Dip into some fun but challenging books of recent vintage to pass the time these winter days.
"The Yid" by Paul Goldberg
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear" by Elizabeth Gilbert
"Dylan Goes electric! Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties" by Elijah Wald
By Tony Norman / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Let’s face it. We’ve still got several more weeks of cold winter ahead. But instead of bingeing on endless hours of Netflix true crime documentaries and “The X-Files” reboots, exercise that mind of yours by dipping into some fun, but challenging, books of recent vintage. Life is too short to deny your brain the literary stimulus it craves.
“Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl” by Carrie Brownstein (Riverhead Books): As one half of the duo behind “Portlandia” and a founding member of the alternative rock group Sleater-Kinney, Carrie Brownstein really can’t do any wrong. Her humorous but relentlessly honest memoir about coming of age in the Pacific Northwest, co-founding one of the most important bands of the 1990s and reinventing herself when necessary is predictably raw, yet refined — like a stab wound sewn with sugar-laced stitches.
“Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamophobia, and the True Enemies of Free Expression” by Charb (Little Brown): Last year at this time, the world was still mourning the murder of 12 men and one woman at the office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by two Islamic fundamentalists offended by its cartoon depictions of Muhammad. Editor-in-chief Stephane Charbonnier (known as Charb to his readers) was working on this manifesto about free speech when he was murdered. Lucid, challenging and righteously indignant, Charb’s “Open Letter” will resonate long beyond his death with anyone who values free expression.
“Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges” by Amy Cuddy (Little Brown): Anyone who has gone anywhere near a TED Talk channel online has stumbled upon Amy Cuddy’s 2012 lecture about cultivating boldness and self-confidence with simple body hacks like thrusting one’s arms in the air before embarking on some challenge. This book provides the academic meat to the hype-covered potatoes of that influential lecture. It is fascinating and persuasive.
“Shaker” by Scott Frank (Knopf): Sometimes you just want to curl up with a mindless thriller about a hit man with a heart of gold. But there’s nothing lovable about Roy Cooper, a contract killer who is mistaken for a hero by a nation still in shock in the aftermath of the big California earthquake. And there’s nothing mindless about this tale of chicanery in high places, suspicious cops, relentless gangsters, obsessed gangbangers and a stoic killer who just wants everyone to chill out and leave him alone. Read it before author and screenwriter Scott Frank turns it into a classic movie.
“Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear” by Elizabeth Gilbert (Riverhead Books): If you’re a creative person with a vague idea about embarking on some artistic challenge but need a nudge, it is impossible to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book without highlighting whole pages and stabbing passages with exclamation points. This is a book that teases out the mystical side of the creative process without getting bogged down in dogma. It is so well written it will haunt your dreams and influence your conduct as an artist long after that last page.
“The Yid” by Paul Goldberg (Picador): Can a novel about anti-Semitism and the brutal absurdity of the Soviet Union in 1953 really be the stuff of high comedy? Give Paul Goldberg’s first novel about racism, genocide, secret police and a plot to assassinate Stalin a whirl. This novel’s black humor is surpassed only by its historical audacity and literary fearlessness. Is it for everyone? No, but if you’re looking for the next “Catch-22,” it may be for you.
“The Art of Memoir” by Mary Karr (Harper): I’m relatively late to the Mary Karr bandwagon. While “The Liars’ Club” somehow eluded me when it came out, I got hip to her latest just as it began its ascent up the best-seller lists. This is an anatomy of the modern literary memoir and how it became “a thing” largely because of Ms. Karr herself. It shows, often with painfully adroit humor, the different strategies many writers use to navigate the terrain between truth and lies, invented memory, objective truth, and pitiless self-revelation. No wonder she’s the guru of every memoirist.
“The Givenness of Things: Essays” by Marilynne Robinson (FSG): President Barack Obama’s favorite contemporary writer has a knack for drilling down into the essential nature of reality (as she sees it). Ms. Robinson takes the modern mind seriously enough to critique its blind spots and lack of moral seriousness. She writes about grace and redemption in public and private life with the light touch of a poet, the conviction of a theologian and the open-mindedness of a scientist wrapped in one. Read this one slowly, with an open heart.
“Dylan Goes Electric: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties” by Elijah Wald (Dey St.): Did it ever occur to you that everything you thought you knew about Bob Dylan’s dramatic break with the folk music mafia at Newport in 1965 was wrong? Writer and musician Elijah Wald has done some digging. The result of his restless muckraking is a “tick-tock” of not only that day but also an entire era in folk and pop music history. This is a book that will sit atop the Olympian peak of Dylan scholarship for decades.
Tony Norman: email@example.com or 412-263-1631.
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