Holiday picks from

December 5, 2008

Our columnists offer their suggestions for books, movies and music for the holiday season.

Anthony Arnove

THIS YEAR, I read the third volume of Taylor Branch's biography of Martin Luther King Jr., At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68. It's an incredible read, and can be read alone if you have not read any of the others in the series. Branch's strength as a biographer is that he does not present a biography of King as much as a history, from below, of the social movements to which he dedicated his life.

In this volume, he also portrays the interweaving of his struggle for civil rights with the fight to end the war in Vietnam, despite pressure from other civil rights leaders to keep quiet about war. The book is a reminder of how movements do not arise overnight and never progress in a straight line, but how determined and committed people, working together, can bring about enormous changes.

Three albums that stood out for me in 2008 were Allison Moorer's Mockingbird, a soulful album of songs by female artists, Steve Earle's Washington Square Serenade, a rich musical exploration of his new life in New York City, and Shelby Lynne's Just a Little Lovin', a beautifully recorded tribute to Dusty Springfield.

Joe Allen

FOR MANY people this holiday season is a time of terrible anxiety while feeling that we are witnessing an historic change in the direction of the country. Because of these conflicting emotions, I suggest two films that help give a sense of history to the personal and political struggles faced by many people today.

Oliver Stone's 1987 film Wall Street, starring Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen, chronicles the criminal activities of a billionaire stockbroker who was a thinly disguised fictionalized version of the real-life Ivan Boesky. Douglas' most famous line, "Greed is good," was a direct quote from Boesky, who came to symbol the blind greed of Wall Street in the Reagan era.

The Great Depression is on almost everyone's mind. If you have time over the holiday season, watch the 2007 film The Great Debaters starring Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker. This little-seen film tells the real-life story of Melvin Tolson, who during the day coaches the debate team at the very small, all-Black Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, while at night is an organizer of the socialist-led Southern Tenant Farmers Union.

The proudly radical Tolson mentors his debate team to beat Harvard over the question of breaking the law to win racial justice while facing lynch mobs trying to organize Black and white farmers in Jim Crow Texas. A great film.

Lance Selfa

2008 MARKED the end of the Republican era in mainstream politics and ushered in what many hope to be a new liberal era akin to the 1930s New Deal period. To gain some historical perspective on these earlier times, I recommend The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, edited by Steven Fraser and Gary Gerstle.

This collection of academic essays analyzes the New Deal and its impact on U.S. politics from a social democratic point of view. It should be read alongside Art Preis' Labor's Giant Step and Sharon Smith's Subterranean Fire, which provide an account of much of the same history from the point of view of the working class and the labor movement.

For those who want to sink their teeth into a serious Marxist history of one of the 20th century's key events, there's no better place than Pierre Broué and Emile Temine's The Revolution and Civil War in Spain, 1934-1939. The authors establish that the events of those years constituted a genuine workers' revolution abandoned by Western "democracy" and strangled from within by Stalinism.

This year we lost one of our greatest comedians and social satirists, George Carlin. So what could be a better tribute to him (and a great time) than to get a group of friends together to watch a selection of Carlin's HBO specials available on DVD. No one could skewer the hypocrisy of the rich and powerful better than Carlin at his best. His 1991 Jammin' in New York, which included an extended denunciation of the just-concluded war against Iraq, is a classic in my book.

Dave Zirin

LET'S TALK books. Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918 by Jeffrey Perry is a treasure. Harrison's influence was profound on the little discussed, left-wing, radical edge of the Harlem Renaissance.

Like so many who have stood for real change as political principle and not slogan, Harrison's legacy has been practically erased. Perry has woven Harrison's personal papers with a narrative that will excite anyone searching for new boundaries of what change is possible.

Let's talk sports books. I love hoops. I love the balletic artistry, the personalities and the internal politics and drama of it all--both on the court and off. The blogging All-Star team at have given us The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac: Styles, Stats and Stars in Today's Game.

Accompanied by beautiful illustrations, and including categories of players like "Lost Souls," "Phenomenal Tumors" and "People's Champs," this book captures what the hoops junkie loves about the sport--the personalities that turn the game into great theater. And any hoops almanac that compares players to characters in essays by African writer Chinua Achebe is interesting enough to engage the non-basketball fan as well.

Let's talk television. One of the most brilliant programs to ever grace the small screen ended its run this year: The Shield, the story of rogue cop Vic Mackie, a brutal, racist bottom-feeder rampaging through the streets of Los Angeles.

The acting, the writing and the story arcs are dazzling, but I've gotten in heated debates with those who believe the show excuses and even condones Mackie's vile behavior (the way that 24 condones torture). I couldn't disagree more.

The final episode, in which a character delivers a monologue about the prison-industrial complex, was stunning and satisfying. It's not a show for the squeamish, but it's for those who have opposed police brutality and understand that The Shield is a reflection of the reality that shadows our cities.

Helen Scott

JOHN LE CARRÉ, who first achieved fame for his Cold War thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (made into a brilliant 1979 television drama which is available on DVD), published his 21st book this year. A Most Wanted Man is a complex and gripping tale about a Muslim refugee caught up in the "war on terror" in Hamburg, Germany.

The equally prolific, though far more conventional, British writer P.D. James has a new Inspector Dalgleish mystery called The Private Patient, which reliably delivers compelling and well-drawn characters and scenes, and satisfying if implausible and deeply conservative plots. (If you're interested in a Marxist analysis of the popularity of the mystery/crime genre, Ernest Mandel's 1984 book Delightful Murder is a great read).

What Was Lost, Catherine O'Flynn's debut novel, is a fresh take on the genre. Switching between Birmingham in 1984 and 2004, it tells a touching and intriguing tale about a working-class girl who disappears, while subtly exploring the devastating impact of neoliberalism on Britain's industrial cities.

Ann Patchett's Run also offers some larger social insights--about race, class and family ties--through an emotionally persuasive tale about a young girl, in this case moving between rich and poor neighborhoods in contemporary Boston.

Amitav Ghosh has another powerful epic about empire, The Sea of Poppies, this time set in the mid-19th century against the backdrop of the opium wars. It has the same breathtaking sweep of his Glass Palace, and is the first of the promised Ibis Trilogy.

And C.J. Sansom's fourth Matthew Shardlake novel, Revelation, promises to be as good as the first three beautifully constructed narratives with the power to transport you back to 16th century Britain.

Paul D'Amato

HOLIDAY MUSIC: Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas is the most relaxing, jazzed-up Christmas music I've ever heard. For soulful gospel renditions of Christmas classics, I recommend Mahalia Jackson Sings Songs of Christmas! Her resonant and deeply stirring voice is unsurpassed--it will win you over, even if you think you hate holiday music. I grew up listening to Guaraldi and Mahalia, and I never tire of listening to them when December rolls around.

Holiday reading: The best novel I read this year was Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger, the story of the ill-fated experiences of a British slave ship. The story is told partly from the perspective of the ship's doctor, who is horrified by what he sees and experiences. The prose is sometimes so clear and vivid that you get the impression that Unsworth was there.

For science fiction fans, I recommend delving into the twisted world of Philip K. Dick, whose book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? inspired the 1982 film Blade Runner, one of the best dystopias ever created. Over the past year or so, Library of America has issued two collections of Dick novels.

The first collection includes four classics: Do Androids Dream, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, The Man in the High Castle and Ubik. The second collection, released this year, includes Martian Time-Slip and Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb among others. Many of Dick's novels explore human frustration and alienation and the question of the shifting relationship between perception and reality.

Television: There's a lot of bad TV out there, but if you're going to watch anything, watch A&Es Mad Men, a carefully crafted depiction of urban middle-class life in the early 1960s.

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