THE TOP TEN OF 2012

1love-for-levon-3-600x-1349361870This year that is fast disappearing will not be remembered in these quarters with very much warmth. It was a fairly hideous, sickening year, the year that I felt I got old. But like all good things, the bad ones come to an end as well, and thanks to some much appreciated end of the year action by Richard Plepler, Steve Koepp, David McCormick and others, we begin 2013 on an upswing, and with hopes for better times to come. In the meanwhile, here are some jewels, personally chosen and wholly idiosyncratic, recovered from 2012:
1.) Love for Levon. Without a doubt, everything about the tribute concert to Levon Helm–reporting the story, meeting the people involved, attending2searching-for-sugar-man-poster_large the event, the reception to the article, what may happen yet–turned this into the best thing that I was involved with this year.
2.) Searching for Sugarman. This modest documentary about a real-life Cinderella made my heart leap with joy. A very 3carly-rae-jepsen-jimmy-falloninspirational story.
3.) Call Me Maybe. Carly Rae Jepson‘s unassuming, sweet, girlish, flirty hit was attractive enough, but the way it went viral and enveloped everyone from the US Olympic Swim Team to Colin Powell was delightful. The song never failed to bring a smile to my lips, especially in Jepson’s collaboration with Jimmy Fallon4choir_2238852b and the Roots.
4.) The dauntless, rain-drenched performance of the young people of Royal College of Music Chamber Choir during the flotilla of the Queen’s Jubilee was simply stirring, especially when they sang “Land of Hope and Glory.”
5bill_clinton_dnc_cc_120905_wg5.) The presidential campaign as a whole this year was a fairly tedious affair, but the rousing Democratic convention, driven by one splendid speech after another culminating in Bill Clinton‘s masterful dissection/deconstruction/destruction of the GOP position was fairly brilliant, just as the Republicans’ ceaseless rhetorical self-destruction–“Oops”, “Nine, nine, nine”, “I like to fire people”, “legitimate rape”, “the 47 percent”–was the best long-running comedy series on TV.
6.) The Giants Win the Super Bowl. Just as in 2009, 6manningham_catchthe inconsistent Giants managed to win four–or in this case, six–games that they could win but were not likely to, and managed, one play at a time, to walk off with the hardware.
7he-hour7.) The Hour. A splendid, sophisticated, intelligent BBC series about a ground-breaking TV news magazine being produced in the early fifties. I love the way they can combine news judgment, inside baseball, and messy personal situations. Dominic West, Ben Whislaw and Romola Garai are just terrific. We also liked the posh Downton Abbey and the relentlessly vulgar The In-Betweeners. (I must say, I haven’t seen Homeland yet.
8.) Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. Having loved Wolf Hall, 8809-11booker2_full_600I feared its sequel would suffer by comparison. I shouldn’t have worried. Other enjoyable books this year: Watergate, by Thomas Mallon; Passage of Power, by Robert Caro; The Long Road to Antietam, by Richard Slotkin.
9.) I went to Lincoln fearing a Spielbergian historical romance, full of longing gazes and quivering lips and swirling strings. But while there was some of that, it wasn’t enough to 9lincoln-daniel-day-lewissicken the whole deal. I give total credit to screenwriter Tony Kushner for his decision to hang this pageant on a moment that has been largely overlooked by historians, the passage by the House of Representatives of a constitutional amendment outlawing slavery. Historians undercut the importance of that moment because there were other ways to accomplish Lincoln’s end, but that’s not the point: whether or not the vote had significant is irrelevant10Superstorm_Sandy_Keel-1_t618, it is a perfectly splendid motor for an historical drama.
10. Superstorm Sandy. “There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at with no result,” Winston Churchill once said. I have no reason to dispute him, but I can tell you this: it’s a humbling thing to realize that the killer hurricane has come and gone and that you’ve been missed.

BRILLIANT “BRING UP THE BODIES”

It is a hard job being a sequel, but it is nearly an impossible task to be the second book of a trilogy. The first book gets all the benefit of the first blush of a love affair between the subject and the reader, and the third cashes in on the great drama of the climax. This is the fate, I’m afraid, of Hilary Mantel‘s excellent Bring Up the Bodies, which has the thankless job of following Wolf Hall, as original and as dazzling a novel as I have ever read. In Wolf Hall, Mantel took the well-known tale of Henry VIII‘s first divorce and second marriage and found a new way to tell it, by taking a little known figure in the saga, Thomas Cromwell, and making him not only a flesh-and-blood figure, but a very contemporary character. Cromwell is a shrewd behind-the-scenes advisor, a Bob Strauss or a Jim Baker, whom modern readers recognize, but a also a figure of modernity–a globalist, a pragmatist, a secularist, and a self-made man who has advanced on the basis of his knowledge of the new world of commerce and industry and arms past those had risen on, and are now encumbered by the rules and limits and strictures of the past. Mantel gives us a very human Henry, who is frustrated and unhappy, and a bold, clever Cromwell, who manages not only to give the king what he wants, but to set him on the path to the modern era. As if all this weren’t achievement enough, Mantel has devised a truly original narrative voice, one that is shrewd, and sinister, and that moves in and out of Cromwell’s head and back and forth in time with almost magical seamlessness.

Bring Up the Bodies cannot match this achievement; it cannot be original in the way Wolf Hall was. But to say that Bring Up the Bodies follows in Wolf Hall’s path without faltering or without diminishing is to give it all the credit in the world. In Bring Up the Bodies, the first lesson is to be careful what you wish for. Anne Boleyn, Henry’s new queen has longed for the death of her predecessor, Catherine of Aragon, thinking that it will solidify her status. Astonishingly, she is rendered more vulnerable, and the mechanics of her downfall make for great reading. But the great surprise in the book is the slow, subtle corruption of Cromwell, who finds himself seeking only as much justice as he can use, as he memorably puts it, and who finds himself weaving personal vengeance with his labors for the king. These changes in Cromwell elevate the entire book, and make it something deeper and more thought-provoking than the usual historical thriller.

And then there’s the writing! Here’s a nice morsel, plucked from Cromwell’s thoughts: “It is not easy to explain to a young man like Wriothesley why he values Wyatt. He wants to say, because, good fellows though you are, he is not like you or Richard Riche. He does not talk simply to hear his own voice, or pick arguments just to win them. He is not like George Boleyn; he does not write verses to six women in the hope of bundling one of them into a dark corner where he can slip his cock into her. He writes to warn and to chastise, and not to confess his need but to conceal it. He understands honour but does not boast of his own. He is perfectly equipped as a courtier, but he knows the small value of that. He has studied the world without despising it. He understands the world without rejecting it. He has no illusions but he has hopes. He does not sleepwalk through his life. His eyes are open, and his ears for sounds others miss.”

I could immerse myself in such passages, and swim in them all day. Mantel reportedly is working hard on part three. Bring up The Mirror and the Light!