Goodbye to all that was 2016?

Lalo Alcaraz’s cartoon via
This year, as all too many people have told us, has been brutal. Between divisive politics, tragic events and what seemed a never-ending, stomach-dropping series of celebrity deaths, people were wishing as long ago as early November for this year to end. (OK, that was me.)

As someone who has written his share of pop culture-related obituaries, I can’t help but think about the celebrities, of all things. And how it’s not going to get any better.

In the journalism business, you try to write obituaries of notables ahead of time so you’re not caught flat-footed when someone shuffles off this mortal coil. So, the actuarial tables being what they are, I kept a list of famous people over 70 who might warrant an advance. (There were also a few younger folks known for troubled lives.)

Not to be morbid, but it was a long list.

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I love the pictures here. I’ve never been to Geneva, but hope to go someday.

I was particularly curious about the big chair. I looked it up: It’s a sculpture called “Broken Chair” and it’s almost 40 feet high. It was built to symbolize opposition to land mines and cluster bombs, according to Wikipedia. Intriguing.

the nomads project

I spent a few days in Geneva in the middle of Autumn, while I was there I stayed at Hotel N’vY which was perfectly located right by the lake.

I mainly wandered around Geneva with no specific plan and since it was the middle of autumn everything looked beautiful and so I spent a lot of time walking through parks.

The autumn colours were breathtaking.

I did visit the UN and the WTO but I didn’t have time to go inside. If you visit Geneva you can pre book tours so you don’t miss out.

Like many European cities Geneva has an old town full of beautiful buildings.

I went to see the Jet d’eau however I arrived on the first day of a month of maintenance so it wasn’t running.The lake is stunning from wherever you choose to view it.

I could see the lake from my bathroom…

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The witty, wise Carrie Fisher

54th New York Film Festival Screening of HBO's Documentary 'Bright Lights', USA - 10 Oct 2016
Image from TVLine.

(Update, 2:13 p.m.: Good for you, Brian Lowry.)

Carrie Fisher has died. She passed away today after reportedly suffering a massive heart attack Friday. She was 60.

The obituaries will focus on her portrayal of Princess Leia in the “Star Wars” films. That’s as it should be: the movie series reshaped ideas of box office success and even spawned a religion. In an interview with WebMD, Fisher herself acknowledged the inability to get out from Leia’s shadow:

Have I gotten past it? I wasn’t aware that I had! I am Princess Leia, no matter what. If I were trying to get a good table, I wouldn’t say I wrote Postcards [From the Edge, her best-selling first novel]. Or, if I’m trying to get someone to take my check and I don’t have ID, I wouldn’t say: “Have you seen Harry Met Sally?” Princess Leia will be on my tombstone.

But I hope the appreciations don’t skimp on Carrie Fisher, writer and wit. Not only was she a highly thought-of script doctor, said to have punched up “Sister Act” and “The Wedding Singer,” she was incredibly quick with a line. Even when it came to talking about script doctoring: because studios could steal her ideas before hiring her, she thought of the trade as “life-wasting events.”

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Review: ‘The Nix’ by Nathan Hill

The NixThe Nix by Nathan Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The Nix” begins in the rip-roaring fashion of a Tom Wolfe novel: an arch, sometimes glib examination of The Way We Live Now.

The book’s protagonist has an awkward name — Samuel Andresen-Anderson — and works at a professor at a university near Chicago. The year is 2011, around the time we were all staring at the rubble of the financial crisis and Occupy was getting started. Anderson is put-upon, naturally: unwillingly single, bored, prone to spending hours playing a multiplayer online game called World of Elfscape.

Then his life is upended. His mother, a onetime ’60s activist who disappeared when he was a child, has thrown a rock at a right-wing presidential candidate. He has a slick editor and publisher (more like an agent) who pushes him to write a book about her. And thus he starts unraveling why his mother left and how he got to where he is — which is, of course, a larger story about the ’60s and today.

But the thing about Tom Wolfe novels is that not even Tom Wolfe is very good at them; in pursuing Dickens and “the billion-footed beast,” he ends up shortchanging his characters’ inner selves as he moves them through his plots like chess pieces. (The best Wolfe works, “The Right Stuff” and “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” are nonfiction.) This is Hill’s problem as well, but Hill has a hell of a lot more empathy for his characters than Wolfe.

So Hill ends up a wobbly figure on a tightrope. Sometimes his contrivances seem forced; other times his empathy, gift for observation and sheer writing ability will out. It makes for a thrilling, if occasionally disappointing, ride.

Hill’s observations are so spot-on that I bookmarked several. Most cutting are the descriptions of life as a professor in an era of microaggressions and frightened administrations. Anderson has a student who pictures herself as a future VP of marketing and communications, but damned if she’s going to do any work; she’s been cheating and weaseling out for years.

Hill’s portrayal of her is a tour de force — one chapter, in which she manages to convince herself not to do a paper on “Hamlet” while responding to texts and using an app called “iFeel” (one of those pointless exercises in earning cheers from your friends) — is simply brilliant.

Then there was biology, which pretty much made Laura gag just thinking about it. Because she was pretty sure the first week of her powerful marketing and communications job that she would someday have would not require her to identify the chemical chain reaction that converted a photon of light to photosynthesized sugar, such as she was currently memorizing in her Intro to Biology class that she was stupidly forced to take in order to satisfy a science requirement even though hello? she wasn’t going to be a scientist? Plus the professor was so dry and boring and the lectures so unbearable —

Another character, the publisher, is so slick and amoral he should have his own book. One of his clients is a teenage singer (actually 25) who has to put out a memoir. No problem, says the publisher; it will be ghostwritten and include a “big confession”: “I am strongly in favor of an innocently small episode of lesbianism,” he tells Samuel. “An experimental time in junior high. A special friend, a few kisses. You know. Not enough to turn off the parents but hopefully enough to get us some rainbow-flag awards.”

Or: “Being a sellout is the authentic thing. When Molly Miller says ‘I’m just being real,’ what she means is that everyone wants money and fame and any artist who claims otherwise is lying. … Molly Miller can never be accused of selling out because selling out was her goal all along.”

Hill also captures something sad and true about the ’60s and today, even though the book came out before the rise of Donald Trump. A chunk of the book takes place in 1968 Chicago, before and during the Democratic convention, and Hill’s retelling is both powerful and shrewd.

But it turns out that for every poor kid shown getting his head drubbed by a nightstick, CBS gets ten phone calls in support of the cop who held the stick. … As soon as he heard this, old Cronkite knew he’d failed. They’d been covering the radicals and the hippies so much that now his viewers couldn’t see past them. The gray areas had ceased to exist. And old Cronkite had two thoughts about this. First, anyone who thinks television can bring the nation together to have a real dialogue and begin to understand one another with empathy and compassion is suffering a great delusion. And second, Nixon is definitely going to win this thing.

But Hill doesn’t have it in him to maintain this level of cutting observation and satire the whole book. He cares. And sometimes that caring throws off his balance. Is it satire? Or something deeper and more serious? (Not that satire isn’t serious.)

Samuel’s mother turns out to have a secret, of course. So does his grandfather, and his best friend from adolescence (who died in the Iraq War). And Hill obviously has a lot of emotion for these characters and takes their plights seriously, as he should. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it leads to some trite set-pieces, as when Samuel’s mother goes back to her father’s birthplace. It feels like bad Wally Lamb, not good Nathan Hill.

There’s also a sorta chronology problem. Samuel’s mother reports to school at the University of Illinois-Chicago in July-August 1968, and yet what would logically be a summer session, with the relaxed feel of a summer session, is described as if it were deep into the fall semester. I just didn’t buy it, though it may very well be true.

Which is not to say I didn’t keep turning pages to find out how he was going to tie it all together: Samuel’s search, a traumatic childhood event, Chicago 1968, the cheating student, the players of Elfscape (one of which, Pwnage, is another marvel of detail), the role of the publisher. Nathan Hill can flat-out write.

So if I seem a little more lukewarm about “The Nix” (the title refers to a Norwegian spirit, though perhaps another spirit — of a certain Tricky president — also wafts over the proceedings), it’s more for what could have been than what is. But they say you shouldn’t review the book you wanted, but the book you have. And “The Nix,” despite its faults, is a very good book. I look forward to what Nathan Hill writes next.

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Review: ‘The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History’ by Chris Smith

The Daily Show: An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and GuestsThe Daily Show: An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests by Chris Smith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The inevitable success often seems inevitable only in retrospect.

The Beatles were this provincial guitar band until they weren’t. “All in the Family” had been rejected by ABC before it became, in almost the same form, the dominant show of the 1970s for CBS.

And Jon Stewart was a standup comic taking over a marginal fake-news cable show until he became JON STEWART and the show became, of course, “The Daily Show” we know today.

“The Daily Show (The Book)” is an oral history, ably compiled by Chris Smith, chronicling the groundbreaking satirical broadcast.

When the show debuted it was just this sometimes-clever, sometimes-smarmy comedy program with Craig Kilborn – one that had its moments, but wasn’t going to make many people forget “Not Necessarily the News” or the best “Weekend Update” segments of “Saturday Night Live.” What Stewart did, upon his arrival in 1999, was gradually turn “The Daily Show” into a satirical machine – pitting George W. Bush against himself, taking on the absurdities of cable news, and every so often removing his host persona to flat-out editorialize, particularly on tragic occasions.

There had never been anything quite like it. Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and David Letterman had had their moments, and such shows as “That Was the Week That Was” took clever potshots, but nobody had ever put it together the way that Stewart (and producers such as creators Madeleine Smithberg and former Onion leader Ben Karlin) did. This was often satire of a high order, the kind that TV was often afraid to do.

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My favorite albums: ‘Something Else by the Kinks’


O, “Something Else by the Kinks.” How I love you.

You’re not my favorite Kinks album. That honor probably goes to “Village Green Preservation Society,” though I could go with “Arthur” if you catch me on the right day.

You’re also, at times, inconsistent. When I’m generous, I blame the sometimes muddy production by Shel Talmy, who seems to have never figured out the word “nuance.” (Loud guitars and pinned VU meters make for great early Kinks and Who singles, but don’t do well by harpsichords.) When I’m not, I’d just as soon you’d have dropped …

Well, that’s the thing. I can’t figure out what song I’d cut.

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Sunday read: Some who can, do; others who can do better, teach (but get little respect)

Image from Shutterstock.

Teachers get a lot of crap in America. Either they’re “indoctrinating” their students or they’re failing them, because they’re overly permissive or incompetent or simply unable to keep up.

This is bullshit.

I’m biased, of course. My mother is a teacher. My wife is a teacher. I have many friends who are teachers. I teach, too. I know how hard everyone works and how much they care.

Sure, there are bad teachers. There are also bad businessmen and bad carny barkers and bad CEOs, too, but somehow they don’t get the vitriol teachers do — at least from certain politicians. Of course, those politicians haven’t had to do lesson plans and worry about students who haven’t eaten breakfast and have a crummy home life. (Yes, sometimes it takes a village — starting with parents, but including many of us.)

The best teachers are inspiring, especially given the odds. An article in Quanta magazine follows a handful of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teachers to see how they do it. Their lessons aren’t just for the students. And the story of one teacher — Channa Comer, who’s at a Bronx middle school — will break your heart.

Check it out. It’s my Sunday read.

My favorite city 

Image from MTLblog.

I love Montreal. I love it though the temperature this morning was -6F (or, as I joked to friends, 252 Kelvin), even though the drivers are crazy and Sherbrooke Street is a mess, even though Toronto and Vancouver are apparently much cooler Canadian cities to live in, at least if you’re an Anglophone coming from the States.

I love it because there’s a huge mountain in the middle of town with park landscaping courtesy of Frederick Olmsted. I love it because some parts feel like New York without the anger and other parts feel like New Orleans without the grime. I love it because it has a Metro system that still recalls the optimism of the ’60s (Expo 67, to be precise).

I love it because it can joke about a cavernous $1 billion Olympic stadium that suffered such cost overruns it was called the “Big Owe.” (Well, maybe “joke” isn’t the right word.)

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