Recommended Reads For February
The last gasp of winter finds readers of all kinds with unseasonably warm weather ideal for browsing shelves loaded with great books.
Here are our five recommended reads.
1/ “The Rise of Athens: The Story Of The World’s Greatest Civilization
Anthony Everitt, Random House
Everitt’s “The Rise of Athens” arrives at a time when the very meaning of democracy is being challenged on a seemingly endless basis. His detailed account of the rise and fall of Athens resonates loudly in our modern time as leaders and citizens both struggle to identify the meaning of self-rule.
As we quickly discover, the city-state of Athens was a hotbed for political thought that served as the inspiration for Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire and eventually America’s Founding Fathers, who used the Athenian model of self-determination for implementing their new republic.
The story of Athens is as gripping and poignant as any modern drama. It is filled with gods and goddesses as well as heroes and anti-heroes including Pericles the statesman, Themistocles the naval patriarch and Herodotus, whose written word recorded Athenian influence for posterity.
Those wanting action and tension will get their fill as Everitt details the conflict with the militaristic state of Sparta during the Peloponnesian War and the heroism of Athens against the mighty Persian Empire.
Concise and on point, the book is much more than a history of the world’s greatest civilization, it is also an examination of why Athens’ cultural heritage in philosophy, arts, literature, warfare and government matter so much today.
2/ “Norse Mythology”
Neil Gaiman, W.W. Norton
Mythology and folklore have always been a constant in Neil Gaiman’s novels, comics and short stories. This is certainly the case in his latest book which finds the author returning to the familiar realm of Norse Mythology to tell bold tales of heroism and adventure.
Comprised of Norse all-stars like Odin, Thor and the cunning Loki, Gaiman’s stories ebb and flow into consciousness, defying time and history while dismissing the wisecracking, finely dressed and well-manicured characterization of these deities presented by Marvel Films.
Instead, Gaiman gives readers a finely crafted, all-encompassing narrative filled with lust, power and deception that builds to the climax of Ragnarok, a battle between gods and giants which brings about the end of the world.
Although most interpretations of the Norse pantheon invoke vikings pillaging and drinking in competitive tales of plunder, Gaiman’s version is much more clever, droll and forthright. As evident in their respective chronicles, these egomaniacal divinities are gluttons for power and passions which, when left unchecked (which seems to be always), sparks actions and subsequent reactions that bring about their demise.
3/ “Lincoln In The Bardo”
George Saunders, Random House
Having established himself as a marquee essayist, children’s author and maestro of short fiction, George Saunders turned his attention to writing his dazzling first novel, “Lincoln In The Bardo.”
Set in February of 1862, the plot centers around Abraham Lincoln, whose troubles from the Civil War have been worsened following the death of his son Willie at the age of 11. At first, this appears to serve as a linchpin for an intense tale of agony and loss, but alas, it is something completely different.
Taking the overused father-son dynamic to inventive places while also veering into the supernatural, Saunders’ savvy storytelling chops provides his audience with a challenging contemplation of the adversities of living and dying.
Using Buddhist thought as inspiration, Saunders speaks to his audience in a fascinating way. He develops the president’s son as a restless spirit, stuck in a purgatory filled with squabbles, penance and pettiness. Here, Willie is given some real literary mustard as he is forced to confront the war waging for his soul.
One of the first great books of 2017.
4/ “All Our Wrong Todays”
Elan Mastai, Dutton
When firing on all cylinders, science fiction has the ability to make the reader forget the ludicrous or overused premises the genre is often guilty of. However, as witnessed here, it also can push the envelope, stimulate curiosity and chart new territories of the imagination.
This brings us to “All Our Wrong Todays,” a suspenseful and zippy time-travel novel brimming with love, hope, humor and lots of timey-wimey stuff about parallel lives and paradoxes. There’s a lot going on, but it’s a great ride.
At first, Elan Mastai’s debut seems redundant and a bit complex, but it’s actually a breath of fresh air. Featuring a modern world where all of the gizmos and gadgets that were oft-predicted for mankind (flying cars, jetpacks, etc.) actually exist, the story weaves between two worlds with great ease.
“All Our Wrong Todays” is coy and clever. Its plot revolves around Tom Barren, a lackluster son of a genius. Amidst his frustrations, a sense of feeling out of place gnaws inside him. Persistent and stubborn, it causes him to change history by nicking a time machine and traveling back to 1965. Sadly, his reckless action totally messes with the fabric of space and time and sets into motion a chain of mishaps that makes the book impossible to resist.
5/ “The Refugees”
Viet Thanh Nguyen, Grove Press
This short-story collection from the 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner could not be timed any better. It arrives on shelves the same time the topic of refugee immigration is a proximate social concern and an ongoing subject of protests, activism and oppression.
“The Refugees” is driven by well-rounded characters that are forced to face the barriers presented to them. The linked themes of acceptance, adaptation, family and sexuality make it a series of emotionally profound and deeply moving experiences.
As a writer, Nguyen uses his talent for personal connection to remain in conversation with his readers. As a result, he has created a fearless anthology that stridently depicts the physical horrors and travails of immigration through an unfiltered lens. This allows him to explore how refugees experience the places where they came from in comparison to the places where they end up.
Paranoid, distressed and illuminating, “The Refugees” is filled with stories like “The Americans” and “The Other Man” that stalk the tragic legacy of the the Vietnam War with the sharp contrast of living in new surroundings where uncertainty is paired with unwelcoming stares and cultural adjustment.
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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