This is getting to be a tradition now. As in 2016, and 2017, I have decided to rank my favourite things of the year. To be eligible, I had to discover or experience the thing for the first time in 2018.
A compellingly written piece of reportage, Dreamers follows the stories of a selection of young people in India today. The characters are fascinating in their own right, but taken together paint a dispiriting picture of materialism and chauvinism in the largest generation in human history. I drew out some of the political implications in a piece for the LSE Review of Books.
The Cook tells the story of an Australian young offender, who is given the opportunity to turn his life around by training as a chef, before going onto serve a wealthy household as a private cook. I loved its biting satire of the ideology of the restaurant business, encapsulated in shows like Masterchef – the valorisation of toughness, hard work and pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. But fundamentally, it is a book about inequality. In its depiction of the weird relationship between a servant and the family they work for, it reminded me of no book so much as Arvind Adiga’s White Tiger, and it was powerfully jarring to see the dynamics of that book echoed in a story set in a rich country like modern Australia.
Another grim but revealing read. The journalist James Bloodworth sets out to experience life in low wage Britain, working undercover in an Amazon warehouse, a care home and a call centre. The descriptions of Amazon are most shocking, telling of stultifying almost military control, petty abuse of managerial power, and an arbitrary and inconsistent regime. Yet for all the rightful anger and dismay, the book manages to be reasonable and fair, stopping short of polemic or easy answers.
ARTICLES AND ESSAYS
An interesting overview of an important but little noticed trend: young people are having less sex (and perhaps relatedly are engaging in less of range of risky behaviours: smoking, drinking, taking drugs). Summarises the evidence well and outlines some of the theories that try to explain the phenomenon.
Are robots taking our jobs? Will they in the future? How worried should we be? These are some of the biggest questions in economics right now, and Scott Alexander works his way carefully and deliberately through the evidence, to provide a useful and thought-provoking summary.
It’s generally believed that when it comes to TV romances, the thrill is in the chase – that’s why you get the ‘Moonlighting curse’ and the endless ‘will they, won’t they’ Ross and Rachel storylines. Yet as Joanna Robinson points out, Michael Shur, who is behind some the best recent sitcoms, including Parks & Recreations, The American Office and Brooklyn 99, turns this conventional wisdom on its head. Schur’s particular talent for portraying loving, mutually supportive relationships is a rarity, and one that should be cherished.
Departing from the ‘true crime’ style of the first couple of seasons that saw it follow a single case in close detail, season 3 of Serial tried to depict the criminal justice system as a whole, in one American city, Cleveland. It was revealing, enraging and depressing, relentless in exposing the dysfunctionality, unfairness and impunity of courts, police and prison alike.
2. Planet Money
I’ve long enjoyed Planet Money for its quirky explorations of the overlooked corners of the economy, like concessions pricing in sports stadiums. But what it did incredibly well in 2018 was to take big important economic issues and explain them in an incredibly accessible way, best exemplified by the episode where it explained modern monetary theory to an x year old.
I’ve been an Effective Altruist since 2011, back when the entire EA movement could fit into a seminar room in Oxford. So it is astonishing and exciting to see a major media outlet like Vox devoting a column and podcast series to EA ideas. All in all, I thought the podcast did a great job of bringing EA causes and reasoning to a wider audience, and was nicely produced with some innovative elements (for example, the dystopian vignette to illustrate a future America ravaged by climate change0.
1. Lady Bird
A beautifully told coming of age story, zipping through the final year of high school of a girl in early 2000s Sacramento. As a precis, that sounds kind of boring (to me at least), but it is isn’t. It is funny and familiar, complicated and balanced in the way it portrays shifting family dynamics
I’m a real sucker for a film that takes a science fiction premise and follows it unflinchingly to its conclusion. Downsizing is a weird film, depicting a world in which, in order to minimise their consumption of resources, people are incentivised to shrink themselves so that they can live in miniaturised societies. I loved the way Downsizing thought through the social, economic and political upheaval such a technological shift would cause.
Like the best children’s films, worked on multiple levels – combining the typical action and fun of a superhero film with the mundane domestic drama of a man being usurped by his wife, though the Ayn Rand undertones some have detected in the series are a bit troubling.
It is faintly ridiculous that I hadn’t got around to watching Bojack Horseman until 2018, but here we are. Of course, I loved it – a show that has the daring to try to address depression, dementia and coming to terms with one’s sexuality alongside such exuberant silliness of animal related visual gags and gratuitous puns.
For a couple of weeks in the summer (to me at least), it felt like Hannah Gadsby was everywhere. The reason is that Nanette is a brilliantly crafted piece of standup comedy. Of course, it got headlines for its powerful account of homophobia and sexual assault, and its discussion of how comedy should deal with such issues. But what made the show for me were the glimpses of other shows Gadsby could have written – in particular, her detours on art history.
3. Derry Girls
The obvious point of reference for Derry Girls is the Inbetweeners. At its heart, it has the same sympathetic but unflinchingly realistic portrayal of teenage life for most of us – particularly, the smallness of the world, banality of the concerns and the fundamental cringeworthiness of it all. But the novelty of Derry Girls comes from the fact that it is set in Northern Ireland in the midst of the troubles, ensuring it is hard to miss its ultimate message that normal life goes on, even in the middle of a civil war.
A vibrant, catchy burst of pop rock that got stuck in my head in the spring and hasn’t left yet. File next to Best Coast/La Sera
Like a bubblier Avalanches, Superorganism mash together sounds from different continents to produce a novel sonic melange.
The oddly hypnotic sound of a nervous breakdown put to music with the weird angular rhythms of Talking Heads.
The problem with dominating a league is that it becomes clear relatively early that you will win, and then everybody switches off. Sustained brilliance over nine months is less exciting than do-or-die drama. But last season’s English Premier League winners were among the best teams in English football history, and demonstrated that with a record points total. That ought to be recognised.
2. Roma 3-0 Barcelona (4-4 on aggregate, Roma win on away goals)
Another preposterous comeback against the odds, only marginally less dramatic than Barcelona last year or Liverpool the one before. The fact that Barcelona were on the receiving end this time only bolstered the narrative.
Among the most dramatic moments of the World Cup, A last minute goal that all but secured Switzerland’s place in the last 16 at Serbia’s expense, a victory all the more meaningful in light of the fact that a number of Swiss players, including the matchwinner Shaqiri, have roots in Kosovo.
PLACES I ATE
1. Skosh, York
Skosh serves ‘eclectic’ small plates, with flavours, mostly delicious, from around the world. The highlight was the reconstructed egg – a shell filled with a cheddar mousse, croutons and mushrooms cooked in sherry. As Jay Rayner put it, “half a dozen teaspoons of joy”
Amazing brunch in a Hacienda setting. Introduced me to Chilaquiles in tomatillo salsa, which is an important development in my life.
The best version I found of the Nice speciality socca, a chickpea flour pancake, crisp and charred on the outside, with a fluffy slightly fermented taste in the middle – another major discovery.
THINGS I COOKED
1. Polenta Baskets with Spinach and Gorgonzola (From Antonio Carluccio’s Vegetables)
A bit of faff, but worth it – a beautiful creamy filling inside tasty polenta. Plus, you can make polenta chips with the excess polenta
Though I love bread, I’m not usually the baker in our house, but this was simple enough for even me to manage. Plus I’m a bit obsessed with za’atar, so any excuse to mix that into my food is always fine by me.
3. Fried Upma
Upma is great. Frying stuff is great. This was always going to work. Excellent brunch dish.