Life during pandemic, reading and streaming


This has been a summer like no other. There’s been no trips to our summer place in Quebec, no Bastille Day party with dear friends in Michigan. No outings to movie theaters. Instead, I’ve been walking our beautiful lakefront, parks, and historic neighborhoods. I’ve been swimming laps at our recently re-opened health club. (Bliss, even indoors.) Streaming movies and tv series. When I read, I’m in my urban back yard, listening to the chatter of birds, the bells of St. Michael’s. For this, I’m grateful.

Here are the books I recommend: 

Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. By Joyce Carol Oates. This book is more than 800 pages, and I didn’t want it to end. It tells the story of the McClaren family. (The title is from a Walt Whitman poem.) Patriarch Whitey (no joke) is grievously wounded when he interferes in a police attack on a man of color. As Whitey fades, then dies, we come to know his wife and adult children, all of whom have been damaged, in some way, by Whitey’s standards. His wife, whose aching grief is beautifully and deeply explored, eventually becomes involved with an artist of Hispanic heritage. (The daughters think he’s out for their mother’s money.) Son Thom seeks justice for his father’s death but bungles a workplace situation and beats (to death? We don’t know) one of the cops. Daughter Beverly is an unbearable busybody until we’re in her head during Thanksgiving dinner, where, for a late night course she’ll serve her husband divorce papers. Or will she? Her sister Lorene is a high school principal undone by outrageous misdeeds. (I love a train wreck.) A New York Times reviewer said it best: this is a book “in conversation with this moment.” I loved it. 

Hamnet, A Novel of the Plague, by Maggie O’Farrell. Did I need to read a book set during a 16th century plague? Yes, as per my friend Jennifer, who said its ending astonished her. I’m glad I took her advice, though it’s a hard read to describe. Here goes: We are in the household of William Shakespeare, his parents, his siblings, his wife and their three children. We are most often in the company of his wife Agnes, a healer most comfortable in the woods. When their daughter Judith in near death, they send for Shakespeare. By the time he arrives, from London, Judith has recovered but her twin Hamnet has died, age 8. This is the story of the family’s grief, and how that grief made its way into the making of “Hamlet”. It’s an intimate telling of a family, a marriage, the healing arts, twinship. And Jennifer was right: the ending astonishes. 

What Happens at Night, by Peter Cameron. A New York couple gets off a train in a snowy landscape and makes their way to a grand, faded hotel in an unnamed foreign city. The wife is exhausted by the journey and heads to bed; her husband goes to the hotel bar. There, things are weird. Or is it jet lag? Are the patrons there to help or harm? In the morning, the couple sets out for the orphanage, where they’ll meet the baby they’ve come to adopt. But the taxi takes them to the home of a famous healer. The wife, who’s suffering from terminal cancer, declares herself healed in the man’s presence, and won’t leave. Her intransigence presents a problem: both parents must be present to “take possession” of the baby. (Cue the bar patrons.) This is a dreamy novel that took me far, far away. (It’s also very funny.) It’s a testament to Cameron’s skill  that I cared deeply for the man, the woman, and their marriage during their odd journey.

I love me a tv series I can watch every night, ‘cuz there’s no place to go during this pandemic. Among the ones we’ve enjoyed, and highly recommend: Mrs. America, which chronicles the fight for, and against, the Equal Rights Amendment, in the 1970s. What a cast! Cate Blanchett plays Phylis Schlafly, Rose Byrne is Gloria Steinem, Tracy Ullman is Betty Friedan. John Slattery, Sarah Paulson, James Marsden and others bring this era to life. We also loved Unorthodox, the true story of an Orthodox girl who flees an arranged marriage. It’s a present-day period-piece thriller. Dr. Thorne, a 2016 series (three episodes) is a bon bon. Another we liked is Immigration Nation, which is hard to watch, but necessary. Finally, check out Zero Zero Zero. It’s a violent tale about the global drug trade. Each episode was as rich as full-length movie.

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