If you’ve ever read my newsletter the evening coat you’re already aware that I derive an inordinate amount of satisfaction from the act of distinguishing the months from each other as they pass, of celebrating their seasonal virtues and idiosyncrasies, and feeling grateful for how all of it put together gives life the kind of texture and meaning it might otherwise lack.
Maybe it’s the writer part of me, but I find it helpful to think of the year as a twelve chaptered book in which each one does its part to advance the plot. Obviously the author of this book tends to be wildly experimental in style, with a penchant for circuitous narratives and unresolved subplots, leaving plenty of room for digressions and asides, but David Foster Wallace did a lot of these same things and is heralded a genius for them, so it must still be a method of storytelling that is worthwhile. To try and make sense of my personal edition of 2021, I’ve decided to compile my own version of a Cole’s Notes for each chapter, which I will now present to you here.
What I Read
I have an enduring superstition that the way you spend New Year’s Day is a preview of how you will spend the rest of the year, and somehow this belief has been extrapolated as such that I now view the entire month of January as a sort of tone setter. If I’m right, 2021 projects to be a fun and fruitful reading year, as I genuinely enjoyed all of the novels I read. I wouldn’t classify any of these as particularly challenging reads, but given the current state of the world, I think that we can confidently conclude that 2021 itself is challenging enough.
- White Ivy (Susie Yang) This was my pick for the January issue of the aforementioned evening coat, so my enjoyment of this novel has already been documented. Featuring a well-developed protagonist who manages to retain the reader’s sympathies while she evolves into an ever-more duplicitous, morally compromised version of herself, this book is a slow simmering exploration of what it means to be a woman of color who reaches for more in a world that would prefer to give her nothing.
- All Adults Here (Emma Straub) The story of a family whose secrets all seem to be unravelling at once in a way that forces everyone involved to examine the ideas they have about themselves and the way they’re actually viewed by the world, and all of the uncomfortable ways those two things often clash. This book attempts to explore a lot — bisexuality, gender identity, cyber bullying, geriatric pregnancy, infidelity, sexual predators– to an almost overwhelming degree, and a more minimalist approach probably would have helped the ideas land better. The writing is full of warm and honest observations that bring to life the story’s unique and flawed characters, though most of them were still not people I especially enjoyed spending time with. Mostly this book made me want to spend time in a small town in the Hudson Valley, preferably in conjunction with a fall festival of some kind.
- Love Your Life (Sophie Kinsella) The hardback equivalent of a mug of hot chocolate brimming with heart-shaped marshmallows. Sophie Kinsella writes a romcom just as well as Nora Ephron ever directed them. Loveably insane characters, a few wacky hijinks, and an overall feeling of optimism– what more could you want in a good old fashioned love story? Though this one has some decidedly modern elements, tackling the perils of online dating and its implications for the hopeless romantics of the world. There’s also significantly more dramatic tension here than your average love story, considering you’ll find yourself regularly wondering whether or not Ava and Matt are actually compatible with each other, or indeed what “being compatible” means at all.
- Darling Rose Gold (Stephanie Wrabel) I’ve never been much for haunted houses or horror movies. The general sensation of being scared or creeped out is not something I tend to seek out. But reading this book, which is loosely inspired by the real life murder of Dee Dee Blanchard, I suppose I finally somewhat understand the appeal. The true story of Dee Dee Blanchard’s horrific abuse of her daughter Gypsy Rose is unsettling on its own, but the way Wrabel attempts to explore the psychology and innermost thoughts of such deeply damaged people is like seeing a gross insect and poking at it until you get to see its even more disturbing underbelly.
One Of Us Is Lying (Karen M. McManus) What if the kids from The Breakfast Club lived in the cellphone surveillance state of the 2010’s, were each involved in situations that had higher stakes than vague suburban malaise, and one of them ended up dead? That is the premise of this eminently bingeable YA book, written in a deliberately opaque first person style that will endear you to every single character, even while part of you suspects that they’re capable of murder.
What I Watched
- I made significant progress in my quest to finally watch all of the Marvel movies for once and for all, the past struggles of which I’ve chronicled here. Over the course of January I managed to watch:
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- Iron Man 2
- The Avengers
- Thor: The Dark World
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Iron Man 3
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- Avengers: Age of Ultron
- Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2
- Captain America: Civil War
- Black Panther
- Spider-Man: Homecoming
- Doctor Strange
- Thor: Ragnarok
- Captain Marvel
No wonder I haven’t seen a single scripted television show this year. It feels a bit superfluous to try and write reviews of the most commercially successful films of all time, especially when some of them came out a decade ago, but please know that my default reaction to every single one of these movies is: oh wow, VERY cool, and then I google the Marvel superhero diet and workout plans again.
- I went into the Matt James season of The Bachelor with hopes and expectations so high part of me knew I was doomed to be disappointed, but so far he hasn’t let me down in any major way. Matt may not be the most dynamic or compelling Bachelor we’ve ever seen, but I suspect that’s mostly down to the fact that he just might be an actually a decent human being in real life.
What I Listened To
- Carly Rae Jepsen’s Dedicated & Dedicated Side B The last year has been short on DJ sanctioned events but nothing is stopping you from throwing your own emotional dance party, which this pair of records is perfect for. The platonic ideal of poptimism.
- Favorite songs: Too Much; Let’s Sort The Whole Thing Out; Comeback (feat. Bleachers); Solo
- Amusing Her Feelings (dvsn) This Toronto-based duo have been putting out records since 2016 but I only became aware of them with this latest release. Like any good OVO act they have a late-night moodiness to their sound, with songs that feel like walking around West Queen West after midnight in the winter– stark and cold, but with the promise that the most fun night of your life could be just around the corner (in pre-COVID times, of course.)
- Favorite songs: She Said; He Said (feat. Miguel); Keep It Going
- “The Essential Fleetwood Mac” playlist on AppleMusic Not that anyone needs a reason to revisit Fleetwood Mac, who are as intrinsic to our culture as chopped celery is to making soup, but I will admit to being inspired by the soundtrack to Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 which of course features the god-tier track “The Chain”. Almost every single Fleetwood Mac hit has the ability to linger around the edges of your subconscious, to haunt you, so that every time you listen you learn to appreciate something new.
- Favorite songs: Seven Wonders, Never Going Back Again
- Monovision (Ray LaMontagne) The quintessential gentle soundtrack for making breakfast on a Sunday morning, Ray LaMontagne’s lullaby of a voice is perfect for easing you into the day.
- Favorite songs: Roll Me Mama Roll Me, Rocky Mountain Healin’, Highway to the Sun
What I Made
Spending time in the kitchen has become my primary hobby during this most recent lockdown and January was a particularly productive month. Honestly, in terms of recipe selection, I’ve been like 1941 Ted Williams, mostly hits and very few misses (and yet surprisingly I still expect to lose the MVP race to Joe DiMaggio.)
I owe much of my success to Alison Roman, the genius behind this glorious baked ziti and this brilliant potato leek soup. I am also indebted to Anna Olson’s latest cookbook, Baking Day with Anna Olson, which has inspired me to take on projects as ambitious as a cake-sized cinnamon bun or a 24hr rise pizza dough, as well as more straightforward recipes like cheddar chive drop scones or oatmeal cookies with three kinds of chocolate chips. Not to be outdone, the GOAT Ina Garten (Ina GOAT-en?) taught me how to make this hot spiced apple cider, easily the most comforting cocktail you’ll have all winter, and the ever-reliable New York Times introduced this ridiculously satisfying cheesy beer bread into my life.
My New Year’s resolution was actually to try and cook more vegan recipes from my patron saint Angela Liddon, and I certainly have– her portobello mushroom boats; her roasted root vegetable medley; her mushroom lentil bolognese. I just made a whole lot of other things too.
What I Cheered For
- Team Canada did not win gold at the World Juniors this year, much to my distress. I used to think whether we won or lost this tournament was an indication of what kind of year lay ahead, like a more elaborate and violent Groundhog Day. Since 2020 was in fact a gold medal year in the World Junior sense and only in the World Junior sense, I’ve had to reconsider. Perhaps this in-the-moment disappointment for 2021 is an indication of better things to come?
- The first full month of the 2020/2021 NBA season saw the Celtics rounding into form and seeming on the verge of fulfilling their talent potential, particularly our two star young players Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, who I often affectionately refer to as my sons because I spend too much time on NBA Twitter. Then a series of COVID complications derailed this trajectory. Games had to be postponed, and Tatum had to sit out more than ten days after testing positive. The team stumbled a bit in his absence, but I’m not writing angry emails to Adam Silver asking him to reinstitute the Disney Bubble just yet.
- The Steph Curry Renaissance Season has continued in all its fantastic glory, peaking with his 62 point night against the Trail Blazers. There is no athlete in history more fun to watch than a locked-in Stephen Curry, and I include Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes in that comparison. We are so lucky to have him BACK back.
- The weird experimental NHL season started up, and even though I can’t keep track of who is in what new division yet, I know the Bruins are off to a decent start. I find it hard to get overly excited about regular season hockey though, both because it is objectively slower paced and also because I have been let down by promising regular season play before– in the last decade the Bruins have won the President’s Trophy twice and neither time did they follow it up with a Stanley Cup. So consider my excitement until June to be cautious.
- For the first time in eleven years I found myself with no natural rooting interest in the NFL playoffs, an ordeal I wrote about in greater detail here.
- Fulfilled my goal of walking at least 10 000 steps every day.
- Started thinking about every song I listened to in terms of whether or not it could be used to soundtrack am Instagram reel.
- Watched Machine Gun Kelly’s bizarre music video/movie and whispered “why is this happening?” to myself about a half dozen times.
- Toasted the inauguration of President Joe Biden & Vice President Kamala Harris with mimosas.
How did you spend your first chapter of 2021?
10 thoughts on “January 2021 Review”
Oh, mostly in a daze, but I did learn a new way to roast vegetables with olive oil and aceto balsamico (splurged on a more pricey one, well worth it). Yam!
I rediscovered a beauty of choir music so I spent most of this month listening to Stellenbosch University Choir and Choral Scholars of University College Dublin. I also discovered Bozo Vreco, a unique Bosnian gender fluid singer of old Bosnian style music. Listen to this, if you’d like. You will not recognize words, but music is amazing, not to mention the energy
Reading. Having given up, for now, on a more serious favourites ganres, and read to Gr 7/8 Broken Strings by E. Walters and K. Kacer, 2 chapters at the time. I cried, I laughed and most importantly, kids did to. Really, educational highlight of the month. Privately, I am not ashamed to say that I purchased and read the entire Brigerton series. Much better, much funnier than the series. I’m saying this as a person who is a part of Equity and Inclusion team in our school, who is very passionate about representation in art – casting threw me of, not in terms of acting abilities, no. Why are we trying to insert black characters where they certainly never belonged, and that is Victorian era British aristocracy? Why are we not crating movies/series that celebrate and promote authentic black voices, black history from African continent, like these celebrated African queens here:
I would LOVE to watch a series based on lives of any of them on this list ♥️
Maybe I’m wrong on this, but my kids, who are mills away from me in their understanding of equal representation and social issues, kind of agree with me on this one 🤗.
Anyway, long response, but you made me sit down and drew a little line under month of January. That’s what great writing does. It makes you stop and think.
Well done Ainsley 💛
Thank you so much for sharing the nuances of your January with me, it sounds like it’s been a productive month of reflection and (re)discovery. The Bosnian music recommendation is definitely not something I ever would have come across independently, but what a cool, unique sound.
Connecting with your students over an emotional piece of art sounds so wonderful, and I’m sure they’ll appreciate the experience as they continue on through their lives. My gr. 6 teacher read us Maniac Magee back in the day, and I still think of that time fondly.
Shamefully, I am in the 5% of earth’s population who has yet to watch Bridgerton, so I can’t speak about it with any kind of real knowledge. I think that race-blind casting is interesting and can be effective (as with Hamilton, for example) but definitely agree that the priority for Hollywood decision makers should be to tell real stories of Black history, especially the stories of unapologetic Black power, like the ones you’ve linked to.
May your February be equally rich with meaningful insights and cultural experiences!
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Aaahhh, see you make a good point there re: Hamilton! Very good point and weirdly enough not something that crossed my mind at all! Diversity casting was of the strenght and beauty of Hamilton,but in my mind everything fit tere, like the original cast was born for the role they were playing. Brigerton, there’s just something that’s scraping on my nerves. Hmmmm, maybe it IS the acting then, who knows 🤔 🤷 😏 😉!!
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Ainsley, I love your January post. Lots of food for thought and I enjoyed every word. You write SO well. Even though it was only just past 9 AM this morning, you inspired me to roast a huge batch of root veggies, and I used your suggestion of adding balsamic vinegar for the first time. Absolutely delicious over jasmine rice. I’ll do my best to make this last until dinner time! Thanks Ainsley!
Thank you so much for reading! I am so impressed by your initiative to act on your inspiration so immediately– I have a terrible habit of coming across ideas that I like and then getting distracted before I ever actually put them into action. Glad that the veggies were a hit, combining them with jasmine rice sounds delicious.
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Always such an engaging read, I love your description of the Sophie Kinsella book “The hardback equivalent of a mug of hot chocolate brimming with heart-shaped marshmallows.” Makes me want to read the book and have a mug of hot chocolate.
Listening to Fleetwood Mac is always such a great idea!
As always great suggestions and such an engaging read!
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Ainsley, your post this month has truly inspired me. “How did you spend your first chapter of 2021?” That’s not to share that every post you have written hasn’t because each one has in its own way. But the way you shared ” how I find it helpful to think of the year as a twelve chaptered book in which each one does its part to advance the plot. ” made me think that I could do this. I have tried so many times to journal but each time after a few entries I put the journal aside (even the pretty ones I bought). I started a new chapter book this morning. My own January 2021 Review. My subtitles incorporate some of your headings and then a couple of my own. I have reconnected with the local library and already picked up three novels, one which I have started to read. I pulled out CDs from the past, which have been playing all morning. Making the house alive with music from the 70s and 80s! Once I am finished this message to you I am headed down to my cookbooks to dust them off and become inspired by new dishes. I’m sure a welcome site for Paul. I can’t wait to see what my February 2021 Review will look like. Thanks Ainsley for the uplifting voice I hear in your writing. You truly have a gift. I’m grateful to you for sharing your gift. Please continue to inspire me and I’m sure others with your written words. I look forward to your second chapter of 2021.
I’m so happy you found some inspiration in the post, that’s definitely the most meaningful compliment you could give me! New novels and old favorite songs AND recipes sound like the perfect way to spend a weekend, particularly this freezing cold housebound weekend we’re having right now. Enjoy! Thank you so much for taking the time to read and leave such encouraging words.
You know what sprezzatura is? It’s what you got in spades.
Good plan to give the readers an Ainsley’s Digest but Coles Notes? Did they exist when you were in school or are you actually 80 years old?
Keep it up!
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Thank you so much for both the kind words and the new addition to my vocabulary. I am eagerly anticipating the first opportunity to casually slip “spezzatura” into conversation, it’s a good one.
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