5 Recommended Reads For January

By Rob Levy
In Culture

After the calendar page turns from the past cycle of broken resolutions, abandoned diets, decluttering and winter cleaning, the year gives way to a yearning for the first great read of the new year.

This challenging feat involves plenty of browsing, research and an open mind. But the payoff, that great moment when the writer and reader converge, is well worth the effort.

With that in mind, here are some suggestions for kickstarting your literary 2016. 

Photo by Glen Noble/ StockSnap

Photo by Glen Noble/ StockSnap


1/ “Gorsky”
Vesna Goldsworthy, Random House

Affluent cosmopolitanism meets “The Great Gatsby” in this contemporary retelling of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece from Serbian expat Vesna Goldsworthy. Here a mysterious London-based protagonist, who just happens to be a Russian mover and shaker specializing in arms trafficking, replaces Gatsby. A chance encounter leads this man of unparalleled wealth to befriend a short-on-luck bookseller with a pretty drab social life.

This transformative friendship leads to all sorts of adventures, which allows the author to slip in coy literary and artistic references for flavor, while broadening the narrative with a veneer of international intrigue.

Conversely, the most remarkable facet of Goldsworthy’s fourth book is the way she weaves her social commentary on wealth, status and greed into her novel. More importantly, she also tramples the simple notion that rebooting a literary classic is a safe bet. Taken purely as a work of fiction, “Gorsky” is an unrelentingly fun and gutsy read loaded with plenty of scheming powerbrokers and unsavory characters.


2/ “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”
Ed Tarkington, Algonquin Books

Tarkington’s grim Southern Gothic tale begins in 1977 when a young Rocky Askew is deserted by his older brother in a Virginia forest. This traumatizing event haunts him for nearly a decade as he grows into adolescence and eventually begins a tumultuous relationship with a woman 10 years older than him.

This is where Tarkington rolls up his sleeves and gets to work. After layering his story with a plethora of abandonment issues, lost innocence and copious musical references, he turns the stereo to 11 with the addition of a double homicide. This creates a cascading calamity where the past and present collide with dire consequences that elevate his seemingly straightforward story into a gripping and powerful novel.


3/ “Downtown St. Louis”
NiNi Harris, Reedy Press

At a time when the environs of River City are at the forefront of our civic discourse, local historian and writer NiNi Harris’ history of downtown St. Louis is a both a welcome respite from local troubles and a solid history of the region.

Spanning 1784 to its current standing as a loft-ridden haven for millennial hipsters and urban revivalists, Harris leaves no stone unturned in tracing the area from its origins as a French prairie-farming region to its development as a bustling home for Italian Street vendors, V-J Day revelers and late 20th century club kids.

Contextually framed with a forward from Charles Brennan and built on a wonderful cache of historical photographs, “Downtown St. Louis” is engaging, informative book that demonstrates why the area remains a vital component in our city’s historical and cultural fabric.


4/ “Killing and Dying”
Adrian Tomine, Drawn & Quarterly

From his work on his indie comic “Optic Nerve” to his album sleeves and prolific New Yorker covers, writer/illustrator Adrian Tomine has cemented himself as a prolific cartoonist and masterful storyteller.

His newest graphic novel, “Killing and Dying,” treats us to six new stories, richly hewn to showcase the emotional aesthetics of mundane America. His characters are often emotionally challenged, embittered and seemingly malevolent. Yet when you peel back the frames and sink your hands into his prose, one understands that the strength of his work lies in his innate ability to connect his audience emotionally with his characters, who oftentimes have an aspect of weariness and detachment to them.

Be forewarned: This collection features a palatable atmosphere of melancholy and finality. Tomine is a master at chronicling male dysfunctionalism, cruelty and ambivalence,

He peppers his short-form narratives with a gamut of emotions. The title story rages hard and spews sarcasm. This combustible anger is picked up again in “Go Owls,” an offering laced with the potent poison about the perils of being in an emotionally abusive relationship. There’s a bit of a smirk to “Amber Street,” a piece about a young woman whose striking features oftentimes result in her being mistaken for a porn star. Quirky and offbeat, in many ways it stirs things up a bit by injecting some charm and wit into the proceedings.

Overall “Killing and Dying” is a collection of visual fiction that emphasizes the notion that those who remain resilient against the awkward hurdles of everyday life and interactions can be extraordinary.


5/ “Hunger Make Me A Modern Girl: A Memoir”
Carrie Brownstein, Penguin

Carrie Brownstein is a seriously busy woman. Already established as a respected musician for her work in the bands Excuse 17, Wild Flag and Sleater-Kinney, she is also known as one half of the creative team behind the indie comedy series “Portlandia” and for playing Syd in Amazon’s “Transparent.” She also is a writer, activist and social commentator whose relentless spirit cannot be tamed. If this prodigious output was not enough, she recently made her mark as a wedding officiant when she married a couple at her November book event in Los Angeles.

In her memoir, Brownstein first reflects on her growing up in choppy waters of a Pacific Northwestern household. It was this duress of stagnation that helped shape her desire to write, perform and create. These experiences set the table for the latter part of the book whereby she comments on her art, touring with her band and her involvement in the riot grrrl movement.

Perhaps the most interesting component of her book is how much music and playing in various groups has shaped her as both a performer and as a person. She then builds on this by reflecting on her time with Sleater-Kinney, an outfit considered by many to be one of the vanguards of modern indie rock. Fans of rock ‘n’ roll reads or Ms. Brownstein’s deep reservoir of musical work will be enthralled by her humor and honesty.

Stylistically Brownstein is informative and praiseworthy of her bandmates and contemporaries without being catty, obnoxious or heavy-handed. Her wit, biting sarcasm and charm comes off in print as shrewdly as it does on TV or in her interviews. Her concise autobiography is both precise and practical without being impersonal, resulting in an insightful look at the creative spirit of this multi-talented artist.

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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