ALIVE Reads: Recommended Books For December

 In Culture, Guide

The end of the year brings with it a wide range of new fiction, as well as reads covering current events, history, popular culture and politics. For book lovers, it’s a time of great excess. There is so much to read, explore and discover that it is nearly impossible to take it all in. Here are some suggestions to get you through the end of the year.

 1/ Set The Boy Free
Johnny Marr, Dey Books

Known more for his guitar work as a member of The Smiths than as an author, Johnny Marr has spent most of his adult life making some of the best music of the last four decades.

Marr’s biography comes after a confessional by Smiths vocalist Morrissey, and it reads much better too. Readers are taken back to his upbringing in Manchester, England, a child of Irish immigrants who would roam the rough streets getting in and out of mischief.

His passion for music and popular culture deepened during his adolescence, stirring Marr to hone his craft and develop his own trademark sound. The memoir’s drama steps up when Marr and Morrissey meet and instantly connect, ushering in an unheralded musical partnership not seen since Lennon and McCartney. By 1983 The Smiths were in full swing, and the rest is history. Songs like “How Soon Is Now?” “Ask,” “The Queen Is Dead,” “What Difference Does It Make?” and “Girlfriend In A Coma” would make them legendary and beloved by a rabidly devoted fan base. But by 1987 the magic was gone, and the band called it a day.

The split afforded Marr, now acclaimed as one of the best guitarists on the planet, with some breathing room to pursue his own path as a solo artist, even singing on his own records. Over time his reputation grew, forming a dynamic career that is now the stuff of legend, with stints working with Billy Bragg, Kirsty MacColl, The The, Modest Mouse, The Cribs, Pet Shop Boys and Electronic.

With so much experience under his belt, it is obvious that there are probably a lot of stories to tell in that noggin of his. Marr obliges with an unflinching narrative, in a tone that illustrates his dexterity with both pen and guitar.

2/ Moonglow: A Novel
Michael Chabon, Harper Collins

One of the most popular novelists of our time returns with an enticing new read that cleverly dances with fact and fiction. Like his other books it is briskly paced, and in short order pulls in the reader. Yet this time around the author is being terribly coy. His characters have no formal names, yet they live and breathe on the pages. Meanwhile his narrative meanders and twists with a rich intensity born from adeptly developed characters that completely inhabit his stories.

“Moonglow” explores the ways relationships with our families affect us and influence generations. This existential examination of the meaning of family tells the story of a dying grandfather who shares his life’s stories with his grandson. The ensuing tales he reveals abut The Holocaust, sex and rockets are filled with juicy reflections on war, sex and death. But are they real? This is where things get tricky as Chabon plays on emotions. As in his previous work (“The Amazing Adventures or Kavalier and Clay,” “Telegraph Avenue”) the Pulitzer Prize-winner is again using metaphors and popular memory to resonate emotionally with readers. This also allows him an opportunity to develop the story he wants to tell on his own terms.

“Moonglow” is also a conundrum that turns in on itself by tapping into the trademarks of a memoir, then plunges into the murky depths of ambiguity in the acknowledgements where the entire story is labeled as a “pack of lies.” It leaves us wondering what Chabon is playing at.

Layered beneath these vivid chronicles is where Chabon gets to work, carefully stepping around what is known and what the reader perceives with such delicacy that the lines between fact and fiction become blurred.


3/ The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present
John Pomfret, Henry Holt

Fascinated by the paradoxes and problems between the United States and China, Pomfret goes digging in history to forge an understanding of how America and China coexist. With a plethora of material, he explores the historical underpinnings of this complex association to better grasp how China perceives and reacts to America. Spanning one comprehensive volume, “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom” summarizes where we are with China and how we got there. It also outlines how, despite the tensions, China and the United States are two worlds intertwined by diplomacy, economics and geopolitics.

Pomfret begins in the early days, when American clippers encountered China for the first time, establishing trade and laying the framework for endless cultural clashes over the next two hundred years, up through Nixon’s historical visit to China in 1972, which helped both nations understand their similarities and differences. Moving into the modern age, he delves into The Tiananmen Square protests and how it has affected Chinese perceptions of our foreign policy. The historical journey then comes full circle with an examination of how our democracy can confront China’s ambitious economic growth and political oppression.

4/ This Damned Band
Paul Cornell, Dark Horse Books

Rock is literally the Devil’s music in this graphic novel (now out in paperback) written by Paul Cornell with art by Tony Parker. Set in 1974, Motherfather is a Led Zeppelin/Motorhead-esque classic rock band that is all about image and presentation. To that end they mimic many of their peers in presenting themselves as a band that worships Satan, when they really don’t. However, when they agree to open their lives to a documentary film crew, things get weird when they uncover the truth that someone in the band is really a Satanist. This revelation unearths a devilish plot that means impending doom unless it is thwarted.

Dripping with the nostalgia and culture of the day, “This Damned Band” playfully shakes, rattles and rolls. It may seem silly at first, but there’s much more to it as the action plays out. Despite being filled with generally unlikable people doing really asinine things, the story does remain compelling by never taking itself too seriously, while simultaneously not turning into a complete parody.

Fans of classic rock will love the pains Cornell and Parker take in presenting an authentically accurate portrayal of this period of music history.


5/ The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End
Robert Gerwarth, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

To most people, World War I ended in 1918. To historian and lecturer Robert Gerwarth, this could not be further from the truth. His latest book explores the causes and fallout of The Great War, which, as he argues, really extended into the early 1920s and whose impact is still shaping the Middle Eastern and European political landscape today.

Among the issues tackled is the massive relocation of populations caused by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. As the victors carved up Europe, they paid no attention to the religions, individual freedoms or cultural heritage of those they moved by using a pen to define new borders. Despite a few years of relative quiet, the aftermath of the war was devastating. Colonialism was thriving, and it took a great toll on the developing world, ushering in revolutions and renewed violence. He also notes that the fine line between civilians and soldiers all but disappeared, meaning that anyone, even woman and children, could be a victim of combat.

“The Vanquished” is an unsettling and informative reevaluation of how the world’s first large-scale war has left an indelible impact on our modern world.

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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