What we’re watching, reading, listening to: Exploring Music, Lady Gaga, The Repair Shop, Unstable Felicity, etc.

I’ve been doing a lot more watching and listening than reading, these days. Working on it!

What are we watching?

The Repair Shop This is a BBC show, five seasons, now streaming on Netflix. A crew of British restoration experts team up to repair and restore cherished items people bring to them. You see the owners come in and give a short explanation about why the accordion or piano bench or whatever means so much to them, and then you see highlights of the various experts disassembling, problem-solving, hunting for materials, and carefully restoring the items, and then the owner comes back to the shop and sees the item made new again. 

We’ve only seen a few episodes of this, and I gather some of the episodes have spectacular discoveries and surprises; but many of them are just straight forward repair jobs.

There are two elements that make this show so gratifying. One is watching people doing what they were meant to do in life, which is something I always enjoy. The restorers clearly get so much true joy out of practicing their craft. I enjoy this aspect of it, seeing people following their vocation, even more than seeing the actual work they do; although it’s also fascinating and emotionally restorative to see shabby, broken, neglected things put to rights again. 

The second element is the “reunion” at the end, when the owner has something precious restored to them. In one episode, a woman brought in a clock made by her father, who had lost his vision. She remembered that the clock used to chime, but she couldn’t quite remember the tune. The restorers made the clock work again, and somehow reconstructed the music it played, so the woman heard the tune again for the first time in decades. These are British people, so they are not extremely effusive and sentimental about it, and you don’t get that “eeek, I’m not sure I should be watching this intense personal moment” feeling. They keep it pretty understated.

But it’s a restorative show in more ways than one, and it’s especially gratifying in late 2020 to watch  skilled people doing worthwhile things for the purpose of making other people happy. 

We’re also devouring The Mandalorian with the whole family, and The Crown for just me and Damien. Both excellent with great use of music; more on those in some other post. Oh, and. GILLIAN ANDERSON AS MARGARET THATCHER. Hot damn. If you ever wondered to yourself, “Is X Files actually a good TV show or not?” just think about what they did to Gillian Anderson for so many years, and you will have your answer. 

What am I reading?

Unstable Felicity

Like I said, I’m a terrible person and hardly read anymore. I know I can make my phone stop giving me weekly reports about how much my screen time has increased over the last week, but I feel like I deserve it. It’s never good news.

I have started Cat Hodge’s (yes, Cat Hodge of Darwin Catholic) new novella, and I love it so far. Very easy to read, light but literate, engaging, and promising, and the only reason I put it down is because I’m terrible and, as mentioned, don’t read anything. The premise is: If you described the protagonist’s life, it would sound exactly like one of those cheesy Hallmark Christmas movies. But when you’re actually living through it, it’s neither tidy nor adorable, but actually kind of Shakespearean, in a King Lear way.

Here’s the official blurb: 

Jill O’Leary’s December has all the hallmarks of a feel-good holiday special. She’s a successful Los Angeles career woman summoned home to small town Ohio to save the family business. There, she’ll have to navigate a White Elephant gift exchange, decorate the tree, and meet not one but two tall dark handsome strangers.
 
But it will take a miracle to make this Christmas merry and bright. Jill’s baggage is waiting for her at home: Regina, the demanding mother she hasn’t talked to since her father’s funeral four months ago; Reagan and Del, her sisters with their own agendas; Garrett French, a local real-estate mogul trying to snap up her family’s inn; and Heath Albany, the married ex-boyfriend who’s suspiciously eager to reconcile with her. 
 
Jill is determined to get in, fix the family finances by herself, and get back to the big city as soon as possible. But keeping her mother from turning Christmas into a tragedy proves more drama than she can handle on her own. It’s going to take her conniving sisters, the division of an empire, sudden blindness, a journey through a pitiless storm, and an unlikely hero to give this tragicomic tale a happy ending. 
 
When you cross a conventional Christmas plot with Shakespeare’s King Lear, you get Unstable Felicity.
Available in Kindle or paperback, with a cover by the talented John Herreid, of The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning With a Chainsaw fame. 
 

What are we listening to?

I recently discovered I can use iHeart Radio on our TV, which means when we go screen free from 7:00 – 9:00 (which we do only sporadically), I can play Exploring Music with Bill McGlaughlin. So I guess that’s my first recommendation. 

McGlaughlin is a composer and conductor with a public radio show that gently and engagingly helps the listener listen better. Each hour-long show has a theme, and he sits at his piano and picks out little bits of whatever recording he’s about to play for you. 

Here’s a representative excerpt from an episode on Schubert. The graphics are pretty cheesy, as it’s meant to be audio only. 

His delight in the music is very evident, and it’s contagious. If you’re looking for a painless way to get your family more connected with classical music, this is a great way. His voice is very pleasant and cozy, too. 

The other thing I’m listening to is, uh, “Sinner’s Prayer” by Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga is so annoying. She has such a wonderful voice and such terrible taste. But this song is pure stupid fun. My kid told me she had made a country album (Joanne), and it turned out to be not really that at all, but it’s . . . something. This particular song is sort of a spaghetti western love song, I guess? Anyway it’s stuck in my head.

Now it can be stuck in yours, too.

***
Okay, that’s it! What are you watching, reading, and listening to that you can recommend? 

6 animated kid’s shows I’ll sit and watch myself

Here are six animated shows my kids are always happy to watch. Not only do I not object, I’ll sit and watch it with them, because they’re genuinely entertaining, and the creators knew what they were about. We get our TV through DVDs, or by streaming Netflix or Amazon Prime.

Shaun the Sheep

Shaun the Sheep belongs in a category with The Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers, and the heyday of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Miraculously evocative stop-motion animation by Aardman, the folks who made Wallace and Gromit, it serves up the clever and ridiculous adventures of a band of thrill-seeking, British sheep who never get tired of outwitting (and sometimes colluding with) poor Bitzer, the faithful, scrupulous working dog, who, with his knit cap, his terry cloth wristband, and his everlasting to-do list, manages the farm and fruitlessly strives to please the irascible farmer. There’s always a mild rebellion afoot, mainly consisting in eating all the pastries, ordering pizza, and putting underwear on their head.

In this episode, Bitzer loses control of a bottle of glue:

There’s plenty of pure slapstick (complete with special theme music for those times when you’re getting beat up by pigs, and those times when you’re balancing on top of a runaway rolling object) and well-conceived stock characters (the winsome lamb Timmy; the ponderously ravenous Shirley; the trio of malicious pigs; the dreaded visiting niece; some unnervingly canny crows, and the occasional curious alien); but the show also allows itself some fleeting peeks into the characters’ interior lives. In one animated filler between episodes, Bitzer in human mode throws a stick, and then, becoming pure dog, bounds after it. And then he tries to take it away from himself, but growls and resists, because he is a dog. Brilliant, impeccably crafted, immensely satisfying. No words, but the sheep bleat, Bitzer whimpers and barks, and the farmer mumbles, rants, and hollers their way through unmistakable dialogue.

Four seasons, originally on CBBC, available on Amazon Prime.

***

Puffin Rock

Just a little lullabye of a show. There’s a tiny paradise on Puffin Rock, a wild island off the coast of Ireland, where the puffins, little Oona and her baby brother Baba, explore their little world, make friends, have some mild adventures, and always end up safe and happy. Here’s a taste:

Narrated by the cozy, corduroy voice of Chris O’Dowd (Roy of The IT Crowd), the show is pretty and atmospheric, giving you the sense you’ve put your head out the window to feel the breeze and smell the salt air. Gentle and lovely, with child voice acting that doesn’t grate or irritate.

Two seasons, 26 episodes, available for streaming on Netflix.

***

Ronja the Robber’s Daughter

Amazon Prime original series. We’ve seen the first two episodes of this new Studio Ghibli anime series (released January 2017), set in Medieval Scandanavia(ish), based on a 1981 book by Pippi Longstocking author Astrid Lindgren, and directed by Goro(son of Hayao) Miyazaki, narrated by Gillian Anderson.

I’m into it so far, with some reservations. Unlike my kids, I’m not a huge anime fan, but the ickier aspects (some sentimentality around children, weird pacing, sometimes jerkily animated facial expressions) aren’t overwhelming in this show. The animation is mixed, sometimes blocky, sometimes brilliant; some of the watercolored scenes are gorgeously atmospheric, and the sound effects go a long way to creating an arresting, believable world. It’s offbeat and funny enough that I’m invested in watching the rest of the series.

I just about died watching the robber and his band of toothless, muscled henchmen trying to coax their adored baby girl to eat her cereal; and I got a real chill from the harpies swirling around the castle while the mother labors to give birth to Ronja. Here’s that scene (not in English, though, sorry! The Netflix series is dubbed into English):

The mother is a huge pain in the neck, and I hope she gets taken down a few pegs, or just fades out of the story. Looking forward to getting back to this show.

***

Pingu

Sweet and hilarious adventures of a penguin named Pingu, his baby sister Pinga, his erratic friend the seal, his affectionate but stodgy father, and his loving but harried penguin mother. The show is done in appealingly fingerprinty claymation, and the dialogue is inspired gibberish. Pingu acts exactly like every little boy I’ve ever met. He has spectacular ideas that backfire on him; he tries to evade his pesky little sister, but deep down he loves her passionately; and when he’s bored, he just staggers around making noise and hitting stuff.

He does dumb stuff and then repents, and his parents bug out and then forgive him. Real, warm family and community relationships played out deftly without sentimentality. Entertaining and endearing.

160 five-minute episodes (1986 to 2000), originally from Switzerland, now available on Amazon Prime

***

Batman: The Animated Series

A lovingly-designed homage to 1940’s noir, a complete feast for the eyes, with real suspense and actual stories. The creators of this series put together a “writer’s bible”, including guidelines like “The humor in our version of Batman should arise naturally from the larger than life characters and never tongue-in-cheek campiness … Dry lines in tough situations and occasional comments about the outlandishness of costumed villains is certainly within the realistic context of our vision of Batman.” And the Joker makes jokes, but he is scary.

No Robin, no partnering with the police, no origin stories. Batman is grim and strong, and doesn’t lean too much on gadgets. When it’s funny, it’s really pretty funny (as in “Almost Got ‘Im”). Each episode has three acts, with a set-up, story development and increased tension, and then climax and resolution. Did I mention how it looks? It looks so good. I’ll share the opening sequence, because it’s a work of love and captures the show so well.

This show, true to its style, includes truly sinister people, nail-biters and cliff hangers, and female characters in skin-tight clothes, so caveat viewer. If you watch any animated Batman, let it be this one.

Five seasons, (1992-1995), now available on Amazon Prime

***

Sarah and Duck

This British animated show is made by people who really, really remember what it’s like to be a six-year-old. The matter-of-fact Sarah, a polite problem-solver, is accompanied by her slightly less patient friend, Duck, as they navigate adventures like becoming queen of the ducks, cheering up friends, going for a ride on the sea bus, and baking with ingredients that talk back.

The simple, big-headed characters came straight off your kid’s artwork on his fridge; and the plot lines and characters will ring true to anyone who’s listened to an imaginative kid tell a story. Weird and charming, devoid of sassiness and preching, it gives a very relatable model of considerate friendship. In this clip, Sarah and Duck fill in for the Bread Man:

Character include the daft scarf lady and her long-suffering handbag, a family of squeaky, cheerful shallots, and the moon. The music is also top notch.

Two seasons, originally on CBeebies, available for streaming on Netflix.

***

Next time: Shows that I will watch with half an eyeball while I’m working, and that I won’t mind too much if my kids watch.

 

 

I’m reading, I’m watching, I’m listening to . . .

I’m reading . . . 

Havana Bay by Martin Cruz Smith.  

havana bay

Fourth in the Arkady Renko series that began with the brilliant Gorky Park, about which I said this:

Maybe because it was so popular when it came out, or maybe because the author’s name is so snazzy, I somehow assumed that it was a trashy beach book, or some kind of dated, two-bit thriller.  Boy, was I wrong.  This is the real deal — real literature, a genuinely great novel.  Almost Dostoevskian at times.

The characters are so real.  Their sorrows and loves are so real.  The places are so real.  My memories of passages I read are as strong as memories of places I’ve actually, physically visited.  The plot is insanely complicated, but it’s never outside the realm of what might, actually possibly happen to someone who is as unlucky, as talented, as driven, and as flawed, and as Russian as Moscow homicide investigator Arkady Renko.

Havana Bay is not quite on the same level as Gorky Park (so far Polar Star comes closest. I can’t remember the last time I felt so cold while reading a book), and I don’t think I’m just imagining it when the plot feels a little wobbly; but it’s still good writing. I came across this passage last night:

Bugai had kept retreating and Arkady had kept advancing until he stepped on a pencil that broke with a sharp crack. The vice consul jumped and looked not as cool as a jellyfish anymore, more like an egg yolk at the sight of a fork. His nervousness reminded Arkady that he had killed a man; whether in self-defense or not, killing someone was a violent act and not likely to attract new friends.

This tone of melanchony wiseassery is pretty typical. Love that: like an egg yolk at the sight of a fork. Ha.

***

I’m watching . . . 

The IT Crowd. If you don’t like very broad British comedy, then avert your eyes. It’s a spoof of the nerdliest nerds navigating office life and trying to have a social life.Northanger Abbey it ain’t. There is a lot of naughty language, poo jokes, sex  jokes, screaming, etc. Just funny enough, sometimes hilarious. Honestly, it’s not something I’d sit and watch avidly, but it’s pretty good for when you’re blitzed and just want something making amusing noises while you sip your glass of Chateau de There There, The Kids Are In Bed Now. And I kind of love the opening credits:

Bonus: Roy, the tall Irish doofus, also does the voice of the narrator for Puffin Rock. It’s a comforting brown corduroy kind of voice, just right.

***

I’m listening to . . .

Son Little’s self-titled new album, which my dear husband bought for me as a surprise. I’m listening to it now.

Here’s “Lay Down,” which I could listen to on a loop all day (video is PG):

On the label’s website, it says, “For Son Little, studio time is a joy, where every good idea leads to four more.”
I’ve mentioned Son Little before. The many-layered production of these songs is a delight, but the real pleasure is in his voice, where there is both brass and velvet and deep dark earth. Best new music I’ve heard in years and years.

House of Cards – Which version hits harder?

For the first time I can remember ever, I am looking forward to Valentine’s Day.  Netflix will be releasing season two of House of Cards, hooray!  I didn’t like every single thing about this series, but it was always interesting, and sometimes brilliant. It was juicy. I liked it.

After we binge-watched season one, we went ahead and found the original, British version, and enjoyed that, too — although, predictably, in a different way.  James Fallows at The Atlantic (who hastens to reassure us that he’s “not a subscriber to the ‘Oh, the Brits do it all so much more suavely’ school”) thinks that the British version edges out the American one:

There are lots of tough breaks in Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards, but in the end there is a kind of jauntiness to it. People kill themselves; politicians lie and traduce; no one can be trusted — and still, somewhere deep it has a kind of American optimism. That’s us (and me). USA! USA!

It’s different in the UK version. Richardson’s Francis Urquhart reminds us that his is the nation whose imagination produced Iago, and Uriah Heep, and Kingsley Amis’s “Lucky Jim” Dixon. This comedy here is truly cruel — and, one layer down, even bleaker and more squalid than it seems at first. It’s like the contrast between Rickey Gervais in the original UK version of The Office and Steve Carell in the knock-off role. Steve Carell is ultimately lovable; Gervais, not. Michael Dobbs, whose novel was the inspiration for both series, has told the BBC that the U.S. version was “much darker” than the British original. He is wrong — or cynically sarcastic, like Urquhart himself.

I’m not so sure “optimism” is the right word for the American version; and I think I agree with Michael Dobbs that the American version is darker.

The British version is most certainly more naked.

You know how British TV and movies are allowed to use actors who have real faces like real human beings, rather than the uniformly plasticized sparkle people that populate American casts.  Oh, that dry British hair! Oh, those British pores! The story is presented the same way:  one vile action after another, right there on screen.  You are fairly sure that when Francis speaks directly to the camera, he means every word he says.  Maybe I’m just too dumb to catch on (and maybe I’m missing some nuance, not knowing anything about British politics) but the British version often appeared strangely artless to me, with its constant replaying of the scream “Daddyyyyyyy!”  On the other hand, when you watch the final episode, you see that the whole series has been building, with very British patience and reserve, to . . . well, the final episode. You gotta watch it.

The American version

has more ambiguity — characters are more in flux, and their motivations are more confused — which leaves the viewer in a much more precarious place.  When Francis speaks to us, we are really not sure that he’s telling us, or even himself, the truth.  At the same time, the show aims for a level of purely entertaining stylization, signaled with the blood-and-thunder opening sequence and the bombastic theme music. It is clearly setting out to relish every last sleek, cynical second, and occasionally seems a little taken aback (yes, the show itself. Look, I watch TV when I’m tired) when it dips into true horror — which makes those moments all the more horrible. Oh, I was so glad when that awful little reporter suddenly decided to clean up her apartment. That was good.

Anyway, very interesting stuff, right up my alley.  Have you seen both? What do you think?