Cabin Fever Dreams | What We're Reading & Watching, May Day & Beyond

LJ, School Library Journal, and Junior Library Guild staffers counter six weeks of cabin fever with a full roster of books, TV shows, movies, web novels, works in and out of translation, and podcasts to carry us to the new normal (someday).

In this edition of COVID Cabin Fever…yes, staffers from LJ, School Library Journal, and Junior Library Guild are starting to feel the effects of six weeks of quarantine. We’re dreaming of freedom to travel, dine out again, see live performances, read physical books, go to museum exhibitions, discuss favorite TV shows face to face, visit far-flung relatives, and witness the “new normal” someday. In the meantime (and these are mean times for many), we experience these “before-times” in books, movies, TV series, web novels, and even a podcast.

Alex Aceves, JLG 

I’ve never been much of a cook. I prefer baking; the precision of it satisfies this erstwhile biology major’s enthusiasm for controlled experiments. The chaos and inexactitude of cooking has never appealed. When it comes to making actual food—nourishment, sustenance—I’m at a loss. Since moving to New York, I’ve availed myself as often as I could afford of this city’s endless culinary possibilities. The thrill of living in a place where you can get any kind of food at almost any price point at almost any time of day or night! My bank account tells a story of a budget of laughably small grocery store receipts paired with one or two extravagant restaurant bills, sad one-pot dinners stretched out to last through the week so that I can feast on omakase sushi or fuul-heaped injera on Saturday night.

When shelter-in-place began, many of my friends took to cooking for comfort. The fruits of their labors are on my Instagram feed: showy heaps of watermelon radishes sprinkled with feta; plump, perfectly bronzed roast chickens. By necessity, I’ve been cooking more, too, conscious of the need to protect those putting their lives at risk so that others can order takeout. The copy of Alison Roman’s Dining In that a friend gifted me has one or two smudges and a few pages that stick together, as cookbooks ought. Instead, what I’ve been turning to for solace have been books about restaurants. Maybe this is perverse, perpetually reminding myself of the thing I miss most. But when I read Ruth Reichl’s description of eating sorbet at Pierre Gagnaire in Save Me the Plums: A Gourmet Memoir or thrill to Kwame Onwuachi’s recollections of the manic energy of back-of-house at Craft in Notes from a Young Black Chef, I can almost imagine myself there again, tucked into a cramped two-top with a pile of cracked crab shells on my plate.

In the meantime, I’ll be here at my two top–size kitchen table, scarfing down a bowl of crunchy penne (I like it al dente, OK?) and crying over my dog-eared copy of Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

Mahnaz Dar, LJ/SLJ

It's tough to get out of bed in the morning, but some things make it easier: soft pants, the possibility of catching a glimpse of a kitty on a Zoom meeting, and, of course, The Sopranos. Now, a show about a depressed, violent Mafia boss may not sound like escapist viewing, but I never feel more shielded from the horrors of the pandemic than when I'm watching The Sopranos. Maybe because, for all the violence, it's also one of the funniest shows I've ever seen? Or perhaps it's the worldbuilding; there is no more enticing fictional world than 2000s-era New Jersey, seen through the eyes of gangsters.

And though it's my escape, it's also my connection to the world. I'm continuing to tune in to the Talking Sopranos podcast. I love tweeting my observations about the show—and I'm pleasantly surprised to see that, all these years later, it still resonates. After all, Sopranos makes for surprisingly relevant pandemic viewing: One of my favorite characters, Paulie Walnuts, has an entire monolog on proper hand-washing. And Tony Soprano's famous line from the pilot episode rings true more now than ever: "It's good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately, I'm getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over."

But it isn't all gangsters these days. I finished Kate Elizabeth Russell's My Dark Vanessa this week, and I highly recommend it. Russell's story of a woman looking back on an abusive relationship with her high school English teacher is unnerving yet mesmerizing. I love the way she folds in a revisiting of Lolita, forcing us to look at how our culture often romanticizes relationships marked by unequal power dynamics.

Kimberly Fakih, SLJ

Janson history of art for young pplYou know I was worried about May. In the last couple of weeks, something wonderful happened. I can get out of my head (and Harlan Coben's) and settle into someone else's life. I pulled a previously unopened Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee off the to-be-read shelf, and when I find out what writers young Edith pored over in the family library, Ruskin and Goethe among them, I feel as aspirational as I do over a Nancy Myers movie.

I'm also reading cover to cover an older Abrams book, History of Art for Young People, by H.W. Janson and his son, Anthony F. Janson, based on the original History of Art. The time lines are compelling: Joan of Arc burned at the stake within 15 years of the invention of the Gutenberg press, and don't forget Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry in the same period. Within one 50-year time span, Arabic numerals are introduced in Europe, Francis of Assisi becomes a saint, and epic stained glass finds its way to Chartres Cathedral. The Black Death, and 40 years later, Canterbury Tales? It's hard not to be optimistic and excited by our future.

Liz French, LJ

I went through a long spell at the beginning of lockdown where I couldn’t concentrate on reading much more than Twitter posts and news headlines. I’m better now, after watching many episodes of Starsky & Hutch, a lot of whatever Turner Classics was showing (especially Eddie Muller’s exquisite “Noir Alley” offerings), and a few movies we have kicking around. I have yet to jump on the streaming wagon, mostly because I don’t want to become the Bickersons with my darling housemate as we try to hook up various devices to our ancient television. It could get ugly pretty fast!

Luckily my reading mojo has returned, and I am happily exploring decades in the #BeforeTimes: the 1960s in Swingin’ London in David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue, which follows a thrown-together band as they climb the charts and weather life’s ups and downs; and the 1930s in Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions in the 1930s, which accompanied an exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology several years ago. Great show and beautiful clothing. One thing I miss about going to the office is getting dressed for work—really dressed, not COVID dressed. I also miss going out to see live music, something I used to do a lot more of and long to do more of again someday. Thanks to Mitchell’s deft prose, I can experience a Utopia Avenue concert; thanks to the fashion historians who put together Elegance, I can imagine myself in a slinky bias-cut gown, martini in hand and a droll bit of millinery on head, chatting with Noel Coward or Elsa Schiaparelli.

Cathy Hoey, LJ/SLJ

So I’m a binger extraordinaire: I watched Tiger King in one sitting before it was a thing on everyone’s radar. Last night I was up until 2:00 a.m. watching Normal People on Hulu. OMG! Loved the book by Sally Rooney, and it works so well as a series. The unknown stars are fabulous as the lovers who cannot seem to find their pacing—loving and destroying each other. Both so damaged and vulnerable. Love it! And did I mention….very sexy.

Barbara Hoffert, LJ Nessa Rapoport Evening book cover

As always, the galleys have been piling up—this time electronically—and today was my day for sorting through what I have received. It’s a thrill to get long-anticipated works, such as Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies, but the act of discovery is just as great. Among them: Scott O’Connor’s Zero Zone, a lambently told story of an installation artist first inspired by a near-death encounter with the ocean; Nessa Rapoport’s Evening, a tale of two siblings (one recently dead) and the secrets that eventually will out, intriguingly touched with magic and told in language at once clear-eyed and sparkling; German author Anja Kampmann’s High as the Water Rises, translated by Anne Posten, the story of an oil rigger whose colleague and friend has gone missing, an affecting and sobering account of male friendship; Shannon Burke’s The Brother Years, a sibling tale that is, refreshingly, anything but maudlin; Iranian author Salar Abdoh’s Out of Mesopotamia, fiction about a journalist reporting on war in the Middle East that doesn’t read like your typical war story; and Dima Wannous’s The Frightened Ones, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, which actually I was anticipating, but still—a Damascus-set story, lyrical, fluid, and burningly personal, about a young woman and a novelist who’s escaped into exile and left his work behind. So what do they have in common? Glorious language, both rich and precise; a penetrating, slightly cockeyed way of looking at the world; no resemblance to anything I’ve read before; and a feeling of breathing along with the characters. I can’t wait to read more. Maybe I won’t send those out to the reviewers.

Eunice Kim, JLG

I'm thrilled by the return of two favorite spring shows, with the third season of BBC America's Killing Eve, a cat-and-mouse game between a whip-smart MI5 agent (played by the illustrious Sandra Oh) and a psychopathic assassin (played by the equally arresting Jodie Comer), and the second season of FX's What We Do in the Shadows, an absolutely hilarious mockumentary that follows four vampire roommates trying their best to adapt to the modern world, and in the most unlikely of places: Staten Island. Netflix has also got me covered on the romance k-drama front with the ambitious, parallel universe/time-traveling The King: The Eternal Monarch and Crash Landing on You, which all my friends can't seem to stop raving about lately.

To scratch my recent mystery itch, I'm watching The Ghost Bride, a murder mystery taking place in 1980s Malaysia and based on the original novel by Yangsze Choo, and The Sleuth of the Ming Dynasty, based on the original web novel by Meng Xi Shi and set against the rich backdrop of twisty court politics and palace intrigue in 1400s China. Three of my film favorites from last year are streaming now: Studio Trigger's Promare, which was the most fun I had at the movies in ages with its jaw-dropping animated sequences and visuals; Bong Joon Ho's masterfully layered black comedy thriller Parasite, which is well worth repeat viewings, and Céline Sciamma's achingly tender Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which took my breath away with its beautifully acted romance.

And for reading this week, it's Ali Wong's hysterically heartfelt Dear Girls and Roselle Lim's magically delightful Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune.

Susan Marston, JLG

How do you know you are reading for pleasure when you read for a living—and the days and weeks of pandemic work-from-home blend together without end? One way for me to make a clear distinction—to really escape—is to read something in German. I studied abroad so long ago that the country I lived in was called West Germany. So long ago that my German had completely atrophied—until a 2017 business trip to the Frankfurt Book Fair and a side trip to visit relatives gave it a reboot.

Finding books in German is not all that easy but thanks to the Brooklyn Public Library, I do have some options. I have nearly finished reading Der Insider, a translation of Fade Away by Harlan Coben, which has a diverting mystery and enjoyable basketball wish fulfillment but a grating attitude toward women that might have made me set it down except that it is ON MY READING LEVEL. My synapses do a happy dance while reading it because I understand it well enough to get annoyed. When I was last in the library I also scored Becoming: Meine Geschichte by Michelle Obama. I love the efficiency of both getting German practice and reading a book so many have recommended. The reading level is higher and takes more concentration, but a minute silver lining to the state of things is that the due date isn’t until June 1—and I might make my way through a few more chapters by then!

While I was in Germany, my cousin Antje recommended Christine Wallner's Mama Alama: Die Weiβe Heilerin (Mama Alama: The White Healer), about an Austrian doctor who moved to Tanzania at age 65 and established an aid project there—and, according to the book’s tagline, “found her life.” I only recently found it online and it had just arrived in my office before we closed down. In fact, it was in my backpack and I was on a final bike ride home from the office when Antje—also staying at home because of the corona virus—texted me to see how I was doing.

Kiera Parrott, LJ/SLJ

To be honest, I’ve been finding it hard to read (nonwork-related) books recently. Even the twistiest thrillers are failing to hold my attention. I know I’m not the only one. So I’ve decided to take a short pleasure-reading break and reset the best way I know how: 1950s and 1960s glorious Technicolor musicals. I’m starting this weekend with An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly plays a prominent role in this cleansing process), The Young Girls of Rochefort, and, my absolute favorite film of all time, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. If a young Catherine Deneuve, rain-soaked streets in the moonlight, and the most romantic soundtrack ever committed to celluloid can’t revive me, nothing can.

Lisa Peet, LJ

Sarah Pinsker Song book coverLast week I read Sarah Pinsker's A Song for a New Day, a library hold that finally trickled in. It was fun but surprising in a few ways, first off feeling more YA than I had expected—not that there's anything wrong with that. The story line was a good one—corporatized music as a symptom of post-pandemic ills, and those of an alienated, segmented society in general. But what pulled me in most was how Pinsker, who wrote this well in advance of the onslaught of C-19 (it was expanded from a story in her 2019 collection Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea), got so many of the social isolation details scarily right. She spins that out into an exploration of what happens when public gatherings are banned, music is channeled into mega-retail consumer-friendly VR channels, and live music is forced underground. It's a great premise, superimposing the rise of giant corporate entities on American fear, and how a desire to stay safe can become stifling legislation—very punk rock, though there were fewer sharp edges to the writing than I would have hoped for. 

What may have felt more like speculation, or an allegory, when Pinsker wrote it, though, is more of a what-if right now. Things are going to be different post-COVID, and this outcome is a bit more plausible than it was six months ago. So that was an interesting overlay to an entertaining dystopian novel...creepy, for sure, but also uplifting in the end, which is certainly welcome right now. Rock and roll will never die, apparently.

Meredith Schwartz, LJ

I’ve just started watching Leverage (literally on episode 2, no spoilers!). The capers are escapist fun, with enough character interaction to make me care—I’ve always been a sucker for ensemble shows and found families. Plus, I find the fantasy of vigilante justice against corrupt entrenched power very soothing in the current environment. With a reboot in the works, I’m hoping to get caught up in time to start the new one. As far as reading goes, I am waiting on my library hold of The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein, as recommended by Jo Walton as a “book that grabs you” on Tor.com. Brooklyn Public Library have been telling me that the book will be ready in about two weeks for about one week…hopefully book one will come in before book two, though if it doesn’t, I can try out the new Deliver Later feature on OverDrive’s Libby app.

Julie Sheridan, SLJ

I’ve switched from Brit coms to Brit drams (that’s British dramas). I watched Bleak House (2005) and enjoyed it very much. I’m going to count that as basically reading Dickens’s novel.

Vanessa Willoughby, SLJ Tara Isabella Burton Social Creature cover

This week I’m tearing through Tara Isabelle Burton's Social Creature. The star of the novel is Lavinia, an Upper East Side party girl who cycles through best friends according to the change in seasons. When she meets introverted Louise, the pair become inseparable. Louise’s life suddenly becomes a whirlwind of designer gowns, expensive Champagne, fleeting moments of Brooklyn-based debauchery, and ex–prep school snobs with seemingly unlimited lines of credit. Ultimately, their friendship turns into a power struggle that ends in murder. Burton’s debut is definitely for fans of Patricia Highsmith and Gillian Flynn mixed with the pop culture sensibilities of Gossip Girl.

Also, I’ve been watching Legion (Hulu) and Below Deck: Sailing Yacht (Bravo). Legion, which initially premiered on FX, is based on the Marvel character David Haller/Legion. David, whose father is Professor X, is a mutant who was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age. He learns that he may not be mentally ill; he has powers, and a secret government agency is hunting him down. The show is a trippy, kaleidoscopic treat and pushes the boundaries of conventional format and narrative style. Below Deck follows Captain Glenn Shephard and his crew as they work on a luxury sailing yacht. Naturally, many of the guests are rude and/or downright insufferable, and there’s always drama brewing among crew members. It’s like The Real World if they were all trapped out on the ocean.

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