5 Recommended Reads For August

 In Culture, Guide

August marks the time of year when the literary world begins to transition from the summer’s vacation reads to the autumn’s more cerebral, creative and intense offerings on a road of discovery filled with new writers, timely topics and imaginative stories.

Photo by Freddie Marriage/ StockSnap

Photo by Freddie Marriage/ StockSnap

1/ “St. Louis Noir”
Edited by Scott Phillips, Akashic Books

The latest in Akashic Books series of compendiums that feature writers penning gritty tales set in a particular city, “St. Louis Noir” features local writers, each of whom have crafted stories of ill-gotten deeds happening in locales we all know (Frontenac, the Central West End, Sauget, Dogtown).

For “St. Louis Noir,” editor Scott Phillips has gathered a team of writers—some of whom have never been published before—to paint the town red with 13 adventures of harrowing crime fiction that is definitely not for the Disney crowd.

Not afraid to get their hands dirty or shy away from contemporary issues, the writers behind “St. Louis Noir” have taken murder and mayhem to the streets, introducing readers to a roster of unseemly characters that find themselves in tense and desperate situations where the solutions are not whitewashed or squeaky-clean.

In addition to stories from Phillips, Calvin Wilson, John Lutz and Paul D. Marks, there are four pieces from poet laureate Michael Castro splattered among the pages, which help frame the book as an anthology.

Throughout the book, Phillips, (“Cottonwood,” “The Ice Harvest”) has shrewdly captured the fundamental elements of noir, transforming St. Louis into a gruesome world that is neither black or white, but quintessentially gray.

2/ The Games: A Global History of the Olympics”
By David Goldblatt, W.W. Norton & Company

At a time when the eyes of the world are focused on Rio, Goldblatt takes readers behind the veil of the Olympics, allowing them to experience the games as both sports history and a mirror of social culture.

Rich in history and detail, we learn the history behind the games and its traditions. We also get a warts-and-all look at the politics behind the games, both on and off the fields of athletic competition. From Hitler’s games of 1936 to the boycotts of Moscow and Los Angeles in the early 1980s and the tragic Munich Games, Goldblatt brings the synthesis of politics and Olympic sport to the surface with startling clarity.

As readers, we initially think the Olympiads are supposed to be above all of that; we are quickly proved wrong as the author reminds us the games have repeatedly been tainted by the current events of the times. Yet despite the setbacks of World Wars and terrorism, the Olympics serve as a reminder of how important athletic competition is in engendering an understanding of other peoples.

Where Goldblatt medals however, is in delivering a concise history—told without excessive superlatives or outside narratives—of the Games from its humble beginnings to Athens to its current setting in Rio. Beginning in 1896, he takes us through the rather bland early affairs. Then, in the 1930s, things really take off as the Olympics became, more or less, the ones we know today.

But Goldblatt’s history is not all bad. There’s the heroism of Jesse Owens, the sheer power of the Dream Team, the perpetual perkiness of Mary Lou Retton and the force of nature that was the Miracle on Ice, all of which testifies to the power of the Games to act as a unifying force of inspiration.

Topping it all off is Goldblatt’s notion that the Olympics will always be messy in how the sites are selected and the impact they have on the culture of host nations. As witnessed by Vladimir Putin’s active campaigning for the Sochi Winter Olympics of 2014, he recognizes that the Olympics always seem politically contentious while remaining utterly compelling for the citizens of the world.

He also notes that despite all of this inner conflict and global tumult, The Olympics remain  an intoxicating celebration of sports and achievement to the citizens of the world.

3/ “House of Nails: A Memoir of Life on the Edge”
By Lenny Dykstra, William Morrow

On the baseball diamond, Lenny Dykstra was a hustler who flew around the bases with reckless enthusiasm and broke all the game’s unwritten rules with his brazen play and arrogance. Off the field, he was a hustler who cheated his friends, took advantage of others and brazenly broke the law, establishing himself as modern folk hero in the process.

After hanging up the cleats, Dykstra, perceived as one of baseball’s real characters, was celebrated for his financial acumen and investment prowess. His post-baseball fiscal success was ultimately a rags-to-riches story as he made a lot of money for himself and his friends. Sadly, all of this would come crashing down around him in an epic fall from grace.

At first things were good for the former World Series hero, until 2008 when the economy turned and his world of luxury collapsed. Busted by the feds for bankruptcy fraud, he was unceremoniously sent to prison. Incarcerated for more than two years, Dykstra lost his front teeth after being beaten to a pulp by prison guards.

Dysktra’s Great American tragedy saw him betray teammates, friends and the fans who loved his devil-may-care style of play. In “House of Nails,” the beloved former Met and Philly comes clean about his career, his drug use and his conviction, which he still claims was unjust.

Unyielding in his opinion, Dykstra’s memoir is candid, funny, moving and passionate. As a ballplayer-turned-felon, he’s lived a life unlike any we’ve seen before or probably will see again.

4/ “The Underground Railroad”
By Colson Whitehead, Doubleday

In “The Underground Railroad,” Colson Whitehead brings the visceral brutality of slavery to the surface through the life of his protagonist, Cora, a slave who escapes bondage in Georgia only to discover that the journey to freedom is just as dangerous as the life she is leaving behind.

Desperate for a way out of her servitude, she learns of a path to freedom from another slave named Caesar. Determined to live free of shackles, she takes his word and journeys along the Underground Railroad.

The path is precarious. Hunted by slave hunters, those fleeing the South face, as Whitehead points out, countless obstacles en route to liberty. Relentlessly hunted and on the run, Cora gets little rest or ease. Her worst fears are realized when she encounters the despotic Ridgeway, a man who will stop at nothing to bring her in.

Centering on Cora’s development from a salve into a free woman, Whitehead utilizes emotion, pain and hope in equal measure as Cora flees towards independence. This allows him to open things up with the narrative and harness each stop along The Underground Railroad as a journey to a new world and new way of life. By expanding his canvas, Whitehead added texture to his portrayal of this dark era of history.

Despite being set in the Deep South of the 19th century, “The Underground Railroad” resonates loudly in our contemporary world. Whitehead’s themes of civil rights and social justice are not lost in the pages of this mesmerizing novel that brings the ugliness of human injustice to a compelling boil.

5/ “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
By Nancy Isenberg, Viking Press

Americans take great pride in thinking we are a land of equal opportunity for all peoples. However, after 240 years of nationality, there is a definite class system in place. This is the crux of “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America,” which examines how, because of this system, the white poor have moved into the center of our cultural identity.

As Nancy Isenberg points out in her painstakingly researched new nonfiction, the landless poor have shaped the American landscape since the nation’s colonization, inception and through the Great Depression and postwar world.

Despite their hard work and a fierce determination to get great things done, from highways, mines, railroads and farms, this group cannot catch a break in the eyes of an ever-sneering upper class that deems them as ‘hillbillies’ or ‘rednecks.’

Using sociology and history as her guides, she also suggests that our system of classes and elitism has led to the rise of a white trash populous who have impacted our popular culture from “Duck Dynasty” to “The Dukes of Hazzard.” She goes on to surmise that this group has proliferated our American psyche to such an extent that it is now in danger of threatening facets of our democracy.

Tracing the origins of ‘white trash’ and its negative connotations, she builds her case that this class of working poor is part of an ever-evolving social struggle to achieve the American Dream amidst economic inequality and lack of education.

Isenberg also explores the eugenics movement and its influence into American politics where the notion of sterilizing the poorer masses was championed by one Roosevelt (Theodore) and firmly rejected by another (FDR).

She also notes that poor whites have regularly been stereotyped by middle and upper classes as inefficient. This same poverty and into-elitism was a core theme in the rise of Andrew Jackson to the presidency. In the late 20th century, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter used their poor white roots to capture the hearts and minds of an electorate eager to make s statement against the system.

Well written and briskly paced, “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” chronicles a social struggle that has been endlessly entwined in our national heritage and shaped our present circumstances.

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

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