Art + Culture Featured

My Year of Rest and Relaxation: Book Review

‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’ by Ottessa Moshfegh is a ‘sad girl’ book through and through   

In 2022, the curious ‘sad girl’ trend appeared on our Instagram and TikTok feeds: its hashtag collects videos and photos of young women indulging in grungy and gloomy aesthetics and in the enveloping decadence of Lana Del Rey’s, Phoebe Bridgers’ and Fiona Apple’s music. As with any trend, it doesn’t only involve the spheres of fashion and music, but also of literature: many writers were warmly recommended by numerous websites and online reading communities, from the classics of Sylvia Plath and Emily Bronte to the contemporary voices of Eliza Clark and Raven Leilani (acclaimed authors of Boy Parts and Luster respectively). But there’s one book in particular that enjoyed a renovated success: My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. 

‘Sad girl’ books often focus on the character of a stone-cold, angsty woman. And Moshfegh’s work – first published in 2018 – is no exception: the protagonist is an unnamed girl living alone in New York City at the beginning of the 21st century who, in an attempt to fix her extreme distress and dissatisfaction with life, decides to self-isolate and sleep for a whole year. Her physical attributes label her as the ideal woman of the early 2000s – young, thin, blonde and rich -, but these privileges hardly corresponded on a personality level. Since the first pages of the book (which develops as a first-person narration), we’re faced very clearly with the protagonist’s mind: she’s cynical, pessimist, spoiled and lazy; her behaviour towards people – especially her only friend Reva – is rude and careless. This extreme anger and negativity can be hard to digest for some readers, but this is also what makes the story interesting. 

The turning point of the book is the encounter with Dr Tuttle, an incompetent therapist who becomes an involuntary accomplice in the protagonist’s plan: while the latter falsely claims growing insomnia episodes, the psychologist prescribes her (always stronger) sleeping pills. The protagonist’s apartment becomes a laboratory where she experiments with any meds available to her, mixing them and taking notes of their bizarre side effects. Once ready to embark on this weird healing journey, she resigns from her job and goes on a year-long hibernation, from whom she only wakes up for a few minutes to eat and take more pills. 

my year of rest and relaxation
My Year of Rest and Relaxation Book Over

It’s important to highlight that this short novel is not only about a bizarre self-healing method, but it’s also a notable exercise of internal monologue and a cruel satire of America’s attitude towards mental health, as well as a mockery of the hedonist and exclusive late-90s/early-00s art world. Throughout the book, we’re given a better understanding of the protagonist’s familiar background, as her absent parents are the main reason behind her lack of emotional intelligence, respect for other people and self-esteem – as shown in the twisted relationship with her boyfriend Trevor. Her wide financial resources (obtained from her parents under sad circumstances, as the readers will find out) give her the possibility to access the medical care she needs – despite how arguable and inappropriate it can be; this element underlines the bitter and now well-known American reality where only those with money can afford healthcare, as well as the scary ease with which some doctors prescribe potentially harmful medication without properly visiting their patients. 

Moshfegh’s satire reaches also a more sociocultural level: at the beginning of the story, the protagonist, being an art history graduate, works listlessly for a contemporary art gallery that exhibits and sells mainly meaningless and obscene works. Here we have the description and brutal caricature of a rotten industry, controlled by hypocrites, where lazy rich kids come up with shocking and conceptual ideas, which legitimise their success and growing wealth: one of them is Ping Xi, a young artist represented by the gallery, who agrees to assist the main character during her hibernation in exchange for being allowed to conduct an art project/experiment while she sleeps.

Another relevant character is Reva, who insists on considering the protagonist her best friend despite being constantly treated badly by her. Reva comes across as naïve, insecure and caring: she also struggles to lead a satisfying and happy life, and her unexpected and sad epilogue makes the end of this novel particularly gut-wrenching and heart-breaking. 

My year of rest and relaxation is not a book for everyone: the writing is raw and maniacally meticulous in the description of the endless loop of coffee, mindless film-watching, sleeping pills, side effects, negative thoughts and emotions, surreal situations, idleness, anger and bitterness, which might be hard to digest for some readers. But for the more intrepid ones, Ottessa Moshfegh’s work can be a challenging experience and an excellent look into the depths of “sad girl” literature, where lightness is an illusion and an intriguing, weirdly seductive darkness is always around the corner.

Culture Featured

“Normal People” by Sally Rooney: Book Review

Normal People is a book that doesn’t need any big introductions

Normal People, written by Sally Rooney, could be considered the typical bestseller and it’s preceded by its on-screen fame. Also, as often happens when a piece of work is so widely popular, Normal People has proved very divisive – people either praise it or tear it down. 

Normal People is, after all, a simple story: the protagonists are two young people, Connell and Marianne, who live in a small town in Ireland and meet in the last year of high school. The narration follows what happens to them over the span of four years, from January 2011 to February 2015. At the beginning of the book, Marianne doesn’t have any friends – at school, everybody avoids and bullies her. While, Connell is popular and well-liked, even if he doesn’t make any true, meaningful friendships. The two meet, fancy each other, and life runs its course: school ends and both decide to attend the same university in Dublin, and it’s at this point that an overturning of roles happens. Now, Marianne has lots of friends, she’s charming and attractive but can’t build any healthy connections. On the other hand, Connell finds it difficult to fit in and feels like a fish out of water. But, the only certainty in the lives of both is that they’ll always be there for each other. 

sally Rooney
Sally Rooney @ Ellius Grace

The novel has many notable aspects: character development and the experience of growing up are undoubtedly the foundations of the plot. As time goes by, the courses of their own lives and their attempts as a couple shape Marianne and Connell’s personas. Their differing personalities and backgrounds affect the way they act and take decisions, which sometimes can pull them quite far apart, but it eventually results in making them realise how complementary they’ve become to each other. 

Social class and family are important features in Sally Rooney’s novels too: her characters are explicitly the product of their upbringing and Normal People is no exception to that. Marianne comes from an upper-middle-class background, which allowed her to grow up with all the economic privileges that come with it. But, her family is careless and abusive, and this has a profound impact on her self-esteem, as well as her romantic relationships and friendships. On the other hand, Connell is the son of a single mother who works for Marianne’s family as a housekeeper and the healthy, caring bond he has with her allows him to be more confident and conscious of familiar support in hard times. 

Another fundamental element is the portrayal of mental health issues, in particular in men. In fact, when the pair move to university, the novel especially focuses on Connell, who – as a consequence of the difficulties of his new student life and the tragic loss of a close friend – starts to experience symptoms of anxiety and depression which become more and more destabilising. After accepting his own vulnerability (not without fright), he asks for professional help and, also thanks to the support of his mother, his friends and Marianne, eventually learna to live with his condition. This is one of the most praised aspects of the novel, as the theme of men’s mental health is often minimised if not absent in books and films (as well as in general conversation), Rooney’s account of it is exceptionally accurate and respectful. 

Normal People On Screen Adaption
Normal People On Screen Adaption @ Edna Bowe

On the other hand, something that many readers didn’t particularly appreciate is the miscommunication trope. It’s undoubted that the two protagonists face many obstacles which they overcome in different ways, but sometimes Connell and Marianne miss many occasions of reconciliation because they don’t clearly communicate with each other. This expedient – although vastly present in numerous works – might give the impression of being used improperly in certain passages of the story, where a well-deserved step forward might have felt more appropriate instead. 

Sally Rooney is considered one of the most peculiar voices of the Millennial generation, but with Normal People, she delivered a truly universal piece of work. Although her novels are well-defined chronologically and geographically, they strike a chord with readers all around the world and the story of Marianne and Connell in particular can move and interest all generations, as nobody really knows what it means to be ‘normal people’.

Art + Culture Featured

Jonathan Coe: Author Spotlight

Jonathan Coe: One of Britain’s best narrators of contemporary literature

Each country has an author who can narrate its story better than anyone else: for the past 35 years, Jonathan Coe has become one of the most original and remarkable narrators of contemporary-age Britain – if not the best one.

Through his fourteen novels, Coe managed to capture the highs and lows, the contradictions, the customs and the atmosphere of each decade of the UK’s 20th century in unique ways, with the development of unforgettable characters and the use of different literary genres. 

Jonathan Coe was born in Lickey, on the outskirts of Birmingham. And, in 1961 studied at Trinity College in Cambridge and at Warwick University. Throughout his uni years, he cultivated his passion for literature and music, two disciplines that he successfully managed to pursue and mix together at various points of his career. In the late 1980s, Coe moved to London to follow his artistic ambitions: he started writing songs for two bands – The Peer Group and Wanda & The Willy Warmers – as well as publishing his first novel, The Accidental Woman. Then, in 1987 and from this moment on, one successful book after another, he became one of the most interesting voices of English contemporary literature and one of the most acclaimed worldwide.   

Throughout his career, Jonathan Coe has defined a style which can be considered a mixture of mystery, drama, comedy and grotesque (like in The Dwarves of Death or The House of Sleep), but it’s in the genres of political satire and family sagas that he demonstrates the best of his potential. What a Carve Up! unveils the secrets and dishonesty of the Winshaw family, whose members are all conservatives and supporters of the Thatcher government. In the book, Coe attacks sharply the ideologies and the shady manoeuvres of a political class that put a whole country at risk to accumulate benefits and wealth, with characters made to be hated and a clear depiction of the 80s political scene; its sequel Number 11 is set thirty years after and describes what life is like in Britain for the wealthiest 1% (some of them being Winshaw family’s descendants), while the rest of the population faces the catastrophic consequences of austerity post-2008 financial crash. 

Coe’s most acclaimed work is probably the trilogy consisting of The Rotters’ Club, The Closed Circle and Middle England. In each novel, set in the 70s, 90s and 2010s respectively, we follow the story of the Trotters, a family living in Birmingham, and their extended circle of friends and acquaintances. Through their eyes, Coe masterfully records 40 years of political and societal history, perfectly intertwining the private lives of the characters with external events and the inevitable passage of time. 

In his production, there’s also space for more gentle and introspective moments, like in The Rain Before It Falls – a touching story about passing down family memories -, A Touch of Love – crowded with lonely and lost characters -, or Mr Wilder and Me – a historical novel about director Billy Wilder as told by the memories of a Greek woman. 

Jonathan Coe returned in November 2022 with a brand-new novel Bournville, titled after a suburb in Birmingham once famous for its chocolate factory. The novel gravitates around the lives of the characters: main protagonist Mary witnesses nearly 80 years of social change, from her carefree childhood through the chocolate-scented streets of Bournville to WWII, from post-war optimism to technological advancements and the Covid-19 crisis. 

Jonathan Coe
Jonathan Coe @ Josefina Melo

Recommended works: 

  • The Rotters’ Club (2001), The Closed Circle (2004), Middle England (2018): this trilogy is a fundamental read for any Jonathan Coe fan, or for whoever wants to get a better understanding of the past 50 years in the UK. The Rotters’ Club is set in the 70s: teenagers Benjamin Trotter, Philip Chase and Doug Anderton attend the same school in Birmingham, they’re obsessed with music and girls and ahead of them there seems to be a bright future. Meanwhile, around them, the world is bursting with trade union strikes, political conflicts, racial tensions and IRA attacks. In The Closed Circle – set twenty years later, during Tony Blair’s new labour government – the protagonists have grown but still have to deal with the demons of the past: some characters are trying to overcome traumas and to find answers to questions that have been left open in the previous book, and some new problems arise; differently from The Rotters’ Club, The Closed Circle is more mysterious and tense, and the unexpected final plot twist would keep anyone on the edge of their seats. Middle England takes place during the 2010s and follows the series of events and tensions that will result in the Brexit referendum. Benjamin, his sister Lois and his friends are now middle-aged and mildly disillusioned with how their lives have turned out and the state of their country but, even though the political and social climate makes everyone expect the worst, they’ll realise that it’s never too late to make life more bearable; this novel also follows a new storyline focused on Sophie, Lois’ daughter, who embodies the tolerant and reasonable youth that tries to stay afloat through the deliriums and conspiracies of the older generations. 


  • What a Carve Up! (1994): undoubtedly Jonathan Coe’s political satire masterpiece. Young writer Michael Owen is commissioned by Tabitha Winshaw to write a biography about her family, receiving a generous remuneration in return; Tabitha has been estranged from her relatives for alleging a betrayal involving the death of one of her brothers, so she has every interest in showing to the public the Winshaws secrets. Michael works slowly on the project but, as he discovers more information, the downward spiral of selfishness, dishonesty and madness swallows every member of the family. 


  • The Rain Before It Falls (2007): in this novel Coe showed the most intimate and reflective side of his writing. Gill learns that her aunt Rosamond died: when she visits her house to collect her things, she realises that Rosamond was in the middle of recording a series of tapes for a girl named Imogen, whom Gill saw many years earlier. The only thing she can remember of her is that she was blind; in these tapes, Rosamond meticulously describes photos and anecdotes of her life in order to allow Imogen to understand where she comes from.
Art + Culture Featured

“4321” by Paul Auster – Book Review

‘4321’ Asks the question, “what if?” and delves into what might have been; something we’ve all considered

Each one of us has certainly found asking ourselves at least once these questions: what would’ve my life been like if I did this instead of that? What if I didn’t choose to walk that particular street on that day? What if I never stumbled upon this person? What if my parents never met?. ‘4321, Paul Auster’s successful (and so far, last) 2017 novel, takes hold of those doubts. 

Paul Auster is a writer who has proved very prolific throughout his career: not only he has published a large number of works spanning fiction, non-fiction and poetry, but he also explored the cinematographic world by contributing as a screenwriter and director. In his novels, recurring themes like coincidences, the fragmentation of the self and metafiction – as well as detailed attention to American history and how it affects the characters – ascribed him to Postmodernist literature: features that constitute the foundations for ‘4321 as well. 

The book focuses on the character of Archie Ferguson, the only child of Stanley Ferguson and Rose Adler, and the four different versions of his life – all absolutely plausible and unique – from childhood to young adulthood. To do so, Auster created a steady structure, with a first chapter which provides a common genealogical background to the story, and the four lives (divided into sectioned chapters, like: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 2.1, 2.2 etc.) following each other cyclically.

The book starts with chapter 1.0, which tells the sequence of events that led to Archie’s birth: how Grandpa Ferguson came to the USA (and changed his name) and what Stanley’s upbringing was like; Rose’s exciting life in New York and the tragic death of her first boyfriend; how Archie’s parents met and fell in love, and Rose’s difficult pregnancy. This chapter ends in 1947 in Newark, when and where young Ferguson was born, but over the course of his four lives everything changes according to different elements: in each chapter, where his parents decide to move to has a significant effect on Archie’s upbringing, as he attends different schools and makes different friendships; also, the adults around him change, whether it’s their parents’ marriage and jobs, or how his grandparents and other relatives interact with him. The same person can appear in each life, but with different roles (like Amy Schneiderman, a recurrent character in the novel, who enters Ferguson’s life as a girlfriend, cousin or step-sister). 

4321 Book Cover
‘4321’ Book Cover

Another central theme is the relationship between nurture and nature: the context and the influences around him may vary, but Archie will always be drawn to his true vocation. In each chapter, he grows up experiencing different hobbies and passions by becoming a promising athlete, a journalist, an avid music listener or a French poetry translator, but what he’ll eventually realise is that he’s destined to become a writer. This last detail is important not only because it’s what transforms the novel into a metafiction masterpiece, but also because it’s one of some autobiographical anecdotes that Auster included in the story. But, despite these details, the author himself declared that Archie Ferguson is not his alter ego and therefore ‘4321′ is not an autobiographical book, instead, they’re more like two peers who share the same chronology, geography and certain interests. 

American 20th-century history can be considered another main character of the book. At the beginning of the story, Grandpa Ferguson is embarking on the long journey from Belarus through central Europe, which will lead him to officially set foot in New York on January 1st 1900. Stanley’s childhood is marked by economic struggles, his parents’ difficulty to fit in the society and the premature death of his father. While Rose – a child of immigrants too – grows up in a family that soon abandoned their European roots in favour of a more sophisticated American identity. There are also the consequences of WWII, as Rose experiences an excruciating heartbreak when her ‘Great Love’ David dies in Europe as a soldier, and the post-war economic recovery, with the now married Fergusons enjoying their new life as an average middle-class couple working to build a family. Archie lives what are probably the most exciting and turbulent years of the 20th century through his teenage and early adult years. What he witnesses shapes – directly and indirectly – his consciousness: the cold war and the Red Scare, the assassination of JFK, the civil rights movement, the counterculture, 1968 student uprisings, the Vietnam war and the protests opposing it, and so on. 

Chance is a recurring theme in Auster’s work, and this novel is no exception: the author believes that life is the product of the choices and coincidences that shape us. For example, a simple forgetfulness transforms Isaac Reznikoff – Archie’s grandfather – into Ichabod Ferguson, and the unexpected death of Rose’s beloved uncle provides a name for the protagonist; throughout the book, Ferguson’s path deviates radically according to the decisions and accidents he has to deal with.   

Finally, we can’t talk about ‘4321′ without mentioning its two brilliant female main characters, Amy and Rose. Amy Schneiderman is a key figure in Ferguson’s life, as she accompanies him through adolescence in different roles, depending on the circumstances: in the first cycle, she and Archie fall in love and their relationship will be vital for their maturation, while in the third and fourth cycle Amy is his cousin and step-sister respectively, becoming a trusted family member and supporter of Ferguson’s choices; she’s a smart, witty and passionate girl, and a fundamental presence in the story. Rose Adler, Archie’s mother, is a poignant character: she’s strong, light-hearted, ironic and independent and her wisdom, mixed with her unconditional love for her son, always draws her to make the best decisions possible, even in the most troubled times. 

4321′ is a complex work that’s difficult to define: it can be considered an ambitious coming-of-age novel, a notable postmodern story or a human development study. But, however we decide to read it, one thing’s for sure: to tell the complexity of life, one is not enough. 


Art + Culture Featured

J D Salinger: Author Spotlight

Without World War II, J D Salinger, one of the most influential and controversial American authors of the 20th century, may never have been

J D Salinger was a talented and promising young writer who, at the peak of success, decided to withdraw from society and lead a silent private life – only to grow the mystery and popularity around his figure and turn himself into a legend. 

Literary mythologies apart, the importance of Salinger’s works lies in a variety of factors – like the striking clarity of the writing, the influence of Oriental philosophies and religions and the ability to portray post-war American middle-to-upper-middle class in all its vanities and contradictions, to name a few. But, the main one is certainly the iconic characters: young rebels and gifted children with deep thoughts and interests who refuse to conform to middle-class mediocrity and are destined to be misunderstood by the materialistic American society; Salinger shapes them after his own self and experiences, using them as a vehicle for expressing freely his thoughts and discomforts or to exorcise his own trauma.

Jerome David Salinger was born in 1919 in an upper-middle-class family in New York; his parents’ resources could allow him to have the finest education, but his cynical and restless nature had other plans: he was expelled from multiple private schools until his father decided to send him to the military academy. There, “Jerry” developed a passion for literature and started to work on his characters. One of the first ones he created was Holden Caulfield, who will grow up to become the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye and can be considered an alter ego of young Salinger: a wary and disillusioned teenager that embodies the author’s bitter and intolerant look towards society and its thriving superficiality and hypocrisy. 

Salinger got his first published pieces – the two short stories The Young Folks and Go See Eddie – in the Story Magazine (run by Whit Burnett, who held a short-story writing course at Columbia University that Salinger attended). In 1940, being published, even by a small magazine, was a big milestone for any writer, but Jerry’s aim was to see his stories on the pages of The New Yorker: he proposed numerous works which were all rejected, until 1941 when the magazine finally accepted a short story featuring an embryonal Holden Caulfield. But, unfortunately, Salinger’s dream vanished rapidly: in December of that same year, the USA entered WWII and – given the circumstances – The New Yorker lost any interest in publishing a story about a rebellious teenage boy. 

JD Salinger
© Getty Images

In 1942, following the umpteenth literary delusion, J D Salinger joined the army; in 1944 he was sent to Europe, taking part in the Normandy landings – with six chapters of The Catcher in the Rye on him. Working on the novel mildly distracted him from the atrocities of the war, but it couldn’t save him from the profound impact what he witnessed had on Salinger’s psyche: at the end of the war, he spent a period in a hospital in Nuremberg to cure his nervous breakdown, but once landed back in America his look on the world changed forever. 

Success arrived in 1948 when The New Yorker finally published A Perfect Day for Bananafish, whose protagonist is another unforgettable character: Seymour Glass, a WWII veteran who kills himself on his honeymoon. From this moment on, the enthusiasm around Salinger’s work grew steeply and reached its peak in 1951 with the release of his first and only novel, The Catcher in the Rye, which will become an international timeless classic. 

Recognition eventually started to show its dark effects: Salinger’s intolerance of society made him gradually distance himself from the spotlight until he moved from New York to the small town of Cornish in 1953. The growing misanthropy would then result in cutting off any human interaction from 1980 until his death in 2010 – with the exceptions of some rare appearances at the local post office. The few people close to him confirmed that he never spent a single day of his solitary life without writing. 

Recommended works:

  • The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield narrates what happened to him the previous year shortly before the Christmas holidays when he was kicked out of school – again. But, instead of waiting for the holidays to come back home and give his parents the unfortunate news, Holden escapes and wanders through the streets of New York to make up his mind. This novel has been a manifesto for angsty adolescents for decades: the protagonist’s absolute refusal to meet societal and family expectations, united with unexpected tenderness, sensitive observations and an unforgettable secondary character, make The Catcher in the Rye a powerful coming-of-age masterpiece. 


  • Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour. An Introduction (1963). In these two short stories, writer Buddy Glass focuses on the tragic figure of his brother Seymour, who committed suicide during his honeymoon. The first story is the chronicle of what happened before, during and after Seymour’s messy wedding day; the second one is a detailed analysis of his brother’s supernaturally wise and charismatic persona and the precocious siblings’ childhood in the numerous and eccentric Glass family. In this work emerges Salinger’s interest towards child prodigies, as well as to confront his own post-war trauma and lost innocence. 


  • Nine Stories (1953). This collection brings together nine short stories published between 1948 and 1953, including the fortunate A Perfect Day for Bananafish. The diverse set of characters and situations make this book an essential read to fully understand the exceptionality of Salinger’s work: spanning from the gifted children we learnt to know to broken adults, these stories convey a sense of bitterness, misery and despair – what J D Salinger felt throughout his whole life. But, not everything’s lost, beams of hope lie in the youth, which is the last bastion of humanity, wisdom and purity in a corrupt and ugly world.
Art + Culture Featured

Fresh Water for Flowers by Valérie Perrin – Book Review

Fresh Water for Flowers by Valérie Perrin is a classic example of why you should never judge a book by its cover

By looking at the soft focus black and white photo with pink details on the sleeve, you would think that Fresh Water For Flowers would be a cheesy hopeless romantic novel – a genre many tend to avoid. But, if you decide to pick it up, you’ll realise what a great novel it is. 

The protagonist is Violette Toussaint, a middle-aged woman who works as a cemetery guardian in the French village of Brancion-en-Chalon. She comes across as charming and discreet: she lives alone in the cemetery she lovingly takes care of and welcomes with a smile and a kind word whoever passes by, listening to their stories and taking notes of the funerals she attends; the only thing the locals know about her is that her husband has inexplicably disappeared but, apart from that, her life is shrouded in mystery. 

As the readers will soon find out, Violette’s life has been marked by delusion and loneliness. Growing up unstably as a foster child with various families, she met her future husband Philippe Toussaint with whom she fell desperately in love and soon had a daughter with – Léonine. But, the apparent passion and happiness are destined to fade when Philippe’s true nature emerges and an excruciating tragedy makes everything else feel meaningless. 

fresh water for flowers
© Fresh Water for Flowers

Violette finds some sort of peace and balance when she starts working at the cemetery, where she can cover her own pain with the grief of strangers and begin a new life in another village. Her house is beautifully described as a cosy shelter, with liquors and food always ready for her guests, books, dolls and the smell of the flowers she cultivates in the back garden. This idyllic everyday life is interrupted by the visit of a policeman from Marseille asking about an unknown man his mother expressed the desire to be buried with: from this moment on, Violette is forced to go back to the memories she desperately tried to make quiet, and open up her heart to love. 

The story is told from the protagonist’s perspective: each chapter is a constant back and forth between past and present until they align, creating a complete picture of Violette’s life. Valérie Perrin’s writing is fluid and captivating, with suspense as a core characteristic: the writer progressively unveils details and plot twists, which leave the reader on the edge of their seat until the very last page. Throughout the read, a vast range of emotions is felt: the tone can go from warmth and delight to sadness and anger in a matter of a few pages. An honourable mention has to go also to the mastery Perrin shapes the psychological aspect of the book with: each character has depth and complexity, and big importance is given to the social, familiar and emotional background that influences every person’s set of behaviours; the reader is encouraged to explore and understand what leads the characters to make certain decisions through a neutral, non-judgemental narration, and to form their own opinion. Violette and Philippe in particular are probably the most intricate: Violette has a turbulent past nobody can suspect of given her modest and caring personality, while Philippe is a controversial character whose disgustingly selfish parents – willing or not – irremediably ruined the Toussaints’ life; on the other hand, the lighter moments of the novel are the ones that take place in the present, where we meet characters like the charming policeman Julien Seul and wholesome pallbearers Nono, Gaston and Elvis. But probably the most memorable of them all is Sasha, Violette’s predecessor at the cemetery, who – with his immeasurable kindness – becomes a key, fatherly figure in helping her deal with her grief and find joy in life again. 

Fresh water for flowers is a pleasantly unexpected gem for anybody who loves an engaging novel with well-written characters, unusual settings, an exquisite and well-balanced mixture of drama, comfort, romance and mystery, and where the themes of love and grief are dealt with extreme delicacy and compassion. A strongly recommended read.

Featured TV and Film

40 years of ‘The Young Ones’

Lessons we could all take away from The Young Ones, an alternative comedy triumph

The Young Ones is one of those masterpieces that – to reference Cliff Richard’s homonymous classic hit – comes “once in every lifetime”. The programme revolutionized the concept of comedy, as well as what was considered to be appropriate on television. Conceived as a product of the youth for the youth, The Young Ones officialised the entrance of the 80s alternative comedy scene into tv show schedules and viewers’ living rooms, whether they liked it or not. 

It all started in the late 70s when The Comedy Store – the first stand-up comedy club in Britain – opened in Soho, which provided a stage for a new generation of comedians that otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to perform. In fact, the tendency of the time was mostly of misogynistic and racist gags that, in comedian Alexei Sayle’s words, “assumed no intelligence in the audience”. But rather than being born as an intentional reaction to that, the alternative comedy scene spontaneously answered the growing demand for jokes that could make people laugh without being uselessly offensive. Just like punk, it was born instinctively by a group of like-minded people who proposed a different kind of comedy under no fixed manifesto or agenda. Alternative comedians delivered sketches that made fun of people in power, society, the government or the comedian themselves with the use of an irreverent and accessible style, as well as occasional slapstick action; some exponents were more politically-motivated, others just wanted to be silly. When The Comedy Store’s reputation grew, some BBC producers wondered how they could bring those novelties to television. 

The Young Ones ran from 1982 to 1984 and was written by Ben Elton, Lise Mayer and Rik Mayall. Mayall also plays the role of Rick – the quirky People’s Poet. Other characters included were Ade Edmondson as violent punk Vyvyan, Nigel Planer as depressed hippie Neil, Christopher Ryan as cool guy Mike and Alexei Sayle as various members of the Balowski family. Based on the writers’ and actors’ own experiences, the show centres around the bizarre chronicles of four broke university students living in filth and decadence, without any restrains to imagination or chaos. For this key reason, it firmly divided the audience, with adoring spotty kids on one side and concerned parents on the other.  

Despite coming across as anarchic and nihilistic, The Young Ones is actually a witty show that gave voice to the restless generation of young adults during the turbulent years of the Thatcher government. Margaret Thatcher became the main target of the youth’s rage, along with the rich and careless bourgeoisie adults. And, for the first time in British tv history, a series that’s the comedy equivalent of punk music was aired and aimed exclusively at kids who led a pretty different life from the idyll shown in programmes like The Good Life (at which Vyvyan directs one of his angriest outbursts).

the young ones
© Alamy

All this anger and passion weren’t in vain though: on the 40th anniversary of the first season, let’s have a look at the valuable lessons The Young Ones still teaches us today.

It’s okay to be messy – whether in life or in studies.The four roommates are students at Scumbag College, but we actually never see them study or go to lectures – even though they even take part in University Challenge. They’re not model students nor do they conform to university’s standards, but try their best to stay afloat through the squalor. 

Harmony is achievable. The protagonists are four very different personalities: we always see them bickering, insulting and hitting each other, but they somehow manage to find a middle ground to make cohabitation bearable and stick together in times of trouble.

Not everyone may like you so you might as well be yourself. One of the most iconic moments is certainly the hands up who likes me scene, where Rick tests his popularity in the household. As expected, nobody raises their hand but this doesn’t hold him from always showing his messy and annoying personality.

When creativity is in charge, nothing is impossible. The Young Ones is a surrealist reign where vegetables, animals and objects are brought to life, or a random door can lead to parallel worlds. The writers let their imagination flow freely, without worrying about realism or coherence. And, even if it gets absurd, the outcome is always astonishing.

Life can be funnier if shared. Each episode features musical performances of big groups of the time (e.g. Madness, Motorhead, Damned) and friends from the alternative and the Oxbridge scenes (e.g. Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French), turning the show into a shared success.

We’re all born equal so nobody can be your superior. In pure punk spirit, the protagonists reject authority in all its forms: policemen (or “pigs”) are portrayed as unreasonably violent and comically obtuse, while Thatcher is loudly blamed whenever the roommates go through adversities. Rick in particular dreams for a world where the oppressed can rise and lead the revolution against fascists.

But, it’s the unexpected ending that offers the ultimate lesson that The Young Ones can teach us: we may not be the young ones very long. So, make the most out of your life, as you never know what might happen next.

Featured Thought + Opinion

Life of Brian: Monthy Python’s take on Religious Fanaticism and Political Hypocrisy

Monty Python’s Life of Brian provides interesting reflections on the themes of religion and political activism

Over 14 years, Monty Python established themselves as one of the undisputed cornerstones of British comedy. Coming from the sophisticated education of Oxbridge, the group’s humour is characterised by cultured references and a desecrating look at the institutions and values of our society, as shown in their numerous productions that range from feature films to tv sketches and live shows. Their 1978 film Life of Brian provides interesting reflections on the themes of religion and political activism and is a perfect example of their witty and thought-provoking style. 

It’s the story of Brian Cohen, a young Jew from Nazareth whose life, since birth, always intertwined with that of a definitely more famous peer and fellow citizen: Jesus. Growing up in Roman-occupied Judea, as an adult Brian develops a shaky self-consciousness and loathing for the invaders. Brian’s life changes when he meets the People’s Front of Judea, a revolutionary group for the liberation from the Roman rule: after discovering that they have political interests in common, the organization thinks that Brian could be useful for the implementation of their subversive actions; this puts Brian under the authorities’ spotlight, but he always manages to run away. 

During one of these escapes, Brian accidentally falls on a preacher’s pedestal and in order to save himself he improvises random phrases to the small crowd that has gathered below him but, in doing so, he’s chased by an increasing number of people who believe he’s the Messiah. Brian tries in vain to push his ‘disciples’ away, but the more he denies that he’s the Messiah the more they’re convinced of his holiness. 

Brian is arrested and sentenced to crucifixion, but the PFJ refuses to save him as they believe that their cause needs a martyr; abandoned by the revolutionaries and by his mother, Brian has no choice but to accept his absurd end to the uplifting nihilism of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

Brian is essentially an adult stuck into adolescence: inexperienced, shy, full of doubts and dominated by an authoritarian and petulant mother; nevertheless, the germ of some form of political and social awareness begins to develop in him. The meeting with the People’s Front of Judea gives him the opportunity to get out of a condition of passivity and start a process of maturation, as well as to make him acknowledge the implications of fanaticism – both political and religious.

life of Brian
Life of Brian © Monty Python

Since their first appearance, the members of the People’s Front of Judea are presented as the stereotype of the passionate left-wing political activist: articulate thoughts and vocabulary and a taste for discussion. But it’s soon shown that these characters do nothing actually revolutionary, and are stuck in and endless limbo of rhetoric and insults towards other liberation parties. This fictional group embodies a sad tendency of politics, still true nowadays: the struggle of the Left to actually build a strong coalition, which allows the xenophobe and totalitarian right-wing dangerous rise. In the film, Judea’s numerous Fronts get lost in bickering, letting small dissonances divide them, instead of uniting and leading the uprise against the Romans. 

Another scene that is worth considering is the one when one of the PFJ members comes out as a trans woman: this event is sceptically welcomed by the other activists at first, as they ridicule her for her wish to have babies, considering it a “struggle against reality”. While some people exploit this particular scene to horribly justify their transphobic views, many agree that it’s actually the contrary: the sketch aims at proving once again these activists’ incompetence as, when confronted with something that might bring them together and be an actual point of start for their action, they take it as just another thing to disagree on, as well as showing the hypocrisy of supposedly ‘progressive’ people who in fact fail at being open-minded in real life. Many wish to believe that this latter interpretation is true and it wasn’t Monty Python’s intention to be transphobic – although John Cleese’s views on the matter, as well as his position on the recent JK Rowling issue, leave many rightly dubious. 

Given its themes, Life of Brian sparked outrage within the Church, which accused the film of being blasphemous as well as an attack on religion and the figure of Christ. In return, Monty Python has eloquently explained that the actual meaning isn’t to ridicule Christianity itself – or Jesus, who only appears for a few seconds and is left as a background character -, but it’s rather a critique on the unquestioned acceptance of beliefs and ideologies that feed fanaticism. Brian’s ‘disciples’ are fascinated by his harmless nonsense and, although their hysteria is exaggerated for laughs, it’s actually very reflective: in times of turmoil, people tend to seek references and meaning in their lives; some find this in religion and spirituality, but others – usually the weaker – are willing to follow anyone who promises them any answers.

History is full of examples of people that had their lives and minds ruined by these money-grabbing cult leaders or disciples who committed crimes blinded by their devotion; or furthermore, more recently, self-help gurus who charge people absurd amounts of money for their services, such as supposedly life-changing seminars filled with cryptic phrases and basic human knowledge. This said Brian’s helpless cry to his irrationally adoring crowd serves us the real message of the film: “You don’t need to follow me! You don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals!”

Finally, Brian’s crucifixion is the tragicomic end of a man who just wanted to be left alone and, as the whistles of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” give us a bittersweet smile, we’re left to reflect on whether life really has a supernatural, one-for-all meaning or if simply we have to make our own meanings ourselves. 


Community Featured

Franca Viola and her Revolutionary Disobedience

How Franca Viola’s resistance changed history in Italy

It’s undeniable that we’re experiencing concerning times, where it seems easy to strip away laws that protect basic human rights and that we all should agree to preserve at all costs regardless of our political and religious views. In the blink of an eye, laws that took years – even decades – of protests and fights to achieve suddenly don’t matter anymore. Just to mention a couple of recent examples, Poland’s anti-abortion and anti-LGBT+ laws, Italy’s drop of the Zan bill and the US’s overturn of Roe v. Wade are a few indicators of the current climate in the West, a part of the world that for ages has praised itself for its progressiveness and freedom. But, the West is also a place where a certain political class is ready any day to put at risk the lives of thousands of people. 

Until 1981, in Italy rapists could resort to the so-called reparatory marriage to avoid prison: if a man wanted a woman against her will, he could kidnap, abuse and then marry her to save himself from jail and the victim’s family from dishonour. This practice was formalised by article 544 and was part of the Rocco code, a set of rules which dated back to the fascist regime. The law stated that rape was an offence against public morality (rather than a crime against the person, as it was determined in 1994) and that the sin of pre-marital sex could be erased by forcing the victim into marriage with the man who took her virginity. This law – alongside article 587 which allowed ‘crime of honour’ – had its roots in the cultural views on gender roles and sex of the time: according to the fascist government, the core of society was family, which was controlled in every aspect by the man, while the role of the woman was relegated to wife and mother; the sole purpose of her life was to birth as many children as she could, so the regime could become more powerful. Hence, why rape was a crime against public morality: a woman wasn’t an individual with decision-making power, she was a birthing machine and a husband-pleaser, an object that men and the government-owned and decided to use however they liked and if a woman didn’t follow those rules, it undermined fascist society. 

Franca Viola
Franca Viola © Rare Historical Photos

In Sicily (and in the south of Italy in general), these conceptions were deeply intertwined with the religious beliefs of chastity and purity and were hard to die even decades after WWII and the fall of fascism. Also, the Rocco code was still part of the newborn Italian Republic’s legal system, which still legitimised male violence towards women: in a democratic country, marriage wasn’t based on feelings and the difference between abuse and love was pretty much absent. In rural areas, in particular, women and girls had to bow down to these rules and sacrifice their own aspirations in order to fit into the patriarchal society, otherwise, they would be ostracised and labelled as shameless women. Victims didn’t have a say in their own lives, and seeking justice was a utopia as all the fault for the violence suffered was falling on their shoulders only. But, in 1966, things eventually started to change. 

The story of Franca Viola:

Franca Viola was born in Alcamo, a small Sicilian town, in a family of farmers and landowners. When she was 15, with her parent’s consent, she got engaged to Filippo Melodia who had family ties with the local mafia. After the latter was accused of theft and mafia relations, Franca’s father insisted to interrupt the engagement. As a consequence, Mr Viola has been repeatedly threatened by Melodia; but Franca and her family didn’t give up, not even when the proposals were becoming more and more insistent. On December 26th 1965, 18-years-old Franca was kidnapped by Melodia with the help of 12 accomplices, who dragged her to a farmhouse in the outskirts of Alcamo: Viola was kept there for several days, without food or water and was raped while she was in a state of semi-unconsciousness. Melodia was sure to get away with his actions thanks to reparatory marriage, but Viola refused and, when she was finally rescued by the police, she told everything and got her abuser arrested. 

Franca Viola now
Franca Viola Recently © La Repubblica

Franca was determined to obtain justice and, in December 1966, she filed a lawsuit against Melodia: she was the first ever woman to do so in Italy. The trial wasn’t easy for the Viola family though. In small towns, rumours spread easily and Franca was isolated for speaking up and accepting her state as a shameless woman. But, she never surrendered and, even when her family was threatened and denied jobs, she always got the unconditional support of her parents and showed up to court with confidence. Even if Melodia’s lawyers attempted to sully Viola’s reputation, making false claims that the girl already had intercourse with him and that the kidnapping was an elopement, the trial ended in Franca’s favour and Melodia was condemned to 11 years of prison. He was shot dead in 1978.  

Franca Viola
Franca Viola © Rare Historical Photos

Unfortunately, scandalmongers didn’t stop, even after the verdict. And so a life of exclusion and loneliness was predicted for Viola as nobody would marry a deflowered woman.  However, Franca challenged the backward norms of her time yet again and in December 1968 – two years after the trial – she tied the knot with Giuseppe Ruisi, her childhood sweetheart. 

Franca Viola became a heroine for Italian women and victims of abuse, a girl who wasn’t afraid to follow her feelings in a time where victims’ voices didn’t matter because, as she said during the trial, “honour is lost by those who do certain things, not by those who suffer them”.   

Featured Music

Ypsigrock Festival: The Future is Already Nostalgia

Summer means essentially one thing for music enthusiasts: the peak of festival season.

During late winter and early spring, some of the biggest festivals around the world start to announce exciting line-ups full of the most famous international acts and, as life slowly comes back to some level of normality after a two-year pandemic, thousands of fans gather to enjoy not only the spectacular performances of their favourite artists but also the unique vibes and freedom of these events. When we think of music festivals, some names come to mind: Glastonbury, Sziget, Primavera Sound, Lollapalooza, Tomorrowland, Reading & Leeds, Roskilde, End of the Road…the list goes on. But this time, we’re talking about an independent festival that brought the loudest music to a tiny village in the Sicilian mountains, that celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Previously awarded the “Best small festival” in Europe, Ypsigrock Festival is small but mighty. 

Ypsigrock Festival
Ypsigrock Festival © Roberto Panucci

Ypsigrock Festival was founded in 1997 by Gianfranco Raimondo and Vincenzo Barreca, two friends from Castelbuono (in the province of Palermo) and hardcore music fans who wanted to recreate the atmosphere of international festivals in their hometown. Castelbuono is a village in the Sicilian countryside, in the Madonie mountains: it may look like a relaxing place where nothing happens, but it’s actually a thriving centre for food, culture and music. Its culinary tradition is internationally represented by the Fiasconaro family, whose production of Panettoni, pistachio and manna creams, ice cream and other typical sweets is a must to taste for anyone visiting.

Historically, Castelbuono saw the succession of Greek, Roman, Arab and Byzantine populations, but it was officially founded in the early 1300s by the Ventimiglia family, who decided to build a majestic castle which gives name to the village; walking around the town, one’s struck by the beauty of its churches, historical buildings and alleys, as well as the stunning surrounding natural landscapes. Musically, the village is on any music fan’s map: in fact, in August the main square prepares to host the Jazz Festival and the Ypsigrock Festival, which have both reached their 25th edition this year and are considered two unmissable events of the Sicilian summer. 

The name of the festival is the mix of “Ypsigro” – Castelbuono’s ancient name – and “rock”; its first edition in 1997 lasted only two days and mainly hosted local artists. In the following years, the bill got enriched with some of the most important names of the Italian alternative scene (such as Afterhours and Marlene Kuntz). And, in 2000, the first international group – Venus from Bruxelles – made its appearance on the main stage. 

Ypsigrock Festival
Ypsigrock Festival © Elisabetta Brian

In the 2010s, more and more artists – both well-known acts of the alternative genre and from the indie scene – played at the festival, expanding Ypsigrock’s international interest: Dinosaur Jr, Alt-J, Primal Scream, Editors, Anna Calvi, Fat White Family, The Vaccines, Fontaines D.C. and Pip Blom are just some of these names. During the afternoon, the smaller acts play in different venues around Castelbuono (such as St. Francesco’s cloister and the ex-Church of the Crucifix), while bigger performances are held in the evening in the main square, right below the castle, colourfully lit for the occasion, with the crowd standing and sitting everywhere: you can imagine the beauty and excitement. Also, at the end of each festival day, the camping in the woods around Castelbuono (named Ypsicamping) is ready for the afterparty, with music and drinks all night long. 

This is enough to explain why Ypsigrock Festival’s new line-up is awaited with impatience each year. At the end of every edition, fans share their memories, photos and videos with each other and add their newest festival’s wristband to their jealously-kept collection, waiting for the next one to come. Ypsigrock is not just an event: it’s a celebration of life, beauty and harmony in the purest form, which is something only good art can do, and its motto “the future is already nostalgia” perfectly represents the desire to experience these feelings again after the festival’s over and everyone goes back to their everyday lives. 

It’s not easy to illustrate what Ypsigrock really is to someone who has never attended: some say that it’s the Woodstock of our day, others that it’s a smaller version of Glastonbury. But, what’s sure is it’s a one-of-a-kind experience. This year’s edition was held between the 4th and 7th of August and featured lots of interesting artists, such as The Flaming Lips, DIIV, Goat Girl, Yard Act and Self Esteem.