ANY CHILD OF THE '80s will be familiar with this line of dialogue and the robotic monotone in which it’s delivered. It’s from the movie “WarGames,” starring a baby-faced Matthew Broderick as a teenage computer whiz who accidentally creates an international crisis when he programs a computer to play Global Thermonuclear War instead of, you know, chess. The reason these words have become so iconic is because they’re delivered with a choose-your-own-adventure cheekiness, a combination of innocence and foreshadowing that speaks to the very nature of play. All play starts with a kind of purity of intent (see also: dogs) but morphs into a grand stage for bluster versus skill, for elation versus defeat, for profound human drama. Anyone who’s ever agreed to a game of Monopoly with a competitive family member knows of what I speak. But the beauty of play lies in the uncertainty of the ending, in highs and lows en route to the finish. One never knows if engagement will result in a nice chess match or the emotional equivalent of Global Thermonuclear War.
This month’s new releases feature all manner of dice rolls, starting with tennis legend Billie Jean King’s autobiography, “All In” (Knopf). As King succinctly puts it, “To this day my 1973 ‘Battle of the Sexes’ match against Bobby Riggs remains cast in the public imagination as the defining moment for me, where everything coalesced and some fuse was lit.” Needless to say, we do not spend over 400 pages on Bobby Riggs. Instead, “All In” creates a sweeping and frank portrait of America through the life of one of its most iconic athletes. It does this against the backdrop of the 1960s and the cultural movements (anti-war protests, civil rights, gender equality and, eventually, the LGBTQ+ movement) into which King dove headlong, sometimes by choice and sometimes by circumstance. She grapples with going to South Africa to play shortly after Nelson Mandela had been sentenced to life in prison, as well as being sponsored by cigarette companies in the 1970s. King approaches her own story without a shred of self-importance, in a way that reminds us that her history is ours as well. Meanwhile, we get a taste of the “insider politics” (perhaps writing “inside baseball” would’ve been too left field for a book by a tennis champion) of the United States Tennis Association. It all flies by, set after set. “When you read about history,” she writes, “you think it’s gone by very fast, but when you live it, it’s very slow.”
Back in May, when “Saturday Night Live” announced Tesla CEO Elon Musk would be hosting the show, the uproar on social media was reminiscent (in tone only) of that time the Nobel Prize committee decided Bob Dylan was a poet. But this time, the outrage was not about the break from genre, but about … this friggin’ guy? We’ve become accustomed to either accepting or dismissing Musk as a controversial figure as we watch his wealth amass faster than the human brain can compute. Wall Street Journal tech and auto reporter Tim Higgins’ “Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Bet of the Century” (Doubleday) digs deeper into the story of Musk, asking if he is really an “underdog, an antihero, a con man, or some combination of the three.” Accessible but thorough, “Power Play” goes back to the origins of the electric car phenomenon (in 2003) and the “high-stakes gambit” of Tesla. Delving into the history of the industry and the machinations of the company as well as its enigmatic and outlandish figurehead, Higgins details the corporate rivals, setbacks, whistleblowers, Silicon Valley investors, and volatile tweets that have led to this simultaneous technological revolution and cult of personality. How will the game end? While Musk’s “vision, enthusiasm, and determination carry Tesla; his ego, paranoia, and pettiness threaten to undo it all.”
The Game of Life
Twenty years after her remarkable memoir, “Shutterbabe,” author Deborah Copaken is back with “Ladyparts” (Random House), a moving (and darkly funny) seven-part tour of surviving life in a woman’s body.
Play on Words
From Cancún to Copenhagen comes “After the Sun” (Riverhead), Danish author Jonas Eika’s vivid and magical realist stories about alienation and the desire for connection.
It's All Fun and Games
In “Why Good Sex Matters” (HMH), cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Nan Wise uses her research on anhedonia (the inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable) to delve into why people are having less-than-exuberant times in the bedroom.
Play with Your Food
For fans of Dana Goodyear’s brilliant book on the American way of eating, “Anything That Moves,” comes Matt Siegel’s “The Secret History of Food” (Ecco), which deftly explores the cultural and historical origins behind why we eat what we eat.
Punch It Out
In “Everyday Vitality: Turning Stress into Strength” (Penguin Life), Dr. Samantha Boardman explains how to relieve stress by doing the things you already love (but probably forget to do) — playing ball instead of curling up into one.
Play It as It Lays
Ketty Rouf’s lively and sexy novel, “No Touching” (Europa), tells the story of a Parisian schoolteacher whose life swings from one pole to the other when she stumbles into a strip club on the Champs-Elysée.
Carmen Maria Machado and Jane Smiley are two of the standouts in “Horse Girls” (Harper Perennial), a collection of original essays about the stereotypes and stigmas of riding culture.
Anthony Veasna So’s knowing debut story collection, “Afterparties” (Ecco), creates a droll and honest picture of Cambodian-American life: “All our lives they find us inappropriate, but today especially so.”
The Play's the Thing
In Mona Awad’s sharp “All’s Well” (Simon & Schuster), a former actress and theater director on the verge of self-destruction is determined to put on a performance of Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well.” Meanwhile, Lyndsay Faye’s “The King of Infinite Space” (Putnam) twists and spins Hamlet into a modern-day New York tale that combines mystery, fantasy, and murder. Sometimes the game is up, sometimes it’s afoot.
Sloane Crosley Writer
Sloane Crosley is the author of several essay collections, including "I Was Told There'd Be Cake" and "Look Alive Out There," and the novel "The Clasp." Her next novel, "Cult Classic," will be published next year.
Marina Esmeraldo Illustrator
Marina Esmeraldo is a Brazilian-born, Barcelona-based illustrator, artist, and lecturer. Her award-winning work draws on a tropical upbringing, a modernist training in architecture, and her innate wanderlust.