Things I have enjoyed in 2021

I haven’t been especially active blogging in 2021 (as if that’s anything new) so I thought I’d list some of the things I’ve enjoyed reading, watching etc. this year.

  • Good LGBT Representation is Boring (and why that's a problem), by Verity Ritchie: this video essay touches neatly on what I’ve found hollow about a lot of recent ‘representation’: characters seeming overly ‘acceptable’ and lacking interiority or rough edges. Ritchie is supremely well-read, and ties their thesis into the problems caused by our constant desire for an ideological purity in media that does not, and cannot, exist. (Content warning: Ritchie demonstrates their point with some examples of transphobia in mid-2000s UK TV comedy, but these are skippable.)
  • The Daevabad Trilogy, by S. A. Chakraborty: a very clever series that fools you into thinking it will be a fantastical romance in which a con-woman falls in love with a genie, before blowing it wide open. Part political thriller, part fantasy-action story, part historical fanfic—every turn of the page reveals some sumptuous new detail of intricate world-building that complicates matters. Chakraborty realises her characters with an intense compassion, clearly driven by her own Muslim faith. It felt odd to read this—a story about royal intrigue, political in-fighting, sex scandals, rampant inequality, and existential threats to an insular society—in Britain in early 2021, with the cracks in our own society’s fascia ever-widening. It takes a while to get going, but the pay-off is spectacular.
  • Princess Mononoke (1997 dir. Hayao Miyazaki): I know, I know, super late to the party on this one. We watched this early on in the year. Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack by itself is mesmerising, with its minimal use of synthesisers, lush tones, and dramatic changes in mood. Simply a feast for the eyes and ears, with a story that remains as pertinent today as it ever has—which, given the movie is approaching its 25th anniversary, is probably not a good sign for the way the world is going.
  • Sorrowland, by Rivers Solomon: this is a novel that practically evaporates off the page so you can smell it. Solomon condenses righteous fury, distills it into a road-trip narrative with body horror, lust, and conspiracy thriller elements, and shapes it into prose that is at once accessible and yet poetic, cosmic and yet earthy; fae describes the world with a tender zeal that had me enraptured from start to finish. Faer other two books, An Unkindness of Ghosts and The Deep, are also fantastic.
  • Screen Violence, by CHVRCHES: ‘pull me into the screen at the end,’ pleads Lauren Mayberry at the end of California. All the CHVRCHES hallmarks are here: toe-tapping rhythms; unnervingly complex song structures and hooks; lush harmonies; lyrics that range from melancholia to rage to introspective bargaining, like any good depressive spiral. This is in the wake of a year and a half of the pandemic and on/off lockdowns, an aggressively upsetting news cycle that seems to erode our sense of reality, and CHVRCHES’s own experience with a wave of online harassment after criticising former collaborator Marshmello for working with Chris Brown. On the crunchy, Plutonian track How Not to Drown (featuring The Cure’s Robert Smith), it’s not hard to imagine what might have inspired lines such as ‘you can’t kill the king/and those who kiss the ring.’ This, followed by the unsettling Final Girl and the gloriously cathartic Good Girls, forms a thematically tight run of three tracks that suggest a journey to Hades and back.
  • Lean Out, by Dawn Foster: Dawn Foster was a journalist who I had followed on Twitter for a very long time, and only had a few (all positive) interactions with. She was an iconoclast, she was piss-funny, and she had a deeply admirable moral compass that shines through in Lean Out, a rebuttal of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In—with the thesis that “feminism has become watered down, treated as a whitewashing badge of honour rather than a radical emancipatory politics.” Dawn Foster clearly wrote from a place of experience, of meticulous research—Lean Out even addresses the Focus E15 campaign in the Carpenters Estate in Stratford, only a short walk from where I live (in the largely gentrified Olympic athletes’ village.) Tragically, Dawn Foster died suddenly in July—a devastating loss for us all (except maybe the Sun’s picture desk.)
  • YouTube gardening videos: Having a balcony of our own has given me an opportunity for (yet another) new hyper-fixation, and this time it’s stress-gardening. We bought an olive tree, and when it came to put it in its permanent pot, various clips on how to do this (like this one, this one, and this one) were invaluable. Gardeners tend to have gentle, relaxing voices, and tend to be optimistic about things’ chances of growing. (Bulbs not in yet? Just whack it in, it’ll probably be fine. Don’t get much sun? Just give this thing the sunniest spot you can, and it may grow slowly but it’ll probably be fine.) They’ve replaced train drivers’ troubleshooting videos as something reassuring to have on in the background while I work.
  • That Time A Dollar Store Made A Game Show, by Lady Emily: as a fan of game shows, this fascinated me as a dissection of an idea that was badly conceived, badly executed, and a fundamentally flawed corporate vanity project from the get-go. And I hate that I can understand exactly how these decisions were made.

Here are some things I have wanted to get round to, but haven’t yet:

  • The Transgender Issue, by Shon Faye—I have a great deal of time for her as a writer and am looking forward to this
  • Dune, by Frank Herbert—I’m about halfway through but finding the novel a dense struggle, even with a top-notch audiobook
  • The Green Knight (dir. David Lowery) of which I’ve heard very good things
  • Halo Infinite, which I may end up playing if I get COVID and have to self-isolate
  • Axiom’s End, by Lindsay Ellis—just started the audiobook
  • Star Trek Discovery season 4the complete fuck-up around international licensing leading to the show being pulled days before its premiere has dulled my interest in downloading whichever new streaming app is required to watch it.
  • Don’t Look Up (dir. Adam McKay) which might well be ‘my thing’ but also felt a bit grim for Christmas.