There you are in your sitting room with a pal, enthusing wildly (you’ve had a gin) about how absolutely amazing John Fowles’s The Magus is, how novelists don’t write books like that anymore. You marvel at how it manages at once to be a modern work of literature, an intelligent novel of ideas, a thing full of classical allusion and a treatise on being careful what you wish for.
It’s also a cracking thriller that rivals the bawdy pace of Freddie Forsyth or the slipper-soft killer instinct of John le Carré. Plus, you say, it’s got a ridiculously hot girl on the cover in some sort of psychedelia-meets-surrealist paperback design. Boom! You release the book from between the clutches of its inferior neighbours on the shelf and brandish it at your friend, promising him it’ll soon be his favourite book, too. Job done. Or is it? How easy is it to recommend books, even to people whose tastes you feel confident in correctly guessing? Everyone’s got a network of history, emotional response, instinct, personal taste, patience with newness, predilection for oldness, love of magical realism, suspicion of plain-speak or mistrust of the fact you always lend them something semi-pornographic. This bag of spanners in the works ensures everyone comes to the page with a well-groomed school of wry judgements.
There’s been a bit written about “critic-proof” records, films and books – Coldplay, James Bond, Fifty Shades of Grey – things that are of the moment, things that people just like (bondage they love). But what about friend-proof stuff? When trying to pick a movie for a Monocle film night I had to pick something universal yet still charming and surprising for those that hadn’t seen it – and something that went with a few glasses of wine (no Downfall, then). So what have you got? Fargo, North by Northwest, Annie Hall. Who wouldn’t melt and be gripped by that toothsome threesome? Well, you’d be surprised.
Once, I gained a book and lost a friend. Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude looms monotonously down upon me; full of words and allusions and flights of fantasy, and all so boring. But there’s a number missing from my mobile to prove that sometimes a stranger or a newspaper are better at bestowing books than your nearest and once dearest.
Putting the soft and fuzzy feeling in soft power this year is German electronic music powerhouse Kompakt records, who celebrate 20 years of intelligently self-absorbed minimal house, techno and ambient sounds. The Köln-based label and shop established by musicians Wolfgang Voigt, Jürgen Paape and Michael Mayer has become a world voice for producers and DJs crackling on the outskirts of mainstream dance music. This year’s celebration means a number of special releases and events will be making their way to pop-up stores in Berlin, Paris, Geneva, Amsterdam and London. But we recommend starting with the label’s ever-reliable annual compilation Pop Ambient 2013.
CINEMA: NAKAME KINO Between the dominance of multiplexes and the proliferation of home entertainment, it’s a challenge for small cinemas to survive in Tokyo these days. Now the district of Nakameguro is fighting back with a monthly pop-up cinema night called Nakame Kino. Organised by a group of local cinephiles, the event is designed to replicate the cinema experience in different Nakameguro venues for one night each month, free of charge. The launch in January – a packed screening of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - was a joint effort, with everyone from the equipment rental company to the furniture suppliers offering their services for free. Mariko Yamasaki, a freelance editor and one of the organisers, says that watching a DVD at home can’t compare. “The whole experience of watching a movie in a cinema with other people is something special,” she says.
FILM: GREEN PARTY
What do you get if you cross Greenpeace with pornography? Probably something like enviro-sex documentary Fuck for Forest from Michal Marczak, the stars of which raise money by making internet porn with the hope of buying some rainforest. Though at times feeling like an art-house film rather than reality, this is an amusing look at that bit of your youth where you can still bum around in squats wondering how to make a difference.
ARTS: OZ FEST
In the battle to win the hearts and minds of young India, two countries – France and Australia – have been facing off in the soft diplomacy arena. Each has a multi-platform cultural festival aimed squarely at raising their profile. Australia’s Oz Fest (not to be confused with rocker Ozzy Osbourne’s roadshow Ozzfest) ran from October to February with Australian musicians, comedians, dancers, writers and TV stars. While in the other corner France’s Bonjour India festival is happening now until April, it has somewhat more esoteric projects including the Ballet Preljocaj performing a creation involving prominent Indian sculptor Subodh Gupta.
The novelist turns personal and local historian and goes “home”. And there’s the rub: what the hell does home mean when you were born in Calcutta but brought up in Bombay and the UK? The much-decorated novelist makes a wry pricker of the pomposity of Calcutta’s middle classes, which seems a job that needed doing but the book is also a forensic portrayal – that crackles with honesty and swoons with tenderness – of a city at the heart of India’s change. One that resists and embraces it in equal measure.
The Fun Stuff: and Other Essays
Look, the words “criticism” and “fun” placed just one line apart! The New Yorker’s James Wood is the man that saves that positioning from being juxtapositioning with his style, likeability and lightly-worn learning in 23 pieces on books and writers. It’s a nice mix-up: Thomas Hardy then Geoff Dyer, WG Sebald’s Austerlitz then Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. There are critics that review so you don’t have to read the book and those that encourage the tattered copy to come back off the shelf or promote a trip to the bookshop, and Wood is the latter. Books need Wood more than Wood needs books.
From Germany to Germany
This is the diary of Germany’s most celebrated writer for the key year of 1990, when Germany East and West became just Germany again. But what a feat that was and what fears Grass had about the process, its workability, its politics and, occasionally, its desirability at all. The effect of looking the wrong way down a historical telescope is enhanced by a lack of margin notes and appendices: this is simply what he thought at the time. That unification for the most part went so well, is a reason this should be placed on the bedside table of every Eurocrat in Brussels. They might also learn to write.
The Book of My Lives
After a decade of quasi-biographical short stories and novels, the much-lauded Hemon steps wholly into reality with this biting memoir of his outsider youth in war-torn Sarajevo and later years as a struggling immigrant in Chicago. Though more earthbound than his buoyantly unpredictable fiction, this book still dazzles with moments of profound clarity.
The Gurkha’s Daughter
The Nepalese-Indian debutant presents a slim volume of rich pickings; short stories on identity, incident and upward-mobility. What is it like to be from a place where everyone thinks “Everest” sooner than know which team you support or what books you like? Parajuly answers this kicker through eight beautifully written characters in neat stories that riff on displacement, perhaps, but with wit and charm. No hard luck stories, these – but photo-real tales of modern movement.
Q&A - JJ Weihl
Berlin-based dream-pop band Fenster (German for “window”) have been touring for the past year for the first time. Front-woman JJ Weihl talks about life on the road.
It’s the most viable way for new bands to make money these days unless you’re Lady Gaga or Green Day, living off the glory days when sales mattered and people bought records. It’s also the most direct way to find people who might be into your music.
How did Fenster start?
Jonathan Jarzyna and I started making music and we self-recorded our first album Bones with our producer Tadklimp in January 2011. Our first gig was at a house party at Jonathan’s with some friends’ bands who literally played standing on the kitchen sink. From there we started playing small venues – galleries, basements, small-plot gardens – all over Berlin. Our first big tour was right after we released the album. We flew straight to the US and did an East Coast tour from New York to Texas and back. We played SXSW and classic venues such as the Mercury Lounge and Knitting Factory in New York. Then came the European part, and all the bad cliché things that happen to bands happened to us. Our car got robbed in Amsterdam. After playing a festival in Italy, our car caught on fire. We didn’t miss one gig, but because of the stress, we were barely speaking to each other.
What did you learn?
We had pushed ourselves a bit too far. Now we have a new “tour mobile” called Little Boo, and we keep tours shorter. In the summer we did a little Baltic tour through Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. We swam in the ocean and we didn’t want to kill each other by the end.
Has Berlin played a role in your success?
That we were able to get a cheap studio and record and start playing these shows is a huge factor. It’s also a place Jonathan [from Berlin], Rémi Letournelle [bandmember from France] Tadklimp [from Greece] and I [from New York] were all attracted to for different reasons.
Advice for touring bands?
That’s tough. I wish I had some. I would give it to myself.
Fenster play dates across Germany throughout May.
Sounds from around the world
Who knows how many LPs NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS have made now? If he were a striker, Cave would have been awarded the Golden Boot, anyway, for so many victorious performances. PUSH THE SKY AWAY takes time out from Cave’s bang-crash-wallop Grinderman alter ego and sits somewhere between his lyrical The Boatman’s Call and that bit more menacing Let Love In. It’s poetic, rewarding, sparely done and a rare thing – an album that defies “skip” and “shuffle”.
Those crystal-ball gazers at 4AD have hit the sound of the future on the head again with DAUGHTER – a London threesome with a wonderful singer in Elena Tonra, that sound like they like a lot of what’s gone before in their label’s illustrious history – especially last year’s batch of Canadians with synths. IF YOU LEAVE is lusher, more organic, lending a dreamy pastoral edge to pop that doesn’t sound as clever as it really is (thank goodness).
Berlin techno producer APPARAT aka Sascha Ring and experimental German theatre director Sebastian Hartmann’s KRIEG UND FRIEDEN is the soundtrack to the latter’s largely improvisational stab at Tolstoy’s War and Peace. As you might expect, it’s light on laughs. But this moody strings-and-synths score with plenty of electronic meddling is filled with the floaty highs and noisy lows of two ideas testing to breaking point. Luckily, it rarely tests your patience.
After his poetic country-rock bean-spilling breakthrough, JOHN GRANT has changed the palette for PALE GREEN GHOSTS. His emotive tenor’s checked and correct as is his electric-acoustic but he’s gone loopy and electro, too. It’s another beautiful collection of confessionals, just writ larger than before.
1. IT DOESN’T MATTER TO HIM
2. WHY DON’T YOU LOVE ME ANYMORE?