Things we did in the pandemic: episode 1

Upfront disclaimer: This is quite long. Oh well!

It’s been two weeks since my work asked us to start working from home, and it’s taken me this long to get into a headspace where I can start to think about writing anything. The last fortnight has been consumed with iterations of anxiety, uncertainty, and sometimes downright fear: about the stocks of food in my house, about how my employers can keep a book subscription business going remotely, about not seeing my friends, or boyfriend, for God knows how long (he lives across town and I wasn’t with him when the lockdown announcement happened; we can Zoom and FaceTime, but that’s it. I could try to hop on a train, I suppose, but I also count as an immunosuppressed person—type I diabetes, baybee—and that’s almost certainly not a good idea.)

But nothing lasts forever—no state of mind, no public health crisis—and now I can write a little, so I wanted to share what I’ve been consuming recently, in this temporarily topsy-turvy world. Mostly books, because obviously, but some movies, too.

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Last weekend, when we were all working from home but the lockdown hadn’t yet hit, I was halfway through The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel. It took me a full week to read it; it’s very long (about 900 pages), and not having a daily commute oddly meant that I had less built-in reading time, plus it was incredibly difficult to focus properly for the first few days (and still is. Twitter, during a crisis of any kind, is a time-and energy-sink like no other.) Once I got into the rhythm of it, though, it was as glorious as I remembered the other two Cromwell books being: just as sharply and minutely observed, just as steeped in the tactile details of the period (no one writes casually about Tudor food like Mantel), just as shockingly funny (her Cromwell has a dry, sometimes capricious wit that Austen might have been proud of), just as attuned to weather and temperature, the powerful weight of religious conviction, the rapidity with which the mood of a room can turn. It’s heartbreakingly good; even as you hurtle towards the end, queasily aware of your A-Level history and knowing what has to happen, you find yourself hoping Mantel has discovered some evidence to the contrary. The final two pages are so stunningly written that I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them on English literature and creative writing courses up and down the country in a decade’s time. It’s a magnificent piece of work. I cannot believe that anything else on the Women’s Prize longlist even approaches it, and will also be hoping for a Booker Prize hat trick.

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After that, something completely different: C Pam Zhang‘s forthcoming debut novel, How Much of These Hills is Gold. (God knows what will happen to the April/May publishing schedule. I think Zhang’s book was meant to be Virago’s lead debut for the spring, which is doubly devastating if it has to be pushed back.) Set during the California Gold Rush of the 1860s, it follows Lucy and Sam, two Chinese-American orphans who set out into the wilderness to find an appropriate place for the burial of their Ba. From this description, you could be forgiven for thinking that the bulk of the book comprises their odyssey, but that’s not quite how it works; their travels together end a quarter of the way through, and the rest of the book consists of an extended flashback narrated by Ba’s corpse (hat-tip, William Faulkner, for all of this), then a flash-forward in time showing Lucy’s life in the town of Sweetwater, and what happens when fiercely independent Sam returns from five years of wandering and shakes things up. It’s an oddly weighted structure, not helped by the persistent present-tense narration; I’m more willing than a lot of people to give the present tense a chance, particularly in historical novels (cf. Mantel), but it also has the danger of imparting a kind of bland weightlessness to events, which is the effect it tends to have in Zhang’s novel. Most of the book feels glassy, not quite there, which may be because the structure prevents us from ever seeing Lucy or Sam bedding down into any one location. Sam’s gender-queerness is intelligently portrayed, particularly as it’s frequently juxtaposed with their beauty, but Zhang doesn’t ever seem able to commit to a pronoun, so you get sentences like “Sam jumps off Sam’s horse”, which is too consistently awkward to be passed off as stylistic. Worthwhile, certainly, but not quite the sum of its parts.

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Yesterday, I finished Olivia Laing‘s new essay collection, Funny Weather: Art In An Emergency. (Another scheduled April release, and a bigger name; what will become of these books?!) It’s one of those round-ups you get once an author has enough columns in various publications to their name; the second section is two years’ worth of short monthly pieces for Frieze magazine, for example. Luckily, unlike most collections of this type, the quality is consistently good, and excellent in places. I enjoy Laing’s writing a good deal more in long form than in short, so her Frieze pieces struck me as occasionally, unavoidably, glib, but an earlier section—biographical and creative appraisals of various 20th-century artists—was a delight. No one else writes about artists with such infectious verve; I now desperately want to read both Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature and David Wojnarowicz’s Close To the Knives, to seek out Agnes Martin’s paintings, to look up Sargy Mann. Her profiles of four creative women—Hilary Mantel (hey!), Ali Smith, Sarah Lucas and Chantal Joffe—reveal her fascination with artistic process and an artist’s psychology: why do writers, or painters, or filmmakers, or sculptors, work the way they do and on the things they do? There’s also a marvelous three-page essay (which I photographed and posted in full on Twitter, because it’s so good) about Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s idea of “paranoid reading” versus “reparative reading”: paranoid reading is what a lot of us are doing right now, desperate semi-mindless thumb-ache-inducing scrolling in order to gather the minutest pieces of data about a given situation. Sedgwick suggests an alternative paradigm, one in which the mere revelation of Bad Stuff Happening isn’t prioritized over attempts to process it or make it constructive or beautiful. Much harder to define, this reparative reading, but a really useful idea, at least for me, in the middle of this endless breaking news about Bad Stuff.

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I’m now listening to Michelle Obama‘s memoir, Becoming, which I got from Audible primarily because every woman of a certain age seems to love it and it seemed like something I should be, dutifully, aware of. Guess what? It’s genuinely great so far. She’s warm, gently funny, reflective, generous in her sharing of her family history. The first chapter culminates in an anecdote about her first piano recital at the age of five—she gets stuck because she can’t find Middle C on a piano with a perfect keyboard, having learned to identify it on her great-aunt’s instrument because it’s the key with a big chunk chipped out of it. Really, really enjoyable and lovely; highly recommend if you’re feeling a bit jangly because of all the news.


On to other media: Netflix is great and all (especially now that they’ve got most of Miyazaki’s films on there), but movies are my most infantile medium. The way some people demand only soothing or cosy or already-familiar books, I tend to demand the same of films. I like a franchise; open-mindedness and experimentation is a characteristic of my literary intake, not my cinematic one. I reckon we all need at least one artistic medium that we utilize purely for comfort. Therefore, in these times of turmoil: I bought a Disney+ subscription. It has been the greatest decision.

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My housemate Joe and I watched Coco as our first foray. I’d seen it once before, on Boxing Day two years ago, and figured my weepy response might just have been a result of being in holiday mode. Nope; it is a genuinely emotionally devastating film. It’s also wonderful and heartwarming, visually stunning, astonishingly dark in places, and very funny. It occurs to me that it doesn’t appear to have had much of a cultural afterlife (hah, afterlife): three years after its release, there’s no merchandise or memes or any of the stuff that, e.g., Frozen or Moana or even Inside Out have had. Why? What made this film sink (or sink-ish)? It can’t be because it’s about Mexican culture, entirely voice-acted by Hispanic/Latinx talent and set on the Day of the Dead, surely? (Apparently it is the highest grossing film of all time in Mexico, which is both lovely and heartbreaking: imagine being so starved for representation of your culture that it takes a cartoon to show you yourself.) Anyway, it’s fantastic; whoever wrote it has an incredibly light touch that only increases the emotional impact of each plot twist. Good, good stuff.

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We went for a double bill last night, because it was a Friday: our first screening was of Zootropolis (also released as Zootopia), which I’d never seen. God knows if I was just emotionally unstable and also half a bottle of wine down, but it struck me as utterly hilarious; the sloths in the DMV nearly had me weeping from laughter. The central conceit also allows for consistently brilliant visual gags, mostly to do with scale: the pneumatic commute tubes that deposit tiny, be-suited hamster bankers at their stop, a fox carrying a popsicle twice his size from a shop run by elephants, the fact that terrifying mafia boss Mr. Big is a pygmy shrew. I think this is actually a stronger element of the film than its police-procedural plot and the barely-sub-text about racism and prejudice; that stuff works well enough, but it doesn’t feel especially sophisticated. Watching a scene of a wedding reception, complete with exuberant dancing, before the camera pulls back to reveal that the whole thing is taking place on a tabletop (ringed by bodyguards who are polar bears)? Never not funny.

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For some reason, after we’d had one bottle of wine and finished Zootropolis, we decided to watch Hercules, which was made in 1997 and looks like it. Nevertheless, it’s also got some excellent writing, mostly given to Hades and Meg, both of whom are brilliant, bone-dry sarcasm merchants. It’s especially interesting to rewatch Disney films from this era because things that went right over my head are now smacking me in the face: the way in which Hades is coded both queer and Jewish, for example, or the fact that Meg is so clearly a 1940s comedic heroine, a His Girl Friday for the Bronze Age. The plot itself, of course, takes…liberties…with classical mythology, and the historically rape-y vibes of Zeus, the centaur Chiron and the satyr Philoctetes (who wasn’t a satyr) are either brushed under the rug or erased entirely. On the other hand, this is also the movie that gave us the Greek chorus of gospel singers, which is probably the best analogy in any Disney movie ever, not least because their music is SO. GOOD. (Another fun thing: when the chorus is narrating, as opposed to their actual musical numbers, the style bears a strong resemblance to operatic recitative. I copped on to it in the section that starts “Young Herc was mortal now”, but it’s there all the way through.) The introduction of the characters Pain and Panic is regrettable, and I still don’t understand why Hera is portrayed as hot-pink and sparkly instead of her more traditional characterization as a jealous bitch (with, as far as I know, standard human skin tone), but it’s fun and diverting, the scary bits are surprisingly scary, and the songs are surprisingly good.

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Oh, and I’ve also decided to watch all the way through the Star Wars movies in chronological order, which meant I had to start with Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Which is… not a very good movie. Liam Neeson is sexy in it because Liam Neeson is sexy in everything and at all times, but the rest of it is pretty pants. The pacing is weird, it takes an absolute age to get going, Darth Maul is barely in it (though his triple duel with Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor at the end is excellently choreographed), Natalie Portman at eighteen really cannot act, and am I the only person who kept looking at every scene Shmi Skywalker was in and thinking, “More of this! Pay more attention to Shmi!” Her emotional experience before the film has been fairly devastating and things only get harder, and Qui-Gon Jinn just… never asks her any questions except for who Anakin’s dad is, and the film doesn’t seem to care? Also, Jar Jar Binks sucks. I know it’s fashionable to hate on him, but the fact is that it is also correct to hate on him, for he is the worst. The only redeeming feature of the film is Queen Amidala’s hair and wardrobe. Bring me this gown at once:

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What are you watching, reading, listening to, to stay sane?

24 thoughts on “Things we did in the pandemic: episode 1

  1. I really feel for authors releasing novels right now. I’m pretty sure Virago are pushing forward with the April publication of How Much of These Hills Is Gold, because I have an e-copy from NetGalley and they’ve sent out two emails so far urging readers to review it, which I’ve never had before and which seem increasingly panicky. I’m sorry to hear that you were a bit underwhelmed by the book, especially as you pick up on a couple of things that generally annoy me (present tense without a good reason and awkward (lack of/overuse of) pronouns).

    I’ve read more than half of the Women’s Prize longlist now, and I’m finding it generally underwhelming (Girl Woman Other remains the only novel to really impress me) so I’m pretty sure I’ll feel the same way about The Mirror and the Light when I get round to it.

    I feel exactly the same way about movies. I’ll probably have to get Disney+ …

    • That was badly worded – I mean I’ll think that Mirror is loads better than the rest of the list, not that it’s equally underwhelming!

    • Gosh, yes, that does sound pretty panicky. They must be tearing their hair out! And how unfortunate that my opinion probably won’t help them much… I’m still going to send it out, I think it’s an interesting take on a not-so-well-known period of history, but it’s definitely not in my top tier.

      Perversely I’m rather pleased to hear that you’re finding the Women’s Prize longlist a bit meh, because I’ve been totally unable to find the motivation to read it. The best I’ve managed is about an hour’s worth of the audiobook of Red At the Bone, which was all right but still seemed awfully slow going; I’ve abandoned it now because I just cannot be bothered. The Mirror and the Light just feels like it stands in a class of its own!

      Disney+ is bloody brilliant. All of Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and National Geographic (the Staten Island of those franchises, clearly) = 90% of what I want to watch at any given time anyway!

      • I’ve so far only found one book through the Women’s Prize longlist that I thought was good and I wouldn’t have read otherwise – How We Disappeared – and it’s definitely not Mantel territory. However, I’m still enjoying reading along with the other bloggers despite the meh books 🙂

        Right, I’m sold on Disney+ !

  2. Coco and Zootropolis are wonderful. If you haven’t seen the Depiscable Me series, I highly recommend. And Trolls. Trolls is joyous. Kids movies are the only thing I have seen in the cinema for almost 10 years 🤣

    • Oh, I do love Despicable Me! I think all the Dreamworks stuff is on Netflix, I remember watching one of them there (and also How To Train Your Dragon, which was thoroughly delightful!)

  3. Opposite to so many of my friends, I’m actually finding it much easier to both read and write at the moment. We are in complete lockdown where I live and so my days have taken on a very rigid routine and because of my Aspergers that suits me very well. I haven’t yet tried the Mantel, much as I wish to simply because it’s too big for my reading stand. I have quite a backlog of books to review for net galley so when I got through those then I’ll probably buy myself a new copy. The other thing that I’m doing is watching theatre productions. We just had the RSC’s 2015 Love’s Labour’s Lost, which even though it has a very downbeat ending is joyous in so many other respects. When NTLive at Home gets up and running on Thursday that’s going to be a regular Saturday afternoon treat.

    • Oh, NT Live at Home sounds like an amazing resource! I know the Met is also re-broadcasting operas from their archive, which is brilliant and much more highbrow than Disney+ (although I had a subscription to their video and audio archives for two years—good Christmas present—so have seen a fair number of them).

      I would definitely advise caution, in a physical sense, with the Mantel; I don’t have a reading stand, and mostly read it on the sofa, but found my hands and wrists really started to ache after a while.

  4. It takes a bit of getting used to, doesn’t it? I am in isolation working from home as I’m type 2, and Mr. Kaggsy has asthma. So we ain’t going anywhere except for groceries if we have to. I had an unsettled blip in the middle of the week but am settling down to reading a little more – though I need to catch up with reviews. The hardest thing at the moment is the demarcation lines between work and home – they’re difficult to set. Stay safe!

    • It helps me to work in one place and relax in another, so if I’ve done all day at my sitting room table, I spend the evening on the sofa or in my bedroom, and vice versa. But it’s still quite a psychological challenge. I hope you and Mr. K stay well!

  5. Your practice of focusing on one book at a time must have served you well with the Mantel. My constant moving between 20+ books, the sudden loss of a deadline for reading it (library closed for at least nine more weeks), and a general lack of attention span at the moment have meant that I’ve gotten no momentum going with it, and feel overwhelmed by the level of detail and the cast of characters. Most times when I pick it up, I am totally engrossed for a few pages of exposition and excellent Cromwell one-liners … but then everything gets really talky or plotty and I groan and skim for 20-30 pages and put it down. So I’m calling the whole thing a skim, even though I’m only somewhere around p. 200 and plan to keep ploughing through. Still, I can objectively recognize that the prose is top-notch, and will be shocked if it’s not at least shortlisted for the Booker and the Women’s Prize. For the latter, though, I feel like the judges will choose a book that’s more explicitly about women’s issues and experiences, e.g. I’m leaning towards Actress or GWO.

    I’ve been hearing about the Zhang since last year and I think I’m still going to give it a go (I also have a NetGalley download and have been getting the same reminder messages as Laura), but I’ll note your cautionary points. Your review has helped me pinpoint one of the things that’s not working for me particularly well in Hamnet: the present-tense narration. In general, too, its historical atmosphere and prose pall in comparison to Mantel. I worry you will find the rest of the WP longlist underwhelming indeed!

    Like, well, everyone, I loved M. Obama’s memoir, but was cross when I learned afterwards that it was essentially ghostwritten. Not being upfront about a fact like that is one of my pet peeves.

    • Gosh, yes—honestly, if I’d been in the habit of reading other things in between, I’d likely never get through books this size. I suspect you may be right about the WP’s ultimate choice, but I find that faintly disheartening; it reinforces the idea that the proper subject for a woman writer is women, and sexuality, and gender—and although of course I think female writers have unique and worthwhile perspectives on these things, I find it frustrating that the WP seems increasingly to reward and spotlight them without awarding the same attention to books that happen to be by women and about other things… which is surely against the initial purpose of the prize. (Actually, now that I think about it, The Mirror and the Light is the one of the Cromwell books in which the historically very narrow and precarious situation of women is most prominently acknowledged. I don’t know which bits you’ve gotten to yet, but there are certainly several moments where it’s explicitly stated, and a whole subplot in which this is more implicitly explored.)

  6. Emily Sheil says:

    I love your movie choices! We watch a lot of movies-aimed-at-children (not kids’ movies, because clearly the good ones are not purely for children). We took a month off our Netflix subscription and are trying the Sky movies package. So far Geoff has watched two monster movies. I joined for Godzilla II, which was a great deal of fun to make fun of, but couldn’t make myself even care to make fun of the second one he watched, Meg. We thoroughly enjoyed the Lego Movie 2 (also the first one, years back) and I’m having a guilty pleasure kind of time with Mary, Queen of Scots.

    Have you ever read Fredrik Backman? I think I heard of him first with A Man Called Ove but have enjoyed everything he’s written. I recently finished the second in the Beartown/The Scandal sequence, and this one I listened to as an audiobook while I knitted/crocheted. He has great translators!

    We were supposed to finally visit London over the Easter holiday weekend and I was going to see if you were around to get a coffee, but unfortunately… well. You know. I’ll let you know when that has been rescheduled.

    Stay sane!

    All best, Emily

    Emily Cantrell Sheil, violist M.M. Eastman School of Music B.M. University of Maryland, College Park emilytheviolist@gmail.com emilytheviolist.com

    • Ahhhhhhh, The Meg!! I watched that on Valentine’s Day this year. It is the best bad movie I’ve ever seen (actually, no, that would be Skyscraper, starring The Rock and featuring—yes!—a burning skyscraper, but The Meg comes awfully close.)

      I’ve heard of Fredrik Backman and actually sold a fair number of his books, but never read him myself. Beartown looked surprisingly dark given his track record—is it, or does it avoid that by virtue of tone?

      I’m so sorry not to be able to catch up with you over Easter. Let’s definitely have a coffee date whenever you do reschedule! And I hope you’re staying well and indoors in Berlin…

  7. Great post! Michelle Obama Becoming is the next book on my list too, and love your highlights of the Phantom Menace! Good to have things to keep our minds busy in such a strange time. Take care x

    • Thank you! I hope you enjoy Becoming as much as I am. Apparently it’s ghostwritten (!!) but whoever wrote it captures her voice really well—I suspect she dictated free-form and then they shaped and structured. It works, for my money.

  8. We got a Disney+ subscription here too! We’ve watched Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Snow White (my girls are 5 and 2) and all of The Mandalorian. I hate to tell you this, but I think Episode 1 is the best out of 1-3. (I watched them all for the first time last year.) Hope you keep finding things to enjoy and stay healthy!

    • Revenge of the Sith is utterly dreadful and I am going to watch it on the weekend and regret every single second of it. Those are some classic princess movies you’ve been watching, though—good taste your girls have!

  9. I hope you’re doing well! I absolutely loved Coco – I fall apart every time I watch it. I love Moana too, mainly for the music, but recognize it’s pretty formulaic. Coco is just beautiful.

    I had trouble reading at first but now I’m back to it, especially audiobooks. I’m glad you’re enjoying Becoming! She is pretty amazing.

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