I AM I AM I AM by Maggie O’Farrell – This book made me feel grateful for my heart beating. Maggie’s writing analyses her relationship with death in seventeen episodes, with beautiful, dense yet light prose – some chapters are as long as a page, and as common as crossing the street while texting; others are tense, scary, angry. While recollecting her brushes with death, Maggie inevitably digs deep into what it means to be living. A brilliant, unforgettable read.
Fahrelnissa Zeid, Tate Exhibition – It’s outrageous that the world has completely forgotten that a Muslim princess spent her life roaming around Europe to join the avant-garde art movement, wearing pants, hanging out with Parisians artists, meeting the Queen, implementing Byzantine and Islamic artistic traditions with European modernism, teaching art to young girls in Jordan, all the while being married to an Iraqi prince. Aside the fact that her art is brilliant, her life destroyed every single stereotype on Muslim women. Absolutely fantastic!
Jane The Virgin – This show is everything: three fierce women dealing with unexpected pregnancies, generational gaps, green cards, abortion, religion, career, co-parenting… As our virgin yet accidentally artificially inseminated Jane juggles between motherhood, career and love, we laugh and weep out loud. I love the show’s subtle feminism: Jane cries all the time, but she’s never weak. She’s career-driven. She doesn’t lose all the baby weight at once. She uses a breast pump. Through hilarious family drama, Jane steadily respects herself, always, and without ever making this the point. She just does – instinctively, as all women should.
THEATRE: Junkyard, by Jack Thorne. A playful, moving new musical, set in Bristol in 1979, about a group of forgotten teenagers who find friendship and purpose working together building a playground out of scrap. Newcomer Erin Doherty shone in the lead role.
TV: Three Girls, by Nicole Taylor. A superbly written three-parter exploring the human stories behind the Rochdale child sexual abuse scandal, and the hapless and damaging court case that followed. Shocking, brutally honest, and never sentimental, this was TV at its most powerful.
FILM: Wonderwoman, dir, Patty Jenkins. Anything that will inspire little girls to want to be strong and smart rather than skinny and simpering gets my vote – plus it also managed to be a top notch action movie providing a breath of fresh air within the tired superhero genre. Just brilliant. Plus now I really want an armour-plated bra.
My most recent musical highlight is Handel’s Messiah, as sung by Clare College at the Union Chapel last week – the first time I’ve heard a work I love so much sung live. But the most extraordinary musical event, reverberating since the Edinburgh Festival this summer, was the opportunity to sit in on a rehearsal of Valery Gergiev conducting his Mariinsky Orchestra and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, who performed Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony together. A huge privilege to hear swathes of the glorious music conducted with such vigour, then the pauses and interjections as Gergiev steered the musicians towards the transformation of the repeats. An immense, electrifying and strangely intimate experience.
New York in 4th of July week was positively serene, and one quiet space at its heart proved an astonishment – The West Room, Pierpont Morgan’s private study in the Morgan Library. I had a deeply visceral reaction to the treasure in the shelves lining the walls– full sets of rare first editions of Austen, Dickens, all the Brontës and so much more. Libraries can often feel like chapels or cathedrals, places of wonder and discovery. In the dim light of that study, with its Renaissance masterpieces and red damask walls, sunlight filtering through the stained glass windows, I felt elated, tearful, near faint with delight. Biblio-euphoria.
One film this year had me riveted by scenes of panoramic beauty, horrified at human cruelty, but also amazed at the force of creativity and courage against oppression. Waiting for Happiness by Mauretanian-born director Abderrahmane Sissako has long been one of my favourite films – but watching his powerful Timbuktu (further charged by Amine Bouhafa’s superb score), blew me away. I was in pieces after watching it, and will never forget it.
THE POWER by Naomi Alderman. I’ve read so many brilliant novels by women writers this year but THE POWER was perhaps the most captivating. Alderman cleverly shows how fragile power is, and how one change can disturb the world’s equilibrium.
STRANGER THINGS. I watched both series this year and they are my favourite things on Netflix. The children completely steal the show. So much 80s goodness
GOD’S OWN COUNTRY. A really poignant film that stayed with me long after I watched it. The cinematography, the acting, the writing is all flawless. At its heart is a family that are no longer able to express their emotions, and an outsider who forces them to confront them.
THE CLEVER GUTS DIET by Michael Mosley. How the gut microbiome affects depression and brain power.
THE ART OF CREATIVE WRITING by Lagos Egri. An old book but one I read every couple of years. Never fails to be beneficial. The only how to book on writing you need.
THE HIDDEN LIFE OF TREES by Peter Wohlleben. What they feel and how they communicate. Reminds us we are not so sophisticated.
Groundhog Day The Musical. People are sceptical when I say that the musical production of Groundhog Day at the Old Vic was the best theatre I saw last year, and the best writing on mental health in a long time. But I stand by my opinion. This year the soundtrack came out and I’ve been listening to it ever since. It’s a feel-good comedy with amazing music, brilliant jokes and a joyous belief that any human has the ability to turn their life around – they just need to be given a long enough timescale!
TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN by John Green. Continuing the theme of amazing mental health writing, John Green’s new novel was my book of the year. Aza’s struggle with OCD and obsessive thought spirals feels intimate and authentic and leads to a hugely compelling novel.
BOYS by Charli XCX music video. Music videos are an under-appreciated art-form. I’ve never seen anything that so successfully flips the male gaze. In a year where female objectification and abuse has been such a talking point, I was so happy to be able to watch something so jubilant and defiant.
Photographing Granada, Nicaragua. Small but elegant and cosmopolitan Granada is a photographer's delight! Bustling with life despite the blazing sun, its Spanish Colonial architecture is painted every colour of the rainbow, flanking cobbled streets running off a central square that is filled with market traders, palm trees and squawking tropical birds. Go to the Convento y Museo San Francisco to learn about Nicaragua's indigenous peoples and see their brooding, unforgettable sculptures. Or if you need to cool off, head down to the lake and take a boat ride at sunset around the Islets.
Macbeth by the Ninagawa Company at the Barbican. Following his death last year, this was a revival of the production that made Yukio Ninagawa's name 30 years ago. It transplants the play to 16th century Japan and it is stunning - a feast for the eyes, from the first moment to the last. I'd wondered how much sense I would make of listening to Shakespeare in Japanese, but I needn't have worried. It was powerful, operatic, and intensely atmospheric - horrifying and beautiful all at once.
The Earthsea novels - Ursula K Le Guin. Why had I not read these before? Halfway through the first, A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA, I knew I had found my favourite fantasy author. Yes Ursula K Le Guin has a great style, and she is a master world builder. But it's the psychological perceptiveness and realism that makes these novels masterpieces. As we grow up with Ged we feel we are on a spiritual journey with him, one that is profound and often unsettling. These are adventure stories, but stories that explore many great themes along the way - self-betrayal and self-forgiveness, loneliness, ageing, bereavement and grief. They are moving, penetrating, and ultimately comforting. Read them!
Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains Exhibition at the V & A. A fascinating glimpse into the world of Pink Floyd! This was an audio-visual feast for the senses for die hard Pink Floyd fans, as well as for those who weren’t as well versed with their music. Iconic imagery (album covers along with films and videos hearing from the band members and collaborators), psychedelic artwork, breath-taking installations and exhibits of the vintage instruments the band members used made this immersive exhibition one to remember.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and Stevie Nicks at BST Hyde Park 2017. Listening to Stevie Nicks live at this atmospheric concert was amazing. Tragically, it was also to be the last live performance by the legendary Tom Petty.
Basquiat – Boom for Real at the Barbican (21 September 2017 – 28 January 2018). If you get a chance to see this exhibition before it closes, I would highly recommend it. A contemporary of Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) was a self-taught artist, poet, DJ and musician and his contribution to the art scene is showcased in this vibrant and eclectic exhibition. A must see!
When I first sent my picks to my colleague, I was reminded that I had chosen Elizabeth Strout as a favourite, last year; this year has brought me no one better, so she’s also my Queen of 2017. After sobbing over ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE, I went and found all her previous novels and have saved them for bank holidays, birthdays and vacations. The last I have left to read, THE BURGESS BOYS, is top of my Christmas reading pile, and then I must anxiously wait for the next to be published. These stories are all the things I love: small town communities, intense feeling running under the surface of the everyday, and fascinating, complex women. Alongside ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE, I’d recommend AMY AND ISABELLE.
My favourite film of the year has been Call Me By Your Name, a lush, sexy coming-of age set in Lombardy. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful, and I have a full-scale Hollywood crush on Armie Hammer.
And, this year I started listening to the Mostly Lit podcast - after they invited SLAY IN YOUR LANE authors Yomi and Elizabeth on to an episode - and I have worked my way through nearly all the episodes now. The three hosts are quick, wry and incisive, and I’ve learned a lot about BAME perspectives on classic and contemporary books. It’s boosted my reading list, I relish any kind of book chat anyway, and I loved the episode with Malorie Blackman.
FILM – PADDINGTON 2. New adventures for the marmalade-sandwich-chomping bear with a moral compass. Contains mild peril.
TV – BLUE PLANET 2. Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink. Contains octopuses and plastic.
TV - JORDSKOTT 2. Ecological Swedish drama. Better than meatballs.
BONUS EVENT – FA Cup Final. Arsenal 2 Chelsea 1. Enough said.
THE ARGONAUTS by Maggie Nelson. I loved this from the first paragraph. A life-affirming experimental memoir which tells the story of Maggie Nelson’s relationship with her genderfluid partner Harry Dodge, exploring love, sexuality and queer family-making.
Twin Peaks: The Return – written & directed by Mark Frost & David Lynch. This wasn't a perfect comeback by any means, but like the original series it lurches nightmarishly from outright horror to ridiculous slapstick, and is often brilliant. David Bowie's character is replaced by a giant steaming kettle. There's a lengthy sequence set inside the first atom bomb test. There’s the sheer delight of seeing old faces, hearing the iconic music. And just like when it ended in 1991, the final scene leaves the viewer reeling.
PRIESTDADDY by Patricia Lockwood. Probably the funniest book I’ve ever read. It’s also a touching memoir, a revealing portrait of the most bizarre dad on the planet, and a meditation on the power of art.
Impressionists in London, Tate Britain. The Tissot pictures were hilarious – he’s called the Jane Austen of paint – and ‘Hush’ (musical performance in high society drawing room) is just priceless. But the light and fog painting by Whistler and Monet traced a progression from what one might (if one were Ruskin) dub the ravishingly perceptual to the downright visionary.
Modigliani Exhibition, Tate Modern. What he does with the eyes in his portraits is something you could see evolving through the show. The famous nudes turned out to be much more moving than I expected. When the eyes ‘open’ again the intimacy is overwhelming.
Matisse in the Studio, Royal Academy. Illustrated his pictorial obsession with objects eg a chocolatier, and a mesmerising Venetian chair (displayed) so beautiful that it persistently trumped his attempts to portray it. My favourite pic here to the left.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople - Absolute top drawer. Moving, funny, weird and just so good-natured. This outing from Taika Waititi has so much spirit, with superb script, such great chemistry between Sam Neill and Julian Dennison, and an outstanding performance from Rachel House. Their life on the lamb is so enticing, you'll want to go get lost with them.
It's hard to pick a single spot from the trip I took to India at the start of the year, but the area surrounding Munnar, a town in the Western Ghats is one of the most beautiful places I've had the luck to visit. Situated at the confluence of three mountain streams, sprawling tea plantations sit amidst serene hills, and the town itself bustles like a mountaineers Base Camp. I never wanted to come down (admittedly partly because of the literally white knuckle ascent).
An intense call to arms in this bizarro-world, The Guillotine by Hey Collossus, is the album for Brexit Britain. Not simply an album of unrelenting metallic intensity, its soaring moments are counterbalanced with woe, quiet unease and mysteriously catchy melody. The rhythm section pulls you into a mechanistic groove whilst maintaining the organic, beating heart of the album. And I'll take your coffeehouse protest music, in all its sentimental, suburban self-congratulation, and raise you existential dread and political indignation in lyrics with a militant passion to match the sonics.