10 Useful Distractions from 2021

I’ve been struggling to find something to say about 2021 to open this post. The first day of 2022 isn’t really a vantage point to have any perspective on the last year; it’s too close to a year that refused to take any sort of shape while I was in it, and still defies any easy summary. People have joked that we’re 600+ days into March, 2020, and they aren’t entirely wrong—in some ways, life has felt on hold since then. But if 2020 felt like a year derailed by an unexpected catastrophe, 2021 was something different, a year of moving goal posts, of finish lines receding ever further into the distance, or evaporating like a desert mirage.

It was a year that happened in fits and starts, with events either bleeding together or floating like bubbles, devoid of context and difficult to assemble into anything like a narrative. I know there was an Olympics. I’ve been vaccinated three times now, which in late 2020 looked like an end point, but now is clearly just a step along a much larger path. There have been stretches where socializing felt safe and almost normal, and others where navigating new understandings of etiquette strained friendships and put plans on indefinite hold.

All of that made 2021 a year in need of anchors, and that’s what this list was for me. The older I get, the harder it is to pretend my year-end lists are anything resembling authoritative or comprehensive, so I’ve stopped trying on that front. Instead, these are 10 things that grabbed my attention and held it in a year full of anxious distractions. Not all of them came out last year, but they were my escapes into fact, fiction, and fantasy, and I’d highly recommend them if you’re looking for the same.

  1. Babel – Meghan O’Gieblyn (2021, essay)An article about AI-generated text that uses the eeriness of its subject as a jumping-off point for an exploration of consciousness, narrative, and communication. It’s an exceptional blend of the personal and the academic, finding ties between the questions posed by AI, its implications on the future of creativity, and our own relationship to the unconscious forces that shape our realities.
  2. Children of the Stones (1977, TV series)Probably inspired by my anticipation for Kier-La Janisse’s excellent, three-hour-plus history of folk horror, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, I spent more than a few hours in 2021 exploring old BBC horror-ish programs. 1969’s The Owl Service gets talked about more, but Children of the Stones was a more accessible gateway for me, a series that’s obviously aimed at young teens but manages to combine a decent mystery with an interesting take on occultism and a rich layering of timelines and conspiracies. You have to be willing to deal with 1970s BBC production values, which is probably an acquired taste, but if you can get past that, the series has a lot to offer.
  3. Entangled Life – Merlin Sheldrake (2020, non-fiction book)“Nominative determinism” is the idea that people are drawn to careers that suit their name—that a Jeeves is more likely to be a butler than a mechanic, say. It’s not an idea worth putting too much stock in, but it’s still a joy that a book like this would be written by someone named Merlin Sheldrake.Entangled Life is an attempt to identify with fungi, to see the world through a kingdom of life that is closer to us than it is to plants, but alien in so many ways. Like Thomas Nagel asking What Is It Like to Be a Bat, Sheldrake tries to understand how fungi experience the world, reveling in its myriad forms, celebrating its complex relationship with plant and animal life, and marveling at its seeming spatial intelligence. The science is fascinating, and the world of metaphor that it opens up through outlining an utterly alien way of being is positively mind-expanding.
  4. Mega Bog – Life, And Another (2021, LP)Picking just one album to include here is a bit of a nightmare—I had a hard enough time narrowing it down to 100 for my annual year-in-review episodes—but something in Mega Bog’s off-kilter psych-folk has consistently kept it at the front of my mind whenever I think about my favourite albums of 2021. In a year where I was mostly drawn to the meditative comfort of ambient electronic music, Erin Birgy’s eclectic songwriting was a reminder that there’s still a lot of life left in guitar music. Melodic, accessible, inventive, and absorbing.
  5. Midnight Mass (2021, mini-series)I knew absolutely nothing about this series going into it, which might just be the best way to experience it, so feel free to skip to the next entry. With that out of the way: Mike Flanagan’s latest Netflix offering is a novel take on a well-tread horror genre (he also did The Haunting of Hill House, which was solid, and The Haunting of Bly Manor, which I haven’t seen). To me, a sign of a great story is when it lends itself to multiple interpretations, and Midnight Mass works as a story about our fear of mortality, a metaphor for addiction and over-consumption, a critique of self-serving religiosity, and a funny, bittersweet monster movie. And like the best horror stories, the monster is ultimately a secondary villain next to the flawed, self-deluding humans who are all too willing to ignore some major red flags in order to see what they want to see.The pacing is inconsistent and the characters speak in monologues that never quite feel natural, but I fell into its rhythms pretty quickly, and it’s definitely up there in the top few Netflix originals to date.
  6. Pig (2021, film)When I first heard the premise of Pig—Nic Cage as a truffle hunter tracking down the people who stole his pig—I expected something along the lines of Mandy. Instead of an over-the-top revenge story and a gonzo Cage performance, I got something much more subtle, and much more rewarding. It’s a story about loss, and about the sacrifices people make in the world, the ways we shave the edges off our dreams to get ahead, until we forget what they looked like in the first place. It’s about the emotional power of food to connect us with memories and feelings we’ve long forgotten. And between all of that, it is a revenge story, just one that defies expectation at every turn.For an odd double-feature, pair Pig with Swan Song, starring Udo Kier, another case of an actor best known for his offbeat presence working in a more subtle register. It’s another film where a formerly successful service industry professional who now lives a spartan life removed from any former community has to reconnect with the city and people that once helped define them, reflect on loss of a loved one that still dominates their life, grapple with the gap between the real connections they wanted to make through their work and the consumer relationship that ultimately defined it, and regain some element of who they used to be.
  7. Piranesi – Susanna Clarke (2020, fantasy novel)I can’t remember the last time I was so engrossed in a work of fiction. Clarke’s much-delayed second novel is very different stylistically from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell; it’s a short novel with a small cast of characters written in a naive voice, and without the dense footnotes that fleshed out the world of her debut. Some of the themes are the same, especially around the lengths some people will go to re-enchant the world, and the dangers of playing with forces beyond your comprehension, let alone your control.As satisfying as the story is—and it’s really one of the best fantasy stories I’ve read in years—the joy of the book is in the narrator’s voice, the way he sees things. His world is full of omens and lessons, art to be interpreted and patterns to be understood. Even though you know that things are more complex and darker than he comprehends, it’s a pleasure to view his world through his eyes.
  8. Preternatural Investigations – Sharron Kraus (2020, podcast)Recorded and released in the first year of the pandemic, Kraus’ 12-part podcast series touches on a lot of themes that appear in the other items on this list. There are multiple references to folk horror and the darker side of fantasy. The concept of re-enchantment is at its core, looking for ways to reconcile the magic of places and music and stories and art within a rationalist worldview. It looks at how wonder and awe can be found in the world, and how different rituals and philosophical frameworks can help us access that framework. And it’s all backed by beautifully atmospheric music from Kraus, an understated score that consistently enhances the already thoughtful narration.
  9. Welcoming the Stranger as an Act of Delight – Jeremy Klaszus (2021, interview)The Sprawl is an independent news outlet in Calgary, AB that practices slow journalism—more thoughtful takes on issues and events that can sit outside the typical news cycle. As much as I appreciate their political coverage (especially with how hollowed out traditional news media has become here), my favourite pieces tend to be the ones that break from the news world entirely. This interview with religious scholar David Goa from their “Mighty Neighbourly” 20th edition exemplifies what the Sprawl does best, engaging in a thoughtful conversation about community and a broader examination of what it means to be a good neighbour, and why we should care.
  10. What the Walls Feel as They Stare at Rob Ford Sitting in His Office (2020, short animation)I watched a lot of animation in 2021, and I can say with confidence that it was one of the strongest years I’ve seen in terms of independent animation. Even within that context, though, there was one film that stopped me in my tracks every time I came across it: Guillaume Pelletier-Auger’s video for composer Frank Gorvat’s oddly-titled piece, What the Walls Feel as They Stare at Rob Ford Sitting in His Office.It’s almost a stereotype of experimental animation, with simple shapes moving around the screen to drifting contemporary chamber music. Lines of circles, draped like beads, moving in increasingly complex patterns, which those of you who are more versed in mathematics can read about in the director’s detailed making-of post. That reductive description doesn’t do justice to Pelletier-Auger’s achievement here, though. The balance of simple shapes and complex patterns makes for one of the year’s most immersive film experiences, a ten-minute meditation to get utterly lost in when the need arises.