Coping in Times of COVID-19 | What We're Reading, Watching, Playing

We're rebooting the "What We're Reading & Watching" column, with LJ/SLJ staffers writing about the books, movies, TV shows, and games that are helping us cope with COVID chaos. 

There's an upside to almost everything, even in these times of coronavirus. One example: the resurrection of "What We're Reading & Watching," wherein LJ/SLJ and Junior Library Guild staff members write about the books they're reading, the movies and TV they're watching, and now, thanks to new editor Anja Webb, the games they're playing. We asked staffers to tell us what eases the unease of self-isolating, social distancing, shutdowns, etc., and here's what they told us. 

 

Mahnaz Dar, LJ/SLJ

GanglandIn this age of pandemic, I've decided to become a mafia scholar. Yes, I've accepted I won't write my version of King Lear while in seclusion, and no, I'm not going to catch up on reading the classics. But maybe one day I'll be able to create the next Sopranos. I'm reading Howard Blum's engrossing Gangland: How the FBI Broke the Mob, and next on my list is John H. Davis's Mafia Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the Gambino Family.

I also recently watched Donnie Brasco (excellent!) and Gotti (which tries valiantly to hold its own with Goodfellas yet somehow manages to be even less authentic than Mickey Blue Eyes). And with the libraries closed, YouTube has stepped into the void. I love this video of a former FBI special agent assessing scenes from mob movies; for the other side, check out former mobster Michael Franzese's review of mafia movie scenes . (And somehow this former capo in the Columbo family has also managed to tweet out videos about the coronavirus that are a thousand times more reassuring than anything coming out of the White House.)

Dinner with EdwardKimberly Fakih, SLJ 

What's comforting me on TV is Silk and The Good Fight and any woman-centric British drama where behavior leads to results, even though the territories of good and evil are somewhat grayed out. What I'm reading—what I'm loving—is this odd little book by Isabel Vincent, Dinner with Edward: A Story of an Unexpected Friendship, which is like Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road, but not epistolary. A middle-aged woman facing divorce starts dining with a new widower who has no reason to live, he thinks, but loves to cook. It's nonfiction, the meals are divine, the descriptions better, and she is so whiny and he is so solid and sober at age 95 or so. Friendship, lovely and restoring.

Liz French, LJ

It’s freaky out there. It’s freaky inside my house, too, where I’m working from home by day and watching some TV at night. But when I found myself yelling at the commercials, I knew it was time to...dip into the hot tub time machine and enjoy episodes of the original Starsky & Hutch TV series that my boyfriend bought on eBay B.C: before COVID. I recall this show from my youth, but it was not a favorite by any means. The boyfriend watched repeats on Hungarian TV and dreamed little Soviet boy dreams of someday owning and driving a Ford Gran Torino all over the streets of L.A. (or was it Long Beach?). I totally dig the outfits and dance moves and, of course  the comic relief provided by Starsky & Hutch’s friend Huggy Bear. Oh yes, it’s sexist as heck—every episode features at least one scene with scantily clad women dancing in cages—and the well-meaning social messages often land with a 1970s thud. But there’s a lot of gold among the dross, including guest stars such as Sylvia Sidney, Jose Ferrer, Joan Blondell, and Lynda “Wonder Woman” Carter, and oh boy, is it a good escape. Even the chase scenes and shootouts take me out of coronahead woes, and that’s a good thing. My colleague Lisa Peet sent me this S&H-celebratory video when she heard about my WWR choice, c'est bon!

Lisa Peet, LJ

I'm all for comfort reads, and brain candy, too. But when I need distraction, I want a book that's going to require all my attention and push the rest of the world out to the margins—something immersive, beautiful, just challenging enough so that my mind doesn't wander to the places I'm trying to keep it away from.

I was so chuffed because I snagged myself a copy of Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light just before its pub date. I'd been looking forward to it literally for years. But then I made the mistake, if you want to call it that, of just taking a peek at Wolf Hall, which I first read a decade ago, to see if I was at all up to speed...and oh man, no wonder I'd been pining for one more installment. It's SO good. The Tudor court intrigue, the gnarly and marvelously complicated character of Thomas Cromwell, the way both Mantel's writing and her plot swoop and dive and pull the reader along for the ride—it's a wonderful experience, possibly better than it was ten years ago because I'm a better reader (and know more of the period history as well, probably thanks to her getting me interested). I don't seem to have a whole lot more time to read than I did before I was working from home every day, but I steal any moment I can to disappear into that world for a few pages.

Another thing: Mantel has an amazing gift for letting the reader see over the head of her protagonist: how, though he's the master of so much in his world, he's still buffeted by fates he can't quite know—but we do. And it's interesting to think of us all right now, living in this moment of this story that has yet to play itself out. We're only a couple of chapters in, I think, but there's going to be an arc to it we can't yet see. So there's another thing about good fiction—it reminds us to pay attention to the fact that we're all living our own narrative, and there will be many ways to tell it when it's over. Maybe this isn't quite such escapism after all.

Meredith Schwartz, LJ

I’ve been watching mostly animation—Avatar: The Last Airbender and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Very soothing. I’m reading Tom Holt’s An Orc on the Wild Side, humorous British fantasy, courtesy of the Brooklyn Public Library’s e-collection, having just finished Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Fated Sky, sequel to The Calculating Stars.

Julie Sheridan, SLJ  

MirandaTo keep sane and in utter stitches, I watch Miranda, a television sitcom written by and starring comedian Miranda Hart, currently airing on Hulu. I swear, I’ve never laughed as loudly and with such abandon as I have watching this show (just ask my twin teenage daughters, who look at me like I’m even stranger than they already think I am). It’s a British show, with some physical comedy (tripping, falling over boxes, etc.), and every character in the show is, well…a character! Quick synopsis from Wikipedia: "An ungainly, socially awkward, 35-year-old woman frequently finds herself in awkward and bizarre situations."

Anja Webb, LJ/SLJ

Since things are so complicated these days, I’ve been overcome with a desire to return to the media and hobbies of my childhood. As a result, I’ve been obsessing over the new Pokémon Mystery Dungeon game, a revamping of a game that was popular in my youth. In this world, I play as the lovable grass-type Pokémon chikorita and help rescue other Pokémon from dangerous natural disasters. When I’m not exploring virtual worlds as an imaginary green animal, I’ve taken to rewatching one of the biggest animes of our time—Tite Kubo’s "Bleach." The escapism that fantasy provides, particularly through visual media such as manga and anime, is therapeutic and perfect for relaxing. Lastly, I wouldn’t be much of a crafting editor if I didn’t practice what I preach. I’ve been working on my watercolor skills, a new medium for me, with Kristy Rice’s The Art for Joy’s Sake. The work lives up to the title. The focus on creating for fun, rather than to make something perfect, has helped me embrace the challenges that learning a new craft brings.

Vanessa Willoughby, SLJ

Bitter Root(Comic) books I'm reading: Bitter Root by David F. Walker, Sanford Greene, and Chuck Brown. Set in the 1920s during the Harlem Renaissance, this saga chronicles the monster-hunting legacy of the Sangerye family, who are currently estranged. However, a new evil threatens to destroy humanity. Can they come together and save the world? With resplendent artwork and smart, cutting dialog, Bitter Root effectively uses the familiar characteristics of the horror and sf canon to examine racism, white supremacy, and how apathy and indifference can spawn fatal injustice. It’s a comic book series that would complement viewings of HBO’s Watchmen.

TV: Desus & Mero, a late-night talk show on ShowTime that discusses world and national news, pop culture, sports, and more. It has featured illustrious guests such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jordan Peele, Spike Lee, Issa Rae, and Maxine Waters. Desus and Mero, both Bronx natives, bring a refreshing, laugh-out-loud commentary typically not found in mainstream late-night TV. It's a welcome distraction from the heaviness of the current news cycle.

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Liz French

Liz French is Senior Editor, LJ Reviews.  Email: efrench@mediasourceinc.com; Twitter: @lizefrench

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