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Best Social & Cultural Studies Books of 2018

A revelation—Wright finds the reflection of his own conflicted soul in the native state he loves and has hated.

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GOD SAVE TEXAS

A JOURNEY INTO THE SOUL OF THE LONE STAR STATE

One of the state’s most renowned writers takes readers deep into the heart of Texas.

As a staffer for the New Yorker and a Pulitzer Prize–winning author, Wright (The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State, 2016, etc.) has illuminated a variety of intriguing subcultures. His native Texas is as exotic as any of them. He approaches his subject on a number of levels: as a stereotype, a movie myth, a cultural melting pot, a borderland, a harbinger of what is to come in an increasingly polarized and conservative country, and as a crucible that has shaped the character of a young writer who couldn’t wait to escape but was drawn back. “Some maybe cowardly instinct whispered to me that if I accepted the offer to live elsewhere, I would be someone other than myself,” he writes. “My life might have been larger, but it would have been counterfeit. I would not be home.” The Austin-based author makes himself at home in these pages, traveling through Austin, Dallas, Houston, and El Paso and exploring the desolate wonders of Big Bend, “one of the least-visited national parks in the country, and also one of the most glorious,” and the West Texas wonders of Marfa, Lubbock, and Wink. The chapter on the levels of Texas culture, an updated version of a Texas Monthly piece from 1993, is particularly incisive. But the misadventures of the Texas legislature are what will strike most readers with an uneasy mixture of amazement, amusement, and disbelief; one law, notes the author, allows citizens to “openly carry swords, a welcome development for the samurai in our midst.” Once a Democratic bulwark (albeit conservatively so), the state has since become even more conservatively Republican, though a population that is not only growing, but growing younger and more diverse—the “Anglo” majority has become the minority—could make the state very much in play.

A revelation—Wright finds the reflection of his own conflicted soul in the native state he loves and has hated.

Pub Date: April 17, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-52010-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 8, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

A momentous work of sociological and civil rights history.

TINDERBOX

THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE UP STAIRS LOUNGE FIRE AND THE RISE OF GAY LIBERATION

A history of the 1973 events that set a club in New Orleans—and the gay community—on fire.

Gay liberation movements are often associated with the Stonewall riots or ACT UP’s transgressive and vital actions during the AIDS crisis. It’s not often that the Up Stairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans, is placed within the narrative of gay uprisings and the reinforcement of community values. In this significant debut, journalist Fieseler has effectively made himself the authority on the subject. On June 24th, 1973, as men and women of all ages enjoyed a coveted evening in the safest place they knew, a gay man, angry after getting in a fight with patrons, poured lighter fluid on the steps leading to the Up Stairs Lounge. The events that ensued were horrific: “Lambent flames reached the back corner of the bar area, and the street lit up with the sound of seventeen people shrieking. Seeing faces burn in the windows, [a patron] yelled for them to jump. Fire ate them up.” That night, 32 people lost their lives, but their deaths set fire to a different kind of flame. Fieseler discusses in great detail the conditions in which gay men were forced to live: in hiding, constantly afraid of discovery, putting a straight mask on in public. At the time, homosexuality was still illegal. More shocking, however, is what the author’s rigorous research shows about how authorities, the media, and legislators mishandled the fire and aftermath. Through a series of systemic dismissals, linguistic omissions, and general complacency, the event has been largely erased from American history. Fieseler’s work is an essential piece of historical restitution that takes us from 1973 to 2003, when homosexuality was finally decriminalized in Louisiana. Powerfully written and consistently engaging, the book will hopefully shed more light on the gay community’s incredible and tragic journey to equality.

A momentous work of sociological and civil rights history.

Pub Date: June 5, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-63149-164-1

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: March 1, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2018

An impressive literary debut.

FOR SINGLE MOTHERS WORKING AS TRAIN CONDUCTORS

A translator’s command of language belatedly finds her translating her own life.

Wolfson describes herself as working “in a difficult-to-name genre containing generous helpings of the lived, the observed and the overheard…[and a] blurring of distinctions that had long struck me as artificial and unnecessary.” In a volume that is more cohesive than a typical essay collection, the pieces flow together like memoir, though an elliptical one, in which the author is “omitting a lot, almost everything, in fact.” Yet her writing attests to a remarkable life, one rendered with a remarkable verbal facility. She long supported herself as a translator, primarily of Russian, a language she was inspired to learn in order to read Anna Karenina. She eventually did, but her deeper connection to the language resulted from her marriage to a Russian man, whom she divorced because he resisted having children even more than she wanted them. The book’s odd title comes from her husband’s insistence that if they were to have a child, they would need “twenty-four-hour day care.” Well after she had divorced him and married again, she learned that this was actually an option in Russia, “for single mothers working as train conductors,” and thus away from home for days on end. Wolfson subsequently spent years immersing herself in the study of Yiddish as a way of coming to terms with her own identity within a family of mostly nonobservant Jews. Then she suffered a collapsed lung, caused by a disease she couldn’t pronounce. It was degenerative and usually fatal, making her pregnancy too great of a risk in her second marriage (which also collapsed). Where essayists often strain to find topics to muse about, this evocatively detailed and richly experienced writing reflects a life with no dearth of material. But as she tells an aspiring writer, “what’s important about a book is not so much what happens in it, but how the writer tells it.” Wolfson unquestionably tells it well.

An impressive literary debut.

Pub Date: June 1, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-60938-581-1

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Univ. of Iowa

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2018

A stellar exploration of the complexities and limitations of gender.

UNBOUND

TRANSGENDER MEN AND THE REMAKING OF IDENTITY

A new sociological study on transgender individuals and their experience transitioning.

In her latest, gender theorist Stein (Sociology/Rutgers Univ.; Reluctant Witnesses: Survivors, Their Children, and the Rise of Holocaust Consciousness, 2014, etc.) follows the lives of four individuals who have gone through the process of transitioning from female to male. The author states that her book is a “group portrait of those who choose to remake their bodies and lives using the tools they have at their disposal.” Stein spent considerable time with her subjects, Ben, Parker, Lucas, and Nadia, each one existing at different levels of the transgender spectrum. Ben, who grew up in a highly supportive environment, never identified as a woman; he had large breasts and struggled on a daily basis with his body image. As a result, he started hormonal treatments and eventually underwent top surgery to fully transition from female to male. Parker is a prototypical Californian, though he is from Virginia. Muscular and blond, he referred to himself as a “gurl” and dressed as a tomboy. He was outspoken and refused to wear the clothes his parents wanted him to wear as a girl. Lucas’ identity fits near the intersection of male and female—i.e., he identifies neither as a man nor a woman but rather “somewhere masculine of center.” Finally, Nadia wishes to modify her body but still wants to be recognized as a woman. Stein takes readers on each one of these individual’s incredible journeys, shedding a rigorous, respectful, and highly studied light on the experience of transgender individuals today. For example, “transgender men,” she writes, “are not simply retrieving the male that resides within; they’re also creating themselves.” This significant book provides medical, sociological, and psychological information that can only serve to educate those lacking understanding and awareness of an entire community of individuals who deserve representation.

A stellar exploration of the complexities and limitations of gender.

Pub Date: June 5, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-4745-9

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2018

An illuminating study on the role women play in the media and in their own lives.

DEAD GIRLS

ESSAYS ON SURVIVING AN AMERICAN OBSESSION

In this engrossing debut collection of essays, Bolin (Creative Nonfiction/Univ. of Memphis) looks at two things: America’s cultural obsession with dead girls in works of literature and on TV and Los Angeles from the perspective of both a newcomer and a veteran.

“Our refusal to address warning signs that are so common they have become cliché means we are not failing to prevent violence but choosing not to,” writes the author, the former nonfiction editor of Electric Literature’s literary magazine, Okey-Panky. In fact, according to Bolin, Americans demonstrate a specific fascination with watching women die on screen, seeing them lose control over their lives to abusive husbands and societies, and, most crucially to her story, investigating the circumstances around their murders. To study these phenomena, the author explores shows like Twin Peaks, True Detectives, and Pretty Little Liars, among others. “If you watch enough hours of murder shows,” she writes, “you experience a peculiar sense of déjà vu…the same murders are recounted again and again across shows.” Interwoven with these analyses of pop culture is the story of the author’s arrival in LA, broke, friendless, and with not much awareness of life under the sunny Californian sky. She drew many impressions of the city from the work of Joan Didion and Raymond Chandler, among others, who have painted a picture of a unique, bewildering city: “I was impressed by the unnerving sense of a city that sprang up overnight and sprawled like an invasive species over the landscape.” Bolin’s LA story becomes exemplary of her insights about female-obsession culture, from her wacky roommates to her boyfriends to her eventual private and public writing practices. The author’s voice is eerily enthralling, systematically on point, and quite funny, though at times readers may not fully understand the motives behind their laughter.

An illuminating study on the role women play in the media and in their own lives.

Pub Date: June 26, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-265714-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: April 4, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2018

An urgent, eye-opening look at a problem that promises to grow much worse in the face of inaction and indifference.

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DOPESICK

DEALERS, DOCTORS, AND THE DRUG COMPANY THAT ADDICTED AMERICA

Harrowing travels through the land of the hypermedicated, courtesy of hopelessness, poverty, and large pharmaceutical companies.

A huge number of Americans, many of them poor rural whites, have died in the last couple of decades of what one Princeton researcher has called “diseases of despair,” including alcoholism, suicide, and drug overdoses caused by the hopeless sense that there’s a lack of anything better to do. Roanoke-based investigative journalist Macy (Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South, 2016, etc.) locates one key killer—the opioid epidemic—in the heart of Appalachia and other out-of-the-way places dependent on outmoded industries, bypassed economically and culturally, and without any political power to speak of, “hollows and towns and fishing villages where the nearest rehab facility was likely to be hours from home.” Prisons are much closer. Macy’s purview centers on the I-81 corridor that runs along the Appalachians from eastern Tennessee north, where opioid abuse first rose to epidemic levels. She establishes a bleak pattern of high school football stars and good students who are caught in a spiral: They suffer some pain, receive prescriptions for powerful medications thanks to a pharmaceutical industry with powerful lobbying and sales arms (“If a doctor was already prescribing lots of Percocet and Vicodin, a rep was sent out to deliver a pitch about OxyContin’s potency and longer-lasting action”), and often wind up dead or in jail, broke and broken by a system that is easy to game. Interestingly, Macy adds, “almost to a person, the addicted twentysomethings I met had taken attention-deficit medication as children.” Following her survey of the devastation wrought in the coal and Rust belts, the author concludes with a call to arms for a “New Deal for the Drug Addicted,” a constituency that it’s all too easy to write off even as their number climbs.

An urgent, eye-opening look at a problem that promises to grow much worse in the face of inaction and indifference.

Pub Date: Aug. 7, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55124-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 10, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

Harari delivers yet another tour de force.

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21 LESSONS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY

A highly instructive exploration of “current affairs and…the immediate future of human societies.”

Having produced an international bestseller about human origins (Sapiens, 2015, etc.) and avoided the sophomore jinx writing about our destiny (Homo Deus, 2017), Harari (History/Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem) proves that he has not lost his touch, casting a brilliantly insightful eye on today’s myriad crises, from Trump to terrorism, Brexit to big data. As the author emphasizes, “humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers, or equations, and the simpler the story, the better. Every person, group, and nation has its own tales and myths.” Three grand stories once predicted the future. World War II eliminated the fascist story but stimulated communism for a few decades until its collapse. The liberal story—think democracy, free markets, and globalism—reigned supreme for a decade until the 20th-century nasties—dictators, populists, and nationalists—came back in style. They promote jingoism over international cooperation, vilify the opposition, demonize immigrants and rival nations, and then win elections. “A bit like the Soviet elites in the 1980s,” writes Harari, “liberals don’t understand how history deviates from its preordained course, and they lack an alternative prism through which to interpret reality.” The author certainly understands, and in 21 painfully astute essays, he delivers his take on where our increasingly “post-truth” world is headed. Human ingenuity, which enables us to control the outside world, may soon re-engineer our insides, extend life, and guide our thoughts. Science-fiction movies get the future wrong, if only because they have happy endings. Most readers will find Harari’s narrative deliciously reasonable, including his explanation of the stories (not actually true but rational) of those who elect dictators, populists, and nationalists. His remedies for wildly disruptive technology (biotech, infotech) and its consequences (climate change, mass unemployment) ring true, provided nations act with more good sense than they have shown throughout history.

Harari delivers yet another tour de force.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-51217-2

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: June 27, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

An indispensable work of popular psychology and sociology.

UNTRUE

WHY NEARLY EVERYTHING WE BELIEVE ABOUT WOMEN, LUST, AND INFIDELITY IS WRONG AND HOW THE NEW SCIENCE CAN SET US FREE

A simultaneously frothy and substantive tour of female sexual desire.

The title of this “work of cultural criticism” is a double-entendre; Martin (Primates of Park Avenue, 2015, etc.) investigates women who’ve been untrue—i.e., unfaithful—and she debunks popular untruths about female sexuality. As she shows, women are not inherently more monogamous than men, and although Americans talk about valuing monogamy, many of us, including a lot of women, cheat. Sometimes women cheat to keep their marriages together. Rather than go through messy, economically disastrous divorces, women find sexual fulfillment on the side so they can continue to tolerate an unsatisfying marriage. Vignettes drawn from interviews Martin conducted with 32 men and women leaven the book, but the strongest sections are Martin’s accessible translations of academic research. For example, primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy studied langurs in India, noting how female langurs often mate “promiscuously,” with as many males as possible. Hrdy theorized that this behavior is “assiduously maternal.” Male langurs have the habit of killing infants in order to lure now-childless females to mate with them. By having sex with lots of males, a female decreases the number of males who might want to kill her baby because, after all, that baby just might be the would-be killer’s offspring. The author’s summaries of research are never dry. She notes that Hrdy’s depiction of “sexually assertive” females was, initially, somewhat controversial; in what Hrdy describes as a “mortifying” moment, one colleague asked, “So, Sarah…you’re saying you’re horny, right?” Other scholars who make appearances are sociologist Alicia Walker, who argues that women don’t just stumble into adultery after one too many drinks at the hotel bar on a work trip, they actively pursue infidelity; and primatologist Zanna Clay, who suggests that females’ cries and groans during sex have the effect of advertising to nearby males, “Receptive and ready just as soon as this is over!”

An indispensable work of popular psychology and sociology.

Pub Date: Sept. 18, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-46361-4

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Little, Brown Spark

Review Posted Online: Aug. 21, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2018

A gripping call to action that portends greater liberty and justness for all.

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GOOD AND MAD

THE REVOLUTIONARY POWER OF WOMEN'S ANGER

In this resounding polemic against political, cultural, and personal injustices in America, Traister (All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, 2016, etc.) studies women’s anger as a tool for change.

Citing fury as a driving force of her journalism career, the author, a writer at large for New York magazine and contributing editor at Elle, set out to write this book as a means to convey her own rage in response to innumerable inequities. She explores how feminist outrage has been suppressed, discouraged, and deemed unattractive and crazy. With articulate vitriol backed by in-depth research, Traister validates American women’s anger as the heart of social progress and attributes its widespread denigration to the “correct understanding of those in power that in the fury of women lies the power to change the world.” Some of the major topics of these clear, blistering pages include Donald Trump and the 2016 presidential election, ongoing sexual assault scandals and the #MeToo movement, systemic racism, and the public censure of women. The author weaves together discussions of the long-silenced accounts from women who were molested by powerful men with the deafening calls, by women across the country, for men who’ve abused their authority to be held accountable. She draws from a staggering number of sources, ranging from dozens of newspaper articles to Abigail Adams’ 1776 warning to her own husband to pay attention to women. Traister has meticulously culled smart, timely, surprising quotations from women as well as men. The combined strength of these many individual voices and stories gives the book tremendous gravity. It is neither a witch hunt nor a call for vendettas against men. Rather, the author provides a reflective, even revolutionary reminder that women's collective capacity to catalyze change outweighs individuals' fear of backlash or turning a blind eye to ongoing subjugation. The goal is not anger for its own sake but to access, acknowledge, express, and use it to rebuild structures.

A gripping call to action that portends greater liberty and justness for all.

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-8179-5

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Sept. 18, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2018

An assumption-exploding, smart account of creativity, work, and a decidedly unconventional life.

SHE WANTS IT

DESIRE, POWER, AND TOPPLING THE PATRIARCHY

An adroit memoir from the creator of Transparent.

Soloway grew up with a father who “was either hiding out, depressed, or working,” along with a tough mother and a sister who came out long ago even as the author “stayed a straightbian and tilted toward artsiness and weed.” So far, an ordinary American family, until one day her father called to say that he was trans. “I had the wrong pronouns then and have only some of the right pronouns now but will use the wrong ones so you can see how wrong I had it,” writes the author, the ordinariness having given way to something new. Having written for the HBO series Six Feet Under and crafted the indie film Afternoon Delight, Soloway was well-placed to make the difficult sell for a series that leveraged some of her own experience and that of many other people—namely, Transparent, which proved a hit for Amazon as it was launching its own independent production business. There was a lot to learn, Soloway writes, and readers new to the complexities of nonbinary gender will find new things on every page thanks to the author’s sharp observations of the world, as when seeing a young man on a Vermont street wearing a sundress: “The same homeless kid, were they female but wearing a man’s scruffy pants and shirt, wouldn’t attract a second look. They might be exactly the same amount genderqueer, but the one who seemed to be male in women’s clothing was alarming in the way a woman in men’s clothing would not be.” There’s a lot to chew on in such things, and Soloway’s meditations become more complex, some of it in the shadow of the unfolding #MeToo movement. A helpful takeaway comes late in the book: “You’re not in trouble and you haven’t done anything wrong.”

An assumption-exploding, smart account of creativity, work, and a decidedly unconventional life.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-101-90474-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Crown Archetype

Review Posted Online: Aug. 13, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2018

A well-rendered, harrowing book about dire circumstances.

AMERICAN OVERDOSE

THE OPIOID TRAGEDY IN THREE ACTS

A deftly researched account of America’s opioid epidemic.

Guardian reporter McGreal’s book is authoritative in tone and vernacular in style. He introduces us to the voices of the epidemic—users, suppliers, family members, and others—but also to its antecedents in both medicine and drug policy. “At the time,” he writes, describing the 1970s, “American doctors regarded morphine with suspicion to the point of hostility. Whatever its qualities as a painkiller, it was regarded as so addictive and life destroying that the medical profession refused to countenance its use even for the dying.” The author’s powerful narrative has deep roots in history. In 1908, Theodore Roosevelt appointed the United States’ first opium commissioner, “who described Americans as ‘the greatest drugs fiends in the world.’ ” Then, in the 1980s, doctors began to look at the benefits of opioids in palliative care. Many of those physicians were “cavalier” in their research; some of the most disturbing testimony here comes from them, especially juxtaposed against the families that have been destroyed. The real villains, though, are the pharmaceutical companies—especially OxyContin manufacturer Purdue—and the doctors and politicians who abet them. At one point, McGreal cites a West Virginia legislator who, in the early 2000s, told the state attorney general that “one of the federal prisons was having to send a bus to pick up guards out of state because it couldn’t find enough people locally who could pass a drug test.” Even so, drug lobbyists did their best to shut down regulations. By 2009, “prescription opioid deaths…[were] three times the number of a decade earlier.” The numbers are staggering, and the author doesn’t offer a lot of hope for change. “What’s going on now is a maturing of the epidemic,” a former Food and Drug Administration official reports. “People are addicted, and that means they’re going to keep needing it. It’s going to be years that they stay on it until they finally get over it. If they don’t get killed.”

A well-rendered, harrowing book about dire circumstances.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-61039-861-9

Page Count: 336

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Sept. 25, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2018

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