Miniseries, Baking Shows, Comfort & Discomfort Books | What We're Reading & Watching

Near the two-month mark of lockdown, themes are cropping up among the WWR/W crew. Junior Library Guild, School Library Journal, and LJ staffers are getting into sweet reads and viewings, cat fiction and nonfiction, miniseries and maxiseries, women power, and the joys and sorrows of family and famiglia.

As we near the two-month mark of lockdown, some themes are cropping up among the “What We’re Reading & Watching” crew. Junior Library Guild, School Library Journal, and LJ staffers are getting into sweet reads and viewings, cat fiction and nonfiction, miniseries and maxiseries, women power, and the joys and sorrows of family and famiglia.

Mahnaz Dar, LJ/SLJ

Two months into working from home and hunkering down, and I've still got mobsters on my mind. I'm on the third season of The Sopranos, and I'm not alone—the show seems to be striking a chord during pandemic. The New Yorker published a comic that described what the characters would be doing while social distancing, and the show's creator David Chase wrote dialog from the perspective of Tony, Carmela, and other characters responding to the virus. Sopranos actors Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa performed the lines on their Talking Sopranos podcast.

lion in the living room coverAs for my pleasure reading, I finished Abigail Tucker's The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Trained Us and Took Over the World and I'm immersed in George De Stefano's An Offer We Can't Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America. Those might seem like disparate reads, but both deal in obsession. Tucker wonders why we're so fixated on cats, despite their serving little practical function (she debunks the idea that we kept them around for their rat-catching abilities), while De Stefano ponders the sociological, and psychological, place that La Cosa Nostra holds for us as a culture.

Liz French, LJ

It’s hard to imagine wanting to read a novel about a plague that kills most of the men in the world during these pandemic times, but when Lauren Beukes is the author, I’m all in! Her upcoming novel, Afterland, has a mother and young son—one of the few males left alive after “Manfall” decimated the men three years ago—on the run. I’ve only just begun to read it, and I confess, sometimes I have to put down the book and look elsewhere for a bit. It’s so tense! Will they make it? Where can they go in a world gone mad? These are, uh, some timely questions. The cover blurb says "governments still hold and life continues—but a world run by women isn’t always a better place.” I would like to think that women would do a better job, but I think Beukes is on to something.

Speaking of women in power (or really close to it), I’ve been reading through a Dover coloring book, America’s First Ladies. Since I can’t craft worth a damn, this is my maker activity. It’s an older edition, so no Melania (sorry/not sorry), but I learned some cool facts about the women in the White House that gave me hope for a future female occupant. VP Stacey Abrams, anyone?

Katy Hershberger, SLJ

For me, quarantining coincided (not so) perfectly with another life change: I just had a baby. For the past three months I’ve been navigating the anxiety and uncertainty of new parenthood, and that of a global pandemic. The good news is, I’m watching a lot of TV. Much of my consumption has been necessarily mindless and soothing, as it’s being done in the middle of the night. I’ve gone through about four seasons of The Great British Bake Off—both Marry Berry and Noel Fielding iterations—and am rewatching The Office.

Mira Jacob Good talk coverAside from crinkle books, I read Mira Jacob’s Good Talk in one sitting, with the baby sleeping on my shoulder. It’s excellent—innovative and heartbreaking and incredibly current, and it led to a three-hour nap.

After one particularly demoralizing day, my husband and I threw up our hands, ordered a pizza (with a hefty delivery tip), and watched Wayne’s World. What an unexpected joy to revisit something from your youth and discover, not only does it hold up, it’s even better than you remember.

Eunice Kim, JLG

This week is all about the miniseries, starting with the Ava DuVernay–helmed Cherish the Day, a romantic anthology that chronicles the life of one couple over five years, with each episode spanning a single day that marks a significant moment in their relationship. After that, there's Ryan Murphy's Hollywood, which follows a diverse group of aspiring actors and filmmakers trying to catch their big break in the movie industry during the golden age of Hollywood.

I'm still on my Korean historical drama kick, so I've got the second season of the zombie period drama thriller Kingdom to catch up on, and hope there's even more jaw-dropping twists and turns to expect. But in a lighter fantasy vein, I'm revisiting two favorites. In Somali and the Forest Spirit, Golem, the ancient automaton protector of the forest, adopts a lost human child and they embark on a quest to find her parents. How To Keep a Mummy centers on a high school student, Sora Kashiwagi, who is saddled with a bizarre new roommate: a 12-inch mummy, sent courtesy of his adventurer father.

On the anime front, I've also been in the mood for lighthearted, slice-of-life fare, and have the utterly delightful My Roommate Is a Cat and the equally heartwarming Poco's Udon World to tackle next.

And I'm closing out this week's reading with Chia-Chia Lin's The Unpassing, which follows a Taiwanese family of six trying to survive in the outskirts of Anchorage, AK, and Kacen Callender's Caribbean-inspired fantasy, Queen of the Conquered, about a ruthless young noblewoman wreaking vengeance against the royals who assassinated her family and enslaved her people.

Lisa Peet, LJ

One of the best things about doing a nonfiction panel for LJ's Day of Dialog is getting to binge-read a pile of smart, substantial books on contemporary politics and culture. I always come out of these events knowing a lot more than I did when I went in, not least because as moderator, I need to think hard about the connections among a bunch of very different subjects, which is always a good stretch. In the past couple of weeks I finished two of my four, and both were very good—Barbara Hoffert knows how to pick 'em.

Jill Lepore's If Then: How Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future is compelling, even if the company in question went belly-up more than 50 years ago. The book traces the rise and fall of an early market-data dealer, Simulmatics Corp.—a fascinating slice of political, sociological, and computational history that I had never heard of. Which is interesting, because I know a few things about all three sectors, but this data science start-up, launched in the 1950s and bankrupt by the end of the 1960s, was a new piece of the puzzle for me. And it is a piece of a lot of bigger things—algorithms, advertising, the general elections of the 1960s, efforts to quantify and info-weaponize the Vietnam War and race riots, and the genealogy of big data and Cambridge Analytica, among other aspects.

MychalDSmith.Stakes coverMychal Denzel Smith's Stakes Is High: Life After the American Dream is a short, very well-done call to arms and critique of the state of the nation. It's not pretty, but Smith's wide-lens view is smart and lays out the root of American problems succinctly, shining a light on endemic racism, toxic masculinity, capitalism, the justice system, politics, and the long-standing delusion labeled the American dream. There are no easy answers or binary rhetoric, which makes this a good book to read right now. How we got to this place—or the place we were at when Smith wrote the book, which is just short of this even harsher point in time—is not easily answerable, but it is understandable, and he does a good job of making the case for a broad and deep revolution. I'm in, as long as I don't have to go to any marches (I was never a marcher, even before this—or, as my second grade teacher wrote on my report card, "Lisa is not a joiner").

Anja Webb, LJ/SLJ

I’ve been focusing on the sweeter things in life lately, including some wholesome Christian fiction and plenty of Food Network. I’ve been impressed by Susie Finkbeiner’s Stories That Bind Us, about a widow named Betty Sweet who becomes the guardian of a long-lost nephew. She could never have children herself, so bonding with the five-year-old proves to be difficult at first, until they find common ground in storytelling. Though I haven’t finished the book yet, I’ve enjoyed its balance of raw moments of grief and a powerful message of hope and love.

Keeping with that theme I’ve also been binge-watching cooking and baking shows, including the classic Great British Baking Show and Spring Baking Championship. I love the trifecta of friendly competition, positive energy, and just enough suspense to keep me interested. There’s nothing like the combination of comfort television and comfort food, enjoyed with a tub of cookie dough and a glass of dessert wine. Besides, if there was ever a time to treat yourself, it’s certainly now!

Vanessa Willoughby, SLJ

Melissa Broder The Pisces coverI’m reading The Pisces, a novel by Melissa Broder, who may be better known as her Twitter persona @sosadtoday. It’s an unexpected story of love and redemption that is as potent as a full moon. Lucy is a flailing academic who has been working on her dissertation on Sappho for what seems like an eternity. After her boyfriend dumps her, Lucy packs her bags and heads to Venice, CA, to stay with her older sister, a yoga guru. One night on the beach, she meets a merman named Theo. He is gorgeous and can pinpoint Lucy’s feelings before she can even name them. Lucy falls in love with reckless abandon, but will this surreal Romeo and Juliet coupling end in tragedy or joy? I’ve been a fan of Broder since discovering her Twitter and reading the column she writes for Vice.

I’m watching Insecure on HBO. I’ve followed the series's star, Issa Rae, since her early days on YouTube as “Awkward Black Girl.” Insecure so accurately captures that weird in-between time in your late 20s and early 30s when you start to settle down, shake off toxic relationships, and grow into yourself. As the saying goes, “Some people are in your life for a season,” and Issa (the character) is starting to realize that she may have to leave behind the people she thought of as day ones.

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