Normally at this time of year I post a ‘Top Reads’ or ‘Book Bingo’ type list. But this time around, inspired by my partner, Andrew Nette, who blogs at Pulp Curry, I’m extending this list to cultural highlights of 2021.
In another year characterised by successive, extended lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the arts have provided a lifeline. Australia’s current political leaders seem not only indifferent, but actively hostile towards the arts, which have not received rescue packages on par with other industries, despite being harder hit, and despite being what many of us turn to during tough times. In whatever forms — literature, music, film, visual art, gaming — the arts have provided escape, solace and resonance. For my 16 year old daughter, it was the soundtrack to ‘Moulin Rouge’ that kept her buoyant during the darkest times — and being able to see the live show when it opened in Melbourne in November was definitely a cultural highlight of our year. But I am getting ahead of myself.
I read at least 42 books in 2021. I say at least because I changed the method I used to record my reading mid-year and I think a few titles fell through the cracks. More than half of the books on my list were released in 2021, over 80% were by Australian authors and over 60% were written by women. No surprise, then, that my highlights are books by Australian women. Emily Bitto’s Wild Abandon (Allen & Unwin, 2021) stands out as a lush read, the first book I’ve read in a while that required me to consult a dictionary (which I loved!). Both the language and the story — a cautionary tale of excess involving a legal menagerie of exotic animals — are utterly engrossing. Charlotte McConaghy’s debut Migrations was one of my favourite reads of 2020, and her second novel, Once There Were Wolves (Penguin, 2021), is a worthy successor. Premised on a plan to ‘re-wild’ the Scottish Highlands with grey wolves, the novel is a captivating thriller-cum-love story. Yuwaalaraay writer Nardi Simpson’s powerful, lyrical, generous debut novel, Song of the Crocodile (Hachette, 2020) was one of the first books I read in 2021 and it has stayed with me all year, as has a comment Nardi made in an interview: ‘We are the in and the out breath, nature and people. We are intrinsically linked’.
I made a few Literary Critters as a show of gratitude to each of these authors.
My top crime pick for 2021 is Debra Oswald’s The Family Doctor (Allen & Unwin, 2021), a novel very much for our times, a thriller with a moral dilemma at its heart about women, violence and justice. Read more top crime read recommendations from the Sisters in Crime here.
Of fiction released prior to 2021, a highlight was The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley (Affirm Press, 2016; my review). Given my love of birds, and a long-time interest in John Gould’s work, I can’t believe I was so late to the party on this wonderfully imagined life of painter Elizabeth Gould. The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall (Allen & Unwin, 2015) is another novel that has been on my TBR for some time, which shares the same premise as Once There Were Wolves, but is a very different and outstanding read. And I finally got around to reading Carrie Tiffany’s award-winning debut novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living (Pan Macmillan, 2005), which I loved as a reader and found inspiring as a writer.
I read nine non-fiction books (more or less) in 2021 and they were all very good. My Friend Fox by Heidi Everett (Ultimo Press, 2021) is a captivating, generous memoir that grants rare insight into living with mental illness. H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Penguin, 2015) spoke to my grief following the deaths of both my parents in 2020. Questions Raised by Quolls by Harry Sadler (Affirm Press, 2021) looks at conservation and extinction in the context of climate change, while allowing for hope. Lapsed by Monica Dux (HarperCollins, 2021) resonated strongly with me as a post-Catholic raising a secular child. And Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving Was Isn’t Ours by Sarah Sentilles (Text, 2021) is a devastating, but deeply rewarding account of becoming a mother through foster care, which poses questions about what it means to love any child. Sarah’s extraordinary compassion makes me feel honoured to share the planet with her.
A couple more Literary Critters were inspired by this reading.
I read five short story collections this year. Among my favourite stories were Tony Birch’s darkly comic and delightful ‘Starman’ in Dark As Last Night (UQP, 2021), and two poignant and compassionate stories with a great sense of voice, ‘A Little Bit of Scrapbooking’ in Margaret Hickey’s Rural Dreams (Midnight Sun, 2021), and ‘Hush’ in David Guterson’s Problems With People (Penguin, 2015).
I owe most of what I watch on film to my partner, Andrew, who sources amazing material for us — it’s like having my own streaming service (Nette-Flix, anyone?). This year, we watched a lot of American noir from the 1950s and 60s, which he wrote about here. My personal favourite among these was City of Fear (1959). Another highlight was A Bullet for the General, a 1966 Italian Zapata Western film, with a strong anti-capitalist vibe. Speaking of Westerns, The Naked Spur (1953), directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan, Ralph Meeker and Millard Mitchell, is a tightly scripted, beautifully shot film that plays out like a psychological thriller.
While the pandemic limited access to cinemas for most of the year, I managed to see Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story just after Christmas. As someone who loves the original 1961 film, I was skeptical about the remake. Minor misgivings about tweaks to Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics notwithstanding, the new film is a triumph. Spielberg manages a fresh take on a well-known story and the casting is perfection.
TV streaming this year was mostly about comfort viewing with my daughter. Our favourites included Schmigadoon, an affectionate, spot-on spoof of musicals, with an outstandingly talented cast including Aaron Tveit (who won this year’s Tony Award as Christian in the Broadway production of Moulin Rouge) and Ariana DeBose (who plays Anita in Spielberg’s West Side Story). We are also loving Brooklyn 99, which only gets better as the seasons progress. Other viewing highlights include re-watching the 1992 Australian true crime miniseries Phoenix, which manages to feel relevant 20 years on; and the 2018 Australian series, Mr Inbetween, which, as Andrew notes, ‘seamlessly combines pitch black noir, with sharp social observation, moments of real poignancy, and laugh out loud comedy.’
Despite successive lockdowns, I managed to see some outstanding exhibitions in 2021. Endeavour Voyage: The Untold Stories of Cook and the First Australians at the National Museum in Canberra, explored views from the ship and shore on the 250th anniversary of the 1770 journey of the Endeavour, and provided vivid, often devastating insight into its impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Treasures of the Natural World at Melbourne Museum (until 16 Jan 2022) showcases items on loan from the Natural History Museum, London, and is curated with a sense of fun and wonder. And Rising: A Miracle Constantly Repeated by Patricia Piccinini (currently showing) is a provocative and life-affirming exhibition that blurs the boundaries between nature and technology, animal and human.
What were the cultural highlights of 2021 for you?
And here’s wishing us all a happy, healthy and creative new year in 2022.