Alan Vaarwerk, Editor
I’ve seen some great films this month. I went in to Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite knowing almost nothing about what to expect – the trailer is deliberately vague – and while watching I went through several readjustments of what type of film I was seeing. Based off the title alone: is it a gory body horror piece? As the film introduced its crafty protagonists, who work their way into the lives of a wealthy family: okay, so it’s a heist film, or maybe a brutal comic satire? As the film takes a darker turn: maybe it’s a slasher? The answer, of course, is all of these and more. The film has been described as Get Out for Korean class struggle, but that’s really only half the story.
Another film that defies its elevator pitch (what if Superbad but with teenage girls) is Booksmart – Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is funny, genuine and subverts a lot of the expectations of teen movies – and then subverts those subversions again. All its characters are fleshed out and relatable, even the antagonists; it’s beautifully shot, and the performances of its lead actors are brilliant; I left the cinema with a grin from ear to ear.
And finally, it absolutely doesn’t need my endorsement, but the new Spider-Man: Far From Home is a lot of fun as well.
Alice Cottrell, Publisher
Because I’m a total cliché, I’ve gone on a post-Chernobyl series reading binge about Soviet history. (Read Lauren Carroll Harris’s brilliant piece on the series here). Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich (winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015) has been sitting on my shelf for a few years, and I finally picked it up a couple of weeks ago. I couldn’t put it down. It’s a extraordinary oral history, told by ordinary citizens, about the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a new Russia. Alexievich’s distinctive documentary style gives huge emotional weight to significant historical events, and a voice to those caught up in them. I’ve never had a reading experience like it. The translation by Bela Shayevich is masterful.
Ellen Cregan, First Book Club host
I have just started reading Spring by Ali Smith, which is the third in her Seasonal Quartet. I love her writing a lot, and I’ve been saving a copy of this book on my bedside table for a rainy day for a few months now. Like many of Smith’s books, Spring draws together art, music, history, and current events, and wrangles into one beautifully written package. All of the books in the Quartet so far have captured a sense of the world today that I feel a strong connection to. Smith acknowledges the horror and grim realities of modern life – unchecked racism, alt-right politics, climate crisis – but with humour, and ultimately, a sense of hope. Smith’s writing always makes me feel better, smarter, and more equipped to deal with the world.
Jane Howard, Contributing editor
This year I wanted a little winter challenge for myself. I’ve shocked even myself for falling head-over-heals for knitting, after not having picked up the needles since I was a teenager. It’s biggest power, for me, is in the physicality of it: in paying attention to my body through the way I twist wool around the needles, in being aware of tension, and of space. There is something uniquely satisfying in the way you literally see your progress: a direct correlation between time and creation which you never find in writing. There is something magic in realising that you have essentially turned a piece of string into something practical. And there is something uniquely joyous about realising knitting a jumper isn’t at all as hard or as scary as you thought it would be. I’ve started myself off with Wool and the Gang: their patterns are fun, their yarns are beautiful, and their difficulty level is what they say it is. I’m almost done with my second jumper, and have already bought the wool for my third. It’s truly the perfect winter hobby.
Sara Bannister, ‘In Defence of the Friendzone’
This month, I was transfixed with the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing on 20 July. As it turns out, it’s taken my entire lifetime to really understand the combination of genius, bravery and luck that made this mission possible. There are incredible resources out there for understanding this moment in history. Among the best is Apollo 11 In Real Time, which puts you in the control room, with 11,000 hours of audio, all timed to the master mission control clock. You can even dip into the audio of a range of guys seated at their desks, many drinking soda and smoking cigars as the astronauts tumbled through space (there was only one female at mission control and I haven’t tracked down her audio yet). I listened in to the surgeon at one stage, who was speaking to his wife about when he was going to be home for dinner.
NASA’s website has an excellent, more accessible version, along with photos and video footage from the mission. What struck me first of all was the voice of ‘Houston’. Behind that world-famous call signal is a warm, calm and almost laid-back human in constant contact with the three astronauts. What becomes apparent is the incredible care and planning that has gone into each stage of this very risky mission. You also appreciate just how lucky this crew was that nothing went wrong – nothing of any significance anyway.
From here, you can start looking back into previous missions from both the US and former USSR, and that’s where it gets more tragic. Apollo 11 was able to proceed so successfully because of all that went before.
Melanie Saward, ‘Decolonising the Sperm Bank’
I don’t usually read a lot of dystopian fiction because, to quote writer and podcaster Dan Savage, I think we’re living in a dystopia. But I’ve just spent a week at the beach reading Rohan Wilson’s latest novel Daughter of Bad Times. Climate change, refugee exploitation and profit over humanity are some of the central themes of this futuristic, character-driven novel. It’s not what I’d normally categorise as a beach read, but it’s the kind of book that sparks conversation. I hope it’s the kind of conversation that inspires us to take action and stop this piece of fiction becoming even more of a reality.
To help disconnect from our dystopian present, I’ve been obsessively listening to Race Chaser podcast, hosted by two of my favourite drag queens Alaska and Willam. They’re currently recapping ‘classique’ season three episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race and it’s a perfect, sparkly antidote.