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Update on The Arts: May – July 2022

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With life being back to near-normal over the past three months, I have been back to near-normal in terms of reading quality fiction, watching some great theatre and viewing some wonderful movies and series.  It has been an exhilarating term for me arts-wise.


I’ve had a chance to read 9 novels over the past three months, several of which I’ve found very exciting and I suspect will make my ‘best of’ list at the end of the year.  The Booker Prize longlist is announced in a few days, and I’m wondering if any of them will make that list.  Some are by authors (such as Anne Tyler and Catherine Chidgey) who I have read widely over the years; others are by authors who are new to me (especially Ruth Ozeki and Charlotte Mendelson) but who I will watch out for in the future.  As usual, my reading is from all around the world – from New Zealand to Nigeria!!  

French Braid by Anne Tyler.  This beautiful, wistful and very tender novel is Tyler at her best.  Set (as are all her novels) in suburban and middle-class Baltimore, it tells the tale of would-be artist Mercy Garrett who is reasonably happy in her marriage and family life, but has an inkling that there’s got to be more to life.  She sets out to find this ‘more’ but in a reasonably soft and gentle way that many of us would relate to.  Its highs and lows moved me to tears from time to time (particularly the ending), as only Tyler can do.   

Vagabonds by Eloghosa Osunde.  Although I completed it, I could not whole-heartedly recommend this novel.  I read it because it sounded fascinating – set in a modern version of Lagos (Nigeria) and populated by the ‘displaced, the queer and the footloose’ (or so the blurb says), I was unable to decipher the real from the unreal as I read it.  it moved around too much for me and the spiritual world depicted in it did not engage me.  

Bolla by Pajtim Statovci.  Underneath the toughness of a loveless marriage and doomed illicit same-sex relationship and set mainly in war-torn Kosovo, this hugely affecting novel is a portrait of an Albanian would-be writer searching for hope amidst the physical and metaphorical rubble that surrounds him.  But life for the first-person protagonist does not actually seem as bad as it does for his Serbian lover whose story is skilfully mingled through the main plot-line, as is the fate of a legendary demonic serpent (the titular Bolla) who is granted one day a year in the sunshine.  This novel (originally written in Finnish) moved me even mote than Crossing, the author’s acclaimed previous novel.

The Book of Mother by Violaine Huisman.  This is a beautiful, beautiful book.  As a piece of auto-fiction, it brings alive not only a fascinating character (maman, who lives her life between extremes of love, devotion, obsession and madness) but also her relationship with her two daughters.  It is a portrait of maman divided into three parts: life with her daughters; a biographical overview; and a tender and very moving portrayal of her death.  Like the Tyler novel, I finished this book with tears in my eyes.

Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov.  In a world full of angst and animus, the narrator of this novel (translated from Bulgarian) posits that comfort can be found in the past, just as many far-right politicians around the world are trying to promote now.  Hence the ‘time shelters’ of the title, with each European country deciding which decade of the past 100 years it wants to re-position itself in.  Needless, to say, not all moves toward re-positioning are successful.  This is mainly a novel of ideas, some of which engaged me but many which did not. 

The Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey.  I don’t know why it has taken me more than two years to get around to reading this outstanding novel – after all, I had loved Chidgey’s previous novel The Wish Child, also set in Nazi Germany.  The Remote Sympathy is unequivocally a Holocaust novel: beautifully written but set firmly and squarely in the middle of a work camp (Buchenwald) and its environs.  Not only do we learn about the horrors of the place and time through the first-person narratives of its three principal protagonists, but we ultimately glimpse specks of hope through their interlinked stories.  Highly recommended.

The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson.  This highly entertaining and beautifully written novel is about a monster – a self-centred, domineering bully who has spent his adult life manipulating his family into dysfunctional submission and who you pray for comeuppance during the 320 pages of reading.  It centres around one weekend as Ray, a has-been artist in North London, attempts to stage a come-back exhibition which can only succeed if he is surrounded by the total devotion and adoration of his family.  Author Mendelson has other plans!!  Some people will dislike this almost comic novel because of the monstrosity of the central character and the awful submissiveness of the wife; I loved it because of its extremeness.  I wanted to shout and scream as well as laugh as I read it.

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki.  Ozeki’s mesmerising novel is not normally the sort of novel that I would read – talking objects (including the Book that actually tells the story) and explanations of reality – but I was so pleased that I did.  I was encouraged by the fact that it had won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022 over several other novels that I had really liked.  Ultimately, it is a ‘love story’ between a mother and son, both rather sad outsiders, who attempt to tidy up their own and each others’ lives in a world dominated by protest, unfairness and violence.  Yes, it is quirky; but its quirkiness never stopped me from not only appreciating it but also deeply enjoying it.

The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family by Joshua Cohen.  Having never heard of the author, I only read this novel because it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction 2022, and again I am so pleased that I did.  Based on a real-life episode set in the 1950s involving an Israeli family causing havoc as the father applies for an academic position in an American university, it is laugh-out-loud funny at times.  But it is more than a very funny story – it is an extended history of Jewish life, it is an examination of the Jewish identity, and it is a meditation on being Jewish in America.  With references to Trump’s time in the White House, it struck me as being not only very entertaining but also very relevant.    

Incidentally, the Booker longlist has just been announced and none of the books discussed above is on it.  Two novels which I discussed earlier in the year (Glory by Noviolet Bulawayo and Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet) are on it; and I will discuss many of the others in my next update. 




My movie-going over the past three months has been mainly confined to movies in the French Film Festival (I am a sucker for French movies) and the huge biopic of one of my favourite singers, Elvis Pressley. 

I went to four movies in the French Film Festival, all of which I would recommend if they returned for a more general screening:

Farewell Mr Hoffmann.  This was probably my favourite because I found it so moving.  Set in Paris during the Nazi occupation in 1942, it depicts the life-changing consequences that two men and their families have to make as a result of the occupation – a Jewish jeweller (played by the wonderful Daniel Auteuil) decides to hand over his business to his employee temporarily while he goes into hiding, but not all goes according to plan.  This is a heart-breaking story, beautifully filmed.     

Kompromat.  This very engaging movie, based on real life, started out as a drama and then became a thriller.  Having upset the local authorities, a French diplomat in Siberia realises that he must escape the country or spend life in a foreign prison.  The tension really builds as he gets closer and closer to the border – who will help him and who will hinder him?  The answers – all based on reality – are not as obvious as one would imagine.  Again, beautifully filmed.

Maigret.  As a child, I loved the French detective ‘Maigret’ series on TV, but this version (starring Gerard Depardieu) is much bleaker and ponderous than I remember.  But I still really liked it as an atmospheric and intense movie.  It is basically about character mis-identification but leads the viewer down dark paths that would never have been anticipated.  Yet again, beautifully filmed; this time in black and white.  My friends thought it was too slow, but I was just in the mood.  

My Brothers and Me.  This is arguably a French version of the ‘Billy Elliot’ story in that it is about a working class lad in southern France who has a fascination with the arts; in this case, opera rather than dance.  But it is also about his rather intense relationships with his dying mother and his three older brothers and the role of music in those relationships.  I found it to be both engaging and very moving.  It reminded me very much of an Italian film about the family relationships of a young lad (Hand of God) that I have previously described on this site as ‘engaging and very moving’.

Elvis.  This enormous movie is not so much a straight biopic of the entertainer but a close exploration of significant moments in his life; particularly as he rises to fame and subsequently faces personal and professional challenges in the 70s.  As a piece of film making, it is extraordinary – the screen is so colourful and busy that you can’t help but be fascinated by what is happening on it.  Both Austin Butler (as Elvis) and Tom Hanks (as his manager Colonel Tom Parker) give outstanding performances.  But, ultimately, this is one of those movies that you associate more with the art and skill of the film-maker (Baz Luhrmann) than you do with the actors.



With the country in the orange Covid setting, I have enjoyed getting back into live theatre over the past few months as well.  Outstanding shows for me have been:

Long Days Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill, presented by the Auckland Theatre Company and directed by Shane Bosher.  This production of an American classic set in the 1920s was outstanding.  I wasn’t sure how engaged I would be with just four actors on stage for close to three hours, but I was mesmerised for the duration.  The actors represent four members of one family, all facing huge personal challenges (the father full of professional disappointment and bitterness; the mother addicted to morphine; the older son probably addicted to alcohol; the younger son suffering from typhoid) and all searching for support in some way from each other.  All four actors were excellent but Theresa Healey was luminous as the drug-addicted mother.  The mood of the play is beautifully summed up in her final line: ‘I was happy, for a time’.

Chess by Tim Rice, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, presented as a concert version at the Aotea Centre, Auckland.  I had forgotten what great music this piece contains (it is so much more than ‘One Night in Bangkok’ and ‘I Know Him So Well’) and how interesting the story is (Russian-US Cold War relations depicted through a series of world chess championships).  Presented by a large team of excellent singers and the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra, it had me buzzing.  A concert version it might have been, but it also moved beautifully.

The Girl From the North Country by Conor McPherson and Bob Dylan, presented at the Civic Theatre, Auckland.  A friend from London had raved about this show so I was delighted to learn that a prestigious Australian company was bringing it to New Zealand for a few weeks.  Set during the Depression in the deep south of America, its tale of diverse characters searching for happiness in a run-down boarding house is ultimately uplifting.  Beautifully choreographed and very moving.  Some friends of mine described this as ‘the best show we have seen in years’; I wouldn’t agree with this, but I liked it very much. 

Collected Stories by Donald Margulies, presented by Plumb Theatre, Auckland and directed by Paul Gittins.  This is a small-scale piece – just two actors (one playing an older established writer and the other a young wannabe writer) and one set (the older writer’s living room) – but it is very enjoyable.  Ultimately it is the ‘All About Eve’ story, with the younger writer ‘challenging’ her mentor for professional supremacy.  It is full of clever lines (excellently delivered by the two actors, especially Elizabeth Hawthorne) and tells an intriguing tale.  



The following are the Netflix/Prime/Neon/Apple series that I have particularly liked over the past three months.

Pachinko.  I was watching this family saga on Apple in April and stated that I had loved the initial episodes.  Set in both Korea and Japan and chronicling the hopes, dreams and disappointments of three generations, I continued to love the series.  Story-telling at its best, and who knew how cruel that Japanese were to the Koreans.  

The Offer.  This six-parter on TV On Demand was so me.  As a lover of 60s and 70s movies, its telling of how The Godfather was developed and made around the shenanigans of not only the Hollywood studio system but also the American mafia was fascinating from the start.  It captured the period beautifully and moved at a tremendous rate.  Furthermore, it inspired me to re-watch The Godfather, The Godfather Part 2 and The Godfather Part 3.  Tremendous viewing.

Totems.  This eight-parter on Amazon is another Cold War spy thriller, set between Paris, Moscow and Prague.  A French scientist finds himself in the middle of political intriguing which is likely to affect not only his life but also his family’s lives.  Again, it moves at a tremendous rate and had me on the edge of my seat.

Ten Percent.  I had loved the French series Call My Agent (about theatrical agents and their real-life clients) and as a British remake of this series (set beautifully in Soho; an area of London I know very well) I was really looking forward to seeing it on Amazon.  On the whole, I wasn’t disappointed.  It didn’t quite have the edge of the French series but I was still continually intrigued by the characters and situations.

Life After Life.  Based on the family saga novel by Kate Atkinson (one of my favourite authors) I wanted to see how film makers would deal with situations of déjà vu.  Once I clicked on to the notion of ‘life repeating itself’ inherent within the story, I was hooked.  Set beautifully around an upper middle-class family between the wars in rural England, it was above all else a wonderful showcase for the talents of the New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie.  She shines in a star-studded cast.  A four-parter on TV On Demand.

The Essex Serpent.  Again, I wanted to watch this series because I had loved the novel (by Sarah Perry) that it was based on so much.  Set in Victorian times and between London and the Essex coastline, it is ultimately a love story; but it also explores political and religious beliefs as well as  scientific rationalism along the way.  These areas, however, are excellently encapsulated in an engaging and well-told story.  A six-parter on Apple.   

Tehran.  This ten-parter on Apple had me on the edge of my seat all the way through.  Set in Iran’s capital, it is a political thriller based around a group of Mossad (Israeli) agents who are attempting to sabotage Iranian weaponry from within.  Starring the wonderful Glenn Close, it again moves along at a fantastic pace.  

Sherwood.  I have just finished watching this eight-parter on TV on Demand which explores links between political happenings in the 1980s (around the miners’ strikes in norther England) and a present-day crime spree.  The links are fascinating and had me intrigued right through to the end as I worked out who was who.  It seems to star every character actor in England but the stand-out for me was the fabulous Lesley Manville.  On the whole, I found the series satisfying but would have liked to have seen a bit more accountability for 1980s undercover political carryings-on in the end. 



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