Recent Reads – December 2017

The Plot against America – Philip Roth

This is the last Great Philip Roth novel. Some good, even very good, books followed but none with the scope or ferocity of The Plot Against America. I read it when it first came out in 2004 and just read it again. And what used to be a powerful book about persecution and how easily our political system, and our ideals of peace and freedom, can be turned upside down, has now taken on a whole new dimension. In light of the 2017 election, this “alternate history” has proven to be a modern dystopia. Roth showed us that America is powerless to the cult of celebrity and the empty promises of a dangerous demagogue. He showed us that it can happen here. In an interview with The New Yorker he said this book wasn’t written as a warning, but it’s impossible not to see it as a mirror image of what’s happening in America today. Characters like Rabbi Bengelsdorf and Aunt Evelyn who greedily betray their own people to join the fascist government, only to flee like rats from a sinking ship once the tide turns—I found myself getting as furious reading about them as though I were reading the news. Add the fact that Roth’s writing here is top-notch, and his description of 1930s and ’40s Newark is soulful and evocative. Classic Roth.

On Bowie – Rob Sheffield

I stumbled on this book by accident, after finishing a biography of the Rolling Stones. It was short and I was in the mood to keep reading about rock ‘n’ roll heroes, so I gave it a shot—and was pleasantly surprised. Mind you: this book is written by a fan, so it’s not a nuanced look at Bowie’s career. Sheffield considers pretty much every Bowie album a masterpiece, including his late-career work such as Hours and Reality which fill the clearance bins of every record store. (Strangely enough, he dismisses Outside, which I think is an overlooked masterpiece.) But his enthusiasm is infectious. I love Bowie, and this book made me love and miss him more.

The Sun & the Moon & the Rolling Stones – Rich Cohen

I only like a handful of Stones songs, but this rich, rollicking biography gave me plenty of satisfaction (har-har). Seriously though, it’s an engaging look at the Stones and at 50 years of rock ‘n’ roll history.

Northline – Willy Vlautin

This is a brutal book. Allison Jones suffers all kinds of abuse at the hands of her boyfriend and various other men she encounters. And Vlautin being such a smooth, compassionate writer, you can’t help but read on despite the bleakness. And he really piles it on. Rape. Unwanted pregnancy. Domestic violence. Racism. Neo-Nazis. You name it. So this was a tough, uncomfortable read, but I mean that as a compliment. Vlautin is one of my favorite novelists and I’ve now read all his books.