Something Good #49: Our Year in Review
Hello. Have a seat.
I see you’re wearing something cozy—a turtleneck sweater, a cardigan. Corduroy. Flannel. Good, good. Have a mug of hot glühwein. Get in on the gemütlichkeit. Maybe dip into some deep emotional reserves of saudade—we’ve all earned it.
I don’t have a genuine fireplace to curl up beside, but I can recommend some alternatives. Inhale deeply—I’m burning a Diptyque Feu de Bois candle today. It sets the scene nicely.
Let’s talk about our year.
I used to make big end-of-year lists. This was especially important to my December ritual when I was a working film critic; I would think about them all year, dutifully noting every film I had watched, arranging and re-arranging them in order of perceived quality. This didn’t always end up in lists that stand the test of time (in 2006, for some reason, I chose Richard Linklater’s forgotten adaptation of Fast Food Nation as my film of the year, for reasons I can barely remember), but it was a nice taking-stock ritual. When I would watch a movie, I would think to myself: does this go on the list? If so, where? What will it bump off?
This year I’m not even sure what I watched at all. Looking at my Letterboxd, I see I’ve logged just 21 films this year—less than what I might have seen in two weeks at a festival like TIFF in years past. I feel hopelessly behind in movie-watching (I still haven’t ventured out to the cinema again yet, which is agonizing), let alone book-reading and music-listening.
I think I can console myself with the fact that there are input years and output years, and 2021, for me, was definitely an output year. The year began with grand plans to write a science fiction novel about a cult that springs up in a mining station on a faraway moon; I got about 10,000 words in before abruptly changing course and starting a newsletter instead. I ushered almost 50 issues of this thing (and a paper zine1) into existence; wrote a controversial podcast series; directed my first feature film. I started a new job I love at Compulsion Games. It more or less makes up for the many, many input years in my past.
It does raise the question, though, of how I can produce a year-end list in good faith. So I’ve decided to outsource the task.
I asked every person I interviewed or who otherwise contributed to this newsletter for the thing that they loved the most in 2021, and if possible, why. It makes for a very good list, which you can find below.
I chatted with Kathryn Jezer-Morton about the detritus of a neighbourhood strip club she discovered in her back alley. She says, “What I loved was the film Nobody’s Fool starring Paul Newman from 1994. My favourite movie I saw this year. Great sets, costumes, acting, cast.” Anything featuring Paul Newman is A-OK in our books.
Kathryn’s newish newsletter Mothers Under the Influence is a must-subscribe, in my opinion. The Guardian must agree; they’ve just reprinted her piece on coziness-as-aesthetic.
Michelle Marek devised the Something Good cocktail for us earlier in the summer. She’s also a pastry chef and esteemed blogger. She says, “For me it was the return to the cinema: I felt the risk was worth it. I saw Dune, The Power of the Dog and Come On, Come On and loved them all. The last made me weep throughout, in awe of Joaquin’s subtle and devastating performance.”
Michelle’s newest venture is Gia, a restaurant dedicated to the art of the Italian grill, in Montreal’s St-Henri neighbourhood. I know it will be great, so check it out if you’re in the neighbourhood.
Noah Bick is the creator of the already-legendary fizzy-water brand Le Seltzer. He has two recommendations: “A Lebanese bakery near my seltzer warehouse called Le Delicieux Boulangerie. Manouche is my favorite dish, and this place is very delicious.” And: “A Japanese spot on Mont-Royal called Bistro Otto. Specifically their cheesy mazemen.”
Noah put in the Yellow Pages link himself, which I find very old-fashioned and charming. Go drink some seltzer; I can recommend that.
Two times did I speak with the mysterious Professor Chip. He says:
“It might seem like a strange choice for someone who is arguably best known for sharing his opinion on potato chips and related snacks, but in recent months I’ve gotten into rock climbing and love it and would recommend it! It’s physically challenging in all sorts of ways: you need strength, power, flexibility, agility, an excellent sense of balance, tough skin on your fingers and hands, but there’s also this mental component because you’re basically solving puzzles on walls with your body. Granted, for me, it’s a lot of falling off walls while figuring out that my body doesn’t usually doesn’t work exactly how I’d like it to work, but it’s stimulating all the same. Now if you read one of my chip reviews and I mention something about wearing technical jogging pants, this is where that’s coming from.”
I talked to the pseudonymous “Aleksandra” about the secret history of syncretic software; she had a book to suggest.
“‘All wizards are beggars, and I am no different. Magus, warlock, wizard, sorcerer, witch—there are so many names for us because we have so little else.’ Those are the first lines of Workers of Wonders, a fantasy book from the ‘70s I found in a used bookshop and that I’ve been really loving. Basically it takes place in a world where magic is real but it exacts a huge, huge cost on the user and they have to scrape by to even survive. A cool inversion of the usual all-powerful wizard thing. The title is ironic. One detail I really loved is this thing called the kavaca that the wizards can summon, like this all-powerful spiritual weapon that will do anything to protect your life but is also super dangerous to you and anything around you. Like if you forget it’s there and get too close it might accidentally cut your arm off. Or kill a loved one or something. Also they can talk. I’m not describing it well.
“The writer’s name is Irada Ayaneva; I haven’t been able to find anything else by her but I hope there’s at least a sequel out there.”
Eve Thomas held space for me as I entered the world of fancy-person candles2. She recommends a podcast: “Poog is a comedy podcast about wellness that’s incredibly smart and vulnerable, and they devote as much attention to life’s little indignities as they do to the quest for transcendence, as one should.”
Eve’s newsletter Glow was one of the inspirations for Something Good and is a must-read, particularly her recent issue about a trip to SG spiritual home Venice.
Sebastian Stockman thoroughly roasted me for my controversial, correct opinions on hardcover dust jackets. He writes:
“‘[H]e hadn't really know it wasn't going to be always the way it had been in the war years. He had mistaken interlude for life span.’
“This is from Dorothy B. Hughes' 1947 L.A. noir In a Lonely Place (reissued in 2017 by the ever-reliable NYRB Classics), which I tore through in two days while recovering from my booster shot. It was the book, not the antibodies, that increased my heart rate. Preceding The Talented Mr. Ripley by eight years, In a Lonely Place follows a former fighter pilot who, cut loose from the relatively meritocratic domain of aerial combat, finds himself at loose ends in L.A., angry at all the lesser lights who were greeted with more success.
“He rekindles his friendship with an old service pal who is now an LAPD detective, searching for the perpetrator of a series of grisly murders of young women. It's not a spoiler to tell you that our ‘hero’ is the perpetrator. There are no overt scenes of violence or sexual assault: the tension derives entirely from our close third-person perspective in the killer’s mind as he tries to stay ahead of his pursuers. As in Ripley, we find ourselves rooting, against our will, for a sociopath. But here there is something discomfortingly current in Hughes' acute portrait of narcissistic masculine aggrievement.
“My next step: watching the 1950 Nicholas Ray adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart. Your next step: reading this book!”
There is always something good to be found in Sebastian’s newsletter A Saturday Letter. Check it out!
Ariel Esteban Cayer wrote a guest post about his pandemic cocktail habit. His recommendation is somewhat more ephemeral the the others here—but certainly as meaningful.
“I've been racking my brain to find something meaningful I enjoyed in 2021. There are plenty of movies and records I could name, a handful of books, and so on, but if nothing else, I've enjoyed - and spent considerable time thinking about how to nurture - the reintroduction of fortuity in everyday life. I don't know about you, but I've been down, feeling that COVID has quite literally shrunk life into a set of tasks to complete, a list of media to consume, a screen to stare into, etc. So I'm trying to nurture the chance encounter, the random recommendation, the talking to strangers, the stumbling upon a CD in a dollar bin and - rather than thinking about how it's a dead worthless format and how I should be getting into vinyl instead - just buying it and (re)discovering it that evening simply because life put it in my path, as it did the Discman found in a drawer earlier that week. So, to being calculatedly less calculating in 2022, and to nurture wonder and coincidence once more.”
I do have something concrete, Ariel-adjacent to recommend, though: his new video label! I’ll let him describe it in his own words:
”Named after Yasujiro Ozu’s custom-made, tatami-level, crab-like tripod, Kani Releasing is a new home video label dedicated to furthering the availability & understanding of Asian cinema in North America. Distributed by OCN, Vinegar Syndrome's sister company, we aim to bolster up-and-coming filmmakers and reintroduce repertory classics in context. We begin with the genre-defying pastoral comedy, Being Natural.” More on this in a newsletter to come.
Abraham Josie Riesman is the author of True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, which shee discussed with me in March. She recommends the novel The Infernal by Mark Doten:
“The entire world seems to have slept on this stunning and prescient 2015 work of experimental fiction about the War on Terror and the Singularity. Taking the form of first-person vignettes featuring strange versions of famous figures from Mark Zuckerberg and Jimbo Wales to Alberto Gonzalez and L. Paul Bremer III, the book is equal parts portent and parody. The highlight is a long thread in which Osama bin Laden dictates his philosophy of life to a dying Jewish soldier attached to a blood-transfusion machine in a cave complex somewhere. Please read this book so I can discuss it with someone.”
Finally, Alison Green, author of my all-time favourite advice column Ask a Manager (which has been on a roll lately!) graciously chatted with me earlier in the year and has a book recommendation of her own:
“In 2021, I loved the book Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune (who's also the author of The House in the Cerulean Sea, which is also fantastic). It's about a man who leads a pretty terrible life, dies, and ends up in a tea shop between worlds, where he comes to see life very differently. It's fun and beautiful and moving.”
As always: you know where to send them. (To me.)
So what about you? What did you love in 2021? This is the first and probably last time I will say this but… sound off in the comments! (You will have to click the headline about to get to the web view and do this. You could also just email me.)
Want a zine? Email me, like, today, because I’m heading to the post office soon.
At least one of the recommenders above may be less than non-fictional. But what can you do? Every year I’ll send you Something Good. This may or may not be the last issue of 2021 (feels weird letting it hang at #49). If you liked it this year, please tell a friend or subscribe below:
I have more of these, so email me if you want one. I’ll mail it to you for free.
Also, remember Something Good’s crossword phase?