Sunday, December 18, 2016

Culture for the Holidays: Some Suggestions

The complete four seasons of WKRP in Cincinnati (CBS, 1978-1982) are newly available on DVD.

With the holiday season fast approaching, there is no shortage of books, albums/CDs and DVDs to choose from. So to make it easier for you to pick, here are some recent offerings you might want to contemplate purchasing for your loves ones – or for yourself.

Books, Fiction:

The Big Book of Science Fiction: There obviously is no shortage of science fiction anthologies out there – several come out annually, compiling the perceived best of the year – but The Big Book of Science Fiction: The Ultimate Collection (Knopf Doubleday, trade paperback, 2016), edited by Jeff and Ann Vandermeer, tops pretty much all of them. It’s oversized, contains a whopping 105 stories and, most significantly, covers the whole historical gamut of the genre, beginning with H.G. Wells’s 1897 short story "The Star" to more recent entries in the field, such as Cory Doctorow’s "Craphound" (1998) and Ted Chiang’s "Story of Your Life" (2000), which is the basis for the movie Arrival. This collection also, unlike virtually all SF compilations, departs from the traditional Anglo-American emphasis (with the odd Canadian or Australian short story stuck into the mix) to encompass stories from writers I guarantee you’ve never heard of, such as the Bengali writer, Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein ("Sultan’s Dream"), who passed away in 1932. Current writers whom I generally didn’t know featured in the compilation stem from France (Jean-Claude Dunyach), Finland (Johanna Sinisalo), Ghana (Kojo Laing), India (Manjula Padmanabhan), and China (Cixin Liu, a rising star whose novel The Three-Body Problem won the Hugo award for best novel in 2015), among many other countries.

Of course, classic English-language SF short stories are here, too, including Stanley G. Weinbaum’s "A Martian Odyssey," Harlan Ellison’s "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," Robert Silverberg’s "Good News from the Vatican," Frederik Pohl’s "Day Million," Samuel R. Delany’s "Aye, and Gomorrah," Joanna Russ’ "When it Changed," George R.R. Martin’s "Sandkings," and Pat Murphy’s "Rachel in Love." There are also stories from recognized giants in the field, including Ursula K. LeGuin, Connie Willis, Michael Moorcock, Ray Bradbury. Philip K. Dick, Theodore Sturgeon, William Gibson and Isaac Asimov, among so many others. (I can’t possibly name them all.) But while not all the stories stand out – no compilation bats 100% – enough do. The content on tap is remarkably varied and fascinating as writers from non-English speaking countries will often have a different, more idiosyncratic take on known science-fiction tropes such as First Contact (with aliens) or on pertinent issues such as impending and drastic climate change. As with the Vandermeer’s 2014 anthology The Time Traveler's Almanac, which did full justice to its theme, The Big Book of Science Fiction (also the title of a 1950 smaller and much less comprehensive anthology edited by Groff Conklin) lives up to its name – and more.

Another anthology covering much ground is 100 Years of The Best American Short Stories (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, 2015), edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor, which, celebrating the centennial of The Best American Short Stories, selects 40 of the best stories from the more than 2000 stories published in its annual editions since 1915.

Grouped by decade, more or less, those include Ernest Hemingway’s "My Old Man" (1923), his first published work, and Edna Ferber’s moving and fascinating "The Gay Old Dog" (1917). But pretty much all major American writers are in this book, including John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro (okay, she’s Canadian, but so many of her stories were published in The New Yorker that she qualifies for this anthology) and F. Scott Fitzgerald, with his particularly pungent "Babylon Revisited" (1931).

My own literary prejudices lean towards more modern works and certain writers, so I was not disappointed by Richard Ford’s "Communist" (1988), a sharply observed coming-of-age story, Robert Stone’s "Helping" (1987), a clear-eyed look at the travails of an alcoholic social worker, and Philip Roth’s acidly satiric and disturbing 1958 story "The Conversion of the Jews," which I first encountered in Roth’s 1959 collection Goodbye, Columbus. Nathan Englander's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank" (2012), a re-imagining of the doomed young woman’s life, is particularly moving. But this is a collection to savour and dip into at one’s leisure, so I anticipate checking out stories by writers I’m interested in but whose writings I have not yet found time for, such as Jhumpa Lahiri ("The Third and Final Continent"), Junot Díaz ("Fiesta," 1980), George Saunders ("The Semplica-Girl Diaries") and Lauren Groff ("At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners"). Judging by the high quality of the stories I have read or already knew, I don’t think I’ll be disappointed. Neither should anyone who picks this book up off the shelves.

Books, Non-fiction:

In addition to being a very fine fantasy writer, Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere, American Gods) is a damned good essayist, too. Views from the Cheap Seats: Selected Non-Fiction (William Morrow, hardcover, 2016) collects sixty of his essays, some previously unpublished and some seeing the light of day in the form he originally intended. They run the gamut from profiles of writers he’s been long influenced by and is now friends with (Harlan Ellison, Stephen King) to his views on comics, music, his adopted country, the U.S.A. (the English-born Gaiman has lived there since 1992), and even a bemused take on his sojourn at the 2010 Academy Awards when Coraline, based on his book, was nominated for Best Animated Feature.

Gaiman comes across in these varied essays as a stunningly smart guy, but also a humble one who is not ashamed to genuflect at the altar of Ellison or acclaimed fantasy writer Gene Wolfe (The four-volume The Book of the New Sun is a particular favourite of his.) Gaiman considers Wolfe to be “finest living male American writer of SF and fantasy – possibly the finest living American writer.” But whatever Gaiman is excited to write about, it’s all underlaid with a classic wry British wit. This collection’s illuminating and fun.

Often, during this fractious and nasty American presidential campaign, I kept wishing that Christopher Hitchens, who died just over five years ago, were still around. He would have written some incredibly scathing pieces on Hillary Clinton, whom he despised, though Bill received far more of his opprobrium. He considered both of them to be supremely mendacious. (I know the Clintons’ faults but in this case, as with his screeds on the evils of organized religion, I think Hitchens is more than a bit excessive in his views.) But I don’t doubt that President-elect Donald Trump would have come in for his share of censure, too, though I do doubt that Hitchens, British-born but an American citizen by the end of his life, would have been surprised by Trump’s ascent to the highest office in the land. If you want a taste of what Christopher Hitchens was all about, check out his (lamentably) last collection, and yet… (Simon & Schuster, 2015, hardcover, now out in paperback), which collects fifty of his magazine and newspaper essays (many from The Atlantic and Vanity Fair, for which he was a regular columnist, but also from such publications as The Wall Street Journal and Slate. (It includes a 2008 anti-Hillary essay, "The Case Against Hillary Clinton").

Hitchens was a polymath and the collection contains essays ranging far and wide, from his (somewhat ambivalent) take on Barack Obama after his Presidential win ("Barack Obama: Cool Cat") to a still-pertinent essay on the Lebanese-based terrorist group Hezbollah ("Hezbollah’s Progress"), as well as sharp-minded essays on Che Guevera, George Orwell (one of the people Hitchens most admired) and Edward M. Kennedy. His 2006 essay on the late, tough-minded and courageous Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, titled "Oriana Fallaci and the Art of the Interview," should be required reading for anyone despairing of the softness of today’s reporters, though Hitchens was not blind to her racism. And his piece on his 2005 trip through the U.S. South ("My Red State Odyssey") goes a way to explaining the culture there that would vote for a Donald Trump. His 2010 article "Shut Up About Armenians or We’ll Hurt Them Again" is a brilliant and impassioned critique of Turkey’s vile stance in denying the Armenian genocide. And how can you not like the title, if not the content, of his 2009 essay on Iran, "Engaging with Iran is like Having Sex With Someone Who Hates You"?

Of course, Hitchens could be a provocateur, too – the essay titles above indicate that. But he also had a relatively soft side, best displayed in his 2005 essay "On Becoming American," written after he had been assailed as a "foreign atheist” by columnist Pat Buchanan, Hitchens rises to a spirited defense and asserts his American bona fides in a strong-willed, typically unique way: “Rather, I felt that my very own hearth was being profaned. Don’t go telling me to go home, big boy. I am home.” Another prophetic, aptly titled essay, about political nastiness in the U.S., "The Politicians We Deserve" (2010), ends with these words: “How low can it go? Much lower, just you wait and see.” And so it has. Christopher Hitchens is missed.

The late art and culture critic Robert Hughes was, like Hitchens, both of strong opinion and more than a little out of the critically soft mainstream – “I am after all a cultural critic, and my own job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate,” he opined. The Spectacle of Skill: Selected Writings of Robert Hughes (Knopf, 2015, hardcover, also out in paperback) collects excepts from nine of his 14 non-fiction books, including The Shock of the New (1980), on revolutionary art; The Fatal Shore (1987), a history of his native Australia; Goya (2007), on the famous artist and two tomes devoted to his favourite cities Barcelona (1992), and Rome (2011, his final work). There’s nothing, unfortunately, from The Culture of Complaint, his incisive and barbed 1993 take on the debasement of popular culture and the insidious influence of political correctness on Western society; boy, does that still apply today!

The selling point for this book, though – most of its 600-plus pages are from the previously released works of his – is the 125 unpublished pages (156 in the paperback) of his never-completed memoir. That includes a fascinating chapter on his lengthy stint as art critic for Time Magazine ("Coming to Time"), where I first read the man and appreciated how, like Carl Sagan with science, he was able to make esoteric art and trends more explainable and gripping than most critics in the field. His compatriots looked askance at his sojourn there, wondering how he could fit comfortably into a mainstream, middlebrow (though influential) magazine like Time. But he did, and the essay examines the virtues and drawbacks of his time spent there. (It’s a measure of the high esteem in which he was held at Time that his name remained on the magazine’s masthead after 1999, when he was seriously injured in a car accident, until his death in 2012, even though he never did return to the magazine as a critic.) As with Hitchens, Hughes left his indelible mark on our culture.


If you’re not familiar with singer/songwriter Momus (real name: Nicholas Currie), you’re in for a treat when you check out his 3-CD box set, Momus: Pubic Intellectual – An Anthology, 1986-2016 (Cherry Red Records, 2016), which commemorates his thirty years making music and which is culled from his 29 albums to date. (He’s nothing if not prolific.) Scottish-born and now resident in Japan, Momus burst onto the music scene with a hodgepodge of highly eccentric and idiosyncratic tunes with catchy titles like "Lucky Like St. Sebastian" (1986), the saint who unluckily died a violent death; "A Complete History of Sexual Jealousy (Parts 17-24)" (1988), which is self-explanatory; "The Homosexual" (1988), about a fey man who is perceived to be gay but craftily uses that perception as a cover to have affairs with various men’s wives (that one is based on fact); and "I Was a Maoist Intellectual" (1988), about a guy who adopts that political guise to make it in the music industry until it bites him on the ass. Those songs heralded the welcome appearance of a literate, clever and original singer/songwriter who was unlike any other except, perhaps, for the equally eccentric Robyn Hitchcock.

Those early songs and albums were, as one internet critic labeled them, ‘lo-fi', but as his career progressed, his albums became sonically richer, even more inventive and his songs harder to describe with obscure or opaque titles like "The Cabinet of Kuniyoshi Kaneko," "Going for a Walk With a Line," "The Ephebophobe" and "Tinnitus." What they all had in common was Momus’s general obscurity and consistent presence on the musical margins; he’s barely even a musical cult figure, and my own introduction to his music relied on a friend's recommendation. I have never heard Momus’s music played anywhere,  though I did catch him in performance in Toronto before a small but adoring crowd.

Pubic Intellectual thus fulfills the dual function of introducing the man to those who don’t know him at all, as well as paying tribute to his vast body of work. I wish Momus had included his terrific and provocative terrific tunes, "Psychopathia Sexualis" (2001) from the album Folktronic, a sardonic take on sexologist Alfred Kinsey’s sexual studies as filtered through the sexual goings-on in a small American town, and "Space Jews" (1997) from his album Ping Pong, wherein he offers an outrageous interpretation of the origins and ongoing influence of the Jewish people. But he does provide liner notes on the genesis of all 56 songs on the box set, amusingly filtered through his offbeat personality and odd worldview. I wish, too, that album information for all the songs could be found not only online – check them out at – but also in the packaged material on offer, but you can’t have everything, I guess. Admittedly, 3 CDs of Momus’s music may be too much for the novice, and even for those of us who are already fans, but if you must filter out a few of his tunes, give most of them a listen. Here are the some of the lyrics for "Bishonen" (1988), one of his quietest, most moving and haunting songs, sung by a young boy raised by an odd local bachelor and typical of much of Momus’ unique song craft. Enjoy.
He taught me to be good with words, he bought me ceremonial swords
And in this way came grace and expertise
The words were to cut down and to kill the muscle-bound
The swords to fell my intellectual enemies

And women should be hated but first impersonated
Charm, he said, is essential to misogyny
He taught me how to woo the girls in order to outdo the girls
And the fun would come when I'd got them to love me

And how could I resist the old misogynist
Who brought me up according to a fantasy?
My softness and fragility
My feminine grace and delicacy
Made death himself afraid for me

One of the best things about DVD box sets is the chance they offer fans to catch the entirety of TV shows after they have officially gone off the airwaves. Two overdue 2016 releases, the complete series of Party of Five (which ran for six seasons from 1994-2000 on FOX) and of WKRP in Cincinnati (which ran for four seasons from 1978-82 on CBS), pay homage to two of network television’s finest offerings.

Party of Five (Sony Pictures Television), created by Christopher Keyser and Amy Lippman, chronicled the travails of the Salingers, five siblings living in San Francisco, struggling to go on after their parents are killed by a drunk driver. Though billed as a family-friendly drama, I always considered it a more nuanced and subtle show than such praised series as ABC’s Family, which ran from 1976-80. Over its long run, Party of Five tackled everything from domestic abuse to cancer to economic realities and it did so with complexity and realism. It even imagined an alternate reality for the five siblings in one episode where their parents did not die in that car crash. (In those days, only Party of Five, Roseanne and thirtysomething seemed to deal with people who faced money worries.) It also made deserved stars of its fine cast, which included Neve Campbell (Scream, Wild Things), Scott Wolf (Everwood), Matthew Fox (Lost), Lacey Chabert (Mean Girls), Scott Grimes (ER) and Jennifer Love Hewitt, who starred in the short-lived Party of Five spinoff Time of Your Life. Though it won a Golden Globe for Best Television Series -- Drama in 1996 and was chosen by Time Magazine one year as the best show on the tube, Party of Five really isn’t as well-known as it ought to be.

Incidentally, the music in Party of Five is different from much of what originally ran on the show because of rights issues. But at least the show’s supervisors picked the replacement tunes for the DVD release. When WKRP in Cincinnati’s’ first season appeared on DVD, generic songs had replaced the series’ rock tunes, undermining the TV show’s basic concept:  a struggling radio station in Cincinnati whose playlist consisted of bland elevator type music and what happens when renegade DJs change the station and shake it up by switching to classic rock. Without those rock tunes, the show ceased to make sense. Now that’s basically been rectified – a shop owner who was selling the recently released box set (Shout! Factory) informed me that all but five of the songs were from the original broadcasts, which is good enough for me. Now you can catch d.j.s Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) and Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid), receptionist Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson), news reporter Les Nessman (Richard Sanders), accountant executive Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner) and the other very human denizens of the radio station in a funny, sharp (“As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly") and sometimes serious show -- as when it dealt with the 1979 tragedy in Cincinnati where eleven fans of The Who were trampled to death. WKRP in Cincinnati also examined such still hot-button issues as music censorship and racism – station manager Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) recognizes that his problems with Venus Flytrap, who is black, squiring his sister around town, stem from those feelings – revealing a show that had a brain beneath its funny bone. Truth be told, this is as good as TV sitcoms ever get.


Finally, if you need a stocking stuffer or Hanukkah present, you can’t go wrong with the annual Southern Music issue of The Oxford American Magazine, which is fast approaching its 100th issue. As usual, the publication comprises acute, perceptive music writing -- Greil Marcus on blues great John Lee Hooker, features on African artist Bassekou Kouyaté and Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan -- as well as an accompanying CD entitled Visions of the Blues, featuring everyone from Charley Patton to Alabama Shakes. It's a deviation from the previous issue discs devoted to specific Southern states. (It’s still a good CD, but perhaps a little less interesting for its general scope.) You also have a pick of three different covers, another change from the usual magazine presentation, devoted to John Lee Hooker, Bonnie Raitt and newcomer Adia Victoria. I went with the traditional icon, John Lee Hooker, of course. All in all, the Southern Music issue offers up an embarrassment of riches.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just concluded teaching a course on groundbreaking movies. He lectured on The Image of the Jew in Film and Television: Realities and Fantasies in London, Ontario, last September and October.

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