Season’s readings (and watchings)

December 11, 2009

Looking for holiday gift ideas? Our columnists and writers offer their suggestions.

Paul D'Amato

IF YOU want romantic escape, but with a little bit of a political twist, I suggest sitting down by the fire with a copy of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind (also available in the original Spanish as La Sombra Del Viento).

Set in postwar Barcelona, this densely dark and atmospheric novel centers on a young boy, Daniel Sempere, who becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Julián Carax, the author of a rare book he finds in a secret library. Daniel discovers that a horribly disfigured man is burning up every book ever published by Carax. Daniels' curiosity takes him into a tangled world of class division, rebellion, romance and murder.

If you're feeling more politically ambitious, I recommend The Revolution and Civil War in Spain by Pierre Broué and Emile Témime, newly republished by Haymarket Books. It is a well-told story of a key revolutionary moment in 20th century working-class history.

We learn that Spain in 1936 was in many respects like Russia in 1917, in ferment and ripe for revolution. Ironically, as the authors show, the revolutionary self-activity of the working class was thwarted not only by the Stalinists who crushed workers' organizations for the sake of "anti-fascist unity," but also the anarchists who failed to prepare the workers to seize power and refused to take power when it was offered to them.

Clockwise from top: National Equality March, Sugar Ray Robinson in the ring, and Neko Case
Clockwise from top: National Equality March, Sugar Ray Robinson in the ring, and Neko Case

Finally, off topic, I'd like to recommend a Monthly Review Press reprint--a two-volume history of American literature, American Literature: Root and Flower, by Annette Rubinstein. In clear, precise, and readable prose, she offers an overview of the most important trends in American literature going back to the 1700s.

In a literary world still cluttered by postmodernist rubbish, Root and Flower stands out as old school literary criticism, and for me, that's high praise.

Lance Selfa

MANY PEOPLE who voted for "change we can believe in" last year and feel disappointed this year would do well to read Paul Street's Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics.

Although most of Street's book covers last year's primaries and election season, it uses a tremendous amount of detail to document what the "Obama brand" was really all about. Street shows that behind the rhetoric of "change" and "yes, we can" stood an ambitious, pro-corporate politician who was perfectly acceptable to the powers that be.

Last year, a group of geneticists from National Geographic took mouth swabs from a few dozen New Yorkers attending a street fair in the largely immigrant Astoria neighborhood in Queens. The scientists then used the swabs to map each individual's genetic history back to the original humans who emerged in what is now Africa.

The Nat Geo special The Human Family Tree uses the genetic histories of these New Yorkers, along with historical recreations and computer graphics, to tell the history of the human race and how it populated the earth over 150,000 years. It's a fascinating study with an antiracist and anti-nationalist message.

And anyone who remembers jokes about "six degrees of separation" from the actor Kevin Bacon will agree that Nat Geo made an inspired choice of Bacon as the documentary's narrator.

In October, the international left lost one of its most powerful singing voices when the great Argentine artist Mercedes Sosa passed. Although loved and respected throughout Latin America, Sosa was not as well known in the U.S. as she should have been. For those looking for a great introduction to her work, I'd recommend the collection 30 Años, which covers a broad range of music over her career. Mercedes Sosa, ¡presente!

Sherry Wolf

THE SCENE in any of a number of gayborhood bars expresses many of the contradictions of the political moment. A multiethnic stew of gender-benders, hipsters and downwardly mobile college graduates mix with fashionista types and corporate hucksters looking for love or company.

In West Hollywood, some appear as if they're fresh from the UCLA budget cuts brawls taking place up the road, a few are the corporate tools slashing budgets, and others are the ones just getting by as a desk jockeys or package delivery drivers for UPS. The unself-conscious multicultural blending of this era gives one hope; while the bikini-clad, tequila-wielding gals grinding away to Cher remixes atop bars to cheering crowds of young lesbians below makes me wonder: Is this what we've been fighting for?

Faced with this dilemma, I find myself needing to clear my head and get back to our movement's roots. Given that the current wave of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) militancy has been nicknamed "Stonewall 2.0," it's worth going back and reading the best non-fiction account of the original rebellion that rocked lower Manhattan in 1969, David Carter's Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution.

Since I'm often peppered with questions about the lessons of the Black civil rights struggle for this new civil rights movement, I've immersed myself in reading more about that history. One excellent find is Civil Rights Unionism by Robert Rodgers Korstad.

Set in mid-20th century Winston-Salem, N.C., Black and white workers discuss how they forged unity and linked the battles for civil rights and labor rights and learned that any concession to racism dealt a blow to workers' progress.

Dave Zirin

OVER THE past six months, I've been obsessed with two things: the career of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson and the growing movement for LGBT liberation. It's been an interesting year.

My two favorite books reflect these often parallel worlds.

Sugar Ray Robinson was arguably the finest pound-for-pound boxer of the 20th century, and yet there has been next to nothing worthy written about a man who changed the way we understood sports and style. Until now.

Please read Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood. The book is not really a boxing book any more than Haygood's previous biographies about Adam Clayton Powell or Sammy Davis Jr. were books about politics or show business.

Like the books about Powell and Davis Jr., it's a book about someone who confronted racism with a sense of flair. It also opens a window onto a world in the Northeast after the Great Depression and before the civil rights movement, when the roots were put down for one of the great social upheavals of the 20th century.

But Sugar Ray isn't the only thing packing a punch on my shelf. I write this having just participated in the National Equality March (NEM) for LGBT equality, along with 200,000 of my closest friends. The book being passed around by many of the leading organizers was a sprawling yet trenchant political knockout called Sexuality and Socialism by Sherry Wolf.

Wolf, a member of the NEM organizing committee and a speaker at the march, takes the entire history of LGBT theory and politics and looks at the way they have been impacted by the social movements that surrounded them, or didn't surround them. Surprisingly funny, very readable and a fitting tome for a new movement in these troubled times.

Anthony Arnove

THIS YEAR, I had the chance to read two brilliant novels by Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen's Union, a detective story based on the imaginative premise that Israel was established not in Palestine, but Sitka, Alaska (among the "frozen chosen"), and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which links the birth of comic books to the fight against fascism and for human dignity. Chabon is a remarkably inventive stylist and wordsmith, and much like the magicians who populate Kavalier and Clay, he works on many levels at once.

A theater production that I can't recommend highly enough is Passing Strange by Stew, the rock concert slash bildungsroman slash exploration of the dialectic slash musical. For anyone who missed it on Broadway or in its earlier incarnations, or who wants the chance to engage with it again, there is now a DVD by Spike Lee (out January 12) who filmed the final performances of the show and created a powerful, faithful documentary of the musical. The soundtrack has some music you can't get out of your head (and won't want to). The book (which won a Tony) and lyrics are also available from Applause Books.

Haymarket Books put out a few books that I am especially proud to have helped publish: Essays by the remarkable Wallace Shawn, Arundhati Roy's brilliant Field Notes on Democracy, Breyten Breytenbach's compelling Notes from the Middle World and Amy Goodman's razor-sharp Breaking the Sound Barrier (edited by Denis Moynihan).

In the shameless plug department (file under "S"), I helped put together a CD I am immensely proud to have worked on: The People Speak, a soundtrack to the documentary based on the work of Howard Zinn. The soundtrack, on the legendary Verve label, includes songs of dissent and popular protest by Allison Moorer, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, Exene Cervenka, Jackson Browne, John Doe, John Legend, Lupe Fiasco, P!nk, Randy Newman, Rich Robinson and Taj Mahal.

Nicole Colson

ONE OF the joys of the past year for me has been discovering the novels of socialist science fiction author China Mieville. Both Perdido Street Station and The Scar, set in the world of Bas-Lag, present deeply compelling characters in an alternate reality that is both familiar and fantastic in its beauty and, sometimes, its horrors. Pick up Perdido Street Station--which details the struggle of a disparate group of people to save a city from a predatory force against a backdrop of corruption and civil unrest--and you will see why science fiction Web site declared it one of the "20 science fiction novels that will change your life."

Neurologist Oliver Sack's most recent book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, is a fascinating read that explores the ways in which the creation and enjoyment of music is an essential human activity--one that impacts us mentally, physically and socially. With wit and intelligence, Sacks delves into stories like that of British conductor Clive Wearing, who had the most severe case of amnesia ever recorded (with a short-term memory of just seven seconds), and who could remember just two things--his love for his wife, and the music to which he devoted his life. A book that shows the profound impact of music on the human mind and spirit.

Singer Neko Case is a force of nature on her latest album Middle Cyclone. Filled with images of tornadoes, storms and man-eating animals, the alt-country Case showcases one of the best voices in music on songs with a dark-tinged edge, like "Red Tide" and "Prison Girls"--and she does it while backed by a band that includes Jon Rauhouse, one of the best pedal- and lap-steel guitar players in the U.S.

For the little ones in your life, consider picking up They Might Be Giants' Here Comes Science (a follow-up to the group's equally outstanding Here Come the ABCs and Here Come the 123s)--a cheerful musical exploration of scientific concepts. Songs like "Science Is Real" ("Science is real from the Big Bang to DNA / Science is real from evolution to the Milky Way") and "My Brother the Ape" offer a fun counteractive to pseudoscience like "intelligent design"--and adults as well as kids will get a kick out of the catchy tunes and bonus DVD of videos.

Finally, although it's not a recent book, Cash: The Autobiography, by Johnny Cash, is the country legend's own lively description of a life spent defying stereotypes, identifying with the oppressed and making some of the best American music ever written. A must-read for any Cash fan.

Joe Allen

THIS HOLIDAY season is marred by the massive escalation of the war in Afghanistan by the Obama administration, and the continued economic crisis at home. There are several books and films related to these issues that I would recommend that people get and watch together. Plus another one to take your mind off it all.

The Man Who Would Be King, John Huston's 1975 film starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine based on a short story by British Empire booster, Rudyard Kipling. The story revolves around the attempt by two adventurers Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan (Connery and Caine) to make themselves kings of Kafiristan, a remote part of Afghanistan, as British power pushes north from India. This movie rivals The Maltese Falcon as John Huston's best film.

John Steinbeck's 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath sent shockwaves through the country when it was published, and today it's considered one of the classics of world literature. It tells the epic story of the Joad family, forced from their family farm in Oklahoma to the sun-drenched hell of Depression-era California. The Oklahoma political establishment tried to ban the book from the state.

The 1940 film starring Henry Fonda and directed by Huston will deeply affect everyone who watches it. Fonda's closing speech is one of the greats: "Wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there."

Stieg Larsson was a revolutionary socialist magazine editor and investigative reporter in Sweden. Larsson's investigative journalism focused on the activities of the far right and Nazis in Sweden. Before he died suddenly in November 2004 from a heart attack, he delivered three manuscripts to his publisher. The Millennium Trilogy has gone on to be among the best-selling books in the world today.

The first installment, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, tells the story of disgraced investigative reporter, Mikael Blomkvist, and a computer hacker with a photographic memory, Lisbeth Salander, as they try to solve the mystery of the four-decade-old disappearance of the favorite niece of the patriarch of an old and wealthy Swedish family. A great read.

Elizabeth Schulte

ONE OF my favorite things is a wooden, jukebox-shaped music box, which not only has a place to put your smokes, but plays the hot tune at the time when it was purchased in Germany--"Harry Lime's Theme." The tune is unforgettable, and so is the movie it was written for--The Third Man.

The 1949 movie filmed in the rubble of post-war Vienna has surprises at every turn, and the artful cinematography gives a breathtaking look at the ravages of air raids, wartime rationing and the black market. So start dreaming of a (black and) white Christmas, and get a copy of this film noir classic, starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles.

If you're looking for a little more Technicolor in your holiday movie choices, you will undoubtedly have many choices. But if you've had your fill of White Christmas and Bible stories, get a copy of the Technicolor epic Spartacus, about the leader of slave rebellion against Roman rule.

The 1960 film brought writer Dalton Trumbo out of a long exile from Hollywood as the result of the anti-Communist blacklist. While you're at it, get the 2009 DVD of Trumbo, in which the writer's letters, speeches and other writing are read by performers like Paul Giamatti and Liam Neeson. You will laugh and cry.

One of the most memorable political meetings I've ever been to featured union activist Vicky Starr, aka Stella Nowicki, who died this Thanksgiving. She had the audience rolling in the aisles with her stories of organizing in the 1930s, recounting hiding leaflets down the front of her dress and changing her name so she could go back to work at the same plant that had canned her earlier that day.

A great gift for the agitator in your house would be a copy of a collection of essays edited by Alice and Staughton Lynd, Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers. Starr's story is in that book as well as in Voices of a People's History of the United States, not to mention the 1976 film Union Maids, if you can find a copy to rent.

I can't in good conscience recommend it, for it's a truly unique person on your list who should get Bob Dylan's Christmas album, but I do recommend that you watch Dylan's hilarious rendition of "Must Be Santa" by Brave Combo. It will crack you up.

Eric Ruder

STANLEY WEINTRAUB'S Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce recounts how soldiers defied their commanding officers to organize a spontaneous cease-fire on the frontlines of this most horrific war. They celebrated Christmas Eve together, singing carols to one another in their native languages, sharing cigarettes and denouncing the war that had sent them to kill one another in a deserted field. This seems an especially appropriate book at a time when a U.S. president commanding U.S. troops engaged in two wars receives a Nobel Peace Prize.

If you know someone who likes radical posters and design, Latin American Posters: Public Aesthetics and Mass Politics has more than 100 visually arresting images produced between 1960 and 1990 by artists from across Latin America. Their bold and beautiful designs take up various social justice causes, such as anti-imperialism, workers' and peasants' struggles and cultural resistance, and pack visual punch.

Finally, if you're looking for a gift for that budding radical aged 7 to 12, here's a gem: ¡Si, Se Puede! / Yes, We Can!: Janitor Strike in L.A, written by Diana Cohn and illustrated by Francisco Delgado. This picture book tells the story of the 8,000 janitors in Los Angeles who went on strike, and after three weeks and an outpouring of solidarity, won a living-wage contract. The main character is Carlitos, whose mother is a striking janitor who becomes a leader of the strike. The text is written in English and Spanish on each page.

Further Reading

From the archives