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Josie’s Best of 2021: Grabby Edition

I am not the first to note that 2021 was an odd year. It never became as bad as we feared, and it never became as good as we hoped.

For me, the second year of Covid, after my vaccinations, transformed into a kind of half-life, half-stupor. I worked from home. I spent a lot of time on Zoom and even more time silently typing on my laptop. Sometimes, I would spend time with real people, in the flesh, but rarely and always with some trepidation about infection, about small talk, about real pants. Last month, at a Thanksgiving party, I met new people, and I realized then that I had not met a new person in nearly two years.

It is therefore appropriate, perhaps, that the best description of my year comes from not from within, but from another person, writer Madoc Cairns, describing his own solitude:

“I might have been confined to a single room for much of this year—but within that minuscule sphere of influence I enjoyed absolute power. Forced into sociability, I found myself self-absorbed and irritable, unused to balancing my desires with those of others. Thoughts about myself had filled the mental space vacated by absent friends.”

Thoughts about myself—what Tommy Shelby has called “Myself talking to myself about myself” and “being busy in my head”—also filled the mental space I usually devote to television, films, and books. It took, not greatness, but what Jo Walton calls grabbiness to pull me out of myself.

“Grabbiness,” says Walton, “is a quality entirely orthogonal to actual quality. There are grabby books that are only OK and great books that are not grabby. It also has nothing to do with how ostensibly exciting they are, nor how comforting they are. There are just books that are grabby and books that are not.”

So this is my list of grabby books and television shows:

Books

Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement and Calcutta Chromosome. Ghosh, a professor of comparative literature, explores the intersection of science and faith in Calcutta Chromosome, a work that is both historical fiction and science fiction, postcolonial treatise and anti-rationality mysticism.

The Great Derangement, on the other hand, is grounded in the reality of climate change, from the risk of extreme weather to the texts that determine our understanding thereof. The highlight, though, is his marvelous close comparative reading of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ and the Kyoto Protocols to consider the way that science, empiricism, and theological language either enact or skirt around the question of culpability and responsibility.

Alex Pavesi’s The Eighth Detective is a pristine puzzle-box mystery novel: in the 1960s, an editor interviews the aging author of a collection of mystery stories, originally published in the 1940s. Interspersed with their interviews are the stories themselves, which evoke the golden age of Agatha Christie and her ilk. But the novel overall, especially the interplay between editor and writer, evokes the postmodern playfulness of Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges. To say more would be to spoil everything, so I’ll just explain that Pavesi, who has a PhD in mathematics, toys constantly with ambiguity, doubt, and a resistance to resolution that made this book much grabbier than I expected.

Like Calcutta Chromosome and The Eighth Detective, Monica Byrne’s The Actual Star alternates between timelines and between genres. Set in the Mayan homeland in 1012, Minnesota and Belize in 2012, and across the globe in 3012, Byrne’s novel is about mysticism (in 1012), rational explanations for mysticism (in 2012), and geopolitical uses of mysticism (in 3012, a world “characterized by mutual aid, gift economy, panoptic justice, gender concórdia, documented anarchy, and algorithmic skillmatching”). Byrne’s worldbuilding is incredibly thorough and believable; she took the putative Mayan end of the world idea and ran with it in the best way. This novel is grabby and good, thought-provoking, and just ambiguous enough—like all the novels on this list—that it stuck with me long after finishing.

Television

After a few years of resistance, I succumbed to Succession this fall, and wound up binging all three of the short seasons in just two weeks. The show is, in some ways, completely awful: awful people doing awful things for awful reasons.

It scratches the same itch, I think, as those Gordon Ramsey cooking shows. We love to watch Ramsey yell at people because it allows us to imagine that, if we knew how to cook, we’d be so good at it that he’d never really yell at us, thus implying that Ramsey’s behavior is appropriate rather than abusive, and allowing us to witness abuse and feel superior rather than emotional degraded by the state of humanity.

Succession, similarly, is about awful people, yet it lets us luxuriate in that awfulness, allowing us to inhabit lust for wealth and disgust for wealth at the same time. It invites us not to introspection but to judgement. (I would never make the mistakes Siobhan makes!) The American Dream may be dead, but we can judge those who fell into that dream through luck of birth, and imagine that even if we did not use our wealth for good, we would at least be good at using it.

On a lighter note, the Marvel shows on Disney+ are an absolute delight. Each one, of course, presents violent finale fight scenes as the only way to solve interpersonal conflict, but if you just ignore that bizarre ideology, there’s a lot of good stuff here. I loved the TV history of Wandavision, the bromance of Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the timeline trickiness of Loki (my personal favorite), and the sweet Christmas-y quality of Hawkeye.

But the grabbiest show of the year, for me, was Taboo, a show starring Tom Hardy, about Tom Hardy. I have a lot to say about it, and everything I have to say is Tom Hardy, as my review indicates.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. She really wants you to read her review of Taboo, because it is her proudest 2021 accomplishment.

2 comments:

  1. Josie, I always love it when you talk about books, and I always end up making lists of titles to try. :) I love being able to download free samples on Kindle. One of the best things about modern life, IMO, considering how expensive my book habit could be.

    Loki was also my favorite. Maybe it was the alligator.

    And let me second the recommendation -- I loved your Taboo review so very, very much.

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  2. You might like The Actual Star, Billie! The Mayan section feels fantasy-adjacent, since it's in the past, but the 3012 section has some really interesting tech and ideas. Including some really fascinating gender stuff.

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