsroom focused on war and trauma.  In Shooting Ghosts, their powerfully affecting memoir, Brennan and O’Reilly write in alternating chapters about coming to terms with their burdens of anguish and guilt. The cumulative effect is a powerful, searing revelation of the war experience.

3. My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent (Riverhead Books)

At the radiant center of this debut novel is a motherless 14-year-old girl named “Turtle,” isolated from the world by her deranged and abusive survivalist father and his arsenal of guns. Her world cracks open when she meets two friendly teenage boys, and it opens wider when her father brings a girl to live in their ramshackle bunker of a house. In beautiful prose and with extraordinary psychological acuity, Tallent brings both “Turtle,” the dehumanized yet resilient daughter, and her maniacal, manipulative father, vividly to life in this suspenseful work of great imagination.

4. Rabbit: The Autobiography of Ms. Pat by Patricia Williams, with Jeannine Amber
(Dey Street Books)

The African-American comedian known as “Ms. Pat” tells her harrowing, traumatic life story with the same generous, slightly raunchy comic spirit that was her route out of poverty.  Once an Atlanta teen mother and drug dealer with two kids, known on the street as “Rabbit,” she is now married and living in suburban Indianapolis. Her appealing, irreverent humor won her appearances on NBC’s Last Comic Standing and Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, and her storytelling gifts make Rabbit a fun read. Next up: She is working with director Lee Daniels on a sitcom of her life.

5.  Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Max Tegmark (Knopf)

Founder of the “Future of Life Institute” and MIT physicist Tegmark takes an optimistic view of how artificial intelligence can benefit humanity. As he demonstrated in his previous book, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, Tegmark has a talent for lucid explanatory prose. In Life 3.0, he traces recent advances in Artificial Intelligence, and explains that while there are ways in which it will make the world safer, there is a need for strong controls in sensitive areas like medical research and the stock market, and we must create AI systems that reflect our values as a society.