Quarantine Developments | What We're Reading, Watching, & Reassessing

The “What We’re Reading & Watching” crew looks anew at old favorites, rewatches forgotten series, handles horror, carefully discusses politics, blatantly fangirls Iris Murdoch, tries to love the Babysitters Club, and noshes homemade cheesecake. 

Dog days of summer have the “What We’re Reading & Watching” crew looking anew at old favorites, rewatching forgotten series, handling horror, carefully discussing politics, blatantly fangirling Iris Murdoch, trying to love the Babysitters Club, and noshing cheesecake.

Irving Cumberbatch, LJ

While the theme song “Stuck in the Middle with You” plays, a wedding cake collapses, with two brides falling for their lives! This scene sets the stage for the premise of the Netflix series Grace and Frankie, in which the two 70-plus title characters find out that their husbands are gay and in love with each other. After a memorable food fight involving seafood, the two women return to the beach house they have shared with their respective husbands, to lick their wounds and figure out their next steps.

A new Odd Couple is born. They are by no means best friends at the beginning of the series; in fact, they downright hate each other. Grace, “the ultimate WASP,” is played by Academy Award winner Jane Fonda, and Frankie, “the hippy-dippy chick,” is played by comic legend Lily Tomlin. Jane is a bit stiff in the beginning of the series, which is to be expected since she isn't a comedic actress. But her stiffness works for her uptight character. As the seasons have progressed, Jane has found her footing with Grace. Lily, on the other hand, is comic gold. She knows how to milk Frankie's "kooky" qualities and use them to hilarious effect.

The supporting cast is solid. It’s rare to see a gay older couple portrayed on the small screen. Frankie’s ex-husband Sol is played by Sam Waterston, and Grace’s ex Robert is played by Martin Sheen. Also in the mix are Grace and Frankie’s dysfunctional kids. Grace's daughters Mallory ("the nice one") and Brianna ("the nasty one") are played by Brooklyn Decker and June Diane Raphael, respectively. Frankie's sons Coyote, "the ex addict," and Bud, “the normal one,” are played by Ethan Embry and Baron Vaughn. Their characters play well off of one another, and they become one big blended family.

This series is a rewatch for me. Much to my embarrassment I realized that I had either fallen asleep or just plain forgotten several episodes. So I felt this was the perfect opportunity to reacquaint myself with the series. Over the six seasons we not only get to see Grace and Frankie’s friendship grow; we also see them navigate the choppy waters of establishing a friendly relationship with their exes while fending off overbearing if not well-meaning children. Grace and Frankie have each other through their vibrator business, an attempted move into a retirement village, and a Vegas wedding. So I guess for these ladies it hasn’t been so bad being stuck in the middle with each other.

Mahnaz Dar, LJ/SLJ

As a teen, I devoured The Exorcist without skipping a beat. I boldly made my way through Stephen King’s oeuvre (haunted hotel? Got room for one more? Killer clowns? Pshaw!). And Rosemary’s Baby just made me long to live in the Dakota one day, satanic cults and all! But apparently I’ve gotten softer in my old age, because a children’s book about foxes kept me up glassy-eyed, afraid to keep turning pages but more terrified to put the book down and leave my fox heroes in peril. I engulfed Christian McKay Heidicker’s Scary Stories for Young Foxes in one night, and what a night it was. Heidicker’s book, which won a Newbery Honor this year, is framed as a set of stories within stories, about a group of seven fox kits listening to tales of terror—an outbreak of rabies, an abusive father determined to kill the runt of the litter, and, perhaps most frightening of all, Beatrix Potter, depicted here as an eccentric taxidermist who killed every animal she ever wrote about, then stuffed them for posterity. I can confidently say this is one that will terrify readers of all ages!

Kimberly Olson Fakih, SLJ

There are many developments in quarantine. My daughter, sheltering in place with me, took up the baking of cheesecakes. The 30 minutes of cardio and weights I do every day now has a simpler goal than getting healthy: Fit through the door whenever "they" finally let us out.

Seeking gentle visions of another era, I read Jonathan Haidt's great The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided in Politics and Religion, which makes 2013 practically pastoral. Actually, I read it for the self-serving reason that a gentleman caller (virtual caller) said he would not engage in political discussions with anyone who has not read it. He's right. I can't "unknow" these essays, and I think it will change family dinner conversations forever.

The extreme reaction I'm having to this book, however, is to binge-watch Killing Eve, after Crashing, after Fleabag, after Run, and anything else Phoebe Waller-Bridge wants to write, produce, or direct. And then it's on to a jillion seasons of Idris Elba and Luther. Because.

Liz French, LJ

Lately I’ve noticed that a lot of my #BeforeTimes reading and watching pleasures aren’t cutting it now. Perhaps it’s the lockdown crankies, but whatever it is, I’m looking at a lot of old favorites with a new, more critical eye. Take, for just one instance, Eve Babitz. An L.A. woman with a brain, she wrote lightly fictionalized memoirs describing her hedonistic high jinks in the 1960s and 1970s. And that woman could high-jink, let me tell ya: Jim Morrison, Steve Martin, Linda Ronstadt, Harrison Ford, the Ruschas, entire rock and roll bands…. Those were her playmates. My Angeleno friend Dann turned me on to her in the 1990s, and I really dug her books. Then there was a resurgence of Eve love after a Vanity Fair profile by Eve’s eventual biographer, Lili Anolik (Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A.).

After that, a deluge of reissues from NYRB and Counterpoint introduced “a new generation” to Eve. I devoured almost all of the reissues, but for some reason I put down the 2019 collection of Eve’s essays, I Used To Be Charming, and only last week picked up the book again. Perhaps it’s because this is a collection and the content is uneven, but I was not as engaged as with her other books. I’m trying to pin it down, why that is. It probably didn’t help that a Google search brought up essays declaiming her writing, calling it self-obsessed and full of white privilege and body-shaming. I’m not sure I agree with all those takedowns, but it did make me reconsider (that and the observation from Anolik that she is now an avid Fox News watcher. WHAT). I still like her, but I think I need to take a break, either read something more political or totally escapist, not sure which. I haven’t given up on Eve, but I’m putting her back on the shelf for post-COVID reading—if that day ever comes.

Lisa Peet, LJ

I finished Iris Murdoch's The Bell just ahead of last week's Iris Murdoch Fan Girls Book Club, and enjoyed both the book and meeting very much. Murdoch is kind of perfect reading for right now—you just sit back and let her do all the driving. This one, set in a small lay religious community in the 1950s, was no exception, a fine balance of plot and detail, with some non-trite ruminations on character, religion, sexuality, and power imbalances (I was going to just say relationships, but let's call 'em as Murdoch saw 'em). One of the main characters is borderline problematic—a closeted group leader with an attraction to very young men—but Murdoch deals with him and his actions honestly and unsentimentally. Does anyone write books like hers anymore? They're very particularly English, in a way, but that's not what I'm talking about—more that sort of plotty setup that makes you think it's going to be a murder mystery (manor house, nuns, people sneaking around at night, a planned great ceremonial unveiling with counter-plotting behind it, troubled twins, etc.). The whole effect was very propulsive, and the setting kept me Googling photos of English country houses, which is never a bad thing. Good fun without being silly at all.

babysitters club castKara Yorio, SLJ

My Twitter feed has been filled with adults gushing over The Babysitters Club on Netflix. They were up all night bingeing. They were reliving their youth. They loved every performance. Then came my friend’s texts: Have I watched? Did I read the books when I was younger? Didn’t my daughter read them?

No. No. And, yes, my daughter indeed had read and enjoyed the graphic novel editions and my friend really wanted to know what she thought of the Netflix series. Would there be a difference between those who snatched up every new book of the originals and those who became the next generation of BSC readers? And what about me—going in with no knowledge of these girls and their club, what would I think?

So I watched with my daughter, who proceeded to excitedly reveal every possible story line along the way, then feel guilty and badly try to lie it away. “Oh, right, she has diabetes.… I mean, maybe she does. Not sure. I don’t really remember. Sorry.

“Oh good, Dawn. I liked it when she joined the club.… If they let her in the club, I mean, she would maybe make it better. Sorry.”

I sat and watched and waited to see what everyone else saw. I repeatedly agreed to stay up late to watch the next episode. I was ready for the one that would reveal the magic, make me want to tweet about it. In the end, I spent 10 episodes waiting for Kristy Thomas to turn into a tolerable person. She never did.

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