5 Recommended Reads For June

By Rob Levy
In Culture

The blistering heat of summer signifies the arrival of some sensational new books. Whether you read them indoors, on vacation or for pleasure, the season is ripe for picking—with something great for every type of discerning reader.

Photo by Luis Llerena/ Stocksnap

Photo by Luis Llerena/ Stocksnap

 1/ “The View From The Cheap Seats” 
Neil Gaiman, William Morrow

Whether writing award-winning comics, fantasy, children’s books or episodes of “Doctor Who,” Neil Gaiman remains one of today’s most prolific writers. Now the English-born writer, who also pens a mega successful blog, has taken a break from creating his iconic creations to compile his finest nonfiction in “The View From The Cheap Seats. “

A frequent essayist, reviewer, critic and social commentator, Gaiman has (finally) assembled a broad pastiche of his nonfiction into a one-volume compendium that amplifies his stature as a genre-defying writer whose abundant output never wavers or fails to scintillate.

Culled from a wide range of sources, there’s a lot here—speeches, columns, essays, introductions nestled alongside reviews of films, books, movies, comics and some personal reflections.

The book also covers a gamut of real-world subjects including the importance of libraries, how to write about America and the plight of Syrian refugees

Gaiman also discusses the importance of writing while paying tribute to his influences and collaborators, including everyone from Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury to Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. Music fans will enjoy his thoughts on Lou Reed, Tori Amos, They Might Be Giants and his wife, musician Amanda Palmer.

Like any good writer, Gaiman is a master of taking the world around him and bringing it to his audience concisely. As a result, “The View From The Cheap Seats” uses spot-on commentaries about our society and its popular culture to reveal a more complete portrait of an author whose imagination, knowledge, mystique, honesty and passion often times make him so wonderfully uncategorizable.

2/ “Modern Lovers”
Emma Straub, Riverhead

With Brooklyn permeating so much of our hipster culture of films, movies and music, it is nice to read a novel set there that strips away any pretension and ‘oh so cool’ nonchalance in favor of interesting characters and dramatic tension.

With “Modern Lovers,” Emma Straub picks up where she left off with her previous novel,  “The Vacationers,” in that she again deploys her wry prose and acerbic wit and sprinkles it with even doses of charm, distress, duplicity and joy.

Her latest novel explores how the passions of our youth often stay with us into our middle age, informing our perspective and forging our perceptions. Straub also revisits her familiar themes of friendship and family in a book that brims with summertime bliss and blues.

“Modern Lovers” follows the adventures of three friends and former bandmates, Zoe, Elizabeth and Andrew. The trio met while attending college where they formed a band called Kitty’s Mustache with their friend Lydia, whose life of rock ‘n’ roll excess caught up with her at a very young age.

Two decades on, Kitty’s Mustache has been embraced by a new generation of fans and the tragic story of their former drummer has Hollywood types snooping around for a possible biopic.

It is against this backdrop that this group of close friends—now neighbors in Ditmas Park, a gentrified area of the West Flatbush, Brooklyn—where their present their life as indie rockers has faded and they are now adults with jobs, kids and responsibilities.

More or less happy, their sense of security is unhinged when long-buried secrets of the past are revealed and new abrasions form disrupting their relatively docile lives.

Those who love a little music with their fiction will appreciate what Straub is up to here. Filled with rich characters, crisp dialogue and a fascinating perception of ’90s indie culture, “Modern Lovers” finds Straub skillfully melding wit, melancholy and the adrenaline of youth into a tale about embracing your past while moving on with your future.

3/ “Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans At War”
Mary Roach, W.W, Norton

Throughout her career, science writer extraordinaire Mary Roach has earned a reputation for synthesizing the most mundane and seemingly uninteresting subjects and weaving them into captivating reads.

Endlessly curious about the universe around her, Roach often walks a tight rope of being informative and waggish. Thus she’s established herself as an author that is willing to dig several layers down in order to ascertain an understanding of her subject matter.

Roach is always a fun read; it is her enthusiasm and ceaseless research that rules the day. She also is a masterful storyteller who says a lot without needless elaboration. All of these things permeate throughout the entirety of her latest nonfiction, “Grunt,” which examines the fighting machine that is the modern GI.

Told with candor and comedy, she gives us a look at how our national warriors are trained, healed and kept in fighting form—something that is sadly necessary in our age of terror.

Obsessed with her subject, she plunges headfirst into the physical aspects of being a soldier in terms of individual health, emotional wellness and dealing with trauma-related disorders. The stories she recounts are oftentimes not pretty, chronicling everything from diarrhea and sleep deficiency to the high-tech medical procedures used to mend the maimed and disfigured.

Enjoyable and fresh, “Grunt” mixes levity, geeky facts and scientific folderol to advance our understanding of how our vigilant armed forces are kept in peak physical shape without sacrificing their faculties or even their lives.

4/ “Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer
Arthur Lubow, Ecco Press

In “Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer” biographer Arthur Lubow deconstructs the complicated and brilliant life of one of America’s most prominent photographers in an evenhanded style that mixes the matter of fact with the salacious.

Born into a life of privilege, Arbus would grow up to be a firestorm of artistic tenacity and controversy. As we discover rebellion, stubbornness and creativity are often a deadly cocktail and with Arbus, these traits engendered an appreciation for the subversive that made her one of the 20th century’s most formidable documentarians.

Frustrated and fatigued with working as a fashion photographer, Arbus longed for something more challenging and creatively invigorating. It is this awakening that helped transform her into a pull-no-punches photographer whose pictures included those deemed gruesome or freakish by conventional society.

As the pages turn, Lubow engages several touchy subjects surrounding Arbus, including her multiple affairs, voracious sexuality and the issue of whether or not she manipulated her subjects for her own benefit, a charge that has repeatedly dogged her since her suicide in 1971.

Lubow also examines the many facets of Arbus’ personality. Psychologically, she was known to have a cruel side and her opinions about her contemporaries and their art often rubbed people the wrong way.  He also focuses on her battle with depression and how this inner demon manifested itself repeatedly during her life.

From silver spoon to silver gelatin “Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer” is a robust biography about the troubled life and astonishing work of a provocative artist who pushed the envelope of how her medium confronted the world.

5/ “Homegoing
Yaa Gyasi, Alfred Knopf

Yaa Gyasi’s first novel is a serious contender for your next favorite book. It’s beautifully written, perfectly paced and dauntless in its relentless assault on your emotions.

Set initially in eighteenth century Ghana where two half sisters, Esi and Effia are born in separate villages and destined to live diametrically different lives. The narrative then diverges along two paths on two continents where their individual fates and those of their ancestors will be intertwined in blood, pain and regret.

“Homegoing” hits the ground running when James Collins, the local governor, coughs up some serious coin to Effia’s family to ‘acquire’ her.  Her life with Collins ensures that Effia will spend the years ahead in the luxury and regal comfort of his palace, the Cape Coast Castle.

Ironically it is in the bowels of that very same fortress where a detained Esi’s fate is determined after she is abducted and subsequently ripped from her homeland and  transported to the American colonies as a slave.

Esi’s new life of hardship and pain is heartwrenching. Forced to live in an unfamiliar place her bondage will have dramatic ramifications on her descendants who will also struggle for their own freedom throughout the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance and eventually into modern times.

Likewise Effia’s progenies will also face their own ordeals as they confront their family’s participation in and proliferation of slave trading. Like Esi her life will reach into the future as her kin will also encounter chaos and devastation as Ghana is plunged into ongoing tribal warfare.

In this intense debut Gyasi channels her own heritage to intricately span events throughout three centuries that consistently captivate and unnerve her readers. She also  uses character development and historical accuracy to bring the jarring cultural memory of forced captivity to the forefront while also commenting on the stark issues of class, heritage, race and oppression that still of haunt us today.

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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