Christmas, through a comedian's dark lens

Plus: Walter Mosley’s latest, a biography of the Atlantic Ocean, the father of modern taxidermy, what Boomers can expect from the rest of life, and the late night TV wars

Christmas, through a comedian's dark lens

Stand-up comic Lewis Black sneaks something truly shocking into his rant on Christmas—honesty about his own loneliness | Librado Romero/The New York Times

Christmas, through a comedian's dark lensI’M DREAMING OF A BLACK CHRISTMAS
Lewis Black

For Black, a stand-up comedian who’s carved out a healthy chunk of fame with his angry rants, Christmas might seem an odd choice of topic for his third book of humour. Odder still for a Jewish comic who’s not overly sentimental about the holiday season: “we Jews [at Christmastime] . . . are like the spectators who stand outside the fence and watch those idiots who have chosen to run with the bulls.”

Not to worry, though; Black offers a thorough explanation of how the book came to be (mainly due to needling by his editor, whom he calls “a crack dealer for my self-esteem”). He also includes a cautionary note for those to whom Christmas is sacred: Black Christmas will offer little in the way of holiday cheer and is unlikely to make them “s–t fruitcakes and gingerbread men.” His book, he warns, is “for the rest of us.”

Then he gets down to work, doing what Lewis Black fans expect. He rails against such injustices as kids at seaside resorts (“Why is he screaming? Is the perfection that surrounds him not enough?”), the earthquake in Haiti (“a hideous cosmic joke”), and the tree erected every holiday season in Manhattan (“the hooker at Rockefeller Center”). The funniest material in the book—an account of a USO Holiday Tour in the Middle East with Robin Williams, Lance Armstrong and Kid Rock—is unfortunately tacked on in an appendix.

But among all the wisecracking, Black sneaks in something truly shocking: honesty. As he takes us through how he’s spent his last 10 Christmases—writing cheques to charity and consuming copious food and drink at the homes of two of his closest friends—he opens up about a topic most comics won’t touch with a 10-foot candy cane: loneliness. Black, 62, with a disastrous marriage far behind him (there was DNA testing involved, which revealed that he had been cuckolded), admits that being alone at Christmas “pounds relentlessly on my psyche.” But he’s done the baby math generally reserved for women of a certain age, and knows a family isn’t likely in the cards. By book’s end, he makes a sort of peace with his life, and has a renewed appreciation for his friends. Peace and gratitude. Sounds like a bit of the Christmas spirit.
– Jen Cutts

Michael Adams

They’ve dominated social discourse and public policy throughout their youth and adult lives; now they’re about to cut a swath through retirement and old age. Will the golden years survive the baby boomers?

With the first boomers turning 64 this year, Canadian pollster Michael Adams takes a timely look at how this demographic juggernaut will retire and die. It is familiar territory for Adams, who first parsed the generation in his popular 1997 book Sex in the Snow. Then, as now, he argues the boomers are not a monolithic group, but rather a conglomeration of four distinct “tribes” born between 1946 and 1965. These tribes vary widely in their social values: the largest tribe actually has a fond regard for the life of its parents, while some aging hippies are still fighting the battles of the sixties.

Despite their tribal differences, over past decades a vast tsunami of adult boomers swamped society and government with certain values that have become dominant: celebration of the self, rejection of religion and traditional hierarchy, and an emphasis on education, equality and the environment. These trends will continue into old age, says Adams. Boomers will remain enthusiastic adopters of new technology and plan to stay fully engaged in politics, particularly when it comes to their health care and pensions.

What will change is the nature of retirement. “Just 16 per cent of this generation aspires to do ‘no work whatsoever’ after they punch the clock at their full-time job for the last time,” writes Adams. Most boomers will seek out part-time or charitable work to keep busy and maintain their sense of significance as long as they are able.

And when the end finally does come, boomers will continue their rejection of tradition. Adams reports all four tribes show a marked preference for cremation over burial and little interest in any strong religious component to their funerals. The big question, according to Adams, will be how and where to scatter all those ashes in ways that allow the boomers to “do their own thing” in death as they did in life.
– Peter Shawn Taylor

Christmas, through a comedian's dark lensTHE LAST DAYS OF PTOLEMY GREY
Walter Mosley

A book about a 91-year-old man on the brink of senility may seem like a departure from the hard-boiled crime novels for which Walter Mosley is best known. But the prologue to Ptolemy Grey—a letter written by the title character to a 17-year-old—promises plenty of action. “If you were 20 years older and I 50 years less I’d ask you to be my wife,” it reads. “You deserve the best I can offer and that’s why I’m sitting here with a pistol under the cushion and a gold doubloon on the coffee table.” Mosley deftly tucks mystery into what is, above all, a love story.

It begins with Ptolemy picking up the phone in his vermin-infested Los Angeles apartment and confusing the caller’s voice with those on the radio and TV. A relative arrives to take him to the bank, which Ptolemy mistakes for the “Negro tenement” where, as a child, he visited his beloved uncle. Next, Ptolemy finds himself at a wake for his cherished grand-nephew, Reggie, shot by some character named “Drivebee.” A sad event indeed, but also, for Ptolemy, a lucky one—for it is here that he meets orphan Robyn, 17, whom he later adopts and holds responsible for the unmuddling of his mind.

She clears the detritus from Ptolemy’s home, then brings him to meet “the Devil”—a doctor who prescribes a potent but poisonous drug that miraculously restores his memory. Suddenly, a murky notion that’s been haunting him about “something he needs to do” comes clear, and it involves a pot of gold, an ancient lynching and Reggie’s death.

For all its magic and murder, the story’s true charm is in the bond between Ptolemy and Robyn, as unlikely as a shot in the arm that reverses dementia, yet rendered true in Mosley’s prudent prose. A soul, Coydog once told Ptolemy, is the part of a person that feels “there’s somethin’ in the world bettah than they lives.” Call it a fairy tale, but Mosley’s message is clear: when two souls join together to work toward that somethin’, anything is possible.
– Dafna Izenberg

Simon Winchester

No book by Winchester needs recommendation: it should suffice to point out that he wrote a book about how dictionaries are made—dictionaries!—and it sold more than a million copies. Atlantic represents an ambitious step for the author of The Professor and the Madman: an attempt to apply his biographic methods to the story of an ocean, rather than a person or an institution. And Winchester, who was a geologist for Falconbridge Ltd. long ago, begins at the beginning, in the Cambrian period, with the breakup of the ur-continent Pangaea.

Atlantic is a work both personal and encyclopedic, belonging to the same literary niche as Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, the whaling chapters of Moby-Dick, or, to name a book Winchester knows well, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary. Winchester bounds nimbly from topic to topic, issuing informed dicta on everything from history to literature to climatology (although, tut-tut, he does seem to get the astrolabe confused with the sextant in his section about the golden age of Portuguese exploration).

His personal knowledge of his subject matter is clearly intimate and special. During the Falklands War, Winchester was imprisoned by the Argentine government for three months in the prison at Ushuaia, the city at the “end of the world” on the south coast of Tierra del Fuego. (Herein, he tells the touching story of a remorseful reunion with his former jailer.) He is familiar, perhaps as much as any other man, with the lonely, rocky Atlantic outposts that represent the last traces of the British Empire—St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha, South Georgia, the Falklands themselves. His panoramic view stretches from a small South African cave where early humans may have first settled down by the sea to the Dutch cities of today, struggling to preserve urban life below sea level. One could hardly ask for better company for such a journey.
– Colby Cosh

Bill Carter

Though this follow-up to the author’s previous book, The Late Shift, deals with the Conan O’Brien versus Jay Leno wars of 2009-’10, the ghost of Johnny Carson somehow seems to dominate the story. According to Bill Carter, O’Brien turned down lucrative offers to leave NBC because he was obsessed with the dream of taking over the legendary Tonight Show that Carson had once hosted: “He wanted to be the guy at the head of the franchise.” That’s why NBC tried to force Leno out in favour of O’Brien only to end, ironically, by doing the exact opposite.

Carter’s famous connections in the TV industry—he seems to have access to almost every host, executive and agent involved—means that he’s good at showing us how these moves looked from the inside. So we not only get the story of O’Brien’s famous letter refusing to move to midnight, but the reactions of other people close to him, including the hard-boiled lawyer who allowed him to write it because “it’s from his heart.”

But the insider focus also means he’s too close to the participants to provide a hard-hitting portrayal of any of them. The familiar character traits are here, like Leno’s cold workaholism and O’Brien’s resentment of his rival (“What’s Jay got on you?” he asks NBC executives), but they still come off as decent people, and so do all the executives who nearly destroyed their own network. Even as NBC and broadcast television are teetering on the verge of collapse, Carter seems to be trying to paint a picture of a world where everyone is still basically nice and competent.

And yet, almost in spite of this pleasant tone, The War for Late Night can seem like a story of delusional people. NBC executives believed that they could slide hosts in and out without any trouble; Leno believed that “he really could do some business at the end.” And O’Brien could be the most deluded of all for not realizing that, as Jerry Seinfeld explains near the end, the institution of Carson’s Tonight Show “effectively ended the day he walked off that stage.”

Now that O’Brien is on cable, doing exactly what he was doing on The Tonight Show, we may be seeing how pointless this particularbattle really was: everyone was fighting over a franchise that never really existed. The only real institutions are the hosts themselves.
– Jaime J. Weinman

Jay Kirk

There’s good reason for Kirk to have applied a host of fiction-writing techniques—interior monologues, emotional colouring, imagined conversations—to his biography of Carl Akeley: the man’s life was a novel, of the action-packed Victorian sort, except with a lot more unbelievable events.

Akeley, born in 1864, was the father of modern taxidermy, the first to use interior structures and materials that made his creations astonishingly lifelike. As an impoverished apprentice, he caught his first big break in 1885 when P.T. Barnum called him from Rochester, N.Y., to St. Thomas, Ont.: the circus impresario’s famous elephant, Jumbo, had perished in an apocalyptic encounter with a locomotive, and was in dire need of stuffing. (The actual historical facts of Akeley’s life, like his epic struggle with Jumbo’s remains after they had lain in the summer heat for a day and a half, or the time he strangled a leopard, are easily as eye-popping as Kirk’s sardonic fictional flourishes.)

The young taxidermist rose to become a key player in the industrialized (and imperialistic) West’s response, a century ago, to vanishing frontiers and disappearing animals. The initial reaction, particularly among upper-crust sportsmen, strikes moderns as literally obscene: if the world’s great mammals were heading for extinction, best go shoot some before it was too late. Akeley was part of Teddy Roosevelt’s infamous 1909 safari, a slaughter-fest that racked up a body count of over 11,000, 512 of them killed by the former president or his son Kermit, including 17 lions, 11 elephants and 20 rhinos.

It was a mindset Akeley could coexist with: he may not have shot animals for sport—his aim was to preserve their likenesses in museums—but shoot them he did, in pursuit of the era’s idea of “conservation.” (Or for more personal reasons: Akeley bagged one lion as a make-up present for his wife; they quarrelled frequently as their intense, childless marriage began to founder after she adopted—quite literally, in terms of emotional investment—a vervet monkey.)

But over the course of five African safaris Akeley developed second thoughts about his lifelong passion. By the time he encountered a Swedish prince who had shot 14 mountain gorillas, he thought the man little better than a murderer. Eventually, Akeley used his enormous prestige to convince the king of Belgium to create Africa’s first wildlife sanctuary, even as the Belgian colonial authorities continued to viciously oppress the Congo’s human population.
– Brian Bethune

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