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Between February and July 2010, Sylvain Tesson lived alone in a remote Siberian cabin on the shore of Baikal, the world’s biggest freshwater lake. He had six shopping trolleys’ worth of pasta; enough vodka to get regularly drunk; a stack of books that included volumes by Nietzsche, Sade, Camus and Shakespeare; mountaineering equipment, and not much else. “Freedom is always available,” reads one of the epigraphs that start the book. “One need only pay the price for it.”
It’s hard to imagine a more macho spiritual retreat. Tesson chops wood in Arctic temperatures, drills through the thick crust of the frozen lake for water, and spends hours watching the changing light. “I who used to pounce on every second to make it surrender and give up its all,” he writes, “– I am learning the art of contemplation. The best way to observe a monastic calm is to find oneself obliged to do so.” There’s a deep sense of relief when spring comes, and with it seals, ducks, insects, bears and drowsing in hammocks.
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Najwan Darwish is a Jerusalem-based poet who helped organise the touring literary festival PalFest, and whose first volume of poetry in English translation will be published by the New York Review of Books next year.
Here’s an excerpt from one of his poems that’s on the Poetry International website:
But who today will lift a cross from an exhausted back in Jerusalem?
The earth is three nails
And mercy is a hammer
Strike with the aeroplanes
Oh give me more!
I Skyped his mobile as he queued at a checkpoint in Ramallah after the opening PalFest event, and he talked eloquently about the importance of poetry and Palestine as a place “where the conscience can be examined.”
The interview is up here.
Anand and Kamala are both dreaming big. He’s the hardworking boss of a car factory in Bangalore with his eye on a lucrative Japanese deal; she’s his domestic servant, who wants her bright 12-year-old son to get the kind of education that will haul the family out of poverty. They are each caught between the city’s ambitious energy and its layers of bureaucracy: things will be better soon, as long as relatives stop meddling, and rent stops increasing, and kickbacks are no longer required to get anything done.
We’re almost in Dickens territory. The novel’s characters are cartoonish, the plot arcs neatly, and one word is never used when five will do (why hand out drinks when you can “dutifully propitiate guests with alcoholic libation”?). But, like Oliver Twist, The Hope Factory succeeds best as a portrait of a city.
Bangalore is where the author grew up, before she trained as an investment banker in Pennsylvania, and the city is rendered in crisp, colourful 3D. It’s a place where people like Anand eat Italian olives, rather than Kerala nuts, in noisy mall bars.
Although Anand cannot compete with the low prices and zippy turnaround times of Chinese factory owners, when he looks at the west, with its trifling 35-hour working weeks, he sees “the stoic industry of their ancestors” dissolved into “whining, waffling plaint”. It is, he reflects, “the mirror image of his own existence”, and the book’s uncomplicated, upbeat message is that stoic industry pays off.
1. Burning Love
This has already made the jump to broadcast TV but it’s worth catching up with previous few series if you can find them, um, legally. Director Ken Marino (pictured) is perfect as the lunkish fireman choosing a bride (including Kristen Bell, Jennifer Aniston and Ken Jeong as ‘Ballerina’) on a Bachelor-style TV show. It’s written by his wife Erica Oyama, who also plays a contestant, and Ben Stiller is full of smooth, meaningless advice as a previous bachelor. Skewers everything insane about reality TV.
It’s a decade or so into the future; humans have had the internet uploaded directly into their brains; and, inevitably, something goes wrong. This thriller is brilliantly written, crisply shot, and has a few great performances, especially from the German actress Hannah Herzsprung (pictured) as an impulsive, mountain-climbing hacker on the run. Also notable is David Clayton Rogers as the most improbably handsome scientific genius since Cillian Murphy in ‘Sunshine’. The action jumps around from San Francisco at the moment disaster strikes, Mumbai five months before, Italy two years afterwards, and elsewhere around the globe. Episodes are only a few minutes long, but they’re packaged together into ‘chapters,’ which makes them easier to binge on.
A Facebook profile being switched from ‘In a relationship’ to ‘Single’ is the first image in this low-budget show written and directed by its star, Rob Michael Hugel. Rob plays a version of himself: a flannel shirted, bed-headed Williamsburger convinced he’s not a hipster, who’s attempting to get over a failed relationship. The first episode’s mournful explanation of love as baking two pumpkin pies with your girlfriend and eating them over a period of two days is sweet, sad and funny. ‘Girls’ for boys.
Jerry Seinfeld’s self-explanatory ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee’ is also great, as is the ‘Nashville’-style ‘Big Country Blues’, and I’m sure we’re going to be hearing a lot more about ‘Broad City’s writer-stars Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer soon.
“People who don’t know who they are can’t speak,” reflects Jeanne Nérin, one of the four female narrators of this multi-generational tale set, for the most part, in a couple of nearby towns in Vichy France. The characters are ignorant in all sorts of ways – their lives are cramped by Catholicism, by parochialism, by the passiveness and submission instilled in them as girls, and perhaps above all by poverty – but this lack of self-knowledge is crucial. It’s only when Jeanne realises its absence that hope flickers into her story.
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When people stop her in the street and say they love her Game of Thrones character, Sophie Turner says cheerfully, she knows they’re lying. The seventeen-year-old from Leamington Spa plays Sansa Stark, a willowy goody-two-shoes in contrast to her tough, tomboyish sibling Arya. “Everyone loves the little sister and hates me!” she mock-wails. “But that’s fine. I’m playing a controversial character. I knew that would come with it.”
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I visited the studio of the illustrator Jo Ratcliffe back before Christmas for Super Nasty, a magazine with such a great, personal voice that’s recently been started by the online vintage/contemporary clothes shop Nasty Gal. My first draft was almost entirely about Jo’s cover for the Sunn 0))) record Black One (pictured), which is brilliantly doomy and was inspired by the story of this real-life 16th-century serial killer countess from Transylvania who supposedly bathed in the blood of young girls. This was all too much of a downer though, and what I ended up writing can be found here.
I interviewed Palestine’s first feature filmmaker, Annemarie Jacir, and Programmer Elhum Shakerifar at the opening night gala of this year’s Birds Eye View Film Festival, which is dedicated to the work of Arab women. Steve Brown shot and edited a video of the interview for The National – click here to watch.
Image: Mahmoud Asfa in ‘When I Saw You’ by Annemarie Jacir
A lonely vampire who believed in all the lore as a boy – sleeping in coffins, wearing velvet, drinking blood – meets a girl vampire, who teaches him to dull his thirst by sucking lemons. She convinces him that the sun won’t kill him, but trick-or-treating kids dressed as vampire-hunters still make his hands shake with fear on Halloween. “You small mortals,” he thinks, helplessly, “don’t realise the power of your stories.”
The title piece in this collection (by the author of the Pulitzer-shortlisted Swamplandia!) is a standout, but it’s also typical Russell, with jokes that regularly ambush the reader, piquant details (blistered, violet waves; a girl who smells like hard water and glycerine) and an undercurrent of existential horror. Because he loves his vampire girlfriend Magreb, Clyde reflects that his “hunger pangs have gradually mellowed into a comfortable despair”.
Elsewhere, silk yarn bursts from the fingertips of trafficked, biohacked Chinese women and they wake up each morning aching to be “reeled”. Rutherford B Hayes is reincarnated as a horse, and puzzles over his existence in a prairie paddock with other former US presidents. That Russell smuggles the heftiest of topics – mortality, hope, regret – into stories so wildly fun and full of suspense is a magic trick to rival anything that happens in her fantastical worlds.