I'm a UK-based editor for a major publisher. I'm making it my off-duty duty to experience FIVE books, FIVE films, art, TV, music and food from every country in the world (where feasible). See drop down menus for my progress.
For my 49th (eek!) birthday a few weeks ago my husband and I had a lovely night out, with cocktails at Smokey Kudu in Peckham, South London, followed by a delicious meal at the nearby Kudu Grill (about a 10-minute walk away from the cocktail joint).
The cocktail menu was interesting, and I tried the Braai Negroni, as a negroni is my go-to drink (the house is generally full of Vermouth and gin as my husband’s a drinks writer). Here’s a flavour of some of the menu:
I was worried the Kudu Grill might be a bit meaty for me, as I don’t do red meat. I do do chicken though, and the poussin, with miso velouté and pickled daikon was delicious (even if the picture doesn’t do it justice).
The husband fancied the dry aged T-bone, beer pickled onions and treacle bordelaise, but it only came for two people, so he was forced to go for the monkfish, with green mazavaroo, caper and samphire, which he said was excellent.
My happy face afterwards in the very flatteringly-lit loos:
My reading slowed down in February, as life got in the way. I read a few books though: I finished and reviewed Marguerite Duras’s non-fiction book Practicalities, W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitzfor the Classics Club and Nanjala Nyabola’s Travelling while Black. I also read Banana Yoshimoto’s modern classic coming of age novella Kitchen as I continue to work my way slowly through the 1001 books list, and Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment, which was unexpectedly fascinating (review to come).
I read Michael Rosen’s just-published Getting Better: Life lessons on going under, getting over it and getting through it. I had high expectations of it, and found it a bit of a disappointment, as it was so simplistic, and felt like a bit of a mess. Impossible to not warm to Rosen though. Finally, I’ve been reading Salman Rushdie’s newly published Victory City on audio book. Another hot mess, but interesting enough to plod on with, its a sort of epic, fictionalized, irreverent history of India, which might resonate more if I knew anything about the history of India to start with. Written before his horrific near-fatal stabbing in August, as ever I’m impressed by Rushdie’s intellect (though so is he).
What I watched: Films and TV
In addition to reviewing Lithuanian film Pilgrims I watched Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s black comedy Triangle of Sadness, his first English-language film. It’s a satire of ultra-rich living that works really well, with a nice role for Woody Harrelson as the cruise ship’s alcoholic captain. I was sad though to learn that Charlbi Dean, the beautiful young actress and model who really shines as the film’s female lead, had died just before the film’s release.
Other than that I rewatched a couple of classic Japanese anime films with my kids (Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro – I could happily watch the uber-charming Totoro every week), watched brilliant 2019 high school comedy Booksmart with my youngest daughter and watched cheesy late ’80s Schwarzenegger vehicle The Running Man with my husband and the same daughter.
TV-wise, I’ve been watching Slow Horses season 2 on Apple TV – worth the subscription fee just for Gary Oldman’s hilariously revolting portrayal of washed-up British secret services man Jackson Lamb, as well as the UK comedy series Everybody Else Burns, set in a family of fundamentalist Christians, and the second season of Emmy-winning US comedy series Hacks.
I went back to the Tate Modern with my youngest daughter for a GCSE art assignment, and reviewed the exhibition of work by Lithuanian artist M. K. Ciurlionis at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. I also wrote up my trip to the Lithuanian art installation/opera Sun & Sea in London last summer.
Plans for March
Plans for the month ahead include a focus on books, film and music from Ireland for Cathy’s annual Reading Ireland project, and reading the Welsh classic novel How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn for Paula’s reading Wales event.
Nanjala Nyabola didn’t leave Kenya till the age of 20, but since then she has travelled widely for both business and pleasure throughout the world, with the privileges that come with being an educated, middle-class African. However, this 2020 book by writer, political analyst, human rights activist and advocate Nyabola is not an account of her holidays – although it was nevertheless shortlisted for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year in 2021.
Instead it is something of a polemic. Nyabola is perfectly placed to detail the inconsistencies that come with travelling as a Black woman. Warned off travelling to countries such as Burkina Faso and Haiti, she was able to ‘pass’ as a member of those societies, and see the behind the negative press (though Haiti has surely tipped much closer to being a failed state in the time since the visit she discusses in the book):
“The Otherness that led to racial abuse on the subway in New York … had given me an inroad that seemed inaccessible to my blan [white] colleagues … I was much more quickly able to access a Haiti that is warm and welcoming, rather than strange and fearful.“
“My guidebooks, with all their warnings of violent thugs and itchy fingers, need their presumed readers to be afraid of Africa. They are written for people who have a significant amount of privilege and power, more than most of the people in the communities they plan to enter.”
Her smooth prose covers subjects as diverse as African literature – particularly the writing of Bessie Head, the failings towards desperate refugees of the EU’s Schengen Convention, and the varying manifestations of racism, not just in the West, but throughout the world.
In one discomfiting scene, as Nyabola observes desperate, shell-shocked refugees being unloaded from ships in the Italian port of Palermo, she becomes aware that she is “secretly and shamefully” concerned the security personnel might mistake her for a migrant. The book provides a critique of the inhumanity of Western politics and dismembers the cruelties of EU immigration policy.
This book was an erudite, thought-provoking and informative read, and ends with a plea to rethink prevailing views on migration:
“Travel has taught me that a different world is possible and even attainable, and that, even though the beast is large and its tentacles are long, there are enough of us to do something meaningful towards destroying it.“
I’m circling back to writing up the last of the Lithuania-related cultural events that I experienced last year, with a Lithuanian psychological thriller that I saw in October at the second London Baltic Film Festival, held at Riverside Studios. I could have watched several Baltic movies over the course of a weekend, but in the end only made it to only the one screening, which was followed by a Q&A with writer and director Laurynas Bareiša.
Pilgrims (Pilgrimai) is a gritty 92-minute film, which was screened in Lithuanian with English subtitles. It was shot during lockdown on a low budget, in and around a B&B that is featured in the film, and was selected to represent Lithuania in the Best International Feature Film category at the 2023 Oscars. It won the Orrizonti award for Best Film at the Venice Biennale in 2021.
The movie focuses on Paulius and Indre, who meet up again to re-examine the violent death four years before of Paulius’s brother Matas, who was also Indre’s boyfriend. The loss has inevitably tarnished both of their lives, and Paulius is determined to avenge his brother’s death. However, as he is physically hampered by a broken foot, Indre agrees to drive him out to the small town where Matas died. Gradually, the truth emerges as the pair revisit their past and confront their shared trauma.
I couldn’t work out when the movie was set. There was an overwhelming sense of grey, and the characters had terrible clothes and distressing hair cuts. The palette was murky, and there were a few equally murky moments of humour, prompting some muted laughter from the audience at times. There was no soundtrack, no music to guide the story along, which added to the feeling of gritty realism and general discombobulation. Although the film clearly had a violent theme, thankfully none of that violence is shown on-screen.
The movie is emotionally restrained too. Although the director has spoken of his emotional connection with the concept of buried trauma, and buried crimes that fail to make a visible mark on their physical environment, the actually movie was stripped of feeling, at least until the end. This sense of detachment was an obstacle to my engagement with the story; at times it felt like a long car journey through the wet Lincolnshire fens in late autumn, which probably isn’t a great advert for anything.
The UK’s Observer described Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s 2014 novel Dust as “the most important novel to come out of Africa since Half of a Yellow Sun“, but I struggled with it.
The book opens in Nairobi, Kenya in 2007, where a young man, Odidi, is gunned down, leaving his family devastated by grief. His sister Ajany and his father Nyipir bring Odidi’s body back to the family’s (surely symbolically) crumbling colonial mansion, which he left behind many years before. Bereft, Odidi’s mother Akai runs off into the desert, while Nyipir begins to build a cairn to mark his son’s death. Meanwhile, a young English man, Isaiah Bolton, arrives at the house unexpectedly, trying to track down his father.
With these events, memories and past events are stirred up, with hidden family secrets emerging amid the violence, rebellion and politically motivated assassination thaat featured in Kenya’s history. A Los Angeles Review of Books article points to the novel’s importance in illuminating the post-colonial “period of Kenyan history during the Moi era (1978–2002) that has been silenced, a time when genocide was being perpetrated against the Luo peoples.”
The narrative flitted back and forth, to a time prior to the births of Odidi and Ajani, and to a much wider cast of characters and locations. This sometimes felt incoherent, and combined with the novel’s poetic language, this dreamlike structure meant that I struggled to follow what was going on at times.
I feel that the fault here is mine though, in finding it difficult to engage with a book that uses a method of narrative that I’m less comfortable and familiar with. The fragmented structure was surely used as a means of reflecting on Kenya’s traumatic past, and revealing family secrets and hidden truths in a gradual and deliberately disjointed way.
I recently rewatched Moonlight, which I first saw on its cinema release, shortly before it famously and deservedly beat La La Land to scoop Best Picture at the 2017 Oscars. On both viewings I needed my tissues.
With an all-Black cast, set in and around the notorious Liberty Square housing project in 1980s Miami, this immersive, moving film is divided into chapters: (i) Little, (ii) Chiron and (iii) Black, and follows the life of a young black man through three distinct chapters of his life, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, using three different actors. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, with a searing score by Nicholas Britell, the film was adapted from a work by Tarell Alvin McCraney. It is beautifully shot, with cinematography by James Laxton.
As a young child, Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is persecuted by other boys, but is rescued from a braying pursuit by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a kind and stabilizing force who also happens to be a local crack dealer, ironically supplying Chiron’s increasingly drug-addled and neglectful mother Paula (Naomie Harris). Juan takes the almost silent Chiron to eat, eventually coaxing out of him: ‘My name is Chiron. People call me Little’; people, his peers, also call him ‘faggot’.
Anti-hero Juan becomes a sort of father figure to the vulnerable Chiron, inviting him into his warm, comfortable home, and, in one achingly gorgeous scene, resonant of a baptism or the scene of the Pieta, teaching him to swim in the undulating, colour-saturated ocean.
The persecution doesn’t end, and as a late teen (played in this segment by Ashton Sanders) Chiron is subject to violent abuse at the hands of other teens, who see him as ‘soft’. Among his peers he has one (unstable and emotionally complicated) connection, with schoolmate Kevin (played in this chapter by Jharrel Jerome), to whom he confesses ‘Sometimes I cry so much, I feel like I’m just going to turn into drops’, and with whom he has his first sexual experience, in a liminal beach scene.
By the third chapter, ‘Black’, Chiron (played now by Trevante Rhodes) has transformed from a quiet, sensitive boy into an adult with a quietly menacing exterior, the embodiment of a sort of performative hyper-masculinity, ripped body, teeth behind gold grills, making his money ‘trappin’ the blocks’. But driving a smooth drug dealer’s car (reminiscent of Juan’s way back when), with its BLACK305 plate, as Cucurrucucú Paloma plays on the soundtrack (Wikipedia tells me the title is an onomatopoeic reference to the call of the mourning dove, while the lyrics allude to love sickness), we can see in his upcoming reunion with Kevin (now played by André Holland) the potential for connection and redemption.
The film’s excellence comes not only in its beauty but in its avoidance of cliché, despite focusing on themes that have often become tired tropes (the coming-of-age tale, bullying, the dysfunctional childhood), as well as more unfamiliar elements (how many films have you seen about growing up black and gay?). Jenkins, who has noted that the film ‘is partly about the way I grew up’, references other directors worldwide as influences on his work, notably Mexican director Carlos Reygada, French director Claire Denis, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien and fellow US director Charles Burnett.
Australian series The Newsreader, broadcast in the UK on the BBC during 2022 and still available here on iplayer, is an entertaining and pitch-perfect pastiche of ’80s newscasting, created and co-written by Australian filmmaker Michael Lucas.
It is definitely the best TV I’ve seen so far from Australia (admittedly not loads!). It stars Sam Reid as Dale Jennings, an ingenue news reporter, and Anna Torv plays emotionally complex newscaster Helen Norville, a more senior colleague.
Both are chasing career success in an alpha-male dominated environment characterised by misogyny, homophobia and angry tirades from boss Lindsay Cunningham (played by William McInnes). And amid the contemporaneous news reports (Chernobyl, the Challenger disaster), is a character-driven romance between Dale and Helen. But this is not a straightforward love story.
Helen has mental health challenges, but Dale is dealing with psychological conflict too, as he wrestles with his sexuality, with the viewer – and Dale – uncertain whether his feelings towards men mean that he’s bisexual, or that he’s gay and fighting a deep sense of denial. There are no easy answers to the characters’ dilemmas, but the script rings true, and the main performances are backed by a convincing cast of supporting characters.
The Newsreader won big at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards, bagging prizes for best drama series and best lead actress. A second season is on its way.
Marguerite Duras is best known for her novel The Lover, but I have a lovely Everyman’s Library omnibus edition that also includes her War Time Notebooks and Practicalities, which is a collection of musings and aphorisms on literature and life, including her alcoholism. It was compiled from spoken conversations that she had in her 70s with writer Jérôme Beaujour: “At most the book represents what I think sometimes, some days, about some things“.
I was keen to read Duras’s non-fiction after loving Deborah Levy’s recent three-part memoir of sorts, including the wonderful Real Estate, which I reviewed in 2021. Levy cited Duras as an influence, so I was expecting to love her reflections just as much as I did Levy’s. I didn’t though – I found Duras a less likeable voice, not least because time has made some of her statements seem uncomfortably harsh, although there are some statements that seem to reflect universal truths.
She notes that for all the opportunities and benefits of feminism, “I seriously believe that to all intents and purposes the position of women hasn’t changed. The woman is still responsible for everything in the house even if she has help … And even if she has changed socially, everything she does is done on top of that change.”
And: “Being a mother isn’t the same as being a father. Motherhood means that a woman gives her body over to her child, her children; they’re on her as they might be on a hill, in a garden; they devour her, hit her, sleep on her; and she lets herself be devoured“.
Her revelations about her drinking are shocking in their blunt openness about the extent of her problems with alcohol:
“Drinking isn’t necessarily the same as wanting to die. But you can’t drink without thinking you’re killing yourself. Living with alcohol is living with death close at hand. What stops you killing yourself when you’re intoxicated out of your mind is the thought that once you’re dead you won’t be able to drink any more.”
The titles of other chapters include ‘The telly and death’, ‘Animals’, ‘Eating at night’, ‘The pleasures of the 6th arrondissement’ and ‘Hanoi ‘, and her musings are thought-provoking and interesting if at times discomfiting.
By Rugile Barzdziukaite, Vaiva Grainyte and Lina Lapelyte
In the summer I went to see something unique at an out of town South-East London theatre, the Albany in Deptford. Sun & Sea, a modern Lithuanian opera and art installation, won a Golden Lion at the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019, and is currently touring in its English as well as its Lithuanian iterations. The performance I saw was virtually sold out.
A perfectly mocked up beach was populated by people lying on towels in swimwear, the occasional dog, children playing with buckets and spades, people throwing a ball back and forth. There were about 30 performers on the beach, of varying shapes, sizes and ages. Then the singing started: some of the singers were lying on the sand, some seated in deck chairs. Sometimes there were solo voices, or two voices, other times all the voices were heard together.
The libretto laid out a tale of complacent, entitled holiday makers, living parallel lives, and blissfully – or actually often slightly grumpily – ignorant of a fast-approaching environmental disaster.
I was given a timed slot to enter, so I arrived in media res, and the opera unfolded in a cyclical loop, so I saw the beginning after the end. That didn’t matter. It was mesmerizing.
The day was oppressively hot during the heatwave that endured for weeks in London last summer, which added to the real sense, in the sweaty gallery above, of being a voyeur at the seaside. Whether the same vibe would be felt in Vilnius Taxi Park in December is an open question.
Austrian author Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s 1936 novella Baron Bagge has been difficult to find in English translation, but has recently been re-issued in a beautiful hardback edition by Penguin Classics, with an introduction by rock memoirist Patti Smith. The English translation by Richard and Clara Winston dates back to 1956.
The book tells the story of Lieutenant Bagge, fighting against Russia with Austro-Hungarian forces, who are overpowered and forced to retreat over the Carpathian Mountains. Their seemingly deranged commander orders them to head north to carry out reconnaissance, in ominous weather, with a Russian assault anticipated at every turn.
They eventually set up camp in a small village, Nagy Mihaly, where the inhabitants seem strangely celebratory, and utterly unfazed by the Russian threat. On his arrival there Bagge immediately meets Charlotte, a passionate, very forward young woman, blonde and pale, who captivates him, and with whom he falls in love. This is where Bagge’s recollections become ethereal, even mystical. The twist in this haunting tale is increasingly obvious, but beautifully done.
The book was banned and burnt by the Nazi Government for its distinct lack of commitment to military values.
“How, I thought during the dancing, can any of this be possible? … for hours we had not seen a soul but the three hanged men; we had spent the night in a village in which I constantly had the feeling that death waited outside; then we had gone though a hard battle which I had thought no more than one out of five of us would survive; then again not a soul to be seen; and now we had come to a town stuffed with people who obviously had nothing by amusement on their minds, where no one talked about the Russians, where the mere mention of the Russians was a cause for laughter…”