Five Books, Two Films, and One Long Summer
I end the term with a few recommendations for reading and viewing this summer – not just because, for children, seeing their parents read can operate as the best possible model for learning – but also because, for all of us, confronting new books and artworks is a way of seeing the world afresh.
As Zadie Smith once observed, “I have closed novels and stared at their back covers for a long moment and felt known in a way I cannot honestly say I have felt known by many real-life interactions with a human being”.
So, here are 5 books and 2 films that I can highly recommend. You may not like or enjoy them all, but I promise that none of them is boring. They are the 5 books I have most loved reading this year, and the 2 films I have returned to and admired most in recent months.
The 5 books break down into two novels:
Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill
In this, her second novel, Jenny Offill reinvents the narrative form. In some ways the subject matter is conventional – meditations on a marriage and a life from a smart and unfulfilled woman – but the way she writes is funny, beautiful and economical. Short, at around 150 pages, the book has the cumulative power of a novel twice that length. Key to this is the use of short associative paragraphs that develop a mosaic of observations, at once quirky, wise, glancing and profound. I have not read a book quite like it. Emotionally and intellectually satisfying, it is just delightful.
Either/Or, Elif Batuman
In this follow-up to her first novel, The Idiot, Elif Batuman continues the story of Selin, a Turkish-American student studying in her second year at Harvard, and her responses to the friends and the courses she takes, as well as her discovery of music and love. If that sounds like a routine campus novel, then what is compelling about this book is Batuman’s freshly opinionated reaction to the world around her, and her ability to articulate the fascinations and absurdities of daily life, rendering them in tautly beautiful prose. The emotional delicacy combined with a singing intelligence makes this a book that soars above others. I didn’t want it to end.
Patchwork, Claire Wilcox
A memoir rather than a novel, Patchwork yet has a novelist’s sharpness of vision and imaginative sympathy. It follows a fashion curator’s life not with the usual cradle to grave linearity, but instead by focusing on the clothes she has worn throughout and what they have meant to her. As such, it offers a cross-section of the author’s existence, delivering moving and nostalgic meditations on personal shirts, shoes, coats and the remembered textures of different fabrics. It has the richness and variety of a wardrobe that has somehow come to life, with the contents telling their story. I found it poignant, witty and exact.
A New Way of Seeing, Kelly Grovier
Kelly Grovier has established himself as an outstanding art critic. Here, he examines in detail 57 great works of art, and forces you to focus not just on each as a whole, but on a particular ‘eyehook’ as he calls it, a small strangeness that draws you in and works as a clue to the mystery of each of the masterpieces showcased here. One of my favourite explorations in the book is of Andrea Mantegna’s foreshortened portrait of the dead Christ, one of the jewels of the Pinacoteca di Brera’s collection here in Milan. Grovier shows convincingly how, if you draw a line through the stigmata in Jesus’s left hand and foot it points forward to a bottle next to the Messiah’s head. Similarly, if you draw a line back through the stigmata on the right side of Jesus’s body, then our gaze is directed to the barely glimpsed and marginal figure of Mary Magdalene, who sits next to Jesus’s more foregrounded mother. The Virgin and the prostitute are thus juxtaposed, and the bottle of oil Mary Magdalene used to massage the feet of Christ provides clinching evidence of who we are seeing next to the Redeemer’s dead body. An amazing book.
Affinities, Ed. Adam Green
Published to coincide with and celebrate 10 years of The Public Domain Review, this extraordinary book of images collects over 500 prints, paintings, illustrations, sketches and photographs, thematically gathering works from over two thousand years of visual culture, and juxtaposing them in a way that generates fascinating connections across time and place. One of my favourite images is the one at the top of the blog. The volume pursues a way of seeing that only the serendipity of placing pictures next to each other can achieve. An essential coffee table book.
Dogtooth, Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
This was the first film I saw in the cinema after the first lockdown. I’d never heard of the movie previously, and didn’t realise it was by the director of The Lobster and The Favourite. I liked the latter two movies, but Dogtooth is something else: shocking, provocative, and intriguing. In this, his first feature, Yorgos Lanthimos portrays a family, ruled by the father, who keeps his children – supposedly for their own protection – confined to the house and educates them in the strangest ways. It is one of the weirdest movies I’ve ever seen. I emerged from the cinema completely exhilarated, thinking ‘Wow! What was that?’ Apart from serving as an unintentional allegory of the lockdown, it’s a brilliantly original film, with superb performances. But be warned: you may find its contents disturbing.
Soy Cuba, Dir. Mikhail Kalatozov
I recommended a clip from this film in a previous blog. It’s a Soviet film set in Cuba, and seemingly has all the hallmarks of a piece of Communist propaganda – and yet the filmmaker is so in love with his subjects that visually it becomes the kind of feast his credo should probably condemn as decadent. The nightclub scene, the harvest scene, the funeral, and the long opening tracking shot are all astonishing set pieces. It’s a gorgeous piece of cinema, and if the plot proves ultimately schematic, the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts. Glorious.
I hope you might find one of the above diverting. Happy reading and watching.
Best wishes for the summer.
Principal and CEO