ALIVE Reads: Recommended Books For October

The pre-holiday blitz of great books this year is astonishingly deep and there definitely are good reads everyone.

This month brings a gritty tale of mystery, a road trip story about economic decline and family frustration, the youthful exploits of a world leader and the highly anticipated memoir from a seminal musician. If that weren’t enough, there is also a wonderful new read from one of America’s comedic giants.


1/ Born To Run

Bruce Springsteen, Simon & Schuster

Rock n’ roll icon Bruce Springsteen points out early on in his new autobiography, “writing about yourself is funny business.” It is this honesty and shoulder-shrugging humility that permeates throughout as The Boss reflects on his music and his private life.

Right out of the gate, it is clear that Springsteen relishes the opportunity to set the story of his life to paper. His prose is brisk but emotional and sincere. He clearly has found his voice and is comfortable in his skin, despite being a stadium rocker and bona fide Hall of Famer.

Born To Run is an epic life told via small snippets of recollections that collectively flow into a steady narrative as he holds nothing back in taking readers through his Catholic upbringing in New Jersey, his love of Elvis, difficult marital strife and establishment of close friendships that would lead him to the biggest stage of all, stardom.

Within the book’s pages is the usual rock bio stuff on creativity, making difficult albums, suffering for art and source of inspiration. However, there are also touching moments about his relationships with his bandmates, whom he sees as family, especially his ‘right hand man’ Stevie Van Zandt. There are also some powerfully moving stories about his late friend Clarence Clemons.

Never one to shy away from difficult issues or politics, Springsteen also comments on current events, using his experiences with recording an album in Los Angeles during the 1992 riots as a template for commenting on today’s racial strife.

By telling his story in a simple, noncomprehensive way, Springsteen opens up his life, recounting both his rise to fame and eventual elevation to worldwide stardom. But as he points out, beneath all of the rock iconography, he is at heart a songwriter bursting with energy to be heard.

Like the man himself, Born to Run is funny, sincere, honest and humble. This quick read is so enjoyable because it doesn’t burden the reader with hefty self appreciation. Just like Springsteen’s records, there is no pretense or innuendo, just stories from his remarkable life on and of stage.


2/ Hero Of The Empire

Candice Millard, Doubleday

Countless books have been written about Winston Churchill—so many that when you hear there’s a new biography about him, your initial reaction may be to pass it by. In this instance, though, you would be missing out.

Written with great care by Candice Millard, whose previous book Destiny of the Republic was a critically acclaimed smash, this bio diverges from the usual “hero of World War II” narrative in favor of a forgotten story about how the 24-year-old future prime minster fought for his life at the turn of the 20th century.

Arriving in South Africa in 1899 to cover the conflict there, a young Churchill was already hard at working setting lofty goals for himself. As Millard notes, he had already set his mind to being Prime Minister, but he knew that before he could climb the political ranks he had to make a name for himself. This sets the stage for the drama within The Hero of the Empire, which chronicles Churchill’s perilous life and daring escapades during the Boer War. While covering the war Churchill and his unit were captured, and his incarceration was horrific and brutal. Determined to get away, he traveled more than 100 miles behind enemy lines to safety. Never one to back down from a fight, he fearlessly enlisted and eventually found himself in the ironic position of liberating the very men he served with.

Completely engrossing, Millard’s new biography takes an often glossed-over period in Churchill’s magnanimous life and sprinkles it with historical encounters with other luminaries of his time, including Gandhi and Rudyard Kipling.


3/ In Good Company: Eleven Years Of Laughter, Mayhem and Fun In The Sandbox

Carol Burnett, Crown/Archetype

For nearly five decades, The Carol Burnett Show has made audiences laugh with its slapstick skits and rapid-fire jokes that remain ingrained in the psyche of America’s popular culture. A landmark achievement in television, the show won 25 Emmy Awards and set the standard for comedy television for decades to come. The influence of this vanguard program remains incalculable.

It is against this backdrop that Carol Burnett invites us into her world with In Good Company, a revealing account of how the show came together, struggled, survived and relentlessly brought laughter into the nation’s living rooms. Burnett reveals how her dream team of herself, Tim Conway and Harvey Korman became a unit and remained creatively vital for more than a decade without losing a grip on their friendship. She also gives colorful accounts of working with mentor Lucille Ball, protégé Vicki Lawrence and co-star of seven years Lyle Waggoner.

Prepping for the book, Burnett—a Mark Twin Prize winner and Kennedy Center honoree—binge watched the entire run of the show and carefully reminisced about her highs and lows and she went along. As the memories rushed back, her pen went to work, enabling Burnett to vividly capture the essence of her comedic genius during the “golden age” of television.


4/ The Wangs Vs. The World

Jade Chang, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

With the subject of immigration front and center today, Jade Chang’s debut novel tears down walls with a welcome comedic drama that plays with the notion of family dysfunction in refreshing ways.

Set in the economically turbulent year of 2008, the book’s protagonist Charles Wang is a Chinese-American millionaire who has lost everything. He had surrendered his fancy Left Coast digs and gathered his kin  for a road trip to their new home in the Catskills, where they resettle with his daughter Saina, a darling who dwells among the movers and shakers of the Manhattan art scene. Wang’s riches-to-rags tale fraught with turbulence, emotional tension and plenty of high drama as he is forced to bond with his son, an unfunny stand-up comic, and his youngest daughter, a boozy teenager with some serious attitude.

Told through the heart and soul of his splendidly developed characters, author Chang cleverly weaves through a sea of lifestyles, including the opulent world of high finance, the rough world of comedy and the awkwardness of teenage rebellion and tell-all blogging.

At times, The Wangs Vs. The World is cut from the same cloth as National Lampoon’s Vacation movies: a family travels together and experiences the weirdest and wackiest of the USA. This enables the author to deploy irony and sarcasm, peeling away the layers of havoc that many modern American émigrés face with their day-to-day subsistence. Well-paced and smartly written with an eye on the present, Chang’s smug novel is candidly honest, funny and charming.


5/ The Never-Open Desert Diner

James Anderson, Caravel Mysteries

The lonely desolation of Utah’s Route 117 serves as the perfect metaphor for Ben Jones’ life in James Anderson’s modern mystery. A down-on-his-luck trucker fending off the closure of his company, Ben’s life of relative isolation is thrown into disarray when he meets Claire, an equally downtrodden soul who plays cello in a display unit of a long forgotten desert complex.

Like Ben, Claire comes with her own baggage, thanks to a busted marriage and a dubious past. Although their relationship is passionate and tricky, these kindred spirits find themselves lost and searching for something better. Faced with nagging questions and unexpected perils, the duo inhabit their own universe of missed opportunities and bad decisions—the effects of which still ripple into their daily lives. Sadly, their torrid affair comes with a murder and a subsequently unsettling series of events that makes the couple’s lives complicated and dangerous as they search for pieces of their own missing pasts.

The diner in question of this modern noir is the Never-Open Desert Diner, a dilapidated eatery that was once touted as a location for several Golden Age of Hollywood films. Despite being run down, it still plays host to the unsuspecting, the unscrupulous and the unwanted. As Ben and Claire travel along Anderson’s well plotted highway of twists, turns, redress, death and decay, they are led to the doorstep of the aforementioned Never-Open Desert Diner and its secrets.

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

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