10 best books of May: the Monitor's picks

From a bestselling Chinese memoir to a study of precision engineering, here are the 10 May titles that most impressed the Monitor's book critics.

1. "The Soul of America," by Jon Meacham
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham canvasses American history for moments of division and strife. He finds plenty of them but is also able to highlight the ways in which America’s “better angels” (quoting Abraham Lincoln) prevailed in the end to restore sanity. This intelligent survey of the past should offer reassurance to readers worried about the present.

2. "The Perfectionists," by Simon Winchester
Bestselling British author Simon Winchester’s latest book is about the raw engineering and precision manufacturing that make the dreams of scientists possible. In large part this is a protracted study of ball bearings, chrome-plated telescope components, and mass-produced crankshafts. Sound boring? Not to worry. Winchester knows how to make everything he writes fascinating, and at the heart of this book is an account of the unsung heroes of our modern world.

3. "The Wind in My Hair," by Masih Alinejad
Gutsy Iranian journalist and activist Masih Alinejad tells her life story in a chatty, confiding tone. Right from her childhood in a small village in rural Iran, she was a rebel. As a young adult, she chose the unusual (for an Iranian woman) career of journalism and was exiled to Britain, where she created My Stealthy Freedom, a Facebook page for women who reject the compulsory hijab. Alinejad’s experiences make for a compelling and eye-opening read.

4.  "Our Story," by Rao Pingru
This more-than-350-page memoir, half in prose and half in color drawings, creates a vivid, at times intimate, portrait of a changing China. The story begins with the author’s childhood in the 1930s and ends in the 2000s. The book was a bestseller in China, and the English translation will offer Western readers unexpected insights into Chinese culture.

5. "Barracoon," by Zora Neale Hurston
Published 87 years after it was written, “Barracoon” contains celebrated author Zora Neale Hurston’s interviews with the last known survivor of the slave trade. Hurston captures the complexity of Cudjo Lewis’s loss of his native culture and family, the harrowing journey to the United States, his time as a slave, and his life in liberation.

6.  "Our Towns," by James Fallows and Deborah Fallows
Over the course of five years, husband-and-wife journalism team James and Deborah Fallows traveled the US by propeller plane to sample the economic vitality of America’s smaller cities and towns. En route, they found some surprising success stories and many reasons for optimism.  

7.  "The Map of Salt and Stars," by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
Navigation is the theme of this novel built around two voyages. The first is a refugee’s journey as 11-year-old Nour, who was born in New York, returns with her mother to Syria, only to face conflict and a bombed-out home. This story is twinned with a fabulous tale of a medieval expedition to map the Arabic world guided by the stars, creating a work that is both magical and heart-wrenching.

8. "That Kind of Mother," by Rumaan Alam
When beleaguered but privileged white poet Rebecca unexpectedly adopts the newborn of her cherished black nanny, profound issues of family, race, class, career, and identity collide. Rumaan Alam details Rebecca’s transforming journey of motherhood and interracial adoption with delightful irony. Boundaries of family and friendship expand in this thought-provoking read, revealing universal truths about parenting.

9. "Robin," by Dave Itzkoff
New York Times writer Dave Itzkoff details the life of Robin Williams, comedic genius, Oscar-winning actor, and generous humanitarian. Interviews and archived research depict a good-hearted, complex man who struggled emotionally but entertained brilliantly. The book delves deeply into the depression, addictions, and illnesses that plagued Williams but also reveals the heart and soul of an icon.

10.  "Love and Ruin," by Paula McLain
Book clubs loved Paula McLain’s bestselling “The Paris Wife,” about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. This time her focus is Martha Gellhorn, Wife No. 3. In McLain’s fervent and compelling novel, Gellhorn elbows her way into a career as a war correspondent and into Hemingway’s life. But Gellhorn struggles to keep from losing herself in the shadow of her famous husband, making her a very modern heroine indeed.

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