The coming week augurs a veritable cornucopia of pop culture tomes. Marvel movies! Standup comedy! Board games! American Girl dolls! The Chicago Bulls! 2000s indie rock! These six books run the gamut.

MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios

Joanna Robinson, Dave Gonzales, and Gavin Edwards. Liveright, $35 (528p) ISBN 978-1-63149-751-3
Trial By Content podcasters Robinson and Gonzales team up with journalist Edwards (The Tao of Bill Murray) to deliver a superb chronicle of how Marvel Studios conquered Hollywood. Drawing on interviews with more than 100 Marvel personnel, from studio president Kevin Feige and star Chris Hemsworth to hairstylists and set designers, the authors flesh out the oft-told story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s humble beginnings with lesser-known anecdotes, noting, for example, that the studio chose Iron Man to head its inaugural outing based on a focus group’s findings that the superhero was the character children “would most want to play with as a toy.” The authors excel at illuminating the behind-the-scenes drama that shaped the MCU, most notably Feige’s uphill battle to introduce a diverse cast of superheroes against the wishes of parent company Marvel Entertainment, “who preferred for Marvel’s heroes to be played by young white men named Chris” because they believed such actors would sell the most toys. There’s fascinating trivia on every page (for instance, Daniel Craig was a front-runner for the part of Thor), and the authors maintain an evenhanded perspective, celebrating the studio’s successes while calling out its missteps, namely the MCU’s lack of direction after 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. This definitive account of the Hollywood juggernaut thrills. (Oct.)

Comedy Book: How Comedy Conquered Culture—And the Magic That Makes It Work

Jesse David Fox. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $29 (368p) ISBN 978-0-374-60471-4
This electric debut from Vulture editor Fox serves up trenchant observations on the roles context, laughter, timing, and other factors play in comedic movies, television shows, and standup sets from 1990 through the early 2020s. Expounding on the craft of standup, Fox discusses how Chris Rock adopts a deliberately amateurish stage presence while testing out new material to see which jokes inspire laughter despite his stilted performance. The author has a knack for finding revelations in unexpected places, as when he mounts an oddly stirring defense of Adam Sandler’s scatological humor, which, Fox suggests, serves to relieve the shame associated with pooping and the pressure adults feel to deny their juvenile side. Fox’s arguments are as stimulating as they are unexpected; for instance, he suggests that “comedy doesn’t need to make people laugh” and is instead the “art of manipulating funny,” pointing out how the profundity of Hannah Gadsby’s standup special Nanette arises from the contrast between the joke-heavy beginning of the show and the serious ending. There are fresh perspectives on every page, and the style is as humorous as one would expect (“I was an actual child once. I know, hard to believe, but it’s true,” he writes while contemplating the enduring appeal of his childhood favorite, The Simpsons). Brilliant and a pleasure to read, this raises the bar for comedy studies. (Nov.)

Dolls of Our Lives: Why We Can’t Quit American Girl

Mary Mahoney and Allison Horrocks. Feiwel & Friends, $28.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-250-79283-9
Horrocks and Mahoney adapt their podcast of the same name into a quippy love letter to the American Girl brand—the line of dolls and accompanying books about each doll set in different historical periods—that became a touchstone for women who grew up in the 1990s. The authors delve into the brand’s origin story, documenting creator Pleasant Rowland’s desire to produce childlike dolls that wouldn’t “push girls toward adolescence too soon by sexualizing them” and the trip to colonial Williamsburg that inspired her to make them historical. The authors note that the American Girl books stood out for their meticulous recreation of children’s lives in the past, though “the outfits from these books live longer in our memories than some of the plot lines.” American Girl expanded during the ’90s into “a full-blown lifestyle brand,” including a magazine, websites, and The Care and Keeping of You, a revolutionary guide for girls to understand their bodies. While Horrocks and Mahoney ostensibly critique the consumerist bent of American Girl’s marketing, the authors and the fans they interview clearly revel in the pleasures of possessing the dolls and their belongings. Full of ’90s and early 2010s pop culture references, this is a twee treat for nostalgic millennials. (Nov.)

Around the World in Eighty Games: From Tarot to Tic-Tac-Toe, Catan to Chutes and Ladders, a Mathematician Unlocks the Secrets of the World’s Greatest Games

Marcus Du Sautoy. Basic, $32.50 (384p) ISBN 978-1-541-60128-4
Mathematician Du Sautoy (Thinking Better) contends in this entertaining study that such classic games as pick-up sticks, Scrabble, and Dungeons & Dragons all have one thing in common: they center around complex math. Du Sautoy tours the globe, introducing readers to 80 games both familiar and obscure, and describing how each is governed by probabilities, algorithms, geometry, and algebra. Positing games as “a living archaeology capturing the passions and pursuits of the people of the past,” Du Sautoy also delves into their history to reveal the cultural and political values behind their creation. For example, the Chinese strategy game Go, which evolved in the sixth century BCE, emphasizes the acquisition and holding of territory (Du Sautoy contrasts this with the more aggressive war game of chess that emerged in India around the same time), while Monopoly teaches the capitalistic values of 20th-century America. Each section details how to “solve” the math behind the game and come out ahead, while throughout Du Sautoy touches on such issues as the need for more female game creators and the possibly addictive properties of computer games. This meticulous and deeply researched survey will appeal to math-lovers and history buffs alike. (Nov.)

Jumpman: The Making and Meaning of Michael Jordan

Johnny Smith. Basic, $30 (336p) ISBN 978-1-5416-7565-0
Smith (The Sons of Westwood), a history professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, justifies yet another book about Jordan by offering a smart appraisal of the superstar’s relationship with race. Jordan avoided discussing racism and politics during his NBA career in a bid to “appear more likable to people living under the illusion that the nation had solved its racial dilemmas,” Smith argues, noting that in 1990 Jordan, who had his own sneaker line with Nike, justified not endorsing Black Democratic senatorial candidate Harvey Gantt against racist incumbent Jesse Helms with the comment, “Republicans buy shoes, too.” Smith argues that Jordan downplayed to the press the ways in which racism shaped his life; he writes that Jordan has omitted in accounts of his youth that he was enraged by the prejudice he faced attending a newly desegregated high school in Wilmington, N.C., in the late 1970s and took to the court as a means of “disproving any notion of weakness or inferiority.” Smith places Jordan’s apoliticism in context, describing how O.J. Simpson and Julius Erving sought to present themselves as “colorless” to better appeal to white America. Jordan remains something of an enigma throughout, but readers will come away with a better sense of how that mystery was a product of the Hall of Famer’s aspirations for universal admiration. It’s a fascinating account of how Jordan navigated America’s fraught racial politics during his rise to the top. (Nov.)

World Within a Song: Music That Changed My Life, and Life That Changed My Music

Jeff Tweedy. Dutton, $26 (240p) ISBN 978-0-593-47252-1
Tweedy (Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back)), cofounder of the rock band Wilco and alt-country group Uncle Tupelo, delivers a spirited memoir centered on his relationships to such songs as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” and Judy Collins’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” In short sections organized by song, Tweedy holds forth on the ways these tunes­—which he often loves, sometimes hates, and occasionally feels indifference toward—have shaped his life and relationships, delving into his own creative process along the way (“When you hear the occasional whistled refrain in my own songs,” he writes, “it’s only there because Otis [Redding] let me sit down on the dock beside him” in “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”). “Shotgun” by Junior Walker and the All-Stars stirs up memories of marrying his wife, Susie (a tongue-in-cheek selection, as she was pregnant at the time); “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five convinced him, at 15, that hip-hop was “a vitally important new form of musical expression” rather than “some pop music anomaly.” Tweedy’s snappy prose (“I reflexively reject everything Bon Jovi does”) and dry wit elevate the proceedings. This entertaining and enlightening survey hits the right note. Agent: Josh Grier, Ember Lab. (Nov.)