Friday, December 18, 2020

Cultural Recommendations in this COVID Year

Erik Larson's The Splendid and the Vile was published by Crown Publishers in February. (Photo: Nina Subin)

Pandemic or not, culture continues on. Here are some recommended books, CDs, DVDs and magazines you might want to purchase for the holidays, as presents for others or just to treat yourself.

Books: Non-Fiction

I've long been a reader of the thrilling non-fiction books by Erik Larson. Whether it's examining the events surrounding the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and its attraction for America's first serial killer (Devil in the White City) or depicting the fraught experiences of the U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany, in the years preceding World War Two (In the Garden of Beasts), Larson has the knack of putting to paper history that reads like the most exciting fiction. 

His latest work, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz (Crown Publishers, 2020, Hardcover), seems, at first, to be traversing more familiar territory, as a portrait of Great Britain's wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, subject of too many bios and profiles to count. But Larson, by focusing only on Churchill's first year in office, from May 1940 to May 1941, brings a razor-sharp eye to the tumultuous events of that fateful period, when Britain pretty much stood alone against Nazi Germany and their dreaded Blitz, while Churchill struggled mightily to get American support – read weaponry – from U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, without pushing him too hard for fear the isolationists in that country would kibosh anything Roosevelt wanted to do to aid in Britain's war effort.

As usual, Larson brings many supporting figures, whose testimonies exist in various forms today, to vivid life, including Mary Churchill, Winston's youngest child, and John Colville, who toiled as Churchill's private secretary for much of the war, and who later wrote an acclaimed memoir of his time then. (He kept a private diary throughout as did Mary, both from which Larson quotes liberally.) Other figures, often lesser-known, and sometimes amusing in their dealing with Winnie, include press mogul Lord Beaverbrook (Canadian Max Aitken) who was always trying or threatening to quit his job as the man in charge of wartime airplane production, and the odd Frederick "Prof" Lindemann, Churchill's chief (and most trusted) scientific advisor. They spring to indelible life as supporting players in the life and efforts of the Great Man himself. Larson also ranges further afield and puts down the thoughts, through their published comments and writing, of such figures as Luftwaffe ace fighter pilot Adolf Galland and Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels.

It’s all scrupulously factual, as always with Larson, though I wish he – or his editor – had not censored the N-word, which made up part of the title of Agatha Christie’s U.K. edition of her mystery novel, known to Americans as Ten Little Indians or And Then There Were None. This is a non-fiction, historical account, so why the excision?

Mostly though, the virtues of Larson's books – though I was disappointed in his previous testimony, Dead Wake – their verisimilitude, of course, but also their humanity, shine through in The Splendid and the Vile, too. Reading about the amusingly eccentric Churchill (who often wore a frilly pink bathrobe and liked doing a lot of his work in the bathtub) reminded me both of what a great leader he was and that such equivalent inspirational political figures are in short supply these days. That’s especially clear in the picture Larson paints of his moving visit to a site in Wales where many Britons perished in a German bombing attack, and where he faced the pain (and occasional anger) of a demoralized populace, yet brought them emotional succour simply by showing up. The Splendid and the Vile functions, too, as a fulsome but not sentimental tribute to the spirit of the British people who unwaveringly faced the perpetual German onslaught of that time frame with uncommon courage and stoicism. They were a much stronger breed, I feel, than many of our current generation, which, as COVID's second wave shows all too well, don't have the gumption to stick adversity out as that previous population did. I must confess to not realizing that the Blitz – the wholesale, nightly bombing of cities in the U.K. by the German Luftwaffe, in hopes of bringing the country to surrender or prompting their populace to rise up and demand peace with Germany – took place over just a little more than a year. I had always assumed that it occurred for the whole duration of the war. (Since the Blitz is such a totem in so many British films, perhaps I can be forgiven for this false assumption.)

Larson's ultimate strength as a writer, besides his beautifully rendered descriptions and characterizations, is his alchemy in translating what could be a dry and dull historical account into something very lively and fresh, without ever belabouring or troweling on any salient points he might be making as a storyteller. You feel what you read here and you remember much of what you've read afterwards. The Splendid and the Vile is what gripping history should always be. 

I also heartily recommend Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (Doubleday, 2019, now in paperback), Patrick Radden Keefe's fascinating account of Jean McConville, a Catholic widow, and mother of ten children, who 'disappeared' in December of 1972, a victim of The Troubles, the internecine war between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. Keefe brilliantly extrapolates from that one event to encompass several disparate figures, including IRA members Gerry Adams (who later went into politics), Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes (who found themselves on different sides when peace was, finally, brought to that region of the world). Superbly and vividly written, this is a rich and deeply informative account of what went on in Northern Ireland between 1972 and 1998 in particular. As with Larson's output, Say Nothing reads like the best fiction. You won't be able to put it down. 

 Peter Guralnick's Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music & Writing was released in October. (Photo: David Gahr)

On a lighter but no less thoughtful note, check out the latest from Peter Guralnick, whose music books include the masterful pair of books on Elvis Presley (Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley; Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley), both of which came out in the 90s, and more recently, the expansive Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll. (2015), about the founder of Sun Records. His new book of essays, old and new, is entitled Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music & Writing (Little, Brown, 2020, hardcover) and covers a gamut of musical artists, all great and/or significant, including Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Joe Tex, Tammy Wynette, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Doc Pomus, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon, Lieber and Stoller, Eric Clapton and so many more, over 27 chapters. Guralnick isn't as political a music writer as Greil Marcus or as outrageous as the late Lester Bangs could be. He's more, I think, the literary equivalent of the TV documentarian Ken Burns, curious, plain-spoken and, through his incisive portraits, trying to get at the meaning of America. Even the British performers profiled in the book, Clapton and Elvis Costello, collaborating with Allen Toussaint, are heavily influenced by U.S. music but, truthfully, most Brits are, even those acts that ostensibly are in opposition to American culture, like The Clash. He's also, unlike other music writers, friends of long acquaintance with many of those he's written about, including Jerry Lee Lewis and Howlin' Wolf, which lends an extra patina of depth to his analyses of what makes these particular artists tick. 

If there's a theme to the essays, which Guralnick opines about in his prologue, it's creativity, a catch-all phrase, perhaps, that Guralnick takes to mean both uniqueness and an inner compulsion to create, whatever the circumstances of these artists’ births or places in life. He adds that they also share a democratic tendency to acknowledge their influences (sometimes unlikely, as blues legend Howlin' Wolf citing country-music giant Jimmie Rodgers). There's no particular order to the chapters' sequencing – that deliberate musical metaphor is apt in how the book reads – except beginning with revisiting blues musicians Skip James and Robert Johnson, two of his earliest subjects. But he also has a three-year-in-the-making new profile on Dick Curless, whom I'd never heard of before perusing this book. The incomparable Ray Charles pops up twice, in different essays. You can, as with a CD or an album, read the chapters out of order, though I wouldn't advise it. I'm still reading Looking to Get Lost but each chapter, to my thinking, flows seamlessly into the next. Whichever way you delve into the book, this is great, memorable music writing. Enjoy!

The Neil Gaiman Reader was published by HarperCollins in October.

Books: Fiction

Back in 2016, I recommended writer Neil Gaiman's excellent book of non-fiction essays and profiles, Views from the Cheap Seats: Selected Non-Fiction. Now he's come up out with a similar tome but dedicated to his fiction output, which, of course, is what he's best known for: The Neil Gaiman Reader: Selected Fiction (HarperCollins, 2020, hardcover). I was initially reticent to purchase the book, chiefly because the 47 stories collected here were selected by his readers online and not by Gaiman himself. But upon closer reflection, I think they picked pretty much what he would have chosen, including seminal Gaiman tales like “A Study in Emerald” (2003), his very creepy H.P. Lovecraft/Sherlock Holmes mash-up, and the mysterious “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” (2006). The short stories and novellas, which mostly traverse the fantasy realm, span 1984 to 2018, with a story from the latter year, “Monkey and the Lady”, selected by Gaiman himself. He wanted it included because it had never been anthologized. There are also excerpts from his five adult novels, Stardust (1996), Neverwhere (1999), American Gods (2001), Anansi Boys (2005) and The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013). Missing – and I've read complaints online about this – are any excerpts from his graphic novels, like the highly influential Sandman. But, realistically, you can't put everything into one collection and Gaiman's work in that field might be better served in a third future release. By any standards, this is a fine, enticing collection that showcases the breadth and depth of one of our more important and talented genre writers or writers, period. 

Regular readers of Critics At Large know of my lifelong love of and immersion in science fiction. I'm especially fond of its shorter form, which can better encapsulate provocative ideas, concepts and created worlds that might not hold fast in a novel or literary canvas. The very best yearly anthology of short SF was put out by long-time editor Gardner Dozois, who passed away in 2018. His mantle has been taken over by the very capable Jonathan Strahan, who has begun the series anew with The Year's Best Science Fiction, Volume 1 (Saga Press, 2020, paperback), complete with a continuation of Dozois' trademark summation of the year in SF, including overall publication output, magazine circulation and mentions of those in the field who passed in the previous year. (It's shorter than what Dozois put out each year, though, with less than 30 stories collected; Dozois usually proffered more than that number.)

But while Dozois' 35 annual anthologies, which began in 1984, are all worth picking up, let me direct you to his final release in his series, The Very Best of The Best: 35 Years of The Year's Best Science Fiction (St. Martin's Press, 2019, now in paperback). Besides being an unwieldy title, it's also a bit misleading as it covers only the last fifteen years of his annual releases, from 2003 to 2017. (Two previous best-of iterations covered off all the rest.) But as a taste of the richness of the genre, with the very best writers represented, including Robert Reed, Michael Swanwick, Maureen McHugh, (Toronto resident) Robert Charles Wilson, Ian McDonald and Ian R MacLeod, it's a fitting testament to Dozois' taste and acumen. I'm still wading through this hefty collection, which in hardback runs over 600 pages – the pandemic has affected my concentration level – but so far, there are few duds among the stories I've read, with most of the tales standing out. I anticipate that the remaining ones will also be well worth your time.


In recent years I've written about two very fine British music labels, Ace Records and World Music Network, which releases the Rough Guide world music discs and the related artist compilations from Riverboat Records. But there's another significant English label, Cherry Red Records, also coming out with great music. It's been around since 1978 but prior to COVID, I'd only scooped up a handful of their discs, including a three-CD set devoted to 30 years of British musician/songwriter Momus (2016), aptly titled Momus, Public Intellectual, An Anthology, 1986-2016, reviewed on this site in 2016. Also several triple-disc CD sets, such as Dust On The Nettles: A Journey Through the British Underground Folk Scene 1967-1972 (2015) and C86 (2014), which expanded on an influential cassette released by NME (New Musical Express) magazine in England in 1986, as a salute to independent labels of that era.

But with the onslaught of the pandemic and a (temporary) rise in disposable income, courtesy of the Canadian government when I was laid off from my job, I went a bit apeshit, purchasing some dozen 3- CD sets of Cherry Red releases (they put out a few four or five or even six CD sets but three seems to be their norm), released in 2020 or recently. (Music touring might have been kiboshed by COVID but CDs were still being released in huge numbers, thankfully.). Those British music compilations ran the gamut from punk (1977: The Year Punk Broke), country (Across the Great Divide), blues (Crawling Up a Hill), psychedelic music (A Slight Disturbance in my Mind, one of six collections of that genre and related ones, one per year and stretching, so far, from 1966-71), pub rock (Surrender to the Rhythm) and synth pop (Musik, Music, Musique). And the almost unclassifiable set 1978: The Year the U.K. Turned Day-Glo, which encompasses punk and all the subgenres, new wave, power pop, mod revival, which also popped into existence in that pivotal year. A sequel to Dust on the NettlesSumer Is Icumen In: The Pagan Sound of British & Irish Folk 1966-75, has just been released by the label. Whew, so much diverse music!

Cherry Red, which puts out some of these discs under other labels, notably Grapefruit and RPM, also releases single artist sets, from Buzzcocks to Strawbs to Al Stewart to the late country singer Jerry Jeff Walker. But so far, with the exception of the Momus set, I've been sticking to the very satisfying Cherry Red artists' compilations. Like Ace Records, their liner notes are very detailed, informative and well-written, and, again like Ace, they dig pleasingly deep into the musical vaults. You'll know some of the English or Irish artists featured, of course – The Animals, The Kinks, The Jam, Van Morrison, Spencer Davis Group and Bowie – but most of the songs are by performers much less known or never heard of at all until the Cherry Red compilers unearthed their music. And there are so many worthwhile mini-box sets, and so many treasures contained within, to choose from, that you're bound to find something that will tickle your fancy. Check out their web site or if you live in Toronto, visit my favouurite record shop, Soundscapes, which carries most of the discs mentioned above and stocks all the new compilations besides. My friend Phil, who works there and has great taste in music, assures me the Cherry Red Beatles-themed tribute 3-disc set, Looking Through a Glass Onion: The Beatles' Psychedelic Songbook 1966-72, is also worth a listen, so there's another one to add to your wish list. 

The British don't have the market entirely cornered on quality retrospective compilations, though they seem to have a virtual lock on it, so two 2020 American compilations worth calling your attention to are The Land of Sensations & Delights: The Psych Pop Sounds of White Whale Records, 1965-70 (Craft Recordings), which chronicles the short existence of a label that specialized in 60s psychedelia, and Strum and Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983-87 (Captured Tracks Records), featuring rock/punk music that was heavily inspired and influenced by R.E.M. and defiantly not of the mainstream, which R.E.M. was always straddling. The latter is a rather chintzy two-CD set, though, comprising only about 45-50 minutes of music per disc, though that lack is compensated by a 100-page booklet that explains the little-known jangle scene in voluminous detail and also contains, in the disc sleeve, short but incisive liner notes on each of the set's 28 tracks. (Interestingly, the liner notes, by Jon Harrison and Mike Sniper reference C86 in the very first paragraph as the type of musical project they wanted to replicate with Strum & Thrum.)

Of individual artist albums of 2020, I quite liked alt-country star Lucinda Williams' latest, Good Souls Better Angels (Thirty Tigers). It's a lively, earthy and well-sung disc that tackles and assails the issues and major figures of the day, including a (subtle) shot against Donald Trump titled “Man without a Soul.” which nails his character (or lack thereof) perfectly. 

Two deluxe reissues, ideal for your shopping list, are deluxe, expanded editions of Tom Petty's underrated Wildflowers (1994) and Wilco's Summerteeth (1999). The former release, now titled Wildflowers & All the Rest (Warner Records), adds the ten tracks that Petty always wanted included with the original fifteen but which his label resisted, feeling the (then) double vinyl was already long enough. (Fifteen tracks was more than the album norm in those days.) Clearly upon listening to the beautifully remastered double, 25-track CD, you can hear that was an entirely wrong-headed decision. The original album, already containing some of Petty's best songs, such as the title track, “It's Good to Be King.” “You Wreck Me” and “Honey Bee,” is now augmented by more terrific tunes, some of which ended up on the She's The One movie soundtrack while others had never previously seen the light of day. I particularly like the exuberant “California” and the moving “Harry Green,” based on a tragic figure whom Petty knew. It's an expansion of quality and definitely not filler. A great album is now even greater and Petty is at his warm-hearted, laconic best on the disc. (Oddly, the Rock Music Hound guide deemed the original Wildflowers to be soft and unfocused, which is sheer nonsense.) Wildflowers & All the Rest is available in a two-disc edition, containing the original album and its additional component or a four CD set, which adds a disc of Petty's home recordings of its songs and 14 live tracks from Wildflowers, which Petty and company performed over the years. (This was reportedly one of the musician's favourite albums and he'd been working on this reissue before his untimely death from an accidental drug overdose in 2017.) The four-CD set costs three times the double disc and since I wasn't especially interested in his home recordings and already had Petty's (fine) four-CD Live Anthology box set, I opted for the cheaper package.  Note: the 2-CD set doesn't have the liner notes included in the broader package, which I would have liked to have, just the song and album credits and lyric sheets.

Summerteeth, a soulful, thoughtful album, on the other hand, was never underrated but perhaps not as well-known as the band's previous release Being There (1996). Wilco has now unveiled a comparatively inexpensive four-disc reissue, comprising the (remastered) album, a disc of song demos, and a terrific live 1999 concert performed in Boulder, Colorado, spread over two of the CDs that bears comparison to Wilco's excellent live album Kicking Television: Live in Chicago (2005). This set also has smart liner notes penned by Mojo magazine's editor John Mulvey. Summerteeth is an appropriate reminder of what Wilco, still one of America's all-time top bands, was capable of producing.

Richard Mylan Gina Bellman, and Ben Miles in Coupling (2000).


During the pandemic, I've been reading a fair amount and listening to a lot of music, but when it comes to movies and TV, not so much. I think my initial blitz of all seven seasons of Kirk Sutter's Sons of Anarchy American crime series on FX about an outlaw motorcycle gang (2008-14) did me in, as it took me over a month to get through all of its 92 episodes, now on DVD. Don't get me wrong: I liked the series but binge-watching clearly is not my thing. And that applies to movies, too. Also, not getting Netflix, I’m out of the loop for many new films, but I do get HBO. So I’ve seen David Byrne's American Utopia (an excellent performance film) and Seth Rogen's old-world comedy An American Pickle (feh!). I also downloaded Michael Winterbottom's The Trip to Greece, the fourth and final installment of his travelogue-movie series, which began with The Trip (2010) and stars Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden as competitive actor buddies on a food-tasting tour through various European countries. The Trip to Greece wrapped it up pretty well.  

I purchased two excellent recent Criterion releases around the time the pandemic hit, David Lynch's creepy 1986 American masterpiece Blue Velvet and Alfonso CuarĂ³n's 2019 poignant Mexican drama Roma. But while I can certainly endorse these two movies, they're also serious, artistic, and disturbing films that would not be to all tastes. So I'll go with a holiday suggestion for something amusing, for a change, comedy being a commodity we dearly need in this pandemic-stricken year. The British comedy series Coupling (2000-04), which ran for four seasons and offered up a mere 28 half-hour episodes, is at heart a story of men and women who talk about each other, lust after each other and get involved in many other ways. Created by Steven Moffat, whose illustrious credits also include the modern incarnations of Doctor Who and Sherlock, it's been compared to the American sitcom Friends by certain lazy critics, but I never found it to be as glib as that show. It's actually a smart, frank and incisive look at love, marriage, sex and other human interactions – more Sex and the City, then – graced by a talented cast you likely don't know. (Jack Davenport, who played Steven on the series, may be the best known to North American audiences, having appeared in the short-lived American TV series FlashForward and the renowned film adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley.) But if anyone steals the show, it's Richard Coyle, who appeared in its first three seasons as the very intense Jeff, who sees the arcane world of women, sex and love as alien terrain that he is alternately scared to enter and obsessed with. His is a priceless portrait of a sexually desperate man who is also very likable. (Gina Bellman as the seemingly ditzy and very sexy Jane is the other standout.) That likability is also what distinguishes the often very funny (and yes, sometimes slapstick) Coupling, available in a 7-disc complete box set from BBC Video. It's not Fawlty Towers – what is? – but it will make you laugh, and think.


In my semi-regular year end list of cultural nods, I usually push The Oxford American's Southern Music Issue as a suitable stocking stuffer or Hanukkah present. But as with so much else in 2020, the 22nd annual edition of this themed magazine is different this year. For one thing, there's no physical CD attached to the issue, as has been the case until this year. Instead, the magazine's editors offer a link to a selection of Spotify playlists, chosen by Rosanne Cash and the Smithsonian Folkways music organization, among others. But the content this year is also partly archival, again, not the norm here, with pieces from previous Southern Music issues, labelled a Greatest Hits issue on the likes of R.E.M., Howlin' Wolf, Nina Simone and Thelonious Monk. Peter Guralnick's essay “Whose Skip James is This?,” included in his new book, is here, too. (The issue is guest-edited by Alabama Shakes' lead singer Brittany Howard.) But half the issue is made-up of new material, essays grouped under the rubric “Icons” and including essays on Sister Rosetta Tharpe (written by Rosanne Cash), LaVern Baker, Ellis Marsalis, Charlie Daniels and others.  Since it's not all fresh writing, the price of the issue is a little cheaper this time around, but I honestly don't know if the changes this year are permanent ones, due to likely more prohibitive costs in putting out a magazine when newsstand sales have been sidelined by the pandemic. I'd hate to see the CDs gone, especially as the Oxford American folk have only put out ten of the proposed (and consistently superb) 12-CD series of discs devoted to the music of a specific Southern state. But the fact that its new-ish editors have provided a retrospective look at all the previous Southern music issues makes me wonder if the whole concept is to go by the wayside, too. (My queries about the future of the CD went unanswered by anyone at the magazine.) You likely haven't read all the archival articles, so the issue is still worth your money, and I still believe in supporting the magazine, but whether it returns to its old ways in 2021 remains to be seen. 

Finally, here's a plug for the January issues of Mojo and Uncut music magazines. The British mags traditionally put out a Best of the Year issue, choosing their finest 75 albums, as well as marking their picks for the best reissues, music books, and in Uncut's case, best films of the year too. Mojo's lists strike me as more of a proper mix of old and new artists but Uncut is more likely to seize on the music trends of the year in question. Best of all, they both offer 15 track discs of some of their top artist picks. They rarely overlap in songs or even performers so about 25 individual artists are likely to be represented between the two CDs and it's one way to connect with new music you ought to know or have. That, in any year, is a near-impossible task, as there is so much out there, so these best-of-the-year compilations have added value, besides the good music contained therein. 

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year! 2021 has got to be a better one. 

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. Pre-pandemic, he taught film at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, and at the University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies. During the pandemic, he is adjusting to doing some of this teaching on Zoom.

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