It is an annual tradition for us to share our highlights of the year the morning before we head off on our Christmas lunch. This year some of us have also chosen something we’re looking forward to in 2019. Seasons greetings from all of us at Blake Friedmann and we hope you enjoy our picks…
Book: PERFIDIOUS ALBION by Sam Byers. A whipsmart satire on politics, technology, journalism and gender set in a near future that felt more premonitory than dystopian. As well as providing a depressingly on-point analysis of our fracturing nation, it was also hysterically funny. And I fell in love with the characters, even the nasty ones. TV adaptation, please!
TV series: THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE; Tom Robb Smith and Ryan Murphy. This series follows the extraordinary true story of serial killer Andrew Cunanan. Rather than being a gratuitous blood-fest, Cunanan’s crimes are used as a lens through which to explore the gay scene in the 80s and 90s, at the peak of the aids crisis. It’s also a masterclass in technical storytelling – the series is told in reverse but is utterly compelling, aided wonderfully by Darren Criss’ stunning central performance. Watch it.
Film: LEAVE NO TRACE by Debra Granik. A quiet, beautiful coming of age film, about a father and daughter living completely off grid in the wild. He has post traumatic stress disorder and can’t cope in society; she is a teenager beginning to yearn for another life. Granik’s film is a masterpiece: a delicate meditation on love, loss and what home means. It lingered with me for a long time.
Looking forward to: The Royal Court’s new season. All of the plays look fantastic, and there’s a refreshing majority of female writers across it. I’m excited for SUPERHOE by Nicole Lecky, WHITE PEARL by Anchuli Felicia King and THE END OF HISTORY by Jack Thorne.
I go back to Edinburgh in Festival season every August and the whole trip – being in the city I love, seeing friends, the International Book Festival in Charlotte Square, serendipitous literary chats in the Authors’ Yurt and beyond – is always a highlight. Also climbing Arthur’s Seat, an annual pilgrimage. But Edinburgh yielded the biggest revelation of the year with an invitation from a poet friend to Akram Khan’s utterly riveting, heart-shattering solo dance performance, Xenos, using classical kathak and contemporary dance to focus burning light on the experience of an Indian solder in World War I. A startling live music and dance counterpoint to William Kentridge’s powerful The Head and the Load (musicians, singers and dancers with film projections, art and shadowplay) which I saw the previous month in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, highlighting the contribution of hundreds of thousands of African porters and carriers who served in British, French and German forces during the war.
When I was about twelve a copy of Edward Steichen’s Family of Man came into my possession (perhaps from a neighbour, or from one of my mother’s auction expeditions). I spent a week poring over the photographs from the ground-breaking MoMA exhibition, which seemed to open up whole worlds, evoking powerful emotion and provoking questions, all of which I felt I had to write about. Not for anyone else to read, just for myself, so I wouldn’t forget. I was introduced to Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Bill Brandt, but he photo that struck me most forcefully was Dorothea Lange’s, a photo I later learned was called Migrant Mother. It haunted me then in my own Karoo not-quite-Dust-Bowl long before l learned more about Lange’s commission to photograph Depression-era economic migrants for the US Farm Security Administration, Perhaps I recognised my own worn-down mother in Florence Owens Thompson’s worried look, and that was all I needed to see and understand, then, but it was a thrill to see the print close-up in the Barbican’s Politics of Seeing exhibition in the context of Lange’s other images this year.
So much to look forward to in books, film, dance and music in 2019 (including Akram Khan, in London) but I look forward as ever to a weekend of musical discovery and community at the Cambridge Folk Festival in the summer. And to properly unpacking and sorting the books I’ve had packed away for most of 2018, during an office move and long-running house renovation. It’s been a year of packing and unpacking boxes, and I can’t wait to see old friends ranged within reach on my shelves at home at last. And then, to try to find some more time for reading them!
Television: THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE. As someone who generally doesn’t enjoy horror at all, I had low expectations for The Haunting of Hill House. I assumed that the plot would be secondary to the ghosts and scary parts. However, whilst the ghosts are important (there are some truly terrifying moments!), it’s the familial relationships that take centre stage in this series, as well as the exploration of themes of mental illness, addiction, loss and grief. I was completely absorbed from start to finish and want to watch it all over again!
Exhibition: L’Atelier des Lumières, Paris. In a former iron foundry, L’Atelier des Lumières is an immersion into the artistic world of 19th Century artists such as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. The industrial space still maintains some of its original features (including a pool) that all become part of the show as the art is projected continuously onto all the surfaces. The soundtrack features Chopin and Beethoven and is the perfect accompaniment to your wanderings through the space. It’s a really different and accessible way of immersing yourself in art, a refreshing change to trying to catch a glimpse of a painting on a wall in a gallery.
Film: A STAR IS BORN. I laughed, I cried. I cried some more. Then I listened to the soundtrack on repeat for a few days and cried even more. It’s one of those films that you tell people not to watch if they ever want to feel happy again.
2019: THE TESTAMENTS by Margaret Atwood. THE HANDMAID’S TALE was probably my favourite read of 2018, and I loved the television show too. I remember wishing there was a sequel to the book, so I can’t wait to read this.
Album: DIRTY COMPUTER by Janelle Monae. The moment Janelle Monae dropped her single ‘Make Me Feel’ I knew this was going to be my album of the year, and nothing else has come close. From the polemic rap anthem that is ‘Django Jane’, through chill self-affirming ‘I like that’ to the iconic ‘Pink’ in its vagina-trousered beauty, every song earns its place on an album that’s sure to be remembered as a classic of the Trump era.
Theatre: FUN HOME at the Old Vic. I’d bought tickets for this musical almost a year in advance and it didn’t disappoint. Based on Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel, it tells the story of Alison’s relationship with her father, who died shortly after she came out as a lesbian. It’s incredibly moving, beautifully performed with amazing songs – if you ever get a chance to see it, go.
TV: THIS IS US. I watched the entirety of season one of This Is Us when I was off sick with a cold, and it instantly became one of my favourite TV series ever. The characters are so beautifully drawn and it manages to create such pathos in every episode without ever descending into melodrama. Season two was phenomenal, with some episodes I think I will remember forever.
In 2019, I’m most looking forward to seeing WAITRESS in the West End, starring Katharine McPhee – I’m a big fan of the movie, and McPhee’s performance in the TV series SMASH!, so I know this will be great.
TO BE A MACHINE by Mark O’Connell. Winner of this year’s Wellcome Prize, it’s a fascinating non-fiction journey into the bizarre world of transhumanists, who are devoted to ‘solving’ death. Deeply reflective and insightful, sometimes moving, it has a cast of sharply-drawn, often extreme characters than puts most novels to shame.
Mount Koya, Wakayama, Japan. A place like none other I’ve ever visited, Mount Koya (or Koyasan) is the historic home of Shingon (esoteric) Buddhism. The architecture is extraordinary, including the Konpon Daito, a towering pagoda in vermillion lacquer that’s home to a rare a three-dimensional mandala, at the centre of the ‘lotus flower’ formed by the mountains that surround Koyasan. In forested Okunoin cemetery, 200,000 souls are looked over by Kobo Daishi, Shingon’s founder, who is believed to be not dead but only meditating, as he awaits the arrival of Miroku Nyorai, Buddha of the Future. And I’ll never forget our stay in a 12th century temple, where we rose before dawn to observe the monks’ morning ceremony, their chanting magically drawing my thoughts away from the cold!
MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION by Ottessa Moshfegh. A knife-sharp, fierce and darkly hilarious novel about one woman’s pursuit of narcotic hibernation, aided by her oblivious psychiatrist and doormat best friend. It’s painfully funny and full of close to the bone truths, about grief and gender injustice and what it might mean to ‘fit in’ with today’s society. A dark state-of-America fable.
And I’m looking forward to:
Seeing La Boheme at Sydney Opera House on New Year’s Eve!
SUBURRA season 1, Netflix - I didn’t think gritty, violent underworld crime dramas were for me, until I became completely hooked on Suburra. Set in Rome, the drama is driven by three young male protagonists from very different worlds – an old mob family, a Romani family vying for more power, and a middle class police family. They’re an unlikely trio, brought together by a mutual interest in blackmailing a Vatican official, while around them war is being waged over who will control a strategic area of the coast. Family, love, politics, religion and criminality all collide, and the talented cast gives the show a great emotional depth.
Villa Medici, Rome - founded by Ferdinando I de' Medici in 1576, this beautiful Villa was a real highlight of a long weekend in Rome. You can only visit by booking onto a tour, so it’s never overrun by tourists. It’s been the home of the French Academy since 1803, and hosts French-speaking artists in residence. The palace façade is stunning, and its hill-top position means the view over the city is breath-taking. It’s amazing that the building is still being lived and worked in, and there’s a wonderful café too.
Frida Kahlo exhibition, Victoria and Albert Museum – we’ve all seen her iconic self-portraits everywhere from posters to mugs and magazines, but I’d never seen her actual work exhibited, and I didn’t know much about her as an artist. I was completely inspired by her bold, revolutionary outlook, her incredible style and charisma.
Modigliani at the Tate Modern – 23rd November 2017 – 2nd April 2018. I’ve always loved Modigliani’s work but had never had the chance to see an exhibition of his work, so when the opportunity arose this year I jumped at the chance. Walking through the various rooms, I was awed by the sheer volume of his works and how each one would draw you in and captivate you. Amadeo Modigliani (1884-1920)was a versatile artist – known for his portraits and nudes characterised by elongated faces, necks and figures. This retrospective of his works created throughout his short life (he died at the age of 35) illustrated how he wasn’t afraid to take risks, often shocking the establishment with his provocative paintings and sculptures. He wasn’t able to gain the recognition which he craved during his lifetime, but is now considered to be one of the great talents of modern art.
BLACKKKLANSMAN. This film, directed by Spike Lee, is based on actual events in the 1970s and follows the story of Ron Stallworth, an African American police officer from Colorado Springs, Colorado who, together with a Jewish colleague, successfully infiltrated and exposed the local Ku Klux Klan chapter. John David Washington’s portrayal of Ron Stallworth is remarkable. It’s a powerful film which leaves you questioning the state of politics in America and the world today.
HAMILTON. I was unsure of whether or not I would enjoy it given all the hype surrounding this production, and I went into the theatre not knowing what to expect. From the moment the first actors arrived on stage until the very end when the lights went out, I was enthralled. The story of one of America’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury (the man on the $10 bill) was retold through street, rap and hip hop music and it all flowed beautifully. The acting was superb, and I can’t recommend this highly enough. It’s worth the wait!
MAMMA MIA 2: HERE WE GO AGAIN. And I did go again - I went to see it three times, and found the inexplicable sobbing deeply cathartic. The story remained preposterous but I remained a sucker for it. Oh, Meryl!
Maggie O’Farrell, I AM I AM I AM. I was late to the party with this book, but it has been by far the best book I’ve read all year, fiction and non-fiction. There’s nothing like it. And, again, the sobbing... even thinking of the last chapter makes me tear up and bite my fist.
KILLING EVE: three compulsively watchable actors - Jodie Comer, Sandra Oh and Fiona Shaw - and a witty, dark script that was all about women. I wouldn’t usually have gone to a drama about a psychopath, but I loved every unpredictable moment of this.
My forthcoming highlight for 2019 is the upcoming sequel to OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout, OLIVE, AGAIN. I can’t wait to re-acquaint myself with one of the most unapologetic and vulnerable women in contemporary fiction.
Killing Eve, BBC 3
Warped and wonderful. Sandra Oh is brilliantly cast.
Bruegel: The Hand of the Master
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Peasants, demons, beer and the human comedy. (And Christmas markets.)
Troilus & Cressida by William Shakespeare RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon
Love and betrayal amid the ruins of Troy. One of the so-called 'problem plays', it only deals in grey areas.
THE SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY by Jeff VanderMeer. A government agency investigates a mysterious expanding wilderness named Area X. What follows is surreal, nightmarish, contemplative, and utterly compelling.
TEENAGE SCREAM podcast - hosted by Kirsty Logan and Heather Parry. Each episode involves the hosts discussing a teen horror novel from the 90’s – all so far from the classic Point Horror series. The episodes dissecting the works of R.L. Stine (or Robot Stine, as they christen him, due to his formulaic writing) are particularly funny.
PARADISE ROT by Jenny Hval. When university student Jo moves into a converted brewery with Carral, boundaries begin to dissolve, the house rots around them, and the natural world encroaches. A strange, intimate and lyrical story of queer desire.
I’m looking forward to OUT OF THE WOODS by Luke Turner, a memoir exploring bisexuality, depression, religion, and the trees of Epping Forest.
BOOK: Lullaby by Leila Slimani (translated by Sam Taylor). From that killer first line, I was hooked. Translated from the author's native French, this slow-burning (often agonisingly so) thriller centres itself on a banal domestic setting: a young, ambitious couple hires a seemingly perfect au pair for their two young children -- but with ultimately catastrophic consequences. The tension is tangible from the beginning and only intensifies as you are dragged further and further in. This is only a short read but it sure packs a punch!
THEATRE: KING LEAR at the Duke of York’s Theatre. A reimagining of the classic tragedy, shifted into a contemporary and somewhat dystopian setting with none other than the indomitable Ian McKellen in the titular role, giving a truly magnificent performance -- and possibly, he’s hinted, his last ever on stage. With a phenomenal supporting cast and mesmerising set, you are utterly entranced as you follow King Lear every step of the way on his descent into madness. I left not quite knowing where those three hours had gone and desperately wanting to watch it all over again!
ART: The Moving Moment When I Went to the Universe by Yayoi Kusama at The Victoria Miro gallery. Psychedelic immersive infinity room? Check. Neon multi-coloured polka dots? Check. Giant pumpkins? Check. Featuring all the classics you'd expect from a Yayoi Kusama exhibition, this was one display not to be missed. You can't help but be completely hypnotised by the mind-boggling kaleidoscope of colours and patterns, which feel like a direct insight into Kusama's mind and her lifelong obsession with the "cosmic infinity". I especially liked the My Eternal Soul series of paintings hidden away in the top room overlooking the gallery's small waterside garden. Perfect for brightening up your Instagram amidst these grey winter days.
Iain Burnside, Russian Song Series, Wigmore Hall. This sequence of concerts IS in medias res and I am still swooning from the last one. A row 2 seat gazing up at Justyna Gringyte and Dymtro Popov as they unfurled songs by Tchaikovsky, Medtner and Rachmaninov was like careening over a tumultuous sea on the wind-driven prow of a clipper. Both singers have thrilling opera voices, and they escalated almost every phrase to a pitch of passionate declaration, conjuring the immensities of Mother Russia and its hinterland of woeful outpouring. The audience’s collective cultural toupé was blown flat against the wall. Iain Burnside meanwhile flung a magic carpet under his singers and let them fly.
THE STRANGE DEATH OF LIBERAL ENGLAND by George Dangerfield. Harold Macmillan read Jane Austen before reaching any important decision. Her prose put great matters of state in perspective. Dangerfield has a similar tonic effect, and though his study of the death of a political party has sour implications for Brexit-hexed Britain, it is so elegant and witty you’ll feel restored after a para or two, whatever the anguish of the news cycle.
‘Los Requiebros’ from The Goyescas by Granados. Fancy naming a piece ‘Flirtation’! I’m learning it now, and though it’s a bit unfair to suggest learning a difficult piece of piano music as a cultural tip, if you are an amateur pianist (or even a pro) and haven’t played through this gorgeous little masterpiece, give yourself an Xmas present of the music, and make sure you have Alicia de Larrocha’s recording. Then read Grace Szewai Ho’s fascinating ‘GOYA/GOYESCAS The Transformation of Art into Music’ on the web. Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3E3lFqsa4uE
Podcast: THE BLINDBOY PODCAST. I listen to a lot of podcasts on various themes. I’d put off listening to Blindboy for a while. I recognised him as one part of Rubber Bandits, who went viral with their song Horse Outside (though Boyzone is better). Catchy, well-produced, silly, funny, songs but ultimately a passing novelty. But when I dug into the podcast, I uncovered a gem – erudite, interesting, wise, and offering a view of modern Ireland outside of Dublin, discussing culture, history, mental health, modern masculinity and accompanied by some corking (should that be Limericking?) short story readings.
Album: A LAUGHING DEATH IN MEATSPACE – Tropical Fuck Storm. This album blindsided me, appearing out of nowhere – the cover is nuts, the title is nuts, the band name is nuts. But this is one of the most inspired albums of the year. Opening with an absurdly anthemic opener, that still roars through my head at least once a day, the album never lets up, with Gareth Liddiard’s Aussie snarl delivering clever, snarky lyrics that can only be compared to Mark E. Smith and The Fall, pairing with the band’s* bone-rattling accompaniment full of expert wonk and swirling fuzz. Top marks.
*made up of his partner and collaborator from The Drones, Fiona Kitschin, Lauren Hammel and Erica Dunn.
The World Cup. It didn’t come home, but it felt like it brought us all together at a time when it feels like we couldn’t be more apart.