Our writers recommend books, art, music and events for the holidays.
In her novel, An American Marriage, Tayari Jones introduces us to Roy Othaniel Hamilton, a young Southern black man who is doing well. Everything takes a terrifying turn when he is convicted of a rape he didn’t commit. Jones knows that we judge people on how we imagine we’d react, but real life is a bit more complicated. This novel is an exploration of the fragility of black lives in the US. Deserving of its Women’s Prize for Fiction win, it is a great read that will touch you deeply.
Political fiction is in good shape, and the choice of a great summer read is tantalising: Ordinary People by Diana Evans, In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne, Milkman by Anna Burns or The Overstory by Richard Powers. Between them they cover racism, Northern Ireland of the Troubles, the environment and so much more, but I’ve just finished the fantastic biography, Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story by her daughter Celeste Bell and Zoe Howe. With the current growing DIY punk scene this is a timely assessment of the life and times of Poly Styrene, the British-Somali front person of 1970s punk band X-Ray Spex. A bit too big for the holiday suitcase but certainly something you’ll want to come home for.
Lots of fantastic looking exhibitions have just opened that I’m hoping to visit this summer. Top of my list is Paula Rego: Obedience and Defiance, at the Milton Keynes MK Gallery until September. I’m particularly struck by her series of paintings about abortion, created in 1998 when a referendum on abortion rights was taking place in her native Portugal. I’ve also been told by at least two people that she’s one of the greatest living artists!
Next on the list are Lee Krasner: Living Colour at the Barbican and Natalia Goncharova at Tate Modern.
I’m looking forward to American indie director Jim Jarmusch’s zombie film, The Dead Don’t Die, out in July. It is packed with great actors and regular collaborators, from Tilda Swinton to Iggy Pop. Jarmusch has said he wrote it in response to the climate crisis, and that if there is hope it lies with Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg and the school strikers.
I suppose I might seek out Tarantino’s latest, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, even though I truly hated The Hateful Eight, and not in a good way.
Finally, I will be reading Joe Country, the seventh instalment in the excellent Slough House series of spy novels by Mick Herron.
In May Simon Armitage was appointed as Poet Laureate. He said of the role that he wishes “to celebrate…the variety of voices who contribute to the rich chorus of British poetry…and to help poetry explore its potential in a multi-faceted, multi-vocal and multi-media age”. I will follow his tenure with interest.
The inaugural Yorkshire Sculpture International began on 22 June. Based in Wakefield and Leeds across four galleries and a number of outdoor sites, this festival of sculpture will be the largest of its kind in the country.
Pennine Lancashire will be the location for the first British Textile Biennial in October, promising to “look at fabric as a means of expression; exploring textiles as a vehicle for protest and cultural identity”. I am interested to go to visit the work they have on display in an area with such a significant history of cotton manufacture.
Mass incarceration and racial oppression continue to provide a critical reference point for artists. Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk is definitely the finest film I have seen this year. It is poignant and beautifully paced with a wonderful soundtrack and score. Ava DuVernay’s impressive list of directorial credits already includes Selma and the documentary 13th. She has now added a Netflix series When They See Us which dramatises the notorious Central Park Five miscarriage of justice case.
This Land, the title track of Gary Clark Jr’s latest release is a blistering commentary on life in Trump’s America. It is the highlight of an album that showcases his fusion of blues, soul and rock.
At the start of the festival season I was delighted to hear Poppy Ajudha, Nubya Garcia, Steam Down and The Comet is Coming performing on my home turf in Brixton. Along with the likes of the Ezra Collective, Skinny Pelembe and Moses Boyd they are a bright new wave of talent whose music is a dynamic celebration of multiculturalism. Check out their latest releases and catch them live if you can.
The Chinese film An Elephant Sitting Still is an extraordinary, if harrowing, three hours and fifty minutes of cinema. A relentlessly bleak contemplation of the lives of Chinese working class city dwellers of various generations, it rings with a terrible truth.
3 Faces by Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (creator of such brilliant movies as The White Balloon and Crimson Gold) is typical of his subtly political, emotionally captivating work. Filmed in Panahi’s deceptively intense style, the movie follows two figures from the Tehran film and TV industry (including Panahi, playing himself) into the Iranian countryside, where a desperate young woman is battling against the conservatism of her village.
In theatre, I recommend What Girls Are Made Of, an excellent gig-cum-bio-play by writer, director and actor Cora Bissett. The piece follows her life, from her startling, shortlived, ultimately painful brush with rock ‘n’ roll stardom (with her band Darlingheart) to the anguish and joy of her recent years. An engaging, funny, highly original piece (with great, live music) it plays the Assembly Hall, Edinburgh throughout the Festival Fringe in August.
Rena Niamh Smith
In Eighth Grade, director Bo Burnham captures ugly duckling feelings of early adolescence with a poignancy that makes the heart break, refreshing the old-as-time coming of age format with the added screen-scrolling, like-checking anxieties of modern youth. Meanwhile, Billie Eilish is the wicked little sister you’re glad you never had, but wish you might have been. Her album WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? is funky, spunky and darkly surreal.
Laurence Nerbonne flecks alt-pop with hip hop in FEU. With sharp rhythms and breathy, husky vocals, the Montreal artist brings a slinky swagger and bite, taking a pop at chauvinism in her track #MeToo. Sexual abuse at the heart of page-turner Blood Orange, ex-barrister Harriet Tryce’s novel following an adulterous, alcoholic lawyer as her life spirals out of control. Shy FX packs energy into mixtape Ragamuffin Soundtape; “Carnival Culture” is zesty joy in glorious beats and brass.
Dave’s debut album Psychodrama takes on a multitude of issues with an overarching attack on the aspect of toxic masculinity that stops men talking about mental health problems. The song “Black” left racists running angry circles round themselves outraged that Dave was putting across a positive message about black identity. The lyric “Black is people naming your countries by what they trade most” doesn’t pull any punches in going for institutional racism.
Learning to Swim by The Skints is a feelgood album, an exciting fusion of ska, reggae and rock. The Skints’ usual practise consists of a much more reggae feel which, while hasn’t gone away, has been built on with an increased use of electric guitar. It’s the kind of album that grows on you with each listen.
This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook calls itself a book of truth and action. It lays out the state of the planet facing climate catastrophe and outlines how to take action against it.
After Grenfell: Violence, Resistance and Response places the Grenfell fire at the centre of a long history of neglect, powerfully drawing out the links between class and colonialism with poetry from Ben Okri and a wide range of contributors. This is one you must have.
Eating Tomorrow discovers how in country after country agribusiness and its philanthropic promoters have hijacked food policies to feed corporate interests. In contrast most of the worlds food is actually supplied by small farmers.
Red State Revolt tells how, inspired by the wildcat victory in West Virginia, teachers in Oklahoma, Arizona, and across the country shut down their schools to demand better pay for educators, more funding for students, and an end to years of austerity.
Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing is a landmark reappraisal of council housing. Historian John Boughton presents an alternative history of Britain, rooted in the ambition to end slum living, and the ideals of those who would build a new society.
Rocketman is enthralling. Even if you don’t particularly like Elton John’s music, it and he are astoundingly recreated in a story of recovery from parental neglect via the annihilating route of multiple addictions, and a heartbreaking depiction of celebrity closetry.
Amazing Grace is a live testament to Aretha Franklin’s shattering genius and musical roots and offers disturbing insights into her father’s influence.
Everyone pounced on Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s second series of Fleabag and Killing Eve slavishly, including me. But it was addict fare and after the controlled supply of binge-watching I was left feeling irritable, restless and discontented. The first series’ respective themes of repressed guilt/bourgeois hypocrisy and dark-state psychopathy gave way to a “will-he, won’t he”, Catholic priest soap story, and an ultimately vacuous titillating killfest, both with luxury sets and the superb Fiona Shaw but no politics whatsoever.
My standout 2019 discovery so far is David Storey’s This Sporting Life. Rupturing gender roles and relationships, raw northern landscapes, working class men sexploited in corrupted Rugby League, and utter, utter, poetic loneliness. Stunning.