We asked our readers and writers to pick a cultural highlight of the year. Read on for suggestions of books, films, TV, music and even a cook book…
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
When I was a kid, as well as climbing trees, making dens, lighting fires, and playing cowboys, I haunted my local library. I looked out for adventure books. Most were prewar tales of young British lads having rollicking times across the British Empire, dealing with wild animals and strange natives, eating exotic foods (giraffe-bone soup, anyone?) and defeating swarthy villains. Now the rollicking times are back, only with a difference. The setting is Calcutta under the East India Company, the heroes are brown and black and female, the opium trade with China is the motive. Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (John Murray, 2008) just rockets along. Why have I only just found it? I’m desperate to read the two sequels. It’s terrific.
My other ‘best read’ this year was going back to the late Chris Harman’s last short book: Revolution in the 21st Century (Bookmarks 2007). Sadly, it’s only available second-hand. Come on Bookmarks, time for a reprint!
You know you’re getting old when the years of your childhood become the the basis for a nostalgic TV series. You feel even older when it’s placed in the ‘Period Drama’ section for a TV awards show. Despite being set in the ancient past of 1983, Stranger Things is a gripping and urgent drama that startles and engages throughout. While Stranger Things does echo aspects of Steven Spielberg’s 1980s movies, such as The Goonies and ET, it is its own original work that evokes the more sinister parts of those films, particularly the latter. It captures the look, feel and concerns of the time, or at least the popular representation of them.
Set in small-town Indiana, the show focuses on the lives of four typical American boys on the cusp of their teenage years. Unfortunately for them, the government have located a secret laboratory next to their town where nefarious experiments are taking place. A disaster inevitably occurs and a mysterious creature is let loose upon the town. When Will, one of the boys, disappears his friends pledge to find him, enlisting the help of the strange, monosyllabic girl, Eleven, they discover in the woods. Their bravery takes them all into unimaginable danger. The children are ably supported by the adult cast, including Winona Ryder as Will’s working class single mother struggling to get by in harsh times. Despite all evidence to the contrary she believes Will is alive as he seems to be communicating with her through electrical devices even though he is not present. David Hopper is also superb as the town’s sheriff, a man haunted by personal tragedy but who is willing to do the right thing and go against the government.
Like many films and shows from the 1980s, Stranger Things asks the question who is the real monster, a terrifying creature or the shadowy government that puts its interests before its citizens. You probably know the answer but Stranger Things is an entertaining exploration of that idea and I’m looking forward to more strange events in Season Two next year.
A Seat at the Table by Solange
Solange Knowles’ album A Seat at the Table was my album of the year. It is a beautifully composed exploration of black identity and a celebration of resistance. Highlights for me include Cranes in the Sky, a great depiction of the struggles of dealing with capitalism-induced depression and the defiant F.U.B.U (for us by us) where Solange sings,”I hope my son will bang this song so loud/That he almost makes his walls fall down/Cause his momma wants to make him proud/Oh… to be us” to the background of a New Orleans brass band. Through interspersing the songs with interludes featuring her parents talking about black identity and struggle Solange links the struggles of people of colour in 2016 with a history of black resistance.
This album provides a timely and important reminder to me that, however crap 2016 was, there is resistance, celebration and survival.
A Tale of Two Movies – Ultima Parada 174, American Honey
This year I finally got round to seeing Bruno Barreto’s little known 2008 film Ultima Parada 174, a moving portrayal of a real life incident that occurred in Rio de Janeiro in September 2000 and the tragic events and life of a young man, Sandro, that led to his hijacking of a local bus and untimely death at the hands of the police, in a bungled attempt to arrest him and free the hostages held on board.
By contrast, but also by way of comparison, I had the immense pleasure of seeing Andrea Arnold’s extraordinary 2016 coming of age road movie American Honey, set in the US in the unspecified present day. It concerns the personal journey of a teenage girl, Star, who takes up with a bus load of fellow teenagers and misfits, selling magazine subscriptions door to door across the US, in order to escape from the squalid and going nowhere life offered to her living in the ‘forgotten’ rural south of the USA.
Whilst being entirely different films in tone and humour both have at their heart similar starting points and concerns. Family – the lack of or search for – in a world of extreme social inequality, the desire for freedom from their respective circumstances, criminality (both actual and ‘legit’) as a means of escape from their worlds, and the ever present spectre of violence and its occasional manifestation. However from these shared starting points the films fairly soon diverge and take different paths, in the case of Ultima Parada 174 ending in the intense claustrophobia of a seemingly inevitable tragedy but with American Honey, offering the possibility of something like transcendence from the very different claustrophobia of personal ties, commitments and responsibilities, and even identity.
Both films are infused with the unmistakeable energy of youth; its seeming indestructability, its spirit, its defiance, its revelations, and of course, its confusion of love with passion. In both films the protagonists, have or want to have dreams, but have no realistic idea how to realise them.
While Ultima Parada 174 is clearly some form of ‘sociological parable’ for our times, American Honey feels more of ‘sociological meditation’, as is often the case in the road movie genre, with its wide open spaces and endless horizons offering escape, or at the very least respite, from the mundane and oftentimes indifferent or cynical worlds we live in.
Oma & Bella; Alexa Karolinski, Oma & Bella: das Kochbuch (the cookbook)
Regina Karolinski (Oma) and Bella Katz are best friends who live together in Berlin. Oma (Granny), filmmaker Alexa Karolinski’s grandmother and her friend survived the holocaust in the camps as teenagers, and then stayed in Germany after war and displacement. It is through the food they cook together that they remember their Eastern European childhoods, their survival, the trauma of losing their families in the holocaust, and their celebration of life itself after the war, and in the present. Their deep fondness for food is at the centre as the film follows them through their daily lives, visits to various sites around Berlin, strolls through the market, trips to the hairdresser. In their kitchen they lovingly keep alive a heritage, which they had to learn, often from scratch, after their survival, and which they celebrate with the younger generations in elaborate feasts, and while marking the Shabbat.
Oma & Bella is a tremendous departure from the countless holocaust films I have seen, obsessed from my early teens with the painful German legacy. The horrors of the two women’s lived experience is not spoken of much, the power is in the silence. Yet the horrible memories are palpable, underlying a film that vibrates with friendship, cooking, laughter, humour and witty cracks.
This is an unforgettable film, warm, moving, gentle, charming, and incredibly well-made. Oma & Bella has been an inspiration during my past year in Berlin, the captivating German capital, buzzing with creativity and cosmopolitanism. Europe’s most left-wing capital, a city with a long history of vibrant working class culture, socialist and radical politics was also the locale where the genocide of the European Jews and other ‘undesirables’ was planned. This film is, not in the least, about the beguiling paradox that is Berlin.
In the first place, however, Oma & Bella is about the love that comes with cooking and feeding, with chicken soup and borscht, chopped liver, potato latkes and rugelach. And because the food was so good, there is a lovingly illustrated cookbook to be had alongside the film.
David Bowie brought the counter-culture into into our living/bedrooms in a way that has not happened before or since. I came of age in the 1970s, that much derided ten years often represented (perhaps fairly) as a 1960s tribute decade. The growing divide between the singles and LP (album) charts meant being both popular and artistic seemed no longer possible. Albums were for serious folk – heads as we called them and boy did I want to be one. The problem was that rock was as progressive as the KKK – they also shared an interest in devaluing anything with black origins – like blues, soul, rock and roll. This meant the concept album as expounded by Yes… And then: Lights up. Enter Ziggy Stardust.
Bowie taught us how to reject this drabness, to imagine a different world, one being born every day afresh: reinvention of the self, gender just a label. Crushing conformity was the enemy of us all so we rebelled – first in small ways: dyed hair, makeup, piercings – and eventually punk DIY culture where passion, commitment and feeling outranked technical ability. He opened a Pandora’s Box which allowed us to view life as a performance.
I think of Bowie’s work as political in two ways. My Ziggy copy was on Dynaflex, a cheap, thin, vastly inferior vinyl used by RCA to keep their profits high as plastic was expensive during the oil crisis of 1973-74. It felt far less endurable than the ex-jukebox 45s without the middles I bought from the local store. My brother and I literally wore it out – so inbuilt obsolescence and geopolitical factors in one easy move. More importantly, he taught us that we should celebrate difference – body shape, ways of seeing/being in the world but not of it. In that difference is the political challenge the powers that be truly fear. As we move into an era of the White norm comparable to forcing women back into the kitchen post WW2 we must refuse this pressure – get inked, get a guitar, get resisting.
I will remember 2016 as the year I found Grimes. Grimes is the stage name of Claire Boucher, a songwriter, producer and performer of genre-hopping pop music. Her fourth studio album Art Angels was released in late 2015 to widespread critical acclaim, and she has become notable for her criticisms of sexism in the music industry, consistently fighting off pressures to “get a band” or “work with outside producers”, choosing to retain control over her own musical output.
In Grimes’ lyrics, vocal sound and stage shows, Boucher weaves a musical world of subjectified – as opposed to ‘objectified’ – femininity. In Venus Fly, she and Janelle Monae sing about reclaiming the power lost through sexual harassment, developing the theme of 2012 single Oblivion into something more liberating. SCREAM showcases Grimes at her rockiest, screaming over the music while Aristophanes raps in Chinese about enjoying a sexual partner’s orgasm. Grimes’ music suggests that there is no contradiction between femininity and power, though ‘womanhood’ requires a level of reimagining and rupture with past gender norms to accommodate genuine empowerment, as she implies in her disfiguring of the ‘angel’ character in the video to Flesh without Blood.
Meanwhile, on her blog, Grimes draws people into this unashamedly feminised universe, where gender is explored and challenged for her predominantly young, female audience, and where she happily posts political commentary alongside new music, videos from her shows, and avant-garde artwork and photography. Grimes expresses the possibility of female musical collectivity, working cooperatively and non-hierarchically with other female musicians and sharing the choreography of her stage shows with female dancers who do not pander to crowds’ male gazes. Because it’s not conventionally sexualised, Grimes’ persona is often called ‘art’. But Grimes isn’t a gallery piece: she offers a blueprint for a new normal.
Those time-travel fans with a Continuum-shaped hole in their lives might want to give the lightweight but enjoyable Timeless a go. Its premise is that an engineer, a marine and a historian (hurray!) have been deployed by the US government to track down a rogue agent who has stolen a prototype time machine (fortunately there’s a spare) and is set on altering the past (apparently to stop America from being so great).
His motivation is actually to overcome a shadowy organisation called Rittenhouse that killed his family and seems to want to be all-powerful masters of time (Mwhahahaha!). The face of Rittenhouse is mildly reminiscent of the Smoking Man from the X-Files, and that’s the vibe in the bits between meeting Bonnie and Clyde or Davy Crockett.
The good news for the audience is that apparently history can change, and there’s no sign of any universe-threatening paradoxes just yet. The bad news is that no-one has caught up with Trump’s father. The time-travellers are supposedly unable to visit a time in which they already exist, which sadly prevents them from coming to the recent past to warn the writer not to make the pilot of the stolen time machine old enough to undermine this rule. The (female) historian gets to experience (and sometimes challenge) the sexism of the past, but the truest line so far has been the (black) engineer/pilot/genius saying “there’s literally no place in American history that’s awesome for me”. Unfortunately he missed the chance to make good on this observation when he met the Black Panthers.
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
There is little written about a possible socialist future, certainly compared to the mountains of dystopian literature. This notable exception has been sitting on my shelf for years despite people telling me it’s their favourite novel. Why? Because, although its written by one of my all time favourite authors, it’s classed as science fiction. Prejudice is everywhere and needs to be fought.
So in this year when a future of barbarism has felt closer than it has felt for decades I picked it up.
The novel was recently reissued by Penguin for its 40th anniversary. “It’s the present hell on earth that brings out the best in Piercy” said the Guardian. The story is rooted in the 1980s when Connie Ramos, a Mexican-American, attacks her niece’s violent boyfriend and is committed to a mental institution. Connie is approached by a stranger from a feminist-environmental-socialist future who has the ability to allow Connie to visit that world. To non sci-fi readers it could already be sounding ridiculous but it doesn’t read that way in the least. Connie experiences the future where everything has been reconfigured: relationships, work, childcare, leisure, culture, love. But its certainly not rose-tinted, problems continue and complexities are explored in the story – whilst powerful oppositional forces are attacking the relative harmony of this future world.
A dystopian future is also portrayed, when Connie’s time-travelling goes awry, and she experiences that barbaric hi tech world including some of the aspects of which have come to pass in the 40 years since Marge Piercy wrote this powerful and stimulating novel.
I’m also glued to TV series Treme about people struggling and mostly surviving against the odds in post-Katrina New Orleans where the music is the star of the show.