I prefer the lived-in look in a library, with a few higgledy-piggledy piles of books which give me an insight into the owner’s current preoccupations. But of course there are people who get interior designers to create libraries for them. Some of them do look quite tempting, but I doubt any designer would put up with my excessive expectations of indulging the books.
I don’t often write film reviews, but I went to see the film Atomic Blonde recently and came out of it with mixed feelings. In the end, I decided I was overthinking it all, I should just enjoy the style over substance. But it got me wondering how black people feel when they see another film about the American Civil War or slavery, or how Muslims feel when they see a film about terrorists, or Germans when they watch the triumphalist war films that get shown again and again and again on British TV. I’d like to see a Cold War spy thriller from the Russian or East European perspective. Although totalitarianism was undeniable in those countries, there was genuine fear of the West as well…
- Charlize Theron is smart, beautiful, utterly fearless and independent, strong but not superhuman, nuanced psychologically (for an action film) and has a wardrobe to die for. (Fits in with the comic book origin of the story, but I’m not sure anyone in the 1980s dressed that well). She absolutely rocks the Debbie Harry vibe. I also like the French/Algerian secret agent character played by Sofia Boutella. Incidentally, in the original comic book this character was a man, but it was a very smart creative move to change the gender.
- The backdrop of Berlin in 1989 is picturesque and atmospheric, with a good use of details (interiors of flats in East Berlin, screening of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, underground breakdance parties in the East vs. decadent nightclubs in the West). As the main characters wandered around from one secret meeting to another, you couldn’t help feeling that this was more of an advertisement for Berlin than anything else.
- The music was brilliant: recognisable 80s hits, although mostly predating 1989. You can’t go wrong with an opening and closing sequence featuring David Bowie (Putting Out Fire/Cat People to start off with, and Under Pressure for the end). Plus there were some suitable German titles as well: Nena’s 99 Red Balloons, Peter Schilling’s Major Tom (memorably featured as title theme for Deutschland 83 series) and Falco’s Der Kommissar (although not in Falco’s German version, sadly). However, when you read how complicated it is to get approvals for all these songs, you realise that some tough choices had to be made.
- The fight scenes were well choreographed and more realistic than in most superhero or spy movies (although at times too gory for my delicate stomach). There were people panting, struggling, stumbling, being hurt, not quite succeeding, bruises and plasters galore. Life as a spy is not glamorous and James Bond like (although there are some champagne moments): it’s ice baths and careful make-up to cover up the wounds. And lots of pointless walking about and trusting no one, apparently.
And then here are the things which I liked less.
A. The plot is incredibly convoluted and far-fetched. Which is fine, because it is based on a comic book. And in fact, if I am not mistaken, there was at some point in the 1980s a list of Western assets in Eastern Europe that intelligence agencies were afraid might end up in the wrong hands. (I can’t find any details about it, but if anyone knows about this, do let me know. I’m pretty sure I didn’t dream it up!)
B. The problem I always have with Cold War spy thrillers is that it was often far more boring than it’s depicted – but also more nuanced. Real spies would not go around killing members of the police – they were very keen to lie as low as possible. Having lived in an East European country myself at the time, I know that the ‘threat of repercussions’ was often more than enough to keep people in line. Self-censorship was a way of life. Spying was mostly done via bugging or denunciations from the inside. Real hunger (not so much in East Germany, which remained relatively prosperous) and greed for Western products was enough to enable small-scale denouncements (as hinted at by the black marketeer character of David Percival) – but these people seldom had anything of real value to offer. It would be more of a list of people who assembled at a church or demonstrated against the regime etc. The real hero of the film is Spyglass, who could no longer accept the Stasi policies but was aware of the devastating consequences this could have for himself and his family. The foreign spies? On the whole, they could parachute in and out without any trouble and enjoyed diplomatic immunity.
C. By November 1989, the situation would have escalated beyond the capabilities of any secret services. Most people in the former Eastern bloc are now convinced that the 1989 wave of revolutions was aided and abetted by Western intelligence agencies, and that they outwitted the Soviets in that instance. Some of the backbenchers of the Communist Party were no doubt approached and contributed to ousting their leaders, in the hope of gaining power themselves. However, there was also a degree of spontaneity to the mass demonstrations which caught them by surprise. Yes, they might have thought of the people as ‘cannon fodder’ to accelerate the fall of Communism and spread the capitalist ideology to new markets where they could sell their lesser quality goods (I remember those expired foodstuffs flooding our shelves in the 1990s). But, as always happens when you stoke the flames of revolutionary zeal, things don’t always work out as planned. Not everything went the way the Western powers had hoped.
Or perhaps I like to think that. So that assertion by the handsome East German contact Merkel(!) that he’s got people ready to cause trouble at any moment upset me…
Anyway, all this need not trouble you, the casual viewer. Go and enjoy the stylish noir vibe, dwell in 80s nostalgia, get the thrill of the action. Just try not to be facile in dividing the world into goodies and baddies once more…
I had ordered some books a while ago, from many different sources (mostly from the US) and for two weeks the postman brought me nothing but bills and renewal notices. I began to think that he was avoiding the regular heavy book parcels. Yesterday four packages arrived all at once, so I take it all back and am full of admiration once more for my postie’s muscles and patience!
So here are my latest delights:
Sam Shepard In Memoriam
Other than Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby and Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, I am not a great admirer of blonde male actors. But Sam Shepard was an exception. He was not only the epitome of cool yet tormented, but the fact that he could also write – and write so well – was a major attraction. I loved his plays back in the days when we were doing amateur drama, especially Fool for Love, but I never owned any of his books nor read any of his prose. So, saddened as I was when I heard about his death, I felt I owed it to him to buy Fifteen One-Act Plays and (recommended by Stav Sherez, who is so much more knowledgeable about American literature than me and called it one of the best books of recent times) Cruising Paradise, a collection of short stories, dialogues, diary extracts to portray remote or small-town America.
Open Letter Irresistible
To celebrate the 4th of July, American publisher Open Letter Books (a nonprofit, literary translation press established at the University of Rochester) has a 40% off sale, so I went on their site intending to buy just one book but came away with three.
I mean to read this Brazilian novel, translated by the ever-wonderful Margaret Jull Costa, as soon as it was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award, but I ordered from a German site and it never materialised. In the meantime, it has won that award, so this was my second attempt to get my hands on a copy, this time directly from the publisher. It’s a novel from the 1950s, set in the Minas Gerais region of Brazil (a former agricultural and mining heartland), and it describes the decay and fall of a patriarchal family. But it’s not your average historical family saga – it represents a move towards the modernism of Clarice Lispector, who was a close friend.
Dubravka Ugresic: Europe in Sepia (transl. David Williams)
One of the greatest Croatian and European writers of the past two decades, I love her more for her essays than her fiction. This is a collection of what one might call travel essays, but in her hands it becomes a meditation on the past, present and future of Europe, equally wise and well-informed, bitter and funny, whether she looks at history, politics or popular culture.
I couldn’t resist this contender for Latvia for my #EU27Project. This is apparently the story of a love triangle with political and historical dimensions, and Abele is one of the most notable young writers in Latvia, with a combination of lush descriptions, directness, evocative language and precision in mining psychological insights.
A best-selling Israeli novel set in a Tel Aviv apartment building, this novel examines a society in crisis, social and political ills, through the lives and problematic decisions of three of its residents. I will be reviewing this for Necessary Fiction, which has been such an inspirational website, introducing me to so much less highly publicised writing from independent publishers, both in English and in translation. This book will be coming out from Other Press in the US in October 2017.
Francis Beeding: The Norwich Victims (An Inspector Martin Mystery)
This is the book I ordered from Amazon and it was, quite honestly, a mistake. I had read a review of it on the Puzzle Doctor’s blog and was planning to get it on Kindle, but I pressed the wrong button. Never mind, it wasn’t too expensive, and I prefer reading in paperback anyway. Originally published in 1931, now reissued by Arcturus Crime Classics. This is the one that arrived within a couple of days rather than a month.
My keen fingers may have slipped a little and ordered a few more books which should be arriving within the next two weeks – Brazilian, German, Austrian, Japanese and American authors will be joining me presently.
For those days when you just need to go off-grid and get away from it all, here are some dream-like cabins in the woods. (Appropriately enough, following my review of Do You Hear Me yesterday, which also takes place in a forest, although under less pleasant circumstances.)
Summertime… and the reading and writing would be easy in any of these houses … and glamorous. Whether permanent fixtures, or perhaps holiday homes, who could resist any of these?
This summer, I’ve promised myself, I will get to finish the second draft of my novel. The outcome would, of course, be guaranteed if I had one of the creative spaces below at my disposal. If any wealthy patron of the arts is listening…
The Poetry Society’s newly refurbished Poetry Café in the heart of Covent Garden is reopening. I’d been there a couple of times in the past, when it was a bit run-down but nevertheless full of poetic passion and open mic sessions. It is much more streamlined, clean and bright now.
I attended an amazing Poem-A-Thon fundraiser on Saturday 22nd July to help with the final details of the refurbishment. More than sixty poets read or recited their poetry for a solid ten hours (ten minutes for each poet, audience could come and go as they pleased).
There were also tombola tickets for every entry (and I won some gorgeous posters of Poems on the Underground as well as a book of poetry by an American poet I had not heard of before, Nick Flynn). There were many poets I wanted to see, including Anthony Anaxagorou and Raymond Antrobus in the evening, but I could only stay for an hour and a half in the afternoon around the time that the poet I ‘sponsored’ was reading.
This was the very talented Rebecca Goss, whose poetry volume Her Birth is one of the most moving portrayals of the love and grief of parenthood, describing the loss of her infant daughter to a rare and incurable heart condition. She read much more cheerful poems on this occasion, and was every bit as enchanting as I expected her to be, but it’s those heartbreaking poems from her book that I remember above all:
but still have space
for her first days, last days.
Assure me I will keep her toes
accurate as maths, her smell
precise, her voice heard above birds.
Assure me I will not howl her name
during birth, that I will place
newborn fingers in my mouth,
taste only newness.
Then, I will consider another.
However, I was lucky enough to also hear Marc Brightside’s poems about his difficult relationship with his father, some very funny and topical poems with a political slant from George Szirtes (I will be attending a poetry course with him in the not too distant future) and Rishi Dastidar, as well as a good mix of seriousness and humour from Kavita Jindal, Ruth Smith and Mohib Khurram (who writes in both Urdu and English). A great introduction to both famous and emerging poets, of many different backgrounds! I only wish I could have stayed longer but will certainly be back for other events.
You can still donate to this campaign if you wish, but what I would really recommend is to attend the open mic sessions on the first Thursday of each month at 3:00 p.m. if you possibly can.