5 Recommended Reads For July

By Rob Levy
In Culture

The last month has been blisteringly hot. The same can be said about its newest book releases, which offer a full-flavored menu of options for any discerning reader.

Photo by Glen Noble/ StockSnap

Photo by Glen Noble/ StockSnap

1/ “On Bowie”
Rob Sheffield, Harper Collins

Although David Bowie has only been gone for just more than six months, for his die-hard fans and critics his passing is still a crushingly sorrowful event. Included in that group is Rob Sheffield, a writer for Rolling Stone and author of the acclaimed “Love Is A Mix Tape.” Sheffield is a master of meshing music and relationships whose novels rely on these connections to emotionally resonate with his readers. It is this invaluable ability to affix his prose with emotional pangs that makes “On Bowie” such a tenderhearted meditation on Bowie’s lasting impact on our popular culture.

A brisk, yet poignant read, Sheffield dispenses with the shenanigans of a full-on biography in favor of going with his gut for a book that is filled with passion, raw emotion and abundant melancholy to deliver a compelling examination of why Bowie matters as a pioneering artist.

Written from the perspective of a fan more than a music critic, the book, which also features accompanying photographs, not only defines Bowie’s innovation and evolution but explains how Bowie’s relationship to his fans is just as significant as the body of work he left behind. Stunningly emotional.

2/ “Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia”
Julian Fellowes, Grand Central Publishing

With “Downtown Abbey” in his rearview mirror, fans were left wondering what the show’s creator, Julian Fellowes, would do next. Now their wait is over.

For the most part, “Belgravia” falls along the same lines as his beloved television show in that it’s a period drama loaded with surprises and social commentaries while also following characters who inhabit several fundamentally different worlds.

Once again Fellowes is clearly comfortable painting his narratives with a historical palate to make his characters come to life. Driven by tea, tumult and a Dickensian sensibility for serialization, the novel is set in the 1840s with its key plot point transpiring in 1815, just before the downfall of Napoleon at Waterloo.

Located in a posh area of London, “Belgravia” symbolizes wealth and power at a time when the industrialized masses are forced to mix with an upper crusted aristocracy. However the air of change caused from this mingling is not fully embraced and a rigid structure of stodgy formality ensues.

Told via the lens of the Trenchard family, whose actions propel the plot with plenty of secrets and scandals, Fellowes retains the clever banter, preoccupied selfism and emotional angst that made “Downton Abbey” so infectious. Although Fellowes uses no massive sea change in themes, technique or execution his novel is enticing and addictive. Descriptively stylish and swiftly paced, “Belgravia” is an easy read loaded with enough secrecy and maneuvering to make it an instant conversation piece for summer travelers, book clubs and escapists looking to for somethingsalaciously fun.

3/ “Jackson, 1964:  And Other Dispatches from Fifty Years of Reporting on Race in America”
Calvin Trillin, Random House

Calvin Trillin, a veteran of The New Yorker, has spent the last five decades covering racial strife in all of its visceral shapes and sizes. His story extends beyond the Deep South and travels across the country, oftentimes holding a mirror up to the ugly and battered soul of our society.

Culled from articles, essays, poems and commentaries, his coverage shows us how far we’ve come, while simultaneously alerting us that there is so much more to do. Brimming with tension and tenacity his reports span the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s to the voter suppression and race riots of recent decades. They read as a stoic reminder of how the headlines of today are steeped in the unresolved issues of the last half-century.

His journey includes several high-profile pieces about Martin Luther King Jr., the deadly 1975 police shooting in Seattle that seems eerily familiar and a festival troupe in New Orleans whose Mardi Gras celebrations are rife with controversy. But he doesn’t stop there. He also looks past the ‘big event pieces’ to recognize those whose tireless efforts for racial equality have nearly been forgotten.

“Jackson, 1964” is a broad, semi-journalistic overview of the struggle for civil rights that calls into question our views of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness with honesty, confrontation and brutality. It also teaches readers valuable lessons about writing as a protest device, handling political pressure and how any one person can make a difference in fighting for freedom.

4/ “A Lover Sings
Billy Bragg, Faber and Faber

The Bard of Barking, Essex, Billy Bragg has been spent the last 30 years carving out a niche as a voice for the common man. Bragg’s keen ability to create music that is both political and tender has allowed him to remain consistently relevant. Known for his charm and eloquent conversation the singer, songwriter and activist has written songs about girls, resurrected the unrecorded songs of Woody Guthrie with Wilco, met the Queen and given hope to generations of miners, marchers, misanthropes and bleeding hearts.

“A Lover Sings” collects a selection of Bragg’s lyrics and rests them gently under one roof, giving them a uniquely fresh context. Being read as prose gives his work (“Levi Stubbs Tears,” “You Woke Up My Neighborhood, “A New England” or more overlooked gems like “NPWA,”“Warmest Room” and “Tank Park Salute”) a fresh timbre that paints a complete picture of Bragg as a lyricist who unabashedly speaks his mind in the name of fairness, justice and love.

Although it is not a complete anthology of his songs “A Lover Speaks” also masterfully reminds us of just how special and charming Bragg is as a performer who taps into the social zeitgeist of the downtrodden and lovelorn. The boy done good.

5/ “The United States of Beer: A Freewheeling History of the All-American Drink”
Dane Huckelbridge, William Morrow

There is no denying that the 240-year history of America is important and revolutionary. But as Dane Huckelbridge (who previously wrote “Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit”) reminds us, the story of the nation’s love of beer is also noteworthy..and fun!

“The United States of Beer: A Freewheeling History of the All-American Drink” finds him imbibing again with a profoundly intoxicating tome filled with tidbits, obscure facts and lots of history.

His spirited dissection of our love of beer begins with the corn-based liquor made by Native Americans and then weaves around early attempts by Americans (including George Washington) to create their own style of beer.

From here, he moves on to the golden age of suds, the roaring 1800s, which saw Americans discover the foreign potions that reached our shores with the influx of new immigrants. Being a melting pot had its benefits in that it opened up the American frontier to the sudsy drinks of German brewers who forever changed our national drinking habits.

From here, Huckelbridge rolls up his sleeves and adeptly reveals just how close Prohibition came to crushing the nation’s beer industry. Despite bootlegging, organized crime and a strong public resilience to being dry, this dark period of alcohol caused beer moguls to diversify and create new goods for public consumption and thus ushering in a new age of consumerism and product development.

As the 20th century drew to a close marketing and media made beer sales a big deal. With increased global markets and targeted branding the USA’s love for hops went bonkers and became even bigger business. The tale comes full circle as a new century saw the industry changing thanks to a series of megamergers which ultimately saw large breweries give ground to localized DIY-minded microbrewers and indie spirited pint crafters.

“The United States of Beer: A Freewheeling History of the All-American Drink” could have been a less filling and sobering history lesson. Instead, Huckelbridge played it straight, delving deeply into the overlooked lore of our cultural alcoholism to create an informative and detailed account of our other national pastime.

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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