5 Recommended Reads For April

By Rob Levy
In Culture

With April comes the spring and with that comes a slew of great new books across many genres, marking a feast for book-lovers and intrepid readers. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for essential spring reading. 

Photo by Kate Williams/ Unsplash

Photo by Kate Williams/ Unsplash

1/ “The Summer Before The War”
By Helen Simonson, Random House

The hits keep coming for Simonson whose 2010 novel, “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand,” was a smashing debut. For her “difficult second novel,” she returns to her English roots with a love story set in prewar pleasantries of a small village England in 1914.

A surefire must-read for the year, “The Summer Before The War” is idyllic for beaches and bistros. Its plot surrounds the intelligent and independent Beatrice Nash, a Latin teacher who comes to Rye, Essex to work for the Kent’s, a well-to-do family whose high morals and esteemed community standing presents challenges to their new employee who bucks their snobbish social morays of her time by falling in love with Hugh, their nephew.

Filled with all the trimmings of an Edwardian BBC drama, her blooming romance is ill-timed as World War I breaks out, plunging the town of Rye into turbulence. The war changes every fabric of Beatrice’s life and of those around her, bringing with it rations, regulations and a slew of Belgians looking for shelter,

As events unfold, Simonson gets to work in deconstructing the social boundaries of the era by having Beatrice fend off a rigid class system and small town gossip while also echoing our contemporary social landscape on issues of sexuality, marriage and justice.

Beneath this story of love, war and tragedy is a message from Simonson that, in many ways, we haven’t progressed from some of the conservatism of 1914.

 

2/“Spain In Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939”
By Adam Hochschild, Houghton Mifflin

In “Spain In Our Hearts,” writer Adam Hochschild argues that the Spanish Civil War was in essence the first act of World War II. He also claims that this conflict—which pitted Franco’s fascism (abetted by Hitler and Mussolini)—against its democratic government was the first time Americans saw combat in that tragic confrontation.

Most of our understanding of these torturous three years stems from the writings of George Orwell or Ernest Hemingway. However, thanks to a coherent narrative pieced together from archives as well as personal stories from combatants, our perception is now much more accurate.

As Hochschild also notes, The Spanish Civil War was a big media event for an American press looking for sensational stories of adventure. At first, the war was perceived as a cause embraced by leftists and Commie wackos. However as things got bloodier, the tenor of alarm and resentment settled in and more American became involved.

Eight decades later, the Spanish Civil War remains a conflicting, confusing and controversial chapter in 20th-century history. While its legacy of brutality and bloodlust haunts Spain to this day, for Americans it remains a lost era whose heroes have toiled in relative obscurity, until now.

 

3/ “Patience”
By Daniel Clowes, Fantagraphics

Daniel Clowes has spent the last three decades capturing the quintessential awkwardness of life in these United States. In his stories, there is an underlying melancholia that makes his characters relatable. As a storyteller, he is masterful at presenting characters that are weird, lost, obsessed, strange and generally detached from everything considered ‘normal.’

With his latest, “Patience,” Clowes shakes things up a bit by adding some time-traveling whimsy to his stew of intense angst. The story centers on the discovery that the title character has been murdered. The tragedy and heartbreak of her death lingers, eventually prompting her husband, Jack Barlow, to travel through time in an effort to save her.

It is this premise that sets a voyage of discovery into motion as Barlow, who also serves as the narrator, encounters various moments of his life throughout time. As we quickly discover, going through your own personal history is not just dangerous; it’s emotionally jarring as Jack visits his old haunts, faces his past decisions and encounters forgotten inner demons as he searches for a way to save the woman he loves. It is this confrontation with his past self that serves as the catalyst for Jack’s introspection.

“Patience” features the familiar return of Clowes’ bold visual style. In addition to bright colors, there’s the usual congestion in his panels, which overwhelms the reader’s senses and draws them into a narrative that is a journey of self-discovery, a mystery and a love story spanning decades.

Although it also features all the usual trademarks of Clowes’ work—alienation, sadness, frustration and inner turmoil—here it is presented on richer and more expanded tapestry that allows him to deepen the plot, resulting in a powerful graphic novel that again finds him in the natural comfort zone that has established him as one of most important writers in modern day comics.

 

4/ “Tuesday Nights In 1980”
By Molly Prentiss, Scout Press

In many ways, “Tuesday Nights in 1980” is a love letter to Manhattan at the dawn of an adventurous decade. The city is dirty and grimy; there’s no pristine Times Square or gentrified Greenwich Village, but there is a vibrant art scene in full swing, helmed by folks like Andy Warhol.

By setting her debut novel in this era, Prentiss has the luxury of utilizing the brash inventiveness of New York’s art world as character itself. The scene is not pretty; it’s a gossipy, creative and cutthroat world that devours the weak. It is against this backdrop that she introduces three characters—an art critic, a painter from Argentina who has come to America to escape his past and a small town girl making her way in a big new world.

The book is a another breakout work for Prentiss who displays a delicate craftsmanship in her storytelling. As these characters dodge and weave into and around each other’s lives she skillfully builds toward a crescendo that will leave an indelible mark upon their lives and their art.

Another interesting component of her novel is that each of her protagonists is flawed in some way. By using an artist, a critic and a newbie who becomes an artistic muse, Prentiss explores a time when Soho’s art scene was still a subversive movement where creativity was tenaciously born amidst the muck of chaos. This allows each of her creations to face challenges in finding success and acceptance while simultaneously forcing them into develop their own rapport between life and art.

Manhattan itself, in all of sleazy glory, is a character unto itself. Its day-to-day grind can both stifle and stimulate creativity. Its movements in art, music, film and theater are smoldering underground, waiting to burst to the surface by the end of the new decade and reshape the city itself as the artistic capital of the universe.

“Tuesday Nights in 1980” is a precise and affectionate work of dramatic fiction that explores the dynamism between art and life as it embodies the hopes, dreams and aspiration of artists looking to find their path in the dingy playground of Manhattan’s underground.

 

5/ “Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements”
By Bob Mehr, De Capo Press

Nearly a decade in the making, Bob Mehr’s “Trouble Boys” is an all-consuming history of The Replacements, a Minneapolis-based band whose rough and ready lifestyle was as legendary as the groundbreaking albums they created. They were a rock ‘n’ roll band through and through. Yet buried behind their 12-year legacy is a backstory of self-inflicted tumult and misfortune.

With that in mind, Mojo Magazine writer Bob Mehr began his adventure by interviewing not only the band’s surviving core of Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson but also their inner circle of friends, family and business associates. The result is a fairly complete narrative of their beginnings, rough patches, success and dissolution.

He also plunged headlong into the archives of their first label, Twin Tone Records, as well as those of the one where they found their more commercial success, Sire Records, a division of Warner Brothers. This enabled him to concisely analyze their music and its continued significance.

The fruits of his research revealed that while they were sonically brilliant, they had several serious issues and a proclivity for living on the edge which stunted their longevity. He confirms what most of us already have surmised, that for The Replacements nothing was ever really easy. They rumbled … a lot and partied as equally hard. Nonetheless, despite the benders and fracases rose a band whose music is just as vital now as it was when they burst from the scene more than three decades ago.

He spends some serious time on the power struggle between Westerberg and the late Bob Stinson, who died in 1995. Both had distinct visions for what they wanted the band to be and each wanted a different path for the group. To make matters worse, Stinson’s drug addiction affected his musical prowess and gradually drove a wedge between himself and Westerberg until things reached a critical mass and Stinson was ousted in 1986.

Guitarist Bob Stinson’s story is the saddest catastrophe surrounding the band. His ongoing struggle with addiction was a constant issue, as were his bombastic rows with Paul Westerberg, a control freak whose love of alcohol didn’t make things much better. Sadly, as the pages turn, the conflict between these two bandmates cements their eventual fates.

The main theme that Mehr punctuates in this provocative biography is that throughout everything, The Replacements were simultaneously a band that were essentially both euphoric and tragic during the course of their time together. As he repeatedly articulates, one of the most distinctive and destructive bands of the late 20 century had a madness beneath their genius that hampered them from reaching the apex of their potential. Despite all of this though, they managed to flat out rock.

Rob Levy is a freelance writer who works at a local library. Each month he recommends five books for ALIVE Magazine readers.

To see what we’re reading, visit ALIVE on Good Reads. 

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