What we’re reading, watching, and listening to, Sept. 2020

It’s been a while! I’m trying to make a point of keeping my oar in with stuff that has nothing to do with [gestures vaguely toward steaming heap of current events]. Here’s what I’ve been reading, watching, and listening to that I can recommend to you. 


Moby Dick

If you’ve never read it before, but have filed it away under “classics that people get forced to read because good literature means suffering,” then you are wrong-o. It’s a long book, yes, and some passages are insanely dense. And yeah, one of the overall themes is encountering the ineffability of God. But it’s far more accessible than you may expect, and it’s also hilarious. In the first few chapters, there’s this passage where he just goes off about how much he likes eating chicken. And it’s so exciting! And you will love Queequeg. I really, really want you to read this book, because I don’t want you to die without having met Queequeg. The chapters are fairly short, and I’m giving you permission to skim the prologue and just dive in. Read it aloud with someone!

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.

Here’s another book you may have been avoiding because you expect it to be stodgy and stuffy. It is not. Wharton is a luminous writer, and frequently comes up with descriptions or turns of phrase that make you stop with a gasp and go back to have the pleasure of reading it again. She is absolutely merciless not only to the society she is critiquing and exposing, but also toward her characters — all of them — because she understands them so well. This one is about a poor but lovely young woman who is running out of time to capture a rich husband so she can settle into a comfortable life of glittering wealth at the end of the 18th century in New York. It’s not exactly a pick-me-up — none of Wharton’s work is — but it’s a joy to read and a fascinating look into a very different world full of strangely familiar people. 

Here’s a passage that gives you a little taste of Wharton’s skill:

Lily had abundant energy of her own, but it was restricted by the necessity of adapting herself to her aunt’s habits. She saw that at all costs she must keep Mrs. Peniston’s favour till, as Mrs. Bart would have phrased it, she could stand on her own legs. Lily had no mind for the vagabond life of the poor relation, and to adapt herself to Mrs. Peniston she had, to some degree, to assume that lady’s passive attitude. She had fancied at first that it would be easy to draw her aunt into the whirl of her own activities, but there was a static force in Mrs. Peniston against which her niece’s efforts spent themselves in vain. To attempt to bring her into active relation with life was like tugging at a piece of furniture which has been screwed to the floor. She did not, indeed, expect Lily to remain equally immovable: she had all the American guardian’s indulgence for the volatility of youth.

She had indulgence also for certain other habits of her niece’s. It seemed to her natural that Lily should spend all her money on dress, and she supplemented the girl’s scanty income by occasional “handsome presents” meant to be applied to the same purpose. Lily, who was intensely practical, would have preferred a fixed allowance; but Mrs. Peniston liked the periodical recurrence of gratitude evoked by unexpected cheques, and was perhaps shrewd enough to perceive that such a method of giving kept alive in her niece a salutary sense of dependence.

Bonus book: I’m reading The Book of Three aloud to the little kids (ages 8 and 5) (with older kids pretending they’re not listening in). It’s a bit above the 5-year-old’s head, but she is more or less following along. The eight-year-old is really digging it. The story moves right along, and something exciting happens in each chapter. Taran is exactly as whiny as I remember him (it takes several books for him to move past the “But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!” stage, as I recall); and the style is a little bit earnestly overwrought and corny. We don’t really need eleven different reminders that Gwydion has green-flecked eyes and that his shaggy head is wolf-like. I guess it’s supposed to echo a kind of repetitive epithets in epic poems, but it doesn’t quite come off. However, the lack of subtlety make these books very appealing for the right audience, and are about salutary things like courage, patience, and loyalty, and not being deceived by appearances. If your child likes fairy tales or adventures, this is a good step up to the next level of complexity, with some magic and humor thrown in. Based loosely on Welsh mythology and ancient culture.



We watched this show when it was on TV, and it’s held up pretty well so far on the re-watch (currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu). The hook is that a young mom who was interning to be a lawyer discovers that her real talent is as a psychic, so she works as a consultant to the DA, helping solve crimes by talking to the dead and seeing the invisible. Creepy and fairly intense sometimes, so probably good for high school age and up. I like Patricia Arquette’s character so much, and for some reason her sometimes appallingly wooden acting just makes her more endearing. Her husband is kind of awful, but there is a persuasive chemistry between them, and the depiction of the chaos in family life is pretty good. Good characters in general, good pacing, original stories, and a solidly entertaining show, often funny and very clever. I remember there were one or two episodes that I thought crossed a line of decency, but I forget why, so, beware.


My Name Is Earl

Also a show that’s holding up well since we last saw it when it was originally broadcast. (I think we’re watching it on Hulu right now.) The conceit is that a good-for-nothing trailer park dude wins the lottery, loses the winning ticket, and then against all odds finds it again, so he decides to pay back karma by making amends for all the bad things he’s done in his life. Here’s another show where the main character is one of the weaker actors, but that doesn’t really harm the show. We are showing it to high school age and up. They caught on right away that it doesn’t really matter if karma exists, because Earl’s quest to do good deeds for the people around him is good both for him and for them, and they often have a ripple effect (and he sometimes discovers that his bad deeds hurt more people than he realized). I especially enjoy Joy and Darnell (Jaime Pressly as Joy doesn’t hold back and keep herself halfway cute, the way so many American actresses will do), and his feeble-minded brother Randy is wonderful. The little motel bed scenes at the end are priceless. It’s a very funny show in general. It can be a bit raunchy and of course tasteless and occasionally a bit dark, so not for the easily offended, but contains much more sweetness and mercy than you’re used to seeing on TV.


Bach’s Brandenburg concertos

When I feel bad, which is always, I will often go to Bach for some of what I suppose you’d call “centering.” Going back to the well so you remember that life is worth living and humans beings really do have a divine spark in them. Bach reminds me of Josef Ratzinger: A thoroughly civilized man, by which I mean he has used all of his strength to develop the talents God gave him and to bend what could be flaws into something in service of virtue. Or so it seems to me. But at the same time they are also men’s men, with a kind of unbending ardor that’s almost alarming when you realize the kind of blindingly brilliant force that’s being held in check. Ahem! Anyway, that’s what I hear when I listen to Bach sometimes. I usually go for the more passionate and moody solo pieces for piano or cello, but lately I’m returning to the Brandenburg concertos, which are just a pure feast. You’ll come out feeling like life is good and makes sense. 

On the other hand if you do want to feel terrible, but only for good old fashioned reasons of love and betrayal and impending death and gorgeously exhausted disgust, may I recommend Lucinda Williams’ new album, Good Souls Better Angels?

Williams is 67 years old and sounds . . . .1,067. She sounds like a star that’s starting to collapse, or a misshapen deep sea creature glowing steadily away down in the midnight zone, or a campfire that’s been smothered and doused with water and stirred with a stick, but in the morning there’s still a pale tendril of smoke coming up. Somebody get this lady a hassock so she can put up her feet, and maybe a lozenge so she can put up her larynx. Really jagged, gritty, gnarly stuff, maybe not profound but it really delivers.

Here’s “Big Black Train”

Okay, that’s it for now! How are you spending your days, that you can recommend? 

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13 thoughts on “What we’re reading, watching, and listening to, Sept. 2020”

  1. I love the Prydain Chronicles! Taran is definitely a little whiny and impulsive, but he always wants to do the right thing, and Alexander does a good job of showing how he matures over the series. Reading them in adulthood I am very impressed with the pacing of the narrative–Alexander really knows how to move a story along at a formidable clip that serves his target audience well. And I will admit to quoting both Fflewdurr and Eilonwy at various moments.

  2. I just finished rereading The Martian, about an astronaut who gets left behind on Mars. It’s funny and really interesting even though sci-fi isn’t usually my favorite. I’ve also been rereading a lot of the Jack Aubrey-Stephen Maturin books by Patrick O’Brian (the Master and Commander books); my husband introduced me to them a few years ago, and I love them a lot. I’ve found that it’s hard for me right now to get into new books or focus for a long time on more complicated things (a side effect of depression and anxiety I think) so I keep going back to “comfort” books — that, and a lot of NBA play-off games.

    1. I really enjoyed The Martian. At times it felt like you were reading someone’s chemistry or physics homework, but I found that a refreshing change in an adventure story. My only beef was the repetitive bad language. The author needed to expand his vocabulary–unpack your adjectives, man!

  3. I was recently reminded of the Superscope Storyteller book & cassette tapes we listened to as kids, and this piece of music, which was played as the background to the story about Abraham. Listening to it again lifted my spirits, so I thought I’d leave it here for you.

  4. Gee, you make me feel like I should try rereading Moby Dick. My 7th grade teacher made two of us read it and I was probably the wrong age for it. The only parts I liked were the bits where they were cutting up the whales. I swore I’d never read it again, but maybe there were good parts that went over my head.

    1. 7th grade is absolutely way too young for reading Moby Dick! That is insane to me. I read it in college and appreciated it, although I followed it up with an individual directed readings class on redemptive suffering because it seemed so bleak to me.

  5. I just finished Susanna Clarke’s new novel, Piranesi. It’s weird and haunting and just lovely, ultimately about finding meaning and joy in every part of creation. Also, it’s COMPLETELY different from her other, also excellent, novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

    Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus was romantic and dreamy. How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe was unconventional and meta and had lots to say about father/son relationships, but it didn’t quite grab me. Tim Powers’s Three Days to Never was so fun and so good.

  6. Early on in lockdown we watched Ozark. It reminds me a little of early Sopranos. We never saw the twist coming in the final episode. It’s been a long time since we’ve enjoyed a series that much. We were sad it ended. Currently, on Sunday nights we’ve been watching the documentary series on the NXIVM cult called The Vow. Fascinating! There are a couple of slow episodes, but overall, we’ve been enjoying it.

    I’m not reading much of anything, but last night I read Atrahasis, Gilgamesh, and the Noah flood stories so I could help my concrete thinker son with his religion homework. I’d never heard of Atrahasis before but I did have plenty to say about it last night. If you were to ask me to expound on it today, I’d have to reread it. And Gilgamesh. Probably Noah too. 🙂

  7. In, I think, 1972, when I was working out in the islands (Yap Island, in case you are interested), I had read all the novels and things I had brought with me. I was there for a three-month contract. I visited a fellow ex-patriate who was working as an English teacher in the local high school, and asking him if he had anything I might like to read.

    “Have you read Moby Dick> ” he asked. “Moby Dick? But that’s just a kid’s book!”

    He started in: “Call me Ishmael…” – and proceeded to recite the whole first page from memory. Gave me a copy and told me to shut up, go away, and not come back until I had read it.

    I have read it three more times since – once out loud at table to my family.

    Go and read it!

  8. I’m sorry you feel bad all of the time! I have to change meds when that happens. And no alcohol- major downer alert! I am considering reading Dune although I don’t know if I need another space sci-fi drama in my life!

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