The Left Side of History by Kristen Ghodsee (Duke Univ., $24). Kristen, an anthropologist at Bowdoin College, explores 20th-century history through the eyes of World War II resistance fighters in Bulgaria. History looks very different if you fought for national liberation and human progress under the banner of communism.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler (Grand Central, $15). Octavia's 1993 novel is classified as science fiction but is more concerned with theology. Her main character is a black woman who survives apocalyptic disasters and founds a new religion in California. I once spent a day with Octavia entertaining a crowd of Chicago inner-city schoolchildren. I answered the science questions; she answered all the others. She was the star of the show.
Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler (Grand Central, $16). In this 1998 sequel to Sower, we see the heroine several years later through the eyes of her skeptical daughter.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (Ballantine, $16). Because Mary was raised as a Catholic and converted to Judaism, she understands both cultures from the inside. Her 1996 novel has a young Jewish woman and a Jesuit priest competing for the hearts and minds of two intelligent species on an alien planet.
Children of God by Mary Doria Russell (Ballantine, $15). In the 1998 sequel to The Sparrow, the well-intentioned interference of the priest and other humans continues to cause huge damage to the planet's native species before a precarious peace can be restored.
The Parthenon Enigma by Joan Breton Connelly (Vintage, $18). Joan is a classical historian at New York University. She writes about the archaic Greek myths and rituals that became embodied in the statuary of the Parthenon and puts forward a startlingly new interpretation of the Parthenon as the centerpiece of the religious life of ancient Athens. Kristen Ghodsee and Joan are kindred spirits, using different tools and focusing on different historical epochs, yet illuminating them in similar ways. To understand either modern Bulgarians or ancient Greeks, you must enter their world of human self-sacrifice.
—Dreams of Earth and Sky, a new collection of Freeman Dyson's essays and reviews, has just been published by NYRB Classics.