Cultural Highlights (2022)

BOOKS

I don’t think I read a single thing that came out in 2022, so this is simply a list of the things I read that made me think, cry, laugh, feel seen, furiously turn down pages and seethe with envy.

Favourite Fiction Reads: My Phantoms – Gwendoline Riley, Beautiful World, Where Are You – Sally Rooney (would love to see another Element Pictures adaptation of this one, can see White Lotus’ Leo Woodall as Felix and Stacy Martin as Alice and James Norton as Simon and Aisling Franciosi as Eileen), Sorrow and Bliss – Meg Mason, America Is Not The Heart – Elaine Castillo, Oh William! – Elizabeth Strout, A Passage North – Anuk Arudpragasam

Favourite Short Story Collections: Self-Help – Lorrie Moore (just wow, I think I’ll be trying to get Lorrie Moore imitation stories out of my system for a while), Send Nudes – Saba Sams, Certain American States – Catherine Lacey, Whereabouts – Jhumpa Lahiri, Her Body and Other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado

Favourite Non-Fiction Reads: Happening – Annie Ernaux (also loved the film adaptation), Experiments in Imagining Otherwise – Lola Olufemi, Little Weirds – Jenny Slate, These Precious Days – Ann Patchett, Aftermath – Preti Taneja, On Freedom – Maggie Nelson

Reading intentions for 2023…

Trying to read a book a month that defies my usual boundaries or preferences, i.e. an author I’ve never read before, a genre I rarely dabble in, a subject matter new to me. Lining up some Emily St. John Mandel to get more acquainted with speculative fiction and thinking about getting Lizzy Stewart’s Alison to dip my toe into the world of graphic novels. Might even see about reading some crime novels and trying to squeeze some more male authors into the mix.

MUSIC

  1. Hold The Girl – Rina Sawayama
  2. Wet Leg – Wet Leg
  3. Dance Fever – Florence & The Machine
  4. Preacher’s Daughter – Ethel Cain
  5. Big Time – Angel Olsen
  6. RENAISSANCE – Beyoncé
  7. Harry House – Harry Styles
  8. SICK! – Earl Sweatshirt
  9. Lucky Me – Phoebe Green
  10. Surrender – Maggie Rogers
  11. Being Funny in a Foreign Language – The 1975
  12. Ramona Park Broke My Heart – Vince Staples

This was the year I succumbed to the hype around Harry Styles (purely on a musical level, to be clear); fell back in love with musicians who defined my late teens and early twenties: Florence and Earl (hello, names for hypothetical children); listened to a handful of songs on repeat: This Hell, King, That’s Where I Am and discovered a new love in the form of Ethel Cain.

TV

Severance and Pachinko were early favourites, having watched them back in February and March and cementing Apple TV+ as the MV(S)P – most valuable streaming platform – of 2022, with HBO Max a close second. They felt to me like two of the most complete TV series I had ever watched. White Lotus meanwhile was a joy from start to finish and was even more joyous in that it felt like people were watching and speculating together.

There were a bunch of big shows I missed because I have yet to splash out for a Disney+ subscription: Andor, Moon Knight, Obi-Wan Kenobi. And I still haven’t watched a single episode of Better Call Saul because I still haven’t finished Breaking Bad.

In other TV watching news, I finally saw all six seasons of Line of Duty, Couples Therapy is genius and I’ve watched both seasons twice, The Crown was infinitely watchable and instantly forgettable.

And my favourite TV performances of the year include:

  • Julia Roberts and Betty Gilpin in Gaslit
  • Gabrielle Creevy in In My Skin (which was released in 2021, but I only saw this year. Hers and Gilpin’s casting in the upcoming Three Women adaptation is hugely exciting).
  • John Turturro, Britt Lower and Tramell Tillman in Severance
  • Alison Oliver in Conversations With Friends
  • The whole cast of Pachinko
  • Jeremy Allen White, Ebon Moss-Bacharach and Ayo Edebiri in The Bear
  • Gbemisola Ikumelo in A League of Their Own
  • Olivia Cooke and Emma D’Arcy in House of the Dragon
  • Meghann Fahy, Aubrey Plaza and Tom Hollander in The White Lotus
  • Amrit Kaur in The Sex Lives of College Girls

FILM

I always struggle with film lists because one of the privileges of working in the ‘industry’ is you get early, pre-theatrical release access to many films, so this list is indicative of what I saw this year, rather than what officially came out in cinemas this year.

The full list…

  1. Aftersun (Charlotte Wells, UK)
  2. The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier, Norway)
  3. Happening (Audrey Diwan, France)
  4. Close (Lukas Dhont, Belgium)
  5. Corsage (Marie Kreutzer, Austria)
  6. Godland (Hlynur Pálmason, Iceland)
  7. Decision To Leave (Park Chan Wook, South Korea)
  8. Alcarràs (Carla Simón, Spain)
  9. One Fine Morning (Mia Hansen-Løve, France)
  10. Compartment No. 6 (Juho Kwosmanen, Finland)
  11. Murina (Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović, Croatia)
  12. Blue Jean (Georgia Oakley, UK)
  13. The Quiet Girl (Colm Bairéad, Ireland)
  14. Broker (Hirokazu Kore-eda, South Korea)
  15. All The Beauty and the Bloodshed (Laura Poitras, US)
  16. The Blue Caftan (Maryam Touzani, Morocco)
  17. Bones and All (Luca Guadagnino, US)
  18. Fire of Love (Sara Dosa, US)
  19. Emily the Criminal (John Patton Ford, US)
  20. Marcel the Shell With Shoes On (Dean Fleischer Camp, US)
  21. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Japan)
  22. Everything Everywhere All At Once (The Daniels, US)

Film-watching intentions for 2023:

Thanks to BFI Southbank programming Sight & Sound’s 2022 Greatest Films of All Time Poll I should manage to tick off a few classics that have long been on my to-watch list, including the one that claim a number one spot: Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

Elsewhere I’m going to try and pick a decade each month to theme my ‘first-time watches’ around, i.e. for January I’m time-traveling back to 2002 and aiming to watch 25th Hour, Infernal Affairs, Adaptation and Punch Drunk Love.

OTHER MEDIA

Podcasts I loved: (in no particular order)

Thresholds, an interview show with writers and artists, hosted by Jordan Kisner. Climavores, which explores how what we eat affects our planet. Ologies with Alie Ward, hands down one of the best podcast hosts out there and a gorgeous resource for learning about our weird and wild world. Still Processing, J Wortham and Wesley Morris’ cultural criticism podcast, which always holds space for empathy, evaluation and re-evaluation. Finding Our Way, a podcast about imagination, abolition, power and change. The Town with Matthew Belloni, my go-to for understanding the latest trends and headlines in Hollywood. Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso, probably my favourite interview podcast both for the calibre of guests he secures and the gentle way he probes their minds. Literary Friction and its hosts Carrie and Octavia are who I call upon for book chat and recommendations. Anthems, short, empowering manifestoes themed around a particular subject. I also regularly listen to Code Switch, The Ezra Klein Show, Death Sex & Money, The New Yorker: Fiction, Adam Buxton and Criticism Is Dead.

Newsletters I loved: (in no particular order)

Haley Nahman’s Maybe Baby. The Ann Friedman Weekly. Story Club with George Saunders. Nicole Donut about the writing process and creative practice. HEATED, Emily Atkin’s updates about the climate crisis. Austin Kleon’s creative inspiration. Dense Discovery.

Long-form writing I loved: (in no particular order)

Sophie Gilbert on the Will Smith slapping Chris Rock incident for The Atlantic. Jia Tolentino’s commentary on the overturning of Roe vs. Wade and abortion for The New Yorker. Sarah Polley’s piece for The Guardian about starring in a Terry Gilliam film as a child. A New Yorker piece on pickleball! The absolutely devastating piece Merope Mills wrote about losing her 13-year-old daughter for The Guardian. Simran Hans diving into the role of the critic-influencer for WePresent. No profile could quite top Jeremy Strong’s in The New Yorker (December 2021), but I continued to enjoy Michael Schulman’s work regardless, especially this piece on Elisabeth Moss. Imogen West-Knights on ‘the Queen of crime-solving’ for The Guardian. And although it came out five years ago, I did revisit Sam Knight’s piece about what happens when The Queen dies, also for The Guardian.

May Culture Round-Up

TV 

I Love Dick, Series 1, Amazon

Arresting and squirm-inducingly intimate, this is a defiant depiction of obsession and desire, in all its forms – ugly, unrequited, unruly. Based on Chris Krauss’ memoir of the same name, Transparent’s Jil Soloway is arguably the perfect helmer for this provocative source material and in her hands it becomes even more cerebral and transgressive.

The art world might be alienating to some audiences, but Kathryn Hahn’s aptitude for awkward charm and Kevin Bacon’s aloof roguishness are enough to keep you enthralled. (If you need more convincing there is a scene where he is shirtless and carries a sheep.) The soundtrack, cinematography and direction are also astonishingly good, with Andrea Arnold taking the ropes in a few episodes, utilising the raw-nerved, hypersensitivity on which she has made a career to sizzling effect.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Series 1, Hulu

Reed Morano has long been a favoured cinematographer of mine. Since seeing her work in Frozen River, Little Birds & For Ellen I have been enchanted by the visceral, vérité-style of her shots and her gorgeous attention to detail. It was exciting news then to hear she’d be given her biggest platform yet directing and executive producing The Handmaid’s Tale for Hulu.

A damning and darkly modernised version of Margaret Atwood’s novel, there’s a spiky wit and stylishness which pulsates throughout. Its self-reflexive, pop-cultural nods are put to particularly good use in the soundtrack department, as seen in the first two episodes when Leslie Gore’s ‘You Don’t Own Me’ and Simple Minds’ ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ play towards the end. Its spine, however, never loses its morality or for that matter, its chill. Despite the hubristic sense of humour, The Handmaid’s Tale sadly remains a timely tale of female subjugation and exploitation.

The casting is also cunningly brilliant. Elisabeth Moss might just be the hottest property in television right now, what with Mad Men and Top of the Lake also on her CV, and her Offred is another bastion of strength, smarts and vulnerability. Samira Wiley and Madeleine Brewer, of Orange Is The New Black fame, also appear as fellow handmaids, whilst Alexis Bledel as the mutilated Ofglen will make you forget she ever played Rory Gilmore.

This is tense, imaginative and rousing TV. Poignantly performed and executed with exacting technical precision, it’s hard to watch but you won’t be able to tear your eyes away.

FILM

Berlin Syndrome (DIR. Cate Shortland, 2017)

Teresa Palmer plays a nervous solo traveller in Cate Shortland’s third and most accessible film yet. As a Berlin-based romance turns sour, and as the title alludes to, escalates into a hostage situation, what begins as moody indie fare turns into something weird, intense and cerebral. The muted performances and consistently menacing, irresistibly mounted cinematography breathe life into a somewhat spare plot. However, predictable this is not. Shortland explores the predator/prey dichotomy with a startling empathy, and eschews the cliché of villain/victim to summon something as sensitive as it can be sickening. As in her debut Somersault, and follow-up Lore, Shortland continues to prove herself a brilliantly tactile and evocative director, weaving a texture at once sensuous and suspenseful. It might be minimalist in design, but the effect is resounding, with the last 30 minutes especially thrilling.

In cinemas now.

BOOKS

The Girls – Emma Cline

I finally got around to reading the wunderkind Emma Cline’s literary sensation The Girls. A novel so talked about its pages were practically curling under the weight of expectation. And sadly, I wasn’t wowed.

The narrative concerns 13-year-old Evie Boyd and her fleeting, though formative experience of a Charles Manson-esque cult, where a ragtag group of women worship their mysterious leader Russell. Cline is especially good at evoking the sun-drenched and soporific landscape of 60s California, as well as the bewildered internal landscape of adolescence that tempt Evie into this world. However, as a reader we’re always kept at a frustrating distance. Evie’s perspective is curbed by her half-hearted initiation into the group. She experiences some, but not all of their deviant activities and in firmly sticking with Evie’s viewpoint, Cline rather limits her own ability to delve deeper into the savagery and sadomasochism of the cult.

As The New York Times so succinctly put it:

What results is a historical novel that goes halfway down the rabbit hole and exquisitely reports back. Then it pulls out, eschewing the terrifying, fascinating human murk…Still, it’s a spellbinding story.

 

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

At a lithe 147 pages, Riley’s thoroughly British novel(la) is all the more intriguing when you consider its being shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction and that other such novels to have been nominated include Hanya Yangihara’s behemoth A Little Life and Donna Tartt’s equally weighty The Goldfinch. It says a lot about the particularity and potency of Riley’s writing that she’s considered among them. And not wrongly so. This lovely, if mordantly sad book, concerns Neve and her strained marriage to the ailing Edwyn. In vibrant brushstrokes Riley depicts quite how she ended up there and in doing so, proves herself an absolute fiend for tight, lucid prose. Take the following:

Back in the summer she’d had a birthday M&S voucher she said she wouldn’t use: did I want it? I did. She’d started her turn then as we crossed the floor to Hosiery: surrounded, as we were, by strange statuary. My mother blenched extravagantly at the gussied-up torsos, blinking hard like someone had flashed a torch in her eyes, saying she couldn’t understand why anyone would buy, wear, matching underwear.

For her sheer powers of observation and her ability to locate humour, tenderness and melancholy in the gut-wrenchingly ordinary, Riley must be commended. It’s perhaps a bit on the scant and under-sketched side for my taste, but it’s easy to relate to her exploration of muddied relationships – whether parental, platonic or romantic.

THEATRE

Woyzeck at The Old Vic

I saw this Jack Thorne penned revival of Georg Büchner’s classic on its first night of previews, which means I had the advantage of being completely unswayed by public opinion, but the disadvantage of seeing quite a nervy and fluctuant production. John Boyega takes on the titular role of a hard-up soldier, struggling with past traumas and drug-induced paranoia, though the setting has been relocated to 1980s Cold War Berlin. He’s a charismatic actor and can more than carry himself on stage, and here he delivers a committed, if somewhat gauche performance. Surpassing Boyega in subtlety and charm is his Irish Catholic girlfriend Marie, played by Sarah Greene (Poldark’s former squeeze apparently!), whose got the tough job of being the stable axis around which Boyega erratically rattles. The supporting actors likewise, bring presence to their occasionally stereotypical characters.

Ultimately this is a fierce and robust play about poverty, masculinity and mental-health, and the set design, music and direction all do well to limn the claustrophobic environment and its increasingly malevolent protagonist. However it struggles to reach the levels of gravitas its so desperately striving for.

ART

The American Dream: Pop to Present at The British Museum

Warhol, Liechtenstein, Pollock – the greats are all on display in this exhibition that claims to chart ‘The American Dream’ in all its monolithic, prevailing and consumerist glory. And certainly its scope is extensive, and impressive: there are more than 200 works from 70 artists working between 1960 and 2014 on displays and art movements including abstract, minimalism, photorealism and portraiture are all touched upon. Ed Ruscha’s pleasingly geometric gas station prints and the orange glow of the California room were particular highlights.There are political allusions – AIDs, gender equality, civil rights, the Vietnam War – but the exhibition as a whole felt too hurried and surface to be exploratory or penetrating.

On reflection, I don’t think pop art is my thing.

MUSIC

Angel Olsen at Camden Roundhouse

Angel Olsen knows how to make an entrance. As the woozy backbeat of ‘Heart Shaped Face’ is kickstarted by her suited-and-booted band, she appears, a few bars in and lets her soaring vibrato fill the room. It’s almost better to have not listened to her latest album in a while; to have forgotten how good Angel Olsen is, because her live performance more than reminds you. The show as a whole is muted and magical, with the volume turned way down low on theatrics or distractions, and the focus solely on Olsen’s enthralling, transporting vocals. ‘Shut Up And Kiss Me’ and ‘Not Gonna Kill You’ provided energetic interjections, but ultimately this show was an extension of her album: subdued, smouldering and sublime.


52 Books in 52 Weeks

Like most university students, there was a great disparity between the academic reading list I was set and the list of books I actually managed to read. Ashamed as I am to admit it, there were days when catching up with Orange is the New Black took priority over devouring William Faulkner’s Light In August. But worry not, I am seeking to rectify this literary laziness.

I am constantly acquiring new additions to my ‘to-read list’ and pick up perused paperbacks in charity shops like the Kindle has issued an exile order of its print foes. And yet very rarely do I sit down and make time for reading. By the time I roll in to bed I can barely keep my eyes open and the only time I read consistently is when I’ve had the fortune of discovering a real page-turner. Or when the Wi-Fi is down.

So I’ve set myself a challenge. I’m never going to run the London Marathon, so this is my literary equivalent. Something that feels momentous and worthy, and won’t damage but knees, but nevertheless looks nigh on impossible. The risk of failing runs high, and no doubt there will be weekends when curling up with a box-set, or remembering what it feels like to have sun on my skin and frolic in the grass will usurp the quest to quench 52 pieces of literature.

But I’m setting myself the task nevertheless (to be honest I’ve never done much frolicking anyway). I may encounter perilous paper-cuts, magical-realist induced migraines and waves of self-doubt, yet power through I shall.

I’ve compiled the list below and will strike-through the ones I manage to complete. This is made up of the astonishing number of novels, memoirs and non-fiction fancies that I already own, but have stockpiled to be enjoyed at a later date. Some are titles I have claimed to have already read (three of which I already have, but would like to revisit), a couple are ones I’ve started but failed to finish and the rest are journeys I have yet to begin with charaters I have yet to encounter. I also own War and Peace, but that’s going to remain on the shelf in a decorative capacity only.

I’m aiming to jot a few thoughts down on each entry. The game-plan is to start a book each Monday and by Sunday be able to give a snippet review. This post is a bit belated as I’ve read the first five, but I wanted some assurance this was a project worth investing in/blogging about, before diving straight in, realising it was all too overwhelming (like this year’s journal-keeping aspiration – last entry dated January 24th) and retreating back to Netflix with my high-minded tail between my legs. That being said, I’m already lagging behind, as I finished no.5 on Tuesday and only picked up no.6 on Thursday, but hey, everyone loves an underdog. Here goes nothing…

  1. How To Be Alone – Jonathan Franzen
  2. The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt
  3. Wild – Cheryl Strayed
  4. How Should A Person Be? – Sheila Heti
  5. The Colossus of New York – Colson Whitehead
  6. The Light Between Oceans – M.L. Steadman
  7. Pure – Andrew Miller
  8. This Changes Everything – Naomi Klein
  9. The Godfather – Mario Puzo
  10. One Hundred Years Of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  11. In The Lake In The Woods – Tim O’Brien
  12. Into The Wild – Jon Krakauer
  13. How The French Invented Love – Marilyn Yalom
  14. The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson
  15. I Am Malala – Malala Yousafzai
  16. Of Mice And Men – John Steinbeck
  17. The Engagements – J Courtney Sullivan
  18. American Tabloid – James Ellroy
  19. L.A. Confidential – James Ellroy
  20. Jazz – Toni Morrison
  21. Beloved – Toni Morrison
  22. American Rust – Phillip Meyer
  23. Americana – Don DeLillo
  24. Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  25. Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  26. The Wolf of Wall Street – Jordan Belfort
  27. Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut
  28. The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson
  29. Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
  30. Restless – William Boyd
  31. Not That Kind Of Girl – Lena Dunham
  32. Wild Swans – Jung Chang
  33. Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
  34. Jude The Obscure – Thomas Hardy
  35. Wikileaks and The Age of Transparency – Micah L. Sifry
  36. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
  37. The Crossing – Cormac McCarthy
  38. Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
  39. All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren
  40. The Good German – Joseph Kanon
  41. The Last Tycoon – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  42. Why Nations Fail -Daron Acemoğlu and James A. Robinson
  43. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
  44. The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga
  45. Runaway Jury – John Grisham
  46. 1984 – George Orwell
  47. The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James
  48. Life of Pi – Yann Martel
  49. The Colour Purple – Alice Walker
  50. The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera
  51. Mrs Dalloway – Virgina Woolf
  52. Yes Please – Amy Poehler