As spring rainstorms give way to humidity and mosquitoes, my thoughts turn to mystery and murder, particularly the PBS kind. I know that summer has truly begun when the network’s mystery lineup begins.
This year Grantchester kicks off the PBS summer mystery season on Sunday, June 14th at 9pm. Based on a series of books by James Runcie, the TV series has retained the original premise of a vicar and police detective solving crime in the quintessential British village of Grantchester. (It does not retain all the books’ original characters as last season saw vicar Sidney Chambers (James Norton) replaced by Will Davenport (Tom Brittney).)
Grantchester’s mysteries tend to veer away from violence and gore and towards moral quandaries, ideal thematic ground for a policeman and minister. Despite its cozy trappings of fifties conformity, Grantchester consistently looks more critically at life in this decade by depicting gay characters, women working outside the home, and couples’ marital troubles.
Five seasons in Grantchester contains a fair amount of serialized storytelling as opposed to being a straight procedural. However, it’s not so complex that new viewers should be put off from joining the congregation. The excellent supporting cast make the show’s character work equally as compelling as its mysteries (sometimes more so). Of particular note are Leonard, a fellow clergy member, played to perfection by Al Weaver, Mrs. Maguire (Tessa Peake-Jones), the vicarage’s housekeeper, and Cathy (Kacey Ainsworth), the detective’s much-too-good-for-him wife.
Far from a mindless escape from reality, Grantchester takes you to a different time and place with plenty to consider. Tune in and let me know what you think!
Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, one of my favorite new releases this year, pairs page-turning plot twists with well-developed characters and stellar writing. Alternating between two perspectives, a white mother of two in her thirties and a black babysitter in her twenties, Reid unspools her story of these two women fumbling through different chapters of their lives. (I don’t want to reveal more of the plot than that because experiencing it unfold was a huge point of interest while I was reading.)
Reminiscent in all the best ways of Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere in its discussion of the politics of race and motherhood, Reid embraces the absurd humor of each of her characters’ situations without sacrificing the emotional realities of the story’s more somber moments.
Each type of experience Reid portrays: racism, babysitting long term for a family, the relationship between viral media and the news cycle, feels completely grounded in reality and specific to the character living it. In particular, the relationship the babysitter develops with her charges and the way Reid fleshes out the toddler character feels realistic without ever becoming overly precious.
After reading her debut novel, I’m eagerly awaiting Reid’s next release.
As I keep adjusting to the confines of the stay-at-home lifestyle, I’ve been thinking about how much ritual has helped me create an illusion of normalcy when so much of my old routine is gone. By the way, don’t worry that this is another reminder to “create a schedule!” during a time when almost all normalcy is gone. I understand the sentiment that a schedule can help us to avoid staying in our pajamas until 4pm. Totally random example there. Don’t think too much about it. Moving on!
As practically every media outlet recommends creating a schedule, I have indulged more and more in doing what I most felt like at the time I most felt like doing it. As I return to a more consistent work schedule, rituals have helped me balance my own calendar anarchy with the need for structure. For me, rituals consist of a series of repeated actions that bring a sense of comfort. The rituals I perform on a regular basis tend to happen around the same time of day or day of the week but since it’s something that is pleasurable rather than a necessity, I’m free from rigid scheduling or guilt if it just doesn’t happen.
Tuning back in to abandoned rituals means I’ve reinstated my Sunday night viewings of PBS British drama imports, something I’ve been doing on and off since college. I look forward to my Sunday nights all week and, when the time comes, I find that I’m surprisingly ‘present,’ as mindfulness experts might say. Anxious thought spirals are paused, at least for the run time of Call the Midwife.
I’ve also found myself creating new reading rituals as books help remove me from the pandemic mindset. Practicing even just one of my new reading rituals gives more shape to the blank-calendar schedule of so many of my days.
My new rituals have addressed two problems: reading clutter and emotional calm. I define reading clutter as a sector of your library that has outgrown the storage space allotted or has been sitting on the shelf for too long. Like many readers, I tend to amass way more reading material than I can possibly consume. Seeing all that stuff sitting on my shelves and piling up on my e-reader inspired me to attack some of it during the stay-at-home order.
Currently, periodicals are the hardest thing for me to keep under control because . . . they just keep coming! Apparently even my strong sense of denial is no match for the panic I feel when new issues begin piling up. To that end, my new breakfast companion is a magazine. My backlog (which I must confess still contained Halloween issues at the beginning of the stay-at-home order, the shame) has dwindled to a manageable stack of under ten! At breakfast, the short article length is a nice way to wake up my brain and think about non-pandemic topics. In addition, even if I linger over my coffee and reading, hitting the last page is a good reminder to get up and do something else.
It seems like talking about how much or how little we’re sleeping is one of the few topics of conversation we have left now that we’re mostly doing nothing. Bedtime reading is another great way to diminish reading clutter and influence how you feel before sleep. I’ve started reading a comic book/graphic novel issue before bed each night. Graphic novels were another sector of my library that I hadn’t explored in a while. Like magazines, the brief issue length means there’s a built-in stopping point that prevents me from reading for the hours I should actually be sleeping. Additionally, turning to a beautifully drawn comic with minimal text seems to really help my brain shift into a lower gear. Surprisingly, I’ve been sleeping much better since I started doing this, waking up much less (or not at all) during the night.
I framed my quarantine days by waking up with magazines and going to bed with comics. Go wild redesigning your reading life. It’s one thing over which you have absolute control.
I’ve been a long-time fan of children’s and YA books. Now that I’m at home reading more than ever while simultaneously clinging to my sanity, working kid and teen books into my rotation has added some great variety to my bookshelf. Below are my picks for fun picture books to enjoy!
Strega Nona and Quiet, Tomie dePaola
It’s a wonderful time to explore (or revisit) Tomie dePaola’s work as he unfortunately passed away a few weeks ago. As a kid, I adored all of his Strega Nona books which are magical, funny, and ultimately heartfelt. Strega Nona means grandmother witch in Italian and these stories feature this sorceress’s adventures in her Italian village alongside lovable sidekicks like Big Anthony and Bambolina.
dePaola’s work features a variety of cultures and time periods. Quiet is a more recent book that readers can especially appreciate now. In Quiet, a grandfather teaches his grandchildren about sitting calmly outside together. Anyone who’s beginning to practice mindfulness or wants to introduce meditation to little kids should read Quiet. Who couldn’t use a little more calm today?
Be Quiet and We Don’t Eat Our Classmates, Ryan Higgins
I love the sense of humor Higgins’ books portray! Be Quiet is excellent for slightly older kids who still like having a story read to them (or are starting to read to the grownups). The book features Rupert, a mouse who aspires to create a ‘very serious and artistic’ picture book with no words. Unfortunately, his friends cannot stop talking! Much of the humor relies on wordplay so it could be a fun addition to at-home English classes.
Younger kids can enjoy Higgins’ We Don’t Eat Our Classmates. Penelope the dinosaur learns about going to school and how to be empathetic in this cute tale. Look for its sequel, We Will Rock Our Classmates, to be released July 7th.
Don’t Feed the Coos, written by Jonathan Stutzman and illustrated by Heather Fox
Don’t Feed the Coos is a crowd-pleaser that follows the structure of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff. If you feed a flock of pigeons, hilarity and chaos will ensue! The story pairs delightfully with Fox’s illustrations, admirably capturing the antics of those pesky coos! Stutzman and Fox have previously collaborated professionally on the Llama Destroys the World books and are spouses as well!
In my pre-quarantine life, one of my jobs was working in the children’s section of a bookstore. I usually did story time at least once a week for half an hour. I would read three or four books interspersed with some songs to help hold the kids’ attention. The pleasure of looking at gorgeous illustrations, the delight of reading a complete story in one sitting, is wholly unique. Trying to remember that kid perspective of curiosity and trying to figure the world out is a very valuable one for my adult self to experience. At story time, everything gets put aside (except for maybe some of your favorite snacks). At story time, you focus on being with the group and enjoying a few books.
Vogue.com published an article last week called “I Can’t Read a Book Right Now—And I Am Not Alone” by Sophie Vershlow (https://www.vogue.com/article/why-cant-i-read-books-right-now). Personally, reading is one of the few things keeping me sane right now, but I can relate to only being able to engage with certain kinds of books. I’ve been making a bit of an event of picking a new book (why not?), selecting four or five titles and reading the first few pages to see what best captures my attention. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most serious ‘literary’ fiction fell to the bottom of the pile each time. Mystery, horror, YA—these genres helped immerse me in a world apart from the COVID-19 quarantine.
So just like you don’t have to be a bastion of productivity right now, you also don’t have to tackle that list of ‘Great Books’ you’ve been carrying around for years if you don’t feel like it. Maybe instead you plan your own story time. Maybe instead you read a comic book (“excuse me, we call them graphic novels now”). Maybe instead you reread that picture book you loved as a kid.
I think there’s a reason so many people are reading picture books on social media feeds currently (other than helping frantic parents and caregivers). Reading stories out loud is fun. Reading picture books is fun. Sharing stories is fun. Whatever your story time looks like right now, don’t apologize. Just please enjoy it (and make sure you have snacks).
Next week I’ll recommend some of my favorite children’s books for little and big kids alike. Let me know if you’ve got any favorites that have been keeping you company during quarantine.
Well, here we all still are three weeks into a quarantine with the end too far away to contemplate and still retain sanity. Although I’m finding things to occupy my time, I’ve entered a state of brain fog. I’m fairly certain that Jeopardy and People magazine’s crossword are all that’s keeping my little gray cells from going on strike.
With full kudos to those who feel equipped to tackle Gravity’s Rainbow and the like right now, I find myself seeking the pop culture equivalent of a mug of tea. One sector of TV that helps accomplish that is food programming.
Girl Meets Farm, Food Network, Sundays at 11 am EST, streaming on foodnetwork.com
Molly Yeh’s cooking show presents a delightful take on modern Midwest cuisine. Rather than whipping up entrees dictated by gourmet trends in a kitchen the size of an entire apartment, Yeh cooks family dinners in a modest kitchen on she and her husband’s farm. Her casseroles and desserts will remind you of your grandparents’ cooking (if you were lucky enough to have foodie grandparents) in the best way possible. Yeh also often features her take on the Chinese and Jewish cuisine she grew up eating with her family.
The show’s ability to evoke the cozy domesticity of previous generations while avoiding hackneyed Stepford Wives stereotypes is rare. Yeh’s excitement and energy come across as genuine rather than manufactured and represent a new generation of millennial home cooks.
Last week, I made her taco hot dish for my quarantine crew. It was a) elegantly simple b) featured easy-to-find ingredients (even with quarantine-era grocery supplies) and c) completely delicious.
Somewhere South, PBS, Fridays at 9 pm EST, streaming on pbs.org
Vivian Howard, best known for A Chef’s Life, writes and hosts a new PBS show about the cultural connections forged through food. Each episode focuses on a single dish. For example, last week Howard explored many different kinds of hand pies.
What impressed me most about the show was Howard’s inclusive version of today’s American South. The first episode moved from sweet, fruit-based hand pies like applejacks to pepperoni rolls created by Italian-American immigrants in West Virginia to various kinds of empanadas made by Latinx home cooks and chefs across the South. My favorite section featured three generations of a family making turcos, a Mexican-inspired South Texas empanada, and explaining the complex roots of their family and this dish. Warning: this show will make you hungry! Have some snacks ready!
The Big Family Cooking Showdown, streaming on Netflix
Featuring a cooking tournament among everyday British families, The Big Family Cooking Showdown highlights home cooks’ talent and passion for food. Early episodes feature two family teams competing in three challenges with only one team moving forward. My favorite part about the initial round is that instead of cooking only on the set (a gorgeous converted barn) the families must prepare and serve a meal to the judges in their own home. Teams that make it into the semi-finals then face all new challenges like a dessert round where judges select the dish they must make. Bonus points: the show is co-hosted by Nadiya Hussain, a Great British Baking Show winner!
In addition to the typical cooking show fare of recipe chat and food history, you get the added bonuses of a house tour and family drama. There is some sniping among families and between teams early on but that decreases as the competition progresses. If quarantine’s got you tired of your own family togetherness, swap it out for someone else’s family dynamics!
(Disclaimer: Season two of this show ditched everything I loved about it. I didn’t finish more than one episode of the second season.)
Finding myself with some extra time on my hands, I sat down to write and . . . didn’t really know what to say. Offering pop culture reviews or recommendations just felt too insignificant in light of everything happening with COVID-19. After the first week of quarantine, though, I noticed how much I enjoyed seeing everyone’s lists of what they’re distracting themselves with right now.
So, in that spirit, (with a smidge of “what else do I have going on right now?” thrown in) below are some podcasts I enjoyed over the past week.
In times of stress I try to avoid being alone with my thoughts too much. Having a funny, reassuring, or just different, voice can help minimize anxious spiraling thoughts. Podcasts are excellent for adding another voice in your head because you can multitask while listening and the blessing of headphones means you don’t have to subject other members of your quarantine posse to your listening choices.
Staying in with Emily and Kumail
Staying In is made directly in response to COVID-19 but is done so with humor and rationality as opposed to abject panic (deep breaths, everyone). In addition, money raised by the podcast’s ads will help those impacted by COVID-19. Kumail Nanjiani is a comedian and actor and, his wife, Emily V. Gordon is a former therapist and writer. (They co-wrote the film The Big Sick and Nanjiani starred in it.) The podcast gives advice and coping mechanisms for working from home and quarantining with loved ones (both things the couple has experience with as they explain in the first episode). I’ve always enjoyed this couple’s sense of humor and their tips, coupled with a warm and funny tone, delighted me.
Unlocking Us with Brené Brown
Unlocking Us was supposed to launch at South by Southwest last week but, luckily, is still being released on podcast streaming apps. Brené Brown is a research professor who reached mainstream audiences with books like Rising Strong and Braving the Wilderness as well as her TED Talk on vulnerability.
In the podcast, Brown plans to “reflect the universal experiences of being human, from the bravest to the most brokenhearted.” Her first episode is just Brown talking directly to the audience (although it seems most episodes will feature interviews). The first episode also reflects on COVID-19, but puts it within the framework of how scary and vulnerable it is to experience something for the first time. What I love about Brown’s work is that she explains concepts she’s learned through research and then illustrates them with interesting, funny stories from her own life. Although overall more serious than Staying In, Unlocking Us provides ideas you can dig into and potentially use to navigate the weird days we’re currently experiencing.
I Said No Gifts!
Comedian Bridger Winegar hosts a conversation between himself and another comedian based on the (faux) premise that he’s forbidden them to bring a gift. Inevitably, (at least in the two episodes currently available) the guest does bring a gift which Winegar unwraps and they discuss. They also answer listeners’ gift-related questions. This podcast is much more ramble-y than Unlocking Us (particularly because the gift talk and questions only constitutes about fifty percent of the run time) so if you prefer a more structured conversation this may not be for you. However, I found both episodes to be laugh out loud, entertaining distractions.
What’s got you distracted in a good way this week?
Clean the house. Why bother? The germs have clearly already won.
Complete your daily tasks by lunchtime then walk in laps around your living room trying to figure out how to fill the afternoon. (Stress pacing is great cardio, I hear!)
Stare into the abyss for no less than one hour each day. (Doctors do recommend, however, that you limit abyss staring to no more than three hours maximum. Strive for balance, folks.)
Making a list of fun and/or productive activities you could accomplish. Take a nap.
Wait in line to buy toilet paper. Practice responsible social distancing in line even though the toilet paper mere inches from your face is covered in germs.
Cook a nutritious meal. Ravage your pantry like a hoard of crazed raccoons and curse the fact that you made healthy choices at the store and didn’t stock up on either Pop Tarts or Cheez Its. What were you thinking?
Hope you laughed a bit today! Hang in there, everyone!