Lucy Popescu

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Book Review – The Givenness of Things

Posted by lucypopescu on November 24, 2015

Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson is perhaps best known for her novels. Her latest collection of essays about how the Christian faith can improve our wellbeing, enhance mutual understanding and our sense of community will no doubt be welcomed in some circles and shunned in others. “I defer to no one in my love for America and for Christianity.” She claims. “I have devoted my life to the study of both of them.” For those, like me, who knew little about Robinson’s personal life, we learn through the course of seventeen essays that she enjoys going to church, listening to sermons (for a “sense of the sacred”), is widely read, loves Shakespeare, has studied Scripture and theology and is a self-proclaimed Calvinist.

Robinson is at her best when exploring the various tensions between religion and politics in America today. Mentioning no names, she believes that the American right-wing have laid claim to the word “Christianity”. In her essay, ‘Memory’, she bemoans the fact that adherence to her faith “can be taken to mean that I look favorably on the death penalty, that I object to food stamps or Medicaid, that I expect marriage equality to unknit the social fabric and bring down wrath…” This angers her and in revisiting the basic tenets of Christianity, she observes “Does the word “stranger”, does the word “alien” ever have a negative connotation in Scripture? No. Are the poor ever the object anything less than God’s loving solicitude? No.” Robinson admits Christianity is difficult. Not just because it is based on ancient texts and divergent interpretations stretching over centuries, but “because it is contrary to our crudest instincts. Love your enemies.”

The shadow of French theologian and reformer, John Calvin, inhabits a number of Robinson’s essays. She celebrates the European Reformation’s “cultural and spiritual wealth” and “the emergence of the great modern languages out of the shadow of Latin.” A professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Iowa, Robinson is similarly passionate in her defense of the study of humanities. In ‘Reformation’, she argues “Now we are more inclined to speak of information than of learning, and to think of the means by which information is transmitted rather than of how learning might transform, and be transformed by, the atmospheres of a given mind.” In “Givenness” she bemoans the current “alienation from religion, even, among the religious, that is a consequence of this privileging of information…over experience, or of logic over history.”

Some of her close readings of the Bible are less accessible and on occasion Robinson meanders to such an extent that we’ve forgotten the beginning of her sentence by the time we get to its end. This is in stark contrast to some of her enlightened, beautifully expressed pleas such as: “To value one another is our greatest safety, and to indulge in fear and contempt is our gravest error.” And the sentiment she ends on: “We know how profoundly we can impoverish ourselves by failing to find value in one another.”

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday


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Theatre review – Dinner with Friends

Posted by lucypopescu on November 11, 2015

dinner with friendsDONALD Margulies’ comedy drama, about love, friendship and infidelity, is beautifully observed and focuses on the contradictions between the highs of sexual passion and the comforts of familiarity.

Karen (Sara Stewart) and Gabe (Shaun Dooley) take great delight in sharing their culinary expertise and regaling their friends with tales of their travels. They come across as unbearably smug and, as the play opens, Beth (Finty Williams) is dining with them alone.

After patiently listening to the couple’s latest adventures in Italy, she bursts into tears and tells them that Tom (Hari Dhillon), her partner of 12 years, is leaving her for a younger woman.

Surprisingly, this bombshell affects Karen and Gabe more than the estranged pair. Tom revels in his new-found freedom and the attentions of a younger woman. Beth wastes little time in reconnecting with an old flame and it is Karen and Gabe who are left questioning the strength of their own marriage and their motives for continuing as a couple.

The danger, Marguelies suggests, is of measuring your happiness against that of your friends.

Designer David Woodhead’s larger-than-life kitchen shelves convey the impossible domestic aspirations of many couples.

Fine performances, and Tom Attenborough’s fluid production, ensure that Dinner with Friends moves and entertains in equal measure.

Park Theatre until 28 November

Originally published by Camden Review

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European Literature Days – October 2015

Posted by lucypopescu on November 11, 2015

SpitzThe European Literature Days (ELiT) festival held in the Wachau region of Austria encourages cultural exchange between European based writers, translators, publishers and readers. This year the overall theme was “The Migrants”, a loaded term and geopolitically relevant given the refugee crisis currently being played out in central and eastern Europe.

A.L. Kennedy gave a powerful keynote lecture which served as a resounding call for writers and artists to do more to counter the negative propaganda surrounding migrants and refugees. “True art is not an indulgence,” she warns, “but a fundamental defence of humanity.” Kennedy evokes a past, present and future where ‘Those defined as Others go first. The strangers, the migrants, those forced into desperate motion by cascading cruelties.” But the rest of us face the same threat and fate: “When art fails, failure of imagination follows and thereafter cruelty thrives.” All engaged artists and artists, those interested in safeguarding free expression and culture should view themselves as “voluntary migrants” or “Honorary Others”, she suggests, because they know from experience that art is a more powerful tool than propaganda.

Exploring literary trends in Europe, Rainer Moritz, a German writer, publisher and translator, remarked on the popularity of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six autobiographical novels, entitled My Struggle. Books presented as autobiography which contain elements of fiction are increasingly popular, he suggests. Moritz and French-German academic Jurgen Ritte embarked on a lively discussion about ‘novels without fiction’ also called ‘exofiction’. In Germany there appears to be a distrust of fiction and instead a yearning for what is perceived as authentic, including a renewed interest in political novels. Jenny Erpenbeck’s latest novel, Going, went, gone, nominated for the German Book Prize, is a case in point. It is about refugees in contemporary Germany. Crime novels continue to be big in Germany. Moritz noted that every city in Germany must have its own detective.

Rosie Goldsmith, who also moderated, responded that if there was a detective in every German town, then almost every English town now has a literary festival. There is also a proliferation of literary prizes and many readers orientate themselves around these awards, using them as a guide to what to read. Goldsmith observed that fantasy fiction continues to be widely read, perhaps prompted by the popularity of various TV programmes and films. Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, is a notable example of the genre’s literary potential.

Despite further cuts in arts, the smaller independents continue to publish literary fiction in translation. German authors, in particular, have done well in Britain. Erpenbeck won the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for The End of Days, there was a German strand at this year’s Cheltenham literary festival and Julia Franck’s West, Daniel Kehlmann’s ‘F’ and Timur Verms Look Who’s Back were published to great acclaim.

True to the festival theme, various international writers who have settled in Europe were invited to contribute. These included graphic novelist Marguerite Abouet, who grew up on the Ivory Coast and now lives in Paris; Lebanese writer Iman Humaydan, president of Lebanese PEN who lives part of the time in Paris; South Korean born Anna Kim; The British-Sudanese writer Jamal Mahjoub; French Afghan writer and filmmaker Atiq Rahimi; and Najem Wali, an Iraqi writer living in Germany. Once again, EliT explores topical themes and celebrates a diverse range of international authors.

Originally published by

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Book Review – The Lightless Sky

Posted by lucypopescu on November 11, 2015

The Lightless SkyOne of Gulwali Passarlay’s proudest moments was carrying the Olympic Torch during its tour of Britain in 2012. He had arrived here five years earlier as an Afghan refugee, a traumatised teenager who had  endured the most horrific hardship as he travelled across Europe to be re-united with his brother. Recalling Fabio Geda’s international bestseller, In the Sea There Are Crocodiles, Passarlay offers a similarly gripping account of a life-threatening journey to freedom.

In 2006, fearing for their safety, his mother arranged for Gulwali and his brother, Hazrat, to leave their rural village and seek sanctuary in the West. Gulwali was just 12 years old, Hazrat 13. Having been suspected of hiding weapons for the Taliban, his father and grandfather were  killed in a shoot-out with US troops. Gulwali and Hazrat were then hounded by the Taliban who wanted them to become freedom fighters and the Americans who wanted them as spies. Their mother paid a smuggler from Kabul $8,000 to get the boys as far as Italy. Then, at Peshawar airport, before their journey had really begun, the brothers were separated and Gulwali’s quest became twofold – to find a safe place for himself, and to locate his brother.

Passarlay vividly evokes the harrowing trek that takes him across Iran and Turkey to Bulgaria, where he is thrown off a moving train then deported back to Iran and imprisoned. He manages to escape, ends up in an overcrowded boat sailing from Turkey to Greece, and narrowly escapes death. Passarlay describes his mixed emotions and the nightmares that he experiences after finding a safe haven in Italy.

On learning that his brother has made it  to England, he heads for Calais. Life in the “Jungle” is recorded in chilling detail. Passarlay sleeps in filthy conditions and relies on charitable food outlets: “The humiliation was hard to bear. Many of the faces I saw spoke of the same thing. In their own countries, these people had power, even the respect of their communities. Here, in the Jungle, we were barely human. We were the beasts that gave this place its name.”

Even after Passarlay arrives in Dover, in the back of a truck transporting bananas, his ordeal is not over. He has to convince the authorities that he is 13 years old. They do not believe him; Denied foster care and the opportunity to go to school, he is sent to live with adult asylum seekers.

The Lightless Sky is a heart-rending read that illuminates the plight of unaccompanied minors forced to leave their homes and loved ones. It is beautifully written (with the help of the journalist Nadene Ghouri) in simple, accessible prose. Rarely does Passarlay display self-pity and his fierce intelligence is apparent throughout. He also sheds light on the nefarious world of the smugglers who treat their human cargo with so little compassion. Describing the contempt of one agent, Passarlay observes sadly: “We were the scum who would make him rich.” His powerful account is a testament to the courage of all those fleeing conflict in search of safety.

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday


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Film Review – My Skinny Sister

Posted by lucypopescu on October 28, 2015



skinny sisterSwedish writer-director Sanna Lenken’s notable debut My Skinny Sister (2015) about a young teenager’s eating disorder is a simple tale given added poignancy by powerful performances from the two leads. Katja (Amy Deasismont) is a promising young figure skater envied and admired by her younger sister Stella (Rebecka Josephson). Katja is beautiful, svelte and talented while twelve-year-old Stella is pudgy and awkward. To complicate matters further, Stella has a crush on Katja’s handsome German trainer Jacob (Maxim Mehmet).

Despite their sibling rivalries, the sisters enjoy each other’s company. But they are also cruel to one another. Katja teases Stella about having a moustache (she does not), which results in her trying to shave the imaginary hair with disastrous consequences. Stella tries to emulate her sister’s success and takes regular skating lessons at the same rink. Although it is Katja who has the eating disorder, the story (and much of the camera work) is told from the perspective of Stella who after witnessing her sister vomiting up her food wants to tell their parents (Henrik Norlén and Annika Hallin).

Katja forces Stella to remain silent by threating to reveal her infatuation with Jacob. Lenken focuses on Stella’s dilemma – her fear that her sister will die is set against the unbearable thought that her crush on Jacob will be revealed. In a childish act of revenge Stella get a friend to make an anonymous call to Katja telling her that she smells of vomit and will die if she doesn’t eat. Gradually, increasingly preoccupied with her sister, Stella’s school work starts to suffer and she reaches breaking point.

Josephson steals the film. Frequent close-ups of her face convey her anguish, frustration and jealousy in vivid detail. She is also struggling to forge her own identity and in fact has more friends and interests than Katja who is obsessively dedicated to fitness training. Bitter-sweet humour comes in Stella’s meetings with Jacob where she attempts to charm her way into his affections. Deasismont is also very good as an adolescent high achiever, at the mercy of her hormones, subject to frequent and irrational mood swings and incessantly crying.

Inspired by her own teenage battle with anorexia, Lenken explores the intersection of body image and self-esteem with sensitivity and compassion. Copper-haired Josephson is particularly mesmerising and already has a remarkably poised screen presence. Beautifully and unobtrusively shot by Moritz Schultheiß, My Skinny Sister is a tender portrait of teenage angst and a salutary warning against the dangers of obsessive calorie counting.

Originally published by

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Theatre review – La Musica

Posted by lucypopescu on October 10, 2015

La musicaA COUPLE meet in hotel lobby to discuss their divorce. Both are in new relationships. The hotel, we discover, is where they first fell in love.

Jeff James and Ultz’s staging of Marguerite Duras’ poignant play (its first London revival in two decades) is certainly radical but not necessarily effective. Michel (Sam Troughton) and Anne-Marie (Emily Barclay) sit on a raised platform with their backs to the audience. Blown up close-ups of their faces are projected onto a wall. While this allows for every flicker of emotion, irritation and hurt to be conveyed in minute detail, it lessens the dramatic tension and detracts from the storytelling. We concentrate on their faces rather than the words and this is a shame because Duras writes very well about the breakdown of a marriage – the memories, regrets and darker hints of betrayal and violence.

In the second half, some of the audience have to move their chairs, others stand, encircling the couple as if they are in a boxing ring. This engenders a sense of claustrophobia – as if we are eavesdropping on their conversation – but at the same time we feel unable to take sides. Both characters are flawed and both engage our sympathy but, ultimately, we recognise, as they do, that there is no way back; the passion is spent.

Barclay and Troughton give finely nuanced performances, but their relative youth lessens the impact (and heartbreak) of a couple divorcing after many years of marriage.

Young Vic Theatre

020 7922 2922

Originally published by Camden Review

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Film review – Leave to Remain

Posted by lucypopescu on October 10, 2015


Leave to RemainBruce Goodison’s impressive feature, Leave to Remain (2013), confronts the issue of teenage asylum seekers struggling to adapt to life in London and dealing with past trauma as they wait for their permanent leave to remain. In Britain, unaccompanied minors are granted temporary asylum and are placed in foster homes or shelters.  But when they reach eighteen, their cases are reassessed and they live in limbo as they await the court’s decision which can take months, or even years. In the opening scene, a caption informs us that only one in ten are finally granted permanent residency.

 Leave to Remain is set in a shelter and community centre for asylum seekers and homeless teens run by “Uncle Nigel” (Toby Jones) who is teacher, mentor and friend to the youngsters. The film opens with Omar (Noof Ousellam), one of the more confident residents, speaking in public about his experiences. He had arrived in the UK from Afghanistan, aged fourteen, and was granted a safe haven. Now considered an adult, he is about to hear if he has leave to remain. When fifteen-year-old Abdul (Zarrien Masieh), a Hazara from the same region arrives, Omar is inexplicably angry. Gradually, it is revealed that Abdul knows something about Omar’s past that could affect his appeal. Meanwhile, Abdul has to prove his age, ethnicity and that his own tragic story is true.  Guinean Zizidi (Yasmin Mwanza) is equally traumatised. Raped when she was twelve years old, forced into marriage, she was beaten and abused by her husband and his friends and fell pregnant three times before she was able to escape. Her case is considered domestic rather than political and she is initially refused asylum.

Leave to Remain is the result of a film academy set up by Goodison and his colleagues which provides industry training for teenage asylum seekers. The script, co-written by Goodison and Charlotte Colbert, is based on real life stories and most of the talented young leads and the crew come from refugee backgrounds. Goodison offers a poignant insight into the lives of young people trying to integrate and understand an alien culture.  Wisely, he shows that their cases are not always clear cut; sometimes lies have to be told in order for them to be believed. Intercut with the refugee stories are the perspectives of social workers, solicitors, doctors as well as some less than sympathetic staff working for the Home Office. The line between documentary and drama is deliberately blurred allowing for a gritty realism and sense of authenticity. It is not all doom and gloom, however, and Goodison injects humour into various scenes. Particularly memorable are a mountain hike and the group’s attempts to stage a Nativity play – many of them are from Muslim backgrounds.  An important and timely addition to the current debate surrounding immigrants and refugees, Leave to Remain educates and entertains on a number of levels.

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Film review – Palio

Posted by lucypopescu on October 3, 2015


palioCosima Spender’s fascinating documentary, Palio (2015), is about the oldest horse race in the world. The Palio is a ruthless bareback race around the Piazza del Campo, Siena’s main square. There are two a year, held in July and August and each race lasts a breath taking 90 seconds.  Spender interviews jockeys, former jockeys now trainers, and horse owners, many of whom describe the race as “the essence of the city”.  Jockeys represent ten of the city contrade (districts) and train all year, hoping for their moment of glory. The contrade have names like The Goose, Tortoise and Snail and there is a huge amount of pageantry, as well as bitter enmity, associated with the contest.

Gradually, Spender reveals that the Palio is less a race and more a game, where cunning triumphs over equestrian skills. The quality of the horse is often less important than the strategy—horses can be rejected for being too fast. Corruption is rife and jockeys pay off each other for advantage. One interviewee describes them as “mercenaries”; another refers to the contest as “legitimate corruption. During the race, the jockeys whip each other as well as their mounts and are often violently turfed off their horses. For some riders, it clearly feels like a life or death ordeal. Likewise for the poor horses. Afterwards, losing jockeys run the risk of being viciously beaten by spectators. The winner, by contrast, is treated as a saint and is promptly taken to the cathedral, with the horse, to be blessed.

Palio is told through the perspectives of three generations of competitors. In particular,  Spender focuses on two jockeys: Gigi Bruschelli, who has won thirteen Palios and wants to break the record of fourteen currently held by the retired Andrea Degortes (nicknamed Aceto), and Bruschelli’s own protégé, newcomer Giovanni Atzeni who, at twenty-eight, believes himself to be in his prime and that Bruschelli is on his way out. The most telling commentary comes from Silvano Vigni (Bastiano), once Aceto’s rival, now friend, who was himself usurped by Bruschelli. Vigni is scathing about the corruption and Bruschelli’s current domination of the sport.

In the final segment, Spender concentrates on the two Palios that pitch Bruschelli against Atzeni. It’s a dangerous track with tight corners and the horses and jockeys are both at risk. The cruelty of The Grand National, perceived by some, pales into insignificance when compared to the Palio di Siena. Through this absorbing, sometimes disturbing, documentary Spender reveals much about Italy’s underworld, as well as the people’s passion for spectacle, their machismo, pride and their rivalry.

Originally published by





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Posted by lucypopescu on October 3, 2015

Beyond Mothers Monsters WhoresIn Beyond Mothers, Monsters, Whores Caron E. Gentry and Laura Sjoberg add to their extensive research into questions of gender and violence in global conflict. In the 2007
edition of this book they argued “that there is an international politics of violent women’s lives and that violent women’s lives constitute international politics”. Here they take this critique further and analyse in depth the traditional gender tropes used in contemporary narratives of women’s violence, from Chechen and Palestinian suicide bombers, to génocidaires in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and war criminals in Abu Ghraib.

Their main contention is that women’s capacity for political violence is no different from men’s and yet perpetrators are treated as somehow helpless or flawed females. This negates their agency. The authors set out to prove that gendered discourses dominate today’s research into, and media coverage of, the field, arguing that women who participate in violence for political ends are reductively “portrayed as ‘mothers’, women who are fulfilling their biological destinies; as ‘monsters’, women who are pathologically damaged and are therefore drawn to violence [Gentry 2006]; and/or as ‘whores’, women whose violence is inspired by sexual dependence and depravity”. These formulas, they suggest, do not take into account women’s autonomy and therefore imply that they are not culpable.

Prominent cases are examined, including those of Pauline Nyiramasuhuko in Rwanda and Biljana Plavšić, a charter member of the Serbian Democratic Party, who both helped to
carry out genocide. The authors contend that their gender was “sensationalised” and drew more attention than their actions. A “relational autonomy framework” (the recognition of human interdependence and of political and social relationships) is “a prerequisite for understanding people and their violent choices in global politics”, they say, before concluding
with a call for “subversive resignification” and further research that explores “sensed experience of conflict, sensed experience of violence, perpetrator narratives and the role of gender in political violence”.

Gentry and Sjoberg are not interested in the how-and-whys of extralegal political violence, but ask, rather: “what is political violence? What are women? What are the relationships
between those concepts?” Beyond Mothers, Monsters, Whores is a highly academic example of international relations feminism, and, while the questions raised are undoubtedly valuable for those engaged in the field, the book may prove less accessible for the lay reader.

Originally published by the TLS

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Film review – Tangerines

Posted by lucypopescu on September 25, 2015


tangerinesFully deserving of its Oscar and Golden Globe award nominations, Zaza Urushadze’s affecting drama Tangerines (2013) is a bittersweet portrait of cruelty and compassion in the midst of war. During the bloody conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia that erupted in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, many Estonians living in the region were forced to flee. Tangerines focuses on two immigrant farmers who have remained on their land in order to harvest a tangerine crop. A skilled carpenter, Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) makes the crates, while Margus (Elmo Nüganen) picks the fruit from his orchard.

When a gun battle take place on the dirt track outside their homes, they rescue two wounded soldiers from opposing sides. Ahmed (Giorgi Nakhashidze) is a tough Chechen mercenary fighter, while Niko (Mikheil Meskhi) is a Georgian actor who left a promising theatre career because he felt duty bound to take up arms. As the pair recuperate from their wounds, under the care of Ivo, Margus and their doctor friend Juhan (Raivo Trass), Ahmed and Niko are forced to confront their mutual hatred and desire for vengeance. Gradually, though, influenced by Ivo’s placidity and kindness, they come to recognise the futility of war, the ethnic divisions that fuel the conflict and their shared humanity. Both are put to the test when random battalions of soldiers pass by Ivo’s home.

It’s a relentlessly male world. No women appear in the film, which underscores the men’s isolation. A photograph of Ivo’s granddaughter serves as a symbolic reminder of his family’s absence. The music adds an extra layer, in particular the conflicting tastes of Ahmed and Niko which causes further heated exchanges, while Niaz Diasamidze’s evocative score contributes to the elegiac mood. Rein Kotov’s stunning cinematography captures the bleakness and beauty of the terrain. Ulfsak is superb as the even-handed carpenter harbouring his own secrets and pain. Nakhashiez gives an utterly convincing portrait of a mercenary brutalised by war who, despite his macho posturing, finally earns our sympathy. Except for the gun battles, nothing very much happens until the film’s closing moments but the pitch-perfect performances and Urushadze’s careful unwinding of the story ensure Tangerines is never less than riveting.

Originally published by


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