Weekly Summary of Cultural Events 25 Feb 2018

It hasn’t felt like a quiet week, with so much to catch up on after our short Irish holiday. However, there are only a few things to report on the cultural front.

I forgot to mention that we saw Black Panther while we were in Ireland and were wowed by the beautiful landscapes, costumes and actors and actresses. As an anti-monarchist, I found the macho posturing associated with becoming a king a bit silly, but was delighted that T’Challa was truly great because of all the women surrounding him. There is a ‘Which Black Panther character are you’ quiz doing the rounds at the moment and it didn’t surprise me that I came out as Nakia (although I was secretly hoping for Shuri). As an anthropologist, it was also fascinating to see how they tried to incorporate many different African traditions and cultures in the film, and show the rich diversity of the continent.

I saw another, very different film on Thursday at the Austrian Cultural Forum: Life Guidance by relatively young director Ruth Mader. It is a Black Mirror meets Wim Wenders kind of world, where capitalist consumption has reached its peak. The elite live in immaculate houses decorated mainly in white and beige, the men all wear impeccable suits, the women pastel or white, and everyone is in pursuit of excellence and self-improvement. It is the Communist utopia really (especially when the schoolchildren start singing about ‘fulfilling your full potential’), except it’s capitalist. But when the leading man, Alexander Dworsky, is quite content with his life and doesn’t want to strive to be even better, the private company (outsourced by the government) Life Guidance comes to call to ‘motivate’ him to fit in. This film has just the right level of sinister foreshadowing and is great in concept, but somewhat jerky in execution, with abrupt transitions from one scene to the next, which makes it hard for us to fully sympathise or understand.

In one of the funniest scenes from the film, the businessmen referred to the Life Guidance agency are all learning arts and crafts to develop more holistic skills. As a corporate trainer, this had me in giggling fits.

If you are keen on German language films and other events, the Austrian Cultural Forum offers an excellent selection of free events – and has a little library in its chic Knightsbridge mansion.

A few book acquisitions this week too: Our friends at Alma Press were having a sale on, so I couldn’t resist and bought some much-‘needed’ volumes of Bulgakov: The Diaboliad and Other Stories and Diaries and Selected Letters. Then, since I seemed to be on a Russian binge, I also bought two by Turgenev: A Nest of the Gentry and Fathers and Sons. I was also sent an ARC of Our House by Louise Candlish, which I’ve already read, as it makes a psychologically tense and murderous mockery of divorce and our British obsession with property prices.

Coming up next month, there will be a Women of the World festival at London’s South Bank from March 7th to 11th, including debates, theatre, activism, speed mentoring, workshops and much more.  Meanwhile, the British Film Institute is continuing its in-depth Ingmar Bergman season throughout March. From the 21st of March to the 1st of April BFI Flare will show the best new and classic LGBTQ+ films from around the world. I’ve got my eye on God’s Own Country, a love story between an English farmer and a Romanian migrant worker, starring Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu.

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Friday Fun: Ireland in the Sun

To the tune of ‘Islands in the Sun’, here are some pictures from our lovely trip to Ireland last week.

My favourite place indoors, of course. Trinity College Library.
Guess what symbol this is?
View over Dublin and Howth.
Wicklow Mountains. No sun but spectacular clouds blowing past.
Old monastery, graveyard and siege-ready tower.
Lough Bray Lower.
The sea, the sea at Bray.
The grounds at Malahide Castle.
Cosy three-bedroom medieval castle at Malahide.
This was a common sight in Ireland and reminded me how I’ve never seen the Union Jack flying together with the EU flag in the UK even before the Brexit vote.

If This Be Nostalgia, I Am Guilty

I want to be once more on the land
when April brings a frosty surprise,
where even August can powder with snow.
September smiles indolent and clement, umbrellas are pointless.
Lime trees put on a show as they fall in our hair,
as we hide in their tunnels, as we skip class at school.
I want indigestion with memories both false and true.
I want clothes for all seasons,
and not just babies with fuzz-ripened skin.
Sharp-clawed darkness, the wolves howling from forests
that linger primordial near clean-ploughed fields.
I want you and I to be younger,
not necessarily a happy end.

I am linking this to Open Link Night at the dVerse Poets Pub, where the living is easy, the drinks are plentiful and the poetry is magnificent!

The Bookish Naughty List

Who can resist such an alluring tag? I’ve seen Eleanor admit to it, Cleo tackle it but it was originally started before Christmas  by  Jenniely. I can sit on the sidelines no longer!

1. Received an ARC and not reviewed it?

Alas, far too frequently! Admittedly, this tends to happen more with the ones I haven’t requested. I do get around to reading them eventually… but sometimes it is long after the publication of the book, which makes the exercise slightly pointless. However, I always review ARCs that I’ve been sent to review for Crime Fiction Lover, Shiny New Books or other sites.

2. Have less than 60% feedback rating on NetGalley?

Does having exactly 60% feedback rating count? My eyes are often bigger than my tummy when it comes to requesting books, but I’ve also been having problems with my e-reader. Not one but two tablets which gave up the ghost, a Kindle I lost in a divorce and then a Kindle that disappeared – all within the last year and a half.

3. Rated a book on Goodreads and promised a full review was to come on your blog (and never did)?

Ha, of course! Actually, I’ve learnt not to promise anything on Goodreads. But I often promise things on my blog, to the point where I actually believe my own lies and search desperately for the full review of a book that I *know* I must have written somewhere…

4. Folded down the page of a book?

Are you mad? Why would you do that? I have millions of bookmarks and tiny highlighter post-its and, failing that, train tickets or envelopes to mark a certain spot.

5. Skim read a book?

Let’s just say that certain battle scenes from War and Peace or whaling lore from Moby Dick will forever remain a mystery for me…

6. DNF a book this year?

The year is young, so I think not, but I’ve become more willing to give up on a book rather than read it to the bitter end. I had about 5-6 of those last year. And the low number merely shows that I’ve become better at weeding out those books which are not likely to appeal.

7. Bought a book purely because it was pretty with no intention of reading it?

No. I always intend to read every book I buy – and I am more swayed by content than by beauty. Although if it is a favourite book in a gorgeous new edition, I might get it (Vintage Classics Jane Austen series, I’m looking at you!).

8. Read whilst you were meant to be doing something else?

Doesn’t everyone? Many, many times at the back of the class at school. Occasionally at work in my younger days, when I had less to do. So often while eating, cooking, babysitting, watching TV. I haven’t quite figured out how to do it while exercising (I’m not a big audiobook fan), but it would certainly make me exercise more if I could.

9. Accidentally spilled on a book?

Erm, I realised belatedly that cooking and eating while reading may lend itself to such excesses, yes…

10. Completely missed your Goodreads goal?

No, because I always underestimate my annual goals. 120 is one I feel comfortable with (I always tell myself I should read more slowly), but I invariably shoot well over it. Still, it should be quality over quantity.

11. Borrowed a book and not returned it?

No. And I hate people who have done that to me (usually because I moved countries or we lost touch or whatever).

12. Broke a book buying ban?

(All the time.) Next question, please.

13. Started a review, left it for ages then forgot what the book was about?

Sadly, yes. Particularly those books that I care most about, because I want to do them justice. I have to find a more efficient way of blogging.

14. Wrote in a book you were reading?

All the time in my earlier years, partly because my father always did (and still does). I quite like finding those underlined passages and comments now, but I tend to be a bit more careful with my books now. Hence the millions of post-its etc.

15. Finished a book and not added it to your Goodreads?

I try not to, but there are some (particularly by foreign authors) that are not listed there. It makes me feel that I am not doing the counting properly – and not being justly rewarded for my effort!

I won’t tag anyone, but if you want to join in and confess to all your reading sins… Although I don’t think there are any sins that involve reading. Other than cherry-picking your sources to only match with your existing worldview.

 

 

It’s Been a Week and a Half!

Oh, I can pun with the best of them, can’t I? ‘Cos it’s been slightly longer than a week since my last summary, and also a very eventful week, ha ha!

The most important event was our trip to Ireland. I’ve only ever been to Dublin for business and have previously seen mainly the airport, St. Stephen’s Green and the inside of some banks. This time I visited a good friend of mine from school, who lives just outside Dublin, and she treated us like royalty. She took me and the kids on various day trips to places whose names I struggle to spell or remember: the port of Dún Laoghaire, Malahide Castle and gardens, Trinity College Library of course with the Book of Kells, the Wicklow mountains with their dark scrubland, Bray and Cabinteely, Dalkey and Howth. We were extremely lucky with the weather and the pictures tell the story much better than I could. You may well expect a Friday Fun post on this theme very soon! However, one highlight was seeing my friend’s children and mine discuss Irish history: as a footnote to British history or as a nation struggling to free itself. (Curriculum and biased interpretation in action!)

Before leaving for Ireland, we also went to see the Sondheim musical Assassins at the RADA with their final year students, a play about the best-known successful and unsuccessful assassination attempts against American presidents. Given the school shooting which followed shortly afterwards, the wit seems almost unbearably mordant in retrospect. If Sondheim is suggesting that the American dream is of ‘everyone having the right to be happy’, even if that happiness involves killing others, then yes, it becomes less funny.

Finally, on Monday 19th February, I found myself going ‘just a little bit viral’, as my boys would call it. WordPress have highlighted my feather haibun post as a Blog to Discover. So I have been getting far more than my usual share of visits and likes. Thank you to all for reading and sharing, here’s to hoping that you won’t be disappointed that my posts are usually far more prosaic. I also hope I will get to know some of you better!

Friday Fun: Houses of Famous Writer All Over the World

This week I am wandering around Europe with famous writers, while next week I plan to go a little further afield.

Haworth Parsonage, home of the Bronte sisters. From Visit Britain website.
Dove Cottage in Grasmere, where Wordsworth lived with his sister Dorothy. From World Nomad Journals.
Camus’ modest house in Lourmarin, bought with the proceeds of his Nobel Prize. From Pinterest.
Caragiale museum in Romania. From skytrip.ro
Romanian national poet Eminescu’s birthplace in Ipotesti. From Wikipedia.
Victor Hugo’s house in exile in Guernsey. From Visit Guernsey.
Philip Pullman’s garden shed, from Authors’ Houses.
Schiller’s house in Weimar, from deutschland.yakohl.com
Goethe’s garden shed in Weimar, from planetware.com

No. 2 #AsymptoteBookClub : Aranyak

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay: Aranyak (transl. Rimli Bhattacharya)

This is why I am grateful to have other sage people choose books for me on occasion: because they unearth things that I would never have come across on my own. Aranyak is one such gem of Bengali literature. Written in the 1930s, translated here for the first time in English, it talks of a lost world, the rapid sale of land for farming and consequent deforestation of large swathes of the Bihar forests in the north-east of India, neighbouring Nepal. The narrator contributes to what we would now consider an ecological devastation, but which at the time was considered completely appropriate.

The story is loosely autobiographical, a series of vignettes about the life of an earnest young man from Calcutta who works for a few years as an estate manager in Bihar. In a way, he is as much a victim of the greedy landowners as the poor farmers are: unable to find a job in the city, he takes this poorly compensated job in a remote location, suffers homesickness initially, is transformed by the people and the landscape, but then has to bear the guilt that he took part in its downfall. This is why the whole book is designed to be the confession of an old man looking back on his youth.

But those memories do not give me pleasure; they are filled with sorrow. By my hands was destroyed an unfettered playground of nature. I know too, that for this act the forest gods will never forgive me. I have heard that to confess a crime in one’s own words lightens somewhat the burden of the crime. Therefore, this story.

There is no real plot to the novel, merely a chronological description of events and characters. The narrator tries to give voice to the many people he meets, many of whom are so poor that he cannot believe what they are willing to do to survive. This is why the book feels more like the field notes of an anthropologist. And, just like an anthropologist of the first half of the 20th century, he cannot resist adding himself to the narration, interpreting, casting judgement, expressing love and concern for the people he meets, but still considering them ‘subjects of enquiry’, with a paternalistic attitude. Malinowski’s ethnography of the Trobriand Islanders (1922) and Evans-Pritchard’s work on the Azande (1937) fall firmly within this category. Yet the impotent sadness at the social injustice paves the way to the more self-conscious anthropological memoir of Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1955).

It is a fascinating book, full of vivid character studies and life stories, some of them desperately sad, some of them a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit. The author warns us how important it is to understand the context within which these stories arise, to leave our own world behind:

These stories of Ganu that sounded so mysterious and so delicious in the environs of the lonely forest would certainly, I know, sound absurd and false if one were to listen to them in Calcutta. One may not listen to stories anywhere and everywhere. Nor are stories to be recounted carelessly. A story lover will know how much the pleasure of a story depends on the immediate environment of its telling and the receptivity of its listeners.

I also love the lyrical descriptions of nature (even though they are probably soaked in a nostalgic haze). The narrator gradually succumbs to the magical beauty of the landscape. In anthropological terms, he ‘goes native’ and may find it hard to ever return to his home town.

It is better for those who have to live within the strictures of domesticity never to catch sight of this beauty. In this bewitching guise, nature makes men abandon their homes, fills them with wanderlust… He who has heard the call of the wild and has once glimpsed the unveiled face of nature will find it impossible to settle down to to playing the householder.

I have to admit that I found the narrator’s open admiration for the humble, sweet women he meets in the forests a trifle creepy. It sounds like he was taking advantage of his halo as the powerful outsider, although he exalts their beauty and gentleness. The ‘angel in the house’ mentality of Victorian Britain shines through, even more potent because of the infantilisation of women and of this ethnic group, this less deserving ‘caste’ (although the narrator also mentions instances when he ignores the caste system):

I have noted that like the open and generous countryside – the forests, the clouds, the range of hills, free and untrammelled – Bhanmati was unencumbered, innocent and free in how she conducted herself. So were Manchi and the poet’s wife… The forests and hills had liberated their minds, expanded their vision with generosity; in like maner, their love was deep, generous and liberating. They could love greatly because of the greatness of their hearts… The dictates of refinement and the pressures of the civilized world had erased in her sisters the eternal woman that resided in Bhanmati.

Whether creepy admiration or not, you cannot doubt the narrator’s sincere love for life in the jungle, despite his initial reservations. In fact, one of the amusing passages in the book occurs when he stumbles across a group of Bengali tourists having a picnic in the jungle, woefully unprepared and blind to all the beauty around them.

By a stroke of rare fortune, they had landed in this extraordinary kingdom of nature, but they lacked vision to appreciate what they saw. In fact, they had come with the sole purpose of hunting, as though birds, rabbits and deer were all awaiting them by the roadside, waiting patiently to be shot.

The book ends rather abruptly with the narrator sitting under a tree fifteen years later and musing about what might have befallen the people he knew there in the meantime. I would have liked to hear about his difficulties in fitting back into the society he had left behind, the reverse culture shock, that sense of never quite belonging there anymore, because his eyes have been opened. But that is probably another story.

I think this is a book that we certainly have to read bearing in mind the attitudes, perspectives, policies and politics of the time. There are elements in it which will feel uncomfortable to a modern reader, but in many ways Bandyopadhyay was ahead of his time. It also raises many interesting questions about ‘fashions’ in nature writing and anthropology, about our espoused values vs. our behaviours in the present day. Yes, we are more ecologically aware, but vast areas of jungles are still lost every day in the name of economic progress. Yes, we claim to be less paternalistic about other cultures, but we still systematically represent them as ‘token exotic exceptions’ in popular culture. It must also have been fiendishly difficult to translate, to decide how much of the original names and expressions to leave in, one different culture talking about yet another different culture. You can find an interview with the translator on the Asymptote blog and you can read another review of the book on Ali’s blog.