Review no 133: Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford (UK)

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(I read Francis Spufford’s much-anticipated new novel Light Perpetual this month via #NetGalley.)

In the novels’s opening chapter, t+0: 1944, the narrative details an imagined rocket attack in chilling, slow-motion detail, as it strikes and instantly kills five children, out shopping in South London on an ordinary Saturday with their families: five-year-olds Alec, Vern, Ben and twins Jo and Val. The vivid unspooling of the catastrophe brought to mind the opening story in Mark Haddon’s powerful short story The Pier Falls in its sense of dispassionate inevitability.

It cannot be run backwards, to summon the dust to rise, any more than you can stir milk back out of tea. Once sundered, forever sundered. Once scattered, forever scattered. It’s irreversible.”

Nevertheless, fiction does have the power to rewind time, and Spufford recreates a future for his tragically snuffed-out characters. This deeply humane novel conjures those children up with the incantatory “Come, other chances. Come, unsounded deep. Come, undivided light. Come, dust.”

We skip forward in time by five years, and the children – untouched – are now 10. We learn things about these normal working class children that will stay with them throughout their lives: whether it’s a love of music, a keen intelligence, or a searing sensitivity.

We revisit Alec, Vern, Ben, Jo and Val at intervals, a bit like the ’60s TV series 7 Up, as we watch the ways their lives diverge, their sadnesses and successes, their bad and good decisions, and the way those decisions influence the course of their lives, however outwardly mundane they may be.

The evocation of each decade of the latter part of the 20th century is a feat of pastiche, which, if it occasionally lapses into cliché, is counterpointed by its pinpoint accuracy.

I found sensitive Ben most vividly drawn, diagnosed at a young age with schizophrenia, whose nightmare years are balanced by a period of domestic contentment. This part of the book gives value to the notion of perseverance through the darkest of times, in the hope of a brighter future: and although it could easily seem trite, Ben’s story is so well-handled that it feels genuinely wise and hopeful.

This a deeply humane novel, with light a reoccurring motif, and with a whiff of benevolent religiosity. However, the prose is spiritual rather than hectoring, and at its best both illuminating and luminous. The book opens with the words “the light” – in that case the terrifying, destructive light of the murderous rocket attack – and it closes, too, with light: “The grass grows bright with ordinary light … and the light is very good“.

With its opening pages awash with wish fulfilment and second chances, there are obvious thematic parallels with Kate Atkinson’s instant classic Life after Life, as well as Ian McEwan’s canon-fodder Atonement, but Light Perpetual is far from derivative and easily holds its ground next to those two novels.

In 1944 a V-2 rocket killed 168 people in a branch of Woolworths on New Cross Road in London; 15 of the dead were younger than 11. Light Perpetual does not attempt to unearth or reimagine the histories or thwarted futures of those real children, but the author acknowledges that the novel is “partly written in memory of those South London children, and their lost chance to experience the rest of the twentieth century“.

Frances Spufford has written one previous, extremely well-received novel, the multi-prize-winning work of historical fiction Golden Hill, as well as some diverse works of non-fiction: The Child that Books Built (about his childhood love of reading), Unapologetic (about his Christian faith) and Red Plenty (about the USSR in the 1950s). This new work may be his best yet.

Review no 132: Ali and Nino by Kurban Said (Azerbaijan)

Translated by Jenna Graman

NORTH AFRICA, MIDDLE EAST, CENTRAL ASIA AND THE SOUTH CAUCASUS

Ali and Nino owes a debt to Romeo and Juliet. It is a tale of thwarted love between the patriotic Muslim Azeri Ali and the beautiful Georgian Orthodox princess Nino, who is from a more liberal background. Ali and Nino live in oil-rich Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, which has been a consistent lure for exploitation by the West, while their opposing ideals and the encroaching war place their love story under constant threat.

Nino represents a cultivated European-influenced civility and enjoys vices such as wine. She longs to travel throughout Western Europe and loves to walk through the whispering trees. Ali, in contrast, is from a deeply conservative and strongly patriarchal background. He is spooked by forests and is all wild desert and bloodlust and unbridled masculinity. I mean, he’s actually a total nightmare. He gallops around on a rare red-gold horse, and during one battle he literally drinks the blood of his enemies. He’s a massive stereotype. But you can’t deny he really feels things.

Ali’s old school friend, the devout Imam-to-be Seyd, says things like:

“A wise man does not court a woman. The woman is just an acre, on which the man sows.”

Seyd even advises Ali that women lack intelligence and a soul:

“Why would women have either? It is enough for her to be chaste and have many children.”

Wow. So wise!

He advises that it is ok for Ali to marry Nino without requiring her to convert to Islam as

“No Paradise or Hell is waiting for a woman. When she dies she just disintegrates into nothing. The sons of course must be Shiites.”

Right, that sounds reasonable.

Like Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, this book is set in the world of the blood feud, a state of affairs that is set in stone:

“The blood-feud is the most important basis of state order and good conduct, no matter what Europeans say.”

Kadare covers his territory with much more nuance, however, and is, let’s face it, a Nobel Prize nominee and all round better writer.

The cover design of the edition of Ali and Nino that I read, printed by Vintage and with an introduction by Paul Theroux (which contains spoilers), looks like it’s been produced by a bot, it is so riotously clichéd. The bottom half of the front cover features a camel caravan in silhouette beneath an image of a young woman’s intense eyes, which gaze out from the upper part of the cover.

The identity of the author who wrote under the pseudonym Kurban Said was shrouded in mystery when Ali and Nino was first published in Vienna in 1937.

Was the writer the Austrian countess who had signed the publishing contract, and if so how on earth did she know so much about pre-First World War Azerbaijan?

The book was eventually attributed to a friend of hers, Lev Nussimbaum, a Jewish émigré and convert to Islam who had fled the Azerbaijani capital Baku during the Russian Revolution.

A copy of Ali and Nino was later unearthed in a Berlin market by Jenna Graman, who translated it, and the novel was duly published in English in 1970. To be honest, I wish she’d left it on the book stall instead.

Review no 131: As I Open My Eyes (À Peine J’Ouvre les Yeux) – a movie from Tunisia

NORTH AFRICA , MIDDLE EAST AND CENTRAL ASIA

As I Open My Eyes is a 2015 coming of age movie directed and co-written by Tunisian film maker Leyla Bouzid. The action takes place in Tunis, just before the revolutionary Arab Spring of protests kicked off in Tunisia in 2011.

Farah (Baya Medhaffar) is 18, wealthy, confident, rebellious, very pretty and naive. She has a protective mother, Hayet, who is focused on her daughter’s glittering academic prospects, and a father who works away from home, managing troubled phosphate mines in Ghafsa.

Farah is not keen to fulfil her family’s expectations and train as a doctor. Instead, she sings (fairly badly to my ears!) in a band, Joujma, and is swept away by her romance with the cool but kinda gittish lute-player Borhene (Montassar Ayari) – she drinks and dances in male-dominated bars, smokes and makes out in the bushes.

She reminded me a bit of a young Siouxsie Sioux, while the music was a mix of lyrics full of political rebellion crossed with more traditional rhythms (with music by renowned Iraqi oud player Khyam Allami). The band’s often dangerous themes, though, ultimately attract unwanted attention from the police.

Baya Medhaffar’s performance makes the film, which sometimes veers into melodrama, while the plot line often covers familiar ground. I found the movie was interesting for the way it evoked the febrile atmosphere of 2010 Tunisia.

It also effectively portrays the challenges that come with being young and female in a highly conservative country (although Medhaffar has been quoted as saying that “I feel the same when I walk on the streets in Tunisia or in Paris”), and the difficulty of balancing the roles of a daughter and of a teenager yearning to spread her wings and grab her independence, both artistically and romantically.

Review no 130: The Wandering by Intan Paramaditha (Indonesia)

FAR EAST, SOUTH ASIA AND AUSTRALIA

Translated from the Indonesian by Stephen J. Epstein

A bored 20-something English teacher in Jakarta, a “city of thwarted suicidal urges“, longs for adventure far away. Unexpectedly, she summons a demon (her “lusty Lucifer“), has wild sex with him, and subsequently enters into a sort of Faustian pact, which allows her to travel throughout the world … though at what price?

Bequeathed a pair of Wizard of Oz style red shoes (the Demon Lover informs her that “Their owner is a witch, but she is long dead I warn you, these shoes are cursed“), our heroine is mysteriously transported to New York. Referred throughout as “you”, she finds herself in a cab, on the way to the airport, with a ticket for Berlin.

What follows is reminiscent of a choose-your-own-adventure book from the 1980s. An intelligent, adult take on a genre for which I held much childhood affection was a tantalising prospect.

However, the story that I found myself embarking on was frustratingly incoherent. Perhaps the book itself is supposed to be a meditation on the limits and powers of narrative. But perhaps it was also let down by the translation, and in parts it was definitely badly edited.

I tried two permutations of the story: in the first, “I” remained in New York, feeling cut off and strangely marooned, before engaging in misguided experiments with a mystical mirror, an event that rapidly ended in a surreal and opaque fairy tale ending.

In the second version, I travelled to Berlin via New York, and then headed on to Amsterdam, after an encounter with a mysterious, snow-globe toting old man, where I found myself sharing an apartment with a complicated prostitute.

I found the conceptual nature of the book the most difficult to engage with. Some reviewers have suggested that its mythical and magical elements serve to demonstrate that however free we may think we are in our wanderings (if we are lucky enough to secure that elusive visa or green card, or to have the nationality, uncontroversial name and language skills that facilitate unfettered movement around the globe), there are ultimately only a finite number of stories to be played out in the world.

Perhaps the book is an extended riff on the lengths people will go to to leave unsatisfactory lives behind and travel to the West, and the uncertain outcomes of such a determination: after all, to cite the Wizard of Oz, a story that is repeatedly revisited throughout this labyrinthine novel: “There’s no place like home“.

There are hints throughout of multiple simultaneous realities, which might partly explain my confusion on my first reading. In this case the book may benefit from multiple readings, to follow all the various possible threads.

In the Amsterdam iteration, for example, I read that “If a city can have a twin, maybe you and your red shoes do too. What kind of life might your red shoes be having in New York?” However, because multiple story strands at times use the same interlinking narratives, the coherence of the story, already looping and meandering, broke down at times.

I’d been very eager to read this book (published in Indonesian in 2017, and in English by the Harvill Secker imprint of PRH in 2020) but, overall, I felt that its intriguing premise didn’t live up to my expectations.

Review no 129: Albanian artist Anri Sala

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Prize-winning Albanian video, installation and photographic artist Anri Sala was born in isolationist, still-communist Albania in 1974. He currently lives in Berlin, and has been widely exhibited internationally.

The Marian Goodman Gallery in London describes his oeuvre as: “transformative, time-based works … constructed through multiple relationships between image, architecture and sound …” So what does this art-speak actually mean?

The 2003 video installation Dammi i Colori (Give me the Colours) takes as its subject matter changes introduced under Edi Rama, a central figure in 21st century Albanian politics. He was Mayor of the capital, Tirana, when the video was filmed, and is currently the Albanian PM.

I know more about Albanian politics than most people living outside the Balkans, due to the nature of my day job. But I had no idea until today that Rama used to be a painter, and actually flat-shared with Sala in Paris.

A bit of background: Albania came close to civil conflict in 1997, following the collapse of pyramid investment schemes. The country has, of course, opened up significantly since the collapse of the Soviet bloc and has been on the path to reform, but it still has a long way to go before it is likely to fulfil its goal of European Union membership.

Under Rama’s leadership, and as part of a programme of urban regeneration, in the early 2000s the city’s buildings were painted in vivid colours (presumably as a less costly alternative to an expensive construction project). Dammi i Colori pans through the streets of Tirana, while Mayor Rama explains what it involves and his desire to see the capital transformed from ‘a city where you are doomed to live by fate [to] a city where you choose to live’.

The film’s title references an aria from Puccini’s 1900 opera Tosca, sung by an artist working on a portrait of Mary Magdalene (while reflecting on his lover Tosca). The title can, thus, at a stretch, be interpreted as reflecting Rama’s ambitions for the city, as it sought to recover from instability and the past unrest that had resulted in significant damage to the capital.

Tate Modern quotes Sala: “I wanted to show images from a place where speaking of utopia is actually impossible, and therefore utopian. I chose the notion of hope instead of utopia. I focused on the idea of bringing hope in a place where there is no hope … It is about dealing with the reality where the luxury of time and money is missing.”

Having lived through the rapid period of change that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in early 1990s, Sala’s work is, as artmargins.com neatly put it, preoccupied with “capturing disappearance in progress“. (And he’s not above mining an influential friendship to do so.)

Jumping forward 10 years, Sala’s punningly titled work Ravel Ravel Unravel, shown at the Venice Biennale, explored not only a piece of music, but the unintended act of asynchronicity. It was inspired by Ravel’s 1930 piano concerto, Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major, which was commissioned by the pianist Paul Wittgenstein (elder brother of the famous philosopher), who had lost his right arm in World War I.

Sala separately filmed two expert pianists performing the left-handed work, their right hands remaining still. Both films were then screened, simultaneously, in a single room under the title Ravel Ravel. The walls of the gallery were treated, to dampen any echoes, so that minor discrepancies between the two performances were thrown into relief. Sala felt that the performances “paradoxically create an ‘other’ space”, quite apart from the two individual video performances.

Another two rooms, titled simply Unravel, featured a French DJ as she attempted to sync two vinyl recordings of the performances. The film in the first room of the two was silent, focusing only on her face, while the other room allowed visitors to the gallery to both hear and see her actions.

Other works have used fireworks and informal DJ sets, and one was produced in co-operation with the rock band Franz Ferdinand. But music isn’t always central to Sala’s work.

Whizzing back in time to 2002, No Barragán, No Cry (below) is a photographic work created in response to the former Mexican home of the late architect Luis Barragán. On the roof terrace there had been a wooden sculpture of a horse, mounted on a plinth, but the contents of the house had been disrupted after Barragán’s death.

Sala notes that “the thing I most remembered was the thing that was no longer there.” So, yes, Sala grabbed himself a horse, and briefly balanced it on the plinth. This image disturbs me, and although Sala claims the horse was not harmed in any way I can only image it was put through something of a stressful ordeal. Animal welfare issues aside, however, the artist’s obsession with “capturing disappearance” remains evident.

No Barragán, No Cry (2002, colour photo)

Review no 128 – This is not a Burial, it’s a Resurrection: a movie from Lesotho

SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA

In Sesotho with English subtitles (2019, running time 2h)

A film based around plans for the disinterment of family members is about as far away from the Hollywood mainstream as it is possible to get (though there was Coco I guess).

Written and directed by Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, This is not a Burial, it’s a Resurrection opens, mythical, atmospheric and mysterious, with the line: “This place. Legend says it used to be called the plains of weeping.” Foreign missionaries in contrast, we learn, called it Nazareth.

Soon we are introduced to an old woman, Mantoa (played by Mary Twala Mhlongo, who died in 2020). She is so worn and thin as to be, at first sight, virtually genderless, crying out for her recently deceased adult son. Her husband is long dead, her daughter and grandchild too, and her face is deeply lined and etched with grief. With this final loss, the loss of her son, in a South African mining accident, her life has become meaningless.

The unnamed narrator (played by Jerry Mofokeng Wa Makhetha), accompanied by a wooden, piping instrument, the lesiba (hear what they sound like here), informs us that “now that her son was dead she didn’t cry, nor look up to the heavens. Besides God, reality too felt further and further away“.

Putting on her best dress, Mantoa goes to bed and waits for death to come for her in the house her husband built, though it remains punishingly absent. Her grief enfolds her completely, and she takes what amounts to a vow of silence, “regarding God and
nature in silent contempt”.

This is sad film, but also a film that is gorgeous to look at, set among the beautiful and ethereal mountains of rural Lesotho, which is surrounded on all sides by the territory of South Africa. Mantoa’s small house is shot with painterly care, too, with its sparse interior, its deeply coloured internal walls contrasting with the yellow flowers to the side. The camera lingers lovingly on the detailing of her ornate, black lace, high-collared dress, while all the time that haunting, piping music plays.

Mantoa, speaking out to complain about the state of the neglected cemetery, learns that the villagers, who have lived peaceably for many years, are to be forcibly resettled; their land is to be flooded and a dam built. The Ministry will provide funding to those who choose to move the graves of their family.

The old woman unexpectedly finds within her an untapped spirit of defiance, which she uses to inspire her local community. She angrily, unsparingly, ignores the exhortations of the local priest, telling him bitterly that there was no meaning in the deaths of her husband, her children, her grandchild, and no meaning in the death of his own wife who “will die over and over again for the rest of your remaining life. That’s grief. It’s a senseless suffering, there’s no meaning to it.

Nevertheless, in an impassioned address, Mantoa expressed how she feels attached with an inviolable bond to the soil that contains generations of her relatives, “their umbilical cords and the placentas of her mother“, and asserts that the whole land would need to be exhumed in order for them to be able to leave it. I’ve since learnt that in parts of Africa the tombstones of ancestors can serve as a sort of marker of land ownership.

Meanwhile, the villagers are increasingly afraid of losing their livelihoods. The land they live and work on has been leased on trust for generations, eroding any sense that they lack official rights of ownership over it – while they have already witnessed the destruction of other areas of the local environment to make way for the march of (unwanted but inevitable) infrastructural development.

The film is a totemic meditation on life and death and the imposition of unsought change, and successfully re-creates a way of life that is threatened by the pervasive drive towards modernisation, while also evoking a more spiritual world, where the dead continue to occupy an important space alongside the living.

It is a beautifully shot, lyrical film, filled with arresting imagery of the natural world, with enormous skies taking up most the screen, and those astonishing mountains. It is a film that is slow and sorrowful – and was described by 2020’s Africa in Motion film festival as gentle, but I didn’t find it gentle, I frequently found it brutal.

In 2020 the film was a worthy winner of a special jury prize at Sundance for “visionary filmmaking”, and it has been nominated by Lesotho in the category of best international feature for the 2021 Oscars. It is the first time that tiny Lesotho has entered the competition. This is not a Burial, it’s a Resurrection is, no doubt, not for everyone, but I for one am glad to have watched it.

Review no 127: Swedish TV series Love and Anarchy

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I’ve turned my eye to TV series from outside my UK/US comfort zone lately. I’m a big fan of French series Call My Agent, set in the offices of a talent agency, which is lots of fun (and further discussion of which I’ll save for a later review). A few people on Twitter suggested that the Swedish series Love and Anarchy, streaming on Netflix in the UK, was a suitable stopgap while waiting for the new season of Call My Agent to drop, so I decided to check it out.

The first thing that attracted me to the series was the fact that it’s set in the closed world of a Stockholm publishing house, which was a plus point from my perspective as my day job is working for a publishing house, albeit in London not Stockholm. I thought it might feel cosy and familiar and remind me of those days when I travelled into central London for meetings and nice lunches out (it’s nearly a year now since I saw a colleague face to face rather than via Microsoft Teams).

The main character in the series is gorgeous thirty-something publishing executive Sofie (Ida Engvoll), who lives with her husband and two children in Stockholm, and has an enviably stunning house, with a beautiful, wide, winding wood-panelled staircase and big, plant-filled open plan rooms.

Sofie joins old school publisher Lund & Lagerstedt as a sort of business development consultant, tasked with co-ordinating the company’s digital transformation, as it strives to remain relevant and profitable in the 21st century (also a very familiar scenario to me, having worked for a long-established publishing company that has been continually forced to evolve throughout the never-ending developments in digital publishing).

However, things rapidly became less relatable, as Sofie soon embarks on an implausible and frankly rather bizarre flirtation with the young IT guy, Max (Björn Mosten).

The implausibility isn’t their attraction to each other: she’s hot and blonde, he’s young and hot with a devil-may-care attitude, they naturally have the hots for each other. It’s the way their relationship evolves that’s so unlikely…

Sofie has an addiction to online porn, though this only really seems to manifest itself in the early episodes. When the IT guy, Max, catches her masturbating over her laptop while working late (I know, right), he records events on his phone, and then sets Sofie a challenge, a sort of dare (or, wait, isn’t it blackmail?!), that she must successfully fulfil in order to ensure that he doesn’t circulate the video.

Things escalate from there, as Sofie and Max begin to set each other reciprocal dares that gradually raise the stakes and become less and less credible.

At one point my husband turned to me and asked me if thought the character of Sofie resembled any woman I’ve ever met. His theory was that the series was written by a horny young guy who’d made the main character a woman rather than a man in order to avoid accusations of being a sexist fantasist. The series is actually written and directed by a 40-something woman, Lisa Langseth, who perhaps thought it was time for a bit of assertive female sexuality and male objectification.

Nevertheless, despite the frequent ridiculousness and inconsistencies in character development, in an era when turning on the news resembles jumping into an icy lake – however much you brace yourself, it’s invariably a horrible shock – Love and Anarchy feels like a harmless piece of escapist fun, and even better, it has actually made me laugh out loud.

Reading plans for January 2021 and blog plans for 2021

Every month, as usual, I’ll be reviewing a couple of international reads; a foreign (to me) film; the work of an international artist; an album, a musician or an example of a national musical style; and, new for 2021, a TV series from around the world.

Other books I read that don’t qualify for their own individual post will still get a summary write-up at the end of the month.

Links to my previous reads and other reviews can be found under Reviews index by country, and my aim is to continue until I’ve reviewed a not-particularly-representative sample of six areas of popular culture for every country in the world for which it is possible to do so.

This is my little act of rebellion against incipient nationalism and the pig-headed closed-mindedness that seems to characterise a hefty chunk of the UK today.

It’s been great getting to know other bloggers over the last 18 months or so since I started this blog, so I’ll join in with a few more book challenges in 2021 when I see them!

I’ve pledged on Goodreads to increase my reading goal from 100 books in 2020 (which I managed to achieve, yay!) to 121 in 2021 (one every three days). This may change when I am weeping amid a pile of proofs for work in April, especially given I have to open up my sub-standard and frankly very dodgy home school in January. Thank goodness my gin subscription (prescription?) arrived today.

At some point during January-March I’m planning to take part in the Japan challenge, hosted by Dolce Bellezza, so I’ve been looking out for a ‘Japan’ book. Since it was shortlisted for the International Booker prize last year, I’m thinking of reading The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa.

The main books in translation that I have lined up for inclusion on the blog this month are Azerbaijani romance Ali and Nino by Kurban Said (a bit of a Romeo and Juliet tale, transposed to the South Caucasus) and The Wandering by Intan Paramaditha (Indonesia), described as “the most ingenious and unusual novel you will read all year, where you choose your own story”. I’m also planning to read Fame (“Imagine being famous. Wouldn’t that be great?”) by my new favourite Austrian/German author Daniel Kehlmann.

I enjoy non-fiction too, and I’m currently reading The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold, which is a fascinating and sometimes harrowing piece of Victorian social history. I’ve also got Edie: American Girl by Jean Stein on this month’s pile, which is a biography of Warhol’s muse Edie Sedgwick.

Before the local library shut as we went into Tier 4 restrictions here in London, I bagged a few recent releases, and since there are over 20 people waiting for it, top of my pile for this month is Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, which I’ve heard so much about, and which I’ve seen both praised and panned, so I’m interested to find out how I get on with it.

I’ve been saying that I will read T C Boyle’s The Women for months now, and I’m finally 100 pages in, so I hope to finish this work of historical fiction (based around the complicated love life of architect Frank Lloyd Wright) in January.

What I can’t photograph are the audio books and Kindle books that I have lined up. I have an immense invisible TBR pile on my Kindle which I’m determined to tackle in 2021, so I intend to read Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth this month and make the tiniest of inroads into my virtual teetering stack.

I buy an audio book a month with my Audible subscription, but inevitably I always have a bit of a backlog…. I finished the very silly Finer Points of Sausage Dogs by Alexander McCall Smith today (read very engagingly by Hugh Laurie) and I’m also listening to (and not really loving) Anxious People by Frederik Backman for my “real life” book club.

The real-lifeness of my lovely book club has become very hypothetical over the past 10 months. We met in full in (I think) January 2020, and then had a fun, but less well-attended, evening in my good friend Jo’s garden back in July. It must be time for us to choose some more books, so I need to get through that audio book asap!

That’s an 11-book pile, with one down today, makes 10. However, a late addition to the pile is The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, as I’ve just seen that the film adaptation is about to come out – bringing the pile back up to 11! Let’s see how I go.

Let me know if you have any of the same reads on your pile for January, I’m always really interested to see what other people think of books that I have also read. I find it infinitely fascinating that two people can come away with entirely different opinions! Similarly, I’m always looking for inspiration for what to read next, although tbh I could probably read from my own shelves for a decade…

Round-up: My Top 10 Films watched in 2020

Despite the tragic closure of the local cinema during the COVID pandemic, I watched lots of films in 2020. I watched the standard US/British fare that I consume all the time. And I watched lots of films that I would have considered to be way outside of my comfort zone just a couple of years ago.

My top 10, in no particular order (with links to my reviews, where available), were:

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (UK/USA, 1975) is my go-to comfort watch, and I have seen it countless times, in time of sadness and at times of high festivity. It necessarily made a reappearance on my telly in 2020. And surely everyone loves Tim Curry in suspenders. Or would, given the opportunity.

Overall I preferred Taika Waititi’s Nazi comedy Jojo Rabbit, which I saw at the cinema pre-pandemic and which makes my top 10, to the Oscar-winning South Korean film Parasite (also a rare 2020 cinema watch – and obviously extremely good).

Another film that treads the difficult line between humour and bad taste is the 2004 movie Team America: World Police. Actually, come to think of it, Team America crosses that line and then pees all over it, but it was a hoot, with the best puppet sex scene I’ve seen in a long time. In fact, possibly the only puppet sex scene I’ve seen, ever.

Booksmart (2019) is another US comedy, but that’s where the similarities end. This film is an intelligent, fun end-of-high-school movie that’s not just for teens, and that successfully skirts any schmaltz.

I watched a few documentary films. The brilliant Midnight Traveler (2019) provides personal reportage of the gruelling and dangerous journey undertaken by one family attempting to find asylum in Germany after the dad of the family (and filmmaker) found out that he’d been marked for assassination in Afghanistan.

For Sama (2019) is another intimate portrayal of a family fighting for survival, which documents the power of personal resolve and resistance during the Syrian conflict. Both should be required viewing for complacent viewers in the West, and both are edge-of-the-seat engrossing.

Another nail-biting, real-life account was the palm-slickingly addictive Free Solo (2018), which followed attempts by climber Alex Honnold to climb the 3,000 ft, vertical El Capitan rock formation without ropes or any other protective equipment, and to the barely contained horror of his girlfriend. Just don’t forget to breathe.

I watched plenty of films directed by female directors this year. The award-winning Capernaum (2018), identified as the highest-grossing Middle Eastern film of all time, provided a sensitively filmed and moving portrayal of living hand to mouth in Lebanon, while the Senegalese film Atlantics (2019) was haunting in every sense.

Finally nape-tingling good Italian film The Great Beauty was probably the most visually arresting film I’ve seen this year. Released in 2013, I came late to the party … but what a party it was, in a year of peak nostalgia for parties past.

Round-up: My Top 10 Books of 2020

One (the only?) good thing about a pandemic is that it certainly frees up time in the long empty evenings and weekends for reading. I will have read 100 books during 2020, breaking my previous records by a significant percentage. (I know this because I’m a fully signed up book nerd and log all my books on Goodreads.)

My top 10 reads, in terms of enjoyment/grippingness rather than admiration alone (they’re not always the same thing!) are listed here, in no particular order.

Broken April by Albania’s most famous export, Ismail Kadare, is not a new book, but it was new to me, and its mixture of melodrama and fable really grabbed me when I read and reviewed it in the winter.

The Shadow King by Ethiopian-born writer Maaza Mengiste provided an insight into a chunk of African history I knew nothing about. I reviewed it just before the pandemic hit and found it thrilling and moving. The novel was later shortlisted for the UK’s Booker Prize, so I must be getting something right.

Prolific US author T. C. Boyle’s LSD-laced novel Outside Looking In provides a vicarious, reimagined insight into the living experiment embarked upon by charismatic showman shaman Timothy Leary and his followers in the 1960s, and I could not put it down.

Argentinian-author Samanta Schweblin, whose novella Fever Dream is highly regarded (reviewed by me here), followed it up with an even better book, Little Eyes. Longlisted for the Booker International Prize, I would have been tempted to read it based on the cover alone (see above), but it really brings the boys to the yard. It’s a speculative novel based around the concept of a kind of newly designed Furby with a consciousness. The conceit works!

The astounding Second World War memoir When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains by Venezuelan-born writer Ariana Neumann is part detective story, part boys’ own adventure and part devastating family memoir. I tore through it and my review is here.

The Bass Rock by British-Australian writer Evie Wylde (2020) is cleverly structured like a Russian doll, a bit Gothic, and a totally gripping – and often very witty – tale of female subjugation and endurance throughout time.

The nastily compelling novella You Should Have Left by the phenomenal German-Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann was polished off in less than a day, but has stayed on the edges of my consciousness ever since. A book that makes a self-aware nod to Kubrick’s The Shining, it really gave me the creeps.

I was also enthralled by the devastating Trinidadian family tale Golden Child by Claire Adam, a book that any parent will find hard to forget, and the winner of the Desmond Elliot prize for debut novelists in 2019. I reviewed it here.

I reviewed American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins early in the year. It tells a gripping and thrilling tale of the treacherous journey many Mexican would-be migrants feel compelled to take, though some thought that as a US citizen Cummins wasn’t the right person to be telling this story (I don’t agree).

And I was charmed by Miss Austen, published in 2020, by British writer Gill Hornby, which told a enormously enjoyable fictionalised tale of the fate of writer Jane Austen’s real life missing letters (and, if you’re keen on audio books, the audio version is read by the engaging Juliet Stevenson).

Finally, here are a few more honourable mentions that didn’t quite make the top 10:

Tove Ditlevsen’s amazing and engrossing ‘Copenhagen trilogy’ (published in English in 2019, and read and reviewed by me in 2019, too early to make the cut for 2020, but I didn’t do a round-up last year, so here it is).

Italian novelist Claudio Morandini’s Snow, Dog, Foot, published by Peirene and reviewed on the blog in February, was another unexpected joy.

The Sickness by Venezuelan writer Alberto Barrera Tyszka was thankfully Covid-19-free and another great read.

What are your top reads of 2020? Have you read any of my favourites?

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