Lunchtable TV talk: Lockdown viewing

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I’ve said it about a million times before, much like addicts promise to get better, stop destroying themselves and hurting others: I will stop watching so much television. This is not a promise I ever end up keeping.

For a while this “promise” endured because I was busy with so many others things: work, study, travel, friends. Slowly I started letting more televisual entertainment slip into my field of view, and before I knew it, I was binge-watching all six seasons of Lost in the course of about one week (seriously). (I never saw Lost during its original run and felt like it was a strange gap in my pop culture knowledge.) Was I failing to do the things I needed to do in life? No. Was I neglecting relationships? Probably not. This excessive consumption has taken hold and had the chance to expand during the enforced isolation of Covid times. I am not alone there (well, in the most literal sense I am) — most streaming platforms have seen exponential (and semi-sustained) jumps in subscribership during this time.

With this confession, then, I am going to dump a random list here of things I’ve watched in recent months with a few short words about each (in most cases). You will notice that not all of them are new (case in point: Lost). Some are comedy/sitcoms, some are dramas, some are documentaries. Some are in English, some aren’t. I haven’t made an exhaustive list of what I’ve watched – there is a whole lot I have not listed here, if you can believe it. But it’s also not a list of things that I necessarily liked. These are the things that stuck in my head for one reason or another, so I’ve included them in this list. I know I’m going to forget some good stuff because… well, I am a total addict, I don’t keep close enough track of stuff as I watch, and I consume so much that I can’t possibly call it all to mind easily. For instance, I almost forgot to list Black Monday — and I loved that.

There is not much reason for this list other than… the fact that I like to keep track of stuff I watch and read. But I do know that lots of people are running out of stuff to watch after force-feeding themselves all their streaming platforms had to offer in the early days of lockdown. We may face multiple lockdown rounds, in which case, I am sure everyone really wants to know what kind of entertainment I would recommend (or not).

So here, in no particular order at all, are some of my recent viewing vices:

Brockmire: This is by far one of my favorite shows in this entire list. It’s a shame so few people have seen and heard of it. Led by Hank Azaria, supported by Amanda Peet, the four short seasons of Brockmire traveled from a semi-redemptive story about a fast-talking, loudmouth baseball announcer who lost it and went on a multiple-year drinking and drug bender to a future in which the titular character finds meaning in family life and something approaching simplicity. I don’t do it justice… but it’s razor sharp, hilarious, sad, a cautionary tale about baseball, technology and the broader, darker future we have in store for us. But its emotional resonance comes from the soulful performance Azaria delivers throughout the character’s journey. I urge you: WATCH THIS. If you watch anything at all from this entire list, let it be Brockmire.

Mr Inbetween: I cannot recommend this Australian show enough. I am not sure why but it struck me in a big way when I watched it. Read my further thoughts on Mr Inbetween here. (There’s also a nod to a Canadian show, Mary Kills People, about a doctor who helps terminally ill patients die, in the Mr Inbetween write-up; Mary Kills People is not worth watching but is something I watched in recent months.)

Bosch: A take on the dark, semi-rogue cop story, this detective procedural offers a slightly offbeat constancy… whether it is crime, corruption or the prevalence of inscrutable grey areas. Perhaps it’s the offbeat nature of it that makes it addictive and comforting – with ten hours flying by (while other shows feel like they drag). The writing is not bad, acting decent, good cast… and there are several seasons to sink your teeth into.

Hightown: I watched all eight episodes of the first season, never quite making up my mind until the end that I thought it was okay. I am frustrated with characters who are their own worst enemies, which is the case for Monica Raymund‘s Jackie. It’s a murder story with hints of organized crime/the drug underworld with not particularly engaging characters or character development, making this one that I’d recommend skipping.

Normal People: I have not read the book on which Normal People is based, but am told that it is in most ways quite faithful to the source material (with a few notable exceptions). Perhaps I watched it in an unusually emotional state because I found it… grating, although still gripping enough that I wanted to see it through. Mostly it irritated me because the two main characters were such poor communicators and most of the problems they faced as a couple came from not talking to each other, not making their wants and needs clear, and ending up in deeply unhappy and unsatisfying situations as a result. On the other hand, we are talking about two very young people, neither of whom had exceptional communication abilities or the propensity to form open, close connections with others (given what we learn about the woman character especially). For as much as critical buzz spoke about the realistic nature of the abundant sex scenes, I found it interesting that these two people could continually find their way back to each other and share a tremendous amount of physical intimacy that never seemed to cross over into an openly emotional intimacy (which, over time, is better explained by what we learn of each person’s life and past).

Ramy: I really despised the character Ramy, a young Egyptian-American man struggling with his identity in modern America. Inclined to be tied more actively to his Muslim faith than his family, he seems to be on a constant quest for spiritual fulfillment but at the same time is succumbing to temptations ranging from sugar addiction and copious porn-assisted masturbation to ongoing sexual affairs with various women, including a married member of his community. Perhaps as viewers we are not meant to like him or his struggle. Because most of the story is told from his POV, I think we get a one-dimensional view of women in general, and more particularly of Muslim women. I found myself enjoying the rest of Ramy’s family and the imam in season two (Mahershala Ali) much more than I cared for Ramy himself, and I was glad that the show had an expansive enough approach to storytelling to include these tales as well. I did find that the, erm, creative and unusual situations Ramy got himself into made the show well worth watching, even if his foibles, mistakes, poor choices and shortcomings were often cringeworthy.

Hanna: Comprised of two quite watchable seasons of action, this is no masterpiece and doesn’t really explore some of the moral questions that the themes of the show could and should invite. I found myself drawn to the performance of Esme Creed-Miles (daughter of actors Samantha Morton and Charlie Creed-Miles — whom I’d never heard of or seen acting until recently when he turned up in about five things I’d watched in short succession). I’ve never seen the film version of this (Saoirse Ronan played the lead), and I wouldn’t say that the tv version inspires me to go back and watch the film. But the tv version is a decent distraction.

Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story: I am not sure when I fell in love with Amanda Peet, but it happened a few years ago (and happily two of her other vehicles are listed in this post — The Romanoffs and Brockmire). And she is the only reason I decided to watch this. If you were alive and probably American at the time this story took place, you probably heard about the dramatic double homicide perpetrated by Betty Broderick — she killed her ex-husband and his new wife. But the tabloid retellings of the time didn’t quite capture the story the way this did. Sure, this is a semi-fictional account, meaning that we see a relatively sympathetic take on Betty Broderick, who spent her youth making sacrifices for and supporting her husband, only to have him run off with his young assistant later, once he’d achieved great financial and professional success. Not a novel framework by any means, but certainly the outcome differs from most woeful “he left me for a younger woman” stories.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: I have been watching this documentary while reading the book it’s roughly taken from. Michelle McNamara was a gifted writer who humanized murder victims and seemed to really care about who they were as people, and the losses the people around them suffered once they were gone. Obsessive, driven, talented but undermined, it seems, by a kind of impostor syndrome, McNamara never quite embraced the idea (again, it seems) that she was as bright and talented as she really was. Sadly, she died before the book was completed, and before the murderer she’d relentlessly chased in her amateur detective work was identified and caught. But it’s a fitting tribute that the book has received as much attention as it has, and a documentary series is a perfect companion piece to showcase the publicity-shy, engaging McNamara in her element.

Little America: Having grabbed an AppleTV trial subscription solely to watch Visible: Out on Television, I felt I had to take advantage of the time on Apple before the week was up. There is almost nothing, otherwise, ON AppleTV, which is why I will be damned if I am going to shell out any money at all. You kind of have to bring the content, right? But I did quickly snack on this imperfect but charming collection about different immigrants in the US. Adapted from a number of true stories based on real people’s experiences, these semi-fictionalized accounts splashed just enough emotion (both happy and sad) to engage me even in the slower moments of the storytelling.

Flesh and Bone: Digging through Amazon content I stumbled onto this ballet-driven drama and did watch all eight episodes, but apart from depicting with a veneer of accuracy the physical torture of elite ballet (projected as the most delicate and transcendent movement experience a body can convey), the characters and stories often didn’t make sense, felt contrived and seemed needlessly dark and designed for audience shock value. It was particularly difficult to discern the motivations for many characters’ actions, and even though this problem started to resolve as the series went on, it felt as though there was not adequate time to fully resolve lingering motivational issues while still being able to hold the audience’s attention with the thin plotline(s). Nevertheless, the ballet created for the series itself and the talent of the cast – actual ballet dancers, thankfully – gave this a boost in terms of credibility.

Visible: Out on Television: I watch pretty much everything like this – documentaries on the struggle for equal rights and against violence, and of course at the core of these kinds of programs is the fight for AIDS treatment and research. I can’t emerge from watching these things without uncontrollably sobbing, thinking about all the people who were lost during that truly frightening time. You’d think we’d have learned something about compassion from the AIDS epidemic and how it was handled, but watching the way the current COVID crisis is unfolding, it seems we haven’t. The public “discourse” (it can’t even be called that) is so divisive and memories seemingly so short that I’ve pretty much lost whatever sliver of faith I had in humanity (or at least in the United States). In any case, this is so worth watching to see how LGBTQ representation has changed on TV (hint: there’s more of it at last, but there’s still some way to go).

Dead to Me: I’ve watched the two seasons of Dead to Me, and enjoyed their dark humor, but I can’t explain why. I guess I really like Linda Cardellini and also like Christina Applegate, and both play characters who make unlikely friends who have to stick together because of a few dark, shared secrets. It’s not always easy, and I suppose there is where the dramatic tension and some of the humor comes from.

Lenox Hill: I am kind of a sucker even for fictional medical drama, but this is a documentary that follows doctors in Lenox Hill hospital in New York over the course of several months. I enjoyed each story and the doctors the show followed, but I especially loved David Langer, the Chief of Neurosurgery. It’s probably weird to say that you’d fall in love with anyone from a show like this, but I suppose its emphasis on humanizing the somewhat mysterious work of physicians helps achieve this rush of feeling. After I devoured the first set of episodes, I noticed that there was a new one – they made a Covid-specific episode to chronicle how the hospital was coping with this new crisis.

Hunters: This was over-the-top and not particularly satisfying. Even though, especially in this day and age, you’d think it would be: a group of unlikely “heroes” come together to form a secret society of Nazi hunters in the 1970s. Not a bad premise, and while the show itself it not entirely bad, it’s just underbaked somehow. Still, when I watched it, I was drawn in enough to finish watching. But it seems that this could have been done differently and better. A wasted opportunity.

Sex Education: This one doesn’t need much introduction — it’s been streamed like mad, and rightfully so. It’s funny in a charming and embarrassing kind of way — both for awkward teenagers and for the adults who play it cool but are still just as confused as the rest of us. Gillian Anderson is great here as Jean Milburn, sex therapist/expert who nevertheless struggles with commitment and intimacy, and the plot of the show is driven by the intelligent but insecure Otis, Jean’s son, who delivers sex advice to his classmates to make some money. It’s often quite heartbreaking, heartfelt and reminds one of the trials of high school. Ugh. Well worth watching.

The Romanoffs: The Romanoffs, perhaps unfairly, was overlooked when it was released. Overshadowed by other content in a newly overstuffed streaming landscape, and buried under the weight of expectation. It’s not that this was flawless, but it was creative and unusual and had a great cast across each of the very loosely related vignettes. I think I saw some advertising for this around the same time The Kominsky Method came out, and the two Slavic-sounding names canceled each other out in my mind (because I watched neither until several years after they were released). Of course it was clear from the advertising about The Romanoffs that its premise was that all the characters were meant, in some way, to be descendants of the ill-fated Romanov dynasty. Whether they were or not was immaterial to, and only tangentially related, to the real stories the vignettes aimed to tell. Each of those stories was hit or miss. For example, I liked bits of the first story about an old French lady whose American nephew and his materialistic French girlfriend are just waiting for the aunt to die and leave them her apartment. They hire a housekeeper/caretaker who happens to be a Muslim woman, and the old lady is rude, racist, and incensed — but her anger seems less directed at the housekeeper and more toward being left alone and ignored in a world that is passing her by. The story gets a bit strange, but it has its rich moments. My favorite of the stories was the episode, “Expectation”, in which Amanda Peet and John Slattery are just so human that it’s hard to watch. A close second is “End of the Line” when a childless couple (Kathryn Hahn and Jay R. Ferguson) travel to the Russian Far East to adopt a baby. The scene is so drab and suspect, hinting constantly that something could, and will, go wrong at any moment. The final episode is also interesting. But then several of the episodes are utterly forgettable. Like I said, hit or miss.

Modern Love: Like The Romanoffs, Modern Love is an anthology of vignettes. It’s in fact The Romanoffs without the Romanoff thread… it’s stories of people falling in and out of love — different kinds of love and care, different places in love affairs, the loss of love, and so on. It’s engaging enough that I did feel drawn in and watched it all. Also a supremely talented cast, including John Slattery (who featured in The Romanoffs), and a duo of “everywhere, in everything” people —Julia Garner and Shea Whigham.

The Jewish Enquirer: Imagine a low-budget sitcom modeled on the awkward misanthropy and political incorrectness of Curb Your Enthusiasm, only set in London, focused on a mostly unsuccessful journalist at a niche newspaper, and you might dream up something like The Jewish Enquirer. As it likes to say in reference to itself, it’s the UK’s 4th most-read Jewish newspaper… which should tell you everything you need to know. Hapless protagonist, Paul, gets into scrapes and situations that are reminiscent of Larry David‘s Curb antics… meaning that you’re not sure whether to laugh or cringe or both.

Black Monday: I nearly forgot to include this, but when the show returned from a hiatus recently with a Halloween episode that featured Don Cheadle and Dulé Hill dressed in competing Coming to America themed costumes, challenging each other to a Bobby BrownMy Prerogative” dance-off, and Andrew Rannells dressed as George Michael from the “Faith” video, the brilliance and hilarity of this frenetic show came rushing back to me. It’s not always spot-on in terms of what it’s trying to do, but it effortlessly captures the volatility and excess of the era it’s portraying, and has us laughing while it does.

Ozark: Ozark started off by introducing us to Marty and Wendy Byrde, accidental money launderers who have to weasel their way out of trouble with a Mexican drug cartel. They both turn out to be so successful at money laundering that it takes over their lives, and changes their entire life path (the whole family is affected, but it’s Laura Linney‘s Wendy who seems to embrace this sinister lifestyle and immerse herself in it). Jason Bateman is a steady hand (as he is in everything), and Julia Garner, who has been everywhere in recent years, is superb, despite some script-related character fluctuations that didn’t feel aligned with her character, Ruth.

Unorthodox: A young woman escapes her oppressive ultra-Orthodox life, leaving her husband and only life she’s ever known in Brooklyn, and runs away to Berlin, where her mother (who has also long ago fled the Orthodox life) lives. It’s a fascinating story about claiming an individual identity when layers of some other cultural and religious identity and “tradition” have been forced on you. She finds her path, and begins to make her own decisions.

Shtisel: Following on the very popular Unorthodox, I watched the two series of Shtisel, an Israeli show that follows a fictional ultra-Orthodox family through their daily lives, particularly as they all bend and break some of the rules of the strict community they live in. (Shira Haas, who plays the lead in Unorthodox, also appears.)

Our Boys: There’s something about this Israeli-American production that both angered me and made me inconsolably sad. Perhaps it’s the hopelessness of the situation between Israelis and Palestinians as an overhanging theme. The story starts with three Israeli teens being kidnapped and killed, apparently by Hamas. In a retaliatory kidnapping a Palestinian boy is taken away and killed. While the reactions of both the Jewish and Arab communities are explored, the hardest thing to watch was the grief and pain the family feels, and how much their differing reactions lead to the fragmentation of their family.

Kalifat: A Swedish drama/thriller about a young woman, Pervin, who is married to an IS fighter in Syria. She is desperate to leave and return to Sweden and is told that she has to exchange intelligence on IS activities for an escape route for her child and herself. The urgency of each moment, and how much risk Pervin is taking to get out of her perilous situation, is keenly felt in fast-paced action and seemingly constant threats. There are secondary — and important — stories, such as a thread about a “recruiter” who is grooming/brainwashing girls in Sweden to send them off to IS-controlled Syria. But it’s Pervin’s story that makes this worth watching.

Bobby Kennedy for President: It’s possible I watched this while I was descending into a maudlin period anyway, but I couldn’t help but cry multiple times as I watched this documentary series. Not so much because of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, but for the turbulence and loss of innocence that enveloped the 1960s — and Kennedy’s death was like a bookend to a period of sweeping social change that ultimately went into self-obsessed hibernation during the stagnant and ugly 1970s. I did enjoy the evolution of Bobby Kennedy as a thinker and politician, as he moved (at least rhetorically) away from dogmatic law and order to more social-justice-oriented policy and thought. His ascendancy and moment as the incumbent Democratic nominee, snatched away in minutes, is yet another one of history’s pivotal moments in which we are left to forever wonder, “What if?”

Years and Years: I sort of stumbled onto this British miniseries, and I ended up being quite surprised by its startling parallels with the current period we live in. We’re mired in a big mess, — politically, socially, economically, environmentally — and the real future, as well as the one projected in Years and Years, is grim and dark.

Hollywood: This won’t go down in history as a classic, but it was certainly inventive. A surprising emotional at times take on “what if…?” What if Hollywood had been different in the post-war era? What if gay actors could have just been who they were and lived with who they loved? What if black actors, writers and actresses would have had equality and visibility as they deserved? The generous artistic license here both let the imagination soar momentarily while also beating it down with the realization that no, we’re actually still not in a place of such openness.

Sorry for Your Loss: I wanted to find this to be… better than it was. But the endlessly whiny and exceedingly selfish character, a young widow played by Elizabeth Olsen, made this almost unwatchable. The supporting cast shines when they have the opportunity, but Olsen’s Leigh sucks all the oxygen out of every scene, making it difficult to enjoy the other stories. Her husband appears to have killed himself, and through flashbacks, we see how deep his lifelong depression is, and how dismissive Leigh has been of his struggles. And it just makes her selfishness all the more annoying. I couldn’t force myself to watch the second season.

Stateless: Anyone in doubt of the great range of Yvonne Strahovski‘s talent should look no further. If you put together her anguished, confused portrayal here with her controlled, manipulative role as Serena Joy in The Handmaid’s Tale and her breakout performance as Hannah in Dexter — all very different roles, it’s hard to imagine why she hasn’t made a bigger mark. Stateless is the true story of an Australian woman who, after a psychotic break, ends up in an Australian detention center meant for refugees.

I Am Not Okay With This: Based on a comic book, I Am Not Okay With This straddles fantasy, sci-fi, teen coming-of-age dramedy and somehow manages to pull it off. The story focuses on angry and confused teen, Syd, who discovers she has out-of-control telekinetic powers. It’s not terribly different from many other high school angst films and tv shows, but its irreverence and a touch of the supernatural make this worthwhile entertainment.

The English Game: This isn’t exactly a masterpiece but does take a surface-level look at how football changed and became a “passing” game once Scottish players came onto the scene. Football was at the time (the 1870s) seen as a wealthy upper-class man’s pastime, but the Scots who played were working class men who felt that the game not only could be a team effort but also a vocation for which players should be paid. He was by no means the main character, but I loved Craig Parkinson as James Walsh.

Queen Sono: I had to watch this if for no other reason that it was Netflix’s first African production. It’s not a masterpiece, but it held my attention and felt, for once, like something different.

Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi: I get pulled into these food and cooking shows sometimes, but most of them aren’t things I’d single out to mention. For example, I have watched most of the cooking-related shows available on Netflix (Ugly Delicious – but David Chang seems dickish enough that I can’t recommend it to anyone else; Chef’s Table, which I actually love; The Chef Show – which is fairly informative and made me have a new appreciation for Jon Favreau; Somebody Feed Phil, which is highly obnoxious and repetitive but does visit some interesting places – it in fact made me think I wouldn’t mind spending a bit of time in Chicago, even though I don’t have an ounce of desire to spend even one minute in the United States). Having listed all these things, I do single out Padma Lakshmi’s Taste the Nation because I very much enjoyed how she struck a balance between different groups of people and their food and the contradictions and adaptations of those foods and how they have been adopted and co-opted. In the first episode, for example, Lakshmi travels to Texas (the El Paso/Juarez border) and meets a second-generation Syrian immigrant who is a Trump supporter who claims to love his Mexican employees, Mexicans and Mexico — and runs a gas station/Mexican diner that employs Mexicans who have to cross the border to come to work every day. Padma, bless her, doesn’t comment on the cognitive dissonance that would allow someone to praise and vote for Trump at the same time as praising and relying on Mexicans for his livelihood… The whole show is full of these kinds of small cultural anomalies and twists, and it’s this stealth that made it enjoyable.

Nadiya’s Time to Eat: A breezy and informative British cooking show with a friendly but not annoying woman (that’s a hard balance to strike on these kinds of shows, I think), Nadiya. She sometimes made some weird stuff but overall it was just a pleasant thing to have on in the background, and to watch Nadiya as she traveled to different spots in the UK to see, for example, salmon farming, sugar processing and Marmite manufacturing in action. (I made a wee mention of this in another post on vegan candy making.)

Jett: Mostly mindless entertainment with the lovely Carla Gugino as an ex-con, high-end burglar also featuring Giancarlo Esposito. I’ve already confessed to enjoying Jett but not in a way that would make me tell you that you should watch it yourself.

Life in Pieces: I never got around to watching this sitcom when it was new, and over the course of a few weeks binge-watched the whole thing. There were moments that were funny, of course, but for the most part this always felt like it was trying too hard.

Star Trek: Picard: I will probably love anything Star Trek that you throw at me, and this was not an exception. There were some misfires (why was Alison Pill and her character even there?), but overall I loved this, and if you’re a Trek person, you probably will too. Oh, those Romulans.

The Plot Against America: I read Philip Roth‘s book in February 2018, and it seemed sufficiently terrifying and prescient. Then I watched this – the David Simon/Ed Burns adaptation – and, if possible, felt more terrified. Why? Was it because the tv version gave life to something that was once only on the page – making it closer to real? Was it the fact that by the time I saw this we were two more years into the implosion of the United States under Donald Trump? What Plot does best is expose the insidious hatred, racism and anti-Semitism that have always been living just below the surface — and when circumstances and characters enter the public stage — and gain power — permission to unleash these various forms of hatred seems to be granted and comes out into the open. Who could ignore the striking parallels to how Americans are living today?

The Kominsky Method: I’ve written a bit about Kominsky before, and continue to recommend it — apart from being funny it captures the past-middle-age, but not quite old (at least in the minds of the protagonist) ennui of life, peppered with moments of disruption, loss and the only kind of news people get at a certain point in life: bad. I’m not sure how a premise and plot points so soaked in themes of death, illness, tax and financial problems, and dealing with struggling middle-aged children can still manage to be as humorous as it is. Perhaps it’s because of these themes – we can’t shy away from them (it’s life, after all), so we make the best of them. Anyway it’s worth watching solely for Alan Arkin, but Michael Douglas isn’t bad either.

Breeders: I can never make up my mind about Martin Freeman. He’s great in most of the stuff he’s in, but there’s just something about him that makes him seem like he would be an insufferable asshole. And while I enjoyed Breeders a lot, I feel like the character he plays here is very likely not dissimilar to how he might be in his real life. Impatient, often unpleasant, prone to outbursts. Obviously I have no way of knowing this. Perhaps it’s just that he is so good in this role that it became hard to separate the role from the man/actor. I’ve written about Breeders before, so I won’t go on about it. Just know that it’s a bang-on embodiment of the duality of parenthood: when else will you be willing to die for someone that you so frequently want to kill? (I wrote in the same post about the Canadian show, Workin’ Moms, which travels some well-trodden — and some not so well-trodden — ground on parenting challenges, but I didn’t think it warranted a separate entry here.)

Giri/Haji: I kind of struggled to get through this one – it moved a little slowly and it was sometimes not entirely clear what was going on. I am not sure I found the blooming “love story” aspect believable but I liked when the Japanese protagonist tells Kelly MacDonald something like, “I know nothing about you except that you are English.” And she of course, happily, corrects, “I am not English.” As I’ve written somewhere else in this list, before a glut of things like this, I could not have told you who the hell Charlie Creed-Miles was… but then he was here, in Peaky Blinders, Five Days, Injustice, and a few other things…

Startup: I watched Startup in a fit of… I don’t know what. I couldn’t find anything to watch that didn’t require my attention, which usually sends me down a path of hitting “play” on almost anything that looks like it could be … tolerable. Now, far removed from when I originally watched it, I don’t remember everything about it except that Martin Freeman (previously mentioned) plays a crooked FBI agent in it (another convincing asshole role that lends some credence to my theory that his default is “asshole”), and a trio of mismatched strangers end up trying to launch a digital currency together. I suppose I found it interesting in large part because there aren’t that many TV shows that discuss digital currency at all, and if they do, they get it all wrong. In fact offhand the only other show I can recall mentioning cryptocurrency (in this case ETH) was Queen of the South (also not a bad time-passer as tv goes). Would I recommend this? I don’t know. Probably not, but it’s also not terrible.

After Life: I’ve got my mixed feelings on Ricky Gervais… there’s a genius in there somewhere, but at the same time, he can’t seem to help himself from letting a very petty, uncompassionate dude off the leash sometimes. Then again, people are stupid and it’s hard to always have compassion when patience is taxed at every turn. And that’s all exacerbated by grief. But I’ve enjoyed After Life — for the most part. The first series was better in that his fresh grief and pain from losing his wife made his character both relatable and insufferable, but it’s hard to watch in a second series. Sure, we all know that grief and the accompanying expanse of emotions has no timeline or limit, but in a half-hour, semi-comedic show it’s harder to justify letting it go on unchecked, despite how realistic it might be.

Marcella: At the conclusion of the second series of Marcella, I couldn’t really see where they could take the show. But take it somewhere they did – to Northern Ireland. Marcella assumes a new deep undercover identity and tries to take down a crime family. Her own mental state has continued to deteriorate, and even though there is something captivating about this (the way a car wreck is), I can’t say this is a good show or a good use of time to watch. Never mind that it stretches all credibility in terms of how things would actually play out.

Deadwater Fell: I don’t know if David Tennant just enjoys these brief UK-TV miniseries in which he plays possible murderers, but this is another one not unlike others I have seen. This time Cush Jumbo is in it, but she didn’t make this any more compelling.

Westworld: My interest has fallen off completely after the intriguing season one. By the time this latest third season concluded, I couldn’t tell you why I had continued watching or even what was going on.

Devs: I actually could not finish this. It was just overwrought and filled with overacting. I really don’t care for Alison Pill for some reason, and watching her in this right after her “why are you even here?” role in Star Trek: Picard made this even less interesting. It’s also hard to take Nick Offerman seriously as anyone but Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation.

Billions: I have written about Billions more than once, and I will just say that it started off and remained exciting for a couple of seasons, but has become a weird pissing contest with tiny slivers of inspiration in what, if I recall, is its fifth (?) season. Worth watching the early bits, not so much worth following through to the end.

Mrs America: A much-needed account of the history of how the ERA and the promise of women’s equality were quashed in the 1970s and 80s, mostly through the efforts of the conservative women’s movement driven by Phyllis Schlafly. Really well done, stellar cast – I wrote more about it here, and why it’s necessary viewing.

The Good Fight: The perfect dramedy, capturing the utter absurdity of the moment we live in. An even better, freer extension of The Good Wife, this time Christine Baranski takes the lead along with a stellar supporting cast. Although I’ve liked the show from the beginning, it feels less constrained now that Rose Leslie and her Madoff-like-dad storyline is gone.

Run: I mentioned Run in a post on women’s paths on television, and although I didn’t go deeply into the story of Run, I should mention that it is something I watched during this overdose-on-tv period. I didn’t really buy into the premise – two former lovers have arranged that they will text each other the word “Run” and if the other answers with “Run”, they will both run from whatever they are doing in their lives and meet at some predetermined place. Despite never really finding footing in that backdrop, the interaction and chemistry between the show’s stars, Merritt Wever (who must also be seen in Netflix’s Unbelievable) and Domhnall Gleeson, made me come back each week for me. The secondary stories and characters, including Archie Panjabi as Gleeson’s vindictive business partner and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as someone the two main characters come across during their “run”, were interesting diversions – and they didn’t entirely “fit” in the story, kept it quirky. It was nice to see Panjabi do something after The Good Wife, for which I am sure she is typecast and best known; Panjabi also appeared in the dark, depressing but nevertheless well-executed tv adaptation of I Know This Much Is True (also on HBO).

Schitt’s Creek: When I finally got around to watching Schitt’s Creek, it grated on my nerves at first, but I heeded the warnings about how it gets better and grows on you. For the most part this is true. It’s about as quirky as you’d expect, given the cast and premise. I still haven’t seen the final season, but everything up to that point is enjoyable enough that you can lose yourself, setting aside, if only briefly, the endless thoughts of pandemic, impending national collapse and potentially destabilizing presidential election (if you’re in the US).

Pure: Apparently there were two shows called “Pure” that came out around the same time. I started a show, thinking I was watching one of them, when in fact I had accessed the other. What I ended up seeing was a program about Mennonites involved in the drug trade, but what I meant to see was a UK-based show about a young woman suffering from debilitating and disturbing impure, deviant, sexual visions that were disrupting her entire life (and her search for relief/solutions). In the end I’ve seen both, and while I would not actively recommend either of them, I preferred the Mennonite Pure, despite the fact that I’d never set out to watch it in the first place.

Killing Eve: I keep watching this even though I hate it. I really hate it. I cannot put my finger on what exactly I hate about it, but it’s just … what’s the word? I’m glad that most of the lead roles are women, even if they seem mostly unhinged, and that the show’s creator is also a woman. But this seems more a showcase for strangeness and a platform for …something. But it’s not great. I don’t understand the compulsion that draws Eve (Sandra Oh) and Villanelle (Jodie Comer) together time and again, and this is meant to be what draws the viewer into the show week after week. In fact at a certain point, it is the only story, and everything else is a distraction. Apart from short glimpses of entirely other things — such as the damaging effects poor parents have on their children and the difficulties of, in fact, parenting, the core of this show feels hollow.

The Morning Show: I somehow thought this was a half-hour comedy. Maybe because people have tried so many times (and mostly failed) to make half-hour comedies about morning shows. But no, I was quickly set straight and realized that watching this was going to take much more time than I had anticipated. This is a thinly veiled version of the Matt Lauer sexual assault story, and the NBC coverup (recounted in detail in Ronan Farrow‘s Catch and Kill) that kept Lauer out of harm’s way and damaged countless women, their self-esteem and their careers. Not bad source material. Steve Carell‘s dramatic stock-in-trade is surface-level nice guy veneer papering over a deeply flawed, self-absorbed, abusive asshole. He uses this to perfection here, probably pulling off the most believable performance among the leads. I’m not a big fan of Reese Witherspoon or Jennifer Aniston, but both are passable, and better than usual (in my opinion). The supporting cast/roles were the biggest draw, as many of the production staff characters have compelling backstories, great personalities, and convey the real damage they have suffered from the sexual abuse they’ve experienced. And the best thing about the show, which is only a secondary thread, is Néstor Carbonell‘s weatherman character. You can’t help but love him.

The Outsider: I read a few good reviews of The Outsider (not to be mistaken for the heels of bread, ootsiders, as many Scots call them), and I like Ben Mendelsohn. But I don’t like Stephen King adaptations much, and this was not an exception. The basic idea: a murder that at first seems straightforward turns out to be not at all what it seems, and the lead investigator’s winding journey to find out what really happened. It’s not to say that this was bad – it was in fact as well done as a story with supernatural elements can be (and maybe that’s what is hard to swallow for me). Performances and characters were all great — so I should just be glad there was something redeeming here.

AKA Jane Roe: Documentary on “Jane Roe” (Norma McCorvey), who was the plaintiff in the landmark, always-under-threat case, Roe v Wade, which granted American women the right to legal abortion. McCorvey was a difficult and challenging woman — shifting from a pro-choice “icon” to a mouthpiece for the anti-abortion Christian right. Her move to the right was a blow to the movement, and even had a personal cost for McCorvey (who had to renounce her longtime partner because the religious movement to which she’d tied herself considered homosexuality a sin). If there were a living, breathing embodiment of an unreliable narrator of one’s own life – McCorvey qualified. At the very end she says she was using the religious right as much as they were using her, and she was being paid to renounce her pro-choice beliefs and be a public voice for the anti-abortion movement. But in life, as on film, McCorvey never establishes that much of what she presented was true or real, so it’s hard to know what to believe.

Showbiz Kids: It’s hard not to feel bad for the kids (now adults) who appear in this documentary about kids who have grown up on film or tv sets. Nothing has been normal about their lives, and many don’t cope well (if they make it out alive) with it when they get older, particularly those who don’t successfully make the leap into being actors as adults.

Various standups: Standup comedy is a bit hit or miss, but I’ve found that some comedians are reliable for providing something I will enjoy, namely Marc Maron, Colin Quinn, Patton Oswalt and Hannah Gadsby. All have stuff streaming on Netflix. And you need a laugh. Go for it.

*Postscript 1*

A few items I forgot to add:

Homecoming

Shrill: I found Shrill to be surprisingly cutting and forthright — I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did.

Quiz: The backstory on a cheating scandal that rocked Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

The Great: Satirical and fictional take on Russia’s Catherine the Great. Not perfect but entertaining.

Dispatches from Elsewhere: I’ve already written about this unusual and fascinating journey.

Mrs Fletcher: I love Kathryn Hahn, and I’d add this because of her anyway. But this was an interesting journey about a divorced middle-aged empty-nester coming to terms with who she is and taking a new path. It fails on some fronts and feels a bit directionless at times, but that seems to serve the character’s unsteady, unsure steps toward identifying who she is.

*Postscript 2*

I thought a bit more about things I had consumed and decided to add a few more, even though some were things I watched a long time ago. Some shows, like The Americans and Halt and Catch Fire deserve much more attention and praise and viewers than they had when they originally aired. A handful of other shows are similar. And then there are the shows I just forgot watching (regardless of their quality — that’s what happens when you watch as much as I do. You are submerged by a wave of viewing.

Succession: I had forgotten about this until someone told me about a frightening documentary about the Murdochs that’s been airing in Britain of late. And while I don’t feel the urge to lavish uncommon levels of praise on Succession, I have enjoyed it.

Better Things: I will never be able to praise Pamela Adlon and Better Things enough. I’ve written about it more than once and think, despite critical acclaim, it should receive a lot more attention for the craft and creativity of its realism.

I May Destroy You: I found this to be uncomfortable to watch. Not just because of the subject matter (sexual assault in its various forms) but because the main character is deeply unlikable. She seems to drift through life mostly partying and not really showing much concern for others around her despite expecting them to show her compassion and deference. Other characters were far more compelling and sympathetic, and it’s a testament to Michaela Coel‘s (writer, director and star) talent that she makes the main character’s story ambiguous and challenging.

Never Have I Ever: Light fare — high school girl longs for popularity and a boyfriend and tries to come to terms with her father’s death, her difficult relationship with her mother, and her ambivalence about living in two cultures (as an Indian-American). It’s an interesting look at how we all see ourselves as outsiders/others, how we are all vulnerable but don’t acknowledge it, but sometimes we get a chance to see others’ vulnerability and it opens us up to revealing our selves more fully.

Better Call Saul: It’s a different show from Breaking Bad, and as it has developed – slowly – I have come to prefer it over Breaking Bad. The characters in Saul are so compelling, changing throughout, morphing into who they will eventually become. It’s fascinating to see how they get there. For a long while it was Jimmy/Saul and his struggle with his brother Chuck that kept me glued to the screen, but over time it has become Kim Wexler‘s complex inner journey and decision-making that drive this narrative forward.

Search Party: A small show that has certainly evolved from its beginnings. I guess seeing Alia Shawkat‘s Dory change from a self-absorbed young woman on a mission into a manipulative sociopath is what makes this interesting. The other characters, Dory’s group of friends, feel mostly one-dimensional and inconsequential, and in many ways detract from the show (even if it would not necessarily work without their involvement). I was happy to see Louie Anderson in a supporting role as a defense lawyer and Michaela Watkins as a prosecuting attorney in season 3. Probably the highlights for me.

Baskets: Speaking of Louie Anderson, Baskets (a vehicle for and by Zach Galifianakis) was always one of the strangest shows on tv while it lasted. Galifianakis as Chip Baskets, a kind of loser who wants desperately to become a (serious) clown, is oddly poignant. Anderson plays Chip’s Costco and Arbys-obsessed mother, Christine. I don’t think it does justice to the unique nature of the show to try to describe it… but it’s one of those under-the-radar things that I feel like I’m the only person who has ever seen it.

Goliath: So… Billy Bob Thornton as a kind of washed-up lawyer. The only show I’ve ever seen that has used the word “uvulopalatopharyngoplasty“. Not that that makes for a recommendation. Me, I will watch almost anything Billy Bob makes.

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel: I love Tony Shalhoub, and it is for this reason that I have continued to watch this mostly insufferable show. As most critics and viewers have pointed out, it seems highly unlikely that every person who meets the titular heroine, Midge Maisel, is going to fall head over heels in love with her, requiring that each scene in which this character appears be lauded by “you’re so amazing!” praise. This is the biggest complaint I have, but the secondary problem for me is the Amy Sherman-Palladino problem. Her style feels unnatural (this was nowhere more true than in the hate-watched Gilmore Girls). While I genuinely enjoyed the first season of Mrs Maisel, I found that each successive season felt more like work to get through, despite enjoying the presence of both Luke Kirby as Lenny Bruce throughout the series and Sterling K Brown in a season 3 role.

Little Fires Everywhere: Save yourself the trouble. Read the book instead.

Halt and Catch Fire: Please just watch this. Stick with its slight missteps in season one and follow through. So worth it.

The Americans: I’ve never been able to understand why The Americans never made a bigger splash — it’s got so much in it. Stellar performances (Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell, Noah Emmerich, Annet Mahendru, Alison Wright, Frank Langella, Margo Martindale and Costa Ronin are all outstanding), timely themes, the 1980s, spycraft. It’s just so well done. I recall being told as the 1990s were coming to an end that my interest and study of Russia and the Russian language was “useless” because “that war is over”. But even as the Soviet Union itself crumbled, the long-term view clearly depicted a different future in which enemy countries will continue to fight but things will just become more subtle, more technological. We are seeing that play out now. This show is a powerful introduction to the ways spycraft worked as the 80s came to a close and the Cold War as we knew it was ending. The ideologies that these spies defended were so far removed from how power and everyday life both played out in the Soviet Union — and to watch the two main characters struggle with this in very different ways made The Americans a must-see.

Chernobyl: Speaking of the Soviet Union crumbling, the dramatization of the Chernobyl disaster, the attempts to cover up and deny the scale of what was happening, and the horrifying and long-lasting effects was handled with care, without exaggeration. The disaster was perilous enough that turning it into a spectacle was unnecessary. An understated story put together by Craig Mazin is brought to life by an incomparable cast, from Jared Harris to Emily Watson, from Stellan Skarsgård to Jessie Buckley. An exceptional story that, like many historical events, gets lost with time, we luckily have storytellers who continue to bring history to life in film and literature.

Perry Mason: A strange TV revival, a rather dark remake of Perry Mason — but nothing like the old 1950s-1960s tv show of Raymond Burr (see more about Burr in Visible: Out on Television) fame. No, Matthew Rhys is Mason here, and although ostensibly the lead, many other characters play at least as important a role in unraveling the mystery central to the story. Like much of the prestige TV listed and discussed, the plausibility and watchability comes down to casting. I continue to watch for Rhys, everywhere-man Shea Whigham, Tatiana Maslany (who else misses Orphan Black?), Chris Chalk and Juliet Rylance… but everyone here is great, even in the smallest of roles (Justin Kirk, Gretchen Mol, for example).

Trust Me: There was nothing groundbreaking about this medical drama. Over the course of two disconnected series, two characters are at the center of mysteries and lies within a hospital setting.

Taboo: I’m still not sure what to make of this series. It wasn’t enjoyable, but somehow felt… gripping anyway. Conceived of by its star (Tom Hardy) and his father, this story follows James Delaney (Hardy) as he returns to 1814 London when his father dies. Delaney has been absent for years, presumed dead. His return upends the order of things, including entitlement to his father’s estate. Some plot points are a bit complex, so more useful to watch than read about. (And the lovely Jessie Buckley turns up here too.)

Barry: I’ve mentioned Barry before in writing about hit men. It’s an entertaining take on murder-for-hire.

Casual: It’s been over for a while, and even though it wasn’t perfect, I enjoyed the sibling relationship at the center of the story. Michaela Watkins is fantastic as the co-lead of the sibling duo… and Tommy Dewey, as the other part of the sibling duo, plays a shallow character who begins to evolve as a person. In fact all the characters evolve, and it’s nice to see characters change in subtle ways — sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Most shows aim for character change, but the evolution feels too much like a plot path. Here it feels more organic and realistic.

Catastrophe: Imperfect marriage; very flawed people. Often very funny, sometimes heartbreaking. That’s kind of the whole plot.

Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry?: One weekend I was out of things to watch that wouldn’t require my attention or thought, so I turned this on. It was interesting to see some of these real-life tales that I’d seen in the news (the wife of the Green River Killer, or Mary Jo Buttafuoco) depicted from the point of view of the unsuspecting partner. Mostly this felt like a lot of naive, gullible, lonely people who were so desperate to be with someone that they did no due diligence to find out if anything about their partner was true. But oddly addictive if you got sucked in.

Underground: This harrowing show only lasted for two seasons, and while it was not perfect, it dealt with a subject matter that America should reckon with frequently and in great depth. Sure, a fictional account of slaves making their way to freedom isn’t going to fix anything, but it too is a form of representation and making sure that parts of history are not just swept away or softened.

City on a Hill: Kevin Bacon as a corrupt FBI agent and Aldis Hodge (who was fantastic in the aforementioned Underground as well as in TURN: Washington’s Spies) as a District Attorney in 1990s Boston. It took me a while to get through this, but I think by the end of the first season I hoped for renewal.

Pose: Failed to include this in the list originally… but quite a show. Even if the show itself weren’t fabulous, the cast and concept are. Nevertheless it’s so watchable and sometimes so sad.

Liar: I’m kind of a sucker for Ioan Gruffudd, so I watched Liar mostly for him — even though he definitely isn’t a good guy. The problem here is that I really do not care for Joanne Froggatt (Downton Abbey fame) — her voice grates on me, and then this character feels more histrionic than necessary. Sure, she is a victim of sexual assault and later accused of murder. This would make most anyone histrionic. I think it’s a lot of her behaviors — often overly defensive and not doing her any favors — that make her hard to believe and watch. At the same time, if she didn’t behave in these ways, her character, who was being railroaded, would likely have been convicted of murder.

The Valhalla Murders (Brot): It’s Icelandic, and even though it captures (or reminds me of) how small and insular the place is, it made me feel desperately homesick.

Call My Agent! (Dix Pour Cent): A French comedy-drama about professional entertainment agents. Entertaining, satisfying and lovely to listen to French.

Frayed: An Australian semi-dramatic comedy. A woman, living it up in London, with riches beyond imagination, loses everything when her wealthy husband dies in rather questionable circumstances, and their house-of-cards life falls apart; with nothing, she is forced to go home to Newcastle, Australia. I quite enjoyed its six episodes… I like reflecting on the idea of trying to “go home” again to a place you never felt at home in, especially after you’ve worked hard to erase the person you were. But you cannot completely escape that person. The “Simone” we meet in the beginning in London has been a hard-won, long-con fabrication of an identity, but it’s so hard-wired by the time she returns with her tail between her legs to Australia, that it’s hard to imagine that she will return to the “Sammy” she was growing up (but slowly, almost inevitably, she does).

*Postscript 3*

What We Do in the Shadows: I started watching this because I had read so many times about how great it is. It took a while to get into it because at first it just seemed stupid. But I was won over in the end. Mostly by the vampires’ familiar, Guillermo, but its sly cleverness, pop culture references, and total randomness (Matt Berry‘s Laszlo going into hiding in Pennsylvania and becoming passionate about volleyball, for example) eventually made this addictive.

Fauda: An incredibly violent Israeli show about an undercover Israeli IDF unit. I’ve read reviews that make this sound like it’s two-sided, but it mostly doesn’t offer the most sympathetic viewpoint on Palestinians (apart from the occasional character we’re meant to sympathize with, i.e. someone who gets in over their head or is driven to terrorism or something similar). Mostly we see a completely off-the-handle team lead, Doron, constantly disobeying orders and doing stupid shit that puts his entire team at risk (when they are already doing risky stuff). He reminded me of a discount version of Vic Mackey from The Shield. Completely unreasonable, and worse — despite all the things he did that were insane, the unit kept welcoming him back in for more ill-fated missions. Nevertheless it was action-packed and suspenseful.

When Heroes Fly: Another Israeli show with a ridiculous title. I wouldn’t say I liked this show at all, but I like listening to Hebrew. And Michael Aloni from Shtisel is in this as an entirely different kind of character. The overall plot was a bit off, acting a bit stiff, and a fair few things that don’t fit together, fair enough. The first episode was pretty interesting, but that was its peak other than a facet the show only just began to touch on: the lasting effects of combat PTSD and what happens when you don’t acknowledge or deal with it. That could have been a lot more rewarding to explore.

Kidding: Jim Carrey as a beloved Mr Rogers-like children’s tv host, going through a crisis of sorts after the death of his son. I wanted to like this more than I did, but it felt more depressing than anything else. Not that real life isn’t depressing. There are moments of levity – that can’t be discounted. Interactions between Carrey and Justin Kirk make this worth watching, and I enjoyed Catherine Keener and the Japanese puppeteer guy’s storyline. But as a whole, somehow this did not really come together the way I hoped it would.

*Postscript 4*

I probably watched other things in the interim since updating last, but there were a handful of things I decided to add/mention.

Patriot Act: I’ve been watching this since its start, and it’s fantastic. I’m disappointed in Netflix for cancelling it at all, let alone during fraught times like this. Hasan Minhaj has been a comedic voice of reason, and it will be sorely missed.

Immigration Nation: I knew the US immigration system was completely fucked up, but this illustrated just how badly. This was a horror show.

Good Girls: I don’t know why I find this show about three women who get deeper into criminal activities as compelling as I do, but the combination of Mae Whitman, Retta and Christina Hendricks just seems to work. Oddly I watched season 1 a long  time ago, enjoyed it and mistakenly thought I’d seen season 2. Imagine my surprise, then, when I had seasons 2 and 3 to watch to catch up.

Øljefondet (Oil Fund): A rather silly Norwegian comedy about the Norwegian Pension Fund and the American-style, ethics-free head of investments and how he’s bought back down to earth when the agency brings an ethics officer on board. It’s entertaining and always fun to see places you recognize on film.

The Bureau (Le Bureau des Légendes): A French political/spy thriller, which I will admit that I’ve only begun to watch right now. I am not sure if I will continue but wanted to highlight an Amazon Prime problem/bait-and-switch kind of issue. Scrolling through Amazon, I saw The Bureau available but through some subsidiary subscription service (meaning I’d have to shell out extra to watch), but then I kept scrolling, and the same content was available for free as part of the regular Amazon Prime subscription (albeit for a limited time). I’ve come across this more than once where content is duplicated — and if you find it in one part of Amazon, it’s free, but if you happen to find it elsewhere first, it’s part of a subscription package. Ugh.

Srugim: Another Israeli show… looks like it was kind of done on the cheap (some repeated stock footage used in nearly every episode), but an interesting look at a group of young, religious friends (Religious Zionists) who obey the Sabbath solemnly and, at times, struggle with the different levels of observance among their friend group and outside of it as well as their own beliefs. It brings up a lot of interesting and controversial issues, and I’m always game to learn more Hebrew.

Said and read – April 2020

Standard

“What would it be like if a Level 4 virus event occurred and the Ancient Rule arrived in the supercity of New York? It wouldn’t take much to produce the Ancient Rule in New York City. A dry virus with high mortality that infects people through the lungs. No vaccine, no medical treatment for the virus. If you take the subway, if you ride in an elevator, you can be infected, too. If the Ancient Rule came to New York City, we can imagine people lying face down on the street or in Central Park, crowds staring and hanging back. People begging for help, no one willing to help. Police officers wearing full PPE gear. People needing ambulances. No ambulances. Hospitals gone medieval. Medical staff absent, dying, overwhelmed. All hospital beds full. People being turned away on the street from Bellevue Hospital. Medical examiner facilities gone hot as hell and crammed with corpses.” Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come Richard Preston

Image courtesy of S Donaghy

What kinds of things defined April for you? Budgets cut, marriages ended, and we wonder… how many of these things were hastened – how many would have happened at all – if we had been distracted by all the things that normally make up our daily lives? Do we live more authentically in an era when we are forced to have no other distractions? Do we succumb to identity crises because so many of us were defined by the things we did that kept us busy? Is it painful that now, perhaps, we face our unvarnished selves for the first time without the filter of all those intermediary people and acts?

Life slowed down in April, affording me the ability to read an unthinkable amount. And as always, it was richly varied – some exceptional, some disappointing, some timely, some timeless.

We remain in the limbo of not knowing where the COVID-19 virus will take us, “guided” by leadership that, at best, leaves much to be desired. During these April weeks, I have – for some reason – read various books about epidemics, pandemics, epidemiology and a variety of other seemingly unrelated topics, such as economics and politics. Before this pandemic, I had rarely, if ever, heard the name “Anthony Fauci“, in much the same way that you don’t expect to be familiar with the names of public servants who aren’t, for example, presidents, prime ministers or cabinet-level ministers. Yet, suddenly, Fauci was everywhere. In a Larry Kramer documentary, and several books I read about the AIDS crisis, the Ebola crisis… and any book that mentions the NIH/NIAID.

In the end everything is interrelated. The more I read, obviously the more connections I find. So many books from both the near and distant past warn us of impending crises of all kinds. It’s hard to read these and know what to do; helplessness is paralyzing.

Here’s what you missed in previous years: 2020 – March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for April:

Highly recommended

“I don’t remember a time when I felt safe in America, but I remember when I thought it was possible I would be, someday. The nostalgia for what never was is a familiar feeling for those born in the opening salvo in the symphony of American decline.” –Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of AmericaSarah Kendzior

*Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of AmericaSarah Kendzior

“One of the most horrific realizations when your government is hijacked from the inside is that there is no official to whom you can turn—because it is rare to find an official who cannot be turned by a corrupt operator. Living for legacy, living for security, living for money—it makes no difference, they are not living for you. There had been a coup, and we were on our own.”

All I can say about Hiding in Plain Sight is that you must read it.

“What Americans rejected in 2016 was not trust but discernment. A criminal can bury the truth in a conspiracy because no one will believe it except those accustomed to parsing absurdities, who are then mocked as insane.”

To understand more about how we got here (in part because “American exceptionalism—the widespread belief that America is unique among nations and impervious to autocracy—is the delusion that paved Trump’s path to victory”) you must also read Kendzior’s earlier book, The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America.

“The only honest line of Trump’s campaign was that America was broken. Trump would know: he helped break it, and now he and his backers sought to capitalize off the wreckage. Trump did not strike me as stupid, like pundits kept proclaiming, but as a master manipulator who preyed on pain like a vulture.”

While you’re at it, you also need to invest time in the Gaslit Nation podcast, also brought to us by Sarah Kendzior and Andrea Chalupa. Both Kendzior and Chalupa present their hard-won expertise, analysis and insight, which emerge from their backgrounds in academic and journalistic research. That is, the real kind of research – not the “I looked at the internet and found something to support my beliefs” kind we now blindly accept as we devalue education, expertise in specific disciplines, journalistic integrity, historical accuracy and truth. Kendzior’s area of expertise is in authoritarian states/dictatorships (this is, again, simplifying it), while Chalupa is a writer and journalist.

“I took a picture of an anti-Trump protester holding a sign that said THE BANALITY OF EVIL—a reference to Hannah Arendt, the philosopher who said of life under the Nazi regime: “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” The Trump rally was a study in how people capable of compassion can turn cruel in response to the rhetoric of their chosen leader or in retaliation to those who dare oppose him.”

““You were right two years ago, but this isn’t going to be Nixon. This is American authoritarianism, and they are going to tell us ‘That’s not possible’ until nothing else is.””

None of what Kendzior has predicted (repeatedly) will seem unfamiliar to you in hindsight. Much of it may seem unbelievable when reflected upon, but we’ve been on the slippery slope, being primed for this nightmare for a long time.

“In 2002, Ron Suskind, a journalist for The New York Times, interviewed a Bush administration official later identified as adviser Karl Rove. Suskind recalls: [Rove] said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.””

“This uncritical embrace of authority for its own sake is similar to the excuses given for the refusal of officials to address the attacks on the 2016 election in depth. (The Russians want us to distrust the integrity of the US election process, the pundit explains, therefore we must never, ever question what the Russians did to the election process!) The trustworthiness of a process or person was to be dictated from above by “history’s actors,” not decreed from below by the empirical observations of the masses. What Rove did in that interview—and what Trump does now—was take the ruse one step further, and admit to manipulation openly, not even giving the public the illusion of an honest broker.”

“This is not boldness: crime ceases to be risky when you know you will get away with it. In the twenty-first century, the corporate loopholes that enable white-collar crime double as nooses around the neck of Western democracy. In the Reagan era, Trump’s Republican backers helped devise the dissolution of corporate regulations. In the Bush era, they chipped away at political checks and balances, with the near elimination of accountability as a result. The Republican party provided the structure for an American autocracy enabled by corporate corruption. But it was television producers who gave the future autocrat his most important script.”

I could go on. Instead, you must read the book.

““In fall 2016, I said to a friend, “I don’t know who has it worse—the people who understand what is going to happen, or the people who don’t.” Her answer was simple: “Neither of them: it’s the kids.” For the past four years, I have been taking my children on road trips around America, in the event of its demise. This compulsion began in September 2016, when I became certain that American authoritarianism loomed. National landmarks that I had long taken for granted seemed newly vulnerable to destruction or desecration. It was important to me that my kids see America with their own eyes, and not through mine. I want my children to have their own memories of the United States, so that if they’re confronted with a false version years from now, they can say, “No, I saw it. We had that. This was real. That America was real.””

*Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-century EconomistKate Raworth

“…whenever I hear someone praising the ‘free market’, I beg them to take me there because I’ve never seen it at work in any country that I have visited.”

Doughnut Economics would have been an important book about how to think about and reform economics at any time. In this particular moment, which could be a crossroads, it is a vital contribution to rethinking what economics is and can be.

“‘As markets reach into spheres of life traditionally governed by nonmarket norms, the notion that markets don’t touch or taint the goods they exchange becomes increasingly implausible,’ warns Sandel. ‘Markets are not mere mechanisms; they embody certain values. And sometimes, market values crowd out nonmarket norms worth caring about.’”

“One thing that is clearly coming to an end is the credibility of general equilibrium economics. Its metaphors and models were devised to mimic Newtonian mechanics, but the pendulum of prices, the market mechanism and the reliable return to rest are simply not suited to understanding the economy’s behaviour. Why not? It’s just the wrong kind of science.”

“From this perspective, the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers and the imminent collapse of the Greenland ice sheet have much in common. All three are reported in the news as sudden events but are actually visible tipping points that result from slowly accumulated pressure in the system—be it the gradual build-up of political protest in Eastern Europe, the build-up of sub-prime mortgages in a bank’s asset portfolio or the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”

“This should set the alarm bells ringing: in the early twenty-first century, we have transgressed at least four planetary boundaries, billions of people still face extreme deprivation and the richest 1 percent own half of the world’s financial wealth. These are ideal conditions for driving ourselves towards collapse. If we are to avoid such a fate for our global civilisation, we clearly need a transformation, and it can be summed up like this: Today’s economy is divisive and degenerative by default. Tomorrow’s economy must be distributive and regenerative by design. An economy that is distributive by design is one whose dynamics…”

When I took up the formal study of economics more than 20 years ago, I ran into walls  – walls that have grown taller and thicker over time. Mostly this is because, when I started, I was more willing to accept, as Raworth describes it, economics’ “long-established theories”, rather than the more sensible and just “humanity’s long-term goals”. It did not occur to me until I was, as Raworth also describes, deep in the abyss of trying to understand accepted theory, that there might be another way.

“I was so busy getting to grips with the theory of demand and supply, so determined to get my head around the many definitions of money, that I did not spot the hidden values that had occupied the economic nest. Though claiming to be value-free, conventional economic theory cannot escape the fact that value is embedded at its heart: it is wrapped up with the idea of utility, which is defined as a person’s satisfaction or happiness gained from consuming a particular bundle of goods.”

“It was only when I opted to study what was at the time an obscure topic—the economics of developing countries—that the question of goals popped up. The very first essay question that I was set confronted me head-on: What is the best way of assessing success in development? I was gripped and shocked. Two years into my economic education and the question of purpose had appeared for the first time. Worse, I hadn’t even realised that it had been missing. Twenty-five years later, I wondered if the teaching of economics had moved on by recognising the need to start with a discussion of what it is all for.”

How can future economists reclaim and reframe what economic success and progress look like, and espouse a way of “economic thinking that would enable us to achieve” and meet humanity’s needs and goals? Now more than ever, as unemployment numbers reach record territory, and when “full employment” doesn’t reflect the number of people in more than full-time employment who nevertheless live in poverty, how can we redefine economic prosperity to encompass human well-being instead of by impenetrable and meaningless GDP and stock market figures?

“And so, over half a century, GDP growth shifted from being a policy option to a political necessity and the de facto policy goal. To enquire whether further growth was always desirable, necessary, or indeed possible became irrelevant, or political suicide.”

“Donella Meadows—one of the lead authors of the 1972 Limits to Growth report—and she didn’t mince her words. ‘Growth is one of the stupidest purposes ever invented by any culture,’…”.

“response to the constant call for more growth, she argued, we should always ask: ‘growth of what, and why, and for whom, and who pays the cost, and how long can it last, and what’s the cost to the planet, and how much is enough?’

I am oversimplifying this book, and haven’t even mentioned its analysis or prescriptions. I would recommend that you read this if you have an abiding interest in economic justice and how we might reverse the trend of thinking about market norms as norms, placing human and societal needs as less important. In a consumer-oriented society, which is where we live, we aren’t taught to question the primacy of the market and its “health”, but this is akin to brainwashing.

This has been clear for a long time, but it takes extraordinary circumstances, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic to illustrate how exploitative, fragile and short-sighted the current system is. Whom does it serve? Who really enables it? Raworth writes extensively about the invisible and unpaid “core economy” – the labor of the household, of rearing children, etc. This labor has been removed from the equation. During times of crisis (like now), however, the veil is lifted and its supremacy as the foundation of all that becomes possible in the market is elevated – or at least obvious, even if briefly.

“…And since work in the core economy is unpaid, it is routinely undervalued and exploited, generating lifelong inequalities in social standing, job opportunities, income and power between women and men.”

“By largely ignoring the core economy, mainstream economics has also overlooked just how much the paid economy depends upon it. Without all that cooking, washing, nursing and sweeping, there would be no workers—today or in the future—who were healthy, well-fed and ready for work each morning. As the futurist Alvin Toffler liked to ask at smart gatherings of business executives, ‘How productive would your workforce be if it hadn’t been toilet trained?’”

“Why does it matter that this core economy should be visible in economics? Because the household provision of care is essential for human well-being, and productivity in the paid economy depends directly upon it. It matters because when—in the name of austerity and public sector savings—governments cut budgets for children’s daycare centres, community services, parental leave and youth clubs, the need for care-giving doesn’t disappear: it just gets pushed back into the home.”

*IndigoEllen Bass

Poetry, of course.

*Ledger: PoemsJane Hirshfield

Poetry.

*The CarryingAda Limón

Poetry.

*The Story of a New Name – Elena Ferrante

““You’re back,” I said. “Yes.” “Why didn’t you tell me?” “I didn’t want you to see me.” “Others can see you and not me?” “I don’t care about others, I do care about you.” I looked at her uncertainly. What was I not supposed to see?”

The Neapolitan quartet of novels offers an extended and intimate view into the life of a friendship and its lifetime of ups and downs. Whether or not you’re impressed, I’ve found Ferrante’s writing so lifelike that it swarms around me before settling and insisting that I immerse myself in the relationship she describes, which is at once personal and unique while also being universal. I’ve written before about the first of the four books and how exquisitely it probes the twists of girlhood/adolescent friendship. I didn’t find myself as sucked in by the subsequent books in the series, but it’s easy to dismiss the exceptionally good because its genius appears to be so effortless.

“She loved him, she loved him like the girls in the photonovels. For her whole life she would sacrifice to him every quality of her own, and he wouldn’t even be aware of the sacrifice, he would be surrounded by the wealth of feeling, intelligence, imagination that were hers, without knowing what to do with them, he would ruin them. I, I thought, am not capable of loving anyone like that, not even Nino, all I know is how to get along with books.”

Good – or better than expected

*The Witches are Coming Lindy West

“When faced with a choice between an incriminating truth or a flattering lie, America’s ruling class has been choosing the lie for four hundred years. White Americans hunger for plausible deniability and swaddle themselves in it and always have—for the sublime relief of deferred responsibility, the soft violence of willful ignorance, the barbaric fiction of rugged individualism.”

On initial reading, I didn’t find West’s The Witches are Coming particularly compelling. I don’t think I rated it too highly on my Goodreads page (I wouldn’t put too much stock in these kinds of ratings in any case. I count myself fickle on this front; what struck me as readable but not terribly insightful later strikes me as offering a striking voice. It’s a matter of mood that determines how everything is received and assessed).

When I read West’s book, I don’t think I was adequately enraged by the world we live in. I live cocooned in a remote self-(near)-exile in a forest. Rage, and the injustices that lead to justified rage, is hard to come by. But as the handling of coronavirus has unfolded, and incompetent white men bungle it, lie about it, and put power above life – particularly those lives disproportionately affected by the effects of the virus – my anger has risen.

It’s impossible to divorce oneself from the reality of how we got here. West channels much of this into her writing here, whether it is in her being “so fucking sick—FUCKING VIOLENTLY ILL” of watching good people be conned or her takedown of the sick lionization of serial killers by white cisgender men, i.e. ““Straight, white, cisgender men love to file serial killers under some darker subcategory of white male genius. It’s easier to be titillated when fear is an abstraction.” (I hadn’t really thought much about this enduring fascination with/analysis of serial killers, but West is absolutely right.)

This concoction of going back to the book to read West’s words and the circumstances in which we now find ourselves… thanks to our own “bootstrap ethos (itself just a massive grift to empower the snickering rich)” that cause me to reassess. We are in deep shit and blithely rolling around in it like we can’t smell it.

*I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV RevolutionEmily Nussbaum

“Yet there’s a level at which I can’t entirely explain my adoration for television, my sense of it as not subject matter but a cause. There was something alive about the medium to me, organic in a way that other art is not. You enter into it; you get changed with it; it changes with you. I like movies, but I’m not a cinephile; you’ll never catch me ululating about camera technique, for better or worse. I love books, but I have little desire to review them. Television was what did it for me. For two decades, as the medium moved steadily from the cultural margins to its hot center, it was where I wanted to live.”

As a would-be reformed television addict who is also uncooperative with myself and the limits I’ve set for tv viewing, I relate to Emily Nussbaum’s writing. Her defense of television as a dynamic art form makes me wonder why I’ve been so obstinate in my pursuit of severing the relationship (healthy or not) I’ve developed with televisual entertainment.

Unlike Nussbaum, I am not a tv critic – I am not a critic of any kind. As Nussbaum declares, though, television is a medium worth evaluating and criticizing. It can delve into questions and debates about values. It can reflect the values (divided though they might be) of a society, and chronicle their changing face. Consider how quaint the Dan QuayleMurphy Brown kerfuffle about single parenthood and “family values” now feels in some ways, given how the shape of our television-like (so-called because so much of it now is not made for TV specifically) entertainment has expanded to become more inclusive and, as stated, has veered away from the limitations and restrictions of network TV screens into new media. (Which has also pushed at least some of network television to become more creative.)

At the same time, though, have we moved so far away from that ‘moral’ debate, when debates continue to rage about (as a starting point) women’s bodies, access to birth control and abortion? Our entertainment is a mirror, and the reflection we see is changing all the time.

“Back when no one believed they were in a Golden Age, Lear shrugged off the way that his native medium had always been “a convenient whipping boy” for American malaise. It was the networks who thought small, he argued, and who were condescending to their viewers: “I’ve never seen anything I thought was too good for the American people or so far above them that they’d never reach for it if they had the chance.” To Lear, TV was still all potential, particularly an untapped potential for variety—it just needed to “replace imitation with originality as the formula for success.” He envisions cross-medium experiments: “How do they know there wouldn’t be as large an audience for a John Cheever or a Ray Bradbury drama as there is for a Norman Lear or a Mary Tyler Moore show?””

Nussbaum has captured here what I have long tried to articulate when people question my devotion to tv viewing. Criticism of other art forms – poetry, literature, cinema – is accepted, respected and “more difficult”. But Nussbaum argues, television criticism is valid and legitimate – and in her case (and this would be true for me, too), she didn’t feel a strong enough desire or pull to dedicate herself to any other field with the kind of rigor needed to be a serious critic or writer.

Nussbaum offered a lot to dig into, but I’ll highlight here (but may discuss elsewhere later) a couple of things I loved.

First, the Law & Order: SVU character Rafael Barba. So sorely missed. (It was a pleasure to see him turn up in a recent episode of The Good Fight):

“None of the new cast members has quite his magnetism, although the Broadway star Raúl Esparza is a major asset as the dandyish ADA Rafael Barba. “Objection!” Barba announces, when someone accuses Benson of being a man-hater. “Argumentative. And ridiculous.””

Second, The Americans.

The Americans refuses to do what similar cable shows have done, even some of the good ones: offer a narcotic, adventurous fantasy in which we get to imagine being the smartest person in the room, the only one free…”

I am still surprised when I meet people who have (inexcusably) never even heard of this. The few people I’ve convinced to watch it always return to me blown away by it, but it is, as Nussbaum explains, “a must-watch and a hard sell”.

The Americans is a bleak show that ends each episode with heartbreak. It’s also a thrilling, moving, clever show about human intimacy—possibly the best current drama out there (at least of the ones I’ve been able to keep up with). Dread is its specialty and also its curse; it’s what makes The Americans at once a must-watch and a hard sell. This is a surprising conundrum because, judging by a plot summary…”

*Lost Children ArchiveValeria Luiselli

“But surely it was not that day, in that supermarket, that I understood what was happening to us. Beginnings, middles, and ends are only a matter of hindsight. If we are forced to produce a story in retrospect, our narrative wraps itself selectively around the elements that seem relevant, bypassing all the others.”

What makes a relationship – a marriage – solid but malleable enough to withstand change? Luiselli explores the difficulties of marriage – or being generous in a marriage in the long-term – and considers the unforeseen, sometimes invisible, ways that connections erode. That’s how erosion works – you don’t know something is slipping away underneath you until you fall. A foundation is slowly worn away, imperceptibly. When that foundation lacks strength in the first place, e.g., if one of your strongest bonds was a work project that ended, what remains for you as a couple? I suspect this happens in celebrity relationships that are reported in tabloids and fizzle out in mere months. How else to explain?

“The thing about living with someone is that even though you see them every day and can predict all their gestures in a conversation, even when you can read intentions behind their actions and calculate their responses to circumstances fairly accurately, even when you are sure there’s not a single crease in them left unexplored, even then, one day, the other can suddenly become a stranger.”

When the close intensity of working together for a brief time sweeps one away, what remains when the project is over? That will, Luiselli seems to argue, be the test.

“Without a future professional project together, we began to drift apart in other ways. I guess we—or perhaps just I—had made the very common mistake of thinking that marriage was a mode of absolute commonality and a breaking down of all boundaries, instead of understanding it simply as a pact between two people willing to be the guardians of each other’s solitude, as Rilke or some other equanimous, philosophical soul had long ago prescribed.”

“I don’t keep a journal. My journals are the things I underline in books. I would never lend a book to anyone after having read it. I underline too much, sometimes entire pages, sometimes with double underline. My husband and I once read this copy of Sontag’s journals together. We had just met. Both of us underlined entire passages of it, enthusiastically, almost feverishly. We read out loud, taking turns, opening the pages as if consulting an oracle, legs naked and intertwined on a twin bed. I suppose that words, timely and arranged in the right order, produce an afterglow. When you read words like that in a book, beautiful words, a powerful but fleeting emotion ensues. And you also know that soon, it’ll all be gone: the concept you just grasped and the emotion it produced. Then comes a need to possess that strange, ephemeral afterglow, and to hold on to that emotion.”

An odd overlap: Luiselli writes about a roadtrip throughout the book, and in Kendzior’s aforementioned book, she chronicles her desperate need to share America’s landscapes with her children before they disappear, to bear witness to the America that once was. It’s haunting, in some ways, how these travelogue accounts both create a sense of impending loss, a disappearing world. For Kendzior, it is as vast as the country she has always known as home. For Luiselli, it is the intimacy of family life.

“More and more, my presence here, on this trip with my family, driving toward a future we most probably won’t share, settling into motel bedrooms for the night, feels ghostly, a life witnessed and not lived. I know I’m here, with them, but also I am not.”

*There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition – Jill Jacobs

April was a month to explore Judaism in greater depth thanks to a reading list I found via the Twitter account of Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. I read an extensive list of the recommended books, and this will continue throughout the year. I mention it now  because I enjoyed the way Rabbi Jacobs presented an interpretation of Jewish law and tradition that does not just make room for social justice and alleviation of poverty – but insists on it.

“Within Judaism, support for the poor is understood as an obligation and as a means of restoring justice to the world, and not as an altruistic or voluntary gesture.”

We are living in a moment in which extraordinary need has become immediately apparent. And how are governments dealing with it, as opposed to how they should?

“The task of the just sovereign, whether human or divine, is to establish a system of government that protects the vulnerable.”

One recurring theme in rabbinic discussions of wealth emphasizes the interdependence between the rich and the poor, and the ease with which wealth can turn into poverty.

How is humanity dealing with it?

The concept of tzedek, according to this understanding, extends beyond the basic legal requirements of the state, and beyond the execution of strict justice. Nor is tzedek a divine attribute, beyond human capacity. Again, tzedek appears as a relational term that describes a contract between God and humanity, or between humans of differing social or political status, to establish a system aimed at liberating the vulnerable from their oppressors.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity Esther Perel

“In a world where it is so easy to feel insignificant—to be laid off, disposable, deleted with a click, unfriended—being chosen has taken on an importance it never had before. Monogamy is the sacred cow of the romantic ideal, for it confirms our specialness. Infidelity says, You’re not so special after all. It shatters the grand ambition of love.”

I’m looking California and feeling Minnesota“…

I’m an armchair/amateur therapist; people who know me will probably attest to this. They tell me their problems; I listen; we talk through it. I don’t offer “advice”, but we talk through options, feelings, motivations. My approach to relationships, intimacy and human ‘mistakes’ and betrayals, in many ways, mirrors the kinds of things Esther Perel explores in this (and other) works. Yet when I’m talking to the more rigid among my acquaintances who see the world in very clear “right or wrong” binaries, I am charged with the dubious misdemeanor of “being very California”.

“As tempting as it is to reduce affairs to sex and lies, I prefer to use infidelity as a portal into the complex landscape of relationships and the boundaries we draw to bind them. Infidelity brings us face-to-face with the volatile and opposing forces of passion: the lure, the lust, the urgency, the love and its impossibility, the relief, the entrapment, the guilt, the heartbreak, the sinfulness, the surveillance, the madness of suspicion, the murderous urge to get even, the tragic denouement. Be forewarned: Addressing these issues requires a willingness to descend into a labyrinth of irrational forces. Love is messy; infidelity more so. But it is also a window, like none other, into the crevices of the human heart.”

I, like Perel, believe we must be realistic; we must be compassionate; we must listen and communicate. Regardless of what choices we make about a relationship in the wake of infidelity, we are not served, clear, being heard, getting closure (or whatever you want to call the peace or answers we seek), moving forward if we don’t deal with it. This is particularly true given the expectations we place on ourselves and on a relationship (and what we commonly think a relationship ought to give us):

“Never before have our expectations of marriage taken on such epic proportions. We still want everything the traditional family was meant to provide—security, children, property, and respectability—but now we also want our partner to love us, to desire us, to be interested in us. We should be best friends, trusted confidants, and passionate lovers to boot. The human imagination has conjured up a new Olympus: that love will remain unconditional, intimacy enthralling, and sex oh-so-exciting, for the long haul, with one person. And the long haul keeps getting longer. Contained within the small circle of the wedding band are vastly contradictory ideals. We want our chosen one to offer stability, safety, predictability, and dependability—all the anchoring experiences. And we want that very same person to supply awe, mystery, adventure, and risk. Give me comfort and give me edge. Give me familiarity and give me novelty. Give me continuity and give me surprise. Lovers today seek to bring under one roof desires that have forever had separate dwellings.”

A number of the books I have read this month (and tend to read in general) deal with the idea of novelty, and modern life’s many dissatisfactions. The more convenience, connectivity, seeming choice we have, the less content we seem to be… the more “on the hunt” we are. I’ve noticed this most particularly in the world of online dating sites/apps, where the illusion of endless choice creates the sense that one is shopping from a catalog and can simply return what s/he doesn’t find perfect. There’s always something else, something more, something different, and this sense is pervasive – even among those of us who push against these changing “norms” (can we call them that?):

“In our consumer society, novelty is key. The obsoleteness of objects is programmed in advance so that it ensures our desire to replace them. And the couple is indeed no exception to these trends. We live in a culture that continually lures us with the promise of something better, younger, perkier. Hence we no longer divorce because we’re unhappy; we divorce because we could be happier. We’ve come to see immediate gratification and endless variety as our prerogative. Previous generations were taught that life entails sacrifice.”

*Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect PredatorsRonan Farrow

I looked forward to reading this, even though I knew it would make me unspeakably angry (it did). The lengths to which institutions will go to protect predators and the profits and status quo they represent is detailed here. I’d just say… read it.

And, yeah, Matt Lauer is way, way worse and more disgusting than I had ever imagined. The fucking criminal audacity of these men. I wish it were surprising, unusual, anomalous. But no, people like Lauer are just symptoms of a whole system that props up mediocrity, and lets it get away with anything it wants.

Coincidences

There’s nothing really ‘coincidental’ about having read these books. They share themes – epidemics/pandemics and, tangentially related, forensic ecology. All provided a lot of insight and fed my need to understand better, know more (in a broad/general sense). I know plenty of people who are avoiding all types of information because, under the circumstances, they can’t tolerate more. They will actively seek out the barest minimum, i.e. “Am I allowed to go outside? Must I wear a mask?” They don’t want more information or statistics. Therefore, reading these kinds of books, even though they don’t directly deal with the virus at hand (but do liberally mention Anthony Fauci), would be a definite “no”.

*The Nature of Life and Death: Every Body Leaves a TracePatricia Wiltshire

“To me, corpses have ceased to be people; they are repositories of information where nature has left clues that we might follow.”

“No, there is no life after death—but there is always life in death. When you are alive, your body is a mass of beautifully balanced ecosystems, and so it is in death. Your dead body is a rich and vibrant paradise for microbes, a bounty for scavenging insects, birds, rodents, and other animals, some of which will come to your body to feast upon your mortal remains, and some of which will come, like the tinkers and traders exploiting a “gold rush,” to prey on the scavengers themselves. And this too is of significance for a forensic ecologist—for the way a body is being broken down, the kinds of scavengers that come for it, and at what rate, can itself provide vital pieces to the puzzle of who, what, where, and how.”

*Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human PandemicDavid Quammen

“To put the matter in its starkest form: Human-caused ecological pressures and disruptions are bringing animal pathogens ever more into contact with human populations, while human technology and behavior are spreading those pathogens ever more widely and quickly. There are three elements to the situation.”

“This elaborate concatenation of life-forms and sequential strategies is highly adaptive and, so far as mosquitoes and hosts are concerned, difficult to resist. It shows evolution’s power, over great lengths of time, to produce structures, tactics, and transformations of majestic intricacy. Alternatively, anyone who favors Intelligent Design in lieu of evolution might pause to wonder why God devoted so much of His intelligence to designing malarial parasites.”

*Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come Richard Preston

“’This is how all outbreaks end,’ Armand Sprecher, the Doctors’ official in Brussels, said. ‘It’s always a change in behavior. Ebola outbreaks end when people decide they’re going to end.’”

This book was, strangely, a page-turner. It was dramatic, high-stakes, harrowing, sad… I can’t speak to its absolute accuracy, but I assume because it was written by a writer/journalist rather than a scientist, it has more novel-like qualities, keeping the reader invested in the characters and the ballooning scope of the disaster they faced. (And Fauci, of course, appears again.)

As a side note, I was a bit disturbed by how the following was written:

“Ever since she had been in college, Lina Moses had wanted to go up against Ebola in an outbreak. This had been her dream for years. Now it was really going to happen. It was a battle of a kind, a public health battle, and the aim was to save lives.” (weird thing to want to do – have happen).”

I have no doubt that the writer meant that this Lina Moses character wanted to face the toughest possible public health challenge, but the idea that someone would wish for an Ebola outbreak (“this had been her dream for years“!?) seems like it might have needed an editor…

Like most books of this type, it serves as an ominous warning. Written before the latest coronavirus outbreak, it cautions that these kinds of outbreaks can run rampant before we are even aware of their spread. Highly contagious, Ebola acts fast, and its symptoms are obvious and extreme. Much more extreme than the reported early symptoms of COVID-19 (and its transmissibility when carriers are asymptomatic). Preston, as writers in all such books do, shines a light on the lack of preparedness for, as we have learned, virtually all of these public health challenges.

“In other words, if the Makona strain hadn’t been stopped quickly, it would have continued improving its ability to spread in humans. It would have become yet more humanized. The world got lucky this time. If the Makona strain had raced into a poor supercity, it would have gotten into many more thousands of people, and gotten many more chances to evolve and change. For a long time after the Ebola epidemic subsided, nobody really understood just how close the world had come to a much bigger disaster.”

Biggest disappointment (or disliked)

There were a number of books in April that I felt might be really interesting, and they all disappointed, or I miscalculated. They weren’t necessarily bad, but I had higher expectations.

*How to Feed a Dictator: Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Enver Hoxha, Fidel Castro, and Pol Pot Through the Eyes of Their CooksWitold Szabłowski

When will we see a chapter here to cover the eating habits and gustatory proclivities of Donald Trump as an afterword to this oddity?

*Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to FukushimaJames Mahaffey

I think I expected something more gripping; something that conveyed in a more vivid way just what atomic accidents portend. Maybe I have been seduced by how well, for example, the Chernobyl story was told in televisual terms. This book was informative, but not what I was expecting or hoping for.

*Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy WorldCal Newport

“I’ve become convinced that what you need instead is a full-fledged philosophy of technology use, rooted in your deep values, that provides clear answers to the questions of what tools you should use and how you should use them and, equally important, enables you to confidently ignore everything else.”

As I picked this book up, everyone around me was becoming accustomed to the confines of being in lockdown, working from home – potentially sheltering in place alone – or trapped with the entire family – in what may have started to feel like an increasingly small space for an indefinite (both in terms of length of time and the shape of the future). One of the only connections to the outside world, to friends and family, to shopping, to continued livelihood, were the same digital tools and platforms that Cal Newport urges us to reconsider our relationships with.

Maybe my ongoing hermit-like seclusion (and comfort with this) positions me to observe other people’s behaviors and reactions. Maybe prescriptive books of this nature feel unnecessarily judgmental and smug at a time like this. It’s stark right now: choosing digital minimalism was always about having the luxury to choose or not. It requires having the digital smörgåsbord to pick and choose from in the first place. We see more clearly than ever the digital divide when we are involuntarily disconnected physically. Who has the privilege and power to decide whether their kids will be able to go on doing some form of online learning when schools are closed? Who is welcome in the digital/knowledge economy, able to work from home?

In light of our current environment, this book rubbed me the wrong way.

That said, my questions from the introductory part of this write-up poking into identity and personality do tie to one of the central tenets of this book: what are your values? This book asks whether, and how, technology serves those values?

“Once we view these personal technology processes through the perspective of diminishing returns, we’ll gain the precise vocabulary we need to understand the validity of the second principle of minimalism, which states that optimizing how we use technology is just as important as how we choose what technologies to use in the first place.”

*Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and DreamsMatthew Walker

“Accepting that our lack of sleep is a slow form of self-euthanasia, what can be done about it?”

I don’t know many people who are good sleepers. Insomnia, interrupted sleep, sleep disorders and constant exhaustion (as well as the repeated complaint, often multiple times a day, “I’m so tired”) plague everyone I know. I’m lucky in that I don’t have any such problems, but I wanted to learn more about sleep and had heard that this book was, for lack of a more dazzling word, “great”.

But the fact is, despite the dizzying amount of research conducted on the subject… stunningly little is truly understood for certain about sleep. Sleep offers all manner of benefits for the body and brain, and lack of it is dire for health, upping risk factors for various diseases and disorders. I came to this book hoping for more certainty as to why these things are the case, only to learn that there are no definitive answers. I don’t think I really believed the book would actually “unlock” anything as its title promises. But I hoped for something beyond the “why” (i.e., sleep is healthy; sleep helps you form and retain memories, etc.). I wanted the why behind the why (why is sleep healthy? Why and how does sleep work to empower or enfeeble memory-making?).

The only thing that really piqued my interest was the discussion on the human’s intentional daily routine of “premature and artificial termination of sleep”:

“Compare the physiological state of the body after being rudely awakened by an alarm to that observed after naturally waking from sleep. Participants artificially wrenched from sleep will suffer a spike in blood pressure and a shock acceleration in heart rate caused by an explosive burst of activity from the fight-or-flight branch of the nervous system. Most of us are unaware of an even greater danger that lurks within the alarm clock: the snooze button. If alarming your heart, quite literally, were not bad enough, using the snooze feature means that you will repeatedly inflict that cardiovascular assault again and again within a short span of time. Step and repeat this at least five days a week, and you begin to understand the multiplicative abuse your heart and nervous system will suffer across a life span.”

*Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion Jia Tolentino

“I’ve been thinking about five intersecting problems: first, how the internet is built to distend our sense of identity; second, how it encourages us to overvalue our opinions; third, how it maximizes our sense of opposition; fourth, how it cheapens our understanding of solidarity; and, finally, how it destroys our sense of scale.”

I found myself underwhelmed by Trick Mirror, and again, I think I found it unsatisfying in part because of what society is experiencing right now. It feels indulgent to examine some of the questions Tolentino and the aforementioned Cal Newport spend time obsessing about. Sure, they did all of this in another time – not that long ago, but it may as well have been years – when segments of the population were concerned about the ways in which online/internet life warps our realities, our identities, creating an artificial and commoditized version of ourselves, a shallow but still multi-sided illusion showing different faces to different groups of people while only data brokers and analytics tools (think they) know who we really are.

“Selfhood buckles under the weight of this commercial importance. In physical spaces, there’s a limited audience and time span for every performance. Online, your audience can hypothetically keep expanding forever, and the performance never has to end. (You can essentially be on a job interview in perpetuity.) In real life, the success or failure of each individual performance often plays out in the form of concrete, physical action.”

In that sense, Tolentino’s themes are timely. But most of what she has written here feels like it’s been written before, and better, by other people, so hers is a regurgitative exercise of sorts. I wanted to see something new, but there wasn’t much here lighting my mind on fire.

However, credit where credit is due. Tolentino cites Erving Goffman‘s work on theory of identity:

“a person must put on a sort of performance, create an impression for an audience. The performance might be calculated, as with the man at a job interview who’s practiced every answer; it might be unconscious, as with the man who’s gone on so many interviews that he naturally performs as expected; it might be automatic, as with the man who creates the correct impression primarily because he is an upper-middle-class white man with an MBA. A performer might be fully taken in by his own performance—he might actually believe that his biggest flaw is “perfectionism”—or he might know that his act is a sham. But no matter what, he’s performing. Even if he stops trying to perform, he still has an audience, his actions still create an effect. “All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify,” Goffman wrote.”

This might not have hit me as hard as it did had I not also watched a deeply affecting video of Sterling K. Brown, in response to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, talking about the masks black men wear every day as they go out into the world and are always performing, always being someone else. While Tolentino’s book and analysis address these identity questions in an almost sterile way, e.g., digital personas that e-commerce retailers create to market more effectively.

But it’s much more powerful to apply Goffman’s “All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify”. Without being constantly reminded by a Sterling K. Brown, or the seemingly endless string of tragic, horrifying, senseless, unjustifiable deaths of black people, is anyone thinking actively about the crucial ways in which the world is not a stage – but reality, life, in which living, breathing people cannot leave their homes without feeling like this might be the day that, despite my mask, I don’t get to come home again?

No more sunlight on lunches

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When this year dawned, I gave up a lot of TV. Many know that I was basically addicted and was watching all kinds of shit. Sure, there were gems mixed in with the shit, but it was mostly… just shit. I cut way back, and in many ways have cut back on a lot of things while boosting the output/input of other things, such as reading books and aurally hoovering up a whole lot of music.

Also, apart from the increasingly rare lunch I spend working in an office environment, there is no lunchtable any more. No more lunchtable, no more lunches, no more lunchtable TV talk.

That said, there are still bits of TV-style content that seep in. Of late, Patriot, I Love Dick, Catastrophe, Goliath, Fargo, The Leftovers, Silicon Valley, The Americans, Better Call Saul, Bloodline … among a couple of other things, even American Gods, which I had no intention of watching since I have never read the book and did not have much interest in. Some of it has been quite entertaining but … on the whole, it’s not really for me any more.

Instead there is poetry and more poetry, and reading and re-reading “To Marina”, one of my long-time favorites, which I have now been reading and re-reading for as long as the 25 years the poet marvels at having passed in the poem itself. A poem that makes me think, makes me laugh, makes me wonder, makes me feel empty, makes me feel sad, makes me feel nostalgic, makes me feel imaginative and has been a part of my life, making me feel so many different things – and combinations of things – as my own life has changed.

To Marina
Kenneth Koch

So many convolutions and not enough simplicity!
When I had you to write to it
Was different. The quiet, dry Z
Leaped up to the front of the alphabet.
You sit, stilling your spoons
With one hand; you move them with the other.
Radio says, “God is a postmaster.”
You said, Zis is lawflee. And in the heat
Of writing to you I wrote simply. I thought
These are the best things I shall ever write
And have ever written. I thought of nothing but touching you
Thought of seeing you and, in a separate thought, of looking at you.
You were concentrated feeling and thought.
You were like the ocean
In which my poems were the swimming. I brought you
Earrings. You said, these are lawflee. We went
To some beach, where the sand was dirty. Just going in
To the bathing house with you drove me “out of my mind.”

It is wise to be witty. The shirt collar’s far away.
Men tramp up and down the city on this windy day.
I am feeling a-political as a shell
Brought off some fish. Twenty-one years
Ago I saw you and loved you still.
Still! It wasn’t plenty
Of time. Read Anatole France. Bored, a little. Read
Tolstoy, replaced and overcome. You read Stendhal.
I told you to. Where was replacement
Then? I don’t know. He shushed us back in to ourselves.
I used to understand

The highest excitement. Someone died
And you were distant. I went away
And made you distant. Where are you now? I see the chair
And hang onto it for sustenance. Good God how you kissed me
And I held you. You screamed
And I wasn’t bothered by anything. Was nearest you.

And you were so realistic
Preferring the Soviet Bookstore
To my literary dreams.
“You don’t like war,” you said
After reading a poem
In which I’d simply said I hated war
In a whole list of things. To you
It seemed a position, to me
It was all a flux, especially then.
I was in an
Unexpected situation.
Let’s take a walk
I wrote. And I love you as a sheriff
Searches for a walnut. And so unless
I’m going to see your face
Bien soon, and you said
You must take me away, and
Oh Kenneth
You like everything
To be pleasant. I was burning
Like an arch
Made out of trees.

I’m not sure we ever actually took a walk
We were so damned nervous. I was heading somewhere. And you had to
be
At an appointment, or else be found out! Illicit love!
It’s not a thing to think of. Nor is it when it’s licit!
It is too much! And it wasn’t enough. The achievement
I thought I saw possible when I loved you
Was that really achievement? Were you my
Last chance to feel that I had lost my chance?
I grew faint at your voice on the telephone.
Electricity and all colors were mine, and the tops of hills
And everything that breathes. That was a feeling. Certain
Artistic careers had not even started. And I
Could have surpassed them. I could have I think put the
Whole world under our feet. You were in the restaurant. It
Was Chinese. We have walked three blocks. Or four blocks. It is New
York
In nineteen fifty-three. Nothing has as yet happened
That will ever happen and will mean as much to me. You smile, and turn
your head.
What rocketing there was in my face and in my head
And bombing everywhere in my body
I loved you I knew suddenly
That nothing had meant anything like you
I must have hoped (crazily) that something would
As if thinking you were the person I had become.

My sleep is beginning to be begun. And the sheets were on the bed.
A clock rang a bird’s song rattled into my typewriter.
I had been thinking about songs which were very abstract.
It was really a table. Now, the telephone. Hello, what?
What is my life like now? Engaged, studying and looking around
The library, teaching—I took it rather easy
A little too easy—we went to the ballet
Then dark becomes the light (blinding) of the next eighty days
Orchestra cup become As beautiful as an orchestra or a cup, and
Locked climbs becomes If we were locked, well not quite, rather
Oh penniless could I really die, and I understood everything
Which before was running this way and that in my head
I saw titles, volumes, and suns I felt the hot
Pressure of your hands in that restaurant
To which, along with glasses, plates, lamps, lusters,
Tablecloths, napkins, and all the other junk
You added my life for it was entirely in your hands then—
My life Yours, My Sister Life of Pasternak’s beautiful title
My life without a life, my life in a life, my life impure
And my life pure, life seen as an entity
One death and a variety of days
And only on life.

I wasn’t ready
For you.

I understood nothing
Seemingly except my feelings
You were whirling
In your life
I was keeping
Everything in my head
An artist friend’s apartment
Five flights up the
Lower East Side nineteen
Fifty-something I don’t know
What we made love the first time I
Almost died I had never felt
That way it was like being stamped on in Hell
It was roses of Heaven
My friends seemed turned to me to empty shell

On the railroad train’s red velvet back
You put your hand in mine and said
“I told him”
Or was it the time after that?
I said Why did you
Do that you said I thought
It was over. Why Because you were so
Nervous of my being there it was something I thought

I read Tolstoy. You said
I don’t like the way it turns out (Anna
Karenina) I had just liked the strength
Of the feeling you thought
About the end. I wanted
To I don’t know what never leave you
Five flights up the June
Street empties of fans, cups, kites, cops, eats, nights, no
The night was there
And something like air I love you Marina
Eighty-five days
Four thousand three hundred and sixty-
Two minutes all poetry was changed
For me what did I do in exchange
I am selfish, afraid you are
Overwhelmingly parade, back, sunshine, dreams
Later thousands of dreams

You said
You make me feel nawble (noble). I said
Yes. I said
To nothingness, This is all poems. Another one said (later)
That is so American. You were Russian
You thought of your feelings, one said, not of her,
Not of the real situation. But my feelings were a part,
They were the force of the real situation. Truer to say I thought
Not of the whole situation
For your husband was also a part
And your feelings about your child were a part
And all my other feelings were a part. We
Turned this way and that, up-
Stairs then down
Into the streets.
Did I die because I didn’t stay with you?
Or what did I lose of my life? I lose
You. I put you
In everything I wrote.

I used that precious material I put it in forms
Also I wanted to break down the forms
Poetry was a real occupation
To hell with the norms, with what is already written
Twenty-nine in love finds pure expression
Twenty-nine years you my whole life’s digression
Not taken and Oh Kenneth
Everything afterwards seemed nowhere near
What I could do then in several minutes—
I wrote,
“I want to look at you all day long
Because you are mine.”

I am twenty-nine, pocket flap folded
And I am smiling I am looking out at a world that
I significantly re-created from inside
Out of contradictory actions and emotions. I look like a silly child that
Photograph that year—big glasses, unthought-of clothes,
A suit, slight mess in general, cropped hair. And someone liked me,
Loved me a lot, I think. And someone else had, you had too. I was
Undrenched by the tears I’d shed later about this whole thing when
I’d telephone you I’d be all nerves, though in fact
All life was a factor and all my nerves were in my head. I feel
Peculiar. Or I feel nothing. I am thinking about this poem. I am thinking
about your raincoat,
I am worried about the tactfulness,
About the truth of what I say.

I am thinking about my standards for my actions
About what they were
You raised my standards for harmony and for happiness so much
And, too, the sense of a center
Which did amazing things for my taste
But my taste for action? For honesty, for directness in behavior?
I believe I simply never felt that anything could go wrong
This was abject stupidity
I also was careless in how I drove then and in what I ate
And drank it was easier to feel that nothing could go wrong
I had those feelings. I
Did not those things. I was involved in such and such
A situation, artistically and socially. We never spent a night
Together it is the New York of
Aquamarine sunshine and the Loew’s Theater’s blazing swing of light
In the middle of the day

Let’s take a walk
Into the world
Where if our shoes get white
With snow, is it snow, Marina,
Is it snow or light?
Let’s take a walk

Every detail is everything in its place (Aristotle). Literature is a cup
And we are the malted. The time is a glass. A June bug comes
And a carpenter spits on a plane, the flowers ruffle ear rings.
I am so dumb-looking. And you are so beautiful.

Sitting in the Hudson Tube
Walking up the fusky street
Always waiting to see you
You the original creation of all my You, you the you
In every poem the hidden one whom I am talking to
Worked at Bamberger’s once I went with you to Cerutti’s
Bar—on Madison Avenue? I held your hand and you said
Kenneth you are playing with fire. I said
Something witty in reply.
It was the time of the McCarthy trial
Hot sunlight on lunches. You squirted
Red wine into my mouth.
My feelings were like a fire my words became very clear
My psyche or whatever it is that puts together motions and emotions
Was unprepared. There was a good part
And an alarmingly bad part which didn’t correspond—
No letters! No seeming connection! Your slim pale hand
It actually was, your blondness and your turning-around-to-me look
Good-bye Kenneth.

No, Marina, don’t go
And what had been before would come after
Not to be mysterious we’d be together make love again
It was the wildest thing I’ve done
I can hardly remember it
It has gotten by now
So mixed up with losing you
The two almost seemed in some way the same. You
Wore something soft—angora? Cashmere?
I remember that it was black, You turned around
And on such a spring day which went on and on and on
I actually think I felt that I could keep
The strongest of all feelings contained inside me
Producing endless emotional designs.

With the incomparable feeling of rising and of being like a banner
Twenty seconds worth twenty-five years
With feeling noble extremely mobile and very free
With Taking a Walk With You, West Wind, In Love With You, and
Yellow Roses
With pleasure I felt my leg muscles and my brain couldn’t hold
With the Empire State Building the restaurant your wrist bones with
Greenwich Avenue
In nineteen fifty-one with heat humidity a dog pissing with neon
With the feeling that at last
My body had something to do and so did my mind

You sit
At the window. You call
Me, across Paris,
Amsterdam, New
York. Kenneth!
My Soviet
Girlhood. My
Spring, summer
And fall. Do you
Know you have
Missed some of them?
Almost all. I am
Waiting and I
Am fading I
Am fainting I’m
In a degrading state
Of inactivity. A ball
Rolls in the gutter. I have
Two hands to
Stop it. I am
A flower I pick
The vendor his
Clothes getting up
Too early and
What is it makes this rose
Into what is more fragrant than what is not?

I am stunned I am feeling tortured
By “A man of words and not a man of deeds”

I was waiting in a taxicab
It was white letters in white paints it was you
Spring comes, summer, then fall
And winter. We really have missed
All of that, whatever else there was
In those years so sanded by our absence.
I never saw you for as long as half a day

You were crying outside the bus station
And I was crying—
I knew that this really was my life—
I kept thinking of how we were crying
Later, when I was speaking, driving, walking,
Looking at doorways and colors, mysterious entrances
Sometimes I’d be pierced as by a needle
Sometimes be feverish as from a word
Books closed and I’d think
I can’t read this book, I threw away my life
These held on to their lives. I was
Excited by praise from anyone, startled by criticism, always hating it
Traveling around Europe and being excited
It was all in reference to you
And feeling I was not gradually forgetting
What your temples and cheekbones looked like
And always with this secret

Later I thought that what I had done was reasonable
It may have been reasonable
I also thought that I saw what had appealed to me
So much about you, the way you responded
To everything your excitement about
Me, I had never seen that. And the fact
That you were Russian, very mysterious, all that I didn’t know
About you—and you didn’t know
Me, for I was as strange to you as you were to me.
You were like my first trip to France you had
Made no assumptions. I could be
Clearly and Passionately and
Nobly (as you’d said) who I was—at the outer limits of my life
Of my life as my life could be
Ideally. But what about the dark part all this lifted
Me out of? Would my bad moods, my uncertainties, my
Distrust of people I was close to, the
Twisty parts of my ambition, my
Envy, all have gone away? And if
They hadn’t gone, what? For didn’t I need
All the strength you made me feel I had, to deal
With the difficulties of really having you?
Where could we have been? But I saw so many new possibilities
That it made me rather hate reality
Or I think perhaps I already did
I didn’t care about the consequences
Because they weren’t “poetic” weren’t “ideal”

And oh well you said we walk along
Your white dress your blue dress your green
Blouse with sleeves then one without
Sleeves and we are speaking
Of things but not of very much because underneath it
I am raving I am boiling I am afraid
You ask me Kenneth what are you thinking
If I could say
It all then I thought if I could say
Exactly everything and have it still be as beautiful
Billowing over, riding over both our doubts
Some kind of perfection and what did I actually
Say? Marina it’s late. Marina
It’s early. I love you. Or else, What’s this street?
You were the perfection of my life
And I couldn’t have you. That is, I didn’t.
I couldn’t think. I wrote, instead. I would have had
To think hard, to figure everything out
About how I could be with you,
Really, which I couldn’t do
In those moments of permanence we had
As we walked along.

We walk through the park in the sun. It is the end.
You phone me. I send you a telegram. It
Is the end. I keep
Thinking about you, grieving about you. It is the end. I write
Poems about you, to you. They
Are no longer simple. No longer
Are you there to see every day or
Every other or every third or fourth warm day
And now it has been twenty-five years
But those feelings kept orchestrating I mean rehearsing
Rehearsing in my and tuning up
While I was doing a thousand other things, the band
Is ready, I am over fifty years old and there’s no you—
And no me, either, not as I was then,
When it was the Renaissance
Filtered through my nerves and weakness
Of nineteen fifty-four or fifty-three,
When I had you to write to, when I could see you
And it could change.

A palate-cleansing sorbet of trivialities

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Having contemplated a blogging hiatus recently, I briefly put the idea of a hiatus on hiatus. Now I am back to considering a break from it. I suppose it’s not like a store or job where you have to formally shut things down or go on sabbatical – I just follow the ‘inspiration’ for pouring out the contents of my sometimes addled mind as it (inspiration, not the mind) comes (or goes).

I am channeling this energy into an offline project that is moving forward very quickly, and it’s eating every bit of creative marrow I’ve got in my bones. Thus I will potentially write blog posts when I need to unload or unwind. It seems that my most prolific blog writing periods happen when I am thinking too much, overanalyzing and in periods of intense emotional confusion or anguish or something. (Anguish may be too strong a word, but I like it, so I will leave it.) Once free of these things, the feverish urge to blog floats away. Blogging is, in some ways, a kind of existential palate cleanser.

I finished Infinite Jest – finally. As I wrote before, I marveled at its massive depth and breadth but cannot say I liked it. It was laborious to read at times, and I could not wait for it to be finished. I am still reading six other books, though – some great and some for fun (all my ‘hone your psychic abilities’ books are in fun; I have, after all,  to fulfill the psychic destiny one of my exes claimed I had when, while hiking along for many silent hours near Háifoss in Iceland, I randomly blurted out, “Sorbet is a vegan dessert!”. He looked at me as though he’d seen a ghost, and said, “I was just right then thinking about how my grandmother used to make sorbet.”)

I watched the second season of Love on Netflix – it’s easy enough viewing but only remarkable in that “I’ll Be Your Mirror” plays at the end of one episode and made me think back to a moment in time – so very long ago – when I was briefly involved with a Polish guy who made me possibly the most eclectic music tapes ever, and I think he was the first to introduce me to the Velvet Underground (starting with this song). I also recall that he had nothing but critical disdain for the United States – but many years after we had lost contact, I discovered that, after returning to Poland for a number of years, he eventually made a permanent home in, of all places, the American South (that’s a familiar trope, though – the “America Haters” who end up living there quite comfortably in the end).

I’ve cut back immensely on the TV viewing, but there are still things I watch – such as the aforementioned Love, binged in an afternoon; Girls – I’ve hate-watched the whole series, so why would I not complete the circle by watching its final season?; The Americans – it’s one of the best shows ever, and somehow more relevant than ever… and other stuff as well, but it is true that once I broke the cycle (ha!) it seemed quite dull to return to the majority of shows I’d mindlessly been sucking in.

Otherwise, life is work, creative projects, a series of last-minute travel or guests and always hoping for sunlight over the dismally, stormy greyness that pervades today. Nice weather, too, is a palate cleanser.

Letters of the Unliving (Mina Loy)
The present implies presence
thus
unauthorized by the present
these letters are left authorless–
have lost all origin
since the inscribing hand
lost life.

The hoarseness of the past
croaks
from creased leaves
covered with unwritten writing
since death’s erasure
of the writer–
erased the lover

Well-chosen and so ill-relinquished
the husband heartsease–
acme of communion–

made euphonious
our esoteric universe.

Ego’s oasis now’s
the sole companion.

My body and my reason
you left to the drought of your dying:
the longing and the lack
of a racked creature
shouting
to an unanswering hiatus
“reunite us!”

till slyly
patience creeps up on passion
and the elation of youth
dwindles out of season.

Agony
ends in an equal grave
with ecstasy.

An uneasy mist
rises from this calligraphy of recollection
documenting a terror of dementia.

This package of ago
creaks with the horror of echo.

The bloom of love
decoyed
to decay by the finger
of Hazard the swindler–
deathly handler who leaves
no post-mortem mask
but a callous earth.

Posing the extreme enigma
in my Bewilderness
can your face excelling Adonis
have ceased to be
or ever have had existence?

With you no longer the addresser
there is no addressee
to dally with defunct reality.

Can one who still has being
be inexistent?

I am become
dumb
in answer
to your dead language of amor.

Diminuendo
of life’s imposture
implies no possible retrial
by my present self–
my cloud-corpse
beshadowing your shroud.

The one I was with you:
inhumed in chasms.
No creator
reconstrues scar-tissue
to shine as birth-star.

But to my sub-cerebral surprise
at last on blase sorrow
dawns an iota of disgust
for life’s intemperance:

“As once you were”

Withhold your ghostly reference
to the sweet once were we.

Leave me
my final illiteracy
of memory’s languor–

my preference
to drift in lenient coma
an older Ophelia
on Lethe.

Photo (c) 2008 Angela Schmeidel Randall used under Creative Commons license.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Tyrant

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I thought that Tyrant had a lot of promise after its first, and even second, seasons. Even if it did not seem entirely plausible – or even particularly good – there were a lot of paths and themes that could have led the show to greener pastures in its efforts. But I have not really seen the potential come to fruition. There were hints of nuance at times, but now, well into the third season, it feels like revenge has led the mild-mannered pediatrician/heir to the tyrannical first family of the fictional Abuddin, Barry/Bassam, to become just like the rest of his tyrannical predecessors. And that progression just does not feel real.

Something else that does not feel real at all – or ever – is the character played by Jennifer Finnigan (Bassam’s wife, Molly). I’ve always had a problem with Finnigan, who overacts in a way that brings high school drama to mind, and has done so in all her roles. (That is, she always feels like she is doing an acting exercise – here, in Monday Mornings, in The Dead Zone… matters not, she just is not embodying her roles in any kind of believable way). The only thing that felt slightly authentic happened when she and Bassam suffered a huge loss in the most recent season, but her behavior and reactions since then, while probably logical in abject grief, don’t feel genuine coming from Finnigan. I keep trying to see past this or look at her with fresh eyes, but it is just not happening.

I could recount the previous season and the characters and their machinations, but that isn’t really useful here. The gravitas the show could have as a kind of pseudo-commentary on current events (in the middle east or in politics in general) is squandered on a bunch of affairs and sleeping around (really soapy shit, frankly, which does not have a place in this show). You know, it does not really interest me that Bassam and Molly are no longer in love or that Leila (former first lady, Bassam’s sister-in-law and former lover) never loved her husband and now loves some US military officer (Chris Noth, following up his turn on The Good Wife with this, which does not feel particularly different… in fact, none of his roles ever feel different). I don’t care I don’t care I don’t care. These personal tales add nothing to the story and no depth to the characters, so it’s a bit like watching something that IS a soap opera. I doubt that was the original intent/vision for this show.

Overall, it feels (and has always felt) like this show should have aimed for a shorter-term view of its run, preserving limited-run storytelling to ensure quality and focus. But I’m not getting that kind of feeling from this. And any goodwill or excitement the show seems to build ends up getting killed off quickly. (And while I was excited to see The Americans’ brilliant Annet Mahendru end up here, she has been underutilized.)

At this stage I am not sure whether to recommend this or not.

Lunchtable TV Talk: BrainDead

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I was not sure what to make of the show BrainDead. But I am enjoying it immensely as it goes along. But will it be long for this world? If ratings are any indication, no. You can see the fingerprints of Robert and Michelle King (responsible for The Good Wife) all over it. Will that pedigree change anything? The Good Wife suffered from low ratings throughout its entire run. BrainDead shares some casting overlaps, stylistics, and a superb cast overall, just stuffed with talent. I hope it gets a longer chance to prove itself. It’s a timely commentary – and tonic for the times.

Aaron Tveit (from Graceland) is charming and smooth; Mary Elizabeth Winstead – I finally get it. She had been talked about a lot but I could never see the “it” that made people talk about her. Overall I did not care for the English-language remake/version of The Returned, and she was one of the central characters (no one really looked great in that near-train-wreck). Also the formidable Margo Martindale. Brandon J. Dirden, who was one of the FBI agents (Stan’s partner) in the most recent season of The Americans and so much more. And Johnny Ray Gill, the guy who was Sam in the ambitious and rewarding Underground. The great Tony Shalhoub, who needs no further introduction because he is the best. And Danny Pino, the dude who left Law & Order SVU and came to BrainDead from a role in Scandal.

The contentious nature of politics is ratcheted up a few million notches in this dark-comedy drama. A lot of crazed making up facts. Only at least there is an explanation: some bugs – literal insects – are taking over people’s brains. In our ‘real’ world, I guess we don’t have an explanation for the extremes. Politics is rough enough without erasing facts (or losing half your brain to a parasite and suddenly listening to The Cars’ “You Might Think” on repeat).

It’s a hyperbolic mirror of our current situation – Tony Shalhoub’s character wants to name a kiosk after Ronald Reagan (a WWII veteran! Only he’s not – he just feels like one because he made a movie in which he served in WWII) – and Shalhoub’s opponent wants to call the kiosk after Emma Goldman. There is no middle ground and no compromise.

Photo (c) 2009 Neil Conway.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Israeli TV – Beyond Homeland

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Homeland is probably the only well-known reimagining of an original Israeli TV program. Americans (or anyone, really) grabbing onto an existing show – and either bastardizing it (which in television is more like stealing a scene-for-scene replay without adaptation or creativity or even cultural consideration) or redirecting it not for the better but maybe for greater perspective on a similar theme – is nothing new. The UK and US bat their respective shows across the Atlantic to make and remake like so many shuttlecocks, but adaptations from further afield are beginning to inspire. That said, just because you can watch a remake does not mean you should avoid the original. In fact, the original is usually better. The original UK version of The Office lasted only two glorious seasons. When the US made its own version, it started off slowly and tried to make a scene-by-scene copy of the original. Only when the US started to use the concept but not the play-by-play sameness did the US version of The Office find its voice – and become its own show. Both are good shows.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a fan of (most of) Homeland. It is loosely based on Israeli program Hatufim (Prisoners of War), which is considerably more complex than Homeland. I am a bigger fan of Hatufim, even if it suffers from very different production values. It feels like a human story, much more than the edgy thriller Homeland aspires to be.

But Israeli TV has also offered up some adapted gems, such as the little-watched and often frustrating (in a good way) In Treatment. In it, Gabriel Byrne played a therapist and patient. Each night of the week, he would see a patient and on the last night of the week, he would see his own therapist (Dianne Wiest). The Israeli original was called B’tipul and introduced the concept of showing one episode nightly – each one representing one patient’s appointment, i.e. each Monday was the same patient, etc. It only lasted for two seasons, but it was engaging in a way that most shows are not. You would not imagine that a show in which two people sit, talk and engage in what are fairly realistic therapy sessions would draw you in. But somehow they did. Maybe not enough, though, because the show did not last.

Taking inspiration from an Israeli source does not always work – most likely when major American networks get their claws into the idea. The recent attempt to adapt Israeli program, The Gordin Cell, into a spy thriller, Allegiance, did not work at all. In this case, it seems it was less about trying to create a quality show and more about trying to capitalize on the critical praise heaped on The Americans. I assume NBC thought they could jump on the “Russian spy story” bandwagon, but it’s not as simple as that. Just as Mad Men’s popularity and critical acclaim did not transfer automatically to other 1960s period dramas with thin plots, like Pan Am and The Playboy Club, among others. Further evidence that major networks are usually followers, not leaders. Sometimes that works; usually it doesn’t.

Lunchtable TV Talk – Salem: Burn the witch, the witch is dead

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I don’t always love the show Salem but somehow its cast makes a lot of decisions for me. This is probably the case for a lot of TV. I watch things solely because a specific actor or actress is in it. I have written before about how I will watch anything with Kyle Chandler in it (although I admit that there was no way in hell I could watch the ill-fated and ridiculous What About Joan?, a show that is so bland I can barely remember it – thankfully Joan Cusack has gone on to do fantastic comedic drama work in Shameless). And while I don’t, as a rule, go out of my way to watch everything that stars Lucy Lawless (I have never seen Xena Warrior Princess – the role that made her famous), her smaller roles in favorites like Battlestar Galactica, Top of the Lake and Parks and Recreation do make me want to see more of her), seeing that she has turned up in Salem make me more inclined to keep watching.

I am not sure why, but I also like Seth Gabel and Shane West well enough that they draw me back, too.

When you watch as much TV as I do, it’s hard to remember the details season to season and pinpoint why I should continue watching anything. When Salem started up again a couple of weeks ago, I almost felt like I was watching something I had not already seen, although I had already watched a complete season. Which does not say a lot for the show, even if its more horror-inspired, witchcraft-related scenes are vivid. It has an inexplicable draw, which pulled me back in. But at the same time, it does not incite hatred or love, so Salem stands somewhere in the middle ground, in territory about which I have no opinion. The show provides moderate entertainment, but I would not care if it were canceled. I don’t tune in waiting to see what stupid things will happen – it’s not The Following – or to see overwrought pretension play out – it’s not The Slap. It’s also not Mad Men or Shameless or The Americans or some other show I don’t want to live without.

Non-English on English-language TV: No subtitles

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I wrote a bit earlier about the increase in number of subtitled TV shows. Not foreign TV on predominantly English-language screens but the jump in number of shows featuring a mix of languages. Knowing that many Americans don’t have the patience and tolerance for languages or subtitles, this has been an interesting development. It has always existed in shows to some degree but its centrality to certain shows, such as The Americans, has made the concept more prominent.

I thought back, as the latest season of Louie premiered this week, to last season’s arc in which Louie has a brief affair with a Hungarian woman who speaks no English. I wrote about it at the time, and about how no subtitles accompany her speech. I assume this was an intentional device, inviting the viewer to share in Louie’s feelings of being charmed by and having real feelings for someone he cannot understand (as well as the frustration of not being able to understand or communicate complex feelings).

As much as I thought about compiling a list of shows in which more than one language (and subtitling) is used regularly, I also thought about the number of shows that have used the intentional lack of understanding brought about by another language’s use as a device. Any thoughts?

Subtitled entertainment – Language realism on TV

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As a person who often multitasks while “watching” television, I don’t always pay close attention to every moment of action. (That is, I hear all the dialogue but don’t always catch the visuals going with it.) Particularly with some of the dumber shows I watch, such as The Following or The Slap, this does not bother me much. I pay closer attention to shows I enjoy. But then there is a growing middle category: subtitled entertainment.

When I watch a foreign (non-English-language) film, I already know there will be subtitles, and I don’t watch something like that until I am ready to focus. But television is starting to introduce more and more subtitled content. In a sense it’s an era of language realism. In most films and TV of the past, we’d be treated to unrealistic and frankly stupid dialogue in which the actors (English speakers) adopted some kind of vaguely similar regional accent representing the place they were supposed to be from… and very little of the actual local language would appear.

Now, in a further change to content development – language is adding to the realism of many TV shows. The Americans probably leads the way, with a liberal mix of English and Russian. An article has even been written on how the writers decide when to use Russian. Hint: The choice comes down to authenticity. In The Americans, it makes perfect sense. Russians working within a Soviet institution in the United States are not going to speak to each other in English.

Another show where the blend makes perfect sense is the US version of The Bridge. It takes place on the US-Mexico border, and US police and working closely with Mexican police.

It has appeared more and more in various shows recently, such as Allegiance and The Blacklist. Interesting, it appears in shows in which the plot involves a lot of international intrigue. No big surprise. Language realism also appears in shows like Jane the Virgin, in which the grandmother speaks exclusively in Spanish, but understands English perfectly. She always speaks Spanish with her daughter, Xiomara, and granddaughter, Jane, but they almost always answer her in English.

The same kind of mix has appeared in Netflix’s Lilyhammer. An American organized criminal, exiled in witness protection in Lillehammer, Norway, navigates Norwegian language and society – the longer the show goes on, the more it’s conducted in Norwegian, mirroring the main character’s “integration” (which never quite happens fully).

These are all one-hour dramas, and somehow the language realism feels more expected in that setting. But it’s also happening more and more in the half-hour sitcom format, which feels strange in that I can’t imagine people having the attention span required to read the screen. But strangely – they do. The best example of this I can come up with is Welcome to Sweden, in which a fairly typical American guy moves to Stockholm with his Swedish girlfriend. His comical trials feature prominently – often in Swedish (particularly interactions with his in-laws). I did not even think about it when I recommended it to someone who only speaks English. He was going to watch it using my Swedish Netflix account, which did not offer subtitles in English.

It seems remarkable that as foreign language is receiving less emphasis than ever in US schools, language and culture diversity is appearing in a bigger way than ever on America’s TV shows. And it has jumped from just the occasional bit of Spanish, which has arguably been the most common second language on US TV, to reflect a slightly wider range of language diversity.