What We're Reading, Watching, Doing April 17, 2020

 LJ, School Library Journal, & Junior Library Guild staff share the many distractions that get them through the "downtimes" of quarantine. 

The staffers of LJ, School Library Journal, & Junior Library Guild continue sheltering in place and seeking solace in online video games, TV series and quiz shows, podcasts, comics, fiction and nonfiction books, anime, miniseries, k-drama, poetry read by its makers, Harry Potter, and of course, all Hugh Laurie all the time!

Mahnaz Dar, LJ/SLJ

Talking Sopranos podcast logoWith life outside my four walls getting harder with each passing day, I'm taking refuge in the familiar. The Sopranos might not sound like cozy, reassuring viewing, but it's long provided an escape for me; no matter where I am in life, I can always get lost in an episode. I'm listening to the podcast Talking Sopranos, hosted by actors Michael Imperioli, who played Christopher Moltisanti, mob boss Tony Soprano's heir apparent, and Steve Schirripa, who played Bobby "Bacala" Baccalieri, one of the more gentle, cuddly mafiosos on the show. Although, as I quickly realized, you can't totally shut out the outside world these days—Imperioli dedicated the most recent episode to his cousin, a retired schoolteacher who died of coronavirus.

As actors, Imperioli and Schirripa brought incredible humanity to characters that on any other show or film could have been written off as lowlifes, and as podcast hosts they provide great insight. I'm especially digging their reflections on how the show compares to the real-life mob, as well as their commentary on the show's musical choices.

I'm also finishing up John H. Davis's Mafia Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the Gambino Crime Family; next on deck will be Selwyn Raab's Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires.

Kimberly Fakih, SLJ

Just to recap, in February I was reading Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Bowen, Jane Gardam's "Old Filth" trilogy.

By March I found comfort in old cookbooks, some bingeing of courtroom dramas, and in one last attempt to reread the Mapp and Lucia omnibus, Make Way for Lucia by E.F. Benson.

Something broke in April: Harlan Coben's The Stranger and Safe, on Netflix, and then The Five on Hulu, plus Don't Let Go as an ebook from the library. But the most interesting development may be Hugh Laurie, all the time, requiring a bulleted list:

  • A Bit of Fry and Laurie
  • House
  • Sense and Sensibility
  • Jeeves and Wooster
  • Chance, season one, heading into season two this weekend

I'm very concerned about May. 

Barbara Hoffert, LJ

P. Metres Shrapnel Maps coverI’m an incorrigible reader, eyes to the page. But when it comes to poetry, listening is another, equally wonderful, surprising different way into understanding the poems to which I am drawn. As with live concerts, the best way to hear new music, poetry readings can serve to introduce me to poets I don’t yet know and love or give me a whole new view of poets and collections I do know—and have even reviewed. So a shout-out to all the virtual poetry readings during the pandemic, with a special nod to Copper Canyon’s Launch Party Livestream series. Among the poets I have appreciated hearing so far: Ed Skoog (Travelers Leaving for the City), sharper than I envisioned him from the page; John Freeman (The Park), gentler than I would have imagined (he’s just so scarily smart and committed in person); Traci Brimhall (Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod), astonishingly assured and meditative as she relates multiple heartbreak; Ellen Bass (Indigo), both warmer and tougher than I had imagined; and Philip Metres (Shrapnel Maps), whose reading of a rich and protean work showed it to be tighter and fiercer than I had remembered, and having his wife pitch in to read a second voice constituting a much-redacted poem summed up the silences, the gaps, and the intense cross-conflict in the Middle East today. Yes, I listened to the reading while scrabbling away at my LJ work on an alternate screen, but if some ragged editing resulted, so be it. Poetry is life.

Eunice Kim, JLG

The last few weeks have been all about catching up on my long-neglected Netflix queue! I recently finished Rookie Historian, Goo Hae Ryung, a delightful historical k-drama about a female historian and a prince-turned-secret-romance-novelist, and Queen Sono, a female James Bond–esque spy thriller set in contemporary South Africa.

Next on my list is the Octavia Spencer–led miniseries, Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, but I'll also be rewatching a favorite comfort series, The Untamed, based on the original Chinese web novel. 

For anime, I'm making use of my Crunchyroll account with "Tower of God," based on the original Korean webtoon, and the second season of an old shojo series, "Fruits Basket." And for reading, I've been curled up with Ronan Farrow's utterly riveting Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators and next on my list is Jean Kwok's Searching for Sylvie Lee

Melanie Kletter, SLJ

As an avid, lifelong reader, I am a little embarrassed to admit that I have never read “Harry Potter” books. When the series first came out, I was in my early 20s and it just didn’t appeal. Now, however, I can’t express my appreciation enough for these magical books. My ten-year-old daughter Julia is in the throes of a Harry Potter obsession. Since we have been home, Harry Potter has provided her and our family with entertainment, conversation, and connection. Julia is currently reading the seventh book. Over meals she regales us with the latest plot twists and her thoughts on the characters and their motivations. We recently watched the first six movies together as a family. My seven-year-old daughter hasn’t read the series yet but she enjoyed watching the movies and likes to discuss the scary parts with me. Julia has indulged her passion in other ways; she completed a digital HP Escape Room recently and spends hours perusing The-Leaky-Cauldron.org and other fan sites. This week, she spent a long afternoon watching HP YouTube videos with a friend over Google Hangouts as they discussed their thoughts on what Voldemort was like as a child. What I most appreciate is that Julia’s intense Harry Potter interest is giving her some independence and allows my husband and me to work, cook, and occasionally read our own books for pleasure. I can say with certainty that Harry Potter is getting all of us through.

Susan Marston, JLG

What is the sole remaining scheduled activity from Before?

My son Jackson, a high school sophomore, finished his basketball season the week before the New York City schools were closed due to COVID-19. Throughout the season, I would call home before leaving work and inevitably, Jackson was just home from practice, and he and my husband were watching JEOPARDY! 7:00 PM these days has a lot of other meanings. It’s the time that my Brooklyn neighborhood erupts with sound: people clap, cheer, ring cowbells, bang pot lids, whoop, and yell “Thank you,” to honor the healthcare workers and first responders who are fighting this terrible virus. It’s the time that my college-age son, finishes “attending” remote class on some nights and the time my husband begins teaching class via Zoom on others. But it is also still the time we watch JEOPARDY! Thanks to Jackson and Netflix, that’s even true on what used to be called “the weekend.”

Kiera Parrott, LJ/SLJ

On the fiction front, I finally downloaded a copy of Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age—and it lives up to the hype. It’s an engrossing domestic drama that teeters just on the edge of suspense. It smartly engages with themes of racism, microaggressions, classism, and gender. If it weren’t for the current global pandemic eclipsing so much of all our lives, it would feel very of-the-moment. Speaking of, I’ve been spending most of my downtime enjoying escapist TV and film. My husband and I binge-watched Amazon’s Tales from the Loop over the weekend. It is delightful, surprising, and gorgeously shot science fiction. It takes place in an alternate 1960s-era little town in which most of the adults work at a secret underground facility called The Loop, where they “make the impossible possible.” Each episode is its own story, but the characters connect and meet throughout. Many of the episodes spin on themes of time—time travel, youth, death, choice, and fate. We’re also loving My Brilliant Friend: The Story of a New Name, the second season of HBO’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s “Neapolitan Novels.” I’ve rarely seen a book-to-screen adaptation that so faithfully recreates the source material. It is a lush and sparkling gem in these dark times.

Lisa Peet, LJ

Well, I finally finished Wolf Hall. I can’t remember the last time I spent this long on a single book, which I’ll chalk up to losing my two-hour-a-day commute, and also to the fact that about halfway through, I discovered the excellent online Wolf Hall book club over at the Washington Post, led by culture writers Alyssa Rosenberg and Eugene Robinson. I’ve been spending almost as much time with that discussion as I did with the book, and since it runs through May 11, I’ll be going back to it. It’s been a bit weird, in a nice way, to see that what I think of as my own very personal choices are actually part of a larger social distancing zeitgeist. All those people reading Wolf Hall makes sense, I guess—like me, a lot of folks probably got their hands on the long-awaited third book of the trilogy and decided they wanted to start from the beginning. Finding out that my friends and I weren’t the only people reading Virginia Woolf was also kind of a neat surprise (“Why Anxious Readers Under Quarantine Turn to Mrs. Dalloway)—OK, as post-pandemic Modernist literature that celebrates running errands, that adds up too. And now it seems that my stockpiling of pretty USPS stamps and letter-writing is also hip. So there you go—I’m a lot more mainstream than I thought. Now, for a little change of genre, I’m reading Sarah Pinsker’s novel A Song for a New Day, a dystopian post-pandemic rock and roll tale, where public concerts are illegal... and I placed my library hold on this one before sheltering in place was even mandated, so I was ahead of the curve on that one. Maybe I should start playing Powerball. Do they still have Powerball?

Meredith Schwartz, LJ

I can’t really concentrate on fiction right now, which is totally the opposite of my usual habits and what I would have anticipated in a stressful time. I am reading Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer of Random House, which is dryly funny and easily read in short-attention-span installments. On deck is Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch, about how the web has changed language, and You Look like a Thing and I Love You, by Janelle Shane, about the profound humorous stupidity of neural nets (and how they work). Though I am fairly sure I have had at least half the funniest bits of the latter read out loud to me already.

Julie Sheridan, SLJ

I can’t seem to stop watching British shows on Hulu. I’m currently in season eight of ten of New Tricks (there are only ten seasons on Hulu, but apparently the show ran for 12). It’s about a new division of London’s Metropolitan Police Service called UCOS (Unsolved Crime and Open Case Squad). The squad is headed by Detective Superintendent Sarah Pullman, and her team consists of three retired police officers, ranging in age from 50s-70s. Each person brings their special viewpoint and skills to the table.

It’s billed as a police/crime procedural; the show is also hilarious. The way they break the rules, talk to one another, and occasionally squabble can be serious or laugh-out-loud funny. In one scene, the three retired detectives are at a restaurant table waiting for their “Guv” to arrive. There is a lazy Susan on the table. They empty their pockets of various bottles of prescription medications, place them on the lazy Susan, spin it, and then take one of whatever is in front of them. It’s a mature person’s version of Spin the Bottle! And, of course, the “colourful” British vocabulary is always a treat. Note: I am not condoning taking medicine that’s not meant for you. But it’s a funny scene!

I love the fact that the main character is a woman, and she never backs down even though she’s often the only woman in the room. I hope to take some of her sassiness with me when I’m allowed to go into the world again.

Anja Webb, LJ/SLJ

Lately I have been sucked further into the realm of escapism. My primary distraction has been the much-hyped video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons in which I do lighthearted tasks like establish a community on a deserted island and catch butterflies and make nifty little knickknacks out of natural resources. Currently I am in the process of building an amusement park solely for my favorite villager, Biskit. Overall, it really has been a wholesome escape from reality and an uplifting adventure. Plus, the interactive element of venturing to friends’ islands is a charming substitute for hanging out in person. For readers who would like to visit my island (and the beloved Biskit) feel free to add me with my friend code: SW-1494-3172-8233.

Additionally, I have taken brief breaks from tending to my island to watch a little bit of mindless television and I have found exactly that in the new Netflix documentary Tiger King. Being from Texas, I thought I knew a thing or two about the high jinks of small-town folks in the South. However, this show outdoes all my former neighbors who owned possums, deer, and squirrels. In a tale of big cats and even bigger egos, come (alleged) murders, attempted murders, and a riveting exposé of the exotic animal trade in the United States—all in seven neat episodes. There’s polygamy, swinging, lost limbs, addictions, euthanasia, political campaigns: I was clutching my pearls through it all. My verdict? I need to take a breather, but I’m happy to feel something again.

Vanessa Willoughby, SLJ

I’m reading Gideon Falls, Volume 2: Original Sins by Jeff Lemire (writer), Andrea Sorrentino (artist) & Dave Stewart (colorist). This ongoing comic series is perfect for fans of The X-Files, Twin Peaks, and Penny Dreadful. Norton Sinclair is a deeply troubled young man driven by equal parts nihilism and tenacious obsession. He’s plagued by images of a sinister Black Barn, which may or may not lead to another dimension. Father Fred, a Catholic priest burdened by shameful secrets, races to uncover the truth behind the town’s murderous history. Lemire’s writing is as addictive as it is unsettling. Combined with Sorrentino’s artwork, which favors a palette of gunmetal gray, crimson red, muted blues, and understated neutrals, Gideon Falls is a one-two punch of horror and mystery. Also I’m enjoying The Vegetarian, by Han Kang. This winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize examines the line between violence and sensuality using Kafkaesque metaphors and clean prose as swift as a sharpened knife. It’s a book that turns the “madwoman in the attic” into an underestimated prophet.

What I’m watching: On My Block, a coming-of-age Netflix show that follows teenagers Monse, Ruby, Cesar, and Jamal. These best friends, who live in the predominantly black and brown South Central Los Angeles neighborhood of Freeridge, navigate the universal struggles of adolescence while dodging the turf war between the two local gangs, the Santos and the Prophet$. It’s a smart, snappy show that successfully addresses socioeconomic disparities and racial inequities without losing sight of the humor and awkward revelations of growing up.

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