Recommended Reads For January

Books have a wonderful ability to transcend the cold of winter, the chill of current events, or the burning heat of a sweltering sun. Publishing houses are coming out swinging in the midst of the new year, with tons of great reads that serve as both a sanctuary and a saving grace for those looking to broaden their horizons.

 1/ “Appetites: A Cookbook”
Anthony Bourdain, Ecco

Although it has been a decade since Anthony Bourdain released a new cookbook, he clearly hasn’t spent much time away from the kitchen. “Appetites,” his latest, is a straight-up old-school cookbook, splashed with flashes of the new along with intermittent profanity. His formulas for flavor include roast chicken, meatloaf with mushroom gravy, New Mexico beef chili, macaroni and cheese and potato salad.

Even when Bourdain goes simple, with grilled cheese or meatball parm hero sandwiches, the results are stellar. His latest is all about serving large portions of a global array of foods, spiced with his unique insights, opinions and observations of a life filed with addiction, greasy spoons, food stalls, bars, speaking tours and war zones. The culmination is a cookbook that would make Betty Crocker rather uncomfortable.

2/ Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down”
Anne Valente, William Morrow

Set in St. Louis, Valente’s “Our Hearts Will Burn us Down” follows the decimating events that rip the lives of four friends—Nick, Zola, Matt and Christine—apart. As the core members of the yearbook committee, the foursome are forced to reconcile their own grief as they decide how to present this violent event to their fellow teachers and classmates of Lewis & Clark High School. The plot moves from a slow burn into a full-blown blaze of angst after a series of suspicious home fires targets the families of the survivors.

Although it seems that the center of the book focuses on the aftermath of trauma, Valente clearly has other ideas, as she slowly dips her characters deeper into a disturbing and suspenseful narrative with layer upon layer of tension. Readers quickly become aware that things are veering toward a very dark precipice that lures her captive audience into a tantalizingly suspenseful thriller. The result is a mournful and enigmatic novel from a former St. Louisan, whose recurring exploration of violence, loss and community anguish resonates loudly in these challenging times.

3/ In The Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett”
Tony Fletcher, Oxford University Press

Writer, blogger and music historian Tony Fletcher does not like to wait in line. His previous biography on The Smiths was the first comprehensive history of that band and his excellent “Moon: The Life and Death of a Rock Legend” is considered the ultimate work on The Who’s late drummer, Keith Moon. Now Fletcher has turned his ears to pen “In The Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett,” the first thorough examination of a vital but overlooked figure in American music.

His literary odyssey gives us the story of Pickett’s life and career as well as the creation of many of his hits (“In The Midnight Hour,” Mustang Sally,” “Land of 100 Dances,” amongst others) by giving readers detailed stories of his studio sessions. For Fletcher, chronicling the life of Pickett also means delving into his interaction with his contemporaries, including James Brown, Bobby Womack, Ike and Tina Turner, Otis Redding and the man who helped launch his career, Lloyd Price. His relationships with these performers not only helps us to understand one of the most fertile and competitive eras of American popular music; they allow us to see why Pickett’s legacy remains so crucial.

Thanks to a tightly paced narrative, we discover how Pickett’s good looks, charm and ability to holler with profound passion enable him to master his craft so completely that it allowed him the luxury of moving effortlessly between soul, the blues and, later, mainstream pop music. It’s a compulsory read tinged with tragedy and triumph that resurrects the genius of a forgotten icon.

4/ Cosplayers”
Dash Shaw, Fantagraphics

As nerd culture continues to proliferate into the mainstream, things once deemed silly or absurd are suddenly cool and fashionable. In “Cosplayers,” Dash Shaw enthusiastically lays out the joys of this facet of fandom where folks of all ages and backgrounds mimic the look and mannerisms of their favorite TV, anime or comic book characters. Rising from the unwashed world of science fiction conventions, cosplay was around for decades before gaining hipster status in the last decade.

In his new graphic novel, Shaw takes us into this world with reverence and respect by using interconnected short stories that lovingly salute the time, energy and passion involved in making outfits, dressing up and totally inhabiting a new outer shell. Each story has its own quirky vibe, making for a fun read that never loses its focus on its subjects as real people. As Shaw takes time developing his creations and the theatrics of their endeavors, his readers are treated to some serious emotional gravitas, whimsical escapism and quaint tenderness. His crisp prose and inventive illustrations also go a long way in removing many of the misconceptions and stigmas about this unique subculture.

Shaw’s graphic novel is also an examination of how nerds, geeks and freaks come of age and become comfortable in their own skin. Here, beneath layers of crafted clothes and blurred realities, is where uniquely independent and tender characters transcend fandom, revealing what it means to be a human searching for personal identity.

5/ All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin”
Mikhail Zygar, Public Affairs

At a time when it may be needed most, Mikhail Zygar is using his chops as an independent journalist to probe the workings of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. His perilous endeavor, “All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin,” reveals a great deal about how the controversial leader came to power and harnessed a vigorous nationalism to hold onto it, and why his efficient and brutal regime is a real threat to the West. Utilizing interviews with those in Putin’s ranks as well as extensive research, the book shows us how and why Putin has continually been underestimated by his adversaries. Using this as an advantage, his team has consolidated power and manipulated events geo-politically while taking Russia precariously close to the conflicts and psychological tensions of the Cold War.

With the turn of every page the reality of the Kremlin’s machinations becomes sharper and more frightening. Well-timed, Zygar’s portrayal of an aggressive and terse Russia seems frighteningly real.

Rob Levy is a freelance writer who works at a local library. Each month he recommends five books for ALIVE Magazine readers.

To see what we’re reading, visit ALIVE on Good Reads. 

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