What to Read and Watch in a Pandemic

While we’ve continued to have work throughout the California Shelter in Place order (our animation business is booming), we’re all looking to be distracted in our free time. And we know it’s the same everywhere, because this time, we had requests to get a new post up on the site—a first for our Spare Time menu. Here are some our recommendations, with a little bit about why we think each one is a fit for the unique March-May 2020 period.

A Long Petal of the Sea
by Isabel Allende

The Guardian review

Isabel Allende’s novels consistently build up a window into the past where you can be transported each time you pick up the book to read a few more chapters. Some writers propel you through their stories, but with her you linger, you want to spend time with the characters and in their lives. This book dives into the Spanish Civil War and fleshes out all the characters so well, it’s hard to know whose story you’ll be following. The research is amazing, so you learn a lot about the 20th century from a different viewpoint, as the action runs from fleeing Franco’s takeover of Spain to Chile and Venezuela. This is a great read right now because it’s transporting and because it is an excellent reminder than humans have been through worse and gone on to thrive.

Blue Moon
by Lee Child

Publishers Weekly review

If you’ve never read a Jack Reacher novel, now’s the time to start. (You can start with the first, Killing Floor.) One reason to get to know Jack Reacher is that Amazon has a TV show in development, so you’ll be streaming it soon enough. (Do not consider the Tom Cruise-starring movies to be in any way representative of the novels.) We’re not going to give away the plot of this story (although the fact that the innocents he decides to help are into a crime syndicate loan shark to cover their adult daughter’s medical bills because her boss didn’t tell anyone he stopped paying the premiums when his tech company started to find funding drying up is perfect for our American era.) Here’s why you might want to read this right now: Jack’s a simple guy, living a simple life, on the move in the US. He owns a toothbrush and an ATM card, and little else. And he tackles each day as it comes, dealing with each problem as it appears, whether it’s Ukrainian or Albanian gangsters, where the second punch needs to land, or when it’s time for his next cup of coffee. It’s oddly soothing.

Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved)
by Kate Bowler

Gates Notes review

If you’re not a reader, then you can listen to Kate Bowler’s podcast or her TED Talk. If you are a reader, then this is a great little book. Bowler comes from a prosperity gospel upbringing, is a professor of divinity at Duke University, and yet her overarching message is that sometimes bad stuff—really bad stuff—just happens. And you can’t fix it, or give it a larger meaning. You just need to step into the unreasonable, undeserved events with as much love as you can muster for the moment and whatever that moment holds. She thinks you can find beauty and love in all of it. She might be someone you want to get to know right about now. She recently wrote about her thoughts on the coronavirus pandemic in the New York Times.

Babylon Berlin
Streaming on Netflix

Vulture review (Season 3)

I don’t know what we can say that the reviewer linked above didn’t say, but here‘s the basic idea. We had a ton of recommendations for this, just didn’t really feel like it, but the pandemic kicked in and suddenly three seasons of subtitled German noir detective in Weimar-era Germany sounded like a really good idea. (Maybe our recent binge of FX’s Fosse/Verdon (now on Hulu) had put Cabaret back in our heads.) The story is complicated, and you flinch every time you find out someone is Jewish, because you know how that’s going to turn out way down the road, but the main characters are compelling, from the darkly can-do Lotte who has the odds stacked against her, but for whom you never feel any pity, and the new-to-Berlin Gereon, who is hiding just about everything, maybe even largely from himself. It’s a fascinating dive into the end of the roaring ’20s, one we’ve seen a lot on American fiction and film, but this is noir, so it’s dark and seamy, and it’s never clear if the good guys are really good or the bad guys really bad. It’s a thoroughly diverting show, and I think the subtitles are a big plus right now, because you must get off your phone and stop reading the news before bedtime.

Nothing to See Here
by Kevin Wilson

NPR review

Kevin Wilson’s work defies genres. He tells contemporary fiction, with one completely unrealistic, almost insane, detail. In this case, two old frenemies get back together when one of them reaches out for help with her two new stepchildren. They have a very unfortunate disability—every once in a while they spontaneously combust, and it’s pretty tough on their senator dad trying to conceal this. You’d think that was the the story, but that’s really just a side note. The real story here is about their new governess and her journey into an unexpected, challenging parent role. So why read it now? Well, it’s sweet and funny, and, if you’re now homeschooling your children while live streaming your corporate life, we figured a little humor about how hard it is to be a parent might be appreciated right now.

The Count of Monte Cristo
by Alexander Dumas

The Guardian review

First, be sure to get an unabridged edition. There’s a really interesting subplot that gets cut out of the abridged version. This is one of the great serials back when there wasn’t any TV. It’s a long, winding plot, with tons of interesting subplots, and was designed to keep you hot to buy the next issue as soon as it came out (HBO didn’t invent this idea). The language is a little stuffy, but complete understandable. It’s a great story of injustice and a long-planned revenge, pulled off beautifully. There’s political corruption, found treasures, lost fortunes, secrets (lots of secrets), murder, and a long, perfect revenge, with scores settled through the next generation, when necessary. This is escapism as its best, perfect for fans of Netflix’s Money Heist or HBO’s Game of Thrones or Westworld. Why this and why now? Corruption never goes out of style, but honestly, it’s just a thrill ride in a totally different world.

Ravensburger Jigsaw Puzzles

The New York Times: How They Make Jigsaw Puzzles

Either you’re into jigsaw puzzles or you’re not, we get it. But they are oddly soothing, because they put you in Jack Reacher mode–you just deal with one color or texture at a time. First the edges, then then the sunflower seeds, then the yellow areas, the red areas, the dark brown soil, the sky and so on. It’s basic, it’s simple, you can solve this problem, and it’s quiet. perfect for doing alone, with a soundtrack, or to welcome a household member who wants to join you for a while. Except cats. Cats and jigsaw puzzles are a bad combo. If you have cats, don’t throw out the full vacuum bag, you may need to go through it later when you discover a piece is missing at the end. We tell you this from experience. If you’re not a regular puzzlerer, word to the wise, try and locate a Ravensburger puzzle. The cardboard is thick, the printing is top-notch, and every piece is a joy to handle. You’ll be handling them for a while, so it matters. Their site is no longer shipping, but Amazon has some, and your local toy store probably does. In San Diego many of the Geppetto’s Toys locations will text you photos, let you make your pick, pre-pay over the phone, and pick up curbside. (They must be essential because mental health is essential, and jigsaws can help. Or buying toys to bribe your kids for another day of meetings is essential. Anyway, we agree with the essential nature of their services. )