Creative Sensemaker: What to read, watch and listen to this weekend
A rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
By Matt d’Ancona
Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media.
Even if you haven’t encountered his fine journalism over the years, the chances are that you know Sarfraz Manzoor. He’s the guy whose story, and love of Bruce Springsteen’s music, inspired Gurinder Chadha’s 2019 movie, Blinded By The Light. Based on Manzoor’s 2007 memoir Greetings From Bury Park: Race, Religion And Rock’N’Roll, the film, acclaimed on initial cinematic release, charted the coming-of-age of Javed, a young British-Pakistani Muslim, in 1980s Luton.
This week, Manzoor returns with They: What Muslims And Non-Muslims Get Wrong About Each Other. It would be an important book at any time, meticulously addressing the vexed question of Islam’s relationship with secular society, the West in general, and Britishness in particular. Published in the week that fundamentalist terrorists reclaimed control of the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ and parliament debated Britain’s readiness to welcome thousands of Afghan refugees to these shores, the book is now, unexpectedly but undoubtedly, an even more essential manual for a bleak historic moment.
Manzoor has put in the hours as interviewer and pavement-pounder, talking to Britons (Muslim and non-Muslim) all over the country about their experience, anxieties, and aspirations. He also makes no attempt to sugar-coat the problems that he is addressing – quite the opposite – and, though he has plenty to say about right-wing bigotry and lopsided media coverage, this is emphatically not a book about victimhood.
Having married a non-Muslim white woman, Bridget, in 2010, Manzoor finds himself tackling, day by day, the very questions that lie at the heart of this book. He celebrates the ‘enlarging and intoxicating vision that implied that our children were blessed rather than cursed to be the product of two cultures’ – but he does not flinch from the challenges implicit in this vision.
It will not surprise anyone familiar with the core compassion of Manzoor’s writings over the years that he settles on a guarded optimism. ‘At times it has been tempting to succumb to hopelessness,’ he writes, ‘to accept that the divisions are too wide to bridge. But I cannot yield to despair – as the father of two young children I have to believe that a better future is reachable, to believe Britain can still be a promised land.’
Having read They with tremendous admiration, I think it is exactly the book – personal in tone, courageous in vision – that we need at a moment of global shame, apprehension, and frayed moorings.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
The Chair (Netflix, 20 August)
Amanda Peet and Annie Wyman’s sharp six-part series takes as its setting one of the cultural warzones of the 21st century: the American university campus. Sandra Oh excels as Dr Ji-Yoon Kim, new head of the English department at Pembroke College. How to deal with the department’s decline and all the daily pressures of modern campus life – seriously exacerbated when a video of one of the professors, Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) performing a Hitler salute in class, creates a social media storm? The series takes these and other social justice issues seriously, while finding space for romantic plotlines, screwball banter, and even entertaining sight gags. Worthy of your time.
Minamata (selected cinemas, VOD)
Exiled from the Pirates Of The Caribbean and Fantastic Beasts cinematic franchises, Johnny Depp goes back to his roots as a character actor in this adaptation, directed by Andrew Levitas, of the true story of legendary American photographer W. Eugene Smith. Past his best, Smith is compelled back into action by reports of mercury poisoning in Japanese coastal communities and the appalling illnesses caused by the neglectful conduct of the chemical corporation Chisso.
Thinking Better: The Art Of The Shortcut by Marcus du Sautoy
As Oxford’s Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, Marcus du Sautoy has combined a career as a world-class mathematician with outstanding work as an ambassador for science and the scientific method. Du Sautoy’s latest book is an extremely readable exploration of the shortcut, its role in human history, and its intellectual underpinnings. And, as ever, he stretches out a hand to the reader with engaging stories, wit, and a lucid writing style.
Afterparties: Stories by Anthony Veasna So
The death of Anthony Veasna So from a drug overdose in December has – as this remarkable collection of short stories shows – deprived the world of a writer of awesome potential. His milieu, broadly, is the world of California Cambodian Americans, depicted in a style that So himself described wryly as ‘post-khmer genocide queer stoner fiction’. The landscape is bracingly contemporary – set alight by the tech revolution, but haunted by the traumas of the past. The wit that curls through these pages also fills you with a longing for the first novel that will never be. A must-read, albeit one laced with a sense of tragedy.
Loving In Stereo by Jungle
This August has, like Churchill’s pudding, ‘lacked a theme’: a time of half-emancipation from the pandemic, in which taking a holiday has involved the bureaucracy of buying a house, and businesses across the land have played the hokey cokey of half-returning to work. So thank goodness for Jungle, the west London duo of Josh Lloyd-Watson and Tom McFarland, who have, undaunted, gone ahead and delivered a soundtrack to a summer that never quite was. An unabashed hymn to clubland, with a distinctly 1980s dance-floor feel, Jungle’s third album augurs extremely well for their four nights at Brixton Academy next month.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner