The Best of the Worst Year (#312)

I know of exactly three people who are loving the pandemic lockdown. One is my Genius Nephew who taught himself to read at age 3 and did long division problems for fun on snow days. Genius Nephew loves staying home with the cats. He relishes having complete control of all social interactions via Discord. In October, as his parents and sister struggled with confinement, Genius Nephew sighed contentedly at the dinner table and announced, “This is the greatest year ever!”

At least someone is happy.

The rest of us who’ve followed CDC guidelines and state stay-at-home orders are…less happy. We’ve turned to baking, crafting, walking, and the arts to survive. Yeah, THE ARTS: books, movies, and television. (So think about just who saved your ass the next time you denigrate liberal arts degrees.)

Here’s the list of the books, movies, and shows that made me laugh and cry. Best of all, they took me somewhere else when I couldn’t leave the house.

BOOKS

Network Effect, by Martha Wells. In the first Murderbot novel after four hilarious, action-packed novellas, would-be introvert Murderbot must team up with a moody teenager and an Asshole Research Transport ship to rescue a human survey team. Murderbot has no problem with a potential suicide mission. But dealing with actual feelings? Gross.

The House in the Cerulean Sea, by TJ Klune. The charming, heartwarming story of a repressed social worker investigating an unconventional orphanage of magical children–only to find the family he never knew he needed. Laugh over this island of delightful misfits, but bring your tissues for the end!

In Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots, superheroes cause more collateral human damage than natural disasters. They also protected by their parent corporation and law enforcement. Until one woman, armed with spreadsheets and a super villain, decides those super bastards are going down.

A Song for a New Day, by Sarah Pinsker. Two women. One is a musician who lives to play for the crowds–until a pandemic hits. The second doesn’t remember life before school, work, and even concerts became virtual. It will take both of them to outwit the Virtual Industrial Complex and bring live music back to humanity.

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine. Mahit leaves her small mining station to serve as ambassador to a sprawling galactic empire. She discovers her predecessor was murdered. Various imperial factions conspire to consume her home station and its resources. No problem. All she has to do is negotiate deadly intrigue, avert a civil war, and not fall in love with the enemy.

A Deadly Education, by Naomi Novik. There’s nothing warm and cozy about this magical boarding school. Instead of mentors, murderous creatures make hourly attempts to infiltrate the school and eat magical teens (the younger the teen, the tastier!). Can a girl named El survive without allies…or without resorting to dark sorcery? (Note: This book is a total page-turner, but it has some racist/ colonial characterization issues. The biggest is that the heroine El is mixed race. But while her heroic white mother is all things good and supportive, her non-white family gave in to superstition and decided El was evil and should be destroyed. As a child. Yikes.)

MOVIES

The Half of It. Remember “Cyrano de Bergerac?” Okay, how about Steve Martin’s Roxanne? No? That’s fine. This film by Alice Wu borrows the conceit of a genius ghost-writing love letters from a himbo, but it’s deeper and funnier than previous versions. This time, the Chinese-American girl is the writing genius and a Latina is everyone’s love interest. The growing friendship between the genius and the jock gets solid screen time and is equally delightful.

 The Forty-Year-Old Version. Once upon a time, NYC playwright Rhada was dubbed, “young, hot, someone to watch.” Now she’s forty, she’s tired, and she still hasn’t had her big break. Trying to navigate everything from her mother’s death to rich, white theater gatekeepers is exhausting (especially when the old white guy really, really needs to be punched). Rhada finds her voice rapping; Andy and I found her story compelling and pretty damned funny.

 The Old GuardI thought this was going to be another one of Andy’s ubiquitous guns/ car crash/ explosion movies. Instead, I got sucked into a tense, bittersweet story about the joys and horrors of humanity and immortality. Great cast with good banter, too.

MidwayAndy and Baby D picked this one, but I can’t argue (because we didn’t watch many movies). There are cliches galore and the segregation/ rampant racism in the Navy is ignored, but other historical details are spot-on (rarely do filmmakers bother to get the helmets right). The subject matter is inherently dramatic and had us all on the edge of our seats. The special effects were also pretty damned special.

TV SERIES

The Good Wife.” Andy and I never watched this show until COVID. Then we binged through it every night for about a month. Great cast and just enough witty banter to break up all the drama (and there is SO. MUCH. DRAMA.).

Star Trek: Discovery.” I’m a nominal Trekkie at best and thus lack the hangups  many die-hard Trekkies have with “Discovery” (which generally boil down to white men whining about “canon,” i.e., why isn’t the cast all white men and why aren’t all the white men heroic anymore?). The first season has a helluva twist and the third season finally sends the ship into exciting new territory. Andy is enjoying the show so much he hasn’t complained about paying for CBS all-access.

The Expanse.” I love Sci-Fi, but I did not like this show when Andy first started watching it. It was Sci-Fi film noir and I hated most of the characters: way too much screen time for morally questionable white guys (with one obvious, obnoxious shining white knight exception). Gradually, though, the mystery sucked me in. Later seasons had more women; the banter between the Martian Marine and the President of Earth is a show highlight.

The Right Stuff.” Disney’s series based on the Tom Wolfe novel kept us coming back every week to see which astronauts would excel in training while fucking up their personal lives with liquor and infidelity. As one character says, “They’re all great. And they’re all terrible.” Plenty of critics hated seeing their white male heroes being de-glorified, but we enjoyed the realism.

Selena” is a surprisingly funny series. I expected good music and solid drama in this rags-to-riches American story. But the show’s unexpected comedy was my favorite part, especially when the Quintanilla family members and band lovingly roast and mock each other.

Ted Lasso.” This one is my most favorite of all my favorites. Good comedies are rare. Rarer still is one that doesn’t throw in at least a few racist or sexist jokes.  Instead of wandering into that minefield, “Ted Lasso” mines our changing societal expectations for unexpected, delightful laughs. Combining the best of British and American humor, the dialogue is littered with seemingly throwaway lines that land as comedic gems. Brett Goldstein made us laugh out loud as both a writer on the show and on screen as the angry, aging soccer star, Roy Kent.

If you’re looking for more book recommendations, here are my earlier posts on SFF and Mysteries. Feel free to put your own favorites in the comments, too.

Turkeys (#307)

Once upon a time, birthdays were a huge deal in my family. Being showered with cake and presents made it the best day of the year.

My Chinese-American husband’s family wasn’t like that. Birthdays were no big deal. In fact, Andy’s grandmother was very superstitious about celebrating, especially as she reached her 90s. “If you have a big celebration that makes a lot of noise,” she said, “you’re just reminding the evil spirits that you’re still alive. They might decide to rectify that situation.” Continue reading Turkeys (#307)

When You Need Some Aid in the Kitchen (#300)

For more than a decade, our Labor Day weekend has been marked by intense kitchen rivalry, thanks to the neighborhood cooking contest.

Andy trounced everyone for years—until he got tired of me micro-managing the presentation of his savory entries and told me to make my own dish. I did, and he was sorry after I crushed him and our whole neighborhood with my baked goods. Two years ago, Andy staged a comeback and walloped me. Last year, we tied.

Some of Andy’s doughnuts.

This year was looking to be a showdown. Andy spent quarantine mastering everything from French bread to homemade doughnuts, prepping for a possible assault on my baking territory.

There have been casualties:

My waistline.

An immolated dish towel. Continue reading When You Need Some Aid in the Kitchen (#300)

Burned (#291)

My Chinese-American husband is a fantastic cook. Andy can make any cuisine, from pulled pork barbecue to agedashi tofu.

Andy’s beef Wellington

His eggs Benedict are sublime. Pretty sure I joined Instagram just to make people envious over of his beef Wellington.

I am content to give Andy the cooking crown in our household. I focus on baking, which is my strength.

I stay in my lane.

Andy is NOT staying in his lane. Continue reading Burned (#291)

Hells Bells (#285)

I’m having a hard time working from home. That may seem odd, since I’m a writer used to working at home.

Let me clarify: I am used to working at home ALONE.

My husband is technically an essential worker because his company does top secret work for the government. I stopped asking what he does because there are polygraphs involved and we need our health insurance. Andy’s supposed to be going into work. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, company employees kept testing positive for COVID-19, which meant the company closed down and sanitized every infected employees’ building(s). During this process, the company sent all the employees that normally work in the infected building to other buildings. Not surprisingly, employees in THOSE buildings then became infected and those buildings had to be shut down.

It was an endless, ludicrous game of Whack-a-mole until all the buildings wound up shut. The company had no choice but to attempt remote work. Continue reading Hells Bells (#285)

The Mask Avenger (#284)

Like a lot of Chinese-Americans, my husband isn’t into fanfare. He doesn’t make a big deal out of the delicious meals he cooks. He presents me with seedlings for my garden that I had no idea were germinating in his greenhouse.

I only found out about a huge bonus he got from work when I found it on our checking account.

Compared to all the mediocre white males who constantly tout their non-accomplishments (see the Trump Administration for hundreds of examples), Andy’s reticence seems like an excellent characteristic.

Alas. Information hoarding has a dark side. Continue reading The Mask Avenger (#284)

Quarantine Scenes (#282)

I dunno about everyone else, but I can’t write for shit these days.

There is no concentration in the time of coronavirus. Not with husband and child sharing less than 1200 square feet with me. If the kid isn’t demanding food, attention, or help with school work, the husband has a conference call on speaker phone. (I don’t understand three-fourths of the conversation, but I’ve learned that most engineers have social skills similar to toddlers. Both equate volume to getting their way.)

If the kid is playing an online game with friends (or without friends) there are shouts of anger and despair.

I haven’t been alone in a month. No, not even in the bathroom, because dog and cat know how to open the door. Continue reading Quarantine Scenes (#282)