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Favorite Progressive Books and Films of 2013

[dc]I’[/dc]m not sure why, but 2013 was a year in which my tastes diverged from other critics. In films, critics described Before Midnight as the most realistic view of marriage ever portrayed on screen; I saw Ethan Hawke as a bad method actor trying to play a successful writer, and did not find his character believable for a minute. In books, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers is on most top 10 lists, but after loving her previous Telex from Cuba, I found her new effort comprised entirely of characters who have never existed in real life. Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life also made all the lists, and it did nothing for me.


Because my list includes books published in 2012 but which I read in 2013, topping my book list is Ben Fountain’s brilliant Billie Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. No book better describes the United States in the decade after 9/11, yet its themes transcend the setting and are timeless. My favorite film for 2013 is the Australian “The Sapphires,” based on the true story of three Aborigine women singing soul music for American troops in Vietnam. It includes love, politics, a stirring plot and great music, and is not to be missed. Here are my favorite top ten.

Favorite Books

1. Ben Fountain, Billie Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: Billie Lynn is a young American soldier in Iraq who is home for the Thanksgiving break. His unit is being honored for heroism at the halftime of what is clearly meant to be the Dallas Cowboys annual Thanksgiving Day game. One need have no interest in football to love this book, and to appreciate Fountain’s sly appraisal of the intersection of football, war and greed (as thePat Tillman saga of 2004 well showed). A great book you will be recommending to others.

2. Roy Peter Clark, How to Write Short; Word Craft For Fast Times. In the age of Twitter and blogs, concise writing counts. This book is packed with examples of good short writing and tips for authors of all types. The book is divided into 35 (short!) chapters brimming with useful information, and you'll never look at a title, tattoo or tombstone the same way again.

3. Richard Speck, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time:reviewed this book on June 20, 2013 and find it preferable to many other books that came out this year also addressing the connection between walkability, bicycling and the economic revitalization of urban life. His critique of traffic engineers will leave you cheering.

4. Rob and Sam Rosenthal, Pete Seeger: In His Own Words:reviewed this book on May 12, 2013 and see it as a great resource for people to learn about one of the great American heroes of the past century. Pete Seeger’s life spans the political and music history of our times, and if you are looking for a book on Seeger, this is a great place to start.

5. Jonathan Miles, Want Not: This novel came out in November and I feel comfortable recommending it despite being only 2/3 of the way through (and in case you want more evidence of its greatness, Google what Dave Eggers wrote about it in the NY Times as well as other reviews). Like Jonathan Franzen, Miles uses multiple story lines and sets his characters in today’s world. But Miles avoids Franzen’s weak spots, and never overwrites. Once word gets out about this book, it should become a best-seller.

6. Richard Zacks, Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York: I add this book from 2012 to my top 10 for one reason: it corrects the worshipful treatment of Roosevelt found in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestselling The Bully Pulpit and in other books. It exposes Roosevelt as a naïve elitist who as NYC Police Commissioner denied working people the right to drink in bars on Sunday while allowing alcohol to be served in elite clubs. Roosevelt’s elitist double standard and war on “vice” is very different from the image ost have of him as a populist trust-buster who challenged rather than coddled elites.

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Recommended for You

I would be remiss if I did not plug my own new book for 2013, The Activist’s Handbook, Second Edition: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century. Van Jones describes it as “a must-read for grassroots activists,” and Howard Zinn described the earlier edition as “enormously valuable for anyone interested in social change.” I will be doing a reading at Books, Inc at Opera Plaza in San Francisco on Tuesday, January 14, at 7pm. Hope to see you there.

Favorite Films

1. The Sapphires: A great film on so many levels and everyone I know who saw the film (released in the U.S. in 2013 and now available on DVD) loved it. It is one of those films, perhaps like The Sound of Music, that were it not based on a true story the audience would find it lacked credibility.

2. Fruitvale Station: Unlike many activists, I don’t seek out “political” films. But Fruitvale Station is something else. Its emotional power blew me away. If you did not see the film because you already “know” the story of Oscar Grant’s killing, you are mistaken. I don’t pay attention to the Oscar races, but Ryan Cooger has to be a Best Director nominee for making this extraordinary film for only $900,000 -- less than the total lunch tab for a blockbuster.

3. 20 Feet From Stardom: This film on singers on famous soul songs who did not get public credit is immensely enjoyable for the music alone. But the film also provokes discussion about the allocation of credit for pop song hits. Should it primarily go to singers, or were songwriters writing such great songs that many singers would have made them hits?

My list does not include Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, American Hustle, The Inner Life of Llewyn Davis and other films that the industry limits to New York and Los Angeles until December 20. When you consider that the San Francisco Bay Area led the U.S. anti-apartheid divestment struggle, and that it may have the largest per capita audience for a film about a 1960’s folk singer, forcing residents to read reviews of these films for two to three weeks prior to local release is insulting.


It also may be bad business, as crowd-packed theaters over the two weeks of holidays may deter customers who would have rushed to see these films earlier.

In any case, the holidays are a great time to catch up on reading and films. And to recharge batteries for 2014.

Randy Shaw
Beyond Chron