Prince: Welcome 2 America review and my Top 7 Prince songs (USA)

AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

I’ve been feeling for a while that it is more or less impossible to pick a “best” US musician, as (along with the UK) the USA has dominated popular music basically for ever, or certainly throughout my lifetime.

Then I started listening to Welcome 2 America, the “new” album by the late, great sexpot performer Prince, another of 2016’s sacrificial lambs. Combined with Brexit and Trump, and with the losses of Bowie and George Michael book-ending the year, no wonder “fuck you 2016!” has become the exclamation of choice in our family, no matter the year. I feel lucky to have seen Prince perform live here in London, though it was a few years after his 80s heyday (2007 to be precise).

Welcome 2 America is made up of material that was recorded in 2010, but which Prince did not deem worthy of release – rather than having been salvaged from old filing cabinets and down the back of the sofa as I had expected. It’s actually really good, much better than anything he put out for release in the last 15 or 20 years of his life, and there are a couple of stand-outs on there, plus some unexpected and not unwelcome politicising on the eponymous track and others, including 1000 Light Years from Here. My husband noted that the track Stand Up and B Strong is distinctly cheesy, with the feel of a rousing finale from a stage musical, or perhaps a Year 6 leaver’s concert, while another track seems to channel ’80s Lionel Ritchie. Nevertheless, although Welcome 2 America lacks the raw sexual energy of Prince’s earlier (and best) work, it’s well worth a listen.

To round off, I thought I’d compile a little list of my top 7 Prince songs:

  • Purple Rain: I didn’t love this when it came out, and the film was frankly confusing – unsurprisingly, given it came out in 1984, when I was 10. But it’s grown on me over the past four decades!
  • When Doves Cry: this is my preferred track from the Purple Rain album, a beautiful classic.
  • Nothing Compares 2 U: Gorgeous track. He’s got the moves, too.
  • Raspberry Beret: Worth inclusion for the vid alone.
  • Gett Off: “let me show you that I’m a talented boy”, pure filth, with an excellent high-energy dance routine.
  • Cream: with a 6 minute video, almost 2 minutes of which are taken up with shots of erm yeah Prince licking cream off the fingers of sexy ladies.
  • The Beautiful Ones – another Purple Rain classic.

Alligator and other stories by Dima Alzayat (Syria)

I’ve not had much time recently, but one book I have managed to get through is Alligator & Other Stories by Syrian-born, US-raised, UK-based writer Dima Alzayat. Alligator is a short story collection that was shortlisted for the James Tait Black prize for fiction this year.

The James Tait Black prize lists for both fiction and biography are among my favourites, and the prize is the UK’s oldest, awarded each August by the University of Edinburgh’s School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures. Former winners have included Eimear McBride’s wonderful Lesser Bohemians (for fiction), one of my favourite books, and Lindsey Hilsum’s riveting biography of war reporter Marie Colvin, who died in Syria in 2012.

Alligator & Other Stories is a varied, experimental collection that didn’t always work for me – I found the quality of the stories very mixed, but I was impressed by the wide variety of voices and styles of writing in this collection, which has as its heart an examination of the immigrant experience.

My favourites were the moving opening story Ghusl, in which, like a modern-day Antigone, a girl prepares her murdered brother’s body for burial, in defiance of patriarchal norms, and Summer of the Shark, which takes place in a telesales call centre on 11 September 2001, and which I read, coincidentally, on the anniversary of those infamous attacks.

The collection has its eye on contemporary sociopolitical themes, so naturally there’s a #metoo-type story, Only Those Who Struggle Succeed, which reads a bit like Rachel Cusk, or perhaps more like Kristen Roupenian’s infamous Cat Person.

Alligator is the longest and most ambitious story, based around a real lynching in 1929. The story uses a collage-like style that employs both actual and imagined documentation, and combines newspaper reports, witness statements, emails and even a script for a psychic TV reality show, and links the experience of Syrian immigrants with racism and the persecution of minority groups throughout USA history.

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwe)

AFRICA SOUTH OF THE SAHARA

The opening lines of Nervous Conditions are disarming, and made me want to read on: “I was not sorry when my brother died. Nor am I apologising for my callousness, as you may define it, my lack of feeling. For it is not that at all….”.

Published in 1988, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions was the first book to be published by a black Zimbabwean woman in English. Dangarembga initially struggled to find a publisher for the book in Zimbabwe, and it was only after the Women’s Press in the UK published Nervous Conditions that Zimbabwean publishers began to show an interest.

Nervous Conditions is considered to be one of the top 12 books to come out of Africa during the 20th century, along with other greats such as Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter, which I reviewed in 2019 (though even my review of that is heavy going, let alone the book!).

Nervous Conditions was a more approachable read. It is a semi-autobiographical coming of age tale set during the 1960s and 1970s in pre-independence Zimbabwe, then still known as Rhodesia (after the now much-derided colonial-era politician Cecil Rhodes). The novel follows the experience of Tambudzai (Tambu), a young Shona girl from a family of subsistence farmers, and her wealthy cousin Nyasha, who has studied in the UK. Both girls are very bright. To Tambu, Nyasha seems crazily sophisticated, but she is a complicated and confused character, more intellectually critical than Tambu, and she questions the impact Westernization has had on her family, and resents the patriarchal strictures at home that prevent her from socialising with boys and having some independence.

Nyasha’s own mother, Maiguru, has a Master’s degree, obtained in the UK, but much good it does her – her role is as an often passive and effortfully sweet wife, mother and aunt, so she is permitted to exist only really in relation to other people. In contrast, her headmaster husband Babamukuru, the main male character in the novel, is an impassive, opinionated, authoritarian and sometimes cruelly violent presence.

Tambu’s early childhood spent working at the homestead makes her determined to escape the future that she can see laid out before her. She is a rebel in a different way to Nyasha, as she seizes the opportunity offered by Babamukuru to permit her to attend secondary school, a chance hitherto reserved for her brother, although her parents are really not in favour of her leaving her home for an education. Her father sees it as wasted on a girl, while her mother is traumatised after the loss of Tambu’s brother, as well as other infants, and wants her daughter with her.

The book is very much based around the late colonial female experience, in an environment where new educational opportunities were beginning to become available for young people, but where gender-based discrimination and traditional, patriarchal values still dominated and where racial inequalities persisted.

The title comes from a quote by Jean-Paul Sartre: “The condition of native is a nervous condition.” The characters in this novel, now a modern classic, embody that principle.

Strangely perhaps, and entirely coincidentally, I read this at the same time as the 2020 Ugandan novel The First Woman by Jennifer Makumbi, which just won the Jhalak Prize (review to follow). Set during the dictatorship of Idi Amin, and a coming of age tale partly set in a girls’ school, I could see parallels with Nervous Conditions, which was surely an influence on the later book.

Nervous Conditions is the first in what eventually became a trilogy, the final part of which was published in 2020 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. As well as a writer, Dangarembga is an academic and a political activist (and was briefly imprisoned during anti-corruption protests in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, in 2020).

Egyptian film Souad

review by Imogen G.

When we visited my parents recently, the teens (and my mum) spent several hours gripped in front of Catfish on MTV. Souad, created by female director Ayten Amin, reminded me a fictional, more emotionally nuanced, Egyptian version of Catfish.

Naive, romantic Souad (played by Bassant Ahmed) is in her late teens, and lives with her parents and thoughtful younger sister Rabab (Basmala Elghaiesh). Souad is captivated by Ahmed (Hussein Ghanem), an influencer, ‘content creator’ and social media personality in nearby Alexandria. He flirts with her online, and they have intense telephone conversations, but they never meet, and he has an infuriating tendency to fly under the radar for days at a time.

Souad’s family is not wealthy, and her upbringing has been comparatively conservative. She’s a fantasist, spinning stories to random women on the bus about her lovely fiancé, imagining different versions of his family life and their burgeoning, mostly imaginary, romance. Ahmed, in contrast, is much older, more sophisticated, and certainly more cynical, with a serious girlfriend. We sense quickly that things will not turn out well.

The film was slightly ruined for me by a spoiler online, which popped up when I was googling where I could catch it. Knowing this pivotal plot point in advance (no spoilers here!) meant that I spent the first half of the film waiting for it to happen, and as a result the movie felt slow, and I even nodded off a couple of times. I do have a sort of parrot complex that means I frequently fall asleep as soon as the lights go down in the cinema, but it did perhaps indicate that it could have been edited down a bit.

I saw Souad at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton, London, in a tiny screen I didn’t even know existed, up a secret flight of stairs. Well, a flight of stairs, anyway. When I walked into the screening my booked seat was occupied, so I sat in the (entirely empty) row in front. When the film started, the group of people behind suddenly made anxious muttering and rustling sounds, before exiting the screen, bringing the total number of viewers to four. A niche option then, but worth seeing for the effecting second half.

How to Feed a Dictator by Witold Szablowski (Poland)

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

EUROPE

Book 16 of my #20booksofsummer21 and review no 177

I was intrigued after reading a review of this book in the Times Literary Supplement. The author, investigative journalist (and one-time restaurant chef) Witold Szabłowski, tracked down the cooks who worked for several uncompromising (to put it blandly) dictators: Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Idi Amin in Uganda, Enver Hoxha in Albania, Fidel Castro in Cuba and Pol Pot in Cambodia. He interviewed the former chefs about their experiences, the food that they prepared for their bosses, and the way their employment with the various despots came to an end.

You do get the feeling that the chefs aren’t always as honest about their ex-employers as they could be, perhaps because of enduring (some might say misplaced) loyalties, or perhaps because of fear of reprisals.

Apparently, according to one interviewee, Pol Pot – the driving force behind the Cambodian genocide, which resulted in the deaths of up to two million people – was nicknamed “Mattress”, “because he always did his best to calm things down. He was soft.”

Abu Ali, the chef to Saddam Hussein, is also a bit of an apologist: “The only good person in the entire al-Tikriti family was Saddam. I don’t know how he survived among them.”

The book gives an unique and chilling insight into a role in which, as Idi Amin’s Chef Otonde Odera notes, “I knew from the start – my life depended on my cooking skills”. The risk of death was real and ever-present.

Albanian communist leader Enver Hoxha, suffering from a combination of diabetes and heart disease, was on a calorie-restricted diet, with his nutrients monitored by a team of doctors – if the food provided to him by his chef failed to keep him healthy, that chef’s life would be in immediate peril. Keeping a man of 6ft 5 from hunger, on a diet of just 1500 calories a day, must have been a thankless task, and his chef (who insists on remaining anonymous, even though his former boss is long dead) expresses the view that Hoxha’s permanent bad mood was directly related to his persistent and unsated hunger.

The interviews are interspersed with a potted history of the regime in question from Szabłowski. An editorial flourish is the decision to lay the book out in the style of a menu, which forces the content into a particular format, and doesn’t quite work.

I found the book to be a slightly uncomfortable mix of memoir, recipe book and political history, but it kept me turning the pages.

Can you imagine what would have happened if Amin had spent all day carrying out his coup, arrived at the palace in the evening and found there was no supper waiting for him? He’d have given us hell. Out of hunger. People go mad from hunger: I’ve seen it many times.

I had cooked tilapia and goat pilaf; I remember that Amin liked it. We served it all on a fresh tablecloth, with silver service, left over from the British. Amin must have felt that he had won the coup and now he deserved a tasty meal. Tell me, what could be a better reward than excellent food served by a well-dressed cook in a good suit and shoes?

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (b. Dominican Republic)

Review no 176. Book 15 of my 20 books of summer 21

AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a work of fiction steeped in fact, specifically the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujilo, who ruled over the Dominican Republic with an iron first until his assassination in 1961.

In large part, though, this is a tragicomic family saga, set in the late 20th century and focused around the titular Oscar (a grossly overweight sci-fi nerd who lives in New Jersey, writes in Elvish and dreams both of becoming the ‘Dominican Tolkein’ and of finally getting laid). Other principal characters include Oscar’s beautiful, feisty sister Lola, his bitter, cancer-stricken Dominican mother – and his long-deceased grandfather, whose well-intentioned, even honourable, actions in the Dominican Republic in the 1940s had a terrible impact on his family for generations to come.

Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats everybody’s always going on about – he wasn’t no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy with a million hots on his jock.

And except for one period early in his life, dude never had much luck with the females (how very un-Dominican of him).

He was seven then.

The name Oscar Wao is a misnomer coined after Yunior, Lola’s sometime boyfriend and Oscar’s sometime friend (and an incontinent shagger), tells him he looks just like “that fat homo Oscar Wilde” – an insult that is seized upon by his contemporaries (“Melvyn said Oscar Wao, quien es Oscar Wao, and that was it, all of us started calling him that”).

The story, expanded from a shorter piece published in the New Yorker in 2000, shifts constantly, weaving backwards and forwards in time, with multiple perspectives. The text is sprinkled liberally with extensive, often irreverent, seemingly authoritative footnotes, providing a breezy and sometimes – as the author is eager to point out – outright inaccurate primer on the often bloody political history of the Dominican Republic.

We don’t find out the main narrator’s name until over halfway through the book, while there are elements of magical realism, including Oscar’s lucid dreams, which feature a mystical and ridiculous spirit animal – a golden mongoose – and a possible family curse. Sometimes the text veers into Spanish slang, or perhaps more accurately Dominican, without translation, but if you don’t know Spanish you can skip those bits, or certainly guess the gist. Or go on Google Translate if you’re really curious.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is an ambitious, playful novel about the long shadow of history, and life, love and loss among an immigrant community. A favourite of many critics, I quite liked it, but my assessment of whether I love a book boils down to whether I want to buy a copy/keep my copy to reread later. On those criteria this book doesn’t qualify as a favourite and is off to the charity shop.

Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was by Sjón (Iceland)

Translated by Victoria Cribb

EUROPE

Book 14 of my #20booksofsummer21

Time is whizzing by and I’m not sure if I’m going to get through all the 20 books on my list. I wish I’d counted the three “extra” books I read earlier in the summer! (Though that would mean going back and writing reviews.)

Set in Reykjavik in 1918, this one is a short (hurray!), intense novel. The narrative focuses around 16-year-old gay orphan Mani Steinn, at a time of immense change for Iceland, with the arrival of the so-called Spanish Flu, the recognition of Icelandic independence by Denmark at the end of World War I and the eruption of the huge Katla volcano.

Mani is something of an outsider, a people-watcher who spends his time hustling for sex and watching silent movies, but who is later recruited by a doctor to help with the casualties.

Reykjavik has, for the first time, assumed a form that reflects his inner life: a fact he would not confide to anyone.

Mani should seem a hopeless character: he’s alone in the world, poor, uneducated and illiterate. But his life is full of moments that transcend these bare facts.

Although Mani’s sexual encounters are with men, he is captivated by a slightly older girl, the mysterious, motorcycle-riding Sola G, who brings some colour to his life, representing the freedom offered by the silver screen, and the possibility of invention, or re-invention.

There are echoes of our own, present-day early reactions to a new pandemic in the initial responses of the authorities to the outbreak of disease:

… there is no cause to resort to drastic and costly preventative measures, since the mortality rate must be regarded as within acceptable limits. … The Icelandic Board of Health merely urges the public to take precautions similar to those they would take for the seasonal grippe that does the rounds every year…

Although Moonstone is much-loved by many, I didn’t really get on with the concentrated, elliptical prose and the confusingly folkloric elements – it wasn’t for me, but given the length I had no excuse not to make it to the end!

Visitation (Heimsuchung) by Jenny Erpenbeck (Germany)

Translated by Susan Bernofsky

Book 13 of my #20booksofsummer

Visitation is a short novel, at just 150 pages, which I’d picked up in the past and then abandoned, largely because I think it isn’t the novel I’d expected it to be, and I needed to adjust to that. I’d imagined a straightforward fly-on-the-wall narrative, focusing on one Manderley-esque house over perhaps a hundred or two hundred years, whereas Visitation is more abstract than my expectations, less hard-edged and more poetic. It’s very clever, but I still don’t know that I enjoyed it.

First published in German in 2008, the novel appeared in English translation in 2010. The German title, Heimsuchung, evades straightforward translation into English. My German stops at GCSE level, but the author has said that the word translates as “devastation”. However, it can also be broken into its composite parts: “Heim” (home) and “suchung” (searching), or “home-seeking”. The house around which the book revolves, then, represents both sides of this interpretation: a longing for a lost home, and the horror of the terrible events of the 20th century in Germany. But the depth of meaning doesn’t stop there, since “Heim” is a not a neutral word, it is loaded with secondary meanings, around obligation, around politics … the Nazis were big on the notion of Heim.

The narrative evokes a house and a plot of land that is owned by several different families over the course of the 20th century, while the events of history play out in the wings. Both the house and its location are based, in large part, on Erpenbeck’s own family history, as she spent happy times as a child at her grandmother’s lakeside house in Brandenburg.

At the beginning of the novel, a plot of land near Berlin, on the side of a Brandenburg lake, is intended as part of a dowry, to consolidate wealth between two families. However, when the marriage doesn’t take place, the land is sold.

An architect builds on the land and acquires a neighbouring plot, together with access to the lake and a “little bathing house”, from its Jewish owners, who are trying to raise funds to flee to Brazil. Later, we find out the fate of that Jewish family, and we see how, in her last days, doomed 12-year-old Doris treasures her warm memories of swimming and playing in the lake with her family.

During the Second World War the house witnesses scenes of carnality and violence, and afterwards its grounds conceal valuables when the architect and his wife flee East Germany. Another family receives the house upon their return from exile in Russia, and the house impassively watches the owner’s legal battle to retain it after German unification, in the face of a restitution order. Amid all this change, only one character remains in situ: the semi-mythical, unnamed gardener, who continues to work on the land as he ages.

It was interesting to see 20th century German history from the East German perspective, but I struggled with the style. The prose is pared down and minimal – like a kind of anti-Knaussgård – with barely any dialogue, and most characters remain nameless. I found the introspective and impersonal nature of the writing meant that I sometimes didn’t feel particularly inclined to read on. In the German, Erpenbeck’s writing is known for its lyrical, poetic quality, but in the English translation the paragraphs are quite long and dense, and, dare I say, off-puttingly so.

The tale of the house and its various occupants is bookended by a Prologue, giving a brief account of the historic events that shaped the landscape over many thousands of years, and an Epilogue telling us of the demolition of the house, after which “the landscape, if ever so briefly, resembles itself once more”. The novel thus emphasises the illusion of ownership, the often arbitrariness of legal diktats, and the fact that human concerns and activities, however monumental or devastating their impact, are only an infinitesimally tiny part of earth’s slow history.

“Perhaps eternal life already exists during a human lifetime, but since it looks different to what we’re hoping for – something that transcends everything that’s ever happened – since it looks instead like the old life we already knew, no one recognizes it.”

A Children’s Bible: A Novel by Lydia Millet (USA)

Book 12 of my #20booksofsummer21

So maybe art is the Holy Ghost. Maybe art is the ghost in the machine

A Children’s Bible (2020) by the US writer Lydia Millet focuses on a group of families who have rented a large house on the coast for the summer. The parents are disengaged and mostly drunk, while the children are left to amuse – or should that be fend for – themselves. The action is recounted from the first-person perspective of teenager Eve, as climate disaster unfolds.

The parents are presented as passive liabilities: self-satisfied, entitled, self-indulgent, fat, they drink cocktails all day, listen to bad music and dance embarrassingly. They are basically me!

The descriptions of the adults, presented in the novel’s trademark spare, unflinching style, are darkly comic. The image of them indulging themselves in scenes of Nero-esque bacchanalia while Rome effectively burns works well as an allegory of the middle-aged complacency that I am accused of by my own children in my apparent refusal to face up to the current climate emergency, distracted instead by the more immediate distractions of a new summer jumpsuit or a nicely mixed Sbagliato.

The children meanwhile are more tuned in, and more importantly, they have agency: time after time they make use of their pretty impressive survival skills to escape treacherous situations, while the parents, a sort of indistinguishable bovine mass, turn away from the reality staring in them the face for as long as they possibly can, in one scene just deciding to blot it all out by taking a cartload of Ecstasy and having threesomes.

Although often bored, or at the mercy of others or of outside events, and caught between stasis and the need for action, the young people devise routines that they use to structure their days, while the parents – used to their made-up non-jobs (creating art installations, writing niche academic papers read by five other academics, making crappy films) – are bribed and coerced into co-operation, and are increasingly regarded as a liability.

“[The parents] made Sukey hand over her sister for a day, so they could ‘have some cute baby time’ (gag). She protested, but we decided the prize was probably legit. Sukey submitted to the majority, then paced back and forth most of that day, worrying the parents would wreck the baby.

Her sister was barely two months old, said Jen. How much damage could they actually do?

Sukey retorted that they couldn’t be trusted with child-rearing. On that front we had to agree.”

Just before the terrible storm that changes things for the characters of this novel for ever, Eve’s much-loved nine-year-old brother Jack is presented with an illustrated children’s bible by one of the featureless adults. He is inspired to assemble a menagerie of wild animals in a sort of arborial Ark, including an owl with an apparently broken wing, the first in a series of biblically-inspired events (which even include a birth scene in a stable).

‘”Hey Evie!”, called Jack. He’d just come out of the barn, Shel tagging along behind him. “We took the bandage off. He flies!”

A blur of bird flew away from them onto the roof. It landed and perched on the peak.

Fast healing, was what struck me first.

What struck me second was, maybe the bandage had actually been the culprit.

I mean, they were little kids. Not vets.”

Millet’s deceptively straightforward, witty prose makes this a page-turning, swift read — the novel is relatively short, at 224 well-spaced pages in my edition, and cannot be pigeonholed as a work of bandwagon-jumping ‘cli-fi’. A Children’s Bible was a National Book Award finalist, and has been shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize 2021.

Polish series Wataha (The Border/The Pack)

EUROPE

I watched the first season (2014) of this enormously atmospheric, HBO-produced Polish six part crime thriller, set among an elite Polish-Ukrainian team of border guards, and freely available on streaming services here in the UK. Known in Polish as Wataha, and originally translated as The Border, it was later translated more literally as The Pack (like a ‘pack of dogs’ – or wolves, with wolf imagery recurring throughout the series).

Set amid dramatic natural scenery, with thick forest evocative of a Grimm’s fairy tale, the cinematography is beautiful. The series opens with high drama. The border guards, who are tasked with combating people traffickers, are celebrating in a remote mountain cabin after a successful mission, when a bomb explodes, killing the whole team, with the exception of Captain Victor Rebrow (played by Leszek Lichota). His girlfrend, Ewa (Julia Pogrebinska), is missing, and presumed dead. A text is found on Rebrow’s phone, sent just before the explosion. It reads “Boom”. Subtle this show isn’t.

Rebrow returns to work at the head of a new ‘pack’, with the aim of discovering the identity of his previous team’s killers. Being the sole survivor of the attack, suspicion immediately falls on Rebrow, particularly from icy Prosecutor Iga Dobosz (Aleksandra Poplawska), a woman with the empathy of a sock, who struts about looking withering in spike heels. But things inevitably become more complicated as Rebrow’s back story gradually emerges. I’m no great fan of crime thrillers, but this one is different enough to be intriguing, with a haunting soundtrack that complements the murky atmosphere, although the dialogue (or the translation?) is often let down by cliché. And it amused me that the border team’s tracker dog is called Osama.

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