Becoming a parent this year meant that my engagement with culture changed significantly. My reading rhythms changed to fit days rich in unpredictability and poor in time: books were read at 4am or not at all, and I developed a great love for the audiobook and podcast. Where Should We Begin by Esther Perel became a particular obsession of mine. Perel, a relationship therapist, has released recordings of her sessions with couples (who remain anonymous), and the resulting episodes are raw, insightful and profoundly moving. Other audio highlights from this year include Priestdady: A Memoir read by the author, Patricia Lockwood (read Rebecca Varcoe’s interview with Lockwood) – her narration is so good, I’d recommend listening over reading – and Any Ordinary Day, narrated by its author, Leigh Sales.
I also had the recent, great pleasure of seeing Icelandic musician Ólafur Arnalds in concert with his string quartet and percussionist. Some may know Arnalds from his soundtrack to Broadchurch (a brilliant TV series – go watch if you haven’t already), and his 2018 album, re:member, is full of equally evocative, restrained and sophisticated arrangements. I left the theatre in a euphoric daze.
My reading taste usually tends towards non-fiction and memoir but the standout books of this year for me have been novels. I particularly loved Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, West by Carys Davies and The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner. One of my best backlist discoveries of the year was Irish short story writer and novelist Mary Lavin. A lovely bookseller in Dublin recommended me her brilliant short story collection In the Middle of the Fields and every story is a perfect gem. I’m now committed to reading everything Lavin ever wrote.
I saw some great films at MIFF this year and the best was the brilliant Dogman by Italian director Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah). It’s a terrifying thriller – beautifully shot and impeccably acted – about a gentle dog groomer who is drawn into the violence of the Neapolitan criminal underworld.
I often feel like my 2018 has been a ‘slow reading year’, though in reality that’s only in terms of books – this year I’ve added a number of new magazines and literary journals from around the world to my reading list; my favourites have been The Walrus (Canada) and Buzzfeed’s literary magazine, Reader – both of which publish my favourite kind of exciting, expansive longform cultural journalism. In terms of books, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less is the marvel everyone says it is – warm, funny, good-humoured and far better than another book about another washed-up writer should be. 2018 was also the year I jumped on board the Tinyletter (etc) bandwagon – it’s a pleasure to open my inbox to missives from well-known writers like Daniel Ortberg and Anne Helen Petersen, as well as local offerings like Jack Vening’s Small Town Grievances and Chloë Reeson’s breathtaking The T Letter.
I’ve also added a couple of new podcasts to my regular roster: Slate’s Decoder Ring is a series of deep dives into pop-culture concepts like canned laughter or the hyperreality of reality TV; and the extremely silly, filthy and infectious Punch Up The Jam – where comedians Miel Bredouw and Demi Adejuyigbe dissect, lovingly lampoon and ‘fix’ well-known pop songs – has become one of the highlights of my week.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor Who – after a couple of series I could take or leave, the new writers and cast’s focus on smaller, less universe-ending plots has drawn out some superb character moments.
This year has seen me branching outside of the usual genres I read and exploring the rich and wonderful word of memoir and essay. Briohny Doyle’s Adult Fantasy was familiar in a way that was both incredibly reassuring and vaguely concerning, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race was a frank and honest look at the need for us all to be actively anti-racist and Fiona Wright’s The World Was Whole was a beautiful and articulate meditation on what it is to be at home in your surroundings and in your body.
This year there was barely a moment I wasn’t listening to a podcast – this shortlist of favourites was incredibly difficult to whittle down. Deviant Women is an often hilarious, sometimes serious deep dive into the lives of women from history, literature, mythology and contemporaneity who challenge the patriarchal status quo. The Outer Sanctum has continued to raise the bar for sports coverage in Australia, unafraid to discuss serious or taboo issues while remaining at its core a joyful celebration of footy and women’s sport. No Feeling is Final is a memoir podcast by Honor Eastly (the creator of one of my favourite podcasts of last year, Starving Artist) that offers an unflinchingly honest and open insight into dealing with mental illness and all the complexities of ‘just asking for help’. My go-to pick-me-up podcast this year was Dragon Friends (a podcast where Australian comedians play Dungeons and Dragons with hilarious and chaotic results) which never failed to send me into fits of laughter on public transport.
This year, like most years, I definitely spent more time reading books than I did watching TV. Two highlights of my year in the book world were My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh and The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper. These are two very different books – My Year is a darkly funny, twisted novel about a girl who decides to take a year off life by dosing herself to the gills with any drugs she can get her hands on, and The Arsonist is a powerful work of narrative nonfiction that takes a microscopic look at the man convicted of lighting some of the worst fires of Black Saturday (read Alice Cottrell’s interview with the author). But both of these books moved me, and have left a lasting impression. Hooper and Moshfegh are both incredibly captivating writers, and I highly recommend them to everyone.
Something that I watched obsessively this year was the Netflix series The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. I love the television I watch to be a bit cheesy and kitschy, so Sabrina is right up my alley. This spooky show is based on a series of comics with the same name, and contains ritual sacrifice, spirits from beyond the grave, a creepy trip to purgatory, and much more.
Finally, 2018 has been the year of the true crime podcast for me. One of my favourites of the year was Atlanta Monster, which re-examines the case of the Atlanta child killings that took place in the 1970s. Dozens of young African American boys were found dead during this period, but there’s still a lot of confusion about who really killed them. This is a fascinating and totally absorbing podcast that shows many extreme sides of the human psyche.
This year I’ve been particularly taken by two collections of experimental cultural criticism: Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, and Sam Twyford-Moore’s The Rapids: Ways of Looking at Mania. Both are incredibly thoughtful – and thought-provoking – works that expand on personal connections to cultural works to discussions of race and mental health respectively. But they each become a treatise on what it means to be human – how we see each other, how we treat each other, and how we could connect better as people. In a similar vein I’m bursting to read Fiona Wright’s new collection on my summer break.
On screen I’ve been blown away by (finally) seeing women on TV who represent my life and that of my friends. The Bisexual and SMILF (both on Stan) as well as the locally made Homecoming Queens (SBS) are all authentic, poignant and hilarious and would make perfect holiday binge-watching.
Lauren Carroll Harris
In 2018 I fell into the wide open soundscapes of Awful Grace and Home of the Brave podcasts, Teju Cole’s genre-breaking photography columns for the New York Times, and Tao Lin’s brain-twisty memoir on hallucinogens, change and alienation. But the new James Turrell work at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (dubbed by Google Maps as a ‘playful subterranean museum of art’ – LOL) is the most beautiful art thing I’ve experienced this year and ever. Inside a giant sphere, your peripheral vision pulses with horizonless light and colour for fourteen minutes, before you are led into a room of pure black. Your muscles melt, categories dissolve, your personality softens and clarifies. I was just a pair of eyes – no baggage, no aspirations, no past. A beam of light moment.
Two of my favourite podcasts of 2018 have just emerged recently, and I hope to write about them as they grow. Believed, from Michigan Radio and NPR, is the best use I’ve found of the long-form podcast serial to explore a major news story, synthesising existing coverage of Larry Nassar with original reporting, always centring the women at the centre of the abuse story.
Witch Hunt, from Guardian Australia, treads similar territory about where women’s voices go now in the wake of #MeToo. It’s a sensitively produced podcast, but doesn’t pull any punches when talking about sexual assault. It feels like a vital intervention in a community of women who have felt their voices stifled under Australia’s defamation laws.
To balance out the dark, I’ve been loving Double Love: a very silly podcast in which the hosts re-read Sweet Valley High books and cringe at the terrible characters – and therefore allow us to cringe at our teenage selves.
I’ve devoured many wonderful books this year, but nothing has felt as vital as Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know. Levy writes about her life with a feeling of a rushing desperation to get it down on the page. It is a book about what it means to be a writer, a woman, a mother: but also what it means to live through trauma, to cry, and to exist. My copy is only a few months old, but its pages already show the wear of multiple reads.
This year I’ve regularly gravitated to comfort listens – bookish, chat-based podcasts I can listen to while doing other things without fear of losing my place. Galactic Suburbia has always been a winner in this category, for the sci-fi, fantasy and romance book recs alone, but this year I’ve particularly loved their chapter-by-chapter re-read of Joanna Russ’s How To Suppress Women’s Writing. Honourable mention to the Terry Pratchett book club podcast Pratchat. Both feel like you’re hanging out with friends who nerd out about the same stuff you do.
In TV, Babylon Berlin should have lost me at the dubbing (it’s bad! so bad! ) but the costumes, conspiracies and occasional musical numbers hooked me anyway. The show follows a shell-shocked police inspector and an impoverished typist through the dance halls, brothels, politicians offices and protests of Weimar Republic Berlin. Spoiler – corruption, murder, injustice and some pretty fancy dancing meet them wherever they go.
Books-wise, I thought I’d gravitated towards comfort reads this year so it took looking back at my Goodreads list to remember that while there’s was a lot of sheer fun much of it was smart, well-written, unputdownable fun. Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver and Martha Wells’ novella series The Murderbot Diaries were a few standouts – worlds apart in setting, format and genre but both featuring smart, prickly and entertaining protagonists I hope their authors revisit.
At the other end of the spectrum, non-fiction, and Australian non-fiction in particular, had such an amazing year that picking just one to mention feels impossible. But if forced to choose I’d say Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin, which uses a blend of reportage and storytelling to illuminate stories of trauma and loss. It’s not a fun read, but it is a brilliant one.