Recommendations: What we’re reading, listening to and watching

Being entertained and engaged has never felt more important. Here's what we're into right now.

As self-isolation drags on for many of us, finding things to entertain and engage us has never felt more important. Maybe all this time at home has you tearing through books. Or maybe your attention span is so short and stress level so high that it’s all you can do to collapse on the couch in front of the TV. We’re doing a mix of both depending on our mood and are so grateful for the great books, TV shows, music and more accompanying us right now.

Sarah

Derry Girls 

Derry Girls mural painted on wall in Londonderry, Northern Ireland
A mural of the Derry Girls in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. (Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash)

Because I don’t think there’s anything unique I can add to the canon of gushing about Normal People (it somehow magically does justice to the book, the sex scenes are the best I’ve ever seen, etc.), I’m going to plug another show that hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention — Derry Girls (Netflix). The show is already a few years old and has received rave reviews from critics but seems to have flown somewhat under the radar in the U.S.

Set in the 1990s in Northern Ireland, during the violent political turmoil known as “The Troubles” over whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK or join a united Ireland, Derry Girls follows a group of friends as they engage in teenage hijinks both universal and unique to their surroundings. One episode has the friends accidentally bringing weed-filled scones to a family funeral. Another has them trying to flirt with Protestant boys on a school trip. 

This is one of the funniest shows I’ve seen in years — the crude humor and witty dialogue had me laughing so hard, I spit food across the room more than once. In a time that can feel stressful, heavy and monotonous, I appreciated the (mostly) light subject matter in spite of the political context of the setting. This show is such an enjoyable escape that when it ended, I started it over again.

Fiona Apple, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”

Like everyone else you know, I love this album, which Pitchfork gave a 10/10 review. I’ve been a big Fiona fan since my late teens, when her music put to words the waves of conflicting emotions I felt about life and love. Never had insecurity and vulnerability sounded so poetic, clear and cool.

Apple’s first album in eight years, she recorded “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” in her home in Venice Beach — you can hear her dogs barking in the background on some tracks, making it feel even more intimate. As usual, she brings us into the depth of her inner world, with the subject matter ranging from middle school bullying to how one relates to the other women who have dated and will date your partner. As always, she rejects being mistreated by men and the patriarchal systems in which we exist. Kick her under the table all you want, she won’t shut up.

Fiona Apple’s musical approach is unique — these are not neatly tied up songs from a musical, lyrical or production standard. And like her other albums, I’m sure I’ll be forming a relationship with this one over the course of years, constantly uncovering new insights and nuances.

Jen

Verge, by Lidia Yuknavitch

Short stories feel like the perfect quarantine reading material to me because they require only spurts of attention at a time when my stress and distraction levels peak. In this case, Yuknavitch’s vivid and poetic prose are captivating enough to distract me from almost any emotional rollercoaster I’m facing. Her subject matter isn’t always pleasant (like a child who’s employed as a runner of livers for illegal transplants), and at times I felt gutted by the depth of a character’s emotion or experience. But her stories are always beautiful. So much so, in fact, that I signed up for an online workshop she’s giving on writing about death and sex in memoir (I forgot to mention, her sex scenes are incredible).

Anything written by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson is the master of horror and weirdness of my dreams. When I read “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” about two sisters and their uncle who live completely isolated in their dead family’s home, I was struck by its odd and fascinating beauty. The bond between the sisters is set against a backdrop of total ostracism and hatred by the judgmental people of their New England town, and as the mystery of their family unfolds, the story is both charming and deliciously macabre. 

Crossword puzzle with pen sitting on top of it
Jen can’t stop doing crosswords

I’m currently reading another Jackson book, “The Haunting of Hill House,” described by many as one of the best ghost stories of all time. It’s true that we’re living through a certain kind of horror right now, but the escapism of a ghost story was too inviting to pass up. I’ve heard the Netflix series is wonderfully terrifying as well. Finally, if it wasn’t assigned reading for you in school, you can also read her most famous short story, “The Lottery,” in The New Yorker, about a small town with an annual tradition of choosing at random a person to be stoned to death, published in 1948.

The New York Times “Mini” Crosswords (print version if you can get your hands on it)

What type of person has six letters and can’t stop doing something even if they want to? The answer is “addict” and it describes my problem with crossword puzzles. I had to ask my mother-in-law/co-isolator to stop leaving crosswords out on the counter because I am incapable of walking by them without spending the next 20 minutes to sometimes hours completely immersed in them. But the minis — oh, the minis! I love them so. Minis require a much lower commitment, with far fewer clues (typically 10) and smaller words (usually three to five letters), no matter what day they’re published, so they scratch my crossword addict’s itch without plunging me into the depths of long-term clue-solving hell.

Alyssa

I have a lot of books on my bookshelf I have never read. Some are my husband’s. Others I bought for online classes I never finished. Others I cannot remember how I acquired and have collected dust over multiple moves. Quarantine life has given me a chance to reacquaint myself with books already in my home, and I couldn’t be happier.

Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis

This insider look into Soloman Brothers in the 80s is what movies are made of. An investment banking “trainee” becomes a “geek” who becomes a “Big Swinging Dick” (yes, it’s an official term) as he makes the firm more and more money — the corporate success ladder in action. And yes, he. While there were a few women around, they are the first to be fired and the last to get promoted. What if the firm making money conflicts with a client making money? Well, the firm wins of course. Has much changed in investment banking culture? In some ways, I’m sure yes. In other ways, I’m not so sure. It’s a good read on how culture is shaped by individual characters along the way.

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell 

Brooklyn 99's Amy and Jake
Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Amy and Jake. (Photo from @nbcbrooklyn99 on Instagram)

This hooked me from the first scene — on Libby’s 25th birthday her life changes forever when she learns her biological parents, whom she knew nothing about, left her a mansion in London’s posh Chelsea neighborhood in their will. The gripping story, part mystery and part thriller, examines all the steps that led to Libby’s birth and introduces us to the deeply flawed yet endearing characters who become her family. I couldn’t put the book down and ravaged it in a few days. It was a total distractor from the quarantine world we are in.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine 

When I’m not reading, I also enjoy binge-watching TV and Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been my poison as of late. After falling into Hulu’s trap and forgetting to cancel before my free month trial was over, I have gone deeper and deeper into this hilarious comedy of a Brooklyn precinct set a few blocks from my apartment. I feel like the characters are part of my family at this point and can’t wait to see what mess Jake gets into next or Rosa’s next steely facial expression. Is it weird that I see myself most in Amy? She’s an ambitious nerd who likes to make tabbed binders for her research and is on a quest to become a captain in the NYPD.

What do you think? (Leave comments here.)